Category Archives: Capitalism

The State of Affairs

Patrick Nielsen Hayden offers a concise statement about the current state of affairs. It might be difficult to imagine that the current state of affairs has been, in many respects, an ongoing state of affairs, as the philosopher Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, reminds his audience: “We have a country riven by — indeed, a country based upon — racism and inequality, that we never have addressed.” Now, Stanley doesn’t seem to figure capitalism into the mix of explanatory factors in his analysis, but that’s a story for another day.

photo of book cover The Big SleepBefore anyone frames the current state of affairs as unique or unprecedented, that person might want to revise the frame based on the history of the 1930s. Richard Evans lays out the case in a recent article, and that historical lesson is reinforced by material outside of history books. Here is one example, a quotation from Raymond Chandler‘s The Big Sleep (1939):

I like to see the law win. I’d like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think that I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.



“There is so Much Falsehood in the World”

Someone is going around saying we ought not to believe what we see, hear, or read. This isn’t a new attitude, and we had best be careful about it, because the claim is like the Cretan liar paradox. If we agree with the someone mentioned above, then we have heard something, and we’re not supposed to believe what we hear. You see the problem.

It’s the fact that this attitude is old that deserves some attention. James Boswell in his Life of Johnson from the 1790s reports the following from Tuesday, 31 March 1778:

In his review of Dr. Warton’s “Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope,” Johnson has given the following salutary caution upon this subject:

‘Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of false information, or enable any man to conceive that so many groundless reports should be propagated, as every man of eminence may hear of himself. Some men relate what they think, as what they know; some men of confused memories and habitual inaccuracy, ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and some talk on, without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by successive relaters.’

In that same entry for 31 March 1778, Boswell tells us that Johnson gave some advice to a woman: “You ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.” The woman had noticed and explained that “little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day.” A mere 240 years later, some of us wish that our problem were “little variations in narrative.”


Juxtaposing Two Quotations

The first is from Joe Ide’s detective novel IQ.

You go where God calls you. Teacher, doctor, scientist, book writer. I don’t really care as long as you do some good out there. You could make a difference, Isaiah. A big difference. I’m talking about raising people up, easing their suffering, bringing some justice to the world. Money don’t enter into it, you understand what I’m telling you? God didn’t give you a gift so you could be a hedge fund manager.

The second is from today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Most people don’t have much trouble imagining the worst of bankers – even bankers themselves. Anna Smith is a loans officer in Victoria with more than a decade’s experience among the big four banks. In her sector, retail banking, she says, “they’ll employ anybody. People off the street. People come from their parents’ restaurant, from selling second-hand cars. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t have a uni degree, I grew up pretty rough, I had to take care of my siblings financially. The bank gave me a chance.”

Nonetheless, in her opinion, some of her colleagues seem pointedly lacking in any kind of ethical education or moral compass. “Basically, they’re just a bunch of dude bros with their dicks in their hands, going ‘Duhhhh.’ I mean, when I started, people were quoting ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ like it was the Bible.”

Getting the Right Right

If you have seen Hannah Gadsby’s latest special on Netflix, you will be familiar with her powerful critique of those who want to separate famous people’s works from their lives. The example that riles her is Picasso.

photo of Hannah Gadsby

She wants her audience to face up to the usual false separation invoked when things become uncomfortable with a famous person’s history. The art people make, the books they publish, the songs they sing, all are part of a whole. The works and the lives happen together, and should be considered together. Gadsby’s point is that Picasso’s abuse of women cannot be bracketed from his reputation as an artist.

From a similar perspective, it might be time for Heideggerians to end their bracketing of their hero from what he did in his life. See, for example, the April/May 2018 issue of Philosophy, Now and the section called “The Trouble with Martin,” in which people like John Caputo say things like this: “Ultimately what matters is to understand not the authorial subjectivity but the author’s subject matter.” If only John Caputo and Hannah Gadsby could meet.

photo of cover of Dangerous MindsIt’s doubtful Hannah Gadsby will be invited to a philosophical conference Caputo might attend, so that they could discuss their disagreement. However, all Heideggerians can take a look at Ronald Beiner’s new book, Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Right. Beiner quotes Karl Jaspers responding to Hannah Arendt’s wish that “people leave him [Heidegger] in peace.” Jaspers, like Gadsby, will have none of it: “I don’t think it’s desirable ‘to leave Heidegger in peace.’ He is a presence, and one that everyone who wants an excuse for his own Nazi past likes to fall back on. The significance of his behavior seems to me of no small consequence for current politics.” My guess is Gadsby would appreciate Jasper’s brio. Gadsby would be interested in saying something about Heidegger’s relationship with Hannah Arendt when she was Heidegger’s student, and while Heidegger was married. That’s another part of Heidegger’s subjectivity that Caputo would have us ignore.

Beiner presents plenty of evidence to demonstrate that Heidegger did not abandon his National Socialist subjectivity, even after the war ended. For instance, Beiner points to a 20 January 1948 letter from Heidegger to Herbert Marcuse, in which Heidegger says that “it was his yearning for ‘spiritual renewal’ that motivated his political commitment [to National Socialism] in 1933” [Ich erwartete vom Nationalsozialismus eine geistige Erneuerung des ganzen Lebens].

