What Top CEOs Don’t Understand

Since they have not studied anything remotely similar to economic history, it is understandable that top CEOs don’t get it. I get it. But Vanderbilt economist Margaret Blair should know better. 

According to Professor Blair, capitalists in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s reflected an interest in the public. “It was around ’88 or ’89 that their tone changed and they started advocating shareholder primacy.” Really?

Yes, in the shadow of the worst global economic downturn in history, with fascism and nationalism breathing down their necks, elected officials radically overhauled the regulatory frameworks that governed private corporations. But do not think for a moment that capitalists woke up one day in the 1930s and decided that the bottom line was no longer the bottom line. That never happened.

What did happen was that the United States spent some $14.63T defeating fascism and nationalism. Thanks to union activism, big government and big government contracts lifted working families up from the bottom. When, in the early 1970s, this huge multiplier ran out of steam, corporations began working assiduously to deregulate industry and shift the tax burden back onto working families.

Investors are not evil people. They are, however, not the same as the public. Consumers are not the same thing as citizens. CEOs are not the same thing as public servants. The very fact that we are looking to private business to change its tune displays a profound misunderstanding of republican values and institutions, on the one hand, and of private equity on the other.

Do private investors care about their world? Of course they do. But, to the extent that they believe its future lies in their private market decisions, to this extent they fundamentally misunderstand the problem.

Immigration and The Post-Constitutional President

On Thursday (May 17), the liar-in-thief outlined an immigration overhaul that promised to “protect American wages, promote American values, and attract the best and brightest from all around the world.” I am going to ignore the deceit underlying the President’s proposal: the false assertion that low-wage foreign victims of violence and abuse are the cause for crime in the US. Those who have made it their lifelong pursuit to understand and document crime disagree: undocumented immigrants are overwhelmingly less likely to commit violent crimes than full-blown, domestically grown and raised citizens (LIGHT, M. T. and MILLER, T. (2018), DOES UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRATION INCREASE VIOLENT CRIME?*. Criminology, 56: 370-401. doi:10.1111/1745-9125.12175); also https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/13/upshot/illegal-immigration-crime-rates-research.html). Anyone who expects this President to tell the truth about anything is fooling themselves.

Instead I want to focus on the real heart of this proposal; the aim to overturn the citizenship clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

For the most part, the US Constitution is an exceptional document. But in one respect it is deeply and fundamentally flawed. In order to bring delegates from southern states to support the new Constitution, northern delegates were forced to concede that each souther slave would count as 3/5ths a non-slave for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The notorious 3/5ths clause established (1) that African slaves were private property (no path to citizenship); and (2) that private property would enjoy a seat and a say in the United States House of Representatives.

That is the legacy of Dread Scott v Sanford (60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857)), which denied personhood to Mr Scott, a slave.

When the Fourteenth Amendment affirmed that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” its intention was not simply to overturn Dread Scott, but also to eliminate the seat that private property had enjoyed in the US Congress since 1787.

Uniquely in 1868, but still rare among the nations, the United States elected not to base citizenship on the unique qualities, qualifications, or wealth an individual brought to the table. If a person is born here, they belong here. That person enjoys all of the rights, privileges, and obligations of every other citizen, without distinction. Period.

The liar-in-thief’s immigration proposal, which aims to link immigration not to what unites us — our humanity — but to what distinguishes individuals from one another, is a bald attempt to reinstate Dread Scott. Persons fleeing violence, oppression, war and poverty need not apply. Only persons who enjoy wealth, education, and privilege are welcomed.

But the liar-in thief is also dead wrong on the fundamental economics of his proposal. If the President genuinely wished to “protect American wages” he would vigorously promote a strategy similar to his German counterpart who has made high quality, affordable education available to all German citizens, but without the debilitating debt that loan-sharks pile on every new generation of wage earners. Instead, the President is willing to concede defeat and allow highly skilled, well-educated foreigners take the high-wage positions that Americans are no longer qualified to fill. More poorly educated and trained Americans will then be forced into the low-wage, low-skill positions for which they are now uniquely qualified.

In the past, each new wave of immigrants stepped into the labor market at or near the bottom. The liar-in-thief wants to change that. He wants each new wave to step in at the top. An alternative strategy would be to make sure that the Americans who are already here are already “the best and the brightest from around the world.”

Finally, brandishing his post-Constitutional credentials, the liar-in-thief substitutes one lone “American value,” wealth, for the love of liberty, democratic process, and republican institutions and values. Because that is precisely how southern delegates saw things back in 1787 when they insisted that their private wealth — the private market value of their slaves as property — gain a seat in the House of Representatives.

