Saturday, May 2, 2020

Art Berman's bleak view of the future



Human civilization was built in part on the exploitation of stored energy. Post-World War 2 Western prosperity was built largely on oil, which is a remarkably concentrated energy source. The energy stored in one barrel of oil is said to represent 4.5 man-years of work.

But strange things are happening in the oil market. And, according to Art Berman, they portend drastic and irrevocable social and economic change.

Prices have collapsed and storage is nearly full. The only option for many producers is to shut in their wells. That means no income. Most have considerable debt so bankruptcy is next.

Most people, policy makers and economists are energy blind and cannot, therefore, fully grasp the gravity or the consequences of what is happening.

Energy is the economy and oil is the most important and productive portion of energy. U.S. oil consumption is at its lowest level since 1971 […] As goes oil, so goes the economy: down.

Oil production and price are unlikely to regain late 2018 levels.

So supply will fall; and Berman doubts that there will be a recovery in demand in the third quarter, even if businesses continue to reopen.

That is because we are in a global depression. Unemployment will remain high and consumers will be damaged from lack of income over the months of quarantine. The truth is that I doubt that demand will ever recover.

At best, economies will re-start slowly and fitfully.

Those who see an opportunity for renewable energy in the demise of oil need to think again. The manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars depend on diesel all along the supply chain from extraction to distribution of finished products. A world in economic depression will default to the cheapest and most productive fuels. Oil will be cheap and abundant for a long time. There will be little money or appetite for the massive equipment changes that renewable sources require. Climate change will not be high in the consciousness of people struggling to survive.

Berman notes that prominent economist Lawrence Summers has concerns that the U.S. financial system may collapse because of cascading defaults in the real estate and other sectors. (A quarter of renters and mortgage holders failed to make payments in April.)

He also cites Joseph Stiglitz who believes that the current pandemic will affect the developing world more severely than it has developed countries, and that this could lead to mass migrations even more significant than those we have witnessed (out of the Middle East and Africa, for example) in recent years.

But Berman’s area of expertise is the oil market. He is saying that high-cost producers will fail.

Large segments of the U.S. oil industry will have to be nationalized before the year is over. The price of oil is too low to justify the cost of extraction even if storage were available. The value of a barrel of oil, however, is 4.5 man-years of work and that productivity multiplier will be essential if the U.S. economy is to avoid collapse or for it to recover if collapse is unavoidable.

The economy will continue to be dependent on oil. But the game is over for most of the U.S. oil industry. As he puts it, “someone else’s oil will be cheap to buy for years.”

Berman concludes on a philosophical note:

There are few moments when we may truly say that things are different now. This is one of those moments. We do not know what awful form the future may take, what rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. […]

I hope that we learn to view what is happening as a chance to simplify and to learn to be satisfied with no more than what we need. It is unlikely that we will have much choice.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Endgame



The foreign, defense and trade policies of the United States and the overt and covert operations designed to implement and support them have, over the last 80 years or so, had profound effects on the world. I used to think those effects were positive on the whole. Like so many other foreign consumers of American popular culture, I had absorbed from childhood the usual cinematic clichés concerning the fundamental probity of generations of US leaders and their agents, both civilian and military. Moreover, it was obvious that old empires had failed and it seemed reasonable to see the United States as having taken on the role of de facto imperial power, keeping the sea lanes open and stepping in where necessary to deal with threats to peace and security. The fact that many of us had family who had been saved or protected by US military operations further encouraged and reinforced such views.

What about the deliberate mass killing of civilians by Allied forces during World War 2, the firebombing of cities in Europe and Japan, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki catastrophes? We were inclined to see these as lapses and not representative of the true (and basically benign) nature of US interventions. But such an interpretation has become more and more difficult to sustain.

It is just possible that, for a time, there was some truth to the myth of the essential benignity of US power. But, since the Vietnam War, and certainly since the exposure of the egregious deceptions involved in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, that myth has lost all plausibility.

