Monthly Archives: October 2009

Common Sense

The originary hypothesis can yield for us a phenomenology and poetics of everyday life, and perhaps it can even do so in a manner respectful of reality, which is to say that doesn’t complain about the ways in which people don’t correspond to one or another “model” we have arbitrarily established for them.  Now, the sentence I just wrote is a manifestation of resentment (that doesn’t mean I’m taking it back!)—my description of my resentment would be that it is a counter-resentment to the resentment of elites bent on “improving” their fellow humans, i.e., making them more like the improver.  But, of course, we’d all like to say our resentments are mere “counter”-resentments, evening out the scales that have been placed out of balance by some previously manifested resentment.  And, fortunately, we can all say that, and we would all be right, because all resentments are countering another one, and resentment is nothing more than the imperative to even something out, to give something its “due.”  The sentence I just wrote, for example, is a resentful attempt to counter any resentment that claims to transcend resentment, and it anticipates its vulnerability to the same charge because, indeed, that charge will also always be both true and false:  Every resentment, insofar as it is given shape, does represent, in however small or imaginary a space, an infinitesimal balancing out that sustains some presence and to that extent can be shared and “transcendent.”


If we can speak of resentment as an “evening out,” creating “planes” along which other resentments can be lain, then we can also speak about “common sense” as a kind of calculus of resentment—each of us has to figure out ways of “fitting” our resentments within a present configuration that always threatens, however implicitly or distantly, to exclude our own.  One of the (in my view) great, and still neglected (toward what and whom is that resentment directed?), modern Western philosophies, is the “common sense” thinking founded by Thomas Reid and sustained and transmuted by American pragmatism (at least Peirce—who at times referred to pragmatism as “critical commonsensism”—and James), the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein and Cavell, and the “personal knowledge” or “tacit dimension” of Michael Polanyi. Reid’s common sense philosophy was arguably the philosophical foundation for the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of “self-evident” truths, because that is, indeed, Reid’s central claim:  that our fundamental modes of experiential access to reality are grounded in axioms that cannot be denied, or even questioned, without thereby undermining the experiential basis we would need to question those axioms in the first place.  So, for example, one couldn’t deny that we can understand each other when we speak, because, before whom is that denial made?  Clearly someone assumed capable of understanding it.  And, even referring to the endless litany of actual misunderstandings assumes that we know what it would mean for us not to misunderstand each other.  We can understand such axiomatic access to reality (which Reid assumed couldn’t be explained, just accepted), which Eric Gans in Science and Faith refers to as “auto-probatory” (something which could not be said without having had the experience it refers to) in terms of the articulation of resentments embedded in language.  Indeed, resentment itself is the most immediate auto-probatory experience—everyone has experienced resentment, and everyone can acknowledge anyone else’s resentment (however odd the object of that resentment might appear) and to deny this would be to affirm it because denying one’s participation in the universal experience of resentment would be the most transparently resentful stance imaginable.


So, we can account for every scene in terms of the interactions between various calculi of resentment—I resent A because he got the job I wanted last year but B outwardly at least admires A (shares some of his resentments) and I can’t bear to have both B and A resenting me so I moderate my resentment toward A into a mild irony that can be recalibrated depending on the possibility of B no longer caring about maintaining appearances, or some C coming along who could absorb some of the resentment directed towards me, or who may take A’s job making it possible for my resentment towards A to be converted to a shared resentment towards C, etc.  Involved in all of this is a profound, and largely tacit, anthropological knowledge which manifests itself in all the maxims of everyday life that we all iterate constantly, and which are all pragmatic ways of measuring degrees and distinguishing modalities of resentment:  “give him an inch, he’ll take a mile,” “what goes around comes around,” etc.  Some of us, at least, resent the “clichés,” as there is always some felt sense that they conceal a more differentiated reality that we might attain privileged access to, and that is also true (and also very easily converted into a set of maxims/clichés), but I believe there are very few concrete interactions between individuals that don’t require the buffering mechanism of these anthropological maxims; or, in compensation, the creation of new ones. 


