Zizek On The Financial Collapse – and Liberalism

by John Holbo on December 17, 2010

In First As Tragedy, Then As Farce [amazon], Zizek claims that “the only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was an unpredictable surprise which hit the markets out of the blue” (p 9). He cites the following evidence that people could and, indeed, did know it was coming.

Recall the demonstrations which, through the first decade of the new millennium, regularly accompanied meetings of the IMF and the World Bank: the protester’s complaints tool in not only the usual anti-globalizing motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, and so forth), but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money, and how this would all have to end in a crash. It was not only economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who warned of the dangers ahead and made it clear that those who promised continuous growth did not really understand what was going on under their noses. In Washington in 2004, so many people demonstrated about the danger of a financial collapse that the police had to mobilize 8,000 additional local policemen and bring in a further 6,000 from Maryland and Virginia. What ensued was tear-gassing, clubbing and mass arrests – so many that police had to use buses for transport. The message was loud and clear, and the police were used literally to stifle the truth.

The first examples are tendentious, as allegedly successful predictions of market movements tend to be. (Many predicted a crash. They always do. How many predicted the one that actually arrived, and when it would?) But I’m more curious what the last bit is about. What protest was this? The Million Worker March is all I can come up with. But that didn’t involve any far-sighted demands that financial collapse be forestalled. “Organizers have issued 22 demands, a broad array of grievances that go far beyond workers’ rights. Organizers call for universal health care, a national living wage, guaranteed pensions for all working people and an end to the outsourcing of jobs overseas. They also are demanding a repeal of the Patriot Act, increased funding for public education, free mass transit in every city, a reduction of the military budget and cancellation of what they consider pro-corporation pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.” Nothing about the dangers of mortgage-backed securities. Also, so far as I can recall – and Google seems to back me – the Million Worker March was relatively small and peaceful. So is that even what Zizek is talking about?

Also, Zizek has odd ideas about how the bank bailouts were supposed to work. He takes the argument for bailing out Wall Street to have been “standard trickle-down”: “although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor” (13-4). Did anyone actually make this argument for the bailouts? Odder, Zizek accepts the argument himself: “It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defense of the rich. The problem is that, insofar as we remain in a capitalist order, there is a truth within it: namely that kicking at Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers” (15). One could defend this by pointing out that the latter point, on its own, is sadly correct. But Zizek takes the further step of taking this as evidence/illustration of how ‘standard trickle-down’ arguments are, in general, descriptively valid (however ethically deplorable) under capitalism: “If you want people to have money to build homes, don’t give it to them directly, but to those who will in turn lend them the cash. According to the logic, this is the only way to create genuine prosperity; otherwise it will just be a case of the state distributing funds to the needy at the expense of real wealth-creators” (14). Zizek seems unaware that liberal-left economists who conceded the need for bailouts – with gritted teeth – do not, in general, take themselves as committed to “standard trickle-down” arguments about how markets do, and must, function. I am sure our own John Quiggin, for example, will be happy to testify that his grudging support for the bailouts did not rest on trust in trickle-down.

You may think that I am nit-picking Zizek to no good purpose! And you may be right! (Yes, I’m looking at YOU.) But in the event that you are wrong, the reason will be something like this: I’m writing an article on (wait for it!) Zizek on liberalism, and one point I want to make is that when Zizek critiques liberalism, which he does a lot, he almost always uses ‘liberal’ to mean, narrowly, economic neoliberalism. Forces of economic globalization. The Washington Consensus. Liberalism is: Sarkozy trying to make France more Anglo-ish. It’s never: John Rawls. I think it’s fair to say that Zizek is hereby basically strawman-ing liberal democracy, and liberalism qua political philosophy, by identifying both with the Washington Consensus. This is not only philosophically unsatisfactory but rhetorically odd, because Zizek ends up sounding weirdly like a Fox News commentator, talking trickle-down as if it were an Iron Law of Prosperity, under any conceivable, market-based system.

There is one major exception to Zizek’s liberalism = neoliberalism tendency: namely, he not infrequently uses ‘liberalism’ to refer to academic-style, ironist-relativistic multi-culti, feel-good pc leftism. Then he sounds sort of like P.J. O’Rourke yelling in your ear at a Laibach concert. From Tarrying with the Negative [amazon].

Yet what is deeply suspicious about this attitude, about the attitude of an antinationalist, liberal Eastern European intellectual, is the already-mentioned obvious fascination exerted on him by nationalism: liberal intellectuals refuse it, mock it, laugh at it, yet at the same time stare at it with powerless fascination. The intellectual pleasure procured by denouncing nationalism is uncannily close to the satisfaction of successfully explaining one’s own impotence and failure (which always was a trademark of a certain kind of Marxism). On another level, Western liberal intellectuals are often caught in a similar trap: the affirmation of their own autochthonous tradition is for them a red-neck horror, a site of populist protofascism (for example, in the U.S.A., the ‘backwardness’ of the Polish, Italian, etc. communities, the alleged brood of “authoritarian personalities” and similar liberal scarecrows), whereas such intellectuals are at once ready to hail the autochthonous ethnical communities of the other (African Americans, Puerto Ricans …) Enjoyment is good, on the condition that it not be too close to us, on condition that it remain the other’s enjoyment. (212)

OK, P.J. O’Rourke wouldn’t use the phrase ‘autochthonous ethnical communities’. But he – and any number of shorter-in-the-tooth conservative snarkmongers – would play the tired trick of conflating ‘liberalism’ with a kind of half-intellectualized, pc, white self-loathing. Here again, I don’t see Zizek making himself of much intellectual use. (Also, a lot of it seems distinctly tin-eared, even by the tinny standards of right-wing snark: liberals hate the Polish for not being Puerto Rican enough? That’s the sort of thing that always opens up a fresh front in the War On Christmas. ‘You know you’re a liberal when you hyphenate ‘red-neck’’ sounds like a rejected Jeff Foxworthy joke.)

To review: Zizek does this liberal = neoliberal thing. Which is no good. And he doesn’t even have much to say about economics. And Zizek does this liberal = self-hating pc white intellectuals thing. Which is no good.

Does Zizek ever critique liberalism as political philosophy – that is, not as Washington Consensus economic policy or knee-jerk pc passive-aggressive white self-loathing? Does he have anything to say about any of the ideas and issues discussed in this article? I think the answer is: basically, no.

He critiques tolerance, as a positive political virtue. That seems like a promising angle for engaging liberalism. But he doesn’t go on to offer remotely plausible accounts of why liberals favor tolerance.

Contemporary liberalism forms a complex network of ideologies, institutional and non-institutional practices; however, underlying this multiplicity is a basic opposition on which the entire liberal vision relies, the opposition between those who are ruled by culture, totally determined by the life-world into which they were born, and those who merely “enjoy” their culture, who are elevated above it, free to choose their culture.

I don’t see that any liberals actually buy this dubious dichotomy, nor why they even might, let alone should. And Zizek doesn’t say. So that’s a non-starter.

The only place I’ve found where Zizek makes what seems to me a reasonably serious, reasonably sustained critique of liberalism – as political philosophy – and, simultaneously a critique of liberal democracy – as social-political form – is, again, in Tarrying With The Negative. Liberals abhor nationalism, but nationalism is born from liberalism. It is regarded as this awful recrudescence of pre-modern impulses, but really it is modernity incarnate. The idea is that ‘formal’ democracy makes an empty hole that is, as it were, filled by dangerous fundamentalism.

The structural homology between Kantian formalism and formal democracy is a classical topos: in both cases, the starting point, the founding gesture, consists of an act of radical emptying, evacuation. With Kant, what is evacuated and left empty is the locus of the Supreme Good: every positive object destined to occupy this place is by definition “pathological,” marked by empirical contingency, which is why the moral Law must be reduced to the pure Form bestowing on our acts the character of universality. Likewise, the elementary operation of democracy is the evacuation of the locus of Power: every pretender to this place is by definition a “pathological” usurper; “nobody can rule innocently,” to quote Saint-Just. And the crucial point is that “nationalism” as a specifically modern, post-Kantian phenomenon designates the moment when the Nation, the national Thing, usurps, fills out, the empty place of the Thing opened up by Kant’s “formalism,” by his reduction of every “pathological” content. The Kantian term for this filling-out of the void, of course, is the fanaticism of Schwärmerei: does not “nationalism” epitomize fanaticism in politics?

In this precise sense, it is the very “formalism” of Kant which, by way of its distinction between negative and indefinite judgment, opens up the space for the “undead” and similar incarnations of some monstrous radical Evil. It was already the “pre-critical” Kant who used the dreams of a ghost-seer to explain the metaphysical dream; today, one should refer to the dream of the “undead” monsters to explain nationalism. (221)

So therefore liberal democracy can never become suitably ‘universal’, because it always needs an Other, the ‘undeveloped, the Excluded. This argument is pretty important to Zizek, I think, and he is in effect developing it in his more recent books: not just First As Tragedy, but also In Defense of Lost Causes. Communism is supposed to be better than liberalism because it can be universalized, and liberal democracy can’t.

Now I think this Zombie Nationalism argument makes considerably more sense than Zizek’s bad attempts to write Zombie Economics. (He should leave that to the economists.) And he gets bonus style points for getting Swedenborg in the mix, even just a little. But as a silver bullet for killing the werewolf of liberalism, this just ain’t gonna do it, not all on its lonesome. Liberals don’t need to be as formal Kantian as all that (hell, I’m not sure even Kant is as Kantian as that. Not when he went to the bathroom, or even when he just went to dinner, I suspect.) And even if liberals were as Kantian as all that – which they aren’t – we are still skipping several steps to get all the way to a sufficient explanation of the social-psychology of modern nationalism from Kantian formalism. (And a few of those steps look impossible to me, but you’re mileage may vary.)

Am I missing anything? Is there anywhere else in Zizek’s prodigous corpus where he attempts a sustained critique of liberalism as a political philosophy? Some point at which he actually addresses, say, Rawls, as opposed to just kicking Fukayama in the shins for thinking history had ended, or complaining about Rortyan ironism? There probably is. Probably in the middle of some discussion of Wagner and Hitchcock movies.

{ 309 comments }

1

Zamfir 12.17.10 at 9:32 am

I am a bit surprised by your strong assertion that Rawls’ liberalism and trickle-down neoliberalism are so different things, instead of different branches of the same tree.

Here in europe, the two are seen as much closer, and that is not just a linguistic thing. For right-liberal parties like the German FDP, Rawls-style liberalism is not something they oppose. It is more a an edge case of things they still find reasonable, even if they on the whole think the optimal role of the state and redistribution is less than Rawls imagines.

What they oppose (or define themselves as opposed to) is much more rose-in-the-fist socialism than Rawls. Perhaps in policy prescriptions there isn’t much difference between modern day social-democrats in power, and Rawls-style liberalism.

But there is a wide gap in history and background. Third-way socialism derives from a much stronger working-class activism that wants to <i<take a better society, by power. It has by now become much more technocratic and more willing to compromise with market outcomes. But both Rawls and the FDP are from a more elite background where some degree of trickle-down and increase-the-pie is seen as inherently true, but where some of those elites are willing, for the sake of justice, to give a better society to the masses.

2

Zamfir 12.17.10 at 9:36 am

The last part of my comment got messed up by weird italics! It was something like this:

Both Rawls and the more left wings of liberalism are more elite things, willing to give a better society to the masses, out of a sense of justice. I don’t find it so weird to draw a dividing line between those, instead of between left-liberalism and neoliberalism. It’s not the only line to draw, but it’s definitely a possible line.

3

Zamfir 12.17.10 at 9:37 am

Close?

4

dsquared 12.17.10 at 9:39 am

Am I missing anything?

yep.

5

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 9:51 am

“I am a bit surprised by your strong assertion that Rawls’ liberalism and trickle-down neoliberalism are so different things, instead of different branches of the same tree.”

I don’t assert that. My strong assertion is that they are not indistinguishable.

6

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 9:52 am

“Am I missing anything?

yep.”

Well alright then!

7

ajay 12.17.10 at 10:05 am

Recall the demonstrations which, through the first decade of the new millennium, regularly accompanied meetings of the IMF and the World Bank: the protester’s complaints tool in not only the usual anti-globalizing motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, and so forth), but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money, and how this would all have to end in a crash.

Gotta say I don’t recall anything of the kind. The protests at places like Seattle were all about the negative effects of globalisation and increasing corporate power, not about the risk of low bank reserve capital requirements. Here’s a sympathetic contemporary account:
http://www1.wsws.org/articles/1999/dec1999/wto-d06.shtml
It’s pretty clear that the protesters weren’t against capitalism because it was unstable, but because it was unjust.

Zizek is making shit up again. You know, in other academic disciplines, this would be the end of his career.

8

Torquil MacNeil 12.17.10 at 10:11 am

In fact there was strong element to the anti-globalisation protests that welcomed the idea of an economic collapse, a return to recession (see George Monbiot, for example) but could not see it happening. I don’t remember a single placard complaining that the G8 were endangering capitalism.

9

ajay 12.17.10 at 10:14 am

Oh, and also: pfaugh.

10

dsquared 12.17.10 at 10:17 am

I mean seriously, how can you say that this line is “not of much intellectual use”?

The intellectual pleasure procured by denouncing nationalism is uncannily close to the satisfaction of successfully explaining one’s own impotence and failure

It’s an absolutely perfect encapsulation of exactly what’s going on in dozens of liberal blogs when they fulminate about Fox News.

11

ajay 12.17.10 at 10:22 am

Well, it is followed by this absolute corker:

“for example, in the U.S.A., the ‘backwardness’ of the Polish, Italian, etc. communities”

which suggests that the author last visited the US in, say, 1959 or so.

12

dsquared 12.17.10 at 10:24 am

The protests at places like Seattle were all about the negative effects of globalisation and increasing corporate power, not about the risk of low bank reserve capital requirements

I’m not so sure; I remember Doug Henwood regularly warning in Left Business Observer against the tendency of antiglobos to be constantly predicting crashes. Actually John does have a point here in that a lot of the Monbiot crowd kept on providing an absurdly uncritical audience to people like James Grant precisely because he told them what they wanted to hear about bubbles and irresponsible banking.

13

dsquared 12.17.10 at 10:28 am

I am a bit surprised by your strong assertion that Rawls’ liberalism and trickle-down neoliberalism are so different things, instead of different branches of the same tree.

Zamfir is dead right here too – the Difference Principle is clearly a first cousin to trickle-down economics.

14

bert 12.17.10 at 10:31 am

Zizek disapproves of universalism.
Unless it’s backed by the guillotine and a willingness to murder one’s opponents.
Then it offers a pleasing opportunity to shock the sort of people his schtick it is to shock.

15

Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 10:36 am

dsquared @13. No it isn’t. In fact it is hard to see how a normative principle could be first cousin to an empirical generalization. Rawls’s idea of “chain connection” is what you’re actually looking for. Most Rawlsians, however, think that it is bollocks.

16

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 10:36 am

“the Difference Principle is clearly a first cousin to trickle-down economics.”

You only need one additional premise, then.

P2: Everyone is his (or her) own first cousin.

More seriously: do you think it would be possible to buy Rawlsianism without buying the Washington Consensus? It seems to me obvious that there is daylight between these positions.

17

dsquared 12.17.10 at 10:40 am

In fact it is hard to see how a normative principle could be first cousin to an empirical generalization

It presumably depends what you mean by “first cousin”, and I apologise if there’s some technical sense I’m unaware of, but the point I was trying to make is that the Difference Principle is a) egalitarianism plus b) a principle allowing exceptions to egalitarianism in situtations where doing so improves the well-being of the worst off. Since trickle-down economics is basically the empirical proposition “certain kinds of inegalitarian policy do in fact improve the well-being of the worst-off”, I don’t think I’m reaching all that far here.

18

ajay 12.17.10 at 10:44 am

I’m not so sure; I remember Doug Henwood regularly warning in Left Business Observer against the tendency of antiglobos to be constantly predicting crashes.

No doubt. But the protests at places like Seattle were all about the negative effects of globalisation and increasing corporate power, not about the risk of low bank reserve capital requirements.

Yes, it’s been a left-wing argument for some time (and a good one) that one of the problems with unchecked capitalism is that it tends to produce crashes, which cause misery.

But it is not the case that this was the main, or even a prominent, argument made by the anticap protests at Seattle and places like it; nor is true, as far as I know, that any such protest predicted the current financial collapse. This is clearly just made up out of thin air. I’d expect nothing less from Zizek, given his earlier career in the 1990s as an advisor to the board of Washington Mutual.

19

Neil 12.17.10 at 10:45 am

John, outside the US (and outside of political philosophy) it is standard to equate liberalism with pro-market views. The conservative party in Australia is called the Liberal party, and the Liberal-Democrats are in coalition with the Tories. It is US usage that is out of step. So Zizek is not confused on that score.

20

dsquared 12.17.10 at 10:46 am

More seriously: do you think it would be possible to buy Rawlsianism without buying the Washington Consensus? It seems to me obvious that there is daylight between these positions.

They’re not the same position, which is why I said “first cousins” (cousins can be quite different – I’ve got a first cousin who spent half of last year living with his Pashtun relatives in a refugee camp in Pakistan). But if you were a Rawlsian, and you did believe in the Washington Consensus, then you’d have a very congenial set of views, because you’d believe that neoliberalism was exactly the kind of departure from equality which could be justified in the name of the greater well-being of the worst off, and you’d probably write a lot of airport books about Lexuses and olive trees. On the other hand, if you were a socialist, or some other kind of egalitarian than a Rawlsian, then whether or not you believed in the empirical truth of the Washington consensus, you’d still regard, for example, deregulated labour markets in the third world as problematic.

21

Torquil MacNeil 12.17.10 at 10:47 am

No, the difference principle is closer to the idea of the rising tide lifting all boats, not quite trickle down. More of a maiden aunt than a first cousin.

22

Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 10:50 am

Well, dsquared, you are certainly correct in supposing that IF tax breaks etc. to the wealthiest in society did in fact have the effect of raising the wealth and income of the least advantaged THEN trickle-down policies would be justified according to (at least some interpretations of) the difference principle. But since massive tax rises for the wealthiest (or, in fact just about any set of policies) would also be justified IF they had this effect, then the proximity of the DP to TD is not as you suppose.

23

dsquared 12.17.10 at 10:55 am

But it is not the case that this was the main, or even a prominent, argument made by the anticap protests at Seattle

Yes it was. Recall that the 1999 Seattle protests took place just over a year after the Asia/Russia crisis. It would have been very odd indeed if the actual financial collapse which had just taken place hadn’t been part of the protestors’ worldview.

Here’s, for example, a contemporary essay by Michael Chossudovsky, a mid-level figure in the relevant milieu. It’s got a big section on financial deregulation, and another one about “speculative onslaught”. It doesn’t predict the housing bubble ten years later, but it only took me a couple of minutes to find and it does establish that criticism of deregulated finance and its destabilising effect was part of the standard list of charges of the protest movement of that time – although more focused on its effect on third world countries.

24

Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 10:55 am

This thread at Next Left might be helpful to those who suppose that the DP rests on a belief in TD

http://www.nextleft.org/2010/08/does-spirit-level-refute-rawls.html

25

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 11:00 am

“John, outside the US (and outside of political philosophy) it is standard to equate liberalism with pro-market views … So Zizek is not confused on that score.”

Yes, of course, Neil. But Zizek clearly takes his argument against ‘liberalism’, in the non-American sense, to score against ‘liberalism’ in the US sense as well. He refers to Rorty as a ‘liberal’, for example, which would be odd if he thought it only meant ‘Thatcherite’. Also, it is a bit hard to take seriously the view that, in criticizing liberalism as the normative basis for liberal democracy (Zizek is quite clear that he means to attack the latter by attacking the former) he can really avoid at least touching on the topics and ideas discussed in that “liberalism” article I linked. He really ought to have something more to say about it, whether you call it ‘liberalism’ or not.

26

Zamfir 12.17.10 at 11:00 am

But CB, many liberals sincerely believe that in the long run, the tax cuts will work better for everyone than the tax increases. They might be prejudiced because they personally won’t have to wait for the long run to benefit, but they aren’t lying.

27

dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:02 am

#22: no, I don’t accept this. The entire point of trickle-down economics is to assert that something which the DP considers as a possibility (inegalitarian policies creating absolute improvements for the worst off) actually does happen. I mean, the DP is stating a conditional (IF there exist inegalitarian policies which improve the lot of the worst off THEN they should be followed despite their inegalitarian consequences). If it’s fundamental to someone’s philosophy that they believe “If X then Y”, and if there’s another point of view which believes “X is definitely true”, then I’d say the two are pretty closely related.

28

dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:05 am

and further to #24, if you can prove that “Empirically, X is never true”, then you haven’t exactly refuted the view that “If X then Y”, but you’ve certainly established something that ought to be of profound interest to people who believe “If X then Y”, and/or who have spent a lot of time and effort on the philosophical and political consequences of “If X then Y”.

29

ajay 12.17.10 at 11:06 am

23: no, I think you’re wrong about that.
That essay opposes deregulation, but it does so because deregulation (and the consequent mergers and expansion) would give international banks too much power, especially as regards third-world economies, not because it would make international banks less stable. The international banks here are the threat, not the ones at risk.

“In practice[deregulation] empowers Wall Street’s key players including Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, J. P, Morgan, Deutsche Bank-Bankers Trust, etc. to develop a hegemonic position in global banking overshadowing and ultimately destabilising financial systems in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe… and this process is ongoing irrespective of the actual outcome of the Millennium Round.”

If the essay had taken the line “LTCM shows the danger of having large unregulated financial institutions”, then I’d say that you were right. But it doesn’t mention LTCM at all.

30

dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:18 am

expanding the theme of #28, consider an imaginary 19th century philosopher who believed something about determinism starting from an argument like “if we knew the precise position and momentum of every particle in the universe at a given instant, then …”.

Clearly, this argument wouldn’t be refuted by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle when it was discovered a few years later, and it could be quite possible that this imaginary philosopher would still have a lot of interesting things to say about determinism. But it surely has to be considered quite important to this point of view to find out that you can’t actually know the precise position and precise momentum of a particle. In particular, post-Heisenberg, we would know that the only reason for reading this imaginary Victorian would be the intrinsic interestingness or otherwise of the subject of determinism – nobody would spend any time trying to make a predicting-machine that required precise knowledge of the sort assumed by his argument. Similarly with respect to Rawls, although the Difference Principle can’t be refuted by empirical findings, it’s clearly got to be important, if you’re a Rawlsian who thinks that your Rawlsianism ought to have some relevance to practical politics, to know whether there actually are any policies of the trickle-down type which work or not.

31

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 11:35 am

“If it’s fundamental to someone’s philosophy that they believe “If X then Y”, and if there’s another point of view which believes “X is definitely true”, then I’d say the two are pretty closely related.”

Buobviously believing ‘if X then Y’ doesn’t automatically commit you to believing that X.

The problem with your insistence that these positions are ‘first cousins’, dsquared, is that they are so in rather the same sense that ‘if you are a murderer, then you deserve to be punished’ is a semantic first cousin to ‘you are a murderer’. The claims are clearly related, but that hardly proves that you can treat the truth of the one as a heuristic for the truth of the other. If someone were to regard the empirically disreputable quality of trickle-down economics as evidence that Rawls’ philosophy is normative disreputable … well, that would be quite silly.

Before the thread completely does it’s thing: I am seriously interested in finding anything Zizek has ever written about the kind of stuff that is discussed in the “Liberalism” article I linked. Zizek can call it something besides ‘liberalism’ if he likes. But I want to know what he has to say about that sort of stuff, broadly speaking.

32

Chris Williams 12.17.10 at 11:41 am

I seem to recall buying _Two Hundred Pharoahs, Five Billion Slaves_ round about then: as well as having the best cover blurb ever*, this describes capitalism as essentially a pyramid scheme. Also around then, I spent a weekend with the Green Party’s (then) economics people, who spent a lot of time banging on about the evil con-job of the banks and social credit. But all they managed to convince me was that they were nutters who should be kept from power at all costs: and I never really saw _Pharoahs_ as central to my view of the anticap movement.

Anticap protests of the turn of the millenium were about a whole variety of things, and ‘capitalism is bad because it is unstable and boom’n’bust’ was one of them. But this theme had lower prominence (certain in any of the propaganda that I produced) than the exploitative and destructive nature of the system when it was working. To their credit, the cleverer Trots (Millies) kept on talking about instability, while the stupider ones (SWP) stuck to oppression.

Decadent Action, run by an old drinking pal of mine, were in fact completely on the button: their programme was to bring down capitalism by helping to stoke up an unsustainable debt boom. But they had very little impact on the classic anticap demonstrations – in fact, their orientation to these was to say “Why are you doing this, and what are you wearing? You should be out shopping for stylish clothes on credit cards which you have no intention of paying off.”

* “A critic writes ‘During the investigation large amounts of personal material, of an anarchist nature, were found on your PC…Some of the documents in question were of 40 sides of A4 in length….It was determined that this was, potentially, a serious disciplinary matter…’”

33

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 11:43 am

“Similarly with respect to Rawls, although the Difference Principle can’t be refuted by empirical findings, it’s clearly got to be important, if you’re a Rawlsian who thinks that your Rawlsianism ought to have some relevance to practical politics, to know whether there actually are any policies of the trickle-down type which work or not.”

But surely it’s interesting to know whether trickle-down works or not, whether you are a Rawlsian or not. And obviously the DP is still applicable one way or the other.

34

dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:46 am

Ah what the hell, it’s Friday … to tie up my view on the first-cousins-who-dont-necessarily-see-each-other-all-that-often relation between TD and DP, I’ll set out what I think is a relevant schema:

Hypothetically in philosophy: you could have one school of thought that says “If X, then Y; if not-X, then Z”, and another school of thought that says “Z, in all cases”, and the two of them have had a history of all sorts of quarrels with each other

Hypothetically in social science: you could have one school of thought that says “Y happens often enough to be worth taking into account”, and one school of thought that says “Y never happens”, and these two schools of thought also have a history of all sorts of quarrels with each other.

You might certainly get lots of people who took the first position in philosophy, but the second in social science (or vice versa), but you’d hope that such people wouldn’t be the ones driving the quarrels because they’d have to acknowledge a lot of practical relevance in the other side’s positions. And I don’t think it would be unreasonable in that schema to say that there was some sort of relationship between the two pairs of views.

35

John Holbo 12.17.10 at 11:46 am

I mean: if DP is a sound normative principle, it will still be sound after trickle-down dies.

36

dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:47 am

The claims are clearly related, but that hardly proves that you can treat the truth of the one as a heuristic for the truth of the other

is this what “first cousins” means when applied in contexts philosophical? If so I apologise obviously, and will substitute Zamfir’s original arboreal metaphor.

37

dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:50 am

Also around then, I spent a weekend with the Green Party’s (then) economics people, who spent a lot of time banging on about the evil con-job of the banks and social credit. But all they managed to convince me was that they were nutters who should be kept from power at all costs

Surprising numbers of goldbugs still in the Green Party – also note the number of people who really should have known a hell of a lot better who managed to find something radical in Ron Paul.

But they had very little impact on the classic anticap demonstrations – in fact, their orientation to these was to say “Why are you doing this, and what are you wearing? You should be out shopping for stylish clothes on credit cards which you have no intention of paying off.”

Which brings us of course on to the subject of the RCP, who believed that capitalism was inherently unstable and prone to crisis and that this was a good thing and we should have more of it. (the theme of “Cowardly Capitalism”, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 11:54 am

Sorry, our comments crossed, dsquared. I was adding 35 to clarify 33.

Re 34: “first-cousins-who-dont-necessarily-see-each-other-all-that-often relation between TD and DP”. This seems to reverse the complaint. Initially you were worried that these two were joined at the hip. Now you think the problem is that they only get together for family funerals and it’s a damn shame they don’t just pick up the phone and call? But now you are actually agreeing with me: namely, you shouldn’t just discuss economics – the Washington Consensus, say – and fail to discuss political philosophy. And for damn sure you shouldn’t just mistake the former for the latter.

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 11:54 am

_If it’s fundamental to someone’s philosophy that they believe “If X then Y”, and if there’s another point of view which believes “X is definitely true”, then I’d say the two are pretty closely related._

I’m prepared to sign up to the proposition:

“IF Muslims are about to impose sharia law in Britain THEN we should resist, by force if necessary.”

I hope this doesn’t make me “closely related” to the numerous nutters, racists and Spectator columnists who currently believe in the truth of the antecedent.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 11:55 am

“is this what “first cousins” means when applied in contexts philosophical?”

How the hell should I know? It’s never happened before, to my knowledge.

41

Chris Williams 12.17.10 at 11:56 am

RCP “You should be out shopping for stylish clothes using credit cards, the bills for which you will pay by working as court jesters for Rupert Murdoch.”

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 12:04 pm

I’m prepared to sign up to the proposition

although I bet that someone (presumably Alan Johnson) were to set up an online petition with that proposition, you would not in fact sign up to it ;-)

… which I think underlines the point I’m making (at the expense of showing that it was potentially a bit of an unimportant point) – presumably the reason that you wouldn’t care to have that conditional printed on your t-shirt and would probably go to some lengths in normal conversation or public debate to avoid being pressed on the subject before reluctantly agreeing to it but only as a hypothetical, is that the speech-act of asserting the hypothetical is (at least rhetorically) implicitly quasi-asserting that it’s a relevant assertion to make, and that the truth of the antecedent is at least debatable.

You know who’s good on this sort of rhetorical implicit-assertion and conversation-within-a-conversation stuff? Zizek! I’m kidding, I’m kidding of course.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 12:13 pm

Initially you were worried that these two were joined at the hip. Now you think the problem is that they only get together for family funerals and it’s a damn shame they don’t just pick up the phone and call?

No, I’m saying that wherever they wander, wherever they roam and even if they end up on opposite sides of the trenches in a forgotten O Henry short story, it will still be the case that they’re cousins. Liking one doesn’t mean you’re going to like the other but as Zamfir says, it’s not unreasonable to discuss them together. Particularly when as a matter of sociology, lots and lots and lots of people who might have considered themselves Rawlsians of a sort, did believe either in trickle-down economics, or in the Washington Consensus, or both.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 12:27 pm

“Liking one doesn’t mean you’re going to like the other but as Zamfir says, it’s not unreasonable to discuss them together.”

But surely my post doesn’t deny that you could discuss them together. I only denied Zizek’s apparent assumption that you can discuss just the one, and thereby dispense with the other, sight unseen. I am arguing in favor of discussing them together. So is there still a problem with what I said? If so, what?

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 12:32 pm

“Particularly when as a matter of sociology, lots and lots and lots of people who might have considered themselves Rawlsians of a sort, did believe either in trickle-down economics, or in the Washington Consensus, or both.”

I don’t actually think this is all that common. The Washington consensus is on the rightward side, and Rawls on the left edge – maybe even off it – so far as American political culture goes. Trickle-down is for Republicans. Rawls is for Democrats. You, I think, tend to assume that there isn’t that much difference between Republicans and Democrats. That’s as may be. But I think you will grant that Republicans and Democrats don’t tend to see it that way. Most Republicans aren’t Democrats. And vice versa.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 12:37 pm

The Washington consensus is on the rightward side, and Rawls on the left edge – maybe even off it – so far as American political culture goes.