In the course of a recent discussion at The Electric Agora, E.J. Winner claimed that people outside the US often fail to appreciate just how combative ordinary Americans are. Quoting General George S. Patton’s remark that “all real Americans love the sting and clash of battle,” he suggested that, “[d]espite the occasional revulsion against war, Americans are on the whole a violent people.”

On the whole? Violent, compared to which other nationalities? Forgive me for being skeptical. Such generalizations may sometimes be meaningful in respect of countries with relatively homogeneous cultures but not, I think, in respect of countries as large and diverse as today’s United States.

Nonetheless, my interlocutor had two specific, and not implausible, points to make regarding “the nuances of the context” in which American foreign policy develops and is carried out. Many Americans, he claimed, are brought up to believe “that they have a special place on this earth,” this feeling of specialness or exceptionalism being reinforced by the knowledge that “the US has the most powerful military the world has ever seen.”

His second point was that the governing elites have a responsibility to constrain and manage these unfortunate inclinations in the context of foreign affairs.

“[Hillary] Clinton may not have understood that, but her advisors would have. [...] Some of Trump’s original advisors understood that – so he got rid of them and surrounded himself with yes-men.”

There are many ways the facts can be analysed here. I would be more inclined to emphasize the isolationist and anti-imperial strands of American culture and to see particular (usually elite) interest groups as having manipulated public opinion in generally hawkish directions. The neoconservative movement, for example, has a well-documented history. Neoconservatives and others committed to various versions of American exceptionalism have profoundly influenced US foreign policy and encouraged high levels of military spending and extensive covert and direct military interventions under successive administrations.

Due to fiscal constraints such policies are clearly unsustainable however. US military power is inextricably bound up with – and dependent on – economic factors and the dominant role that the US dollar has played in world trade. The dollar-based financial system has been failing for years and now seems to be imploding.

I talked about some of these things on this site in January, as a novel coronavirus was silently spreading in the city of Wuhan and beyond. I discussed quantitative easing and the Fed’s failed attempts to wind this back. In the event of another financial crisis occurring, I wondered, what would happen?

Interest rates are extremely low and central bank options are limited. Defaults and/or falling equity prices would destroy large amounts of paper wealth. In the short term, this could lead to a period of dollar strength but – if the actions of the Federal Reserve in recent times are any guide – the money-printing would be stepped up. This could easily lead to serious inflation and an undermining of international confidence in the dollar. Of course, no one can predict exactly how (or when) the endgame will play out but there is little doubt that the US dollar’s days as world reserve currency are numbered.

That crisis is now upon us. For the time being the dollar is strong and analysts at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America recently predicted that it would strengthen further in the near term against most other currencies.

The larger question relates to the sustainability of the US dollar-based financial system. As this system underpins America’s prosperity as well as its geopolitical status and power, radical changes would have radical implications for America’s place – and role – in the world.


[This is a slightly modified version of an EA piece which was published early this month.]

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Jules Monnerot and the concept of "secular religion"



Jules Monnerot [1909–1995] was born and spent his early years in Martinique where his father (also Jules) was a lawyer and left-wing activist. Jules Monnerot, fils went from being a Marxist in his youth to being a cold warrior after World War 2, subsequently moving further to the right.

Some see him as having been a fascist in his later years. Dan Stone, for example, tracing Monnerot’s intellectual trajectory, highlights the preoccupations of the Collège de Sociologie which Monnerot co-founded in 1937 and suggests that the notion of “secular religion” which formed the basis of Monnerot’s mid-century critique of the extreme left played into his gradually-evolving – and allegedly fascist – stance.

The Collège de Sociologie did promote some ideas – a sort of anti-rationalistic primitivism, for example – which could be seen to exhibit similarities to or (at least) compatibilities with certain fascist ideas. But it was a loose alliance of intellectuals concerned with directions in the arts and the broader culture and in social research, not a political organization.

