Saturday, January 16, 2021

Rescuing Disposable Time from Oblivion

Two hundred years ago this February, Charles Wentworth Dilke anonymously published a pamphlet titled The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, deduced from principles of political economy. Four decades later, Karl Marx would describe the pamphlet in his notes as an "important advance on Ricardo." In his preface to volume two of Capital, Friedrich Engels described the pamphlet as the "farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat" and credited Marx with having saved the pamphlet from "falling into oblivion." 

In the 1960s and 70s, Marx's notebooks from 1857 to 58 were published in translation as the Grundrisse, a section of which – known as the "fragment on machines" – became the subject of much enthusiastic commentary and theoretical controversy. Some of the most evocative and heralded passages of the fragment dealt with the concept of "disposable time," which Marx had adopted, with citation, from the anonymous pamphlet. But Marx's rescue of the pamphlet from oblivion was far from convincing. With few exceptions, the discourse on Marx's fragment on machines ignored The Source (pun intended) of Marx's category of disposable time.

For Marx, disposable time referred not only to time off work for rest and recreation but more crucially to an explosive contradiction at the heart of the capital accumulation process. Continued accumulation required both the continuous creation and appropriation by capital of ever more disposable time. Marx's fragment on machines was received as prophetic when the translations appeared. It was as if Marx had been anticipating precisely this time -- when automation, computerization, and robotization seemed to either herald "the end of work" or threaten universal precarity. Nevertheless, The Source and Remedy continued to languish in obscurity – if not total oblivion. Few copies and no translation of the pamphlet were to be found in the archives of libraries. Eventually, a microfilm copy of the pamphlet became available in the 1970s as part of the Goldsmiths'-Kress Library of Economic Literature. The full collection of old documents cost around $200,000 in 1980 dollars – the equivalent of $3,000,000 in current dollars. 

In 1999, I posted the first 6 pages of the pamphlet to the TimeWork Web. Five years later, I uploaded a PDF of the full pamphlet to the website of B.C.'s Work Less Party. By 2010 a copy was available on the Marxists Internet Archive. Regardless, Marx scholars continued to ignore the pamphlet, aside from the occasional mention that it was cited by Marx. In 2019, however, the journal Contributions to Political Economy reprinted the pamphlet along with a descriptive essay by Giancarlo de Vivo. This year, my essay commemorating the bicentennial of the pamphlet's publication, "The Ambivalence of Disposable Time: The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties at Two Hundred," is forthcoming in that journal. I am hopeful that the scholarly neglect of the pamphlet will soon end.

In my essay, I document specific links between the pamphlet's advocacy on behalf of disposable time and William Godwin's exaltation of leisure in his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its influence on morals and happiness and especially in his 1797 book, The Enquirer: reflections on education, manners and literature. In a later book, Thoughts on Man: his nature, productions and discoveries, Godwin confirmed and clarified his earlier ideas about leisure.  

While documenting the connections between Godwin's writings about leisure and Dilke's disposable time, an intriguing thought occurred to me. Godwin had been trained as a minister in a strict Calvinist sect and had retained his intellectual orientation as a "Rational Dissenter" long after leaving the church. His discourses on leisure and on occupations ("vocations") can plausibly be regarded as a secular and modernizing reformulation of Calvin's doctrine of the calling. I ran this conjecture by a leading Godwin scholar who found it entirely plausible and consistent with his own writing on Godwin's secularization of religious motifs. "The Calvinist doctrine of the calling," observed William Stafford in 1980, "can be discerned just below the surface of Political Justice."

The continuity between Godwin, Dilke, and Marx raises startling questions about the elective affinities between Marx's class struggle, Godwin's perfectibility of private judgment, and ultimately Calvin's doctrine of Grace. In terms of political activism, the Marx-Dilke-Godwin-Calvin connection suggests possibilities of immanent critique and direct challenge to the proverbial "work ethic" and its deviations: Carlyle's "gospel of work," Carnegie's "gospel of wealth" and, finally, the blasphemous "prosperity gospel" of latter-day television evangelism. One of my long-running frustrations with ecological economics and the degrowth movement has been its default treatment of work-time reduction as primarily a work-sharing strategy. I have nothing against work-sharing, but my complaint is that it is about the fourth best reason for reducing working time. The top priority is emancipation from social domination through taking back disposable time. Second is the elimination of uncompensated overwork. Third is elimination of the bargaining disadvantage that long hours of work impose on labour. Instead of contesting growth economics on the tilted playing field of the quantity of GDP, attention to the redemptive doctrine of disposable time could help us, in the words of Artemy Magun, to "understand rationally the crucial elements of the religious world-view that have been ignored by modern science, but which nevertheless are highly relevant to orientation in the contemporary world."


