Saturday, December 30, 2017

348. Double negation of the market

In the preceding items of this blog I proposed that the market should not be abolished but reformed. That presupposes knowledge of what is good about it and what not, and how to separate the two. I discussed that more pragmatically in a book[i], but here I want to look at it more philosophically. For that, I employ the Hegelian notion of the ‘negation of a negation’.

In sum, what I want to say is this. The ideal of the market presented in traditional economics is that of ‘perfect competition’, and that is still the lore in economics, the pedestal of neo-liberal ideology. In Žižek/Lacan parlance, the ideal market is the master signifier that covers and hides the reality of markets. In fact, the actual working of markets is very different from the ideal, is in fact, in Hegelian parlance, its negation. The problem with the market is not that the idea is wrong but that it is never fully or even adequately realised.

So, here comes the negation of the negation: reject markets where they do not approach the ideal, try to reform them so that they do, and halt them when that cannot be done.

The irony of all this is another negation of a negation, as follows. The crux of markets is competition, as opposed to state planning, but in fact so-called competition takes the form of the avoidance of competition. There are many ways to do this, but here I do not have the space to elaborate. I will do that in future items in this blog. The upshot is that limits are needed to the market as it works in reality, to preserve competition, striving for markets as they should ideally work, in so far as possible, and this is the job of state competition authorities.

Now, the big twist that occurs in present capitalism is that states are sidetracked by multinationals threatening to move their business elsewhere, so that regulation is foiled and even reversed into favours for predation, as I indicated in preceding items in this blog.
But there is an even more fundamental problem of time. In the ideal, markets are driven by demand, by the needs of people. Supposedly, an assessment of future needs, such as preservation of nature, leads to present investment. In fact, consumers and shareholders give precedence to present consumption and wealth.

Consumers are not willing to pay extra for environmentally sound products and services, or to reduce their consumption. An increasing number of idealistic producers try to develop such products that can compete, but there are obstacles to this. Novelty at first is always expensive, due to imperfections that need time and application to iron out, and small scale due to lack of widespread use. And they run up against powerful established interests that protect themselves. That requires state intervention, which is politically not viable under neo-liberalism.

When firms invest for the future, that takes money away from present profit, which shareholders do not accept. Private equity firms, or ‘hedge funds’ incur loans to buy firms and then act as locusts, grazing them bare, financing the loan from reducing investments for the future, in research and development, increasing present profits by cutting labour costs, and then cash in on the resulting rise of share value. This is done for the sake of ‘efficiency’, which here means the grasping of opportunities for present profit to the detriment of the future. Again, states see themselves as unable to change the global financial markets involved and renounce themselves to this reality.      
The utilitarian ethic of liberalism was collectivist, aiming for the greatest good for the largest number of people. The pursuit of private interest is taken to promote public interest. Present reality is a travesty of that, with the richest 1 % in the US owning almost half (47%) of national income, and in Europe more than a third (37%). The utilitarian ethic has fallen into a hedonistic, individualistic ideology of instant gratification and wealth. Adam Smith, the godfather of market economics, said that ‘moral sentiments’ should correct private interests when they do not serve the public interest. But that has been ‘lost in translation’, the translation of market ideology.

So, what to do now? First of all, continue the unmasking of the master signifier: show how markets really work, how the ideal market is a fata morgana in he heat of the capitalist desert.
Next, it is up to philosophers rather than economists. The economy is too important to be left to economists. That is why I turned from economics to philosophy. The utilitarian ethic underlying economics and liberalism has to be reformed or, as I argued in my book on markets, and in preceding items in this blog, replaced by a virtue ethic. This may sound utopian or revolutionary, but to put it more modestly: I am merely trying to make good on Adam Smith’s promise of moral virtues in the economy.

[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

347. Žižek: Between capitalism and centralized bureaucracy

Is there a way out of the capitalist crisis discussed in the preceding item? Žižek says that he is a Marxist in his criticism of capitalism, but recognizes that communism as a centralized bureaucracy without private property and markets has irrevocably failed. Yet he called himself a communist, but when challenged on this explained that what he meant was that he was concerned about the loss of the global commons, of nature, culture, intellectual capital, and biogenetics, which capitalism causes and cannot cure. He thinks that social democracy has also failed, in bending to neoliberal capitalism, and he has himself difficulty in finding a solution between capitalism and communist centralized bureaucracy.

Žižek does not have any faith in some new, historically necessary utopia. He sees no universal, clear, all-encompassing alternative. He is wary of utopian designs, and more in favour, like Karl Popper, of what the latter called ‘piecemeal engineering’.[i]   

I agree that it is not easy to offer a grand design of how to proceed. The whole, coherent capitalist system of consumerism, advertising, profit making, competition, and financial markets, is difficult to change effectively in isolated bits by bits, and impossible to change in one coherent sweep.

I would not want to abolish markets. I still accept Hayek’s notion that the market is unparalleled in its use of local knowledge and room for initiative, which a central bureaucracy could never match. However, I disagree with Hayek that markets work well and need to be left alone. I wrote a book on this.[ii] In some areas markets should not be allowed, and where they are allowed they are often imperfect and need to be regulated. As Karl Polanyi said: markets need to be 'embedded' in society.       
One proposal has been that of local ‘commons’. There, choices concerning local facilities and services (schools, playgrounds, bridges, traffic, health care, parks, …) are no longer made on the basis of political parties, in representative democracy, but on the basis of ‘direct’ democracy with citizens councils to which willing citizens are elected or selected by lottery.

