Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
What is morality? What is law? Many might say, "it's the interest of the powerful." That is, the law or moral rules protect those who are in powerful. For everyone knows, it's better to wrong others and not be wronged, so that those who can get away with it will break the law every time.
You may not recognize it, but this position is the one Socrates argued against in Plato's Republic, the one that lies behind the story of the Ring of Gyges. And today, we see those with power--whether Democrat or Republican, Labour or Tory--proving Socrates wrong. It's a wonder that our society ever came up with the story of Superman, and perhaps the only way we can stomach the idea of an all-powerful being from another world being good and standing up for the poor--see the earliest comics written during the Great Depression--was to imagine a red kryptonite that made him turn bad.
These points raise the question of the relationship between desire and moral values, or happiness and morality. We often think that morality causes unhappiness. But Socrates wants to argue differently. Only the virtuous person can really be happy. This argument is echoed down the ages to Alasdair MacIntyre in an essay titled "Notes from the Moral Wilderness." You can ignore that part if you want; the important thing is to consider how deep in our politics--whether liberal democracies like the US and UK or state-run capitalism like in China--this separation of desire and morality goes. I'll ignore China for now. Let's just consider a few stories in the headlines today.
Brexit is as Brexit Does
The Guardian reports that if the Supreme Court of the UK rules against Johnson, he may ignore their ruling. Johnson, the Prime Minister of UK, has prorogued parliament for 5 weeks allegedly to prepare for the Queen's Speech in October when his government will lay out its agenda for its term. The problem is that such a long prorogue is unusually and it comes at a time when Johnson is trying to force through a no-deal Brexit against the will of the members of parliament. Where is desire and morality here?
One persistent human desire is to avoid chaos, to allow transportation of goods and resources so that needs are met. The government's own analysis (link here) suggests that these desires would not be honored in the case of a no-deal Brexit. Johnson's prorogue of government--whether considered lawful by the UK Supreme--would separate, therefore, desire from law as announced by the current PM. In short, like Stalin's 5-Year Plan which ignored the needs for food for millions in order to modernize Soviet agriculture as quickly as possible, Johnson's Tory government would ignore the needs for food, medicine, and other goods of his people in order to "get Brexit done" as he has sworn multiple times to do, come what may.
In similar news, Gretat Thunberg, the teenage activist from Sweden, appeared before the US Congress to testify about climate change. Instead of submitting her own comments to Congress per tradition, Thunberg submitted the latest IPCC analysis about climate change. "Listen to the scientists," she directed congress.
But at least some congressional members would not have it her way.
"Graves did gently spar with Thunberg over his repeated assertion that China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, should be the main target of activist ire. Thunberg, who arrived in the US in August on a solar-powered yacht, was asked by Graves what she would do if she saw another boat throw rubbish into the sea."
This argument, like others, attempts to substitute moral values over human desire. Obviously, one persistent human desire is the desire for clean air to breath, clean water to drink, and un-contaminated food to eat. Pollution makes that desire impossible to fulfill. Yet, rather than argue about how to make those persistent human desires real, Congressman Graves argued that "we aren't the biggest polluter; you should go speak to the biggest one." What matters in a situation like this one is how legislators, not only obscure or deny human desire, but use moral principles to manipulate others so as to avoid their own responsibility.
Similarly, President Donald Trump used his power to eradicate one law that helped honor those desires for clean air. California had been granted to set its own environmental standards for automobiles because of the polution in cities like LA. Trump denied them that power. Why?
""Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!""
Like everyone else discussed in this piece, Trump flaunts his Ring of Gyges while denying the persistent human desires we have.
Socrates and others in his tradition offer us a different road. Our moral values and principles should be those that help us to realize our persistent human desires, to "make desire most effective" in the words of MacIntyre.
We have a responsibility to make our desires effective. We have a responsibility to bring desire and morality together. Until we realize this desire, we will be lost
Fridays typically mean lots of time in the car driving to appointments, which also means lots of times listening to the news. On Friday 13 September, over the course of several hours, with stops and starts, I heard two news stories repeated over and over: Felicity Huffman's sentencing for the college application scandal and "analysis" of the third Democratic Primary debate the night before. Of these two stories, one is meaningful for everyone, and the other is not, and yet they shared almost equal air-time for regular new stories though, thankfully, not in terms of analysis on NPR. I do not deny that the college scandal--rich parents rigging the system so that their already advantaged children gain even more advantage in their applications for college--should be news or that Felicity Huffman should have been sentenced. Did Huffman's sentencing need to be repeated several times throughout the day? Note that the news of her sentencing did nothing to expand upon the wrongness of this "scandal." It was more about Huffman being sentenced than about the wrongness of her actions.
