OXYMORONIC CAPITALIST ETHICS & THE MORALITY OF CUPIDITY
http://evonomics.com/role-of-morality-in-a-capitalist-economy/ – Taking the optimistic view that we shall survive long enough to make use of such considerations, a few leads today into the notion of a society that deploys bourgeois protocols in production as a laboratory, so to speak, for ideas about morality, in the leading role an article by an evolutionary biologist who has written a book about this issue and published inEvonomics an essay about feedback that he has received from ‘conventional’ economists, if nothing else incredibly interesting as the world’s elites cook up new plans to extinguish the human project altogether; an explication that blends almost perfectly with a new profferal from the LA Review of Books, “Is There Life After Capitalism;” that also works in tandem with a recent review in the New Rambler service about a monograph that delves into issues of radical altruism; that moreover fits nicely with a just-released New Yorker examination of the new television phenomenon, Naked & Afraid, the surreality TV program du jour; that, though the source may be one that all-too-often promotes White Supremacist and other fascistic conceptualization, in addition matches up very well with a contemporary offering from End of the American Dream that documents an accelerating trend toward the Hobbesian prediction about human life, ‘nasty, brutish, and short’–the aggregation of which can lead to pondering such historical critique as that purveyed by Frederick Douglas about the Fourth of the July, from the perspective of a slave; or that can result in looking at police death squads in Brazil that operate in tandem with criminal gangs, banks, and politicians as a sort of giant circus of protection racket and standard operating procedure; in the course of all of which one might inevitably encounter roots to these au courant difficulties and issues that stem from such centuries old ideation as that which Bernard Mandeville developed in his book, The Fable of the Bees, which he wrote when early eighteenth century ethicists excoriated his poem, “The Grumbling Hive: or Knaves Turned Honest,” the upshot of all of which was that vices like greed and theft and fraud might actually be the basis for prosperity and ‘the good life;’ ways of thinking that some sources attribute to Adam Smith’s developing his ‘free enterprise’ moral and political economy, vis a vis the market’s ‘Hidden Hand,’ and so on, a take on things of this sort that one YouTube series does a creditable job of defending, at the same time that lovers of classical economics in the academy and the blogosphere , perhaps fearing the implications of such a conclusion, strongly criticize as factually incorrect and theoretically dubious, the bundling of every bit of which ought to make a tasty stew for scrappy scribes and stalwart citizens to imbibe, again if only because sitting down to take in such a multi-course dinner does operate on the presumption that people somehow or other will manage to survive our own tendencies and nature’s implacable laws beyond the next few days or the next few decades: “In September 1970 Milton Friedman published an article in The New York Times Magazine, ‘The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.’ Friedman, who has received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, is probably the most influential economist of the second half of the twentieth century. His views have become the mainstream economic thinking, although few economists today care to state them as boldly as Friedman.
In my recent book Ultrasociety I use the examples of fictional Gordon Gekko (a character in the movie Wall Street) and all-too-real Jeff Skilling (the CEO of Enron) to explain why this view is wrong. Yet I have wondered on occasion, do economists really believe that ‘the world runs on individuals pursuing their self interests’ (to use another Milton Friedman quote) and that businessmen should be motivated solely by self-interest unadulterated by any feelings of sympathy or morality?
(One critic of an Ultrasociety draft wrote), I am thus intellectually sympathetic to the view that personal morality exists only outside economics or capitalism. I might like the guys who are nice and ethical, but when it comes to economics I really do not expect them to be so. I even very much doubt when they claim they are. I tend to see them as hypocritical. This is not in their job description. This is the philosophy that I think motivated Skilling and the others. It is what I called in the attached blog (‘Kant and Henry’) the idea of outsourcing morality.
This is also, I think, why capitalism can never inspire ‘admiration’ or ‘love”.’ It is a system really built on the best use of our vices, including greed. The sad truth is that systems built on different principles have failed miserably because they accord less well with human nature. Actually, they do a great mischief by insisting on ‘morality’ which is then used by the ‘bad guys’ to pursue their own personal agendas while cloaking it under the name of common good or ethics. Finally, this is why I also find all moral outrage about the behavior of Wall Street in the run-up to the crisis wrong-headed or hypocritical. The system is built in such a way that the only thing you need to worry about is law, and not being caught (if you fail to observe the law). Since these guys generally behaved within the law (as it was then, or as they helped, by funding it, define it), there is nothing to complain.
(A more sympathetic reader responded to this estimation of things in this way). It is standard neoclassical economic theory, of course, to claim that the material incentives are sufficient to induce economic actors to behave appropriately, so there is no necessity for moral strictures. But there is no empirical evidence for this notion, and theory on which it is based is quite implausible. The interested reader can refer to my book, The Bounds of Reason (Princeton University Press, 2009) for details. There is no set of rules that would induce individuals in a society of self-regarding agents to behave prosocially. Indeed, our species is evolutionarily successful precisely because there is a strong moral dimension to human social cooperation and collaboration. This holds as much in the economy as in other spheres of social life. See my book with Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species(Princeton University Press, 2011), and my forthcoming book Individuality and Entanglement (Princeton University Press, in press).
