People are Strange.

I haven’t written here in some time because I’m working on another writing project that’s taking up a lot of my time, plus I have a number of other gigs that are taking my attention away from here.

I’m still very much concerned with social justice issues and, for today, the nature and reliability of science. I’m a scientist (retired). I care about the nature of the scientific method and that all of us can trust the findings of science. Science education is woefully inadequate for the task at hand, which is educating the public (all of us) as to the scientific method and how critical thinking is such an essential part of it.

The article I’m sharing with you here by Dorothy Bishop is aimed at educating us to the dangers of shoddy science and the ways that are leading to more reliable and trustworthy scientific findings and publication.

That said, there’s no accounting for the reliability and integrity of journalists and reporters who, without any background in science or any sense of the impact of their reports, publish misleading and often tentative or even false scientific findings. Journalists and reporters have their own deadlines and job requirements, I understand that, but not checking basic facts is unacceptable. The report falsely linking autism with vaccinations is a case in point. The fraudulent report made for what journalists might consider good reporting, but it fed into the general public’s distrust of science and scientists.

Add to that the general ignorance and fear that drives large segments of the population and we end up with a perfect storm of ridiculousness and absurdity.

As Gwynne Dyer notes, most people are fine as individuals but get us together in groups and we can behave very badly. People are strange indeed. I don’t see the future being much different from the past in terms of how humans behave. We haven’t evolved that much in the past thirty thousand years. We’re just as collectively short-sighted and stupid as ever and I don’t see that changing any time soon. We’re still strangled cognitively by our fear of death and our longing for immortality. That pushes us to allow our amygdala to dominate our behaviour rather than our frontal cortex. Good luck, all. We’re going to need it.


Lose your job to automation: Mourn or celebrate?

The three links below of several hundreds that can be found on the internet news sources these days indicate clearly the rapidly accelerating advance of automated technology moving towards the elimination of jobs.

Walmart

Australia

Japan

So far, the action seems to be very widespread but is moving especially rapidly in retail as is clear from the evidence in Australia, Japan and the US. The rationale used to justify automation by Walmart management in the US is creative and ridiculous at the same time. Nobody in management wants to say that their companies are trying to reduce or eliminate their workforces altogether. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Karl Marx predicted this very outcome in the mid-19th Century arguing that in their efforts to control or reduce their costs of production, businesses, after overproducing in the search for profits, turn to automation to control their labour force and return to profitability. The process has been going on for a long time.

It seems perfectly reasonable for businesses to try to become more ‘efficient’ by automating jobs that are tedious and repetitive, often dangerous. For individual businesses this seems like an effective strategy to control their costs and their processes. The problem is that there is anarchy in the business world, no coordination, and competition prevents cooperation between businesses in the same field of operations. The result is that there is a reduction in the aggregate number of workers in any given area and the reality is that bots don’t buy anything. Workers are also consumers so doing away with workers is doing away with your very own customers. Nobody I know in business is worried about taking customers away from their competitors, but if Walmart eliminates much of its labour force by automation that will inevitably also reduce its customer base.

So, the question is should you mourn or celebrate the loss of your job through automation? The answer is yes and no. The actual issue is not jobs, but income. You should definitely mourn loss of income. The loss of a job not so much. Jobs, i.e, employment, are not really in sync with the human capacity to work. Humans, as Veblen is quick to point out, are programmed to work, but if they are presented with meaningless, repetitive, boring work that is really to make someone else look good or get rich, they balk. So doing away with boring, stupid, meaningless jobs is a good thing in my mind. Several countries are now toying with a guaranteed basic income. It will take some time yet for the importance of this strategy to become more widespread.

We’re at a real crossroads at the moment. With the advent of advanced robotics, automation, and especially artificial intelligence, work will be required of fewer and fewer people for shorter and shorter lengths of time. There will be, in a very short period of time, a huge surplus of people as workers and a shortage of people as consumers. The elimination of tedious labour could result in an explosion of creative energy as people are freed to think for themselves and act according to their talents and abilities. However, they will need income to be able to do that.

One thing for sure, there will have to be a greater distribution of wealth because it does no one any good to hoard cash and take money out of circulation. It sure doesn’t help corporations involved in the sale of consumer goods. From this perspective, banks and financial institutions are at loggerheads with consumer driven businesses. There will have to evolve a very different ethic, one at odds with the current capitalist Neo-liberal one that I wrote about in my last blog post.

Are poor people moral degenerates?

They certainly are according to capitalist morality.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to fucking Jonathan Pie this post because I’m getting royally impatient and pissed off with you ignorant fuckers out there who, in your self-righteous, holier-than-though attitudes consider poor people to be less than human. Recently someone posted on Facebook that a group of volunteers had cleaned up after a homeless camp had been dismantled here in the Comox Valley. There was a nice photo of the volunteers attached to the item. The comments on this post were mostly supportive of the volunteers, but the odd comment slipped in there that was outrageously stupid as in calling the homeless camp residents ‘filthy pigs.’ Piss me off.

