Thursday, July 31, 2008

Readings #4 (part 1)

Economics the old-fashioned way (ugh)!!

3

The Implications


I


Although some of the implications of the logic in the preceding chapter were set out in that chapter, they were only the immediate implications of that logic alone. When we combine the argument in chapter 2 with some other logic and facts, and in particular with some standard findings from economics, we obtain a further set of implications. These second-level implications tell us what we should expect in certain types of societies and historical conditions if the theory we are now constructing is correct.

The validity or invalidity of our argument depends not only on the correctness of the preceding chapter, but also on what will be added. Fortunately, most of the economics we shall use is well-established; it is mainly the widely tested “microeconomic theory” of individual firms, consumers, and industries. Many laymen suppose that economists disagree about everything, but in fact this part of economics is mainly acceptable to almost all skilled economists, be they left-wing or right-wing, Keynesian or monetarist. To this we must add the less formal but invaluable “Schumpeterian” insight into innovation and entrepreneurship, which is also rather widely accepted, and a brief extension I have to the economist’s usual analysis of the role of entry of outside firms into unusually profitable industries.

Unfortunately, it will not be possible to see how the further implications or theory we shall develop here relate to concrete problems in particular countries until we have first gone through the mildly abstract argument in this chapter—the rest of the book is not comprehensible by itself. Logical arguments that are not immediately related to practical experience do not seem important to some people, so there may understandably be readers who will wonder whether the abstract arguments of this chapter and the last one are of much practical significance. I can, without any fear of ultimate disagreement, promise the reader that, if the argument in this chapter and the preceding one is largely correct, it is indisputably of great practical importance.

Our initial second-level implication has to do with whether a society could achieve a rational or efficient economy through bargaining among organized groups. The last chapter pointed out that a small group of individuals or firms interested in a public good would have an incentive to continue bargaining with one another until they had maximized aggregate gains. There can be no confidence that bargaining even in a small group will work, much less have the complete success that is needed for group-optimality. But such an outcome is clearly a prominent possibility, and if everyone has participated in the bargaining the result might even be deemed fair to some degree. This reminds us to ask whether whole societies could achieve efficient results through comprehensive bargaining by leaders of all the groups in the society.

If the logic set out in the previous chapter is correct, a society that would achieve either efficiency or equity through comprehensive bargaining is out of the question. Some groups such as consumers, taxpayers, the unemployed, and the poor do not have either the selective incentives or the small numbers needed to organize, so they would be left out of the bargaining. It would be in the interest of those groups that are organized to increase their own gains by whatever means possible. This would include choosing policies that, though inefficient for the society as a whole, were advantageous for the organized groups because the costs of the policies fell disproportionately on the unorganized. (In the language of the game theorist, the society would not achieve a core or Pareto-efficient allocation because some of the groups were by virtue of their lack of organization unable to block changes detrimental to them or to work out mutually advantageous bargains with others.) With some groups left out of the bargaining, there is also no reason to suppose that the results have any appeal on grounds of fairness. On top of this there is the likelihood that the costs of bargaining and slow decision-making would make a society that made decisions by group bargaining inefficient in any case. Thus our first implication on this level is:

There will be no countries that attain symmetrical organization of all groups with a common interest and thereby attain optimal outcomes through comprehensive bargaining.

If such countries should emerge, that would mean that the argument in this book is probably wrong.


II

Our second implication relates to the emergence of organizations for collective action over time. The last chapter argued that collective action is difficult and problematical. In addition, there are normally some special start-up costs in creating any organization or new pattern of cooperation, including the fear of and resistance to the unfamiliar; as Machiavelli pointed out in another context, ‘There is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through, than to initiate a new order of things. Men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.” Thus even those groups that are in situations in which they may be able to organize or collude, because their members are small or because some selective incentive could in principle be worked out, may not be able to organize until favorable circumstances emerge. Even in small groups there will often be difficulties in working out bargains for collective action; each party wants to bear the lowest possible share of the costs and in bargaining has an incentive to hold out, sometimes for an indefinitely long time. Thus some of the collective action that is attainable through bargaining in small groups will not be attained until some time has passed.

In larger groups, where collective action is attainable only through selective incentives, even greater difficulties must be overcome. If coercion is the selective incentive, the coercive force has to be arranged, and since people do not like to be coerced there is difficulty and even danger in this. Strong leadership and favorable circumstances will usually be required. The beginning of the union career of Jimmy Hoffa illustrates this. The young Hoffa was one of the workers in an unorganized warehouse in Detroit. On a hot summer day a large shipment of strawberries that would soon spoil arrived, and Hoffa then persuaded his coworkers to strike. The employer found it better to accept Hoffa’s demands than to lose his perishable cargo. Usually the circumstances are not so favorable, and leaders with the cunning, courage, and lack of inhibition that characterized Jimmy Hoffa are not often on the scene.

When social pressure and social rewards are the selective incentives, there are also difficulties and delays. When a group that is already socially interactive needs a collective good, the problem may not be so difficult, although even here the social interaction must generate a sufficient surplus for the participants that they are willing to maintain it even after they are taxed for the cost of the collective good. Creating new patterns of social interaction is more difficult and surely time-consuming as well. Some late nineteenth-century American farm organizations, such as the Grange, managed to do this particularly well with relatively isolated farm families in recently settled areas, but attracting members away from previously established social networks, when possible at all, is likely to take exceptional leadership and even then to evolve only over a considerable amount of time.

Positive selective incentives of a more tangible and material kind can also be found, if at all, only after a great deal of effort. Generating a surplus that can finance provision of a collective good or induce others to provide it is inherently chancy—there are failures as well as successes among those who attempt to create new businesses. And entrepreneurs who make money naturally often keep it for themselves. Thus usually some complementarity between the activity that can provide a collective good and that which produces income must be found or exploited; any lobbying power must be used in part to get favorable governmental treatment of the business activity, for example, or the reputation and trust of the lobbying organization among its beneficiaries must be exploited by the associated business activity. Even when such complementarities can be exploited, they may be discovered or worked out only after some time, and then only if there are imaginative leaders.

Scattered observation, at least, supports the hypothesis that organization for collective action takes a good deal of time to emerge. Though there was some earlier collective action by workers, it was not until 1851, or nearly a century after the start of the Industrial Revolution, that the first sustainable modern trade union emerged, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in Great Britain. Though there was legal repression of combinations of workers at times during the Industrial Revolution, this cannot explain why unions did not become the norm in Britain until the decades just before World War I. Elsewhere unionization took place even later. In the United States a number of unions were established in the last half of the nineteenth century. but the fastest growth of union membership was in the period from 1937 to 1945, long after the country achieved the industrialized condition most favorable to unions. A study of unionization, industry by industry, in France similarly reveals “a lag between the initial appearance of an industry and the time its workers acquire an organizational capacity for collective action.” Farm organizations have taken even longer to develop. In the United States there was some farm organization in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it was not until the organization of the Farm Bureau (by the government-funded Agricultural Extension Service) after World War I that there was any really large or stable farm organization. Yet American farmers had significant common interests from the founding of the American republic. Many similar examples could be cited for other countries and other types of organizations.