(Ultrasociety‘s author then weighs in as follows). Let’s start by making crystal-clear what we are talking about. The main question is whether economic agents, most importantly businessmen (including both corporation officers and business owners), should be motivated solely by self-interest, or should they also be motivated by personal ethics. In your view, businessmen should act as purely selfish rational agents, whose utility functions are based solely on material benefits (to themselves). In other words, they should simply maximize how much money they get. You argue that if they act in this way, externally imposed laws and institutions that embody moral rules will ensure that their private interest will lead to greater social good. As you say, this idea goes back at least to Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits.
Now, what do you mean social good? In economics and evolution we have a well-defined concept of public goods. Production of public goods is individually costly, while benefits are shared among all. I think you see where I am going. As we all know, selfish agents will never cooperate to produce costly public goods. I think this mathematical result should have the status of ‘the fundamental theorem of social sciences.’
What’s very important, and something that many economists don’t appreciate, is that no amount of ‘good institutions’ changes this fundamental result. No matter how well-designed rules are, and how good is the system of sanctions forcing people to follow the rules, if everybody is a rational agent (in the narrow sense of only maximizing their own material benefits) the system will not work. Crooks will pay the cops to look the other way, while judges would decide in favor of who pays them more. Good institutions will only work when they are buttressed by appropriate values and preferences. You will get a cooperative society that produces public goods only when enough agents, in addition to valuing material benefits, also have prosocial values. In other words, they value virtues such as honesty and fairness, and prefer socially-optimal outcomes, such as desire that collective goods end up being produced, even at a cost to themselves.
This is actually how our large-scale societies function. A majority of people in them have prosocial values and preferences (in addition to self-interest, naturally enough), and that’s why we are capable of cooperating on very large scales. Purely self-interested people are there, but they are a minority. What good institutions do is decrease the costs for prosocial moralistic punishers, but they don’t eliminate the need for people holding prosocial values.”—Evonomics
“(In relation to advocating altruism, the problems of inexhaustible need and the futility of the attempt act as powerful criticisms). Two books published in 2015 address these kinds of quandaries about how to live as a well-off person in a world like ours, and both resist the suggestion that the quandaries are intractable. William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better is an introduction to the ideas of Effective Altruism (EA), a movement that urges people to try to do a lot of good in the world, using empirical research and expected utility reasoning to offer advice on how to achieve this. Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is less interested in advising its readers on how to do good, and more interested in examining the choices others have made in seeking to do as much good as they can. Where MacAskill presents decision-making principles for us to think through, in an orderly sequence, to maximize the good we achieve, MacFarquhar describes the disorderly lives of various ‘do-gooders’ (her choice of words), making daring attempts to combat suffering, and muddling through with varying degrees of success. One could interpret MacAskill’s title, Doing Good Better, as a mild riposte to the lives MacFarquhar chronicles. Her subjects sometimes flounder in their attempts at giving and helping, and while MacAskill’s crowd shares in the moral energy that drives these people, they want to be sure they’re not spending it on well-meaning but ultimately quixotic projects.
MacFarquhar tells these stories with an appealing fluency, injecting moments of humour amid much sorrow, and gently conveying the depth of emotion that underlies her subject’s life choices. She never fawns over her subjects’ triumphs or scolds their failures. Despite her even-handed demeanour, though, MacFarquhar doesn’t pretend to be a disinterested narrator. The lives of her subjects are offered up as a kind of argument. In her own words, the question is whether it is ‘good to try to live as moral a life as possible,’ or whether, instead, there is ‘something in the drive to extraordinary goodness that distances a person too much from ordinary humanity.’ … And this question cannot be answered in the abstract, she says; ‘only actual lives convey fully and in a visceral way the beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence.’
So, what do these life stories demonstrate, if we interpret them as an argumentative inquiry? What conclusion do they support? Certainly not an unqualified recommendation of a life devoted to doing good. At the close of the book MacFarquhar says that probably ‘not everyone should be a do-gooder.’ … And several of her accounts depict dysfunctions that can beset a life of altruistic zeal. We see Aaron Pitkin, a hardcore animal welfare activist, being weird and difficult across a series of relationships. We see Sue and Hector Badeau, having adopted 22 disadvantaged children, being driven to the verge of breakdown when their best efforts aren’t enough to secure a safe and happy life for all of them. MacFarquhar’s final narrative vignette focuses on an intellectually restless woman, Stephanie Wykstra, who rejects her youthful Christian enthusiasm to become a part of the EA movement, before eventually becoming estranged from all of the grand moral creeds she once bought into. In the end she feels, albeit with much self-doubt, that it must be okay to reject the ideal of being maximally good, and instead to say, of one’s personal ideals, ‘these are the things I value, this is what I’m going to pursue in life.’ … The author doesn’t say anything to cast doubt on Wykstra’s conclusion.