It is very important that resentment keep getting circulated like this because the alternative is the truly deadly resentment against reality as such that is characteristic of Gnosticism.  In more linguistic terms, we might see Gnosticism as an uncompromising abhorrence of maxims, of any sign that conceals or moderates rather than fully embodying the infinitely differentiated reality that we all intuit in our “best” or most “intense” moments.  This global resentment can’t be countered by more local ones—rather, it can only be dissolved by the most fundamental of all ostensive dispositions, gratitude.  A sheer gratitude for reality neutralizes resentment towards reality, and is therefore also a critical component of common sense.  The syntactic form that corresponds to the ostensive is, I would say, the exclamation:  “what a lovely day!” expresses that originary sense of gratitude as does “how awful!” because the latter expression equally presupposes some non-awful condition that allows us all to immediately recognize how awful the one indicated is.  And, of course, “thank you!” is an exemplary exclamation, one which simply does what it says, and does it only in that specific instance.  I wonder whether one might say that Gnostics are likely to find the exclamation (and above all thanking) especially obnoxious, in its call for immediate assent and suspension of any “critical” sense of, or suspicion towards reality.


If common sense is composed out of a symmetrical adjustment of resentments grounded in gratitude toward reality and manifested in maxims, then we can point to something universally “self-evident” in common sense.  Clearly, the arrangement and dispersal of resentments will vary from place to place and time to time, sometimes widely, sometimes so much so as to be incommensurable.  But we have and can devise maxims to account for these variations and to adjust for them, and this may be an expression of faith, but I am certain that anyone would be able to piece together a workable sense of a configuration of resentments bounded by gratitude wherever they go.  Anthropologists do it with “primitive” societies, and members of those societies are able to do it when they wind up in ours.  We can’t know in advance what will count as abuse or a violation of norms, but we know that something will; the same goes with expressions of affection, vows, promises, and so on. 


I am borrowing a bit from Hannah Arendt in this discussion, and one of Arendt’s concerns regarding common sense in the modern world was that it can be obliterated by ideology and, at the most extreme, totalitarianism—manifestations of that resentment toward reality I just associated with Gnosticism.  Common sense is strikingly unable to defend itself against charges that it is “naïve,” “irrational,” “hide-bound,” “unthinking,” “complacent,” and, of course, today all that also means “racist,” sexist,” “homophobic,” “fascist” and so on.  The only defense common sense has is that of the hedgehog, although in a somewhat (but not completely?) different context than that in which that creature stands in as a mascot for GA:  all common sense can do is roll itself up in a ball and let its needles protect it from the ideological foxes.  The “needles” are its maxims, and the most privileged and central of those maxims are what we call “principles.”


Here is Friedrich Hayek on principles:


“From the insight that the benefits of civilization rest on the use of more knowledge than can be used in any deliberately concerted effort, it follows that it is not in our power to build a desirable society by simply putting together the particular elements that by themselves appear desirable. Though probably all beneficial improvements must be piecemeal, if the separate steps are not guided by a body of coherent principles, the outcome is likely to be a suppression of individual freedom.

The reason for this is very simple though not generally understood. Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseen and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known. The direct effects of any interference with the market order will be near and clearly visible in most cases, while the more indirect and remote effects will mostly be unknown and will therefore be disregarded. We shall never be aware of all the costs of achieving particular results by such interference.

And so, when we decide each issue solely on what appears to be its individual merits, we always overestimate the advantages of central direction. Our choice will regularly appear to be one between a certain known and tangible gain and the mere probability of the prevention of some unknown beneficial action by unknown persons. If the choice between freedom and coercion is thus treated as a matter of expediency, freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance. As in the particular instance we hardly ever know what would be the consequences of allowing people to make their own choice, to make the decision in each instance depending only on the foreseeable particular results must lead to the progressive destruction of freedom. There are probably few restrictions on freedom which could not be justified on the ground that we do not know the particular loss it will cause.

That freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages was fully understood by the leading liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century, one of whom (B. Constant) described liberalism as “the system of principles.” Such also is the burden of the warnings concerning “What is Seen and What is Not Seen in Political Economy” (F. Bastiat) and of the “pragmatism that contrary to intentions of its representatives inexorably leads to socialism” (C. Menger).