In one matter alone is the President telling the truth: by playing H1Bs against asylum-seekers, he is openly admitting that its not about crime and not about freedom, but about money.

Grace: the slippery slope

Did anyone wish — and there are many who do — they could easily compile a very long list of passages from the Christian Bible condoning misogyny, slavery, and other vile and ignoble practices.

Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord (Colossians 3:22).

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22).

Moreover, not a great deal of digging will show that these “submission” passages were in complete agreement with the highest Stoic moral teachings of first century Palestine and, therefore, the most sophisticated theological teachings of Jewish moral philosophy; all nicely summed up in the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Romans:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7).

Since there is no question but that these teachings brilliantly summarize pagan Stoic moral philosophy, Christians who embrace them rest their case ultimately on something like St Paul’s argument in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (18-22).

That is to say, Christians who defend the misogyny and slavery condoned by God in the Christian Bible must (and do) claim that, however flawed and fallen, Creation sufficiently reveals God’s “invisible attributes,” “eternal power,” and “divine nature,” to leave all people, be they ever so removed from “special revelation” (i.e., the Bible), “without excuse.” Stoics, notwithstanding their pagan understanding, are felt to have been sufficiently keen students of Creation to appreciate God’s “invisible attributes,” “eternal power,” and “divine nature.”

From which it follows that the misogyny and defense of slavery we find in Scripture owe their validity not to the limited, fallen, and flawed cultural forms of first century Palestine, but to the God Who reveals Him Self in Creation.

Let me suggest that any deviation from this, the clear teaching of Scripture will send the true Christian down a slippery slope that finds limited, fallen, and flawed cultural forms throughout Scripture and to avoid which Christians need to presume that even the most culturally and socially embedded biblical teachings — e.g., household, judicial and military codes — enjoy divine approval (I think, for example, of stoning or of David’s mass removal of the foreskins of enemy combatants).

Let me now suggest that this slippery slope is the slope of grace and that it comes with the full endorsement of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Recall that it is not extra-biblical or extra-canonical practices that the Psalmists, the Prophets, and then Jesus called into question during their lives, but commandments delivered directly by God to Moses on Sinai. That is to say, they are not merely “laws of men” posing as divine law. They enjoy the status of what some would call “special” as distinguished from “general” revelation.

On what grounds were they then found wanting?

Even the most superficial reading of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians will help us to see why these laws were found wanting: they were without grace.

Grace is the slippery slope down which we begin to slide once we abandon the security we find identifying Creation and what it is said to be “clearly reveal” with divine intention. Creation “clearly reveals” that the low-born, uninstructed, weak and powerless are victims of God’s divine wrath (see Romans 1-3). To which the Apostle replies in First Corinthians:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:16-31).

This is not simply a deeper understanding of “general” revelation. It is an interpretation that leads one to the very opposite conclusion that one would reach through “general” revelation. It is grace.

Moreover, this grace is not on the page. It is not in the words. Building upon sola scriptura you will never reach this grace:

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; 

but just as it is written,

         “Things which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard;
         And which have not entered the heart of man,
         All that God has prepared for those who love God.”

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words (2:6-13).

This is the slippery slope of grace that not only deepens, but fundamentally challenges what is “clearly revealed” not only in Creation, but Scripture itself.

When Christians reject misogynist passages in Scripture, when they reject slavery, or when they reject all institutions that subject one category of human being to another, they are cascading down the slippery slope . . . of grace.

Many Christians catch themselves sliding down this slope. Slavery is wrong, but wives should be subject to their husbands. Slavery is wrong, but democracy is OK. Or, wives and husbands are equal, but only if they are male and female; for, it is “clearly revealed” in Creation. We catch ourselves before taking the full plunge into grace. Yes to the ordination of women, but . . .

But what if grace is itself the slippery slope?

The Protestant Body: Reflections on the UMC decision

With great sadness and dismay I have read not so much the justifications as the explanations for the United Methodist’s decision to exclude GLBTQ priests from their communion. It is a much broader and more diverse communion than my own Episcopal Church, specially as we move outside the North Atlantic region. Granted. However, in my view, the problem runs much deeper and strikes at the core identity of Protestantism.

Diane Butler Bass captures the right tone when she counts the mass exodus from our churches and seminaries evidence of a fourth Great Awakening. Since the beginning, Protestantism has been Janus-faced regarding the body (and, obviously, the Body). In my Weber and the Persistence of Religion (London 2006), I show how this binary has been the Protestant signature since the sixteenth century. Secular bodies, divine souls.

