The Great Leveler: Review (Part 2)

The Rise of the “Original One Percent”

Part One

With the rise of more complex protostates with hereditary leaders, bureaucratic institutions and a monopoly of violence out of sedentary, kinship-based societies, inequality took a major step up. No longer did customary kinship, rights, duties, debts, obligations, affinity and social ties bind people together, but rather things like class, occupation, place of residence, assets, and so on. No longer was the extended clan (gens) the basic unit of society, but households under the organs of a state. What had started out as voluntary redistributive authority soon became compelled and confiscatory, as the newly formed managerial class asserted their rights over what once been held in common. New laws permitted this. Inheritance rights allowed wealth to be passed down through the generations. Reciprocity, redistribution and corvée labor were replaced by taxation, slavery, usury, and wages.

Protostates first formed in the great river valleys of the world where some form of domesticated grain was the primary foodstuff. This led to the “cereal hypothesis”–that cereal cultivation, especially under irrigation, was the most conductive to state formation (all quotes from the book unless noted otherwise).

A new global survey suggests that the cultivation of cereals played a critical role in the development of more complex social hierarchies. Unlike perennial roots, which are continuously available but rot quickly, grain crops are gathered en masse only at specific harvest times and are suitable for longer-term storage. Both of these features made it easier for elites to appropriate and hold on to surplus food resources. States first arose in those parts of the world that had first developed agriculture: once plants–and above all cereals–and animals had been domesticated, sooner or later humans shared their fate, and inequality escalated to previously unimaginable heights. p. 42

Not all early states were alike, and centralized polities coexisted with more “heterarchical” or corporate forms of political organization. Even so, centralized authoritarian states commonly outcompeted differently structured rivals. They appeared independently around the world wherever ecological preconditions allowed, in the Old World as well as the Americas and across a wide range of environments from the alluvial floodplains of Egypt and Mesopotamia to the highlands of the Andes. Defying this considerable diversity of context, the best-known among them developed into strikingly similar entities. All of them witnessed the expansion of hierarchies in different domains, from the political sphere to the family and religious belief systems–an autocatalytic process whereby “the hierarchical structure itself feeds back on all societal factors to make them more closely into an overall system that supports the authority structure.” Pressure in favor of increasing stratification had an enormous effect on moral values, for the residue of ancestral egalitarianism was replaced by the belief in the merits of inequality and acceptance of hierarchy as an integral element of the natural and cosmic order. p. 44

Irrigation works have also been associated with state formation, as observed long ago by Wittfogel:

During the four thousand years before Christ, in the great river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, the state took on the function of building grand hydraulic works, which in turn required centralized managerial bureaucracies to operate. Whoever controlled those means of production–in such cases it was a group of agromanagerial experts–became perforce the effective ruling class. The common techno-environmental basis in all those ancient Oriental civilizations, giving rise to similar social structures in them, was water control, mainly a program of irrigation made necessary by inadequate or unseasonal or undependable rainfall…

WigWams, Wittfogel, and Joan Didion: All in One Post (The Atlantic)

Another critical factor is writing, or at least some form of permanent recordkeeping. Ran Prieur comments: “It’s suspicious that we have no written record of a non-repressive large scale society. Did the world get fucked up by writing?” More than likely, the answer to that question is “yes”. Ownership and debt could now be preserved, far beyond the limits of human memory (where generalized reciprocity is based), and those who did the preserving–the literate cultural elite–became the rulers of society.

it would not be too strong to assert that it is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping, even if it took the Inka form of strings of knots (quipu). The first condition of state appropriation (for whatever purpose) must be an inventory of available resources—population, land, crop yields, livestock, storehouse stocks… As appropriation proceeds, continuous record keeping is required—of grain deliveries, corvée labor performed, requisitions, receipts, and so on. Once a polity comprises even a few thousand subjects, some form of notation and documentation beyond memory and oral tradition is required. The earliest administrative tablets from Uruk (Level IV), circa 3,300–3,100 BCE, are lists, lists, and lists—mostly of grain, manpower, and taxes… James C. Scott; Against The Grain, pp. 121-122

In addition to the servile class at the bottom, a literate managerial class formed at the top. Everywhere slavery, laws and writing come into place, the kinship-based society is weakened in favor of the chiefdoms. Now class, occupation, and place of residence take precedence old ties of kinship. The new state coalesces under some sort of priest-king.

Almost always, one member of the new elite made himself a king over all the others, but to hang onto his throne, he invariably had to form broader coalitions, turning would-be rivals into supporters. To coopt these near-peers, the ruler normally confirmed them as aristocrats with legal title to huge estates, and to make themselves indispensable to the ruler, his noblemen normally repackaged themselves as useful specialists in religion, law, letters, or war. Working together, these different kinds of elites could coordinate the larger society’s activities by raising taxes, enforcing laws, performing rituals, fighting neighbors, suppressing uprisings, and all of the other government activities that fill the annals of ancient and medieval history. Ian Morris; Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, pp. 65-66.

What is the state? Fukuyama defines it with these characteristics: (1) There is a centralized source of authority, whether in the form of a king, president or prime minister. (2) That source of authority is backed by a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion, in the form of an army and/or police. (3) The authority of the state is territorial rather than kin-based, (4) States are more stratified and unequal than tribal societies, and (5) States are legitimized by much more elaborate forms of religious belief, with a separate priestly caste as its guardian. The form this state takes varies: “Sometimes [the] priestly caste takes power directly, in which case the state is a theocracy, sometimes it is controlled by the secular ruler, in which case it is labeled caesaropapist, and sometimes it coexists with secular rule under some form of power sharing.” (Origins of Political Order, p. 81). As Napoleon noted, “I do not see in religion the mystery of the incarnation so much as the mystery of the social order. It introduces into the thought of heaven an idea of equalization, which saves the rich from being massacred by the poor.” (i.e. Religion keeps the poor from killing the rich.)

Scheidel describes it thus:

Modern scholars have come up with a wide variety of definitions that seek to capture the quintessential features of statehood. Borrowing elements of several of them, the state can be said to represent a political organization that claims authority over a territory and its population and resources and that is endowed with a set of institutions and personnel that perform governmental functions by issuing binding orders and rules and backing them up with the threat or exercise of legitimized coercive measures, including physical violence.

There is no shortage of theories to explain the emergence of the earliest states. The putative driving forces are all in some way predicated on economic development and its social and demographic consequences: gains that the well-positioned reaped from the control of trade flows, the need to empower leaders to manage the problems arising from growing population densities and more complex relations of production and exchange, class conflict over access to the means of production, and the pressures created by military conflict over scarce resources that favored scaling up, hierarchy, and centralized command structures p. 43

Whatever the fundamental cause of state formation, everywhere it happened the effect was the same: “Premodern state formation separated a small ruling class from the mass of primary producers.” (p. 46):

Unequal access to income and wealth preceded the formation of the state and contributed to its development. Yet once established, governmental institutions in turn exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones. Premodern states generated unprecedented opportunities for the accumulation and concentration of material resources in the hands of the few, both by providing a measure of protection for commercial activity and by opening up new sources of personal gain for those most closely associated with the exercise of political power. In the long run, political and material inequality evolved in tandem…p. 43

In principle, institutions could have flattened emerging disparities through interventions designed to rebalance the distribution of material resources and the fruits from labor, as some premodern societies are indeed reputed to have done. In practice, however, social evolution commonly had the opposite effect… p. 5… Very broadly speaking, after our species had embraced domesticated food production and its common corollaries, sedentism and state formation, and had acknowledged some form of hereditary property rights, upward pressure on material inequality became a given–a fundamental feature of human social existence…p. 10

Everywhere they occurred, centralized states led to greater and greater inequality over time. The managerial class set themselves apart and diverted large portions of their society’s surplus to themselves. If there is one overriding theme throughout the book, it is that early elites converted political power into private wealth. Very generally, in modern society, wealth leads to status, which leads to power. In ancient societies, status led to power, which led to wealth. There was no merchant or producer class that was able amass huge fortunes before mercantilism and mass-production industrialism:

In smaller and less hierarchical polities such as tribes or Big Man collectivities [sic], the status of leaders depended in no small measure on their ability and willingness to share their bounty with the entire community. The ruling classes of agrarian states and empires generally enjoyed greater autonomy.

Notwithstanding occasional and well-publicized displays of largess, the flow of redistribution tended to be reversed, further enriching the few at the expense of the many. The elite’s collective capacity to extract surplus from primary producers determined the proportion of overall resources that was available for appropriation, and the balance of power between state rulers and various elite groups decided how these gains were apportioned among state coffers, the private accounts of state agents, and the estates of the landed and commercial wealth elite. p. 49-50

For a book that has often been touted by right-wingers, Scheidel is not sympathetic at all to the original one percent, portraying them as rank opportunists misusing their power to fleece society through means such as rent-seeking, graft and corruption. At times his analysis is almost Marxist in tone. In some of the more memorable passages of chapter one, he writes:

Reduced to essentials, history has known only two ideal typical modes of wealth acquisition: making and taking…The advent of surplus-production, domestication, and hereditary property rights paved the way for the creation and preservation of personal fortunes… p. 48

Political integration not only helped expand markets and lowered at least some transaction and information costs: the pervasive power asymmetries that commonly characterized premodern polities all but ensured an uneven playing field for economic actors. Fragile property rights, inadequate rule enforcement, arbitrary exercise of justice, the venality of state agents, and the paramount importance of personal relationships and proximity to sources of coercive power were among the factors likely to skew outcomes in favor of those in the upper reaches of the status pyramid and those profitably connected to them. This would have been true in even greater measure of various forms of “taking” that were available to members of the ruling class and their associates. p 48

Rents from access to political power are not exclusive to low levels of development. A recent study of dozens of super-rich entrepreneurs in Western countries shows how they benefited from political connections, exploited loopholes in regulation, and took advantage of market imperfections. In this respect, the difference between advanced democratic market economies and other types of states is a matter of degree…In the most general terms, there can be little doubt that personalized political connections and favors made a much larger contribution to elite wealth than they do in developed countries today…Russian credit card tycoon Oleg Tinkov’s description of his peers–“temporary managers of their assets–they are not real owners”–applies in equal measure to the precarious standing of many of their predecessors from ancient Rome and China to the monarchies of early modern Europe . p. 51

With the rise of the managerial state, Schiedel determines one critical source of income inequality: Rents from access to political power. Wikipedia describes rent-seeking activities this way:

…Rent-seeking implies extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. The classic example of rent-seeking…is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is not adding value in any way, directly or indirectly, except for himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free.

In agrarian societies a pattern emerges. Asymmetries in wealth and property become institutionalized. This goes hand-in-hand with political office. Based on Schiedel’s account, those who ascended to positions of political power and influence were able to appropriate the society’s productive surplus. That is, elites were able to use their authority and rule-making powers to allocate wealth and property to themselves. Most of this was not due to inventiveness or increased productivity, or even through “hard work” (that was done by the farmers), but through some form of rent-seeking activity. As he notes:

The more that personal fortunes depended on access to political rents, the more income from labor–at least if we can define corruption, embezzlement, extortion, military plunder, vying for benefactions, and taking over the assets of rivals as forms of labor–would have mattered than it did for entrepreneurial or renter investors of capital in more orderly and pacified societies …income of this nature could be a major, and at times perhaps even the principal, determinant of elite standing. This was true in particular of early, archaic states whose upper classes relied more on state-sponsored claims to rents in goods and labor services than on returns on private assets. These entitlements qualify the conventional distinction between income from capital and income from labor and once again underline the critical importance of political power relations in creating the original “1 percent.” p. 52-53

Based on Scheidel’s descriptions throughout the book, I would categorize the the major means by which “the original one percent” was created this way:

1. Privatization, Appropriation/Expropriation and Enclosure/Dispossession: As Emil de Laveleye expressed, “There is no doubt that, in primitive societies, the soil was regarded as the collective property of the tribe.” As kinship societies became class-based, however, land gradually became privatized. This was accomplished by a number of ways: seizing common land, acquisition by debt and foreclosure, privatization of ownership rights, or simply taking over rival territories and parceling out the land to politically connected insiders or military veterans. Creeping normality would do the rest.

The terms are quite similar, but there are a few distinctions. Appropriation means to set aside something for a specific use, such as an appropriations bill, which sets aside money for a specific purpose. Temple lands in ancient Sumeria, for example, were appropriated, as was corvée labor. However, appropriation does not necessarily mean changing ownership. For example, I can appropriate someone else’s writing style, but that does not mean the original owner cannot use it anymore.

Expropriation does mean depriving someone of possession of an asset. For example, a government expropriating land to build an airport. Often appropriation is a preliminary step to expropriation.

Privatization is the transfer in ownership of an asset that was formerly publicly held and commonly managed to being owned by a specific individual, family, or corporation. This can be done by expropriation, or through agreement or legislation. Enclosure can be thought of as a specific type of privatization. It is the closing off of formerly public lands by the assertion of individual ownership rights. This process is described in Marxism as “primitive accumulation.” Michael Hudson notes in Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient World:

The irony is that the most archaic urban areas evolved out of gathering sites, which were the prototypical public spaces–public in the sense of not being controlled by any individual, family, or clan (or even “the state” ). Yet by the end of antiquity, urban real estate was well on its way co the modern situation in which it has become the largest privately owned economic asset. pp. 64-65

Growing expropriation is already observed as far back as ancient Sumeria, where the management of temples estates soon led the way to using religious office as a way to accumulate wealth and trap people in debt repayments. Priests ran temples as their personal estates along with their extended family. This transfer of land from public to private is summarized by Scheidel:

Fairly egalitarian modes of land ownership were once common in many of the regions that later came to host large empires. Among the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia, one of the earliest civilizations known from written sources that date back more than 5,000 years, much farmland used to be controlled by extended patrilineal families of commoners who worked it as communal holdings. This type of ownership was also typical in early China, in the Shang and Western Zhou periods in the second millennium BCE, at a time when private land sales were supposedly inadmissible.

In the Valley of Mexico in the Aztec period, most land was held and cultivated by calpotin, corporate groups whose holdings combined family fields with common land. The former were sometimes periodically reconfigured to take account of changes in family size. The same was true of the ayllukuna in the Peruvian highlands of the Inca period, endogamous groups that assigned parcels at different altitudes to individual member families and regularly adjusted them to ensure an equitable distribution. Arrangements such as these imposed a powerful constraint on the concentration and commercial exploitation of land.

Over time, however, inequality grew as capitalholders acquired land and political leaders superimposed tributary structures on existing holdings. By the time Sumerian documentation expanded in the course of the third millennium BCE, we already encounter temples that held large amounts of land and worked it with their own institutional labor force, and we see nobles who had somehow amassed larger holdings as well.

Privatization of lineage land was possible as long as other group members agreed to it. Debt served as a potent instrument of converting surplus income into additional land: high annual interest rates of up to a third frequently compelled customary owners who had taken out loans to cede their holdings to creditors and might even condemn them to servitude if they had pledged themselves as collateral. This process created both large estates and a landless workforce to cultivate them...Privatization, in turn, reduced traditional social obligations to clients and supporters: the fewer costly social responsibilities were attached to private property, the more attractive it would have become to investors.

A variety of social statuses developed to cater to the labor needs of capital owners, such as sharecroppers and debt bondsmen, with slavery, a more primordial type of subordination, added to the mix. Analogous processes could be observed 4,000 years later, but at a comparable level of socioeconomic development, among the Aztecs, where rural debt and recourse to landless serfs and slaves sustained growing inequality.

The practices of state rulers provided both a model for, and also often the means or, encroachment. Sumerian kings sought to obtain land for themselves and their associates and insinuated themselves into the operation of temple estates to gain control over their assets…p. 54

Land was commonly parceled out by victorious leaders and warlords to their followers as a reward for service (see also, booty capitalism, below), as Schiedel notes:

…Considered the first “true” empire in history if we define empire in terms not merely of size but also of multiethnic heterogeneity, asymmetric core-periphery relations, and abiding local traditions of distinction and hierarchy, [the Akkadian kingdom] exercised power over diverse societies from northern Syria into western Iran… Local citystate kings were replaced by Akkadian governors, and large amounts of land ended up in the hands of the new rulers and their senior agents. Because much of the most productive farmland was held by temples, rulers either had it confiscated or appointed relatives and officials as priests to assume control of these resources. A new imperial ruling class that transcended the internal divisions of this far·flung realm accumulated large estates. Appropriated land, handed over to officials, was used to support them and to reward their own clients and subordinates, some of whom were known as “the select.” Later tradition expressed loathing for “the scribes who parceled out farmland in the steppe,” The beneficiaries of state grants further added to their holdings by purchasing private land…

…State-directed allocation of material resources to members of the political elite and administrative personnel converted political inequality into income and wealth inequality. It directly and immediately reproduced power asymmetries in the economic sphere.

The delegational nature of rule in premodern stares required rulers to share gains with their agents and supporters as well as with preexisting elites…Land grants were an almost universal means of rewarding key associates, being handed out by the chiefs of Hawai’i and the god-kings of Akkad and Cuzco, by Egyptian Pharaohs and Zhou emperors, by the kings of medieval Europe and by Charles V in the New World. Attempts to make these prebendal estates hereditary within the families of the initial beneficiaries and eventually tum them into private property were an almost inevitable consequence. p. 57

On that note, it’s not just land, but labor, too, that was commonly appropriated by various local elites, as Michael Hudson describes:

Throughout history local authorities have sought to divert labor for their own purposes. Sometimes the central authority deters this power grabbing, as in England’s Star Chamber in the 16th and 17th centuries against aggressive local nobility. But the Bronze Age “Intermediate Period” saw central power wane vis-a-vis that of local clan heads, cheiftains and “big-men” …Palaces remained dependent on local officials or contractors to supply labor, resulting in a political tug of war. Assyriologists have found a similar reliance of Ur III and Babylonian rulers on local clan heads or lu-gal “big-men” acting as contractors to supply labor and military support, especially in Mesopotamian “intermediate periods.” Labor in the Ancient World PP. 654-655

The land ownership pattern in England today dates back to patterns laid down during the Norman conquest:

…when confronted with years of rebellion after his initial victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror switched to a policy of systematic expropriation.The ensuing massive transfers greatly increased the crown’s share of all land and placed fully half of all land in the hands of some 200 nobles, half of it held by ten close associates of the new king. Despite their privileged position, the latter ended up somewhat less extravagantly rich than the previous earls had been, whereas the other barons were on average much better off than most of the previous thanes had been. This violent redistribution reached deep into the ranks of the English elite: by the time of the Domesday Book survey of 1086, landowners who can unambiguously be identified as English held only 6 percent of the land by surface or 4 percent by value, and although their actual share may well have been greater, there is no doubt that Norman nobles had largely taken over…pp. 200-201

2. Graft, bribes, corruption, extortion, and political favors from holding high office: In ancient times, positions were based on one’s personal relationship to the ruler; there was no distinct “office” apart from the individual who held it. Your position in the hierarchy determined how much you could exploit those beneath you:

Participation in governance opened up access to income from formal compensation , benefactions of rulers and other superiors, and the solicitation of bribes, embezzlement, and extortion, and it often also provided shelter from taxation and other obligations. Senior military positions might be rewarded with a share of war booty. What is more, direct service for the state was not even a necessary prerequisite. Ties of kinship, intermarriage, and other alliances with officeholders could yield commensurate benefits. Moreover, considering the often rather limited infrastructural power of the state, personal wealth and local influence made it easier to shield not only one’s own assets from state or community demands but also those of friends and clients–in exchange for other benefits. If necessary, tax quotas could be met by shifting additional burdens onto the powerless. p. 49

Religion has been used as a means to wealth from ancient times. From the money changers of the Hebrew temple, to the indulgences of the Catholic Church to today’s “prosperity gospel” televangelists in the U.S., religion has always been a money-making enterprise. Corruption was endemic in ancient Sumeria, the very first extensively recorded civilization:

Temple administrators intermingled management of institutional assets with their own. Graft, corruption and force were already well-established means of appropriation. Sumerian cuneiform records from the city of Lagash in the twenty-fourth century BCE show that the local kings and queens took over temple land and the workers attached to it; that aristocrats acquired land by foreclosing on high-interest loans; that officials misused state assets such as boats and fishing grounds, overcharged for basic services such as funerals and sheep shearing, withheld wages from workers, and generally filled their pockets through corruption; and that the wealthy stole fish from poor men’s ponds. Whatever the merits of some of these allegations, the overall impression is that of a particular type of governance that encouraged encroachment aided by the exercise of power for personal benefit. p. 54

Similarly, in the Roman Empire:

The richest provincials joined the central imperial ruling class, eager to claim rank and attendant privilege and capitalize on the opportunities for further enrichment they offered. A survey of Roman literature has found that epithets of wealth were almost exclusively applied to senators of consular rank, who enjoyed the most favor and the best access to additional riches. Formal status ordering was grounded in financial capacity, and membership in the three orders of the state class-senators, knights, and decurions-was tied to staggered census thresholds. pp. 75-77

And in Han Dynasty China:

Great wealth accrued from favoritism and corruption: several imperial chancellors and other very senior officials were said to have accumulated wealth on par with the largest recorded fortunes overall. In the later stages of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the lucrative nature of top offices came to be reflected in the prices at which they could be purchased. Legal privilege shielded corrupt officials with growing generosity. Officials above a certain pay grade were not to be arrested without prior approval of the emperor, and similar protections extended to sentencing and punishment. p. 65

3. Military conquest and war profiteering: War for private profit has a long pedigree. Ancient Near Eastern rulers conquered new lands and enslaved the populations. Alexander the Great claimed he invaded Persia for revenge, but in reality, it’s likely he needed the money. Julius Caesar, too, needed to pay off his debts. James Scott desrcibes Max Weber’s theory of “booty capitalism”:

“Booty capitalism” simply means, in the case of war, a military campaign the purpose of which is profit. In one form, a group of warlords might hatch a plan to invade another small realm, with both eyes fixed on the loot in, say, gold, silver, livestock, and prisoners to be seized. It was a “joint-stock company,” the business of which was plunder. Depending on the soldiers, horses, and arms that each of the conspirators contributes to the enterprise, the prospective proceeds might be divided proportionally to each participant’s investment. The enterprise is, of course, fraught, inasmuch as the plotters (unless they are merely financial backers) potentially risk their lives…In many cases—in early Southeast Asia and in imperial Rome—war was seen as a route to wealth and comfort. Everyone from the commanders down to the individual soldier expected to be rewarded with his share of the plunder…James C. Scott; Against the Grain, p. 144

Similarly, in ancient Greece and Rome, conquering foreign lands was a route to wealth:

…Warfare was a similarly, if not more, important source of elite income. Roman commanders enjoyed complete authority over war booty and decided how to divide it among their soldiers, their officers and aides who had been drawn from the elite class, the state treasury, and themselves. Based on the number of military theaters and wars, it has been estimated that in the years between 200 and 30 BCE. at least a third of the 3,000- odd senators who lived in this period had a chance to enrich themselves in this fashion. p. 73

The Pentagon Can’t Account for $21 Trillion (That’s Not a Typo) (TruthDig)

4. Usury, foreclosure and loan-sharking: David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is the definitive book on this topic. In it he wonders how something as amoral as enslaving people with debt is commonly seen by most people as moral“surely one must pay one’s debts,” after all. Perhaps it comes from the hijacking of our innate notions of reciprocity and fairness by elites through a twisting of moral logic. In any case, Graeber writes of the origin of debt:

We don’t know precisely when and how interest-bearing loans originated, since they appear to predate writing. Most likely, Temple administrators invented the idea as a way of financing the caravan trade. This trade was crucial because while the river valley of ancient Mesopotamia was extraordinarily fertile and produced huge surpluses of grain and other foodstuffs, and supported enormous numbers of livestock, which in turn supported a vast wool and leather industry, it was almost completely lacking in anything else. Stone, wood, metal, even the silver used as money, all had to be imported. From quite early times, then, Temple administrators developed the habit of advancing goods to local merchants-some of them private, others themselves Temple functionaries-who would then go off and sell it overseas. Interest was just a way for the Temples to take their share of the resulting profits. However, once established, the principle seems to have quickly spread.

Before long, we find not only commercial loans, but also consumer loans-usury in the classical sense of the term. By c. 2400 BC it already appears to have been common practice on the part of local officials, or wealthy merchants, to advance loans to peasants who were in financial trouble on collateral and begin to appropriate their possessions if they were unable to pay. It usually started with grain, sheep, goats, and furniture, then moved on to fields and houses, or, alternately or ultimately, family members. Servants, if any, went quickly, followed by children, wives, and in some extreme occasions, even the borrower himself. These would be reduced to debt-peons: not quite slaves, but very close to that, forced into perpetual service in the lender’s household-or, sometimes, in the Temples or Palaces themselves. In theory, of course, any of them could be redeemed whenever the borrower repaid the money, but for obvious reasons, the more a peasant’s resources were stripped away from him, the harder that became.
David Graeber; Debt, the first 5,000 Years, pp. 64-65

In fact, the earliest texts make no distinction between servants (who work for pay), bonded labor (who work to pay off a debt, real or imagined), and chattel slaves (who are owned outright). Perhaps there really was no distinction to be made.

5. Tax farming and the holding of high political office: Tax farming was the practice of privatized tax collection in the ancient world that persisted until relatively modern times. This “entrepreneurial” approach to collecting taxes was rife with corruption and entitlement. Scheidel describes the role this played in elite wealth accumulation:

In addition to grants of land and labor, participation in the collection of state revenue was another important pathway to power-based elite enrichment. This process is so well attested that a long book could, and indeed should, be devoted to it. To name just one lesser-known example, in the Oyo empire, a large Yoruba state in West Africa in the early modern period, petty kings and subordinate chiefs gathered at local tribute-taking centers before they converged on an annual festival at the capital. Tribute in the form of cowrie shells, livestock, meat, flour, and construction materials was presented to the king through the intermediation of officials who had been appointed to act as patrons for particular groups of tribute-bearers and who were entitled to a share of the proceeds in exchange for their troubles. Needless to say, formal entitlements frequently accounted for only a modest portion of the personal income that fiscal agents derived from their service. p. 58

Governance was a key route to riches in the highly privatized Roman Empire:

Great wealth accrued from state administration outside Italy, and Roman-style governance was highly conducive to exploitation. Provincial administration was highly lucrative, and rent-seeking behavior was only weakly constrained by laws and courts set up to prosecute extortion: alliance-building and rent-sharing among the powerful provided insurance against indictment.

Moreover, at a time when annual interest rates of 6 percent were common in Rome itself, wealthy Romans imposed rates of up to 48 percent on provincial cities, which were in desperate need of money to satisfy the demands of their governors. Members of the equestrian order benefited from the widespread practice of tax farming, as the right to collect certain taxes in a particular province were auctioned off to consortia that then proceeded to do what they could to turn a profit.

This intimate association of personal wealth and political power was faithfully replicated at the local level. The mature Roman empire consisted of some 2,000 largely self-governing urban or differently organized communities that were loosely overseen–and opportunistically fleeced–by itinerant governors and small cares of elite officials and imperial freedmen and slaves who were mostly concerned wiht fiscal matters. Each city was normally run by a council that represented the local wealth [sic] elite. These bodies, whose members were formally constituted as decurions, were in charge not only of local taxation and expenditure but also of assessing their communities’ wealth for Roman state taxation, and they were responsible for raising funds that were to be handed over to collectors and tax farmers…The net result was an intensely stratified society in which the richest 1 percent or 2 percent absorbed much of the surplus beyond bare subsistence…pp. 75-77

7. Government-awarded monopolies and the sale of offices: Schiedel does not mention this, but I should note that one common form of rent-seeking for archaic governments were national monopolies. The most famous of these was probably to Royal salt monopoly in France, and the Gabelle tax it created:

Government monopolies, such as salt (which was part of the general farms) and recently introduced tobacco, were…farmed out…Indeed, the ability to create monopolies was one of the king’s resources; one of the more outlandish examples being the exclusive right to sell snow and ice in the district of Paris, sold for 10,000L per year in 1701. Francois R. Velde; Government Equity and Money: John Law’s System in 1720 France, p. 4

Another common method used throughout the Middle Ages was the creation and auctioning off of high political offices to aristocrats. They could then use their position to charge fees and nickel-and-dime the populace (the sale of religious offices was called Simony).

