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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
Back in the day (which was before people used the expression “back in the day”), I was reasonably satisfied with the society I lived in.
I thought there were four possible ways to organize society—free-market democracy, socialist democracy, Communism and fascism. The dividing line between the first two and second two was democracy vs. dictatorship; the dividing line between the first and last and the middle two was capitalism vs. socialism.
For me, the key dividing line was between democracy and dictatorship. I was satisfied with free-market democracy, but open-minded about social democracy. I recognized the existence of poverty, racism and other social ills, but I thought the United States and other democratic countries were steadily overcoming these wrongs.
Nowadays Communism has vanished from the map of history, and state socialism is fading. But the forward progress of our free-market democracy has ceased. Instead we are stuck in a state of perpetual war, perpetual martial law and perpetual economic decline, with impunity from the law for the financial and governmental elite and a police state for everyone else. There is no longer a bright dividing line between our present system and fascism.
I was wrong in my assumptions about how things were, and I need to rethink my philosophy. I want to learn more about anarchism, a philosophy based on individual liberty and voluntary cooperation, outside my four-box matrix..
With this in mind, I joined a reading group sponsored by Rochester Red and Black, a local anarchist organization. It was the first time in many years I have been the most conservative person in a room. We finished reading Peter Kropotkin’s 1892 anarchist classic, The Conquest of Bread last Sunday. I wrote about my impressions of the book in my previous post. I took forward to rejoining the group for their next book and expect to write a post about it on this web log.
My spirit was refreshed by the high level of civility, intellectual seriousness and moral clarity in the group. The majority of my friends are Obama Democrats, who believe that what we now have is the best we can expect, and that it is necessary to accept a more repressive and less humane society for fear of something worse. I don’t accept this. As the anarchists say, “A better world is possible.”
Anarchists have a bad name because, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were associated with revolutionary violence. An anarchist assassinated President William McKinley. Anarchists murdered the Czar of Russia, the President of France and the King of Italy. I don’t advocate or justify this type of anarchism, although I’d guess that the number of people killed by anarchists in 200 years is fewer than the number of people killed as a result of the actions of the Bush and Obama administrations, let alone the mass killings of Stalin or Mao.
I think anarchism fits well with the strategy of non-violent defiance developed by Gene Sharp. The problem with the so-called revolutionary liberation movements of the 20th century was not that they used violence against their enemies, but that they used violent repression to keep their followers in line. Leaders who renounce violence (at least as their main method) renounce compulsion. Their movements require the understanding and voluntary support of their followers, which is anarchism in action.
For the past few years I have been reading works by a German philosopher named Jurgen Habermas. He says that in modern times, human activity is divided between what he calls the Life World and the System World. The Life World consists of individual human beings, their feelings, thoughts and desires and their responses to each other. The System World consists of the impersonal requirements of governmental and capitalistic systems, to which people are forced to conform because they see no alternative. In our times the System World is pushing down hard on the Life World. One of the ways to push back is through what Habermas calls “communicative action”—individual human beings turning off the TV set and letting the world know what they think of it.
Anarchists are among the defenders of the Life World. I think of Occupy Wall Street educating us about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, Take Back the Land movement protesting against eviction, Food Not Bombs providing food as a right. As Bertrand Russell wrote in another context, “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”
Click on Rochester Red and Black for that group’s home page.
I read The Conquest of Bread, the classic 1892 work by the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, as part of a reading group organized by Rochester Red and Black. Kropotkin was a revolutionary communist anarchist. He was dead serious about eliminating government, laws, money and corporations, as well as private property over and above what an individual could personally use.
How can you be both a communist and an anarchist? The one thing that libertarians, socialists, conservatives and liberals agree on nowadays is that equality and liberty are tradeoffs—that to get more equality, you have to sacrifice liberty, and vice versa.
Kropotkin pointed out that this hasn’t always been true. Many traditional cultures, including Russian villages of his day, had both more sharing and more freedom than most of us enjoy today. People helped each other out of neighborliness and offered hospitality to strangers out of kindness. Life did not center on earning money. There are still places like this, such as the Virginia mountain town described by Barbara Holland in Bingo Night at the Fire Hall, where people she didn’t know helped her in emergencies and acted insulted when she offered payment.
