Armageddon, Capitalist version.

We have a hugely inflated sense of our own self-importance in our part of the world, but people everywhere probably suffer from the same ailment to some degree.  It may derive from the Christian notion that ‘man’ is made in the image of god.  Now that’s pretty impressive.  So, as God-like beings, we have reason to be smug, I suppose.  It’s not a moral failing on our part, or poor cognition or the inability to make the right choices that account for us being so self-centered and unable to play nicely in the sandbox with others.  It’s rather the need for us, as individuals in a capitalist society, to enter into contracts of all kinds as free and equal agents engaged in markets of all kinds. But it’s a massive illusion.  It’s a con, actually.  We are not independent and free agents just waiting to enter into contracts designed to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.  There is no more telling an analysis of this than Thorstein Veblen’s The Limitations of Marginal Utility. ( Veblen wrote this article in 1909, but he was spot on, in my estimation and still relevant a hundred years later.  He identifies the ‘hedonistic calculus’ as being the core assumption of classical economics.  This is simply the idea that as humans we are “homogenous globules of desire” always trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  Our decision-making is always based on this ahistorical, non-contextual cognitive platform.  That’s why classical economics can never be an evolutionary science.  Its basic assumptions are just plain wrong and limited just as anatomy and physiology are inadequate in biology, but they do serve the ideological needs of capital accumulation.  Still, it’s reasonable to ask the question: if we have been ‘fooled’ for centuries into thinking that the way life in ‘capitalist’ society is natural, then will it ever be possible to align the reality of capital accumulation and the eventual reduction of the labour component of production with how we think about our lives as we live them in daily life?  Will we ever understand the real role we play in history? 


After all, it seems as though we are completely and unequivocally active and individual agents and responsible (as adults) for our actions.  We are told that every day of our lives in every way possible.  But, like I said, it’s a con.  We are led to believe that our lives are based on our citizenship in a free country, that we are free, willing, and even required to make our own decisions as rational, thinking beings.  They are anything but that.  The shape, nature, scale, extent, import and value of our decisions are pre-ordained, decided for us by capital accumulation and it’s army of ideologues and marketing persuaders and political mercenaries and flack-catchers (Tom Wolfe’s term).  Free will is a joke.  We are free, alright.  Free to buy products and services that are aimed not at our wellbeing but at generating as much corporate profit as possible.  Wouldn’t General Motors be happy if after all the wonderful cars that are produced in their wonderful factories all over the world were driven out of the factory, taken to dealers, bought by a bunch of drunks and promptly driven into the nearest power pole?  Oh yes, they would be.  And that would be good for the GDP too.  Does that make sense to you?  It doesn’t to me, but it’s true. 


Furthermore, we are led to believe that our political ‘leaders’ are really in charge of things.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just as soon as Ferdinand and Isabel got into bed with Christopher Columbus the jig has been up.  The politicians are not in charge.  They are hired guns, mercenaries, paid for by their invisible corporate powers, and they are kept on a short leash.  A commercial fisherman I once knew who, after I challenged him to explain to me what he would do when the last fish in the ocean had been captured, said: “I want to be the guy to catch that last fish!  Then I’ll do something else,” is a model for the current corporate ethic.  That attitude, underpinning all corporate decision-making will take us on a final ride for our lives.  After making the world unlivable by their insatiable drive for profit at all costs, we will be as one… after what the Christians call the apocalypse.  But it won’t be the Christian version.  It will be the ‘secular’ version.  Those people who remain after the end of the capitalist mode of production will have to rebuild the world from scratch.  Who knows what that might look like.  Who in ancient Rome would have predicted the rise of the internet?  But mark my words, we’re on a ride to the end of this madness.  Marx believed it would end with us all unemployed (not out of work, just not at work for a salary or wages), equal on that basis, supported in large part by automated production.  But more on that later.

Society is God: Addendum

If society is God and, as a Christian, say, I give myself fully to God, I am giving myself fully to ‘society.’ At least that’s what Durkheim would argue.  But if I throw into that argument the idea that ‘my’ personality is really ‘our’ personality as I argue in a previous post on this blog following Norbert Elias, and it’s my intertwined and interconnected web of relations that is me, then to give myself fully to  God is to engage in an apotheosis, an entry into divine life.  I become one with God.  Cool, eh?  If there’s anything that turns me on its trying to figure this shit out.

So, Norbert Elias, meet Emile Durkheim.  I know, this is pretty nerdy stuff, but trying to figure out how we ‘operate’ as human beings is a daunting task at the best of times.  I’ve come to appreciate a myriad of theorists and writers in my quest.  Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Max Weber, Freidrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, Marvin Harris, Pierre van den Berghe, Norbert Elias, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Harold Adams Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Joseph Campbell,  Fernand Braudel, Joseph Geis, Boyd Richerson, Robert Sapolski, Edward O. Wilson, Donald T. Campbell,  Patricia Marchak and Dorothy Smith to name just a few.  In future blogs, I will engage each of these authors and many more in a quest to understand the meaning of life.  No less.  Why not be bold and adventurous.  There’s nothing for me to lose.

God is Society or The Collectivity that is ‘I’ Part 2.