On the other hand, MacFarquhar’s unwillingness to recommend extreme altruism doesn’t mean she’s opposed to it. Indeed she takes time out, between telling the life stores, to critique altruism’s detractors. Across three chapters she deftly dissects the allegations and analyses that other writers have used to disparage the do-gooder. These chapters make the book something much more than a journalistic compendium of fascinating tales. They show how the tendency to treat do-gooding as a pathology has dubious psychological underpinnings, as much as do-gooding itself.
First off we get a potted history of altruism’s place in the political imagination. Within fifteen pages, nods are made to Mandeville, Kant, Smith, Robespierre, Darwin, Comte, Nietzsche, and Freud. The findings are inconclusive, but it finishes well, with an amusing swipe at second-rate psychoanalysis. The second chapter is narrower in focus, and better for it. It looks at how the Al-Anon movement encouraged people to see altruism as a smokescreen for controlling urges in relationships, the idea being, in short, that we help others only because it’s gratifying be needed. MacFarquhar then shows this line of thought resurfacing in contemporary opposition to development NGOs as agents of neo-colonialism. In the third of these critical chapters, exploring the derogation of altruism in literature, MacFarquhar is on song. Although she acknowledges a few notable exceptions, like Camus and Coetzee, she argues that it has generally been a mark of grown-up seriousness in literature, all the way back to Shakespeare, that our protagonist is not a moralistic do-gooder, and that the moralistic do-gooders are unmasked as shams and bumblers. As a proponent of this line of thought, she quotes James Baldwin, condemning the sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and arguing that fiction which exalts the do-gooder flattens out the lumpy intricacies of real human life. For Baldwin, it is ‘only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, [and] darkness,’ that we can find ‘at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.’ MacFarquhar paraphrases the thought like this: ‘on the one side, there is complexity, life, and feeling; on the other side, sentimentality, moralizing, and violence.'”—New Rambler Review
“(This is a review-essay about Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: a Guide to Our Future, in which the author insists that readers notice how adaptable and resilient bourgeois systems have been. Only in a dialectical contemplation of this potency can anyone imagine a ‘postcapital’ evolution). For Mason, in other words, capitalism’s own dynamism — its drive to require less labor — is its Achilles heel, since machines, unlike laborers, are impossible to exploit. They can be worn down, but never underpaid. Mason is aware of the material support required by an information infrastructure — he notes the ‘acres of air-conditioned server farm space’ needed to keep it running — but he is insistent that this is secondary to the rise of information, which he views almost as if it were an evolutionary leap: ‘The real wonder of information is […] that it eradicates the need for labour on an incalculable scale.’
This wonderstruck observation does raise the question of who will fix the air conditioners in the future. And that question, of course, is a way of asking about the role of class conflict in the transition to a post-capitalist society. Mason’s way of addressing this is to suggest, first, that the neoliberalism designed to revive the stagnated capitalism of the 1970s has run out of geopolitical maneuvering room; second, that information technology taps into far more human creative potential than capital could possibly exploit; and third, that a new generation knows this: ‘the most highly educated generation in the history of the human race,’ he writes, ‘will not accept a future of high inequality and stagnant growth.’ …
Postcapitalism’s solution is an eclectic blend of borrowings from dissident strains in 20th-century Marxist thought. Drawing on the work of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev, Mason argues that we can usefully break down capitalist history into four-plus roughly 50-year cycles of accumulation, which are centered on a struggle to balance what Marx called the ‘forces’ and the ‘relations’ of production: that is, a struggle to pit technological advances against working-class power so as to maximize profitability without making the working class too poor to reproduce itself. These cycles, Mason suggests, can be intuitively understood as ages of technological development, though that’s only part of the story.
The four periods run from the 1790s to 1848 (the era of the rise of factories, steam, and canal transport); from 1848 to the 1890s (the age of the railroad and telegraph); from the late 19th century to 1945 (the birth of mass production, wide use of electricity, and the rise of the ‘scientific management’ of the work process); and from 1945 to the 2008 crisis (the rise of the transistor, mass production for consumers, and plastics). What drives the transition from one cycle to the next is the way the conflict between capitalists and workers reaches a crisis pitch that obliges capitalists to slough off unprofitable enterprise, regroup, and assemble new techniques of accumulation.