The other side of the matter is that those organizations that have secured selective incentives to maintain themselves will often survive as organizations even if the collective good they once provided is no longer needed. As the sociologist Max Weber pointed out long ago, the leader who is making a living out of an organization may keep it alive even after its original purpose has disappeared; an organization set up to represent the drivers of teams of horses, for example, will take on the task of representing drivers of trucks, and an organization set up to help the veterans of one war will outlive these veterans by representing veterans of subsequent wars. Selective incentives make indefinite survival feasible. Thus those organizations for collective action, at least for large groups, that can emerge often take a long time to emerge, but once established they usually survive until there is a social upheaval or some other form of violence or instability.

If organizations and collusions for collective action usually emerge only in favorable circumstances and develop strength over time, a stable society will see more organization for collective action as time passes (unless, of course, constitutional and legal constraints on collective action, or on the changes in public policies lobbying is permitted to bring about, should leave little scope for such organizations). The more time that passes, the larger the number of those groups that are in situations in which collective action is a possibility will have enjoyed the favorable circumstances and innovative political leadership that they need to organize, and the greater the likelihood that the organizations that have been created will have achieved their potential. This, in combination with the fact that organizations with selective incentives in stable societies normally survive indefinitely, leads to our second implication:

2. Stable societies with unchanged boundaries tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time.


III

The third implication is perhaps the hardest to relate to casual observation, so its meaning may not be clear until later. The source of this implication is, however, obvious: it is the finding in the last chapter that oligopolists and other small groups have a greater likelihood of being able to organize for collective action, and can usually organize with less delay, than large groups. It follows that the small groups in a society will usually have more lobbying and cartelistic power per capita (or even per dollar of aggregate income) than the large groups. The fact that small groups can usually organize with less delay than large ones implies that this disproportion will tend to be greatest in the societies that have enjoyed only a brief period of stability and least great in those societies that have been stable for a long time. Accordingly, our third implication is:

3. Members of “small” groups have disproportionate organizational power for collective action, and this disproportion diminishes but does not disappear over time in stable societies.
The reader may find it helpful to give this implication a skeptical examination after it has been put to practical use later in the book.


IV

If the extent and type of organization for collective action varies across societies and historical periods, then it is important to determine what impact such organization has on the efficiency and rate of economic growth of a society. Normally all such organizations, whatever their scale or form, have reason to want economic efficiency and growth, and good fortune generally for the society in which they operate. Whatever type of goods or labor the members of an organization sell, normally the demand for it will be greater the more prosperous the society (there are “inferior” goods on which more is spent if income falls, but they are exceptional). Similarly, the available technology will generally be better and the goods (though not the labor) that the members of the organization buy will generally be cheaper if they live in a more productive society. It might seem that one logical possibility, then, is that such organizations could in some circumstances serve their members’ interests by helping to make the society in which they operate more productive.

Except for a special case we shall deal with later, the only other way in which such an organization could serve its members’ interests is by obtaining a larger share of the society’s production for the organization’s members. In other words, the organization can in principle serve its members either by making the pie the society produces larger, so that its members would get larger slices even with the same shares as before or alternatively by obtaining larger shares or slices of the social pie for its members. Our intuition tells us that the first method will rarely be chosen, but it is important to figure out exactly why this is so.

It will normally cost an organization something to make the society of which it is a part more efficient. Suppose a lobbying organization were to strive to eliminate the losses in economic efficiency that arise because of differential rates of tax on income from different sources (tax loopholes), or to attempt to reduce the losses from monopoly in the society. An effective campaign to achieve such goals would have significant costs that the organization sponsoring the campaign would have to bear. But the members of the organization would get only a part of the benefits that would result if they made the society as a whole more efficient; they would share in the lower prices or lower taxes or other gains from greater efficiency in the society, but so would most of the rest of society. This is important because in most cases each organization of the kind we are considering represents only a minute percentage of the population or other resources of a society. The typical trade association for an industry represents a small number of firms which, even though they may be large, own only a tiny share of the productive assets in a country; the typical labor union, even if it has tens or hundreds of thousands of members, includes only a minute percentage of the labor force of a country, and so forth. (There are exceptionally encompassing organizations for collective action in a few countries, and these are considered separately below.)

Suppose, for the sake of illustration, that an organization represents workers or firms that have 1 percent of the income-earning capacity in the country. This organization will have to bear the cost of whatever campaign it mounts to make the society more efficient, but its members will tend, on average, to get only about 1 percent of the resulting gain to the society. The organization’s members would, on average, profit from devoting their resources to making the society more efficient only if those resources produced social gains one hundred times or more larger than the cost of obtaining those gains. (More generally, in the symbolic language of the footnote on page 31 in chapter 2, the benefit-cost ratio of the activity to make the society more efficient must equal or exceed 1/Fi, or the reciprocal of the fraction of the income-earning capacity of the society that the organization represents.)

Thus there is a parallel between the individual in a group that would gain from provision of a collective good and the organization for collective action within the society. The organization that acts to provide some benefit for the society as a whole is, in effect, providing a public good for the whole society, and it is accordingly in the same position as an individual who contributes to the provision of a collective good for a group of which he or she is a part. In each case the actor gets only a part (and often only a tiny part) of the benefits of its action, yet bears the whole cost of that action.

Now suppose that our illustrative organization that represents 1 percent of the income-earning capacity in the country attempts to serve its members by getting a larger slice of the social pie. The resources that are diverted to seizing a larger share of the society’s output will not, of course, produce the social output they produced in their previous employments, so this will reduce social output to some extent. More important, the pattern of incentives in the society will be changed by the redistribution, and (as we shall see) in ways that can vastly reduce the level of production. On the other hand, the members of the organization are part of the society, so they will also share in the loss of social output that results from the redistribution toward themselves. Self-interest alone will make them take these losses into account along with the gains from the redistribution to themselves. But it will pay to go ahead with the redistribution, unless the reduction in the value of the society’s output is a hundred or more times larger than the amount won by the organization’s clients in the distributional struggle. Exactly the same logic we have used all along suggests that the typical organization for collective action will do nothing to eliminate the social loss or “public bad” its effort to get a larger share of the social output brings about. The familiar image of the slicing of the social pie does not really capture the essence of the situation; it is perhaps better to think of wrestlers struggling over the contents of a china shop.

In short, the typical organization for collective action within a society will, at least if it represents only a narrow segment of the society, have little or no incentive to make any significant sacrifices in the interest of the society; it can best serve its members’ interests by striving to seize a larger share of a society’s production for them. This will be expedient, moreover, even if the social costs of the change in the distribution exceed the amount redistributed by a huge multiple; there is for practical purposes no constraint on the social cost such an organization will find it expedient to impose on the society in the course of obtaining a larger share of the social output for itself. (The ratio of the social cost or excess burden to the amount redistributed must equal or exceed 1/Fi before it will constrain the organization.) The organizations for collective action within societies that we are considering are therefore overwhelmingly oriented to struggles over the distribution of income and wealth rather than to the production of additional output—they are “distributional coalitions” (or organizations that engage in what, in one valuable line of literature, is called “rent seeking”).

