Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Not a real post this week, but in lieu of that, I thought I'd pass along some comments from Chris Hedges that I came across the other day:
"Well, you know, the great political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in his book "Democracy Incorporated" calls the American system of government at this point inverted totalitarianism. And I think that’s a very prescient term. He argues that inverted totalitarianism unlike classical forms of totalitarianism doesn’t revolve around a demagog or a leader but finds it’s expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. So that under inverted totalitarianism you have corporate interests that purport to pay fealty to the constitution, to electoral politics, to democratic institutions while massively subverting or controlling the levers of power to annul the rights and desires of the citizenry so that in classical totalitarianism systems, both communism and fascism, politics always trumps economics. But in an inverted totalitarianism economics trumps politics." (emphasis added)

Hedges is echoing my own previous comments regarding how much of the corruption we seeing our time is not from guardians introducing on the economic sector, but rather the other way around, with economic actors bending the state to their own self-interest.

In another interview, Hedges touches on another aspect of the commercial syndrome which can run amuck when it is outside it's appropriate sphere:
"Corporate systems are, in theological terms, and I'm a seminary graduate and can't escape it, are systems of death. They turn everything into a commodity. Human beings become commodities, the natural world becomes a commodity, that they exploit. Until exhaustion or collapse. In that sense, Karl Marx was right. It is a revolutionary force. The revolution has happened. They’ve won.

To appeal to the systems of power, or the illusory systems of power that they place before us, is to essentially become complicitous in the radical reconfiguration that the corporate state intends. They know no limits. The only word corporations understand is MORE. They will push and push and push until human capital is destroyed, until the ecosystem itself is destroyed." (emphasis added)

I don't really have anything to add, my point in quoting Hedges is simply to note another example of someone whose arguments unknowingly align with Jane Jacobs work in 'Systems of Survival' with Hedges criticizing the corruption of commercial actors intruding on the guardian sphere with respect to governance and for taking a 'no limits' approach toward human and natural systems which do (in Hedges' view) have limits. Note how Hedges, with his anti-commercial guardian mindset, comes from a background of being a seminary graduate (i.e. from the primarily guardian-minded world of organized religion).

Note: Post updated to add this link, just to make the abstract point about commercial ethics overrunning their appropriate boundaries a little more concrete.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

103. Facing Limits

Note: This post is the one hundred and third in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

"Hope you don't think users are the only abusers niggaz
Gettin high within the game
If you do then, how would you explain?
I'm ten years removed, still the vibe is in my veins
I got a hustler spirit, nigga period
Check out my hat yo, peep the way I wear it
Check out my swag' yo, I walk like a ballplayer
No matter where you go, you are what you are, a player
And you can try to change but that's just the top layer
Man, you was who you was 'fore you got here
Only God can judge me, so I'm gone
Either love me, or leave me alone"

From "Public Service Announcement" by Jay-Z


"It all belongs to Caesar, It all belongs to Caesar
Go to the bank, Go to the bank
We're going down to Mexico
To get away from this culture
Go to the bank..."

from "Go to the Bank", by James1


I've been reading through the archives of Morris Berman's blog.

Writing this series of posts has led me into a habit of automatically classifying people as commercially or guardian minded (remarkably few people seem to manage to see both sides on a regular basis) and Berman is one of the clearest cut cases of a Guardian thinker I've come across. Whether he's decrying the building of a casino at Gettysburg (lack of respect for tradition), supporting efforts to take vengeance against the current U.S. elite (encouraging people to vote for Sarah Palin to speed up the collapse, for example), or recounting the loss of community in the face of a relentless self-interested thirst for more consumption, he is consistently singing from the Guardian songbook.

Berman is best known for a series of books on the decline of the American civilization, the most recent of which, "Why America Failed" traces the roots of America's cultural decline to its origins as a nation of 'hustlers' and the eventual takeover of the nation by commercial (hustling) interests.