This ‘long wave’ approach is supported by a great deal of research among historians of capitalism, though the Soviet state considered it heretical, since it implied that capitalism was capable of potentially endless mutation rather than prone to collapse. (Stalin had Kondratiev murdered in 1938.) What Mason adds is an emphasis on the power of labor to force the hand of capital. This may sound implausible, given that in the two and a half centuries Mason wants to describe, only perhaps 50 years were marked by broad militancy among an identifiable ‘working class.’ But part of Mason’s unorthodox approach is to think of ‘the forces of labor’ (to borrow a useful term from the sociologist Beverly Silver) as broader than just a unionized and militant working class. He is more concerned with what Marx describes as the unexpected social consequences of capitalist labor conditions, called ‘the general intellect.’ With this phrase, Marx suggests that capitalism produces something like a new kind of person, not only the worker, who can sense the possibilities gone to waste in the unleashing of technological progress.
(How such a view fits in with decaying rust-belts and the rise of fascist Europe and North American is a difficult matt’r). Despite the vividness of this picture, however, all Mason has to offer as a counterweight is the sheer creativity of young people who “will no longer accept’ such futures. He describes the social forces that will drive this youthful, non-class-based rebellion as a ‘granular, spontaneous micro-process, not a plan.’ Postcapitalism is an extraordinary achievement of storytelling, fine-grained and schematic with equal success, critical of early 20th-century Marxism while insisting on the contemporary urgency of Marx’s thought, persuasive in its passion and its intellectual clarity alike. But it founders around the question of the power of education and technology to lead us past the horrors of 20th-century capitalism. On the one hand, Mason knows all too well that post-capitalist stories appeal to a mass readership because they erase or downplay the terrible struggles that have given us the technologies we prize. On the other hand, the concrete suggestions he makes in the book’s final chapter — a universal basic income, nationalizing banks, regulating finance — all leave untouched the problem that what counts as ‘money’ under capital is produced by exploitation. The histories of social struggle Mason is so good at narrating disappear in these bland policy recommendations. I think Mason would have a thoughtful reply to this criticism, which is that, as a socialist, he is less interested in abolishing money than in tweaking it as part of a long transition to a post-capitalism, in which ‘money’ as we know it would eventually wither away.”—L.A. Progressive
“(Naked & Afraid has almost a cult following). Here’s every episode, the abridged version: a man and a woman are flown to a remote location and stripped of their clothing. They meet each other for the first time, naked, and set out on a journey into the wilderness together. They have to find food, water, and shelter, and survive for twenty-one days. They quickly become thirsty, hungry, cold. Their morale is tested, and they’re pushed to their limits, both physically and mentally. Some make it, some don’t. Contestants can ‘tap out’ and ask to leave at any time.
At its core, the show is about the search for meaning. People want to find something fundamentally human and primal within. They want to know if they have what it takes to survive when stripped of all their creature comforts. They want to be pushed: to feel, to suffer, to experience dirt and pain, and to wake up—to not be numb. But, let’s be real, it’s also about people wanting to be famous, if only for an hour—the duration of each episode.
The more I watched Naked and Afraid, the more I realized the uncanny similarity between this reality-TV show, my work, and my life. As in my pictures, the situation that brings the subjects to be isolated, estranged, and stripped down to an essential human state is elaborately staged. But something real is captured, nonetheless, by the cameras. Ultimately, we learn something about the nature of truth and fiction, participate in the relationship between exhibitionism and voyeurism.
(A divorce left him both broke and broken. He floundered for years). Much like the contestants on Naked and Afraid, I had profound experiences in the woods—emotional epiphanies and personal revelations. As with the show, I was confronted by my shortcomings, but also by my strengths. I took pride in the simple but meaningful accomplishments of walking and swimming. I reconnected to basic things, such as hearing myself breathe. I found inspiration. And just like on the show, the whole journey came down to one moment where I had to face all my fears. On the first day of production, after not shooting a picture for years, I was on the set in the morning before my crew arrived. Naked and afraid. I had slept on location the night before and wandered out, undressed, to stand by my camera. I was terrified. Could I even make pictures anymore? Eventually, I produced a body of work centered on the theme of a search for home. There are many temporary shelters in ‘Cathedral of the Pines,’ including huts, shacks, and outhouses. And there’s a lot of nakedness, both literal and figurative. I hope that there is also a sense of redemption.
(Every Naked & Afraid episode ends with an ‘extraction’ of the successful couples; this leaving Eden brings back viewers for the next installment.) I feel that way, too, when I tell and retell the story of the dark time in my life. Along with memories of the pain and isolation and loneliness, I feel nostalgia for that time. There was something magical about finding my bearings again, reclaiming a sense of myself both as an artist and as a father. My home is now furnished. I’ve returned to civilization. And I’ve realized that taking a journey into the wilderness is sometimes the only way to really figure out how to get back home.”—New Yorker