Friday, January 15, 2021

Happy Birthday MLK!

 While the official holiday is coming up on Monday, today is the actual 92nd birthday of the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Happy birthday, MLK!

More than most this is one where if he were alive he would be especially pleased and proud.  Ten days ago a successor to him and his father as a minister at the famous and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Rafael Warnock, was elected to represent the state of Georgia in the United States Senate, something he could only dream about.  Obviously there are many other dramatic things going on at this time, including the fact that Rev. Warnock's election was part of a change power in the Senate and Washington more generally, with the Senate coming under actual physical attack the day after the election, nine days ago, an attack that also market an unprecedented display of the Confederate battle flag for in the Capitol building.  However, all that looks to be working out well.  MLK would be pleased and proud.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Weirdest Thing about Claims of Electoral Fraud

Imagine that, on the eve of a national election, a candidate is far ahead in all the polls and seems to be cruising to victory.  Then the results come in, and the unthinkable has happened: the candidate has lost handily.  Your first instinct would be to take a look at how the election was carried out and the votes tabulated to see if everything was kosher.

But that’s not what happened in November 2020.  In case you forgot, here’s 538's final forecast from November 3.  The actual results were a big setback for the Democrats on all fronts, House, Senate and President.

That’s what’s so bizarre about the claims of Trump, Hawley, Cruz et al.  They did way better than the polls said they would.  It’s as if the Democratic bust of 11-3-20 disappeared down a memory hole.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

 From about the age of 8-12 I read a lot of sci-fi.  Along the way I stumbled across Robert Heinlein, in particular his novel The Day After Tomorrow, initially published as The Sixth Column.  It was so crudely racist I avoided from then on anything with Heinlein’s name on it.

The plot went like this: The evil PanAsians have conquered America and set up a vicious tyranny.  A few scientists, holed up in a secret lab in the mountains of Colorado, have discovered a powerful weapon that can turn the tide.  They’ve tweaked it so it can kill only “Asians”, leaving white people unaffected.  How to organize a nationwide resistance that can take advantage of it?

The PanAsians, to pacify their subjects, have permitted religious activity to continue, so the scientists organize a new religion.  They use their skills to perform “miracles” that suck in the ignorant masses.  Meanwhile, a cadre is secretly recruited who use the religion as a front in order to disseminate the new weapon and train an underground army who know how to deploy it.  

The crisis arrives when the time comes to kill all the Asians, but it turns out that one of the inner group is a “good” Asian who will be killed as well.  If that’s your idea of a moral dilemma, you’re a lot more twisted than I was when I was hitting double digits.

Later, as I became more politically aware and started noticing the emergence of a cult of William F. Buckley acolytes at my high school in Wisconsin, I could see that Heinlein was on to something.  No, not that we needed a weapon of racist annihilation, but that the conservative mood had an underlying narrative:  We who have discovered the truth are smart, but most people are stupid.  You can tell them almost anything and they will believe it.  By taking advantage of their dumb credulity, smart conservatives can rule.  Incidentally, the same background narrative lurks in the world of Ayn Rand; self-conscious Objectivists are the intellectual elite and their success depends on dropping their scruples about misleading the easily herded crowd.

You might think of it as a form of vulgar Straussianism.  High Strauss holds that the need for virtue is the perennial truth at the heart of philosophy, but most people are not virtuous.  To avoid the wrath of these lesser souls, philosophers have been forced to speak in code.  (Yes, this is a cartoon version, but since we’re talking about the dumbing down process, that’s OK here.)  The vulgar version replaces virtue with smarts.  Most people are stupid, and if smart people treat the masses as if they were smart too they will talk over them and fail.  The path to success is speaking in code, making up lies for the gullible but signaling to those capable of discerning the inner truth that the movement is for them.

(Incidentally, this parallels in certain ways the Leninist strategy of front groups and cadres.  It may be that the Right picked up this trope from their nemesis; I recall Ayn Rand saying this explicitly, although I don’t have a citation.  Can someone help me out?)

