Not Really So Enlightening

I made a mistake. At least, I think I did. Whenever you’re being facetious, you run the risk of people not hearing what you really mean. The same risk happens when you’re trying to be ironic. I’m going to be impersonal for a moment, to you.

Unless you are someone who has just happened upon this archive of what I write, then you are someone I know in a way that is more intimate, receiving this in email. You are part of a group of people that has been defined by a force external from yourself. You are part of an extraordinarily diverse group. Some of you are hard-core intellectuals in the traditional sense. The rest of you are pretty damn smart. All of you have good hearts. That, more than anything, is what defines you, in this collection of people. Other than that, most of you have more “liberal” leanings in your politics and ideals, while some few of you are more “conservative”. Everyone I am aware of here has at least somewhat of a mix. A few of you are in fairly significant positions of power, while others of you, like me, live your lives doing what you do. Liberal or conservative, you all have open minds, for the most part. I think you must have an open mind, to have a good heart. You’re all nice to me, at least, listening to me blather on.

I’ve heard back from more than the usual number of you after what I last wrote. It is clear to me, that I was not clear. Normally I don’t mind that, because people can often find, in a lack of clarity, at least some clarity for themselves, that is devoid of biases or agendas I might hold. Maybe like a song that reminds of you of something completely different, or a smell that evokes some lost memory. In the last piece, I touched upon some academic things in a very sloppy, hurried, and incomplete way which was, in all likelihood, irresponsible. To make matters worse, I blended this with the more blurred-like quality of prose in a hasty attempt to keep the more cold intellectualism tied to the heart. This is always an issue for me, and one that deserves more effort invested on my part, before sending something out to you, and to you other unknown people who happen by. I don’t think there’s anything to apologize about, but I did want to offer a little clarification, since some of the issues related to issues that require clarity, if you are to invoke them.

First, Capitalist Positivism is not a term within the canon of academia, so far as I am aware. It is something I made up, and attempted to explain what it meant. Positivism is a philosophy that emerged in the industrial era when rational, scientific thinking was taking root on the societal scale. It did not like the metaphysical world and focused upon the measurable. It was based upon rationality. It said that people, if left to these trends, will eventually be able to govern themselves without any imposed controls. In the socio-political arena, this thinking played into such notions as Socialism, where people would rule their own lives as much as possible, and wealth would be distributed more evenly to everyone, without giant clusters of it developing for the few, while the many had to do without. Economic, and some philosophical proponents of Capitalism and the “free market” did not like this and went to great lengths to discredit Positivism. Some of these great thinkers, like the influential Ludwig von Misus even said, in his work “The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science”

What pushes the masses into the camp of socialism is, even more than the illusion that socialism will make them richer, the expectation that it will curb all those who are better than they themselves are. The characteristic feature of all utopian plans from that of Plato down to that of Marx is the rigid petrification of all human conditions. Once the “perfect” state of social affairs is attained, no further changes ought to be tolerated. There will no longer be any room left for innovators and reformers.

In the intellectual sphere the advocacy of this intolerant tyranny is represented by positivism. Its champion, Auguste Comte, did not contribute anything to the advancement of knowledge. He merely drafted the scheme of a social order under which, in the name of progress, science, and humanity, any deviation from his own ideas was to be prohibited.

The interesting thing, however, is that these same people who railed against Positivism as a socio-political system very much desired to embrace Positivism for businesses and the “free market” on which Capitalism depends. Businesses needed Positivism, to be left to their own devices, self-regulating and not interfered with by external forces. People did not.

So instead of just Positivism, which has never really come about for people fully, I think we can say we have Capitalistic Positivism that applies to businesses, and most truly, those businesses that can be said to be multi-national organizations — organizations that operate outside of the framework of any one political system, whether Democracy, Totalitarian State, Monarchy, etc.

This was the general thrust of the academic portion of my little piece. One of the less academic thrusts was confronting our predisposition to equate Capitalism with individual freedoms and liberty, and trying to show that they are very distinct, very different, things. Economic thought continues to be dominated by the “Neo-classicists”, hugely influenced by Milton Friedman, who argues that Capitalism and free markets are necessary for we, as people, to be free. He believes, similarly to the Positivists, that businesses and economies left alone without government interference, will regulate themselves.

You must take into account that businesses are self-interested. They are mandated to maximize profit. Less academic people, which is by far the majority, who blindly believe in Capitalistic Positivism somehow seem to attribute to these “free markets” a moral sense of knowing what is the right thing to do. We should not be able to sue a company for poisoning us. We should trust that the corporations are knowledgeable and ethical enough that they would not bring down upon us any affliction of global warming. We can trust that corporations, having their own heavily-armed military forces will always do the right and honorable thing for us. After all, the candidate Ron Paul, who actually sounds pretty neat, believes that the free market is “compassionate” and takes care of people. Maybe that’s why poor Katrina victims are still without housing. Maybe that’s why after the hurricane’s devastation, all New Orleans school employees were fired and the state subsequently turned over control of the schools to private companies, and Bush kindly authorized nearly $500 million in school vouchers for residents. Maybe because this free market is compassionate, that is why we’re overseas killing so many people, and letting so many of our own people die. Maybe I don’t understand what compassion is.

