Friday, August 23, 2013

Seeing the World as System and Lifeworld

When Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, German Jews, looked out at the world as refugees in California they were, even as Marxists, forced to concede that there was something wrong in the program of the Enlightenment.  As they wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment,
What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men.
In other words the program of the Enlightenment, to learn how the world works, ends up as a program to use nature for the ends of man in a much more systematic way that in the practical life skills that we see, e.g., in the hunter gatherer.  And that systematic way ends up as domination.

It's not until we get to Adorno's student that we get a thinker determined to deal with the challenge of Enlightenment and its program of domination.  Jürgen Habermas accepts the systems of Enlightenment and their domination as a fact about our world.  But he takes the concept of Lebenswelt developed by Husserl, or lifeworld, as an opposing possibility.  Whereas domination is coded into the very definition of reason, the intersubjective lifeworld offers a possibility of discourse rather than domination, interchange rather than injunction, emancipation rather than subordination.

Of course, as David Ingram reminds us, system and lifeworld are not independent entities; Habermas himself writes about the "colonization of the lifeworld."  Indeed, a recurring Frankfurt School theme is the analysis of the way that the system's mass media colonize the lifeworld of the home and the family.  System and lifeworld are opposed to each other as much as they complement each other.

But what do they mean?  Habermas injects the idea of the philosophy of consciousness and the philosophy of language as a means to understanding.  The philosophy of consciousness, from Descartes ego to Kant, thinks in unipolar terms, of the observer in the world.  That outlook necessarily reduces the human relationship with the world to a strategic, instrumental outlook described above by Horkheimer and Adorno.  But if we define the world through a philosophy of language then we define our knowledge of the world as necessarily social and shared.  It is not the single consciousness that lives in the world but all of us together, and we test and share our experience of the world in conversation with each other using the language we share.

On this view, system and lifeworld cannot exist without the other.  You may construct the most amazing system of knowledge imaginable, but it means nothing until it is communicated to the world.  You may develop in conversation the most amazing dialog, but it does not count in the world until it is developed into a system with the power to replace the old ways of thinking and doing.

We are seeing a huge test of this notion right now in the rollout of Obamacare.  The Democrats went into a room together and wrote a bill.  But they did not bring it out into the light of day to have a conversation about it and give people a chance to critique it and improve it.  They just rammed it through by force.

Now Obamacare is rolling out and the beautiful system is revealed as a solipsist nightmare.  The single Democratic ego imagined a wonderful health care future, trusting in the unified liberal consciousness to create the perfect system.  But system is nothing without lifeworld, without people conversing and adjusting to individual circumstances and needs.  So the president has to resort to extra-legal acts of force to fit the square peg of Obamacare into the round hole of reality.

What our liberal friends cannot admit is their dominatory administrative systems are doomed to failure.  What they cannot bear to confess is that the free market is the answer to the cruelty of systems and administrations, because it ceaselessly adjusting between system and lifeworld.  It constructs the most imposing systems, but it is always responding to the feedback, expressed through the price system, of the individual.  And the great commercial systems are always getting pruned back by some new group of innovators that got together in a coffee shop to come up with something new.

Instinctively, you know that this must be so, because otherwise liberals and their clients wouldn't be insisting on the perfection of their system and pretending that the daily diary of domination, in Obama administration scandals, is merely "phoney."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Use is "Use-value?"

What makes a thing useful?  What makes a human useful?  And then, how do we put a value on that use?

Philosophers and economists have long pondered this enigma of value, and come up with brilliant explanations.  By the end of the 18th century the classical economists had come up with the dual doctrine of use-value and exchange value.  You can see that some things, like food, have value because they are directly useful for maintaining human life.  But other things, like diamonds, have value only because people want them and are willing to pay money for them.

Eventually the marginalist economists decided that the attempt to make an issue between use-value and exchange-value was a chimera.  People establish value when they buy and sell and express their preferences by their actions.  Why a person values a particular item is known only to herself and to God.