There has long been some intuitive apprehension of this, if not of the extent of social losses that it would pay such organizations to impose on society in efforts to get a larger share of social output. This intuitive apprehension is perhaps suggested by the special-interest group label sometimes used for such organizations. Now that the incentives such organizations face have been set out starkly, I shall sometimes use the expression special-interest group as a synonym for distributional coalition, even though that expression has, as we shall see later, a somewhat narrower connotation in everyday language than is appropriate here. These coalitions may be cartels as well as lobbies and are often both. Any combination of individuals or firms for collusive action in the marketplace, whether a professional association, a labor union, a trade association, or an oligopolistic collusive group, will here be called a cartel, whatever term may be used to describe it in everyday language.

One of the obvious ways in which a special-interest group can increase the income of its members while reducing the efficiency and output of the society is by lobbying for legislation to raise some price or wage or to tax some types of income at lower rates than other income.

Although the effects may be different under certain initial conditions (because of “second-best” problems), in general measures of this sort will not only increase the income of those favored by the legislation but also reduce efficiency. There will be an incentive for additional resources to move into the industry or activity that is favored by the higher price or lower tax, and this shift of resources will continue until the private post-tax returns are the same in the favored area as in the rest of the economy. But if the price is higher or the tax lower in the favored area simply because of special-interest legislation, then the extra resources that have been diverted into the favored area will be adding less to the value of society’s output than they did in their previous employments. Whenever resources are free to move into the favored area, the private returns will eventually be the same in the favored area as in the rest of the economy, and this tends to make the gain to the special-interest group very small in relation to the cost to society. In this type of case the only gain to the clients of the distributional coalition is the capital gain on those assets that are specialized to the favored industry plus transitional profits during the time it takes other resources to move into the area. The situation is different if entry is not allowed into the favored area, but as I shall later show, barriers to entry usually impose substantial social costs of other kinds. The argument we have just used is extremely simple and leaves aside many fascinating questions, both technical and social. The argument also has only a lesser applicability to any country in which constitutional and structural factors constrain the number and power of lobbying organizations, as appears to be the case in Switzerland. Nonetheless, as later parts of this book should show, the basic point that it makes is widely applicable and enormously important.

Another way in which a special-interest organization can increase the income of its members while reducing society’s output is through cartelization—the members can agree to reduce output as a single monopolist would have done and thereby enjoy a higher price. The gains from cartelization and monopoly arise because less is sold to obtain a higher price, so naturally there is (in the absence of other distortions) a reduction in social output; in general, the society will get a mix of goods that contains an inefficiently small proportion of those goods sold at a monopoly price and an inefficiently large proportion of those goods sold at a competitive price. Effective cartels must always block entry into the line of business in which they have raised the price, so the process described in the preceding paragraph, which made the coalition’s gain small in relation to the cost to society, does not work in the same way. But the ubiquitous barriers to entry will make certain other social costs (which we shall examine later) even greater.

There is an interesting literature in economics, stemming mainly from a seminal article by Arnold Harberger, suggesting that the social losses from monopoly and (as others have argued) from tariffs and certain other distortions of the price system are relatively small in relation to the national income. Later I will endeavor to show that these losses can sometimes be colossal, but for the moment it may be sufficient to point out that the foregoing analysis of the incentives faced by special-interest groups could make them impose very large costs indeed on the society as a whole. And, as the international trade theorist Jag-dish Bhagwati has pointed out, there is, alas, nothing in the laws of economics that requires that, if a society is inefficient, it must be inefficient in a small way.

One consideration that does limit the losses from distributional coalitions to some extent, however, is that occasionally some of them will nullify or offset the effects of others. A farmers’ lobby may win the repeal of a tariff on farm machinery or automobile manufacturers may limit the protection given the steel industry. Note that, in cases such as these, the effort of the special-interest group can lead to an increase in the efficiency and income of the society, but that the gains are not diffused through the society so that the special-interest group gets a share approximated by the proportion of the income-earning capacity of the society it represents—instead, those in the special-interest group get a substantial share of the total social gain from their activity. Occasionally there are other types of situations in which the constituents of special-interest organizations seek to increase social efficiency because they would get a lion’s share of the gain in output; this occurs when the special-interest organization provides a collective good to its members that increases their productive efficiency and also when it gets the government to provide some public good that generates more income than costs, yet mainly benefits those in the special-interest group. It certainly is not easy to find any significant percentage of special-interest organizations whose principal objective is some policy that has the special property that it will mainly benefit the clients of the organization and at the same time increase the efficiency and aggregate income of the society. Yet multiple causation and mixed motivation are usually evident in any area, including that of special-interest groups, so it is important not to lose sight of organizations or situations of this type. The
largest proportion of the cases that this researcher has been able to find appear to consist of organizations whose clients suffer disproportionately from inefficiencies obtained by other distributional coalitions and who therefore oppose those inefficiencies. If the first of the implications in this chapter—that there is not and will not be a symmetrically organized society—is wrong, this situation is not or will no longer be a special case. But if, as the findings in later parts of this book and elsewhere suggest, that implication is true, then the great majority of special-interest organizations redistribute income rather than create it, and in ways that reduce social efficiency and output.

In addition, this focus on distribution makes the significance of distributional issues in political life relatively greater and the significance of widespread common interests in political life relatively smaller. The common interests that all or most of the people in a nation or other jurisdiction share can draw them together, as they are drawn together when they perceive a common interest in repelling aggression. In distributional struggles, by contrast, none can gain without others losing as much or (normally) more, and this can generate resentment. Thus when special-interest groups become more important and distributional issues accordingly more significant, political life tends to be more divisive. Moreover, as Dennis Mueller, building on the work of Kenneth Arrow, has shown, the increased emphasis on distributional issues due to accumulations of special-interest groups can also increase the likelihood that a democratic political system can repudiate its prior choices, even if all the individuals in the electorate have the same preferences as before—it can (for some reasons that cannot be explained briefly or without technical language) encourage intransitive or irrational and cyclical political choices. The divisiveness of distributional issues, and the fact that they may make relatively lasting or stable political choices less likely, can even make societies ungovernable.

Thus we have our fourth implication:

4. On balance, special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income in the societies in which they operate and make political life more divisive.



Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation and Social Rigidities, (1982) Yale.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Saturation Point



Last time I looked, airport lounges were still frequented by ambitious junior execs carrying biographies of Warren Buffett or Sam Ghosn or books promising to teach you how to run your company like Hannibal or Dracula or Vishnu. In recent years, though, there's been a shift in the demographic for business books, and the best-seller shelves of my local Hodges Figgis and Waterstones always feature at least one example of lay economics, popular economics, economics for dummies, or the like. Steven Levitt's Freakonomics was the first of these that crossed my radar, but Tim Harford's Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life have capitalized on Levitt's success, and now we have The Ecomomic Naturalist, Predictably Irrational, and Mark Buchanan's The Social Atom. The difference between these books and those targeted specifically at businessmen and women is their level of ambition. In much the same way that evolutionary psychology and sociobiology books a few years back seemed to promise to explain everything, these authors now tell us that it is in fact economics that can, if properly applied, explain everything about how the world works. And not just humam behaviour, but animal and cell behaviour too. All we need is to apply economic principles correctly, and all will be explained.

