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The Gorilla in the Room

March 6, 2013 5 comments

Last week I was reading about an experiment in neuroscience. It involved a video made by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which a group of young people passed a basketball back and forth to each other. Midway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks into frame and waves wildly to the camera and then walks off again. An audience of viewers watching this video were asked to count the number of times that the ball was passed. Typically about half the viewers had no recollection whatsoever of the man in the gorilla suit. The purpose of the experiment was to examine how the human brain focuses on specific things at the expense of context. My own purpose is humbler: it is a useful and amusing example of how easily people can be distracted from the important things that are happening around them.

Distraction is an idea that is very much at the heart of neoliberal politics of the last three decades, and it is playing a very important role right now. These distractions are multiple and mutually reinforcing and they form what I call the architecture of resentment. The architecture of resentment operates by deflecting emotional energy away from the powerful and towards the powerless. It is the collection of institutional frameworks and rhetorical arguments of the right, and makes heavy use of scapegoating, something I touched upon at the end of last year as being a dangerous and slippery slope.

 

Institutions

Changes to welfare mechanisms over the last few decades have been instrumental in shaping the context of the architecture of resentment. There have been many changes of which we can only examine a couple. The erosion of welfare provisions and the deregulation of the labour market (so-called “worker flexibility”) create the context for deep insecurity – a killer of clear thought if ever there was one. This is standard capitalistic practice: internalise the benefits (profits) and externalise the costs and risks (by pushing them onto workers). The introduction of means-testing to welfare entitlements adds two things to this. First, it stigmatizes those on the “wrong” side of an artificial dividing line: they are made conspicuous by their relationship to the line and by intrusive and humiliating bureaucratic procedures, bringing about the sense that they have been publicly judged to be failures. Second, a deep sense of resentment is created for those who fall just on the “right” side of the line – those who are most like those on the other side of the line but who are disqualified from help. There are few more effective techniques than to set the weak against the slightly weaker. This is a standard “divide and conquer” tactic, neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, a certain corroder of solidarity.

The psychological effect of this divisive strategy is clear, and is illustrative of the general strategy employed in the architecture of resentment. The recipients who are eligible for state assistance are sometimes emotively described, by those who are not, as having a “culture of entitlement”, a term leaked into the public consciousness by the architects of the architecture of resentment. What is typically meant by “culture of entitlement” is that those people think that they are entitled to welfare benefits when they shouldn’t be: maybe they should have to earn their entitlement, and so forth. I have heard this said by quite a few otherwise reflective people, and it is obviously a catchy enough tune. What I believe lies at the bottom of this is actually the opposite: the active force here is not outrage that those others receive those benefits but that this person is barred from them even if they were in a situation where they need help or have earned them. This is the ultimate effect of means testing. This division creates a schism, an asymmetry, an alterity. It is of a kind with the current treatment of public sector pensions and wages, where groups of opposition are fabricated solely in order to inspire and maintain resentment.

 

Rhetorical claims

While the institutional components of the architecture of resentment help to reproduce and expand the basis of distraction, the real meat lies in the rhetoric. The rhetoric is a mixture of catchy slogans (like “the politics of envy”, “culture of dependency”, or, as above, “the culture of entitlement”), as well as more direct claims about groups in society.

Let’s start with the claims. These claims take the form of assertions or stories about groups. At some points in history these claims take the form of racist slogans; at others they deflect attention away from domestic affairs towards outside groups – Muslims, commies, etc. More commonly they refer to vulnerable groups within a society and today the most popular claims are against those receiving welfare support from the state. (Note the mutual reinforcement between these claims and the institutions above: welfare claimants are morally deficient in some way or another and so we must put them through the crucible of shame before granting support).

Sometimes these stories contain elements of truth: the truthful part is rarely interesting or important. Often the claims are more in the mould of urban-myths, wild extrapolations from isolated cases (and usually without a clear understanding of even those cases). What little truth there is in such claims is distorted by the use of emotive and loaded language; marginally truthful data are misrepresented through, again, loaded labelling (the rhetoric of dependency is a common example); a spade is called a parasite, and we cannot understand the nature of a spade if we believe that it is sucking us dry. And sometimes stories are simply fabricated. Reagan famously invented his welfare queen. The UK Conservative party insists on the existence of families that have been on welfare for three generations (a tale they inherited from Blair), although, like the Yeti, not a single bit of evidence has ever been produced nor a single case found. In the last few weeks the UK press have been salivating over a case of supposed “welfare scrounging” involving a woman, her eleven children, and a horse living in apparent profligacy in a supposed mansion. On closer inspection (unsurprisingly not so much covered in the press) it turns out that she was allocated her house (not quite as nice as implied) by a housing group, part of the program of welfare privatisation.

Scapegoating works the better the less that the scapegoated group can respond. So it is unsurprising to find increasing occurrences of hybrid compound vulnerabilities being targeted: the latest in the UK is the notion of “welfare tourism” – our country, apparently, is being remorselessly milked by foreigners moving here in order to receive welfare; a few months ago it was obese welfare recipients; the current obsession with disability benefits is of the same character.

The usual definition of “hate speech” is publications and statements that deliberately lie or misrepresent facts about an ascriptively linked group in order to stimulate ill feeling toward them. By this definition the scapegoating of welfare recipients is clearly hate speech. Welfare scapegoating is the new racism; Barbara Ellen of the Guardian describes “shaming the poor” as the “new bloodsport”. It is hate speech because the claims are very often false. As often as not, the claims are simply the manufactured products of the fertile (and extraordinarily well funded) imaginations of right-wing think tanks, who lack any transparency and represent the views of a tiny, unaccountable, anti-democratic, and invisible elite. Ellen, in her article, refers to a recent report jointly published by a number of British church groups including the Methodists, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union. The study, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, is to be welcomed and systematically debunks many of the most popular and corrosive welfare myths in Britain today. It addresses such catchy classic hits as “welfare recipients are lazy”, “welfare recipients have an easy life”, and “welfare recipients caused the deficit”. These myths are simply untrue and we have a duty to make sure that people know this.

 

The Politics of Envy

So much for the popular rhetorical claims. What about the slogans? There are far too many to choose from. But in order to give it some decent attention I will focus on just one. Last week I attended a debate on the (de)merits of the UK government’s austerity program, with particular attention to the human rights implications of slashing public spending on welfare programs. One of the defenders of austerity, a member the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, blamed anti-austerity sentiment on the “politics of envy”. This is an old favourite among conservatives. The general idea is that the poor are envious of the success of those better off than them; envy is neither virtuous nor admirable; ipso facto the poor and those who argue for them are not just wrong but also a little bit wicked.

The argument from envy has a long history in conservative thought. It can be found in just about any right-wing thinker. For illustrative purposes I’ll focus on two. The daddy of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek was an early and enthusiastic contributor to the “politics of envy” rhetoric.  He tells us that:

When we inquire into the justification of these demands [for economic justice] we find that they rest on the discontent that the success of some people often produces in those that are less successful, or, to put it bluntly, on envy. (Hayek, 2006, pp. 81-2)

…and, again:

In a wealthy community the only justification its members can have for insisting on further advantages is that there is much private wealth that the government can confiscate and redistribute and that men who constantly see such wealth being enjoyed by others will have a stronger desire for it than those who know of it only abstractly, if at all. (Hayek, 2006, p. 88)

…and once more with feeling:

[Unconstrained economic liberty is] a condition of freedom so essential that it must not be sacrificed to the gratification of our sense of justice or of our envy. (Hayek, 1984, p. 30)

Robert Nozick, another demagogue of the libertarian right, is even plainer in his appeals. He devotes many pages of his libertarian these, Anarchy, State, and Utopia to the theme of envy, only a sample of which we have space for here. He writes:

Is it so implausible to claim that envy underlies this conception of justice, forming part of its root notion? (Nozick, 2009, p. 229)

…and ten pages later he is still going strong:

The envious person, if he cannot (also) possess a thing (talent, and so on) that someone else has, prefers that the other person not have it either. The envious man prefers neither one having it, to the other’s having it and his not having it. (Nozick, 2009, p. 239)

These are mighty big claims (and, I will add, undemonstrated (probably indemonstrable)). But why should we accept such ideas? Much of the best and most influential egalitarian writing comes from people who are, or were, fairly comfortably situated – surely it is implausible that they are all that envious of the wealthiest? Many of them (those that Nozick, for example, is responding to) are accomplished academics and are surely clever enough to have become rich themselves if they so choose? And how can a person be envious on behalf of someone else anyway? Why do conservatives find it so darned hard to accept that these people may be acting on moral impulses wholly different to envy?