Though there are many ways of using and understanding the concept of “secular religion”, one common (and I think quite acceptable) way involves highlighting psycho-social parallels between the behaviors and attitudes of members of religious groups – as we typically see and understand them today or as we know them from historical sources – and those of people who are bound together by political ideology or other other kinds of secular allegiance. Such parallels might include the following: in-group/out-group dynamics; a set of core values and beliefs which is seen as being in some sense “sacred”, or at least not to be questioned, and which forms the basis of decisions concerning inclusion and exclusion; a tendency to sanctify or make heroes of founding figures and prominent practitioners of the past and to demonize opponents and apostates; moral certainty, and a sense that a vindication of core values and a fulfilment of goals and expectations will be forthcoming; an important role for ritual; and so on.

Such comparisons may be merely observational and descriptive but, more often than not, comparisons between religious and political structures are critiques and have a polemical aspect. For example, authors aligned with a specific church or denomination may present political ideologies as ersatz religions, as weak or dangerous religion-substitutes. Thinkers ill-disposed to religion may take a similar line. In both cases, drawing parallels with religion is specifically designed to undermine the credibility of the ideology in question.

My focus here is on Monnerot the cold warrior of the late 1940s and early 1950s and specifically on a defense that Monnerot made of his position which was prompted by an attack on his ideas by Hannah Arendt.

Monnerot’s works are written in an erudite but journalistic style. They do not purport to be empirical or scholarly studies. Certainly, they do not aspire (as Max Weber’s works generally do) to sociological neutrality. When, in Sociologie du communisme (1949), Monnerot compares contemporary communism with historical Islam, he is consciously engaged in a polemic. He is seeking to draw attention to the dangers implicit in Marxist ideology which he interprets as a political mythology. He calls his approach “aetiological” and “clinical”, and sees himself as exploring the politico-mythological causes of social and cultural maladies.

Specifically, it was Monnerot’s utilization of the concept of secular religion which prompted Arendt’s ire. Both Monnerot and Arendt took religion very seriously but their perspectives on religion were far apart. Arendt was operating within a broadly Kantian context and her views were heavily influenced by Christian thinkers of the past and by the liberal theology of her time. Monnerot (like other members of the Collège de Sociologie) was not associated with these traditions of thought, but nor was he advocating an entirely secular or science-centred point of view. The sacred meant something for him, something real, something which had a continuing relevance. It could manifest itself in various ways and contexts: in ordinary life, in the arts, in politics.

Monnerot was especially interested in political manifestations of the sacred. He recognized, however, that the ideologies of the time were seriously flawed. Hitlerism, obviously. As for communism, it was an unstable hybrid of rationalistic and philosophico-religious elements.

Monnerot was particularly concerned with communism’s intrinsically totalitarian and universalistic nature. It sought to dominate all aspects of life and to subvert all local loyalties. As such, it operated much like historical manifestations of Islam. The ultimate goal was to dominate the entire world, to create a universal state.

“As universal state,” argues Monnerot, “it would seek to abolish all the differentiations which keep the world divided into distinct and individual units (the most recent unit of this kind being the nation). In its role as secular religion, communism encourages and harnesses discontent, it reinforces and exploits every impulse which sets individuals against their native society and works relentlessly to undermine the vital psychological and social forces which prevent societies from plunging into dissolution and ruin.”

Though Arendt moved in left-wing circles (her family were socialists, her mother was a follower of Rosa Luxembourg, her first husband had communist links and her second husband was a Marxist), she did not see herself as left-wing. Most of her political thought and activism was preoccupied in one way or another with Jewish themes and specifically with combating anti-Semitism.

Given that she was not a communist or a committed Marxist, her strong negative reaction to Monnerot’s attempt to compare communism with Islam seems to call for an explanation. She insists that politics and religion are incompatible concepts. Especially puzzling is her use of the concept of blasphemy. She accuses Monnerot of blasphemy (against whom or what exactly?).