Brad DeLong? Larry Summers?

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 12:44 pm

(and also, why does Zizek have to be writing about American political culture specifically – does the context make it clear that this is what he means? – again, Zamfir’s #1,2 look very reasonable to me).

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Z 12.17.10 at 12:52 pm

The first examples are tendentious, as allegedly successful predictions of market movements tend to be. (Many predicted a crash. They always do. How many predicted the one that actually arrived, and when it would?)

My recollection of the time was that among the anti-capitalist left in France, the consensus view in the late 90s was: 1) The current apparent economic prosperity is largely an illusion based on bubbles (the tech bubble at the time) 2) The real gains of this apparent economic boom go disproportionately to the rich so 3) The most likely consequence is that the system will collapse when the bubble will burst 4) bringing us all down in the ensuing crash.

That was such a prevalent point of view that I remember having postcards at the time with a picture of someone playing russian roulette with a gun labelled LTCM. It was also the premise of one of the best-seller of the year 1998 in France (appropriately called The Economic Illusion). So I, at least, was demonstrating against finance deregulation within the EU with that in mind, and I didn’t feel I was holding minority view in the demonstration at the time.

So I would say that at least concerning Europe, Zizek’s description of people marching to warn against financial crash seems to be more accurate than the standard “no one saw it coming” trope.

Most Republicans aren’t Democrats

Obama is not Bush, granted. But the economic policies of the USA under Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama exhibit more continuities than discontinuities, I would say (more and more financial deregulation, more and more debt based policies, more and more “free trade” agreements…).

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Z 12.17.10 at 12:59 pm

Nothing about the dangers of mortgage-backed securities.

This is also very interesting. During the 2000s, a debate raged in Europe around the question of whether one should emulate the functioning of the American housing market, with Spain (famously) leading the “yes” camp and France (reluctantly) impersonating the “no” camp. During the presidential election of 2007, this was a big campaign issue for Sarkozy (you can find many youtube video where he extols the virtues of the american mortgage-backed economy and of the Spanish success emulating it) so at that time there were literally debates and protests in France with slogans such as “No to mortgage-backed securities”. I understand that in the US, the consensus view was that everything was going fine (with a few famous dissenters) but in western Europe, it was a matter of very contested debate, much as Zizek (about whom I would no nothing but for your threads, so I don’t really care about him) alludes to.

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Armando 12.17.10 at 1:02 pm

“the speech-act of asserting the hypothetical is (at least rhetorically) implicitly quasi-asserting that it’s a relevant assertion to make, and that the truth of the antecedent is at least debatable.”

Absolutely right, as far as I am concerned. The socially communicated meaning of statements is not restricted to (and may even contradict) the logical content of those statements. My favourite examples of this come from argument strategies one sees in Mafia films; I’m thinking of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, for instance, asking whether he is a ‘funny guy’.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 1:07 pm

“why does Zizek have to be writing about American political culture specifically – does the context make it clear that this is what he means?”

I’m not asking that Zizek write about American political culture, specifically. Although, as a matter of fact, he does write about it. Also, asking someone to write about, say, Rawls is not tantamount to asking someone to write about American culture – just as writing about Zizek isn’t tantamount to writing about Slovenian or European culture. (Rawls doesn’t take ToJ to be a Theory of American Justice, would be a different way to make the same point.) It just seems to me odd – noteworthy at least – that a philosopher who writes so much, and takes as one of his significant projects the philosophical demolition of ‘liberalism’ – and who clearly takes that to include the sort of stuff that American philosophers think – has so little to say about what American philosophers think, and what he thinks is wrong with it. At any rate, I want to be sure that it is indeed true that Zizek has nothing mucgh to say about ‘liberalism’, in the sense in which it is discussed in the “Liberalism” article. The whole Locke to Rawls run, and beyond, pretty much. To indict liberal democracy, on philosophical grounds, without engaging liberalism, in this broad sense, seems at least a noteworthily roundabout approach to the subject.

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Z 12.17.10 at 1:11 pm

Liberalism is: Sarkozy trying to make France more Anglo-ish. It’s never: John Rawls.

One last thing and then I shut up. The thing is, except in the English speaking world, the two are identical 99% of the time, more precisely advocated by identical sets of agents. And I say this as an admirer of John Rawls who does not admire so much his President. I never felt in the minority when demonstrating against financial deregulation in the 90s, but oh do I feel lonely either when I am discussing Rawls with friends on the left (including say, my wife) or when I am discussing economic policies with compatriots knowing Rawls. So is Zizek’s work good philosophy? Maybe not (and honestly I don’t care), but as far as empirical sociology goes, it seems to me to be reasonably accurate outside of the English speaking world.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 1:15 pm

But it seems to me that your point is more like “There is a form of liberalism (specifically, that part of liberalism which is Rawlsian, and which doesn’t believe in the empirical validiaty of the Washington consensus) which might not be susceptible to Zizek’s critique” than “he has nothing to say about liberalism!”.

As it is, you seem to be committed to the claim that free trade, deregulated markets, privatisation rather than state ownership and free movement of capital (the bones of the Washington Consensus) are minority points of view which most liberals don’t believe in. I don’t really think that’s true even in America.

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 1:18 pm

@52 Is that true? Jacques Bidet in France, Phillipe Van Parijs in Belgium are both (in different ways) sort-of leftish not-quite-Marxisant Rawlsians opposed to neoliberalism. But maybe no-one is listening.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 1:19 pm

“My favourite examples of this come from argument strategies one sees in Mafia films; I’m thinking of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, for instance, asking whether he is a ‘funny guy’.”

So, on this reading, Rawls is like the crazy tough guy, whacking anyone who criticizes the Washington Consensus? Do you really think that’s “absolutely right”? The difference principle is a not-so-veiled threat?

“Brad DeLong? Larry Summers?”

But neither of these guys believes what Zizek calls the ‘standard trickle-down argument’, per my post, which is really strong stuff. ““although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor” Neither Summers nor DeLong believes what Zizek himself apparently believes (although I sort of suspect he’s just pretending): namely, that this is true in any market system.

Part of the problem here is that trickle-down is elastic. In a trivial enough sense, everyone buys some form of trickle-down theory. There are few examples of pure egalitarian societies, and many examples of societies moving from one stage to another, after which, one the whole, even the poorest are somewhat better off – and the lucky ones a whole lot better off. You could call every such case ‘trickle-down’, and then you are a believer in trickle-down economics. But I think mostly when people talk about it they are talking about something much less plausible and more policy specific. Reagan-era supply-side economics, which DeLong and Summers don’t believe in.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 1:25 pm

But neither of these guys believes what Zizek calls the ‘standard trickle-down argument’

Not when put in explicitly pejorative form, but they both do believe that economic development is a better route out of poverty than foreign aid and that economic development needs to come from the private sector, and that deregulation and lower marginal tax rates are a key part of the policy mix that leads to private sector growth; ie, the Washington Consensus (or at least, Brad did for most of the 00s, less so now).

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tomslee 12.17.10 at 1:26 pm

On the protests, obviously ajay @7 is not serious when he/she writes “The protests at places like Seattle were all about the negative effects of globalisation and increasing corporate power, not about the risk of low bank reserve capital requirements.” but on the off chance someone takes it seriously let’s just be clear that protests are not arguments. Plus, “It will all end in tears” fits on a banner; “It will all end in tears in September 2008″ does not.

The anti-globalization movement was more of a mish-mash than most in the amount of contradictory causes gathered under one umbrella (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but my recollection is that Chris Williams @32 has it right: “things are bad because capitalism is working” was overall maybe more prominent than “things are going to be bad when capitalism tanks”. At least in Canada around 2ooo; your mileage may vary.

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Chris Brooke 12.17.10 at 1:27 pm

The thought that there’s a deep affinity between Rawls and what later became known as neo-liberalism is quite an old one. Don’t forget that after Hayek read A Theory of Justice he remarked (at the start of the second volume of LL&L) that “the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial”. I don’t think that’s that’s really right — there are important differences of substance between the two visions of liberal society presented in, say, The Constitution of Liberty and A Theory of Justice. But Hayek, whatever else he was, wasn’t an idiot, and I think (with Zamfir and Dsquared) that he was noticing something about Rawls’s argument that was really there.

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tomslee 12.17.10 at 1:34 pm

I hesitate to get into the Rawls/trickle down thing, especially because I just woke up, but as an amateur I always thought Amartya Sen put his finger on what’s wrong with Rawls when his said that, relative poverty leads to absolute capability deprivation. That sentence seems like a reasonable marker of what’s left and what’s right (I can’t handle thoughts that take more than a sentence to express at this time of the morning), and it puts DP on the same side of the family tree as TD.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 1:46 pm

But it seems to me that your point is more like “There is a form of liberalism (specifically, that part of liberalism which is Rawlsian, and which doesn’t believe in the empirical validiaty of the Washington consensus) which might not be susceptible to Zizek’s critique” than “he has nothing to say about liberalism!”.

No. So far as I can tell there is no – or nearly no – part of liberalism which is Rawlsian, or Lockian, or Milian any other sort you care to mention that is, so far as I can make out, susceptible, to any great degree, to any critique of liberalism that Zizek has ever made anywhere. Because he just doesn’t discuss it. Any of it. That’s my point. The sorts of claims and ideas and positions that are characteristic of liberalism, as a political philosophy, are completely off his radar. The one exception is that he sort of knows what the Washington Consensus involves, and that it is called ‘neoliberalism’. But targeting neoliberalism doesn’t amount to targeting – or even talking about – any sort of Rawlsianism. Rawls doesn’t claim that supply-side economics works great, after all. Or tell the IMF to really stick it to those profligate South American countries.

So, no, I don’t believe that the stuff Zizek is passing over is such a small area as you suggest. I’m sure the reason he passes over it is that he assumes there can’t be anything down there worth seeing. Well, that’s his opinion, and I don’t share it. And am happy to say why not. But all I am saying for now is that, in fact, he doesn’t say anything about it. And yet he takes himself to have knocked all possible philosophical ground out from under liberal democracy, pretty much.

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Alex 12.17.10 at 1:52 pm

Isn’t the issue between D^2 and others here really that there’s a misunderstanding of the premise? As far as I understand it, the difference principle doesn’t require trickle-down economics and it doesn’t prefer it over anything else. It admits of the theoretical possibility, but it would only indicate it if you could actually show that it would work and that it would be better for the poor than a more egalitarian option.

I suspect it might be harder than you think to construct a philosophical argument why trickle-down must always be rejected on philosophical principle, even if an angelic economist was to provide you with irrefutable proof that it would work empirically.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly easy to formulate a political or economic argument for rejecting it on the grounds that (respectively) it’s a lot of old bollocks from people arguing out of self-interest and bad faith, or that it wouldn’t work empirically and therefore wouldn’t pass the constraint of the DP. I suspect that such an argument would be, functionally, indistinguishable from rejecting it on philosophical principle, at least until the angelic economist shows up. Come to think of it, without the angelic economist, it probably violates the Rawlsian veil of ignorance on the grounds that, not knowing whether it would work in practice, we’re obliged to opt for a more egalitarian answer.

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Zamfir 12.17.10 at 1:54 pm

So, on this reading, Rawls is like the crazy tough guy, whacking anyone who criticizes the Washington Consensus?
Strangely enough, I think think there really is something to that. Within the US, or within liberalism as a broad family or tree, Rawls might be the guy who tries to move the family to the left, in terms that liberals more to the right understand.

But outside of that, Rawls really does get used in a sort of Joe Pesci way, to push people further to the left into accepting a more liberal, and more US-styled worldview. One in which the Washington Consensus, and Brad deLong, and private universities and a load of other previously right-wing things are at least potentially good things for everyone, instead of obvious boons for the well-off.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 1:55 pm

“economic development is a better route out of poverty than foreign aid and that economic development needs to come from the private sector, and that deregulation and lower marginal tax rates are a key part of the policy mix that leads to private sector growth; ie, the Washington Consensus (or at least, Brad did for most of the 00s, less so now).”

Here again, we have an elastic sense of what the Washington Consensus involves. Make it weak enough and I believe in it. Make it too strong and I don’t. For the sake of the current, substantive critique of Zizek that I am making: liberalism – the stuff I say he says nothing about – characteristically involves certain basic, normative claims about liberty and equality. Pretty much by definition liberty is given priority of a sort. But you still have to say what you mean by ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, and some other stuff. I don’t know what Zizek thinks about any of that, because he doesn’t say really. He says he’s a communist. Which could be some guide. I think I know what Marx thought of liberalism. But Zizek’s Badiou-ish communism isn’t Marxist – not really, not such that it makes sense just to import Marx’ critique of liberalism into it. That’s another problem I have with Zizek. He’s not really clear enough about what he means by communism. So I find myself reading books and books by Zizek about what he thinks is wrong with liberalism and right about communism, without being able to get a satisfactory basic sense of either of the two, according to him. I find it unsatisfactory.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 1:56 pm

“As far as I understand it, the difference principle doesn’t require trickle-down economics and it doesn’t prefer it over anything else. It admits of the theoretical possibility, but it would only indicate it if you could actually show that it would work and that it would be better for the poor than a more egalitarian option.”

Yes, that’s right.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 1:56 pm

The one exception is that he sort of knows what the Washington Consensus involves, and that it is called ‘neoliberalism’.

But this is quite a big exception, since it’s the point at which Hayekian liberalism, Smithian liberalism, Millian liberalism, Lockean liberalism and a lot of Rawlsian liberalism actually ended up between 1990 and last week. Lots of people agreed on the Washington Consensus, hence the name “consensus”. I can see that you want him to separate out the policy from the philosophy and discuss the latter, but he doesn’t advertise that he’s going to do this on the cover or the backmatter so I don’t think you can claim to have been ripped off.

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Mike Riggs 12.17.10 at 2:07 pm

I think Zizek may be confusing the size of the 2004 March (10,000 people) with the police response to the Pershing Park protest in 2002, during which people were indeed gassed, restrained, and loaded into police vans for no apparent reason.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 2:12 pm

“I can see that you want him to separate out the policy from the philosophy and discuss the latter, but he doesn’t advertise that he’s going to do this on the cover or the backmatter so I don’t think you can claim to have been ripped off.”

Well, I am sure I can’t claim in the least to have been ripped off because all these things say Zizek on the cover and they read exactly as if they were written by Zizek. It’s ghastly. So, no, I can’t claim to have been ripped off in the least.

I still think he should have discussed the philosophy. I’m not saying he should have separated it out from the economics. He could have mixed the two together in some way. That is in fact probably the healthy way to go. But he didn’t. And yet he regards himself as having made a ‘philosophical’ critique of liberalism. (I don’t remember whether it says so on the book blurb, but the books themselves make it quite clear he thinks of himself as having achieved this.) I say such a thing should at least touch on the philosophical views on the other side.

As to the Hayek = Rawls equation. I’m with Chris Brook: Hayek said the differences were more verbal than substantial. But Hayek doesn’t really seem to be right. But it is certainly worth considering. But it’s not as though Zizek discusses Hayek either (I think he gets a mention somewhere, but not any serious discussion). I would be considerably mollified if Zizek offered a sustained critique just of Hayek and called that a critique of ‘liberalism’. Hayek’s books are more substantial, philosophically, than the Washington Consensus – which is, to repeat, a set of instrumental policy prescriptions. The Washington Consensus is not a philosophy of liberty, even if those who favor it tend to have such a thing in-pocket, for better or worse.

And by the by, I’m still expecting to be proved wrong here. Zizek has like 50 books under his belt. I’m going to turn out to have missed that 15 page discussion of Rawls – or Hayek – or Mill – or somebody – that is somewhere, between the jokes about Stalin and the discussion of Dan Brown novels.

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ajay 12.17.10 at 2:14 pm

obviously ajay @7 is not serious when he/she writes “The protests at places like Seattle were all about the negative effects of globalisation and increasing corporate power, not about the risk of low bank reserve capital requirements.” but on the off chance someone takes it seriously let’s just be clear that protests are not arguments.

No, I am in fact entirely serious, and addressing the point that protests surrounding meetings of the IMF and World Bank were not, in fact, about “how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money, and how this would all have to end in a crash”.
Zizek says they were, but he is making this up.
Quite apart from anything else, if you were really worried about debt bubbles and capital requirements and so forth, the IMF would be a silly place to protest about it; the IMF doesn’t set banking standards. You should be pressuring your own national government, as people were apparently doing in France in 2007 (very interesting Z, thanks), or possibly the Bank for International Settlements or something.

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Zamfir 12.17.10 at 2:21 pm

JH, I don’t read Zizek here as talking about Rawls, or Hayek or Mill or anyone else dead. With liberals, he seems to mean people around him who call themselves liberals, and his criticism is aimed at them and the things they do and say, not the more abstract philosophies they adhere to in name.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 2:23 pm

I think that the “2004″ protest referred to is much more likely to have been the 2000 “A16″ protests at the Bank/Fund meetings that year, which went roughly as described. The year 2004 would have been a very weird one to have had big anti-capitalist protests because obviously the main focus of that milieu was the antiwar effort at the time (and also the US election campaign).

I don’t agree with Ajay on the protests though; the IMF at the time was unbelievably dogmatically committed to capital market liberalisation, and this was creating “the illusion of growth” in places like Argentina (assuming I’m right about the time-shift) via capital account inflows of “fictional money”. It was a quite important part of the antiglobo critique of neoliberalism that all the neoliberal success stories like Argentina and Indonesia (they missed a trick on Ireland) were actually horribly dangerous and unstable consumption bubbles financed by hot-money portfolio investment. Nobody was demonstrating against capital ratios, but everyone was demonstrating against hot money portfolio investment. This was much more of a 90s phenomenon though – neoliberalism had seriously run out of steam by 2004, Brad DeLong was certainly rowing back.

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 2:33 pm

tomslee@59 I agree about the merits of Sen’s point, but I don’t think it impugns the DP as such, but rather indicates the need for a more sophisticated metric of advantage than Rawlsian primary goods. After all, Sen isn’t saying that relative position is of fundamental normative importance in a way that would contradict Rawls, he’s saying that relative deprivation can be the cause of a deficit in the space that matters, that of absolute deprivation\well-being etc . Rawls needs, then a measure of absolute deprivation etc that does a better job than the one he picks.

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 2:38 pm

I take it you’ve seen:

http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/11/381-382-interview-obama-theory

bq. He took the example of arguably the most influential work of political philosophy written in English in the past 40 years, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Central to Rawls’s argument in that book is something he calls the “difference principle”, according to which inequalities in the distribution of goods can be justified so long as they benefit the worst off. In Žižek’s view, “Rawls’s model works on one fateful condition: that there is no resentment . . . Rawls doesn’t take into account the irrationality of envy. In capitalist relations today, envy is crucial. Never underestimate the power of envy. Although Rawls and other egalitarian liberals want to be ‘no-bullshit’ analysts, the ultimate image of the human being on which their accounts are based is way too naive and utopian.”

bq. Žižek is equally unforgiving of those further to the left of Rawls. “I’ve noticed how many of the people who consider themselves to be more radical than the liberal standard do not work in political theory proper but, as it were, hide themselves as literary critics or philosophers. It’s as if their radicalism is an excess which requires them to change genre.”

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 2:43 pm

“JH, I don’t read Zizek here as talking about Rawls, or Hayek or Mill or anyone else dead. With liberals, he seems to mean people around him who call themselves liberals, and his criticism is aimed at them and the things they do and say, not the more abstract philosophies they adhere to in name.”

I agree. Except of course he talks about tons of dead philosophers who weren’t liberals. I just think it’s weird. His subject is liberalism. And his mode is supposed to be philosophical and theoretical. But he won’t talk about liberalism on a philosophical level, as it were. In a way it makes sense. He has his Badiou-ish reasons. It’s communism or nothing. But Marx thought so, too, and he was still willing to engage liberalism philosophically. I don’t think he was exactly fair to his liberal opponents, but I do think I know what he thought was fundamentally, philosophically wrong with what they thought. With Zizek I honestly don’t know what he would say if he really took Rawls-style liberalism (or Hayek, or Mill, take your pick) to task. If he would address even one, I would be able to extrapolate what he would likely say about the others. But he doesn’t.

A nice illustration of this avoidance is the Zizek piece I talked about last time. “Intellectuals Not Gadflies”. He thinks it’s important that anti-liberal critics not be regarded as just gadflies there to perfect liberalism by criticizing it. He doesn’t want to be housebroken like that. (He objects to being a sherpa anti-liberal, to borrow Jonah Goldberg’s complaint, from the other direction.) He thinks the problem with liberalism is that there’s no true alternative visible on the horizon. And there should be. Well, that’s alright. But the fact remains: there no liberalism on Zizek’s horizon. It’s strange that he can write a whole essay about how important he thinks it is to be able to step outside the horizon of liberalism without saying anything really about what he thinks it looks like, philosophically, inside the horizon of liberalism. In a philosophical sense.

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David Weman 12.17.10 at 2:43 pm

I would say in most countries, rightists claim liberalism for themselves and sometimes refer to themselves as liberals, but in most countries, only illiberal leftists equate liberalism and rightism.

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John Holbo 12.17.10 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for that, Chris. I hadn’t seen it. That’s interesting.

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Gaspard 12.17.10 at 2:53 pm

We don’t seem to have got very far with JH’s original question – does Zizek deal with strong welfare state style regimes and show why communism is a better alternative anywhere in his work? I think the answer is no, because the appeal of the Communist proposition depends on labeling everything else neoliberalism.

Tony Judt’s position that no country has ever has a democratic appetite for voting for communism and prefer centre left or right welfare states is the big problem he refuses to address.

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 3:09 pm

Erm, I hate to butt in on someone else’s conversation but:

“As it is, you seem to be committed to the claim that free trade, deregulated markets, privatisation rather than state ownership and free movement of capital (the bones of the Washington Consensus) are minority points of view which most liberals don’t believe in. I don’t really think that’s true even in America.”

Insofar as that applies to American political liberals, I don’t think that’s accurate. Regulation was an American liberal project, deregulation was a conservative/New Democrat project which liberals were unhappy with. Privatization is a harder case, since the U.S never had the same breadth of public services to be privatized – but U.S liberals are not on board with the privatization of Social Security or Medicare. Free movement of capital is extremely esoteric – capital controls were also a U.S liberal project to the extent they existed, but you can take the liberal position on free trade as a rough parallel.

It’s not that there aren’t folks within the American liberal side who don’t favor dereg and free trade, but they tend to be a relatively small elite. Matt Yglesias isn’t the same as the rank and file PDAer or DFAer after all.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 3:19 pm

But Steven, the context here was the Washington Consensus for developing economies. I’d say that few American political liberals wouldn’t support, say, the privatisation of Cemex, or the right of American companies to buy shares in Malaysian banks.

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Zamfir 12.17.10 at 3:20 pm

Steven, isn’t it a bit of a historic incident, or perhaps a result of having just two parties that organizations like DFA fall under the name of ‘liberal’, instead of being their own more populist or socialist stream?

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James Kroeger 12.17.10 at 3:24 pm

Zizek:

The problem is that, insofar as we remain in a capitalist order, there is a truth within it: namely that kicking at Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers

Zizek, unfortunately, is misinformed.

At least one of the Bailout Alternatives that the Obama administration never gave any consideration to was the option of asking Congress to create it’s own ‘Taxpayers’ Bank’ (even if only on a temporary basis), fully-capitalized with taxpayer $$. With this bank, Congress would have been able to fully provide for the liquidity needs of Main Street while the financial sector of the economy was allowed to crash and burn. Banks would rupt as trillions of dollars of worthless paper are written off.

Any important obligations (to ‘society’ or innocent victims) of banks & insurance companies could have been honored by Congress, if that is what it wanted to do. Mortgages on primary residences could have been provided that would have allowed people to keep their homes.

It would not have taken all that long to create a Taxpayers’ Bank. All Congress needed to do was enable the executive branch to buy up the assets of one of the failed major banks (e.g., Bank of America) at fire sale prices. Replace its directors with Finance Professors who like the idea of a government bank and want to see it perform a great service. Such a bank would want to stay out of investment services and leave that share of the market to investments banks (any that might survive the moral hazard cataclysm).

If, at the same time that it was creating an emergency bank, Congress had also decided to spend an additional $2 trillion dollars infrastructure and human capital, Main Street would have enjoyed an economic boom at the same time that financial firms everywhere were going out of business. As long as businesses have a bank they can get loans from, and consumers have a bank through which to make installment purchases, and home owners have a bank that will refinance their mortgages on favorable terms, then the economy isn’t as dependent upon the private banksters as they keep telling members of Congress they are.

If the federal government had immediately responded to the crisis which such measures, the economy would have experience only very brief disruptions in joblessness. The American economy would already have been ‘healed’ by now, unemployment flaring up only briefly. The key to this kind of success is increasing the government’s spending levels to near-wartime-levels, all the while knowing that a decision will be necessary down the road to cut back on the spending if the economy actually gets overheated. A little inflation never hurt anyone.

Does intervention on this scale constitute an abandonment of capitalism? Of course not. In restoring moral hazard, it enables capitalism to function in a way that benefits society. We do not need a ‘competitive marketplace’ to provide us with basic banking and insurance services. The profit motive does nothing to improve the provision of such services. A state bank could provide them quite competently.

If private banks want to compete for the disposable income of rich people by promising higher yield for higher risk, then they should be allow to do this. They wouldn’t even need to be all that regulated. Wealthy investors would earn higher yields, but the risk-takers would once again respect the moral hazard factor in their decisions. The good news? Society would not be taking on any of their risks. That’s the intelligent way to organize the financial sector of your capitalistic economy.

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Louis Proyect 12.17.10 at 4:03 pm

one point I want to make is that when Zizek critiques liberalism, which he does a lot, he almost always uses ‘liberal’ to mean, narrowly, economic neoliberalism.

Zizek styles (I specifically use this word) himself as a Leninist so everything he writes in this vein is an implicit critique of liberal democracy. I have a feeling you are looking for some kind of extended Zizek commentary on Rawls, for example. This was much more the tendency of the analytical Marxists than Zizek.

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engels 12.17.10 at 4:08 pm

Many predicted a crash. They always do. How many predicted the one that actually arrived, and when it would?

John Holbo meet… John Holbo.

It seems to me, however, that a good analogy might be this: the boiler is about to blow up. Its not clear what valve or pipe or gasket or section of boilerplate is going to give first, but it’s bloody obvious the rumbling thing is gonna go soon enough that we should be worried about it. It seems to me that lots of people are not giving enough other people credit for noticing this, and that their excuse is the one I’m complaining about: you weren’t right unless you called the boiler bit that was going to blow first.

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Adam Kotsko 12.17.10 at 4:17 pm

Hasn’t the destructiveness of globalized speculative finance always been a theme in anti-globalization rhetoric?

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 4:32 pm

dsquared – Actually, I would argue that American political liberals were not in support of the Washington Consensus, especially the rank and file of American political liberalism.

Zamfir – no, it’s the result of the emergence of New Liberalism in both the U.K and American contexts, the influence of the Progressives, and all the other streams that went into New Deal Liberalism. Which is at least touching on Holbo’s point from another direction – political, as well as philosophic, liberalism is bigger than Zizek wants to deal with.

DFAers aren’t (for the most part) socialist in orientation – their political allegiances doesn’t come from a Marxist origin, their class analysis is much more labor republican than historical materialist – rather, they are New Liberals (not the same thing as neoliberals). There are socialists and populists among them, in part because New Liberalism/Progresssivism was more open to debate and discussion and borrowing between the center-left, left-center, and far left, in a Daniel Rodgers sort of of way. But the bulk of them are New Liberals.

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 4:55 pm

Kroeger – I completely agree, although I think creating a new bank is unnecessary. There’s nothing stopping the Fed from playing this role, it just doesn’t want to.
http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/the-peoples-bank/
http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/job-insurance-part-12-finance/

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 4:58 pm

#82: you might be right but I’m not sure and I suspect it’s largely a result of all the issues surrounding the word “liberal” as used in American political English – a lot of the people it refers to are socialists and social democrats rather than liberals and I’m not sure this can reasonably be regarded as Zizek’s problem.

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 5:05 pm

But they’re not socialists and social democrats. This is an issue of intellectual and political history – Lloyd George wasn’t a socialist, nor were Beveridge or Keynes. Nor was FDR. They came from an entirely different intellectual and political tradition.

I understand that this stems from a difference between Continental and Anglo-American political history (that’s a bit unfair – the French Red Republicans did get swallowed up, but they were a real and authentic French political tradition), but it’s bad history to insist that it’s just Americans calling football soccer.

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David 12.17.10 at 5:13 pm

89

dsquared 12.17.10 at 5:32 pm

Good point, although I think it works best if you define “liberals” as “democrats who opposed Bill Clinton from the left”, which cuts down the numbers.

90

sooo... 12.17.10 at 5:37 pm

am not a follower of rawls nor have i read this more recent book of zizek’s, and so am not equipped to participate in this discussion with any particular degree of usefulness.

am not entirely sure whether your discussion touched upon this specific article of zizek’s (as he is perhaps rather over-prolific in his output to point of self-plagiarization), but it actually engages with both hayek and rawls on the subject of liberalism. and yes there’s some wagner thrown into the mix as well.

http://www.lacan.com/zizfrance1.htm

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AlanB 12.17.10 at 6:42 pm

Speaking as one who was actually reporting from the middle of some of the A16 protests in 2000: there was no clubbing that I or anyone else saw. There was precisely one teargas canister let off, and I know because I was ten metres away at the time, and Christ it hurt, but then it was let off by accident (the police were using smoke canisters, which disorientate but don’t attack the eyes and lungs, and they used one teargas canister by mistake in the excitement and apologised subsequently).

The protestors were a hugely mixed bag: environmentalists, animal rights folks (PETA dumped a load of manure in front of the World Bank protesting its support for animal husbandry in developing countries), a very small number of “anarchists” who seemed mainly up for a scrap, and a wide variety of anti-capitalists with varying views and indeed varying grasps of detail (“Close down the World Trade Bank” was one banner I recall). There really wasn’t that much of a unified view. Indeed, I remember getting cross at the time with the usual anti-anti-globo sneer of “What do these people WANT?”, since they wanted a variety of things and were mainly united in the belief that the IMF and WB were the institutions in the way. I’m not sure an attempt to discern and critique a campaign platform is altogether helpful.

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geo 12.17.10 at 6:44 pm

One reason I dislike Zizek so much is that he induces people like us to waste so much time wrangling about him rather than refining and promoting obviously sensible and profoundly useful ideas like James Kroeger’s in #78. Of course it’s just as much our fault as Zizek’s, but I can’t help feeling that he rather enjoys all the attention, or else why does he write such calculatedly (it couldn’t be accidental) inscrutable prose?

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zamfir 12.17.10 at 6:58 pm

What’s that geo? We can’t dance until the revolution?

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geo 12.17.10 at 7:06 pm

Sorry, Zamfir, no fun of any kind.

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novakant 12.17.10 at 7:06 pm

But they’re not socialists and social democrats. This is an issue of intellectual and political history – Lloyd George wasn’t a socialist, nor were Beveridge or Keynes.