An officer was someone who held a government position not on commission or at the king’s leave, but as of right, and enjoyed various privileges attached to the position (in particular the collection of fees related to his activities). Offices were sold, and the king paid interest on the original sale price, which was called the wages of the office (gages). A wage increase was really a forced loan, requiring the officer to put up the additional capital. Officers could not be removed except for misconduct; however, the office itself could be abolished, as long as the king repaid the original sum….From 1689 to 1712 over 3,000 offices were created to supervise the markets of Paris in the minutest details, including “inspectors-gourmets of wines”, inspectors of pig’s tongues, and distinct officers in charge of respectively loading, unloading, and rolling barrels. Francois R. Velde; Government Equity and Money: John Law’s System in 1720 France, p. 6

Another factor not mentioned by Schiedel was seignorage, or profits derived from the government monopoly over the issuance of valid currency.

Medieval sovereigns had few ways of raising revenue apart from the proceeds of their personal domains: levying direct or indirect taxes was far beyond most feudal administrative capabilities. Seigniorage was therefore a uniquely attractive and uniquely feasible source of income-and medieval sovereigns happily indulged in it. Under normal circumstances, when seigniorage’ was levied only on the gradual increase in the coinage supply demanded by a growing monetary economy the revenues were relatively modest. But when the need arose, a sovereign could raise enormous sums by crying down or even demonetising altogether the current issue of the coinage and calling it in for re-minting off a debased footing. In 1299, for example, the total revenues of the French crown amounted to just under £2. million: of this, fully one half had come from the seigniorage profits of the Mint following a debasement and general recoining. Two generations later, the recoinage of 1349 generated nearly three-quarters of all revenues collected that year by the king. When such large sums could be raised, it is hardly surprising that there were no fewer than 123 debasements in France alone between 1285 and 1490. Felix Martin; Money: The Unauthorized Biography, pp. 88-89

9. Offhshore tax havens, tax avoidance and regressive taxation: This is only obliquely referred to by Scheidel, but is deserves more attention. Throughout history there is a pattern of the wealthiest individuals being able to hide their income form the state and avoid paying taxes—something that is usually considered to be a modern phenomenon. Because the wealthy had political power due to their status, they frequently exempted themselves from taxes and shifted the burdens of paying for the state to those less politically powerful. Not only has the so-called “Tytler calumny” promoted by libertarians never happened (where the rich allegedly have their assets confiscated via democratic popular vote), but in fact the exact opposite has been the trend throughout recorded history!

Primarily associated with modern times, Michael Hudson has documented how even in antiquity certain favored “tax havens” and “duty-free zones” existed outside of government juristdiction which allowed for elite accumulation of assets free from paying duties and obligations to the state, a method smaller and more local producers could not take advantage of. He makes an analogy between the Panama Canal Zone and the Greek island of Delos during Roman times:

The last thing the Delian merchant class wanted was a public authority to regulate its entrepot trade in captured cargoes, slaves or, for that matter, honest goods….Delos was for them not their home but their business residence. What they cared for most was not the city or the temple but the harbors, the famous sacred harbor, and especially the three adjoining so‑called basins with their large and spacious storehouses. It is striking that while these storehouses are open to the sea there is almost no access to them from the city. ..This characteristic of Delos’s warehouses being only open outwards, not inland, finds a parallel in modern Panama’s Canal Zone, whose warehouses likewise are bonded and set aside from the local economy (save for the National Guard’s pilfering and shakedowns). Panama’s imports from Asia are destined for other Western Hemisphere countries rather than for local consumption. Drug and arms shipments provide another analogue to Delian contraband. Finally, Panama’s sizeable Oriental and European population working as brokers and bankers recalls the adventurers who made their way to Delos. Both that island and Panama became what are now called “dual economies”: The Delian export trade involved the native population only minimally, much as is the case in Panama and other modern enclaves.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple City (Michael Hudson)

Similarly, it appears that the rich and powerful were disproportionately able to shelter their income and assets from taxation, while shifting the burden onto the debt donkeys of the middle classes and the poor.

It is striking that the wealthiest members of the [Roman] citizenry were not taxed proportionate to the size of their fortunes, let alone in a straightforwardly progressive manner. The scheme placed the heaviest burden on the upper reached on the commoner population instead of on the wealth elite. Even in an acute emergency, Rome’s oligarchic ruling class made as few concessions as it could get away with, in marked contrast to a democratic political system such as that of classical Athens, which…heavily taxed the rich to cover war expenditures. p. 187

Meanwhile, in Imperial China:

State capture of private resources was unlikely to contain a rise in private wealth inequality in the face of intensifying military mass mobilization. The system may even have been effectively quite regressive, considering that it imposed a very heavy double tax –military labor and agricultural products–on those least able to afford it, the farmers, whereas other forms of wealth may have been easier to shield from state demands. Infantry warfare as practiced at the time was relatively low-cost, relying as it did above all on conscription, mass-produced weapons (presumably involving forced labor by convicts and other state workers, as in later centuries), and the food that the farmers themselves produced. p. 185

Privilege derived from holding high state office fueled personal enrichment, a process that was tempered only by interfamilial rivalries and eventually more violent factionalist struggles that checked or reversed the rise of individual families but that failed to undermine their collective grip on the most lucrative positions of public service. Wealth accumulation was greatly aided by the fact that even distant relatives of the imperial family, as well as all families endowed with noble titles and all officials and holders of official rank, were exempt from taxation and labor services, an eminently regressive system that openly favored the powerful and well-connected. Members of the same group engaged in private purchase of public land, a practice repeatedly but unsuccessfully prohibited by their rulers. p. 260

One interesting historical trend is peasants who put themselves under the “protection” of a well-connected member of the elite class in order to shield themselves from increasingly burdensome taxation during the latter stages of state breakdown. The indebtedness that results is thought to be a contributor to the various feudal systems that emerge when centralized power falls apart.

…Instrumental in returning the Han to power, the great landowning families brought more and more land under their control and subordinated its cultivators through debt. Sources of the period refer to the elite practice of falsifying census accounts in order to conceal taxable assets. The decline in the number of registered households from more than 12 million in 2 CE to fewer than 10 million in 140 CE–at a time of expanding settlement in the southern reaches of the empire–thus reflects at least in part worsening noncompliance as landlords converted freeholders into landless tenants and shielded them from state agents. pp. 67-68

As a result, elite landownership expanded at the expense of the state, and attempts to implement land equalization schemes ceased after political instability commenced in the mid-eighth century CE. The growth of large estates sheltered peasants from state taxation, allowing landlords to convert the agricultural surplus into private rent. Linked to long-distance trade, these commercialized estates helped sustain an increasingly rich elite. Those who disposed of sufficient capital to run mills diverted water from peasants, a practice that prompted complaints but only sporadic state intervention. pp. 260-261pp

…In diffferent part of the later Roman Empire, we hear of farmers who sought protection by powerful landlords (as well as officials) who assumed responsibility for their dealings with the outside world, most notably imperial tax collectors. In practice, this interfered with the gathering of state revenue and strengthened landlords’ grip on the agrarian surplus.

This in turn not only weakened the central authorities but also shifted fiscal burdens to less powerful parties, much to the detriment of middling property owners. Once again, further polarization between rich and poor was an almost inevitable outcome, and just as in late Han China, private armies and incipient warlordism were not always far behind…pp. 79-80

Tax evasion and inequality (VoxEU)

10. Slavery and forced resettlement: Chattel slavery is older than recorded history, and in many cultures, including the “freedom-loving” West, slaves were the largest asset the wealthy possessed after land. Slavery, and numerous other forms of compelled labor (corvée, bonded labor, prison labor, migrant labor, indentured servitude, etc.) obviously was a huge factor in inequality in ancient times:

…In many premodern societies, the enslavement or deportation of outsiders …also raised overall inequality. The Neo-Assyrian empire in the Fertile Crescent was notorious for engaging in forcible resettlement on a huge scale, mostly from subjugated peripheries into the imperial heartland in northern Mesopotamia…Over the following century or so, the continuing inflow of deportees allowed Assyrian kings to build, populate, and provision several capital cities… Shorn of their former assets, [the deportees] could typically expect nothing better than an existence at the margins of bare subsistence. Their position may even have deteriorated as the empire reached the leak of its power. For along time, there had been no sign in the record that resettled subjects had been formally differentiated from the indigenous population: they were “counted together with the Assyrians.” This phrase disappeared in the final phase of Assyrian conquests, from about 705 to 627 BCE, when great victories and ongoing expansion fostered a heightened sense of superiority. Deportees were downgraded to the status of forced laborers and employed in large public works projects. Forced migration not only augmented the ranks of the poor but also added to the wealth and income of the upper class…

Slavery produced similar results. The enslavement of outsiders was one of the few mechanisms capable of creating significant levels of inequality in foraging societies of small size and low or moderate complexity, not only among the aquatic foragers of the Pacific Northwest but across a wide range of tribal groups. Yet once again, it took domestication and state formation to boost the use of slave labor to new heights. Under the Roman Republic, several million slaves entered the Italian peninsula, where many of them were bought up by the wealthy to toil in their mansions, workshops, and agricultural estates…pp. 60-61

The capture of slaves was a major reason for military operations, especially by the Romans, where human property was a major way the wealthy made their fortunes:

…Economic development grounded in market relations certainly picked up in the later stages of the Republican period. The use of slaves in cash crop production and manufacturing, as well as rich archaeological evidence for the export of wine and olive oil, points to the success of Roman capital owners. Yet this was only part of the story. Simple estimates of the likely scale of supply and demand suggest that landownership and related commercial activities could not have generated nearly enough income to make the Roman elite as rich as we know it became. And indeed, our sources emphasize the paramount significance of coercion as a source of top incomes and fortunes. p.73

Imperial unification and connectivity facilitated the expansion and concentration of personal wealth. Under Nero, six men were said to have owned “half” of the province of Africa (centered on modem Tunisia), albeit only until he seized their properties. While clearly hyperbolic, this claim need not have been dramatically far from the truth in a region where large estates could be described as rivaling city territories in size. p. 75

11. Assortative marriage, cronyism and nepotism: Wealthy families commonly made ties with other wealthy families in every culture, exacerbating the concentration of wealth. Things like dowries and bride-prices encouraged the trend of wealthy families to intermarry into other wealthy families. Nearly every hierarchical society has had ways to ensure that elites marry one another rather than commoners, from cousin marriage, to cotillions, to arranged marriages to the university system today. Tang Dynasty China offers some of the most extreme examples:

The most extravagant disparities were created at the very top, by families that back in the sixth and seventh centuries had closely cattached themsleves to the imperial court by abandoning their local bases and relocating to the capital cities of Chang’an and Luoyang, where close proximity to the throne ensured the most immediate access to political power and attendant lucre. This spatial clustering helped them secure access to senior government positions and provincial offices. Distinct from a provincial upper class that rarely ascended to state offices, these families formed a closed cultural elite that was increasingly interconnected by marriage. The most detailed study of this group and the numerous tomb epitaphs it left behind finds that by the ninth century CE, at least three-fifths of all known members of the resident imperial elite of Chang’an were linked by ties of kinship and marriage, including the majority of senior officials such as ministers and most top-tier officials in charge of provincial administration. What has been called a “highly restricted marriage and kin network” had thus come to control the Tang state, in no small part for the personal benefit of its members. p. 261

Similarly, during the Han Dynasty:

These dynamics both favored and constrained familial continuity in wealth holding. On the one hand , the sons of high officials were more likely to follow in their footsteps. They and other junior relatives were automatically entitled to enter officialdom and benefited disproportionately from the recommendation system employed to fill governmental positions. We hear of officials whose brothers and some six of seven–in one case, no fewer than thirteen sons–also came to serve as imperial administrators. On the other hand, the same predatory and capricious exercise of political power that turned civil servants into plutocrats also undermined their success…The top tier of the Han elite…did not last for much more than a century and was removed alongside the remnants of the ruling houses of the Warring States period. New favorites took their place… pp. 66-67

12. Wage Suppression and theft: Rather than simple “supply and demand” as promoted by professional economists, a cursory glance at history shows that the wealthy have always gone to great lengths to hold down wages as low as possible since the very first appearance of paid labor by using every legal (and some illegal) means at their disposal. In some cases this succeeded, in other cases it failed, depending on the prevailing sociopolitical conditions:

Elites had a powerful incentive to contain the leveling effects of the Black Death and its recurrences. The success of such measures varied widely between different societies depending on their power structure and even their ecology. Employers lost no time pressuring the authorities to curb the rising cost of labor… The actual effect of these ordinances appears to have been modest. (p. 299)… Within a generation, however, these measures had failed.p. 300

In western Europe, workers benefited because gains from labor scarcity were usually passed on to them. Not only did restrictions on wages and mobility fail, but the demographic shock of the plague also largely killed off the earlier medieval institution of serfdom…peasants asserted their mobility, moving to other manors if they offered better work conditions. This drove down rents and led to the commutation and eventual elimination of labor services that had been a standard feature of the manorial economy. Tenants ended up paying only rent and had the opportunity to work as much land as they could manage. This fostered upward mobility and led to the creation of a yeoman class of prosperous peasants…

On occasion workers resorted to violence in resisting elite attempts to deny them their newfound gains…popular rebellions in the form of peasant uprisings such as the Jacquerie in France (1358) and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England were the result. In the short term, the uprising was put down by force. But although new restrictive statutes were passed…the movement did deliver concessions to peasants: poll taxes were abandoned, and peasant bargaining expanded over time…By and large workers managed to benefit from labor scarcity, at least while it lasted.

Yet in other regions landlords were more successful in suppressing worker bargaining. In eastern European countries–Poland, Prussia, Hungary–serfdom was introduced after the Black Death.…central and eastern Europe faced the same problems of depopulation, abandoned land, and falling land and grain prices as were experienced farther west. The landed nobility resorted to legal measures to stem a decline in revenue, imposing ceilings on wages and the price of urban goods. Unlike in western Europe, the powerful strove mightily to increase labor obligations instead of reducing them, especially labor dues, cash payments, and restrictions on freedom of movement. In various countries, such as Prussia, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Livonia, tenants were prohibited from leaving without permission or without paying a large fee or all arrears, or except at a certain time, or in some cases at all.

Poaching of workers was forbidden by law or lordly agreement; cities could be ordered to reject migrants, and rulers entered treaties for their return to their native countries. Tenant debt was a powerful instrument of retention. Obligations and restrictions continued to expand in the sixteenth century. A number of factors conspired to constrain workers, perhaps most importantly the growing political power of the nobility who held increasing jurisdictional sway” over the peasants on their manors, alongside unfavorable developments in commercialization and urbanism. As nobles expanded their powers at the expense of the state and cities failed to provide a counterweight, workers were trapped in increasingly coercive arrangements. … outcomes for workers differed much from those in western Europe. pp. 310-311

All told, this pattern holds across all ancient and preindustrial societies: Political leadership is channeled to wealth inequality. Or, to take the inverse: Large fortunes were the result of political power and influence. As Scheidel concludes:

Many more cases from around the world could easily be added but the basic point is clear. In premodern societies, very large fortunes regularly owed more to political power than co economic prowess. They differed mostly in terms of their durability, which was critically mediated by state rulers’ ability and willingness to engage in despotic intervention. Intense resource concentration at the very top and high inequality were a given, and although wealth mobility varied, this was of little concern to those outside plutocratic circles. Sketched out in the opening chapter, the structural properties of almost all premodern states strongly favored a particular coercion-rich mode of income and wealth concentration that tended to maximize inequality over time. As a result, these entities were often about as unequal as they could be. p. 84

Underneath their institutional and cultural differences, the empires of China and Rome shared a logic of surplus appropriation and concentration that generated high levels of inequality. Imperial rule mobilized flows of resources that were capable of enriching those at the levers of power on a scale that would have been unimaginable in smaller settings. The degree of inequality was therefore at least in part a function of the sheer scale of imperial state formation. Building on mechanisms of capital investment and exploitation that had first been developed thousands of years earlier, these empires raised the stakes ever higher. Greater profits were to be had from state office; lowered transaction costs for trade and investment over long distances benefited those who had income to spare. In the end, imperial income inequality and wealth polarization could be terminated and reversed only by dismemberment through conquest, state failure, or wholesale systems collapse, all of them intrinsically violent upheavals. The premodern historical record is silent on peaceful ways of combating entrenched imperial inequalities, and it is hard to see how any such strategies could have arisen within these specific political ecologies. p. 80

All of this is to answer the fundamental question I posed a few posts ago: How did private property originate? I guess we now know how. Rather than the happy fairy-tale and just-so stories told by libertarians like Brian Caplan (many of whom are on the payroll of the plutocrats), the above demonstrates in exhaustive detail how elites took control of the political apparatus of ancient states and used them to create vast inequalities of wealth and power.

The story Scheidel tells is quite the opposite of today’s Ayn Rand-inspired model of the mass of “takers” stealing the wealth of the tiny sliver of superhumanly-talented “makers” through government and the welfare state. I’ts pretty clear from this book that rather than wealth being created by a tiny minority and appropriated by the majority, in fact wealth is collectively produced and privately appropriated, and has been throughout history.

In societies that relied exclusively on solar power, there was no way to quickly and dramatically produce larger output, so there was no “economics” which endorsed things like privatization and trickle-down. The reason why these ancient societies did not function as modern societies do is explained by Francis Fukuyama by something he calls “the iron law of latifundia”:

There is something like an iron law of latifundia in agrarian societies that says that the rich will grow richer until they are stopped-either by the state, by peasant rebellions, or by states acting out of fear of peasant rebellions.

In premodern agrarian societies, disparities in wealth do not necessarily reflect natural disparities in abilities or character. Technology is fixed and no one is rewarded for being entrepreneurial or innovative. Before the mechanization of agriculture, there were no particular economies of scale to be had, either, that would explain the growth of large latifundia in terms of efficiency. Even large landowners had their fields worked by individual peasant families farming on small plots. But small initial differences in resources reinforced themselves through the mechanism of debt peonage. A wealthier peasant or landowner would lend money to a poorer one; a single bad season or crop failure would then reduce the debtor to serfdom or slavery, with the forfeiture of his family’s property. Over time, the advantages of greater wealth became self-reinforcing, since larger landowners could then buy influence in the political system to protect and expand their holdings.

This is why the anachronistic application of contemporary property rights theory to historical situations leads to fundamental misunderstandings. Many economists believe that strong property rights promote growth because they protect private returns to investment, thereby stimulating investment and growth. But economic life in Han Dynasty China resembled the world described by Thomas Malthus in his Essay On the Principle of Population much more than the world that has existed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the last two hundred years…In a Malthusian economy where intensive growth is not possible, strong property rights simply reinforce the existing distribution of resources. The actual distribution of wealth is more likely to represent chance starting conditions or the property holders’ access to political power than productivity or hard work. (Even in today’s mobile, entrepreneurial capitalist economy, rigid defenders of property rights often forget that the existing distribution of wealth doesn’t always reflect the superior virtue of the wealthy and that markets aren’t always efficient.)

Left to their own devices, elites tend to increase the size of their latifundia, and in the face of this, rulers have two choices. They can side with the peasantry and use state power to promote land reform and egalitarian land rights, thereby clipping the wings of the aristocracy. This is what happened in Scandinavia, where the Swedish and Danish monarchs made common cause with the peasantry at the end of the eighteenth century against a relatively weak aristocracy. Or the rulers can side with the aristocracy and use state power to reinforce the hold of local oligarchs over their peasants. This happened in Russia, Prussia, and other lands east of the Elbe River from the seventeenth century on, as a generally free peasantry was reduced to serfdom with the collusion of the state. The French monarchy under the Old Regime was too weak to dispossess the aristocracy or remove their tax exemptions, so it ended up placing the burden of new taxes on the peasantry until the whole system exploded in the French Revolution. Which course the monarch chose-to reinforce the existing oligarchy or to lean against it-depended on a host of contextual factors like the cohesiveness of both the aristocracy and the peasantry, the degree of external threat faced by the state, and rivalries within the court. pp. 142-143

However, Schiedel takes a dismal view of the possibilities for non-violent political reform. Sure, they happened from time to time, he says, but mostly they were just a blip on an overall inexorable trend line towards more and more wealth in the hands of a few—small anomalies that did nothing to exacerbate the overall historical trend. As noted above, the French Revolution managed to equalize incomes–largely by executing the aristocracy and expropriating their (and that of the largest landowner–the Catholic Church’s) property.

We’ll take a look at some of Scheidel’s “Great Levelers” next time.

Next

The Great Leveler: Review (Part 1)

The Beginnings of Inequality.

While doing my research into Jordan Peterson and the Alt-Right more generally, one troubling thesis kept coming up again and again: that hierarchies and extreme inequality of wealth and income is inevitable, and that furthermore there is nothing that we can do about this. They are simply a product of basic human social instincts that we inherited from our primate (and lobster) ancestors. Anything we do to restrain these phenomena or rein in inequality will only end up making us worse off (as Communist states allegedly proved); that any cure would be worse than the disease (the ‘perversity thesis’); and that nothing will make a dent (the ‘futility thesis’). Here’s Peterson on FOX News, for example:

“The point that I was trying to make in that chapter which was … the first one among others is, the Radical Leftists have a proclivity to blame hierarchy and inequality on Western culture and Capitalism. And look, inequality can be a real problem because people stack up at the bottom and that can destabilize your entire society. And no one likes poverty. No one’s in favor of poverty. ”

“The problem is that the reasons for inequality are much older than human society itself. And so when the Radical Leftists play their linguistic games, let’s say, and blame all of that on Capitalism, then they’re not treating the problem with its requisite seriousness. We actually don’t know what to do about radical inequality. And demolishing the Western system, well, unless you bring everyone down to zero which is something that’s happened before, is not going to address the issue. And so that is the point I was making.”

One book that kept coming up in discussions was ‘The Great Leveler’ by Walter Schiedel. The thesis of the book has been well documented by now: that only war, revolution, plague, state failure or financial collapse, or some combination of these, has reduced the historical trend towards more and more inequality. Absent one of these conditions present, inequality inevitably trends upward without bound. He writes in the Introduction:

Material inequality requires access to resources beyond the minimum that is needed to keep us all alive. Surpluses already existed tens of thousands of years ago, and so did humans who were prepared to share them unevenly. Back in the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers found the time and means to bury some individuals much more lavishly than others.

But it was food production-farming and herding-that created wealth on an entirely novel scale. Growing and persistent inequality became a defining feature of the Holocene. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to accumulate and preserve productive resources. Social norms evolved to define rights to these assets, including the ability to pass them on to future generations.

Under these conditions, the distribution of income and wealth came to be shaped by a variety of experiences: health, marital strategies and reproductive success, consumption and investment choices, bumper harvests, and plagues of locusts and rinderpest determined fortunes from one generation to the next. Adding up over time, the consequences of luck and effort favored unequal outcomes in the long term… p. 5 (Emphasis mine)

Of the Great Levelers, he writes:

“For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. Violent shocks were of paramount importance in disrupting the established order, in compressing the distribution of income and wealth, in narrowing the gap between rich and poor.”

“Throughout recorded history, the most powerful leveling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling. .. Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one anomer, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake. And by the time the dust had settled, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.” p.6 (Emphasis mine)

David Graeber summarized Scheidel’s main thesis like this:

…historian Walter Scheidel has taken [Thomas] Piketty-style readings of human history to their ultimate miserable conclusion in his 2017 book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, concluding there’s really nothing we can do about inequality. Civilization invariably puts in charge a small elite who grab more and more of the pie. The only thing that has ever been successful in dislodging them is catastrophe: war, plague, mass conscription, wholesale suffering and death. Half measures never work. So, if you don’t want to go back to living in a cave, or die in a nuclear holocaust (which presumably also ends up with the survivors living in caves), you’re going to just have to accept the existence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

This thesis disturbed me greatly. Is there really no hope? Is that what history and social science have decisively proven? I decided to pick up the book and give it a read.

The first part of the book is in many ways the most interesting. It is three chapters in which Scheidel gives a brief history of human inequality. This part is a great historical overview, and I recommend reading it if nothing else. The rest of the book looks at historical examples of the ‘four horsemen’ and attempts to back up his core assertion.

What follows is a review of the book combined with my own previous research and blogging about the history and nature of persistent social inequality. We’ll start with Scheidel’s early history of the rise of inequality.

The First Great Leveling

Scheidel begins his survey with our primate ancestors, who exhibit a very strict hierarchy. Silverback gorillas are at the extreme end, lording over harems of females and dominating subordinate males with displays of aggression and brute force. Sexual dimorphism (how much bigger males are then females) is pronounced.

Chimpanzees live in larger, more cooperative bands, but nonetheless occupy a strict hierarchy based on aggression and bullying. Despite this, lower-status male chimps are unable to leave the group, as a solitary chimp is vulnerable to attack from other bands, meaning they must either compete or submit. Bonobos are less violent and aggressive then their chimp cousins, yet there is still a strict hierarchy where status rank is inherited from the females. Gibbons and orangutans branched off earlier and evolved into more solitary creatures. However, these species are confined to Asia, while all African great ape species live in large social groups exhibiting strict ranking hierarchies, including, Scheidel contends, our own:

Hierarchy is a function of group living…Chimpanzees, especially but not only males, expend tremendous energy on status rivalry. Bullying and aggressive dominance displays are matched by a wide array of submission behaviors by those one the lower rungs of the pecking order. In groups of fifty or a hundred, ranking is a central and stressful fact of life, for each member occupies a specific place in the hierarchy but is always looking to improve it…Across these species, inequality is expressed in unequal access to food sources—the closest approximation to human-style income disparities—and, above all, in terms of reproductive success. Dominance hierarchy, topped by the biggest, strongest, and most aggressive males, which consume the most and have sexual relations with the most females, is the standard pattern… p. 26

Several important changes occurred in the human species (genus Homo) after it branched off from the common ancestor some six million years ago. Protohumans, who walked upright, learned how to fashion stone tools and weapons with their free hands. Some two million years ago, the shoulder evolved to hurl projectile weapons, something no other great ape can do. They harnessed fire perhaps as early as one million years ago. As brain size grew, coalition-building by less dominant males and the use of artificial weapons, such as hand-axes and spears with fire-hardened tips, tamed the power of alphas. No longer could aggression and brute force alone keep and hold onto power. Humans swapped brawn for brains.