What do Nietzsche and Heidegger have to do with the contemporary political situation? — that’s the question to which Beiner’s book is the answer.

Capitalism Is A Limbo

The author DBC Pierre has been getting some extra mileage lately, thanks to a mention in Errol Morris’s The Ashtray. Morris cites Vernon God Little, but I’d like to point to a quotation in Lights Out in Wonderland (2010):

Capitalism is a limbo.

Not a structure but an anti-structure. Driven not towards a defined end, but hovering over a permanent present, harvesting a flow of helpless human impulses. It builds no safe futures, leaves no great structures, prepares no one for roads ahead. And why would it? We don’t march through an age of civilisation but float between Windows and Mac, treading water.

photo of DBC Pierre

DBC Pierre from article in Telegraph 02/09/2013

Esther Dyson: I own my own content


Esther Dyson spoke this morning as the key note person for the “I Annotate 2017” conference (#ianno17) in San Franciso. It was time to kiss the Blarney Stone of Capitalism. She started off by telling the audience that as a “content creator” she owned her content, and she didn’t want others making a profit from her content. It’s all about the property and the money. In other words, it’s all about capitalism.

Dyson conjured up an image of the world from the 1960s that might be considered fake news now: “When the internet was created, everyone who was on it was nice.” Dyson seems to have forgotten that the internet began as a military project connected with the Department of Defense, formerly the War Department. Some nice people renamed the department in 1949, so that we wouldn’t have to be reminded that the DOD is about war, not about being nice.

When the internet was created, everyone who was on it was nice.

The current problems with trolls, people spreading hate speech, people driving “content creators” from the web in fear of their lives are real, and Dyson is a bright person seeking solutions. However, her solutions are rooted in typical capitalist rhetoric. She posits, for example, that niceness will be restored by letting “the market” work. Like most people who talk about letting markets work, they don’t mean letting things be. We need controls, rules, a grammar, as she called it.

We all want nice things, but out there in the real world are people who will take our nice things, seize our property, do harm to us. They must be controlled, regulated. Dyson is in favor of regulating the internet.

In the early days of the internet, Dyson held the opinion that anonymity was a good thing. She has changed her mind, and she told the audience that it is always interesting when people change their minds. Dyson’s new view is that anonymity needs regulation too. Anonymous people ought not to be free to say un-nice things on the internet. We could use some software to expunge un-niceness, for example, before it ever gets posted. Apparently, the market won’t fix un-nice people, and so un-nice people will need to be marginalized, or silenced, or forced into some other space in the ether where they will be rendered harmless. Dyson isn’t clear about how all of this could be made to come about, but she wants to help people who are working on such outcomes.

Dyson wants a kind of gated community for all of us, so that the Haves can have their property, their protections. They can have a space where entrances and exits are controlled, property is safe, and ownership valued. It’s the world of capitalism we already have, with many people intent on fashioning creative laws and regulations under the guise of the “free market” to keep certain people out of the game.

Luckily, some audience members objected during the Q & A. One person (Tom) suggested that the internet should allow even un-nice people the right to speak, and a librarian from Cal Tech said, in effect, that un-nice people are the cost of openness. As opposed to the seeming common sense opposition between crime and law, the law cannot be known outside of crime. The institution of law (capitalism) allows crime, opens up the possibility of further crime. Law cannot know itself without its exception (crime). This Hegelian reading of the situation is a bit too academic for the context of “I Annotate 2017,” but some audience members seemed to imply an understanding of the logic. Plug in “un-niceness” wherever “crime” appears earlier in this paragraph, and you have a taste of the logic as it fits into the context of Dyson’s presentation.

Dyson invoked Uber as a salutory example of a company that tries to be nice. That company tries to make sure that its drivers are not doing bad things, are not frauds, according to Dyson. Surely Dyson, in retrospect, would want to reconsider that capitalistic example. Uber is not working for the benefit of its own employees, and CEO Travis Kalanick told an Uber driver who complained to Kalanick about the driver’s growing debt: “You know what, some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.” Kalanick’s statement doesn’t seem so nice.

The premise that language belongs to us, that we own it, needs to be questioned. Dyson does not speak English because she chose that language. As James Baldwin, Jacques Lacan, and Valentin Voloshinov have explained, language does not belong to us. Language is always a social phenomenon. It could not possibly arise other than through communication among different individuals. In its original form it exists outside of the mind of any individual as sounds or as written words that were never the property of the person who learns a particular language. As a blogger, then, it seems odd to imagine you are a “content creator.” Who “owns” language? Its an idea only a capitalist could have.

The door to freedom is on the left

Not since V for Vendetta has a message come across as well for popular culture. Why Snowpiercer is not in the same U.S. theaters with Edge of Tomorrow tells you something about the capitalism that meets its match in Bong Joon-ho’s hands. It’s no accident that the door to freedom is on the left.