From what I have read, even scholars who are very sympathetic to Arendt concede that she is not at her best in this encounter with Jules Monnerot. And Monnerot, however his later views are understood or interpreted, makes some strong and valid points in the letter he sent to the editor (Henry Kissinger, no less) of the journal which had published Arendt’s critique of his work. While not endorsing Monnerot’s broader point of view, I think his criticisms of Arendt for rejecting out of hand any possibility of overlap between the political and the religious are entirely justified. I also share Monnerot’s puzzlement concerning Arendt’s blasphemy accusation.

Here are a few excerpts from Monnerot’s letter:

Ms. Arendt cites Kierkegaard, Pascal, Dostoievski […] but she also draws on Marx and particularly on his shifting and somewhat imprecise notion of ideology. In Marx’s writings, the notions of superstructure and ideology are sometimes interchangeable. Sometimes “ideology” is one of the superstructures (others being law, the arts, religion); sometimes “ideology” and “superstructure” are synonymous such that art and law, for example, are seen as “ideological” phenomena. The same can be said of religion within a Marxian framework. […] We do not find in Marx an absolute opposition of ideology and religion. It is Ms. Arendt who decrees that there must be such an opposition, but without any justification.

[…] Setting aside details of the evolutionary schemas utilized by the pioneers of the religious sociology of primitive peoples, their way of seeing the whole of humanity as being interconnected and their insistence on a kind of continuity between very lofty and very humble things had a positive impact on Western thinking. From this perspective, a higher or universal religion – which exceeds by definition the limits of a race, or of any “closed society” – is the most complex […] form. A glance at history teaches us that such complex forms arise quite late, that they presuppose, and derive from, previous contingent forms. […] Nor are such complex and differentiated forms immune to regressions. […] The expression “secular religion” (the adjective modifying the noun’s meaning) can, within this framework, be usefully employed in connection with communism, just as it can with respect to Hitlerism. This may be theologically absurd, but it is not sociologically absurd.

[…] The “bourgeois” communist is an agent of self-destruction of the real in the name of the unreal. Communist beliefs about the function of the Red Army or that of the State Security Ministry are not realistic representations. What such Marxists put above mankind they do not call God but, if one analyzes their thought, one arrives at the conclusion that what is being actualized is a conception of the human species as an alienating and mystifying abstraction (as the Marxists would say if they applied their criticism to themselves).

Functionally speaking, the human species – conceived in relation to a recognizably providential view of history, courtesy of Hegel – plays the role of a kind of divinity within Marxist thought.

In both the Russian and Chinese communist systems […] man suffers from separation from himself. The movement of history will cure it, but only in terms of the species. The individual person in this system, the individual who is this one or that one, you or me, is (as I have previously written) “the manure of history.” […]

The communist has an answer to everything. This phenomenon characterizes unitary orthodoxies. Such a system of ideas rejects what cannot be assimilated and assimilates the rest. And the elements it assimilates it renders homogenous, changing them beyond recognition.


[This is an abridged and slightly revised version of an essay which appeared last month at The Electric Agora].

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A voice in the night



From an aesthetic point of view, early television was inferior not only to cinema but also to radio. Image quality issues and low production values give much old television programming a tacky and tawdry feel. In a real sense, radio’s restriction to one sensory modality was a form of freedom. Almost from the outset, radio was a powerful and flexible medium with a remarkable capacity for direct and intimate communication. It engaged the emotions – and the visual imagination.

Because of its presence in the home and capacity for live programming, television posed a threat to radio that cinema had not, gradually replacing it in most of its traditional roles and formats. Cinema and radio, on the other hand, had peacefully coexisted for decades. In fact, the respective golden ages of cinema and radio could be seen to have coincided, or at least overlapped.

Though I have a broad interest in the music and popular culture of the 1940s and 1950s, it is generally serious film dramas which most interest me, especially in so far as they reveal the preoccupations, moods, manners, politics and underlying values of the time.

I want to say a few words here about an unpretentious little movie of the 1950s which was centered around one of the abiding preoccupations of American cinema: organized crime. It stars and is narrated by an actor who made his name in radio in the 1940s. Frank Lovejoy was often (but not always) cast as a reassuring character, an American everyman, encapsulating in his distinctive voice and (later) his screen presence a kind of middle ground of decent normality in a world in which such qualities were seen to be at risk.