Not that this is just your old-fashioned bourgeois classical economics, however. No way, Jose. This is the new, updated, biodegradable, non-toxic economics, an economics that has learned its lesson. In short, it is an economics that has taken on board many of the discoveries of psychology, sociobiology, and the social sciences and renewed itself. You see, for years, economists have laboured under the misapprehension that their theories could be worked out entirely in the classroom or on paper, using an abstraction they called Homo Economicus, an entirely rational, self-seeking individual who could be relied upon to pursue his own interests accurately and consistently. Only in recent times has it occurred to anyone in the discipline, apparently, to test those theories in experimental conditions, and lo and behold, yer actual flesh-and-blood human beings don't behave like Homo Economicus at all, because it transpires that human beings have to make their decisions with finite, imperfect knowledge and that they do not always seek to further their own personal interests; sometimes they even harm their own interests for the benefit of the group to which they belong. It isn't that human beings are NOT rational, it's simply that their reasoning takes place in very definite, non-abstract conditions.

Now all this has been known for a long time to anyone with the sense to give reality the benefit of the doubt when comparing it against economic theory. And, in fact, a lot of what you'll find in these books has been long known to economists too. they just seem to have been reluctant to face up to it, a fact, as Mark Buchanan points out, that we should find worrying, given the amount of influnece and power we permit economists over our lives.

I'm explaining all this to you so that you don't have to go out and buy ANY of these books. Because, in essence, they're identical. And in the Business section of the Irish Times this weekend, Fintan O'Toole reviewed yet another, Basic Instincts: Human Nature and the New Economics, by Pete Lunn. In his review, O'Toole tells us,

If the accepted notions of basic human instincts don't really work, how can we build a surer foundation? Lunn turns to the emerging discipline of behavioural economics, which, unlike the orthodox model, is based on actual observation of real people. It draws on the systematic study of the ways in which we make choices.

The Ultimatum Game, which Lunn calls "the equivalent of the atom in economic analysis", is a good example. In the experiment, a person is given a sum of money on condition that they share it with a stranger, and has to decide the appropriate proportion to offer. Both sides know that if the offer is accepted, both get to keep their share. If it is declined, all the money is taken back.

According to classical economics, the stranger should accept whatever is offered, since the alternative is to get nothing. Knowing this, the first person should make a low offer.

But actually, most people will not accept low offers at all and most people will not actually make such offers. Across different societies, and even when the money involved is real and substantial, people prefer notions of fairness and honour to simple selfish desires.

With both rigorous logic and demotic charm, Lunn builds on this and other findings to make a persuasive and highly thought-provoking case that conventional economics is actually far too pessimistic in its assumptions about human instincts. We balance our greed with notions of fairness, with a liking for familiarity and an aversion to risk, with a valuing of relationships, and with a strong instinct for co-operation.


The Ultimatum Game appears, I can say with some confidence, in nearly all the above books I have linked to, and probably in "Business Success the Vishnu Way" too. What amazes me is that the results of the experiment should come as such a surprise to economists. Even apes, when faced with the above scenario, share out the wealth equally. If we have €100 and I offer you €1 and keep €99 for myself, according to classical economics it would be irrational for me to refuse because doing so means we get nothing, whereas if I accept, I come out up on the deal. But who in their right mind is going to walk out of the room knowing that they've put themselves at such a huge disadvantage to someone else? Whether or not you believe in an innate sense of fairness, I wouldn't want to feel so disadvantaged, and if I know that, if I'm the one offering the money, I know that my offer is likely to be refused unless I offer something close to an equal distribution of the goods. What's so surprising about that?

The most interesting finding from this experiment, however, was that when it was carried out amongst students, the most selfish behaviour, the behaviour regarded as most rational by classical economics, was exhibited by those students studying Economics. In other words, being taught to perceive the world through the googles of classical economic theory, altered the way students conceptualized their relationship with other humans and with the world as a whole. Now, that IS worrying when we think how much power and influence economists have.

Mark Buchanan's book is, I can safely say, the last of these books on the topic I shall be reading. It was one analogy too far. Rather than use classical economics as his guiding metaphor for understanding society, he uses physics, comparing humans to atoms. This simile omits so much that it wouldn't get past the first term of an A level sociology class. It's bad enough when economists overstep the bounds of their competence. When physicists are doing it too, you know the market for these books has jumped the shark.

Friday, July 25, 2008

It's Friday. Let's Boogie!!



Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers: "Traipsing Through The Aisles."

If Only It Was Pork

Beef found in Nigeria with miraculous marbling.

I expect they've thrown away the rest of the carcass, which contained the ending of the message: " . . . does not exist."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Could It Be a Case of Mistaken Identity?



Justice is catching up with Karadzic. The Clock is Ticking for Mladic.




But the Guardian spots the real story: "It's a Bad Week for Alternative Medicine."



*UPDATE* He should have been found much, much quicker, of course. All they had to do was read his Web site. It even has his address on it and a slogan that looks like it was pinched from Spiked: "The ever increasing need for alternative viewpoints in the modern world."

Book of the Week



Buy, beg, borrow, steal, swap, importune or solicit this book. It's a fabulous read.

Regular visitors to C&S won't learn a huge amount from its pages, erudite and intelligent social misfits that ye all are, but it's well written, broad in its range, and perceptive in its analogies. And there's even a faint whiff of optimism at the end.

Mason profile here. His Newsnight blog here.



And it gets a slagging on Spiked Online, so it must be doing something right.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Damned United

Well the first part of Altrincham's pre-season double-header against Manchester United/FC United of Manchester didn't end how we'd've liked. I can only imagine that the kids who invaded the pitch a) can't handle their beer b) have never been to a pre-season friendly before c)weren't aware that their team were 3-0 up or d) have an attention span of 85 minutes and went on the pitch out of sheer boredom.

There were apparently some disgraceful scenes prior to the game, of which I was blissfuly unaware in the bar, but you'd think that that would have prepared the stewards for what came later.

Alty's Fan Forum is currently running a heated debate over whether the dickheads were United "fans" or FCUM "fans" but either way it doesn't bode well for Tuesday's match.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Immanentizing the Eschaton

A really fascinating interview in Tuesday's New York Times with E. O. Wilson, he of Consilience and Sociobiology fame, in which he discusses his revised views on group selection in evolution:

The new fight is one Dr. Wilson has picked. It concerns a central feature of evolution, one with considerable bearing on human social behaviors. The issue is the level at which evolution operates. Many evolutionary biologists have been persuaded, by works like The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, that the gene is the only level at which natural selection acts. Dr. Wilson, changing his mind because of new data about the genetics of ant colonies, now believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group.

It is through multilevel or group-level selection — favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another — that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.

“I believe that deep in their heart everyone working on social insects is aware that the selection that created them is multilevel selection,” Dr. Wilson said.


