Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by Carl Dyke

It’s now pretty much officially understood that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media feeds promote cognitive bubbling, a subset of what Dyke the Elder just called “ego condoms.” In a way that was presumably much harder when there was just the one corner store and no portable screens to displace awkward neighborly interactions, folks get to select (and have selected for them) their feeds of news, commentary, entertainment, and social interaction for narrow, comforting self-confirmation. Folks think small, and defend their small thinking fiercely. When contaminants rudely break through the latex, the threat of contagion meets with a poorly developed intellectual immune system that has to kick into panic mode to repel the invaders. How’s that for some metaphors.

A current example is the liberal / progressive reaction to the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Donald Trump’s Director of Strategy. Consigliere Bannon was most recently a mastermind of the Trump campaign. Before that he ‘ran’ in some sense the clickbaity right wing news and commentary consortium Breitbart News Network, worked mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, ran a media investment bank, made celebratory movies about heroes of conservatism, and directed Biosphere 2. Ha.

Bannon is a classic self-made man, working class, Irish Catholic, bootstrappy, with the usual disdain for ‘the Establishment’ and whiners who put their hand out rather than working their way up. Like anyone with this trajectory who takes this attitude, he seems to be completely oblivious to the systemic flows, gates, and filters that selectively advantage the efforts of guys like him, even while skillfully navigating them. We all know a bunch of guys like this. You’d like to be impressed and happy for them if they weren’t so poisonous. These are the people who are in charge now.

The obliviousness to the selectivity of system flows is one ego condom. The reification of ‘the Establishment’ is another. He’s well defended against the paralyzing confounds of complexity. Guys like this succeed not despite their selective perception but because of it. They’re hard points driven at the gaps and fissures of moving targets. All of the metaphors of the phallus and its disciplining apply here.

A lot of the left commentary would like this guy to be scary because he’s a bigot. That is literally the no-brainer response, a pure reflex. A guy like this may well be a bigot but also gives two shits about race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other ego condoms of righteous subalternity. You can be as blackly, gayly transwhatsis as you like, as long as you do it on your own time and don’t try to leverage it against him. You’re as free to be any of those things as you earn for yourself. These are libertarians, not social conservatives, although that’s one of the weirder aggregations of the American right at the moment. They’re brought together by the more than plausible perception that progressive identity politics does, in fact, try to leverage against them, whether it be ‘their’ resources and opportunities or their world view. So I take Bannon himself at his word when he says he’s not racist or sexist or homophobic. To him, all of that is (diagnostically, to be sure) beside the point.

Cognitive latexing against complexity ‘works’, in a pointy kind of way, but of course it comes with consequences. On the left it means we’ll go into the next election cycle still not knowing what hit us or having any idea what to do about it. On the right, among lots of other things you get Bannon.

You may not want to watch this whole video but never fear, I’ve done it for you. Why? Because my own defenses against complexity are poor, so I’m easily distracted. Bannon is actually a smart guy and he’d like to be engaged with the big picture. All that latex though means that the big picture can’t be complex, so he’s got to linearize it. Latex linearity is all over this talk. He tells a story about the heroic history of Judeo-Christian values. He grafts capitalism onto that story without even momentary irony. And here comes the apocalypse: the wealth and opportunity afforded the whole world by Judeo-Christian capitalism is catastrophically imperiled by the huge national debt racked up and then foisted on the common man by the rapacity and cronyism of the Establishment.

We’ve heard this all before. Righteous, angry, frightening certainty around a securely linearized narrative is, as Bannon himself says, one of the most profoundly motivating strategies of being in the world. As is so often the case, this version picks out some things that are more or less true. Bannon is right, he’s just not all the way right. As a linearizer he can’t be all the way right (well, none of us can) but he can be the kind of partly right that ends up being super wrong.

In passing, he’s a little right and then very wrong about the Western Judeo-Christian thing for all the reasons that Kwame Anthony Appiah says better than I could. The consequence of that is a severe truncation of the evolutionary resources that the whole process of historical experimentation has made available to us. Extinction awaits the species that locks itself into a single evolutionary strategy. The dinosaurs are gone but the birds are still with us. Bannon is a tyrannosaurus, which is a cool thing to be until it’s not. Evolution is for the birds.

More importantly he’s also a little bit right about the debt, or rather about how the debt has been played by the various loose assemblages of visionaries, fools, and scoundrels who have gradually over the course of centuries but then with increasing speed in recent times worked out how to make money appear and disappear without material mediation. It’s true, for example, that the numbers are now simply mind-boggling. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money. Except we’re not. None of the money is real except the stuff regular folks are still expected to buy things with and pay back if it’s borrowed. All of the rest of it moves around and pops into and out of existence in computers in whatever numbers are needed to get stuff done from time to time. “Debt” has always been another name for money, but the point of distinguishing them is now functionally obsolete.

Bannon tells the story of the crash of 2008 and its bailout as the story of enormous debt being created that is yet to be accounted for and paid back. What actually happened is that the people who do money finally figured out almost all the way that they could just invent as much of it as they needed to settle things down and get on with being rich. And that’s what they did. Overnight. Several trillion dollars, by fiat. Many more trillions since then, as Bannon says. And it worked. It settled things right down, and it’s still out there being money.

In fact there’s so much money now no one knows what to do with it all. It’s parked in the zeros and ones of offshore computers, waiting for someone to have a bright idea. And still they make more, with no inflation because unlike Zimbabwe and Germany after WW 1, nobody but the latex apocalysts even begins to doubt the robustness of the underlying system. Money that was not borrowed, but flat invented. Money so fungible it makes money pointless. Making people pay for things, and especially making people pay for the money of debt, is at this point just a bad habit. It doesn’t even make the wealthy any wealthier – they can just write themselves on that many zeros and ones any time they like. It’s all counted with machine precision but it doesn’t need to be accounted for, and unless we get really unfathomably stupid, it never needs to be paid back because it was never taken from anywhere it needs to be paid back to.

Unfortunately this is exactly the unfathomable stupidity that Bannon is flogging. We’ve just finally demonstrated conclusively that there’s as much money as we need for whatever we think we need. Right now only ‘the Establishment’ are benefiting fully from that; we can be angry about that together. But we’re literally one evolutionary step from the regime of shared plenty, and the tyrannosaurus wants to collapse plenty into austerity. He wants to haul us back to the horrifying constraints of the gold standard and the poor house.