No, Keynes wasn’t a socialist. Yes, Keynes’ work was the key blueprint for European post-war social democracy. There’s a terrible confusion already as far as these categories go, we shouldn’t add to it by being imprecise.

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Tim O'Keefe 12.17.10 at 7:12 pm

@63 That’s another problem I have with Zizek. He’s not really clear enough about what he means by communism. So I find myself reading books and books by Zizek about what he thinks is wrong with liberalism and right about communism, without being able to get a satisfactory basic sense of either of the two, according to him. I find it unsatisfactory.

Uh, if this your experience of reading books and books by Zizek, why are you spending your time this way? Why not use that time to write up a nice little commentary with pictures on the Lysis and Symposium instead, or… I dunno. Lots of other possibilities.

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Hiebaum 12.17.10 at 7:49 pm

There is another passage where Zizek explicitly refers to Rawls (The Truth of Zizek, ed. by Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp, p. 228): “in Rawls’ own model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they also help those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are not based on inherited hierarchies, but on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits… What Rawls does not see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of ressentiment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully ‘justified’, and would thus be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice. Rawls thus proposes a terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties….” Quite a peculiar analysis, isn’t it?

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Gaspard 12.17.10 at 7:49 pm

I ended up reading Zizek and people like David Harvey because lots of people who generally seem to know what they’re talking about (like Doug Henwood and dsquared) recommend them, and they have armies of young followers, so it seems worth trying to figure out what they are saying.

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 7:58 pm

novakant – Keynes work the blue-print for post-war social democracy? Sort of. More accurate to say that Keynes gave some social democrats a framework for doing what they already wanted to do. However, the British Labour Party was as much if not more interested in central economic planning and nationalization, the French were more dirigiste, the Germans were more into tripartite bargaining (and in fact rather cool to Keynesianism), and the Scandinavians were more orientated to the Stockholm school.

Moreover, Keynes was adopted by non social-democratic governments throughout Europe, and could equally be described as the blue-print for post-war christian democracy.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.17.10 at 8:00 pm

Doesn’t this quote from the newstatesman.com link above address at least some of it:

But what’s most significant about the academic left, in his view, is its abstract moralism, which he denounces as utopian, much as Marx and Engels denounced the early French socialists as utopian. “This excess of radicality concretely art­iculates itself in some kind of general moralistic outrage. You get a kind of abstract, moralistic politics in which you ­focus on groups which are obviously underprivileged…

Also, Rawls’s lecture, here. If Zizek believes that the notion of justice is a function of the mode of production, doesn’t it sorta explain both the “liberal = neoliberal” thing (they’re doomed to operate within the paradigm), and the “liberal = self-hating pc white intellectuals” thing (unable to break out of the paradigm they’re conflicted).

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Tim O'Keefe 12.17.10 at 8:00 pm

OK, Gaspard–that’s fair enough, and I’m not trying to make any sort of general anti-Zizek-reading case here. I was wondering about Holbo in particular: given how much time (judging from CT) he seems to time on Zizek-related activities,@63 was striking.

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John Quiggin 12.17.10 at 8:06 pm

As regards DP=trickle-down, this is true if and only if you believe that in society as it exists at present, taxes and public spending are more progressive than would be justified by the DP, or alternatively, if and only if the Laffer hypothesis is true, namely that society is now on the declining part of the Khaldun/Keynes/Laffer curve. Laffer’s name can justifiably be attached to the hypothesis, but the reasoning behind the curve is ancient, namely that, if governments tax any activity (most relevantly in this context, labor income) heavily enough, people will eventually stop.

The DP would be irrelevant if there were no Khaldun/Keynes/Laffer curve, that is, if taxes could be made confiscatory with no disincentive effects.

Since neither of these propositions is true, I don’ think the idea of linking DP to trickle down works. I don’t read Zizek (except the occasional piece in the LRB which makes no sense to me) and I get the impression that he is happy enough to enough to put forward contradictory arguments, but in responding I’ll try and infer a consistent position. If he has been cited accurately about “envy”, he must I think believe the KKL proposition. He is then using ‘trickle-down’ as a pejorative to describe responses to a trivially true proposition, essentially pulling the reverse of the Laffer trick by which the existence of the curve is equated to the validity of the hypothesis.

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John Quiggin 12.17.10 at 8:06 pm

Since John H mentioned me in the context of the bailout, I’ll observe that the same kind of distinction applies. I’ve argued pretty strongly (and with actual numbers, something Zizek seems to think can be avoided) that giving lots of money to the one percenters in the financial sector does not yield a net benefit to the rest of the population. But that doesn’t mean that allowing a sudden collapse of the financial sector would benefit the rest of us, even though it would give the financiers their just desserts.

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mdc 12.17.10 at 8:08 pm

Zizek spends a lot of time critiquing Kant. While Kant can’t really be called liberal, his contractarian theory of private property right puts him on the side of Rawls, and against many of Rawls’ critics. So maybe Zizek would claim he’s skipping the derivative stuff and going straight to the real philosophical source. Problem is, Zizek doesn’t understand Kant at all.

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Adam Kotsko 12.17.10 at 8:35 pm

@mdc: I am not aware of any passage where Zizek discusses Kant’s view of private property. He is primarily concerned with Kant’s theory of subjectivity and its relationship to Schelling and Hegel’s. Though his application of German Idealism is idiosyncratic (specifically the way he claims Lacan as their true inheritor, etc.), it does not seem to me that his readings of the actual figures involved are beyond the pale.

This is probably the worst influence Zizek has on his critics. They see him as breezily throwing shit around without support, so they feel like they can do the same.

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novakant 12.17.10 at 8:47 pm

Steven, of course these ideas were implemented differently in different countries, but all of those you mentioned had a mixed economy, i.e. social democracy, and none of them were “socialist” in the strict sense of the word, i.e. GDR. And the fact that the economic and policy of, say, the Christian Democrats in Germany was social democratic as well does not disprove my point: the CSU for instance has been the most socially conservative party in Germany, but its economic policy has always been pretty social democratic, much more than the CDU and the only liberals on that front have for a long time been the FDP. The US centric stratification of the political landscape simply doesn’t work for Europe

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Matt 12.17.10 at 9:17 pm

Liberalism today *is* neoliberalism, you asshat.

Apologies for any potential redundancy.

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Matt Lister 12.17.10 at 9:20 pm

Please note that the “Matt” above isn’t me. I decided some time ago that the less time I spent thinking about Zizek the better off I’d be, and I certainly don’t want to start thinking about what he’s saying now.

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 9:23 pm

I have a problem calling any mixed economy social democracy. The U.S has a mixed economy – is it therefore a social democracy? No.

Social democracy is a genuine political ideology, with its own tradition and social base, and policies that flow from these beliefs. And they are not the same as Christian Democratic policies – folks like Esping-Anderson have spilled thousands of pages worth of ink on the real, concrete differences between social democratic and christian democratic welfare states. With p-values and everything!

Matt – no it isn’t. I apologize for the brevity.

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mdc 12.17.10 at 9:45 pm

@kotsko: I just meant that Rawls really is a Kantian of sorts, so it makes some philosophical sense for Zizek to go the source. I’m not sure what a “theory of subjectivity” is, but Zizek’s stuff on Kant is no good, as far as I’ve seen (eg, what’s quoted in the post).

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Adam Kotsko 12.17.10 at 10:38 pm

If you don’t know what a “theory of subjectivity” is, then maybe you aren’t really in a position to judge.

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chris 12.17.10 at 10:42 pm

I suspect it’s largely a result of all the issues surrounding the word “liberal” as used in American political English – a lot of the people it refers to are socialists and social democrats rather than liberals and I’m not sure this can reasonably be regarded as Zizek’s problem.

It is if Zizek insists on equivocating between the various flavors of American and European “liberal” and treating them all as indiscernible instances of a single Platonic Essence Of Liberalism, and therefore whatever criticism is valid against one liberal is valid against all. Isn’t that more or less what John is charging Zizek with doing? Put the way I’ve just put it it’s clearly intellectually dishonest if Zizek is doing it on purpose, and horribly sloppy if he’s doing it by accident (especially since the vagueness of “liberal” *in particular* is so notorious, even compared to the vagueness of political labels in general).

113

william u. 12.17.10 at 10:53 pm

I think Steven’s emphasis (well, Esping-Anderson’s emphasis) on differences between Christian, social, and liberal democracies is on the mark. Differences between German and Swedish welfare are not merely theoretical: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/23/weekinreview/23landler.html

It’s tempting to think of the U.S. as an “incomplete” social democracy, but this is wrong. American liberalism views labor as one particular interest among many; socialists (well, Marxists, certainly) see (or used to see) humanity’s universal emancipation in the (potential) tasks of the labor movement. Decades of post-Godesberg “revisionism” have obscured this — it’s hard to see the connection between Rosa Luxemburg and, say, David Simon, a example of that rare breed, the American social democrat.

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novakant 12.17.10 at 10:53 pm

I have a problem calling any mixed economy social democracy. The U.S has a mixed economy – is it therefore a social democracy? No.

Of course every economy has a certain amount of state involvement, that doesn’t make the US a mixed economy – it at least purports to be a strongly capitalist, free market economy. Maybe I should have used the term “social market economy” instead to avoid any misunderstanding.

Social democracy is a genuine political ideology, with its own tradition and social base, and policies that flow from these beliefs. And they are not the same as Christian Democratic policies

I agree of course, but these differences are much more about how socially conservative these governments are, than their stance towards the welfare state. If you want to talk about “real, concrete differences”, explain to me how e.g. Germany could have had such a continuity in its policies under both types of government (and how in fact the welfare state was much more a reality under Kohl than under Schroeder who implemented severe cuts). It might have to do with the fact that

From the 1960s, the social market economy was the main economic model in mainland Western Europe, pursued by administrations of both the centre-right (usually led by some Christian democratic parties) and the centre-left (usually led by some social democratic parties). (link

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 12.17.10 at 11:03 pm

“The Washington consensus is on the rightward side, and Rawls on the left edge – maybe even off it – so far as American political culture goes.”

Absolutely true, indeed, Rawls was capable of envisioning, like not a few contemporary democratic socialists and Social Democrats, and even some (especially self-described ‘analytical,’ at least at one point) Marxists (e.g., Roemer), the possibility of non-capitalist or socialist markets (hence the debate on the Left about ‘market socialism’). Rawls speaks (in his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (2007)), for instance, of the “illuminating and worthwhile view” of “liberal socialism,” enumerating its four basic elements and referring in a note to John Roemer’s “Liberal Socialism (1994),” which is not, it turns out, a title of any of Roemer’s books (if I recall correctly, this error was confirmed in correspondence with Samuel Freeman). The volume Rawls probably intended to cite is Roemer’s A Future for Socialism published the same year (it is no less a delightful Freudian slip for all that!).

I discuss a recent characterization of Rawls “the last leading Cold War liberal thinker” and his ambiguous relation to “cosmopolitanism” here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2010/12/liberalism-keynesian-cold-war.html

I confess to having little or no patience with Zizek’s musings: his is obtuse and opaque when it comes to Liberalism as a political philosophy although he may have a clever thing or two to say about Neoliberal economic ideology (the Washington Consensus).

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James Kroeger 12.17.10 at 11:07 pm

geo, 89:

One reason I dislike Zizek so much is that he induces people like us to waste so much time wrangling about him rather than refining and promoting obviously sensible and profoundly useful ideas like James Kroeger’s in #78.

That may be the highest compliment I have ever received, coming from someone of your intellectual stature. (Although Robert H. Frank’s endorsement was also very encouraging.)

You may be interested in reading a somewhat broader [though unrefined] explication of the economic agenda I am recommending to Leftist intellectuals:

http://nontrivialpursuits.org/printer_friendly_unemployment.htm

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engels 12.17.10 at 11:15 pm

So if it wasn’t for Zizek Kroeger’s vision would be a reality by now?

Ave Slavoj!!!

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djw 12.17.10 at 11:20 pm

A bit late to the party, but two observations about this discussion (which is tiresome in many ways, but still much more interesting than Zizek):

1. It is long past time to retire the word liberalism, and replace it with a variety of more useful labels. Otherwise, we’ll keep doing this–arguing about the proper conceptual boundaries and philosophical tenets of liberalism when we really want to be arguing about politics.

2. Reactions to Rawls’ DP are weirdly unself-confident. It seems everything claimed about the relationship between the DP and Washington Consensus neo-liberalism could just as easily be said about the relationship between DP and a fairly robust democratic socialism. The thing is, if libertarians are correct in their claims (or a certain, relatively common version of them) about the likely consequences of largely unfettered capitalism, the DP arguable supports it. On the other hand, if the socialists are right about capitalism, DP supports socialism. And yet, for some reason, otherwise confident socialists are often worried that Rawls is too capitalist and otherwise confident capitalists are often worried Rawls is too socialist. It’s weird.

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djw 12.17.10 at 11:25 pm

To put (1) a slightly different way: those who position themselves outside and to the left of liberalism attempt to construct a set of relatively constricting boundaries that limit liberalism’s leftward edge, and emphasize the right edge of liberalism. Those who wish to defend liberalism defend a relatively expansive conception of liberalism that ranges a bit farther and more comfortably to the left.

This is boring and pointless. We’d have much more interesting conversations if we figured out what, precisely, we actually disagreed about and then argued about that, all the while remaining agnostic about the proper, actual boundaries of liberalism.

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StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 11:35 pm

Novakant –

Check out the speeches of John F. Kennedy – he outright calls the U.S a mixed economy, and was echoed here by a broad spectrum of intellectuals throughout America. Really, after the 1920s and prior to the 1980s, the U.S doesn’t even purport to be particularly laissez faire, because it wasn’t. It was a highly-regulated (in some ways more regulated than some European nations) economy, with a substantial public sector that was powerfully intertwined with industry, and a real if public-private welfare state.

“These differences” absolutely have everything to do with their stances to the welfare state – whether benefits are distributed through industrial societies or through the central state, whether social insurance is contributory or not, whether benefit formulae are progressive or not, what the status of women are in relation to benefits (famously, Christian Democratic welfare states have tended to emphasize family allowances over other forms of benefit, and distribute benefits through male heads of households rather than through women), whether you can receive benefits while on strike, etc.
see: Esping-Anderson, Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism
Baldwin, Peter. Politics of Social Solidarity
van Kersbergen, Klees. Social Capitalism: A Study of Christian Democracy and
the Welfare State
Hicks, Alexander. Social Democracy & Welfare Capitalism
Rueda, David. Social Democracy Inside Out
as just the tip of an enormous literature on the subject

Continuity emerges both on the right and the left where political parties for various reasons decide not to challenge the policies of those who became before them – the Labour Party in the U.K didn’t dismantle the public schools (but that didn’t make them Tories), the Conservative party didn’t dismantle the welfare state in 1951 (because they didn’t want to be strung up on lampposts), the SDP in Germany didn’t (for example) challenge the policy that schools should close at 2 so that the children could be fed by their hausmutters (probably totally wrong) which had been instituted by the familialist/maternalists within the CDU (but were still socialists), and so on.

Nonetheless, they pursued different visions of what the welfare state and the social market should look like.

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Charles Frith 12.17.10 at 11:50 pm

Just surprised you didn’t skip the hair splitting and tackle Zizek’s Marxism instead. You should debate him. Long form.

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novakant 12.18.10 at 12:04 am

Steven, of course Christian Democrats are more socially conservative than Social Democrats and that is partly reflected in their stance towards the welfare state – it would be ridiculous to say there are no differences and I didn’t. But the remarkable continuity of the social market economy model and the welfare state under either type of government in Western Europe cannot just be explained away, neither can the fundamental differences between Europe and the US in this regard. And again, if you want to talk about “real, concrete differences” I challenge you to explain how it is possible that Schroeder has been dismantling the welfare state that has been thriving under 16 years of Kohl.

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david 12.18.10 at 12:05 am

@113 That’s true narrowly on the DP, perhaps, but Theory of Justice as a whole is pretty easily read as too capitalist; Rawlsians often more so; we could test out the proposition Rawlsians of power and influence more so still, but my intution tells me the answer……

dsquared is right on when he has Brad Delong as the Rawlsian government apparatchik of the 90s, and it was market discipline and TD pretty much all the time. Delong’s recent defense of Summers says that they never thought markets were efficient, but they did think that rich people got all that money because they were doing something important and useful, a DP=TD defense if ever there was.

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StevenAttewell 12.18.10 at 12:18 am

Right, but said continuity (which has a lot to do with political parties bowing to the will of the majority) has to be separated from political ideology. As for Shroeder, it’s the same story with Blair – former socialist turns neoliberal. There’s a reason why the SPD have lost votes, in part to Die Linke.

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James Kroeger 12.18.10 at 12:27 am

engels, 115:

So if it wasn’t for Zizek Kroeger’s vision would be a reality by now?

Alas, it’s true…

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James Kroeger 12.18.10 at 12:27 am

:)

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john c. halasz 12.18.10 at 12:31 am

James Kroeger:

I think you’re seriously underestimating how much putting the insolvent mega-banks into public receivership, “nationalization”, and replacing them with a publicly “capitalized” and regulated system of credit and finance would represent a significant step beyond capitalism. (Which is also why Obama and his center-right cohorts would never even conceive of such a thing, despite it being obviously more functionally efficient than bailing out a zombie financial system, let alone his opposition to his right). I also think you underestimate how much less-than-full employment is necessary to maintaining the functioning and rationale of a capitalist system: preventing those relations-of-production from getting swamped by those forces-of-production is a key to its dynamics and mode of decision-making. But then I’d guess that we two have much different conceptions of what those dynamics are and how they dictate an essentially regressive politics.

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novakant 12.18.10 at 12:53 am

#125

But if we’re talking about “real, concrete” differences, we have to evaluate actual policy, not ideology. And such policy is indeed shaped over time by the will of the majority, which is comparatively social-democratic in Europe and free-market capitalist in the US.

As for Schroeder, he didn’t turn neoliberal like Blair – it’s just that Kohl’s welfare state was unsustainable.

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John Holbo 12.18.10 at 1:07 am

Engels does catch me in a contradiction @82. Fair enough. Let me try to repair my point.

“Many predicted a crash. They always do. How many predicted the one that actually arrived, and when it would?”

But a year or so ago I myself wrote:

“It seems to me, however, that a good analogy might be this: the boiler is about to blow up. Its not clear what valve or pipe or gasket or section of boilerplate is going to give first, but it’s bloody obvious the rumbling thing is gonna go soon enough that we should be worried about it. It seems to me that lots of people are not giving enough other people credit for noticing this, and that their excuse is the one I’m complaining about: you weren’t right unless you called the boiler bit that was going to blow first.”

Nothing to do but start over and try to get it right this time. Prediction-wise, we really need to distinguish at least three sorts of cases.

1) protesters chant some slogan about how bankers are a bunch of bastards, exploiting the poor, and riding for a fall. Four years later, there’s a bank collapse.

2) Krugman, Stiglitz write pieces suggesting that there are unsustainable bubbles in housing and elsewhere.Then the whole mortgage-backed securities thing blows up, etc.

3) Someone predicted the whole mortgage-backed securities thing, and more or less when it would happen.

I think there were a few people who actually did 3. Anyway, they laid bets that way and made money. More people did 2, of course. Not exactly predicting the collapse that arrived, but predicting that something really bad would happen pretty soon that would have something to do with this stuff. In that year-old post I was basically arguing that we shouldn’t totally discount 2. What bugs me about Zizek, per my point, is 1). I don’t think that sort of case should really count. It runs together two points: large protests as a sign of discontent – which is a sign that society might be in trouble. And large protests as themselves analytic predictions of the trouble that society will be in. I think Zizek is straining to find evidence of a proletariat making the shift to being a properly revolutionary subject – from in-itself to for-itself, as they say. But it’s really more a case of typical investor fallacies: someone always guesses right, and then looks like a genius.

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John Holbo 12.18.10 at 1:43 am

Adam K: “If you don’t know what a “theory of subjectivity” is, then maybe you aren’t really in a position to judge.”

I think really there are several different things that might answer to ‘theory of subjectivity’, Adam. Robert Pippin would probably mean one thing, per his book, The Persistence of Subjectivity. Whereas another author might thereby mean to place especial accent on Third Critique material. Zizek is more in the Pippin mode. Zizek would, anyway, think that was an ok title for a book about the Kant-to-Hegel run. But that’s not an obligatory angle, in treatments of Kant. The phrase itself isn’t Kantian. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it does create legitimate uncertainty as to what bits of Kant we are talking about.

While I have you on the phone: you have read more Zizek than anyone, with the possible exception of Zizek himself – and even that is subject to doubt, since I have no particular reason to suppose Zizek reads his own books, as opposed to writing them, if you see what I mean. This thread has offered me a few hints about places where Zizek addresses liberalism, in my desired, more philosophical (in my sense) sense. Am I still missing anything? Of course you think I am missing roughly everything, in a more important sense. But setting that aside, am I missing anything, in a humbler, bibliographic sense?

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john c. halasz 12.18.10 at 1:56 am

With Zizek, it’s definitely YMMV. So, echoing a commenter above, I’m wondering why Holbo seems so obsessed with him, when he gets so little milage or traction out of reading him. It’s obvious that Zizek is intent on punching holes in the prevailing neo-liberal doxa, not in sustaining its “reflective equilibrium”, and that he doesn’t attend to the various shadings of liberal argument and opinion,- (let alone, any liberal separation of the political from the economic, though that is a standard Marxian trope, and should be obvious),- in accordance with the sort of intentionalist hermeneutics that Holbo apparently favors, is a feature, not a bug: i.e. he’s reading various “positions” symptomatically, in accordance with his own perhaps recondite premises and analysis. Whether such disruptive “therapy” works or not, is anyone’s guess. But it doesn’t confer some sort of obligation to address Holbo’s concerns in a manner that he would deem fit. So why should such an expectation be imposed? Clearly, it may seem that the positions he targets are somewhat caricatured, though equally it might be claimed that it’s the blindspots and not the intentions that are aimed at, and he also seems to make rather outre claims that he himself doesn’t quite “seriously” believe in. But then, given that he seeks to undermine the sorts of beliefs that sustain the status quo and its limits and “necessity”, why exactly should the demand for “seriousness” be charged against him, rather than appreciating the rope-a-dope tactics that provoke such a reaction-formation for the cheap tricks that they are, and, rather than falling victim, reflecting on the underlying tangle of issues brought to light? Umm, regardless of whether Zizek has any salient remedies or prognostications.

The upshot is that there is no imperative need or requirement to read Zizek. But also, that if you do, then understanding the terms of engagement that his texts offer and operate under would be rather basic. And, of course, just because he doesn’t extensively and explicitly deal with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberal thought and the various conceptions of “liberty” and “equality” to be found therein, it doesn’t follow that Zizek doesn’t have any views on human agency, “freedom” and human equality, “solidarity” to be teased out in his own terms.

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StevenAttewell 12.18.10 at 2:13 am

novakant – and as I’ve said, the policies empirically differ.

And while the will of the people – or more precisely the people’s understanding of the way things ought to work plus 30 years – is more statist, my argument here is that statism and social democracy are not the same thing.

And Shroeder was plenty neoliberal – look at the manifesto he co-wrote with Blair. (Apologies for the third party commentary, but you get the gist)
<blockquote cite="

Embrace global market competition to stimulate productivity and growth. The objective is to "catch up to the United States." No mention is made of mechanisms to mitigate unfair competition except for a brief mention of unfair tax competition. Nothing is said about linking trade with enforceable worker rights and environmental standards.

Improve the business climate. Cut business taxes to stimulate investment and improve global competitiveness. Reduce non-wage labor costs and get rid of burdensome rules and regulations that inhibit labor market flexibility and rapid adjustment to changing economic circumstances. "We should make it easier for small businesses in particular to take on new staff: that means lowering the burden of regulation and non-wage labour costs."

Reform welfare. When workers are displaced by the above, don't allow them to indefinitely collect welfare benefits. Rather than allowing the state to continue as "the passive recipient of the casualties of economic failure," it should become an active agent for employment by investing in human and social capital, including lifetime access to education and training, raising school standards, facilitating transitions to new jobs, and vocational retraining. "Modern social democrats want to transform the safety net of entitlements into a springboard to personal responsibility." If necessary, this includes moving people into low-wage, low-skill jobs by "lowering the burden of tax and social security contributions on low-paid jobs."

Hold the line on public expenditures. Cut income taxes and make up the shortages by reinventing government to make it more efficient. Keep down deficit spending so that public debt is not increased. "

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John Holbo 12.18.10 at 2:14 am

“understanding the terms of engagement that his texts offer and operate under would be rather basic”

But it’s important to appreciate, john, that sometimes readers may object to the terms of engagement that a given text, or texts, may offer. There is, after all, such a thing as taking a critical stance. (I know you think there is such a thing under the sun, but – here’s the rub – so do I.)

“it doesn’t follow that Zizek doesn’t have any views on human agency, “freedom” and human equality, “solidarity” to be teased out in his own terms.”

Of course doesn’t follow that Zizek has no such views, but I find it surprisingly hard to tease them out. Just to pick one one case: what does Zizek mean by ‘equality’, when he advocates communist equality? He doesn’t mean what Marx meant, I’m pretty sure. I think he means more what Badiou means, which is ‘fidelity’, which is pretty much a category of authenticity. Equality means living authentically. It’s radical subjectivity that can be somehow universalized in the Event. Well, it’s all rather obscure, and I think it would help if Zizek were to bounce off some more traditional conceptions of what equality should mean, by way of trying to make it less obscure. After all, he thinks it’s important, so he should want people to understand it.

Also, why do you think I am an especially ‘intentionalistic’ hermeneut? Just curious.

Also, just to be clear, my charge against Zizek is not, as you paraphrase me, that “he doesn’t attend to the various shadings of liberal argument and opinion”. My charge is that he doesn’t attend even to the rough broad outlines of liberal argument and opinion Questions of shading and nuance hardly come into it. The point being: it would make sense for him to be doing what he is doing, on your account, if he were just leaving out some shading and nuance. He wants to punch holes, as you say. But in order to punch a hole, there needs to be something there to punch a hole in. That’s my point. You can’t just punch the air and then – noting with pride that there is nothing there – pat yourself on the back for the big hole you punched. That’s not proper criticism. It’s not reading liberalism ‘symptomatically’. It’s just plain not having anything to do with the thing that you allege you have something to do with.

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LFC 12.18.10 at 3:36 am

It’s late in the evening where I am and I haven’t read every single word of this whole thread, and I see several others (C. Bertram, J. Quiggin, djw) have had their say already about the difference principle and trickle-down.

My two cents: assertions about the closeness of the DP to trickle-down economics are mostly rubbish. Moreover, as has been pointed out on this blog before, the DP is not the only limit on inequality in Rawls — i.e., inequalities compatible with the DP may not be compatible with other aspects of the theory, at least as it is laid out in TOJ. You can’t extract the DP and talk about it in isolation since it’s part of a theory: the book is called A Theory of Justice, not A Theory of the Difference Principle.

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Zora 12.18.10 at 6:45 am

Gaspard @199 writes:

“I ended up reading Zizek and people like David Harvey because lots of people who generally seem to know what they’re talking about (like Doug Henwood and dsquared) recommend them, and they have armies of young followers, so it seems worth trying to figure out what they are saying.”

And I remember when everyone was reading Carlos Castaneda :)

Dan Sperber explains the appeal of pseudo-profundity quite nicely in his essay on

The Guru Effect.

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 8:51 am

LFC is, of course, absolutely right about the DP not being the only constraint on inequality. The levels of income inequality in the US especially are clearly incompatible with citizens enjoying the kinds of political equality that Rawls prizes (and Rawls is absolutely explicit on this point). So even if it were empirically true (as it is not) that TD economics as practised in the US would maximize the expectations of the least advantaged, there wouldn’t be a Rawlsian warrant for the policy.

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Charlie 12.18.10 at 10:57 am

the Difference Principle is clearly a first cousin to trickle-down economics.

This suggests that they literally have a common ancestor (i.e. an intellectual grandparent). Perhaps there are a pair of bright strands running through intellectual history which – if you traced them out – would show a convergence. But the thought that arrangements which are prima facie unfair might nonetheless be part and parcel of the best possible arrangements for the least advantaged; well, it seems to me like it might be a fairly cheap thought; one that could be reached for at any time, in any line of argument. Hence the difficulty people are having with the metaphor?

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 11:35 am

Incidentally, does anyone believe that Zizek could secure a passing mark in a university exam about Rawls’s theory of justice? (Well I suppose he might get a third, from a generous examiner.)

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James Kroeger 12.18.10 at 11:53 am

john c. halasz, 128:

I think you’re seriously underestimating how much putting the insolvent mega-banks into public receivership, “nationalization”, and replacing them with a publicly “capitalized” and regulated system of credit and finance would represent a significant step beyond capitalism.

It might represent a significant step beyond capitalism, but I see no reason to simply preserve capitalism for capitalism’s sake. But then, neither do I see any reason to annihilate the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t have any problem with a continued reliance on the marketplace for most consumer goods/services. (Neither do the Chinese, for that matter.)

Call it ‘only token capitalism’ if you will, but it is nevertheless irrational for society to continue to leave itself vulnerable to the extortion schemes of the financial elite. Why should society tolerate any risk of future financial meltdowns whatsoever? It simply is not necessary that it do so.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.18.10 at 1:05 pm

But then, neither do I see any reason to annihilate the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t have any problem with a continued reliance on the marketplace for most consumer goods/services.

Capitalism (defined as private ownership of the means of production/hired labor) is not a prerequisite for entrepreneurial spirit or marketplace; a coop can be just as entrepreneurial as proprietorship. I think this is, in a sense, yet another illustration of that “liberalism = trickle-down” thing.

I know, I know, no one prevents me from opening a worker cooperative, but then why is it that, according to wikipedia (assuming it’s correct):

…co-operatives that are subject to Anglo-American systems of law that require the co-operative (employer) to view (and treat) its worker-members as salaried workers (employees).[18] The implications of this are far-reaching, as this requires co-operatives to establish authority driven statutory disciplinary and grievance procedures (rather than democratic mediation schemes), impacting on the ability of leaders to enact democratic forms of management and counter the authority structures embedded in the dominant system of private enterprise centred around the entrepreneur.[19]

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Tim Wilkinson 12.18.10 at 2:09 pm

Personally I see ATOJ and the distinctive doctrine of the difference principle as a way of reverse-engineering a 70s US centre-left position. It needn’t be taken in that direction necessarily, but R clearly intended that it should basically end up with something very similar to actually existing US society. This would not be a big problem – after all, one might be right about justice, and successful in working out why your hunch is right. But I don’t think R is right, and I don’t think he sets up his theory in a way that is open to being interpreted more radically.

The ‘reflective equilibrium’ – a handy vehicle for getting exactly the outcome you had in mind from the start – is constrained all around by some rather perfunctory discussions of, e.g. ‘envy’. And these generally take the form of answering objections, or rather indicating in an ex cathedra way, how R happens to think they could be answered, or aren’t important (right you are, squire, say no more). I don’t have the memory or time to go into more detail, so perhaps I should shut up – I don’t seem to be doing so, though.