There is also a link in the article to a paper that Wilson has co-written in The Quarterly Review of Biology. It's long but well worth reading, even if you aren't a biologist. Most of it is straightforward and easy to understand. For those of you without the time, here are the closing lines:

When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain the Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot, he famously replied: “Do not do unto others that which is repugnant to you. Everything else is commentary.” Darwin's original insight and the developments reviewed in this article enable us to offer the following one-foot summary of sociobiology's new theoretical foundation: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”


I see some interesting parallels in the article to stuff we've written about here before and Mancur Olson's theories about co-operation and free-riders (scroll down). I hope to post more on that anon. These ideas might also have some bearing on theories of sociopathy we've discussed before, here, here, here and here, in particular Martha Stout's ideas:

Stout makes the observation that a society entirely composed of sociopaths would collapse under the weight of its own irresponsibility. Sociopaths are incapable of cooperation with others beyond short-term exploitation, and a society in which everyone exploits everyone else would result in social suicide. For this reason, she says, the evolutionary explanation for sociopathic behaviour requires some explanation, because it is difficult to see how it can be selected for. Her conclusion is that society has a whole can tolerate a small amount of sociopathy; sociopathic behaviour is effectively parasitic on the co-operative behaviour exhibited by the majority. The evolutionary unit of selection, she says, cannot be the individual in this regard, precisely because it is not in the interest of individuals to be sociopathic. Were we all so, the species would be extinct. But at the level of the species, such behaviour is tolerable, because most of us are not sociopaths. Sociopathic behaviour has not disappeared, either because it can serve some social function . . . or because, at such a low level (whether or not 4 percent is low enough, I leave for you to decide) it is selection-neutral; it neither damages nor enhances the species’ survival chances, despite the damage done to individuals who encounter sociopaths. Indeed, it is possible that sociopaths do us a favour, serving as a salutary lesson about trust and accountability.


Sociopath as free-rider. Now there's a thought.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

D├ętourned Out Nice Again

Some of your favourite Situationist slogans from the 1960s put to good use by those enterprising folk at advertising agency Whittington, Burgher + Leveque.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Only If It's Tomorrow

Should Thatcher receive a state funeral?

Vote here.

The Golden (Shower) Girls

The July 7 issue of Time magazine features an article on the surge in popularity of "elder porn" in Japan.

I'm particularly intrigued by Forbidden Elderly Care.

Friday, July 11, 2008

It's Friday. Let's Boogie!!



Port O'Brien - I Woke Up Today

Is This Where the False Pope Shops?

I'm not sure if it's me who'll be going to Hell or the good folk at Catholic Home and Garden.


Is it just me or are the priests getting younger these days? One way to avoid recruiting paedophiles, I suppose.



This is the Cardinal Ratzinger outfit. Here's one Aryan kid who's praying to the point of constipation that his parents aren't going to make him join the Hitler Youth as well.



A wrinkle-free Mother Teresa (for added authenticity, parents can buy poverty-stricken Indians in the "Accessories" section).



Bishop Brennan's looking well (Just don't call him Len).


And another one for the Irish! Former Welsh slave turned enslaver of minds Saint Patrick (snakes extra).

Lots more costumes (but sadly no crucified Christ outfit) here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Spain's Last Anarchist?

I think one or two of our contributors might object to the BBC's title for this interview with Antonio Garcia Baron, the last surviving member of the Durruti column.


Thanks to Will.

Readings #3


A Global Civil Society?



As a framework for democracy, the nation-state is twice impaired: the challenges of global McWorld and regional Jihad are not susceptible to its interventions; and the ideology of laissez-faire that accompanies McWorld and has become the mantra of its proponents within national government undermines whatever residual capacity it might have for action in the name of public good. Sovereignty is indeed in a twilight, condemned to a shadow world by government’s myriad postmodern detractors—ex-Communist and postindustrialist alike. In the post-Communist East, government is too closely associated with totalitarian despotism: to speak of citizens still evokes the language of comrades and faithful party hacks. In the democratic West, government remains too identified with bureaucracy, inefficiency and a professional political class in whom peoples everywhere have lost confidence, if in part because they have lost confidence in themselves. Until we retrieve our public institutions and reclaim their powers as surrogates for our own, government and its communication technologies will be part of the alien world we confront—part of “it” rather than a tool with which we can confront “it.” To make government our own is to recast our civic attitudes, which is possible only in a vibrant civil society where responsibilities and rights are joined together in a seamless web of community self-government.

At the same time, democracy demands new post-nation-state institutions and new attitudes more attentive to the direct responsibility people bear for their liberties. To be sure, global government, above all democratic global government, remains a distant dream; but the kinds of global citizenship necessary to its cultivation are less remote. Citizenship is nurtured first of all in democratic civil society. A global citizenship demands a domain parallel to McWorld’s in which communities of cooperation do consciously and for the public good what markets currently do inadvertently on behalf of aggregated private interests. This is no easy task. More than sixty years ago, John Dewey had already suggested that the problem was to identify a democratic public. “Not that there is no public, no large body of persons having a common interest in the consequences of social transactions,” he wrote. “There is too much public, a public too diffused and scattered and too intricate in composition. And there are too many publics, for conjoint actions which have indirect, serious and enduring consequences are multitudinous beyond comparison.” How much more elusive than Dewey’s national “public” is a global “public”—not just a network of NGOs, but a civic nexus across all boundaries; not just groups like “Doctors without Frontiers” (M├ędecines sans frontieres) but a world of citizens without frontiers?

The creation of a public is the task of civil society. Only there are attitudes likely to emerge that favor democracy and counter the siren song of McWorld. Only there are communities possible that answer the human need for parochial interaction in ways that remain open to inclusion and to cosmopolitan civic sentiments. But how can civil society be constructed in an international arena? Those wishing to try—not just in Russia and Germany where patience and civic cunning are imperative, but in an America and Western Europe that have grown complacent about the civic domain—need both to recall the story of democracy’s founding, and at the same time to invent new institutions appropriate to novel global conditions. Old democrats often suffer from their civic longevity. They forget the lessons of their own history, forget how violent and disruptive democratization can be, how long it takes to construct a foundational free society before a democratic constitution can ever be raised up upon it. Like the cautious senator who cannot remember the risk-taking boy he once was, the modern democrat represses the memory of revolution and tumult in which he first reached his own uncertain majority pretending that he was forever a prudent sage and that it did not take a prolonged and painful childhood to learn the arts of liberty (if they were learned at all).

Specialists seem persuaded that to construct a new democracy, whether for Russia, Somalia, or for the whole planet, requires nothing more than the export of prefabricated constitutions and made-to-order parliamentary systems. Joshua Muravchik is a perfect exemplar whose problems begin with the very title of his new book: Exporting Democracy. Fed Ex the Federalist Papers to Belorussia; send a multiparty system to Nigeria by parcel post; E-mail the Chinese the Bill of Rights; ship the U.N. a civilian-controlled, all-volunteer, obedient but conscience-sensitive peacekeeping force from a country with a high tolerance for casualties and no interests of its own and in the flash of a laser beam: democracy! For global government, do exactly the same thing, globally.

Not quite. Democracies are built slowly, culture by culture, each with its own strengths and needs, over centuries, which is why the West Germans might have taken more care before expunging the novice civil institutions of the East German resistance movement like Neues Forum; and why the Russians might want to pay more attention to native institutions like the Russian mir (village commune) or soviet (council) and a little less to import Western institutions. For the lesson of Western democratic history is patience and self-reflection. Between Magna Carta’s first assertion of rights by the English king’s vassals and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 that ushered in the era of parliamentary supremacy, stretched 450 long, war-filled years; and it would be 150 years more before Parliament became even nominally “democratic.” Switzerland’s proto-democratic federal system took its first steps in 1291 but acquired a fully democratic constitution only in 1848 (totally revised in 1874), more than five hundred years later. France initially experimented with aristocratic regional parliaments hundreds of years before its revolution in 1789, and it required still another century for something resembling a workable democratic republic to come into being.