In contrast, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year-old woman from Sweden, spoke at a protest on the steps of the White House demanding action from our climate-change-denying president. Whether you think, as I do, that climate change is the greatest threat to the future of humanity or not, surely you must agree that climate change is more news worthy than the sentencing of a Hollywood star.
We should not be surprised. For just as the news prioritized Huffman, who has already had her 15-minutes in the spotlight, Thunberg, who doesn't want 15-minutes, the Democratic Primary debate and its analysis emphasized the race to the democratic nomination over the threat of climate change. Only 7% of the 85 questions asked Thursday night dealt with climate change, while a significant portion of the debate focused on the minutia of difference of health care between the leading candidates. Health care is obviously important--more important than the college scandal, yet is it more important than the threat of climate change?
Contemporary news is meant to distract us from the real news. It is a fear-monger that blows up threats that hardly exist, while ignoring the real threats brought on by the "system" we choose to live under. Because, if it can distract us, it protects the system. The rich continue to get richer, and the poor poorer, and the Amazon burns.
This post is dedicated to those who've asked me, "what are you writing about?" Most have greeted my words with frowns, asking, "what do those have to do with each other?" (Claire) or "What do you mean?" (Rachel). One has smiled and said, "I'd be interested in reading that." (Maddy) Just being asked gives me a little more reason to write, and whether I'm explaining my ideas to the frowners or the smilers, it helps me to figure out what I want to say. So, this post is about what I want to say.
well, I don't mean "government." And I don't mean what passed for politics today, in the US, UK, France, and other places around the world. The only love in that kind of politics, the politics of elections and bureaucracy and the status quo, is the love of power and money. Government has nothing to do with love; in fact it's the opposite of love.
By "politics," then, I mean working together in our communities to figure out what we most want and how we're going to achieve it. This idea isn't new, of course. Aristotle, as far as I know, first articulated it. More recently, Alasdair MacIntyre has developed a notion of this kind of politics. Notably, it is different from every other political theory I know today. And it is scary, because it makes the community important; yet, we've been taught to fear community--no doubt in part because capitalism cannot countenance the idea of community built on shared sister- and brother-hood. I will then have to talk about what I mean by "community" in my book, and that might be a bigger challenge than talking about politics or about...
We use this word, "love," in so many ways and so often that it has lost a lot of its significance. We know, however, what we mean by love. I love chocolate does not mean the same as I love dogs, which doesn't mean the same as I love my dog, Mickie. None of those mean the same as I love my friend, my partner, my family. We have different words for love: brotherly-love, erotic love, agape.
What do any of these have to do with politics, even politics in the way I mean the word?
In simplest terms, love is acting on and for those desires at the deepest core of who or what we are. To use God as an example: If God is love, then God had no choice in creation. The deepest desire of Love is to love and be loved, to act for Love. God has no choice in loving each and everyone one of us. God must love even Lucifer.
Let me move from theology to our every day: Love is acting. It is not a feeling/emotion. It is not some evolutionary calculation to ensure the survival of the species or the genes. It is acting on deepest desire. So, neither is it acting to get the next fix or because this chance of sex is here or because the cake looks good. Deepest desires are things I'll have to explain in the course of my book, but it's not our everyday desires, even if those desires might express in some sense our deepest desire.
If politics is about members of the local community pursuing their desires together, then it must be an expression of love. Anything that falls short of that is not as good as it can be.
So why write about love and politics?
Our world is on the verge of collapse. We must eschew government and politics as we know them for the politics I'm trying to defend. It might be utopian in the negative sense--as impossible--but maybe we have enough time to change the way we do politics today. It will take all of us, require us to give up our everyday desires for longer-term desires. So, while I'm not writing a blue print for politics, I am painting a picture for what we need to do different.
On the other hand, again, not as a blue print, but as a a hope, I write this book for how the younger generations can grow communities after the collapse which seems imminent and immanent. In this sense, I write about love and politics in the sense of positive utopia. It's a hope that humanity continues and can build a better world for the future.
I've said for a while that democracy is dead in the US; today's hearings are just part of Nero's circus that we've become with Trump.