Among Europeanists, this is uncontested. When in 1324 the abbot of St Pierre, in Ghent, ordered the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently erected by them, he set in motion a cascade of fatalities the likes of which had never before darkened history. For the first time anywhere, the value of productive human activity would be measured in equal units of abstract time. The good abbot could not have known it at the time, but his order was the signal event in the birth of capitalism, a social form that rests on the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance. Clocks had been spreading throughout Western Europe since the twelfth century. Wherever there was a monastery, there was need for accurately announcing times of prayer. But it was not until the fourteenth century that clocks began to find a different use: measuring the value of productive human activity.

Until then nominalism — a philosophy that isolates meaning from bodies — was an overwhelmingly minority opinion among theologians and philosophers. The practical isolation of abstract value from the bodies that produced and the bodies produced by productive human activity gave quotidian embodiment to and confirmation of the isolation of abstract value from its material forms of appearance. Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, religious practitioners became accustomed to differentiating the value of bodies from their material forms of appearance. When Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, the revolution whose authorship he claimed was already two centuries old. Faith and works; spirit and flesh; grace and merit — these pairings, already clothed in mystical Stoic clothing in the first century — won a new lease on life. Freed from the substance metaphysics that had dominated spiritual practice and reflection since forever, capitalism gave renewed vigor to the isolation of spirits from the bodies they merely occupied.

Only among sociologists of religion — and, today, only in America — is this scholarship contested. Protestantism — its fragmentation, to be sure, but also its dynamism — mirrors the creatively destructive movement of the capitalist social formation itself. Bodies — thinking, speaking, declaring, confessing, candle-illuminated , beclouded in incense, robed, kneeling, rising, crossing bodies in time and space — are sacrificed to their abstract, transcendental God. Anyone the least familiar with first century Jewish piety knows with absolute certainty that this isolation of bodies from spirits is completely foreign to biblical Jewish and Christian thought and practice. Bodies and their sacred character are central to both traditions.

When Protestants pull free from bodies, when they liberate themselves from bodies that weigh them down — traditions, customs, practices, relationships, words — and set their hearts upon things that cannot be seen, they show themselves to be handmaids of the capitalist social form whose forms they embody. This is specially so in their experience of the Holy Sacrament, but it also apparent in the disappearing wounds of Christ in iconography after 1500, and the simultaneous eroticization and androgynisation of Mary’s body, whose breasts are no longer permitted to feed the Church after 1500. M Foucault misunderstands the practical, social production of capitalist misogyny. But he absolutely grasps the oppression to which it gives rise.

There are simply too many studies from the high Middle Ages to overlook the broad sexual palette that informed Christians, say, in 600. And it is simply impossible to read Hebrew and Christian sacred texts without arriving at a similar conclusion.

On the one hand, this means that hostility to LGBTQ sexuality is a feature of neither Judaism, nor Christianity. It enjoys neither biblical nor historical foundation. It is, to the contrary, a product in its entirety of the capitalist social form and its immanent hostility to the body (and to the Body).

The tragedy is that many of us who are otherwise sympathetic with the LGBTQ community have bought into the narrative that fills its sails. Insofar as capitalism was the handmaiden to Protestantism at its birth, I believe this doctrinal error is a uniquely Protestant sin. We are uniquely troubled by bodies (and Bodies).

I interpret the UMC decision through the lens of this doctrinal error. Whenever we oppress bodies “spiritually,” we overlook and oppress the Body of the Spirit. For twelve centuries, the Church enjoyed a far deeper, more complex understanding of Bodies. Beginning in 1324, we began to elide bodies. It is the most serious doctrinal error committed by Protestantism. It has a future. It has a history.

Marxism and Economics; Part I

Is there such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics? Until 1918 and the coup that won Bolsheviks the authority to develop and implement economic policy in Russia, this question was, of course, completely theoretical. Until 1918, many economists — more than we might imagine — defended or criticized what they identified as “Marxist” economics; but, lacking an economy in which to implement their theories (or, in the alternative, lacking economy to illustrate how and why “Marxist” economics had failed), “Marxist” economics remained, quite literally, academic.

Nineteen Eighty Nine and the “End of History” (F Fukuyama) might appear to have answered the question once and for all: “Yes, there is such a thing as a specifically ‘Marxist’ economics; and, yes, it failed.” But even were we to conclude, as I do, that the economic policies implemented in the USSR are better described as state capitalist, not Marxist, it is still worth wondering whether there is such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics. For the sake of clarity, I would not count specifically “Marxist” an economic policy that displays a preference for the poor, or for workers, or, more generally, for the marginalized or for minorities. Nor would I count specifically “Marxist” economic policies that socialize some — or even all — sectors of the economy. These policies might be advisable or ill-advised. But when we sit down to “run the numbers” and “measure outcomes” (i.e. winners and losers), economists, given the same data, irrespective of their ideological or moral or social or political commitments, will generate the same curves and the same outcomes. Even if we draw different conclusions from the data, which is normal in economics, all economists embrace the same set of models, the same high-level principles.