Žižek rejected such what he called ‘reversion to pre-modern times’. It is blinded, he claims, by some naïve faith in  unification of honest people in multicultural harmony. It would get mired down in endless and fruitless deliberation, erratic policies, and lack of reliability and continuity of services. It cannot solve problems of cultural mixing with immigrants. He would himself not like to take part in it, and prefers some impersonal, ‘alienating’ bureaucracy, to take care of things so he would not have to bothered with it. No doubt many other people would agree.

Žižek is half wrong and half right.

He is right that on many other issues, policy making is not to be decentralized to local communities, but, on the contrary, to be raised to a higher, supranational level. That is needed to block the perversities of power play and blackmail for advantages by multinational corporations. It is needed, in the EU, for effective military defence, foreign policy, the refugee crisis, and fighting terrorism. It is needed, in particular, for rescuing the environment, enforcing a long term perspective on investment and finance, a circular economy and abolition of pollution.

Alas: Re-emerging nationalism is blocking expansion of the EU.

My main point here is that Žižek is wrong concerning the local commons. Rousseau already recognized the problems of central government at a distance from communities: then one cannot meet the requirements of diversity in local conditions and customs, the contact between those who govern and those who are governed is impersonal, and the citizens involved are strangers to each other.[iii] The law is still a matter of the state, and can be since it is impersonal and applies equally to all everywhere, but government should be proximate to the people.

Žižek himself says that culture is needed to structure daily life, and that in finding ways to deal with problems of immigration we should involve the immigrants. That is precisely what would happen in local commons: dialogue concerning how to approach daily matters. The best path for integration of migrants is for them to do things together with locals, in shared projects. I will elaborate on that in a future item in this blog.

If you say no to this, what is your answer to the legitimate grievance of populists that government has alienated itself too much from citizens?   

The downside that Žižek notes is valid, but it can be resolved. Of course on the local level one would still need a professional, bureaucratic organization to provide the requisite expertise, continuity and reliability for the provision of public services. But what is the essential difference, in that respect, between a council with members from elected political parties and a council with directly elected or randomly selected willing citizens? One would still need an (elected) mayor and aldermen, elected by the council, to direct the running of the system.

There would remain issues that go beyond local communities, such as inter-local transport, a legal system, crime fighting, environmental issues that go beyond locality, and so on.

Also, I am under no illusion that on the local level there will not be minorities left out. Elimination of exclusion is not that simple. There will remain a predominance of influence, in city councils, of the higher educated and socially skilled. However, the local issues at play are concrete, not abstract, and easy to grasp and handle for many. Political ability and skill is not primarily a matter of education. Some possibility of appeal would still need to be available for those who remain excluded.

A further issue is this. Room for locally embedded choices inevitably yields differences between localities in the amount, kind and quality of public services. That may threaten old ideals of equality. An answer perhaps is the following. There may be equality of process that yields differences in outcome, depending on local conditions. Perhaps there still is a task on the national level to guarantee equality of conditions and process.

In sum, the national level would shrink, surrendering some authority to the supranational level, and some to the local level, but in sleeker form it would still remain.

Would all this qualify as Popperian ‘piecemeal engineering’?   

[i] I love to imagine how Žižek would hate it to be included in the same category as Popper.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.
[iii] On the social contract, Chapter 9, book 2.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

346. Žižek: The crisis of capitalism

Žižek tells us that he appreciates capitalism, as even Marx and Stalin did, as ‘the most productive, welfare producing, dynamic force in human history’. However, as Marx did in his way, and many others do now, Žižek sees a looming crisis of capitalism.

Some people see light at the end of the tunnel, in some correction on capitalism, but Žižek joked that this light may be an oncoming train.  

Multinational corporations pressure governments to provide tax breaks, allow for deteriorating conditions of labour, and give subsidies for settling in a country and for cheap energy. This is yielding a ‘race to the bottom’, with governments competing among each other to attract or keep multinationals.

Banks were bailed out after incurring excessive risks, hiving the losses off onto the public, leading to the 2008 crisis. Measures were taken to re-regulate banking to prevent such crises from occurring again, but in the US those are being abolished again by president Trump, and the next crisis is brewing.

These developments have been accompanied by the emergence of what is called a ‘precariat’ (a contraction of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’). There, workers have no lasting jobs, hop from one project or temporary employment to another, often with bad labour conditions, poor perspectives for housing, proper health care and pension. This is not only undermining their economic position, but is eating away their self-respect and hope.

Extremes occur, for example, in mines in Congo, factories in Bangladesh, services in India, and building projects in Arab gulf states, just to name a few. In China, many millions have been uprooted from their rural communities, to migrate to factories in the large cities, dumped in poor and filthy housing, meeting discrimination from the settled middle class that enjoys rising prosperity and cultural facilities.

In Western countries conditions are less dire, but serious enough to breed discontent and resentment, yielding political upheaval in populist movements in the US and Europe.

Žižek said, in one of those one-liners he throws out, that he supported Trump. When challenged on this, he said that what he ‘really meant’ was that Trump helps to carry the system to a crisis, unearthing the ugly truths of neoconservatism.

What will the precariat do when they find out that the populists also have no adequate answer, giving promises they cannot keep?

Marx predicted that the proletariat would form a class and would grab political power in a revolutionary overthrow, which they did. What will the present precariat do? An obstacle here is that the workers compete with each other in getting work, and do not have a shared workplace as a platform for banding together. Or will the new media offer the means to do so?

In one of his lectures, Žižek recalled how communism and Nazism also had guilty dreams of the submission of labour to higher purposes. In late capitalism that higher purpose lies in the supremacy of markets. An end of human submission in labour may lie in the emergence of androids, robots, who will not clamour for food, freedom or happiness.

Karl Polanyi, in his Great transformation (1944) proposed that unchecked markets lead to fascism. That happened in the rise of Hitler and is happening now.