Kropotkin pointed out that even the existing capitalistic and authoritarian system of Kropotkin’s day, many important things were accomplished through voluntary cooperation. The international scientific community functioned without any particular individual in charge. Voluntary organizations such as the Red Cross and lighthouse networks performed important public functions. Capitalistic businesses themselves were able to integrate railroads and canals without a central planning organization to give orders.
And many public services, such as highways, street lighting and public libraries, were provided free—following the principle of to each according to their needs. Surely, Kropotkin argued, if so much has been accomplished under a system devoted to personal profit, how much more can be accomplished under the rule of the people in a system devoted to the public good!
He thought the progress of science had brought abundance for all within reach. And he said to the capitalists of his day, “You didn’t build that.” Since this progress was achieved by previous generations, he said, all of the present generation have the right to share in its fruits and none of us, in his view, had the right to appropriate the fruits for their exclusive benefit.
Since Kropotkin’s day, the role of voluntary associations has contracted, and the provision of universal services is under attack. Most of the world’s governments, big corporations and international organizations adhere to the so-called “neo-liberal” ideology, which says that all of human society should be organized on the model of the for-profit corporation. Kropotkin’s philosophy provides a basis for pushing back in defense of the individual and the commons.
His anarchism is the opposite of Leninism or even Fabian socialism, in which decision-making is delegated to a tiny circle of masterminds and the mass of the people are bystanders. Kropotkin said revolutionary reigns of terror created new systems of oppression that were worse than the old. He lived to see the Bolshevik Revolution, and foresaw all the evils that would flow from it.
Now I doubt a full-blown anarchist society is feasible, and I’m not sure how I would fit into one if it were. Governments, laws, money and the operation of supply and demand, however distorted they are in practice, do serve a function that a future anarchist society would have to duplicate. I’m too much of an egoist to be part of a collective. I’m too distrustful of human nature to give up the Constitution and Bill of Rights and trust to public opinion to safeguard my rights. When I think about a society wiping the slate clean and starting over fresh, I think of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Perhaps some of these questions will be resolved as I read and study more about anarchism.
In any case I don’t think that living under anarchism is something I’m going to have to deal with in my lifetime (I’m 76). Kropotkin’s ideas for me represent a direction, not a blueprint. The direction is toward a society without hierarchy, or at least with a minimum of hierarchy. I like Kropotkin’s sunny optimism, his humane spirit, his questioning of fundamental assumptions and especially his belief that a better world is possible. I refuse to accept what we have in the USA today as the best that we can hope for.
Click on Rochester Red and Black for that group’s home page.
Anarchism is the political credo that rejects all forms of compulsory authority and believes society can be organized on the basis of individual freedom and voluntary cooperation. Yale professor James C. Scott is not a full-blown anarchist, but in his short and highly readable book, TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, he makes the case that a bit more anarchism in American life would do us good.
We are so used to obeying authority that many of us have lost the habit of acting for ourselves, Scott wrote. Once he shocked a friend of his, a Dutch college professor who considered himself a Maoist revolutionary, by crossing the street against the traffic light when there was no traffic on the street. Scott advocates “anarchist calisthenics”—occasionally violating a rule or law that makes no sense just to break the habit of submission.
How necessary are traffic lights? Scott told how Hans Moderman, a traffic engineer in the city of Drachten, the Netherlands, noticed that traffic flow improved when electrical failures put traffic lights out of commission. In 1999, he replaced traffic lights at the city’s busiest intersection with a traffic circle, an extended bicycle path and a pedestrian area. The number of traffic accidents fell dramatically. Relying on drivers to use good sense was more effective than demanding they obey signs. In fact, the traffic signals may have been counterproductive, because they distracted drivers from the road, and they created a false sense of safety.
Many Dutch towns now advertise themselves as “free of traffic signs.” The lesson learned from this experiment can be applied to other things besides traffic.