Cooperative hunting strategies and raising vulnerable offspring also limited the ability of the few to dominate the many. Intelligence, including social intelligence, became much more important for status than just brute strength, and some have speculated that it is was this need for social intelligence which was the primary driver of rapid brain growth. As our brains grew, we began to evolve culturally instead of just biologically. Sexual dimorphism became less pronounced, indicating greater cooperation between males and females in child rearing. Food provisioning, too, became cooperative, with males hunting and defending territory, and women gathering and tending the children. This allowed us to expand out of Africa, and to survive and outcompete all other Homo species as well as archaic humans:

…a gender- and age-based division of labor, emerging around 40,000-50,000 years ago, resulted in H. sapiens adopting a wider resource base, i.e. the hunting of smaller prey. Thus, a shift from a narrow reliance on large game that continued to characterize Neanderthal subsistence, to a marked increase in the exploitation of small game provided a demographic advantage and an expanded population of H. sapiens throughout Eurasia. In this scenario, males and females, whether Neanderthal or H. sapiens, both were engaged in narrowly focused economies; the labor of men and women, of both hominins, was closely aligned…An emerging reliance on smaller animals, and a greater reliance on vegetal and seed resources, is believed to signal a gendered division of labor. Men hunt large prey; women and children hunt small animals and forage for consumables. This initial division of labor by gender and age in turn contributed to the evolutionary success of H. sapiens. C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky; Labor, Social Formation and the Neolithic Revolution in Labor in the Ancient World

Humans developed a variety of cultural strategies to keep domineering aggrandizers in line, as Scheidel describes:

Numerous means of enforcing egalitarian values have been documented by anthropologists, graduated by severity. Begging, scrounging and stealing help ensure a more equal distribution of resources. Sanctions against authoritarian behavior and self-aggrandizement range from gossip, criticism, ridicule and disobedience to ostracism and even physical violence, including homicide. Leadership consequently tends to be subtle, dispersed among multiple group members, and transient; the least assertive have the best chance to influence others. This distinctive moral economy has been called “reverse dominance hierarchy”: operative among adult men (who commonly dominate women and children), it represents the ongoing and preemptive neutralization of authority. p. 29

One of the basic building blocks for this was envy as James Suzman notes:

Ju/’hoansi egalitarianism was not born of the ideological dogmatism that we associate with 20th-century Marxism or the starry-eyed idealism of New Age ‘communalism’. There was no manifesto of ‘primitive communism’. Rather, it was the organic outcome of interactions between people acting explicitly in their own self-interest in a highly individualistic society. This was because, among foraging Ju/’hoansi, self-interest was always policed by its shadow, envy – which, in turn, ensured that everyone always got a fair share, and that those with the natural charisma and authority to ‘lead’ exercised it with great circumspection.

Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon)

For those groups without large-scale top-down hierarchical systems or omnipotent gods, cooperation was instead fostered by shared stories spun by storytellers, who were most likely the ancestors of the first priests and shamans. Instead of organized religions with hereditary priesthoods, the stories held the tribe together, and storytellers were accorded a correspondingly high degree of status:

Storytelling promoted co-operation in hunter-gatherers prior to the advent of organised religion, a new UCL study reveals. The research shows that hunter-gatherer storytellers were essential in promoting co-operative and egalitarian values before comparable mechanisms evolved in larger agricultural societies, such as moralising high-gods. Storytellers were also more popular than even the best foragers, had greater reproductive success, and were more likely to be co-operated with by other members of the camp…

Storytellers promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers before advent of religion (Phys.org)

The nomadic foraging lifestyle prevented any great accumulation of material goods. Wealth could not be hoarded nor passed down. Land could not be claimed by any specific individual. The main “production” of the economy was big-game hunting, and the best place to store excess meat was in the belly of one’s friends and neighbors. The main social “unit” was not the individual family but the band or tribe, and the maintenance of social ties was crucial. Cooperation was paramount, taming the bullying power of would-be elites. Cultural norms like meat sharing and taboos helped maintain equality and allow humans to cooperate as Peter Turchin explains:

As an example of cooperation, consider meat-sharing, which is the norm in most foraging societies. Meat-sharing has numerous benefits for the group within which it is practiced. First, any particular hunter, no matter how skilled, is not always successful in bringing home game. Sharing ensures that everybody has a moderate amount of meat every day. Not sharing results in long spells of famine, interspersed with feasts (with a portion of the kill spoiling, or being wasted in other ways).

Second, put yourself in the moccasins of a hunter. You have an interest in the well-being of others in your tribe. There is that old-timer who is not as spry as he used to be, and can’t chase the game in the bush. But he is an amazing repository of knowledge that can save the whole tribe when a drought strikes. Or that pregnant woman, whose husband was killed in a hunting accident. When her son grows up, he will stand together with your children against the tribe’s enemies.

Thus, the whole tribe, including you and your descendants, benefits from meat sharing. But when you bring that yummy warthog from a successful hunt, there is a terrible temptation not to share it with others. It’s the Cooperative Dilemma all over again. The benefits of meat sharing are spread thinly over all. Its consequences are often deferred into distant future. Meanwhile, pigging out on the juicy warthog steak is here and now.

This is why you need social norms to help you stick to the straight and narrow. Such “cultural-institutional technologies” make sharing psychologically easier and prevent free-riding. One kind of such a social technology is meat taboos. Among some Kalahari foragers, for example, “the hunter himself could only eat the ribs and a shoulder blade; the rest of the animal was taboo for him. The hunter’s wife received the meat and fat around the animal’s hindquarters, which she had to cook openly and share with other women (only). Taboos prohibited young males from eating anything except abdominal walls, kidneys, and genitals.” These taboos essentially guaranteed that a large carcass would be widely distributed across the whole band.

How Social Norms are Like Chili Peppers (Cliodynamica)

Another technique observed among contemporary hunter-gatherers is the “shaming” or “insulting” of the successful hunter and his kill, as James Suzman describes:

Skilled Ju/’hoansi hunters needed a thick skin. For while a particularly spectacular kill was always cause for celebration, the hunter responsible was insulted rather than flattered. Regardless of the size or condition of the carcass, those due a share of the meat would complain that the kill was trifling, that it was barely worth the effort of carrying it back to camp, or that there wouldn’t be enough meat to go round. For his part, the hunter was expected to be almost apologetic when he presented the carcass. Of course, everyone knew the difference between a scrawny kill and a good one but continued to pass insults even while they were busy filling their bellies. Hunters rarely took the insults to heart, and those dishing them out often did so through broad grins. This was a performance in which everyone played well-rehearsed roles. But it was also a performance with a clear purpose, as beneath the light-hearted insults lay a sharp and potentially vicious edge.

It’s also the expectation in hunter-gatherer societies that even items considered “private property” would be offered up for the good of other people, and not hoarded. All one had to do was simply ask:

Insults and mockery weren’t the only tool that hunter-gatherers had in their bags to maintain egalitarianism. Another that was explicitly linked to the expression of envy was ‘demand sharing’. Where we usually consider it rude for others to ask unashamedly for something that we own or to just expect to receive it, the Ju/’hoansi considered this normal. More so, as far as they were concerned, denying someone’s request ran the risk of being sanctioned for selfishness. Demand sharing did not lead to a free-for-all that ended up undermining any sense of private ownership. Instead, demands for things were usually – though not always – carefully considered. The net result of this was that, while private property was respected – after all, if there is no private property, how could you enjoy giving or receiving a gift? – material inequalities were quickly ironed out. However, the system was challenging for relatively well-resourced outsiders such as myself, which often resulted in a month’s supply of tobacco and food for a field trip being exhausted within a very short period of time.

…how envy functioned in societies such as the Ju/’hoansi suggests that, even if [Adam] Smith’s hidden hand does not apply particularly well to late capitalism, his belief that the sum of individual self-interests can ensure the fairest distribution of the ‘necessaries of life’ was right, albeit in small-scale band societies. For hunter-gatherers, the sum of individual self-interest ultimately ensured the most equitable ‘distribution of the necessaries of life’ because it discouraged profitable exchange, hierarchy, wealth-accumulation and significant material inequality.

Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon)

Not only was food sharing used to create social bonds, but so was gift-giving. Rather than bartering, negotiation or formal contracts, goods were primarily exchanged reciprocally to create social bonds between individuals and, especially, corporate groups. Exchange was not designed to “profit,” although there were circumstances in some very materially abundant cultures where gifts were expected to be returned “with interest,” to perpetuate what James Carse calls “infinite games” where the goal is not to “win” but to keep playing the game.

As with cultural norms and taboos, norms of reciprocity ensured sharing and prevented hoarding, as Tim Johnson describes:

One of the most famous stories illustrating the role of reciprocal exchange has concerns an anthropologist who after spending some time with bushmen [sic], gave one of them his knife. When visiting the group some years later, anthropologists discovered that the knife had been owned, at some point in time, by every member of the community. The knife had not been communally owned, its ownership had passed from one person to the next and its passage was evidence of a social network in the community, just as the motion of planets is evidence of an, otherwise invisible, gravitational field.

One of the most studied examples of these sorts of systems was that of indigenous people around Vancouver in Canada. A young man would lend five blankets to an older, richer person, for a year and they would be repaid with ten blankets. A similar situation existed in the Southwestern Pacific were strings of shells, whose value was purely ceremonial, were lent by a young man, sometimes to an unwilling borrower, at very high rates of interest. Many cultures had similar systems where by a gift had to be reciprocated by a greater gift in return these systems played a critical role in gluing society together by establishing bonds between the rich and poor, the old and young.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

A similar logic stands behind the idea of religious sacrifice in general. In this idea, a reciprocal relationship is instead established between the tribe and its deities or ancestors. Reciprocity means that the deity will “pay back” the sacrifice. Appeals were made to the ancestors to intercede on your behalf with the gods who presided over nature. Without science, this was the only method early humans saw to exercise any control over the vagaries of life.

I’ll note at this point that food-sharing feasts and reciprocal gift exchange both contribute to what I called the “feasting theory” of inequality’s origins. In superabundant conditions, aggrandizers (those especially attuned to status) promote surplus production through carrots and sticks (mostly carrots), and then use the resulting surpluses during feasts to generate material inequalities using debt and interest, which they then convert into status inequalities. To recap:

Brian Hayden…proposes that through the lure of feasts, with their free meals, delicacies, dances, exciting entertainment, and ambitious organizers, “triple A” personalities draw others into contractual agreements that generate debts and thereby confer social leverage.

In other words, through competitive feasts, surpluses are produced and converted into wealth and power by enterprising individuals, creating social inequalities. He takes a step back in time and proposes that during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods in resource-rich environments, triple-A individuals manipulated relationships through competitive feasting in such a way as to dodge the leveling hammer of egalitarian ethos.

This leads him to the proposal, supported by compelling evidence, that the need for certain amounts of rare delicacies for competitive feasts may have been a significant factor in the domestication of certain plants and animals, and thus may have given impetus to early agriculture.

The Feasting Theory

All of these foraging groups can be broadly characterized as immediate return hunter-gatherers. They do not store significant surpluses. They do not have a concept of private property and there is no transmissible wealth to be passed down through the generations. Natural resources cannot be “owned” by individuals, and there is often no concept of “ownership” or “private property,” or very loose and flexible ones at least. Population density is low, so resources are not scarce, and so do not need to be rationed by markets or elites. Such groups invariably have very “flat” (although not totally nonexistent) hierarchies. Scheidel concludes:

A foraging mode of subsistence and an egalitarian moral economy combine into a formidable obstacle to any form of development for the simple reason that economic growth requires some degree of inequality in income and consumption to encourage innovation and surplus production. Without growth there was hardly any surplus to appropriate and pass on. The moral economy prevented growth, and the lack of growth prevented the production and concentration of surplus. p. 30

Taken together, the evidence indicates a long-term reduction in inequality thanks to these developments–what Scheidel calls “The First Great Levelling.”

There is, however, some intriguing evidence that some degree of inequality was present even as far back as the Ice Age. The most famous example comes from Sungir (Sunghir) in Siberia, about 120 miles north of Moscow. Here, archaeologists found the remains of three burials–a man and two children– from the climatically moderate period of the last Ice Age. They were buried about 30-34,000 years ago during the Gravettian period of the Stone Age (named after a tool kit found widely in Eurasia). Similar burials have been found around Eurasia, such as in Dolní Věstonice, in the modern Czech Republic, which indicates cloth and ceramic manufacture on a large scale.

The Sungir society was a group of hunter-foragers who hunted bison, horse, reindeer, antelope, fox, bears, wolf, and especially mammoth. The burials were adorned with extensive decoration, including 10,000 beads carved from mammoth tusks and fox teeth, and prestige items such as art objects and spears made from straightened mammoth tusk were found in the graves. Archaeologists estimated that it would have taken:

…anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes to carve a single bead, which translates to a total of 1.6 to 4.7 years of work for one person carving forty hours a week. A minimum of seventy-five arctic foxes needed to be caught to extract the 300 canines attached to the belt and headgear in the children’s grave, and considering the difficulty of extracting them intact, the actual number may well have been higher… p. 31

Similar enigmatic burials are found all over Eurasia from the Ice Age, as David Graeber and David Wengrow point out:

Comparably rich burials are by now attested from Upper Palaeolithic rock shelters and open-air settlements across much of western Eurasia, from the Don to the Dordogne. Among them we find, for example, the 16,000-year-old ‘Lady of Saint-Germain-la-Rivière’, bedecked with ornaments made on the teeth of young stags hunted 300 km away, in the Spanish Basque country; and the burials of the Ligurian coast – as ancient as Sungir – including ‘Il Principe’, a young man whose regalia included a sceptre of exotic flint, elk antler batons, and an ornate headdress of perforated shells and deer teeth. Such findings pose stimulating challenges of interpretation… What, then, are we to make of all of this?

One scholarly response has been to abandon the idea of an egalitarian Golden Age entirely, and conclude that rational self-interest and accumulation of power are the enduring forces behind human social development. But this doesn’t really work either. Evidence for institutional inequality in Ice Age societies, whether in the form of grand burials or monumental buildings, is nothing if not sporadic. Burials appear literally centuries, and often hundreds of kilometres, apart. Even if we put this down to the patchiness of the evidence, we still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy: after all, if any of these Ice Age ‘princes’ had behaved anything like, say, Bronze Age princes, we’d also be finding fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states. Instead, over tens of thousands of years, we see monuments and magnificent burials, but little else to indicate the growth of ranked societies. Then there are other, even stranger factors, such as the fact that most of the ‘princely’ burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks, or dwarfs.

How to change the course of human history (Eurozine)

From this, it is reasonable to conclude that as far back as the Ice Age, many societies may have already been transegalitarian societies–defined as societies where some inequality existed, but was not likely institutionalized, probably because of the extreme difficulty of intergenerational wealth transmission. That’s probably why all that wealth was buried in the first place–to prevent it from being passed down.

Anthropologists generally differentiate between achieved status and ascribed status. Achieved status is generally status earned during one’s own lifetime via one’s personal qualities such as being a wise leader, a fierce warrior, a successful hunter, a skilled craftsman, a creative artist or storyteller or some other intrinsic quality. The “Big Men” of Polynesia are an example. Ascribed status comes from occupying a specific niche in the society which is passed down, such as the Egyptian Pharaoh. Since the buried children were too young to have acquired achieved status, their elaborate burial seems to indicate that some level of ascribed status must have been present as early as the Ice Age.

This need not be the case, however. Some have speculated that the children were sacrificial victims. Child sacrifice was surprisingly common in a variety of very ancient cultures. Because the children were giving up their lives for the good of the tribe, they were accordingly ascribed very high status. This may be the reason why they were so elaborately buried. There is some evidence for this–genetic testing has shown the individuals in the grave were not related. The children were buried on ochre pigment, very similar to the child sacrificial victims found in various South American cultures:

Peru child sacrifice discovery may be largest in history (BBC)

The Sunghir Burial Site: Were these Two Children Sacrificed in a Form of Prehistoric Scapegoating? (Ancient Origins)

The ancient Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice. It persisted in the New World until European arrival. It is thought by many religious scholars that the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible is an allegorical tale representing the replacement of child sacrifice with animal sacrifice in ancient Hebrew monotheistic cults as animal domestication became commonplace. Scholars also believe that human sacrifice itself contributed to hereditary inequality:

Despite being scarce today, ritualised human sacrifice was performed in early human societies throughout the world. During the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the graves of Pharaohs were accompanied by ‘retainers’ or human sacrifices who were believed to provide assistance in the afterlife. In Europe, mutilated bodies are found buried in peat pits, some of which are up to 8,000 years old and are accompanied by religious paraphernalia such as crucibles, idols and sacred plants. Aztec high priests extracted the beating hearts of victims in front of visiting dignitaries from competing communities. Often the victims were themselves captives from one of the competing communities, and the dignitaries returned home trembling in fear.

While it was relatively scarce in egalitarian societies, human sacrifice was practised in the majority of cultures with strictly inherited class systems. This suggests that there is a relationship between social inequality and human sacrifice, but it doesn’t tell us whether human sacrifice leads to social inequality or vice versa. Using a language-based family tree and statistical methods developed by evolutionary biologists, we were able to model how human sacrifice and social inequality evolved in the prehistory of Austronesia…We found strong support for the social control hypothesis: human sacrifice helped to build strictly inherited class systems, and prevented cultures from becoming more egalitarian.

How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality (Aeon)

Peter Turchin, however, points out that over a certain level of complexity, human sacrifice becomes maladaptive, which likely led its disappearance among larger, more complex societies, especially in Eurasia:Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level? (Cliodynamica)

Surveying these, and other Ice Age burials, Scheidel concludes:

It is tempting to interpret these findings as the earliest harbingers of inequalities to come. Evidence of advanced and standardized craft production, time investment in highly repetitive tasks, and the use of raw materials sourced from far away offers us a glimpse of economic activities more advanced than those found among contemporary hunter-gatherers. It also hints at social disparities not normally associated with a foraging existence: lavish graves for children and adolescents point to ascribed and perhaps even inherited status.

The existence of hierarchical relations is more difficult to infer from this material but is at least a plausible option. But there is no sign of durable inequalities. Increases in complexity and status differentiation appear to have been temporary in nature.

Egalitarianism need not be a stable category: social behavior could vary depending on changing circumstances or even recurring seasonal pressures. And although earliest coastal adaptations, cradles of social evolution in which access to maritime food resources such as shellfish encouraged territoriality and more effective leadership, may reach back as far as 100,000 years, there is-at least as yet-no related evidence of emergent hierarchy and consumption disparities. For all we can tell, social or economic inequality in the Paleolithic remained sporadic and transient. p.32

Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow, however, have argued against the view that human history is a linear progression from less to more inequality, which tracks perfectly with the scale of societies. Instead, they argue, the Upper Paleolithic was a time of experimentation with different modes of subsistence, which led to experiments with different modes of living. They argue that even large, complex societies functioned much of the time with a flat, anarchistic structure, often varying at different times of the year. Furthermore, these varying modes persisted far after the agricultural revolution, which was not the “phase change” as often depicted by many historians. The earliest large cities such as Çatal Höyük were quite egalitarian, with no palaces or temples and equally-sized dwelling units. They note that in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, “cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen’s lives.”

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian…Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.

How to change the course of human history (Eurozine)

The Great Disequalization

As the Ice Age ended and the Holocene dawned, it became possible to ramp up food production, and no doubt inequality became more pronounced due to the surpluses in both food and material goods. The New Stone Age (Neolithic) is characterized by stone tools designed for food processing such as saddle querns, and buildings expressly built for food storage such as granaries (which predate domestication). Early societies still seem to have gotten much of their meat from seasonal hunts, though.

Pretty much all scholars agree that significant equality began with two crucial conditions in place: consistent and reliable surpluses and a sedentary habitation pattern. Both of these factors interplayed with and promoted each other:

Inequality took off only after the last Ice Age had come to an end and climatic conditions entered a period of unusual stability. The Holocene, the first interglacial warm period for more than 100,000 years, created an environment that was more favorable to economic and social development. As these improvements allowed humans to extract more energy and grow in numbers, they also laid the ground for an increasingly unequal distribution of resources.

This led to what I call the ‘Great Disequalization,’ a transition to new modes of subsistence and new forms of social organization that eroded formerly egalitarianism and replaced it with durable hierarchies and disparities in income and wealth. For these developments to occur, there had to be productive assets that could be defended against encroachment and from which owners could draw a surplus in a predictable manner. Food production by means of farming and herding fulfills both requirements and came to be the principal driver of economic, social and political change. p.33 (Emphasis mine)

However, neither surpluses nor sedentism were confined to just societies that relied upon domestication or food production as previously thought. In particular ecological niches such as fishing and riverine cultures of North America, signs of sedentism and hereditary inequality have been found, despite the absence of domestication. In some superabundant natural environments, sedentism could be practiced even without food and animal domestication, because certain foodstuffs—such as smoked meat and tree nuts—could be processed and stored for long periods of time. Anthropologists call these delayed return (or complex) hunter-gatherers.

However, domestication of plants and animals was not an indispensable prerequisite. Under certain conditions, foragers were also able to exploit undomesticated natural resources in an analogous fashion. Territoriality, hierarchy, and inequality could arise where fishing was feasible or particularly productive only in certain locations. This phenomenon, which is known as maritime or riverine adaptation, is well documented in the ethnographic record.

From about 500 CE, pressure on fish stocks as a result of population growth along the West Coast of North America from Alaska to California encouraged foraging populations to establish control over highly localized salmon streams. This was sometimes accompanied by a shift from mostly uniform dwellings to stratified societies that featured large houses for chiefly families, clients and slaves.

From about 400 to 900 CE, the site of Keatley Creek in British Columbia housed a community of a few hundred members near the Fraser River that capitalized on the local salmon runs. Judging from the archaeological remains, salmon consumption declined around 800, and mammalian meat took its place. At this time, signs of in equality appear in the record.

A large share of the fish bone recovered from the pits of the largest houses comes from mature chinook and sockeye salmon, a prize catch rich in fat and calories. Prestige items such as rare types of stone are found there. Two of the smallest houses, by contrast, contained bones of only younger and less nutritious fish. As in many other societies at this level of complexity, Inequality was both celebrated and mitigated by ceremonial redistribution: roasting pits that were large enough to prepare food for sizable crowds suggest chat the rich and powerful organized feasts for the community.

A thousand years later, potlatch rituals in which leaders competed among themselves through displays of generosity were a common feature across the Pacific Northwest. Similar changes cook place at the Bridge River site in the same area: from about 800, as the owners of large buildings began to accumulate prestige goods and abandoned communal food preparation outdoors, poorer residents attached themselves to these households, and inequality became institutionalized. p. 33-34 (Emphasis mine)

These cultures may have existed as far back as Cro-Magnon Europe, as Richard Manning notes in Against the Grain:

Sedentism…requires proximity to water. Particular groups of hunter-gatherers became skilled fishermen and settled in stable communities near river mouths. Their dependence on migratory fish such as the salmon was particularly pronounced, then and to the present.

Salmon show up in Cro-Magnon paintings—and their skeletons in Cro-Magnon sites—throughout Europe. Cro-Magnon peoples stayed in one place and had enough leisure time to paint, and they painted salmon because salmon were important to them. The rise of art much later among Northwest American Indians is unique among North American hunter-gatherers, suggesting something parallel in the two salmon cultures—a correlation between salmon, sedentism, and art. Fishing a migratory species allows all this. You simply stay put at streamside and the salmon come. Throughout the world, sites along rivers, seas, estuaries, and lakes show layers of shellfish and fish bones below (and thus older than) layers containing evidence of agriculture. These early sedentary people did not have to wander seeking game; currents, the habits of their prey, and the enormous productivity of marine systems like estuaries brought the prey to them.

Agriculture did not arise from need so much as it did from relative abundance. People stayed put, had the leisure to experiment with plants, lived in coastal zones where floods gave them the model of and denziens of disturbance, built up permanent settlements that increasingly created disturbance, and were able to support a higher birthrate because of sedentism.
pp. 30- 31 (Emphasis mine)

It’s interesting to note that the Shigir Idol, found in Siberia and over twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, has been compared to the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest. As one of the archaeologists remarked of the idol‘We can say that in those times, 11,000 years ago, the hunters, fishermen and gatherers of the Urals were no less developed than the farmers of the Middle East.’ However, because this civilization built from perishable materials and had no writing, we cannot say for sure what levels of inequality or complexity it possessed.

In addition to fish, harvesting tree nuts and seeds also contributed to ancient sedentism during the Ice Age, as Brain Fagan notes:

More work to process food–some nuts, such as certain acorns, contain high levels of tannins, which have to be leached out by boiling or soaking, while other compounds make certain grasses and nuts either mildly toxic and less digestible, again requiring endless processing. Parching, grinding, or boiling starchy plant foods required great investments of labor daily before they could be eaten or stored. Such activities tied bands down to one location for longer periods of time…storage in a pit or aboveground means that food can be rationed out through the lean months, but at the price of drastically reduced mobility. Brain Fagan, The Long Summer pp. 70-71

Because these foods took considerable time to harvest and prepare, more work == more wealth. A connection between work and wealth was established. Households became differentiated. Hunter-gatherers were dependent upon nature’s bounty and could not easily increase the food supply. Processed foods, by contrast, could be expanded and stored. A shift to a wider variety of food sources than just big game—plant-foods particularly—has been called the broad spectrum revolution, and was encouraged by a milder, more predictable climate along with the extinctions of megafauna such as aurochs, bison, elk, wild horses, and especially mammoths and mastodons.

In addition, population growth meant that for the first time resources became scarce, so some sort of rationing method was called for. Into that void stepped the Triple-A aggrandizers:

As scarcity transitioned to plenty…aggrandizers were freed to pursue their goals. Their selfish behavior was no longer grounds for excommunication, because everyone was able to get enough to eat—if they were willing to work. Slowly, through a variety of strategies such as bride prices and competitive feasts, aggrandizers consolidated their power. They developed new sorts of relationships based on debt and obligation. Eventually these strategies led to establishment of private property rights over valuable resources, such as the fishing rocks in the Fraser Canyon.

Seeing Fairness Evolve (Pacific Standard)

Once there was something to defend, violence increased because you needed to defend it from others. Investments in fields, granaries, irrigation ditches and so forth, led to investments in walls, forts and weapons to defend them. This brought forth the need for military and managerial elites.

Two basic theories about the establishment of hereditary inequality are common: managerial (functional) and military (conflict) theories. Managerial elites are exemplified by redistributive chiefs and priests who store and distribute surpluses among geographically dispersed populations by fiat.

In groups dispersed over diverse ecosystems with specialized labor and different modes of subsistence, managerial elites ensure the wide distribution of differentiated resources which are not available in all areas, knitting people together in complex relationship webs, often using religion. These elites draw upon their social networks to do this, often using rare ‘prestige goods’ to signify their status and forming long-distance trade networks. Such societies practice two different kinds of feasts: differentiated (which excluded commoners and enforced elite solidarity) and redistributive/communal (which mobilized labor and reinforced overall group solidarity).

…a relatively benign process lay behind the simple class structure—that the wealthier and more powerful attained their rank because they provided valuable services that benefited the community at large. For instance, they might have been adept at organizing the fishing and preservation process to create a bigger salmon pie for everyone in the community. Since everyone’s share is bigger, the community would not begrudge the benefactor a slightly larger slice. Also, the high-status benefactors presumably would come to the aid of the community in times of need—to share their surplus as well as their managerial talents to get everyone through the hard times.

Two paths To Inequality (Pacific Standard)

Functionalist theories (called so because they assume that complex societies arose to fulfill some important function) explain evolution of the state as a solution to organizational and redistributive problems. For example, in an influential book, The Evolution of Human Societies: from Foraging Group to Agrarian State, Allen Johnson and Tim Earle argue that complex societies arise (1) to reduce production risks, (2) to manage resource competition, (3) to allocate resources efficiently and to make capital investments, and (4) to conduct interregional trade. Conflict enters their theory as a relatively unimportant factor, under (2) resource competition.

Evolution of the Egyptian State: the ‘Managerial Model’ (Cliodynamica)

The other model presupposes warfare and conflict. Those best able to organize and lead troops in battle become the new elites. These military warlords became perforce the ruling power. Note that that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. I suspect that warfare became more important with the Bronze Age and horse domestication.

Kings (and Queens) of the Stone Age

Scheidel cites what scholars have found to be the three most crucial determinants of inequality:

    • Ownership rights in land and livestock
    • The ability to transmit wealth from one generation to the next.
    • The transmissibility of material wealth.