Of course, there are lots of folks out there commenting on the decline of our civilization, and lamenting the commercial takeover of our communities. But it was one post in particular, that I wanted to mention here, the reason being that in this post Berman comes quite close to recounting some of the main points I've been circling here.

In this particular post, Berman likens humans to frogs:

"[In] An experiment with frogs some years ago ... [they] were wired up with electrodes in the pleasure center of the brain, and could stimulate that center–i.e., create a 'rush'–by pressing a metal bar. Not only did the frogs keep pressing the bar over and over again, but they didn’t stop even when their legs were cut off with a pair of shears."

Berman does allow that some of us frogs are a bit smarter than others:

"The first intelligent frog who comes to mind is the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, perhaps most famous for having been married to Margaret Mead. For Bateson, the issue was an ethical one. As he himself put it, 'the ethics of optima and the ethics of maxima are totally different ethical systems.' The ethics of maxima knows only one rule: more. More is better, in this scheme of things; words such as 'limits' or 'enough' are either foolish or meaningless. Clearly, the 'American Way of Life' is a system of maxima, of indefinite expansion."

Berman links the notion of respecting (or not) limits, with the goal of maximization vs. optimization, and from there, with the difference between individual and collective decision making:

"the economist Robert Frank, writing in the New York Times (12 July 2009), argues that 'traits that help individuals are harmful to larger groups. For instance,' he goes on,

'a mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles with other males for access to mates. But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all. The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more. And despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods.'"

The problem is that what was rational on the individual level was irrational on the collective level, thus leading to a systemic collapse.

We are thus led, quite naturally, from a consideration of optima vs. maxima to the question of individual vs. collective behavior."

Berman goes even further to note that democracy is a more tenuous method of transforming individual preferences into collective behaviour vs. dictatorship:

How, then, can excess be curbed in a free democratic system? For we can be sure that the intelligent frogs, who are really quite exceptional, are not going to be listened to, and certainly have no power to enforce their insights. True, there are certain countries–the Scandanavian nations come to mind–where for some reason the concentration of intelligent frogs is unusually high, resulting in decisions designed to protect the commons. But on a world scale, this is not very typical. More typical, and (sad to say) a model for most of Latin America, is the United States, where proposed “changes” are in fact cosmetic, and where the reality is business as usual. In the context of 306 million highly addicted frogs, the voices of the smart ones–Bateson, Frank, Posner, Hardin, et al.–aren’t going to have much impact or, truth be told, even get heard."


"Of course, authoritarian systems don’t have these problems, which is a good indicator of how things will probably develop. Under the name of 'harmony', for example, China regulates its citizens for what it perceives to be the common good. Hence the famous one-child policy, introduced in 1979, supposedly prevented more than 300 million births over the next 29 years in a country that was threatened by its own population density. In the case of the United States, the imposition of rules and limits on individual behavior to protect the commons is not, at present, a realistic prospect; the population is simply not having it, end of story. But how much longer before this freedom of choice is regarded as an impossible luxury?"

So, just in this one post, Berman covers quite well one of the main areas that separates the guardian syndrome from the commercial one, the ability to deal with / impose limits. The commercial syndrome prioritizes individual competition which prevents collective (cooperative) decision making, which can work in an unlimited domain where maximization is the goal, but fails when faced by a limit because it becomes impossible to constrain individuals to respect the limits and to optimize rather than maximize, and to allocate shares within the limit rather than everyone just taking as much as they can.

And he raises an interesting question, if the citizens in a country face real limits, but would rather pretend those limits don't exist and will only elect politicians who act as if those limits don't exist, will democracy survive?