Again, for clarity’s sake, no one will contest, I am confident, that beginning in the 1970s the Soviet economy began to falter and that in 1989 it failed. Nor can it be said that it “failed” only because it was isolated and targeted by western capitalist powers. Had western capitalist powers adopted the policies that governed the Soviet economy, they too would have failed. They would have failed in the only task any economy should aspire to fulfill: distributing the marginal product in such a manner as to avoid systemic failure. On this scale, the Soviet Union was not the only economy to suffer collapse in the 1980s and 1990s — mostly, but not exclusively, state capitalist. But, more importantly, in all cases mainstream economic analysis has appeared perfectly competent to explain why these economies failed.

So I will repeat what K Marx claimed in his mature social theory; namely that the interpretive categories of “bourgeois economics” were and remained “valid” for analyzing any society whose social relations are mediated by the production and exchange of commodities:

They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production historically adequate to societies whose social relations are mediated by commodity production [objektive Gedankenformen für die Produktionsverhältnisse dieser historisch bestimmten gesellschaftlichen Produktionsweise, der Warenproduktion] (K Marx Capital vol 1:165, translation altered for clarity).

So long as an economy produces and distributes commodities — irrespective of who owns the means of production, the marginal product, or how the social product is distributed — the categories of bourgeois economics will, claims K Marx, maintain their validity.

Is there such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics? No.

No? But, then, why all the fuss, the work camps, the Gulag, the centralized planning, the shortages, the bottlenecks, the overproduction? Why 1918 to 1989?

Let me propose that K Marx found the categories of bourgeois economics deficient in one and only one respect: they were insufficiently rigorous. Rather than counting value a socially and historically determinate variable, bourgeois economists were inclined to both transcendentalize and functionalize value; but, in both cases, to place value beyond critical scrutiny. To quote K Marx’s contemporary, William Stanley Jevons:

If there is any fact certain about exchange value, it is, that it means not an object at all, but a circumstance of an object. . . . The word Value, so far as it can be correctly used, merely expresses the circumstance of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance (Theory 1871:77).

Within the universe of bourgeois economics, value is not “a thing or an object, or even . . . anything which lies in a thing or object” (ibid.). More specifically, value is neither derived, nor derivable, from labor:

There are . . . those who assert that labour is the cause of value. I show, on the contrary, that we have only to trace out carefully the natural laws of the variation of utility, as depending upon the quantity of commodity in our possession, in order to arrive at a satisfactory theory of exchange, of which the ordinary laws of supply and demand are a necessary consequence” (1-2; emphasis added).

Where classical economists like Adam Smith mistook labor for the source of all wealth (Wealth 1776:i.v.47), bourgeois economists recognized that labor itself acquired its value only from the ratios in which it was exchangeable for other commodities; other commodities which were, in turn, exchangeable for discrete amounts of every other commodity in direct proportion to the utility these commodities held, not for individual sellers, buyers, or consumers, but for markets in aggregate. Supply and demand, Jevons therefore correctly maintained, were not the cause, but the consequence of “natural laws” governing variations in utility. It follows that observation of the production and consumption of the lone individual will tell us nothing whatsoever about economic value.

But, when we consider the consumption of a nation as a whole, the consumption [of any individual] may well be conceived to increase or diminish by quantities which are, practically speaking, infinitely small compared with the whole consumption. The laws . . . are to be conceived as theoretically true of the individual; they can only be practically verified as regards the aggregate transactions, productions, and consumptions of a large body of people (48; emphasis added).

Value in bourgeois economics is therefore not only “the circumstance of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance” (77; emphasis in original), but, according to Jevons, it is an abstract social substance deemed “theoretically true of the individual.” Or, as Jevons later puts it:

When we speak of the ration of exchange of pig-iron and gold, there can be no possible doubt that we intend to refer to the ratio of the number of units of the one commodity to the number of units of the other commodity for which it exchanges, the units being arbitrary concrete magnitudes, but the ratio an abstract number” (82; emphasis added).

“Marxist” economists will fault bourgeois economics of the sort practiced by William Stanley Jevons for his rejection of “Marx’s” labor theory of value; when, in fact, what he rejected was Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus’ labor theory of value: “As to Ricardo, Malthus, Adam Smith, and other great English economists, . . . I am not aware that they ever explicitly apply the name ratio to exchange or exchangeable value” (82). Jevons was right. They do not. But Karl Marx will, most notably in his 1867 Das Kapital. “We have seen,” Marx wrote, “that when commodities are in the relation of exchange, their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value” (Marx 1982:128).