All these warnings were, however, thrown to the wind, and the progressive discarding of principles and the increasing determination during the last hundred years to proceed pragmatically is one of the most important innovations in social and economic policy. That we should foreswear all principles of “isms” in order to achieve greater mastery over our fate is even now proclaimed as the new wisdom of our age. Applying to each task the “social techniques” most appropriate to its solution, unfettered by any dogmatic belief, seems to some the only manner of proceeding worthy of a rational and scientific age. “Ideologies,” i.e., sets of principles, have become generally as unpopular as they have always been with aspiring dictators such as Napoleon or Karl Marx, the two men who gave the word its modern derogatory meaning.

If I am not mistaken this fashionable contempt for “ideology,” or for all general principles or “isms,” is a characteristic attitude of the disillusioned socialists who, because they have been forced by the inherent contradictions of their own ideology to discard it, have concluded that all ideologies must be erroneous and that in order to be rational one must do without one. But to be guided only, as they imagine it to be possible, by explicit particular purposes which one consciously accepts, and to reject all general values whose conduciveness to particular desirable results cannot be demonstrated (or to be guided only by what Max Weber called “purposive rationality”) is an impossibility. Though admittedly, ideology is something which cannot be “proved” (or demonstrated to be true), it may well be something whose widespread acceptance is the indispensible condition for most of the particular things we strive for.

Those self-styled modern “realists” have only contempt for the old-fashioned reminder that if one starts unsystematically to interfere with the spontaneous order of the market there is no practicable halting point, and that it is therefore necessary to choose between alternative systems. They are pleased to think that by proceeding experimentally and therefore “scientifically” they will succeed in fitting together in piecemeal fashion a desirable order by choosing for each particular desired result what science shows them to be the most appropriate means of achieving it. “

I’ll just mention that the contempt for “ideology” here is for “ideology” in a different sense than that in which Arendt sees the danger for common sense—Arendt sees ideologies as “scientific,” totalizing explanations that claim to account for a guide all human affairs, and that mark those outside its terms as “retrograde” and ultimately superfluous.  Leaving that aside, the respective arguments of the two great anti-victimary thinkers converge.  Common sense can only protect itself by defending, “unreasonably,” its maxims:  “keep your nose out my business,” “live and let live,” and, more politically, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” to mention a few.  If you tell me that you need to mind my business, just this once, because there’s emergency, I might be able to see the immediate benefit or necessity, but I will never know what I have lost by letting you do so—I won’t know, first of all, what immediate solutions I might have improvised on my own and, more importantly, what capacities and possibilities I will have surrendered by losing the habit of minding my own business.  Similarly, we will never know what we have lost by letting our fear of unemployment or a credit freeze lead us to give politicians the right to determine terms of trade, to benefit one market competitor over others, to regulate the internal operations if businesses, and so on.

The relevance of this discussion to, say, the current health care debates, is obvious.  Sarah Palin’s warning about “death panels” was simply the stance of common sense:  if the state takes more control of health care, then the state will end up making more and more life and death decisions for us, to the point of determining whether saving or improving one’s life fits a cost-benefit analysis established by experts.  The defenders of Obamacare, meanwhile claim to be guided by “purposeful rationality,” and to “proceed experimentally” (if you don’t want the “public option,” we’ll try “co-ops”!), realizing, some consciously, others partially, others not at all, that the more the state interferes in the workings of a particular segment of the “spontaneous order of the market,” the more any future “problems” will automatically be framed so that only the state (and its experts) can have the “solutions.”  “Death panels” is just a common sense way of compressing this understanding into maxims—and I, for one, couldn’t care less what the Democratic legislators (or, really, some combination of their aides, lobbyists, assorted activist groups, etc.) really “meant” when they put a particular provision in the 1,000 page long bill (a provision that will, later on, be interpreted by one of their experts).  And we don’t know what innovations in the complex relations between patients/consumers, care givers, insurance companies, medical technology, etc., will not take place because of this dramatic shift towards central planning.