Let’s take a look at those one at a time. Different types of wealth are more or less important in various societies. To determine this, researchers divided wealth into three broad categories:

  • Embodied (body strength and reproductive success)
  • Relational (partnerships in labor and trade)
  • Material (household goods, land and livestock)

What they found was that among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, embodied endowments were the most important for status, while material goods were the least important. This condition was reversed among herders and farmers: material wealth was the most important, embodied wealth the least:

Physical constraints on embodied wealth are relatively stringent, especially for body size and somewhat less so for strength, hunting returns, and reproductive success. Relational wealth, though more flexible, was also more unevenly distributed among farmers and pastoralists, and measures of inequality in land and livestock in these two groups reached higher levels than those for utensils or boat shares among foragers and horticulturalists. p.37

Transmissibility of wealth was also crucial. Material wealth is much simpler to pass down than either embodied wealth or relational wealth. In farming and herding societies, the degree of intergenerational wealth transmission was twice as high as foraging and horticultural societies, because the prime material assets were more suitable for transmissivity than the assets of foragers and horticulturalists. Social mobility–that is, moving from one quintile to another in the status hierarchy–was correspondingly lower in farming and herding societies than in foraging ones. In other words, it was much easier to pass down achieved status to your lineal descendants in societies with a lot of transmissible wealth, such as fields and herds, especially if the culture recognized some form of private property rights.

It’s important to note that transmissible wealth was primarily passed down within families, and not to specific individuals. Individual property rights and private contracts came much, much later, and is in fact a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, ancient laws did not even acknowledge the existence of such a creature as the ‘individual’, nor did it permit contracts to valid between lone individuals, only between corporate kinship groups such as families. This was the conclusion of Henry Sumner Maine in his magisterial review of ancient legal codes:

Ancient Law, it must again be repeated, knows next to nothing of Individuals. It is concerned not with Individuals, but with Families, not with single human beings, but groups. Even when the law of the State has succeeded in permeating the small circles of kindred into which it had originally no means of penetrating, the view it takes of Individuals is curiously different from that taken by jurisprudence in its maturest stage. The life of each citizen is not regarded as limited by birth and death; it is but a continuation of the existence of his forefathers, and it will be prolonged in the existence of his descendants. p.152

Scheidel concludes:

According to this analysis, inequality and its persistence over time has been the result of a combination of three factors: the relative importance of different classes of assets, how suitable they are for passing on to others, and actual rates of transmission. Thus groups in which material wealth plays a minor role and does not readily lend itself to transmission and in which inheritance is discouraged are bound to experience lower levels of overall inequality than groups in which material wealth is the dominant asset class, is highly transmissible, and is permitted to be left to the next generation. In the long run, transmissibility is critical: if wealth is passed on between generations, random shocks related to health, parity, and returns on capital and labor that create inequality will be preserved and accumulate over time instead of allowing distributional outcomes to regress to the mean.

In keeping with the observations made in the aforementioned survey of Native American societies, the empirical findings derived from this sample of twenty-one small-scale societies likewise suggest that domestication is not a sufficient precondition for significant disequalization. Reliance on defensible natural resources appears to be a more critical factor, because these can generally be bequeathed to the next generation. The same is true of investments such as plowing, terracing, and irrigation.

The heritability of such productive assets and their improvements fosters inequality in two ways: by enabling it to increase over time and by reducing intergenerational variance and mobility. A much broader survey of more than a thousand societies at different levels of development confirms the central role of transmission. According to this global data set, about a third of simple forager societies have inheritance rules for movable property, but only one in twelve recognizes the transmission of real estate. By contrast, almost all societies that practice intensive forms of agriculture are equipped with rules that cover both. Complex foragers and horticulturalists occupy an intermediate position. Inheritance presupposes the existence of property rights. pp. 38-39 (Emphasis mine)

One speculation is that the idea of private property is the very reason why farming was maintained over foraging, despite all of its apparent disadvantages in both health and nutrition over foraging:

…The first farmers emerged in less than a dozen spots in Asia and South America…they were already living in small villages. They owned their houses and other objects, like jewelry, boats and a range of tools, including fishing gear.

They still hunted and foraged, but they didn’t have to venture far for food: They had picked fertile places to settle down, and so food was abundant. For example, one group in what is present-day Iraq lived close to a gazelle migration route. During migration season, it was easy pickings — they killed more animals than they could eat in one sitting. They also harvested more grain from wild plants than they knew what to do with. And so, they built “pantries” — structures where they could store the extra food.

These societies had seen the value of owning stuff — they were already recognizing “private property rights,” says [Samuel] Bowles [the director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico]. That’s a big transition from nomadic cultures, which by and large don’t recognize individual property. All resources, even in modern day hunter-gatherers, are shared with everyone in the community.

But the good times didn’t last forever in these prehistoric villages. In some places, the weather changed for the worse. In other places, the animals either changed their migratory route or dwindled in numbers.

At this point, Bowles says these communities had a choice: They could either return to a nomadic lifestyle, or stay put in the villages they had built and “use their knowledge of seeds and how they grow, and the possibility of domesticating animals.”

Stay put, they did. And over time, they also grew in numbers. Why? Because the early farmers had one advantage over their nomadic cousins: Raising kids is much less work when one isn’t constantly on the move. And so, they could and did have more children.

In other words, Bowles thinks early cultures that recognized private property gave people a reason to plant roots in one place and invent farming — and stick with it despite its initial failures.

Bowles admits that this is just an informed theory. But to test it, he and his colleague Jung-Kyoo Choi built a mathematical model that simulated social and environmental conditions among early hunter-gatherers. In this simulation, farming evolved only in groups that recognized private property rights. What’s more, in the simulations, once farming met private property, the two reinforced each other and spread through the world.

Bowles’ theory offers a more nuanced explanation that ties together cultural, environmental and technological realities facing those first farmers, says Ian Kuijt, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in the origins of agriculture. But, he says, the challenge is to figure out who owned the property back then and how they ran it. “Was it owned by one individual?” Kuijt says. “Was it a mother and father and their children? … Does it represent community or village property?”

Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like To Own Stuff (NPR)

If this speculation is valid, the very concept of private property is what caused sedentary societies to form in the first place. Most likely those people that remained in such societies were okay with this idea, and the ones that weren’t took off. The ones that remained, although shorter and sicker, produced more offspring, so we are predominantly the descendants of the greedy materialists who remained. No doubt this caused changes to the social order, and possibly genetic changes as well.

Eventually, pantries became attached to specific households instead of being publicly available, indicating that some households were prospering more than others. Specialized resources–such as fishing rocks in Keatley Creek or arable farmland–became the property of certain privileged families, possibly due to their connection with a shared ancestor or a special ability to communicate with the gods and ancestors. Burials also become more elaborate at this time, indicating the emergence of elite individuals. Even before the emergence of protostates in places like China and Mesopotamia, children are buried with signs of inherited rank, such as cylinder seals, indicating transmissibility of status. Some of these may have been priests. Very commonly ancestors are buried under the floors of houses, such as in ancient China and Mesoamerica, indicating a hereditary ownership claim to certain plots of land passed down through generations.

Early elites tended to emphasize their descent from a particularity renowned ancestor, or even a spirit, and the leaders from this favored clan became the paramount leaders of the tribe. Their claims were based on appeals to the supernatural, a concept which does not exist in any other animal besides humans. This is the thesis of The Creation of Inequality by anthropologists James Flannery and Carol Marcus:

The Creation of Inequality [moves] more or less progressively from history’s relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Caribou and Netsilik Eskimos and the !Kung of southern Africa, to the multi-level administrative empires of the Aztec and Inca. Along the way, [authors] Flannery and Marcus dedicate lengthy sections to discussion of the various “clues” which reveal how the “social logic” of more equal societies, manifested in practices such as meat-sharing partnerships, gift-exchange, and prestige-based, non-hereditary leadership (i.e., Melanesian “big men”), gave way to the logic of inequality in societies with—among other things—taxes, bureaucracies, separate burial practices for nobles and commoners, and, importantly, hereditary formal power. Key to their analysis is their conception of the unique role of the “sacred” in human societies.

Looking to chimps, who compete and assemble themselves hierarchically into alphas, betas and gammas, Flannery and Marcus observe that even outwardly egalitarian hunter-gatherers preserve hierarchy by making their supernatural beings the alphas, their ancestors the betas, and themselves the undifferentiated gammas. Moving toward institutionalized social inequality has thus often involved certain gammas’ claiming power legitimated by special—and often hereditary—relationships to these sacred alphas and betas. Clearly, European kings were not the only ones who invoked the divine right to rule.

Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2014, Volume XLI, Number 1, pp. 161-162 (PDF)

Interestingly, many human cultures have arranged themselves into a tripartite hierarchy of nobility, priests and commoners. Sometimes a warrior or a merchant/farming caste is included as well. Examples range from Ancien Régime France just prior to the Revolution to the caste systems of India until British rule (Brahmins, Kshatrys, Vasyas). Indeed, the very word ‘hierarchy’ comes from ‘hiero-‘ meaning sacred and ‘archos’ meaning ruler (as in anarchy, patriarchy, etc.).

…The combination of surplus extraction from defensible resources and personal or familial property claims to these resources that included the right to transfer them to descendants or other kin laid the foundation for growing socioeconomic stratification. New forms of political and military power contributed to and amplified the resultant inequalities in income and wealth.

Much like the shift to food domestication, the evolution of political hierarchies was a slow and gradual process and was highly contingent on ecological conditions, technological progress, and demographic growth. In the long run, the overall direction of change was from the small family-level groups of a few dozen people that were typical of simple forager economies to local groups and collectives whose members typically numbered in the hundreds and on to larger chiefdoms or protostates that controlled thousands or even tens of thousands. This was not always a linear progression, and not all environments supported more complex forms of social organization.

As a result, complex state-level societies based on agriculture eventually came to share the planet with bands, tribes, and chiefdoms of herders, horticulturalists, and what remained of the ancestral population of hunter-gatherers. This diversity has been vital to our understanding of the driving forces behind the emergence of inequality, allowing us to compare the characteristics of different modes of subsistence and their consequences for the accumulation, transmission, and concentration of wealth as already summarized. p. 41 (Emphasis mine)

The documented range of variation in sociopolitical organization around the world has been similarly broad, making it possible to relate inequalities of power and status to inequalities in wealth. From a global perspective, agriculture is closely correlated with social and political stratification. In a sample of more than a thousand communities, more than three-quarters of simple foraging communities do not display signs of social stratification, as opposed to fewer than a third of those practicing intensive forms of farming.

Political hierarchies are even more strongly dependent on sedentary agriculture: elites and class structure are virtually unknown among simple foragers but are attested for the majority of agrarian societies. Once again, however, it was the scale of the economic surplus rather than the mode of subsistence as such that served as the critical variable. p. 42 (Emphasis mine)

Indeed, James C. Scott estimates that up to 60 percent of humans lived outside of state-level societies until as late as 1600 CE. Today, I would estimate that number is probably under 2 percent, despite the human population exceeding seven billion.

With the advent of protostates came hereditary rank—high priests, kings, potentates, generals, taxes, bureaucrats and so forth. We’ll take a look at those new forms of hierarchy stemming from differential access to political and military power—and how they contributed to the next stage of inequality—the emergence of “The Original One Percent”—next time.

Next

Libertarians’ History Problem 3

Part 1
Part 2

The second argument that Caplan rolls out is what Breunig calls the “folk morality” argument. I read this as the idea that one should be entitled to the fruits of one’s own labor. For example, if I build a house with my own two hands, then I “own” the house. If I plant seeds and water and weed a given plot of land, then I “own” the resulting crop. If I build a piece of furniture, or paint a picture, then it’s mine. Seems pretty straightforward, and this was basically the reasoning that John Locke used: “The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own: and in that way he makes it his property.” (By the way, Locke also argued that money was a set quantity of precious metal).

Caplan invokes this “folk morality” to justify the initial acquisition of private property. This makes some sense—we know, for example, that primates are hardwired to reject what they perceive as unfairness, such a greater reward for similar work effort.

And no doubt this sort of folk morality about fairness did play some sort of role. After all, why shouldn’t I be able to keep what I produce? And if I produce more than the next guy or gal, then why shouldn’t I have more? For libertarians, this is the cornerstone behind the private property argument, and really behind all of their philosophy. One is wealthy because one’s marginal productivity is higher, or one has highly specialized skills and rare talents. People are unequal in their abilities and disposition, so of course wealth is unequal. Anything else would be unfair.

But does this accurately account for kinds of wealth the disparities we see all around us today? After all, intrinsic qualities are distributed in people along a bell curve, or Normal distribution. Thus, if work equals reward, we would expect to see a pattern of wealth distribution which aligns roughly to that of skill/talent among individuals. How much “harder” can the wealthy work than the rest of us? After all, there are only 24 hours in the day, and a portion of those are spent sleeping.

Instead of the normal variation we see between individuals with, say, intelligence, conscientiousness, or physical strength, we instead see wealth distributed according to a “Power Law” or Pareto distribution.

Many empirical quantities cluster around a typical value…their distributions place a negligible amount of probability far from the typical value, making the typical value representative of most observations. For instance, it is an entirely useful statement to say that an adult male American is about 170cm (about 5 feet 7 inches) tall because not one of the 200 million-odd members of this group deviate very far from this size. Even the largest deviations, which are exceptionally rare, are still only about a factor of two from the mean in either direction and hence the distribution can be well-characterized by quoting just its mean and standard deviation.

…consider a world where the heights of Americans were distributed as a power law, with approximately the same average as the true distribution (which is convincingly Normal when certain exogenous factors are controlled). In this case, we would expect nearly 60,000 individuals to be as tall as the tallest adult male on record, at 2.72 meters. Further, we would expect ridiculous facts such as 10,000 individuals being as tall as an adult male giraffe, one individual as tall as the Empire State Building (381 meters), and 180 million diminutive individuals standing a mere 17 cm tall.

In fact, this same analogy was used in 2006 to describe the counter-intuitive nature of the extreme inequality in the wealth distribution in the United States, whose upper tail is often said to follow a power law.

http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~aaronc/courses/7000/csci7000-001_2011_L2.pdf

So how, then, could such a distribution of wealth be the result of innate qualities or differences in talent or “hard work?”

It can’t.

In addition, the ability to deprive the community of the necessary resources to survive is quite contrary to the “folk morality” that Caplan invokes above. Any leader or member of a complex foraging tribe or simple agrarian society hoarding or depriving the others of necessary resources would quickly lose their social standing at the very least, and, in many cases, their lives. Thus “folk morality” is hardly consistent with the “sanctity” of private property posited by libertarians as “pure and natural.” As Matt Breunig points out, the “folk morality” invoked by Caplan is decidedly non-libertarian in its outlook:

The problem with the method is that the general folk morality of people, when taken as a whole, is not libertarian. Any assessment of how people generally feel about things in the economic realm would not generate the conclusion that they generally feel like laissez-faire capitalism is correct. We know this because no society ever selects those institutions and because libertarians write books all the time about how democracy is bad precisely because people as a whole are not sympathetic to the libertarian worldview.

An honest assessment of where folk morality is on economics would probably be something like: people have somewhat contradictory ideas about economic morality that roughly sum to the worldview that there should be property rights but also that those rights should give way to fairness and welfare goals to some degree.

I am not saying I agree with that general view or even that you should build your normative views this way. But if you are going to say the proper normative method is folk morality, as Caplan does, then it seems like you should actually take a comprehensive account of what that folk morality is, not just opportunistically pick off one piece of it.

To emphasize that point, it’s notable that traditional societies, even those with considerable surpluses, took extensive steps to keep inequality in check. To keep anyone from lacking the means of subsistence, land was periodically redistributed, and large infrastructure projects (irrigation ditches, walls, etc.) were built communally, often with corvée labor. The product of the land was owned and shared in common by all. Ancient contract law determined rights and responsibilities between families, not individuals as Henry Sumner Maine noted in his book Ancient Law. There was no such thing as “economic” behavior  as we understand the term today as Karl Polanyi concluded from his extensive survey of the anthropological data:

The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken.

These interests will be very different in a small hunting or fishing community from those in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on noneconomic motives.

The explanation, in terms of survival, is simple. Take the case of a tribal society. The individual’s economic interest is rarely paramount, for the community keeps all its members from starving unless it is itself borne down by catastrophe, in which case interests are again threatened collectively, not individually. The maintenance of social ties, on the other hand, is crucial.

First, because by disregarding the accepted code of honor, or generosity, the individual cuts himself off from the community and becomes an outcast; second, because, in the long run, all social obligations are reciprocal, and their fulfillment serves also the individual’s give-and-take interests best. Such a situation must exert a continuous pressure on the individual to eliminate economic self-interest from his consciousness to the point of making him unable, in many cases (but by no means in all), even to comprehend the implications of his own actions in terms of such an interest.

This attitude is reinforced by the frequency of communal activities such as partaking of food from the common catch or sharing in the results of some far-flung and dangerous tribal expedition. The premium set on generosity is so great when measured in terms of social prestige as to make any other behavior than that of utter self-forgetfulness simply not pay. Personal character has little to do with the matter. Man can be as good or evil, as social or asocial, jealous or generous, in respect to one set of values as in respect to another. Not to allow anybody reason for jealousy is, indeed, an accepted principle of ceremonial distribution, just as publicly bestowed praise is the due of the industrious, skillful, or otherwise successful gardener (unless he be too successful, in which case he may deservedly be allowed to wither away under the delusion of being the victim of black magic). The human passions, good or bad, are merely directed toward noneconomic ends. [Polanyi; The Great Transformation, pp. 48-49]

That’s what actually happened. Folk morality, as it has been studied by anthropologists and sociologists, is decidedly communitarian, contra the beliefs of modern-day economists.

In his book Primitive Property, Emile de Layeleye concluded that while movable items, or “chattels” were considered private property from an early period, land and buildings were communally owned and managed. Arable land was periodically redistributed (just as debts were periodically annulled). He noted that such systems still existed in his own time (the late Nineteenth century) in various parts of the world such as Eastern Europe, India and Java. Land rights were usufructuary, and only transferable ceremonially between families if agreed to by the whole community. For example, he notes of ancient Rome: “Agriculture commenced and was developed under the system of common ownership and periodic partition. In the provinces of the Roman empire the soil was only occupied by title of usufruct.” Ancient families were the stewards, not the owners, of the land.

In his historical study he noted a gradual process of transferring ownership from communities to families to individuals unfolding over very long stretches of time, with creeping normality used to justify it after the fact. Of this evolution he writes:

It is only after a series of progressive evolutions and at a comparatively recent period that individual ownership, as applied to land, is constituted.

So long as primitive man lived by the chase, by fishing or gathering wild fruits, he never thought of appropriating the soil; and considered nothing as his own but what he had taken or contrived with his own hands. Under the pastoral system, the notion of property in the soil begins to spring up. It is however always limited to the portion of land, which the herds of each tribe are accustomed to graze on, and frequent quarrels  break out with regard to the limits of these pastures. The idea that a single individual could claim a part of the soil as exclusively his own never yet occurs to any one; the conditions of the pastoral life are in direct opposition to it.

Gradually, a portion of the soil was put temporarily under cultivation, and the agricultural system was established; but the territory, which the clan or tribe occupies, remains its undivided property. The arable, the pasturage and the forest are farmed in common. Subsequently, the cultivated land is divided into parcels which are distributed by lot among the several families, a mere temporary right of occupation being thus allowed to the individual. The soil still remains the collective property of the clan, to whom it returns from time to time, that a new partition may be effected. This is the system still in force in the Russian commune; and was, in the time of Tacitus, that of the German tribe.

By a new step of individualization, the parcels remain in the hands of groups of patriarchal families dwelling in the same house and working together for the benefit of the association, as in Italy or France in the middle ages, and in Serbia at the present time.

Finally individual hereditary property appears. It is, however, still tied down by the thousand fetters of seignorial rights, fideicommissa, retraits-lignagers, hereditary leases, Flurzwang or compulsory system of rotation, etc. It is not till after a last evolution, sometimes very long in taking effect, that it is definitely constituted and becomes the absolute, sovereign, personal right, which is defined by the Civil Code, and which alone is familiar to us in the present day.

The method of cultivation is modified in proportion as property is evolved from community. From being extensive, cultivation becomes intensive, that is to say capital contributes to the production of what was formerly derived from the extent of the territory.

At first, the cultivation is temporary and intermittent. The natural vegetation is burned on the surface, and grain is sown in the ashes; after this the soil rests for eighteen or twenty years…This mode of cultivation is not incompatible with the pastoral system and a nomadic life. Later on, a small portion of the land is successively put into cultivation, according to the triennial rotation, the greater part remaining common pasturage for the herds of the village. This is the system of Russia and Ancient Germany. Afterwards the cattle are better tended, the manure is collected, and the fields are enclosed. Roads and ditches are marked out, and the land is permanently improved by labour. Then the fallow is curtailed, powerful manures are purchased in the towns or devised by industry ; capital is sunk in the soil and increases its productiveness. This is the modern agriculture, the system of Italy and Flanders since the middle ages; never coming into action until the individual ownership of the land is completely established…

These necessities, these ideas, these sentiments, have been very similar and have acted in the same manner in all societies, at a certain period in their development, directing the establishment of institutions everywhere the same. All races have not, however, advanced at the same pace. While some had already passed out of the primitive community at the commencement of their historical existence, others still continue to practise, in our day, a system which dates from the very beginning of civilization…[Laveleye; Primitive Property, pp. 3-5]

As for Caplan’s “folk morality” argument, Laveleye concludes:

A study of the primitive forms of property is essential in order to form a solid foundation for the theory of property. Without understanding the real facts, the majority of jurists and economists have based property on hypotheses which are contradicted by history, or on arguments which load to a conclusion quite opposite to what they wished to establish. They strove to show the justice of quiritary property, such as the Roman law has bequeathed to us; and they succeeded in proving quite another thing — that natural property, such as it was established among primitive nations, was alone in accordance with justice.

To show the necessity of absolute and perpetual property in land, jurists invoked universal custom, “quod ab omnibis, quod ubique, quod semper.” (‘Always everywhere and by everyone.’ Universally accepted, agreed upon, or practiced.) “Universal consent is an infallible sign of the necessity and consequently of the justice of an institution,” says M. Leon Faucher. If this is true, as the universal custom has been the collective ownership of land, we must conclude that such ownership is alone just, or alone conformable to natural law. [Laveleye; Primitive Property, p. 337]

Thus, there is no “natural right” to property, nor are price-fixing markets spontaneous outgrowths of mankind’s supposedly “natural” instincts to “truck, barter and exchange.”  Nor were governments formed by mutual agreement of solitary individuals, but evolved by degrees through basic social instincts such as kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Our theories are based on imaginary scenarios posited by British thinkers of the Enlightenment attempting to justify the extreme inequalities they witnessed in their own day. John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith wrote lengthy philosophical treatises to justify what had been achieved by top-down violence and control over thousands of years on the part of elites before they were born. They did not look at actual history, nor, it seems, did they care to. But isn’t time we set aside their deductivist theories in favor of better ones; ones more accurate and better in line with the actual historical record and the facts as we know them? Won’t that get us further in seeking answers to our social ills?

In contrast to Bryan Caplan’s libertarian fairy tale above, David Harvey tells quite a different story about how private property was initially acquired and the establishment of price-fixing global markets:

…These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes.

David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Naked Capitalism)

As Emile de Laveleye concludes in his exhaustive study of Primitive Property:

…these juridical antiquities, which seemed as if they could only be of interest to a limited number of savants, are of real, practical interest. Not only do they throw new light on fundamental institutions and on the mode of life of primitive races; but…they raise us above the narrow ideas, which make us regard that which is carried on around us, as the only scheme of social existence. [p. 3]

No wonder libertarians don’t want to talk about it.

Libertarians’ History Problem 2

(breaking this into multiple posts because of trouble posting)
Part 1

How did private property begin?

Matt Breunig quotes the Libertarian economist Brian Caplan’s attempts to explain how private property first came to be:

“There are many clear-cut cases of righteous acquisition; once we understand them, we can use them to analyze fuzzier cases. What are some clear-cut cases? An individual living alone on an island grows some food, builds a house, carves a sculpture, or quarries some rock. If someone else shows up on the island, the new arrival seems morally obligated to respect that property [presumtively]. This isn’t just ‘seems to me’ or ‘seems to libertarians’; it’s “seems to almost everyone other than self-conscious socialist philosophers.” Other clear-cut cases: If two people mutually agree to pool their resources and effort, then split the rewards according to an explicit formula – whether 50/50, 90/10, or whatever. Or: I pay you ten pounds of food to build me a new hut.”

If you flatly insist that a person who builds a hut on a desert island isn’t morally entitled to exclude a new arrival from sharing it, there’s little left for me to say. Otherwise, we can build on these straightforward cases to credibly justify everything from real estate development to malls to multinational corporations. Doesn’t any big economic project in the modern world ultimately contain at least a small dose of theft? (i.e., doesn’t every skyscraper have at least one stolen brick in it?) Very likely, but in the real world, this rarely turns out to be a serious moral problem.

How Did Private Property Start? (Jacobin)

Let’s pull that apart bit by bit.

Reading it, I am immediately struck by the following: Caplan’s argument is ahistorical; it is simply a thought experiment. It does not make recourse to any actually documented historical facts or evidence that we know of. Given that property rights are at the very heart of libertarian thought, how can they be understood without recourse to actual history? How can it be justified? Perhaps this is the reason why “mainstream” economic thought has mostly abandoned historical inquiry and instead focused mainly on justifying currently existing conditions using sophisticated mathematical models and abstract formulas. Property rights, inequality and asymmetrical power relations are simply taken for granted as “natural” or “customary” and explained away or never seriously questioned (“…in the real world, this rarely turns out to be a serious moral problem.”).

There is a good analogy here with the libertarian explanation for the creation of money. That explanation is also a deductive thought experiment without recourse to any historical or anthropological data.

Libertarians posit an imaginary ahistorical society—again composed of isolated individuals pursuing specialized occupations—engaging in repeated barter transactions for everything they need which they cannot produce themselves. To reduce the transaction costs, they somehow—and without recourse to any centralized governing authority—come up with an item that has value not because it is intrinsically valuable, but because it can be used for exchanges, and they use this instead for trading in place of constantly bartering for things. Everyone agrees to accept this item in exchange. For various reasons such as scarcity, divisibility and durability, various metals became chosen as the standard, especially gold and silver. These metals became “real” money used by traders in markets. Later, as paper becomes more common, credit appears, representing gold and silver stored in a bank vault somewhere. Government then comes along and skims off (i.e. steals) a portion of this wealth from the producers peacefully engaging in mutually beneficial transactions in “free and open” markets which formed spontaneously without government aid or sanction. Or so the story goes.

The problem with this story is that it never actually happened! It, too, is ahistorical. This article in the Independent Australia summarizes the problems with this story, and then describes the evidence for how money was actually created based on the historical  and anthropological evidence:

According to the myth, money evolved naturally, without the intervention of power institutions of any kind. In this tale, which I won’t repeat here, governments enter the story of money rather late on, eventually messing up a naturally stable system of commodity money. The abandonment of the gold standard by the USA in August 1971 supposedly marked the final betrayal by modern governments of a naturally stable system which had no need for governmental institutions at all. Governments confiscate taxpayers’ money. Governments create inflation and instability. Governments are generally bad news. So goes the story.

The thing is that there is apparently no evidence that this is true. None at all.

The prominent anthropologist, Caroline Humphrey, is very clear:

‘No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there has never been such a thing.

The monetary historian and one-time adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales, Glyn Davies is equally clear:

‘On one thing the experts on primitive money all agree, and this vital agreement transcends their minor differences. Their common belief backed up by the overwhelming tangible evidence of actual types of primitive moneys from all over the ancient world and from the archaeological, literary and linguistic evidence of the ancient world, is that barter was not the main factor in the origins and earliest development of money.’