This sounds very close to Jevons’ claim. It is. But there is a difference. Like Marx, Jevons had denied that value might be a quality found in things. And, like Marx, Jevons too counted value an abstract social substance. But, as we have seen, unlike Marx, Jevons was eager to ground value in natural laws: “we have only to trace out carefully the natural laws of the variation of utility . . . in order to arrive at a satisfactory theory of exchange, of which the ordinary laws of supply and demand are a necessary consequence.” Marx, by contrast, had by 1876 given up on his search for natural laws, whether of history or of economics. To be sure, value, Marx agreed, describes a relationship between exchangeable goods, not in an isolated exchange, but in aggregate across an entire market and, in fact, across global markets. Yet Marx was willing to pursue this line of analysis far more rigorously than Jevons. Abstract value did not halt at the doorstep of labor. Labor — labor in the abstract — was instead value’s “natural,” or, rather, value’s naturalized home.

Jevons was correct. Empirical, individual labor was not the source of value. And to the extent that this was the position of Adam Smith or David Ricardo or Thomas Malthus, then Marx agreed: they were mistaken. But the fault Marx found among classical economists was not their having mistaken labor for the source of value. The fault he found was in their level of abstraction. It was from labor in the abstract, in aggregate, that goods, also in aggregate, acquired their abstract value. In Marx’s view, then, Jevons’ return to utility counted as a theoretical regression. So eager was Jevons to establish the natural and therefore necessaryscientific character of value, that he was willing to ground it empirically in the utilitarian binary pleasure and pain. “As Senior most accurately says, ‘Utility denotes no intrinsic quality in the things we call useful; it merely expresses their relations to the pains and pleasures of mankind'” (Theory 43). But, surely, if anything defies abstraction, surely pains and pleasures do. Pains and pleasures, specifically, cannot be measured in aggregate. And they, most definitely, are not quantities measurable across all of mankind “mankind.”

Marx will agree with the bourgeois economists:

If we abstract from their use-value, there remains their value, as it has just been defined. The common factor in the exchange relation, or in the exchange value of the commodity, is therefore its value. The progress of the investigation will lead us back to exchange-value as the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value (Marx 1982:128).

Where he differs is in his readiness to consider value not from the vantage point of quasi-natural, empirical qualities such as pleasure and pain, but to count all value, including labor, in the abstract as socially and historically determinate. Bourgeois economists, such as Jevons, insisted that value described a market-wide ratio among values in the abstract. Marx agreed. And it was because he agreed that he found fault with their attempts to ground value empirically, whether in pleasure or pain or in some other (quasi-)natural law of economics.

There is no mystery over why Marx found fault with bourgeois economists. He agreed with GWF Hegel. The world, as a whole, had reached a point where it had become aware of the conditions of its own production. It had reached this point because the subjective principles governing individual social action had constituted a social world adequate to — i.e., in agreement with — individual subjectivity. Where Marx differed from Hegel was in the identity of the Agent each credited with this universal coherence. Hegel credited this universal coherence to a Weltgeist, a world spirit who’s inner principle was to externalize, objectify, itself and then expand to reincorporate this externalization into its own Being. Through this process, spanning all of history, the world had grown conscious of itself as both spirit and objective truth: as objective spirit.

The young Marx, 1843-1850, had differed with this Hegelian interpretation only in one respect. What Hegel had called the Weltgeist, Marx identified as “real man.” To this extent, the young Marx was a humanist and a romantic. Over the course of the 1850s, however, Marx became convinced that the substitution of Man for Weltgeist failed to accurately grasp the social and historical specificity of the spirit at work in the modern age. His conversion to neoclassical economic theory at the end of 1850s has often been counted a regression. But, in our interpretation, it is a step forward. Yes, the integration of the world into a coherent whole can legitimately be ascribed to labor, to labor in the abstract; or — and this is the same thing — to value in the abstract. But we might equally describe this comprehensive integration as the form of domination unique to the contemporary world.

When neoclassical economists characterize the comprehensive, universal coherence of the the dominant social form, are they describing something different than what Marx describes in Capital? Yet because Marx grounds his characterizations historically and socially — when he shows how this coherence is generated by capital — he is also showing the conditions under which this domination might be superseded.

Is this a specifically “Marxist” economics? And in what does its specificity consist?

Christmas and the Information Fallacy

Surely did we only let people know, they would change their minds, reform their conduct, and make it right. Surely, except that it simply is not so.