The problem is that there is literally no way for a linearizer to see this. The new money is an effective abstraction. It’s not causally tied to any material antecedent. It’s not produced by work, or ingenuity, or great stores of gold, or any other tangible whatsis. It’s no longer even indexing the wealth and power of any one nation state. It is enabled by the complexity of the global economy. It is supported by an enormous network of official and unofficial actors, all of them entrained to an accounting regime that completely by accident emerged, first vulnerably in places like Ireland and Greece and then invulnerably in the U.S., into a self-organizing, self-sustaining global guarantor of value. It’s a system that’s big enough and rich enough to effortlessly support a fine standard of living for the kind of global population we’d have if everyone was happy and secure, although right now it’s mostly just driving the left side of the Pareto distribution to ridiculous heights. A Hayek with his market emergence might have been able to wrap his mind around this, although he didn’t buy Keynes’ first rumblings. But it can only baffle and enrage a vulgar fetishist of individual striving like Bannon.

Bannon wants to bring back the jobs and get people working again. Oh for the good old days when America was more separately and tangibly great. This in an environment where our machines have increasingly displaced necessary labor, and where most of us ‘work’ at exchanging optional services in a way that makes the discourses of productivity a cruel joke. Why would we want to bring back jobs? The old folks and historical re-enactors can do whatever jobs they want to while the rest of us figure out what to do with all this time we’ll have on our hands. Make steel, if we like, or not. Learn things and share them with each other. Do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as we have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

We live in interesting times. The possibility fan includes the worlds of the apocalysts of the left and right, frightened and enraged and weirdly empowered by complexity and change, declaring doom and retreating to a cramped, sustainable austerity. It also includes pushing forward into this new regime that has now fully matured right under our noses. I’d like to think the latter is inevitable but in fact it’s not – the Stephen Effin Bannons of the world actually hold it in their power to enforce their cramped, austere, linear image on the world by decoupling the linkages that make the new order possible. This is now what’s at stake. Everything else is the tail trying to wag the dog.


45 Comments to “Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon”

  1. Myron Cohen was one of the great Jewish stand-up comedians. The following joke is his. I hold back from trying the dialect, though this falsifies Cohen considerably. He also worked a good bit in Yiddish. He was, that is, a good deal more Jewish than the other, better known stand-up Jewish comedians. For example, take Henny Youngman. Please.
    A guy comes home from work unexpectedly early one day. He walks into the house and yells out that he’s home. Presently his wife shows up to greet him, She’s considerably flustered, and in serious deshabille. This occasions suspicions in the guy, so after the initial greeting he starts wandering around, casually peeking here and there: under the bed and so on. Finally he opens a closet door. Inside there’s a guy standing stark naked. The husband: “What are you doing in there?!!” The guy in the closet: “Well, everybody gotta be somewhere.”
    Indeed; and by the same metaphysical lights, everybody gotta be someone — and for all that, everything gotta be something. Identity politics is evolutionarily ancient. Even sniffing assholes is relatively young. Assholes evolved rather recently.
    The ’50’s, when I was in high school and college, were still the post WWII years, and, of course, the classic Cold War years. So we young proto-intellectuals vexing Les Mains Sale, German guilt, and so on. In addition, the literature of identity, partly from Durkheim and old sociology, and partly from Sartre, Camus, et. al.. Since I was at Brandeis, Marcuse, Hanna Arendt and her critics of the banality of evil, Lewis Coser, Kurt Wolff, Abe Maslow, and so on were my mentors. Central to our pondering was the concept of AUTHENTICITY. A central conundrum was the question of whether there could be an authentic (in the appropriate sense) Nazi. The need for “appropriate sense” arises because of the existential search for identity that was appropriately honest, to put it briefly but accurately. The contrast space was created by mauvais fois (wild goose). Good faith and bad faith were the poles. So the abiding question was whether there could be a Nazi in good faith.
    So we have authenticity, honesty, and good faith. Initially, before matters get too tangled, I say that Bannon is an authentic Libertarian. As Carl says, he isn’t an authentic racist or sexist. That, as Carl says, is pretty much an irrelevancy for him. Similarly, he isn’t an anti-semite, authentic or inauthentic, because he doesn’t want his kids raised the way he conceives Jews to raise their kids. He’s got a stereotype on his hands that has to be criticized, but that’s another matter.
    So the question to be answered this week is, “What is Trump, authentically?” I’m willing to get to that question, when I have a bit more time. However, it’s going to be tough, for I’ll have to think about what honesty, authenticity, and good faith have come to mean in our day.
    Oh, and we might ask about what Hillary is, authentically, as well.

  2. Yes, I had this in mind. I think what our work and many others’ on identity has shown more recently is that it’s only by some kind of brute force that it can ever work like the authenticity discourse wants it to. You’ve got materials and trajectories, situations and configurations, assemblages more or less durable. Selves smeared out across the existential landscape. Asher’s network stuff confirms this amply. Ironically, Bannon’s crowd need things to be more stable and bounded than that, which is why he can really like and admire Jews as long as they’re in Israel being Israeli (and why he can’t think past debt being debt). And therefore also why it’s in some sense fair and even respectful to call him a racist even though we may know better.

  3. I’m experiencing a persistent self-nagging that I ought to engage with this thread, along with a persistent confusion about how and where to gain any sort of traction, any way of failing to miss the point.

    I know next to nothing about Breitbart or Bannon. I listened to the first couple of minutes of Bannon’s linked talk, in which he seems to be building a case against the sort of neo-Keynesian stimulus and easing program of the Obama regime in favor of austerity. It seems ironic, or maybe perverse, that this message is coming from a guy who came from Goldman Sachs, maybe the prime exploiter of debt leverage via rebundling and hedging that brought on the Great Recession, as well as the subsequent federal bailout. Is he a convert or, like Trump purports to be, a sociopath who’s going use those same wiles and loopholes by which he enriched himself to advance America’s interests now?

    I’ve also been reading Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century where, in the last chapter, he addresses the public debt. He points out that the servicing the debt for financing public services is equivalent to the government paying rent for those services, because it’s only the wealthy who can afford to lend vast sums to government and who can collect the interest payments. Piketty also observes that, for Europe, the average national net asset position is close to equilibrium, “which means that European firms and sovereign debt are owned by European households (or, more precisely, what the rest of the world owns of Europe is compensated by what Europeans own of the rest of the world.” While there is a slight unbalance in the US — more capital outflow than inflow — it’s as though China is taking ownership of America. The whole world economy shows this same trend, as if the earth was being bought up by Mars (Piketty’s analogy). That’s due entirely to illegal money laundering havens like the one recently exposed in Panama, where from an accounting standpoint the assets of rich people seemingly go out of existence.