Žižek offers the Hegelian thought that every system contains its contradictions and anomalies. Capitalism inevitably entails unemployment, exclusion. Poverty of the drop-outs is the price to be paid for prosperity. Means to a declared aim become aims for themselves. In capitalism markets and production systems were aims for prosperity, but now they have become aims in themselves.

A case in point is Chili, which under Pinochet was the pioneer of extreme neoliberalism. It wins in both the best and the worst. After some years it had the highest rate of investment, economic growth and per capita income in Latin America, and the lowest murder rate. The inequality of capital ownership is among the highest in the world: the top 1% owns 1/3. Among the rest of the population 3/4 has debts, one third of which is behind in payment. The depression rate is the highest in the world, suicide rates are among the highest in the world, and next to North Korea it is the only country with rising suicide among minors. Only the rich can afford good health care and education.[i]  

Then, for another dimension, Žižek also notes, like many others, that the emerging ‘platforms’ such as those of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Uber, with their use of algorithms that employ ‘big data’ on choices of consumers and voters are now getting to know them ‘better than they know themselves’, manipulate their subconscious choices and thereby dehumanize them.

As Žižek says, this is privatization and monopolization of intellectual capital, yielding rent, not profit as a margin on costs, but as unrelated to costs, thus going against the main argument of market efficiency and liberty that capitalism proclaims.

This is one of the cases of ideology that Žižek loves to expose, where dark reality is hidden behind the shining official lore.  

Capitalism still legitimizes itself as being based on liberal democracy, but it is presently in important ways becoming similar to the authoritarianism that it condemns. How different will authoritarian capitalism of present China, Russia, Malaysia, etc. be from the new-capitalist monopolies and manipulations of economic, social, intellectual and symbolic capital?          

Žižek claims that, even more deeply dark, capitalist competition is not only joy in winning but also, but hidden, joy at others losing, which is now increasingly becoming manifest in indifference to the increasing exclusion of the losers from employment. I am not yet sure what to think of this.   

This is one of the cases Žižek exposes of excess enjoyment, or ‘jouissance’, in transgression of morals. Also, feelings of guilt about consumerism, global injustice and ruin of nature, are assuaged, paid off, by firms (Žižek gives Starbucks as an example) that include in the high price of a product percentages they transfer for protection of the destitute, the suppressed, and nature. One can also think of airlines giving the opportunity to plant trees to fight pollution. Commodification of conscience.    

[i] Source: Volkskrant, 16-17 december 2017.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

345. Žižek: Hitler and Stalin

Žižek claimed that Stalinism was fundamentally more evil than Nazism. While in Nazism the victim was clear (Jews, Roma, the mentally ill), in Stalinism it was totally unpredictable who would suffer elimination, and the chance of it was higher the higher up one was in the hierarchy of the communist nomenclatura. The revolution devoured its children. Žižek is at a loss to explain this, he said.

Here is an explanation. It goes back to Rousseau’s ‘general will’, from his book on the ‘Social contract’ (1762). There, every individual has to surrender its natural liberty to submit to the indivisible collective taken as sovereign, representing the interest of the united people, devoid of any particular partial interest. If there is a clash between individual perception, opinion, interest and the general will, the latter is always right, and the individual has to submit to it willingly.

He wrote, literally: ‘.. when the collective opinion contrary to mine wins (in the determination of the general will), that proves nothing else than that I was mistaken, and that what I estimated as being the general will wasn’t’[i]

Rousseau could not stand the messiness, the erraticism of democracy, where people may submit to what is democratically decided but still stick to their conviction and strive to amend the decision. He wrote, literally: ‘.. the long debates, the discussions, announce the emergence of particular interests and the decline of the state’.[ii]  

What is still, or again, the relevance of this? Populists on the right also demand conformance to the general will of the people, or else be excluded or cut loose from the law. And the leader next claims that he is the unique voice of the general will.

But who are the leaders? Who is the true interpreter of the general will, untainted by particular position, interest or opinion? Anyone claiming leadership or aspiring to it can rightly be accused not being able to satisfy such purity, because no one is.

Hence the trials and tribulations of the ‘virtuous’ Jacobine terror of the French revolution, which arose against the established interests and position of the king, nobility and clergy. No new special interest could be permitted to raise its head, which was cut off when it did.  

There is a ‘Catch 22’ at play here. To recall: In the novel ‘Catch 22’, by Joseph Heller, a soldier at war has the right to be sent home when mentally unstable. But when you apply for it, you prove you are rational, not mentally unstable. So, no-one gets sent home for mental instability. In the present context: the wrong people rise to the top. The top requires people who set aside their personal ambition but when you do that you do not aspire to the top. So, people at the top are prone to be purged. 

That, I think was what was also going on in Stalinism, though intensified by Stalin’s paranoia. It explains the arbitrariness of elimination, and the trials in which perpetrators had to admit guilt and submit to judgement. That also happened under Mao, and Pol Pot.

Behind this also lay, I think, the Hegelian notion of an inexorable march of history towards the realization of the absolute spirit, at the ever receding horizon, in comparison to which human life here and now is insignificant and to be sacrificed when opportune.

