Archive for January, 2011

When Economists Go Touchy Feely!

I have been sick, ill and infirm of late, and as such have been unable to rustle up too much stuff here. But I was roused from Tamiflu-induced confusion by this piece, which claims economists are basically concerned with human freedom. Now you know what the Chicago Boys were doing in Chile, and what the inspirational force behind An Bord Snip Nua was.

Edward L. Glaeser: The Moral Heart of Economics – NYTimes.com

As Smith moved from moral sentiments to political economy, his focus changed from the perfection of private nature to the improvement of public systems. Most economic writing since then has typically shied away from offering moral advice to individuals and instead focused on improving public institutions and policies.

But that shift doesn’t mean that there isn’t a deep moral tenet – a belief in the value of human freedom – at the core of our discipline.

Some economists made that belief explicit. In the 18th century, Smith wrote, “Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so.”

What a crock. This ‘belief in the value of human freedom’, when it came to Ireland, was expressed by Smith thus:

[Ireland] is ill provided with [coal and] wood; two articles essentially necessary to the progress of Great Manufactures. It wants order, police, and a regular administration of justice both to protect and restrain the inferior ranks of people, articles more essential to the progress of Industry than both coal and wood put together.

(cited in Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism)

Furthermore, Smith held that although

“the relief and consolation of human misery depend on our compassion for [the poor], the peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.”

Glaeser cites in passing Francis Hutcheson, Smith’s predecessor in the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Those of you with longish memories may recall that he inspired the name for this humble blog. He expressed his belief in the value of human freedom thus:

“If a people have not acquired an habit of industry, the cheapness of all the necessaries of life encourages sloth. The best remedy is to raise the demand for all necessaries…Sloth should be punished by temporary servitude at least”

If Francis Hutcheson were around today, he’d either be working for the IMF or standing as an independent in the upcoming Dáil elections.

Interludicrous

Y’know, the idea that the present shenanigans represent some sort of nadir in the life of Irish democracy rankles with me. It is not that I think the self-absorbed buffoonery of these crooks is somehow harmless: on the contrary, it heightens ordinary people’s desperation with politics once the glow of farce fades. It is that I feel no attachment whatever to the chambers of the institutions lots of people about me seem to hold dear. You hear so much of what has gone on over the past three or four years as being an unprecedented event ‘since the foundation of the State’, as though the foundation of the State were the momentous Year Zero for Who We Are As A People. Well, ‘the State’ never meant shit to me, and it never will. It confines victims of torture to places like Mosney, prohibits them from working, and chucks them €19 quid a week pocket money. Perhaps I missed out on some school trip to the Dáil chambers where the essence of democracy wafts up off the smell of the blue carpet (it’s blue, right?), and the voices of the founding fathers reverberate silently about your head, and you skip out gaily down Molesworth Street aglow with the knowledge that, truly, the world is our oyster, and the Department of Social Protection is YOUR Department.

There was a priest on Joe Duffy earlier on talking about how the deportment of the Fianna Fáil TDs was important because regardless of what you thought about the likes of De Valera, and whatever about the dark history of the time, there was a dignity and a respect for the institutions and the people who elected them there. Well, perhaps adding insult to injury is never advisable, but the brute facts of the Irish situation -basically, the conversion of workers in Ireland to debt peonage in order to sate the appetites of corporate oligarchs- would not be altered a jot if all TDs carried themselves like, I dunno, Ciaran Cuffe.

And it is probably true that post-1990s prosperity suffused political operators with a lofty self-satisfaction, and an infatuation with the clammy embrace of Smart CEOs Who Meant Business, and that the spurn of this embrace, come the crisis, caused many of these people to befoul themselves in the most grubby fashion imaginable. But we should be wary that the role of these people now, after the population has been suitably browbeaten into believing in a EU-ECB-IMF fait accompli, that intensified neo-liberalism is the only course of action, is to exist as mediated gargoyles -a representation, for the corporate state and the official bearers of its good news, whether they are suave spoofers of the parties of government or economistic Howard Beales, of the evil of what happens whenever everyday people think they can exercise some sort of control over their destiny. Resist.

Up The Poll

Not every reader of this site may be aware, but I have a side project on the go. It is erratic, and in its infancy, and too slight to become a regular consarn, but it is intended to be educational, enlightening, and finger-pulsening.