And is it not also plausible that it is the wealthy and powerful who are acting out of envy, at least as much as the poor? I don’t think that Danny Dorling is wrong when he describes “the everyday politics of the envy and fear of those who had come to know a little luxury, who wanted much more as a result and who lived in constant uneasy fear of it being taken away” (Dorling, 2010, p. 138).

And, we should ask, is the envy of the poor, assuming it to exist, wholly their own moral failing? The late, great E. F. Schumacher is clear on this:

Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not ‘idle rich’, even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practicing greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (Schumacher, 1993, p. 236)

In fact, envy plays a critical (and lamentable) role in capitalist society. It is the oil without which the consumerism that keeps the rich rich would have no grip. Throughout neoliberal thought imitation, emulation and covetousness – envy! – act as drivers for market growth and innovation. Envy lies at the very heart of modern consumerism. We are continually reminded that we are inadequate and that the solution is to buy products x, y, and z if we wish to be functioning wholes like everyone else. It would seem that envy is perfectly fine when directing people to act in the interests of the wealthiest – it is only morally objectionable when it works against them.

We can, and should, turn the “politics of envy” rhetoric on its head. “[E]nvy, resentment, and hatred,” Michael Walzer points out, “…are the common consequences of hierarchical domination.”(Walzer, 2004, p. 130). Envy is not wrong because it opposes inequality; inequality – of power, in the form of domination – is wrong because it produces envy along with a multitude of other evils. Envy is a mark of poison in society – a symptom of a greater problem. We should not seek to punish envy but to relieve it. A true “politics of envy” has the admirable goal of removing the reasons for envy, and limiting the mechanisms that utilise it for personal gain.

 

The Gorilla in the Room

So let’s talk about the gorilla in the room… It has been running around while we have been distracted with the busy work of worrying about non-existent bogeymen: welfare scroungers; welfare dependency; the “politics of envy”; the “culture of entitlement” etc etc etc. What has it been doing while we were busily looking elsewhere? Under the disguise of talk about liberty and state interference, these groups who claim to want to remove “big government” from business have actually done a great deal to get big business into government. We should be clear about what this means. When government intervenes in business – say, in the form of regulation – this is part of, and entirely compatible with, the democratic ideal: as thinkers such as Karl Polanyi have pointed out, government intervention is necessary to legitimate the exercise of the powers of capitalism: it is the safety-valve on private power. On the other hand when business interferes with government – when “money is speech”, when “corporations are people”, both forms of power and both concentrated into the hands of a small and unaccountable minority – then what we have is simply corruption and nothing more. It is ironic that libertarian demagogues have derided government regulation and action by highlighting the risk that some powerful individuals will use the state to garner advantages for themselves; in fact, what has happened is that the efforts to “shrink the state” and reduce government action has simply weakened democracy and brought about that very evil it was supposed to prevent. The state hasn’t been shrunk, it has just been retasked.

A final, somewhat bittersweet, thought for those who have made it this far (attention spans are yet another casualty of the architecture of resentment). All of this places us in a difficult situation. If we address the false claims, the fairytales, the resentment-producing rhetoric, and slogans then we have, in a way, handed a victory to their purveyors. We are necessarily on the back foot and our responses are a rearguard action. It costs them little to produce and spread these narratives. It costs us a great deal to oppose them. The point of the architecture of resentment, as I started with, is to distract us. By investing our time and energy in responding to such nonsense we risk giving them credence while we squander our valuable resources on defensive acts rather than putting them to the better use of formulating solutions to today’s problems. But, nevertheless, I firmly believe that we do have the moral duty of opposing these tactics. We must continue to push back, and we must do so much more firmly than we have done so far: when faced with a cheap slogan or a defamatory “fact” we must demand the evidence in a neutral form, the source of the evidence, and the funders of the sources of evidence. We shouldn’t simply accept the conservative-assigned role of dog-fetching-the-stick: instead we should be beating them with their own sticks. We need to stop letting unaccountable right-wing think tanks control the language of the discussion and we must call out complicity with them wherever we find it. We must stare the gorilla in the room directly in the eyes and point it out to everyone around us.

Works Cited:

Dorling, D. (2010). Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. The Policy Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1984). Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (2006). The Constitution Of Liberty. Routledge Classics.

Nozick, R. (2009). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing.

Schumacher, E. F. (1993). Small Is Beautiful. Vintage.

Walzer, M. (2004). Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism. Yale University Press.

 

Three Random Thoughts

July 23, 2012 1 comment

I’ve not published here for a while so, just to see if anyone is still awake, here are some random thoughts with only the loosest possible relationships to each other…

Random thought #1: as to why I’ve not written here in a while. The last few months I’ve done very little writing at all. I’ve been in an odd mental space. Basically, I seem to have reached a limit with Britain. It’s a bit like waking up one day and not recognising the person you’re in bed with. Britain has seemed quite alien to me lately. We have had a truly awful spring and summer here with record rainfalls and endless cloud cover (ironically today is a truly gorgeous sunny day, and it is no coincidence that this little torrent of words is coming out now). If my understanding of climate science is right then this, give or take, is the new normal in Britain as the Gulf Stream seeks a new home further south. My chemical makeup has it that I need a lot of sunlight and my self-motivation is strongly tied to the weather. So that’s one thing. But more generally I just cannot buy into where this country is heading politically. The economy is well and truly bust and the best predictions I am hearing (not the ones spouted by the government) have the recovery decades, not years, away. And this is on top of being well into the fourth decade of one of the greatest acts of public embezzlement known to man. The Tory government is not even pretending to do anything other than to serve the wealthiest. Meanwhile, they continue the entirely predictable but nonetheless largely fictitious rubbish about welfare fraud, despite the fact that the amounts lost in tax avoidance is many times the total bill paid in unemployment benefits and low-income subsidies. We endure endless rubbish about how the “entitlement culture” has destroyed Britain, justifying the dismantling of anything resembling citizenship, while every effort is made to reinforce the truly dangerous culture of entitlement that is at the root of the current problems. There is potentially a truly great nation in hiding here, but it will have no choice but to remain hidden for the foreseeable future. Britain is in for some dark days and, as fascinating as it is to watch from the philosophical armchair, I’d rather not be on the deck as the Titanic sinks. The upshot of all of this is that I’ve been spending a great deal of my time thinking about moving back to Australia and the likelihood is that this will happen in the near future. It’s been a long and difficult decision to make, and it’s not 100% settled yet, but that is the direction that the wind is blowing right now. Believe me when I say that Australia is very far from politically perfect, but at least the sun shines there from time to time, and that’s better than nothing…

Random thought #2: on the Olympics. Yes, the Olympics are happening in London over the next few weeks and I’ll throw my hat in with the large number of Olympic-sceptics. In many ways, the London Olympics exemplifies the problems that I have with Britain (see random thought #1). It has been described as the most corporatized Olympics ever. I have been up to Stratford a couple of times in the last couple of months, ostensibly to go to the flashy new cinema (most recently last week to see the new Batman film – we’ll come to that in random thought #3), but also to gawk at the spectacle that is the Olympic site. Stratford is a veritable tale of two cities with clearly delineated right and wrong side of the tracks (with the separating line being the actual railway tracks). On the right side of the tracks we first find the flagship Westfield shopping centre (proudly Australian, I might add). Glitz and glamour as far as the eye can see, with all the biggest top-name stores for clothes, watches, and cars, as well as a casino, a hotel, and whatever other tax-avoidance vehicle Sir Phillip Green happens to own. Olympic attendees and tourists are directed through the shopping centre which is the only way to reach the Olympic site. And then, if you’re anything like me and don’t have a ticket, your journey ends with the security barriers. You can see all the fun – you just can’t get to it. And, of course, you can see the McDonalds building nestled in between the stadium and the velodrome. Yes, the spirit of competition and achievement reigns supreme at these games (so long as it is corporate competition and the achievement of lobbyists). Just ignore the tax-breaks that the corporate sponsors are receiving in exchange for having exclusive selling rights on the site, to say nothing of the promotional deals. If one perchance wandered away from the bright lights and went to the other side of the tracks into Stratford proper they would see a different side of things. There you will find the dilapidated town centre with its immigrant and working class populace who will be able to watch the games on the television even though they are only a quarter mile away. But of course, we shall be very careful that you do not wander out on that side…