Image result for christmas quattrocento
“The Nativity” Piero di Giovanni. ca. 1406–10. Gallery 952. The Met Fifth Avenue

True, information is indispensable. But by itself it counts for very little. Because we see and hear and understand only what we can. I suspect that God, the Infinite One, that Greater than Which Cannot be Thought, the “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” (Hymn No. 424) arrives in Bethlehem, born of an unwed refugee, to make just that point.

“You believe you have placed God at an infinite distance from what is perishable out of respect and devotion; while the truth is that you cannot bear the thought — much less the experience — of God in your world. So, here!”

And so the prophecies and the star and the shepherds and (twelve days later on Epiphany) the wise men — all of that information: Emmanuel, God with us. And (not simply for the sake of coherence or consistency): yes, He Who is born will die, naturally, unnaturally (it hardly matters). God will die. Got that?

Information gold. And we still do not get it.

What we are in need of is not information, but knowledge. We need to know how it is not only possible, but necessary for this God to become flesh; not only possible, but necessary that this God be poor, in need, in turmoil — not at peace, not tranquil, not disembodied, but incarnate. We need to know why His birth announces trouble for (and eventual annihilation of) all principalities and powers.

But to know this we need to reject what we believe we know: Gods cannot be human; Gods cannot suffer; Gods cannot be finite; Gods do not reject power; Gods do not embrace poverty; Gods cannot experience pain; Gods cannot die. These things we know we need to unknow, not because they are based on unreliable information. They are based on the best information. But they are not grounded in the knowledge of the Son of Man.

This we begin to know more fully in Bethlehem.

Brexit: Terrifyingly Familiar

It was Winston Churchill who in 1944 was doomed to repeat a warning first articulated by George Santayana in 1905: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Churchill was repeating it. So are we.

It was with some nausea that I listened today to Michael Barbaro’s December 11 The Daily: “Waiting for Brexit.” Yes. Of course. No one who actually has command of the data felt that Brexit would do anything but hurt the working families who were inclined to vote for it. And, yes. With or without Steve Bannon’s or Russia’s assistance — although it is certain that both were involved — the Leave campaign blatantly lied its way to victory. All of that is true.

Truth is, there is no fail-safe way to make sure that voters enjoy, much less act upon, accurate information. I am thinking of 1914, of the Black Hand, and of the pan-Slavic disinformation campaign that eventually triggered WWI. But I might as well be thinking of the 1920s and Germany and the pivotal role disinformation and misinformation played in building a genuine — albeit “alt-right,” i.e., fascist — movement at that time.

In each instance, including the most recent, the success of these campaigns rests on genuine economic hardship and neglect of large segments of the population by those with the capacity to change those fortunes; and in each instance that hardship has arisen out of the kinds of policies now promoted by regimes found promoting the financial interests of those at the top of the income hierarchy. But, of course, these policies’ success rests upon a misinformed and disempowered public ready to believe the demagogues who promote them.

Information — accurate information — is little help when the public is devoid of receptors equipped to process this information. The conviction that truth will prevail is, in fact, not accurate. The US, which held all of the cards in 1945, would have done well to throw its chips — all of its chips — not simply into public education, but into promoting a social franchise among whose benefits would have been a public empowered and equipped to stare down the difficult choices currently facing the world. Instead, we are saddled with what may be the least well-equipped electorate in US history standing toe-to-toe with the best-financed fascist — I am sorry, “alt-right” — movement ever.

“Resistance is futile” — Star Trek, Next Generation, the Borg Collective.

Brexit is so frustratingly familiar because we have all seen it before. And even — best outcome — if we get another, more informed, vote on the actual Brexit (and not some unicorn-based fantasy Brexit), this will do nothing to help working families who — can we now admit? — desperately need to be heard and acknowledged. (And, let me tell you, Ms May is not the PM to help working families.)

In the hi-tech 1990s, we all forgot about labor, about work, about how hard a schlogg it is always to put food on the table and, God forbid, actually enjoy life. “Tech happens.” Well, yeah. But, like all values, its benefits are distributed differentially. And this “natural,” differential distribution is where fascism — sorry, “alt-right” — comes from.

So, let me be very clear. You are hearing, now, from the working class. The working class is not liberal, progressive, and advanced. It is only liberal, progressive, and advanced where it enjoys sufficient means to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. In the real world, the working class is angry. It votes fascist — I’m sorry, “alt-right”; and, when all of the dust has settled and the bodies have been counted — far, far, far more than in WWII — a story will be told, much like the story Friedrich August von Hayek told in 1944 and that all “serious” conservative policy-makers still believe, that the die-off happened because authoritarian states intervened in private markets. Bullshit. Like 1914 and 1932, the massive die-off will happen because publics were insufficiently empowered.