Emile Durkheim was the first European to actually hold a ‘chair’ in sociology.  Actually it was in education and sociology because there were no ‘pure’ sociology departments back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He was born in 1857 and died in 1917 just before the end of World War I.  There is much in Durkheim that I disagree with but much that I consider brilliant.  I disagree with his reification of society and his notion that a society can either be healthy or ill.  He refers to sociology as social pathology, or the study of what makes society ill.  That’s a bit of a stretch for me.  I’ve been a sociologist for a long time but I’m not sure that ‘society’ exists.  Social relations exist in a myriad of interweavings and interdependencies, but society as a thing?  No, I’m not convinced.  But does that negate his whole ‘oeuvre?’  Not at all.  His Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is quite brilliant and for two important reasons.  First, he argues, based on his studies of Australian aboriginal clans (from his office in France), that religion and society are one and the same thing.  Clan and totemic organization are so intertwined as to be singly incomprehensible.  In a more general sense, he argues that gods are personifications and projections of the society itself.   Projections (which are a complex of moral and behavioural precepts) are then used to judge individuals in the society itself. This makes perfect sense to me.  He’s not the only one who argues similar things, but his argument is prototypical. The second reason is his emphasis on ritual as the application of ‘glue’ that holds us together in our social bonds.  Ritual brings people together in an attempt to strengthen social connections and interdependencies, even when these are built on a foundation of power imbalances and sometimes extreme inequalities.

So, what is the upshot of all of this?  Well, a most important one is that God (or gods)  and all of religious belief and ritual are socially-constructed.   So, as a Christian, when you pray to God you are praying to your society.  In our case, Christianity is fully compatible with the notion of individual responsibility and private property rights.  Christianity has been able over the centuries to adapt to the political and economic engines of the ages and it has served those political and economic interests well.  In saying this I disagree in a sense with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their intractable denial of the existence of God.  I agree with them that there is no God ‘out there’ somewhere looking after each and every one of us.  But God does exist, in the minds, institutions and habits of people all over the world.  In a future blog I address the issue of self-esteem and complete surrender to God which is a driving idea for many Christians.  That notion makes complete sense from the perspective of Durkheim’s work.

Another important lesson arising from engagement with Durkheim’s work is his focus on ritual as a binding force.  As humans we are driven by ritual in our relations with others.  Durkheim argues that the less we are integrated into society by engaging in ritual which must always involve others(fully bound by its morality) the more we are susceptible to suicide.  These are critical concepts for sociology, at least my sociology.

The collectivity that is ‘I’

After reading Norbert Elias’ What is Sociology and having taught the subject for 36 years myself, I’m struck by what it takes to make a person(ality) and reminded of the complexity of the task.  As the symbolic interactionists among us are quick to point out, we, as individuals, are a product of our interactions with ‘others.’  Charles Horton Cooley even refers to the ‘looking glass’ self in emphasizing the notion that our person(alities) are socially created.  Thinking about it for even a moment makes that fact clear.  What language would you speak if you weren’t ‘created’ socially?  What kinds of things would you believe?  So, given that we have a certain bio-genetic reality which is  itself socially created (what is the sexual act if it’s not a social one?), we are ‘constructed’ in our interactions with others.  ‘Others’ here must be taken quite broadly to include not just people close to us, but also people (and I would also include other species of animal and even ‘things’ very broadly determined) far removed from us in time (grandparents, relatives, etc.) and space (neighbours, local people, etc.).  In fact, ‘others are no less socially created than we are, of course. Our person(alities) are virtually collective realities that wouldn’t exist outside of the collectivity or collectivities.  So, we probably shouldn’t refer to ourselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we.’ Of course the Queen does that when she refers to herself using the royal ‘we.’  She does it because she represents the state and so she includes all citizens of the Commonwealth when she refers to herself in the third person.  If I were to use ‘we’ to refer to myself, I would include all the people, including myself, in all of our interactions and interweavings, who had a hand in ‘raising’ me and making me what I am.  Which would mean that if I were diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any of the other thousands of ‘disorders’ that are found in the DSM-5, the psychiatric bible of disorders, I would have to say that ‘we’ have bipolar disorder.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But what other conclusion can I reach?  This is the conclusion R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz (both psychiatrists) came to with regards to schizophenia and they were soundly criticized for it and symbolically beaten up by their ‘colleagues’ for even suggesting such a heresy.

And heresy it is.  The reason that this is such a heretical idea is that we have clung to the idea for a long time now that we, as individuals, are the agents of our own destiny.  We have individual ‘free will,’ not collective free will.  [I’ll switch to I now for emphasis.]  I am responsible for my own actions.  That way if I work hard and get rich, I can say it was all my doing, and if I fail, I must feel the shame of it all by myself.  Others can do the same when they think about me.  They can judge me as a success or failure and they can (without a doubt) attribute that to my own actions.  If I commit a crime, it’s my responsibility and not a collective one.  After all we don’t send families to jail for the crimes of one family member, we send just that one person to jail.  This is an ideology, a way that we justify and explain ourselves to ourselves and to others, based in the early days of the capitalist mode of production when the ‘individual’ was created, a crucial state of being for entering into contractual agreements.  Fernand Braudel argues this in his awesome three volume tome on early capitalism as does George Duby in his introduction to A History of Private Life, a book he edited that was published in 1988.  Others too have taken up the challenge of putting our individuality fetish into a social, historical and political context.  C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, published in 1962, traces our love affair with individualism to Locke and Hobbes (I would throw in Descartes too) but anchors his views in a clearly dialectical framework, with material life still leading ideas in the end.

I could go on for a long time on this topic.  In fact, I want to turn this discussion to Durkheim and Collins in my next post.  They argue (along with many others) that God is a symbol for society.  So, when we say that we are created by God, we are really saying that we are created by society.  Let’s see where that takes us.

Indiastries – 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.