The survival of free citizens depends upon strict, unyielding, “dogmatic” adherence to the fundamental, common sense, maxims of a free society:  rewarding failure gets you more of it (no bailouts!); wealth results from production, not expenditure (no stimulus!); enemies are to be fought, allies supported (no appeasement!); rights are what you can do without government interference, not what the government gives you (health care is not a right!), and many more.  Notice how different these maxims are from, say “everyone should have health care” or “gay marriage is a right”—the maxims of freedom articulate power and accountability, the slogans of soft tyranny demand provisions and donations without recompense or corresponding responsibility.  Now, needless to say, our elected officials will very often go right ahead and do these things we insist they resist; occasionally, they will be right and responsible to do so (sometimes one really does have to allow for exceptions), and more than occasionally we will, “hypocritically,” re-elect them when they do so, whether they are right or not.  But none of that matters—politicians can corrupt themselves and our principles (they have risks and benefits to weigh, and we can’t expect them to have interests higher than their own professional survival, and when they do they also expect to take the hit for betraying principles in the name of our collective survival), and our principles will survive.  What our principles can’t survive is the failure of a solid majority of citizens to insist upon their application in undiluted form, spontaneously, reflexively, unambiguously and insistently.  And in that way, when our common sense enables us to see that their violation has been a bit more egregious than usual this time, so egregious that maybe common sense will no longer help us to navigate a new world of arbitrary regulations and authorities, that common sense can become revolutionary.

Common sense is the possession of the man in the middle—not the Big Man, with wealth or power, or those living on the margins of society.  The cultivation of common sense  requires you to confront limits regularly, but also that you have some capacity to shape and maneuver within those limits; it requires you to see the consequences of your actions, and not be able to project those consequences onto the “long term,” or lose them in the tangled webs of unintended consequences and intersecting intentions.  Maintaining your common sense when you get too high or too low calls for extra doses of discipline, and perhaps some continuity with a previous condition (such as friends and family who knew you when you were in the middle). 

In a less grave way then totalitarian rule, I wonder whether today’s victimary popular culture impairs common sense.  A critic whom I admire, James Bowman, writes often of the dominance of fantasy in today’s popular culture, and the way this dominance has seeped into public and political life.  Bowman finds it disturbing that even science fiction films like the recent Star Wars don’t feel obliged to play by the rules of the “reality” they construct for themselves; one might suggest that the Obama cult has been a result of this privileging of fantasy over reality.  The recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama is an example, something I wouldn’t have accepted as a premise for a Saturday Night Live skit, and yet it happened—the award committee has made a lot of mistakes (and worse) before, but this must be the first time the award was granted based on what the committee imagines all of us are imagining the recipient might accomplish (and perhaps it’s the first time a President was ever elected on a similar basis). 

It is also fascinating how the new fragmented media environment allows for large groups of people to see those on the other side though hand-picked fragments aimed at reducing them to familiar stereotypes, but the enduring political and economic institutions serve as a check here.  Indeed, the widespread opposition to Obamacare, whatever it actually is, suggests to me that when it comes to your own private sphere of existence, the skepticism and shrewdness we associate with common sense is still intact.  Still, I can’t help but see some fragility here, simply due to repeated violations of the common sense maxims I mentioned earlier, over many decades by now—so that it actually makes sense to a lot of people to say that the government wasting a trillion dollars will return us to prosperity.  A new reality has been constructed through the articulation of the welfare-warfare-regulatory-media-academic state (even though I think a good bit of the warfare part was necessary), and one while can’t just say that it’s an artificial reality, it is predicated upon the possibility of deferring payment and consequences indefinitely.  A Ponzi scheme is also real for the people first in, who do get paid.  Popular culture erodes common sense by valorizing Ponzi-scheme models of reality, including the valorization of esthetically appealing and successful (i.e., unpunished) criminals.