In the case of ancient Mesopotamia, in particular, there are good reasons for believing that what became the social institution of money developed in a different way entirely.

The development of farming allowed for the emergence of religious and governmental institutions. Soldiers, administrators and priests needed to be provisioned, and accounts had to be kept of how this was being done. Tributes and taxes had to be raised in order to make this possible. The earliest sense in which money existed was as a way of recording the value of such tributes and taxes. The earliest unit of money as a scoring system may have been weights (or shekels) of barley, in places like Uruk, at least 5,000 years ago and probably well before that.

Not that taxes had to be paid in barley. They were just valued in these units. You could pay your taxes or tributes in a wide variety of items that the temple community could find a use for, as anthropologist David Graeber explains in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

The invention of government, accounting, taxation and money appear to have created early markets, specialisation and trade, and even credit and finance. Money as a thing was whatever you needed to obtain to pay your taxes. Governments were then able to spend by issuing token money which could be used in the future to pay taxes back to the government. Perhaps clay tokens were the earliest form of token money and, in some ways, not all that much unlike a modern $50 note.

Running out of money, budget emergencies and other neoliberal myths (Independant Australia)

I’m seeing a consistent pattern here. Libertarian thought tends to not be based on any serious inquiry into historical contingencies, or on empirical data, but on hypothetical thought experiments. And these thought experiments tend to be highly sympathetic to the status quo. Thought experiments are not necessarily bad–after all, scientists use them all the time to help formulate hypotheses. But when they contradict everything we know about history, anthropology, archaeology, sociology and psychology, well then, maybe we should stop taking them seriously. For example, there’s this from Caplan:

“An individual living alone on an island grows some food, builds a house, carves a sculpture, or quarries some rock. If someone else shows up on the island, the new arrival seems morally obligated to respect that property.”

The thing is, the above scenario never happened either! The lone individual has never existed! A hypothetical society of one has never existed outside of novels and films about imaginary castaways (and libertarian thought experiments). How can you rely on an imaginary state of nature which never existed in history to justify your position? It’s similar to the absurd Hobbesian concept of solitary individuals “choosing” to unite and form a government ex nihilo based on shared interests. As Francis Fukuyama writes:

We might label this the Hobbesian fallacy: the idea that human beings were primordially individualistic and that they entered into society at a later stage in their development only as a result of a rational calculation that social cooperation was the best way for them to achieve their individual ends…But in fact it is individualism and not sociability that developed over the course of human history. That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts…

Everything that modern biology and anthropology tell us about the state of nature suggests the opposite: there was never a period in human evolution when human beings existed as isolated individuals; the primate precursors of the human species had already developed extensive social, and indeed political, skills; and the human brain is hardwired with faculties that facilitate many forms of social cooperation…Human beings do not enter into society and political life as a result of conscious, rational decision. Communal organization comes to them naturally, though the specific ways they cooperate are shaped by environment, ideas, and culture.
[Fukuyama; The Origins of Political Order, pp. 29-30]

Just like governments, property relations must have arisen in a social milieu, and speculating about hypothetical Robinson Crusoes is not credible scholarship. Why not at least make a serious attempt to understand what actually happened? Perhaps it’s because it would not reflect so kindly upon the thesis you’re trying to justify. It seems like backward reasoning to me: starting with the conclusion and coming up with ways to justify it.

Matt Breunig makes a similar point:

The problem with the case is that, by clearing out all other people from the island, it eliminates the liberty destruction that makes property acquisition so obviously problematic. What if instead of one individual washing up on an island, ten of them do? Then one of them asserts that certain resources and land areas are his and that those who do not respect that claim will be violently attacked? This is more analogous to a real-life case of property acquisition where there exists more than one human being. It also clearly presents the problem of property acquisition rather than trying to get around it by creating a hypothetical society of one.

Similarly, Caplan’s hypothetical agreement between more-or-less equal individuals to divvy up resources along some sort of predetermined and mutually-agreed-upon formula (“…whether 50/50, 90/10, or whatever…”) is inconsistent with what we observe. It is more characteristic of strangers bartering in modern-day market economies than any ancient or traditional societies that we know of:

“Other clear-cut cases: If two people mutually agree to pool their resources and effort, then split the rewards according to an explicit formula – whether 50/50, 90/10, or whatever. Or: I pay you ten pounds of food to build me a new hut.”

This scenario assumes a hypothetical closed transaction among relative strangers with no ongoing social interactions between them where each party expects to walk away roughly equal. We know that this, like the hypothetical Robinsonade society of one, is not what actually happened in the past. Instead, exchanges were embedded in a wider social fabric without explicit reckoning of who owed what to whom. The unspoken laws of reciprocity determined that every individual could be secure in the knowledge that their labor and goods would be reciprocated at some point in the future by others, with everything balancing out in long run.

What actually happens in practice is that when individuals knew each other, exchange was based on reciprocity; a gift would be given in the anticipation of it being reciprocated in the future (when they don’t know each other there is barter, but in such situations money cannot emerge because cowrie shells might be important in one society, and gold in another).

One of the most famous stories illustrating the role of reciprocal exchange has concerns an anthropologist who after spending some time with bushmen, gave one of them his knife. When visiting the group some years later, anthropologists discovered that the knife had been owned, at some point in time, by every member of the community. The knife had not been communally owned, its ownership had passed from one person to the next and its passage was evidence of a social network in the community, just as the motion of planets is evidence of an, otherwise invisible, gravitational field.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

Karl Polanyi makes the same point in The Great Transformation:

Ceremonial display serves to spur emulation to the utmost and the custom of communal labor tends to screw up both quantitative and qualitative standards to the highest pitch. The performance of acts of exchange byway of free gifts that are expected to be reciprocated though not necessarily by the same individuals a procedure minutely articulated and perfectly safeguarded by elaborate methods of publicity, by magic rites, and by the establishment of “dualities” in which groups are linked in mutual obligations—should in itself explain the absence of the notion of gain or even of wealth other than that consisting of objects traditionally enhancing social prestige.

…For it is on this one negative point that modern ethnographers agree: the absence of the motive of gain; the absence of the principle of laboring for remuneration; the absence of the principle of least effort; and, especially, the absence of any separate and distinct institution based on economic motives…[pp. 48-49]

Here’s anthropologist David Graeber describing the role that social relationships play in  reciprocity:

[Sociologist Marcel] Mauss didn’t really think of everything in terms of exchange; this becomes clear if you read his other writings besides ‘The Gift’. Mauss insisted there were lots of different principles at play besides reciprocity in any society – including our own. For example, take hierarchy. Gifts given to inferiors or superiors don’t have to be repaid at all. If another professor takes our economist out to dinner, sure, he’ll feel that he should reciprocate; but if an eager grad student does, he’ll probably figure just accepting the invitation is favor enough; and if George Soros buys him dinner, then great, he did get something for nothing after all. In explicitly unequal relations, if you give somebody something, far from doing you a favor back, they’re more likely to expect you to do it again.

Or take communistic relations – and I define this, following Mauss actually, as any ones where people interact on the basis of ‘from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs’. In these relations people do not rely on reciprocity, for example, when trying to solve a problem, even inside a capitalist firm. (As I always say, if somebody working for Exxon says, “hand me the screwdriver,” the other guy doesn’t say, “yeah and what do I get for it?”) Communism is in a way the basis of all social relations – in that if the need is great enough (I’m drowning) or the cost small enough (can I have a light?) everyone will be expected to act that way.

What is Debt? – An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber (Naked Capitalism)

I’m sensing a pattern here. What does it mean that libertarian arguments are dependent on hypothetical scenarios that fall apart under empirical scrutiny? Does it not mean that they should be discarded? It is possible that these views continue to be the economic and political orthodoxy only because there are a lot of special interests promoting them? Maybe this is behind the disturbing trend of claiming all of the humanities have been taken over by “Marxists.” It’s a good way to shut down the debate when the facts are not on your side.

Part 3

Libertarians’ History Problem 1

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.
“The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done.”
Honoré de Balzac

One of the simplest economic questions of all turns out to be one of the most complicated: Where did private property come from?

After all, private property is a shared fiction. There is no “property” apart from the legal rights enforcing it. Property is not, nor can it be, “natural.” We know that, once open a time, there was no such thing as private property. Indeed, this was the default condition for the hundreds of thousands of years while man subsisted as nomadic foragers, following herds of wild animals across the savanna and exploiting the abundant natural resources available to all.

There is no concept of “property” in the animal kingdom apart from that which an animal can defend or conceal itself. As the introduction to Primitive Property ponders:

No mere psychological explanation of the origin of property is, I venture…admissible, though writers…have attempted to discover its germs by that process in the lower animals. A dog, it has been said, shews an elementary proprietary sentiment when he hides a bone, or keeps watch over his master’s goods. But property has not its root in the love of possession. All living beings like and desire certain things, and if nature has armed them with any weapons are prone to use them in order to get and keep what they want. What requires explanation is not the want or desire of certain things on the part of individuals, but the fact that other individuals, with similar wants and desires, should leave them in undisturbed possession, or allot to them a share, of such things. It is the conduct of the community, not the inclination of individuals, that needs investigation.

The mere desire for particular articles, so far from accounting for settled and peaceful ownership, tends in the opposite direction, namely, to conflict and the right of the strongest. No small amount of error in several departments of social philosophy, and especially in political economy, has arisen from reasoning from the desires of the individual, instead of from the history of the community. [p. xi]

So that raises the question: how did we go from a system where resources were owned in common by all, to one where resources were owned by specific individuals who could deprive others of its use at will? And how and why did everyone else come to accept this situation?

After all, that’s what private property is. Private property is property where an individual or group of individuals can de-prive other persons of its use, hence private (privation also comes from the same root). Control and management over the item in question “belongs” only to certain people, and they and they alone are free to determine it’s use and claim the fruits of whatever it produces. They can also pass it down to their heirs in (theoretically) perpetuity.

Which is fine as well as it goes, but how then can one claim that such a system is based entirely on freedom and liberty? After all it’s all about taking liberty away from other people, particularly those who don’t own property. And those who do own property have considerable power over those who don’t—the very antithesis of freedom. Those without property have very little recourse.

Matt Breunig over at Jacobin points out that this is a serious problem with libertarian thought:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.

How Did Private Property Start? (Jacobin)

If we accept that the only role of government is to guarantee private property rights, as libertarians claim, then shouldn’t we care about how those property rights came to be in the first place?

A problem with the concept of private property is that once private property becomes established in any society it sets in motion a Monopoly-style winner-take-all tournament where it accrues to fewer and fewer people over time. Things like the Law of Cumulative Advantage (a.k.a. the Matthew Effect) and just pure dumb luck ensure that more and more wealth accumulates to those who already have a lot of wealth to begin with, while those with already very little lose what little they have. This is so universal as to be considered almost a natural law.

This creates a polarization which has undermined every society that we know of since the dawn of agrarian civilizations thousands of years ago. It also appears to have very few good solutions.

An alarming projection produced by the House of Commons library suggests that if trends seen since the 2008 financial crash were to continue, then the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth by 2030. Even taking the financial crash into account, and measuring their assets over a longer period, they would still hold more than half of all wealth.

Since 2008, the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average of 6% a year – much faster than the 3% growth in wealth of the remaining 99% of the world’s population. Should that continue, the top 1% would hold wealth equating to $305tn (£216.5tn) – up from $140tn today.

Richest 1% on target to own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030 (The Guardian)

It also puts paid to the idea that libertarianism and market relations are–or can be–systems entirely free of violence or coercion, unlike “oppressive” central governments. After all, isn’t depriving other people of the resources they need to survive and making them pay for it a kind of violence? How could it not be? Here’s Breunig quoting Matt Zwolinsky making this same point:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

Again, what’s so funny about this insight is not just that it is a persuasive counterpoint to libertarianism, but rather that it seems to suggest that libertarian principles themselves forbid property ownership.

How Did Private Property Start? (Jacobin)

Similarly, any market-based system relies upon violence, direct or indirect, just as much as does any central government:

Can you imagine how capitalism could possibly function without coercion and the threat of violence? There would be nothing to stop theft and pillage of businesses, no claim to ownership over goods, no implementation of contracts, no enforcement of patents or protection against fraud. There would no incentive to innovate, to invest, to trade or to do any form of business. Without some degree of coercion we would truly be in a Hobbesian world where nothing was secure. There simply would be no such thing as capitalism without the security supplied by coercion.

But, an ancap would argue, we voluntarily enter into contracts, unlike any agreement we have with the state. It’s not coercion if we have agreed to it. But this is patently untrue of private property. No one (apart from the state and the previous owners) agreed to my parents ownership of their property. No contract was signed with their neighbours and no consent was given by anyone else in society. In fact no one ever agreed that property should be privately owned. Who ever said that land could belong to any one person? To many ancient civilisations (such as the Celts and Native Americans) this notion was as strange as any one person claiming they owned the air or the sky.

Both The State And The Market Are Based On Coercion (Whistling in the Wind)

Indeed, how can we have “pure and natural liberty” based on something as unnatural as private property? How can a system based on depriving others of their rightful share in the commons claim that it is really all about “freedom?” And how can a system which deprives others of the basic things they need to survive be associated with “liberty?” It doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, how can we assert that such a system is entirely free of violence and coercion? Isn’t it just a matter of who does the coercion and why?

Part 2

Final Thoughts on Jordan Peterson

I’m going to sum up my final objections to Jordan Peterson and move on, because I’ve got other things to talk about.

Real ideological diversity

I’m going to begin with this quote from economist Richard Wolff, referring to his teaching of Marxist economics in university:

34:15: “I think, if the universities and colleges had a commetment to diversity of perspective the way they now at least say they have with diversity of gender and race and all of that, then we would have had people like me teaching–lots more of them than I am; many like me–teaching. And then we would have at least confronted a generation of students with the alternatives that they could have then thought about and made up their own minds. But this country has never, in my lifetime, had the confidence in its own people to give them real freedom of choice in learning. They’ve given them a very restricgted diet and we live with the consequences.”

Chapo Trap House Episode 186 – Executive Producer feat. Richard Wolff (Soundcloud)

This is an odd complaint considering Peterson’s contention that entire disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, biology, history, not to mention law and education, are intent on indoctrinating unsuspecting students with “postmodern Neo-Marxism.” Apparently the only place on a college campus where you won’t hear about Marx is the economics department!

I read this as saying that universities use diversity of gender/ethnic groups as a screen to cover their lack of diversity on actual intellectual ideas which are threatening to the ruling class. I agree. As I’ve said before, identity politics is a great way of neutering the Left.

Yet people are convinced “Marxists” have taken over some of the largest corporations in America even while entire areas of the country (including the national government) are effectively one party rule by Republicans, a party farther to the right than any other party existing in the developed world.

The Real Cultural Marxists:

This article about the programmer named Christopher Wylie whose ideas led to the founding of Cambridge Analytica and who contributed to Trump’s victory, has been widely read in the wake of the scandals surrounding that company. I found this part to be most interesting given the right wing demonization of cultural Marxism and handwringing over things like gay marriage:

A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.

What was he like?

“Smart,” says Wylie. “Interesting. Really interested in ideas. He’s the only straight man I’ve ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.”

Wylie meeting Bannon was the moment petrol was poured on a flickering flame. Wylie lives for ideas. He speaks 19 to the dozen for hours at a time. He had a theory to prove. And at the time, this was a purely intellectual problem. Politics was like fashion, he told Bannon.

“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”

[…]

It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer – the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates – and his daughter Rebekah.

Nix and Wylie flew to New York to meet the Mercers in Rebekah’s Manhattan apartment.

“She loved me. She was like, ‘Oh we need more of your type on our side!’”

Your type?

The gays. She loved the gays. So did Steve [Bannon]. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. It’s why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos] thing.”

‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower (Guardian)

It seems like a sort of projection–create a conspiracy theory about evil Marxists manipulating the culture for their political agenda and you cover the fact that you are actually doing what you are accusing your opponents of doing! Note that Breitbart is one of the major outlets pushing of the cultural Marxist conspiracy theory while at the same time believing that “politics is donwstream from culture;” supposedly the central idea of cultural Marxism. However, although the vast cultural Marxist conspiracy on campuses remains in the realm of speculation, Bannon’s and Mercer’s actions are actually documented.

So who’s really manipulating culture to their own ends here, college professors, or the people who, you know, actually wield political power in the real world? Personally, I’m more afraid of Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart than postmodernist professors or transgender student activists on campus.

Is the PC Threat Exaggerated?

I suspect that the campus free-speech threat is greatly exaggerated for political purposes. Consider this quote from Danieli Bolelli, a teacher and writer based in Los Angeles on the Joe Rogan podcast:

“I think a lot of this stuff is also a little bit media created in the sense that, ‘Let’s find the most batshit crazy person on that side; let’s put the spotlight on them,’ which makes everybody go, ‘What the fuck, who are those crazy people?’ It’s kind of like if you were to pick the Westboro Baptist Church and make it be representative of Christianity. It’s not, but if you keep putting the spotlight there, you’ll create this perception [which will] create a backlash and it becomes this thing where…”

“Like, that’s one of the funny things that I was noticing, because…I really don’t like political correctness. I really don’t like academia. There are ten thousand of these things where I’m completely on board with not liking some of these things.”

“But then there’s another side where…I have been teaching at university since 2001. I don’t think I’ve seen once a case of the kind of political correctness that I see in articles in media. Not once. I was doing the math. I had probably, maybe 11,000 students in my classes over the course of those years. I haven’t had one person ever defend hard-core Communism, or make an argument…even among my colleagues which I have issues with for other reasons, that’s never been one of the things.”

“I keep hearing about it, I keep reading about it in papers, but why is it when that’s how I make my living–I’m on college campuses all the time–I hardly ever see it?”

“I’m not saying that it’s not true; of course these stories true. There’s no argument. But what I’m wondering is how much do they get blown out of proportion because you get clicks, because it makes for an interesting narrative which then some people also live off that kind of narrative. How much of it is where you are putting a spotlight on and making a rare exception be the norm versus how much it’s a real thing?”

“I mean, I teach in Southern California. Santa Monica is one of the most liberal places around. If this thing is as dominant as advertised, I should be running into it all the time, right? And I don’t like that stuff so I would be sensitive…I would be paying attention. And I don’t see it. So I’m like, ‘Hmmm, what’s going on here?'”

“…I am not arguing that they [Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein] are wrong, they’re completely right. My issue is from there to arguing that this is this super prevalent thing. It’s like, from one story to say instead there’s a communist conspiracy to brainwash us all, we are starting from a completely understandable presence and taking it twenty-five steps too far.”

Joe Rogan Experience #1091 – Daniele Bolelli (YouTube)

Rogan responds:

“I agree. But I think what’s happening is more of these unusual situations are occurring and so people are terrified of this spreading like wildfire across the country. Because kids are very easily influenced. And they’re also idealistic. They want to change the world.”

What’s the truth? Bolelli’s experience is backed up by data:

As Acadia University political science professor Jeffrey Sachs points out, according to a General Social Survey (GSS) dataset, “young people aged 18-34 are the most tolerant of potentially offensive speech and trending upward,” meaning not only that young people are already the most tolerant of offensive speech, but that they’re getting more tolerant…

A Heterodox Academy analysis of the FIRE disinvitation data shows that the most successful attempts to shut down speakers have come from right-leaning groups shutting down speech with which they don’t agree, but this hasn’t stopped pundits and politicians from seeing the student left as the gravest threat to free speech.

Are liberal college students creating a free speech crisis? Not according to data. (NBC News)

While “scalp hunting” is not anything I endorse, these have more the character of “witch hunts” than any kind of Leftist dogma. Witch hunts are a sad part of human nature, and appear to be prevalent in the United States for some reason. Remember, that Communists and anarchists were the primary victims of witch hunts during the twentieth century. While unfounded accusations hurled at innocent people are always a bad thing, is this really more prevalent now than at any time in the past? Or is it more playing to white male insecurity and fear of quotas in a time of disappearing job opportunities? After all, in the 1960’s, Leftist radicals set bombs off on campuses! Professors threatened by the “extreme left” end up as millionaires. Those menaced by the extreme right end up in the morgue (e.g. Heather Heyer; Anders Breivik’s and Dylan Roof’s victims, etc.).

Why is the Left so *violent*???

And yet, as Rogan opined earlier in the episode:

What’s fascinating to me about human beings of today is I’ve never seen a time where people are more interested in other people doing what they want them to do. Like, other people thinking the way they want them to think; other people behaving the way they want them to…People, it seems to me are more concerned with controlling people’s expression and thinking today than ever before. And even more so on the left.

I’m seeing this interesting trend today where people…it’s almost like we don’t like where things are headed. We don’t like what’s happening, we don’t like who the president is, so people are being real adamant about enforcing certain types of behavior. And that in turn, just like we were talking about people suppressing certain types of alcohol, that in turn …makes people rebel.

I feel like there’s more people leaning Right today than ever before. And I attribute it entirely to the people on the Left.

Yet, the data shows that this is factually untrue:

For nearly 50 years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans about their tolerance for offensive speech. Some questions include: Should an anti-American Muslim cleric be permitted to teach in a public school? Should the local library stock books hostile to religion? On almost every question, young people aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to support free speech...Not only are young people the most likely to express tolerance for offensive speech, but with almost every question posed by the GSS, each generation of young people has been more tolerant than the last…

And it’s definitely not “spreading like wildfire,” despite what Rogan promotes on his show:

[T]hese incidents are rare. Take the phenomenon of blocking invited speakers from speaking on campus, also known as no-platforming. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported 35 no-platforming attempts in 2017; out of those, 19 succeeded. In a country with over 4,700 schools, that hardly constitutes a crisis.

Finally, despite claims that college administrators are increasingly coddling students with speech codes, FIRE shows that the opposite is the case. The number of universities with restrictive speech codes has been dropping each year for the past decade and is currently at an all-time low. Most universities are not the ideological safe spaces their critics imagine.

In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.

The Campus Free Speech Crisis is a Myth. Here are the Facts (Washington Post)

In other words, the right-wing propaganda, pitched mainly at a demographic that has never set foot on a college campus or a corporate boardroom, is working as intended.

The propaganda tells us: Don’t worry about your job going away. Don’t worry about not being able to access health care. Don’t worry about all the people dying in your town from Fentanyl. Worry about the real threat: liberals who want to control your speech. Propaganda works.

I’ve also pointed out numerous instances of right-wing political correctness that stifles speech, yet the partisan desire — especially on the right — to manufacture fear of a particularly “illiberal left” is an important part of the conservative playbook in the Trump era. This despite the fact that President Donald Trump has openly attempted to use the power of the presidency and the resources of government to silence athletes and journalists he doesn’t like. Data is unlikely to change this attitude…being “anti-PC” is now effectively a form of tribalist identity politics. When I draw attention to right-wing threats to freedom of speech, these counterexamples — whether data-based or anecdotal — tend to threaten anti-PC identity and cause membership to close ranks.

If we consider the rise not only of anti-college views in popular media, but in organizations that seem to exist primarily to spread anti-college, anti-student and anti-faculty propaganda — like Turning Point USA or Campus Reform — it becomes clear that characterizing the campus left as “against free speech” appeals to large numbers of people who otherwise care little about quotidian campus affairs. Anti-PC and anti-college identity politics align with the faux-populism driving broader right-wing politics today.

Because of such propaganda, conservatives who see themselves, in some ways rightly, as victims of “the elite” are able to position themselves as fighting a scary, authoritarian, left-wing caricature. Indeed, the only way it’s possible to see left-wing college students as a group whose power rivals that of the presidency or the billionaire donor class is by embracing the cartoon image of lefty students as little authoritarians, and promoting it despite counterevidence. The political investment in the myth of the authoritarian college student is simply more powerful than even the most comprehensive data analyses on the subject.

Anti-Anti-Communism

Peterson is virulently anti-Communist and anti-Marxist, which to him are essentially the same thing. He insists that “Marxist” philosophy is based primarily on envy of the successful and inevitably leads to the gulags and reeducation camps.

This article cast aspersions on that rigid black-and-white thinking and is worth a read:

Since nuance in the story of 20th-century communism might ‘reduce the ease of our thoughts and the clarity of our feelings’, anti-communists will attack, dismiss or discredit any archival findings, interviews or survey results recalling Eastern Bloc achievements in science, culture, education, health care or women’s rights. They were bad people, and everything they did must be bad; we invert the ‘halo’ terminology and call this the ‘pitchfork effect’. Those offering a more nuanced narrative than one of unending totalitarian terror are dismissed as apologists or useful idiots. Contemporary intellectual opposition to the idea that ‘bad people are all bad’ elicits outrage and an immediate accusation that you are no better than those out to rob us of our ‘God-given rights’.

In 1984, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that you could be ‘anti anti-communism’ without being in favour of communism…In other words, you could stand up against bullies such as Joseph McCarthy without defending Joseph Stalin. If we carefully analyse the arguments of those attempting to control the historical narrative of 20th-century communism, this does not mean that we are apologising for, or excusing the atrocities or the lost lives of millions of men and women who suffered for their political beliefs.

The merits of taking an anti-anti-communism stance (Aeon)

What is the real reason for such Red-baiting and scare mongering, and why has it increased so markedly?

Conservative and nationalist political leaders in the US and across Europe already incite fear with tales of the twin monsters of Islamic fundamentalism and illegal immigration. But not everyone believes that immigration is a terrible threat, and most Right-wing conservatives don’t think that Western countries are at risk of becoming theocratic states under Sharia law. Communism, on the other hand, provides the perfect new (old) enemy. If your main policy agenda is shoring up free-market capitalism, protecting the wealth of the superrich and dismantling what little is left of social safety nets, then it is useful to paint those who envision more redistributive politics as wild-eyed Marxists bent on the destruction of Western civilisation.

What better time to resurrect the spectre of communism? As youth across the world become increasingly disenchanted with the savage inequalities of capitalism, defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to convince younger voters about the evils of collectivist ideas. They will rewrite history textbooks, build memorials, and declare days of commemoration for the victims of communism – all to ensure that calls for social justice or redistribution are forever equated with forced labour camps and famine.

The merits of taking an anti-anti-communism stance (Aeon)

Peterson’s anti-communist zealotry and conflating political correctness with Marxism is a very useful message for those afraid that people may start questioning the increasing distribution of income upward. Peterson’s message is: don’t complain, don’t participate, just focus on climbing the existing hierarchy. This may be why so many deep pockets are willing to contribute to his Patreon account.

Identity Politics

Are identity politics necessarily bad? Isn’t that what all politics is? After all, almost every policy will net winners and losers. Shouldn’t we care which group our representatives are in? That our neighbors are in? That we are in? Almost every politician will try and claim affiliation with their constituents. How could they not?

…all politics is identity politics. It is not just the Left that appeals to people based on their background and identity, all ideologies do so. All politicians campaign by highlighting their similarities with the voters, their common identity and by claiming to best represent the people. The Right is just as reliant on identity politics.

Think about a typical political campaign, regardless of political party. How does a candidate present themselves? They usually begin by emphasising their connection to the constituency and how long they’ve lived there. It’s certainly a benefit if they were born there and voters react negatively to “outsiders”. Then they’ll show their bond with the community, their participation in local events, traditions etc. Always the emphasis is on how similar they are to the constituents, how much they have in common with the voters. ‘Vote for me because I’m just like you, I can best represent you because I have gone through the same experiences you have’. They’ll show their bond with local industries and interest groups, their shared religion and patriotism (especially in America).

All of this identity politics. All politicians aim to get voters to identify with them, the only difference is method. It’s only a question of whether they highlight their common race, religion, class, geography, occupation etc. The goal of every campaign is to make voters identify with the candidate and believe that they are part of the same group.