Would you call someone in the hospital dying of cancer a ‘filthy pig?’ Would you call someone who is physically disabled and unable to clean up after themselves ‘filthy pigs? Would you call someone who has been injured and unable to clean themselves or their rooms ‘filthy pigs?’

Some of you might answer yes to the above questions because you’re complete morons. Most of you, I assume, would answer no. The reason most of you would answer no is because you believe that the people who are the objects of the questions are not responsible for their conditions. Still, I think that a number of you who answer no to the above questions would answer yes if I had asked about responsibility. If I had asked: ‘Do you think people dying of cancer in the hospital are responsible for their situation?’ No, you would probably say. ‘Do you think that homeless people are responsible for their situations?’ Yes, you might say even though we know that ‘mental illness’, drug use, and other ‘ailments’ are not much different than cancer to the human body. It’s okay to be physically ill, but don’t be mentally ill because that’s a clear indication that you are morally weak. Cancer patients are not considered morally weak but if something goes wrong in your brain for any number of reasons you’re a loser and a moral degenerate and god forbid you get addicted to drugs or gambling.

So, what’s the basis for our beliefs about illness, homelessness, poverty, and disability? Well, it’s not that complicated although it’s shrouded in obfuscation and ideology. It’s all about morality. Capitalist, Neo-liberal morality. What the hell is that? Isn’t morality all about good and bad, and is it not a guide to how to live life properly? Is morality not just a set of ideas that are more of less universal and agreed upon for the most part? Basic things like those that can be found in the Christian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill, covet thy neighbour’s wife and so on?

Well, those ideas are a part of capitalist morality but not even those ideas stand up to careful scrutiny as being universal behavioural precepts. It all depends on context and situation. Killing is perfectly moral if you’re killing an ‘other’. Morality is fundamentally grounded in material life. Veblen would say that ‘habits of thought’ are based in ‘habits of life.’ There is no such thing as a disembodied morality.

So, what is capitalist, Neo-liberal morality? I’m sure you won’t have any trouble identifying it when I point it out to you. It’s actually based on the ideas of people like the 17th Century writer and philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. He’s the guy who people sometimes quote as arguing that life is short and brutish. He and the ideology he helped spawn were (are) firmly attached to a growing labour situation in England whereby people were being systematically weaned from their relationships with their feudal lords and forced, more of less, into new wage based forms of employment. Capitalist morality is based on the ideas that one must be self-sufficient, that one is responsible for all of one’s actions, that one is in a constant power struggle with everyone else in a society, that one must work hard to ‘earn one’s keep’, that people are a bunch of lazy things that need to be prodded into action, that no individual is beholden to any society, that illness is weakness, that poverty is failure, and that all the good or bad that befalls us is our own doing.

Capitalist morality is based on the ideas that one must be self-sufficient, that one is responsible for all of one’s actions, that one is in a constant power struggle with everyone else in a society, that one must work hard to ‘earn one’s keep’, that people are a bunch of lazy things that need to be prodded into action, that no individual is beholden to any society, that illness is weakness, that poverty is failure, and that all the good or bad that befalls us is our own doing.

Of course all of this is a crock of shit and has been established over and over as a crock of shit by generation after generation of psychologists and social scientists. Problem is, the findings of psychologists and social scientists that don’t accord with the basic principles of capitalism with are summarize by C. B. Macpherson in the phrase ‘possessive individualism,’ are summarily dismissed by those people who have a vested interest in an unequal distribution of wealth which means rich people. Of course, that’s only partially true. Rich people are rich often not because of any stellar performance on their part. They often become rich because they have rich families to inherit money from. To get richer, it helps if you’re already rich, family-wise I mean.

