Monday, January 25, 2016

Contra-deBoer: Pessimist

I'm continuing with an analysis of Fredrik deBoer's left manifesto for 2016 (start here). My ninth piece was "Realist". Now we look at his "Pessimist."

In Pessimist, Fredrik deBoer surprises us. Here is what he writes, in full.
A functioning, healthy left political movement would understand the fundamental limits on human flourishing. It would acknowledge that tragedy and despair are unalterable aspects of the human condition. It would not posit political struggle as an attempt to create an ideal world but as an attempt to make a broken world a little less broken. It would concede that alienation, loneliness, heartbreak, dissatisfaction, ennui, depression, boredom, anguish, and disappointment can sometimes be ameliorated through political action, but can never be eliminated. It would identify utopia as a dangerous idea. It would know that not getting what you want is something like the default condition of human life. It would always remember that “should” implies “can.” It would face up to the fact that human life is not fair and will never  be fair.
What can one say, except to agree? But this section brings the whole piece into question. If we are just trying to make the world "a little less broken" then how far do we need to go in the direction of economic and social justice? In particular, how much government coercion is justified if the objective is not utopia, but just a little more fairness? For instance, the left has achieved a lot just with cultural naming and shaming, particularly in shaming people into a more inclusive attitude towards people of other races. If that worked so well, how about shaming us into helping others more? Actually, Americans are already just about world champs in charitable giving, and the 1% accounts for about 1/3 of the giving.

If alienation, etc., "can sometimes be ameliorated through political action, but can never be eliminated", what about the reverse proposition? What about the pessimist position that political action can make, and ofgten does make "alienation, loneliness... depression... and disappointment" worse instead of better? In other words, there is plenty of research to indicate that government free stuff makes people miserable, because  if you want to feel good about yourself there is nothing like being a responsible person that works and pulls their weight.

And what about the whole anti-capitalism thing? The capitalist textile revolution created cheap cotton washable textiles for the masses for the first time in history. The capitalist railway revolution allowed the masses to travel on something other than their feet for the first time in history. The illuminating oil revolution allowed the masses to be able to afford artificial lighting in their homes for the first time in history. All in all, according to Deirdre McCloskey, people under the thumb of the capitalists have experienced about a 3,000 percent increase in per-capita income in 200 years. Wouldn't a pessimist say that the chance of meeting or beating that with anything other than capitalism is slim to none? Particularly since capitalism is not a system of capitalist accumulation, as the critics like to imagine, but a process of "zero to one," as PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel puts it. It's the process of coming up with and implementing a new idea that, when capitalized in a startup corporation, is worth billions. No "accumulation", no immiseration of the workers, but something new that provides value to the masses.

It's good to see Fredrik deBoer requiring a little pessimism in his left movement. It's good to see him write that "utopia is a dangerous idea." But I would recommend facing squarely the pessimistic fact that government is always and everywhere force. Even the legal system is a coercion system. It says that if you two guys can't resolve your differences then we judges and juries will impose our judgement on you both, and we will enforce our decision with the power of the state. How much force is enough, and to what extent does the addition of the sweet use of force dissolve any conceit about justice? And really, what is a left movement without its millennarian idea of heaven on earth through the violence of politics?

Here's my idea on pessimism. Pessimism is the root and branch behind the idea of limited government. It just says that there is a limited amount of stuff you can do using force.

Next up: "Human."

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