Like Kantian ethics, like the categorical imperative, this general will is to be free from personal interest or satisfaction, is abstracted from human nature and worldly contingency, hanging in the cold stratosphere, far from life on earth. I quote Rousseau again: ‘The law considers the subjects … as abstract, never a human being as individual, nor as a certain particular’.[iii]

[i] On the social contract, book 9, chapter 2, my translation.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid., book 2,  chapter 6. Let me add that I do appreciate the principle that the law should apply equally to all, in establishing guilt, but in assigning punishment personal circumstance should be taken into account.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

344. Žižek: Beyond Lacan

Here I continue with a series of items on Žižek. Like many others I am amused by his style, but also detest the hyperbole, provocation, bluff, outrageous statements later retracted with the excuse that he did not mean them in that way, and so on, but he does have interesting or at least challenging things to say that call for response. I cannot read all the 50 books or so that he published, which anyway are said to include many repetitions. The sources I use are mostly the interviews and debates posted on YouTube. I am not everywhere sure that I understand or interpret him correctly, which also is difficult because he regularly seems to contradict himself. He endorsed Donald Trump but also rejected him. He favoured Jeremy Corbyn but rejected his socialism. He pleaded for bureaucratic socialism but also rejected it. And so on. I am doing my best to make sense of it all. I begin with a discussion of his use of Lacan.   

If I understand correctly, Žižek is inspired first of all by Hegel, and second by psychoanalysis, in particular Lacan. What those have in common is interest in paradoxes, tensions, between ideas, in conduct, and in social systems. The difference between the two is, I heard Žižek say, is that with Hegel the tensions are resolved in a dialectic that raises the issues to a higher level of synthesis (called ‘aufhebung’, in German), while in psychoanalysis the tensions remain unresolved and hidden, with mental trauma’s, mostly from infancy, buried in the unconscious, but with conduct or expressions or dreams sometimes revealing them in ‘Freudian slips’.

Here I want to look a little further at what Lacan called jouissance, enjoyment with an ‘excess’ that goes beyond enjoyment, with some paradoxical twists. Sex is the more appealing when it is more or less illicit, or submissive, or repressive. More sexual freedom and permissiveness have made it less enticing, has bred more frigidity. Fraternities, at universities and in armies, are aimed at brotherhood, mutual loyalty and support, but engage in hazing practices that are demeaning, suppressive, assaulting at times. Movies condemn violence while relishing it.

I am interested here, in particular, in celebrity worship. People with simple lives, perceived (by themselves or supposedly by others) as insignificant, pedestrian, compared to the lives of public figures, celebrities, craving for some vicarious enjoyment from reflection of their glamour and fame. People enjoy it the more when there is some deviance, something illicit in the celebrity’s conduct.

I wonder where this comes from. Is it ‘just there’, in the human being? Is it a romantic relish of transgression? Is it a consolation for their own mediocrity: these people may be glamourous, but they are also bad, unlike us decent people.  

Žižek used the example of Donald Trump. A striking phenomenon is that his adherents celebrate him not in spite but partly because of his vulgarity, lies, provocation, aggression, bigotry and hypocrisy. Why?

Žižek says that this is because his followers are secretly like him, and Trump gives them a feeling of legitimation. Also, they feel victimized by globalization and a political elite, and relish Trump’s rebellion, and his politically incorrect scorn and defamation of that elite.

I think Žižek himself is an example. He gathered fame with interesting views but also by provocation, bluff, political incorrectness, and humour.

If these insights are due to Lacan, that is to be applauded.

However, Žižek seems to surreptitiously apply this insight from psychoanalysis to the level of social systems: capitalism and politics. That is a category mistake. It helps to explain the Trump phenomenon, but does it explain the present crisis of capitalism that Žižek considers to be of critical importance (along with many others, including myself)?

To some extent perhaps it can. Capitalism is indeed full of paradox. Its virtues of yielding material prosperity, dynamism and freedom of enterprise are tainted by perversities of exclusion, exploitation, and injustice, which are relished and at the same time denied and justified by the logic of markets.

So, Lacanian insight does seem to apply, but there is more, which lies on the system level, not in psychoanalysis. Like many other systems, social systems have ‘emergent properties’ that are lacking in the individuals that make up the system.

In particular there is what in this blog I have called ‘system tragedy’. People in banks, other business, government and politics are ensnared in positions and roles in organizations and networks of interests and dependencies that coerce them to go along with processes and outcomes that are at odds with their ethics, which then is hidden, tucked away, in buried shame. This is not jouissance, I think.

What mostly plays a role, is the logic of prisoners’ dilemma’s, as I have discussed earlier in this blog. Some people may secretly cherish to perversion of the game, but others would like to exercise their ethics and turn things around, but can afford to do so only if others do so as well, and since everyone argues like this, no-one does, and perversities of the system remain.

The classic solution is for governments to intervene and impose a way out of the dilemma, but now, and that, in particular, is the feature of present capitalism, governments are themselves engaged in prisoners’ dilemma’s that force them into a ‘race to the bottom’ in facilitating the interests of multinational corporations, to the detriment of citizens. Anger about this is one of the feeds of populism.  

Saturday, November 25, 2017

343. Verb extraction
In the previous item in this blog I summarized my plea to look at things as processes rather than objects, for example concerning identity, being, meaning, knowledge, truth, systems, etc. For truth, for example, the process is that of debate on the basis of 'warranted assertibility'. In ethics, it is debate on the basis of Aristotelian ' phronesis', practical wisdom, with storytelling, taking into account the contingencies of position and circumstance. 

I am interested, in particular, in dynamics, change. I have just returned fom a stay in Japan to give two lectures. One was on the dynamics of knowledge, applied to the university, at the university of Yamaguchi, where I used the 'cycle of discovery', discussed elsewhere in this blog.
My host was professor Tadashi Saito, professor of community development. One of the projects with his students was what he called 'verb extraction'.  That means that when dealing with objects, such as locations, buildings, fixtures, amenities, tools, etc. one looks not only at the nouns, but beyond that, at the verbs, i.e. processes of use underlying them. A deserted house has lost meaning when it no longer harbors the life of inhabitants.