On radio, he was the first narrator of the long-running crime drama series (based on stories from the files of the agency), This Is Your FBI. (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called it “the finest dramatic program on the air.”) But Lovejoy was probably best known for playing a Chicago crime reporter in another radio series, Nightbeat.

Social and cultural historian (and Jack the Ripper expert) Paul Begg writes:

Broadcast on NBC, Nightbeat … starred Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone, a tough and streetwise reporter who worked the nightbeat for the Chicago Star, looking for human interest stories. He met an assortment of people, most of them with a problem, many of them scared, and sometimes he was able to help them, sometimes he wasn’t. It is generally regarded as a “quality” show, and it stands up extremely well. Frank Lovejoy (1914–1962) isn’t remembered today, but he was a powerful and believable actor with a strong delivery, and his portrayal of Randy Stone as tough guy with humanity was perfect.

Finger Man is a low budget but well-crafted crime drama in typical film noir style in which Lovejoy plays another “tough guy with humanity.” The film was directed by Harold Schuster. The script is credited to Warren Douglas, “based on a story by Morris Lipsius and John Lardner.” Lardner was a distinguished sports writer and war correspondent, a son of Ring Lardner and brother of Ring Lardner Jr., blacklisted screenwriter and one of the Hollywood Ten. The writing is taut and generally convincing, though very stylized.

A point of interest is that Lipsius, who had co-authored a dictionary of underworld slang, was a former criminal who had been recruited five years before by the Treasury Department’s undercover wing. The plot of Finger Man and many details of the script clearly owe much to Lipsius’s personal experience. Also, John Lardner had known Lipsius at least since 1951, as an article about him by Lardner appeared in the New Yorker in November of that year.

The main character/narrator of the film (played by Lovejoy) introduces the story by saying that these things happened to him, but he can’t give certain details as “there are still people around, people who never forget and I’d like to keep on living… My name? Let’s just say it’s Casey Martin.” Routine stuff, sure. And then there is Casey’s sister who is now a junkie and her cute little daughter. It’s Hollywood, but with an edge.

Martin is picked up on Christmas eve for hijacking a truck, but is promised a clean slate if he puts the finger on a major underworld figure, Dutch Becker. The eventual sting operation involves illicit alcohol.

In real life, Lipsius had facilitated the conviction of a powerful underworld figure, Irving Wexler, aka “Waxey” Gordon, via a plot regarding heroin deals. Undercover Treasury agents had, in December 1950 (was it Christmas eve, as in the film?), recruited Lipsius, an ex-convict, to befriend Wexler and set him up for what would be his final arrest on August 2nd, 1951. Wexler was convicted and died in prison. Wexler was also heavily involved in gambling and prostitution, like the fictional Dutch Becker.

The world of Finger Man (and many other noir dramas) was a Manichean world in which the forces of crime and depravity were in a constant battle with the forces of justice and decency and there was no certainty what the ultimate outcome would be.

This is how the Lovejoy character, as narrator, assesses his situation early in the film: “Well, there it was laid right in my lap. I come out clean or I come out dead. The Treasury Department and the police were on my side. Against me was a big-time hoodlum by the name of Dutch Becker – and the entire underworld from coast to coast. There wasn’t a gambler alive who’d make book with those odds.”

In trying to convince him to cooperate the Treasury Department secret service chief had appealed both to his sense of decency and to patriotism:

“You know the mobs, how they operate. One strong, ruthless man can tie a syndicate together. He pushes the buttons and pulls the strings and all over the nation his vicious rackets are set in motion. He’s a dictator. We’re after one of those dictators… Put the finger on him and you’re a free man… [Y]ou know Dutch Becker as well as I do. He has no conscience. He has no soul. It makes no difference to him if he destroys an individual or a family or a nation. And enough men like Becker could destroy a nation… We know that Becker is operating in at least nine states… He gets his cut out of everything rotten that’s sold. We want him.”