Few, if any, on the Judiciary Committee and in the US Senate came ready to change their minds, to listen for the truth, to understand what happened. And yes, I was and am more open to Dr. Ford than I am to Judge Kavanaugh's statements. Yet, I am and was willing to keep an open mind and to listen to what each said in order to find some truth.
So, here is what I would have liked to have seen especially from Kavanaugh to sway my opinion:
1. Sympathy. Kavanaugh made this process about him rather than about the millions of women who are sexually assaulted each year. Rather than discussing that problem, he defended himself the way white people did in the '60s. "I have a black friend." Kavanaugh said, "I have female clerks and female friends."
2. Solidarity and Unity: someone who is, not only innocent, but committed to justice for women would not make claims about smear campaigns. Instead, he would ask for a search for the truth. I did not see that in his opening statement or his testimony.
3. Altruism: someone who says the following in this situation has missed the point. "You may defeat me in the final vote, but you'll never get me to quit. Never," This process is not about Kavanaugh. First, it is about American democracy, and Kavanaugh's claim should be, "I will not be part of a process to destroy American democracy and the Supreme Court. I want a solution that respects it." Second, it is about the privilege of men who have been in power too long, both individually on the senate and judiciary committee and in general. Kavanaugh could easily have said the following: "I feel badly for what has happened to Dr. Ford in this process. It was unfair of the democrats and the media to expose her this way. I call for a full investigation so she can receive the closure and help she needs."
Kavanaugh did everything he could to convince me that he was guilty. His stone-walling and failure to answer questions are the actions of guilty men, not innocent people.
Ford, on the other hand, gave a sincere testimony that answered all of the questions possible given our scientific knowledge in a situation she didn't want to be placed in.
Republicans as a group have rigged this situation by failing to give Merrick Garland a hearing. They, under the leadership first of Newt Gingrich and then Mitch McConnell have turned what was the last gasps of a democracy into a circus.
I pray for those of us who live here. I pray for the young that they will have the constitution and love to change it. And I pray for the world as we move forward in this divisive times.
Slightly over a year ago, Donald Trump was sworn in as president. And many of us--most notably Stephen Colbert--have been swearing ever since.
As I had mentioned on this blog before, I predicted he would win if the "choice" was between Trump and Clinton. Few believed me, so many were surprised on election night of 2016. So what? I was prepared because I speak to people, especially people in the south and in the working class. And I speak to Millennials. What these two groups share is a great frustration with the world as it is.
The Baby Boomers have been the largest voting block for the last forty years. They have created a world that caters to their belief system, a system that came to be for a generation that new peace and prosperity to an historically unparalleled extent. When the economy is growing, war seems non-existent or as something caused by "others" who bring it on themselves, and jobs flow with good money, it's easy to hide behind a veil of ignorance and choose a liberal democratic society that places freedom above equality.
Now, the Millennial generation outnumbers the Baby Boomers as a voting block. We could be in for a change politically. The question is, will we see change that is aimed at human flourishing.
We are coming up on the midterm elections. I hear over and over about how the democratic party is going to take over the senate and possibly congress. But that is not change. For far too long we've been dominated by a "choice" pre-chosen for us by those with money and power. If the Millennials and the poor want change, then they have to change themselves. They have to distance themselves as far as possible from the two dominant parties in the US and actually choose something and someone different.
Is Bernie the answer? Probably not. He speaks the right words. And his institution might have the right idea. But he is still part of an older system.
I know many will say that the Donal was different and we are suffering from it. But the Donald was different only in one way--he said what Republicans would not say in polite company. Which points to a radical problem fro democracy and for American society. At least 30% of our population believes that racism and sexism are okay. Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will never say it in public, but they too are fine with it. Check their records on privatizing prisons and harsher sentencing. Check their reactions to a duly elected black man.
But of course, Obama was never the answer either, as one could tell from his pre-election speeches and from his choice of Hilary for secretary of state.
No, we need something and someone radically different if we are to save democracy. The Millennials and women have the greatest power in making this change. I only hope they wake up enough to realize that any vote for a democrat of republican is selling out the future.
Holy Crud! Have you read or re-read “The Elements of Anti-Semitism” recently? Everything written there can be used to discuss Trump, Islama-phobia, and the national capitalism of 2017.