(I agree with Z on straightforward kinds of ‘envy’ and resentment, up to the point at which he suggests that we can’t just ignore it since people have no business indulging in such pusillanimous attitudes. But there are many other related phenomena which don’t involve preferring that others be made worse off in some suitably objective sense, and Z makes a very weak case by going straight for the starkest form of ‘envy’ and defending only that.)

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Tim Wilkinson 12.18.10 at 2:11 pm

Re: ‘why do you care?’; ‘there might be something in it for those who like that kind of thing’; ‘just don’t read it then’, etc: I’d draw an analogy (illustrative, not empirical: the comparator phenomenon is actually slightly more complex than I’m suggesting) between Zizek’s stuff and carbon monoxide. It’s n0t actually a toxin, exactly – it kills because it is taken up by the red blood cells in preference to oxygen, thus preventing the good stuff from being delivered to the body. If some blood cell becomes aware of this, then it should not only refuse to accept CO, but also try to warn other cells not to do so either.

This is slightly exaggerated, but you get the general idea.

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Chris Brooke 12.18.10 at 2:23 pm

Dsquared: the Difference Principle is clearly a first cousin to trickle-down economics.

Charlie: This suggests that they literally have a common ancestor (i.e. an intellectual grandparent).

It wouldn’t be crazy at all to call Adam Smith’s two books, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations the common ancestor you’re looking for. Smith argues lots of things, but among them, that inequalities in property-holding shouldn’t trouble us too much because the wealthy generate work & income for the rest, and that in a liberal market society ordinary workers can expect to have a much higher standard of living than ordinary workers in other kinds of social order, which is an important reason why we should prefer to live in one. Those thoughts aren’t a million miles away from the thoughts captured by the idea of trickle-down economics and by the difference principle.

And I think you can see the interplay between versions of these ideas in a number of other liberal writers between Smith and Rawls. When Henry Sidgwick writes in 1887 that, “I object to socialism not so much because it would divide the produce of industry badly, but because there would be so much less to divide”, or when L. T. Hobhouse in 1922 defends his principle that inequalities are only to be permitted if they are functional for increased production, or when Harold Laski in 1925 accepts Hobhouse’s principle but then yokes it to a claim about the importance of fair opportunities and equal political liberty, I think they are all thinking about these two issues side by side: their worry is that an egalitarian distribution will not generate an efficient or prosperous society – though with Sidgwick more obviously on the terrain of TD economics, and with Hobhouse and Laski leaning further towards what will later be called the DP (with Hobhouse as anxious to distinguish his ‘social liberal’ position from socialism as Laski is not).

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 2:28 pm

@Chris Brooke …. or earlier, Locke on the benefits of markets and private property:

“and a king of a large and fruitful territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad
worse than a day labourer in England.”

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Matt 12.18.10 at 2:43 pm

but R clearly intended that it should basically end up with something very similar to actually existing US society.

Do you have any real evidence for this, Tim? I don’t think there’s any textual evidence for it, a fair amount against it, and the people I know who knew Rawls all claim that it’s not true, so I’d be glad to know if you have any actual evidence for it.

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Alex Gregory 12.18.10 at 2:50 pm

(Perhaps someone else said this and I missed it, but..)

Isn’t the relationship between the difference principle and trickle-down this: defenders of TD tend to think that the truth of TD is important because they assume that something like the DP is true. So defenders of TD tend to be defenders of the DP. But the reverse is not true. There’s no reason to think that defenders of the DP must be defenders of TD. They might think that the truth of the DP is important precisely because it shows how many economic inequalities are unjustified.

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Matt 12.18.10 at 2:59 pm

I should add, in some sense I think Rawls thought a society that satisfied the account in Theory would be like the US- it would be more like the US than like the Soviet Union, for example, and probably wouldn’t be something completely unknown. But it would likely be more like the Scandinavian countries than the US, too. If a view of a society that’s somewhat like the Scandinavian countries but with some of their problems fixed is “very similar” to the “actually exiting US society” than the charge might stick against Rawls, but I wouldn’t find it that interesting, as you’d have a pretty strong burden to show that other alternatives would be more attractive. What I think is quite clearly wrong is the idea that TJ was meant to more or less be a more philosophical account of what the Democratic party around 1970 wanted.

HV- I’m a (member) card-carrying member of a co-op grocery store, and I can say that the description you give doesn’t seem to describe the workings of the store very well. Certainly, the member-workers are not treated like salaried employees in any deep way, and the government is quite democratic. The big problem with the government of the store comes from two things: 1) leadership tends to be set by interest in doing the work rather than skill. This very nearly destroyed the place some years ago. 2) participation in running the store is low, as most people there are like me- we like shopping there, don’t mind “cooperating” in the assigned time, but really, we’re not that interested in running a grocery store. (Oscar Wilde’s supposed quip about the difficulties of sozialism come up here.) My understanding, from a modest but not deep reading of the literature on co-ops, indicates that these are by far the two biggest problems for them, beyond their well-established tendencies to not invest enough and to descend into little oligarchies (law firms are perhaps the most common form of co-operative ownership in the US today, but are bad examples of how we might want society to be run, I think.)

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Hiebaum 12.18.10 at 3:01 pm

@Chris Bertram #139:
Well, if a student of mine had written something like the passage I quoted above (#98) I would have a few questions for him or her.

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Matt 12.18.10 at 3:03 pm

defenders of TD tend to think that the truth of TD is important because they assume that something like the DP is true.

Perhaps you have more reputable defenders of TD in mind, Alex, but if you look at the sort of people who defend it a lot in the US- Republican politicians, right-wing talk-show hosts, many right-wing economists, it is extremely hard to believe that they care enough at all about the worst off in society to have any concern about whether TD will make them better off than they could be under any other scheme. (The more theoretical of the economists are likely wealth-maximizing utilitarians, who know very well that wealth-maximizing won’t make the worst off as well off as they could be, but insofar as they think in “moral” terms at all, think that wealth-maximizing is itself the moral goal. There are more or less crazy ways to set that up, but it’s quite a different idea than the DP.)

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Tim Wilkinson 12.18.10 at 3:29 pm

Matt – mainly my memory of my own conclusions – not compelling to others, of course. I’m pretty sure that in ‘Kantian Constructivism’ he basically admits that he was really only looking for minor adjustments to existing US society. And he got more and more explicit about the fact that he was committed to an actual ‘consensus’ position.

I really don’t have time to look all this up again (and yet here I am still eating cake!), but IIRC R prioritises ‘equal opportunity’ over the difference principle, for example. Also IIRC – and a quick look at pp265-283 of ATOJ seems to confirm this – the discussion of ‘Economic Systems’ and of ‘Institutions for Dist Justice’ gives only token consideration to socialism, and proceeds on the assumption that we are talking about regulated markets + welfare state.

If the advertised trajectory of the argument – viz., making justified departures from equality – were to be taken seriously, one might expect to see a similarly realistic-utopian approach to (and an elaborate rather than cursory discussion of) economic institutions – but instead the treatment strongly suggests that the idea is to adjust the existing unequal system to move closer to equality (obviously daubing with a broad brush here).

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Charlie 12.18.10 at 3:53 pm

Chris @144: Sure, but doesn’t this really only describe the ancestry on one side: that is, the DP side? I take ‘trickle-down’ to be post-Keynesian. The phrase is supposed to be pejorative. There’s a set of views on certain tax policies – i.e. increases in enterprise, production and employment will more than make up for a loss of tax revenue – and people who call those views ‘trickle-down economics’ are expressing their scepticism about the effects of those policies, given where we’re at. So to echo what Chris B said earlier: ‘trickle-down’ involves you in a belief about how things are, with us, today; in a way that DP doesn’t. While I suppose you can always connect any thought to any other thought if you try, I’d suggest that there simply might not exist any meaningful ancestry to be traced backwards from ‘trickle-down’.

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SusanC 12.18.10 at 3:58 pm

There’s a big difference between being able to predict the timing of a collapse accurately enough to falisify the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, and believing that the system will collapse sometime. Indeed, it’s easy to construct game-theoretic systems where everyone knows that an asset will eventually become worthless, it’s current price is non-zero, and yet the EMH holds. (e.g. at each turn roll a die. If you roll 1-5, the current owner gets $1. If you roll a 6, it becomes worthless for ever after. Before each roll of the die, you can sell the asset to another player). But in these game-theoretic models, you’re not surprised when the collapse happens. Disappointed, maybe.

Some Christian churches believe in a historical Last Judgement. If you belong one of those churches, perhaps you shouldn’t be surprised to see the Last Judgment unfolding now, with the full machinery of angels, trumpets, etc. But possibly you would be.

According to Freud, we (or at least, most of us) are unable to fully acknowledge that we will, one day, die. Although our own death is inevitable, we shy away from acknowledging it.

An SWP member recently said to me, “It’s one thing to believe in the end of capitalism, and quite another to see it actually happening.” (or similar words)

The eschatology of many people who call themself Marxists includes the (eventual) collapse of capitalism. (Though it may be shaky on the details. For that matter, Revelation isn’t accuate enough to enable me to short a stock and reliably make a profit). But at least, they’re not surprised to see the signs of the end.

“Fuck, we’re all going to die.” is perhaps closer to the reaction.

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Chris Brooke 12.18.10 at 4:06 pm

OK: I was using TD to refer far more widely, to any argument that sees economic inequality as functional for raising the living standards of the poor, and taking the argument back to Smith (and I could have gone further, back to the way some people argued about luxuries in the later 17th century and afterwards). But I agree that that may not be how the term is generally used, or how it’s being used elsewhere in this thread.

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 4:13 pm

#151 I think that’s not right Tim. See for example his enthusiasm for James Meade and his endorsement of the Krouse and Macpherson interpretation of “property-owing democracy” in _A Briefer Restatement_ . It isn’t just markets+taxation+welfare but a far more comprehensive rethinking of the nature of the institutions including dispersal and democratization of capital ownership. In that respect, not like the US at all.

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david 12.18.10 at 4:13 pm

Hi. I haven’t posted here before (quickly: philosophy student, interested in Rawls, interested/bemused/puzzled by Zizek), though I do read.

I wanted to pick up a couple of points (#72, and #98), because those are the only places that I too have ever seen a direct engagement with Rawls’ ideas, on their own terms, in my reading of Zizek.

Now I appreciate they don’t constitute what the post’s author was looking for, a sustained critique of Rawlsian liberalism, and a couple of people have already noted that it’s a peculiar analysis. But I wonder if you couldn’t use those snippets charitably to reconstruct an interesting psychoanalytic response to Rawls. Thinking on my feet, it would maybe go something like:

1. Rawls’ claim: His principles of justice will produce a stable and just society.
2. For Rawls’ principles of justice to work, humans have to be the kind of beings able, in principle, to engage in and abide by an original-position-type negotiation.
3. The original-position negotiation is special because, unlike common-or-garden negotiations, its outcome defines what’s later internalized as normative principles by its participants.
4. But ressentiment is a necessary outcome of a social situation that claims any inequality of condition is just.
5. Rawls’ original position does bring about a supposedly justified social situation.
5. Therefore in Rawls’ society ressentiment emerges and necessarily leads to radical social instability etc.

So Rawls’ society is not what is claimed in 1, and the reason is that the condition in 2 is not met – humans aren’t the kind of beings who can consistently abide by an original-position negotiation, because of the special moral implications of that negotiation.

In a sense I suppose that all boils down to saying: Human beings aren’t as rational as Kant and Rawls think they are, even though they might, temporarily, look like they are. But as I say, I’m thinking on my feet a bit.

My reconstruction of Zizek’s argument doesn’t really, as Marx’s argument doesn’t, say anything about Rawls’ concept of justice, just the stability of the society. So I suppose the real work Zizek has to do is to say something about why ressentiment, if it exists, is stronger than the forces Rawls thinks stabilize the just society and keep it in some kind of equilibrial state. If you take Zizek seriously, that might – maybe – be an interesting conversation to have.

Sorry that has turned a bit long, and apologies if it’s plodding through stuff you’ve all thought a great deal about already.

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engels 12.18.10 at 6:15 pm

Didn’t Rawls at one point categorise the USA as ‘nearly just’? I’m pretty sure Perry Anderson refers to this somewhere, but I can’t remember where.

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 6:23 pm

Probably just a tendentious misreading by the Anderson, engels. His readings of Rawls usually are.

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Matt 12.18.10 at 6:24 pm

Engels- in context I think what Rawls meant in saying things like that (though I don’t recall that strong of an expression) is that most of the political institutions should be supported most of the time- that general opposition to them wasn’t called for, though of course civil disobedience was appropriate in many cases (as he himself argued.) That seems right to me. It doesn’t at all imply that the economic distribution in the US is just, or that there is fair equality of opportunity, or that the fair worth of the political liberties is met, or any of those things. Rawls clearly didn’t think they were met.

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 6:33 pm

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Tim Wilkinson 12.18.10 at 7:12 pm

Chris Bertram @155 – I’m not familiar with the Restatement (revision?), nor entirely clear on how a lid is supposed to be kept on wealth and power concentration in a ‘property-owning democracy’, so can’t comment on these things. (I’ve got Political Liberalism somewhere, but can’t lay my eye on it quickly – anyway have never managed to read more than about 2 pages of it without my eyes glazing over. Also am supposed to be doing something else.)

I’d be interested in a radical (for want of a better word) application of recognisably Rawlsian principles, because certainly the impression I have is that R’s occasional admission of such possibilities is not only token in the sense that the preponderant (predictably so) interpretation in terms of regulated capitalism is not going to be deflected by them, but is actually constrained and hemmed in by a range of assumptions and ill-founded conclusions which occur in the discussion that surrounds the core points. I shouldn’t really be asserting this without looking up all my old refs and refamilarising myself with the material, but here I am anyway.

Three points:

1. the very idea of pure procedural justice is pretty closely intertwined with invisible hand ideas . It could be separated from those – and I’m v interested in ways this might be done, but a substantial proposal, or at least adumbration of possibilities, would be required to overturn a presumption in favour of the status quo. (By that I mean both the presumption that that is what he has in mind and is quite satisfied with, and the presumption that he probably did, and certainly should, expect others to work with.)

2. in ATOJ, S.43 (‘Insts Dist J’), R does indeed remark that he’s using a markets + adjustments model, which is pretty funny as a conception of clockwork justice – why would you want to keep this clock if you really expect to constantly adjust it? There’s a formal, token concession to socialism as a possible instantiation of the basic structure, but R says he’ll be dealing in markets, saying that this isn’t prejudicial since prices – and thus some kind of markets – are required in a socialist system to order resource allocation. I think this can only be made to come out true if a grossly misleading sense of ‘prices’ – ‘numbers in some kind of accounting procedure’ – is used. It strikes me as a convenient way of giving socialism the brush off.

3. How about the prominent idea that inequalities of wealth or income are to be justified in part as compensation for the cost of training and education? Quite a topical one, that.

(Just had a v. quick flick through Kukathas and Pettit, and notice that three sources of criticism are identified; Libertarian (presumably ‘ownership of talents’ kind of stuff), communitarian (presumably the usual high-camp traditionalist guff), and the later Rawls(es). None of these seems to correspond to a socialist or radical egalitarian critique – I take this to mean that R’s rhetoric rather successfully heads off this line of criticism, rather than that such is impossible, which I don’t think it can be. Again, I realise that reporting what I happen to think is not terribly compelling…)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 12.18.10 at 7:23 pm

“I’d be interested in a radical (for want of a better word) application of recognisably Rawlsian principles….”

See R. (Ronald) G. Peffer’s Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990). Peffer aims to provide the outlines of a Marxist moral theory in conjunction with or through incorporation of a “modified version of Rawls’s theory of social justice.” Peffer is in the Dept. of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

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Chris Bertram 12.18.10 at 7:33 pm

Tim, the essay you want from PL is “The Basic Structure as Subject”. Personally, I’m worried about the procedural aspects too.

The book you want for a radical take on Rawls is the excellent work of occasional Crooked Timber contributor Jon Mandle, entitled _What’s Left of Liberalism?_

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LFC 12.18.10 at 10:57 pm

I can agree w/ david @ 156 that the issue of envy is interesting (if not necessarily agreeing w/ david’s sketch of a psychoanalytic response to R). It’s been a long time since I read TJ but I was just now glancing at R’s discussion of envy in secs. 80 and 81 (pp. 530-541 in the original edition). There is specific mention of Freud. Perhaps worth a look.

[Irrelevant aside: my pbk copy of TJ, acquired in November '75, has completely fallen apart. New year's resolution: get it fixed/bound/whatever (unless insanely expensive to do so).]

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Norwegian Guy 12.19.10 at 2:17 am

“Particularly when as a matter of sociology, lots and lots and lots of people who might have considered themselves Rawlsians of a sort, did believe either in trickle-down economics, or in the Washington Consensus, or both.”

I don’t actually think this is all that common. The Washington consensus is on the rightward side, and Rawls on the left edge – maybe even off it – so far as American political culture goes. Trickle-down is for Republicans. Rawls is for Democrats. You, I think, tend to assume that there isn’t that much difference between Republicans and Democrats. That’s as may be. But I think you will grant that Republicans and Democrats don’t tend to see it that way. Most Republicans aren’t Democrats. And vice versa.

It is/was certainly not only the rightward side of the American political spectrum that supported the Washington consensus. Virtually every European social democratic party did, US liberals like Bill Clinton did (the New Democrats), and also many originally centre-left parties in the third world – there is a reason why the Brazilian Social Democrats have been a part of the right wing opposition to the Lula presidency. This is what people on the left commonly refers to as neoliberalism – the policy package that most countries have been following since the late 70s consisting of deregulation (hello Jimmy Carter), privatization, “modernization” of the welfare state, New Public Management, and trade liberalization. In short: economic liberalization, often seen as the only possibility (TINA) in the face of globalization. Such policies have been pushed by institutions like the EU, WTO, IMF and the World Bank. Virtually no-one has declared themselves a neoliberal, it’s always been a pejorative used by their opponents. Matthew Yglesias is one of the few self-declared neoliberals I have ever seen. In Europe in they 90s, these policies where often implemented by social democratic governments, and met fierce opposition from the more radical left.

To review: Zizek does this liberal = neoliberal thing. Which is no good. And he doesn’t even have much to say about economics. And Zizek does this liberal = self-hating pc white intellectuals thing. Which is no good.

Following the turn to neoliberalism, many on the increasingly middle class left have been more interested in cultural issues like environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism etc. than in economic policy and the labour movement. By calling this branch of the left liberals, Žižek probably wants to say that these people don’t really belong on the left – that they’re bourgeois liberals and not a real socialists.

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engels 12.19.10 at 10:41 am

Feminism and environmentalism are ‘cultural’ issues?

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engels 12.19.10 at 10:57 am

Matt (159) thanks for the explanation.

I would have assumed though that for a significant part of the left ‘general opposition’ to the US state is entirely justified, even if not feasible or tactically advisable at any given time, so this would provide grounds for disagreement.

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dsquared 12.19.10 at 11:12 am

I think Chris Brooke’s #154 is entirely on point and that the wide definition of “trickle down” to mean “policies which increase general welfare by permitting inequality” is a) not at all an unreasonable definition, b) pretty much ubiquitous among “liberals” (even the liberal John Holbo agrees that he’d believe in a sufficiently weakened version of it; so would I), and c) equally definitely a lineal part of liberalism ever since Mill and Adam Smith (and even Locke apparently). So actually, I think that Zizek ought to get off scot-free on the charge of “accuses liberals of believing in trickle-down economics and this is wrong”. Democrats and Republicans might disagree about what position we’re in on the Laffer Curve (and Democrats might be ludicrously obviously right), but both Democrats, Republicans and all other political traditions derived from liberalism, it seems to me, recognise the existence of something like a Laffer function, and treat it as a morally legitimate entity.

Actually thinking about it, a very large part of the “Rescuing Justice and Equality” seminar was about the specific question of whether there wasn’t something very problematic indeed about a version of morality under which some people were only prepared to contribute their best efforts to the community if they were bribed to do so with a greater share of the product. And at the time, I think that most of us were agreed that this wasn’t an unreasonable argument for Gerry Cohen to make as a critique of Rawls.

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John Holbo 12.19.10 at 11:47 am

“So actually, I think that Zizek ought to get off scot-free on the charge of “accuses liberals of believing in trickle-down economics and this is wrong”.”

I don’t think this is right, because what Zizek actually says is hair-raisingly strong: “although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor”. Zizek pretty much commits to the truth of this proposition in any market system, which I think is plainly absurd. My complaint in the post was therefore not that Zizek accuses liberals of believing in trickle-down but that he himself more or less takes the Fox News line . (I think he does it in a heighten-the-contradictions spirit, but, theoretically, it produces a kind of learned helplessness, alternatives to what Grover Norquist thinks-wise)

“Actually thinking about it, a very large part of the “Rescuing Justice and Equality” seminar was about the specific question of whether there wasn’t something very problematic indeed about a version of morality under which some people were only prepared to contribute their best efforts to the community if they were bribed to do so with a greater share of the product. And at the time, I think that most of us were agreed that this wasn’t an unreasonable argument for Gerry Cohen to make as a critique of Rawls.”

This, on the other hand, is dead right. I accept this completely. I think it is a totally valid criticism of Rawls. I hadn’t really seen it before reading Cohen on Rawls, but now I can’t unsee it. It’s totally fatal.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.19.10 at 11:54 am

Not “in any market system”; rather, as you quoted: “insofar as we remain in a capitalist order”.

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John Holbo 12.19.10 at 12:26 pm

I think for Zizek that comes to the same, Henri.

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Chris Brooke 12.19.10 at 12:30 pm

John: This, on the other hand, is dead right. I accept this completely. I think it is a totally valid criticism of Rawls. I hadn’t really seen it before reading Cohen on Rawls, but now I can’t unsee it. It’s totally fatal.

One of the interesting things if you scratch around in the history of distributive justice theory is that the ‘Cohen’ criticism is as old as the ‘Rawls’ argument itself.

L. T. Hobhouse was, I think, the first person to state as a normative principle the idea that inequalities were OK insofar as they were functional for the ‘common good’ (which he understood in terms of economic output) in his 1922 book, The Elements of Social Justice, downloads of which are available here.

And in the same chapter VII on ‘payment of service’ he began a discussion of the question ‘whether such differentiation is just in the sense that it is an intrinsically desirable element in a social system, or only necessary in the sense that it is the price which the more capable can demand of us for their services’ (p. 164), which states Cohen’s objection to Rawls quite succinctly.

While Hobhouse doesn’t end up agreeing with Cohen’s views, it really is quite striking how much of the later debate is foreshadowed in these pages, down to Hobhouse’s consideration of whether the ‘Cohen’ position would lead to a ‘sweating of talent’ (which shows up in the later debates as the problem of the ‘slavery of the talented’).

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Alex 12.19.10 at 1:04 pm

Following the turn to neoliberalism, many on the increasingly middle class left have been more interested in cultural issues like environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism etc. than in economic policy and the labour movement. By calling this branch of the left liberals, Žižek probably wants to say that these people don’t really belong on the left – that they’re bourgeois liberals and not a real socialists.

Not only is this wrong on the merits (there is nothing “merely cultural” about feminism or environmentalism), it also has the problem that it’s basically just the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” argument that you ought to capitulate more and faster to the Right. Radical Zizek!

both Democrats, Republicans and all other political traditions derived from liberalism, it seems to me, recognise the existence of something like a Laffer function, and treat it as a morally legitimate entity

What would philosophy (to say nothing of economics) look like in a world where this wasn’t true? Even in a purely 100% communist economy, one with less market content than Hoxha’s Albania, if you got zero return back from working, you wouldn’t work because you would starve. (Do I have the impression that something along these lines has been tried without notably good results?)

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James Kroeger 12.19.10 at 1:20 pm

John Quiggin, 104:

“I’ve argued pretty strongly…that giving lots of money to the one percenters in the financial sector does not yield a net benefit to the rest of the population. But that doesn’t mean that allowing a sudden collapse of the financial sector would benefit the rest of us, even though it would give the financiers their just desserts.”

True, it doesn’t mean that allowing a sudden collapse of the financial sector would necessarily benefit the rest of us, for there are foolish ways to orchestrate/tolerate such a collapse that would indeed harm the rest of us.

If, for example, the government were to stand aside and do nothing while trillions of $$ of paper assets are being written off, the consequences would be profoundly harmful to the least fortunate. But in reality, there was an alternative approach that would have ensured economic prosperity on Main Street at the same time that a Moral Hazard Apocalypse was allowed to punish the reckless gamblers on Wall Street.

All the government really needed to do was (1) hook the economy up to a ‘heart-lung machine’ of sorts, a temporary source of credit/capital provided by the government, and (2) spend a huge amount of money on infrastructure. Doing so would have made it possible for the rest of society to get along quite well while the financiers were getting their just deserts.

That particular option would have benefited society in the best way possible, for it would have achieved both worthy ends: economic justice and improving the material welfare of the ‘worst-off.’ The failure of anti-conservative economists to point out that alternative does not excuse those who proposed and executed the immoral alternative that was quickly embraced by Team Obama.

This reminds me of the debate that usually unfolds over whether or not a government is calling for a Just War. Every sort of rationalization can be invoked to justify a decision to go to war, but if a peaceful alternative existed that was not tried, then those who pursued the war are guilty of immoral behavior, even if they were not cognizant of the alternatives that they could have pursued.

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James Kroeger 12.19.10 at 2:04 pm

I like the argument Rawls used to articulate the DP, but I’m afraid that it is not helpful because it implicitly assumes that equal distribution is a possible alternative that we might want to choose if we thought that unequal distribution was not optimal.

Scarcity, however, is a fundamental reality. There are not enough of the ‘best’ things around for all of us to experience them. Unequal distribution is therefore a fundamental reality that can never be changed. (We could arrange for an equal distribution of ‘money’, but that would not result in an equal distribution of scarce goods/services/experiences.)

The essential question is whether or not changes could be effected in the current unequal distribution that would result in an improvement in the welfare of all. The answer is yes. Putting resources in the hands of individuals who would/could use them to produce consumables and create jobs provides a great benefit to all. But simply throwing money at rich people as a class is one of the least efficient ways imaginable to achieve the goal of optimized economic investment.

Indeed, it would improve the welfare of all if money resources were ‘obtained’ from money-rich-individuals-who-are-not-’productive’ and given to money-poor-individuals-who-are-’productive.’ That goal can be advanced by taxing the ultra-rich as a class, and then distributing some of that money [that the government is not spending on its own economic investments] to money-poor-individuals-who-are-productive. One way to do that would be through targeted investment tax credits & grants for promising start-ups.

Using Rawls’ DP to justify TD is seems rather silly since Rawls’ argument does not fully capture all of the variables that society is actually dealing with when it pursues various distributional initiatives. The simplifying assumptions made are far too simple to be useful.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.19.10 at 3:16 pm

david @156 – I guess that the objection would be to premise 3 – the notional OC is not meant to be ‘forgotten’, after all. Rawls’s discussion of envy is inadequate, even tokenistic. )

CB, PSO – thanks for refs, will take a look.

(Also, @161: the very idea of pure procedural justice is pretty closely intertwined with invisible hand ideas – that should probably be either: perfect procedural justice or ideas of natural entitlement (not both). The second probably still not right though, since I don’t think it’s really clear how a truly ‘pure’ procedure could really have any claim to be regarded as just – if it has substantial implications for e.g. distribution, anyway. Maybe some kind of Kantian metaphysical (in the pejorative sense) stuff, presumably done a bit better than his analogy between transmission of property and an object at the top of its trajectory for an instant ‘both rising and falling’ [sic].

A bit more on the trickle-down/difference principle connection – ‘trickle down’ explicitly so-called tends to involve supply-side stuff, the propensity to save, the myth of entrepreneurial acumen, and all kinds of silly stuff about, e.g. luxury goods; see JQ, bookblogging passim.

The diff princ is obviously largely premised on the need for special ‘incentives’ to get the more talented to contribute optimally to society. The Laffer curve is a gestural illustration of the underlying idea that given sufficient choice, people may choose less ‘work’ (treated as an undifferentiated negative good to be measured on a continuous scale of hours per week) at the cost of less trading/investing/bribing vouchers.

No doubt Omelas-style counterfactual experiments can be devised to show that in principle there should be some such freedom. And of course it would be silly to suggest that a limit case of withholding (preventing access to) a subsistence, certainly where some weak Lockean proviso is satisfied, is much different from other coercive measures such as constant whip-threats. (I suppose the latter may, and actual goading e.g. walking the plank at sword point probably does, go beyond any practical reason-based threat mechanism and effectively trigger a sub-rational response as does torture, but that’s not important right now.)

Until such time as we can assume a sufficient transformation of human ‘nature’, there may well be an argument for using inducements to get people to do ‘more’ work. But even granting that, we don’t get to a situation in which the underlying incentives approach as actually assumed by Rawls, all US politicians, etc., is acceptable. That’s because there are a lot of collateral assumptions which support the production of Laffer-curve style heiroglyphs.

For a start, there’s an understandable squeamishness on the part of adrenaline/cocaine fuelled traders, jetsetting magnates, and assorted flash Harrys and expense account men to address the issue of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of various kinds of work – nor the life-shortening and body-ruining aspects of manual labour.

The pretence is instead that this is all about the proportion of one’s time spent at (notionally undifferentiated) work – actually a relatively egalitarian basis for distribution, if it were really how things worked. So obviously that’s not how they work.

Instead, there’s an implicit equivocation on the idea of contribution to society: on the one hand the value to others of the contribution, and on the other the cost to oneself of same. The main implement in the microeconomist’s toolkit, the ludicrous assumption, comes into play here, its modesty preserved no doubt by some artfully placed capital letters: somehow the whole thing is all about the number of hours ‘worked’, though there’s no real attempt to suggest that anyone – least of all the lifestyle businessman – might vary their hours. Somehow what is ‘work’ gets identified with ‘wealth creation’, and the whole thing ends up with more or less exactly the same outcome as is arrived at by the parallel route of allowing a bloody and venal history of humanity to play itself out up to a cutoff point of – just about…now.

But both contribution to society and cost-to-self of work are to some extent relative to the alternatives – and those who claim that their more valuable contribution represents a greater sacrifice and thus must be motivated by greater incentives are generally IMO just holding out for more – a strategy often disguised somewhat by a divide-and-rule strategy of circular appeal to opportunity cost: I should be paid more for this, because I could be paid more for that. That or for entrepreneurs, appeal to risk-taking – recent events have revealed especially clearly that apparent risk is not always real (quite apart from the q of where the capital that’s risked comes from).

Rawls’s presumption (and an implicature of his theory as presented) is evidently that these appeals to the need for incentives are to a significant degree accurate – that it really is, given basic liberty, unavoidable that many people should be rewarded very highly if they are to do work that is optimally valuable. This q, I suppose, involves the thorny question whether and how far individuals’ earning/work prospects might be ‘artificially’ narrowed so as to rule out some alternatives which are only invoked (in bad faith) as a ‘wage’-bargaining tool – i.e. an idle threat to do less valuable work.