So, in order to illustrate my thinking about morality I want you to think about a wall (why not, walls seem to be popular these days), a metaphorical wall that is. In the rough drawing I did below, you see a blue section in the middle, thin lines that surround that blue section and the thick line that surrounds it all and that’s what I call our moral wall. US and Others are located where they are to illustrate our relationship to ourselves and to others. Others, those people we just can’t relate to at all because they live in places very foreign to us, we consider outside our moral wall. They don’t even figure in our conceptions of morality, or of what’s good or bad. They are barely considered human. “US” on the other hand includes all people who share a world dominated by capitalist social relations. The closer one gets to the middle, the stronger the pull of Hobbesian ideas and real concentrations of wealth and power. The concentric rings represent groups of people who are related to the concentration of wealth but in various intensities and amounts. The closer one is to the vortex or black hole at the centre, the more one represents the ideals of capitalism and individualism and the closer to the wall one gets the weaker our relationship is to capitalist production. So, for example, people occupying the absolute (blue) centre are the 1% who control the greatest proportion of human wealth. The people who occupy the 2nd ‘arrondissement’ are still very wealthy but generally work as close advisors or specialists to the people in the dead centre.* The people in the 3rd ‘arrondissement’ are wealthy middle class investors, managers, CEOs, etc. The people in the 4th ‘arrondissement’ are the supporting class, the technicians, educated specialists who do the bidding of the 1% and of the people in the closer ‘arrondissements’. The people who occupy the 5th ‘arrondissement’ are generally technically trained but poorly educated cadre, often moderately well-paid but unhappy because of their distance from the centre. They so want to be rich. They buy lottery tickets. They so want to be like the people in the centre that they have tummy aches over it. They adore the people in the centre and know they can do no wrong otherwise how would they get to the centre of our moral universe in the first place? They must be blessed by God! Whatever the 1% do is fine by them even if it’s often considered illegal. If it is illegal, it’s legitimate to ignore the law of push to have it changed. The people in the 6th ‘arrondissement’ are the uneducated, the poorly trained, the unemployed, the poor, the marginal folks of all kinds. These people either see the 1% as gods to bow down to and revere (Trump followers) or as devils to resist in every way possible (progressives).

Now, the thing about people in the 6th arrondissement is that they often also look at the centre with melting hearts knowing always that their distance from the centre of our moral universe is all their fault. If only they had been better people, worked harder, made better decisions. dressed better, were better looking, went to school, everything would be hunky-dory. We absorb these feelings into the very fabric of our existence. They colour the way we see the world, and how we treat others.

That said, there’s people all the way through the multiple ‘arrondissements’, at least at the lower levels, that know the morality embodied in this fictitious moral world is bullshit. They know that there’s something wrong with a world based on defining personal worth by reference to how much wealth one has accumulated in one’s life and how well one did in the competition for scarce resources. Maybe they have gotten an education and have had to agree with social scientists that capitalism is not a natural human condition, but only a phase in history, one we would do well to escape as soon as possible before it destroys us all. Capitalist Neo-liberlism truly is a world without love (intimate connections with others), compassion and caring. Individuals who demonstrate love, caring and compassion are often ridiculed, marginalized, and called weak.

If we can get through this, I’m optimistic about the future. If we can’t beat the capitalist cancer that threatens to do us all in, we will succumb to the planet’s rejection of us because of our stupid overconsumption and lack of consideration of the world around us, the plants and animals that we need to survive and thrive. A pissed-off planet is not good for us humans. We are going to go extinct one way or another, but we don’t have to rush into it and drag most other species on the planet with us.

  • The dead centre of this moral world of ours is populated by individuals, certainly, but also by organizations like banks that concentrate wealth. So the situation is very complex on the ground but simple conceptually.

My next post: how is about how capitalist wealth is increasingly concentrated and why.

And Now For Something Completely Different: A Little Fiction.

Owen Bishop waited at the bus stop. He had arrived here after a long and twisted trip through various obscure parts of the Midwest and later, the states of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. He hitchhiked every where. On his last leg, the reefer transport truck driven by Ralph Swinden had picked him up in New Jersey and now dropped him off at this bus stop close to the Newport Bridge. Ralph would go on to meet a ship in Portland, Maine to pick up a load of fish to unload in Chicago. But first, he had to unload cabbage in Middletown.  

“Have a nice day, Owen,” shouted Ralph as Owen dropped to the ground from the passenger seat of the truck. 

“Do you think Auschwitz was intelligent?” Channeling Kurt Vonnegut he yelled this at Ralph as the truck pulled away. They had been having an increasingly acrimonious conversation as they went along about how intelligent the human species really was. Owen argued that we were stupid as anything and that cats and dogs were smarter than us. Ralph was a strong believer in the superior intelligence of man. (Ralph never used the term ‘human species’, he always used ‘man’. Ralph was like that.) Owen was getting more and more exasperated with Ralph having called him a silly man earlier on the trip. Ralph actually didn’t deserve that. He just wasn’t too bright. 

Owen was tired and hungry but compelled to be here. He had no idea why. The reason would be news to him. He glanced furtively at the sky. The bus he was to catch was late.  He hated waiting for a bus, especially when the stakes were so high. Right! Now he remembered! He needed to get to Newport now!

It turns out he needed to catch a spaceship to Mars and it was taking off from a secret base in Newport and it wouldn’t wait for him. But he didn’t know that just yet.