All politics is identity politics (Whistling in the Wind)

Does anyone remember Sarah Palin and her “real Americans” who go hunting, attend church regularly, have kids and drive pickup trucks? Does anyone seriously think Palin was chosen because she was the most qualified candidate for vice president available to the McCain campaign? Or was it for reasons of “identity politics?” What about Mike Pence and his affiliation with Christian Evangelicals, a core part of the right-wing Republican coalition?

Peterson seems to believe that any sort of group affiliation is bad. But, without becoming a part of a larger group, how can one possibly effect change? We are a part of multiple, overlapping groups whether we like it or not: countries, families, workplaces, ethnicities, languages, occupations, etc., all tie us to other people and groups in various ways. It’s impossible for that not to be the case.

Now, I agree that neglecting people’s individualism is a bad thing. And certainly some groups aren’t allowed to speak for you just because they happen to be the same race, gender, and so forth. For example, if some white supremacist group claimed to speak for me because we’re the same ethnic “group” I would raise serious objections. This is not in dispute. People are more alike then they are different, as Peterson points out.

But dismissing the idea that there are no classes and that they are never in conflict is going a bit too far. The view that there are no classes, I would argue, is as against the grain of mainstream sociology as insisting that there are no genders.

Do Critics of Capitalism Hate Western Culture?

Peterson seems to imply that any criticism of capitalism is tantamount to Marxism. Again, maybe this isn’t accurate; it’s hard to tell. He also seems to imply that critics of capitalism (such as his alleged postmodernists) have a grudge against Western society and want to undermine it out of some notion of collective guilt.

Is Western society (whatever that is) entirely defined by capitalism? After all, it was around thousands of years before capitalism came along. In fact, many of the core institutions of the West are in opposition to capitalism! The Catholic Church, touted by many alt-Right types as the foundation of Western civilization, has been critical of capitalist materialism, it’s atomization of people, its lack of values and its callousness towards the poor and downtrodden. Many traditional social arrangements were destroyed, from the aristocracy to craft guilds to land tenure systems, in order to make way for capitalism and liberalized markets. The West existed under the Classical World, the Dark Ages, and Medieval feudalism.

Criticism of capitalism != Communism

Capitalism != Western civilization

There’s plenty to disagree with in Marxism if you’re so inclined, just as there is with any economic philosophy. But Peterson never engages with the actual philosophy itself. This is a good brief summary of what Marxism actually argues:

Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

Utopia and Inequality (Real World Economics Review)

Sloppy Rhetoric

Peterson frequently employs “snarl words” when discussing his opponents and critics (“Postmodernist,” “cultural (or Neo-) Marxist,” “feminist,” “social justice warrior”) or broad one-dimensional characterizations: (“PC culture,” the “radical Left,” and so on).

This is not what I would expect of a serious intellectual. His constant use of these phrases and terms should cause him to be a laughing stock, not taken seriously as a public intellectual. If he used such sloppy reasoning in his psychology career, he would not have gotten very far.

For example, Neo-marxism, to the extent that it exists, is a complex intellecual phenomenon. Conencting it to HR departments and blank slatism is intellectualy lazy.

What is Neo-Marxism?

Neo-Marxism is a huge area…both the Frankfurt School and Dependency Theory are important types of Neo-Marxism. Here are some others.

(1) The Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukacs, and the “Budapest School” that came out of his work.
(2) The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, and the endless discourse on “hegemony” that has followed in his wake.
(3) Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, and the other structuralists.
(4) The analytical Marxist (or as they sometimes call themselves, the “no-bullshit Marxist) school: Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright, Robert Brenner, and others.
(5) Marxist feminism: Johanna Brenner, Nancy Hartsock, and others.
(6) Marxist state theory, most notably, of late, the French regulation school (see Bob Jessop’s work for a good summary of this work).
(7) Two schools of thought coming out of the U Mass – Amherst economics department: the social structures of accumulations school (Bowles and Gintis) and the “Rethinking Marxism” crowd (Resnick and Wolff).
(8) Marxist literary criticism – a huge enterprise, of which Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson are probably the leading lights.
(9) The “political Marxism” perspective growing out of Robert Brenner’s work, including Ellen Meiksins Wood, Benno Teschke, and others.
(10) Critical geography – the best-known thinker here would be David Harvey.
And on and on…
So, you see, Neo-Marxism isn’t just a compact school of thought. It’s an entire range of ways of seeing the humanities and the social sciences. If you really want an introduction to the whole range, I’d suggest that you check out the online version of Erik Olin Wright’s graduate class: Sociology 621: Class, State, and Ideology, found at https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/sociology621-2011.htm

What are the key ideas of Neo-Marxist thought? (Quora)

Similar things could be said about feminist or postmodernist thought.

So which is Peterson talking about? That’s the problem–he never engages with any of these ideas, instead just associating them with everything he doesn’t like (e.g. gender quotas and speech policing).

This article does a good job of explaining what’s wrong with Peterson’s constant invoking of the phrase “cultural (or Neo-) marxism”:”

Scholars…do not…suggest that the Frankfurt School or other “cultural Marxists” ever had a plan to destroy the moral fibre of Western civilization, or to use their critique of culture as a springboard to a totalitarian regime. That would be difficult to argue in all seriousness because Western “cultural Marxists” going back to the 1920s have typically been hostile to state power, social oppression of the individual, and Soviet Marxism itself. Moreover, they have shown considerable variation among themselves in their attitudes to specific social, moral, and cultural issues. There is no cultural Marxist master plan.

More generally, serious intellectual history cannot ignore the complex cross-currents of thought within the Left in Western liberal democracies. The Left has always been riven with factionalism, not least in recent decades, and it now houses diverse attitudes to almost any imaginable aspect of culture (as well as to traditional economic issues). Many components of the Western cultural Left can only be understood when seen as (in part) reactions to other such components, while being deeply influenced by Western Marxism’s widespread criticism and rejection of Soviet communism.

In the upshot, all the talk of cultural Marxism from figures on the (far) Right of politics is of little aid to understanding our current cultural and political situation. At best, this conception of cultural Marxism is too blunt an intellectual instrument to be useful for analysing current trends. At its worst, it mixes wild conspiracy theorizing with self-righteous moralism.

None of this is to deny the moderate thesis that much contemporary cultural criticism has roots that trace back to the 1960s New Left, the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, and various Marxist theories of culture. In that sense, contemporary cultural criticism extends a cultural Marxist tradition, but this tradition largely defined itself against Soviet Marxism. Theoretically, at least, it displays an antipathy to authoritarianism, and it aspires to liberate the autonomy of individuals.

Furthermore, contemporary cultural criticism (and much left-wing political thought and activism) has morphed into a form of Western post-Marxism. It has not only turned away from Marxist-Leninism, but evolved to a point where it has lost much contact with Marxism itself.

Current left-wing activism can, indeed, display hyperbolic, philistine, and authoritarian tendencies, but these have little to do with any influence from Marx, Soviet totalitarianism, or the work of the Frankfurt School. They have more, I suspect, to do with tendencies toward moral and political purity in almost any movement that seeks social change…

Cultural Marxism and our Current Culture Wars, Part 2 (The Conversation)

Neither does Peterson ever seriously engage with the ideas of Postmodernism:

“Postmodernism” …is often used to imply some divorcing of a political debate from objective truth or reality and isn’t actually rooted in an understanding of postmodern philosophy. Instead, it’s used to downplay evidence someone doesn’t like as being subjective while upholding evidence someone does like as objective.

A field guide to Jordan Peterson’s political arguments (Medium)

I’ve never seen him engage with any of these specific ideas, just pull them out of context to pillory them. This is not what I expect of someone who is held up as a serious scholar and an important public intellectual whose ideas are worth paying attention to. To claim that mantle, he must take others’ ideas seriously as well.

This video does a very good job of debunking Peterson’s (and the alt-right more generally), favorite pet theory:

Crackpot Mysticism

The last time we mixed together the anger and economic pain of large numbers of white males, radical anticommunism and esoteric mysticism, we didn’t end up with a very good result, especially when the society was full of disillusioned military veterans.

This article by Pankaj Mishra seems to have hit a nerve: Jordan Peterson and Fascist Mysticism (New York Review of Books)

Mishra put his finger on something that bothered me a great deal but couldn’t quite articulate.

Now, I happen to know a bit about this stuff. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film, and I spent quite a long time coming up with my own “Americans versus Nazis and the Occult” idea for a novel (which I’ll keep to myself). But as part of that, I did extensive research into the role that occult ideas played in the rise of the Nazi Party, and the extent to which these societies played in the social organization of the radical extremist parties in Europe. See, for example, the Thule Society:

The Thule Society was a German occultist and völkisch group founded in Munich right after World War I, named after a mythical northern country in Greek legend. The society is notable chiefly as the organization that sponsored the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP; German Workers’ Party), which was later reorganized by Adolf Hitler into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party). According to Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, the organization’s “membership list … reads like a Who’s Who of early Nazi sympathizers and leading figures in Munich”, including Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Julius Lehmann, Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckart, and Karl Harrer.

See also The Myth of the Twentieth Century:

[Alfred] Rosenberg was inspired by the theories of Arthur de Gobineau, in his 1853–1855 book An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, and by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century was conceived as a sequel to Chamberlain’s 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Rosenberg believed that God created mankind as separate, differentiated races in a cascading hierarchy of nobility of virtue, not as separate individuals or as entities with “blank slate” natures. Rosenberg harshly rejected the idea of a “globular” mankind of homogeneity of nature as counter-factual, and asserted each biological race possesses a discrete, unique soul, claiming the Caucasoid Aryan race, with Germanic Nordics supposedly composing its vanguard elite, as qualitatively superior, in a vaguely “ontological” way, in comparison to all other ethnic and racial groupings: the Germanic Nordic Aryan as Platonic ideal of humankind. Other influences included the anti-modernist, “revolutionary” ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner’s Holy Grail romanticism inspired by the neo-Buddhist thesis of Arthur Schopenhauer, Haeckelian mystical vitalism, the medieval German philosopher Meister Eckhart and the heirs of his mysticism and Nordicist Aryanism in general.

Or a later example from after the War:

It isn’t hard these days to find discussions of Savitri Devi’s books on neo-Nazi web forums, especially The Lightning and the Sun, which expounds the theory that Hitler was an avatar – an incarnation – of the Hindu god Vishnu, and Gold in the Furnace, which urges true believers to trust that National Socialism will rise again. The American extreme-right website Counter-Currents hosts an extensive online archive of her life and work.

Her views are reaching a wider public, too, thanks to American alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon, former Trump chief strategist and chair of Breitbart News, who have taken up the account of history as a cyclical battle between good and evil — a theory she shared with other 20th Century mystical fascists.

Savitri Devi: The mystical fascist being resurrected by the alt-right (BBC)

This isn’t the place to go into great detail about this. But I do know that similarly fruity and half-baked ideas were very popular with the small cabal of radicals who took over Germany’s government when Weimar fell. Ideas of an “Volkish” spirit outside of the real plane of existence were commonly held by many Nazis. So were “blood and soil” ideas and racist concepts that you see today in many “race realist” and HBD circles.

Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.

Indeed, the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda. Richard Wagner, along with many German nationalists, became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens—largely Jews—who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil. By the early twentieth century, ethnic-racial chauvinists everywhere—Hindu supremacists in India as well as Catholic ultra-nationalists in France—were offering visions to uprooted peoples of a rooted organic society in which hierarchies and values had been stable. As Karla Poewe points out in New Religions and the Nazis (2005), political cultists would typically mix “pieces of Yogic and Abrahamic traditions” with “popular notions of science—or rather pseudo-science—such as concepts of ‘race,’ ‘eugenics,’ or ‘evolution.’” It was this opportunistic amalgam of ideas that helped nourish “new mythologies of would-be totalitarian regimes.”

Wither Blank Slatism?

Peterson often accuses his opponents of “blank slatism,” that is, believing differences in gender and abilities are simply “cultural constructs” and the product of an unjust social order. He has never, as far as I can tell, positively identified or referred to this in the actual writings of his opponents. He is fond of quoting Orwell’s jibe about socialists “not loving the poor but hating the rich.” He quotes that one endlessly. But he takes it out of context from a book where Orwell advocated FOR socialism, as this article points out:

Orwell flat-out says that anybody who evaluates the merits of socialist policies by the personal qualities of socialists themselves is an idiot. Peterson concludes that Orwell thought socialist policies was flawed because socialists themselves were bad people. I don’t think there is a way of reading Peterson other than as extremely stupid or extremely dishonest, but one can be charitable and assume he simply didn’t read the book that supposedly gave him his grand revelation about socialism.

The Intellectual We Deserve (Current Affairs)

For example, I’ve never heard Peterson utter even one actual quote from Marx! I mean, it’s not like the man never wrote anything. If his ideas inevitably lead to mass murder and the gulag, then why not provide direct quotes which back that up? Even Postmodernists are never cited directly, only books about them, such as Explaining Postmodernism.

Neither Derrida nor Foucault is cited in 12 Rules for Life. Apparently, not only has Peterson never bothered to actually read them, he seems not to have even read their Wikipedia entries. The only relevant citation is of a book called Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, which he customarily recommends at speaking engagements. The author, Stephen Hicks, is Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford University, and an acolyte of Ayn Rand. Armed with this dubious secondary source, Peterson is left making statements that are not only mired in factual error, but espouse a comically reductive conception of how social life and history work. He takes a common misunderstanding at face value, proceeding to build a whole outlook on it.

Postmodernism Did Not Take Place: On Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (Viewpoint Magazine)

Thus he can continue to misrepresent some shadowy “other” without naming names. This means no one individual can stand up and say, as Peterson so often does, that he’s “misrepresenting my ideas.” Instead, Peterson claims to be in opposition to a broad, undifferentiated “radical Left”–a shadowy group with no real face and ideas defined primarily by him. He can then beat the stuffing out of this straw man endlessly.

Is his characterization of his enemies’ ideas accurate? Well, to take just one example, I decided to listen to the BBC’s In Our Time episode on Feminism. I liked their episode on the Frankfurt School, and I thought it might give me some historical perspective on feminism. Instead, it was more of a dialogue/conversation between the host and two scholars of feminism and authors of several books. Here is how the host begins the program:

Melvin Bragg (host): Helena Cronin, you have written that men are by nature more ambitious, status-conscious, dedicated, single-minded, and perservering than women. You say that this a two-million year old fact, and we should accept it. Can you develop that, please?

Helena Cronin: Yes, of course they are. There’s quite a large psychological difference between men and women. Natural selection didn’t just shape our bodies differently but it shaped our minds differently as well. Think of it this way: give a man 50 wives and he can have children galore. Give a woman 50 husbands, no use whatsoever. Over evolutionary time, natural section has favored those men who have competed like mad to get mates. Over evolutionary time, natural selection has favored the women who have been judicious about which men they’ve taken. we are all descendants of the competitive men and of the judicious women.

MB: If you take those adjectives one by one, though, you could say that…take competitive. Well, Very few men have been as competitive as Margaret Thatcher; single minded, hundreds of women I could think of, tens of women I could think of even personally are very single minded; persevering, think of doctors and teachers and so on. Do these things apply now in the way that you think they have applied for two million years?

HC: They certainly apply now in exactly the way they did in that genes are still building our minds and bodies in the way they have for two million years. And the difference in psychology between men and women. Whats changed now, of course, is that women have fought and struggled for more opportunities. And those women who, on average, would have performed more like men are now able to. But that’s a statistical difference. One can say statistically that men are taller than women. And it’s certainly true that there are some tall women around, but all the tallest people are men.

Similarly, although women are now being given opportunities, and we can find the Margaret Thatchers and so on that couldn’t have existed years ago, statistically, nevertheless, women are on average far less competitive than men.

The other guest, feminist author Germaine Greer, responds:

I actually think I probably agree that masculinity is very different from femininity. I certainly believe that. But I also believe that men work very hard at creating masculinism and they put themselves through extraordinary disciplines. There’s a lot of aspects to the way they behave which are highly cultural and extremely protean: could change pretty quickly…the point is, culture does different things with biology…

In Our Time – Feminism (BBC)

Feminists and the “radical Left” refuse to acknowledge gender differences? Really? That’s not what it sounds like to me. They don’t really disagree on the basics, just on the emphasis. If you go on listening, you find that they do have their disagreements, but it’s much more complex than Peterosn’s cardboard caricatures of feminists. Later on, there is this exchange:

Helena Cronin: “Men and women are different. you’re assuming that this is in some way inimical to feminism.”

Melvin Bragg: “To a certain extent it is.”

Helena Cronin: “No, that’s where I strongly disagree with you…”

Of course, I can always find some fringe scholar who believes anything if I look hard enough. Ironically, Peterson’s own Reddit site recommends “steel manning,” or arguing against the strongest version of your opponents case. But I think the above proves that Peterson’ popularity (and Patreon donations) are predicated on him doing the exact opposite.

Alternatives to the 12 Rules

One of Peterson’s basic points I read as this: Any political system which goes against basic human nature is doomed to fail. On this point, we agree. We just have different views on what is compatible with human nature.

He also argues that when we see differential outcomes, such as more men graduating with engineering degrees, or more male CEO’s, we shouldn’t automatically assume some sort of bias or discrimination is present. This is an important point, and I agree with it. There are other factors we should consider.

He also argues that we shouldn’t subsume our individuality in the service of a group identity, and opposes notions of “collective guilt.” These are also well-founded. However, his dismissal of any and all forms of oppression throughout history strikes me as an extreme position.

This post makes a connection between Peterson’s philosophy and Christian existentialism: Jordan Peterson is a Garden Variety Christian Existentialist (Benjamin Studebaker)

If you like Peterson’s political philosophies, then you may be less an anti-Marxist than a Burkean Conservative. This column from John Michael Greer is still the best articulation of Edmund Burke’s philosophy that I’ve read anywhere:

The foundation of Burkean conservatism is the recognition that human beings aren’t half as smart as they like to think they are. One implication of this recognition is that when human beings insist that the tangled realities of politics and history can be reduced to some set of abstract principles simple enough for the human mind to understand, they’re wrong. Another is that when human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience, the results will pretty reliably be disastrous.

What these imply, in turn, is that social change is not necessarily a good thing. It’s always possible that a given change, however well-intentioned, will result in consequences that are worse than the problems that the change is supposed to fix. In fact, if social change is pursued in a sufficiently clueless fashion, the consequences can cascade out of control, plunging a nation into failed-state conditions, handing it over to a tyrant, or having some other equally unwanted result. What’s more, the more firmly the eyes of would-be reformers are fixed on appealing abstractions, and the less attention they pay to the lessons of history, the more catastrophic the outcome will generally be.

That, in Burke’s view, was what went wrong in the French Revolution. His thinking differed sharply from continental European conservatives, in that he saw no reason to object to the right of the French people to change a system of government that was as incompetent as it was despotic. It was, the way they went about it — tearing down the existing system of government root and branch, and replacing it with a shiny new system based on fashionable abstractions — that was problematic. What made that problematic, in turn, was that it simply didn’t work. Instead of establishing an ideal republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the wholesale reforms pushed through by the National Assembly plunged France into chaos, handed the nation over to a pack of homicidal fanatics, and then dropped it into the waiting hands of an egomaniacal warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte.

Two specific bad ideas founded in abstractions helped feed the collapse of revolutionary France into chaos, massacre, tyranny, and pan-European war. The first was the conviction, all but universal among the philosophes whose ideas guided the revolution, that human nature is entirely a product of the social order. According to this belief, the only reason people don’t act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should. Because they held this belief, in turn, the National Assembly did nothing to protect their shiny up-to-date system against such old-fashioned vices as lust for power and partisan hatred, with results that made the streets of Paris run with blood.

The second bad idea had the same effect as the first. This was the conviction, also all but universal among the philosophes, that history moved inevitably in the direction they wanted: from superstition to reason, from tyranny to liberty, from privilege to equality, and so on. According to this belief, all the revolution had to do to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity was to get rid of the old order, and voila — liberty, equality, and fraternity would pop up on cue. Once again, things didn’t work that way. Where the philosophes insisted that history moves ever upward toward a golden age in the future, and the European conservatives who opposed them argued that history slides ever downward from a golden age in the past, Burke’s thesis — and the evidence of history — implies that history has no direction at all.

The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society’s history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don’t have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there’s a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.

That is to say, Burkean conservatism can be summed up simply as the application of the precautionary principle to the political sphere.

A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism (World News Trust)

I would assume that Peterson would agree with the obvious falseness of this sentiment: “…the only reason people don’t act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should.” This is what he claims “social justice warriors” believe. And if that’s true, then I agree with Peterson. It’s true that certain Utopian factions of the Left have made this mistake and gone too far down this road. to that extent, those ideas deserve criticism.

For what it’s worth, Peterson doesn’t see himself as a conservative, so much as a “terrified traditionalist” who generally believes in exercising caution over endorsing sweeping or radical cultural changes.

Yes, Jordan Peterson Really Is That Smart (Daily Beast)

But it’s worth noting that Burke wasn’t criticizing Marxism, he was criticizing the French Revolution, a revolution which took place before Marx was even born! One wonders how exactly Marxism was responsible for this spasm of bloodshed over extreme inequality? Or perhaps it’s just that revolutions are inherently bloody business, regardless of what philosophy the revolutionaries ostensibly use to justify them. It just so happens most of the big ones in the twentieth century claimed to be channeling the spirit of Marx. In fact, Marx specifically warned against the tendency toward authoritarianism:

Neither of us cares a straw for popularity. A proof of this is for example, that, because of aversion to any personality cult, I have never permitted the numerous expressions of appreciation from various countries with which I was pestered during the existence of the International to reach the realm of publicity, and have never answered them, except occasionally by a rebuke. When Engels and I first joined the secret Communist Society we made it a condition that everything tending to encourage superstitious belief in authority was to be removed from the statutes.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Karl_Marx

Indeed, the idea that an unjust social order is responsible for society’s ills is an Enlightenment one, and not one specific to Marxism per se, as Peterson insists. For example, it was the “classical liberal” the Marquis de Condorcet, not Karl Marx, who penned the following:

The real advantages that should result from this progress, of which we can entertain a hope that is almost a certainty, can have no other term than that of the absolute perfection of the human race; since, as the various kinds of equality come to work in its favor by producing ampler sources of supply, more extensive education, more complete liberty, so equality will be more real and will embrace everything which is really of importance for the happiness of human beings …

John Gray has also pointed this out:

The repression of liberty that took place in the countries in which Communist regimes were established cannot be adequately explained as a product of backwardness, or of errors in the application of Marxian theory. It was the result of a resolute attempt to realize an Enlightenment utopia – a condition of society in which no serious form of conflict any longer exists.

The idea of evil as it appears in modern secular thought is an inheritance from Christianity. To be sure, rationalists have repudiated the idea; but it is not long before they find they cannot do without it. What has been understood as evil in the past, they insist, is error – a product of ignorance that human beings can overcome. Here they are repeating a Zoroastrian theme, which was absorbed into later versions of monotheism: the belief that ‘as the “lord of creation” man is at the forefront of the contest between the powers of Truth and Untruth.’ But how to account for the fact that humankind is deaf to the voice of reason? At this point rationalists invoke sinister interests – wicked priests, profiteers from superstition, malignant enemies of enlightenment, secular incarnations of the forces of evil. As so often is the case, secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. Modern rationalists reject the idea of evil while being obsessed by it. Seeing themselves as embattled warriors in a struggle against darkness, it has not occurred to them to ask why humankind is so fond of the dark. They are left with the same problem of evil that faces religion. The difference is that religious believers know they face an insoluble difficulty, while secular believers do not. Aware of the evil in themselves, traditional believers know it cannot be expelled from the world by human action. Lacking this saving insight, secular believers dream of creating a higher species. They have not noticed the fatal flaw in their schemes: any such species will be created by actually existing human beings.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Gray_(philosopher)

Peterson’s views, by contrast, are more in line with Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinsim as explained by Marx’s son in law Paul Lafarge:

“No political alchemy will get golden conduct out of leaden instincts; … no well-working institution will be framed by an ill-working humanity — hence mankind must abandon all hope of bettering our present system of society and of doing away with the wrongs and miseries of it.”

Another strain of thought similar to Peterson’s is Stoicism.

Like Peterson, Stoicism is interested in suffering and how to overcome it. It does not deny the harsh nature of existence. Like Peterson, stoicism differentiates between the things that are under our control and the things that aren’t. And it advocates mastering those aspects of your life you can control, while accepting those you cannot. Indeed, the very word stoic in English has come to mean “accepting one’s burdens without complaint.”

Stoicism has undergone something of a revival in these tumultuous times. There are many resources out there. I would recommend reading them.

As for the rest of Peterson’s rhetoric, you can get it from other wisdom sources who wrote long before Peterson without all the political baggage. For example, I ran across these quotes from the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something molded. These prison walls that this age of trade has built up round us, we can break down. We can still run free, call to our comrades, and marvel to hear once more, in response to our call, the impassioned chant of the human voice.

To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.

If it is true that wars are won by believers, it is also true that peace treaties are sometimes signed by businessmen.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint_Exup%C3%A9ry

Or Victor Frankl:

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Viktor_Frankl

Or Joseph Campbell:

If we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boonbringer, the culture hero of the day—a personage of not only local but world historical moment. In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung called “the archetypal images.” This is the process known to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as viveka, “discrimination.”

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell

Or Marcus Aurelius:

Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.

Remember this— that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life.

Finally, I would agree with the sentiment expressed by one of the above articles, “This much should be obvious from even a cursory reading of him: If Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectual in the Western world, the Western world has lost its damn mind.”

Deconstructing Jordan Peterson

While doing research for my last post, I ran across an interesting juxtaposition. I was looking at postmodern philosophers, and according to Wikipedia, one of the most prominent American postmodernists was a guy called Richard Rorty.

So I thought that I should take a look at this Rorty guy if he’s emblematic of American postmodernism, the same philosophy that Peterson claims is simply Marxism in disguise and has a “death grip” on North American universities.

Richard Rorty (1931–2007) developed a distinctive and controversial brand of pragmatism that expressed itself along two main axes. One is negative—a critical diagnosis of what Rorty takes to be defining projects of modern philosophy. The other is positive—an attempt to show what intellectual culture might look like, once we free ourselves from the governing metaphors of mind and knowledge in which the traditional problems of epistemology and metaphysics (and indeed, in Rorty’s view, the self-conception of modern philosophy) are rooted.

The centerpiece of Rorty’s critique is the provocative account offered in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In this book, and in the closely related essays collected in Consequences of Pragmatism, Rorty’s principal target is the philosophical idea of knowledge as representation, as a mental mirroring of a mind-external world.

Providing a contrasting image of philosophy, Rorty has sought to integrate and apply the milestone achievements of Dewey, Hegel and Darwin in a pragmatist synthesis of historicism and naturalism. Characterizations and illustrations of a post-epistemological intellectual culture, present in both PMN and CP, are more richly developed in later works, … In these writings, ranging over an unusually wide intellectual territory, Rorty offers a highly integrated, multifaceted view of thought, culture, and politics, a view that has made him one of the most widely discussed philosophers in our time.

Richard Rorty (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Okay, well that’s pretty complicated, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Is this the stuff that’s turning college students into Maoist Red Guards?

But the interesting thing is that I found that some of Rorty’s writings went viral in the aftermath of Trump’s election victory in 2016, particularly this passage:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

Hmmm. Sounds pretty damn accurate, doesn’t it? It’s even more impressive that it was written back in 1998 during the Clinton administration, before even George W. Bush much less Donald Trump.

That quote is from this Vox article: Richard Rorty’s prescient warnings for the American left. I confess, I read this article when it first came out, but I had no idea who Richard Rorty–or Jordan Peterson–were at the time.