But Karl Marx, outraged by the economic turmoil of the 1840s, decided to make a scandal out of the difference between use-value and exchange-value as it applied to labor.  From Wikipedia:
Marx emphasizes that the use-value of a labor-product is practical and objectively determined,[4] i.e. it inheres in the intrinsic characteristics of a product which enable it to satisfy a human need or want. The use-value of a product therefore exists as a material reality vis-a-vis social needs regardless of the individual need of any particular person. The use-value of a commodity is specifically a social use-value, meaning that it has a generally accepted use-value for others in society, and not just for the producer.
It was precisely this idea that the marginal economists exploded: the idea that there was an objective use-value to anything.  Moreover, it denies the fact that every human act is social, or potentially so.

Think of a peasant scrabbling a life on the side of a mountain.  For him, the use value of the corn he grows is expressed in the corn-meal, the tacos he can get out of his harvest.  But suppose our peasant discovers a fertile valley that can produce much more for the same amount of labor.  Now he can feed the corn to domestic animals and eat meat instead of tacos.  Or he can exchange some of the corn with the chap in the next valley for salt, which is not available in his valley.  The use-value of the corn is different than before.  And now some of it is exchanged.

When Marx critiques the system of wage labor, the fact that under industrial capitalism the worker exchanges his labor for wages rather than produce directly for his own needs, he proposes that the worker is thereby "alienated" from the product of his labor, which is now owned by the capitalist.  And this alienation is exploitation.

Marx forgets that the laborer was never merely producing for his own use.  In the hunter-gatherer band the successful hunter had to share his labor product with the rest of the band; he was immediately alienated from the product of his labor.  In pure feudalism the laborer was alienated from his labor in a variety of ways: he might have to labor on the lord's land; he might pay rent; he might be required to fight and die as a soldier in the feudal host.  How alienating is that?

Perhaps the worker was a guild member in a city.  In that case, as a master, he would have to produce exactly according to the rules of the guild at the price established by the guild.  But most workers were not masters.  They were apprentices, indentured laborers working almost for free, or perhaps paying for the privilege of learning their craft.  Or they were journeymen working for a master.  Or they were outside the comfortable world of the guild altogether, trying sell their labor product while dodging the city officers enforcing the guild rules upon outsiders.

When the young Max Weber studied the economy of rural Prussia "east of the Elbe" he found that the peasants much preferred to work as free workers rather than as the underlings of the local Junker, even though they earned less and had less security than the tied laborers.  How do you measure that?

When you read Marxist inspired work, as I am right now in Habermas and the Dialectic of Reason by David Ingram, you find that the Marxist exploitation narrative is taken for granted.  And you find another thing taken for granted: that government action can relieve exploitation.  Once you do that, the only question remaining is what degree or color of force is appropriate in the fight against that exploitation.

The conservative and libertarian critique of the administrative state denies first of all the argument for exploitation.  The market is certainly ruthless, but it is ruthless in that it forces everyone to produce not just for their own needs but for other peoples' needs.  That is what exchange and the division of labor means.  It means that I produce for other people, not just myself.  How social is that?  If it is exploitative to produce for other peoples' needs then I am all for exploitation.

But the conservative and libertarian critique does not stop there.  It argues that the attempt to solve exploitation and inequality by government subsidy and cash handouts and control of market outcomes is counterproductive.  If you subsidize something then you will get wasteful overproduction, as in green energy.  If you distribute cash handouts, as in food stamps and welfare, you motivate people to reduce their labor output.  That's what the Cato Institute found in its recent study of welfare "A Better Deal than Work".  When you load up labor wages with payroll taxes you reduce the demand for labor and you encourage people to start working "off the books."

The truth is that the whole corpus of left-wing thought, from the labor theory of value to the single-payer health system is a gigantic apology for political power.  It simply says "we know best" and we will force you to obey.  It is, you might say, exploitation, "naked, shameless, direct, brutal".

