Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.

Income inequality slowing growth

QE4PRight. Water is wet. Mud, muddy. Dirt, still dirty. In other news, when people don’t have money to buy things, people that make things aren’t able to sell things. This model is fully scalable to the global economy:

Think of an economy as a large network of individuals and firms who make and use things, interact and exchange with one another. Any party can, in principle, transact with any other, buying and selling, the only constraint being the budget of the buyer. Economists have studied network models of this sort — called random exchange economies — to explore how normal trading activity might (or might not) make an economy approach equilibrium.

Now some European physicists have used such a model to examine a different question: How does a significant change in inequality affect the overall level of exchange? Their study makes use of some fairly abstruse mathematics coming from physics, developed precisely for messy network problems of this kind. What they find is troubling, although not all that surprising — rising inequality tends to undermine exchange.

The reason is quite simple. As inequality gets more pronounced, a larger fraction of the population faces more stringent budget constraints, and the spectrum of possible economic interactions open to them narrows. Fewer people have the wherewithal to engage in economic activity. This mathematical economy actually demonstrates a sharp transition, akin to the abrupt freezing of a liquid, as the level of inequality exceeds a certain threshold. Worryingly, the wealth distribution in the U.S. over the past few decades has been moving ever closer to this critical edge.

When will it sink in that you don’t have to be a dirty socialist or believe that everyone should have exactly the same income (and color VW in the garage) to understand that beyond some point, income inequality becomes poison for the entire system. Capitalism can’t work without broad participation, without a diversity of exchange, without the possibility that people may rise into the sphere of [at least] middle class consumption. The 1% idea is not just rhetoric; it’s unhealthy economically as well as politically.

Pope Francis and the Golden Calf

golden_calfNow listen to a story ’bout a man named Jeb! No, that’s not right. Exodus 32? Closer. He wanted to be a knight, and was a great lover of France. When the Jesuit who became Pope took his name, he also knew battle was the best place to win glory and also to protect all of God’s creation:

Pope Francis has clearly embraced what he calls a “very solid scientific consensus” that humans are causing cataclysmic climate change that is endangering the planet. The pope has also lambasted global political leaders for their “weak responses” and lack of will over decades to address the issue.

In what has already been the most debated papal encyclical letter in recent memory, Francis urgently calls on the entire world’s population to act, lest we leave to coming generations a planet of “debris, desolation and filth.”

“An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at [our] behavior, which at times appears self-destructive,” the pope writes at one point in the letter, titled: “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

Addressing world leaders directly, Francis asks: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

We’ll see how they respond.

Adapting to Adversity

Reports of capitalism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, apparently. Interesting take on resiliency from The Guardian:

The idea – catastrophism, as it is often called – that the system was going to crumble under the pressure of its own contradictions, that the bourgeoisie produces its own “gravediggers” (as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto) has been disproved. When the rate of profit started showing signs of decline in the first half of the 70s, the redistributive policies implemented after the second world war were terminated and the neoliberal revolution was launched.

This resilience of capitalism has little to do with the dominant classes being particularly clever or far-sighted. In fact, they can keep on making mistakes – yet capitalism still thrives. Why?

Capitalism has created a world of great complexity since its birth. Yet at its core, it is based on a set of simple mechanisms that can easily adapt to adversity. This is a kind of “generative grammar” in Noam Chomsky’s sense: a finite set of rules can generate an infinity of outcomes.

The context today is very different from that of the 60s and 70s. The global left, however, is in danger of committing the same error of underestimating capitalism all over again. Catastrophism, this time, takes the form of investing faith in a new object: climate change, and more generally the ecological crisis.

There is a worryingly widespread belief in leftwing circles that capitalism will not survive the environmental crisis. The system, so the story goes, has reached its absolute limits: without natural resources – oil among them – it can’t function, and these resources are fast depleting; the growing number of ecological disasters will increase the cost of maintaining infrastructures to unsustainable levels; and the impact of a changing climate on food prices will induce riots that will make societies ungovernable.

The beauty of catastrophism, today as in the past, is that if the system is to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, the weakness of the left ceases to be a problem. The end of capitalism takes the form of suicide rather than murder. So the absence of a murderer – that is, an organised revolutionary movement – doesn’t really matter any more.

But the left would be better off learning from its past mistakes. Capitalism might well be capable not only of adapting to climate change but of profiting from it. One hears that the capitalist system is confronted with a double crisis: an economic one that started in 2008, and an ecological one, rendering the situation doubly perilous. But one crisis can sometimes serve to solve another.