    As for identitarian politics, do you think that a return to class analysis is what’s needed? I didn’t hear Clinton’s concession speech, but I imagine her tearfully encouraging the disillusioned little girls: I joined the 1%, and so can you. It is problematic when the working-class constituency she failed to woo is populated so heavily by white trash deplorables.

  4. What Carl points out is the tangle of identities that make anything like a classic class analysis impossible. The resulting dynamics are chaotic:always flipping and flopping across hideously convoluted basin boundaries. Put another way, no bookie would bet on the composition of the next coalition. That’s as true, though differently dimensionalized, for the middle east as it is for the US. A possible example is the Clintons, who managed to capture the Yale elite from traditional Republicans as there means of access to the big bucks big pols must have. Hence Hillary’s problems with Bernie Sanders who, by the weird way, is more like Bannon than he must be comfortable with. Populism collects what in the 60’s I used to call the grand coalition of the permanently pissed off. That coalition isn’t easily located in any low dimensional way, let alone in terms of class.

  5. Instead of positing classes as discrete categorical variables, it seems worthwhile to regard wealth as a continuous empirical variable. In a static view, the distribution of wealth in America is highly stratified. Over time, the stratification has been increasing since Reagan, with that trend projected to continue, and with relatively low mobility of individuals up and down the continuum. These might not be classic classes — more like empirically derived classes.

  6. Making wealth a continuous variable was the enlightenment economists’ dream. (Making it a continuous constant is the welfare state’s dream.) To make wealth a continuous variable you first have to abstract away all qualitative differences, set them aside, or some such. The usual attempt was to equate wealth with quantities of labor — in the abstract, of course, or you re-introduced quality. In quasi-continuity with that attempt. But so as not to give priority to those who labor, wealth was to be equated with capital, classically defined as the capacity to command labor. In a post-industrial, rent seeking, economy that definition of wealth obviously becomes obsolete, Defining wealth in terms of capital, so defined, becomes absurd. It would be tempting to extend or re-dimensionalize wealth in terms of the capacity to command what you need and/or want, and what you can be — that is, prosperity and freedom. Okay, but you still need a cleanly non-qualitative quantity to vary continuously.Try money. It’s traditional — left over from earlier attempts — and already the common coin (as it were) of people’s economic conceptual apparatus..Moreover, this makes your new conception of wealth continuous with price and cost, traditionally expressed nearly always in terms of money.
    There are some rules, or conditions, you’ll have to fulfill. First, the transition from wealth as capital to wealth as money has to be made invisible, for you’re going to have to depend on inherited habits to stabilize the new system. The actual expedient to this effect in our own case is to continue the politics of jobs: employment and unemployment. You have to have lots of people who are distressed if their jobs end or threaten to end — despite the fact that jobs are rapidly losing their relevance to wealth. Then, again for purposes of stability, you have to be sure that there’s at least a threshold level of money available to pretty much everybody, and that the ratio between money and what it buys doesn’t change too rapidly. Otherwise your printing bills go through the ceiling. So, print no more money than you have to.
    That leaves distribution to be considered. This would be no issue if wealth were the capacity to get what you want and/or need, but there’s “getting to be who you want to be”,, and there are long and deep traditions about that. I dare not stick my toe into those waters except to say that “being richer than the people next door” is something folks might want to be; and that by itself would surely keep the printing presses rumbling.

  7. I know I seriously buried the lead, but my payoff argument here is that wealth is now emergently decoupled from being an empirical variable, and that therefore all of the tails that hang from it being one hitherto in history can safely be allowed to wither away. It is indeed ironic (or nefarious, or as I suggest unfathomably stupid) that a supposed insider like Bannon wants to treat wealth like it still essentially indexes specific things like loans, class, and China. My strong suggestion is that we think seriously about not joining him in this, because stuff like identity and climate can’t be successfully addressed in a scarcity regime, as global politics is currently showing us.

    I’m out of my depth and open to persuasion that I’m wrong. But among other things I have on my side is that this is pretty much the situation Keynes predicted a hundred years ago, and when he wasn’t getting caught up in insurrectionary enthusiasm it’s also pretty much what you would expect from Marx. Krugman has more or less been saying this for years, although without drawing the larger conclusion. Most importantly, the American money folks just recently, without raising taxes and without borrowing from China or anyone else (that is, without deploying the usual double entry figleaf), just plain invented trillions of dollars. And it worked, with barely a ripple. Wealth is now not capital any more, that is, it’s not essentially entrained to the commodity cycle even at an abstract distance.

    This is not sudden and new. It’s not even utopian. It’s been well recognized that the world has been overproducing shared plenty for generations, at least since the second world war. But capitalism was still working as a wealth generator (or seemed to be, although Jim Livingstone shows that actually government mediation was doing most of the lifting). More importantly, there wasn’t any way to solve the ‘distribution’ problem. All of that wealth was sequestered and defended in capital. This is no longer true. In unfettering itself from its own financial waste products during this last crisis, capital has created the conditions of its own overcoming not just on the plenty side, but on the distribution side as well. We know how to make it happen anytime and anywhere we like, without material mediation.

    Of course I wonder how many people know this. Trump kind of seems to; he treats money as completely fungible and he’s right. Bannon is now talking about a big infrastructure buy, so he must suddenly not be so worried about the debt any more. We’ve seen this kind of cunning from the Republicans before, but they’re also positioned in the flow in a way that gives them no incentive to come to any kind of strategic awareness of the larger implications of what they’re doing.

  8. Oh, I see we cross posted. Yes, Keynes also said old habits die hard. That would seem to be a much different type and scale of problem than turning over a globally hegemonic economic system. Except the latter has happened quite easily, as it turns out, whereas the habits may kill us yet.

  9. As I said, I was afraid that I was missing the point. I’m afraid that I’m still missing it, and it seems unlikely that I’ll get it figured out in this thread. So bear with me while I think aloud, knowing that my intent is not to argue but to arrive at some sort of understanding.

    It’s not a particularly strange move to regard money as the common denominator in calculating wealth, I wouldn’t think. What’s our 2001 Saab worth, or our mutual fund large-cap stock holdings, or my labor invested in writing blog comments? How much will it cost to live in this townhouse for another year, or to buy health insurance? These things may have value other than monetary, but they can be quantified monetarily. And money is a continuous quantitative variable: $200 is worth twice $100. So I guess I’m not getting why financial wealth isn’t a continuous variable.

    You mention Keynes and Marx and Krugman as supporting your position, which is intimidating of course. That doesn’t mean I understand in what way they offer support.