And what is the use-value of that?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Don't Forget the "Rule" in Ruling Class

We conservatives are fizzing these days with the term "ruling class," as in Angelo Codevilla's Ruling Class vs. Country Class, and John Hayward's "Real Class War" between Ruling Class, Dependency Class, and Everyone Else.  Our fizziness is founded on the notion that conservatives aren't Ruling Class, no sirree.

We all understand that today the appellation "ruling class" means liberals.  Or progressives.  And Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism was and is the definitive description of our liberal ruling class masters and their corrosive apologies for liberal power.

Contra liberal power the whole argument of modern conservatism, starting with Edmund Burke's impeachment of the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, is the limitation of the power of the ruling class.  Warren Hastings was the British pro-consul out in Bengal in the mid 1700s and he used his power to shake down the locals, including most memorably the Begums of Oudh.

Yes, I know, nothing changes.  Today our pro-consuls are shaking down the rich for political contributions, just like good ole Warren.

There is a problem with the conservative doctrine on the limitation of government power.  It means that people enraptured with political power won't become conservatives.  They will become Marxists, or socialists, or fascists, or race baiters, or global warmists single-payer health care activists -- anything that requires new powers for government and the ruling class or the next ruling class.

The point about a ruling class is that it rules.  The Latin "regere" means "to rule" as in regulate, regime, regimen.  To rule means to lay down the rules for the rest of us.  Period.  If you can't lay down the rules you aren't really the ruler.

Back in 1776 Adam Smith came up with a new and radical notion that human society might not need a real ruling class that ruled.  His Invisible Hand doctrine suggested that maybe people could engage in social cooperation via the market without having the clunking fist of government ordering the just price and the just wage and the just loan.  Maybe if the economy was founded on the notion that first each person had to make a product that other people wanted before they could scoop up their wages or profits, then we didn't need ruling classes at all!

It was the genius of Marx to offer a new justification for ruling-class power for the power-hungry young 'uns of the 1840s.  He said that the new capitalism that obviously transforming the world with steam power and unimaginable prosperity was really a horrible exploitation.  And only state power could keep it in check.  No wonder everyone loved him.  Because if you are an ambitious young chap with a taste for political power -- i.e. ordering everyone else around -- then there is nothing like a new political doctrine that bellows for the need for strong government power to keep the evil bourgeoisie from immiserating everyone into indigence.  Sign me up, Chuck!

Since Marx's time we have experienced enthusiasm after enthusiasm for unlimited ruling class power: Socialism, Progressivism, central banks, income taxes, universal government education, universal social insurance, civil rights, environmentalism, global warming.  Every one of these enthusiasms requires a strong ruling class with plenty of power to rescue us from disaster.

And we've had trenchant critiques, from the impossibility of calculating prices under socialism, to the bandwidth problem, to the unanticipated consequences argument, to public choice theory to supply-side economics.  And now we have George Gilder arguing that the secret to the future is knowledge over power.  We need to limit power and make it transparent and predictable, and we need to allow unlimited experimentation by business creators, because a new successful business is not so much a fount of profit as a creation of new knowledge.

The problem for conservatives is to develop a new political culture where it is unthinkable to propose and boost the unlimited kind of ruling class political power that young heads full of mush have loved ever since Marx.  There is a role for force, of course, in cracking the heads of street thugs and thug dictators -- in other words to wage war on all gangs of young male marauders.

But the role and the rule of force is limited.  Once you have dealt with the problem of thuggery, you don't need force; indeed force becomes counterproductive: that's why the Soviet Union is no more.  Once the thugs have been dealt with you need instead things like cooperation and trust and sincerity and the basic proposition of Adam Smith that if you want to thrive in the world you need to think and do something about satisfying other peoples' needs.

That is the great challenge for conservatives.  How do we construct and colonize the public sphere with a doctrine of political power that limits political power, that limits the "rule" in "ruling class?"  In other words, how do we sell the ruling class on a culture of political power that takes all the fun out of ruling?