Well, truth be told, none of the above has any basis in reality. Owen was not at a bus stop somewhere near Newport, Rhode Island. He had not been in Ralph Swinden’s transport truck, and he was not waiting for a spaceship to Mars to pick him up. But that’s just me saying that.

Actually, he was in a basement suite in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Main Street and 30thAvenue. He would, of course, end up on Mars, but that’s a whole other story. That’s coming up. 

But first, some bitter truth about me. I am Owen Bishop’s brother and chronically bitter. I am (and was) supposed to look after him after our parents both died in a plane crash a few years ago while on their way to Puerto Vallarta for a “much needed vacation”. They hated each other so I could never figure out why they would want to vacation together, probably because taunting each other was so much fun. 

I can distinctly remember my mother saying to me: “Now, you know you have to look after Owen. You’re the strong one. Owen is twelve years old now but as you know he can barely tie his shoelaces before breaking down in sobs.” She said: “We are sort of fond of you son, but don’t let us down or we will quickly cease being fond of you. Get it? We need to be able to count on you to look after Owen if we are ever to relax!” 

Well, I let them down. Of course, with them being dead, that meant diddly-squat. It would have meant diddley-squat in any case. 

Owen went completely nuts when he was told by the police officer who came to our door on the evening of June 14th, 1994 to tell us our parents were dead. He never recovered. I expect he blamed himself for their deaths. My mother would have found a way to blame me. She was crazy like that. I felt nothing but relief at the news of the demise of our parents. Such a relief! 

I never did like Owen but I felt sorry for him in a way. He never did figure out that our parents were total nut jobs, completely insane. I figured that out early on. They started working on me when I was just a baby. They did the same to Owen but he never figured it out. 

This is how my parents worked: I’d be sitting in the living room on the couch reading a book. My mother who always sat in an overstuffed chair in front of the TV just finishing up her fourth glass of scotch. She’d say to me: “Come here kid. Take my glass into the kitchen and get your father to fill it up for me will ya.” So, I would. I’d take the glass into the kitchen and tell my father who was also finishing up his fourth glass of scotch that my mother wanted a refill.  He always sat at the table watching a small TV which sat on a shelf close to the fridge. My father and mother never watched TV in the same room. 

I’d bring him my mother’s empty scotch glass and tell him that she asked that he fill it. Well, there was no way he would ever do that. She knew that and I knew that. So, as predictably as ever, he told me to get lost. On that cue, I’d go back to the living room to report back to my mother. 

She’s be waiting for me, ready. She’d tell me something like this: “I never told you to bring my glass into the kitchen to your loser of a father to fill. Bring me the goddamn bottle of scotch!” So, I’d go back into the kitchen where they kept the scotch in a cupboard across from the fridge so it would be handy when it was time to put ice in it. 

I’d reach for the bottle and my father would yell at me: “DON’T YOU TOUCH THAT BOTTLE! If your mother wants a drink she can come get it herself.” So, I’d go back into the living room and tell my mother what my father had said, but she already knew what he had said because she could hear everything that was said in the kitchen from the living room. 

“I never told you to get me that bottle. Are you crazy? I’ll get the damn thing myself!”

So, she’d get up, stagger into the kitchen, find something handy to throw at my father, get the scotch and stagger back into the living room. My father always had at least six bottles of scotch stashed here and there in the house along with the one in the cupboard across from the fridge. He hated my mother but he did appreciate her taste in whisky. He would have fought my mother tooth and nail if he had thought for one minute that the bottle she was taking into the living room was the last one in the house. 

I figured out soon enough that my mother and father were both completely nuts. I never argued with them. That would have been pointless. I shrugged my shoulders a lot and ducked when they got close to me to avoid a backhand to the head. 

Owen on the other hand argued with them, cried, pounded the floor with his fists and eventually refused to leave his room. Poor Owen. He never got it. Out of body experiences were how Owen lived most of his life with my parents. He told me that when he was ten years old. I can’t really blame him for withdrawing like that after what he went through as a little kid. It was tough to get him grounded though. Really tough. 

Vancouver is a nice city. Owen and I first came here as patients at the Hollyhock Hospital in New Westminster, another city close to Vancouver on the north shore of the Fraser River. The Hollyhock Hospital specialized in treating people with addictions and mental illnesses using LSD among other drugs. It’s been closed for some time now. We both stayed there for about six months until our money ran out. I can’t say that either one of us improved much because of our stay at the hospital but we did realize that Canada was a pretty good place to live and we loved the Westcoast. We’ve lived in Vancouver now for twenty years. We live in a clean, spacious two bedroom basement suite in a nice house next to a church. The rent is reasonable. Nobody bothers us. It’s all very civilized. I say we’velived in Vancouver for twenty years, but I really mean me. Owen is alive alright and he’s here in body, but he’s mostly catatonic now and spends most of his time in astral travelling. At least that’s what he calls it. He has rare moments of semi-lucidity during which we can talk about these things. I don’t like him much, but he’s all I’ve got. 