And that’s leaving aside Marx’s (and Cohen’s) point about the camping trip.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.19.10 at 3:19 pm

Re preceding over-long comment, gone to moderation – something went wrong at the top; can’t remember what it was supposed to say.

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John Holbo 12.19.10 at 3:25 pm

Sorry Tim, you’re out of moderation now.

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dsquared 12.19.10 at 4:14 pm

What would philosophy (to say nothing of economics) look like in a world where this wasn’t true? Even in a purely 100% communist economy, one with less market content than Hoxha’s Albania, if you got zero return back from working, you wouldn’t work because you would starve

you could be in all sorts of societies (including the UK right now at particular pinch points on the tax-benefit schedule and see a zero or negative marginal return from working but still have enough to live on. The Laffer function is meant to be about marginal rates, which is one good reason for believing it not to be a smooth curve.

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JoB 12.19.10 at 4:20 pm

176, towards the end – or, alternatively Rawls thought intervening on anything was not in line with maximizing liberty unless such interventions are needed to keep it fair, e.g. when something like the difference principle risked to be violated.

The problem with trickle-down economics is not the contention that there can be some trickling down but that one has to apply laissez faire laissez passer because this is the only way to help the poor.

The relation between trickle down & the difference principle is therefore both obvious and obnoxious. It seems rather common ground, for all buthfringe extremists, to allow for a free development of income within a certain range. The only real question is what kind of a range. Rawls’ difference principle seems, if anything, a little restrictive as it’ll restrict the range (afaik) not just because they would harm.

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StevenAttewell 12.19.10 at 4:22 pm

Regarding the Laffer Curve and issues of individual incentives, I think the whole thing is bunkum because it ignores an absolutely crucial issue – namely what tax revenues pay for. To the extent that the social wage acts like a regular wage – in that you are getting goods and services you’d otherwise have to pay cash for, but paying for them through taxes – it’s possible that an increase in tax rates might be entirely compensated for (or more than compensated for, depending on your income and the design of the tax system) by an increase in the social wage, removing any disinctive effect.

The Laffer Curve doesn’t have to bend.
http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/fck-the-laffer-curve-individual-vs-social-consumption/

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StevenAttewell 12.19.10 at 4:22 pm

* disincentive.

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Chris Bertram 12.19.10 at 5:51 pm

Obviously, I totally buy the Cohen line on the DP.

On some of the other affinities, though … Tim raised the suggestion of a connection between Rawlsian proceduralism and the invisible hand. Well yes, sort of. But there are two kinds of things going on here.

Thing A is the (prospective) thought that if everyone looks to their own self-interest then we get the optimal outcome. And Rawls’s tweak is to to structure the incentives via the design of basic structure such that the pursuit of self-interest tends to be bestest for the least advantaged.

Thing B is the (retrospective) thought that distributive outcomes are explained by the basic structure of society.

Now whilst thing A sounds Smithian, Panglossian, invisible-handy …. thing B sounds Marxian.

Cf, e.g the Critique of the Gotha Programme:

bq. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically.

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StevenAttewell 12.19.10 at 6:01 pm

Norwegian Guy – woah there!
1. Clinton is not a U.S liberal. He was, from the outset, from the center-right of the party.
2. People need to disaggregate political parties. The New Democrats are not liberals, and the liberal wing in the U.S was and is not in favor of the Washington Consensus – and I imagine we can find the same case with Labour backbenchers, or SDPers, etc.
3. Case in point – Jimmy Carter was not the champion of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, who were for the most part opposed to deregulation (although Teddy Kennedy is an exception on this).

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geo 12.19.10 at 6:20 pm

Alex @173: the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” argument that you ought to capitulate more and faster to the Right

Did “What’s the Matter with Kansas” argue that we ought to capitulate more and faster to the Right? I missed that.

James Kroeger @174: All the government really needed to do was (1) hook the economy up to a ‘heart-lung machine’ of sorts, a temporary source of credit/capital provided by the government, and (2) spend a huge amount of money on infrastructure. Doing so would have made it possible for the rest of society to get along quite well while the financiers were getting their just deserts

Sounds good to me. Why didn’t Krugman think of that?

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John Quiggin 12.19.10 at 7:29 pm

“All the government really needed to do was (1) hook the economy up to a ‘heart-lung machine’ of sorts, a temporary source of credit/capital provided by the government “

The machine you describe sounds to me like an alternative financial system, to be created from scratch in the space of a few weeks. Wouldn’t it have been better to respond to the crisis by nationalising the existing failed banks and sacking their top management, as advocated by, for example, Krugman?

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Tim Wilkinson 12.19.10 at 7:51 pm

Not sure about thing B, viz. that distributive outcomes are explained by the basic structure of society.

If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically – a lot rests on what sort of couterfactuals are supported by that ‘automatically’ – presumably a Marxist response would be that the redistributive superstructure is determined by the economic base. But if that case couldn’t be made out then it starts to look a bit more material modish – if those things are like that (check), then these things are like this (check!), QED. What features of distribution are explained by what features of production?

A Nozickean answer would be justice, and justice, i.e. the basic structure of society (conformity to property-rights) justifies the distribution of goods – whatever they may end up being (er, short of catastrophic moral horror – ordinary, sustainable moral horror is apparently OK). This would perhaps be a case of pure procedural justice (though N can’t really escape having loads of weird-shaped rectifications and adjustments, notional compensation for non-actual events, differentation of productive from unproductive activities, etc. – and piles on the I-H justifications based on allocative efficiency.)

Rawls’s supposedly pure proc J – if it’s meant to describe the quasi-constitutional regime that arises from the notional original contract – isn’t pure, but at best perfect proc J – i.e. it guarantees (though we don’t get to find out exactly how) that a just distribution – one in which the lot of the worst-off group is as good as possible subject to the other priorities – will come about.

An explanation of the distribution in terms of the basic structure would thus have to include a functional explanation (as described by Gerry Cohen himself, in KMTH) i.e. distribution d came about because of basic structure b (look – this happened, and that happened, and here we are) – but (the functional explanation – subtype intentional, I suppose) basic structure b came about because structures of type B bring about distributions of type D.

There the more fundamental explanation is the one that says b was set up in order to bring about a D. In the case of the invisible hand the point is supposed to be that the basic structure is more or less naturally occurring – and yet still (notionally) brings about a distribution of a certain type (PE, for Pareto-efficient). This would be pretty magical if it weren’t for the fact that Pareto-efficient just means ‘no more trade possible down this path’, so that the fact that a trade regime should terminate (if it were really to terminate) at some such local optimum is neither surprising, nor an outcome that’s necessarily particularly desirable – unless you only compare it to its Pareto-inferior predecessor distributions.

Obviously the attraction of clockwork-type setups is the stability, supporting well-justified expectations and allowing people to plan. But while annual budget changes no doubt cause some inconvenience to the listeners of Money Box Live, the chaotic swarming of market forces in practice seems to generate plenty of instability, without any need for interference from Big Government. An invisible hand’s work is never done, I suppose.

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Chris Bertram 12.19.10 at 8:24 pm

But Tim, the reference to Nozick is very much to the point … except that Nozick takes Wilt Chamberlain’s property rights as naturally given, rather than something whose detailed content is up for determination by the res publica. Rawls would have us a design a basic structure (partly composed of property rights of this or that character) such that its normal operation has the statistically predictable feature of maximizing the opportunities of the least advantaged. There’s a nice paper by Van Der Veen and Van Parijs in the very first volume of Economics and Philosophy that you might want to check out on this (and see also Pogge’s Realizing Rawls).

Marx is saying: if you start with private property in the means of production plus competitive markets, then this distribution of the means of consumption automatically results.

Rawls is saying that: if you start with suitably modified property rights, dispersal of capital ownership, public sector of a certain size, some workers co-ops, etc etc etc then a DP-satisfying distribution automatically results (or so close that we don’t have to do all that much post hoc redistributing).

I think (fwiw) that Rawls massively overestimates our capacity to design predictable distributive outcomes into the system. But to be fair to him, he was writing at the end of the post-war boom rather than with the benefit of everything we’ve had to put up with since.

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john c. halasz 12.20.10 at 2:37 am

Benn way, but I prolly own an answer to this @134:
“Also, why do you think I am an especially ‘intentionalistic’ hermeneut? Just curious.”

Is just a surmise from the last go-round. You seem to hold to a theory of “mind”/mental contents rooted in a conception of intentionality. That not, of course, the same thing as an intentionalist hermeneutics; it’s just that there is a certain slippage between the two. Then again, you insist on a style of argument that privileges complete explicitness, as opposed to contextual embeddedness, historical specificity, rhetorical implicature, and reflection on complex layerings of perhaps unthought presuppositions. Which amounts to reading arguments solely literally, “in their own terms”, that is, as tantamount to the attributed intentions of their author.

Zizek is obviously not playing from the same deck. His style of argument is itself highly presuppositioned and layered. (From my readings, this is largely the case with latter-day “French” thinkers. Though there are real differences between them, not just of the petty narcissistic sort, there is a certain family resemblance between them, based on a broadly common underlying problematic derived from a common reception of certain histories/traditions of thought, such that those complexes and layers of presuppositions “go without saying”.) So those presuppositions and premises and their odd angle of approach need to be dug out and supplied for the “uninitiated”. Which is not the same as being utterly lacking or unconsidered. And he is reading various others at cross-grain, against their putative intentions. Which leads to a conundrum: do you insist on “accurate” readings of the thinkers he analyzes/criticizes, and there by read him “inaccurately”, or do you attempt to read Zizek “accurately”, with all the traps, jokes, shiftings, hyperboles, and provocative “outrages”, at the expense of the “intentional” achievements of those other authors? (N.B. I’m not a Zizek fan-boy, still less a Lacan aficionado; I find him rather hit-and-miss, though sometimes passingly astute, from what little I’ve read.)

“Just to pick one one case: what does Zizek mean by ‘equality’, when he advocates communist equality? He doesn’t mean what Marx meant, I’m pretty sure. I think he means more what Badiou means, which is ‘fidelity’, which is pretty much a category of authenticity. Equality means living authentically. It’s radical subjectivity that can be somehow universalized in the Event.” Well, is there no connection there, (based perhaps on your mistaken idea that “authenticity” or such-like is an aristocratic ethos and an unpardonable violation of objectivity on the part of a recessive subjectivity)? Might not radical equality require “authenticity” to be realized. Since the fear of the other and defenses against it based on upholding “distinctions” is precisely what militates against the recognition of such radical equality. Which, er, is a fact, not a norm to be traded off against other norms. On the other hand, I’m not aware that Rawls himself has any distinctive account of agency. Rather he seems to assume such a thing, based on factitious experience of focal intentionality, and then claims that its “liberties” must somehow be quantitatively maximized, then equalized.

Tim Wilkinson #143:

I think nitrous oxide might be a better metaphor. And are you insisting that us earth-bound mortals must only breathe “pure” air? Have you patented such a breathing apparatus.

As to Rawls, I take him to be encoding the moral-political intuitions of the madly-for-Adlai crowd, the last time such liberalism was hegemonically ascendant. (That, policy-wise, its enactments peaked with the Nixon Administration speaks to the point).
And, in caricatured form, he could be taken as justifying the privileges of bourgeois professionals precisely on account of their earnest ministrations on behalf of the most disadvantagesd an alliance at the expense of the broad working-class. But then again, that excess of good intentions over actual accomplishments, the voluntarism that is the flip-side of a reified “necessity”, is classically the hall-mark of bourgeois ideology.

As to the “cousin” issue, though his fans and aficianados here might rush to deny it, Rawls’ basic gambit was that a normative theory of “justice” could be derived in the manner of a rational choice theorem, with all the supposed rigor attendant on such “proof”. Hence the care to make such that no excessive burdens would be place on supposedly self-interested individuals, with only a vague notion of “life-plans”,- (but curiously a thorough knowledge of historical societies, and social structures and their consequences)-, upon entering the “original position” is required to secure the “bargain”. Methodological individualism and Pareto optimism can be seen to be lurking in the background, I think.

Then again, given the famous carefulness and exactitude of his arguments, it’s rather ironic that it results in “principles” whose actual application is indeterminate and subject to such various interpretations.

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john c. halasz 12.20.10 at 2:51 am

Oh, one last point for @143:

The Kleinian couplet was envy and resentment. Zizek mentions envy because that is what Rawls explicitly disclaims as an allowable motive. Which rather rhymes with the neo-classical econ prohibition against “interpersonal comparisons of utilities”, which is required for the math of utility-preference functions to be technically “neat”, (and by which the neo-classicals depart from utilitarianism). But it’s the conversion into resentment that is the real point. Since that resentment plays a large role in political affairs is an observation so obvious as to be almost banal.

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John Holbo 12.20.10 at 2:51 am

john halasz: “why do you [halasz] think I [Holbo] am an especially ‘intentionalistic’ hermeneut? Just curious … You seem to hold to a theory of “mind”/mental contents rooted in a conception of intentionality. That not, of course, the same thing as an intentionalist hermeneutics; it’s just that there is a certain slippage between the two. Then again, you insist on a style of argument that privileges complete explicitness, as opposed to contextual embeddedness, historical specificity, rhetorical implicature, and reflection on complex layerings of perhaps unthought presuppositions.”

Hmmm, well I still don’t get it. As you yourself say, taking mind to be an intentional phenonenon is not the same thing as being an intentionalistic hermeneut. So, again, why do you infer from the former – I guess I’ll grant it – to the latter? As to the second bit: what makes you think I’m opposed to contextual embeddedness, historical specificity, rhetorical implicature, and reflection on complex layerings, etc? I’m often faulting others for handling these sorts of nuances badly, of course – I’ve often accused you of having a tin ear for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, for example, because I think you misconstrue the historical context and don’t get the point of the style, and so forth – but that’s not because I’m opposed to nuance tout court. I just want to get it right.

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john c. halasz 12.20.10 at 3:39 am

I’m unusually busy now, by my laggard standards, and have to attend to other obligations. But I didn’t say there was a strict connection, just “slippage”, and that it was a surmise, giving two reasons:1) intentionality of “mind” and 2) explicitness of argument, (as if that were all that were at stake).

I’ll leave aside your possessiveness toward Wittgenstein, (though he’s an exemplary case, early and late, of the odd angularity of some philosophical texts), and just ask why you think that points of argument or criticism amount to “accusations”?

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Nick L 12.20.10 at 3:46 am

Returning to predicting the crisis for a moment, I really don’t think it was as out of the blue as people are suggesting. Pretty much every major general university level book on international political economy from the 1998-2008 period I read included a section discussing the inherent instability of the global financial system. This includes works by Gilpin, Strange, Woods and Hoogvelt – a fairly broad range of theoretical perspectives. It’s true that most were focused on the problems of the system of floating currency exchange rates and the problems of enormous hot-money flows. This of course was based on the experiences of the Asian Financial Crisis (IMF Crisis if you prefer) and associated crises in Latin America and Russia.

But these writers made the point time and time again that there were massive holes in the global regulatory architecture and that future crises were inevitable due to the massive over-expansion of the globalised financial sector. Thus, I’ve had undergraduates scratching their heads and asking why nothing was done in the intervening decade and why politicians such as Brown were praising the dynamism of the financial sector when academics were trying to draw attention to these problems. Good question.

In addition, if you think that mortgage backed securities were a symptom of the problem and that the cause of the crisis was massive global imbalances and credit-compensated underconsumption in the US, then Robert Brenner deserves a pat on the back for predicting the crisis for the right reasons – even if he didn’t give a precise prediction of when it would occur.

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John Holbo 12.20.10 at 4:23 am

“why you think that points of argument or criticism amount to “accusations”?”

It sort of depends what is meant by ‘accusation’.

Often when philosophers (and non-philosophers) are critiquing each others’ arguments and ideas that say things like ‘Kant accuses Hume of not fully appreciating the scope of his own skeptical argument.’ Now you might think this is pretty strong stuff, if you hear it in a ‘j’accuse!’ sort of tone. Like Kant is yelling at Hume, or saying he is a criminal. But it typically isn’t meant that way at all. In general, there is a tendency for philosophy to adopt a kind of juridical vocabulary. ‘Kant charges Hume with inconsistency …’ That sort of thing. As though being inconsistent were actually a crime, and Kant a prosecutor. But it isn’t meant so literally as that.

As to possessiveness about Wittgenstein: I hope I’m not excessively so. You have to distinguish a desire to get things right and a desire to own things. (Here is another nuance, you might say.) Of course it may be that I am all wrong. Possibly I have a pathological possessiveness, and I don’t recognize it.

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LFC 12.20.10 at 4:38 am

CB @188:
Marx is saying: if you start with private property in the means of production plus competitive markets, then this distribution of the means of consumption automatically results.

Rawls is saying that: if you start with suitably modified property rights, dispersal of capital ownership, public sector of a certain size, some workers co-ops, etc etc etc then a DP-satisfying distribution automatically results (or so close that we don’t have to do all that much post hoc redistributing).

I think I understand the point of this comparison, given the context of the discussion in which it was made. However, at the risk of mentioning the obvious, Marx was wrong. “Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves.” Translation: no government in a capitalist country can alter the distribution of income, since the distribution of income results solely and automatically from the underlying mode of production. This was empirically dubious when Marx wrote it, and became false (or was falsified, if you want to put it that way) as soon as the first progressive income tax was implemented in a capitalist country. I guess I’m just a little unhappy at seeing one of my least favorite passages from Marx coming up here, though as I said, I understand the point was to show that Rawls is not (just) Smithian, etc., and I concede there is a certain ‘formal’ similarity. It’s just that that passage from Critique of the Gotha Program is deterministic in a way that I don’t think R. is.

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John Quiggin 12.20.10 at 4:57 am

@190 The ‘neo-classical econ prohibition against “interpersonal comparisons of utilities”, which is required for the math of utility-preference functions to be technically “neat”’

Lionel Robbins certainly proposed such a prohibition, and for quite a while in the mid-20th century, his view was generally prevalent, but I don’t think that’s true any longer, at least among the economists I would take seriously. Certainly there’s no math problem with interpersonal comparability: the crucial math point is that much (but not all) economics that used to be done with interpersonally comparable marginal utilities can be done without comparability, and a crude logical positivist view then suggested a ban on the idea.

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Chris Brooke 12.20.10 at 9:58 am

John Q: “and a crude logical positivist view then suggested a ban on the idea…”

Surely the chronology is the other way around? Jevons declared his opposition to the use of interpersonal comparison in 1871 (“The reader will find that there is never, in any single instance, an attempt made to compare the amount of feeling in one mind with that in another. I see no means by which such comparison can be accomplished… Every mind is thus inscrutable to every other mind, and no common denominator of feeling seems possible”), and the serious mathematicization (if that’s a word) of economics came after that.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.20.10 at 10:01 am

Translation: no government in a capitalist country can alter the distribution of income, since the distribution of income results solely and automatically from the underlying mode of production.

But the government itself is a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production. Not to mention that a progressive tax on capital income is not very common anyway, while shuffling earned incomes around doesn’t really help: when Doctor is taxed to help Waitress, so much the better for restaurant Owner.

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James Kroeger 12.20.10 at 12:12 pm

John Quiggin, 186:

“The machine you describe sounds to me like an alternative financial system, to be created from scratch in the space of a few weeks. Wouldn’t it have been better to respond to the crisis by nationalising the existing failed banks and sacking their top management, as advocated by, for example, Krugman?”

The type of ‘nationalization’ Krugman recommended would certainly have been better than the naked bailout that Obama and Congress embraced…

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/who-to-nationalize-somewhat-wonkish

…but it would still have served to ‘save’ the private banking industry, and I can’t think of any sound reason why it might have been in society’s interests to do such a thing.

Yes, it is true that government employee bankers would probably not have produced any of those great financial innovations that our profit-driven financiers came up with during the period of lax regulation, but those innovations never did anything that actually improved the economy’s performance; they merely served to create the crisis that occurred.

Bankers and insurers—like all good litte oligopolists–do not compete on price, but on their talents at creative obfuscation. That kind of competition does not benefit the public, but rather hurts it. Competition in the financial services industry does not produce a benefit for society, but only a threat.

The profit motive does not inspire the managers of financial firms to take actions that ultimately benefit the public. It has simply served to encourage them to take ever greater risks with other people’s money. There really isn’t anything important that society would lose if the private banking/insurance industries were largely displaced by government ‘mega-competitors.’

Certainly private banks should be free to compete with each other for the big money investments of the wealthy, offering higher yields for higher risk, but their activities should be closely scrutinized by the government and they should be allowed to fail utterly if they screw up, restoring moral hazard, the one thing that was supposed to moderate the activities of profit-driven financial firms.

I’ll concede that it might have been a good idea to emulate the Swedish style of nationalization as an intermediate step while plans were finalized on precisely how to set up the alternative financial system. What I don’t quite understand is the failure of anti-Republican/Conservative economists to think ‘outside the private-sector box.’

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Tim Wilkinson 12.20.10 at 1:41 pm

CB – yes that was a bit rambling – a restatement (update – has come out just as long, but I think is a bit less rambling):

Perfect procedural justice relates a procedure to a distribution, with explanation/causation/prediction acting in one direction and justification in the other (the proc. explains, etc. the dist; the dist justifies the proc.)

1. Rawls recommends a perfect procedural distribution, with the target distribution being defined by the maximin counterfactual condition. But (a) that’s a rather tricky way of specifying a distribution, (b) he’s short on detail as to what kind of a procedure might be involved, and as you point out that’s a distinctly non-trivial omission. (I’ll try and get hold of the refs if I can get access to an acad library, and remember.)

2. A main point of Nozick’s ‘Liberty upsets patterns’ stuff is to claim a project like R’s is impossible or, strictly, that the DP has no room to actually operate. (In fact I’d say Nozick commits the Charlie Brown fallacy: supposing that if a kid’s lemonade stand should not be ‘interfered’ with – i.e. entitlement should/may follow actual (legitimate) physical possession of small objects, as a matter of basic freedom – then stamp duty must be abolished, etc.) Anyway, N is supposedly in a better position wrt specifying his procedures, since the distribution is meant to be a purely – rather than perfectly – procedural one, so there’s no need to aim at particular consequences. (But since he can’t justify the procedures on the basis of outcomes, N has to do some don’t-look-yet foundationalist corralling of unreflective, unequilibriated intuitions in order to justify his ‘natural rights’ procedures, hence all the ‘why shouldn’t [folksy person] do [folksy trading activity]‘).

3. The Invisible Hander, brandishing some equations, claims that a ‘laissez-faire’ procedure (so-called: it’s a fait accompli that it looks like laissez-faire) produces a perfect procedural distribution – with the target distribution being Pareto-efficiency. The desirability of this distribution provides a justification for applying the procedure. Let’s rashly grant that the equations actually describe something real tolerably accurately (though at this point the least we can expect is that the IHer will volunteer, with some relief, a downgrade from perfect to imperfect). We can still point out that the Pareto standard is actually trivial – that since Pareto-improvement is held to be a necessary feature of the trading process, and Pareto-optimality is just the state of having exhausted all such improvements along a particular path, the distribution has not been specified indpendently of the procedure after all. This is a Popper-like criticism of the invisible hand, which is nice.

4. Which obviously brings us to Marx, since Popper’s unfalsifiability/contentlessness criticism was of course directed against Marxists, real or imagined. And reluctantly I suppose I’d say something similar about the quoted Gotha passage: it’s not clear how the distribution here is specified (perhaps it is so in the wider context). Saying ‘this was inevitable’ is convincing up to a point (it obviously didn’t get evited) but also quite unimpressive unless you specify what features of it you are talking about, or to be more Popperian about it, what range of alternatives would prove you wrong. For example, it doesn’t seem quite clear that there couldn’t – in some sense of couldn’t – have been more redistribution than there actually was, so is that precluded by what Marx says? It might well be – on the grounds that the productive base determined that such redistributive superstructure was nomologically impossible – or Marx might just be making a general assertion that the productive base determines the distribution, so if there had been more distribution, that too would have been determined. In the latter case, there is a problem with givng detrminate sense to what is meant by ‘the distribution’.

(As an aside: the Marxian explanation, unlike the Rawlsian and I-H cases, doesn’t have a correlative justificatory role, except in the positivist sense that M rather unhelpfully adopted, whereby it’s ‘just’ that this should happen because the relevant conception of justice is capitalist ‘justice’.)

Back to 1: Rawls. I said he had a problem not only with specifying what kind of procedure he had in mind, but also perhaps with specifying the target distribution. The latter because maximin, like Pareto-optimality, is heavily dependent on the procedure used to achieve it. Though unlike P-o, it isn’t a stepwise path-dependent (local) optimum, it is still based on what the alternatives are. There’s a soft sense in which this is the case, that developing a procedure (basic structure, regime) tends to condition what kind of outcomes one assesses – e.g. GDP becomes a measure of economic wealth because it accounts for the economic processes that are part of the machinery of capitalist society. (I think it’s especially likely that having a private market in mind is likley to affect a specification of the ‘most extensive system of basic liberties’, and of equality of opportunity.)

But more interestingly perhaps, the procedure tends to define what the alternatives are, which in turn are partly constitutive of the outcome being measured – this is obviously the case with the Pareto criterion, since the limitation to stepwise Pareto-improvements (trades) may mean that a big reshuffle of property that would otherwise make everyone better off might be inaccessible (I’m not sure that this is a mathematical rather than practical necessity – especially if three-or-more-way contracts are possible, or can be constructed from bilateral ones).

In the case of a maximin (or leximin, or whatever) criterion, i.e. the difference principle, being based on a diachronic or long run situation, it’s less clear that the procedure affects the specification of the outcome in this way. I have a nagging idea that it might, but can’t see how at the moment. The idea would be that there might be a possible distribution in which the position of the worst off could be better, but that’s not counted as rendering the DP unsatisfied because the procedure for generating (possible) outcomes doesn’t admit it as a possibility. That may be because the procedure is (formally at least) going to be constrained by the spec of the system of basic liberties and equality of opportunity – so any restriction on possible outcomes is likely to be attributable to those, e.g. the role (if any) of the basic liberties in restricting scope for windfall-tax-like redistributions.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.20.10 at 2:38 pm

or to be more Popperian about it, what range of alternatives would prove you wrong

Why, you could, for example, take a couple of large companies (say, GE and ExxonMobil), and nationalize them or turn them employee-owned. Or put all the for-profit medical insurance companies out of business. If the distribution (however defined) hasn’t changed, that proves him wrong.

It doesn’t address the “only” in that phrase, though, that’s a tough one.

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Chris Bertram 12.20.10 at 2:55 pm

Hi Tim, thanks for that. It gels quite well will concerns about Rawls that I share. I’m not sure, though that you’ve got the perfect/pure distinction sorted out quite right, though. So see, for example _Briefer Restatement_ p.54:

bq. Taking the basic structure as the primary subject enables us to regard distributive justice as a case of pure background procedural justice: when everyone follows the publicly recognized rules of co-operation, the particular distribution that results is acceptable as just whatever that distribution turns out to be.

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LFC 12.20.10 at 3:36 pm

Re the Critique of the Gotha Program passage: On reflection perhaps my ‘translation’ of it, above, over-reads it. I think, per T Wilkinson @200, that it is just a general statement that mode of production determines distribution. With capitalism, you get the “present-day distribution” (that’s a quote from the passage), with socialism you get a different one. Marx is upset with what he sees as the Gotha Program’s emphasis on “so-called distribution” and seems to be objecting specifically to a line in the program calling for “a fair distribution of the proceeds of labor.”

One has to recall that this is Marx’s polemical set of ‘marginal notes’ on this program that came out of a unity congress between the 2 wings of the German socialist mvt in 1875. Hence it can’t be read as a detailed, ‘scientific’ treatise. The message of the passage is ‘stop making all this vulgar-socialist, retrogade fuss about distribution!’ and that’s pretty much all I think you can get out of it. If one likes Marx in this polemical vein, fine. Chacun a son gout.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.20.10 at 3:41 pm

I think I was looking at the theory as a whole, including the Diff Princ. The quoted excerpt seems to be taking a perspective from ‘inside’ the resulting system, its external justificatory distributive standard screened off from view. I haven’t read the chapter in Pol. Lib’ism yet, so not sure what he’s on about – and can’t really guess where he’s going – with this ‘basic structure as subject’ stuff.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.20.10 at 4:10 pm

(Previous in response to Chris)

Henri – I think that’s backwards – it would show that the distribution is not necessarily changed by changing the productive base. To disprove Marx (as represented in that extract) one would have to show that the distribution is not necessarily unchanged by something short of changing the rels of production, i.e. that the distribution can change while the Rs of P remain unchanged.

But the question I suppose was really what would count as such a change – I mean pretty clearly doing some sort of Trading Places style switch between a prole and a boss wouldn’t count as a change, would it, even though it would alter the set of pairs. So how radical, extensive, sustainable, etc, would the difference have to be before the Marx-of-that-extract would admit that a change had indeed occurred as a result of, say, redistribution? Or as we have each suggested, would this Marx pretty much flatly reject the idea that significant redistribution could just be inserted into the system, and insist that the productive base would not allow it?

If the latter, some mechanisms should ideally be specified. In fact, IIRC, Marx mentions actual intentional and coordinated action by top-hatters in pursuit of their acknowledged interests quite a bit in the Gotha book, which to some extent undermines the disastrous Marxist/Popper pact that to this day leads people to shy away from such topics, for fear of, among other things, being accused of Conspiracy Theory of History, Paranoid Style, vulgarity, populism etc.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.20.10 at 4:13 pm

server ate my angle brackets:

…the set of <person, property> pairs…

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Tim Wilkinson 12.20.10 at 4:15 pm

bloody hell now its guzzled my HTML entities:

the set of {person, property} pairs…, then.

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Adam Kotsko 12.20.10 at 4:52 pm

Hey, here’s a simple mistake you’ve made: Zizek doesn’t accept the trickle-down argument that it’s impossible to help the poor directly and you have to filter it through the rich. He’s saying only that failing to help the banking system would have actually hurt the poor. I don’t think he’s endorsing TARP or opposing bank nationalization, simply saying that if you didn’t prop up the banking system in some way, the poor would suffer. That is to say, the element of truth he finds in trickle down is the element of truth he explicitly says he finds. Not difficult to figure out!

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.20.10 at 6:09 pm

…would this Marx pretty much flatly reject the idea that significant redistribution could just be inserted into the system, and insist that the productive base would not allow it?

Well, I imagine significant redistribution certainly can happen, in the ‘wolf chewing off its own paw to survive’ sort of way. But not without a fight; don’t think it can be “inserted into the system” just because Rawls and Holbo think it would be a good idea.

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Anderson 12.20.10 at 7:48 pm

As though being inconsistent were actually a crime, and Kant a prosecutor.

N.b. that Kant is himself fond of such metaphors.

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Chris 12.21.10 at 12:43 am

The profit motive does not inspire the managers of financial firms to take actions that ultimately benefit the public. It has simply served to encourage them to take ever greater risks with other people’s money. There really isn’t anything important that society would lose if the private banking/insurance industries were largely displaced by government ‘mega-competitors.’