Because, as the philosopher George Maroutsos said: You don't have power unless you've abused it.  Power without abuse is merely responsibility.  And who will fight and kill for mere responsibility?

How, in fine, do we make another Barack Obama impossible?  The terrifying thing about President Obama is not his apparent laziness, his divisiveness, his use of the IRS to punish his enemies.  It is that he is utterly oblivious of the totalitarian tendency of his politics, and his supporters in the educated liberal ruling class seem utterly unable to grasp where that politics leads.

That is our problem and it is scandalous that conservatives have not yet set the world ablaze with the glorious fire of our program of the limitation of powers.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Time for Conservative Critical Theory

When the Left invented their modern theory of justice the idea was that the bourgeoisie and their bribed apologists in the government were systematically exploiting the new working class.  So more government was needed to liberate the working class and curb the bourgeoisie.

After the experience of 20th century Bolvshevism and fascism some of the more advanced thinkers on the Left -- we call them the Frankfurt School --  developed a more nuanced picture of modern society.  Now the cognoscenti proposed that government and business in league together represented a hegemonic power, a system that dominated society with political and economic power, the administrative state, that was supported by corporate media shoveling ruling-class propaganda at the masses using mass media.

To Jürgen Habermas, the second generation Frankfurt chappie, the mass media represented a deformation of the development of public sphere as in the 18th century, what he called “Öffentlichkeit” culture.  Mass media is not the same as intellectuals arguing in coffee-houses.

If operational behavior and communicative action form two aspects of social life, labor and language, as Habermas develops in Theory of Communicative Action, then the political and economic domination form a third aspect, a deformation of social relations.  This domination and deformation creates a need for "critical theory" to emancipate "the social agent [you and me] of deeply engrained patterns of thought that constrain self-understanding."  Writes David Ingram in Habermas and the Dialectic of Reason, "With the advent of modern class society, however, it [the emancipatory interest] has increasingly become a survival interest."

Couldn't agree more, Jürgi and Dave.  Now, if we apply a truly modern concept of modern class society from a recent article from John Hayward in "The Real Class War" at, we are finally getting somewhere.  Forget Upper Class, Lower Class, and Middle Class.  How about this?
There really is a class war in America today, but it’s not between any of these Marxist bumper cars. The three real classes are the Ruling Class, the Dependency Class, and Everyone Else.

The Dependency Class is by no means filled with poor people. Far from it. And the Ruling Class is not at all limited to elected officials. Lots of people are becoming dependent upon government power and money. Many of them are extremely wealthy. The Ruling Class depends on them for its power. Everything the Ruling Class does is designed to protect its own interests, and keep its favorite dependent constituents happy. Other priorities are secondary, if they count for anything at all.
So the critical theory, the emancipatory thrust, has to come from the Everyone Else class.

Look, this is not rocket science.  Let's go to another Jürgi, the Austrian Georg Jellinek and his "three element" theory of the state.  It needs ein Staatsgebiet, ein Staatsvolk, eine Staatsgewalt.  In English, this means: state territory, state subjects, and state power.

Golly, it looks like great minds think alike.  In my theory of the state we have an armed minority (the Ruling Class) ruling over a subject people in some territory.  It maintains itself in power by taking money from the subject people (Everyone Else) to give handouts to its supporters (the Dependency Class).

We, the Everyone Else class, need to develop a critical theory to critique and defeat the present Ruling Class and its supporters, the Dependency Class.  We need to emancipate ourselves "of deeply engrained patterns of thought that constrain self-understanding."  In other words we need to purge ourselves of the mass media memes that constantly issue from the Ruling Class and their bribed apologists in the mainstream media, and we need to develop and distribute new ideas of freedom and liberation and the social healing of civil society to end the reign of injustice from the Ruling Class and its hired thugs in the Dependency Class.

End of story.