In the 150 years between the foundings at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock and the founding of the United States of America in 1789, colonial Americans had a half-dozen generations of experience with royal charters, commonwealth government, town meetings, and a frontier wilderness society that sharpened their sense of autonomy and fashioned talents for self-government that would be indispensable to the working of the federal constitution. Moreover, it took the young democratic republic another seventy-five years and a bloody civil war to confront the issues of slavery and state sovereignty left unresolved by the 1789 constitution.

A people corrupted by tribalism and numbed by McWorld is no more ready to receive a prefabricated democratic constitution than a people emerging from a long history of despotism and tyranny. Nor can democracy be someone’s gift to the powerless. It must be seized by them because they refuse to live without liberty and they insist on justice for all. To prepare the ground for democracy today either in transitional societies or on a global scale is first to re-create citizens who will demand democracy: this means laying a foundation in civil society and civic culture. Democracy is not a universal prescription for some singularly remarkable form of government, it is an admonition to people to live in a certain fashion: responsibly, autonomously yet on common ground, in self-determining communities somehow still open to others, with tolerance and mutual respect yet a firm sense of their own values. When John Dewey called democracy a way of life—it is the idea of community life itself, he insisted—rather than a way of government, he called attention to its primacy as an associated mode of living in a civil society. A global democracy capable of countering the antidemocratic tendencies of Jihad and McWorld cannot be borrowed from some particular nation’s warehouse or copied from an abstract constitutional template. Citizenship, whether global or local, comes first.

These lessons would not be so hard for the complacent denizens of McWorld and the angry brothers of Jihad if the idea of civil society had retained its currency among those who call themselves democrats today. But battered by history and squeezed between two equally elephantine state and private market sectors, civil society has fairly vanished, both as theory and as democratic practice. Even in America, where the heritage of John Locke ought to have kept it supple, the idea of civil society has petrified and crumbled—its dry remains easily pushed aside in favor of a set of simple interlocking oppositions: the state versus the individual, government versus the private sector, public bureaucracy versus free markets, corrupt politicians versus angry voters. Politically alienated and consumption-weary people, equally uncomfortable with what they see as a rapacious and unsympathetic government and a fragmented and self-absorbed private sector, find themselves homeless. Neither the market nor the state bureaucracy seems to speak to them or serve them in their public identity. Although it is ultimately accountable to the people in their capacity as voters, the government is regarded by them as an almost foreign body: a threatening sphere of quasi-legitimate coercion managed by unresponsive representatives, professional politicians, and bureaucratic managers who have lost much of their authority as authentic voices for the public they supposedly represent. Voting, at best, is reduced to an act of spite or retribution against outlaws disguised as candidates.

On the other hand, the private sector, representing commercial markets, and comprising private individuals and corporations, speaks for the public only inasmuch as it aggregates the desire of individuals and companies—private prejudices and special interests given a “public” status they do nothing to earn. The “public corporation” does nothing to deserve its legal sobriquet. It is private in everything but its name. Not only is the actual public left voiceless and homeless, but those in government who still try in good faith to receive counsel from the now-phantom public do not really know where to turn, since so-called public opinion polls canvass private prejudice and since special interests represent themselves and only themselves. In America and most other democracies, politicians who were once citizens temporarily holding office are metamorphosed by power into “professionals” out of touch with their constituencies, while citizens are reduced by their impotence to whining antagonists of the men and women they elect to office or to sulking clients of government services they consume without being willing to pay for. For peoples so cynical about their own democratic institutions to recommend democracy to cousins in transitional states or to conceive of a global democracy in the world beyond sovereign borders is problematic at best. For today’s half-baked citizens recommend democracy without trusting it: they abdicate their own majority powers in favor of term limits, constitutional amendments, and supermajorities. Likewise, they recommend markets without believing in them: without being persuaded for an instant that markets can secure citizenship or civic liberty or much of anything beyond the material goods that no longer satisfy their yearning spirits.

To envision a democratic civic entity that empowers citizens to rule themselves is then necessarily to move beyond the two-celled model of government versus private sector we have come to rely on. Instead, invoking the traditional language of civil society we need to begin to think about the domains people occupy as they go about their daily business as having at least three primary arenas, whether within tribal enclaves, nation-states, or a global society: the government and the private sector to be sure, but also the civil domain, civic space or what Eastern Europeans and Russians regularly referred to as civil society before they became “democratic” and were persuaded by their Western handlers that local participatory institutions were unsuited to democracy’s market ambitions.

Civil society, or civic space, occupies the middle ground between government and the private sector. It is not where we vote and it is not where we buy and sell; it is where we talk with neighbors about a crossing guard, plan a benefit for our community school, discuss how our church or synagogue can shelter the homeless, or organize a summer softball league for our children. In this domain, we are “public” beings and share with government a sense of publicity and a regard for the general good and the commonweal; but unlike government, we make no claim to exercise a monopoly on legitimate coercion. Rather, we work here voluntarily and in this sense inhabit a “private” realm devoted to the cooperative (noncoercive) pursuit of public goods. This neighborly and cooperative domain of civil society shares with the private sector the gift of liberty: it is voluntary and is constituted by freely associated individuals and groups; but unlike the private sector, it aims at common ground and consensual (that is, integrative and collaborative) modes of action. Civil society is thus public without being coercive, voluntary without being privatized. It is in this domain that our traditional civic institutions such as foundations, schools, churches, public interest and other voluntary civic associations properly belong. The media too, where they take their public responsibilities seriously and subordinate their commercial needs to their civic obligations, are part of civil society.

Unhappily, civil society has been eclipsed by government/market bipolarities and its mediating strengths have been eliminated in favor of the simplistic opposition of state and individual: the command economy versus the free market. This opposition has forced those wishing to occupy noncoercive civic space—whether in traditional democracies, new democracies, or the global civic domain—back into the private sector where they reappear, quite improperly as “special interest” advocates supposedly unmarked by common concerns or public norms. We are compelled to be voters or consumers in all we do; if we wish to be citizens. if we want to participate in self-governance rather than just elect those who govern us, there is no place to turn.

Throughout the nineteenth century in Tocqueville’s America and afterwards, American society felt like civil society. Without trying to romanticize the social conditions of that decentralized period, we can see how they allowed liberty a more local and civic aspect, while a modest governmental sphere and an unassuming private sector were overshadowed by an extensive civic network tied together by schools, granges, churches, town halls, village greens, country stores, and voluntary associations of every imaginable sort. It was these “municipal” institutions that fired Tocqueville’s imagination. Government, especially at the federal level, was a modest affair (probably too modest for some of the tasks it needed to accomplish) because the constitution had left all powers not specifically delegated to it to the states and people. Markets were also modest affairs, regional in nature and dominated by other associations and affections.