That is one of Scott’s examples of mild anarchism in action. Another is a children’s playground in Denmark in 1943 which, instead of building swings, seesaws and sliding boards for the children to use, simply opened up a raw building site with lumber, shovels, nails and tools and left them to the children to do as they wished. It was hugely popular, but soon ran into trouble. Some children hoarded lumber and tools for their own use. Fighting and raids broke out. Adults were on the verge of closing the playground down when the youngsters themselves conducted a salvage drive to retrieve the hidden materials and organized a system for sharing tools and lumber. The children learned a valuable lesson in self-government, which they would not have learned from adult supervision.
“Adventure playgrounds” have since become popular in many parts of the world. Scott pointed out that to the casual observer, they look messy and disorderly, but in fact are not. That is the planner’s disease—to impose external order for the sake of appearances, and disregard the hidden order that already exists.
Scott said the limitations of hierarchy and top-down planning are shown by the fact that one of the most effective forms of labor union action is “work to rule”—to simply carry out orders and follow procedures as given, rather than use individual judgment. Bureaucrats and executives think they are in charge, and do not realize how much they depend on the initiative and knowledge from below.
In government, he wrote, it is better to put up with the messiness of democracy than to abdicate to supposedly neutral experts and technocrats. Sometimes it is better to put up with the even greater messiness of direct action than to insist that people work within the system. Most of the great reform movements in American history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the labor union movement, the civil rights movement—were achieved by people who were willing to break laws and defy authority.
Scott devoted a section of his book to praise of the “petty bourgeosie”—independent farmers, craft workers and shopkeepers, who are not subject to bosses. This social class has a bad name among left-wing radicals, but, as he pointed out, it is during the periods of history that the petty bourgeosie have been in the majority that society has come closest to worker ownership of the means of production.
He entitled his book Two Cheers for Anarchism instead of three cheers because he does not think it really is possible to do without government. Nor does he think authority is always wrong or the masses are always right. When the federal government imposed school desegregation against the wishes of the majority of the people of the South (that is, the overwhelming majority of the white people), it promoted liberty. But such examples are rare, he said.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb spoke about his book, Antifragile, to the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in Britain. He summarized the core ideas in his book in a little over six minutes and spent another 12 or so minutes talking with a couple of young Britishers. One is Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, and the other is Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator magazine and columnist for the Daily Telegraph.
Silva spoke of tax breaks for “angel” investors. These are people who provide money for start-up businesses, similar to the “angels” for Broadway shows, usually in return for a share of the stock. They come in at an earlier stage of the business than venture capitalists, and they almost always risk their own money, unlike the administers of venture capital funds. Since most angel investors are doomed to lose their money, it is right that the few who are successful should get rich. If you’re going to give tax breaks to investors, they’re the ones who should get them.
Equity investing fits Taleb’s ideas of optionality and “skin in the game.” An equity investor risks his or her money, but only the amount invested. The potential gains have no fixed limit, but the equity investor only gains if the business gains. This is different from a leveraged buyout, in which a company is loaded with debt and the financier gains even if the business fails.
I find Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas always interesting, mostly plausible and valuable not because he provides the key to every problem, which nobody can, but because he sees things that other people don’t notice.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a successful options trader on Wall Street, is one of the most interesting and original writers of our time. In Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, he wrote of how luck is mistaken for skill. In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, he wrote about how frequently people are blindsided by the unpredictable, which is important precisely because people don’t prepare for it.
How do you prepare for the unpredictable? In his newest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, he tells how. Antifragile sparkles with wit and is a delight to read. Taleb invents dialogues about life and high finance between two fictional characters, the intellectual Nero Tulip and the street-smart Fat Tony. He tells fascinating anecdotes about his personal life, starting with his boyhood in the Christian community in Lebanon and continuing to the present day. He insults his enemies and boasts of his accomplishments with readable gusto.
In his philosophy, everything falls into one of three categories—fragile, robust and anti-fragile. A delicate wine glass is fragile. In mythology, the fragile is symbolized by the Sword of Damocles. Nobody knows when it is going to fall, but it can fall at any time. The robust is symbolized by the Phoenix. No matter what you do to the Phoenix, it keeps being reborn. The anti-fragile is Taleb’s original idea. It is symbolized by the Hydra. When you whack off its head or limbs, it grows more. Attacking the Hydra makes it stronger.