“Let me show you something,” the agent continues, shuffling through a batch of photographs. “Here’s a girl 17, dead before she even started to live. Sixteen. Twenty. There’s a girl 19. They found her in a trunk. She wanted to go home to her family but the boys couldn’t see it her way. The hospitals, jails, asylums and morgues are full of human beings who were destroyed by men like Dutch Becker.”

The narrator gives a few more details about him: “He was one of the biggest gamblers in the country. He was the king pin of an illegal alcohol ring. He employed beautiful girls as escorts, hostesses, shills and b-girls in his clubs and gambling houses. If they crossed him they were not very pretty to look at when he paid them. And he always did.”

The villain is effectively played by Forrest Tucker as a smooth psychopath. And Peggy Castle is believably vulnerable as Lovejoy’s love interest and a woman trying to escape from her past life as one of Becker’s girls. But what ties it all together – holding the line not for idealism but at least for some small measure of hope and decency – is Lovejoy’s voice and presence.


[First published earlier this year at The Electric Agora.]

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

America in decline



An American friend, who shares my views on global politics, diplomacy and foreign policy but not on economics or fiscal and monetary policy, recently wrote:

“I agree that the US is in decline. In theory I believe it can come back, but it is getting harder all the time (and the recovery process more painful). If Trump or Biden are elected this year I will give up on the US as it will not recover to a meaningful degree (if at all) in my lifetime.”

Here is the substance of my response…

Whoever wins the election, the country will remain divided. To an outsider, at any rate, the national symbols and myths no longer seem to be working to create the sense of cohesion which they once provided. America is not the nation it once was. I wonder if it is still a nation at all. (It remains a very powerful state, of course.)

In terms of comparative economic and military might and the diplomatic leverage associated with this, the decline is (I think) irreversible. This may not be such a bad thing, given the increasingly destructive nature of US foreign interventions.

The projection of US power has, at least since World War 2, been closely associated with, and facilitated by, the global role of the US dollar in trade and its status as a reserve currency. But the current US-based system is breaking down. This has implications for all countries, but especially for the US.

The Federal Reserve responded to the 2008 financial crisis by lowering interest rates and pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the system. This was supposed to be a short-term emergency operation. But the expansionary policies continued. A precarious economy increasingly dependent on government spending and a financial system increasingly dependent on cheap credit led the Federal Reserve (and other central banks) to suppress interest rates by any means possible, including by injecting money directly into the financial system through the purchase of securities from commercial banks and other financial institutions (i.e. quantitative easing). Such policies have facilitated and encouraged further borrowing and malinvestment on an unprecedented scale. The problems are now systemic.

Price signals, which are key drivers of any functioning market, have become so distorted that they can no longer be trusted. Fixed-interest securities, shares and many other financial instruments appear to be massively overvalued. Government and central bank interventions are largely to blame for this but other factors – such as the rise of index funds and other forms of passive investing – have contributed to the problem.

I see it as extremely significant that attempts made in recent years by the Federal Reserve gradually to raise interest rates towards more normal levels and to wind back quantitative easing have failed. In both cases, the Fed has reversed course.

In the event of another financial crisis occurring, what would happen? Interest rates are extremely low and central bank options are limited. Defaults and/or falling equity prices would destroy large amounts of paper wealth. In the short term, this could lead to a period of dollar strength but – if the actions of the Federal Reserve in recent times are any guide – the money-printing would be stepped up. This could easily lead to serious inflation and an undermining of international confidence in the dollar. Of course, no one can predict exactly how (or when) the endgame will play out but there is little doubt that the US dollar’s days as world reserve currency are numbered.

Before confidence – and properly-functioning markets – can be restored, bad debts need to be recognized as such and written off. Zombie banks and zombie companies must be exposed and either allowed to fail or taken over. But, because of the extent of the problems, the system itself – the entire post-Bretton Woods, USD-based system – is now irredeemably compromised. There is no easy way out.