Compare and Contrast

Tavis Smiley on Obama’s Arizona Memorial Speech, Martin Luther King and Hate in America

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

Defense.gov News Article: King Might Understand Today’s Wars, Pentagon Lawyer Says

In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings.

“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.

Inspiring Words From Arizona

Joel Olson: What It’s Like to Live in Arizona Right Now

With a weak Democratic Party, a labor movement crippled by “right to work” laws, a small civil rights contingent, few political nonprofits, and almost no organized left, Arizona’s working class is turning to grassroots democracy, operating outside the “official” political channels and fearlessly making political demands that challenge the pillars of laissez-faire capitalism itself. This path they are carving is quite possibly a model for working class struggles throughout the nation.

Take the grassroots fight against SB 1070, for example. The Tierra y Libertad Organization in Tucson has been a leader in opposing SB 1070. But it is also creating a new model of democracy. Declining to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, they raise funds through the community, which they use support their struggle for the self-determination of its base communities. In Phoenix, Puente has organized the major immigrant rights demonstrations in Arizona, but they are also organizing neighborhood meetings throughout the Valley of the Sun. In Phoenix and Flagstaff, the Repeal Coalition (I’m a member of this group) demands that all persons in a global economy be free to live, love, and work wherever they please, and they demand that ordinary people have a full say in those affairs that affect their daily lives. The undocumented workers, moms, and college students who make up the group don’t seem to worry that these demands are deeply radical and disrupt the very functioning of Arizona politics as it currently operates. These groups work with others, such as Border Action Network, No More Deaths, and Arizona Interfaith, that are organized in a traditional nonprofit format but nevertheless encourage face-to-face democracy and are courageously fighting 1070 and myriad other evils.

These working-class struggles suggest a new Arizona. They suggest a world in which working people decide the fate of the community, not the rich. They suggest a world in which democracy rather than white privilege decides how to allocate resources. They suggest a world in which borders are tools of the bosses rather than walls that “defend sovereignty” or “prevent terrorism.”

As they always say, read the whole thing.

‘Rebooting Civil Society’

Glenn Beck – Are We Becoming An Uncivil Society? – TIME

While we must always stand up to protect those rights, we should also realize that only a civil society could maintain this balance as well as this nation has for over 200 years.

Reading Beck’s opposition of civil and uncivil societies reminded me of the Pro-Lisbon ‘civil society’ venture spearheaded by Pat Cox during the last Lisbon campaign. Maybe part of traction came from people who thought ‘civil society’ was groups composed of ‘civil’ people, as upposed to ‘uncivil’, …i.e. not nice, blackguards in the No campaign.

Another conception of ‘civil society’ swung into view this morning when I stumbled into John Waters’s mind. This conception sees civil society as a sort of computer operating system that needs desire to function.

What this society needs is a rebirth of hope and desire – The Irish Times – Fri, Jan 14, 2011

Starting to desire again in a healthy way is the essential starting point of the rebooting of civil society. It should be obvious that this will not result from a reinvigoration of material appetites, markets or other elements of the economic system. What is required is not a new government or banking system or a stricter form of regulation. What is required is the generation of a new kind of humanity in both public and private realms.

Let me slip into my Paddy O’Blog tracksuit momentarily so that I might consider the matter of John Waters, as it is some time since I have given the matter of Waters any attention. As far mere mortals can grasp the point of such unearthly prose, it seems Waters is concerned with an absence of God from how society thinks about itself. However, he doesn’t mention the word ‘God’. I would have a lot more respect for anyone who thinks that a godless society is a dazed, confused and ultimately doomed one, and says it plainly, rather than someone who beats about the burning bush ad infinitum.

What, then, is the point of all this mystifying bullshit? Why can’t he just come out and say that if people don’t believe in God they are doomed to hell? Is it some residual concern with being down with the kids, in the manner of a music journalist? The personal motives don’t matter too much. I think we have to look beyond Waters’s own idiosyncrasies here, to the matter of why the would-be paper of record in Ireland sees fit to present this stuff as serious social commentary.

For all his railing against society’s failings, Waters presents a religion conceived in private: the return of God (or ‘the rebooting of civil society’) is something that takes place entirely separate from whatever political and economic regime holds sway. This is not a religious practice that confronts earthly institutions, or one likely to get its practitioners crucified by the authorities. Waters’s religion is entirely accommodated to the existing order, in that it sees ‘new kinds of humanity’ as arising entirely separately of material questions. For Waters, It doesn’t really matter if, in Ireland alone, there is gross material inequality, half a million unemployed, families depending on food parcels, a health system in collapse: the urgent problem to be addressed, for people suffering as a result, is the re-definition of ‘human desire’ within ‘an absolute framework’.