X Marx the Spot

In the capital of capitalism, where capitalism is doing its greatest damage. You don’t have to be an American apostate to think this, just look around you.

Hunter-gatherers persisted in their way of life for thousands of years, slave cultures for almost as long and feudal societies for many centuries. In contrast, capitalism transforms everything it touches.

It’s not just brands that are constantly changing. Companies and industries are created and destroyed in an incessant stream of innovation, while human relationships are dissolved and reinvented in novel forms.

Capitalism has been described as a process of creative destruction, and no-one can deny that it has been prodigiously productive. Practically anyone who is alive in Britain today has a higher real income than they would have had if capitalism had never existed.

That’s from an article on Marx from the BBC, and that point would indeed be difficult to argue with. But of course, it’s not the end of the story – only an enticement to get you to embrace the system further, until the system begins to destroy everything that brought it about. Including democracy – it will have to kill that. In a capitalism vs. democracy cage match, doesn’t capitalism, to even be defined as true capitalism, doesn’t it have to win? What does this mean?

Is Luck a Skill?

This is a crucial point – also crucial, too, is that it does not undermine capitalism but does expose its chief weakness, which itself eerily resembles it’s great strength. Funny that.

Green does not equal smarts or vast expertise, and probably should denote rougher trade qualities like foolhardy gumption. The minute we get too sensible about things is the minute we turn toward convention. The rich we have now are bold mostly in the outlandish links they’re willing to go to protect their winnings, in common parlance. Of course our new billionaire overlords, who believe in nothing so much as their own genius, know nothing but to go into a crouch, expand their fortunes and spend millions to save their billions from the gov’mint. Acute failure of imagination. Symptomatically nouveaux riche – the only question is will they be able to hang onto their green cushions long enough to learn to doubt the perfection of its comfort?

Showing Initiative

Excellent rant at Grist on how sustainability conferences are ubiquitous and incredibly boring. More grave than the ennui, however, is the other ‘how green saves you green’ schmack that is really the dumbing of the smarter part of such klaches, and reveals, again, how doing anything for money gets you to a place where you’ll only do anything if its for money. Pathetic and sad.

Seems like every single conference just HAMMERS on the idea that sustainability is a good idea but it’s also green both ways, and affordable. But it’s not. It’s friggin’ difficult, more like trench warfare than surgery, and sometimes ROI doesn’t exist. We still need to do it, but let’s not delude people about the on the ground reality. (One of the reasons lots of consultants think it’s cheap and easy and fun is that … they haven’t actually ever done the work!) This has been my consistent message, but this green is green thing is so much the sterotype that someone recently blurbed one of my talks as “Schendler talks about how sustainability is easy, simple, and cost effective,” even though my message is actually the exact opposite!

And the conferences’ issues with conflicts of interest from presenters is actually just as problematic. But this cheap and easy thing, that’s the major issue that obfuscates some of the real possibilities with the subject, especially if the connection to saving money could otherwise be an intro to or expansion on the triple bottom line concept.

Granted, watering down the profit stream is not a welcome idea; but neither is the fact that sustainability is not just about saving money. In fact – it’s not about saving money, right now, at all. It’s about saving your ass and that of your grand kids, which is usually cost prohibitive. The cba will tell you it’s not worth it – and in these terms, it’s not! But this is exactly the thinking that landed us in the place of having to discuss the dread prospect of sustainability in the first place! Onward! No. Just stay right here! Yay? That’s sustainability. And it’s… really not the word or theory we should be attempting to enshrine.

Relatedly, it reminds me of the general phenomenon of sustainability initiatives – which largely amount to discovering innovative methods for saving money at the corporate or institutional level within the guise of saving energy. There’s nothing wrong with saving money, and the case for energy efficiency can be made in exactly these terms. But many such measures could be much more effective as diktats to turn off half the lights in your office or work four ten-hour days, e.g., they don’t require in-depth conceptualizing. Retro-fitting buildings to be more energy efficient would be a lot less problematic if innovative elements of original, late-model designs (skylighting, cisterns) were not allowed to be stripped from the buildings plans, usually by outside consultants, to cut expenses. This happens everywhere as much as you probably imagine. And then, said institution concocts an initiative to find ways to do what the initial, supposedly more expensive design would have done (which, ex post facto, usually turn out to be way more expensive and in need of conceptualizing).

But it’s our nibbling-at-the-edges way of doing things. And now something’s nibbling at our edges. Ah, prophetic capitalism.