That seems useful more generally. Concerning nature, one should look at processes of evolution, birth and decay, the circularity of seasons, response to human action such as pollution.

In health care, when looking at a patient, a doctor should look not only at the illness but should extract the verbs of his/her life behind the illness.
Treatment of immigrants requires verb extraction in looking behind their appearance, of race, color, and dress, at the lives and practices behind them. It is a familiar phenomenon that when working together with immigrants, being involved in a shared practice of work, discrimination soon subsides. 

I also recall the plea of professor Gjalt de Graaf, at the Free University of Amsterdam, to see the role of citizens in politics not as 'positioning', where once in every four or five years citizens vote for a political party on the basis of its political programme in whose development the citizen was not involved, and is subsequently not involved in the political compromises of coalition formation and subsequent execution of policy. He argued, instead, for involving citizens in the process of policy formation and execution, on the local level, concerning local facilities and amenities, by way of citizen councils with members who are locally elected or selected by lottery among willing candidates, in what is called a 'commons'. Here, I will not discuss the feasibility and viability of such an arrangement. I will do that in a later item in this blog. Slavoi Žižek claimed that it will not work, and his criticism calls for a answer. 
From  Annemiek  Stoopendaal, who is working on oversight in health care, in the Netherlands, I also hear that in present  theory of democracy there is a movement from voting-oriented theory to a dialogic theory, in ' deliberative democracy'. I quote her: 'Storytelling and the evolution of experience, meanings and symbols can contribute to justification'.

That connects, I think, with the process view of truth indicated above, in discussing the warrant of assertions, and the process view of ethics, in the practical wisdom of phronesis.

In science, one should not just look at methods, but at how they are used, and at the processes of debate, competition, criticism, getting published, the use and misuse of citations, etc.
The implication is not that underlying process are or should always be perspicacious. Sometimes, in deliberation temporary secrecy is needed for it to succeed. People may demand privacy concerning the goings on in their minds. But that does not deny the need for extracting the verbs to understand what is going on. It is just that this may not always be possible or desirable. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

342. Process philosophy

According to Kant, we can know neither the ‘thing in itself’, out in the world, nor ourselves. Hegel turned this epistemological gap: we don’t know, into an ontological one; it does not exist. Žižek went along with Hegel, and, following Lacan, proposed that people craft an illusory ‘object-a’, for things and selves, as discussed in the foregoing items in this blog.

This objet-a is part, I propose, of what I have called an ‘object bias’: the irresistible urge to see the world and ideas, concepts, meanings in terms of objects.

Here I propose an alternative: let us shift the focus of our understanding of the world from object to process. I have argued for that in several places in this blog, concerning being, identity, cognition, truth, meaning, and democracy. I summarize this below.

I have referred to Heidegger’s view of ‘being’ not as a noun but as a verb. I deny identity as some fixed given, with some enduring essence, and presented it as a process of emergence in acting in the world. As an alternative to the idea of identity as an object I proposed the idea of identity as a position in developing networks of contacts with people. Inspired by Levinas’ philosophy of the other, I proposed that identity is developed in interaction with others, and that intellectual and spiritual progress requires openness to opposition by the other.   

In all this, I use the view from pragmatic philosophy ( Peirce, James, Dewey) that cognition is developed from interaction with the physical and social world. Instead of truth as some ‘thing to be found’, I employ the idea from pragmatist philosophy of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, in a process of debate, and ethics not as a fixed order but as ‘debatable’, in Aristotelian ‘phronesis’ or practical wisdom, where ethical judgements depend on context.

I also use the work of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone that feelings, ethics and morality arise from interaction in movement and bodily interaction with others. This yields a ‘dynamic congruency’ between emotions and movement that is not a given but is ongoing. Among other things, this yields mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are not present at birth and are not genetically determined in later development. Like other mental constructions they arise from networks of neuronal connections that emerge and develop in time, ‘sprout’ and are ‘pruned’ depending on how often they are activated and how productive they are. It is no coincidence that they arise in the motor regions in the brain, which govern movement.[i]

I present meaning not as some fixed reference, with a word as a label attached to a thing it refers to or ‘denotes’, but as a process of sense-making, of how to identify whether something belongs to some class, or whether something is true. This is done on the basis of connotations one attaches to things. I adopt the distinction between reference and sense from the logician/philosopher Frege. Reference concerns something as ‘given’, sense concerns ‘the way in which it is given’, as Frege put it, which I turned into ‘the way in which we identify something, an X as an Y’.

Sense depends on experience: connotations are collected along the course of one’s life, in a culture, in a series of contexts. A life course is unique to a person, and hence sense varies between people, yielding ‘cognitive distance’. 

Reference can be undetermined, with uncertainty, or difference of opinion, whether some object belongs to a class or not. It can also change. I used the example of a stuffed cow used as a chair. New connotations emerge from action in the world, and they may remain idiosyncratic or become publicly adopted. I used the ‘hermeneutic circle’ as a model of meaning change.

Perhaps the distinction between sense and reference can also be used to clarify Žižek’s notion of ‘master signifiers’ attached to the idealized ‘object-a’. He uses the example of the monarch as the master identifier of the social order. Here, the ‘objet-a’ is the intended reference, and the ‘master signifier’ is a leading sense maker for identifying it.

The peculiarity here is that what is referred to does not in fact exist, is a ‘phantasm’, as Žižek calls it, but people believe, or make believe, that it does exist. In other words, the reference has no ontological anchor, so that the sense of the signifier cannot be tested, and master signifiers can be manipulated, and become an instrument of ideology.