The games are also likely be the most militarized ever. It is said that the enforcement presence at these games will easily eclipse that from the Beijing games – makes you think, dunnit. We’ve all heard about the rocket launchers on rooftops. Mind you, I’ve not seen any nor was I offered the opportunity to play host to one even though I am within shooting-distance of at least some of the events. But I have had some serious military helicopters flying very low over my home at all hours (including, lamentably 4:30am – thanks guys!). And there is a mighty naval vessel parked just down the river at Greenwich. Last week we had the scandal of G4S who were hired to provide security personnel for the games… and failed, so now we’re calling in the army and the police, and paying for it twice no doubt. The failure of outsourcing here is a timely (and, to my mind, tired) warning about the privatisation and balkanisation that the British government is applying more broadly to the public sector. Meanwhile, in other parts of privatised London, private rent-a-cops are out in force to ensure privatised law and order over private property (i.e. everywhere). So London is hosting a Games that is true to its core nature – it is exclusive, privatised, and fully fitted with the usual “trickle-up” devices, aimed at the enrichment of corporations at the expense of community. It is for the rich and by the rich, although, in true libertarian “Big Society” fashion, the not-so-rich can contribute as volunteers

Random thought #3: pertaining to the new Batman movie. Being a bat-phile, I went to see the new Batman film last Friday as it opened in the cinema near the aforementioned Olympic site. I enjoyed it a heckuva lot. It was truly epic and good fun, and I will see it again before long. Batman is, of course, the most philosophically interesting of all comic book heroes, and some may be hoping that I’ll perform a philosophical analysis of the film. They will be disappointed, at least for today (although they might look at an earlier article here). The blogosphere has been aflurry with articles alternately claiming that The Dark Knight Rises was either a salute to Occupy Wall Street or a love poem to conservatism. Probably the most accurate description I have seen was a forum thread that described the film’s political message as “muddled” which about sums it up for me. There is a beautiful line given to Anne Hathaway and directed towards billionaire Bruce Wayne about how long he though the rich could get away with their profligacy, but that was about as deep as the commentary got to my mind: Bane was no hero of the poor, nor enemy of the rich, but just another power-hungry a@#hole (but a mighty entertaining one and a good deal more so than the real-world ones). A few other themes drowned out the blogosphere over the film. One was the comic-book fanboy tribalism as to whether the film rocked because it wasn’t The Avengers, or whether it sucked because it wasn’t The Avengers. Another was on various plot points on the film (which I won’t discuss so as not to spoil it for those who want to see the film). And, of course, there was the sad and tragic event in Colorado. I won’t say too much on this. The news came out while I was actually in the theatre watching the film. I read it about an hour after which was quite creepy, particularly given the content of the film itself. My heart goes out to the families of the victims. Is the violence in cinema to blame? Probably not (but then there sure are a lot of guns and gun-usage in films when compared to real life – what does this tell us about ourselves?). Those who know me already know my stance on gun ownership. Those that have read some of my writings can surely guess. True, guns don’t kill people – people kill people; but people with guns can do it so much more easily. I have no sympathy for some of the online rantings that I saw claiming that if everyone in the cinema was armed this tragedy wouldn’t have happened. It isn’t 1865 and we don’t live in the Wild Bloody West. Liberal gun ownership leads to escalation, not security and certainly not freedom: if I feel compelled to own a gun because your easy ability to acquire an assault rifle makes me less secure then we are both of us less free. And I have no patience for an interpretation of liberty that holds that people should be free to acquire the instruments of homicide but that universal access to healthcare is a violation of freedom.

Athena and the New Versailles

April 4, 2012 1 comment

A few weeks ago I went to an interesting talk by author Nicholas Wapshott about his new book on Keynes and Hayek, the two economists who have shaped the dominant views on twentieth century economics. John Maynard Keynes secured his international reputation in the 1920s through the publication of his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. After the First World War, representatives of the British, American, and French governments met in Versailles, just outside of Paris, with representatives of recently defeated Germany. There, they hammered out a treaty outlining reparations to those countries by Germany for the costs of the war. Keynes was a member of the British delegation and wrote his book based on his observations there. He walked away appalled by the terms of the treaty. It was these impressions that he outlined in great detail in his book. He made what was one of the most extraordinary predictions in modern history. The terms of the treaty would, he claimed, create extraordinary poverty, insecurity, and resentment in Germany. The resulting degree of desperation among the German people would make them deeply prone to the less than benign influence of ideologues and demagogues. And this would make a second great war all but inevitable within a short period after the first. Short of actually mentioning Hitler by name, Keynes was exactly right on every point. His prediction was maybe the single most spectacular, audacious, and important one made in the last century. And it has implications that we must take seriously today.

Wapshott, in his talk, vividly painted this picture of Keynes’s arrival onto the public scene. He then went on to make a very interesting point. There was, he claimed, a parallel between what happened after the Great War and what is currently happening now in Europe. Of course, now the shoe is on the other foot and it is Germany that is naming the conditions. In the place of post-war Germany we now have Greece which has been asked (if we can use that term) to accept extraordinary terms of austerity in exchange for a bailout package. This general theme has been on my mind for some time, and it is one that refuses to go away. This week I went to a talk by the renegade Australian economist Steve Keen who made the same point when asked what the options for Greece are: there was a serious risk, he said, that they might vote for a “man with a moustache”. The cradle of democracy is no stranger to dictatorship. Greece is not alone in this danger.

The secret of Keynes’s prediction is that he did what economists are generally loathed to do (and one reason why economic modelling so frequently proves inadequate or even harmful) – he took actual human behaviour into account. People who are afraid and insecure make poor choices and are prone to doctrines that offer quick and easy solutions. They are likely “to listen to ugly voices, and to use their votes and money to give these voices a political platform of increasing influence” (Standing, 2011, p. 1). The oft-quoted saying that those who trade security for freedom deserve and receive neither is too facile: some forms of security are essential if freedom is to exist at all. Desperate people behave irrationally. People who are divided economically can only be united by appeals to their worst natures – their pride, vanity, and prejudice. This is also the secret of social control through the commonly applied method of fear of the “other” (Communists, “Radical Islam”, Homosexuality, Atheism, and heretics). It is here that the apparent dichotomy between equality and freedom is shown so nakedly to be false. The puzzling and contrary shift to the political far right since the banking crisis must be understood in these terms.

It is a curious thing that the “rolling back of the state” by reducing the state’s welfare and regulatory capacities has also involved extending the state’s enforcement capacities. We saw this under Thatcher with the wholesale extension of CCTV coverage of London and around the UK, and the use of naked force against the unions. It is no surprise that the same US government that cut taxes for the wealthiest also introduced the euphemistically named “Patriot Act”. Today, Cameron’s austerity measures and rolling back of state welfare provision is accompanied by serious talk of internet and telephony surveillance and secret trials in the interests of state security. It is no secret that incarceration rates correlate directly to a weak welfare state, with the US leading the way and the UK taking the prize in Europe.

From time to time, in defence of Thatcherism, I am told that the UK was in terrible shape before she took hold of the country. No doubt this was true. It is also true that today’s woes in the UK are a direct “consequence of her peace” – her ideological platform and “solution” of deregulation and privatisation. Hitler achieved an extraordinary rejuvenation of the German economy. He also committed the greatest crimes that humanity has ever seen. The cure can be much worse than the disease. The libertarian stance of the likes of Hayek was that the state is inherently bad and any large state will inevitably lead to the loss of freedom and dictatorship. He used Nazism as the exemplar of this claim. But he mistook symptom for cause and derived exactly the wrong lesson. By defining liberty as absence of coercion libertarians come to the party far too late – this is why I identify freedom in opposition to domination which can be economic as much as anything else. Hitler certainly did use the state to effect great evil. But he could only do so because of the state of the German economy and the desperation of the German people, a direct result of punitive austerity which a healthier state could have avoided. Austerity in a time of depression is not only bad economics – it is bad politics. The big government / small government debate is and always has been entirely the wrong debate. The debate must be about good government / bad government and should talk about representativeness and accountability. Limiting the debate to a matter of size simply begs the question. A small strong state is not a good state. The economic functions of the state are no great threat to liberty – economic liberty is not liberty per se; it is often its worst enemy. But the enforcement function of the state surely is. Healthy public provision provides the weak with a defence both against the state and against the strong who might use the power of the state to harm them. Weakening such provision while strengthening the enforcement capacity of the state is not a recipe for liberty: it is an invitation for the “man with the moustache” to enter the scene.

So to check the score: Keynes – 1, Hayek – 0.

The liberty of the Germans died in Versailles, long before Hitler came to power. It is not yet too late for the rest of us, but we cannot take this for granted.

[Edit] Here is an interview with Steve Keen from late last year – very interesting.

