Sunday, February 28, 2016

Localized democracy, individualism, capitalism, colonization, China, rights, and more!

I recently reopened a long overdue conversation on a range of economic subjects with a friend of mine from France. Here is the transcript of my response. I will update with more if she responds again.

I have reproduced her comments below in italics, with emphasis added:

The expression “democratic regulation of the economy” is interesting in itself, as it presupposes that economy exists in itself and regulation comes afterwards. In fact, you know it better than I do, there is no economy without regulation, even when it is said to be “free”. The economy is something we produce by a collective agreement, and I do prefer this rule-setting to be democratic than to be said to rely on a natural or spontaneous order of things - given there is no natural order of things.

There is no economy without trade, and there can be no trade without an observed understanding of who owns what – that is, without clearly defined property rights. If you want to call the enforcement of those property rights “regulation,” fine. But it does not follow that the economy is something we produce by a “collective agreement”. The economy is produced by a long sequence of individual agreements and transactions. Collective agreements of the sort you seem to favor are never actually “collective” so much as they are majoritarian. By contrast, markets offer a much more authentic democracy by allowing each individual a much truer and more meaningful “choice” than they get in politics.

I do agree that every rule-setting has winners and losers. But who are the winners and losers of an economic order that relies on granting everyone the right to do everything he feels like? (not quite so in reality because doing everything one feels like excludes infringing on someone else’s private property, not paying one’s debt, not respecting intellectual property rights, and so on and so forth) well, it seems like it results in making the strong (aka the rich) even stronger (and richer, cf. our national star piketty) and the weak even weaker and powerless in front of them, having to accept any working conditions the others feel like imposing on them in order to get a salary they must earn (without real alternative) in order to live and feed their families. So here’s the question: who (i.e. whose “powerful interests”) does this fiction of the “free” natural economic order serve, isn’t the order it creates just as arbitrary as any, and wouldn’t it be fair to invent another, democratic and more equitable regulation of the economy?

I think the winners of the market system are everyone, and the losers are no one. Some win more rapidly than others, but everyone is still made better off than they were previously. The rich get richer, and the poor also get richer. This is true today, it has been true over the past 40 years, and for the 100 before that. “Having to accept any working conditions the others feel like imposing” (read: offering) “them in order to get a salary” is better than not getting any salary, which is the alternative. It’s how over a billion people were lifted out of poverty in China over the past 40 years, despite that being the epicenter of all the horrid sweatshop conditions you lament.

“You say democracy needn't, by definition, include expansive government powers. I couldn’t agree more. I believe in people deciding for themselves, on a local scale, collectively; I believe in discussion and debate not in centralism and dictatorship of majority. I believe in autonomy.”

That’s good! Individualism is just the fullest actualization of this principle, because meaningful autonomy can only come at the individual level. If you want decisions made on a “local scale”, the most local scale you can possibly achieve is that of one person. Any decision making body larger than one person necessarily involves disenfranchisement. I too believe in discussion and debate, but as our present conversation attests, that’s often not enough to create consensus. And in the absence of consensus, when people persistently disagree on things, they cannot come to any decision “collectively” without resorting to precisely the same “dictatorship of the majority” you rightly disparage (or even worse methods). Whether it’s a large or a small group doing the voting is just a matter of degree.

Unless it’s a unanimous decision (which it almost never is), this means there is no such thing as “deciding for oneself…collectively,” regardless of how localized the collective may be relative to other organizations. So why the distinction between centralized democracy and localized democracy? What principled difference does it make? If you understand how large numbers of people voting on things can oppress the losers, surely you can see how smaller numbers voting does the same thing?

Capitalism has a totalitarian pretention, as it wants to control every aspect of the way we live, from having us work 40 hours a week doing something we don’t necessarily want to do, to having us buy and consume this or that, going on vacation there and coming back as a peaceful little cog of the great growing production machine, that produces first illusion for the ones ad profit for the others. It requires a strong central government to impose it as a system (and this has been done quite violently over the centuries, as you might recall), a strong security apparatus to ensure compliance within the country, a strong army to expand and colonize outside the country (by colonize I mean expanding as a system and appropriating the resources), and a strong propaganda for the freedom of becoming obscenely rich by any means. Thus I still support the idea that capitalism isn’t compatible with democracy, understood as human autonomy.