This sort of view, while not the sort of thing Jesus would approve of if the Gospels are anything to go by, is not rare at all but it is one entirely complicit with the existing order. The thing is, you are not going to find someone writing for the Irish Times who says openly “As a believer in God, I believe we should ignore how capitalism affects human flourishing and questions of justice and concentrate instead on our private spiritual development, because that is where we will find true meaning”, since religious preaching is not very popular nowadays, and to have a religious preacher claim that we should ignore capitalism could end up contaminating people’s ideas about capitalism. But mystic waffle from a journalist that presents the pretty much the same point of view and fulfils the same end, on the other hand, is just fine.

Thank You For Breaking My Balls

Barbed wire at Lissadell will do little to mend fences – The Irish Times – Thu, Jan 13, 2011

On the issue of public rights of way, I had plenty of sympathy for them. As anyone who has ever attempted to maintain a piece of ground to which the public has access will tell you, the public are disgusting. Every tidy towns committee and residents’ association will relate the heartbreak of watching everything from flower beds to street furniture to art vandalised with great determination.

Show me a square metre of ground open to the public and I’ll show you the poor unfortunate who has to protect it from constant littering. Boy racers and truck drivers will decorate it with their takeaway coffee cups, sandwich wrappers, empty alcohol tins and used condoms.

For good measure they might leave a bag or two of domestic refuse behind, perhaps with some nappies in it to ensure maximum filth.

You couldn’t expect Denis O’Brien’s number one media enthusiast to be too enthusiastic about the idea of the public. If the public were anything other than an unruly filth-caked mob incapable of behaving with propriety and civic-mindedness, there would be no need for benevolent billionaires to redeem them with their corporate social responsibility programmes. Not the ‘conquistador capitalists’ of old, mind you, but ‘ball-breakers whom you thank for breaking your balls‘. If ‘the public’ is ‘disgusting’, as Carey claims, then shouldn’t public institutions be handed over to private masterminds?

Dominant media institutions under neo-liberalism have every interest in selling the image of an unthinking, moronic population to its consumers: all the better to render the consumer dependent on its products. If I think I am living in a neighbourhood full of crackpots, psychopaths and egomaniacs, I am more likely to seek solace in the de haut en bas pronouncements of a broadsheet, or in cautionary tales about how the vile thugs might want to cut the family cat in half. As Dan Hind puts it in his new book on the public: ‘the population’s actual views are rarely considered worth reporting,
unless they confirm elite prejudices about the craziness of the masses,
or else provide evidence of properly directed engagement in matters that
the elite wish to see discussed’.

*************************

Moving elsewhere, last night my mother-in-law arrived home from work with a printout of an e-mail being circulated at work. She works as a public servant, and in Spain as in Ireland, they are getting hit with pay cuts. The mail quotes an ‘old anarchist theory’ that ‘any politicians belonging to a left-wing leadership, from the moment they occupy a post of any importance, undergoes a permanent displacement toward the right in terms of customs, tastes, hobbies, preferences, friendships, clothes, etc’.

The e-mail then goes into the habits of certain PSOE leaders and how, in terms of their class allegiance, they are indistinguishable from their counterparts in the Partido Popular and from other conspicuously rich people. I’m not familiar with the ‘old anarchist theory’ in question -the mail doesn’t source the quote- but when my mother-in-law handed me the mail approvingly, it was not out of some deep identification with anarchist thought, but because she thought the mail painted a picture of human nature which is on the whole a negation of anarchist thought but which in her view reflects reality: that the world is a place of unbridled egotism with everyone out for themselves, and in so far as people express socialist ideals, they do so as a means of acquiring personal power and influence, and money.

Her view comes in part from experiences under previous PSOE governments -she talks about how she went to cheer Felipe González when he held a public campaign meeting before he held office- and how the subsequent failures under his mandate had fuelled her disenchantment. She is dismissive of what she considers my ‘idealism’, i.e. my (realistic, in my opinion) refusal to submit to the idea that human beings are essentially corrupt and self-seeking -beyond the ambit of the family, of course- and that most of us are fated to live only to maximise our share of the crumbs under conditions of exploitation and domination. Maybe this is all a very roundabout way of telling me I should be making more money.


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