Marxism and Existentialism, the Made and the Born

Blade Runner, Pris and Roy Batty

In two brief epigrams, why Sartre had such a hard time in Critique of Dialectical Reason trying to reconcile his existentialism with Marxism:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

~ Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

“Freedom is existence, and in it existence precedes essence.”

~ Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (1946)

It is a wonder Sartre so hated psychoanalysis and the unconsciousness for the suggestion that freedom was anything other than absolute, but Marxism he could work with.

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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Squelch ‘Em

There are two major points — one lesser, one greater — to Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning … was the Command Line (Wikipedia | Amazon). The lesser point serves to feed the superiority complex of computer geeks, namely that people who work closer to the machine are more awesome than people who work with their machines through layers of mediation. The greater point is that maintaining a high degree of control of the devices that shape our lives is a critical element of freedom in the information age.

It’s not about turning your nose up at GUIs and other user-friendly efforts in favor of arcane monochrome text interfaces. The point is that when you cede control of the devices that comprise your environment — that serve as the basis of your personal capabilities — when you cede these to manufacturers, marketers, designers, content providers, legislators, then the limits they seek to impose become your limits as well.

It is as extending and impacting this point that I think Cory Doctorow’s talk, “The Coming War on General Computation” is so important (28th Chaos Communication Congress, Berliner Congress Center, Berlin, Germany, 27 December 2011).

You should definitely watch the whole thing: it’s entertaining as well as one of the most cogent talks I’ve heard in some time. To me his outstanding points are two:

1. The never-ending desire for a certain kind of ease of use that comes through circumscribed functionality is an invitation to, a kind of lazy collusion with, the likes of Apple who are more than happy to sell you a device hobbled in a way that maximizes corporate returns (the walled garden):

So today we have marketing departments who say things like “we don’t need computers, we need … appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits”. And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea — just a program that does one specialized task — after all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re making a computer that can run every program, but which uses some combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer — it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

2. Media copyright is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incentive of corporations to turn to political-legislative attempts to prevent the disruptions to their business models that result from technological change:

And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

And it doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really… really… important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch… literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place — “can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The way to think of all of this is as akin to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There’s no reason to think that an information economy will be just more capitalism (to think so is a contribution to capitalism as the end of history). That a growing list of industries face disruption on a scale where it’s hard to see their business model surviving in absence of ever escalating state measures to construct markets that otherwise would fail (a point well made by Mr. Doctorow with his wheels analogy) suggests significant incompatibility between capitalism and the information economy.

The retort of the defender of capitalism here would be that the information economy is a creature of capitalism — without chip fabricators and integraters and intellectual property and venture capital and server farms, the information economy doesn’t happen. But of course the feudal baron would have said the same of the capitalist upstart. History is a realm of contingency. It is not a logical system. Contradictions — and the deleterious eddies that result — are perfectly possible. That the information economy might end up destroying the very basis for its existence is within the realm of possibility.

Or perhaps this is perfectly compatible with capitalism and effected sectors are merely the cracks through which we can see the lie of laissez-faire throughout the rest of the economy. The government takes a heavy hand in constructing markets everywhere they exist.

But the point is that previous economic transformations weren’t tranquil evolutions, didn’t happen in a discrete moment. The social transformations that we today package under the rubric “capitalism” benefitted some, but came at terrible consequence to others. Those who stood to lose prestige, revenue, power, opposed these changes, frequently by violence. For them, capitalism wasn’t just social change, it was immoral. Ownership of property by those who did not directly fight for it, property as a transferable abstraction, rootlessness, equality among the classes, attacks upon the ancient privileges of nobility, the undermining of seigniorial obligation, the money economy, the violations of guild oaths, the codification of techne (craft), the insolence of entrepreneurs: these were violations of the moral order of society.

The practices that have grown up around the frictionlessness of the information economy’s core commodities are called piracy by the partisans of our present order. It is immoral. It is theft of property (property is here an analogy growing threadbare at the margins from being stretched too much). It is the collapse of the basis of prosperity. But how is a system of constant content theft to be harnessed to our system of material progress? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But capitalism too was a post hoc ideological construct. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Remember that by the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, such processes were already far along. Smith wasn’t envisioning future pin factories: he was describing existent ones that he had recently visited.

Besides, if it is not within the scope of power to achieve these things, it does not matter the machinations of ideology. Ideology adapts. Moral and immoral will be renamed to accommodate the new arrangement of factors.

