I’m Not Anti-Capitalist. I’m Anti-Oligarchy.

“Capitalism was once viewed by workers as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Donald Trump, are treated as sages, celebrities and populists. The liberal class functions as their cheerleaders. Such misguided loyalty, illustrated by environmental groups that refuse to excoriate the Obama White House over the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, ignores the fact that the divide in America is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.”
Chris Hedges from Death of the Liberal Class

Ecologically speaking, it seems capitalism isn’t sustainable in the long-term, e.g. capitalism is premised upon infinite growth within a finite system. This isn’t possible and we are seeing extinction rates that the planet hasn’t seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Some models predict there won’t be a living thing in the ocean—no sharks, whales, dolphins—in the oceans by 2050.  Where the oceans go, I suspect, we go.

Chris Hedges isn’t anti-capitalist per se; he’s anti-oligarchy; it just so happens he isn’t going to give capitalism a pass while criticizing capitalists who exploit certain aspects of this economic system at the great expense of the public. In history there isn’t another economic system that has produced as much wealth or enabled so many people to enjoy such a high standard of living. Not even close. Hedges though, like Marx before him, is critical of neo-liberalism (or the whole laissez-faire approach that the Republican Party and its uncritical acolytes places on a pedestal). We’ve conducted this “unfettered capitalism” experiment before: we called it liberalism in the 19th century, the Gilded Age. Before the passage of labor laws, minimum wage laws, and a number of other progressive measures, etc. the working class was vulnerable to exploitation, dismissal, and abuse by employers. Government stood by unwilling to do anything because of the “liberal” ethos, i.e. it was widely believed the worst thing a government could do was intervene in the economy or lives of the individual citizen. This is what was known as Classical Liberalism ( a far cry from the “liberalism” of the 20th century). The terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean entirely different things today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” changed things for America (as Bennett’s equivalent did in Canada) in the 1930s where governments intervened in the economy to regulate it thereby, in principle, mitigating some of the risk and volatility that naturally flows from a capitalist system, e.g. stock market speculation in the 1920s resulted in the New York Stock Exchange crash and led to the Great Depression.

So FDR’s administration intervened passing the Glass-Steagall act to prevent banks from acting fraudulently or taking on un-necessary risks that created systemic risks for the economy as a whole. Arguably, the social programs that emerged out of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations made the United States a model for other liberal democratic states to follow with respect to moving towards a more equitable approach to governance and economic oversight.

Glass-Steagall was repealed by Bill Clinton in the 90s; the American economy was de-regulated more and more through the George W. Bush years; then we saw a massive expansion of the financial services industry at Wall Street and all these wonderful products like credit default swaps. In 2008-2009 the whole system collapsed due to systemic fraud and borrowing: investment banks over leveraged themselves; they risked others peoples’ money by using it to purchase credit default swaps; they then bet on those swaps failing by taking out insurance; and then when these products failed made enormous personal profits why the whole economic system—the one upon which everyone else depends—collapsed. Not a banker batted an eye. So far as they were concerned the system worked (just not for anyone else). A few dozen Wall Street speculators and traders made off like bandits. No charges laid. Unfettered capitalism.

Marx argued unfettered capitalism (that whole Classical Liberalism, known as neo-liberalism today) was a revolutionary force—it doesn’t take us to a socialist dictatorship but towards fascist authoritarianism (or corporatism). I’ll totally admit at face value America looks pretty free, and it is, but the great irony is you can have all the civic and civil rights you want and still not possess any real decision making power. The American political theorist Steven Wolin describes the situation in America as “inverted totalitarianism.” I talk about this problem specifically in a post called Part 3: The Donald Trump Phenomenon: Where’s It All Going? (click here).