The Space Merchants: The Prescient Misters Pohl and Kornbluth*

I love strange books with compelling titles and The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth fits the bill.  This book, first published in 1952 but with the seventh and last printing taking place in 1972, was printed in the U.S.A.  It’s based sometime in the future and looking back to it’s publication in 1952 from a 2012 vantage point is a bit  strange.  Pohl and Kornbluth obviously had to design a future that was credible to a 1952 readership still infused with memories of World War II and trying to deny the existence of the Korean War.  In some ways, that’s not too difficult a task, but in other ways the challenge is daunting.  For instance, the characters in the book still use phones like in 1952, board planes on the tarmack at airports and smoke incessantly, but space travel is common.  The book is about the marketing business and how it has evolved.  Lies are common and the bigger the lie the better.  Products are not simply advertized anymore.  Marketing businesses create products to sell not based on their utility but on their salability.  (How far is THIS from our current reality?) They are trying to sell people on Venus colonization.  How can they make Venus attractive to potential colonists?  It’s virtually uninhabitable.  I leave it to you to find a copy of the book to see how the main character in the book, Mitchell Courtenay, gets along.  What I want to highlight here is a simple paragraph on page 7 of my edition of the book which reads:

“Fowler Schocken inclined his head.  ‘Thank you, Matthew,’ And he meant it.  It took him a moment before he could go on.  ‘We all know,’ he said, ‘what put us where we are.  We remember the Starrzalius Verily account, and how we put Indiastries on the map.  The first spherical trust.  Merging a whole subcontinent into a single manufacturing complex.  Schocken Associates pioneered on both of them.  Nobody can say we were floating with  the tide.  But that’s behind us.”

Indiastries [my emphasis].  ‘Now that’s prescient,’ I thought to myself.  Pohl and Kornbluth project into the future a trend that was in its infancy in 1952 with post-war globalization and geopolitics, that is, the corporate drive to find cheaper raw materials and labour wherever they might be.  Of course, that’s a movement or trend that started long before epitomized by Christopher Columbus and his P3 venture, but did it ever take off after WW II.  Now, global business corporations scour the globe like bottom feeders, looking for the cheapest raw materials and the cheapest labour.  In the case of raw materials, its a little more difficult than with labour.  Raw materials are found where they lie in the earth.  It’s possible for hard rock mining companies, oil producers and other exploiters of the earth’s ‘natural resources’ to more to parts of the earth previously unexplored to uncover precious commodities like gold.  Canadian mining corporations are all over Mexico, Central and South America mining and exploring for minerals.  That doesn’t mean Canada has no gold left in ‘them thar’ hills, but the ‘business climate’ is much better in Mexico and the near absence of environmental regulation (or their enforcement) is just fine, thank you.  And labour is cheap, cheap, cheap. For secondary or value added manufacturers and businesses operating in the service sector, the ‘Third World’ is their oyster.  They’ve managed to cut deals with impoverished governments all over the world to set up export processing zones (EPZs) which are sometimes secured compounds, sometimes entire cities or regions, where powerful global corporations can set up shop, exploit cheap labour, pay no duties, no taxes, and face no environmental or health and safety regulations.  Corporations have flocked to the EPZs.  ‘Our’ corporations are abandoning North American, Japanese, European, Australian and South Korean labour and moving production to EPZs or other facilities in the ‘Third World’ at an exponential rate.  There is no turning this around.  China and India are big players in providing cheap labour for ‘our’ corporations making it hard to pick up any ‘consumer’ product these days that’s not manufactured there.  But make no mistake about it.  Those products are not Chinese or Indian products.  They are Nike, Apple, Dell, Monsanto, Nestlé, Wal-Mart, etc., etc, products produced by cheap labour in poor countries bypassing ‘expensive’ labour ‘here.’

So, Indiastries.  Looks like it’s well on the ways to reality. India harnessed as a whole by a single manufacturing trust. With how rapidly things are changing these days, how far down the road can that be? Pohl and Kornbluth were pretty prescient guys. Only problem I find with their scenario is who’s going to buy all these wonderful products made in India and elsewhere in the ‘Third World?’  Won’t be workers here because they’re putting us out of work as fast as they can.  We’ll see how it goes.

  • This is a re-blog of a post I wrote in 2012. I think it’s quite relevant following my last post.

A Pointed Stick or a Backhoe: Take Your Pick.