“Elements of Anti-Semitism” is a chapter in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I am re-reading the DOE partly because I am using another chapter, “The Culture Industry,” in a class and partly to refresh my mind of the argument so I can draw on it for the book I’m working on, I Aim To Misbehave: Science Fiction Film and the New Values of the 21st Century. I didn’t expect to find much in “Elements,” but from the first line, I was mesmerized by how much the analysis applies today.
“Anti-Semitism today is for some a question affecting human destiny and for others a mere pretext” (137).
Switch in Anti-Islam or Islamphobia for Anti-Semitism, and you have a sentence that applies to today’s world. Racism, in this case against “Muslims,” that is against Middle-Eastern peoples, affects our human destiny—will we continue to be divided over minor differences or will we overcome difference and solve our problems together? But for many, it is also a pretext for their economic interest. This pretext works whether you are interested in controlling oil—a high priced and limited commodity on which all of your dead-labor—technology—rests and, thus, necessary for your profit-margin—or you are interested in the loss of jobs and, so, blame immigrants and refugees for what the capitalist has done to you.
“The [liberal] thesis that the Jews free of national or racial features, form a group through religious belief and tradition and nothing else… contains an image of the society in which rage would no longer reproduce itself or seek qualities on which to be discharged. But by assuming the unity of humanity t have been already realized in principle, the liberal thesis serves as an apology for the existing order” (137…138).
Race, we know today, is an alternative fact—it doesn’t exist, except socially to exclude some. So what unites the people under Trump’s—currently failed—immigration ban is a people of a particular religious belief. This point is both true and false. Like Christianity, Islam has many distinct sects. They are as divided as any Christian from another. Moreover, the current unity of those under the seven-nation ban is also an economic unity. Their countries—and thus the people there—represent economic interest opposed to the national economic interests of the US and the personal economic interests of Trump, who can almost be heard repeating the line from The Sun King, “l’etat c’est moi” (The State is I). In focusing on the ban, though, democrats and other left-wing liberals in the US (and across the world) ignore the underlying reality of the economy. The focus on religion or race detracts reinforces the status economic order—the great inequality that currently overwhelms conscience and Christianity.
Thus, we miss what Horkheimer and Adorno pointed out long ago: “Race today is the self-assertion of the bourgeois individual, integrated into the barbaric collective” (138). It justifies violence, as we see in this clip from 12 Angry Men, no less true today even if juries include “non-whites” on them. Thus, race, for the rulers, “serves as a distraction, a cheap means of corruption, a terrorist warning” (139). Trump’s ban and Trump’s wall distract from the fundamental inequality. By blaming Muslims and Mexicans, Trump points the finger away from himself and other rich bastards to people who are often worse off than the average American. In calling Mexicans rapists, killers, and drug dealers, he only repeats the line passed down from Reagan to Clinton to Bush.
What we have seen is anger and fear over the last 40 years, anger and fear that Trump was able to capitalize on, and which the Clinton-Democratic team also tried to capitalize on by labeling Trump the greatest fear. As Horkheimer and Adorno point out, this fear has roots in the denial of human rights.
“The purpose of human rights was to promise happiness even where power was lacking. Because the cheated masses are dimly aware that this promise, being universal, remains a lie as long as classes exist, it arouses their anger; they feel themselves scorned” (141).
Let’s ignore, for present purposes, the elitism here—an elitism we must resist. The main idea is that the vast majority of people recognize that class division, great inequalities of wealth, cannot exist hand in hand with freedom, which rests on human rights. A right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness opposes any strict class division. (Thanks to my colleague, Matt Guardino, for pointing out that this distinction may be exactly why Jefferson changed John Locke’s wording.) Classes mean that some will always have more life—not just a higher quality of life, but as has been shown, more life itself, as poor people die at higher rates than rich people; classes mean that some will always have more liberty—liberty to speak to the government, liberty to move about—who really among the working class can change where she leaves so easily, except at great cost to find another low-paying job (imagine what the lives and liberties of Mexicans must be like that the risk coming to the racist US!), or the liberty to leisure, or even the leisure to be free from paying taxes; classes mean that some will always have more happiness than others—and Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness is only the exception that proves the fact, as his escape from the homeless shelter left thousands behind.