Still, it seems to me commonsensical to insist upon the self-evidence of optimism.  No matter how much I despair, no matter how unlikely it seems that a disastrous course will be arrested, the very articulation of that despair (even just to oneself) implies the possibility that it will reverberate with another.  And if with another, why not yet another?  If I bewail the coming fall of this civilization, that very complaint, precisely to the extent that it is true and prophetic, implies that the principles of civilization need not disappear along with this particular one—human beings have suffered such catastrophes and recovered and renewed, and they might do so again.  If I am speaking, even if I disavow any communication with any of my contemporaries, I implicitly assert the possibility with some kindred spirits yet to be born, maybe centuries hence, maybe mediated by layers of interlocutors and interpreters who understood me only partially, but enough to pass my words along—and why should that communication be any less valuable?  To put it simply, putting forth a sign entails faith in someone receiving and disseminating it in turn.  Anyone without such minimal optimism (itself a form of “gratitude”) would not bother to speak at all, and anyone who does speak while denying that minimal optimism is to that degree dishonest—indeed, culpably ungrateful—in his or her speaking.



The Political Economy of Freedom and Sovereignty

The far Left and the Libertarian Right converge on the same enemy:  the unholy alliance of the State and Big Business.  On what victory in the struggle would mean they diverge:  the Left, of course, ultimately wants Big Business swallowed up in the rational and humanitarian State, while the Libertarians want the state abolished (they distinguish “state” from “government,” supporting a minimal version of the latter—there seems to be small anarchist contingent, though), in which case businesses might become big but not Big—they would assume their own risks and receive no protection, direct or indirect, from their competitors.  Marx had an explanation for this increasingly intricate and essential alliance:  the state never was anything other than a “general committee of the ruling class,” which under capitalism meant the protection of bourgeois private property; so, when capitalism moves into its more advanced stage, and must confront deadly new resentments (the proletariat) and dangers (the threat—and promise—of military competition between capitalist states) the state must itself expand so as to take on these tasks—and the “monopoly capitalists” will be happy to let them do so, even if they grouse occasionally.  And the libertarian explanation is… well, other than some vague references to our having forgotten our principles, it doesn’t seem to me they really have one—which would be why someone like Ron Paul exceeds even the most fevered Leftists in his conspiracy-mongering.  Someone must have made a dirty deal behind closed doors.


If entrepreneurs are essentially a predatory class, as I hypothesized in my “Hunters and Craftsmen” post, then the explanation is not that difficult.  Indeed, Libertarians are well aware, going back to Adam Smith, that any time businessmen get a chance to receive some privilege or monopoly from the state they grab it, the free market be damned.  Of course, entrepreneurs are a very peaceful predatory class, for the most part, and are themselves always vulnerable to expropriation—hence their alliance with the state is fruitful in many ways.  But predation within the peaceful space created by stable state power is still predation, and we must distinguish the small marketplaces that spring up when the division of labor has expanded enough so as to make everyone dependent upon others (even allowing for merchants to mediate between communities, including distant ones) and the power of money within a system of trade and ultimately a fully developed market system.  A baker or carpenter who brings his goods to market is still just a baker or carpenter, but moving capital around requires no “instinct of workmanship” at all.  The difference is between a stable division of labor and one that is in continual upheaval.


I hope I don’t need to, but just in case I hasten to add that there is no critique of capitalism or the market, or the entrepreneur here, neither explicit nor implicit.  “Predator” is just another way of speaking about the “Big Man”; without the Big Man, there would have been no way of centralizing resources needed to move humanity beyond the level of egalitarian hunter-gather tribes; civilization itself is predicated upon turning this predatory figure away from preying upon the weak of his own group toward defending that group against external predators (and this shift is predicated upon a truce between all the contending Big Men within the group); all I am adding is that the Big Man “function” continues to this day and that—this in my view reveals the Libertarian mindset, in all its provocative brilliance, to be utopian—we can’t imagine civilization without it.  For all our egalitarianism (which, I also hasten to add, is in its own way absolutely real, and a powerful check upon predation), there is almost never (I’m not sure I need the qualifier “almost”) a situation involving a group of people of any size that doesn’t generate a center of gravity—someone dominates the conversation; someone’s words or deed were more memorable afterwards; someone’s judgment was deferred to; someone had to make the “call,” and in the end someone did; someone had to be blamed, and they were, etc.  It may be paradoxical, but precisely in free associations, hierarchies, however informal and provisional, become indispensable. 