References:

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic.

An Overview of my Argument

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been asked to do a short talk about the book I am writing so I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide a very high level outline of where I’m heading. I’d like to sketch out here in very broad brushstrokes an overall thesis, tying together some of things that have already been discussed here, and leaving for future posts the details of the remainder. Where I can, I will make links here to more detailed arguments that I have made in past posts. The remaining arguments will be regrettably brief but I will endeavour to flesh them as I progress with the book.

The case I am making is against the ideology known as “political libertarianism”. It is closely related to an economic doctrine called “neoliberalism” and the arguments I make will count against both. These doctrines are typical of the “new right” in politics, the motivations of people such as Reagan and Thatcher, but also in practice of the likes of Blair, Clinton, and Cameron. All of these have sought to “roll back the state” and to promote free market capitalism based on variations of these philosophies.

The libertarian argument is, very roughly:
1. Liberty is an absence of coercion, where coercion means physical force or the threat thereof. This is the so-called “negative” definition of liberty.
2. People have the right to liberty. Therefore the rights that people have are limited to protection against coercion. Coercion is only permissible in preventing coercion.
3. Private property can only be transferred between two parties voluntarily. This is mostly free exchange (in a market or otherwise), or in the form of gifts or bequests (e.g. inheritance). Any other mode of property transfer is coercive and therefore a violation of people’s rights.
4. The state should only involve itself in protecting people’s rights. Therefore, the state should limit itself primarily to protecting private property.
5. Taxation and the provision of welfare and services to the members a society is a violation of liberty because it requires taking resources from some to provide to others. Similarly, regulation of commerce, labour conditions, and so forth limit free exchange and, hence, liberty
6. Free market capitalism consists of voluntary exchanges, so a) the free market is the only valid manifestation of liberty and b) the state should support the free market.

In philosophical terms these claims are indefensible. In practical terms they are unsustainable.

Here, as briefly as possible, are the top-level philosophical objections.

The idea that liberty means non-coercion is simply too narrow and does not reflect any reasonable notion of what it means to be free. Freedom is not just something that individuals have. It is a function of the relationships between people in a shared real world. Libertarians conflate liberty with choice, or “revealed preferences”. But we cannot infer freedom from the fact that people choose between some options. People under dictatorships typically go along with it without struggle, and, in that sense, make choices within that context, but they cannot be said to be free. The nature of the options available to a person, and how they are shaped by the choices of others, is an important component of liberty. Arguing for freedom-as-choice, Robert Nozick was able to defend voluntary slavery as compatible with liberty. He could only do so by ignoring the likelihood that a person is very likely not free before they make such an appalling “choice”. A more plausible definition of liberty is “non-domination”. Domination implies that a person or group has significant control over the life options of others. I can dominate you and bend your will to my ends simply by having something you need. Coercion is simply the extreme point of domination and cannot exist without domination already being present. They need not resort to actual coercion to impose this control. People can be perfectly unfree before coercion need be employed (in fact, a recourse to actual coercion might point to imperfect domination). Our interaction with others is grounded in relative bargaining positions, often very asymmetrical, and it is here that we find the spectre of domination.

The idea of rights goes well beyond the prevention of coercion. Rights are social devices that protect us from “standard threats”.  The common right-wing view suggests that rights exist to protect us from the state. This is only half the story. Rights exist to mutually protect us from each other (including but in no way limited to the uses that some would put the state to). This extends the notion of rights well beyond simply preventing us from the coercion of the state. Bargaining asymmetries are an important site of standard threats and a variety of rights may be needed to effect protection.

The notion of private property, in the hands of libertarian thought, suffers from numerous problems. It is common for the ownership of property to be conflated with the ownership of one’s self – Nozick, for instance, segues between objecting to the redistribution of bodily organs, talents, and other personal attributes, to objecting to the redistribution of wealth and material goods. But the two are importantly distinct. Interfering with a person’s body and mind is a very different prospect to interfering with their property. Property ownership is a relationship to the external world. It is, importantly, a relationship between not just the owner and a thing but all people and a thing.

The property relationship is one of tyranny as much as it is one of freedom. A person’s property defines their own little dictatorship. It is a limit on the freedom of what everyone else in the world can do with that thing. It is not clear that any individual can or even should have such a unique control over any part of the external and shared world. We all need physical resources to pursue nearly all of our goals in life. Exclusive control of some resources that we can use to directly pursue our goals is thus an essential precondition to any reasonable notion of liberty. But property is also held that is not directly needed by a person. We live in a complex world where our goals can typically only be fulfilled by cooperating with others. So property can also be used as leverage against people who have the things or skills that we need to pursue our goals. Beyond that, it can simply be used as a coarser lever against others to bend to one’s will. It is here that the prime threat to liberty exists. The question is how much control over the resources needed by others is compatible with liberty.

Property exchange is both subject to, and heavily influenced by its outcomes, asymmetries of bargaining positions. It is not the only component of bargaining advantage but is surely the most important. Other components, like the very important informational advantage, and the ability to develop innate talents, are heavily influenced by property control. The relationship between property ownership and bargaining advantage is the primary contributor to the fact that property tends to concentrate in a small number of hands (anyone who can grasp compound interest can understand this, I think). It is simply not the case, as libertarians claim, that the transfer of property according to some “rules of the game” automatically produces just and fair results – the content of the rules matter very much.

Property rights are, on the whole, instrumental – they exist to serve other, more important, goals that we may have. Clearly they cannot protect these goals if the role of the state is limited to purely protecting existing property holdings. For property rights to be effective in asserting our liberty they must ensure that a) all people have some amount of guaranteed property, both for direct personal use and for exchange, and b) differentials in property ownership do not become so large as to create intolerable differences in bargaining relations. Property ownership, unchecked, contains both the seeds and the mechanism of domination. The protection of unlimited property accumulation is not a defence of liberty but a defence of power. Not only is the redistribution of wealth not necessarily a violation of liberty (or no worse than the violation inherent in defending property rights) – it is a necessary precondition to the preservation of it. Liberty and equality are not at all opposites as is often claimed.

In some cases it is preferable to protect more directly the things that people need rather than leave it to the indirect means of private property ownership and the markets. Provision of rights to health care and education fit this bill. Their contribution to bargaining positions makes it important to ensure that access to them is not subject to pre-existing bargaining advantages. The state has a clear role here that goes well beyond simply facilitating open markets.

Finally, the kinds of property that we permit in a society are important. In the not so distant past it was thought perfectly ok to own people as property. Laws in many parts still treat spouses as property in important ways. Today, the dominant form of productive ownership, the investor-owner share/stock model, is effectively the ownership of the productivity of workers (the argument on this is long, and for another day). This is no great advance on feudalism, and the arguments that defend it are flimsy to say the least. The resulting businesses look uncomfortably like authoritarian systems. They are also one of the greatest sources of compounding inequalities. A society built around worker-owned cooperative enterprises is a necessary step to fixing this.

So much for the philosophical case. What, then, of the practical objections? I can only discuss a couple of points here, but these are especially important.

It is orthodox in right-wing economics that market transactions capture everything of relevance to the world. This is patently false. Every transaction carries potential costs, risks, and benefits to people who are not involved in the transaction. Economists call these “externalities”, or third-party effects. Most discussion limits these to physical effects like pollution (and more recently, climate effects). These are very important and illuminate much in what is wrong with the property and market models. What is much less discussed is what I call “social externalities” – the side-effects of markets on people across a society. These include poverty, unemployment, crime, social instability and many other things. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world risks taken by some are leaked onto others who had no part in choosing them: risks are increasingly social. Growing inequality and, with it, growing disparities of bargaining positions have compounded the problem by making it much easier for powerful actors to shirk risk while retaining the profits (again, compounding their advantages). The banking crisis of 2008 is a dramatic example of this. Both redistribution (understood here not as welfare but as insurance) and regulation have crucial roles to play in this.

Closely related to this is the notion that private ownership ensures the best use and conservation of a resource – neoliberals would say “something that is owned by everyone is owned by no one”. This bears little scrutiny. Capitalism has an appalling track record of conservation and it can only get worse. Markets hold notoriously short-term and myopic views. An individual owning a rainforest will as soon sell or destroy it to make a profit and move on to some other profitable activity with the gains than preserve it for future use. Private ownership denies a voice to many interested parties (including the not yet existing parties of future generations). Self-interest, of the mythical “rational” type or otherwise, has little room for the consideration of others.