But the most salient part of the article is Rorty’s discussion of identity politics and change in emphasis on the Leftist tradition in America. Far from being a proponent of identity politics, this philosopher–who is considered to be one of the exemplars of postmodernist thought in America–issues a stark warning to the American Left about focusing on identity politics to the exclusion of all else. He also eerily predicts the politics of today, including the rise of Dr. Jordan Peterson and the alt-right more generally.

He begins be reviewing how the focus of the left in america changed due to the Vietnam war:

The focus of leftist politics changed in the 1960s. For Rorty, the left ceased to be political and instead became a cultural movement…The Vietnam War, more than anything else, set the left on its new trajectory. The war was seen as an indictment of the whole system, of America as such. Thus the broader anti-communist Cold War become a central fault line for left-wing activists. Led largely by students, the new left regarded anyone opposed to communism — including Democrats, union workers, and technocrats — as hostile…

From [Rorty’s] perspective, the problem was the total rejection of pragmatic reform. The belief that there was nothing in America that could be salvaged, no institutions that could be corrected, no laws worth passing, led to the complete abandonment of conventional politics. Persuasion was replaced by self-expression; policy reform by recrimination.

There was a shift away from economics towards a “politics of difference” or “identity” or “recognition.” If the intellectual locus of pre-’60s leftism was social science departments, it was now literature and philosophy departments. And the focus was no longer on advancing alternatives to a market economy or on the proper balance between political freedom and economic liberalism. Now the focus was on the cultural status of traditionally marginalized groups…

And it did this by “teaching Americans to recognize otherness,” as Rorty put it. Multiculturalism, as it’s now called, was about preserving otherness, preserving our differences; it doesn’t oblige us to cease to notice those differences. There’s nothing morally objectionable about that. As a political strategy, however, [multiculturalism is] problematic. It reinforces sectarian impulses and detracts from coalition-building.

The pivot away from politics toward culture spawned academic fields like women and gender studies, African-American studies, Hispanic-American studies, LGBTQ studies, and so on. These disciplines do serious academic work, but they don’t minister to concrete political ends. Their goal has been to make people aware of the humiliation and hate endured by these groups, and to alienate anyone invested in that hate.

Wow, that sounds pretty dead-on. Indeed, even Wikipedia notes of “Western Marxism

The phrase “Western Marxism” wasn’t coined until 1953, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. While often contrasted with the Marxism of the Soviet Union, Western Marxists were often divided in their opinion of it and other Marxist-Leninist states…Since the 1960s, the concept has been closely associated with the New Left and the focus on identity politics and the cultural domain, rather than economics and class struggle (this became especially prominent in the United States and the Western world).

Rorty explains that this focus on marginalized groups will enable a populist right to emerge in response to Americans (especially white Americans) believing their culture is under attack. This will distract them from economic issues such as the consequences of globalism and financialization. The left’s focus on cultural issues thus created an opening for the populist right, for people like Pat Buchanan, and later Donald Trump, who galvanize support among the white working class by exploiting racial grievance, cultural differences and economic anxiety. As Rorty explains:

While the Left’s back was turned, the bourgeoisification of the white proletariat which began in WWII and continued up through the Vietnam War has been halted, and the process has gone into reverse. America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie, and this process is likely to culminate in bottom-up revolt, of the sort [Pat] Buchanan hopes to foment.

Buchanan, you might recall, was touting the “cultural Marxism” meme back in the Nineties, long before anyone had heard of an obscure Canadian psychology professor named Jordan Peterson. This article from a right-wing news site (back in 2010!) gives an overview of Mr. Buchanan’s worldview:

“The United States has undergone a cultural, moral and religious revolution. A militant secularism has arisen in this country. It has always had a hold on the intellectual and academic elites, but in the 1960s it captured the young in the universities and the colleges. “This is the basis of the great cultural war we’re undergoing….We are two countries now. We are two countries morally, culturally, socially, and theologically. Cultural wars do not lend themselves to peaceful co-existence. One side prevails, or the other prevails.

“The truth is that while conservatives won the Cold War with political and economic Communism, we’ve lost the cultural war with cultural Marxism, which I think has prevailed pretty much in the United States. It is now the dominant culture. Whereas those of us who are traditionalists, we are, if you will, the counterculture.”

So states Patrick J. Buchanan in the opening scenes of James Jaeger’s new film, Cultural Marxism: The Corruption of America. As always, Buchanan is outspoken and splendidly patriotic in his testimony on the present degeneration of our country. Many of us born before the 1960s and its shocking nihilism agree vehemently with him. We were raised in a land far removed philosophically from the America we are cursed with today, and this disturbing fact weighs heavily upon our hearts and minds.

Cultural Marxism and the Corruption of America (The Daily Bell)

I suggest reading the article in its entirety. These paragraphs, especially, sound eerily similar to the rhetoric of Dr. Peterson:

Critical Theory,” the brain-child of Max Horkeimer, was the first and most important of these strategies. Under its auspices, every tradition of Western life was to be redefined as “prejudice” and “perversion.” And these redefinitions were to be instilled into the social stream via devastating, scholarly criticisms of all values such as the family, marriage, property, individualism, faith in God, etc. These criticisms proved to be quite successful in the aftermath of the world’s collapse into the Great Depression, which brought about widespread disillusionment with the traditional capitalist society that had evolved in the West since the Renaissance and discovery of the New World.

The strategic criticisms were soon expanded by demarcating society’s members as either “victims” or “oppressors.” All who were economically successful were defined as oppressors, and all who were not successful were termed victims. Religious authorities became “witch-doctors.” Advocates of different social roles for men and women became “fascists.” Corporate heads became “exploiters.” Fathers became “patriarchal tyrants.” Families became “primitive clans.” The stream of criticism was relentless and extremely sophisticated in an intellectual sense. Thus it mesmerized the pundit class who then disseminated the criticisms’ fundamental content to the populace at large.

Compare to Peterson’s rhetoric cited in my previous post:

The postmodernists built on the Marxist ideology, Peterson said. “They started to play a sleight of hand, and instead of pitting the proletariat, the working class, against the bourgeois, they started to pit the oppressed against the oppressor. That opened up the avenue to identifying any number of groups as oppressed and oppressor and to continue the same narrative under a different name.”…“And so since the 1970s, under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities,” he said. “It’s come to dominate all of the humanities—which are dead as far as I can tell—and a huge proportion of the social sciences.”…“We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of Western civilization. And that’s no paranoid delusion. That’s their self-admitted goal,” …

https://www.theepochtimes.com/jordan-peterson-explains-how-communism-came-under-the-guise-of-identity-politics_2259668.html

Similar to Buchanan, Peterson believes that being responsible is the new counterculture: Jordan Peterson – Growing Up and Being Useful is The New Counterculture (YouTube).

All Peterson does is transfer the culpability for undermining Western civilization from the 1930’s Frankfurt School to the 1960’s French Postmodernists. Note that the idea that multiculturalism is an attack on “Western values” and that all of our major institutions have been taken over by socialist-minded elites imposing their views from above is a staple of alt-right thinking. It was an intrinsic part of Anders Breivik’s manifesto published right before his killing spree.

And Peterson wonders why they’re protesting.

Rorty’s prescient warning was that elites would emphasize identity politics on purpose in order to divide the working classes and keep them from coalescing around an economic agenda that would endanger elite power (unions, higher minimum wages, universal healthcare, higher taxes on unearned wealth, financial regulations, job creation, etc.):

By divorcing itself from class and labor issues, the left lost sight of its economic agenda and waged a culture war that empowers the right and has done little to improve the lives of the very people it seeks to defend. Rorty’s advice to the left was to pay attention to who benefits from such a strategy:

The super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere – to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events…the super-rich will have little to fear.

Big business benefits most from the culture wars. If the left and the right are quarreling over religion or race or same-sex marriage, nothing much changes, or nothing that impacts wealth concentration changes. Rorty is particularly hard on Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom he accuses of retreating “from any mention of redistribution” and of “moving into a sterile vacuum called the center.” The Democratic Party, under this model, has grown terrified of redistributionist economics, believing such talk would drive away the suburbanite vote. The result, he concludes, is that “the choice between the major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.”

Rorty’s concern was not that the left cared too much about race relations or discrimination (it should care about these things); rather, he warned that it stopped doing the hard work of liberal democratic politics. He worried that it’s retreat into academia, into theory and away from the concrete, would prove politically disastrous.

Immediately after the now-famous passage about a future “strongman,” Rorty offered yet another disturbing prophecy:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

If this were to happen, Rorty added, it would be a calamity for the country and the world. People would wonder how it happened, and why the left was unable to stop it. They wouldn’t understand why the left couldn’t “channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed” and speak more directly to the “consequences of globalization.” They would conclude that the left had died, or that it existed but was “no longer able to engage in national politics.”

“Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet…” Er, holy shit, this is exactly what has happened! I mean, does this not explain the rise of the alt-right movement in a nutshell? And he wrote this back in 1998, before anyone had heard of 4chan, Reddit, Facebook or YouTube!!!

Who benefits from such a strategy? Maybe the same people promoting Dr. Peterson as “the world’s most important public intellectual.”

So, not only does this prominent postmodern philosopher NOT endorse identity politics, but he explicitly warns against it! Of course, this is just one individual. But it certainly argues against the fact that some shadowy, united cabal of radical leftist postmodernists is enthusiastically pushing identity politics and multiculturalism to undermine the West and turn us all into communists. Or that this strategy is successful.

Instead of identity politics and media shaming, what would be successful?. Rorty suggests:

…Rorty’s vision of an “inspirational liberalism” is worth revisiting…The first of his three lectures is devoted to John Dewey and Walt Whitman, both of whom, on his view, personified American liberalism at its best. These were pragmatists who understood the role of national pride in motivating political change. They understood that politics is a game of competing stories “about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.”

The strength of Dewey and Whitman was that they could look at America’s past with clear eyes…and go beyond the disgust it invoked, beyond the cultural pessimism. They articulated a civic religion that challenged the country to do better, to forge a future that lived up to the promise of America. In Rorty’s words, they recognized that “stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.”

Both the Right and the left have a story to tell, and the difference is enormous:

For the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness. The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved.

“[The Right] sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness.” Well now, that’s a pretty accurate description of the heart of Jordan Peterson’s worldview as far as I can tell. To reinforce this point, Peterson deploys ideas from Darwinism, such as his now infamous discussion of lobster battles for hierarchical supremacy.

The Perplexing Mr. Nietzsche

Speaking of philosophers, is anyone more confused and misunderstood that Mr. Nietzsche?

In the right-wing article on multiculturalism cited above, Nietzsche is cited as an inspiration for the evil cultural Marxist conspiracy:

The cultural Marxists adopted Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values,” in which the Mad Hatter’s world is instituted. Everything that previously was an evil now becomes a virtue while all the old virtues become evils. Individualism, self-reliance, property, profit, family, traditional marriage, fidelity to spouse, strength of will, personal honor, rising through merit — all these integral pillars of our civilization become distinctive evils that oppress us as humans. They must be rooted out of our existence.

Yet, at the same time, Nietzsche is also a favorite philosopher of the alt-right:

In her recent book about the rise of the alt-right, Irish academic Angela Nagle discusses their obsession with civilizational decay. “They’re disgusted by what they consider a degenerate culture,” she told me in a recent interview.

Nietzsche made these same arguments more than 100 years ago. The story he tells in The Genealogy of Morality is that Christianity overturned classical Roman values like strength, will, and nobility of spirit. These were replaced with egalitarianism, community, humility, charity, and pity. Nietzsche saw this shift as the beginning of a grand democratic movement in Western civilization, one that championed the weak over the strong, the mass over the individual.

The alt-right — or at least parts of the alt-right — are enamored of this strain of Nietzsche’s thought. The influential alt-right blog Alternative Right refers to Nietzsche as a great “visionary” and published an essay affirming his warnings about cultural decay.

“Future historians will likely look back on the contemporary West as a madhouse,” the essay’s author writes, “where the classic virtues of heroism, high culture, nobility, self-respect, and reason had almost completely disappeared, along with the characteristics of adulthood generally.”

Nietzsche is also frequently cited by many white nationalists:

“You could say I was red-pilled by Nietzsche.”

That’s how white nationalist leader Richard Spencer described his intellectual awakening to the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood last June. “Red-pilled” is a common alt-right term for that “eureka moment” one experiences upon confrontation with some dark and previously buried truth.

For Spencer and other alt-right enthusiasts of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that dark truth goes something like this: All the modern pieties about race, peace, equality, justice, civility, universal suffrage — that’s all bullshit. These are constructs cooked up by human beings and later enshrined as eternal truths.

Nietzsche says the world is in constant flux, that there is no capital-T truth. He hated moral and social conventions because he thought they stifled the individual. In one of his most famous essays, The Genealogy of Morality, which Spencer credits with inspiring his awakening, Nietzsche tears down the intellectual justifications for Christian morality. He calls it a “slave morality” developed by peasants to subdue the strong. The experience of reading this was “shattering,” Spencer told Wood. It upended his “moral universe.”

The alt-right is drunk on bad readings of Nietzsche. The Nazis were too (Vox)

“There is no capital-T truth? All modern pieties are bullshit? Stifling the individual? This seems like exactly the sort of stuff Peterson regularly rails against in his attacks on postmodernism.

Peterson’s embracing of Nietzsche is also troubling. Nietzsche was, of course, associated with the Nazis, mainly through his sister, who was a fan of the movement and intentionally distorted his posthumous writings to reflect that. But pinning Nazism on Nietzsche would be as disingenuous as pinning the crimes of Communism on Marx. Yet his promotion of order as being a “masculine” phenomenon, (Logos) and chaos being a “feminine” phenomenon strike me as vaguely authoritarian. Peterson claims he is actually anti-authoritarian, and an avowed enemy of “extremism” of both the Left AND the Right. But it’s hard to get that from his metaphysics. An obsession with “order” and “masculine virtues” are both staples of right-wing thought. So is an obsession with “civilizational decline.” According to the right, civilizational Decline comes about when feminine ‘chaos” triumphs over masculine “order.”–the same affliction the alt-right claims is weakening society.

Much of Peterson’s philosophy is responding to Nietzsche, and it does so in two ways: He agrees with Nietzsche that life is hard and will inevitably involve enduring misery. To survive, one must be prepared for this. But for Peterson, preparation does not involve defining one’s own truth and reality, as Nietzsche said. Instead of assuming the world will conform to one’s own will, Peterson advocates the importance of taking responsibility for oneself and living in accordance with the objective reality of the world around us.

For Peterson, there is objective truth and reality, and we cannot simply transcend all moral frameworks and create truth for ourselves…To deny these constraints leads to chaos—internally, interpersonally, societally. This is the main point of Peterson’s recently released Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, wherein he lays out a moral framework that he believes will help people live life to the fullest—however unavoidably tragic life may be. Rule Eight: “Tell the Truth—or, at least, don’t lie,” addresses the Nietzschean, post-modern axiom of the subjectivity of truth head on. Peterson contends that we intuitively know what truth is, and that “lies make you weak and you can feel it . . . you cannot get away with warping the structure of being.” …Similarly, Rule Seven — Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient — also defies Nietzschean nihilism and corresponds with Peterson’s understanding of an objective reality. “Meaning is what we do to buttress our self against the tragedy of life … our pursuit of meaning is an instinct. Perhaps our deepest instinct… meaning is the antidote to the malevolence of life.” To deny meaning exists, to pursue happiness instead of meaning, or to seek meaning in the wrong things will lead to chaos.

But Peterson borrows from, in addition to criticizing, Nietzsche. Both men rail against the “last man,” the human type that seeks to shirk risk and responsibility in favor of comfort and safety. Like Nietzsche, Peterson’s view offers an “ideal human type” that lives by a superior code. For Nietzsche it was Übermensch that lived by a code of his own creation— a “master morality” of “might makes right,” also popularized by Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato’s Republic. For Peterson, the ideal is a mode of existence wherein one lives within the preordained structure of the universe and nobly grits the challenges that life throws their way.

Why Jordan Peterson Is the Last Gentleman (Law and Liberty)

Ignoring the real problem

Is the “radical Left” really the biggest problem in the world today? If Postmodernism is a philosophy that rejects all truth and universal values and defines reality as whatever one chooses it to be, isn’t that more compatible with right-wing politics in America today? Consider the quote of a Bush administration official:

The phrase [Reality-based community] was attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to an unnamed official in the George W. Bush Administration who used it to denigrate a critic of the administration’s policies as someone who based their judgements on facts. In a 2004 article appearing in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind wrote:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.

The source of the quotation was later identified as Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove, although Rove has denied saying it.

Reality-based Community (Wikipedia)

“Create your own reality?” Sounds pretty postmodern to me. And from the very next Republican administration:

“Alternative facts” is a phrase used by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. When pressed during the interview with Chuck Todd to explain why Spicer “utter[ed] a provable falsehood”, Conway stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts”. Todd responded, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” to describe demonstrable falsehoods was widely mocked on social media and sharply criticized by journalists and media organizations…The phrase was extensively described as Orwellian. Within four days of the interview, sales of the book 1984 had increased by 9,500%…

Alternative Facts (Wikipedia)

It doesn’t get more postmodern than that does it? Create your own reality? Alternative Facts? The world has no objective order or reality. It is up to us to define our own truth, purpose and reality for ourselves. Consider this quote from Peterson:

18:06: Among these post-modernist types, man, they don’t give a damn for facts. In fact, facts for them are currently whatever the current power hierarchy uses to justify their acquisition of power.

Sounds like the trump administration to me. And is it the Left who is really anti-science?

The Washington Post recently reported that officials at the Center for Disease Control were ordered not to use words like “science-based,” apparently now regarded as disablingly left-leaning. But further reporting in the New York Times appears to show that the order came not from White House flunkies but from officials worried that Congress would reject funding proposals marred by the offensive terms. One of our two national political parties — and its supporters — now regards “science” as a fighting word. Where is our Robert Musil, our pitiless satirist and moralist, when we need him (or her)?

The United States of America Is Decadent and Depraved

In fact, this article makes the case that Trump is our first postmodern president:

[Postmodern] writers describe a world where the visual has triumphed over the literary, where fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, where nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”) has replaced historical consciousness or felt experiences of the past, where simulacra is indistinguishable from reality, where an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch (Trump Tower) replaces modernism’s striving for purity and elitism, and where a shared plebeian culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him.

America’s First Postmodern President (The New Republic)

To me, the most tragic thing about Jordan Peterson is that not only does he recite right-wing talking points to his audience of impressionable and hurting you men, he advises them to get with the program and grin and bear it. Do not challenge or question a social order that is crushing you, just master it. And that narrative certainly benefits a certain group of people.

And we’re living in a time eerily similar to that which saw the rise of right-wing regimes around the world in the 1930’s. And once again we see illiberal regimes rising around the world due to the economic circumstances. We see extremist parties rising because the mainstream parties have lost their ability to effect change.

Peterson never tires of telling us about the millions of people who died under Communist repression. His house is apparently decorated wall-to-wall with Soviet propaganda art. He even named his daughter after Mikhail Gorbachev. But consider what is happening in Russia right now:

Now a museum, Perm-36 is the only part of Joseph Stalin’s Gulag that still survives. The network of brutal labour camps was where Soviet Russia sent its political opponents, as well as many criminals and kulaks – wealthier peasants. During Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s, millions passed through the system. Hard physical work on meagre rations in extreme weather killed vast numbers…The museum at this site was founded by historian Viktor Shmyrov in the 1990s as post-Soviet Russia opened up to the world.

“The Gulag was a huge phenomenon but there are practically no traces of it left,” he says. “That’s why Perm-36 needed preserving.” The country opened many archives then too, revealing the scale and details of decades of political repression. But the desire to dig deep into that past has been fading.

In 2014, Perm-36 was taken over by the local authorities and the museum’s founder was removed. The new administration then tried to soften the museum’s focus, says Shmyrov. “The dominant idea now is that the Gulag was necessary, both economically and to bring discipline and order.” One member of the new team admits there were changes. “There was a lean towards justifying the repressions, maybe three years when the museum wavered,” historian Sergei Sheverin says, standing by rows of barbed wire. At one point, the Gulag museum’s own website defended Stalin’s imprisonment of scientists – to force them to work for the state.

Sheverin suggests the museum was a stain on the “Great Power” narrative of Russia that’s now led by Putin. That approach has seen Stalin rehabilitated because of his role in the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. “The policy from above is that we shouldn’t remember the bad things, only the good,” says Sheverin.

The museum’s founder Viktor Shmyrov suspects there was an additional reason for his removal. Perm-36 used to host an annual forum and music festival that attracted thousands. In a place where free-thinkers were once incarcerated, Shmyrov says the festival had developed into a “freedom space”. “Not one person there could say a good thing about Vladimir Putin of course,” he says. “We used to have a powerful civil society. Now they’re bringing order and control.” The attempts to dilute the historical message at Perm-36 sparked opposition from human rights activists and the independent press…

Does Putin’s Russia reject the West? (BBC)

But not, apparently, from Jordan Peterson who was busy fighting the real enemies of freedom: Candian politicians attempting to protect transgender people and the Ontario Education Association.

Meanwhile, in China, the president has removed limits to being president for life:

Last week China stepped from autonomy into dictatorship. That was when Xi Jinping … let it be known that he will change China’s constitution so that he can rule as president for as long as he chooses …. This is not just a big change for China but also strong evidence that the West’s 25 year long bet on China has failed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West welcomed [China] into the global economic order. Western leaders believed that by giving China a stake in institutions such as the World Trade Organization would bind it into the rules based system … They hoped that economic integration would encourage China to evolve into a market economy and that, as its people grew wealthier, its people would come to yearn for democratic reforms ….

Economists Shocked That China Invalidates Their Pet View That Economic Liberalization Producers Political Liberalization (Naked Capitalism)

As Rorty predicted, the elites are using cultural issues to keep us divided against one another as they consolidate power and engage in a new enclosure movement. Peterson is just the latest arrow in their quiver.

Without prompting, he raged, with operatic scattergun anger against postmodernism, Marxists and—his favourite bogeymen—“social justice warriors.” It was the day after the U.S. presidential election, and I was still reeling from Trump’s victory. Peterson was unperturbed. He said Trump was no worse than Reagan and that the Democrats got what they deserved for abandoning the working class and playing identity politics. I was initially surprised—someone who spent a lifetime studying tyranny wasn’t maybe a tad worried about a president with such undisguised autocratic ambitions? But then I remembered that Trump, too, has long blamed political correctness for America’s ills, and reflexively used the phrase to dismiss any criticism he faced—everything from his treatment of women to his proposed immigration ban on Muslims. And, among many Trump supporters, “social justice warrior” is a favourite epithet used to disqualify his critics.

The Pronoun Warrior

Jordan Peterson: Useful Idiot

I’ve spent a fair deal of time–way too much, actually–trying to get a handle on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. And it is best to distinguish JP the phenomenon from JP the person, because from I can tell, they are indeed quite different and distinct.

I’m going to state at the outset what I had originally put in my conclusion. That:

1.) The Jordan Peterson phenomenon is mainly caused by our failure to take the pain of men, especially young men, seriously.

Men, especially white men, today are dealing with an impossible series of challenges. There are few satisfying roles for them in society anymore. They are ridiculed. They feel persecuted. They feel unloved. The rise of the Sheconomy has made the only jobs on offer for men ones that they don’t particularly enjoy doing or are not particularly suited for. Even in the few fields that are still (temporarily) male-dominated, such as computer programming, we are told that that this means we have a “diversity problem” that needs to be corrected, while no one frets about the paltry number of male home health care aides or registered nurses. Men are blamed for creating and sustaining a system that is shortening their own lifespans, and one that men feel is increasingly stacked against them (for example, child support and visitation rights).

Men quickly find that their natural interests do not overlap with what society wants or needs anymore, and their inclinations are seen as inherently boorish and cruel. They find that the traits that make them desirable as workers make them undesirable as romantic partners. They find video games and pot more satisfying than working in a dead-end job where you are treated like a virtual serf.

Peterson understands this phenomenon. He understands that men, in general, are less agreeable than women, and that they have different cognitive styles. He knows this from his psychological studies. He also knows that men, especially young men, have been abandoned by society that has no use for many of them and are feeling hopeless and adrift. This quote from James Howard Kunstler describes the situation pretty well:

“The general run of humanity really does need some sort of a coherent armature for daily life. And that incudes role models who offer examples of behavior that will allow them to thrive rather than to be defeated by life. They need a certain amount of discipline in order to fulfill the behavior that those role models show them, and they need some aspiration, some ability to aspire to the products or the results of leading what we might call a good life. And a lot of those things are missing, especially in these unfortunately sort-of disenfranchised, throw-away, forgotten, lower middle classes that we have in America. ”

“You can see it very clearly in my region, which was, as I said, a former thriving region of small manufacturing, small factories…around the confluence of the Hudson river and the Battenkill River where I am. Granted, a lot of these companies were paternalistic, but as part of that paternalism they sponsored a lot of institutional activities for people. You know, they had baseball teams, they had outings, [and] they paid these people enough to live decently, and these people produced children who aspired to do better. And they were able to do better. They got a better education by eighth grade in the 1920’s than people are getting now in grad schools. And all of this stuff has dissolved.”

“You actually need quite a bit of built-in structure in everyday life for a society to thrive and individuals to thrive within it. And that’s not there, and we don’t care about it. We just don’t care. We have eliminated most of the public gathering places in small town America. I live in a town that doesn’t have a coffee shop [or] a bar, anyplace that somebody might go outside their home. And there’s the expectation that all of the ‘community’ that you’re going to be a part of is found on your TV set. Well that’s just a lie. It’s based on a very basic and almost universal misunderstanding in America that the virtual is an adequate substitute for the authentic. That having relationships with made-up people on TV is the same as having relationships with people who are really in your life.”

“And so that structure for leading a good life is absent. We’re seeing the results of it in this ‘anything goes and nothing matters’ society that we’ve created for ourselves.”

James Howard Kunstler: Racketeering Is Ruining Us (Peak Prosperity interview, YouTube)

Into this vacuum steps Jordan Peterson with his theories about how “anything goes and nothing matters” is the postmodernist creed, with its ultimate roots in Marxism, and that the universities are spreading this pessimistic message of “cultural Marxism.” To counteract this, he turns to philosophers like Nietzsche and looks to archetypes and mythology to restore a lost order (logos) to life.

“I think at a deep level the West has lost faith in masculinity. That’s no different than the death of God. It’s the same thing. And Nietzsche knew what the consequences of that would be, that’s most of what he wrote about. So you’d say the divine symbol of masculinity has been obliterated. Well, so then what do you expect? What’s going to happen? That means masculinity is going to become weak. Especially if the symbol is also denigrated, which it definitly is.”

“So what that means is that the ideal that men could aspirte to is denigrated? Well, then with your ideal in tatters, you’re weak. That’s definitional. So I think the reason that men have been responding positively to my thinking is that I don’t buy any of that. I like the masculine spirit. It’s necessary. And its not fundamentally carnage and pillaging. Its not fundamentally rape culture. It’s not fundamentally world destroying And all of those aspersions have been cast upon it. That’s partly the guilt of Western society for technological progress…”

Jordan Peterson – The West Has Lost Faith In Masculinity (YouTube)

2.) To me, the most tragic thing about the JP phenomenon is the fact that, in my not-so-humble-opinion, the destruction of white males is caused primarily by our economic system of globalized financial casino capitalism which seeks no other goal than to maximize profit for a small international investors class, consequences to the health of society be damned. It leads to a “devil take the hindmost” attitude, where society is a zero-sum game divided into winners and losers.

But instead of taking a critical look at that system, Peterson places the blame, and the responsibility for solving it, squarely on the shoulders of the individual. I think this is not only self-defeating, but it is actually harmful. Numerous studies have shown that in countries where individuals blame wider economic forces for their unemployment, rather than their own personal fortitude, there is less self-hatred and self-harm.