The Conservative Outcome of the 2008 Election

Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, about the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, is due out this week and Aaron Wiener has a bit of a preview of it (“Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top,” The Washington Independent, 4 May 2010). At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, both Senators McCain and Obama returned to Washington for a joint White House-Congressional leadership briefing, Senator McCain famously staging the publicity stunt of “suspending” his campaign over developments. Mr. Alter has Senator Obama saying as he left the meeting,

Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there. Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but he [McCain] definitely shouldn’t be.

This is admittedly an off-the-cuff remark, probably not representative of an explicit, deeply held political philosophy, but nevertheless I want to highlight it as a fundamentally conservative attitude toward politics and positions of great responsibility. The objective in selecting officers for high office is not to achieve perfection or optimum outcomes, but merely to avoid catastrophe.

What this most reminds me of is the story of the meeting between President-elect John Kennedy and Robert McNamara. Kennedy had offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara protested, “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified,” to which Kennedy responded, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.” Both represent a recognition of the limits of human judgment and the capabilities of normal people elevated to high office (contrast this with the belief of President Bush that he was carrying out the will of God).

This is of a piece with what Robert Capps, writing for Wired called “the good enough revolution” (“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,” vol. 17, no. 9, August 2009, pp. 110-118) or John Maynard Keynes’s bit of wisdom that it’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1935]).

It’s also worth pointing out that in the great (mostly right wing) debate of democracy versus its contenders — aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, hereditary monarchy — it is in this high-consequences area of avoiding the worst outcomes where democracy most outperforms the alternatives. And it is in avoiding the occasional catastrophic rather than excelling at the upper end that the game is decided.

Patterned Lawlessness

Back in July Will Wilkinson made a point that I thought was interesting at the time, but that has stuck in my grey matter and is gradually working it’s way toward becoming a fundamental component of my worldview (“Note About Rational Scofflaws,” The Fly Bottle, 11 July 2008):

I wonder how many drivers exceed the speed limit basically whenever they judge that it won’t cause anybody any problems. I’d guess, approximately, all of them. Also, there are very clear laws about, say, using turn signals, or using turn signals when parallel parking (do you do this?), or not taking a right hand turn on red lights when it is marked, not double parking, even if you’re just going to be one minute while you fetch your latte. And so on. When’s the last time you jaywalked? Lunch? People are more or less rational and tend to respond to incentives, and therefore the roads are a zone of patterned lawlessness. We all know what infractions the cops care about — how much over the speed limit is too much over, etc. — and we tend to respond accordingly. We even tend to internalize and moralize the rules whose expected cost of violation is relatively high. It’s more efficient that way. And thus our huffing indignation is easily riled by those who face different incentives and so flout different rules than the ones we flout without reflection.

This morning on my ride to work I coasted through a stop sign in front of a police cruiser that was approaching from the road to my right. I gave a little embarrassed smile and a little wave. She made a little disapproving face and waved back. It’s anarchy I tell you. Anarchy! I got to work in four minutes.

I have always thought of anarchism as a proscriptivist political program. It’s never occurred to me to consider anarchism as a positivist description of what’s actually going on behind normal law-conforming behavior.

People have an imagination of the law as somehow an ultimately hard thing. We hear expressions like “the iron law of …” or we use the same word, “law,” in physics as we do in our social imaginings. By linking the law with morality and construing morality as partaking of the metaphysical, the associations flow back the other direction as well.

And reference to the law would serve as a good explanation in most instances. Why does everyone so assiduously follow the lines painted on the roads, or when they drive over them, do so in such a regular fashion? And thus we might explain the vast middle hump of the bell curve of driving behavior. But then someone swerves over the line into oncoming traffic. To account for all driving behavior — the outliers as well as the vast middle of the curve — another theory with more breadth is required.

I also like the way that this theory strips morality of its metaphysical pretensions, paints the metaphysics as mere rhetorical device, or sees the inclination to render our ordering prescripts as fundamental as merely a pragmatic shorthand, or as the ideological reification of particularly strong emotions. Really we just react in a pragmatic way to the incentives that we find around us. It should be noted that some of those incentives are natural and some institutional. This is perhaps part of the basis for distinction, a la Elliot Turiel, between prohibitions of morality and prohibitions of social convention.

Patterned lawlessness is also a description of affairs that comports with the existential account of law-conforming behavior. So entrenched is our notion of the law as somehow inviolable, or so cowed is our thinking by the high wall of consequence erected by the law that we are prone to see dictates of the law as things about which there simply is no other option but to do as we are told. Existentialism was born in part as a reaction to the horrors of amorality and unreason to which people were pushed at the behest of state bureaucracies in the Twentieth Century, namely the Somme, the Holocaust. Existentialism contains the admonition that at every moment we stand free to do otherwise, even where the law is concerned.