1As an aside, I was looking up the lyrics for the James song I referenced at the top of the post, and ended up at the song meanings entry for a different (but similarly themed) James song, "Lost a Friend (to the sea)" about a man trying to free a friend from living in the world of television and bring them back to reality. While there, I found one of those occasional nuggets of gold that one gets if you sift through enough of the mountains of dirt that make up most comment sections on the web, a comment from 'draven66':

"I logged onto for the first time yesterday and realized that I have lost my friends to the sea. A sea of electronic lies, bloated materialism, and denial that hides their suspended disbelief that modern western lifestyles of decay are not only consuming them but everyone we kill under "foreign policy" to maintain this sick way of life. You've seen it before .. those tired sore smiles that say "I am hypnotized, and adequately, even willingly! desensitized, and sedated! Please don't let my suspicions be true, please just give me another hit. The worst part is when everyone can capture it fifty times a day, digitally. This life was made possible by FUTURE SHOP, keep on pretending you sad empty sheep, you are owned and cultivated and laughed at! GOD I feel so alone.

Nice song though."

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

102. The Republic, Part 1c

Note: This post is the one hundred and second in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Note also: this is a continuation from post 100 and post 101.

Note finally: Quotes are taken from this version of The Republic

After Glaucon and Adeimantus make their case for justice being just a means rather than an end in itself, they ask Socrates to convince them justice is more than that, and to show them how living a just life makes a man good and living an unjust life makes a man evil, regardless of what benefits or honours might flow from just or unjust behaviour.

Socrates suggests that they search for an answer by examining the state, rather than the individual since the truth will be easier to find in the larger case. What follows is the longest section of The Republic, where Socrates outlines the ideal state.

Initially, Socrates constructs a small state which is enough to satisfy man's basic needs. But Glaucon argues that people need more than just their basic needs, they need comfort as well,

"you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style."

Socrates sees where this simple, but potentially unlimited desire for comfort will lead,

"Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever-heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured."

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is
no longer sufficient.


And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants
will be too small now, and not enough?


Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture
and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves,
they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the
unlimited accumulation of wealth?


And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?"

(emphasis added)

From the desire for luxury, from always wanting more than what is currently had, comes conflict, and with conflict, the need for guardians to protect the state.

Note: Der Spiegel had an interesting interview with economist/philosopher Tomas Sedlacek the other day, "Greed is the Beginning of Everything," which touched on this theme repeatedly.

Socrates explains that the guardians must have a somewhat philosophical nature, since they must welcome knowledge, since they will need to be gentle with their friends whom they know, while remaining ruthless with enemies, who are strangers.

Socrates identifies loyalty as a primary job requirement for guardians,
"Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarrelling among themselves as of all things the basest, should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven, and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, for they are not true."

A little later on, he also notes that lying is not always a bad thing,
"the lie in words is in certain cases useful and not hateful; in dealing with enemies--that would be an instance; or again, when those whom we call our friends in a fit of madness or illusion are going to do some harm, then it is useful and is a sort of medicine or preventive"

Later on, Socrates emphasizes the importance of only people with the right nature being in the guardian class (and vice-versa),
"Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. And God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race. They should observe what elements mingle in their offspring; for if the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks, and the eye of the ruler must not be pitiful towards the child because he has to descend in the scale and become a husbandman or artisan, just as there may be sons of artisans who having an admixture of gold or silver in them are raised to honour, and become guardians or auxiliaries. For an oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the State, it will be destroyed."

(emphasis added)

Socrates emphasizes that in order for guardians to be true guardians, they must renounce greed and a desire for material possessions,
"In the first place, none of them should have any property of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary; neither should they have a private house or store closed against any one who has a mind to enter; their provisions should be only such as are required by trained warriors, who are men of temperance and courage; they should agree to receive from the citizens a fixed rate of pay, enough to meet the expenses of the year and no more; and they will go to mess and live together like soldiers in a camp. Gold and silver we will tell them that they have from God; the diviner metal is within them, and they have therefore no need of the dross which is current among men, and ought not to pollute the divine by any such earthly admixture; for that commoner metal has been the source of many unholy deeds, but their own is undefiled. And they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold, or be under the same roof with them, or wear them, or drink from them. And this will be their salvation, and they will be the saviours of the State. But should they ever acquire homes or lands or moneys of their own, they will become housekeepers and husbandmen instead of guardians, enemies and tyrants instead of allies of the other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, they will pass their whole life in much greater terror of internal than of external enemies, and the hour of ruin, both to themselves and to the rest of the State, will be at hand."