Movement conservatism in America cultivated this two-tiered philosophy for decades before Trump came along.  Recall the fictitious stories Reagan told to goose his political career?  Conservative insiders knew they were made up, but that was fine because what difference does it make whether what you say to stupid people is true of false?  They will swallow what you give them if you appeal to their hopes and prejudices.  Do you really think the core neocons of the W Bush era, some of whom actually studied under Strauss, really believed in the Saddam-has-weapons-of-mass-destruction fairy tale?  They weren’t dumb enough to fall for it; on the contrary, they thought they were smart enough to concoct and exploit it.

Which brings us to January 2021.  Movement conservatives realized they could assemble a useful nationwide army of “election-truthers” by creating a myth about millions of fake votes, a vast conspiracy of treasonous or even satanic election officials, etc.  They were sure the stupids, or at least enough of them, would swallow it whole, so why not?

Take Josh Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale.  Is he dumb enough to actually believe what he’s saying?  It’s possible—lots of dummies in those fancy schools—but I wouldn’t count on it.  I think the odds are better than 50-50 he knows exactly what the game is and thinks throwing meat to the stupids is how smart people win.

Just to be clear, for the record, I don’t think most people are stupid, but I do think most of us come to our beliefs through a social process in which the balance of evidence and logic play at most a supporting role.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

An Appointment I Disapprove Of

 While many of them could be more progressive, given that Biden himself is largely a moderate making moderate nods to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in his appointments, I have largely been not too dissatisfied with appointments made so far by President-Elect Biden.  My only surprise is that a bunch of people set their pants on fire over the appointment of Neera Tanden as OMB director while barely a squeak has been heard about the appointment to NEC Chair of total Goldman Sachs flunky, Brian Deese.  Actually, I do not think there even should be an NEC, which essentially replaced the CEA as the policy shop, with it usually being run by Wall Street types who are not even professional economists.

But now Biden has appointed somebody I find really objectionable and even worrisome.  This is Victoria Nuland as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of policy, a pretty important post.  She has been the State Dept previously, where she engaged in all sorts of obnoxiously and dangerous neocon activities.  I mostly think Biden has pretty good instincts on foreign policy, not a hawk and pretty knowledgeable.  But Nuland has been associated with pushing support for Sunni extremists against Assad in Syria and encouraging overly vigorously various actions in various places that I do not or have not approved of.  It may be that she is a sign of being anti-Putin, which she certainly is, in contrast to Trump, of course. But appointing her may be overdoing it. There will need to be some negotiations over strategic nuclear arms, and I know there are other areas where US and Russia have common interests, even if indeed the US needs to hold Putin's feet to the fire on many issues.  But Biden did not need to appoint somebody so over the top and hawkish as Nuland to achieve that.

Barkley Rosser

Getting the Shakespearean Part Right

 At his rally before the invasion of the Capitol, Trump said to his minions:

And after this, we're going to walk down and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down--

We're going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we're going to walk down to the Capitol.

But then he ducked back into the White House to watch the whole thing on TV.  That’s how you know he’s Richard III and not Henry V.

Post-Putsch: Why There Should Be Consequences for Enablers of the Capitol Invasion

 I usually find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald, but not today.  GG has posted a heartfelt warning against overreaction to the attempted fur-and-horn putsch at the Capitol Building Wednesday.  He says the mob trampled on symbols of state power but otherwise did little of consequence, and vilifying them and their supporters will lead to repressive overreach, just like we saw after 9/11.  Cool it, says Glen.

Actually, I agree with one piece of this, the use of the “t” word, terrorism.  No the mob was not a terrorist brigade; it was mostly unarmed and did not commit mass or random violence to induce passive cowering from the rest of us.  There was minimal effort to locate and assault politicians; the intent was mostly to physically prevent the certification of the electoral college votes that would legally end any opposition to the replacement of Trump by Biden.

But that’s why the invasion mattered.  Repeat: it was an attempt to physically prevent the winner of an election from taking office.  This is where GG misses the point in his narrow comparisons of body counts and weapons supplies.

Yes, it was confused and amateurish, much like the president whose bluster it expressed.  But the danger of mob violence is not so much what the mob does as what the police do.  If the police (and military) go over to the side of the mob, the mob wins no matter how disorganized or ill-equipped it is.  