Suppose you need a trench dug. It needs to be 50 centimetres deep, 120 centimetres wide and 30 metres long. You’ve never had to undertake such a project before. You have a choice of tools: pointed stick, shovel or back hoe. It would take you no time to learn how to use the pointed stick, a small amount of time to learn how to dig with a shovel, but learning how to use the backhoe would take you a substantial amount of time. What would you choose to do?

Now, think about this. You have a choice. You can mobilize 1000 people to dig your trench, 100 people to dig it with a shovel or 1 person to do it with a backhoe. All three of these options would take exactly the same amount of time. What would you choose to do? 

I know what I would do in this situation. I’d hire the guy with the backhoe. I wouldn’t for a minute contemplate hiring 1000 people with pointed sticks to dig my trench. That’s because it’s realistic for me to make this decision in the time and place in which I live. Obviously, if I lived 30,000 years ago, I would not have the option of using a backhoe. A pointed stick would be my only option and I would easily be able to mobilize all the help I need among my tribal members. 

It seems like a no-brainer to think that history has been a steady progress towards more and more sophisticated technology: pointed sticks to shovels to backhoes. However, not everything is what it seems. Let’s see what this situation looks like for someone starting from scratch. Let’s make the scenario really simple. Let’s have you dig a trench 3 metres long, 30 centimetres deep and 20 centimetres in width. 

The pointed stick is indeed a very simple tool and can be gotten with very little effort, sometimes by just picking one up off of the ground under a tree. Simple tools like this allow a person to get right down to work.  A little sharpening with a sharp rock might help if an already pointed stick couldn’t just be found, and some hardening over a fire could make the tool more durable. 

The shovel is a whole other thing. To make a shovel, even a fairly basic one, requires some wood and shaped metal, preferably a hard metal. So, while the person with the pointed stick is hard at work digging the trench, the person who has chosen to dig the trench with a shovel is looking around for a suitable piece of wood for the handle. That shouldn’t be difficult, although the wood may need some shaping. But then finding a suitable metal by mining will be more challenging. Extracting the metal from the ore by smelting then forging the metal and shaping it before fitting it on the handle will complete the project. Chances are pretty good too that more than one person will be involved in the making of a shove. There may be a specialist wood worker, a miner, a smelter and a blacksmith. By the time the shovel is ready for work, the pointed stick wielding worker may well have finished digging his trench. 

The backhoe is hopeless if the challenge is to start from scratch. The guy with the pointed stick would have already cut half a million trenches in the time it would take a person, or even an army of people, to build a backhoe from scratch. 

The Social Character of Human Production

What this all means is that human labour must always be assessed in its social context. All of the tools mentioned above have a certain amount of labour in their making. The sum total of the time it takes to dig a trench with a pointed stick, a shovel or a backhoe is only part of the story. The time it takes to fashion said tools must also be taken into account when calculating the time it takes to make something or accomplish a particular task. The labour embedded in the tool prior to when the digging actually starts is called crystallized labour or dead labour because it’s no longer active, having already played its part in creating the necessary tools to do the job. There is very little crystallized labour in a pointed stick, a lot more in a shovel, and a massive amount more in a backhoe. So, which tool is the most efficient? It depends on the social conditions under which the task is undertaken. 

The reality is that the more sophisticated the tool, the more crystallized labour contained in it. In the case of the backhoe, there are centuries of accumulated knowledge, techniques of raw material acquisition, processing, shaping and assembly probably including thousands of workers in many parts of the globe over many, many years. It also includes the work performed in the petrochemical industries that bring the machine alive so it can perform its duties. The pointed stick and the shovel have no need for extraneous inputs in their operation. Of course, once a backhoe exists it can, with one operator and enough diesel fuel, cut in a month as many trenches as a person with a pointed could cut in a lifetime.[1]

The crystallized labour included in any tool is part of the necessary capital required to produce anything. The tools themselves are capital. Another thing: the amount of capital necessary to produce the backhoe is social capital. It’s taken masses of people centuries to come up with the backhoe. It’s not the work of any single individual. A major aspect of this process is that pooled capital is subject to appropriation by people who organize the productive process but who don’t actually produce anything themselves as individuals. A backhoe is a product of the accumulation of capital and its control by a small minority of the population. So, historically what has happened is that the productive forces, particularly the tools and knowledge needed to make things happen have been increasingly socialized then privately appropriated. That’s history, folks. But what exactly does appropriation mean? 

Capitalist Appropriation

Appropriation means that ownership of the means of production has historically been privatized or concentrated in the hands of a few individuals as soon as there appeared the need for a division of labour or specialization in the productive process. The objective of appropriation early on was to remove control over the process from the people who actually used the tools and did the work. Frederick Winslow Taylor, in the early 20thCentury, created scientific management[2], a process whereby specialized workers, craftsmen, were removed as active agents in the factory to be replaced by managers who broke down the productive process into its constituent parts assigning workers, now disenfranchised, to accomplish just one task along an assembly line. Workers no longer individually created products but contributed only to one task in the process of the creation of a product. The quintessential expression of scientific management early on was implemented by Henry Ford in his assembly-line production of automobiles.