Whenever such hierarchies are made quasi-permanent and ritualized, we have sovereignty.  And sovereignty is the opposite of freedom.  But we can’t do without sovereignty—it meets some very definite human needs, and is, in fact, what people usually mean when they speak about “human nature.”  Sovereignty provides identity, which is first of all self-sovereignty, and, again, is inimical to freedom, as identity is just another set of shackles.  Sovereignty also provides recognition, which is impossible if we, as free beings, transmute ourselves continually.  Sovereignty is the source of pride and honor.  It provides continuity, security and protection.  And in its communal function it stabilizes the volatile system of mimetic rivalry.  Sovereignty is involved in Isaiah Berlin’s “negative” as well as “positive” freedom—it is the answer to the question of “how far should rule extend” (up until it meets my private sovereignty) and of “who should rule” (those who allot me a piece of their sovereignty so as to help me ensure my own).   And property is the form of economic sovereignty.  Freedom (freedom “of presence,” to make a conceptual distinction), meanwhile, is the act and process of becoming sign, and that can’t be represented or guaranteed in sovereign terms. 


So, an originary political economy would study the intersection of freedom and sovereignty in the way each of us articulates the imperatives sent our way by every other one of us.  I think of the kind of simple account of the workings of the free market as both the best means of satisfying needs and as discovery procedure:  I have a certain amount of money, and I invest it in the raw materials and technology I need to produce a certain number of a particular kind of good, continually adjusting the price I ask until I have sold as many of them as I can within the period of time I can allow myself before I must reinvest or, perhaps, repay my creditors.  If I don’t manage to sell enough to recoup my original investment, or come close enough to reinvest, then I fail, we learn that there is insufficient demand for the product I was selling (there are enough of them out there already, or enough of a sufficiently close version, or it’s simply unneeded and unwanted), and someone else will invest in the technology I had used, ultimately putting it to better use.  There is no other way to find out what people want, or how resources should be allocated, than this one.


If I am successful, then I expanded, however slightly, the social division of labor; or, in more anthropological terms, social differentiation.  If consumers are buying my product because it is cheaper than what they have been buying, then resources are freed up to buy other products; if they are buying my product because it is superior technologically or esthetically, then whatever skill or knowledge went into the innovation I have introduced to the world has been affirmed as a source of value, and will inspire various iterations; and, of course, if they are buying it because it does something new, then work that was previously done privately and/or less efficiently is now embedded in the new division of labor, or wholly new faculties and desires have been created, and which are sure to lead to new demands and new innovations.  My interference in the existing social division of labor stimulates others to take advantage of the possible alignments now opened up, no less than the conquest of a part of a weakened state inspires other states to participate in re-dividing the state and redrawing existing borders—and this process could also be described in “law-like” terms.  The difference, and it is a big one, in economic conquest is less in the dispositions of the players than in the fact that social rather than physical terrain is at stake, and social terrain is both inexhaustible and subject to much more limited control.  (To extend the idea slightly, doesn’t advertising make perfect sense in these terms, as camouflage, bluff and feint, warnings to a population about to besieged, pronouncements on the current status of operations, announcements of new imperial projects, etc.?)


George Gilder argued in Wealth and Poverty that far from being selfish, we should see the entrepreneur as remarkably altruistic, giving his time, energy and resources to help others.  Ultimately, there may not be so much difference between this claim and Ayn Rand’s harangues on the virtues of selfishness.  They are both the dispositions of the sovereign, who does favors for whom he will do favors and ill to whom he disfavors.  With all the current talk about how much regulation we need and what kind, it seems obvious to me that regulation is almost always beside the point because any new innovation and the subsequent reorganization of the division of labor will render the existing rules obsolete.  Regulations are always attempts to fight the last war, and arguments in favor of more of them are almost invariable obscenely oblivious to the advantages of hindsight—everything that seems to us to be a cause of whatever crisis or scandal occupies us should, as all reasonable people can agree, have been outlawed.  It might be more useful to think of entrepreneurship as—as I believe many of them, in fact, do—a kind of war-making, maybe in conventional terms, with large, well-stocked armies with a long-term battle plan; maybe a kind of guerilla warfare; at times even a kind of terrorism.  The enemy varies—it may be those representing the existing division of labor, supported by state subsidies direct and indirect; or, it may be those instigating disruptions of the status quo—but I don’t see how one could deny that, in addition to producing, improving and disseminating their products, businesses spend quite a bit of time addressing the various fronts on which they fight:  labor, the state, or this or that agency, and their competitors.  (And even warriors, in the literal sense, must give quite a bit of attention to the production and distribution of goods, services, and the enforcement of the rights of various officials and “property” owners.)


