Pirgs, Mieville auf Deutsch and Iraq

by Henry on December 15, 2006

I’ve been away without ordered leave from the blogosphere for the last couple of weeks – the joys of end-of-semester committee crunch and grading. But two things that I’ve wanted to link to:

Greg Bloom has another series of posts on the ways in which the Fund for Public Interest Research has resisted unionization efforts. The way in which many purportedly lefty organizations refuse to let their workers bargain for decent conditions is pretty shameful.

Alexander Mueller, fresh from porting over Susanna Clarke has translated the China Mieville seminar into German too. Great stuff.

Finally, I’ve been meaning for a while to link to this Nir Rosen piece, which is the best and most detailed on the ground discussion that I’ve seen of Iraq’s descent into civil war. I see via TPM Muckraker that Rosen is venturing into the blogosphere.

{ 4 comments }

1

Maynard Handley 12.15.06 at 7:49 pm


The way in which many purportedly lefty organizations refuse to let their workers bargain for decent conditions is pretty shameful.

Isn’t this simply a reflection of the fact that words are inexact, especially when people want them to be so?
“I am lefty” *could* mean “I believe in a very strong form of democracy, in giving people ever more control over their lives”. Or it could mean “I want people to have better lives”. To claim that these two are perfectly in sync is to make an empirical statement, that people (especially the poor, weak, stupid, ill-educated) have a better idea than anyone else of how to improve their lives. This may in fact be true; it may also not be true. But to pretend the tension is not there is ridiculous.

I, personally, think this is an important enough issue, that I’m going to quote aggressively from an email I sent a friend a few days ago. The email he sent me discussed this news story:
http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-option11dec11,0,4921051,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines
whose essence is that many people in CA (presumably in fact across the US) have mortgages that allow them to pay, each month, not the full mortgage, not even just the interest, but some minimum amount that is even less than the interest, thus eating into the principal already paid; and that this is now starting to go sour.

So here’s what I said ——————————–

I have long felt that there is a fundamental problem with the left in America. There is an underlying assumption that people are basically smart, that by changing the system to give them more choices and opportunities, all problems will be solved. I think more and more we are forced to face the fact that this simply is not the case — there is a world of people like you and me who can handle many choices, who do well controlling our IRAs and financial futures, and then there is the world of the 50% below the median IQ.
It’s a really tough problem, and I don’t know quite how you deal with it, to create the world I want where I can control most of my life, while simultaneously telling a whole lot of people, “uh, no, you’re not smart enough to handle real choice”, but I think this is, in truth, the problem for the left for the 21st century — all the various other crap they go on about is an irrelevant side issue.

There is a guy at the Law School of Chicago called Cass Sunstein who has spoken a bit about something he calls “benevolent paternalism”. The idea here is that you preserve choice, but you set the defaults to what appears to be the best for most people (or, alternatively, what is best for the most stupid people), and, perhaps even you add some friction, to make it require some effort to get out of the default to something else.
I applaud the idea, and I think that in some contexts it would work very well. (His example is setting the default when a new employee starts a job to be that money is paid into a safe 401k fund, and you have to ask to stop that, rather than you having to ask to start 401k payments.) But I fear that it’s not a general solution. For example, with this mortgage case below — you could try to create some friction, make it require more paperwork and such, to get this sort of mortgage; but, of course, banks will just offer to do the paperwork for you. Any sort of more aggressive limiting, like saying only people with a certain income can have such a mortgage will be complained about as one more perk for the rich.

So I don’t really know how this will play out. Part of me feels that the US has managed to create enough of a meritocracy that anyone from the underclass who actually has a brain can escape to the decent world and therefore not remain behind as a trouble-making political leader; and so this is a problem that, sad as it is, is simply going to get worse and worse as we split more and more into eloi and morlocks. All it takes is to continue to provide a society with ever more choice (we’re all for choice, right) and so ever more sophisticated ways to screw up one’s life; couple this with elevation to the eloi based not on fake markers like race, but on the real issue of intelligence+education; and you have a world where people “have only themselves to blame for their problems” and where no-one can really put their finger on how the system is unfair, because, by classical lights, the system is not unfair — at every stage you can choose how you want to proceed; neither society nor the government is forcing you to do anything.

David Brooks, of all people, has actually worried about this; unfortunately he’s the sort of cheerleader one wants least for a problem. By the time he was through with insane exaggerations and flat-out lies (all couched as “jokes”, thus deniable) I was more interested in strangling him than in the actual problem. But, even with nuts like David Brooks (and myself?) involved, the issue is not going to go away.

2

perianwyr 12.16.06 at 9:58 am

I’m not sure I understand you. Are you saying that inequality itself is not a problem because anyone with the smarts to perceive it is already on the upper hand, or are you saying that inequality has become a finer-grained trap that is machined more carefully by the “upper” stratum so that they can capture more of the good life, explicitly at the expense of the “lower”, but get away with it?

It appears to me that both sides in this debate are basing their worldview on condescension, it’s just that one side says “we’re powerful, get used to it” and the other has a sense of noblesse oblige. Doesn’t really “empower” anyone that wasn’t in the first place, does it? Both have the potential to provide moral cover for some pretty astonishing rapine, and I wonder if that’s not just The Deal as we know it.

Also, I find morlocks/eloi to not be a terribly instructive metaphor for class in general, simply because it’s impossible to understand who was “better off” in that situation. Were the morlocks living in an underground paradise and only keeping the eloi for slaughter? Were the eloi living the good life at the expense of the underground dwellers, who occasionally came up to “get some of theirs”? It’s ambiguous (and, I suspect, intentionally so.)

3

Maynard Handley 12.16.06 at 5:15 pm

To quote from my first paragraph:
“I am lefty” could mean “I believe in a very strong form of democracy, in giving people ever more control over their lives”. Or it could mean “I want people to have better lives”. To claim that these two are perfectly in sync is to make an empirical statement, that people (especially the poor, weak, stupid, ill-educated) have a better idea than anyone else of how to improve their lives. This may in fact be true; it may also not be true. But to pretend the tension is not there is ridiculous.

I don’t see what is unclear about this.
Present leftist theory assumes that two distinct statements:
– I want people to have better lives
– I want people to have more control over their lives
are in perfect harmony.
I suspect that they are not, and that the 21st century, as it gives people more of the second (ever more control over your life) is making it ever more likely that the first (better lives) has the potential to be thwarted.

My second point is that the very nature in which the lives of people does not become better as a result of this larger control is, almost by definition, limited to those who don’t have the intelligence, the education, or the self-control, to make the long-term right choices from the ever-growing panoply of choices available. To put it bluntly, stupid people will make stupid choices.

My third point is that I’m not sure how this will play out compared to history because, unlike previous class splits this one really is based on merit, not on irrelevant markers, which means that those would, in the past, have been the leaders of repressed communities, now can leave those communities behind.

4

molosovsky 12.17.06 at 8:05 am

Thanks (again) for your kind referrer to my translation. As a fantastist I do hope, that there will be sometimes another book from the fantastic field, that you Timberits will discuss. But don’t think, that I don’t enjoy the other entries of CT. As always: my respect and compliments for your excellet group blog, that does not ›pray to the ashes but passes on the torch‹ (G. Mahler).

Comments on this entry are closed.