    There is value to an ecosystem that cannot be captured in financial terms. However, there is a financial aspect to it, yes? What’s the price of oil, and how is it affected when hyperaggressive US production causes an oversupply? What’s the cost of pumping water out of Miami versus buying up what might become coastline in Alabama after Florida submerges? I saw that Jim Harbaugh, football coach at the U. of Michigan, regards global warming as a recruiting tactic: it’s gonna get too hot down south; come on up to Michigan.

    I sort of understand what happened during the 2008 bailout of the financial institutions, but only sort of. Trillions of dollars of money were created, but from an accounting standpoint those new assets were balanced with new liabilities. The Fed then loaned this new money to the underwater financial institutions at little or no interest. The Fed functioned as the lender of last resort; the only way it could extend those loans was to create “liquidity;” i.e., create new assets and offsetting liabilities. As a result the banks have been able to retain underwater real estate on their books at original mortgage value, making themselves look solvent on paper. As the real estate market rises, the banks can sell these properties at break-even or a profit, incrementally and gradually paying back their loans to the Fed. Of course this approach was grossly unfair to the mortgagees who got foreclosed out of their houses, forcing them into a rental market that, through increased demand, has seen prices jump since the housing bubble burst. National monetary wealth still declined, though not nearly as precipitously as it did during the Depression when the banks were allowed to fail.

    In the US, economic growth has been declining for the last 40 years, averaging less than 2%. The rate of return on capital though has stayed steady or increased over that interval, averaging around 5%. When rate of return exceeds rate of growth, money accumulates in the holdings of those who already own capital. I.e., the rich get richer. The only offsets: progressive taxes on wealth, increased growth, catastrophe like a world war or a depression. Trump claims he wants to stimulate growth. This is what the Fed has presumably been trying to do through “quantitative easing” — i.e., lending money at zero interest to the US government — with the Obama administration spending its newly-minted money not on government workers but on private for-profit contractors. But growth hasn’t been happening. Why? Because wealthy individuals gain more by reaping the profits now, paying small capital gains taxes here and in tax havens like Ireland, than they might by risking reinvestment in growth. But Trump wants to lower taxes even further, which should increase the incentive of the wealthy to take low-tax profits rather than investing them or lending them out in higher-risk growth opportunities. To incent the rich, Trump will have to offer them high interest rates on government borrowing. And that seems to be the expectation, with bond yields and lending institutions’ stock prices going up. I.e., the Trump policies are likely to increase the wealth of the wealthy far more than they increase income for the Rust Belters.

    Do we see these situations similarly? Am I off the mark drastically?

  10. It’s weird that Trump wants to promote growth through rebuilding infrastructure. At present 80% of American employment is in the service sector, 18% in manufacturing, 2% in farming. Trump wants to amp up manufacturing, which depletes resources and increases global destruction. You’d think he’d want to focus growth in the service sector, which is about empowering people and not depleting natural resources. Healthcare is one service that’s woefully overpriced yet grossly underprovided, but Trump wants to axe Obamacare and make Medicaid even more draconian. Education is another such service, increasingly available only to the already wealthy. What’s the likelihood that Trump will stimulate education in any way other than vouchers and further privatization? Health and education would seem to be the key resources to ensure ongoing growth and stability of the nation’s economy, but Trump is likely to mae those service-based components of the infrastructure fall into further decay.

  11. Your larger point then is that, while the balance sheets may be balanced, it’s all a kind of fiction. Money is integral to the world we live in but it isn’t real. I agree. Universal commodification immerses everything in an imaginary milieu. If money (and counterbalancing debt) can be created at the stroke of a keyboard then there’s no real shortage of it. There’s enough housing to go around: why not bail out the borrowers as well as the lenders, let them pay it back when they can, or not at all? The robots can already do most of the work: they don’t get paid, and they never consume anything besides electricity, of which there would be no shortage either if we got on with the solar grid. Teaching and learning, doctoring and nursing, writing and reading — none of it really requires any financial outlay. Full-on communism without the massive centralized apparatus — I’m on board.

    But we’re all thrown into a world in which money is the common denominator — a facticity built on a ficticity. Who benefits from the fiction? Those who control the lion’s share of the fictional assets. So is this the bottom-up movement that’s needed now: making people aware that money is a fictional asset and the lack thereof a fictional liability; that the commodification of everything is an illusion, and a dangerous one; that the solution isn’t to redistribute the money or to grow the money supply or to restore the gold standard but to leave money behind as the kind of fiction that, for the 99%, does more harm than good? As I said, I’m on board.

  12. By Jove! Yes, that’s it. You know for all my conscious life, Dyke the Elder has been joking about finance is just a big video game. And that seemed obviously true to me then, but in the sense that it wasn’t real. Then la la la I study all sorts of other things that aren’t real either, like identity, but which people make as real as real can be by doing them. So finance is as real as real can be, and right now it’s telling us that at the largest scale we now know how to do it in a post-scarcity mode. And as you say, once that’s true everything but assholes takes care of itself.

  13. “which people make as real as real can be by doing them.” Welding the imaginary to the real, fict to fact: it’s what humans are really good at. Art, technology, language, identity — none of it is purely material. Maybe the hybrid imaginary-real invention called money served a useful purpose once, but by now it’s outlived its usefulness.

  14. Let’s slow down a little, John. If your money serves you no useful purpose, send it to the Slow Farm Solarization project c/o CarlD We’re playing with “reality”, and if we’re not careful, we’ll end up in the swamp of Philosophowank. Since Nietsche “we” have known that Religion, and its surrogates like political economy are artifacts produced by what Deacon calls “the symbolic species”. That’s the way we really are. Nietsche attributes this to the fact that we can lie — especially to ourselves. That’s what imagination, ambition, hope, fear, et. alia are. The more “affluent” we get, the more successful are our lies and our lives, in the usual terms. But, as you suggest, the rest of the biosphere, and the geosphere too, don’t know how to lie. (That’s one of the main reasons “humanists” are always pissed off at science.) The Philowank sets in when you think that we the learned are outside of all that: the grand finale ego condom of the intellectual. But there’s no outside we can get to. So it’s better to pay your rent or your mortgage. Even if you have to cadge the cash from Engels.

  15. Sure, no doubt. But there are actually two grand finale ego condoms of the intellectual, the other being the stern assertion of The Real. So now that we’ve got that old ritual out of the way and I haven’t stopped paying the mortgage or looking for bargains on used farm equipment or splitting the firewood with an axe rather than using the AWESOME POWER OF MY MIND, what we’re talking about is not particular moneys but the common fund of moneys. Which have always been a contrivance, but which hitherto have faced us as an alien and mysterious power dominating and blighting our lives. And now, unlike the gods or the atom, we are actually for the first time in history in possession of every little bit of the creative code. It’s sitting right there in plain view. So let’s pause and notice that before we go tripping off into how easily and fatally distracted the humans are.