What we must resist, and what drives a great many people to be anti-Islamic, is class society! “Bourgeois anti-Semitism has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination in production” (142). In 1944, the Jew represented the thief as a scapegoat for the real thieves, the owners of the means of production, the factories and farms. “The economic injustice of the whole class is attributed to him.” In an ironic twist of fate, today’s Muslim is our Jew, as is the Mexican and the black, and the Native Americans who are dying in the cold as the resist the oil pipeline that will poison the Missouri and, with it, the Mississippi, the great river of the US. These groups represent the injustice of the capitalist class. The Muslim threatens our freedom—that is, our economic freedom, for that is the only kind of freedom in which the politicians have any interest. The Mexican (and the Indian and Chinese) threatens our jobs—which makes it all the more fantastical that free trade has causes a loss of jobs in Mexico. The black threatens prosperity with their resistance to the state form, their laziness and welfare moms who procreate for more and more handouts, and their drug dealers who reject the 9—5 for a liberty only a capitalist could imagine.
Industrialism and contemporary life allow no reflection on these issues. Anyone who questions authority—from the Dixie Chicks to Edward Snowden—is ostracized, threatened in their economic life for voicing their opinions. The Tyranny of the Majority, divorced from the state, finds its true form in economic domination. And without reflection, we become self-absorbed, none as much as the Donald himself.
“Just as, since its rise, the human species has manifested itself towards others as developmentally the highest, capable of the most terrible destruction; and just as, within humanity, the more advanced races have confronted the more primitive, the technically superior nations the more backward, so the sick individual confronts the other individual, in megalomania as in persecution mania. In both cases the subject is at the center, the world a mere occasion for its delusion” (157)
America’s exceptionalism is a megalomania unlike any other—we must impose our form of life on others, for we represent freedom. The Muslim, like the Jew before, opposes freedom and wants to dominate us. They reject our way of life; so, we must strike pre-emptively and allow no more in. Megalomania takes the form of narcissism in the Commander in Chief who thinks he can run the country with executive orders, the stakeholders be damned. If the world does not reflect back his priorities, he is free to construct alternative facts, and the news media, already a tool of capitalist production, can do nothing to prevent him, despite their own rattling of sabers. For in the end, neither Trump, nor the democrats, nor the media can risk the revelation of the great wizard behind the curtain—that profit drives their version of the truth. Alternative facts represent that truth better than any other before: all values become marketing tools; truth and facts have already serviced capital in that role. Thus, class can never be challenged because any challenge is an alternative fact. Poverty is the result, not of capital and class warfare, but of the lack of personal responsibility. (In this, the Catholic Church has been complicit since Leo XIII declared that unions could not morally strike. We can only hope that Francis might reverse centuries of institutional drives for the heart of Christianity: charity.)
Such exceptionalism, megalomania, and narcissism points to Hitler, without hyperbole. “Democratically he insists on equal rights for his delusion, because, in fact, not even truth is stringent… Thus, Hitler demands the right to practice mass murder in the name of the principle of sovereignty under international law, which tolerates any act of violence in another country” (160). The US has practiced its own form of violence in other countries in the name of capital, demanding that The Hague bring to justice any violator of human rights, except its own citizens. The exceptionalism might lie at the root of the US, for what kind of person could strike out over thousands of miles to colonize a new land and spread over it, ignoring the people who lived the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness before them?
We cannot rest in such pessimism, though. We cannot fall into the darkness that haunts the legacy of Frankfurt School critical theory. We are always capable of choosing the direction of our future. We have to diagnose the sickness that threatens to overwhelm us—the exceptionalism, racism, narcissism, megalomania—all of it, rooted in class and capital. I do not say it will be easy, that it will be possible, only that human fate rests on this challenge. We must fulfill the promise of Aristotle, to become citizens of the world—that is, people who can direct their social living—which is restated by Marx: men make their own history.
I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners - all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty - and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
You have to love Dr. Martin Luther King jr. I think it’s a sign of humanity to do so. I’ve taken a moment this year to reflect on his Noble Peace Prize speech and discovered wonderful utopian moments in it.
He begins by reflecting on struggles of black people just days before accepting the speech. We could do the same ourselves, I’m sure, and not only harms done to blacks but to Native Americans, to the LBGTQ community, and to many marginalized people. But he continues with this:
After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.
A theme I am doing my best to develop—and I admit that this work is so hard today, in the Age of Trump, in the face of the rampant racism and sexism that drive US politics, and that drove much of the politics behind Brexit and what I know of politics in Poland—but trying to do my best to commit to the idea of non-violent peaceful resistance. And, of course, my doing so is easy—I’m a white (appearing), cis-hetero-normative male. I easily fit into the dominant culture.