I also used a term Extreme Capitalism. This also, as far as I know, is not part of the canon. However, it is a term I have been hearing. I first heard it used by Naomi Klein in an interview about her new book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” In it, she describes many of the tactics Capitalistic Positivism once matured into Extreme Capitalism uses to achieve its socio-political ends. We see a good example of this in school vouchers replacing public schools after the disaster of Katrina. She has many such examples, including much on the war, interrogation/torture in the context of population subjugation, the purposeful neglect of our country’s infrastructure and subsequent handoff to private sector businesses, etc., etc. Also, it’s probably good to note that we are not even so much dominated by free market Capitalism any more, but rather oligopoly.

And finally, I tried to show how we, in our daily lives, participate actively in the perpetuation of these ideals, even by doing nothing. I tried to give an excuse for us, by using the term enlightened self-interest. However, if I am to be completely honest, I would drop the “enlightened” part, replacing it with “thoughtful”. We still have a ways to go in this before we get the shiny gold star of “enlightenment”.

I didn’t realize I was being as confusing as I was, in that last piece. As you’ve probably noticed, I am very bad about going over what I’ve written, after I’m finished. Often I will days later, after I get some distance, then make changes or corrections. I’m afraid that last piece is beyond easy modification, though. So this bit here will have to remain affixed to it, hopefully to make it at least sound like I might have a little sense going on, behind me.

By the way, thank you for the kind words, the bitch slaps, and even the patronization. Wicked bitches that you are. 😉 It really does mean a lot to me.

  • Jeff Stewart

    Just going to comment on this:

    It is not that you don’t understand what compassion is, Mark. No one who knows you could credit such a statement. What you are missing here is the simple fact that free market forces have not truly been at work in this country for many decades. The free market cannot be used as an excuse for the debacle in Louisiana post-Katrina or our “benevolent dictator” Bush sliding us into an undeclared war. *In part* is is because the free market NO LONGER EXISTS here that these things come about.

    I am pleased you know about von Mises. Look into Freidrich Hayek as well. Also, a note worth pointing out: According to libertarian principles (think Ron Paul again) there would never be a scenario in which we could do nothing against a corporation found to have poisoned citizens. What Ron Paul and the vast majority of libertarian-minded people think and believe can be pretty well summed up in 1 sentence:

    “Absolute personal liberty, inexorably tied to absolute personal responsibility for your actions.”

    Sounds pretty good to me.

    =jeff

    =jeff

  • Well, I’m not trying to advocate any form of government in what I wrote. I can understand it might look like I’m advocating Positivism in the socio-political sense, and perhaps, by degrees, Socialism. I do not mean to, in this. I do mean, however, to show that Capitalism and “free market” advocates, libertarian or not, require much of what Positivism sets forth, but for businesses instead of for people.

    The free market advocates, particularly those associated with the “Chicago School” of economics, argue that if people embrace Positivism it will lead a clustering of power, which will impact our freedoms.

    At the same time, they do not believe that when businesses embrace Positivism, that any clustering of power will occur, or, that if it does, it is not worth mentioning.

    Many believe that free markets lead naturally to oligopoly, and we can see a predictive truth of this by looking at the “mostly free” market we have now. In this, we do not avoid the clustering of power these Chicago School thinkers argued against.

    What we get is a clustering of power that is controlled, absolutely, by property/business owners, but not government. In such a situation, members of a democracy or a republic have little or no voice, and most likely have a voice far less than if the clustering of power were more government-centric.

    When we look at Socialism objectively and theoretically, it looks very good, but it is often dismissed as a Utopian vision that could never happen, and would likely be corrupted to our detriment. I feel the same way about Libertarianism. In many ways they are the extreme in opposites, of potentially viable conditions for us.

    I’m not really sure who would pay for Levees, for example, in Louisiana, in a Libertarian situation, and even more so, how this would be enforced. We’re always going to have gray cross-over areas with any theory when put into practical application.

    I cannot find, no matter how hard I look, any way to find compassion within profit-driven free markets. In fact, compassion might often be considered detrimental to profit. Also, using up the very last bits of widely-used resources, regardless of the impact, to get the last bits of the greater profits associated with scarcity. In absolute free markets, it seems to me, we end up with people in power who are either the most cunning, or the most ruthless. This may not be much different from our current situation, but at least our current situation is tempered by the people’s ability to move people in and out of positions that do hold power on a regular basis.

    But in this piece, I was trying to show that the arguments used against Positivism for people were not being used, in turn, for arguments against Positivism for corporations. I think we should apply the same arguments the Chicago School came up with against people-oriented Positivism to corporation-oriented Positivism and see what happens.