  16. But yes again, coming around to DtE’s point as usual, “as real as real can be by doing them” =/= fiction. We can’t stop that one step short, although it’s always helpful as an orienting step. The mortgage is really real, and not paying it really puts us out on our ass, which is what happened to the last folks to ‘own’ this place. The gods remain really real and really effective in their realness despite their repeated failures to perform and unmaskings as alienating fictions. And my cat was really out of food just then, which made me really have to pause and take care of business before getting back to this pleasant conversation.

    So yes, water is still wet and still drowning the German ideology wiseguy. There are real resources that can be really overspent, and real processes that can be really fajiggered until we’re all really dead. Money changes none of that, and the end of money changes none of that either.

    Also, the end of money creates a particular condition of illusory infinity that is problematic. Basically what I’m saying is that at this point the money supply has been decoupled from local accounting, and in effect it is now counting (on) the entire past, present, and future history of economic activity on the Earth and its reachable surroundings. This is true because of the compounding Keynes talks about, and because we now know how to create and roll ‘debt’ forward at will without it ever coming due, as money. That’s such a big source that it’s hard to imagine overdrawing it, and yet if we think that way there are many, many smaller ways we can poison the well short of complete bankruptcy, starting with the climate. I’m going to post this now to offset my last comment and then keep working on it.

  17. So turning back once more to the transform, what Marx told us in all of that really spectacular snark about the young hegelians and utopian socialists is that no matter how powerful you discover the human imagination to be, sticks and stones will still break your bones. And that our creations go out into the world and turn around and face us with exactly that kind of crushing materiality. And furthermore do so not just because evil or mistake or even habit, but because they arose out of real conditions in relation to which they accomplished things. And then finally, that it’s bloody difficult to get rid of systems while they’re still accomplishing the things.

    So capitalism isn’t going anywhere until it’s no longer accomplishing things. Well so, what was that? Creative destruction and collective enrichment. It needed to burst the fetters of the old agrarian order, turn loose human creativity, and enable the kind of plenty that would make all of the cludges and conflicts of the scarcity regime unnecessary. Creating its own grave in the process. Marx thought that would happen through the extractive membrane of exploitation and profit, where all of the energy and resources of eventually almost everyone would be extracted and sequestered by the eventually almost no one. The complication being that after chasing cheap labor around the world for awhile and replacing it with machines wherever it wasn’t cheap enough, there would be no one actually working left to exploit and no one to buy the commodities, and short of a revolution the whole thing would just topple and collapse.

    Basically, that has all happened. The plenty is there, and so is the progressively sidelined working class, who just told us how they feel about that not by triggering the revolution but by choosing the more gratuitously destructive of the two champions the old order offered them to choose between. But what hasn’t happened is the kind of comprehensive immiserating polarization the first couple generations of Marxists thought would create revolutionary class consciousness. Enough of the collective enrichment has dribbled back across the membrane to keep the masses bought in on the project. Consumer society, world systems gradients, and massive welfare transfers in the form of direct payments, inflated wages and salaries, and the invention of makework across the economy have done that trick. All of this paid for out of the actually staggering wealth capitalism has in fact created, enabling a kind of corporate/statist redistributive crypto-communism on a massive scale.

    I’m floating the idea that 2008 is a convenient marker for when capitalism stopped having anything further to offer. It has created all of the conditions of its overcoming. The wealth is there, and capital no longer drives it. The redistributive communism is already there. The Trumpistas I’ve talked to all think the whole system is ready for a shakeup, and they’re right. They know they’re not needed for work, although they haven’t grasped how that works. They think it’s immigrants and the Chinese, when those folks are even now undergoing the same squeeze. They know there’s plenty of money anyway, although they can’t imagine where that could be coming from if it isn’t coming from them. They’re right that the charade of taxation should be reduced. They got their money from the same place it’s being taxed back to, that’s why. Everything material says there’s no need for any of this any more, and everyone can kind of see it.

  18. I agree with you, DtE, that it’s not possible to pull the fiction of money back apart from its material actuality, rendering it valueless thereby, any more than I can pry the idea of the axe away from the wood and steel and declare it benign. I’ll continue to regard money as the most powerful and universal metric of wealth, will continue to pay the bills and cash the dividend checks, will tweak the parameters and run the simulations to see how much we’ll likely have left over when we reach the finish line.

    And I also agree with you, DtY, that 2008 and its continuing aftermath have exposed the imaginary aspects of wealth and scarcity, as well as the obsolescence of these inventions, in more stark terms, for all the reasons you have elucidated. What’s the Heideggerian distinction between ready to hand and present at hand when the hammer breaks — I can never keep them straight.

    Agreement — it’s a wonderful thing!

  19. So far so good. One of the things to look out for; in fact I think we’ve been seeing it during this whole election period, is the Santa Claus effect. That’s when people learn there’s no Santa Claus and turn their wrath on those who killed him. Very often when they pin down the killers they turn their wrath elsewhere.

  20. Yes. You see this in spades in the local social media feeds, e.g. the “Sanford / Lee County Truth Seekers.” At least they get to say Merry Christmas this year!

    Also, in addition to this one today’s conversations included a couple of long hours with our electrician. Within five minutes we had covered how Obama is a racist and Trump is going to singlehandedly make the economy boom again. I politely ignored the first point and told him that on the latter point I hope he’s right. As the conversation developed we did agree that Jeff Sessions telling local governments what to do with immigrants might be an amusing little turnabout on the whole overreaching federal gov’t / states’ rights thing. As I just told Jeff Cipolla on Facebook it was a whole lot like talking about politics in Bucks County in the 1980’s, only with 30% more looming nativist police state. Charlie the electrician is a second generation Hungarian American, which he has explained explains some things, he thinks the millions of criminal illegals should be deported but not the decent hardworking ones, I think he’s sincere when he says he doesn’t care about the ‘social issues’ on libertarian grounds, he opposes abortion but doesn’t think it’s his business to regulate it, he has a lovely family, he’s genuinely and perceptively interested in Rachel’s art, and he’s a hell of an electrician.

    Meanwhile the progressive feeds are yelling about not letting Trump become the new normal, another friend exhorted us all not to remain silent when bigotry is about, and the Holocaust Museum reminded us that the Nazis were all talk at first too. And two of the guineas got caught in the goat pasture and panicked because they forgot they could just fly out again. All this code and scale switching is wearing me out! And that, of course, is what matters.