Capitalism does not “want” to control anything. It has no wants; personifying it makes no sense. It does have effects, but those effects are not controlling. Capitalism does not make anybody work at anything, or buy or consume anything. It provides work and offers products to answer wants which people already had. I see little wrong with consumption, but if it is ugly, it is ugly due to a flaw in human nature which capitalism merely caters to, not one which capitalism creates.

If capitalism requires a strong central government to impose it as a system, why are its primary advocates (people like me!) the ones most opposed to a strong central government? Why are we libertarians the most opposed to a strong security apparatus and an inflated military? It is certainly true that HISTORICALLY, the rich have used the state as a tool to stay on top and oppress the poor. But blaming capitalism for this is a misdiagnosis – blame the state! Blame violence, which is the state. Without it, the rich are powerless to oppress anybody. They can only offer to help, and those offers can be accepted or rejected at will.

Also, as propaganda goes, “a strong propaganda for freedom” sure seems like the least scary kind ;)

And yes, I maintain that colonialism is a story of capitalist oppression, supported by the state (that has been through centuries its most faithful ally, no doubt about this). Christopher colombus was a private entrepreneur, that had nothing to do with any king or crown, he left for India because he couldn’t pay his debts.

Ok that’s just false. Columbus was commissioned by the Spanish throne. He met with them in the Nasrid Palaces in the Alhambra in Granada, shortly after the Spanish conquered it from the Moors. He was ambitious, but understood that if he wanted to do anything, it had to be approved by the state first. Had King Phillip and Queen Isabella not given him ships and money and their approval, he could not have gone.

The next expeditions to the Americas were also privately funded and aimed at producing interests for the investors that set them up. The crown of Spain of Portugal were really background actors at that time: colonization was started by merchants. Enslavement is little else than the capitalist logic of all-embracing commodification extended to man itself, and it was a trade, set up for the sake of profit and enrichment (and France provides a substantial number of examples of how well this worked.

Enslavement is the most fundamental violation of everything libertarianism stands for: freedom, property rights, nonviolence, etc. Defenders of capitalism do not need to defend everything which anyone has ever done in pursuit of profit, as if it were inherently a part of that system and wouldn’t exist otherwise. That’s like blaming capitalism for the Mafia, because they try to get rich by kidnapping or killing or robbing people, despite the fact that such behavior is the exact opposite of what I’m endorsing! In fact, I often criticize the state by COMPARING it to things like the Mafia, showing how they are similar, and thus BOTH BAD. Theft and violence and oppression long predates capitalism. Colonization was evil, but no more evil (and no more capitalist) than the centuries of conquest and butchery in the name of other things (religion, glory, riches, fame, etc.) that preceded it.

That the Chinese have better living conditions now than before, this might be true for the OECD statistics, reality is probably a bit different. We just destroyed their traditional societies and ways of living, their local solidarities, their beliefs and their ways to live together in the first place (and I can’t deny that Maoism finished the job) I think the millions of poor workers having to work 60 hours a week in a western plant in the most polluted cities of the world to be hardly able to feed and dress himself would presumably not support your claim. We have a crushing part of responsibility in the very creating of their misery, we made them dependent and we are very glad to be able to install plants where we pay people less than a dollar a day without any kind of environmental or social regulation.

I had to chuckle at this, because you have quite a romanticized view of how quaint and peaceful and friendly and loving and rainbow-filled their “traditional societies” were. In every part of the world, life prior to capitalism was inestimably worse – period. To borrow from Hobbes, life was “nasty, brutish and short” compared to life today, in China and everywhere else, hundreds of years ago. Poverty, war, disease and hardship were constants. Their shelter was meager. Their food was meager. Their medicines were spiritualistic, superstitious nonsense. And ours too! The 19th and 20th centuries saw an increase in the quality of life for the average person far greater than any the world had ever comprehended.