Assuming for the sake of argument that one agrees with this (and I think there is some point there, but the line drawn between those firms and ordinary firms is not really so clear; both kinds of firms can engage in both kinds of competition), that doesn’t necessarily imply trying to replace the incumbent financial system wholesale on very short notice *during* a major crisis, and (at least in the US) over the opposition of large parts of the political system. There’s sound empirical reasons for doubting that such a program would succeed, however admirable its goals might be in theory.

Also, saying “you should just let the failures go bankrupt” ignores the interconnectedness of the industry, which certainly ought to have been limited ex ante (and should be limited now to reduce risk of recurrence) but from the viewpoint of considering courses of action *during* the crisis was an established fact.

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John Holbo 12.21.10 at 4:46 am

“Hey, here’s a simple mistake you’ve made: Zizek doesn’t accept the trickle-down argument that it’s impossible to help the poor directly and you have to filter it through the rich. He’s saying only that failing to help the banking system would have actually hurt the poor. I don’t think he’s endorsing TARP or opposing bank nationalization, simply saying that if you didn’t prop up the banking system in some way, the poor would suffer. That is to say, the element of truth he finds in trickle down is the element of truth he explicitly says he finds. Not difficult to figure out!”

Steady on, Adam! (we’ll get through this together if we just put our heads together)

I considered this reading in the post. I write: “One could defend this by pointing out that the latter point, on its own, is sadly correct. [the latter point being pretty much what you are saying I should have seen] But Zizek takes the further step of taking this as evidence/illustration of how ‘standard trickle-down’ arguments are, in general, descriptively valid (however ethically deplorable) under capitalism”. I think it is possible to read him just the way you do, but only in very strained fashion. I think my reading is better supported by the passage as a whole. Zizek is not asserting that this is some odd, one-off case in which trickle-down actually works. He is offering it as a paradigm of how things always work. The point is supposed to be: since we clearly have to buy trickle-down here, we have to buy it everywhere. (Of course, he means this to be a reductio ad absurdum on the acceptability of capitalism. I recognize that.) The very fact that he describes the economic mechanism of the bailout as trickle-down just goes to show that he is concerned to assert the basic homogeneity of the problem situation in 2008 with the normal operations of capitalism. Trickle-down is supposed to be a normal operation, after all.

But all this is very wrong (I mean, this view that the financial situation in 2008 was just the normal situation, made visible.) Describing the mechanism of TARP as trickle-down, as Z. does, is just flat-out confused. The problem the bailout was supposed to address was a critical lack of liquidity. Lending might just freeze up, and if that happened, it wouldn’t just be banks that suffered. No commercial paper market and lots of business can’t roll over payments and make payroll. People on Main Street don’t get paid on payday, we have a problem. (That’s not nearly adequate as a description of the feared dynamic, but it’s a start. The point is: it’s not a normal situation.) It may be that Z. is mislead by the liquid-sounding name ‘trickle-down’ into thinking that it, too, is supposed to address a lack of liquidity in the banking sector. Or maybe that’s not what mislead him, and he was confused for some other reason. The point is: the mechanism of the bailouts was not ‘standard trickle-down’.

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John Holbo 12.21.10 at 5:01 am

“N.b. that Kant is himself fond of such metaphors.”

And how!

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john c. halasz 12.21.10 at 5:11 am

Oh, dear. You say it was a “liquidity problem”; no, it’s an insolvency problem, of system-wide proportions. You claim that nobody saw it coming; no, lotsa people saw it coming,- (including me!),- from a wide variety of economic and political-ideological perspectives, based on credit-fueled asset bubbles and huge CA imbalances. The only question is why so few actual economists saw it coming, which suggests not just the ideological contamination of their “discipline”, but the functional capture of their techno-structure. The point about economic crisis is that it’s when the “normal” condition becomes exposed. Granted, econ is not your remit,- (nor is it exactly Zizek’s),- but saying he’s confused here sounds an a lot like projection.

O.K. Back to work now.

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John Holbo 12.21.10 at 5:36 am

“Oh, dear. You say it was a “liquidity problem”; no, it’s an insolvency problem, of system-wide proportions.”

Let’s call it the Too Big To Fail problem, john. Really what I am saying is that Zizek conflates Too Big To Fail with trickle-down. Now pardon my lack of economic erudition – indeed, this is not my remit! – but my impression was that the problem was feared insolvency by big players, leading to a lack of liquidity in the banking system generally. No one is willing to loan anyone else any money, and the ordinary operations of the economy simply break down for lack of ability of ordinary Main Street firms to conduct business as usual. The commercial paper market froze up. See this article from back in 2008, for example:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95099470

“There was a monster unleashed. The commercial paper market, which is the most liquid market, probably in the world, basically froze up.”

If you think this is a totally wrong picture of what the problem was, and actually it was narrowly about insolvency – nothing to do with illiquid commercial paper or any of that – you are welcome to explain how that would go.

As to ‘nobody saw it coming’, I think I made my position clear @ 130. If you have a problem with what I say there, you are – as always – welcome to say so.

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voyou 12.21.10 at 6:43 am

What seems to me to be Zizek’s main point is that “the paradox of capitalism is that you cannot throw out the dirty water of financial speculation while keeping the healthy baby of real economy.” The bailout is a particularly clear example of this, but it is not an isolated event – rather, it shows us the more general way in which finance and the real economy are intertwined.

Zizek moves from the crude and kind of moralized form of trickle-down economics (that the rich are the real producers, and so money should be given to them in order to help the poor), to a more technocratic argument (which we probably wouldn’t usually call trickle-down economics, and in fact Zizek doesn’t call it this), that the most effective mechanisms for distributing money to people are those which involve the mechanisms of financial capital (throwing money to Wall Street so that it will be lent out to people on Main Street), before arriving at a more general position about the inseparability of finance and the directly productive economy.

So, Zizek doesn’t seem to be saying that trickle-down economics is true, or that the bailout was an example of trickle-down economics. Rather, he’s using the bailout as an example to emphasize the similarity between trickle-down economics, which is false, and an analysis of the indispensibility of finance to contemporary capitalism, which (he thinks) is true, in order to argue against a left-wing response to the financial crisis which, in rejecting trickle-down economics, also rejects a more fundamental criticism of capitalism.

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John Holbo 12.21.10 at 8:18 am

voyou, you make a good point. More later, but for now: good point.

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Adam Kotsko 12.21.10 at 1:50 pm

Zizek’s dialectical form of argument makes him difficult to understand and often renders his views ambiguous. Voyou demonstrates here that it is possible to parse the passage such that it makes sense. John’s goal, by contrast, most often seems to be to find what we might call the second-dumbest reading (akin to ordering the second-cheapest bottle of wine). Of course Zizek doesn’t openly embrace trickle-down economics (first-dumbest)! But he kind of does, despite himself (second-dumbest).

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Tim Wilkinson 12.21.10 at 4:01 pm

Zizek’s dialectical form of argument makes him difficult to understand and often renders his views ambiguous.

Which is not on the face of it a very clever way of going about things, if The task is … to undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work.

‘I have transformed the problem from an intractably difficult and possibly quite insoluble conundrum into a mere linguistic puzzle. Albeit,’ he muttered, after a long moment of silent pondering, ‘an intractably difficult and possibly insoluble one.’

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John Holbo 12.21.10 at 4:22 pm

voyou’s reading makes better sense but fits less well with the text than mine, I think. It really reduces Zizek’s point to a relatively trivial but correct one: Wall Street and Main Street are interrelated. I think Z. is saying a bit more than that, and that the extra bit involves a dubious conflation of Too Big To Fail and trickle-down. As I say upthread, I think Z. falls into this in a ‘heighten the contradictions’ spirit, but it ends up analytically muddled. (I don’t really think it has much to do with the second cheapest bottle of wine. Neither he nor I are in the market for that. I take it we both want the best.) But let voyou’s reading be the one we accept, on the grounds that it makes more sense. Let it not be said that I am an uncharitable hermeneut! I am more interested in the liberalism questions, in any case – specifically, the question I put to you before you closed comments over at your blog. You are an expert on Z. and I think I have a dilemma for him. You can tell me whether I am right.

Zizek attacks liberalism but only critiques neoliberalism. You suggest this is because he thinks liberalism necessarily leads to neoliberalism, so a critique of neoliberal economic policies is an effective proxy strike on all of philosophical liberalism. Neoliberalism is the bad in liberalism, in effect. I think this is a dubious proposition, as I said. I think it isn’t hard to sketch an ideal version of liberalism – blueprint some plausibly normatively optimal form of liberal democratic political order – that is not essentially committed to implementing the Washington Consensus. The question is: would Zizek object even to such an ideal blueprint, waiving all questions of implementation? And if he would, on what grounds would he object, normatively? I think the answer is that he sends inconsistent signals on this point. On the one hand, as in the interview that was linked upthread, Z. suggests the problem is that Rawls is ‘too idealistic’. That suggests that he would say ‘it won’t work, but if it would work, that would be fine.’ But at other points he approvingly quotes Badiou saying, basically, that democratic liberalism is a pragmatic second-best. Or, actually, more like the second worst bottle of wine: not the worst, but still so bad that no philosopher could stomach it. Indeed, if democratic liberalism is the best we can do, then the proper thing to conclude is that life isn’t really worth living – we’re just a lot of selfish animals. If this is the line we take, then whether or not liberalism leads to neoliberalism is essentially beside the point. Liberalism is inherently loathsome, even in its ideal form. I think Zizek sort of waffles between these attitudes, and this is important because it shows a crucial unsettledness when it comes to his own positive ideals. Why is communism a good thing? I think, to a surprising degree, he doesn’t – and can’t say. And this manifests itself, symptomatically, as an inability to say why liberalism is a bad thing. Or even if it is. What do you think?

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Adam Kotsko 12.21.10 at 5:00 pm

Certainly the worst bottle of wine is fascism, with liberalism as the second worst. He says in several places that the leftist position rejects both, but only liberalism in fact allows any freedom to maneuver. Yet the problem with liberalism is that not only does it suck in itself, it also consistently fails to actually protect us from fascism — nationalism first of all, but also neoliberalism. And that’s because liberalism doesn’t and can’t recognize capitalism as the problem. At its best, it mitigates the damage. At its worst, its failure to recognize the problem of capitalism leaves the “problem” category empty and therefore easy to fill in with racist garbage, for instance. (Or in the US, this slot is often filled by “government,” a trope which is of course not unrelated to racist garbage.)

What’s appealing about communism for Zizek is that it gives us a chance to at least try something other than capitalism — it doesn’t “settle” for the second cheapest bottle of wine.

In another connection, it occurs to me that your experience in Singapore, a non-liberal capitalist country, perhaps affects the degree to which you are willing to concede an inherent connection between capitalism and liberalism.

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Adam Kotsko 12.21.10 at 5:04 pm

If it’s not clear, the reason why liberalism sucks is capitalism. If you don’t know why capitalism sucks, I don’t know if we can get much further.

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geo 12.21.10 at 5:22 pm

Tim @219: “Which is not on the face of it a very clever way of going about things, if The task is … to undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work.

It is, on the other hand, a tried-and-true approach if The task is … to attain celebrity in left-theoretical circles.

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john c. halasz 12.21.10 at 9:40 pm

@219:

“Dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction”- Adorno

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Tim Wilkinson 12.21.10 at 10:32 pm

Haven’t you forgotten something?

225

john c. halasz 12.21.10 at 10:44 pm

???
Moi?

226

James Kroeger 12.21.10 at 11:07 pm

Chris, 211:

Assuming for the sake of argument that one agrees with this…, that doesn’t necessarily imply trying to replace the incumbent financial system wholesale on very short notice during a major crisis, and (at least in the US) over the opposition of large parts of the political system.

Well, earlier (199) I did say…

“I’ll concede that it might have been a good idea to emulate the Swedish style of nationalization as an intermediate step while plans were finalized on precisely how to set up the alternative financial system.”

Do you see some kind of fundamental problem with that approach?

Also, you said “There’s sound empirical reasons for doubting that such a program would succeed, however admirable its goals might be in theory. What might those ‘sound’ empirical reasons be?

The impressive achievements of People’s Bank of China over the past 30 years provide us with a great deal of empirical evidence that publicly-owned banks are actually a good idea.

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Chris 12.22.10 at 12:00 am

The impressive achievements of People’s Bank of China over the past 30 years provide us with a great deal of empirical evidence that publicly-owned banks are actually a good idea.

Assuming that the good things about the PBC (whatever they happen to be) can be separated from all the other objectionable things about China in general, I still don’t see that this has much relevance to the question of how to respond, in the short term, to a financial crisis that has arisen in your until-now-capitalist system. Surely you don’t intend to suggest that the PBC was, or could be, built in a day?

As a long-term project, a publicly owned bank might indeed be a good idea, although I suspect it would face too much political opposition to be actually implemented in the US anytime soon. But it’s not something you can simply pull out of your hat in response to a crisis.

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 1:07 am

“If you don’t know why capitalism sucks, I don’t know if we can get much further.”

I really don’t think this is an acceptable axiom at all: capitalism sucks. I know I don’t accept Badiou’s account of why capitalism sucks. Marx’s account is … oddly reticent on this point. (Because ‘sucking’ is such a bourgeois notion.) But probably the reason is the exploitation. Lenin says it sucks on utilitarian grounds, pretty much. You can say it sucks because it’s unequal, but then you have to specify what you think proper equality requires. Would market socialism be ok, in some forms? When you say capitalism sucks, does that entail that any political system that recognizes private property sucks? And does ‘suck’ mean: be normatively unacceptable?

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engels 12.22.10 at 1:40 am

Can you give an account of why Marx ought to give an account of why capitalism sucks?

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 1:48 am

“Can you give an account of why Marx ought to give an account of why capitalism sucks?”

So that we can know why Marx thought capitalism sucks.

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 2:00 am

Just in case it seems that’s too snarky: that’s actually the reason. It would be interesting to see Marx’ account of why capitalism sucks, because then we would know why he thought it sucked.

Because even if you think it’s obvious enough that it sucks, it’s not obvious why it does. You can say things like: because it’s unjust and exploitative. But Marx officially thinks justice talk is bourgeois claptrap. And, if that’s so, it’s hard to see why the fact that capitalism is exploitative should bother him. I think the answer is that Marx is someone who has a theory of justice, but thinks he doesn’t. (This is not exactly a novel notion in Marx interpretation. I claim no originality.) But if you ask someone who thinks they don’t have a theory of justice – but does – why capitalism sucks. And if the answer, by their lights, is: because it’s unjust. Then don’t expect things to be simple. Because they can’t really see by the light of their own light. Because they are hiding it under a bushel of materialist history, as it were.

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engels 12.22.10 at 2:04 am

And it is important to Marx that ‘we’ (philosophy professors? liberal blog commenters?) should have this rigorously explained to us because…

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engels 12.22.10 at 2:10 am

If I were writing a treatise intended to advance our knowledge of cancer and how to cure it, ought I to start by proving that cancer is a Bad Thing?

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bob mcmanus 12.22.10 at 2:13 am

From The Death of the Liberal Class 2010 Chris Hedges

The parents and three children, including a three-year-old with a distended belly
caused by malnutrition, slept together on an old piece of carpet inside the
crude hut. The youngest child had a gunnysack tied around his waist for
clothing, had not had milk for two years, and was slow in his reactions. In
the News, Steinbeck wrote:

“He will die in a very short time. The older children may survive.
Four nights ago the mother had a baby in the tent, on the dirty
carpet. It was born dead, which was just as well because she
should not have fed it at the breast; her own diet will not
produce milk. After it was born and she had seen that it was
dead, the mother rolled over and lay still for two days. She is up
today, tottering around. The last baby, born less than a year ago,
lived a week. This woman’s eyes have the glazed, faraway look
of a sleepwalker’s eyes. She does not wash clothes any more.
The drive that makes for cleanliness has been drained out of her
and she hasn’t the energy. The husband was a share-cropper
once, but he couldn’t make it go. Now he has lost even the desire
to talk. He will not look directly at you, for that requires will,
and will needs strength. He is a bad field worker for the same
reason. It takes him a long time to make up his mind, so he is
always late in moving and late in arriving in the fields. His top
wage, when he can find work now, which isn’t often, is a dollar
a day. The children do not even go to the willow clump any
more. They squat where they are and kick a little dirt.
The father is vaguely aware that there is a culture of hookworm
in the mud along the river bank. He knows the children will get it on their
bare feet. But he hasn’t the will nor the energy to resist. Too
many things have happened to him. “

Capitalism is fug-ugly. I don’t need no stinking theory of justice.

Holbo, I think you are a bad man.

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 2:15 am

Well Marx is dead – the man, anyway. So he doesn’t care. Marx, were he still alive, would probably say it doesn’t matter whether we have this explained because the self-evident truth of his materialist theory of history is going to steamroller over all that anyway. But, then again, this is really not so clear. Because Marx, were he still alive, might have noticed that the materialist theory of history he put forward isn’t looking so good. So maybe all bets are off as to what he would say.

Of course, it may be that you are uninterested in having any of this rigorously explained because you just don’t think politics is the sort of area where things need to be rigorously explained because the important stuff is too bloody obvious for that. But then I don’t know why you would care about Marx at all. Presumably the whole thing looks boring.

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 2:20 am

My last comment will do double duty as a pre-buttal to Bob McManus.

237

John Holbo 12.22.10 at 2:22 am

Even though it was really more of a simul-buttal. Our comments crossed.

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john c. halasz 12.22.10 at 3:00 am

@229:

Oh, dear, again. You’ve only succeeded in this thread in showing that you not only have a very shaky grasp of the facts of the current global economic crisis and the factors leading up to it,- (I guess you just weren’t paying much attention),- but also little grasp of Marx. The basis of Marx’ critique was not exploitation, but alienation, i.e. the reduction of human beings, namely workers, to mere commodities. Exploitation is more a functional than a normative concept, since it goes to explaining the reproduction of surplus-value through the expansion of value, that is, roughly, the maintenance of the value of capital through the maintenance of the rate-of-profit, as the prime driving force of the capitalist system. And, of course, the issue is not a ” political system that recognizes private property”, which is a relatively trivial concern, but a political system dominated by private property in the (concentrated) means of production. Though Marx was actually second to none in extolling the progressive modernizing, even revolutionizing, effects of industrial capitalism: he was its epic poet, as well as its most biting satirist. (But then I’ve been amazed that people here can’t seem to grasp the basic point that Marx made in the quote from the Gotha critique, just as some couldn’t grasp the quite clear points made in a quote from the same text in the last thread).

But it’s at least been a revelation of obtuseness. (Your attempt to assimilate Zizek to Fox News is a very cloddish DeLong-type move). You complain about the conflation of some full-fledged “political liberalism” with narrowly economic neo-liberalism. But, though I think Marxism is too reductive toward the political (or, otherwise put, insufficiently differentiated with respect to the two modes/domains of action), it’s clear that the political and the economic are closely intertwined, especially with respect to the organization of dominant centers of power. And it’s also clear that liberalism grew up historically from “market-based society”, (which, as a designation of industrial capitalism, is a mis-understanding bordering on ideological mis-recognition), and still bears the marks of its class-based “origins”, however argumentative revised or elaborated, in the (self-justifying?) assumption that capitalism can readily be controlled and reformed into a “just” and humane social order, on the practical basis of nothing more that deliberative reasoning (and the conflation of morality with politics). You’d think that after a generation of neo-liberal policy, in which the “Keynesian welfare state compromise” and “social democracy” were progressively “reformed” away, with little by way of effective opposition from liberals and often with the active support of some of them, to the point where now they are threatened with complete abolition in the face of the very collapse of neo-liberalism, there might be some considerable cause for re-consideration of liberal claims and arguments. Zizek’s identification of the financialization of global capitalism and its “trickle down” doctrines with the pitfalls of “liberal democracy”, (a contradiction in terms, at least by 19th century meanings of those terms), might not be so crazy and ill-considered after all.

239

John Holbo 12.22.10 at 3:17 am

“You’ve only succeeded in this thread in showing that you not only have a very shaky grasp of the facts of the current global economic crisis and the factors leading up to it,- (I guess you just weren’t paying much attention)”

I am, as always, eager to learn the error of my ways, john. If you think it’s wrong to think illiquidity in the commercial paper market was a concern, in 2008 – this being the thesis that set you off, upthread – then please teach me otherwise. It’s no good just telling me I have a shaky grasp of the facts and not telling me where I am wrong, after all. (How am I supposed to learn from being repeatedly told I’m wrong, without being told how or why I’m wrong?)

“… but also little grasp of Marx. The basis of Marx’ critique was not exploitation, but alienation, i.e. the reduction of human beings, namely workers, to mere commodities. Exploitation is more a functional than a normative concept, since it goes to explaining the reproduction of surplus-value through the expansion of value, that is, roughly, the maintenance of the value of capital through the maintenance of the rate-of-profit, as the prime driving force of the capitalist system”

But why should I care about mass alienation? I mean it’s descriptively true that it makes people miserable. But why should I care, particularly if I’ve managed to dodge that particular bullet myself? I take it Marx thinks the reason is: because it’s unjust. But, again, he’s also committed to thinking that this is claptrap. Also, although exploitation is supposed to be an economically functional notion – what isn’t, in Marx? – it is also part of the basis of the alleged state of alienation. Workers are alienated through being exploited. But now we’ve gotten an ought from an is. The normative category of alienation out of the functional category of exploitation. How did we do it? Doesn’t the very concept of alienation rest on – or at least implicate – a concept of property? It’s a question of taking from people what is, by rights, theirs: namely, themselves. But this is, for Marx, the ultimate form of claptrap. Private property talk. I think the whole thing is less straightforward than you think.

240

John Holbo 12.22.10 at 3:22 am

“it’s clear that the political and the economic are closely intertwined, especially with respect to the organization of dominant centers of power”

Why should I have to deny this? After all, it’s not as though political liberalism is committed to the thesis that the political and the economic are not closely intertwined.

241

Patrick S. O'Donnell 12.22.10 at 3:37 am

I think a Marxist economist, Meghnad Desai,* has given us a more nuanced and accurate description of some of the virtues and vices of capitalism than several of the putative Leftist commentators above:

“Capitalism is not a kind or a benevolent system. It is the most effective mode of production discovered so far in wealth creation [despite its endemic ‘cycles, with their manias, crashes, and panics’]. It has no overarching objective, since it works through the profit-seeking efforts of millions of capitalists. It generates economic growth, prosperity, and employment as side-effects. It also causes much misery and destruction in its tendency towards incessant change. But over the last two hundred years, it has achieved the largest gain in well-being in all previous millennia. For one thing, many more people are alive now than in 1800 (around six times as many), and they live longer on average—between ten to twenty years longer—than they did then. [….] If length of life can be taken as a crude measure of potential well-being, a billion people living, say, forty years on average in 1800 compared to six billion people living sixty year today speaks volumes for the success of capitalism. In 1800, perhaps two thirds of that billion were poor; today, at most a quarter of the six billion are poor. Yet the reduction of poverty is neither automatic, nor to be taken for granted.

Adam Smith was not wrong, however, in saying that the new system of natural liberty imposed the cost of inequality while delivering a universal betterment of living standards. More people have been brought out of poverty in the last two hundred years, especially since 1945, than ever before in history. The very idea that poverty could be eliminated could not have occurred in any precapitalist stage. Capitalism provides the means for eliminating poverty, but these means were not directed immediately, or evenly, in the course of its development.”

China provides compelling contemporary evidence that capitalism can make enormous strides in addressing the question of poverty, but it has been purchased at the price of inequality (regional, income, and otherwise). The creation and persistence of new forms of “relative” poverty and inequality, the system’s “manias, crashes, and panics,” and the ecological and environmental problems we face today, are among the more prominent reasons we have to endeavor, with Marx, to look beyond (in an Hegelian dialectical sense) this system (although Marx had very little to say about socialism and communism, his analytical prowess being devoted to capitalism). With Meghnad Desai we might ask:

“Is it possible to have a society that is not merely self-organizing, but consciously so? A society fully self-conscious of its own workings, and able to direct them, where individuals are not alienated from their work, or from themselves, but fully participate in their self-emancipation, and realize the full potential of the species-being that they are—in other words, Socialism beyond Capitalism?”

As Desai makes powerfully pellucid, any transcendence of capitalism will have to take a full and honest accounting of its historical accomplishments and economic virtues, or transcendence by way of negation and sublation. In other words, sloganeering along the lines of “capitalism sucks” is counterproductive, not unlike (assuming the slogan is sincere and grounded in a coherent belief) the beliefs held by socialists of Marx’s time and place whom he excoriated for “their delusions about the prospects of achieving socialism.”

See Meghnad Desai, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (London: Verso, 2002): 313-314.

242

bob mcmanus 12.22.10 at 3:46 am

But why should I care about mass alienation? I mean it’s descriptively true that it makes people miserable. But why should I care, particularly if I’ve managed to dodge that particular bullet myself?

It’s called “empathy.” It isn’t really an argument, I suppose.

243

engels 12.22.10 at 3:53 am

But why should I care about mass alienation? I mean it’s descriptively true that it makes people miserable. But why should I care, particularly if I’ve managed to dodge that particular bullet myself?

Why should those that do care care that you don’t care? (I’m not that 100% sure that you have managed to dodge it btw…)

244

John Holbo 12.22.10 at 4:01 am

Well, I may not have dodged the alienation bullet. But I feel reasonably non-miserable and generally quite socio-economically lucky, not just today but over the long run (knock on wood).

As to ‘empathy’: I don’t really think it is that, Bob. I think it’s a conviction that the damn system is unjust. It’s Christmas, so I’m rereading Dickens, and he’s got tons of empathy. Not so much conviction that the damn system is unjust.

245

john c. halasz 12.22.10 at 4:08 am

@240:

O.K. Here’s something to feast your eyes upon, FYI:

http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Total-US-Debt-As-A-Percentage-Of-GDP.jpg

Note the inflection point after 1980. (The spike during the fisher debt-deflation after 1929 is also interesting).

I’m well aware that supposedly half a trillion drained from money market funds that Thursday, after the Lehman collapse caused one to “break the buck”, (i.e. return a loss of a couple of cents on the dollar, a trivial reason for a global crisis, eh?), and that sent Paulson and Bernanke into an ashen-faced panic and the proposal of Tarp, (though IIRC the money market funds were given a FDIC type guarantee the next week: problem solved). But a point of source criticism: NPR? Really?

As to Marx, a concern about *injustice*, oppression, misery, social exclusion and the like, was part, though not the whole of his animating project, and certainly he expected the movement for working-class self-emancipation that he heralded to be significantly motivated by such concerns. But Marx has no “theory of justice”, because 1) a transhistorical account of “justice” is incalculable, and 2) he basically follows out Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit, that norms, insofar as they can be said to exist at all, (since they are deontic counterfactuals), only exist as anchored in actual social relations of recognition, as opposed to the emptiness of the Kantian mere ought, (er, a point that would apply to Rawls-type theory, as well). So traditional morality was repressive and undesirable, bourgeois morality an obvious sham, while a genuine morality would only be possible beyond the horizon of alienated capitalism, when, er, it would no longer be needed. (Oscar Wilde caught the point well, in his quip that he was in favor of socialism, because it would do away with “altruism”). But Marx also was not exactly opposed to the extraction of productive surpluses, in the name of workers thatshould receive the “full” or “fair share of the fruits of their labor, (which is Proudhon and some utopian socialists), since obviously extracted surpluses go to re-investment which improves the means of production and increases output to the point of abolishing material deprivation, and to the extent that it served to improve and increase the means of production, he was in ironical agreement with industrial capitalism: he just thought that capitalism contained long-run disequilibria that would eventually be a hinderance on the development of a truly human society, and lead on to an alternative way of extracting, investing and distributing productive surpluses, on behalf of the working-class majority and the public interest, rather than the private rights of a privileged elite.

But if you really think that over-consumption to support over-production is the way to maximizing “liberty”, good luck to you.

246

bob mcmanus 12.22.10 at 4:26 am

I said “pug-ugly”

Hell, I am not convinced that the system is “unjust.” I don’t much care.

Taking a few billion from hedge-fund traders to keep the unemployed from being evicted from their homes may be an injustice, even according to whatever vestigial ToJ I myself have.

It will make me laugh and smile and feel good. That justifies it to me, although probably not to you.

I’ll let you work out the Rawls and Pareto after the embers burn through.

You may find this silly or unserious or irrational, even crazy, but I am not doing political theory, I am trying to do politics, even here, even now. I am not trying to convince people, I am trying to move them. However ineptly, and I think I am godawful inept.

Holbo, what are you trying to do?

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 4:38 am

Thanks, Patrick. I haven’t read Desai, although I’ve heard about it some. Let me respond to this bit:

““Is it possible to have a society that is not merely self-organizing, but consciously so? A society fully self-conscious of its own workings, and able to direct them, where individuals are not alienated from their work, or from themselves, but fully participate in their self-emancipation, and realize the full potential of the species-being that they are—in other words, Socialism beyond Capitalism?””

Gerry Cohen has some interesting things to say about this in the final chapter of “Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality” – a book that has influenced my thinking on this a lot. In case it isn’t obvious, my remarks on Marx might have come from Cohen. Because probably that’s where I got them. He says there’s are four lines of critique of the market – of capitalism. 1) it’s inefficient; 2) it’s anarchic; 3) it’s unjust; 4) it’s ‘mean in its motivational presuppositions’. He rejects 1 and 2 but accepts 3 and 4. Presumably he would therefore differ from Desai, who seems to be holding out for a version of 2). Here’s what Cohen says about that. “Individual self-direction, a person’s determining the course of his own life, may have value per se, but collective self-direction does not.” He wants to dump ‘conscious social purpose’ as an end. The question then is: can you get 3 without 2, within the market. Cohen says no, so he rejects the market. I have to say, much as I admire Cohen, I don’t see practical alternatives to the market, but I also see why Cohen rejects 2. I end up rejecting 1, 2 and 4 but accepting 3, at least regarding views like Rawls. I think Cohen’s critique of Rawls is totally decisive. The difference principle is not really sufficient for justice. I guess that makes me someone who thinks the ideal is market socialism – which Cohen regards as shabby second-best. But it needs to be liberal market socialism, which means not going for 2). But I’m unconvinced it’s workable.

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piglet 12.22.10 at 4:39 am

Have you guys forgotten the whole ATTAC thing? ATTAC is almost synonymous with anti-globalization protest (in some countries at least) and what does its name signify? The demand for a Tobin tax on financial transactions. Why would a popular “anti-capitalist” protest movement elevate the demand for a Tobin tax such a central programmatic plank? Does that give you any clue?

(Roll eyes)

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 4:43 am

Again, let that count as a simul-buttal contra McManus.

I’m not sure why you think it would be unjust to transfer wealth from hedge fund managers to the unemployed, Bob. It sounds a very normatively defensible scheme to me, in general outline.

“I am not trying to convince people, I am trying to move them.”

The phrase ‘lumpen trolletariat’ springs to mind – quite unbidden, but there it is – in this connection.

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piglet 12.22.10 at 4:45 am

““although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor” (13-4). Did anyone actually make this argument for the bailouts?”