Žižek used the example of ‘professor’. Other scholars may have the same degree of knowledge, talents, and scientific achievements as the professor, but are not professors. Thus, Žižek claims, the term ‘professor’ is ‘empty’. It is not. It has sense, in helping to identify someone as a professor, also to people who cannot judge his/her qualities. It brings in a link with official standards, procedures and authorities appointed to appoint professors.

Thus, a master signifier yields institutionalized sense. Is it thereby indoctrination? It certainly is, but it is also a pragmatic necessity to avoid endless debate between different senses of scholarship, in order to get on with the job of appointing professors.

For democracy, I proposed to replace the current perspective of positioning, in voting for a political party and its programme, once in four or five years, by an ongoing process of being involved in making and implementing policy, in a ‘commons’, at least on a local level, in citizens councils.  

To summarize all this, I used the motto of ‘imperfection on the move’.    

[i] Maxine Johnstone, ‘Movement and mirror neurons: A challenging and choice conversation’, Phenomenology and the cognitive sciences, vol. 11/issue 3, p. 385-401.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

341. Dealing with democracy

In item 339 of this blog, I discussed Žižek’s diagnosis of the problem of liberal democracy as being unable to provide a shared ‘ideal object’, ‘objet-a’, of a good ‘symbolic order’ that appeals to society as a whole, and is universally recognized and seen as the Law, to be obeyed unconditionally. Representation of the people in terms of a God-appointed monarch has been lost, and in democracy society is broken up into partial interests represented in rival political parties. This yields an inconsistent, messy, tangle of laws and regulations that do not and cannot satisfy everyone, and is seen as arbitrary, at best a result of political incompetence, and at worst as a conspiracy of a devious elite.

If I follow Žižek’s thought, people still have an urge towards some idealized order that does not exist, and is dressed up in ideology, symbolized with salient ‘master signifiers’. In a democracy this would yield rival ideologies, which then provide an obstacle for the compromises that need to be achieved in coalition governments. This is perceived as betrayal to the ideology. As a result, democracies have gravitated towards a neglect of ideology, particularly in the loss of socialist ideology, which results in a bureaucratic technocracy, and further betrayal and loss of  the ‘objet-a’.

Disenchanted with this, people are now seduced by populism, instigated by a leader who claims to represent the people as a whole, as the embodiment of the people or of a shared ‘objet-a’ with appealing ‘master signifiers’. The problem with this, as identified by Žižek, is that this authoritarian leader also cannot make good on his promises of cohesion and successful representation of all, and to hide that, any failure to do so is attributed to some scapegoat, such as the Jews for the Nazi’s, and refugees or ‘the ruling elite’ for current populists.

The only alternative, I think, is to muddle through with democracy but somehow improve it and make it more acceptable.

For this, one possibility is for political parties re-adopt ideologies, to avoid technocracy, and offer alternative ‘objets-a’, even if the clashes between them complicate the political compromises needed for coalition governments.

I see this presently happening in the Netherlands, in a record breaking length of an attempt to form a coalition government after the election in 2017. Sensing the hot breath in their necks from populism they re-enact ideologies that either pacify populist instincts or re-establish liberalist lore.

Another possibility is for people to wake up and renounce their aspiration towards an objet-a with an exclusive ideology and the illusory ideal of universal, equal outcomes of justice and fully rational and coherent policies.  

Conceptually, perhaps the most fundamental requirement is that of dropping the illusion of a universal order, to appreciate diversity and to accept that justice varies across individuals and the conditions they are in. Even more fundamentally, I think, is the need to shed what I have called the ‘object bias’, in seeing the symbolic order as a thing with a clear identity, and then to see it, rather, as a process of development, in deliberation and conflict, regulated in debate. To aim not for full and complete substantive justice that is equal for all, but the best possible procedural justice. Imperfection on the move.

I have been pleading to replace the utility ethics underlying liberalism with a form of virtue ethics, with virtues defined as competencies for achieving the good life. I showed that I was aware of the problem that this might yield a new paternalism, prescribing how to achieve the good life, and that I want to maintain the liberal idea of freedom for people to decide for themselves what constitutes the good life.

For that, I proposed a distinction between procedural virtues, needed for a just conduct of deliberation and political compromise making, and more substantive virtues that support individual choice of the content of the good life. The first is a public matter, the second is not. I also noted that in fact the traditional, ‘cardinal’ virtues of reason(ability), courage, moderation and justice have that nature of procedural virtues.

That is also in agreement with my stance towards markets. We need them but we also need to curtail them in their limits and failures. They need to be formed and informed by virtues of reasonableness (which includes openness), courage (to be responsible to society and to counteract perverse interests and incentives), moderation (in remuneration and profit), and justice (fairness, equitability).
Above all, an awareness is needed, and commitment, to what in the preceding item in this blog I called Levinassian freedom: the highest level of freedom from prejudice that arises from opposition by the other, which is to be sought and valued as an opportunity rather than avoided as a threat.

Another conceivable fundamental reconceptualization might be to no longer see democracy in terms of representation in parties with their political programmes and corresponding ideologies, in which voters can periodically position themselves, but as a process of policy formation and execution in which people participate, in some ‘commons’. Instead of a clash between party ideologies there then is a clash in debate between people and their views and convictions.  

Some combination is also conceivable, of political parties for some areas of policy, on the national and supranational level (such as the EU), and local commons for local provision of amenities and services.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

340. Levels of freedom revisited

Here I revisit the different levels of freedom that I discussed earlier in this blog (item 49), to make a connection with the discussion of Kant and Žižek in the preceding items.

On the lowest level is the freedom as usually seen in ordinary language: the freedom from constraint or interference. One can do what one likes. This is also called negative freedom. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to sin.