Though it may appear otherwise, my basic sentiments are not – and never have been – anti-American. I am not a US citizen but I love and value many features of 20th-century American culture. Many of these features are exemplified and live on in individual Americans even if they are no longer reflected in contemporary social structures and institutions.

The old ways are dying, the old institutions are gone or changed beyond recognition. Even so, I hold to a hope similar to one I have expressed regarding older European and British traditions: namely, that what is good in what has been lost will eventually be rediscovered and find new (and perhaps more enduring) forms of expression.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Investment decisions; geopolitics



In a letter to a friend I briefly outlined my current investment situation and strategy. It's important, I think, to maintain a steady and realistic perspective on the general situation in financial markets both for practical, investment-related reasons and also for understanding current affairs. Politics, economics and finance are inextricably intertwined.

It helps me to state my general position explicitly from time to time. Obvious facts can be vitally important yet they are often overlooked...

I am in a position where I am forced to bet on how the future pans out in terms of economies, interest rates and currencies. I find myself (for reasons I won’t go into) almost entirely in AUD cash. This is my starting point, for better or for worse. AUD is weak against the US dollar. So I am waiting for something to happen (stock market crash or bond yields spiking or AUD rising against USD or other assets becoming cheaper in AUD terms) so that I can make a move with some confidence that I am not being suckered by a fake market.

Nobody knows when things will blow up. But blow up they must given the absurdly high debt levels and low or negative interest rates which are causing massive malinvestment, destroying savings and pensions and destroying the faith that people once had that price signals and so on could be trusted to reflect actual economic realities.

Many companies are on credit-fueled life support: no prospect of ever turning a profit. That’s in large part why the powers that be have to keep interest rates low. If they rise the non-viable companies go bust. Many corporate bonds become worthless, etc.. And zombie companies are not a small percentage of the total these days. Banks are especially vulnerable.

The same logic applies to individuals and families with big mortgages or other debts. Rising rates will cripple them financially as residential real estate prices fall.

And, of course, governments are heavily indebted too. If rates go up, more of the budget must go to service that debt.

US authorities apparently want to weaken the dollar to stimulate exports etc.. The danger is that at some point the dollar will just suddenly start to lose purchasing power as other means of international payment come on stream.

Confidence in the system is rapidly eroding. There is a growing general realization that the current monetary and financial system is failing but it is impossible to know what exactly is going to replace it. Or when.

US policy on the Middle East (and the Far East) is driven mainly by economic and financial factors – and always has been. (Oil. The dollar.) As the petrodollar system breaks down, there are clearly increased risks of conflict between major powers.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A case study in noncommunication



The first move was tentative. He “just wanted to pick up on a tangential point” regarding what I had been saying. But this was merely a lead-in, a toe in the water.

Joe Smith was responding to a mildly polemical piece that I wrote recently for The Electric Agora.

“I was simply making a correction to your claim that tabula rasa was specifically an Enlightenment view,” he explained in a comment.

The offending passage was in a section in which I suggested that the current internecine battles between progressive factions might be due to “deep-seated contradictions and flaws within certain forms of progressive and radical thought.”

One of the possible sources of trouble which I listed was (as I put it) “the Enlightenment view of the mind as infinitely malleable, a tabula rasa, a blank slate.”

And I think it can be argued that such notions were in fact adopted by radicals and reformers in the 18th and 19th centuries and played an important role in the 20th century also, both in the social sciences and in political activism.

My interlocutor seemed more interested in the scholarly history of tabula rasa than in its popular manifestations or in the more general idea of malleability (which is what I was obviously focused on).

It was a bit of a surprise, then, when his scholarly intervention about a “tangential point” rapidly morphed into a full frontal attack.

“I’m afraid,” he confided in his second comment, “I just found much of your essay overall to be a somewhat vague scattershot of poorly argued ideas, and felt compelled to jump in."

Of course, this feeling of compulsion which led him to “jump in” had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I had been hewing to a political line which was not to his liking.