A delicate wine glass is fragile. You don’t know if it will break tomorrow or last a thousand years, but you do know that any little thing can break it. A granite block is robust. Few things can damage it, but over time it is going to be ground down. A roaring fire is antifragile. Whatever you throw into it or do to it (within limits), it is going to grow stronger.
The reputation of writers is antifragile. Any attack on a writer’s book will stimulate interest in the book. It doesn’t matter how many people dislike a writer, only how many are admirers. Taleb noted that few people saw any merit in the work of the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, but it didn’t matter, because two who did were Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes.
Living things are antifragile (up to a point). Exposing yourself to error, stress and risk can make you smarter, stronger and safer. If you spend a month in bed, you grow weaker. If you spend a month doing hard physical work in the out of doors, you grow stronger.
Taleb tells of twin Greek Cypriot brothers who settled in London at the same time. One became a taxi driver, the other went to work for a bank. The taxi driver’s income varied quite a bit from day to day, week to week and month to month, while the bank employee’s income was completely predictable. Although over time, they earned roughly the same amount of money, it would have seemed that the taxi driver was less secure—that is, until the current banking crisis, which has left the bank employee in jeopardy of being laid off and having to start over in middle age.
The banker brother is an example of what Taleb calls the turkey problem—inspired by the empirical chicken in Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. The turkey, noting that it is fed every day at 9 a.m., decides this is a law of nature, right up until the day before Thanksgiving.
The problem with the modern world, according to Taleb, is the illusion that life can be planned and controlled. The result is fewer minor setbacks and more big crises. Putting out every little forest fire allows flammable material to accumulate until there is enough for a really big fire that goes out of control. The illusion by “fragilista” Alan Greenspan and others that they could eliminate the boom-and-bust economic cycle resulted in problems building up into a major economic crisis.
The alternative is trial and error, provided the errors are small and the potential gains are great. Taleb, an immigrant said the greatness of the United States is that it encourages people to attempt new enterprises, with little penalty and no disgrace for failure, but big rewards for success.
Intellectuals put too much stress on the ability to articulate knowledge, Taleb says. He wrote a Platonic dialogue between Socrates and Fat Tony, in which Fat Tony refutes Socrates’ contention that he lacks understanding unless his actions are based on clearly-defined terms and theory. Taleb says the fact is that practice is seldom based on theory, but rather theory is an attempt to explain practice after the fact. Theorists want to “teach birds how to fly.”
Rule 1. Think of the economy as more like a cat than a washing machine.
Rule 2. Favor businesses that benefit from their own mistakes, not those whose mistakes percolate into the system.
Rule 3. Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.
Rule 4. Trial and error beats academic knowledge.
Rule 5. Decision-makers must have skin in the game.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a successful Wall Street options trader and author of a new book, ANTIFRAGILE: Things That Gain from Disorder. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he laid down those five wise rules for economic policy-makers.
The economy is organic, like a cat, and not mechanical, like a washing machine. Every kind of stress on a machine causes it to wear out faster. But a living animal thrives on stress, up to a point. Animals and other organic systems are best left alone, except in dire emergency.
One of Taleb’s examples of businesses that learn from their own mistakes is the airline industry. Every time there is an airplane crash, the airline companies study the causes of the crash and incorporate that information into their practices. In a sense, every airline crash makes the airlines safer. Another example is Silicon Valley, where failure is not regarded as a disgrace and the idea is to “fail quickly” so you can go on to try something. The opposite of this is the Wall Street banking industry, where every bank failure weakens the overall system.
An industry is strongest when it consists of many small units, where the failure of an individual business makes the survivors stronger. Taleb cited the restaurant business, in which the failure of an individual restaurant is common but the failure of the restaurant industry as a whole is unimaginable. Failures mean the best restaurants survive, and so the industry is ever-improving (assuming, I would add, that the big chain restaurants don’t drive the individually-owned restaurants out of business). Government is least harmful, he wrote, when it is vested in the lowest and possible unit, as in Switzerland.