Beyond that there are freedoms in the form of access to sources of ‘the good life’. First, there, comes the freedom of Kant: freedom in the form of being freed from the impulses of lust, desire, addiction or self-interest, in unconditional obedience to ‘the Law’, the symbolic order, of what it is ‘right’ to do, untainted by personal urges or interest. I characterized this as follows: not following what one wants but what one thinks one should want. Kant gave humanity the freedom not to sin.

This leads to the problems identified by Kant and discussed at length by Žižek, that such Law is arbitrary, unclear, ambiguous, indeterminate, and contradictory, depending on contexts of action, and therefore cannot be justified in terms of justice and rationality. Also, it originates from grabs of political power, and therefore needs to be hidden. As a result, according to Žižek some illusionary, non-existent ideal ‘objet-a’, is taken to stand in for it, absconded and dressed up in ideology. The freedom of Žižek now is to break free from it. Since Kant defined deviation from the Law as evil, Žižek accepts that this freedom is evil, and most evil, or ‘diabolically’ evil, as he calls it, when it is not motivated by desire or self-interest, but as a matter of principle, in pursuit of a new symbolic order. I characterized this as a change of what one thinks one should want.    

Beyond that, I claimed, on the highest level there is freedom in the form of ability not to exercise one’s views and convictions about the good but to change them; not to change or replace the Law, but one’s thinking about it. By many, this change of oneself is held to be impossible. I argued that it is possible but for it one needs the opposition form others with their views and convictions. I was inspired to this by Levinas’ ‘philosophy of the other’, so I now call it the freedom of Levinas.

My point now is that this latter freedom is the freedom needed to make democracy work.

There still is the issue, a recurrent theme in this blog, how to escape from the symbolic order. For Foucault: how to achieve an authentic life, and he had no answer. For Žižek, a break with it is evil, even ‘diabolically’ so. I think there is way out.

In my discussions of meaning, I used the difference, proposed by de Saussure, between the established, synchronic order of ‘langue’, and the creative, open-ended, diachronic process of ‘parole’, living language use, which yields openness of meaning. I tried to formulate that also in terms of the hermeneutic circle.

I now propose that something similar applies more widely, in the ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ that Žižek claimed for the ‘objet-a’. If the order cannot be fully specified, it is open, and this yields a possible escape. The indeterminacy of the ‘objet-a’ is not to be deplored but to be celebrated, whether it concerns our view of objects in the world, our self, or the symbolic order. Imperfection on the move. If this is accepted, exit from the existing order may be odd, quaint, and will certainly cause some isolation, lack of recognition, and loneliness, but it is not diabolical. People should read poetry more.    

Saturday, October 28, 2017

339. Authoritarianism or democracy

A leading question for Žižek has been: why would people obey ‘the law?’ The Law here is the whole of laws, rules, regulations and habits that form the ‘symbolic order’.

As I discussed in item 337 of this blog, for Žižek obedience requires some ‘obscene lust’, called ‘jouissance’(adopted from Lacan), lust even in knowing that one will never be able to obey completely, always feeling guilty, as Kant recognized, of not having obeyed ‘purely’, acting on hidden motives of pleasure, self-interest and hypocrisy.

I wonder. Isn’t there more pleasure in breaking the rules, in a romantic urge of transgression, in self-manifestation or ‘thymos’? Perhaps one could even say that rules are needed to enable the pleasure in breaking them.

I see neither the actual presence nor the philosophical need of a masochistic pleasure of obedience, and I would stay with the simpler explanation that disobedience is punished by isolation or ostracism. On a deeper level, my argument would be, as I have argued extensively in this blog, that selves are developed in interaction with others, and perhaps some awareness or even pleasure in this is built into human instinct.

To me, Žižek becomes more interesting when he claims that it is unclear what, precisely, is demanded by the ‘big Other’ of the Law. As Kant already recognized, the symbolic order in place has no clear, consistent, objective foundation. It is an outcome of historical process, in clashes of interest and grabs of power. That order is not only impossible to state coherently and fully, but has no foundation in logic, rationality or ethics, and is a scandal that needs to remain hidden. This is difficult to accept, and people grasp at some ‘fantasmatic’ non-existent ideal, called ‘objet-a’ (a term taken from Lacan).

Here emerges the problem of liberal democracy: decision making arises from a clash of special interests that, like bumper cars in a fancy fair, yield outcomes no-one could predict and perhaps no-one really intended, with unforeseen casualties. It yields an often incoherent, even self-contradictory tangle of rules and regulations.  

Žižek now argues, convincingly in my view, that this needs to be hidden in the phantasm of an order that is not to be questioned. This imagined order used to be embodied in some unquestioned authority, in the form of a monarch with divine investiture. The question is: When that disappeared, what was to come in its place?

The iconic historical case is that of the French revolution. The aim was to eliminate all special interests, of the king, the clergy and the nobility, and to institute the ‘general will’ of the people. But who was to represent that? Any claim to representation would be suspect, hiding special interest, and so the revolution ended in slaughtering itself, in a ‘virtuous terror’. 

What is needed, Žižek claims, is some other idealized (‘phantasmatic’) something, an ‘objet-a’, that is not questioned, and is dressed up in ideology. He argues that this requires some leading ‘master-signifier’, to symbolize this object, providing a focus to effectuate blind, willing, even eager conformance. That can be a national flag, national anthem, the glitter and soap of royalty, or hero entrepreneurs that symbolize the glory of capitalism and the wonders of the market.

 Žižek offers the example of the Rumanian revolution against Ceausescu, where protesters waved the national flag with the central red star cut out of it, with the resulting hole demonstrating the elimination of the master signifier.