Markets may be blind to race, religion and gender (although this claim is much exaggerated – they are very much alive to wealth). But they are also blind to need. Market demand only recognises the presence of purchasing power, and gross inequality also means that the productive powers of a society are weighed heavily towards fulfilling the wants of the best off. The conservative argument is that the worse off benefit because the rich serve as “early adopters” and pay the price of research and so forth, paving the way to luxuries become available to the poor. This claim, like others, is greatly overstated and depends very much on the gap between the wealthy and the poor being reasonably close. (Never mind that it has been overwhelmingly the middle classes who have served this role in the last century). It also ensures that many of the things that poor need that already exist (like healthcare) are priced to suit the rich and kept out of reach of the poor. This has been even more evident in the inflation of house prices by wealthy “speculators” which did much to create the debt conditions leading to the “sub-prime crisis”, and the following financial crisis.

Finally, the overall structure of capitalism has no end-goal. It relies on perpetual growth and a form of economic obesity. Over the last two centuries we have moved from a producer economy to a consumer economy. The mechanism of capitalism has been useful in raising our capacities to meet our material needs. (The jury is out on whether this might have been achieved in other, better, and more sustainable ways). But having met those needs, and then some, the system, relying as it does on ensuring that investor/owners continue to profit, has come to depend on exponentially ever-growing consumption. We have gone from producing in order to consume to consuming in order to produce. While we adhere to a property system that insists that those with more than they need are richly rewarded for allowing the use of their excess wealth it cannot be otherwise. Rather than reap the rewards of improved productivity in better lives, we have sold (and have had to sell) those lives in exchange for things we simply do not need or even want. We have seen, in only a few decades, the growth of planned obsolescence, and increasingly short life-spans for products, along with the encroaching commodification of all aspects of life, from food preparation to the out-sourcing of the raising of our children.  At the same time we have seen the transformation from a public that saved to one that takes on personal debt in order to compete in the anti-social status consumption race, so much so that people are paying off their debts long after they have consumed their goods. This was also important in the lead-up to the banking crisis. The bailouts in 2008 have extended across generations and across all of society the indebtedness required to keep this system going. We work longer and harder than we used to and are, by most measures, less happy. The alternative – living good, sensible, fulfilling lives – cannot work because, to put it bluntly, if the “one percent” do not get their three percent per annum they will take their ball and go home, taking all of our social gains with them. Perhaps we should let them – this is a most sublime form of servitude. Libertarianism has no answer to these questions but goes a long way to explaining how we got here. The growth problem has profound implications for the way that we view society, property, employment, unemployment, the work ethic, and progress. These are just some of the vestigial ideas that past circumstances have left us with that we need to reconsider.

Or else.

Unstoppable Force / Immovable Object

February 21, 2012 1 comment

This isn’t the blog I was intending to publish this week – I had begun work on a little discussion about the situation in Greece which I may get back to hopefully before the world changes too much again. But events in the last week of my own life have provoked a somewhat different topic, and as the Hollywood saying goes, “this time it’s personal”. Even now I am reticent to write about this because my emotions are running hot on the matter, but then sometimes there are truths to be found in passion. I need to be somewhat circumspect in what I write as it may have further (legal) implications for me that I would wish to avoid. But, at least as far as I am aware, my own life experiences remain my own property to do with as a please, and if I have signed away that much then my problems are indeed serious. So I will tell my tale, avoid naming names, and try as best as I can to relate it back to the more general philosophical ideas that this blog is committed to…

My dirty little secret (well, at least one of them, and the only one that I will offer up today) is that I earn an income by writing software for investment banks. Over recent years, as my philosophical and moral compass has moved in a particular direction, leading to a growing amount of cognitive dissonance for me. How can I be involved in an industry that I have so many issues with, both ethical and practical? The income from the work has allowed me a degree of luxury to pursue frequent periods of unemployment in which to pursue the real thing: writing music, reading politics and philosophy, and, now, writing politics and philosophy. I offer that not as excuse but simply as explanation.

My discomfort with the industry and my role in it may have come to a sudden head in the last week. And in coming to be, I might just have discovered the neoliberal answer to that age-old philosophical riddle: in a battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object the former destroys the latter. Last week Wednesday I resigned from my current role, and on Thursday I was fired from it, with immediate effect. This all goes back to last November when the company announced that all contractors (of which I was one, being paid a day-rate) would undergo a security screening process. This is common practice in this industry when applying for a role but relatively uncommon during employment (although I suspect it is becoming more common). This process involves checking that people have worked where they claim to have worked, have no criminal record and so forth. So far so good – I have nothing to hide. As I was away on holiday for most of the period of December and January, most of this story takes place in the last few weeks. (There are some details that relate to the earlier period too, but in the interest of clarity I will skip over that bit and go straight to when I returned after my break).

So, as I mentioned, I arrange my work through term-based contracts in order to have periods where I am not formally employed. This is where the problem begins. Bureaucracy gets upset when the world fails to meet their box-ticking model of the world, and nothing looks more suspicious to the protestant work ethic than periods of not being in paid employment. My periods of actually living, henceforth to be referred to as (employment) “gaps”, fail to conform to the box-ticking worldview despite being relatively common amongst day-rate contractors and eminently laudable. They are a priori reasons for suspicion. This led to a demand for documentation of my “gaps” – specifically, travel documents, passport stamps, flight tickets, and bank statements. I declined to provide these, pointing out that, despite respecting that they wish to minimise their risks, such documents are private and not pertinent to the role. I invited them to pursue their search, suggesting that any irregularities that might be of interest to my employer can be best found through criminal record checks (to see if I am or have been a wanted fugitive), Interpol (to see if I am a global terrorist) and credit checks (to look for those kickbacks from my life of crime and corruption). These are all (with the exception of Interpol) standard practice for such screenings. (I mention as an aside here that such credit checks cannot possibly be to see whether I can pay my bills – they will always owe me money and never vice versa, and since 2008 this is not even a funny joke). I confess here to “picking a fight” – this is something I feel very strongly about and it is a practice that I abhor. I have encountered these demands from prior employers and ended up acquiescing after an appropriate token protest. But, having taken full ownership of my home last year and having a little in the way of savings in the bank, I decided this time I would make the principled stand. To continue the tale, the unstoppable force responded that these documents were required by policy. To which the immovable object responded that the company had no more right to these private documents than I had to demand proof of what they do on weekends and holidays. Not only that, but these documents do not demonstrate an absence of misdoings. Such an absence is, by definition, impossible to positively demonstrate – to compensate, the process starts with a presumption of guilt. That aside, if I were inclined to engage in nefarious activities (and I think I’d be rather good at it) I would most certainly not do so in a way that showed on my regular bank statements. I need not even do my wrongs during periods of non-employment – I could just as easily do them while employed. The irony is that if I actually had something to hide I would be more than eager to provide any documentation that would suggest otherwise. Or imagine that I had travelled to, say, Iran (I would very much like to) – what conclusions could be drawn from this? Then there is the “slippery slope” argument. By opening up my private life to (frankly pointless) intrusion I encourage the practice to grow – what next, proof of what I do on Sundays? (Maybe they wish to know whether I am a good church-goer – I am not, maybe it’s just “policy”).

Anyway, never argue with a machine. This went on for a few weeks, and after repeated demands for these documents and repeated attempts to explain and defend my own position I gave up and tendered my resignation – life is too short – expecting to work the remaining four weeks in peace. The following day my contract was terminated with immediate effect: the immovable object ceased to exist, at least as far as the unstoppable force was concerned. I was notified by email, mid-afternoon. The reason given was that by failing to provide necessary documentation I posed a security risk. Score: Unstoppable Force 1 / Immovable Object nil.

I have to say a word or two about the legal structure under which I worked in this job. Bare with me – this will hurt more than a little. On the surface of it, I went to a building on many weekdays and interacted with real people doing things that were hopefully useful to someone and that resulted in money appearing in my bank account from time to time. Here’s how (as I understand it) the law sees it: Legal Entity “A” (that would be me) is employed by Legal Entity “B” (the umbrella company) who enters into a contract with Legal Entity “C” for my services who then enter into a legal contract with Legal Entity “D” (the company in whose service I ultimately laboured). Did you follow that? Yeah, neither did I – but I’m learning in a real hurry at the moment. During the screening process “C” and “D” were quite happy to bombard me directly with emails and phone calls, right up to the moment of the final email. I replied to that final email, expressing disappointment that my resignation had been superseded by immediate termination (causing both financial and reputational loss as it did) and that I would not even be able to hand over my work to my teammates. And then the real reason for the existence of “C” became clear. My line manager (one of those real people who I worked with, and an employee of “D”) had been instructed not to communicate with me as I was in fact an employee of “C”. So “C” essentially operates as a legal shield, a firewall, for “D”. My post-firing email to “C” and “D” was replied to several days later by a representative of “C” with a statement that all enquiries to them should be made through my immediate employer, Legal Entity “B”. “B”, being a company set up for no other purpose than to administrate invoicing and tax collection wants nothing to do with this disagreement. The contract that they entered into with “C”, unbeknownst to me, contained sufficient scope for “D” (by way of “C”) to dismiss me for any reason they choose at any time. They also suggest that the contract that they (“B”) have entered into with “C” has no bearing on “A” (me), which is patently silly – it is on my behalf that they entered into that contract and it is the terms of the B-C contract that have allowed my dismissal without notice or recourse. So I now find myself in a surreal M. C. Escher maze with staircases that take me nowhere, with no obvious line of recourse or response. Which is where I find myself today.