Later on, Socrates defines justice as each man sticking to his own line of work and not meddling in areas he is not suited for.

"Think, now, and say whether you agree with me or not. Suppose a carpenter to be doing the business of a cobbler, or a cobbler of a carpenter; and suppose them to exchange their implements or their duties, or the same person to be doing the work of both, or whatever be the change; do you think that any great harm would result to the State?

Not much.

But when the cobbler or any other man whom nature designed to be a trader, having his heart lifted up by wealth or strength or the number of his followers, or any like advantage, attempts to force his way into the class of warriors, or a warrior into that of legislators and guardians, for which he is unfitted, and either to take the implements or the duties of the other; or when one man is trader, legislator, and
warrior all in one, then I think you will agree with me in saying that this interchange and this meddling of one with another is the ruin of the State.

Most true.

Seeing then, I said, that there are three distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing?


And the greatest degree of evil-doing to one's own city would be termed by you injustice?


This then is injustice; and on the other hand when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their own business, that is justice, and will make the city just."

The final key element is that Socrates now explains that, like the state which has a philosopher at its head, loyal guardians protecting it and supporting the ruler, and a mass of citizens who seek to satisfy their desires for comfort and convenience, a man is the same, with a tri-partite nature, and that, like the state, a man is just when the rational part of his brain is in control of his material desires, with his spirit supporting the rational part of his brain in suppressing the material desires of his body from interfering with his pursuit of justice.

"now model the form of a multitudinous, many-headed monster, having a ring of heads of all manner of beasts, tame and wild, which he is able to generate and metamorphose at will.


Suppose now that you make a second form as of a lion, and a third of a man, the second smaller than the first, and the third smaller than the second.


And now join them, and let the three grow into one.


Next fashion the outside of them into a single image, as of a man, so that he who is not able to look within, and sees only the outer hull, may believe the beast to be a single human creature.


And now, to him who maintains that it is profitable for the human creature to be unjust, and unprofitable to be just, let us reply that, if he be right, it is profitable for this creature to feast the multitudinous monster and strengthen the lion and the lion-like qualities, but to starve and weaken the man, who is consequently liable to be dragged about at the mercy of either of the other two; and he is not to attempt to familiarize or harmonize them with one another--he ought rather to suffer them to fight and bite and devour one another.

Certainly, he said; that is what the approver of injustice says.

To him the supporter of justice makes answer that he should ever so speak and act as to give the man within him in some way or other the most complete mastery over the entire human creature. He should watch over the many-headed monster like a good husbandman, fostering and cultivating the gentle qualities, and preventing the wild ones from growing; he should be making the lion-heart his ally, and in common care of them all should be uniting the several parts with one another and with himself.

So, to summarize Plato's argument:

A state functions best when the three classes each stick to their own work. A philosopher to rule with wisdom, a guardian class to serve with honour and courage, shunning all material possession and desire, and a trading class to pursue material comfort and provide for the basic needs of the state. Mixing people into the wrong tasks is, by definition, injustice, and will lead to the destruction of the state.

And a man is the same, his sense of reason must be the primary decision maker, his spirit or passion acting in service of reason, and the insatiable desire for material wealth and comfort must be tamed and controlled so that it does not exceed it's natural domain.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Economy in my Lifetime

Yes, I still plan to continue on with my series of posts on ethics, I just need to stop being lazy. But in the meantime, I thought I'd share this link to an interview with Michael Hudson since he does a great job summarizing everything I've come to understand about how our economy works in the period since I've been alive, a period of increasing debt, stagnant wages, private takeover of public goods, tax cuts for the wealthy, increased corruption and increasing inequality.

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