It was only when individuals who thought of themselves as citizens began to see themselves as consumers, and groups that were regarded as voluntary associations were supplanted by corporations legitimized as “legal persons,” that market forces began to encroach on and crush civil society from the private sector side. Once markets began to expand radically, government responded with an aggressive campaign on behalf of the public weal against the new monopolies, inadvertently crushing civil society from the state side. Squeezed between the warring realms of the two expanding monopolies, statist and corporate, civil society lost its preeminent place in American life. By the time of the two Roosevelts it had nearly vanished and its civic denizens had been compelled to find sanctuary under the feudal tutelage of either big government (their protectors and social servants) or the private sector, where schools, churches, unions, foundations, and other associations could assume the identity of corporations and aspire to be no more than special interest groups formed for the particularistic ends of their members. Whether those ends were, say, market profitability or environmental preservation, was irrelevant since by definition all private associations necessarily had private ends. Schools became interest groups for people with children (parents) rather than the forges of a free society; churches became confessional special interest groups pursuing separate agendas rather than sources of moral fiber for the larger society (as Tocqueville had thought they would be); voluntary associations became a variation on private lobbies rather than the free spaces where women and men practiced an apprenticeship of liberty.

Paradoxically, once civil society had been privatized and commercialized, groups organized in desperate defense of the public interest found themselves cast as mere exemplars of plundering private interest lobbies. Unions, for example, though concerned with fair compensation, full employment, and the dignity of work for all, became the private sector counterparts of the corporations. and in time learned all too well how to act the part. When they tried to break the stranglehold of corporations over labor, they were deemed another “special interest” group no better than those against whom they struck, and perhaps worse (since the companies struck were productive contributors to the wealth of America). Environmental groups have undergone the same transmogrification more recently. Although pursuing what for all the world looks like a public agenda of clean air for all including the polluters, they are cast as the polluters’ mirror-image twin—another special interest group whose interests are to be arbitrated alongside those of toxic-waste dumpers. The media surrendered their responsibility to inform democracy’s proprietors and became sellers of gossip and wholly owned subsidiaries of private sector proprietors with no responsibilities at all other than to their profit margins. Under such conditions, the “public good” could not and did not survive as a reasonable ideal. Its epitaph was written by David B. Truman, who in his influential 1951 primer The Governmental Process, a book that helped establish the dominant paradigm in social science throughout the 1960s and 1970s, wrote summarily that in dealing with the pluralist pressure system of private interests that is America, “we do not need to account for a totally inclusive interest, because one does not exist.” McWorld has only dropped an exclamation point into Truman’s assertion.

We are left stranded by this melancholy history in an era where civil society is in eclipse and where citizens have neither home for their civic institutions nor voice with which to speak, even within nation-states nominally committed to democracy. Be passively serviced (or passively persecuted) by the massive, busybody, bureaucratic state where the word citizen has no resonance; or sign onto the selfishness and radical individualism of the private sector where the word citizen has no resonance. Vote the public scoundrels out of public office and/or vote your private interests into office by voting your dollars for the scoundrels willing to work for you: those are the only remaining obligations of the much diminished office of citizen in what are supposed to be the best established democracies.

If these cheerless observations are at all well grounded, and democracy suffers from the polarizing effects of a vanished civil society in America and other Western democracies, surely those looking to create new democracies under the conditions either of Jihad or of Mc World face formidable challenges. Their first priority surely must be the reconstruction of civil society as a framework for the reinvention of democratic citizenship, a mediating third domain between the overgrown but increasingly ineffective state governmental and the metastasizing private market sectors. Our choices need not be limited by the zero-sum game between government and commercial markets in which growth for the one spells encroachment for the other: a massive statist bureaucracy or a massive McWorld. Although that is precisely the choice that has been offered to peoples in Russia and East Germany, we need not opt either for some caricatured Big Brother government that enforces justice but in exchange plays the tyrant, or for some caricatured runaway free market that secures liberty but in exchange fosters inequality and social injustice and doggedly abjures the public weal. For this leaves us only with the choice between McWorld or tyranny. Indeed, as the nation-state loses its sovereignty, it is not so much the choice between tyranny and McWorld but the tyranny of McWorld itself that becomes our destiny. Only some version of a global civil society can hope to counter its inadvertent despotism.

Civil society grounds democracy as a form of government in which not politicians and bureaucrats but an empowered people use legitimate force to put flesh on the bones of their liberties; and in which liberty carries with it the obligations of social responsibility and citizenship as well as the rights of legal persons. Civil society offers us a single civic identity that, belonging neither to state bureaucrats nor private consumers but to citizens alone, recouples rights and responsibilities and allows us to take control of our governments and our markets. Civil society is the domain of citizens: a mediating domain between private markets and big government. Interposed between the state and the market, it can contain an obtrusive government without ceding public goods to the private sphere. At the same time it can dissipate the atmospherics of solitariness and greed that surround markets without suffocating in an energetic big government’s exhaust fumes. In the international domain, where states are weak and markets dominant, civil society can offer an alternative identity to people who otherwise are only clients or consumers—or passive spectators to global trends they can do nothing to challenge. It can make internationalism a form of citizenship. Within national states, both government and the private sector can be humbled a little by a growing civil society that absorbs some of the public aspirations to self-government, without casting off its liberal character as a noncoercive association of equals. Because they tend to their own affairs and take more responsibility on themselves, citizens inhabiting a vibrant civil society worry less about elections and leaders and term limits and scandals; and they simultaneously free themselves from the “free” markets that otherwise imprison them in a commercial mentality that leaves no room for community or for spirit.

To re-create civil society on this prescription does not entail a novel civic architecture; rather, it means reconceptualizing and repositioning institutions already in place, or finding ways to re-create them in an international setting. In the United States, for example, this suggests turning again to schools, foundations, voluntary associations, churches and temples and mosques, community movements, and the media, as well as myriad other civil associations and removing them from the private sector, repositioning them instead in civil society. It suggests helping citizens to reclaim their rightful public voice and political legitimacy against those who would write them off as representing only hypocritical special interests. In Russia and other transitional societies it means supporting the new civic infrastructure and worrying more about getting people involved in local civic associations than about the outcome of elections or the vicissitudes of competing nationalist, socialist, capitalist, and reformist parties playing at parliamentary politics. For McWorld, it means seeking countervailing institutions not in international law and organization but in a new set of transnational civic associations that afford opportunities for nationally based civil societies to link up to one another and for individual citizens of different countries to cooperate across national boundaries in regional and global civil movements. Civil society needs a habitation; it must become a real place that offers the abstract idea of a public voice a palpable geography somewhere other than in the twin atlases of government and markets.

More than anything else, what has been lost in the clash of Jihad and McWorld has been the idea of the public as something more than a random collection of consumers or an aggregation of special political interests or a product of identity politics. The public voice turns out to be the voice of civil society, the voice of what we can call variously an American civic forum, a Russian civic forum, or a global civic forum—civil society’s own interactive representative assembly. We have noted that the democratic citizen must precede the democratization of government. It now becomes clear that civil society offers conditions for the creation of democratic citizens. A citizen is an individual who has acquired a public voice and understands himself to belong to a wider community who sees herself as sharing goods with others. Publicity is the key to citizenship. The character of the public voice is thus essential in defining the citizen. For a public voice is not any old voice addressing the public. The divisive rant of talk radio or the staccato crossfire of pundit-TV are in fact perfect models of everything that public talk is not.