Ironically, we don’t have to go to the communists to find a critic of American-style capitalism. Adam Smith, author of the Wealth of Nations argued “greed is good”; however, it seems like the GOP and conservative economists read up to this point and then quit reading; if you keep reading Wealth of Nations, Smith argues entrepreneurs do have a responsibility to society as a whole; they don’t just get to do whatever they like for the sake of profit; rather, they have a responsibility to their communities not to act unethically or so selfishlessly that they jeopardize the public peace (he also had problems with monopolies and corporate power). In fact there were many cases of people running corporations who were either imprisoned or put to death for defrauding the English public in the 1600s and 1700s. Sort of places the whole Great Recession of 2008 into perspective, doesn’t it? Literally only one banker went to prison for what happened.

By contrast a good proportion of those traders in 2009 who committed fraud (although they broke no actual laws because Glass-Steagall was repealed, though these men and women certainly crossed some ethical lines) would’ve been put to death by 18th century standards of law and the corresponding capitalist ethos. Smith is the proto-capitalist who saw the need and wisdom for wise regulatory regimes; and that’s all Hedges would argue for.

An Illustration of Science Illiteracy

John Kerry answers questions directed to him about climate change by Representative Thomas Massie. Massie demonstrates a fundamental lack of science literacy. Kerry attempts to help Massie appreciate what the science on climate says. Massie is having none of it.

I own a car. I didn’t design it. But I do have an understanding of the process of combustion going on under the hood and how chemical energy is converted into kinetic. I don’t need a physics degree or an engineering degree to understand this.

Kerry, like anybody else, can read about climate science or talk to relevant experts themselves, and from this form informed opinions. You do not need to be a climate scientist working directly with ice core samples or ocean acidification to know what these things are. Massie’s attempt to discredit Kelly’s position (e.g. climate change is a real phenomenon) by focusing attention on Kerry’s education is a straw man (attacking a secondary argument because the primary one related to climate change is unassailable).

That reference to 1000 PPM of carbon refers to an earth 200 plus million years ago. There were no humans. Indeed the majority of life today did not either exist at all or was very different than it’s current form. Representative Massie oversimplifies when he seems to suggest the Earth has been hospitable to human life, or all life forms, by suggesting we may even have existed and thrived on the primordial earth. Geology hasn’t stopped as the lawyer joked; it has changed and continues changing as it reflects the conditions that exist now (and not one identical to those extant a billion years ago).

Author Upton Sinclair once observed that “[it] is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. I wish people weren’t so ready to dismiss climate change for a paycheck. Massie has no principles but has whored himself out to the highest bidder and he helps contribute to public confusion (which is his purpose).

Your honor should be worth more to you than anything else. Two great books to read for anyone interested in learning about climate change and public disinformation campaigns are Oreskes’ “Merchants of Doubt” and “Kolbert’s “The Sixtth Great Extinction”.

Sapere aude.

Greed, Not Truth, Will Save Science

The Greeks introduced the world to rationalism in the 6th century BCE. Thinkers and tinkerers like Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Anaxagoras and Democritus introduced a mechanistic way of looking at the world. They ignored the handwaving and mythology coming from religious authority and explained the world in terms of material causes as opposed to through an appeal to the will of the gods or spirits.

The Greek rationalist period lasted roughly from the 6th century BCE until being displaced in around the 3rd century BCE by pseudo-scientific and religious thinkers like Pythagoras. There was a reaction to rationalism because it was viewed as dangerous and subversive. Socrates was in part executed out of this reaction to the demystifying effects of trial and error, experiment and early science. The rationalist school continued to exist on the margins of Greek and Roman civilization until the 5th century CE. This is when the Library of Alexandria was burned by a bunch of anti-rationalist Christian zealots. The burning of this library set science and civilization back probably a good thousand years until the Renaissance period began (approximately the 15th century) which gave rise to the eventual rediscovery of Classical thinking and a new scientific revolution (17th through to the 21st centuries).

Carl Sagan describes all of this in much greater detail in his books Cosmos and Demon Haunted World.