But my role in the resistance has never been about violence or other physical resistance—it’s to use philosophy, theology, and social theory to support a vision of a better world and, when possible, to use my words, my writing, and my research to engage in local politics. This I am trying to do with midwives in the New England area.
The struggles that we face—we who are united in solidarity with the poor, the colored, the oppressed gendered—they are real, and non-violent resistance seems impossible. Yet, MLK speaks to us through the echoes of history.
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.
Justice is wounded and lies in the blood spilled from our black brothers and sisters shot by police for no reason than a broken tail-light. Justice lies wounded across the land ripped and torn and punctured for lust of oil—black money. Justice lies wounded in the dorm rooms, the strip-joints, and the bedrooms across this land in the violated bodies of our sisters and our queer brothers. But we cannot be cynical in the face of this violence. Our armor and our inspiration is unarmed truth and unconditional love. We cannot demonize those who oppose the right way. This path is the one that leads to the dark side, that turns us into the monsters we wish to free ourselves from. The orange-one is only the face of such monstrosity, just as Hitler was only the face of national-racism in the service of capital and commodity.
No, we cannot, we must not, demonize. For to demonize the other is to demonize ourselves—to become demons.
We have to believe, instead, in the positive, utopian vision that MLK jr. painted.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.
And in doing so, we must remember that Dr. King was executed, not because of his defense of the black person, but because he stood up for the poor.
I remember—I could never forget—standing outside the hotel where he was shot. I pray that we will never know such violence. And I pray more that a thousand-million Martin Luther King jr.s rise up and lead us on the march to justice.
Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism is a must read if you want to:
Understand economy and politics
Understand the world today
Understand the 2007-2008 economic crisis
Understand why the US has been involved in so many wars
Let me state that the last purpose--understanding Marxism--is really how Harman addresses all of the other issues. And having said that, let me add that this is a must read book. For everyone, not just Marxists, or pseudo-Marxists like myself.
The one insight that, according to Harman, Marx provided and explains political economy, war, the economic crisis, the long-boom of the 20th century, and the failure of first, Keynes, then the Chicago school to explain any of the booms and busts of capitalism is this one: the falling rate of profit. As Harman notes, this concept is (1) the most difficult of Marx's to understand, (2) taken by him from Smith and Ricardo, and (3) rejected by mainstream economists and many Marxist economists. Yet, if Harman's analysis is right, it is the only thing that explains the whole history of boom and bust in capitalism, which no economic theory has been able to do.
So what is the falling rate of profit?
In short, capital investment grows more rapidly than the source of profit. As a consequence, there will he a downward pressure for the ratio of profit to investment--on the rate of profit.
Labor is the source of value--a point denied by mainstream economists yet used by governments to determine their incomes (go figure, right?). Capitalists must increase the value they squeeze from labor by investing in the means of production--tools, machines, computers, etc. Yet, these never add to value, they only extract it at higher rates. So, at some point, the capitalist will reach a point at which he can extract no more value from labor but he has these investments. Thus, the ratio between investment in the means of production to labor (the source of value) reaches a crisis point. The profit rate falls.
As soon as the profit rate falls, individual capitalists extract themselves from further production, laying off workers and ending loans to others. These actions create a feed-back cycle in which other capitalists lay off and stop investing, until the system crumbles... or at least, until the system contracts so much that we hit a recession or (God-forbid) a depression.
Harman uses the first quarter of his book to lay-out Marx's theory. This presentation is clear, though difficult at times (for a non-economist like myself), is short on graphs, but has enough to make his points. He clears up some debate within Marxist economic theory in the process, again never getting too complicated, but only trying to help the reader understand the present world. Part Two of the book examines different explanations for the long-boom of the 20th century, when growth occurred without recession for 40 years. He finds these explanations faulty, and presents the falling rate of profit as the appropriate explanation. Part Three examines global instability after the long boom on similar lines. The last quarter of the book examines the limits of the capitalist system as a whole.
The most important here is what you might find in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything but presented from the perspective of economic theory and Marxism. In short, capitalism faces a limit in what it can extract from the Earth, and we have nearly reached that limit. Yet, capitalism, like a zombie, continues mindlessly eating and eating its own.