When the emperor was seen not to wear any clothes, and now in politics the democratic order is unmasked as yielding arbitrary and often partially unjust and even at times irrational, or counter-productive results, there is a call for just and rational government, without the recognition that this cannot in fact be achieved. Political parties that claim to offer representation only represent partial interests, waving rival ideologies.

This frightening void, Žižek argues, is now filled by populist claims to yield the desired, unified society, in a unity of the people, embodied in an authoritarian leader with unquestionable authority, with master-signifiers dug up from national history, and polished into appealing myths. This hides the fact that here also not everyone can be satisfied, promises will not be kept, and outcomes will again be partially unjust, incoherent, irrational, and so on. In authoritarian regimes, the blame for this is shifted onto some scapegoat that carries the blame of failure. For the Nazis it was the Jews, for Stalinism the revisionists betraying socialist purity. For present populists it is the refugees, non-western immigrants, or some guilty conspirational ‘elite’. The scapegoating of refugees feeds on what earlier in this blog I discussed as ‘parochial altruism’.

In the end, Žižek winds up in seeking freedom in breaking out of the ruling symbolic order by grasping a new mastery for itself, with some new master signifier that gives no quarter to demands for rational and ethical justification. But that just yields a continuation of the exercise of blind power.

There is, in my view, no alternative to dealing with democracy as best we can. That is the subject for a later item.        

Thursday, October 19, 2017

338. The Other as threat or opportunity?

Here I continue my attempts to understand Žižek.

As discussed in item 336 in this blog, according to Žižek the self is hidden, or ‘empty’ or ‘nonexistent’ in his parlance, but people adopt the ‘phantasmatic’ illusion of an identifiable self, the Lacanian ‘objet-a’.

Following Althusser, Žižek claims that to become a subject one needs to be addressed by an other. I agree, from my perspective that the self is constructed from interaction in the world, in particular with other people. However, Lacan, and with him Žižek, does not think the subject is constituted by the address from the other, as Althusser thinks, but that this address contributes to the subjects illusion of having an objectifiable self, in and of itself, prior to the address.

Now even if that is an illusion, this leaves open the possibility that in fact the subject is constituted by the address of the other, among other forms of interaction between people. And that is my position: the self is in fact constituted by interaction, but thinks he/she already had this self, and that it is the reason he/she is addressed.  

Now, the point here is that Žižek also follows Althusser in seeing this address by the other as a threat: ‘what does he/she want from me?’ or ‘Che vuoi?’, as Žižek says. Why assume this as a threat? It is, in my view, to be seen as an opportunity, indeed as necessary to have a self. And why is the address seen as a threat if it is seen as being motivated by the prior identity that the subject (erroneously) thinks it already had? Is it not more plausibly seen as a recognition, even appreciation, an expression of interest?   

In this blog, and more extensively in an earlier book[i], I argued that to have any idea of a self one needs to look at oneself from the perspective of an other. I used the insight from Maxine Sheets-Johnstone[ii] that being suckled by a mother, in spurts of sucking and resting, exchanging coos an gurgles, babies lay the basis for the alternation, give and take, enunciation and assimilation, of conversation. Babies have an apparently instinctive inclination towards being positively open and expectant towards a stranger, as well as an instinct towards suspicion and aversion. It depends on experience which is confirmed as a more enduring trait. Children jostling and cavorting in the school yard are exploring the boundaries of pain and body, as part of developing a sense of self, and a basis for empathy and morality. This contributes to the development of mirror neurons. In a further development, I used the philosophy of Levinas extensively, also in this blog, to argue that we need the other to have a chance of achieving some of the highest possible form of freedom, namely that of freedom from prejudice.

Indeed, as Althusser and Žižek claim, there is radical uncertainty concerning what the other wants or will do. To take the opportunity of being inspired by the other, one needs the courage to take the risk involved. That is also indispensable for trust. That, in my view, is the most fundamental reason to consider courage a virtue. It is wise, then, not to fall into blind trust. Trust entails giving room for action to another, but when duped, one can reign in this room. Taking inevitable risk, to grasp the opportunity presented by the other, one is also wise to develop resilience to setbacks, and to maintain some reserve to fall back on in case of loss.

I do admit that this is fraught with obstacle and difficulty. I have argued that there is ‘cognitive distance’ between people, which includes intellectual distance, in understanding and meanings, as well as moral distance, in different ethical beliefs and moral impulses.

Now, Žižek conducts his analysis of the subject for his investigation of ideology, and I find that important. If I understand correctly, the argument is as follows. The fearful address by the other needs to be pacified by ascribing some meaning to it that one shares. In fact, as also argued earlier in this blog, actions are largely determined by subconscious impulse, and reasons are mostly rationalizations post hoc. In human interaction, in society, this rationalization takes the form of ideology. We claim reasons for conduct while in  fact choice and action is determined by hidden prejudice and impulse. Now, again if I understand correctly, to pacify the threat of the address by the other, one needs to have a shared ideology.     

Here I agree: to cross distance, in particular moral distance, one needs some shared ideology. In terms of Wittgenstein’s language games: one must share the appropriate game, depending on the context. The rules of the game have the same role as ideology. They are arbitrary, and could well be different, in a different game, but they must be observed for this particular game to be played.

Now, what if ideologies are in conflict? If address by the other is seen as a threat, then something that does not fit into one’s own rationalization of conduct is castigated. When the address is seen as an opportunity, on the other hand, one may receive it to question one’s ideology, a possible opening to a new game. But that also requires that one rids oneself of the illusion that the adopted ideology is somehow objectively valid and true, and not the dubious rationalisation that in fact it is.   

[i] Bart Nooteboom, Beyond humanism: The flourishing of life, self and other, 2012, Palgrave-Macmillan.
[ii] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The roots of morality, 2008, Penn State U. Press.