“I guess the problem I’m having,” he ventured, “is understanding the points you are trying to make in your essay. I tug on one point, and a whole string of free-floating premises begin to unspool. For instance, you make an assertion about how certain strains of anti-realism have during the last century become bound up with political and ideological considerations without specifying which strains of anti-realism and which ideological considerations, or how they are connected… You then bring up progressivism within the context of hostility towards science and rationality, misuse of abstraction, tabula rasa, the impossibility of objectivity or truth, and the problem of ‘theorizing society’ [not my phrase, by the way], again without a connecting argument running through these. And no specifics, apart for [sic] a mention of Sonia Zawitkowski and standpoint theory. I’m left wondering what you mean by progressive, which progressive ideology, and whether “moderates, radicals and reformers” [again the quotation marks are misleading] all fall under the category of progressive, or if progressive falls somewhere within these on a spectrum?”

To tell the truth, reading this description (garbled as it is) prompted me to re-read the essay just to make sure that the fairly clear and straightforward ideas I had intended to communicate were reflected in the text. They were. I’m not saying there is no scope for disagreement (there always is when you talk about values), but in this case there is little scope for misunderstanding, I think.

Joe Smith thought my “worry” (as he characterized it) concerning the loss of confidence in the objectivity of science and scholarship was unwarranted, arguing that – given the social nature of science – the idea that it (or any other human institution presumably) could ever represent an ideologically neutral space was “a rather dubious premise to begin with.” What’s more, he insisted, the very meaning of objectivity has changed over time.

I had, of course, explained my side of the argument, why the question of objectivity is important. But this is not the sort of thing you can make a knockdown argument about, one way or the other. One’s view is inevitably going to be affected by personal perspectives on the nature of science and the nature of human knowledge more generally.

But I won’t attempt to deal with all the details of the exchange or with the substantive issues which were discussed. The essay and comments are there for anyone to read and interpret for themselves. My focus here is really on patterns of communication.

I usually deal with negative comments in a courteous way, and I tried to be open and courteous with Joe Smith, taking the time and trouble to attempt to address the concerns he raised about the content of my piece. But (according to my reading of the exchange) he showed himself not to be interested in understanding the substance of what I was saying at all.

There was clearly a degree of pomposity in his assertion that he “felt compelled to jump in” because of the vagueness of my claims or the weakness of my arguments or due to my supposed lack of knowledge of intellectual history. As I suggested earlier in a sarcastic aside, there was also a certain disingenuousness about the claim.

But there is something else, something rather more significant, which can be discerned in Joe Smith’s comments. They reflect (as I read them, at any rate) a cultural trend which many have observed and commented on in recent years: a propensity to see other people as “friends” or “enemies” according to how they might align themselves with respect to preconceived ideological criteria, rather than as individuals.

Rightly or wrongly, I had the sense that Joe Smith was not really wanting to converse with me as an individual. Having identified me as “the enemy” he was determined to keep his distance as he engaged in a kind of ritualized academic combat. The goal, essentially, was to discredit my claims – which were not, strictly speaking, philosophical or intellectual-historical claims at all – by calling into question the depth of my knowledge of intellectual history and my ability to mount an argument in the standard philosophical style.

The irony is that, in criticizing an openly polemical piece for being written in a rhetorical rather than a scholarly way, he was deploying rhetorical methods himself, parading his philosophical expertise and projecting a scholarly persona for patently polemical purposes. There’s a lot of it about, I have say, and I may even have been guilty of this myself from time to time.

This brief exchange at a relatively obscure, intellectually-oriented site is significant only to the extent that it parallels other exchanges, to the extent that it reflects a trend, to the extent that it is part of a larger pattern. I think a strong case can be made that – in a wide range of contexts – individuals are now being seen and treated much more in terms of group membership than they used to be.

Moreover, the fact that the groups in question often tend to be ideologically defined (at least in a broad sense of that term) portends, I think, an extended period of cultural disintegration and social and political turmoil.