We should honor failed entrepreneurs in the same spirit that we honor warriors who fall in battle. It is through their individual sacrifice contributes that society as a whole survives and prospers.
He is skeptical of top-down planning, whether done by government, corporations or some other form of corporation. The best economic and social system is one that allows trial and error in which the errors are small and are a source of knowledge and improvement. Experimentation and tinkering, not theory, is the source of technological and economic progress.
The trouble with most journalists, academics and government policy-makers is that they suffer no penalty for being wrong, not even a loss of reputation. Even worse are Wall Street bankers, who are able to pocket the gains from their successes and push their losses onto the taxpayers. He said the government in a humane society ought to provide for the weak and help the unlucky get back on their feet, but it should never bail out a failed business. If a business is too big to fail, he said, nobody in that business should receive greater compensation than the most highly-paid civil servant.
Taleb admires Ralph Nader because he is the opposite of a Wall Street banker. Nader accepts personal risks and sacrifices in order to confer benefits on society as a whole.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of ANTIFRAGILE: Things That Gain From Disorder, which is about how to thrive in a world that is basically unpredictable. Taleb said that individuals and societies become stronger when they expose themselves to moderate amounts of stress and risk, and become vulnerable when they try to eliminate stress and risk. He said it is impossible and unnecessary to predict the future. What is possible, on an individual and societal level, is to arrange things so that you have more to gain than to lose from change.
In this video he talks about his ideas to his friend Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is about how people make most of their decisions on the basis of intuition, and how thing can lead us astray, particularly when thinking about risk.
I give you fair warning that this video is an hour and nearly 20 minutes long. I thought it was interesting and maybe you will, too. Here are some quotes from the book which I hope will pique your interest.
My characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on.
He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once. And someone who has made plenty of errors—though never the same error more than once—is more reliable than someone who has never made any.
As a rule, intervening to limit size (of companies, airports, or sources of pollution), concentrations and speed are beneficial in reducing Black Swan risks. These actions may be devoid of iatrogenics—but it is hard to get governments to limit the size of government.
My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
The true hero in the Black Swan world is someone who prevents a calamity and, naturally, because the calamity did not happen, does not get recognition—or a bonus—for it.
Anything that needs to be marketed heavily is necessarily either an inferior product or an evil one.
If there is something in nature you don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in a deeper way that is beyond your understanding.
Hat tip for this to Hank Stone.
The Universe is vast, and our Earth is small. But from Earth we see the unfolding over billions of years of increasingly complex life, including our lives. A wonderfully patient process has brought us to the present moment.
I believe cooperating with this process will bring us a wonderful future:
A world peace system based on democracy, justice, and freedom, with sustainable prosperity. Technology protecting clean air and water, and enhancing long-term life. Both economy and government serving humanity.
Friendly people, loving parents and engaged citizens. Satisfying work, healthy food, adequate housing, and a doctor when we need one.
Oceans teeming with life. Enjoyment of diverse humankind cooperating to increase global happiness, health, vitality, goodness, and beauty.
But arrogant stories society has told itself have brought us to climate change, corporate-controlled government, unsustainably high population, and unsustainable economics. We have built doomsday weapons.
Our teachers, corporations, religions, governments, media, friends, and families have told self-congratulatory stories about our exceptionalism. But they, and we, were wrong.
To reclaim our positive future, we must set aside the comforting certainties we grew up with, and observe the world around us with innocent eyes. We must create, together, a New Story for our times. We must practice RADICAL HUMILITY to realign ourselves with the Universal process:
• Because we can “know” things that are not true, we must respect reason and the scientific method of observation and testable hypotheses.
• Because honest people can disagree, we must dialogue with people with differing ideas to find the truth.
• Because there are limits to what we can know, we must tolerate ambiguity.
• Because we share one Earth, we must cooperate with individuals, groups, humankind, and nature.
The Internet has made us all nodes in the web of the world. An idea whose time has come can circle the world overnight.
We can have a New Story, and new institutions for our positive future, because we get to choose the stories we believe.
We honor the investment the Universe has made in us when we humbly try to create a sustainable, just, and peaceful world.
Click on What Does a Positive World Future Require? for more One Pages and an explanation of what they are.