I don’t know where I am any more. Is this so hard to understand? The argument wasn’t perhaps made as explicitly as it was when it came to the need to preserve tax cuts for the rich but it is hardly a stretch. The bank bailout was officially justified by saying that the financial sector was vital to the economy, and outrageous profits for rich bankers were vital for the financial sector, so we needed to make sure rich bankers would continue to make outrageous profits or the economy would go over the cliff. The alternative possibility, to prevent economic meltdown by making capital directly available to businesses and consumers instead of indirectly through the failed financial system, was never considered. Zizek is perhaps a better observer than our CT hosts and maybe that’s why he needs to get trashed so often.

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piglet 12.22.10 at 4:52 am

“But since massive tax rises for the wealthiest (or, in fact just about any set of policies) would also be justified IF they had this effect, then the proximity of the DP to TD is not as you suppose.”

Maybe empirical reality might be a clue here? Like, in the US there is now a huge consensus that it is better to give huge tax breaks to millionaires than to minimally raise taxes on the middle class? Does that empirical fact matter at all to this discussion or are we talking cloud cuckoo land?

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 5:07 am

Sorry, piglet, my point was that the bailouts were not officially justified or defended on the ground that ““although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society.” Rather, there were officially justified on the ground that if certain Too Big To Fail institutions failed, the commercial paper market would seize up, among other feared dynamics. That is not the same thing at all. No one actually offered trickle-down-style arguments for the bailouts. That’s all I was saying, and I think it’s true. And the reason the rich bankers got their profits was, officially, that the institutions were contractually obliged to pay them. You say it’s suspicious that other things weren’t tried. But that doesn’t change the fact that the official argument for what was tried was not trickle-down. It may be that Zizek and you have better memories, or more acute observational capabilities, but, if so, then my criticisms are not an attempt to efface the truth but just a tragic blindness on my part.

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andthenyoufall 12.22.10 at 5:10 am

@ John H. :

(i) Marx’s position on justice is a little more complicated than you suggest, isn’t it?

(i.a.) In the Communist Manifesto, Marx runs through a lengthy list of potential bourgeois objections to capitalism. All of these objections could be understood as normative considerations, and Marx responds to them in kind (rather than with some brusque dismissal of normative claims).

(i.b.) Then subsequently, Marx replies to a hypothetical (and vague!) criticism “from the standpoint of ideology”, which seems to include appeals to “Justice” and “Freedom” in particular. Marx’s specific objection to arguments “from the standpoint of ideology” is that they develop specifically in response to exploitative social conditions. (I take this to be very similar to the Hume/Rawls line that justice is only a useful concept in societies that are between the extremes of chaos and superfluity.) Bourgeois ideologues can attack feudal ideologues with their own philosophic ideas about how to run an exploitative society, but since socialism (by definition) doesn’t have an exploiting class, this is a language game that socialists will never be able to play.

(i.c.) I would give Marx three replies to “why should I care?” First, as a descriptive matter I don’t think he does expect you to care. It really doesn’t matter for Marx’s theory if any particular ideological employee of the bourgeoisie would rather overthrow capitalism or read comic books. Second, a psychologically healthy human being cares about the welfare of other human beings; one of the nasty things about exploitative societies is that they hurt people’s psyches, but it’s not a problem for Marx’s theory if some number of bourgeois act against their own self-interest. Third, in his early writings at least, Marx has an extremely elaborate account of how, even if capitalism doesn’t hurt the bourgeoisie as much as it hurts the proletariat, the latter still suffer from estrangement (which is a complicated and internally differentiated concept).

(ii) The theory of exploitation rests on a theory of value; the theory of estrangement rests on a theory of the self. It would be reasonable to refer to either of these as a “theory of property.” Etymologically and conceptually the “self” and “property” are somewhat connected in post-Hegelian philosophy (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, for example) but transmuting either value or the self into “property” would be foreign both to Marx’s intent and to what contemporary philosophers mean by “theory of property” (i.e., “something like what Locke and Nozick were doing”).

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 5:13 am

“Does that empirical fact matter at all to this discussion or are we talking cloud cuckoo land?”

Who’s ‘we’, my fine, apparently feathered friend?

But seriously: I don’t think it’s really very likely that everyone is weirdly in favor of tax breaks for millionaires because they have all catastrophically misread Rawls as arguing that this is just. (And if that is not what you are saying, then please state your point again. I seem not to have grasped it.)

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piglet 12.22.10 at 5:15 am

“things are bad because capitalism is working” was overall maybe more prominent than “things are going to be bad when capitalism tanks”

These two statements are not contradictory at all. Have you ever heard of a guy called Karl Marx? Do you remember him saying something about how capitalism by necessity creates crisis? Capitalism is bad because of its affinity with economic crisis was always one part of anti-capitalistic critique.

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 5:19 am

Hi, andthenyoufall. I have to stop commenting on this thread now and get something else done today, but your comment certainly deserves a full reply. The short version would be: what Norm Geras argues in this old New Left piece, and in foll0w-ups to that piece, is pretty compelling. (Obviously Geras has changed a bit, post-9/11. Yes, I am aware.)

http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=508

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piglet 12.22.10 at 5:21 am

“And if that is not what you are saying, then please state your point again. I seem not to have grasped it.”

My point is that real existing American liberals are much more likely to support tax cuts for the rich than to oppose them on a principled social justice argument. Have they read Rawls? I don’t know. But if Zizek’s argument is that liberalism is the point of view likely to support policies that make the rich richer, then I would say it is consistent with that data point.

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piglet 12.22.10 at 5:34 am

“No one actually offered trickle-down-style arguments for the bailouts.”

The argument that was made could be summarized as following: “We need to bail out the banks because otherwise we all will become poorer”. In my mind it is not a stretch to call that a trickle-down-style argument although nobody at the time called it a “trickle-down-style argument”. Look more closely. The argument we would hear again and again was that small businesses (“Main Street”) would suffer badly if the financial system wasn’t bailed out because where would they borrow money? What is that if not trickle-down? Big banks need capital infusions so that small businesses would have access to credit? Trickle-down! Some people, for example Dean Baker, were making the argument at the time that if the purpose was to get capital to small businesses why not give the bailout money directly to those who would make productive use of it. And that was rejected: it had to go through the financial system so that it would trickle down. That was the consensus from Obama to Bush. And Zizek looks more and more compelling.

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piglet 12.22.10 at 5:36 am

“Reagan-era supply-side economics, which DeLong and Summers don’t believe in.”

Huh?

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piglet 12.22.10 at 5:38 am

The sorts of claims and ideas and positions that are characteristic of liberalism, as a political philosophy, are completely off his radar. The one exception is that he sort of knows what the Washington Consensus involves, and that it is called ‘neoliberalism’.

Again, maybe Zizek isn’t discussing political philosophy. Maybe he’s discussing empirical reality? Just as somebody could discuss real existing socialism without debating Marxian theory?

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 5:41 am

Well, if you want to call that trickle-down, then you can call it trickle-down. If, by ‘trickle-down’ you just mean the general dynamic whereby those with power and wealth tend to preserve it, and take steps to preserve it, while pretending they are doing something nice for everyone – then fine. But I was using the term a bit more narrowly to refer to but one example of this well-known tendency.

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John Quiggin 12.22.10 at 5:49 am

The impression I have from all this, which I think was stated early in the thread, is that “liberal” is an unhelpful term in discussing US politics.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.22.10 at 10:49 am

I enjoyed reading this thread; thank you, John Holbo.

On the question “why should I (or anyone) care?”, I believe Marx&co. did struggle with it, and they came up with the concept they call “class consciousness”. As I understand it, it’s a characteristic of a social class, rather than any particular individual, so you, as an individual, really don’t need to care; things are happening regardless. Grab some popcorn, kick back, and enjoy the show.

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engels 12.22.10 at 12:28 pm

As I understand it, it’s a characteristic of a social class, rather than any particular individual, so you, as an individual, really don’t need to care; things are happening regardless. Grab some popcorn, kick back, and enjoy the show.

You don’t understand it…

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engels 12.22.10 at 12:32 pm

Andthenyoufall (254) is indeed a good comment and deserves a better reply than ‘Stormin’ Norman dealt with this all this…’

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.22.10 at 1:11 pm

Tsk tsk tsk…

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John Holbo 12.22.10 at 1:50 pm

“deserves a better reply than ‘Stormin’ Norman dealt with this all this…’”

No one’s stopping you, Engels. Write a better reply.

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piglet 12.22.10 at 6:00 pm

John 262, you trashed Zisek for making that observation about bank bailouts and trickle down, I explained why I think his observation is valid. You haven’t responded to anything of substance, just calling it a semantic quarrel is a bit weak.

(I’m out of here.)

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piglet 12.22.10 at 6:12 pm

Also, 249. (Now I’m out.)

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engels 12.22.10 at 7:47 pm

No-one’s stopping me, but since the comment in question wasn’t addressed to me, doesn’t contradict anything I said and in fact I mostly agree with it (as I said), it would be a bit odd.

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andthenyoufall 12.22.10 at 10:51 pm

I don’t think I deserve anything. Dessert only arises as an epiphenomenon of the bourgeois mode of production. Socialist man criticizes after dinner, surely everyone knows that.

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john c. halasz 12.23.10 at 12:31 am

Just to reiterate the point about “intentionalist hermeneutics”, Holbo here is taking official boiler-plate and mainstream news reports about the crisis at face value. It doesn’t seem to occur to him to “read between the lines”, not in any philosophically “deep” sense, but in the ordinary sense which one applies to official pronouncements and journalistic reports. Compared to that, maybe Zizek’s alleged transgressions aren’t all that “serious”.

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John Holbo 12.23.10 at 1:27 am

piglet: “I explained why I think his observation is valid”. But you did it by using ‘trickle-down’ in a completely nonstandard way. Normally it is taken to mean this sort of thing:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickle-down_economics

You take it in a much more general sense. I see where you are coming from. You are taking it more or less in the original, Will Rogers sense: “”money was all appropriated for the top in hopes that it would trickle down to the needy.” That is, you take trickle-down just to mean that the rich will screw the poor, while pretending this is not what they are doing. Nevertheless, that isn’t what the term means, standardly. The fact that I read Zizek as using the term to mean what it standardly means, rather than what it standardly doesn’t mean, does not seem to me such a terrible sin on my part.

engels “No-one’s stopping me, but since the comment in question wasn’t addressed to me, doesn’t contradict anything I said and in fact I mostly agree with it (as I said), it would be a bit odd.”

Sorry, but if you are so sure that the Norm Geras piece is wrong, why don’t you just say, specifically, where it goes wrong. I myself regard it as a difficult issue and can’t possibly reply adequately without going back and rereading Geras and thinking about it all again, after which point I might change my mind. You, obviously, see things differently. So, please tell us: where, exactly, does Norman Geras’ essay, and his follow-ups to it, go wrong? (And if you can’t say: then what makes you so sure a better response than Geras’ is needed?)

Let me make a small downpayment in this regard (by way of keeping bourgeois appearances up, epiphenomenally). Let me say what is totally right in what andthenyoufall says. He says that Marx gives little consideration to questions of justice more or less because he thinks the ‘conditions of justice’ (as Hume or Rawls would say) never obtain. Either we are in a class society, in which people will generally act according to class interests. The subjective conditions of justice are not met. Or we have transcended all that, achieving something like a post-scarcity society. Then the objective conditions of justice are not met. So justice is never actually useful. So flapping our gums about it is a waste of time. But then Marx tends to overstate this: that it’s all ideological claptrap. When really what he must think is that it’s actually true but that preaching it isn’t efficacious. Quite a difference.

andthenyoufall suggests that we ought to place the accent on overcoming alienation. I think in a lot of ways Marx really does help himself to a concept of property that he himself is committed to thinking is bourgeois nonsense: that which should be inalienable gets alienated. And we get alienation. But that is controversial, hence nothing I can helpfully address briefly. Let me move on to a different point. Even if andthenyoufall is right that the goal is overcoming alienation, and even if that doesn’t rest on some sort of illicit property concept, it is still obvious that Marx is implicitly committed to disinterested doctrines of distributive justice (i.e. all that bourgeois claptrap). From Geras:

“Marx claims that the revolution will put an end to alienation, that it will enable every member of society to develop his or her capacities, that it will promote community and solidarity between people, and that it will facilitate the expansion of human productive powers and the universal satisfaction of human needs.”

(Any objections to this gloss, engels, merely on the grounds that its Geras?)

But in order to explain why this is a normative ideal, you have to explain what the occurrences of ‘every’ are doing in there, and so forth … perhaps it’s obvious where this is going, in a general sort of way.

Putting it another way, statements like this, by andthenyoufall, “Second, a psychologically healthy human being cares about the welfare of other human beings” need to be given an ought inflection: “should care”. And then we have to explain where the ought comes from. (It’s not as though we are merely describing some sort of indifferent situation: healthy humans in fact do care, in point of empirical fact. Like: healthy spiders have eight legs. It’s not just a biological truth but an ethical ideal.)

Finally, john halasz: “Holbo here is taking official boiler-plate and mainstream news reports about the crisis at face value … It doesn’t seem to occur to him to “read between the lines”, not in any philosophically “deep” sense.”

But the the question, john, was just this: what was the official boiler-plate and mainstream news line about all this? That’s what I was proposing to describe, so I hardly think I can be faulted for having done so.

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piglet 12.23.10 at 2:30 am

“Trickle-down economics” and “the trickle-down theory” are terms of political rhetoric that refer to the policy of providing across the board tax cuts or benefits to businesses, such as tax breaks, in the belief that this will indirectly benefit the broad population.” (wikipedia)

How is the notion of *giving money to big banks – across the board! – in the hope that it will indirectly help consumers and small businesses* inconsistent with that definition?? I’m not getting you at all. It is only that the term “trickle down” wasn’t literally used in that context but the concept was definitely used. I would speculate that you don’t recognize it as such precisely because it is so deeply ingrained in conventional economic thinking. It sometimes takes a Zisek to see the obvious.

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Substance McGravitas 12.23.10 at 2:47 am

How is the notion of giving money to big banks – across the board! – in the hope that it will indirectly help consumers and small businesses inconsistent with that definition??

Because trickle-down economics is run-of-the-mill daily policy for assholes, while preventing the economic system of the world from collapsing was an emergency policy that (I think) needed to be done in one way or another. It’s kind of a bitch that the fire department spends more time on a gigantic mansion than my hovel when both are ablaze, but there you go. Note also that bankers are not the whole of the set of The Rich. (This is not to endorse the handling of the bailouts, what led up to them, et cetera.)

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John Holbo 12.23.10 at 3:22 am

Substance is right, piglet: trickle-down, for its exponents, is supposed to be a term for a healthy dynamic that characterizes the normal operations of the market. Bailouts for Too Big To Fail institutions, by contrast, are supposed to be extraordinary shock treatment (the sort of thing that wouldn’t be healthy on a regular basis) to address a non-normal breakdown of the market. “I would speculate that you don’t recognize it as such precisely because it is so deeply ingrained in conventional economic thinking.” I think this statement in fact expresses my point well enough: trickle-down is deeply ingrained in conventional economic thinking. The idea that you must give 1 trillion dollars to bankers today or the world will end, by contrast, is not deeply ingrained in conventional economic thinking. Ergo, the bailouts are not conventional trickle-down thinking.

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piglet 12.23.10 at 3:34 am

Guys: you are making this up as you go. I took the pain to go to wikipedia (the ultimate authority) as directed by Holbo and just showed you how the definition given there is squarely consistent with Zisek’s account and there you go making something else up. Why don’t you admit that Zisek’s account of the bailout, even if you don’t agree with it, is by no means implausible or outlandish. That would do it. What will NOT do is your depicting him as the crazy one making stuff up about things he doesn’t have a clue about when in reality you just refuse to take him seriously. Of course you do take him seriously otherwise you wouldn’t waste all that blog space but you do so by pretending not to – know what I mean? Doesn’t matter anyway.

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Substance McGravitas 12.23.10 at 3:39 am

I took the pain to go to wikipedia (the ultimate authority) as directed by Holbo and just showed you how the definition given there is squarely consistent with Zisek’s account

Read the squib you posted again.

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John Holbo 12.23.10 at 4:11 am

I really don’t know how to make this much clearer, piglet, but I’ll try once more and then give up.

Trickle-down, as the term is ordinarily used, is supposed to be 1) an ordinary, normal mechanism; 2) it is supposed to work in the following way. I’ll just quote Zizek, who may not be authoritative, economically, but is certainly auto-authoritative, as it were, about what he himself says he thinks: “although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor”.

That’s trickle-down, but it isn’t how the bailouts were advertised. Now you may not care that this is not how the bailouts were advertised. That’s fine. But that’s all I was addressing. I was pointing out that the bailouts were not advertised as working in the way that Zizek said they were advertised as working.

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Keir 12.23.10 at 4:26 am

although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor

Although we want the poor to become richer (or rather, not become poorer!), it is counterproductive to give them all this money. Instead, we ought give it to the dynamic and productive elements in society, that is to say, the banks. The benefits will then automatically diffuse amongst the poor.

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John Holbo 12.23.10 at 4:43 am

OK, I’ll take yet another crack at it. Trickle-down is supposed to disproportionately but not unjustly reward a productive class for its overflowing virtue (which the less virtuous can catch trickles of in their bowls). In the case of the bailouts, quite notably, it was admitted upfront that it was a regrettable case of having to pay a ransom. No one said the banks needed the money because it was just, or even because they had proven themselves so good at handling money that surely, in the future, they would continue to handle well. Quite the opposite. Also, the idea wasn’t that the profits of wise investments would diffuse down to the poor. The argument – the official statements by officials – was more arcane. It had to do with things like fear that the commercial paper market would freeze up. What we had was a bizarre sort of coordination problem, in which everyone would be ok if everyone moved, but if everyone didn’t move, maybe it would be better for any individual player not to move. Producing a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. The bailout was supposed to defeat that dynamic.

This may seem a small point but I think it is actually quite significant – and sad – that these official arguments were offered, and accepted, and everything has gone back to normal. It’s not right, it’s not just, it’s not virtuous – in any sense. But we’ve got to pay the ransom. You would have hoped for a bit more financial reform, coming out of all that, at the very least. And now I really am done. Saying it five different ways is enough ways.

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Substance McGravitas 12.23.10 at 4:48 am

the dynamic and productive elements in society, that is to say, the banks

Did all banks benefit? How much money did they get to just keep? Were they advertised as dynamic and productive? What benefit to any business that government can offer to any small – if important! – group of companies would not qualify as trickle-down theory?

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StevenAttewell 12.23.10 at 6:34 am

john c. halasz – that’s it, I’m calling you out. Either name which liberals provided “little by way of effective opposition” and which provided “active support” or be proved just as reductive in your aggregation as Zizek. Same goes for piglet at 258.

It’s endless! Even in a thread the theme of which is an exploration of why tarring with too broad a brush is bad philosophizing.

John Quiggan – I think it shows that the term liberal would be perfectly acceptable if people would stop stretching the term in bad faith.

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andthenyoufall 12.23.10 at 7:06 am

I find Zizek and the things he doesn’t understand boring so I’ll try to derail this discussion back towards Marx.

(i) I think Marx’s position is analogous to the Hume/Rawls account of circumstances of justice (Geras makes this connection too), but not the same, because Marx thinks justice[1] is something different! (Rawls would say it’s a different concept of j., rather than a different conception.) On the Marxian concept of justice, justice is a sufficiently systematic attempt to explain/order/rationalize social relations characterized by exploitation. (Something like that.) So the relevant circumstances are that a society has enough division of labor and mutual dependence for exploitation, but not enough productive capacity that non-exploitative relations are possible. But Marx’s account of the circumstances of Marxian justice doesn’t tell us what he would think the appropriate circumstances are for a Rawlsian concept of justice, because it’s a different concept of justice! (And further, Marx explicitly thinks one shouldn’t ask questions like “how should society be arranged” as opposed to, “for whom is this arrangement beneficial or harmful.”)

(ii) On the subject of “psychologically healthy human beings”, I’m not sure whether your point, John, is (a) even once we are psychologically healthy, we still need to make arguments from the standpoint of the “ought”, or instead (b) to say that X is psychologically healthy is a sort of normative argument (to wit, and argument that we ought to want X). If the former: even if Marx thinks healthy people respond to normative considerations of the “ought” variety, he very cleverly avoids framing his argument around what people ought to do, and instead focuses on the class interests of proletarians (and to a lesser extent, the bourgeoisie).[2] If the latter: arguments about what people ought to want are very different from arguments about what they ought to do or to believe.

(iii) Why is the vision of a society returned to itself compelling? It depends on who you are. Like I said, alienation is a complicated concept into which Marx folds a lot of things (I’m thinking of the version in the 1844 mss.), so different people are the victims of different aspects of alienation. I haven’t personally been alienated from my body in the process of production for many years, but Marx would still argue that capitalism has stunted my aesthetic and moral capacities. Maybe that convinces me; or maybe I care about the poor little proletarian babies whose actual bodies are stunted. To turn you red (or at least pink), Marx needs to present an argument (at least one!) that meets three conditions: (a) the argument identifies a human good that is desirable (b) and describes how capitalism denies that good to a class of people, (c ) and that class includes you or people you care about.[3]

[1. I think Recht and Gerechtigkeit carried a stronger overtone of "legality" in 1848 than rights and justice do in 2010. But my German is poor, this may be wrong. Is anyone sitting next to a copy of Grundbegriffe?]

[2. This is a narrow claim about Marx. Marx is able to consistently condemn capitalism, in a way that should appeal to the proletariat and at least some other classes, without founding his condemnation on any claims about what one ought to do. There's no paradox of the sort Geras tries to conjure up.]

[3. So to answer you directly, John: One function of the "every" is to ensure you that you, yourself will develop your capacities. A second function is that it guarantees that everyone you care about will develop his or her capacities. A third function -- if you've bought Marx's argument that the development of each is the prerequisite for the full development of all -- is to ensure that all the necessary conditions for your own development will be met.]

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John Holbo 12.23.10 at 8:01 am

OK, this is interesting, andthenyoufall, so let’s stick with it.

“On the Marxian concept of justice, justice is a sufficiently systematic attempt to explain/order/rationalize social relations characterized by exploitation. (Something like that.) So the relevant circumstances are that a society has enough division of labor and mutual dependence for exploitation, but not enough productive capacity that non-exploitative relations are possible.”

It seems to me that explaining social relations/order, by itself, can’t be justice. Because the explanation might be: this is unjust, and here’s why. Diagnosis is not tantamount to health. Justice has to denote normatively ideal/optimal order. (By contrast, a theory of justice can be an explanation of this order.)

I think your sense of the Marxian conditions of justice is actually pretty much the same as the Humean or Rawlsian, it seems to me: goods neither so scarce or so plentiful that distribution of goods is a non-issue. Marx does not disagree with this. The reason why Marx does not specify conditions for Rawlsian justice is not that he has different conditions in mind but just that he doesn’t think Rawlsian justice is just. (He says something about how asking for justice under liberal democratic conditions is like asking for freedom under conditions of slavery.)

“And further, Marx explicitly thinks one shouldn’t ask questions like “how should society be arranged” as opposed to, “for whom is this arrangement beneficial or harmful.”

Here we come to it. I agree that Marx is quite explicit about this, but I think – Geras does to, and G.A. Cohen, and others – that it’s ultimately incoherent. It’s one of those moments when Marx mixes Hegelian historical relativism, inconsistently, with Hegelian nomative absolutism. Your way of putting it – which is accurate, in a Marxian exegetical sense, near as I can figure – produces a sort of ethical egoism, with social classes as the relevant agencies. But I don’t think Marxism should turn out to be a species of ethical egoism. I think it should turn out to be a doctrine of universalistic good and right. The alternative is that, in siding with the proletariat, Marx is 1) like Buridan’s Ass, picking one haystack when he might as well have picked another; or 2) a shrewd social climber. I say that Marx is neither Buridan’s Ass nor Becky Sharpe (who happens to calculate that this poor young man will eventually inherit the whole estate) – neither arbitrary nor self-dealing but a sincere altruist on behalf of humanity.

Re: your final point: “One function of the “every” is to ensure you that you, yourself will develop your capacities. A second function is that it guarantees that everyone you care about will develop his or her capacities.” But so far this might be egoism. “A third function—if you’ve bought Marx’s argument that the development of each is the prerequisite for the full development of all—is to ensure that all the necessary conditions for your own development will be met.” I think this is uncompelling rhetoric (albeit of an authentically Marxist sort). ‘No man is free until all men are free’ is not descriptively plausible. But ‘no man can justly be free on the condition of another’s slavery’ is normatively compelling. But not to an egoist.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.23.10 at 8:13 am

Because trickle-down economics is run-of-the-mill daily policy for assholes, while preventing the economic system of the world from collapsing was an emergency policy that (I think) needed to be done in one way or another.

Lol. The crucial difference between the daily “trickle-down” (for assholes) and world-saving “pour-down” (for all the right-thinking liberals) economics.

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Zamfir 12.23.10 at 9:39 am

[1. I think Recht and Gerechtigkeit carried a stronger overtone of “legality” in 1848 than rights and justice do in 2010. But my German is poor, this may be wrong. Is anyone sitting next to a copy of Grundbegriffe?]
I am not so sure about that. Recht without an article means “the law” as a system, but I don’t think any translator would translate that use as ‘right’. ‘Ein Recht’ is ‘a right’, with roughly the same legal and wider connotations as in English. Gerechtigkeit is also very close to justice, without a restriction to the established law.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.23.10 at 10:10 am

It seems to me that explaining social relations/order, by itself, can’t be justice. Because the explanation might be: this is unjust, and here’s why.

I think it’s stronger than that, I think that, as long as we are talking about explanations, ‘justice’, simply, is not a part of the equation.

He hypothesizes that evolution of modes of production will inevitably produce a different kind of social relations, communism. This still has nothing to do with justice; it’s all about systemic understanding.

And he was also an activist, organizer, with ideals, passions, all that; but that’s a different story.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.23.10 at 2:30 pm

FWIW: Whatever else may be said, Zizek is, here as at many other important points in his argumentation, needlessly opaque.

In this case, I think the problem is due to his using a similar ironic mode to Chomsky (‘of course, actions by the US are never lawless’, etc – in Chomsky’s case, it’s clear that these are ironic – often imperatives ‘x must not be described as y’. Chomsky’s problem is that they are strangely disembodied, everything in the passive voice: plenty of untruth, not much in way of lies and certainly no nailing of liars. It’s like a sex scene in a pre-’permissive’-era film. The difference is that in that case pretty much every adult viewer knows the couple are having it off, immediately grasps the physiology and motivations involved, etc. There is no chance that people will be left with the dim impression that all the fuss is actually in the end about not much more than a quick kiss and a juxtaposition of shoes.)

Zizek’s irony is certainly less transparent – it is, as the thread establishes I think, a bit unclear whether he might actually in some sense be endorsing some kind of trickle down (as an aside, btw, he also states quite clearly IIRC that the crisis was caused by state intervention to expand mortgage lending).

The most charitable (or chameleonic) reading gets something like the view canvassed above, passim – that within capitalism, big finance can’t be cut out of the deal. (We should note that BF has been at pains to make itself as indispensable as possible, of course.) Given capitalism, TINA.

But Z is caught in a dilemma here because There Was An Alternative. Contra (perhaps) Chris, and pace James K, the crisis exposed the corporate financial system for a short time to being broken – had someone with the will, the skill and the bloody-minded determination been in post (per impossibile, you may very well say – but that’s another question). For a short while, there was a bottleneck in the broad current of capitalist history, an insertion point for intervention.

The enemy was in disarray – uncoordinated, unprepared, discredited, and weakened. Nationalisation – a coup, no less – could have been pulled off (and if not then, when?). Reconfiguring the resulting state banks, entrenching them, everything else (…) would be presumably be hard to say the least but could be done at relative leisure. (I’m trying to work backwards through past presidents or PMs to think who, with a smallish team in support of course, might have fitted the bill – Callaghan? Anyone in C20th US at all?).

So Z must say either that (or, scope switch, that either) this is an illusory possibility – that capitalism did in fact as a matter of nomological possibility preclude this from happening (and then surely we need to pan back away from the fireplace and get into some seriously pornographic, ‘populist’ detail about the who, the how and the why), or that such a possibility is ruled out as a matter of definition, stipulation, concept – since the resulting system could not be properly described as capitalist. But if the latter, so what? Or indeed, doesn’t that mean it is to be welcomed, and isn’t it Z himself who now seems wed here to the preservation of capitalism (in opposition to which he defines himself), if only in imagination?

Because again, Z is not to be read only as describing the way things look to the likes of Obama, but how things actually are – or how they look to him, or us, or the ideal observer. He is not, I take it, just saying that from the point of view of those trapped in capitalist false conscousness, there seemed to be no alternative, but actually that in some important sense there actually was none, isn’t he? Otherwise, to say that according to capitalist ‘logic’ there was no possibility of nationalising the banks is pretty much just to say that capitalists don’t believe in nationalising banks, isn’t it?

But in any case, isn’t it a major failing that it should be at all difficult to decide this, being as it is a key moment in the analysis? If there is some subtle psycho-rhetorical strategem involved in leaving this so unclear, some dialectical ruction that contributes to Z’s ‘patient ideologico-critical work’, then it’s too subtle for me.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.23.10 at 2:41 pm

But please continue with the Marx strand, which is indeed more interesting.

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john c. halasz 12.23.10 at 3:33 pm

Well, piglet is basically right here. What’s wrong with the proposition that the “state of emergency” reveals what’s really up with the “normal” case? And the emergency was handled precisely in accordance with the theories/techno-structure that had led to the crisis, arsonists as firemen?

By the way, Holbo, I wasn’t getting ticked off by your account of the crisis. I was scoffing at your apparent ignorance and gullibility. It seems that you were among those who were surprised by the crisis that many had seen long building. (But you have an excuse that Bernanke, Paulson Geithner, et alia don’t). In retrospect, the U.S.housing bubble popped at the end of 2005 on a national index basis, (though obvious such markets are local). Calculated Risk call it in Feb. 2006: pretty sharp call. The more general credit bubble peak around March 2007. In May, 2 Bear Stearns hedge funds got into trouble and their bankruptcy touched off the credit crisis at the very end of July. (Check out the historical chart of the TED spread: below 50 bps. is normal, over 100 bps. is an indicator of distress). And, of course, Bear Stearns collapsed in March 2008. Word on the Street was that Lehman was next, and the Fed and Sec had regulators on the inside, but Lehman actually increased its ABCP borrowings in the interim. (Why was Bear rescued ans Lehman allowed to fail? Bear had a CDS book of notional 3 trillion and was taken over by J.P Morgan with a CDS book of 13 trillion; Lehman’s was merely 600 billion, so they thought they might get away with it. Amazingly, the CDS market held, if one ignores AIG, but there is little doubt that its margining requirements were a prime cause of the drain on liquidity). But it wasn’t simply the CP market that was at issue; as I pointed out Bernanke and Paulson made a stupid mistake there, which was corrected a week too late. Rather the crisis is generally characterized by most informed observers as a run on the “shadow banking system”, and it was especially the repo market that was the center of action, as “AAA” tranches that were being repoed at a 5% haircut suddenly could only be repoed at 50% or not at all. Nor is it clear that the problem was simply “TBTF” rather than too inter-connected to fail, which is still a question of ongoing debate.