Capitalist Systematics and Individual Freedom

In his economic speech on Monday Senator McCain had the following to say about the present financial crisis:

The top of our economy is broken. We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people.

Then on Tuesday morning he said to Joe Scarborough:

Wall Street has betrayed us. They’ve broken the social contract between capitalism and the average citizen and the worker. … This is a result of excess and greed and corruption. And that’s exactly what is plaguing Americans today.

I imagine that a lot of people would call me a leftist and a socialist, but from these two comments it seems to me that John McCain must have a pretty contorted idea of what exactly capitalism is underneath the rhetorical hood.

What’s happening on Wall Street isn’t a corruption of capitalism. It’s not that people are angles and in capitalism we’ve finally found an economic system equal to ourselves. The genius of capitalism is that people are greedy, self-interested wretches and capitalism is a system that channels their greed into social good. What’s wrong with what’s going on with the financial system in recent weeks is not that financiers are greedy, or even excessively greedy, but that the system is rigged wrong.

When Democrats call for a new regulatory regime, this is what they are calling for: a different arrangement of the system. Different prohibitions, different incentives, different inducements. It’s the Nudge approach. Align the incentives right and then laissez faire.

The alternative to systematic change is the reengineering of the human heart. And proposals to change the hearts of men are not very conservative. This is why capitalism and liberalism are so closely conjoined. Capitalism is indifferent to the characteristics of the corpuscles that comprise the system. It is the economic system most compatible with self-determination because it doesn’t require people of any particular character to function. It’s even sufficiently robust as to be compatible with extremes of behavior. Other systems less fault-tolerant and rely for their sustainability on the virtue of their participants. As such other systems maintain an interest in the condition of the souls of their members. Some see this as a virtue of these alternate systems.

Recent weeks don’t argue my case very well. It would seem that capitalism is in fact not very robust and in need of quite a bit of extra-systematic shoring up. But that’s owing to fifteen years of willful neglect. Professed admiration for capitalism on the right is not so compatible with the sustainability of capitalism. If you get the system right, you don’t have to worry about the character of the people.

But this is one of the things that’s distinct about Senator McCain. He isn’t that into leaving people alone. He’s a proponent of a particular type of civic virtue and is interested in cajoling people, even cajoling them rather convulsively, into demonstrating his brand thereof. And on the right more generally opposition to business regulation is so inflexible that social engineering is the acceptable alternative.

Reason and Power

Charles Mudede on reason and politics (“As Jets Roar Over Seattle,” SLOG, The Stranger, 3 August 2008):

The handle on politics is too hot for the grasp of nous.

This we must remedy. A more firm grip? Or a sacrifice of pink bourgeois hands for the calloused hands of a laborer?

Politics is about power and for power, reason is but a convenient cloak. When no longer needed or useful, power will draw back its cloak to reveal itself in all its bald injustice.

The Most Terrible Power of All Concentrated in One Man

In response to a reader question, Matthew Yglesias says that if President Bush so decides, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent air strikes against Iran (“By Request: What if Bush Bombs Iran?,” TheAtlantic.com, 1 July 2008):

… if Bush orders air strikes against Iranian targets, nobody can stop him. A plain reading of the text of the U.S. Constitution would seem to suggest that it would be unconstitutional for the military to follow any such order absent a declaration of war or some other form of congressional authorization. But the settled precedent, ratified by key Democratic Party leaders as recently as the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis, is that no such authorization is necessary. I’m not happy with this situation and think it’s crazy that we as a country have moved away from the constitutional procedure, but the cat’s been out of the bag for a while now and if Bush wants to bomb Iran Bush will bomb Iran.

Democracy is based in part on a notion of the wisdom of crowds — or in the negative formulation, it is based on the recognition of the perfidy of powerful men. It is terrifying to think that when it comes to the most fateful questions facing a nation — the most terrible expenditure of the nations resources a country might undertake, one that throws the very survival of the country into the pot, one capable of completely remaking the social order of a people — we have abdicated that power to a single man.

On the right there is this constant carping about the founders’ intent, originalism, strict constitutionalists and activist judges, but when it comes to this issue, perhaps the most gross violation of the founders’ intent and the plain language of the Constitution, Republicans are complete subscribers to the cult of the great leader — at least until that power passes to a Democratic president, that is.

This is one of the reasons that I like The American Conservative. They actually see this situation for the massive threat to American liberties and the American way of life that it is.

Some future president, less ambitious, more moderating, ought return to the traditional confines of the office and forfeit this unofficial power. And a Congress more attune to it’s Constitutional duty than to it’s party platform ought to reassert this prerogative by threatening impeachment to any president who dares usurp it.