  21. The best running backs are the ones who have the uncanny ability to hesitate without losing momentum. They hit the hole when it suddenly opens in the mess instead of running headlong into the mess, or flinching and breaking it outside where there’s a linebacker waiting for them. If they trust their linemen, they succeed where the others fail.
    There. That’s what’s called an analogue model.

  22. LeVeon Bell is just amazing to watch that way. In basketball I found I was pretty good at 3 on 3, but 4 on 4 tipped over into befuddling chaos. Do the great rbs, qbs and points see the whole field, or do they know how to make it small?

  23. Talk aboucha ego condoms: Planned Parenthood and trusting your linemen:
    I have no trouble at all calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. In fact, that’s one of the many things that allowed me to vote in good conscience for Pat Toomey — much to the displeasure of Bride of Chuckie. Abortion is ugly. It’s inseparably continuous with infanticide, and we ought to be beyond that. Furthermore, my memory is good enough to remember the roots of Planned Parenthood in a eugenic program, and I don’t think that’s changed. I also understand the counterarguments.
    The campaign ads in favor of PP all pointed to the threat of withdrawal of prenatal and maternal care to people with difficult access. That’s PP’s ego condom. Prenatal is a public health issue, and ought to be dealt with it by improving the public health system. Herod obviously didn’t solve his problem; and we’re not solving ours. So out with PP and on with the real job: the necessary revisions of the Affordable Care Act. I think I’m on the same page as Paul Ryan , and I’m willing to hit the hole if and when he can open it.

  24. The irony that’s usually noted is the overlap between people who oppose abortion and people who support the death penalty. I’ve always thought the even funnier overlap is between people who oppose abortion and people who think the sentence “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you right out of it again” makes sense. In that segment of the debate the punitive moralisms are putting enormous pressure on the ‘innocence’ of the child. I find nothing compelling to public policy in that mess.

    I myself cannot for the life of me figure out why I would have a problem with the morning after pill, given the unbelievable casual profusion of natural early term abortion, and after that it’s turtles all the way down. If the bodily autonomy of the mother and the infant’s biological viability are the issue, why isn’t abortion fine until about age three? Worked great, by some reckoning, for the early Romans. Tough people, the early Romans. My default among such mishmashes is agnosticism and I think that works as policy too.

    I agree completely about PP’s ego condom, just adding that what we ought to be beyond and what we are in fact beyond are radically, fatally different questions. Maybe when everyone figures out that the global economy is an emergently self-organizing post-scarcity regime they’ll also get smart about public health. Herod and us just as you say.

    Paul Ryan is a Randian. What he’s after is Galt’s Gulch. I suppose in the climate change version of the Dr. Strangelove end-times scenario it would make sense to have our betters safely sealed away from the species-extinguishing consequences of their sociopathy, but I’m not ready to embrace that as prudent public policy yet. Sometimes the linemen miss the block and sometimes they’re just playing for a contract.

  25. That’s why there are ifs and whens, isn’t it?

  26. Ayup. Full circle to possibility fans. Speaking of which, I’m leading the sci-fi reading circle next semester. I figured I’d start with Player Piano this time as the grim distopia of a slightly sideways present. Any thoughts about how to follow up without turning them off completely?

  27. In your complex systems project you no doubt must confront the interactions, when humans are involved, between the emergently self-organizing and the intelligently (or stupidly) designed. The housing bubble as it expanded looked like an emergent self-organization; the bursting of the bubble, a self-disorganizing disequilibration; the bailout, a top-down intentional fix, setting a new self-organizing re-equilibration process in motion.There would seem to be a series of punctuated equilibria, oscillating between unplanned disturbances and planned interventions and emergent self-organizing adaptations to those disturbances/interventions. I suppose you’d have to decide about the nature of engineered interventions: are they planned and intentional, or are they disequilibrating inflection points in the self-(dis)organizational mechanism, or some hybrid between the two? I.e., do you have to attribute the Fed’s actions in the bailout as a self-organizational response of the banking sector to the crisis, or were actual intentional decisions made?

  28. That’s really on the money. The little piece of that picture I tried to highlight with Planned Parenthood was meant to explore opportunity at the basin boundary — ie the exploitation of instability. Okay, Paul Ryan is an objectivist, and I’m a whatever. Fat lot of good it does either of us. Neither of us has a means to linearize the system enough to produce even the approximation of a straight causal connection between orthodoxy and result. Everybody is in that same boat. Some of the things that self-organize are trading zones (in Galison’s sense). To take advantage of them and utilize them becomes more intelligent than to try to derive policy from ideology. I picked Ryan just because he seems to understand something like that; and being a Randian isn’t nearly as reliably doctrinaire as, say, some of the sectarian orthoxies in the GOP..I picked PP because it’s vulnerable and dispensable — trade bait.
    The modern disciplines tend to drown in their own scholasticizing. It gobbles up all their discursive space and sterilizes them. Philosophy is obviously the hopeless worst, but other disciplines aren’t far behind. Also obviously, scholasticism is the oldest and most honest of the ego condoms. In philosophy, it brands practical wisdom as opportunism, and forecloses on intelligent interaction. I’m just trying to re-open the space of intelligent interaction, and from that point of view the contingent self-organization of a system far from equilibrium is a resource, not a frustration. Edgar Morin thought the same (in METHOD, etc.).

  29. Nice. I would add that “self-organizational response” and “actual intentional decisions” are not two different things. Starting at least with Darwinian selection and Marx’s critique of ideology they’re set and subset. One of the insights that pops out of books like Nick Lane’s The Vital Question and John Parrington’s The Deeper Genome is how much decisionmaking is happening at the level of cells, membranes, and even subatomic particles. Bourdieu thought the best we humans could do with that fact is to identify and then be prepared to choose against the reflex, which is what I guess I’ll have to consider doing with Ryan. I’ll leave the infinite regresses lurking there to the gnawing of the philosophers.

  30. I should read The Vital Question; I really liked Life Ascending.

    Back briefly to Piketty. He writes about the bailout as if it were an undisputed good act by the central banks to avert global financial catastrophe. The financial institutions could have held their toxic mortgage assets indefinitely (which they have in fact done), but their big customers were demanding cash that they could no longer scrape together. The big customers are mostly corporations, who manage daily cashflow fluctuations via very short-term deposits and very short-term loans, a la money market accounts. These transactions collectively account for hundreds of billions swapping around every day. Suddenly the big customers were withdrawing and the financial institutions couldn’t cover the demand for cash. The same thing happened in the Depression and the central banks just let the whole thing crash. This time they did the bailout, preserving stability and confidence in the system (and, of course, wealth at the top of the pyramid). So it was a decision that could have gone dramatically otherwise, but the decision constituted a self-organizational response of the financial demimonde, acting with deliberate self-preservation in response to grave environmental threat.