Brexit is frustratingly familiar.

What Does Capital Know?

It is common for us to speak about corporations as though they were people. In fact, for many legal purposes, we treat corporations as though they were people. But this only a legal device, right? Corporations are not aware of our actions, are they? Do corporations make informed decisions?

Back in the early nineteenth century, Romantic artists, writers, and thinkers began to marvel at how all of nature, including, of course, human beings, were linked in a web of life. So taken were they by the comprehensive character of this web that many began to doubt whether individuals were not themselves, in their entirety, products of interactions in whose composition the individuals played no meaningful role. They called this sense of ultimate finitude the “sublime.” One of these thinkers, GWF Hegel, wrote about the totality of relations among all these individual parts as a Spirit or Mind (der Geist) in which we individuals took part.

And then I listed to Michael Barbaro’s December 10 “The Daily.” On this particular show, Barbaro and his guests drilled down into the kind of information that data corporations collect from us, how they map our movements, how — in a sense — they know who we are. And that’s when it struck me: this is Hegel’s Geist, the universal Spirit, or universal Mind.

In Hegel’s interpretation, it is not only that the universal Mind knows the world; it is also the case that the world shapes Mind. As the world changes, this also changes what Mind knows. It changes how Mind interacts with the world that it knows; and so it changes what Mind knows about the world.

But, of course, we are talking about corporations, right? And corporations can’t know; or can they?

Back in the day, when I learned that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were collecting and processing data they collected from my phone, email, and texts, I decided to make it easy on them. I decided to cc: all of my email to John Ashcroft, who at the time was the Attorney General. “On my way home,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Picking up the kids,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Running late,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Do we have dinner plans?” cc: John Ashcroft. It’s probably safe to say that I am not a real big privacy nut. If John wants my information — legally or illegally — John has ways to get it.

But this is different. To my knowledge, although the  corporations that track my purchases and movement adjust their behavior to suit my movement, purchases, and browsing habits — and although they certainly wish to alter my behavior and even my thoughts and desires — to my knowledge no one is really conscious of Me. I am simply one among millions of data points being purchased, sold, and traded in a general effort to expand what economists call the marginal product — that one additional unit of any good, including information about me, that holds value to some investor somewhere. In the New York Times piece, “How the Times Analyzed Location Tracking Companies” (also December 10), a map of Manhattan displays in real data points the precise locations of users when their data was traded:

The map and the story reminded me of Hegel’s description of universal Mind or Spirit. It suggests that we are known and that what is known about us shapes how the world interacts with us.

But somehow, unlike the web of life for 19th century Romantics, this image of data points fails to invoke feelings for the sublime — or maybe I am wrong. Perhaps it does. Perhaps the sheer immensity of the map, and of the project giving rise to the map — the endless pursuit of an ever larger marginal product; next to this project, perhaps we are right to feel small and powerless. And maybe this is sublime. In our case, however, we probably dimly remember clicking the box next to “I AGREE TO SHARE MY LOCATION DATA [while using?] THIS APP.”

Information has value; which is to say, the more an investor knows about me — my movement, my thoughts, my habits, my purchases, my reading lists, my music tastes — the better able that investor is to use this information to maximize their marginal returns. Defenders of data collection point out — correctly — that these returns would fall were their information less reliable. And they point out — correctly again — that data collection holds benefits for both investors and consumers; the more reliable, the more detailed the information, the better equipped investors are to efficiently serve our needs. Impede or impair the dissemination of reliable information, and you will diminish the marginal product. All true.

This changing, growing, expanding “web of life” is data dependent; information has value. Our movements, thoughts, desires, dreams — all have value; in fact, they have marginal value, value that can be precisely mapped and evaluated. And, as with any “web of life,” it is possible to disrupt and impair its capacity to grow and expand.

But let us now suppose that the Romantics were wrong. They thought they were describing a timeless iterative historical process, a comprehensive whole, a totality, that only within the past century was becoming conscious of itself. What if, instead, we assume that the Romantics were simply picking up on the fact that, for the first time ever in history, global markets had become sufficiently integrated, comprehensive, and rational to give individual investors and consumers within these markets a sense of being very small and insignificant? What if what Hegel called Mind or Spirit (der Geist) was already nearly identical to the data points displayed on the pages of The New York Times article?