If reasonable rules for waging war can’t be composed in the course of the battle itself, the various agreements forged going into and following battles (truces, alliances) can be enforced—that is, contracts.  There is even something a little irrational about this, as contracts must always presuppose a continuous state of affairs that makes their fulfillment possible, but promises to abide by such shared hypotheses, even or especially when realities emerge which undermine them, is ultimately far more rational because continuities can only be carved, to some extent arbitrarily, out of discontinuity.  In fact, all of the attention of government should be directed towards the strict enforcement of contracts, if only to give the signatories powerful incentives to construct their contracts carefully and make their reciprocal obligations as transparent as possible.  And this answers the question of how big the government should be:  as big as necessary to arbitrate effectively, indeed, unquestioningly, between the largest of the economic barons.  But not big enough to help anyone of them if they lose their fiefdom. 


Consumer sovereignty is a nice slogan but unsupportable as an empirical claim.  The relation between consumers and companies is analogous to that between voters and political parties:  the organizations propose, and the consumers and voters dispose.  (Or, more provocatively, between occupied populations and their conquerors, taking into account the desire for an extremely gentle occupation regime, including one that realzies the benefits of recruiting its administrators from the population itself.)  That is, the final purchase validates or invalidates a particular use of capital within a generally valid field; consumers regularly bring down empires, but the imperial system itself remains.  In case it’s necessary, I’ll make it clear that this is not a critique—I see no reason to assume that consumers (or voters) should weigh in any more heavily than this.  But the capacity to redirect the channels through which capital flows plays a very important role morally, and in providing the tacit rules under which the system operates.  It certainly makes a big difference whether the most unhealthy fast food restaurants or diversified, and increasingly tasty, health food alternatives prevail; or whether the main streets of medium-sized cities are littered with strip clubs.  Such redirections of capital in turn depend upon, and register, the degree of thriving of families, churches and other neighborhood institutions.  Indeed, I think those political movements likely to produce the most lasting effects will be those which focus on modifying consumer behavior, directly (through boycotts and savvy ad campaigns) and indirectly (by strengthening civil society).


The tension between the entrepreneur and the “craftsman” so evident in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class lies, I think, in the way outlays of capital continually upend—indeed, have their very significance in upending—the existing division of labor.  Veblen associates the instinct for workmanship with knowledge of causal relations in nature (as opposed to the superstitious nature of the “predatory” classes), which makes sense, but equally important here are traditional methods and guild-style relations and an esthetic sense.  The most virulent opposition to capitalism has often come from those pushed out of their artisan status by mass production—much of the rhetoric, if not the reality, of anti-capitalist politics derives from this kind of complaint, with which it is easy enough to sympathize.  But knowledge of causal relation, that is, the application of science to production, has a more complex relationship to the entrepreneur.  For a long time, in Marxist circles, there were arguments regarding the long-term effects of capitalism on scientific “labor”—the most politically appealing argument was that scientists would increasingly be reduced to wage laborers and supervisors of wage laborers, with intensifying specialization making it impossible for them to protect their interests as a group or individuals, leaving perhaps a few very elite scientists who essentially join the “ruling class.”  And, certainly, scientists, and especially those responsible for important technological innovations, have been among the most important new members of the economic “aristocracy” over the past few decades.  But if traditional educational institutions are eroded (or continue in their present course of erosion), can the free market be counted on to produce the number of scientists and engineers needed to keep de- and re-stabilizing the division of labor?  The math and science proficiency of American students, and the increasing dependence of American companies upon foreigners for high-tech positions (while we seem to do just fine in producing all the lawyers we need) makes this a serious question.