So why then are you regurgitating official boilerplate? Is it that you think it is a purely nominalistic matter, without any underlying reality to be revealed? Or that you don’t realize that they are lying? The Fed announced in Dec. 2008 $1.75 trillion in QE purchases to begin in March mostly directed toward GSE mortgage bonds and their capitalization bonds, but also T-notes: support the mortgage market to prop up housing “values” and thereby help the banks. In March Geithner announces “stress tests” on the largest 19 financial institutions comprising 2/3 of all system-wide assets, maybe $8 trillion. The tests are conducted by 200 inspectors, (i.e. about 10 inspectors for every $400 billion in assets), and banks will be required to raise capital according to result. But that QE money printing injected into the markets has to go somewhere. (Check out the Bovespa chart starting in March). And, sure enough, the stock market rises off its bottom and by the time the results of the “stress tests” are announced in the end of May, the banks are able to sell new shares! It smells of an official fraud upon the public. Proof: Bernanke announces QE2 and explains it will have an effect by raising share prices.

According to Ken Rogoff, definitely a center-right snake, and the folks at the IMF, the most efficient, effective way to handle a major banking/financial crisis is to put the insolvent “institutions” into public receivership, replace boards and management, divide assets into a good bank and a bad bank, the latter to be owned by bondholders converted into equity, and publicly recapitalize the good bank. The eventual cost will be at least 5-6% of GDP, the fiscal costs higher upfront, though much will be recovered latter, and recovery faster. The indirect and direct costs of extend-and-pretend, “regulatory forbearance”, and subsidies and yield curve support to “privately” recapitalize banks will be vastly higher. So when the Obama administration says that Tarp is being repaid and costs little, they are baldly lying, once again. The reason they’re called “zombie banks”, (a term invented during the S&L crisis), is not just that they are dead, but they are sucking capital off of their economic environment. We will be paying for their policies with a long stagnation.

The likes of the Bush tax cuts were “justified” by a version of neo-classical growth theory, which claims that future GDP will be determined by rates of current investment. But the fallacy there is two-fold.1) There is nothing to say that tax cuts for the wealthy investor class will go to real productive investment, rather than just bidding up the extant stock of financial “assets”. Indeed, that is official doctrine, the “asset-based economy” will sustain sufficient consumption demand. During the stock bubble, it was even trumpeted as a new form of “popular capitalism”, despite the fact that 58% of stock equity is owned by the top 1%. (Which is why the stock market crash didn’t do so much economic damage, aside from a large amount of wasted real investment to go with some notably successful innovations: it was largely just a transfer of wealth among the upper crust. Whereas the housing bubble involves a hobbling of aggregate demand and a quasi-permanent lowering of living standards, since housing equity is the largest part of the net worth of the broad middle class). 2) There is nothing to say that the amount of money capital determines the productivity of real capital stocks. But, you see, capital is always in difficulties. If there is an over-supply of capital, the rate of profit logically is low, so impediments to investment must be removed. If there is an shortage of capital, capital will be too expensive and impediments to investment must be removed. Heads I win, tails you lose. It’s hard to see how the bail-outs are not entirely in accordance with the previous policy regime. You’re blowing smoke there.

As to the normative basis,- (which concerns, er, matters of truth, as well as, “justice”),- of Marx’ thought, you’re rather ignoring his conception of ideology, which is complex and not merely a matter of that classic couplet of political theory, force and fraud. Ideology is a matter of normative misrepresentation, such that some of the factual conditions for the application of the norm are suppressed, whereas other factual conditions are presented in detachment from their concealed power-relations, such that if the norm were “properly” applied to the full set of its factual conditions, it would not be the same norm, but an utterly transformed one. That’s partly an operation of hermeneutic recuperation of operative, but concealed “truth contents”, which ideology depends upon for its convincingness. Hence Marx largely relies on an “immanent criticism” of enlightened bourgeois ideology, showing how its formal claims to freedom, equality and universality, upon which the functioning of bourgeois society actually depends, are substantively belied at every turn. That revelation is supposed to provide motives for action toward a fuller substantive actualization of such norms. But not, of course, simply by leaping over functional realities into some ideal realm. Of course, since Marx is relying upon the legitimate claims of bourgeois ideology, one can ask, as did the Frankfurt School, what becomes of his prognostication when bourgeois ideology itself turns utterly cynical, as with the rise of fascism, or, indeed, nowadays, when sheer cynicism itself functions as the reigning ideology.

The other thing your badly missing is that whole recognition business that Marx takes from Hegel. Ego simply doesn’t exist without the relation to other; the social relation is primary and irremissible. That doesn’t mean that there is no conflict possible between ego and other; it’s called der Kampf um Anerkennung, after all. But it means that alienation in recognition will be registered one way or another on all sides. (It’s not really a psychological matter, but the inability to sustain such recognitions might be taken as a hallmark of “abnormal psychology”). But reconciliation in mutual recognition is not only the normative flip-side of alienation, but it amounts to an account of the generation of ethical norms in the first place, (as opposed to, say, deducing them from the pure rational will, which always wills itself). But it also means that “freedom” is as much a collective as an individual matter, that the freedom of one is bound up in the freedom of the other. (And there is a real sense in which the refusal or denial of recognition can do actual harm to the agency of another). And there is a qualitative difference between individual freedom in an unfree society and individual freedom where all are free.

Further, Marx never spoke in terms of “interests”, which is the sort of utilitarianism he despised. He only spoke in terms of capacities or powers. (Arbeitsvermoegen was translated as “labor-power”, but the word means power in the somewhat old-fashioned sense of the ability to do or be something, potential). There are a number of reasons why Marx emphasizes labor and production, but one of them is the quite Aristotelian notion that productive or fruitful self-activity in community with others is the hall-mark of the good life. It is the transformation of society from one where labor is drudgery in subjection to the dictates of another into one where labor is the free development of the vital capacities of each and all, (“free each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), that is at the core of Marx’ ethics. That incidently is why, in the Gotha passage cited above, Marx pooh-pahs the mere demand for higher wages/re-distribution of consumption incomes. There are political economy reasons having to due with the reproduction schema, and Marx is not opposed to higher wages and surely thinks workers should demand them. But also that they will not receive them without a struggle, and that very struggle leads on to “higher” things, namely a redistribution of the means-of-production and a reorganization of the conditions of labor and production, not mere an increase in the level of consumption, (which is, after all, partly in the capitalists’ own interest). One could argue that Marx overburdens ordinary working people with his “election” of them for a universal world-historical “mission”, but one can’t argue that he’s solely concerned with their class “interests”.

“Marx mixes Hegelian historical relativism, inconsistently, with Hegelian normative absolutism”. This itself is probably a confusion. Neither is an historicist relativist in the early 20th century sense. Aside from probably missing much of the subtlety of Hegel’s construction of the “absolute”, (which is after all an account of irrelative normative “truth”), recognizing that different historical societies operate according to different normative standards is an objective fact, not relativism, and does nothing to impugn (or endorse) the standards operative in one’s own historical society. Marx actually expends a good deal of rigor in deepening Hegel’s claim that philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought with his “materialist” turn, and he’s all too wedded to the enlightenment ideal of a progressive attainment of objective knowledge. But, as I said above, the idea of a trans-historical justice is essentially unfathomable. There is no reason why the undeserved happiness of future generations should derive from the sacrifices and sufferings of past generations and be considered just. (On the other hand, resentment at the future happiness of others is surely a source of reactionary sentiment). But Marx thinks that one can’t simply escape from history and historical processes by postulating an ahistorical ideal “morality” which is likely only to be a rationalization and projection of present conditions and their miseries. Still less could that be attained by leaping over functional realities in the name of abstract normativity. And he thinks the inevitability of capitalist “development” is overwhelming. And he conceives that what freedom there is in the current alienated and reified reality is best realized by being put to work in overcoming that historical “necessity”, with the very process of class-struggle and revolutionary praxis, however fantastically, being itself a collective Bildung. To be sure, one can postulate a conception of anamnestic solidarity, though that does not mean that the dead can actually be redeemed by future “glory”. Rather the point is to constitute an index of authentic progress, as opposed to the endless reproduction of the same, in the accumulation of material and technological means that serve as much as a means of domination and the artificial perpetuation of “necessity” as any genuine ends of amelioration and satisfaction.

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john c. halasz 12.23.10 at 5:04 pm

In moderation?

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Norwegian Guy 12.23.10 at 5:32 pm

In another connection, it occurs to me that your experience in Singapore, a non-liberal capitalist country, perhaps affects the degree to which you are willing to concede an inherent connection between capitalism and liberalism.

This could be continued: Perhaps Žižek’s experience in Slovenia, a liberal capitalist country, and Yugoslavia, a non-liberal non capitalist country, affects the degree to which he is willing to concede an inherent difference between capitalism and liberalism. I would think that in Eastern Europe, liberalism and neoliberalism have been very much connected, at least in the last two decades.

And while you can point to examples of 20th century liberals that where not neoliberals, this is much more difficult today. Is there any party, or politician, that would qualify? I don’t know much about Slovenian politics, but it seams to me that the Slovenian Liberal Democrats are pretty neoliberal, and that this is generally the case in Europe. Even in the USA, whether there is a difference between liberalism and neoliberalism depends a lot on how you define liberalism and neoliberalism. Is Jimmy Carter a liberal, a neoliberal, or both? Is Bernie Sanders a liberal, or a social democrat? Is Jens Stoltenberg a social democrat, a neoliberal, or both?

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StevenAttewell 12.23.10 at 5:50 pm

It’s actually not that hard, if we take the effort to actually look at who’s out there and who’s doing what:
- Jimmy Carter: neoliberal. Elected as a representative of the New Southern wing of the Democratic party, policy dominated by balanced budgets, tax reduction, deregulation. Opposed in Congress and for re-election by the liberal Kennedy wing of the party.
- Bernie Sanders: democratic socialist/social democrat. Sanders comes out of the Vermont Progressive Party, which advocates for single-payer, “empowerment of worker cooperatives and publicly-owned companies as democratic alternatives to multi-national corporations.” Importantly, Sanders self-identifies as a democratic socialist, and associates himself with the Scandinavian social democratic model as his ideal.

Jens Stoltenburg – depends on his policies and ideological statements. Not particularly familiar with this politician.

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Norwegian Guy 12.23.10 at 8:13 pm

But Ted Kennedy supported deregulation of the airlines and the trucking industry, perhaps the very beginning of neoliberalism. If someone proposed single-payer health care, with private hospitals, as US liberals are backing, they would be denounced as neoliberals in many European countries. In fact, I’ve seen right-wingers argue that, since Obama suports giving public money to insurance companies and private hospitals, the centre-left in Norway should be more open to such ideas. Of course, it is mostly because of pragmatism in a generally more right-wing political culture and path dependency supports would pass as neolberalism in Europe.

Stoltenberg was just a stand-in for probably all European social democratic prime ministers the last two or three decades. His first government, 2000-2001, was definitely neoliberal. It would be a stretch to describe the coalition government he has been heading since 2005 as neoliberal, but that might be because of being constrained by the two junior partners, the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party, which are both opposed to neoliberalism, and of moving to the left to pick up the base after losing the 2001 election. If he were given a free rein, neoliberalism would probably be the result.

People like Žižek generally considers mainstream European, including Scandinavian, social democracy (third way), as practised in the last few decades, as a prime example of neoliberalism, approximately the same as US New Democrats under Clinton and Obama. One could of course argue that this isn’t really social democracy, but when Gerhard Schröder was chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, that may not be an uncontroversial view. Not that I would agree with such a wide definition, but from the point of view of Slavoj Žižek, probably everyone to the right of say, Oskar Lafontaine, are neoliberals.

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andthenyoufall 12.23.10 at 9:06 pm

I specified the “lower bound” on the circumstances of Marxian justice as unexploitability rather than scarcity is because I don’t think unexploitability needs to imply scarcity, actually. Even if primitive communism were characterized by abundance, relative to the next historical stage (a gendered division of labor, iirc), it would still be true that the former wouldn’t need justice and the latter would. But I like this feature of Marx’s account because it makes the theory as a whole more historically resilient; it may not be germane to what we’re discussing.

“It’s ultimately incoherent” – incoherent in Marx, or in se? If when you say that Marxism “should turn out to be a doctrine of universalistic good and right”, you mean that it would be wonderful (morally speaking) and interesting (philosophically speaking) to have a DUGR that captures all of Marx’s insights and constitutes a compelling argument that one ought to support some kind of socialism, then I agree with you completely. If you mean that Marx is unable to condemn capitalism effectively without a DUGR (which is what Geras thinks), I disagree. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in expressing why I disagree, though, because you’ve read my interpretation as “Marx is an ethical egoist”, and that’s off. An appeal to someone’s self-interest doesn’t exhaust the realm of “what one ought to do”, even if you also believe (as Marx does) that a person who is moral in the sense that he cares about other people will approve of the results of the appeal in question. That is to say, the fact that Marx elects to appeal primarily to my self-interest, and secondarily to whatever interest I have in other people, doesn’t mean that he has to sell out sincere altruism for a mess of ethical egoism.

(Again, sincere altruism doesn’t contradict Marx’s theory, as he both carves out a little bit of space for altruists and provides considerations that they’ll find compelling {the same considerations that appeal to proletarians on a personal level}. Thus whether Marx thought that 19th c. society was bad for him personally, or instead merely cared about proletarians, or both, his personal stance is perfectly consistent with the philosophical positions he takes.)

I agree with you that a convincing normative argument that the freedom of each is the condition of the freedom of all would be more convincing than an unconvincing descriptive argument. You could convince me that the former is more plausible than the latter, and a more attainable goal, as well. But what Marx tries to argue (again, I have in mind the 1844 mss. here) is that it’s true descriptively… for example, that even if I have a nice apartment and health care, I still will suffer from bad taste, pettiness, selfishness, obsession with status, lack of originality, and other stunted capacities, which are all inevitable in a society in which the vast majority of people are wage-laborers, but not just for wage-laborers.

And now it’s time to get in the car for the holidays. Merry Christmas to all!

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john c. halasz 12.23.10 at 9:59 pm

O.K. Try again.

Well, piglet is basically right here. What’s wrong with the proposition that the “state of emergency” reveals what’s really up with the “normal” case? And the emergency was handled precisely in accordance with the theories/techno-structure that had led to the crisis, arsonists as firemen?

By the way, Holbo, I wasn’t getting ticked off by your account of the crisis. I was scoffing at your apparent ignorance and gullibility. It seems that you were among those who were surprised by the crisis that many had seen long building. (But you have an excuse that Bernanke, Paulson Geithner, et alia don’t). In retrospect, the U.S.housing bubble popped at the end of 2005 on a national index basis, (though obvious such markets are local). Calculated Risk call it in Feb. 2006: pretty sharp call. The more general credit bubble peak around March 2007. In May, 2 Bear Stearns hedge funds got into trouble and their bankruptcy touched off the credit crisis at the very end of July. (Check out the historical chart of the TED spread: below 50 bps. is normal, over 100 bps. is an indicator of distress). And, of course, Bear Stearns collapsed in March 2008. Word on the Street was that Lehman was next, and the Fed and Sec had regulators on the inside, but Lehman actually increased its ABCP borrowings in the interim. (Why was Bear rescued and Lehman allowed to fail? Bear had a CDS book of notional 3 trillion and was taken over by J.P Morgan with a CDS book of 13 trillion; Lehman’s was merely 600 billion, so they thought they might get away with it. Amazingly, the CDS market held, if one ignores AIG, but there is little doubt that its margining requirements were a prime cause of the drain on liquidity). But it wasn’t simply the CP market that was at issue; as I pointed out Bernanke and Paulson made a stupid mistake there, which was corrected a week too late. Rather the crisis is generally characterized by most informed observers as a run on the “shadow banking system”, and it was especially the repo market that was the center of action, as “AAA” tranches that were being repoed at a 5% haircut suddenly could only be repoed at 50% or not at all. Nor is it clear that the problem was simply “TBTF” rather than too inter-connected to fail, which is still a question of ongoing debate.

So why then are you regurgitating official boilerplate? Is it that you think it is a purely nominalistic matter, without any underlying reality to be revealed? Or that you don’t realize that they are lying? The Fed announced in Dec. 2008 $1.75 trillion in QE purchases to begin in March mostly directed toward GSE mortgage bonds and their capitalization bonds, but also T-notes: support the mortgage market to prop up housing “values” and thereby help the banks. In March Geithner announces “stress tests” on the largest 19 financial institutions comprising 2/3 of all system-wide assets, maybe $8 trillion. The tests are conducted by 200 inspectors, (i.e. about 10 inspectors for every $400 billion in assets), and banks will be required to raise capital according to result. But that QE money printing injected into the markets has to go somewhere. (Check out the Bovespa chart starting in March). And, sure enough, the stock market rises off its bottom and by the time the results of the “stress tests” are announced in the end of May, the banks are able to sell new shares! It smells of an official fraud upon the public. Proof: Bernanke announces QE2 and explains it will have an effect by raising share prices.

According to Ken Rogoff, definitely a center-right snake, and the folks at the IMF, the most efficient, effective way to handle a major banking/financial crisis is to put the insolvent “institutions” into public receivership, replace boards and management, divide assets into a good bank and a bad bank, the latter to be owned by bondholders converted into equity, and publicly recapitalize the good bank. The eventual cost will be at least 5-6% of GDP, the fiscal costs higher upfront, though much will be recovered latter, and recovery faster. The indirect and direct costs of extend-and-pretend, “regulatory forbearance”, and subsidies and yield curve support to “privately” recapitalize banks will be vastly higher. So when the Obama administration says that Tarp is being repaid and costs little, they are baldly lying, once again. The reason they’re called “zombie banks”, (a term invented during the S&L crisis), is not just that they are dead, but they are sucking capital off of their economic environment. We will be paying for their policies with a long stagnation.

The likes of the Bush tax cuts were “justified” by a version of neo-classical growth theory, which claims that future GDP will be determined by rates of current investment. But the fallacy there is two-fold.1) There is nothing to say that tax cuts for the wealthy investor class will go to real productive investment, rather than just bidding up the extant stock of financial “assets”. Indeed, that is official doctrine, the “asset-based economy” will sustain sufficient consumption demand. During the stock bubble, it was even trumpeted as a new form of “popular capitalism”, despite the fact that 58% of stock equity is owned by the top 1%. (Which is why the stock market crash didn’t do so much economic damage, aside from a large amount of wasted real investment to go with some notably successful innovations: it was largely just a transfer of wealth among the upper crust. Whereas the housing bubble involves a hobbling of aggregate demand and a quasi-permanent lowering of living standards, since housing equity is the largest part of the net worth of the broad middle class). 2) There is nothing to say that the amount of money capital determines the productivity of real capital stocks. But, you see, capital is always in difficulties. If there is an over-supply of capital, the rate of profit logically is low, so impediments to investment must be removed. If there is an shortage of capital, capital will be too expensive and impediments to investment must be removed. Heads I win, tails you lose. It’s hard to see how the bail-outs are not entirely in accordance with the previous policy regime. You’re blowing smoke there.

……………..

As to the normative basis,- (which concerns, er, matters of truth, as well as, “justice”),- of Marx’ thought, you’re rather ignoring his conception of ideology, which is complex and not merely a matter of that classic couplet of political theory, force and fraud. Ideology is a matter of normative misrepresentation, such that some of the factual conditions for the application of the norm are suppressed, whereas other factual conditions are presented in detachment from their concealed power-relations, such that if the norm were “properly” applied to the full set of its factual conditions, it would not be the same norm, but an utterly transformed one. That’s partly an operation of hermeneutic recuperation of operative, but concealed “truth contents”, which ideology depends upon for its convincingness. Hence Marx largely relies on an “immanent criticism” of enlightened bourgeois ideology, showing how its formal claims to freedom, equality and universality, upon which the functioning of bourgeois society actually depends, are substantively belied at every turn. That revelation is supposed to provide motives for action toward a fuller substantive actualization of such norms. But not, of course, simply by leaping over functional realities into some ideal realm. Of course, since Marx is relying upon the legitimate claims of bourgeois ideology, one can ask, as did the Frankfurt School, what becomes of his prognostication when bourgeois ideology itself turns utterly cynical, as with the rise of fascism, or, indeed, nowadays, when sheer cynicism itself functions as the reigning ideology.

The other thing your badly missing is that whole recognition business that Marx takes from Hegel. Ego simply doesn’t exist without the relation to other; the social relation is primary and irremissible. That doesn’t mean that there is no conflict possible between ego and other; it’s called der Kampf um Anerkennung, after all. But it means that alienation in recognition will be registered one way or another on all sides. (It’s not really a psychological matter, but the inability to sustain such recognitions might be taken as a hallmark of “abnormal psychology”). But reconciliation in mutual recognition is not only the normative flip-side of alienation, but it amounts to an account of the generation of ethical norms in the first place, (as opposed to, say, deducing them from the pure rational will, which always wills itself). But it also means that “freedom” is as much a collective as an individual matter, that the freedom of one is bound up in the freedom of the other. (And there is a real sense in which the refusal or denial of recognition can do actual harm to the agency of another). And there is a qualitative difference between individual freedom in an unfree society and individual freedom where all are free.

Further, Marx never spoke in terms of “interests”, which is the sort of utilitarianism he despised. He only spoke in terms of capacities or powers. (Arbeitsvermoegen was translated as “labor-power”, but the word means power in the somewhat old-fashioned sense of the ability to do or be something, potential). There are a number of reasons why Marx emphasizes labor and production, but one of them is the quite Aristotelian notion that productive or fruitful self-activity in community with others is the hall-mark of the good life. It is the transformation of society from one where labor is drudgery in subjection to the dictates of another into one where labor is the free development of the vital capacities of each and all, (“free each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), that is at the core of Marx’ ethics. That incidently is why, in the Gotha passage cited above, Marx pooh-pahs the mere demand for higher wages/re-distribution of consumption incomes. There are political economy reasons having to due with the reproduction schema, and Marx is not opposed to higher wages and surely thinks workers should demand them. But also that they will not receive them without a struggle, and that very struggle leads on to “higher” things, namely a redistribution of the means-of-production and a reorganization of the conditions of labor and production, not mere an increase in the level of consumption, (which is, after all, partly in the capitalists’ own interest). One could argue that Marx overburdens ordinary working people with his “election” of them for a universal world-historical “mission”, but one can’t argue that he’s solely concerned with their class “interests”.

“Marx mixes Hegelian historical relativism, inconsistently, with Hegelian normative absolutism”. This itself is probably a confusion. Neither is an historicist relativist in the early 20th century sense. Aside from probably missing much of the subtlety of Hegel’s construction of the “absolute”, (which is after all an account of irrelative normative “truth”), recognizing that different historical societies operate according to different normative standards is an objective fact, not relativism, and does nothing to impugn (or endorse) the standards operative in one’s own historical society. Marx actually expends a good deal of rigor in deepening Hegel’s claim that philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought with his “materialist” turn, and he’s all too wedded to the enlightenment ideal of a progressive attainment of objective knowledge. But, as I said above, the idea of a trans-historical justice is essentially unfathomable. There is no reason why the undeserved happiness of future generations should derive from the sacrifices and sufferings of past generations and be considered just. (On the other hand, resentment at the future happiness of others is surely a source of reactionary sentiment). But Marx thinks that one can’t simply escape from history and historical processes by postulating an ahistorical ideal “morality” which is likely only to be a rationalization and projection of present conditions and their miseries. Still less could that be attained by leaping over functional realities in the name of abstract normativity. And he thinks the inevitability of capitalist “development” is overwhelming. And he conceives that what freedom there is in the current alienated and reified reality is best realized by being put to work in overcoming that historical “necessity”, with the very process of class-struggle and revolutionary praxis, however fantastically, being itself a collective Bildung. To be sure, one can postulate a conception of anamnestic solidarity, though that does not mean that the dead can actually be redeemed by future “glory”. Rather the point is to constitute an index of authentic progress, as opposed to the endless reproduction of the same, in the accumulation of material and technological means that serve as much as a means of domination and the artificial perpetuation of “necessity” as any genuine ends of amelioration and satisfaction.

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StevenAttewell 12.23.10 at 10:35 pm

Ted Kennedy – yes, which placed him towards the center-right of American liberals at the time. Single-payer health care with mixed public/private provision is exactly how health care works in much of Europe, such as in Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, etc, so I don’t really buy that argument.

If Stoltenberg is as you describe him, then like Blair and Schroeder he’s an operational neoliberal.

And wouldn’t you suggest that that’s a flaw in Zizek’s writing that he can’t distinguish between the U.S Republican Party, the Schroeder/Blair tendency, and FDR?

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John Holbo 12.24.10 at 2:24 am

“So why then are you regurgitating official boilerplate?”

Because the question was: what was the official boilerplate? (‘Regurgitate’ seems like a funny way to say just ‘say’, but ok. People have their conversational eccentricities. ”Kant’s argument seems to be this,’ she regurgitated.’ Talk how you like, I guess.)

I’m sorry if you don’t like the original question. It wasn’t that interesting, I admit. Just me trying to hang Zizek up for having the official boilerplate wrong. Probably we shouldn’t have wrangled over it so long. But that doesn’t mean it was always already a different question than it actually was.

“Nor is it clear that the problem was simply “TBTF” rather than too inter-connected to fail, which is still a question of ongoing debate.”

TBTF is just short-hand for Too Big or Too Interconnected To Fail. That’s just what it is to be Too Big: you would drag too many others down with you. Mostly, that’s by being too interconnected. I don’t believe there really is debate about this.

““Marx mixes Hegelian historical relativism, inconsistently, with Hegelian normative absolutism”. This itself is probably a confusion. Neither is an historicist relativist in the early 20th century sense.”

That’s ok. I didn’t mean to say they were historical relativists in the early 20th Century sense.

“recognizing that different historical societies operate according to different normative standards is an objective fact, not relativism”

No. Being an objective fact does not make something inconsistent with relativism. This is just a form of relativism. It says that normative standards are relative to societies. It’s a perfectly ordinary and standard use of ‘relativism’.

“But it also means that “freedom” is as much a collective as an individual matter, that the freedom of one is bound up in the freedom of the other.”

I see this. I just don’t really buy it.

“Further, Marx never spoke in terms of “interests”, which is the sort of utilitarianism he despised.”

I don’t deny that he despised it. I just deny that he wasn’t, in some sense, committed to it. (Lots of people are committed to positions they despise. It’s one of those awkward things that happens.)

“But Marx thinks that one can’t simply escape from history and historical processes by postulating an ahistorical ideal “morality” which is likely only to be a rationalization and projection of present conditions and their miseries. “

I know he thinks this. That’s why I said andthenyoufall was right about that. I just think it produces awkward philosophical consequences: that Marx turns out to be either Buridan’s Ass or Becky Sharpe, as it were. Either he is arbitrarily taking sides or he is taking sides only with reference to his interests, given where he stands. (Again, I understand this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I just think it’s how it goes.)

Let me move on to andthenyoufall:

““It’s ultimately incoherent” – incoherent in Marx, or in se? If when you say that Marxism “should turn out to be a doctrine of universalistic good and right”, you mean that it would be wonderful (morally speaking) and interesting (philosophically speaking) to have a DUGR that captures all of Marx’s insights and constitutes a compelling argument that one ought to support some kind of socialism, then I agree with you completely. If you mean that Marx is unable to condemn capitalism effectively without a DUGR (which is what Geras thinks), I disagree. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in expressing why I disagree, though, because you’ve read my interpretation as “Marx is an ethical egoist”, and that’s off.”

I agree that Marx-as-ethical-egoist is a bit crude, but it gets at the problem I see with his position. I think that otherwise, you end up in a situation where Marx is hopping from foot to foot. In a sense he is condemning capitalism in the sense that the building inspector condemns the building: it’s gonna fall because the foundations are rotten. A ‘should’ follows from this, but a weak one. You ought not to stay in condemned buildings. That’s just description. In a sense he is condemning capitalism from the standpoint of the proletariat. But that’s just picking sides. I think he is crypto-normatively condemning capitalism in a more universal sense (in Habermasian terms). Obviously he is committed to this not being what he is doing. But I think he’s so clearly saying more – wanting to say more. Take this bit you write:

“it’s true descriptively… for example, that even if I have a nice apartment and health care, I still will suffer from bad taste, pettiness, selfishness, obsession with status, lack of originality, and other stunted capacities, which are all inevitable in a society in which the vast majority of people are wage-laborers, but not just for wage-laborers.”

But even that much requires the kind of universalist doctrine you are saying he lacks. Ultimately Marx’s account of value and human well-being cannot, itself, just be an expression of class interests, or what have you. But I don’t think we are really disagreeing so much at this point. We agree that there is a tension in his thought hereabouts that needs to be addressed one way or the other.

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john c. halasz 12.24.10 at 12:23 pm

“We agree that there is a tension in his thought hereabouts”

Ya. It’s called “dialectics”. You can’t just iron out the wrinkles and call it paid work.

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john c. halasz 12.24.10 at 12:38 pm

“It says that normative standards are relative to societies”

And where else would normative standards pertain? Do you think that there is a logic-machine up in the sky, which would descend upon you and provide them for you? Marx’ position, for all its defaults, is one of “embodied reason” and, yes, he thinks that his elected, beloved “proletariat” is the universal class. You can’t just translate other’s conceptual machinery into your own conceptual machinery and declare that’s it’s the only way it could BE conceptual machinery. That would be interpretive license!

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John Holbo 12.24.10 at 3:00 pm

“You can’t just iron out the wrinkles and call it paid work.”

But it’s Christmas!

More seriously: “You can’t just translate other’s conceptual machinery into your own conceptual machinery and declare that’s it’s the only way it could BE conceptual machinery.”

But you can criticize!

Merry X-Mas everyone!

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engels 12.24.10 at 4:03 pm

Enjoy!

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John Holbo 12.25.10 at 2:51 am

Enjoy your presents (in a Lacanian sense!)

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john c. halasz 12.25.10 at 5:26 am

“Enjoy” as an imperative is a really odd sort of speech-act: absurd, self-stultifying, if not worse. (That might constitute a criticism of Lacan). Enjoy your presence, everybody! As Dr. Nick Rivera from the Simpsons might say. Or have a very, very, merry, merry hiatus, for all you stray atheists out there!

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Norwegian Guy 12.25.10 at 4:34 pm

And wouldn’t you suggest that that’s a flaw in Zizek’s writing that he can’t distinguish between the U.S Republican Party, the Schroeder/Blair tendency, and FDR?

Oh, certainly. It’s a major flaw. But for many on the far left, they are almost the same.

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StevenAttewell 12.25.10 at 5:01 pm

Which is a flaw of the far left.

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engels 12.25.10 at 8:54 pm

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Gene O'Grady 12.25.10 at 9:06 pm

If I were translating something like “enjoy your presents” into Latin, I’m pretty sure I would use a hortatory subjunctive rather than an imperative. Seems more like a wish than a command.

Not a distinction that is always made in English, particularly since the “literal” translations of the subjunctive — “May you enjoy your presents” — aren’t idiomatic English.

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