That, then, is my sorry tale of woe. So what, beyond giving me a place to vent my current anger and tell a ripping good yarn, is the point of this discussion? There are several that could be made.

Firstly, some ironies within the context of Entity “D” – the final employer… In a period of history where investment banks are seen as immoral and unprincipled it is a curious display for them to eject staff that have taken a moral and principled stance and because of that stance. The only morality in evidence is, as ever, shareholder uber alles. Then there is the further matter of whether the shareholder is even well protected by any of this. Part of my stance was that the demanded documentation did not show reduced risk. Furthermore, this process has been going on for several months now and affects many hundreds, probably thousands, of workers in that company. All of them have the threat hanging over their heads. I am now personally a head-on-a-pike in that workplace, a warning of the price of not complying. This affects morale and productivity in the workplace in all the obvious and predictable ways. Bravo for people management, puttin’ the “H” back into “HR”.

Secondly, I took a principled stand largely because I am relatively well off. This needs to be acknowledged honestly and openly. I was able to stand up for what I believe is right only because I felt that I could absorb the costs of doing so. This will not be the case for most people. The sort of practice that I have taken a stand against proliferates because people give in to it. They do so, by and large, because they have mortgages to pay and children to feed and school. I mean by this to cast serious doubts on the conventional right-wing notion of responsibility. Responsibility is not and cannot be compatible with making heroic and costly efforts – it cannot exist as an isolated social norm and must be supported by other social norms. The two groups best positioned to stand against such forces are those with nothing to lose and those who have so much that they can afford to lose. The former are largely ignored, the latter largely disinterested in biting the hand that feeds them. And so the invisible hand leads us once more into darkness.

Thirdly, there is the matter of the law. I have commented elsewhere on problems about the notion of the rule of law – how the fact of law is only important if the content of the law is fair. As one friend told me this week, legal institutions are not about dispensing justice – they are about dispensing law. I have to say explicitly at this point that I don’t know how my current situation would test against the law. I suspect that the law would do me no favours (that the content of the law would not be to my advantage), but actually testing this is an entirely different matter. Part of my objection to the notion of rule of law is not only that the content of the law is important but so too is access to the law. A major problem in labour laws is that the people who should be protected by it also have difficulty using it. Even I, as a relatively wealthy individual, have serious doubts as to whether it would be economically rational to flush my own resources (money, health, and happiness) down the s-bend of legal action that in all probability I would lose. At the very least, the byzantine lattice of legal firewalls between me and the company to which I provided my services would ensure a lengthy and unpleasant battle. And, of course, big employers rely on this. This is never truer when the action one wishes to test against the law relates to their income. This is to say simply that far from equality under the law, access to the law, by being subject to the market and to wealth, is characterised by my overall theme of unequal bargaining power.

Finally, there is the issue of the legal edifices that have been erected here. Party “C” exists for one and only one reason – to provide “D” with all of the benefits but without any of the attendant accountability and responsibility. This is yet another ugly way that corporate law makes a lie of the neoliberal emphasis on responsibility. To repeat, I cannot complain too much – I am a reasonably well paid professional, at least when they pay up. The point I am about to make does apply to me and those like me, but has a greater moral force in the more general case. Such company structures exist everywhere these days. We find their spectre throughout the corporate world, and we should fear their shadow whenever we hear such euphemistic terms from government as “public private partnership”. It is common, for example, for people providing “building services” (janitorial, catering, and so forth), hotel cleaners, and many other low-paid workers to be employed by outsourced companies who act as firewalls to those who benefit from these services. Under this legal cover they can be fired without notice, denied standard benefits, held on tenure without pay, and treated generally with impunity. It’s all perfectly legal. It’s all perfectly compatible with neoliberal “liberty”, both to the beneficiaries of the work and to the workers (who “choose” to agree to these terms). But of course it makes a mockery of the word “liberty” in doing so. It’s not “efficient” in any normal sense, but the overhead costs of coordinating these occult structures are more than matched by the savings made by companies who no longer need to meet pesky obligations to real people. Which means, of course, more money for the shareholders. Repeat after me: “Shareholders uber alles!”.

Home is where the Heart is

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

My trip to Australia is rapidly drawing to an end. I’ve managed to get some good work done on the book. And more than this, I’ve had good opportunities to test my own political philosophy against the realities of the land of my birth. There have been many discussions about the legitimacy and implications of government efforts here to introduce a carbon tax and a mining-windfall tax, not to mention discussions about the current danger to Australia of becoming a “Dutch disease” economy dependent on a single industry at the expense of all others. I have also had a chance to think about a matter close to my heart – that of public housing.

I had the honour today of being given a guided tour of a site of a non-profit housing provider in inner Sydney by a good friend who works there. It was a heart-warming experience, not least to see the amount of satisfaction my friend derives from the work and the difference she can make in the lives of vulnerable people. The building I visited contains apartments that provide affordable housing to homeless people and the working poor. Within the building are workers who provide medical facilities as well as counselling and advice to the residents.

It was an eye-opening experience. It is too easy to ignore the poor and the homeless without giving a second thought to what their realities are like. The people working here deal with these problems every day and meet them with creativity and enthusiasm. To give some examples, the building has been made “pet-friendly”. It’s not something I’d have given any thought to, but the benefits of this are obvious. Clinical tests have shown, for instance, that pet ownership is a major reducer of stress. Pets offer great companionship which can be vital for people who have lived rough and have endured loneliness and rejection. They are also a great way to meet people (sad but true that we are often more likely to give money to a beggar with a dog than without one). Another example: the building had a bicycle rack with donated bicycles. Again, obvious enough on reflection: car ownership and maintenance is prohibitively expensive even for those who do have money. One last example: I was told a touching story of how one of the tenants was bamboozled by those little plastic covers that come on electric plugs when you buy appliances. The in-house workers helped them through it. It might sound like a funny story but imagine that you’ve never owned an appliance. We take far too much for granted.

So I walked around this building, looking at it through the lenses of my own political ponderings, thinking, as I often do, about the appropriate role of the state. Anyone who knows me, or has followed my arguments here, knows that I envisage a role much bigger than the “minimal state” found in neoliberal fantasies. Particularly I believe that we have rights, arising from “standard threats” and discovered through democratic discourse, that go well beyond the rights of contract and private property. The state is obliged to ensure the fulfilment of these rights. And it is difficult to think of many more obvious threats than having no home.

One of the more objectionable articles of faith put forward by the New Right is that private charity should step in and sort out problems such as poverty and homelessness. I’ll write another time about how these problems are in varying degrees side-effects of the property and market systems that the New Right would like to see replace all public enterprise – today I’ll just assume that this is fairly self-evident. The recourse to charity is insidious. It is nothing short of the denial of people’s rights. A right is a right because its fulfilment is guaranteed by a state. Private charity is, by definition, discretionary. Any system that replaces rights fulfilment by private altruism removes the decision on how (and even if) something should be rectified out of the democratic domain, placing effective control into what is typically a very small number of hands. There is the obvious question as to whether a wealthy altruist making charitable donations is doing so out of kindness or out a desire to be seen to be altruistic (morally very different prospects, even if the end result might be the similar as far as the recipients are concerned). There is the more compelling question as to whether such an altruist can have any understanding whatsoever of what are the most pressing problems (especially ironic given the neoliberal defence of markets, that “local knowledge” is the only knowledge there is). Wealthy donors exercise considerable control through their choice of charities and often insist on further control beyond this: we can easily find some very odd charities in existence that come from the pet fancies of the rich. This is not to disparage the amazing and laudable work done by charity workers everywhere – their own good work is ultimately compromised by this funding problem too.  Finally, there is the two-part concern that charity has never, at any point in history, been anywhere near sufficient to address these kinds of problems and, at the same time, our social structures have never been so potent at creating the problems in the first place. We can put these questions aside for today. What matters is that a right implemented primarily through discretionary charity is not and cannot be truly considered a right: it simply lacks the qualities that identify it as a right. The ideological recourse to charity is, ultimately, nothing but a shield to allow certain groups of people to opt out of their obligations to satisfy rights.