Workers were not too pleased about having their control over the productive process wretched from their large calloused hands so the early 20thCentury featured some of the most active labour protests and strikes in history. Needless to say, the process by which control over production shifted from workers to owners and managers started much earlier than in the 20thCentury as did labour strife. Regardless, the 20thCentury has proven to be THE century of capital’s monopolization of the productive process. In doing so, it has broken down the production of commodities[3]into specialized activities and has globalized the process, a situation made possible by shipping containers, cheap air transport, the internet, just-in-time production tied to supply chains, and the vassalization of countries.[4]It’s clear that the few individuals and the organizations they represent who control global wealth are finding it increasingly difficult to find effective investments. The reasons are simple in conception but complex when aggregate global capitalist activity is considered. 

A Shrinking Rate of Profit

As Marx noted, the only way a capitalist can make a profit through surplus value is by not paying his workers full value for their labour. In fact, profit is essentially the appropriation of unpaid wages. Veblen contested this Marxian notion in his The Place of Science in Modern Civilizationbecause, as he argued, who says workers deserve the right to the full value of their labour. Nevertheless, it’s still true that for many millennia human production has predominantly been a social affair so why shouldn’t we all share equally in what we produce? Well, we could and we might still, but we haven’t to date except for the odd ‘primitive’ situation millennia ago or in more and more marginalized indigenous tribal situations today. 

So, as we carry on today with increasing automation, computerization, AI, and technological innovation, the margins of profit continue to shrink because the more capital or dead labour is used in the productive process, the less room there is to extract surplus value from the process and make a profit. If, for example, Macdonald’s were to successfully replace all of its workforce with robots, it would find it more and more difficult to make a profit by paying its workforce less than the value that it produces. And, of course, robots don’t buy hamburgers, don’t pay taxes. The value of labour embodied in them as capital will allow for some profit to be extracted from the business of making hamburgers, but that basis for the creation of profit will quickly dry up. As the graph below shows, the amount of capital expended in the productive process is increasing historically while the share of labour in the process is steadily decreasing and/or devalued. Where we are along this process is anyone’s guess but I’m certain that we’re well past the midpoint and probably closing in on the far right side of the graph. 

So, as workers we have been systematically excluded from ownership and control over the productive process. Still, Marx found reason to be optimistic about the future. That’s the subject of my next post. 


Figure: Labour and Capital in Human History

[1]These estimates are completely arbitrary of course but are included to approximate the variation in values that are obvious in the scenario introduced.

[2]http://historytransformationofdesign.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/7/2/11722228/taylorism_and_fordism.pdf

[3]https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/commodity.asp

[4]Vassalization: My word for the process by which the finance capitalist global oligarchy has come to treat countries. Certainly, since the 1970s but as a process going back to at least Bretton Woods, finance capital has turned countries or nation-states into vassals. From this perspective, countries are no longer sovereign or democratic, but instead are subordinate managers of the working class and guarantors of private property and private accumulation of capital. 

The Hedonistic Calculus: Do You Calculate Your Pleasure and Pain?

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought so. He’s the guy who formalized the calculus, also called the felicific calculus, but he wasn’t the first one to think along those lines. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) came up with the bones of the same idea much earlier and others followed, e.g. John Locke. It seems that the English were quite concerned with their hedonism and the notion that they should be individually in charge of it.

Now, the hedonistic calculus has far-reaching significance for capitalist social relations, our conception of the nature of society as consisting solely of market relations, liberalism and certainly for economics. It has also infected our moral sense in a big way.

The hedonistic calculus as conceived by Bentham looks like this:

A pleasure or pain varies in (1) intensity, (2) duration, (3) certainty, (4) propinquity; when we take wont oaccouzd the other pleasures or pains that might result from the act or event which produced it, it varies in (5) fecundity and (6) purity; and, when we take other persons into account, it varies in (7) extent. In directing our conduct, we seek that pleasure which is most intent, of longest duration, most certain, nearer, and so forth. These ‘dimensions of value’ as Bentham calls them, are significant only because they indicate Bentham’s conviction that we are able to fix these dimensions quantitatively, add up the quantities, balance the totals against each other with more or less mathematical precision, and select the greater. ‘Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side,’ Bentham advised, ‘and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it to be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.1

So, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and the other classical liberals start their argument with the notion of individual sovereignty, that is, that the individual is the focus of their analysis and has complete charge of his behaviour which is always determined by a calculation of the pleasure or pain involved in any given act or situation. (I use his in the last sentence because for most classical liberals her was irrelevant.) Of course in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain we must not harm others. That’s why Hobbes argued that we need a permanent sovereign. The sovereign’s role is as arbiter of disputes between individuals became, when you get right down to it, we are all in a power struggle with everyone else and we’re driven by fear, so someone has to keep order. Individualism is critical to classical liberalism. Society starts and ends with the individual or rather, society is just a set of market relations. It’s handy that the individual is in charge of himself because, then he can sell things and acquire things. he can’t sell himself, obviously, that would be slavery, but he can sell his property and buy and sell land. For the landless, however, with no land, the only property they have is their labour-power, their ability to work. So, men are free as individuals.