The book presents our doom facing us, yet does not end negatively. Harman points out different possibilities for changing the system. In the chapter, "Who Can Overcome?" Harman defends Marx's reliance on the proletariat and provides enough statistics to convince this former-skeptic that the proletariat is large enough in the world to mount a revolution. As I have argued elsewhere, Harman argues here that the system creates needs that it cannot satisfy, leaving the working class frustrated. The task is for the working class to overcome the fragmentation within it to unite in solidarity and overthrow the capitalists who keep them--us--down.
The news papers, the blogosphere, the left, are all wondering, What do we do now? The US has elected, through the electoral college, a man who is the least qualified and most divisive person in modern times. Donal Trump won primarily because of his demagoguery, but also because the major new media played this demagoguery over and over and over, without questioning it until it was too late. What do "people of good will" do now?
We need signs and messages of hope. Bobby Kennedy provides one such message through the echoes of history: one small act sends forth a ripple of hope. It was so wonderful to run into this quote as I walked into a coffee shop today. That ripple spurred on this little offering of mine, which I hope is ripple to any who reads it. For it is multiple ripples of hope that build a current and sweep away the walls of oppression.
We are not lost my dear people. Or as the song says,
But as long as a man
Sitting at Mass on Christmas eve, my spirit lit up on here the first reading:
The people who walked in darkness
We have walked in darkness so long. The last 18 months have been a gloom, for when Trump first announced his candidacy, I predicted what many people feared and many others thought impossible.
But a great light still shines for us, for we are that light. One man can do nothing without our permission. We each have a respondsibility to make ripples.
Well, it's been a week since Trump won the US Presidential Election.
People are still in shock. I spoke to several colleagues yesterday who are managing, but are just down about the election, and still find themselves doubting it. I see similar reactions on my Facebook feed.
I also see reactions of fear: fear of what Trump will mean to immigrants, to blacks, to the economy.
The shock is legitimate given the message in the media leading up to the election. I think it is also legitimate given how insular many have become, existing in bubbles on facebook or other social media, and in their neighborhoods. I still recall being shocked when a neighbor told me he was voting for Trump; and I'm someone who was expecting words like that from people, I just didn't imagine they would come from someone next door--though had I still been living in Mount Angel, OR, I would have. Which goes to show that often our shock emerges from what we are normally exposed to. And for two solid years, the major news outlets had set us up for the coronation of Clinton. So, when Trump won, it seemed like a major upset to most.
Obviously, the fear is also legitimate. We've seen many racist actions since the election: a black doll hung in effigy in an elevator at a Catholic college in New York. Swastikas painted on buildings at another institution of higher education. One of my colleagues told me that the independent group that tracks confirmed racists incidents has recorded 250 since the election--more than they do in a year. And we need not limit ourselves to fears about race for women were attacked over and over, and we already suffer from a terrible culture that normalizes and legitimizes rape. Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale seems more relevant now than ever. Here, women are valued only for their ability to reproduce, and those who cannot are sent to work cleaning toxic waste dumps.
What will life be like for people of color, for immigrants, for women in the near future? I cannot imagine, or perhaps what I can imagine is too horrible to allow myself to think on it.
So I want to be sensitive to the concerns of all people.
I also want to remember the people who elected Trump--the people who voted on class issues. I've made this point in this blog and previous ones before: we cannot separate out identity politics from class politics. That is the dangerous road we walked this election, and the one that allowed me to accurately predict Trump's win. I think, in fact, that Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story warned us about these issues: Trump could appeal to blue-collar and very poor, disenfranchised persons more than Hillary ever could. Hillary was not Bill, who could make this appeal, who campaigned on the slogan "It's the economy, stupid."
The Left has failed to keep in mind that race, gender, immigration, and the environment are tied intimately to capitalism. Will misogyny remain after capitalism? Maybe. It certainly existed before. Yet, as Silvia Federici shows, capitalism exploits latent misogyny and new and more horrible ways. What about racism? Ditto. Study after study has shown that race is determined by class conflict, as wave after wave of immigrant was labeled "black" until the next wave, because they competed for jobs. And immigration? Immigration is always a class issue--an issue of access to resources.
A week on, I do not see anyone in the press dealing with these issues. I've heard few people discussing them. A few people did at the Radical Philosophy Association, but not many.
A week on, we need to recognize--to diagnose--the ills of our society accurately, so that we can work to move forward.
Yes, many are shocked. Most of us are afraid. Now is the time to act, to organize.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.