The other article of faith of the New Right is that governments are bad and that anything they provide is bad (be that through inefficiency, potential for coercion, or whatever). Government provision must be done badly because governments do things badly: the market and private provision clearly don’t have these problems. This is all, of course, poppycock. No such generalisation can be made and credibly maintained. Don’t get me wrong – things can certainly be done badly: I grew up in social housing and can give you a long list of things that were done poorly, not least of which is putting a great many people with problems together. But we learn from mistakes. The state here is slowly but surely dismantling the vast welfare suburbs and dispersing them. The organisation running the building that I visited is part of that process. It is, of course, a private organisation. But it is also a public organisation: it is mostly publicly funded (about 80% is government funding comprising 60% federal and 20% state), and its funding is dependent on transparency and accountability to the electorate. I have niggling doubts about the small remainder of the funding, but the ratio is sufficient to ensure that they do the right thing, and it is infinitely better than wholly or mostly relying on the whims of the wealthy. But the question of funding, if we are to take rights seriously, is wholly nonnegotiable: it must be funded by public money raised through taxes or through other government fund-raising activities (contrary to the myth, governments can and often do manage to run profitable enterprises). It is a separate matter of how that money is used most effectively. The state-funded-multiple-provider model that this organisation operates under is promising. It decentralises control putting it into the hands of the implementers, embeds the solution within communities, encourages creative solution-finding, and gives people some degree of choice while preserving the majority of the rights fulfilment aspects and retaining accountability. It won’t do in every single case of government provision, but this is a practical matter and not ideological, and is to be resolved by experimentation and learning.

Life on the Monopoly Board

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is an (trimmed down) extract from the book chapter I am currently working. I have tried to remove reference to earlier arguments in the book so it can stand alone (please quiz me on where I have failed to do this!) Because of its origin, this post is longer and “harder” than usual so feel free to run away! The argument here follows on pretty much directly from the argument in “In All Fairness”. This extract makes extensive reference to Robert Nozick’s “Entitlement Theory” which, for the purposes of this discussion simply states that property can only be transferred from one person to another voluntarily – i.e. an economy of free exchange. This rules-out things like taxation which are non-voluntary…

The second and third rules in Nozick’s Entitlement Theory, when the remainder of Nozick’s thought is taken into account, state simply that property cannot be transferred to another without the voluntary consent of the holder of the property.

The acquisition principle contains no obvious limiting factor – property can be endlessly accumulated by a property holder. Well, perhaps not endlessly – we exist in a physically limited world, so the hard limit of accumulation is all available physical property. We may also add various types of “non-tangible” property – contracts and the like – but we shouldn’t get hung up on this at the moment (ultimately they must all make some claim on the physical world). The limiting case is that in which a single person ends up owning and controlling all of the available property. The acquisition principle takes no special account of this scenario – as long as the rules were followed in acquiring the property this is as valid a state as any other. We can see from the board-game Monopoly how such accumulation might occur within a well-defined set of similar and seemingly fair rules – the game ends when only one player has property (as real estate and/or money), and the more property one controls the easier it becomes to further accumulate.

Is such a hypothetical case realistic? Perhaps not (although it is not entirely inconceivable). Is it important? Most definitely. Let’s work through an (admittedly farfetched) example. Imagine that some person produces some consumable commodity that is both short-lived and extraordinarily compelling to most consumers (it need not be so to all, just the majority) – perhaps some sort of Willy Wonka–like character. Consumers voluntarily buy and consume this product. They can’t get enough of it and always want more, so he makes more and sells it to them. “A-ha!” I hear you exclaim – “this sounds a lot like a drug and should be banned”. This is a difficult area in Nozick – everyone has acted voluntarily so, by his rules, no harm has been done. Government interference would constitute a violation of Nozick’s rules. In any case, these qualities are not essential to the argument. Assume that the product doesn’t harm the consumer in any medical sense so they can continue to consume indefinitely. Soon they spend all their money on this product. Our producer has become immensely wealthy at this point. He is making as much of his product as can be consumed. So he takes his idle wealth and starts buying up other businesses, left, right and centre. The former business owners, of course, spend their windfall on his commodity. This goes on and on until he owns all the businesses. At this point he owns all the available employment and can set wages as he pleases. This continues and eventually all property belongs to him as he need only agree to such wages as ensure the subsistence of the workers (and not even that if he wishes – he is not obliged to part with his property if he doesn’t want to). He now, and entirely compatibly with Nozick, declares rules that apply as conditions of access to his property (we might call them “laws”). Provided that he does not use coercive force to ensure their compliance, and uses solely the carrot/stick of the means of subsistence under his controls, it is entirely legitimate.

We have moved from Nozick’s definition of liberty, following his rules to the letter, until we arrive at this point. At no point did an involuntary (by the libertarian definition) transfer of property take place – it was all conducted in accordance with Nozick’s Entitlement Theory. At no stage was there a violation of negative liberty. No one ever had a gun to their head. Three more things are worth noting. First, this situation did not require that each and every person transact with our would-be dictator – it is sufficient that all the businesses ended up under his ownership. Gravity, as it were, takes care of the rest. In fact, it the initial commodity with which he made his fortune is ultimately irrelevant: this was merely the “step-up” that enabled his later acquisitions. What is relevant is the increasing degree of control that it gave him. Second, the end-state applies to all subsequent generations: we might argue that the initial generation “agreed” to their tyranny by transacting in the way that they did, but we cannot possibly hold this for their children, their children’s children etc. They simply inherit the outcome of their parents’ generations. Finally, and critically, the non-monopolists in this society cannot use coercion to assure their own needs – to do so would be a violation of libertarian negative liberty. The state here, as feared by anarchists, upholds the rights of property against the interests of the people.

It is important is that we understand what this world looks like in which a single person owns all property. It is easy to imagine. Every person except one would have to agree to whatever terms that this single monopolist demands in order simply to eat and have shelter. The monopolist can simply dictate terms that ensure that the multitude is kept alive to continue their servitude but that will in no way allow them to strengthen their own bargaining position. I hope that it would not be controversial to describe this scenario as tyranny – no person except one is truly free here. It has become a dictatorship of the first order with complete dependence on a single person. And yet Nozick would have no choice but to either insist that everyone is free in this scenario or admit to a problem with his principles. Philippe van Parijs constructs a similar illustration to demonstrate how such an appalling result can come from the strict application of libertarian property rights. His example is set on an island that is expensive or difficult to leave. In such a society, the sole property owner can

“impose on the other inhabitants any condition she fancies. If they are to be allowed to earn their livelihood, they may have to work abysmally long hours, for example, or give up their religion, or wear scarlet underwear.”

Nozick’s theory tells us explicitly that people in such a state are free. Parijs’ response is unequivocal: “On any intuitively defensive interpretation of the ideal of a free society… this is plain nonsense” (Parijs, 2003, p. 14). When liberty is compatible with dictatorship then liberty clearly has no true meaning, or a meaning so debased as to be without worth.

Monopoly enjoys a peculiarly ambiguous role within libertarianism. The Nozickian version has the least problem with it.

His theory ignores the issue with one minor exception: when an individual has control of all of a certain important resource (e.g. “the only water hole in a desert”), such that (and only if) doing so creates an emergency situation, the ownership rights may be overridden. However, he tactically adds that “the theory does not say that owners do not have these rights, but that the rights are overridden to avoid some catastrophe” (Nozick, 2009, p. 180)

In the hands of Hayek and Friedman, monopoly is a clearer problem. To them, wide dispersal of property reduces opportunity for coercion. Any monopoly creates the opportunity for coercion and is therefore antithetical to liberty. Hayek makes this point here:

“In modern society … the essential requisite for the protection of the individual against coercion is not that he possess property but that the material means which enable him to pursue any plan of action not be all in the exclusive hands of one other agent. […] The important point is that the property should be sufficiently dispersed so that the individual is not dependent on particular persons who alone can provide for him with what he needs or who alone can employ him.” (Hayek, 2006, pp. 123-4)

Milton Friedman makes a similar point:

“So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another in respect of most of his activities. The consumer is protected from the coercion of the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal. The seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of the other consumers to whom he can sell. The employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work, and so on.” (Friedman, 2002, pp. 14-5)

So, by their account, property dispersal is an important means of undermining the potential for coercion and hence underwrites liberty. They hold this view regardless of the inherent possibility in the private property system to lead to monopoly. Of course, a major component of the ideological stance of both Hayek and Friedman is their fear that state will manifest a monopoly and that by owning the means of production they will have effectively implemented a society of servitude. Any property monopolized in the hands of the state, in their view, necessarily aids the state’s ability to act coercively. This is a valid and important concern, but no less important is the possibility that it can occur in individuals or groups that are not the state. Our hypothetical monopolist is not the state but has acquired the same characteristics of the state that are opposed by libertarians (except for the monopoly of violence which is, in any case, ruled out under libertarianism) – by threatening starvation he can determine every aspect of every life bar what they are thinking (and even this is not safe). Libertarians must object to this outcome as much as if the monopoly were held by the state.