    In the aftermath, the financial world has decreed that deposits are to be regarded not as cash storage bins but as unsecured loans to the financial institutions, convertible into preferred stock in the event of financial institution failure. I.e., bailout is to be replaced by bailin. I don’t think they really believe that the bailin would actually preserve stability. Instead they’re changing the variables in the system, expecting the big depositors to adapt to a change in the financial environment to maximize their own self-interest in a way that preserves more stability in the global financial sector. Mostly that will consist of corporations spreading their loose change around more rather than piling it up in one place. Deposits under $250K will still be guaranteed by FDIC; within that limit and the depositors’ money is relatively safer from being converted into devalued equity shares in a failed bank. Of course the FDIC is vastly overleveraged, so that guarantee too is mostly fictional. Probably the big corporations have taken to stashing excess cash under the board room cushions, taking it out of circulation entirely.

  31. Another thing THE VITAL QUESTION does is show how deep innovations in energy exploitation go. Emergent leaps in scale gain an almost reductive importance. Watch out for the hobby horses that are pretty frequently geed up in the last couple of chapters. Not as solid as the scenario of the first chapters.

  32. Right John, they still haven’t quite let go of money being money. Well, it’s how they’ve lived, so why and how should they. But at least they’re exploring the opportunity space in a different way than 1929 and 2008, and a different way that’s more consistent with what the fiat means in a truly global context. If I were Chinese, and a communist, and in charge, and taking the long view after convulsive short views failed, I’d be on the edge of my seat right now.

    Re: the vital question, he does careen back and forth between robustly persuasive accounts and wild flights of fancy doesn’t he, and I’m only up to chapter 4. I think I might give him a rest after he explains the mitochondrial symbiosis.

  33. I hadn’t had the time to go through all the comments, so apologies for potential repetitions and/or missing the topic (e.g. i saw that the economic thread has persisted in at least the first few comments).

    The paper got me thinking of our class on Sociological Theory, and particular the book “A theory of Fields”, and how groups can employ semantic attacks at opposing groups to keep them in check (utilizing social norms, etc.). Particularly, we talked about racism, but it applies also to your remark that “progressive identity politics does, in fact, try to leverage against” conservatives, (and vice versa) on other topics.

    For me, the interesting horizon for exploration is how these semantic attacks (which are by no means coherent), develop into ideas and ideologies which can survive scrutiny by other groups. In other words, it is easy to see how safe spaces, triggers, gender norms in public restrooms, etc. are incoherent in themselves, but have an enormous rallying potential. However, can these ideas develop into a coherent idea? Or, perhaps, an pre-existing ideology comes along and retroactively claims them for itself.

    Either way, these “emotional triggers” seem to be a prominent force in the world of US and global politics, and seem to operate independently of argumentation and reason (in the narrow sense of the word). In Europe, you can see that the fear of immigrants taking our jobs, terrorism, etc. seem to be winning in the political arena, despite the obvious timeline issues (jobs started disappearing 5 years before the EU Mig. / Refugee Crisis), or the possibly highest human security ever recorded in history.

    Add to that that the IMF “top economist… acknowledged that the fund blew its forecasts for Greece and other European economies because it did not fully understand how government austerity efforts would undermine economic growth.” (WP 2013), yet that the same policy continued in Greece, precisely pushed for by the IMF, for years to come, until final capitulation by the Syriza government. Furthermore, the IMF also released a paper stating that austerity measures (unless done in tandem with serious job creation) doesnt work globally (WP 2012). Yet, here in Bosnia, we cant think of taking a dump without consulting the joint govt and IMF’s “Reform Agenda” – a textbook policy agenda on austerity.

    After this run-around, Id like to go back to “the Bannons of the world”, and note that it is getting harder and harder to believe in the arguments put forward to justify austerity, fiscally oriented policy, or neoliberalism itself, and it start to look more and more like good old class warfare. I know, it is a too big of a logical leap, but if austerity is only good for making things worse, than maybe that is why it is used for on purpose. In other words, a group is utilizing its structural powers to maintain its position of relative wealth and power, by utilizing a well construed and semi-self referential semantic system, called neoliberalism, to do so. This was done for a long time, and now the semi-self referential system is starting to crumble at the seams. If so, it would explain (to some degree) the massive rupture in semantic stability, which new ideologies are forming around, or old ones are trying to absorb.

    Anyway, this is text isn’t even pretending to give any answers, but it may present some questions and a hypothesis, i.e. a way to explore these questions through the sociological viewpoint, and hence contribute to diversity of the discussion above.

    WP2013 –

    WP2012 –

  34. Hi Filip! I’m glad you posted this here. You tie the two parts of the analysis together beautifully.

    I think we really have to take seriously the incoherence you’re picking out, and suspect that it runs all the way up. So I see no reason to think that the elites of finance have anything like the systematic, coherent strategic vision it would take to deploy their institutions and neoliberal ideology in the way you suggest. I think that is happening, but not ‘on purpose’. We can see this systematic incoherence for example in the IMF study you cite, and in the infighting among the various factions of the economic elite.

    Like anyone else, they’ve evolved in an environment and developed strategies for operating within it. This does not need to be more meaningfully a conscious, purposeful process than evolving in an oxygen atmosphere and developing strategies for harvesting energy from oxidation reactions. There is no need whatsoever for them to understand what they’re doing or how it works, and there’s very little evidence that they do.

    I am familiar with this kind of systematic functional ignorance from my own experience as a teacher and observer of teachers. I have very little understanding of how ‘learning’ happens, or even what it is. As you’ll remember, I coped with this by setting up the class as an experiment and selectively intervening when I felt, often wrongly, that it might do some good. It’s fair to say that I’ve evolved this strategy because it ‘worked’ for me as a student and has continued to ‘work’ for me as a teacher at or above a level of success that allows me to persist. Other colleagues have adopted more prescriptive approaches, which ‘work’ in the same way. Evidence suggests that something we all feel comfortable calling education goes forward regardless. So all we need from intention to explain the IMF and such is that their strategies ‘work’ for them, which obviously they do, or at least have.