That’s not a threat when the mob represents the Left, but it is always a risk when the mob comes from the Right.  And in fact we did see a softness on the part of many (but not all) Capitol police officers who fraternized with the invaders and forgot (or “forgot”) the part of their mission that was about protecting not only the building, but the political leaders inside it.  It is extraordinary that senators and congresspeople were not warned about the breach until their own chambers were under attack.  The unwillingness of Trump to call out the National Guard makes it clear that the Guard was unlikely to be so accommodating, which we can take as reassuring news.  Nevertheless, we should never forget that the threat of right wing putschists is never just a product of their own arms or numbers but always comes down in the end to whether the armed protectors of the state will resist or join them.

So this is why I disagree with GG about the importance of this event: it was very important.  Its purpose was to prevent the winner of an election from taking office, and it is only because Trump’s popularity among those with badges, stripes and guns is not stronger that we could view the invasion as almost a joke and not something far worse.

Because the attempt to overturn a democratic election is so serious, its suppression justifies exceptional measures.  Of course, Trump should be denied any media platform from which he can be excluded.  Of course, other politicians who gave support to this putsch should be expelled from office.  This should take place immediately, understood as a response to this specific episode and not as a precedent for all dissent or demonstrations.

Longer term, we need to give urgent attention to the characteristics of our political and communication systems that nurtured the Trump disaster.  For starters, no private corporation should own the platforms over which most people receive and send communication, except perhaps in the limited role of common carrier.  The rules by which such platforms function should be publicly set for the purpose of enhancing real democratic discourse.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Call Republican Senators immediately!

 Tell them to find 16 colleagues, enough to constitute a credible threat of conviction if he is impeached, and make him resign.

You've Already Seen These Questions

  1. Why is it that no existing society, nor society that ever existed, has arrived at universal prosperity, considering that in all times, and in all societies, excepting only the very barbarous, a few years would naturally have led to it?
  2. How is it that notwithstanding the unbounded extent of capital, the progressive improvement and wonderful perfection of machinery, canals, transportation, and all other things that either facilitate labour or increase its produce; that the population instead of having its labours abridged, works more hours per capita than it did years ago?
  3. Why has society never arrived at the enviable situation of universal abundant leisure, although so immediately within its grasp?


Thursday, January 7, 2021

An Attempted Autogolpe

Not an attempted coup d'etat, as many are saying in the media.

I must credit Juan Cole with making aware of this useful term, which apparently comes out of Latin America.  According to Cole, a coup attempt traditionally involves military and also is directed at overthrowing a leader in power.  What happened yesterday in the Capitol did no fit either of these criteria.

But it does fit an autogolpe very well.  This is a self-coup, if you well, a situation where a leader, especially one who is about to be removed from office, acts to overthrow the established rules to remain in power, usually assuming authoritarian power in doing so.  This certainly looks like what Trump was trying to do, but failed to achieve.  So it was an attempted autogolpe.

Barkley Rosser 

These Questions are HUGE!

  1. Is there any means of adding to national prosperity other than adding to the facilities of living?
  2. What is liberty?
  3. What is wealth if it does not add to liberty?
  4. Who should determine how individuals dispose of their free time?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Thoughts on the Invasion of the US Capitol

 It’s all happening as I write, but here are a few reactions:

1. Fortunately we see Q-Anonics, Loud Boys and other right wing crazies invading the Capitol Building and not Black Lives Matter or the Left.  Think how many lives would have been lost if it had been the other way around.

2. It will be interesting to see how deeply investigators will delve into the lax security preparations for today’s senate meeting.

3. In the end, it all comes down to one question: where do the loyalties of the police and armed forces lie?  That is always the bottom line, but we can go for decades without confronting it directly.  When the left challenges state authority the issue is never in doubt, at least in the U.S.  When the challenge comes from the right we have to hold our breath.  There were video images a few moments ago of police gently escorting Trumpists out the door and down the stairs with no apparent thought to arresting them.  This indicates at least some softness toward the cause on their part.  On the other hand, I don’t expect there will be military or police resistance to the eventual securing of the building.  If the folks in uniforms were to go over to the other side, that would be the end of the political order.

This has happened in the past.  The end of Reconstruction was marked by white mobs that assaulted elected Black officials and were backed by “law enforcement”.  That was a counterrevolution that succeeded.  Around the world it has been a general rule: civil rebellions succeed if and only if the police and military are turned or at least neutralized.  It all comes down to that and always will.