Because society is a set of market relations, the price of land, labour, etc., is derived in the marketplace. Logically, then, the market should be left alone to determine the value of everything, including labour power. The role of the sovereign in this should then be to protect the market, to ensure its independence and logic.

Conveniently, Hobbes, who was instrumental in getting classical liberalism off the ground, rationalized his view of man as derived from what he considered man in a state of nature. Macpherson suggests that Hobbes must have been smoking some good weed because he didn’t recognize that his ‘man in nature’ was really a particular specimen of ‘civilized’ man. It’s clear that none of the classical liberals were about to identify class as a variable in their theoretical musings, either. Men are individuals and their lives are determined by them alone. They owe nothing to society, nor does society owe them anything, unless it’s protection from violent death and market stability. Every individual is responsible for his own life and failure or success. Station at birth was meaningless. If you detect the ideas of quietism and social darwinism in these ideas, you’re probably on to something.

This is how Thorstein Veblen sees the hedonistic calculus as it applies to economics (and liberalism).

In all the received formulations of economic theory, whether at the hands of English economists or those of the Continent, the human material with which the inquiry is concerned is conceived in Hedonistic terms; that is to say, in terms of a passive and substantially inert and im- mutably given human nature. The psychological and anthropological preconceptions of the economists have been those which were accepted by the psychological and social sciences some generations ago. The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self imposed in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down upon him, whereupon he follows the line of the resultant. When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self- contained globule of desire as before. Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him. The later psychology, re-enforced by modern an- thropological research, gives a different conception of human nature. According to this conception, it is the characteristic of man to do something, not simply to suffer pleasures and pains through the impact of suitable forces. He is not simply a bundle of desires that are to be sat- urated by being placed in the path of the forces of the environment, but rather a coherent structure of propensities and habits which seeks realisation and expression in an unfolding activity. (page 74)

Classical economics and classical liberalism share the same psychological assumptions: people are responsible for themselves, they are basically lazy and must be ‘encouraged’ to work, they are fearful and basically want to kill each other all the time. Veblen was as strong critic of classical economics and liberalism as well as their psychological assumptions. In his The Instinct of Workmanship, Veblen makes the compelling case that we (humans) are born to act, we are not by nature quiet and still, needing to be prodded into action.

I would not be so bold as to suggest that Hobbes and Locke in the 16th Century were looking for a philosophical justification for capitalism. Macpherson writes in his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that by the mid 17th Century in England, more than fifty percent of the population were servants, that is, wage workers. Their living conditions as well as those of the upper classes begged for theoretical justification.

It’s really quite astonishing to me that since the seventeenth century (and before to some extent) the kinds of ideas produced by the classical liberals still hold in most of the world. Of course, they have been modified according to historical circumstance and place. They have also taken into account (with Bentham certainly) social obligation and have evolved into the liberalism of the welfare state among others. However, there seems to now be a move back to classical liberal ideas. Libertarians are pretty much classical liberals although you’d never want to call them that to their faces. They would explode right there in front of you. ‘Liberalism’ is again a bad word but there is so much muddle out there right now, it’s almost impossible to use words in any meaningful way when describing politics and sovereignty. Members of the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative party in Canada would quiver and shake at being described as liberals, but liberals they are if we define liberals as focussed on (at least the semblance of) individual freedom, etc. They bear all the marks of classical liberals. They eschew taxes, want small government, release the market from any constraints, dismantle all social programs or at least privatize them, and hate ‘socialism.’ You might find it strange for me to even entertain the idea that Russian or Chinese societies are basically liberal, but they are in a real sense. They’re never been communist, but that’s an argument for another day.

Frankly, I don’t hold out much hope that humanity will turn itself around, realize how stupid the assumptions of classical liberalism are and act accordingly. The values of classical liberalism are the dominant moral ideals today: work hard, don’t be lazy, no matter how shitty your job is go to it every day, be responsible for your actions, buy things, lots of things, don’t ask questions. So sad, it’s not even funny.

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  1. From Harry K. Girvetz, 1950/1963. The Evolution of Liberalism. New York: Collier Books