Much of what passes for journalism is in fact mere titillation or dressed-up gossip or polite prejudice. The media have abandoned civil society for the greater profits of the private sector where their public responsibilities no longer hobble their taste for commercial success. How long a journey it can be for women and men nurtured in the private sector and used to identifying with one another only via a cash contract on the one hand, or in terms of Jihad’s blood fraternity on the other, to find their way to civil society and speak in its measured public voice, particularly if that voice must also have a transnational or international resonance. “Public” inflects “voice” in a remarkable fashion that turns out to hold the key to civil society and citizenship. A genuinely public voice—the voice of civil society—can empower those who speak far more effectively than either the officially univocal voice of government or the obsessively contrary talk of the private sector’s jabbering Babel. The voice of civil society of citizens in deliberative conversation challenges the exclusivity and irrationality of Jihad’s clamor but is equally antithetical to the claim of McWorld’s private markets to represent some aggregative public good. Neither Jihad nor McWorld grasps the meaning of “public,” and the idea of the public realized offers a powerful remedy to the privatizing and de-democratizing effects of aggressive tribes and aggressive markets.

If civil society is one key to democracy, then global strong democracy needs and depends on a methodical internationalization of civil society. Civil society in turn must again discover adequate incarnations at the national level to become susceptible to globalization. For a historical model we might look back at the American Committees of Correspondence founded in the Revolutionary War era by citizens without legitimate political outlets (the British controlled the formal institutions of government); these committees allowed them to gather together informally in bodies that were neither governmental nor private but that together forged the civic materiel by which the new Republic was first fought for and won and then established and constituted. Are virtual committees of correspondence possible on the Internet? Can citizens log on to a civic bulletin board across national boundaries? Here is a starting point for a genuinely civic telecommunications.

Not so long after the Committees of Correspondence inaugurated their successful revolution against English tyranny, Thomas Jefferson had proposed local civic assemblies as a continuation of direct and decentralized self-government: “Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic,” he had written, “and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of him sooner than his power be wrested from him.” Only at the local and regional levels where Jihad plays out its game can an alternative form of identity be won that can ultimately contain McWorld at the global level. Neither the tribal circle nor the traffic circle, neither the clan nor the mall, offers adequate public space to the kind of democratic community that can provide citizens both identity and inclusion. The affinities that spring from local association must not barricade the way to regional affections, national identification, and global alliances, as tribes and clans (whether historical or invented) too often do. Technology may permit us to reconstruct electronic wards and teleassemblies linking together distant neighbors. But this will happen only if markets are not left to determine how these technologies will be developed and deployed, and if global communication is disciplined by prudent deliberation and civility. How civil society can be forged in an international environment is an extraordinary challenge. Recognizing that it needs to be forged is, however, the first step toward salvaging a place for strong democracy in the world of McWorld.




Benjamin Barber Jihad vs. McWorld (1995)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Summer Holiday

Excellent review by Gadgie of Freedom Press's Why Work? here.

But What's His Favourite Islington Restaurant?

Newly discovered Manchester Guardian interview with Karl Marx.

Friday, July 04, 2008

It's Friday. Let's Boogie!!



The Mekons-Where Were You?

Blister in the Sun




I’d had Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything on my Wish List for a couple of years and a fortuitous overpayment of my credit card last month (feckin eejit) meant I could afford to treat myself with a rare purchase during these times of fiscal constraint. I’d enjoyed very much Kolakowski’s massive Main Currents of Marxism, so I assumed these essays would provide more in the same vein, as well as some autobiographical background to a writer well-positioned to comment on events of great historical import. As a former “High Priest” of Communism, his explanations for his lapse and his analyses of the social structure of Eastern European societies would, I assumed, produce some startling new insights not previously encountered.

I blame Amazon. Most of Kolakowski’s books on their site have that “Look Inside” feature available. This one? It doesn’t. Caveat emptor. For while the opening section of the book, Amid Moving Ruins, contains some very interesting essays, including “The Marxist Roots of Stalinism,” “The Heritage of the Left,” “The Myth of Human Self-Identity,” “Genocide and Ideology,” and the eponymous “My Correct Views on Everything,” Kolakowski’s scathing response to E. P. Thompson’s “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski,” the second section is devoted to matters of a . . . what shall we say? . . . Catholic bent. If you need a reminder that Kolakowski is Polish, then here it is: “A Layman Pronounces on the Catechism,” “Jesus Christ—Prophet and Reformer,” “Concern with God in an Apparently Godless Era.” I’ll confess (appropriately enough) right now that I made a start on the first of these with the best of intentions given the flyleaf’s promise that Kolakowski believes that “Being critical of this or that item in the Church’s politics should not have to make one reject Jesus’s teaching,” which is logically correct, as far as it goes. But I got no more than five pages in before giving it up as an irrelevance. Let’s just say that his topic didn’t speak to me. The title of Kolakowski’s book may be ironic, but I’d be inclined to believe that, on the subject of God, my own beliefs (or even lack thereof) are more correct.

The third section of the book deals with expostulating Kolakowski’s own form of liberalism through examinations of such thorny issues as moral relativism, the role of the university, the status of academic values, and the need for a “transcendent dimension” of belief in order to establish a coherent code of ethics. All this is bollocks and serves, above all, to place Kolakowski firmly on terra firma, to locate him very much as an imperfect and fallible man of his time with the beliefs and prejudices of his society.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to have expected to find new arguments when some of the essays in this collection date back to the early 1970s. The essays on Marxism contain little that can’t be found in Main Currents of Marxism, and the majority of his points are commonplace on the antiauthoritarian left. The implicit prescriptive arguments about the dangers of utopian visions of social unity and harmony can be found explicitly in the works of Claude Lefort; the case for democracy and accountability are better made in Lefort, too.

Overall, I was left disappointed with this book, but I partly blame myself, and I blame Amazon a bit too, but I wouldn’t want this experience to put people off reading Main Currents of Marxism, which is very good indeed. What’s more, the essays in the first section of this book are worth reading, even if they’re not stunning in their insights; the argument that Stalinism is a legitimate version of Marxism will leave plenty of our readers here foaming at the mouth, I’m sure, but the case made here deserves an audience.

Should you buy this book? No. It isn’t worth the cost. Buy Main Currents instead. But if you have a masochistic streak and belong to a particularly anal school of Marxism—aren’t they all?—you can have a lend if you promise not to burn, deface, or destroy it/me/the author.

I also learned that it's much better to receive from others than it is from yourself, a rule that applies in many other spheres of existence. Though possibly not all. Here's my wish list, just in case. ;-)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Meanest Kid on the Block

In the June issue of Esquire magazine, Gore Vidal reflects on what he's learned from life:

I’ve developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little asshole. And he thinks he’s wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him.

Get rid of religion. It’ll do you no good.

Every fool I knew had gone to university. I didn’t think it necessary. I’d seen some of the results, you know?

Patriotism is as sickening today as it has ever been. I was watching the news before you came and there was a lot of coverage of Kosovo and the problems there. They showed footage of people burning an American flag. And the newscaster got all broken up and teary-eyed. He says, “I guess [sob] I just feel something here, folks, when I see the American flag being burned.” And I said, You fucking asshole. Whatever happened to the news?