A good way to start to tie all these issues together is by reflecting upon another issue where the far Left and Libertarian right converge (and where I have come, conveniently, to agree with both)—the illegitimacy and need for abolition of intellectual property.  Intellectual property is a state granted monopoly over the uses others can make of their private property—the state can prohibit me from using my own printer and paper to copy something and distribute it, or to use my own raw materials of any kind to replicate a physical or chemical structure.  The argument against intellectual property is most potent in dealing with patents, I think, given how arbitrary the distinction between a real invention and some tweak of a method or process that is already well known is; it is most problematic, even distressing, in dealing with copyright, when we know very well who authored, painted or composed that original and irreplaceable novel, painting or symphony and it seems only just that they benefit financially from it.


Either way, I don’t see how intellectual property can possibly be maintained into the future:  can all personal computers be checked for illegal downloads?  Can we make China protect Disney’s copyrights?  Will India deny its poor knock-off medicines based on those created by American pharmaceuticals?  So, it may be better to speculate on a world without it.  This might be a good time to remind ourselves that the origin of creation lies in freedom, the kind of freedom that has its telos in the “discipline,” or a conversation aimed at soliciting revelations from some shared object or, in more anthropological terms, to make some object an inexhaustible source of signification.  This is done by iteration for its own sake, and I’ll update my definition of iteration here as obeying the imperative to apply the rule to the infinitesimal—that is, discovering what you are doing in some space where the making of rules and the interchange of tacit and explicit rules is generating transformations and applying the rules of what you are doing to some as yet tacit dimension of it.  So, for example, I realize that I organize my thinking into a certain pattern that I hadn’t recognized previously, or that has just emerged as distinct, and I apply the rule constitutive to that pattern to elements of my thinking that run in more established or random routines.


Inventions for use follow this logic, but are ultimately incidental to disciplinary habits and desires.  If authors and creators are denied the monopoly on the right to use their work for profit (a right more often exploited by entertainment and other corporations anyway, often at the expense of their hired creators), they might use their talents to invite people into unique disciplinary spaces that transcend the reproduction of an object.  That is, creation will become more pedagogical, organized around websites, public appearances, and other mediated events that take the created object as a changing center, one which the audience pays for the right to help change and witness in its successive metamorphoses.  New drugs might come to be invented in hospitals and other health care sites, and be administered as part of a total care experience; new technological innovations in other fields might also become embedded in a holistic set of service relations, as already seems to be happening with computers.  This denial of a state monopoly to the giant companies best able to exploit it might, in turn, lead to a push for the government to stay outside of the company-consumer relationship, which would now require constant and far more subtle fine-tuning and communication between the parties, irreducible to external regulation.  And the instinct for workmanship might revive as well in such integrated work environments, and the marginalist political activities like civil disobedience and boycotts take on more precise objects—supporting loved and needed “customized” institutions from state depredations.  (The laws against fraud, though, might get some creative workouts if more people think they can get away with claiming to be the producer or author of another’s work, as opposed to just using or disseminating it.)


So, perhaps we can locate a new political economic lawfulness in the degree of faith we find in our society and ourselves that creative activity unsanctioned, unprotected and uncredentialed by the predatory alliance of Big Business and the State (they’ve earned their capital letters!) can thereby generate even more creative activity and social and cultural good.  The less faith, the more government regulation, the more business takes on static, administrative, imperial roles; the more faith, the more sovereignty learns to embed itself in, rather than prey upon, freedom—and the more social health and prosperity.  We might even develop an appreciation for the contribution to this lawfulness made by the disciplines organized around the praxical study of risk, like hedge funds, and other inquirers into the myriad ways the miracle of making money out of money takes place.  (Yes, the warriors are themselves ultimately driven by freedom, their actions an adventure in exploration and hence a mode of inquiry.)  Such scouts in the world of economic warfare are among the most faithful in their own intuitions and abilities, and in the tacit rules of the system to sustain them—and they test out which battle plans are real, and which will dissolve upon contact with the enemy.