Many Chinese people alive today are old enough to remember how life was in 1970, just prior to China’s capitalist reforms and at the peak of the misery and starvation Mao imposed. I defy you to find me a single one of them who preferred things the way they were before. China has a lot of problems, and is still one of the most oppressive and statist regimes out there, but life there is inestimably better than it was 100 or 50 or even 20 years ago.

You make a very good point when you say democracy isn’t freedom – I’d like to add: on a national scale. I believe that this claim reverses when we talk about a scale where people are actually significant, have a voice and can influence decision processes. Democracy on the local scale is collective freedom.

Again, I’m bewildered by your fascination with “democracy on the local scale,” for two reasons. First, in the US, preference for localizing democratic decisions to the state or district level is a decidedly conservative position, which Republicans love and Democrats/liberals hate. We call it federalism. In education, for example, most on the American left support national standards called “common core”, whereas the political right hates this. The European Union is also founded on the opposite concept, seeking to centralize more and more and more power. So you seem to be arguing like a right-wing American, not a left-wing European J

Secondly, your position confuses me because I don’t see any distinction at all between national democracy and local democracy. When your vote is 1 out of 300 million, we both agree you have no meaningful say. When it is 1 out of 1 million, you still have no meaningful say. How small of a scale is practical to break it down to? What is your ideal number? If your vote is 1 of 100, you have exponentially more say than previously – and still, essentially none! Your influence is 1%. That’s puny! That drop in the bucket is your version of “choice”? That’s “collective freedom”? Even a family of 5 voting on what to have for dinner will likely leave 40% of its members unhappy. Democracy is not freedom, ever, in any meaningful sense of the term.

Only individuals making decisions for themselves can rectify this. You get 100% say to live your life 100% as you please – and 0% say over how anyone else lives theirs. That is freedom.

The national idea is very linked in my opinion to capitalism, colonialism, and today to neoliberalism. I could endorse your Non Aggression principle, the only problem would be, what rights are you talking about? We all have infinite pretensions as to our rights, how do you define them? What if two rights contradict directly, as would my right to eat and your right to own the apple tree, or an Afghan’s right to a decent life and your right to a quiet white suburban life? Would there then not be any violence?

There are three rights: life, liberty, and property. All are manifestations of the same basic, larger right: the right to self-ownership, or to non-aggression. You may feel my pretensions as to which rights I have are wrong, or incomplete, or simplistic – but surely, they are quite finite.

You have a right to eat, if you like, but not a right to eat other people’s food. If you don’t have any food, you have a right to ask for it, or to offer payment or other services in exchange for it, and almost always, 99.999% of the time, a mutually beneficial exchange can be arranged with somebody who does have some food. Thank God for this, because if everyone had to grow their own food, that would be quite inefficient indeed.

As to scarcity, well – half of the food we produce ends up in the trash without having been consumed, says the FAO. How scarce is that? (meanwhile people die all over the world but that’s a detail) we live in an abundance society, but we have an economic interest in wasting, throwing away and producing for sale, regardless of anyone’s needs.

The reason people in remote regions of the world die from starvation has more to do with the logistical difficulty in finding them and transporting fresh food to them than it does in the absence of food we are willing to give them. There is more than enough charitable funding to purchase the raw food itself required to feed them. Throwing away less of our food and being less wasteful, in other words, would do nothing to help starving people in Africa.

There actually is way too much for everybody if everyone consumed according to what he needs and not to what he wants or thinks he wants. And finally: people will remain ignorant as long as they’re not required to think, or rather, as long as they’re required not to think. Direct democracy is a necessity. Local production is essential to get rid of overproduction and find the again the way of self-limitation of the needs, it doesn’t mean getting rid of every kind of industrial production, only that we have to invent radically new ways to organize it. I’m glad that we agree on the last point: we are free to choose the way we want to live collectively.

Nothing to say here since I said it all already. Your comments on the sale of organs so incensed me that I decided to write a whole blog post on it, which I will share when I finish haha. I know I sort of rambled so feel free to ignore any portions of my response you think are a dead end and focus instead on anything you found particularly interesting – if you care to continue at all, that is.

In any case, best wishes!

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