4. Invading and shutting down the capitol makes sense if you think that a demonstrably fraudulent election has been imposed on the public.  If crooked election officials had doctored the results, those trying to stop the process would be heroes.  Actually, I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which people meekly assent to real evidence of stolen elections.  What makes today a travesty is that there isn’t a shred of evidence to support allegations of fraud; it is a product of cynical disinformation sponsored by people who believe honesty is an unnecessary constraint on attaining and exercising power.  Anyone who has propagated this disinformation is responsible in part for what has now happened: an insurrection is the predictable end product of widely-disseminated claims of electoral fraud.

The same goes, incidentally, for those purveying baseless claims that the coronavirus is a hoax imposed on us by Bill Gates, George Soros and their puppet Anthony Fauci.  If there really were a fake public health crisis seized on by governments to permanently regiment their citizenry, storming state capitols would be justified.  Disseminating disinformation along these lines is assuming responsibility for potential insurrectionary responses or violent attacks on public health and other officials.

The heroic defense of democracy and the fascist putsch take the same form, invading and occupying places of government and disrupting its operations.  The difference depends entirely on whether the motives derive from genuine evidence of wrongdoing or cynical, power-hungry bullshit.

Yes, More Questions

  1. If the whole labour of the country was just sufficient for the support of the whole population; would there be any surplus labour or capital accumulation?
  2. If the whole labour of the country could raise as much in one year as would maintain the population for two years, would the country cease working for a year, would the surplus be left to perish or would the possessors of the surplus produce use it to employ people on something not directly and immediately productive, for instance, the erection of machinery?
  3. If surplus produce from the first year is invested in machinery or other productive capital in the second year would the annual output in the third year be the same as, less than, or more than that in the first year?  
  4. If the whole labour of the country could raise as much in the third year as would maintain it for two years plus the addition output enabled by machinery would they cease working for a year, would the surplus be left to perish or would the possessors of the surplus produce use it to employ people on something not directly and immediately productive, for instance, in the erection of more machinery, etc.?


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The End Of The Embargo Against Qatar

 Yesterday Saudi Arabia announced that it is ending the embargo/boycott of Qatar, and though reportedly the UAE leadership is not entirely happy with this, they are going along with this as are the other nations involved in this, Bahrain and Egypt. This had begun in June, 2017, reportedly with the encouragement and initial support by Trump and Jared Kushner, with them buying into it as part of an anti-Iran alliance, given that Qatar was accused of having dealings with Iran, with which it shares a major natural gas pool in the Persian Gulf. It took Trump and Kushner a few months to realize that the very important al-Ubeid air base used by the US was there, so they shifted to trying to end the boycott, which involved a set of 13 demands that Qatar was not remotely going to follow, including shutting down al-Jazeera. It looked for awhile that the quartet, or some of its members, might invade Qatar, but then Turkey sent a bunch of troops to Qatar and in various ways began supporting it.  Probably the greatest cost to Qatar of this whole mess was not being able to use the airspace of these nations.

In the immediate news reports Jared Kushner is being credited with having worked this deal out, which really is not so much a deal as simply a full cave by the Saudis, although apparently what the quartet gains is that Qatar had been bringing complaints to the WTO about all this, and these complaints are now withdrawn. I guess Kushner gets some credit for playing a role in undoing something ridiculous that he played a major role in getting put into place initially. He has also been the major player in getting the recognition deals cut between Israel and two of these, UAE and Bahrain, as well as Sudan and Morocco.

However, Juan Cole and other sources say that what really lies behind this move is the Saudis seeing the Biden administration coming in and recognizing that Biden does not at all approve of a lot of things they have been doing, including the assassination of WaPo journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some other human rights violations especially against female womens' rights activists, and the awful war in Yemen, which it must be recognized was supported to some degree by the Obama admin, but has gotten much worse since.  Supposedly the Saudis are scrambling and want to "clear some plates off the table" before the Biden admin gets in, and this also explains the Saudis quickly recognizing Biden's victory over Trump, even as some other foreign leaders held off doing so for some time.  They know they are in deep doo doo with Biden and those around him, and really do need US support.

An aspect of this is that is may be that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has for at least a moment lost some power.  Supposedly it was his father, King Salman, who has been the main mover on making this deal.  In any case, it looks like a good thing, whatever it is really behind it.

Barkley Rosser