The nonsense we are seeing now with the growth in flat earthism, anti-evolutionism, anti-vax, and other science denying movements, is largely a product of the so called “wedge strategy” coming out of conservative think tanks like the Discovery Institute and the like. The wedge strategy is basically a tactic to place all of science into question, not just topics people are sensitive about like evolution or climate change. In so doing, ideas like Intelligent Design, irreducible complexity and Creationism are all given a more equal footing, I.e. if there is no truth or no method that is better than another for determining what is happening “out there” then an answer like “God did it!” suddenly becomes reasonable. Regrettably, this tactic has had some success in the so called culture wars raging in the United States (which have spilled over into Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom).

What is the future of science? Well, when Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered in the Library all those years ago, capitalism didn’t exist. There were just competing claims at truth in the ancient world. Economies didn’t depend upon science per se. So long as people want to make money in the present they are going to want to use the best means of getting information and that is the scientific method. Greed, not truth, will prevent science from being marginalized again, e.g. no corporations who make cutting edge satellite technology are going to abandon a spherical Earth model for a flat earth one.

Science mixed with the profit motive Is great at destroying bad ideas.

Warning: Digital Bait and Switch

cat_group_picIn 2018 the CIA identified about 20 Facebook pages as suspicious: these pages were set up by Russian troll mills apparently. This was established through the use of digital forensics and Facebook’s assistance. These pages were not obviously political ones like the “pizzagate” ones that duped so many during the previous presidential election cycle. Instead they were pages much like like this “cat lovers” page (see image).

The thinking was the pages were set up to appear harmless and fun thereby attracting followers quickly through humor.. The pages presented funny memes and entertaining cat videos. However, the plan was to eventually and gradually become political, I.e. messaging would evolve from “I hate Mondays” to “I hate libtards” over time. When it comes to psychological warfare, repeated exposure to slogans and buzzwords can insidiously shape the thinking of the people exposed (and IQ is no defense).

These pages were designed to eventually be activated as the 2020 presidential election approached. You can read about this kind of tactic by Googling “meme warfare” and listening to Sam Harris’ podcast “Making Sense” (episode 145 ‘The Information Wars’). Many of these pages had hundreds of thousands of followers before being taken down.

Keep one eye open at all times because what you see is not necessarily what you are getting.

Sapere aude.

Closed Mind? Unwitting Monster

“The ideal of the Party was something huge, terrible and glittering—a world of steel and concrete and monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face.”

-George Orwell, “1984” (p.77)

I think anyone who is incapable (or unwilling) of criticizing, or seeing/admitting the weaknesses in their own positions or the flaws in their own beliefs, assumptions or values is a fanatic and potentially an unwitting monster. The problem isn’t if people just thought the way you did the world’s problems would be solved; the problem is the tendency to want to force people to conform a narrow view of the world (which, incidentally, must and will always be incomplete and imperfect–reflecting the flawed being who produced it in the first place). Hume would add the caveat if “you can make someone believe in absurdities, you can get them to commit atrocities.”

A Dostoevsky Inspired Thought…

Human life is not some sort of collective movement from a backward past to a better future. This fiction thrust upon the Western world by well-meaning, but overly optimistic philosophers, has been used to justify engineering societies for the sake of the illusion of progress at the expense of real people. The Age of Reason may have given us modernity; yet, it seems modernity is failing us. Opinions are successfully replacing facts. Dogmatism, or fervency of belief, is mistaken for genuine conviction. We’re giving up on terrible freedom, exchanging it for a collection of pleasing cages called social media, smart phones, political correctness and Internet echo chambers.

And so, every person stands in each moment on the edge of an eternity confronted by decisions: to move either forwards or backwards; to progress or stay the same; to side with the tribe just for the sake of doing so or embrace uncertainty leaving behind a family of superstition and ignorance; to submit to an artificial past because of its superficial gravity; or to mistake ignorance for truth, tradition for certainty, and habit for wisdom.

So, what’s the point a Russian asks me? There is none and never was I reply.