If these questions fall not too wide from their mark, then privacy regulations miss the point. Whether or not some data collection firm “knows” the shape of our lives, this will not prevent our lives from taking their shape from the intricate “web of life” composed by capital. But, of course, this is no web of life in any meaningful biological sense. Rather is it  the living, dynamic, transforming and transformative capitalist system, expanding, growing, and occupying every corner of our lives. Controlling the flow of information will do no more than invite it to expand in some other way. What is important is not the data points. What is important is that you are shopping. Happy Holidays!

All Faiths are NOT the Same

The past week I participated in a forum staged by the Interfaith Action Initiative. Happily, the participants — both students and professors — were eager to explore the differences between Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions and forms of observance. Indeed, all faulted our insufficient religious instruction for our failure to grasp “why all the fuss?”

Without blaming anyone, there is something deeply, fundamentally, absolutely disturbing in the interfaith symbol, irrespective of the symbol at its core:

Image result for interfaith symbol

The problem is not that it erases or makes light of 10,000 years of real history. The problem is that it assumes that difference is the cause for violence. Difference is not the cause for violence. The failure to recognize and accept difference is the cause for violence.

Islam is not a more advanced form of Judaism or Christianity. Christianity is not a more advanced form of Judaism. Islam is not a synthesis of Judaism and Christianity. At best — at best — Judaism is a foundation, but only for Christianity and Islam; not the myriad other spiritual formations that have found their place in history.

I will acknowledge that there is something comforting in the notion that we all, ultimately, believe the same thing. But historically, socially, even analytically, that is not true. It is false. Even though Jews find expressions of G_d in Creation, no Jew who is a Jew (as opposed to a “Jew for Jesus”) will countenance a G_d born even of a Virgin. These are not the same things.

The Holy Prophet, blessed be His Name, is not Jesus, but better. The Holy Prophet is wholly human, but not for this reason uninspiring and uninspired. This is different, fundamentally different, than Jesus or Moses. To reduce the Holy Prophet to the latter is to fundamentally misrecognize and disrespect Islam. Salaam.

Not to mention eastern, non-Abrahamic spiritual disciplines.

We behave, all of us, as though difference is a cause for violence. Difference is a cause for understanding, and, we hope, for better appreciation. So please, please, please, do not feel that “we are all the same” is an expression of appreciation. It is not. It is an expression of disinterest and ignorance.

Back Surgery

So, I have a date and a time: December 18, at 8:00 am. At 8:00 am my surgeon will slice through my skin and muscle around H4-H5, peel back the skin, and, if all goes according to plan, begin “cleaning out” the excess bone and debris that has accumulated there, along with a noxious cyst that, truth be told, is the center of all this unnecessary pain. And then they will close me up and administer heavy doses of narcotics to relieve the pain of healing. Six weeks later, I will bounce up to the stage and begin teaching Urban Economics 155. Yes!

I don’t know what pain after 10 feels like. But I do know something close to 10, which is what I live with constantly, which is what justifies the surgery. So, for example, pain close to 10 did not prevent me from scaling the Tennessee Valley Ridge Trail two weeks ago — I could not feel legs or feet; nor has it prevented me from scaling the six floors to my office twice a week, or the 5-7 miles I walk (wander?) every day in Berkeley. So, if 10 doesn’t hamper my mobility, why even bother?

I am not my “self.” I really am my body. As many who have known me for long will attest, I am not my “self.” It is not that my body intercedes. I really am my body. In fact, I could not religiously participate in Mass were I not my body. The body is not immaterial. It is not incidental. I am not my “self.” I am my body. Which is why, Sunday after Sunday, I consume the Body, which is not immaterial.

When — as brother Foucault would say — when I discipline my body by enduring pain at its highest level, I am not an ascetic. I do not believe this translates me anywhere else. I am not seeking to become a non-body. Were I to seek this, I would thereby renounce my faith. I am a body . . . in pain. Living . . . in pain.

But the pain is not  . . . is not . . . emancipatory; any more than the crucifixion of the Palestinian Jew on the Cross is emancipatory. No. The pain  points beyond itself. It points to a moment when I am without pain, whole, restored, happy. And, in the midst of extraordinary pain, I have looked forward — literally, looked forward — to when there is no pain; fully knowing that that point may never actually arrive. But the pain itself is not the goal, the aim, the solace. That would be perverse. It would erase, eviscerate, elide the meaning of the Cross — which is Life. The Cross too points beyond the Cross. The Cross is not its meaning.

So, I am going under the knife to see whether my mind and body can enjoy a few more years with normal pain; not 10, but, say, 5, or even 3. It may be then that I will be able to focus on more perduring forms of pain that surgery cannot eliminate. In any case, I cannot say for sure that surgery will make me any better equipped to enjoy all of you and the amazing world around me.

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to back surgery.