    I really don’t think these guys have any idea what they’ve done, or what’s happening now. I think by accident they’ve networked up something that’s discontinuous with their experience and the stories they know how to tell about it. Some of them are starting to shift into an experimental mode, with the IMF out in front because it’s the least directly responsible of the major global financial institutions and therefore has the least to lose and the most room to move. They’re perhaps beginning to explore the possibility space, and that’s encouraging. The rest are doubling down in various ways on the strategies that have worked for them in the past. As Jim Livingstone has just noted, this may mean going back to Ayn Rand or going all the way back to the 18th century. As you say, there’s a practice that goes looking for a story to tell. This can be incoherent crap and is, can be weaponized and is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sincere or ‘authentic’.

    There’s quite a lot of evidence that Bannon himself, like Trump, is just a cunning con man whose winning skill is exploring people’s fears until he finds the buttons he can push to move them in his favor. Everything he says in that video could be targeted bullshit. As a former salesman and fundraiser I find nothing remarkable about this and again, while it takes a certain kind of observant intelligence and strategic focus, it’s a strategy that operates within and depends upon an emotional and material environment rather than understanding that environment as such, any more than pigs need to understand the biochemistry of truffles or parasites need to understand their hosts. I guess we just have to hope Trump, Bannon and the rest are more like intestinal amoebas than cholera bacteria. Or learn how to shoot the brown rapids.

  35. Reading those two articles now, they’re still treating deficit and debt as inherent liabilities, while showing movement on how big a liability they are in context. So at least we’re inching back up to Keynes in the early 20th century. I’m suggesting that in the emergent new regime deficit and debt are just modes of asset. I could be wrong, but that’s not even an idea they’re prepared to entertain.

  36. I appreciate your agnosticism, Carl, about the possibility of engineering improvements. Whereas Hayek celebrated the emergent wisdom of the wide area network of individual decisions as being superior to central planning, you’re saying that that distributed wisdom is in all likelihood also folly. And while Hayek regarded tinkering with the market as a disruption of the spontaneous emergent order, you regard the tinkering itself as emergent, the purported plannishness being better regarded as unconscious biases shared by those doing the tinkering. The economic order as you see it is emergent in the sense that it can’t be predicted by its causes, but it’s also deterministic, isn’t it, in the sense that the causes of emergence are themselves caused, resulting not from “a conscious, purposeful process” but mechanical forces akin to chemical reactions. You assert that in teaching you selectively intervene in an experimental way, and you imply that you evaluate this experimental method according to pragmatic criteria — “it works.” Implicitly you’d have to have some idea of what it means for an intervention to have worked; i.e., what constitutes evidence that some kind of education has been achieved. Do you remain agnostic as to why some experiments work while others don’t? Or is it the process of introducing randomness into a “hypernormalized” system, without knowing what the consequences might be, that works in your teaching praxis?

  37. If I’m going to follow that, I have to know about “deterministic”. Is that nostalgic for linear causal sequences? separability of integrals?
    we’re talking about systems where contingencies, bifurcation points sensitive to initial conditions and so on emerge as “unintended consequences”.They certainly don’t pop out ex nihilo, but any adequate sense of deterministic” has to decouple it from predictability — eg. it takes longer to predict than it does to happen. The unavailability of experimentally closed conditions is responsible, after all, for the move to the dominance of modeling. Approximation is problematic. “As if” becomes a circus “. E.G. “The market never converged to an equilibrium price. It’s as if the participants in the market were irrational (stupid, ignorant, etc.).” is consistent with everyone being rational in the standard sense.
    “… mechanical forces akin to chemical reactions” won’t get the job done. Which chemical reactions? Stirred or unstirred? Under what kind of control?” Many chemical reactions, not just the BZ reaction, self-organize. Multiple accessible pathways to the same result is a normal biological state of affairs, fortunately. So the implied contrast between conscious purposeful process and linear mechanism sweeps a whole lot under the rug. Any real economy of any size really is a many-body system. Actually that’s well known since Arrow in the ’50’s. Or look at something like Dasgupta and Muller, THE ECONOMICS OF NON-CONVEX ECOSYSTEMS.

  38. DtE, I don’t know if you’re following with me or with DtY, but…

    “any adequate sense of deterministic has to decouple it from predictability” — Yes, that’s what I infer to be DtY’s position: determined but unpredictable.

    “”…mechanical forces akin to chemical reactions” won’t get the job done. Which chemical reactions?” I was referring to DtY’s comment likening conscious purposeful processes to “evolving in an oxygen atmosphere and developing strategies for harvesting energy from oxidation reactions.”

  39. Hey look! The local egghead consortium is listening to us (not really) and offers the following intervention:

    The Triangle Intellectual History Seminar and French History & Culture Seminar invite you to …

    A World Economy of Signals: F.A. Hayek, Cybernetic Legalism and the Intellectual Origins of the WTO
    – with –
    Quinn Slobodian, Wellesley College

    Sunday, December 11, 2016
    7:00 – 9:00pm
    National Humanities Center

    Scholars now recognize that cybernetics and systems theory were foundational to the Austrian-British economist F. A. Hayek’s epistemology. What they have failed to elaborate, however, is the extent to which Hayek translated his cybernetics into his understanding of jurisprudence, producing what I call cybernetic legalism, which saw individual humans as units within a self-regulating system for which the lawmaker had the primary responsibility of transforming the system’s rules into binding legislation. Scholars have also missed how Hayek’s cybernetic legalism was itself foundational to the theories of the international economic lawyers most pivotal in reforming the GATT into the World Trade Organization. My paper shows how Hayek’s students at the GATT developed an understanding of the world economy as a system of signals for communicating prices for which binding constitutionalized legal frameworks were necessary to preserve conditions of predictability and stability for individual economic actors. This thinking was an important intellectual stream leading into the creation of the WTO and helps illuminate the epistemology that underpins latter-day universalist solutions to write hard law for the world economy.

    John, want to be my date?

  40. Sounds romantic, and timely to boot. Sure, let’s work out logistics offline.

  41. sometimes a moment arrives when you have to take off the ego condums and indulge in unprotected learning

  42. “Of the different classes of events which are to be expected under various combinations of circumstances which we can bring about, some may with greater probability include desirable results than others. An explanation of the principles will thus often enable us to create such favorable circumstances even if it does not allow us to control the outcome. Such activities in which we are guided by a knowledge merely of the principle of the thing should perhaps better be described by the term cultivation than by the familiar term ‘control’ — cultivation in the sense in which the farmer or gardener cultivates his plants, where he knows and can control only some of the determining circumstances…”

    – F.A. Hayek, “Degrees of Explanation,” 1955

  43. Many thanks. Carl knows how well this fits with some of the things I’ve been playing with in another context.

  44. Stimulating discussion of an important topic.

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