The standard neoliberal approach to monopoly has been limited to support for antitrust laws that seek to break down commercial monopolies. It is difficult not to suspect that the economic libertarian’s concern here is more with the supposed economic efficiency effects of competition than with any impact on real liberty (and contrary to the impression one might get, these are certainly not the same thing, and not even necessarily compatible). We need to distinguish here between the process of competition and the outcome of it. The point of competition is to produce winners and eliminate losers, and as this process continues barriers to entry typically rise. It may well produce winners but there is little reason to believe that it will be effective at generating competitors in an ongoing and enduring manner. The most fundamental justification of capitalism is at odds with its general tendency: productive competition, more or less by definition, inches toward monopoly. Colin Crouch argues that the Chicago school of neoliberalism, of Milton Friedman fame, has been more concerned with the outcome of competition than the process. As such it quietly endorses the results of oligopoly and monopoly (while publicly claiming the opposite). He points out that this leads to a corporate type of “nanny state” with big business making the judgements about welfare in a way that is no better than when the same result occurs by government (and, we might add, without the merits of the democratic process) (Crouch, 2011, p. 55). The outcome that has been promoted and welcomed, he plausibly claims, is

“the destruction of small and medium-sized enterprises, the dominance of giant corporations and the replacement of the demotic idea of consumer choice by a paternalistic concern for ‘consumer welfare’.” (Crouch, 2011, p. 17)

Beyond productive competition, there is a certain faith that competition between enterprises sufficiently checks the more problematic underlying monopoly that we explored in our example – that of broader property ownership. However, the thresholds for commercial monopoly have, in neoliberal states, been set very high, and in practice to little effect. The thresholds for personal wealth monopoly have been checked by various “leftist” taxes that neoliberals have consistently opposed and, wherever possible in the democratic context, weakened. Friedman’s criterion above, that liberty depends on the maintenance of “effective freedom of exchange”, implies that productive competition is a sufficient guard for liberty (and of course, neoliberalism is all about productive competition). But our example, which consisted of nothing but freedom of exchange, suggests otherwise. It is not a sufficient guarantee if the result is possible. As long as commercial activity and not ownership is the measure of monopoly we have a genuine problem. There is no reason why our monopolist / dictator could not simply set up as many multiple companies in direct competition with each other as he likes, and thus evade an anti-trust lawsuit. This fact would say nothing about how he treats the people under his control.

Regardless of whether we follow Nozick or Hayek and Friedman here, we are left with an odd little puzzle. When there is a single producer of a good then we have monopoly and this is bad. But when there are two (or three, or whatever antitrust laws decide) then things are fine (but should we consider their relative sizes?). Similarly in Nozick, one monopoly owner of something in a catastrophe is a condition that magically creates some special obligations, but the existence of two owners is not and does not. Surely this is, at the very least, arbitrary. Not only is the setting of a threshold bizarre, but even the very fact of the threshold is puzzling. If transfers that are just, starting from a just starting point, can only ever lead to just outcomes, then it is most peculiar that they may think that a monopoly “justly” arrived at is somehow an exception that should be handled differently. The objection to productive monopoly by Hayek and Friedman doesn’t get them off the hook – if anything makes their objection more conspicuous. Despite differing with Nozick as to the significance of monopoly, they do, after all, hold to a system of free exchange that is, in its essentials, the same as Nozick’s.

The issue here is the arbitrary and exceptional handling of the monopoly state.  What does our fictitious monopolist / dictator example tell us about the threshold problem? If, as I maintain, the end-result of our story was unfreedom for all but one person, at what point did the people’s freedom disappear? This process must have involved literally billions of voluntary transactions. Is there any one point in the process that we can point to and say “this is where freedom disappeared”? Let’s modify our scenario a little. Assume that all the property in the world is now split evenly between two people instead of one. This brings us ever so slightly closer to the libertarian ideal – after all, the property is twice as dispersed. Two people cannot both be the state and everyone can now choose between them. Are the remaining people still slaves? It is difficult to see how they are not. There is no reason to believe their situation has materially changed, or that any one of the two property owners will offer them terms that might improve their circumstances. The two owners have a common interest in getting the most out of people for the least outlay. One of the most striking effects of a market is the tendency for prices and terms to converge. Our people will still need to give their services to one of two people who, in practice, will more than likely be identical. So, no great improvement then. What if the property was distributed between three people? Ten? One hundred? 1 percent of the population? 10 percent? At what point are these people free? Is it clear that their real options are improving or that the range of genuine choice is improving? And if so, then at what point or points? These are not easy questions to answer, and libertarianism offers no insight. But it seems likely that we are moving here from dictatorship to stages that we might describe as “oligarchy”, “plutocracy”, or “aristocracy”, although the thresholds to these are as arbitrary as that of monopoly. It is also clear that we are no longer in the realm of the deeply hypothetical. These are all “natural” and valid outcomes to the libertarian. They are also outcomes that come close to describing the real world. The neoliberal decades have seen a marked growth in the concentration of wealth.

The problem comes from treating monopoly as a binary state: there either is a monopoly or there isn’t, and from this the libertarian concludes that there either is a threat to liberty or there is not, or, in Nozick’s case, that there exist special obligations or not. By treating monopoly as a state we are left with treating the problems related to its existence as a curious and baffling exception to the otherwise homogenous rules of private property. But surely it cannot simply be the case that the freedom of the people in our hypothetical example exists before, and disappears after, the final transaction that placed ownership in one person’s hands. Liberty is a matter of degree, and it deteriorates as the process of wealth concentration occurs. So rather than talking about a state of monopoly we must talk about the degree of monopoly (or of concentration, or its converse – the degree of ownership dispersal, or, to get controversial, of “equality”). We must understand monopoly as being a scalar rather than a binary notion. The degree of monopoly affects many things in society: an individual’s opportunities; the dispersal of political control (and, by implication, the way in which the rules (or laws) of a society are shaped, and how they, in turn, further affect property dispersal); the potential for coercion and, at least as importantly, domination to occur; and even what a productive society actually produces (and for whom).

Monopoly, in our language of rights, poses a standard threat to liberty and to the quality of the lives of all but the monopolists. If justice is historical (and, given that we must reject this notion as implausible, even if it is not), then the injustice of monopoly lies not in the state of monopoly but in the process that produces it. The Entitlement Theory contains no inbuilt protections against monopoly, so we must treat the theory as containing an unaddressed standard threat. We must look beyond Nozick’s theory to rights against that outcome, and to the mechanisms that act as a corrective against it.

Property has the general characteristic of becoming easier to acquire the more of it one has (remember: it takes money to make money). This gives wealth-making capacity a roughly exponential characteristic. Note also that the greater the share of a society’s wealth that a person has, the closer to monopoly they are. Both of these observations suggest that to counter the threat of monopoly we must implement an opposing tendency that increases in force in a likewise roughly exponential manner. The rules of the Entitlement Theory must be supplemented with a “bias” that acts as an opposing force, becoming ever stronger the more that the tendency towards the undesired result manifests. The most obvious and empirically effective means of achieving this is are progressive taxes that increase in steepness the wealthier someone becomes. This could be a wealth tax (perhaps a progressive inheritance tax) which addresses the outcome of concentration on a periodic basis, or an income tax which addresses the inputs to the process of concentration as it occurs, or combinations of these and other mechanisms. This is our first justification for a progressive tax structure. It will not be the last.

Crouch, C. (2011). The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. Polity Press.

Friedman, M. (2002). Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (2006). The Consitution Of Liberty. Routledge Classics.

Nozick, R. (2009). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing.

Parijs, P. V. (2003). Real Freedom For All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? Oxford University Press.