When the job search becomes a blame game (MIT News)

American Dream breeds shame and blame for job seekers (BBC)

Peterson not only does not wish to look at these forces, but is a staunch defender of libertarian market values. Not only is there no class war, declares Peterson, but even thinking in class terms makes you a Marxist!

3.) One could hardly think of a better way to kneecap a genuine Leftist movement than unleashing the divisive identity politics seen on college campuses. But where are these ideas really coming from? Are they truly ‘Marxist’ as Peterson asserts?

We know that, by definition, the men suffering the most in America today are those without college degrees. This was the conclusion of the Case/Deaton study. Life spans are actually declining for men and women without degrees. This means that, by definition, the people suffering the most in our society have no idea what is really going on on college campuses! Yet they are continually warned of a “Red Peril” emanating from college campuses by the alt-right and vote accordingly. It’s the Red scare updated for the twenty-first century.

In my opinion, this is entirely a media-manufactured phenomenon. Why? As Adam Curtis opined, ‘Angry people click more.’ Keeping people angry and outraged seems to be the main purpose of media these days because it is profitable. Keeping people informed is less important than profits.

Are the semi-mythical “Social Justice Warriors” actually closet Maoists dedicated to spreading communism beyond the campus? Consider that it is at the core of the Marxist project for workers to set aside superficial differences such as race, gender and nationality, and recognize their class role as the main reason they are exploited. The social justice warriors clearly do not want that.

Liberals would be satisfied with a world in which exploitation and wealth were evenly distributed across demographic groups. The left doesn’t want that. We want no exploitation of anyone. That necessarily means that white men shouldn’t be exploited either…So, lonely and/or broke white men sometimes feel the left offers them no explanation for their suffering. You know who does? Jordan Peterson. He says to them, I know you feel bad, and let me tell you why. And then he feeds them a bunch of hateful bullshit. More and more people are going for it. He has the number one bestselling book on Amazon…

Slavoj Zizek makes this point as well:

If I were to engage in paranoiac speculations, I would be much more inclined to say that the Politically Correct obsessive regulations (like the obligatory naming of different sexual identities, with legal measures taken if one violates them) are rather a Left-liberal plot to destroy any actual radical Left movement. Suffice it to recall the animosity against Bernie Sanders among some LGBT+ and feminist circles, whose members have no problems with big corporate bosses supporting them. The “cultural” focus of PC and #MeToo is, to put it in a simplified way, a desperate attempt to avoid the confrontation with actual economic and political problems, i.e., to locate women’s oppression and racism in their socio-economic context…Liberals will have to take note that there is a growing radical Left critique of PC, identity politics and #MeToo…

A Reply To My Critics Concerning An Engagement With Jordan Peterson (Philosophical Salon)

This surprisingly intelligent YouTube comment makes a similar point:

For a long time it has been a tactic of US intelligence to support a moderate group, be it progressive or reactionary, as a way of blocking a more extremist group from gaining support. This happened domestically in the 60’s with progressive movements as well. Most famously Gloria Steinem was covertly supported by the CIA as a way of keeping attention away from more dangerous radicals. Culturally, things like universities in effect reproduce this dynamic. By having an Overton window big enough to include a lot of progressive politics, they can exclude actually dangerous stuff. This is the [role] political correctness basically plays. By maintaining vigorous debate within a specific window, and outrage for anything outside of that, it vanguards against real leftist politics of the sort actual Marxists argue for.

As this comment from an article in the Guardian about Peterson’s book states: “I thought Marxism was about “workers of the world unite” not ‘let’s fragment into a million separate indentities and fight each other.'”

So, who the hell is Jordan Peterson, anyway?

Jordan Peterson is a formerly obscure Canadian psychology professor who became an overnight sensation by posting a series of YouTube videos describing his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16. Opposition to this bill has become something of a a cause celebre among a certain group of self-described anti-Leftist activists who like to militate against against “identity politics.” He argued that the bill forced him to call people by their “preferred pronoun,” or else face sanction. He argued that this amounted to a form of “compelled speech,” and that language was a battleground that he would not cede to the “radical Left.”

In other words, if I were a transgender person and demanded Peterson call me, I don’t know, ‘apple,’ he would have to do so.

Now, I think we can all agree this is a little silly. But to Peterson, this was no less than a threat to freedom and very foundations of Western civlization.

On September 27, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson posted a video titled Professor Against Political Correctness on his YouTube channel. The lecture, the first in a three-part series recorded in Peterson’s home office, was inspired by two recent events that he said made him nervous.

The first was the introduction of Bill C-16, a federal amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code that would add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination. Peterson’s second concern was that U of T’s human resources department would soon make anti-bias and anti-discrimination training mandatory for its staff—training he believed to be ineffective, coercive and politically motivated. “I know something about the way that totalitarian, authoritarian political states develop,” Peterson said in the first video, “and I can’t help but think I’m seeing a fair bit of that right now.”

Other profs in his position might have written op-eds, circulated petitions or negotiated with university officials. But Peterson is a big believer in the power of YouTube—“a Gutenberg revolution for speech,” he calls it—and, as it turns out, he had a lot to get off his chest. He carpet-bombed Marxists (“no better than Nazis”), the Ontario Human Rights Commission (“perhaps the biggest enemy of freedom currently extant in Canada”), the Black Liberation Collective (“they have no legitimacy among the people they purport to represent”) and HR departments in general (“the most pathological elements in large organizations”).

Peterson also said he would absolutely not comply with the implied diktat of Bill C-16, which could make the refusal to refer to people by the pronouns of their choice an actionable form of harassment. He believes the idea of a non-binary gender spectrum is specious and he dismisses as nonsensical the raft of gender-neutral pronouns that transgender people have adopted—ze, vis, hir, and the singular use of they, them and their. “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them,” he said grimly. “I think they’re connected to an underground apparatus of radical left political motivations. I think uttering those words makes me a tool of those motivations. And I’m going to try and be a tool of my own motivations as clearly as I can articulate them and not the mouthpiece of some murderous ideology.”...In his fervent opinion, the issue wasn’t pronouns, per se. It was much bigger than that. It was truth itself. Being told what to say—and by the government no less—was just one more step along the slippery slope to tyranny. The way Peterson tells it, the only thing standing between us and a full-blown fascist insurrection was him.

The Pronoun Warrior (Toronto Life)

Underground apparatus? Murderous Ideology? What the f*ck is he talking about???

According to Peterson, the mandated use of such pronouns is a “slippery slope” down the road to totalitarianism, re-education camps and gulags, and identity politics is the “camel’s nose” for FULL COMMUNISM.

Peterson contends that “political correctness” is actually a mutated form of Communist ideology, the same ideology, he claims, that directly led to the murder of millions of innocent individuals in the twentieth century. Furthermore, he claims that entire fields of academia have been corrupted by “radical postmodernism” including nearly all the humanities such as anthropology and literature. He further alleges that these “Neo-Marxists” have seized control of universities, government departments and corporate HR departments.

Despite his fear of leftist goon squads patrolling college campuses, no one, not one single person, has been arrested or jailed, or even fined over this law. It is a totally artificial crisis, manufactured in order to smear the radical left on college campuses and foment outrage. It’s pure grandstanding. Here is what legal scholars think in a letter from the Canadian Bar Association:

For human rights legislation, the CHRA prohibits denying or differentiating adversely in the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodation customarily available to the general public, commercial or residential accommodation, or, employment on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination. The Act applies to federal and federally regulated entities.

The amendment to the CHRA will not compel the speech of private citizens. Nor will it hamper the evolution of academic debates about sex and gender, race and ethnicity, nature and culture, and other genuine and continuing inquiries that mark our common quest for understanding of the human condition.

RE: Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity or expression) (Canadian Bar Association – PDF)

However, millions of people watched the videos and tens of thousands contributed to Peterson’s Patreon account, to the tune of over $50,000 a month. Being a martyr has its advantages. Chapo Trap House described him as “the Rosa Parks of Pronouns.”

If Peterson were really so concerned about the threats to free speech coming from employers such as his university, then why isn’t he arguing for more union representation, which has the added benefit if reducing inequality (which he claims to want to do):

I’m seeing a lot of comments from the political right and centre-right worrying about the possibility that workers may be fired for expressing conservative views…It strikes me that this would be a really good time for people…to campaign for an end to employment at will, and the introduction of the kind of unfair dismissal laws that protect workers in most democratic countries, but not, for the most part, in the US. Among other things, these laws prohibit firing employees on the basis of their political opinions. Better still, though, would be a resurgence of unionism. Union contracts generally require dismissal for cause, and unionised workers have some actual backup when it comes to a dispute with employers.

Free speech, unfair dismissal and unions (Crooked Timber)

So is Peterson’s far right?

Short answer: no. This video, Jordan Peterson: Am I Far Right?, gives a good simple description of what Peterson’s major influences are:

In an emailed rebuttal to a journalist who termed him a figure of the “far right”, he described his own politics as those of a “classic British liberal … temperamentally I am high on openness which tilts me to the left, although I am also conscientious which tilts me to the right. Philosophically I am an individualist, not a collectivist of the right or the left. Metaphysically I am an American pragmatist who has been strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic and clinical thinking of Freud and Jung.”

12 Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson review – a self-help book from a culture warrior (Guardian)

There seem to be three, mutually interlocking Jordan Petersons:

A. The tenured psychology professor, who has written books and papers, and whose lectures have been described as ‘life changing’ by students who took his courses.

B. The self-help guru, who talks about things like metaphysical truth, Jungian archetypes and seeking meaning whose ideas resemble Joseph Campbell’s work in a lot of ways.

C. The rabid anti-Communist crusader who engages in conspiracy theories and red-baiting, who sees secret Communism behind every campus action he doesn’t like.

Peterson’s fans commonly depict him as “misunderstood.” This is because, for almost everything he has said, he has said the opposite at some point, or used weasel words to meliorate his stance. He’s also been accused of doing a Gish gallop through the topics he describes, making describing what he really believes like nailing jello to a tree.

Why, then, is he considered to be far right?

Well, one major reason is that Peterson’s primary fan base is the alt-right, whether he likes it or not. It was not Peterson on his A or B incarnations that made him famous and put money in his coffers; it was version C. And he knows it.

A large part of this is because Peterson’s preferred enemies list is exactly the same as that of the alt-right: Social Justice Warriors, feminists, political correctness, activists (such as black lives matter and LQBTQ), the undifferentiated “radical left,” HR departments, entire academic disciplines (such as anything with ‘studies’ in the title), postmodernism, but above all, Marxists and Neo-Marxists.

Peterson throws around the terms “Marxism” and “Neo-Marxism” sloppily and interchangeably, and without precise definitions. For a man whose cardinal rules include “Be precise in your speech,” he is extremely sloppy using these phrases, making it difficult to know exactly what he is talking about. This video from the Epoch Times is the most comprehensive statement of Peterson’s ideology:

The accompanying article in the Epoch Times, an anti-comummunist newspaper founded by dissidents from the Falun Gong movement, transcribes the main points of the interview:

Peterson said it’s not possible to understand our current society without considering the role postmodernism plays within it, “because postmodernism, in many ways—especially as it’s played out politically—is the new skin that the old Marxism now inhabits.”

[…]

By the end of the 1960s, he said, even French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre had to admit that the communist experiment—whether under Marxism, Stalinism, Maoism, or any other variant—was “an absolute, catastrophic failure.”

Rather than do away with the ideology, however, they merely gave it a new face and a new name. “They were all Marxists. But they couldn’t be Marxists anymore, because you couldn’t be a Marxist and claim you were a human being by the end of the 1960s,” said Peterson.

The postmodernists built on the Marxist ideology, Peterson said. “They started to play a sleight of hand, and instead of pitting the proletariat, the working class, against the bourgeois, they started to pit the oppressed against the oppressor. That opened up the avenue to identifying any number of groups as oppressed and oppressor and to continue the same narrative under a different name. And so since the 1970s, under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities,” he said. “It’s come to dominate all of the humanities—which are dead as far as I can tell—and a huge proportion of the social sciences.”

“We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of Western civilization. And that’s no paranoid delusion. That’s their self-admitted goal,” he said, noting that their philosophy is heavily based in the ideas of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, “who, I think, most trenchantly formulated the anti-Western philosophy that is being pursued so assiduously by the radical left.”

“The people who hold this doctrine—this radical, postmodern, communitarian doctrine that makes racial identity or sexual identity or gender identity or some kind of group identity paramount—they’ve got control over most low-to-mid level bureaucratic structures, and many governments as well,” he said. “But even in the United States, where you know a lot of the governmental institutions have swung back to the Republican side, the postmodernist types have infiltrated bureaucratic organizations at the mid-to-upper level.”

“I don’t think its dangers can be overstated,” Peterson said. “And I also don’t think the degree to which it’s already infiltrated our culture can be overstated.”

Jordan Peterson Exposes the Postmodernist Agenda. Communist principles in postmodernism were spread under the guise of identity politics (Epoch Times)

Now, technically, Peterson doesn’t use the term “Cultural Marxism” directly in the video, preferring to use the term “Neo-Marxism.” As far as I can tell, however, the terms are interchangeable; I could not find any information distinguishing between the two, so I will consider them the same unless I find out some new information. He certainly describes them in the same terms.

Given that he took grave exception to the use of term “far right” in reference to him, to the point of demanding a retraction, one can only assume he is okay with the phrase “cultural Marxism” in reference to this video, otherwise he would have demanded that the term be removed and relaced with a more accurate one.

That Peterson is also vehemently anti-Marxist would be relatively unremarkable were it not for the fact that, in many of his online disquisitions about what he sees as a left-wing takeover of campus culture, he uses the terms “Marxism” and “postmodernism” almost interchangeably. Not only are these two schools of thought very different from one another, they are also in certain respects mutually antagonistic. You don’t need an MA in critical theory to figure it out: the travails of the Democratic Party during the primaries for 2016’s presidential election highlighted, in a very public and destructive way, the ideological fault lines in US progressive politics. The bitter schism between the Hillary Clinton camp — which mobilized aggressively around identity politics — and the old-school leftists who rallied around Bernie Sanders ultimately helped clear Donald Trump’s path to the presidency. (Historically, the burgeoning of identity politics in US campus culture in the 1980s and ’90s went hand in hand with the ascendancy of postmodernist ideas that explicitly repudiated Marxism.) It’s not just that this sloppy use of language exposes Peterson as an intellectual lightweight; the tendency to causally conflate various disparate phenomena that one happens not to like — in this instance, postmodernism, Marxism, and political correctness — is the calling card of the paranoiac.

A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits: On Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” (Los Angeles Review of Books)

What is “Cultural Marxism?”

Cultural Marxism is a ‘snarl word’ and dog-whistle phrase that refers to the Frankfurt School, a loosely organized group of academic and writers based in Germany during the Weimar Republic who were influneced by Marx. They were part of what we would today call a “private think tank” based in Frankfurt. For a good overview, I suggest listening to this slightly less baised overview from the BBC Radio four’s excellent In Our Time show: BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time, The Frankfurt School

Weimar Germany was a time much like our own: economic dislocation, rampant unemployment, declining faith in liberal democracy; communists, anti-communists, fascists and anti-fascists battling it out in the streets, marches and protests, etc. Despite all the chaos, there was a feeling of ‘hope and change;’ one scholar in the show compares it to an ‘Obama moment.’

Yet, instead of revolution, the nation turned to the right-wing Nazi Party.

Marx himself believed that successful revolution could only take place where the forces of capitalist production were sufficiently advanced. In such a scenario, the inherent contradictions of capitalism would cause it to falter, leading to socialist structures taking over in a more-or-less organic manner.

Instead, all the major communist revolutions were agrarian revolts by peasants against the aristocracy, rather than the proletariat rising up and seizing the means of production from capitalists in industrialized countries. Because the mass production of capitalism was not yet fully developed in these countries, Marx himself could have predicted their failure, and would not be surprised at the chaos under their implementation. Most Communists consider the Soviet Union as a form of state capitalism.

The Frankfurt School think tank pondered this question: Why didn’t the revolution occur in Germany after the War, where it “should” have occurred? Why didn’t the proletariat rise up and overthrow the capitalist class in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, as many thought was inevitable? To answer this question, the Frankfurt School looked at more than just the economic structure, they decided to look at the culture itself. Capitalism wasn’t just an economic system, they argued. It colonized the minds of the individual people living under it, such that they could see no alternatives. It was embedded in the very DNA of society. To this end, they developed a  “critical theory,” which was, as you can imagine, critical of capitalist society, but addressed itself mainly to sociocultural issues rather than the economic workings of society as Marx had done.

They never called themselves “cultural Marxists,” however. Rather, that label first came from the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. The National Socialists didn’t use the phrase “cultural Marxism,” instead preferring the term “cultural Bolshevism.”

A History of Nazi Germany describes how the Weimar Republic brought about increased freedom of expression (modernism), then described by critics as decadent and irrational. Traditionalist Germans thought that this was causing German culture to decay and that society was heading towards a moral collapse.

The Nazis labelled this modernism as “Cultural Bolshevism” and, through “Jewish Bolshevism”, claimed that Jews were primarily behind Communism. In particular, they argued that Jews had orchestrated the Russian Revolution and were the main power behind Bolshevists.

This Jewish-led Bolshevist assault was described by Adolf Hitler as a disease that would weaken the Germans and leave them prey to the Jews, with Marxism being perceived as just another part of an “international Jewish conspiracy”. An ideological objective was thus the “purification” to eliminate alien influences and protect Germany’s culture.

Cultural Marxism (RationalWiki)

This concept of Marxists undermining Western civilization, and equating being “critical” and “pessimistic” with an attempt to subvert Western values is a staple of far right which began in Nazi Germany as a reaction to dislocation and rapid change. It’s a thread that runs through the alt-right today.

As this article points out:

[Peterson’s] obsessive anti-communism sits uncomfortably with [his] supposed anti-fascism. The main opposition to Adolf Hitler’s rise, after all, came, not from high-minded conservatives like Peterson, but from German socialist and communist worker’s parties. And Hitler secured support domestically and internationally in part by promising to crush that leftist opposition.

How anti-Leftism has made Jordan Peterson a mark for Fascist Propaganda (Pacific Standard)

In fact, a lot of “high minded conservatives” and prominent intellectuals threw their support behind Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Many wealthy, conservative Americans did too, especially those strenuously opposed to the “socialist” policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, policies that are quite similar to those advocated by, for example, Bernie Sanders today.

The “cultural Marxist” conspiracy theory didn’t die with the end of the Third Reich, however. Instead, it was revived and greatly expanded by the rising conservative movement of the 1990’s as the Republican Party merged with movement conservatism and the John Birch Society. They blamed everything they claimed was destroying American society on Marxists who were behind “politically correct” speech and quotas.

This post is a good explanation of why, ‘”[C]ultural Marxism” is a poorly framed interpretation of Marxist theory and is flawed in its conception”: Cultural Marxism, Cultural Conservatism and the Frankfurt School: Making Sense of Nonsense (How to Paint Your Panda). But then again, maybe it’s part of the conspiracy!

‘Cultural Marxism’ becomes a rallying cry for the modern-day alt-right

The conflagration of Marxism with political correctness and activism began long before anyone had ever heard of the good professor. It actually started in the Nineties, with roots going back to the Seventies.

This conspiracy theory hinges on the idea that the Frankfurt School wasn’t just an arcane strain of academic criticism. Instead, the Frankfurt School was behind an ongoing Marxist plot to destroy the capitalist West from within, spreading its tentacles throughout academia and indoctrinating students to hate patriotism & freedom. Thus, rock’n’roll, Sixties counterculture, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, homosexuality, modern feminism, and in general all the “decay” in the West since the 1950s are allegedly products of the Frankfurt school…[rationalWiki]

Its origins were surprisingly deliberate, emerging from a paleoconservative Washington think tank called the Free Congress Foundation. The FCF was founded by Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Heritage Foundation and namer of the so-called Moral Majority movement. Weyrich also created a TV network called National Empowerment Television, a short-lived predecessor to Fox News, which aired a documentary in 1999 called “Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School.” Hosted by…William Lind, it presents an account of the origin of what we now call “identity politics.”

Weyrich first presented his notion of Cultural Marxism in a 1998 speech to the Civitas Institute’s Conservative Leadership Conference, later repeating this usage in his widely syndicated “culture war letter”. At Weyrich’s request, William S. Lind wrote a short history of his conception of Cultural Marxism for the Free Congress Foundation; in it Lind identifies the presence of homosexuals on television as proof of Cultural Marxist control over the mass media and claims that Herbert Marcuse considered a coalition of “blacks, students, feminist women, and homosexuals” as a vanguard of cultural revolution…[wikipedia]

These came, Lind tells us, from the Institute for Social Research, or the Frankfurt School. There, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and their cronies created a school of thought called “critical theory,” which the FCF gave the name “cultural Marxism.” This frightening idea fused the impertinence of Marx with the indecency of Freud, producing a new threat to Western values far beyond those posed by Copernicus or Darwin… [https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/01/23/postmodernism-not-take-place-jordan-petersons-12-rules-life/]

Sounds an awful lot like Peterson’s rhetoric, doesn’t it? In his essay, Lind declared, in rhetoric virtually identical to that of the stump speeches of Jordan Peterson:

“Political Correctness is cultural Marxism. It is Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. It is an effort that goes back not to the 1960s and the hippies and the peace movement, but back to World War I. If we compare the basic tenets of Political Correctness with classical Marxism the parallels are very obvious.”

Lind wasn’t satisfied with just an online essay. He also produced a series of videos which can easily be accessed on YouTube, whose ideas are virtually identical to the political views of Dr. Peterson:

In 1999, Lind led the creation of an hour-long program entitled “Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School”. Some of Lind’s content went on to be reproduced by James Jaeger in his YouTube film “CULTURAL MARXISM: The Corruption of America.” The historian Martin Jay commented on this phenomenon saying that Lind’s original documentary:

‘… spawned a number of condensed textual versions, which were reproduced on a number of radical right-wing sites. These in turn led to a welter of new videos now available on YouTube, which feature an odd cast of pseudo-experts regurgitating exactly the same line. The message is numbingly simplistic: all the ills of modern American culture, from feminism, affirmative action, sexual liberation and gay rights to the decay of traditional education and even environmentalism are ultimately attributable to the insidious influence of the members of the Institute for Social Research who came to America in the 1930’s.

Heidi Beirich likewise holds that the conspiracy theory is used to demonize various conservative “bêtes noires” including “feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, multiculturalists, sex educators, environmentalists, immigrants, and black nationalists”.

Wait a minute, that’s the exact same enemies list as Jordan Peterson!

Indeed, I’ve spent some time watching these documentaries. Now, when I say the rhetoric is the same, you don’t have to take my word for it. Watch the Jordan Peterson video above. Watch the William Lind documentaries. Make up your own mind.

Although the theory became more widespread in the late 1990s and through the 2000s, the modern iteration of the theory originated in Michael Minnicino’s 1992 essay “New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and ‘Political Correctness'”, published in Fidelio Magazine by the Schiller Institute. The Schiller Institute, a branch of the LaRouche movement, further promoted the idea in 1994. The Minnicino article charges that the Frankfurt School promoted Modernism in the arts as a form of cultural pessimism and shaped the counterculture of the 1960s (such as the British pop band The Beatles) after the Wandervogel of the Ascona commune.

The idea that the counterculture was a fifth column for communism is an old chestnut  going back to the 1960’s, as is the idea that colleges were radicalizing middle American children. The Powell memorandum back in the 1970’s sounded a paranoid alarm about how students on college campuses were being indoctrinated by insidious left-wing professors to hate the “free enterprise” system.

According to Chip Berlet, who specializes in the study of far-right movements, the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory found fertile ground within the Tea Party movement of 2009, with contributions published in the American Thinker and WorldNetDaily highlighted by some Tea Party websites.

More recently, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik included the term in his document “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”, which—along with The Free Congress Foundation’s Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology—was e-mailed to 1,003 addresses approximately 90 minutes before the 2011 bomb blast in Oslo for which Breivik was responsible. Segments of William S. Lind’s writings on Cultural Marxism have been found within Breivik’s manifesto.

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurt_School#Cultural_Marxism_conspiracy_theory]

Right-wing agitprop outlets such as Breitbart, whose head Steve Bannon served in the Trump administration, also commonly use cultural Marxism as a snarl word and all-purpose bogeyman for everything they believe is destroying America from within, in terms alarmingly similar to those of the Nazis:

Breitbart views so called ”Cultural Marxism”as the root of all evil. Cultural marxism destroys the language. Cultural Marxists wants to have equality between the sexes. they threaten the western civilization, and hate God and they love Muslims and Homosexuals too.

Yes, Cultural Marxists are behind Muslim” immigration to, they claim. It all started with talk about the rights of minorites in the 60s, as they write:

Under this “cultural Marxism,” progressives believed they would aid racial and sexual minorities — and now Islamic minorities — by transferring cultural power and status from ordinary Americans, especially from white working-class Americans and away from individualistic-minded Christian churches…

The present day cultural Marxists, including former President Obama

are also encouraging the migration of devout Muslims and their theocratic political leaders into the United States.

And that leads to terrorism.

The resulting spike in jihad attacks…”

The Nazi Roots of the Word ”Cultural Marxism” (Breitbart Watch)

And this idea has even infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. military:

In July 2017, Rich Higgins was removed by US National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster from the United States National Security Council following the discovery of a seven-page memorandum he had authored, describing a conspiracy theory concerning a plot to destroy the presidency of Donald Trump by Cultural Marxists, as well as Islamists, globalists, bankers, the media, and members of the Republican and Democratic parties.

As RationalWiki states, “Nobody denies that the Frankfurt School existed (and championed its fair share of nutty ideas). Critics of the pseudohistorical ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory merely argue that the school was tediously unsuccessful (and, as such, somewhat unimportant) in the broad scheme of Western progressivism — and, more obvious still, that all liberals aren’t commies as well.”

Now, it’s obviously clear that Peterson’s understanding of “Cultural Marxism” is very different than Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer. But Peterson’s constant use of this term is worrying. After all, this is what our young men are listening to! Peterson’s claims are that things like bill C-16 lead to the gulag and reeducation camps. Yet ideas virtually identical to the ones he is peddling have already directly led to the deaths of 77 people in Norway. It’s even gained cachet among people with their fingers on the nuclear button. What’s the real threat here???

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the right-wing theory of cultural Marxism holds that the Jewish, Marxist philosophers of the 1930s Frankfurt School hatched a conspiracy to corrupt American values by promoting sexual liberation and anti-racism…Peterson has tweaked this argument a bit. In his lectures, he mostly traces cultural rot to postmodernists like Derrida (whose work Peterson comically garbles) rather than to the Frankfurt School.

In Peterson’s new book, though, he does explicitly link postmodernism to the Frankfurt school, and in other venues he regularly uses and approves the term “cultural Marxism.” One of his videos is titled “Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism.” On Facebook, he shared a Daily Caller article titled “Cultural Marxism Is Destroying America” that begins, with outright racism, “Yet again an American city is being torn apart by black rioters.” The article goes on to blame racial tension in the U.S. on … you guessed it: the Frankfurt School.

Of course, it is possible to criticize the left without falling into fascism. Joseph Stalin was a murderous monster; Communist regimes have done horrible things that led to the deaths of millions of people. But the left in the U.S. and Canada is not promoting armed revolution or mass murder. In his cultural Marxism video, Peterson argues that, whether you’re talking about Leninist insurrection or folks criticizing sexism or racism in cultural products, “the end result is much the same.” That’s dangerous nonsense, which can easily be used to justify any extreme of violence. If your gender studies professor is the equivalent of Lenin … well, we’d better destroy her, right?

How anti-Leftism has made Jordan Peterson a mark for Fascist Propaganda (Pacific Standard)

His constant promotion of these paranoid conspiracy theories to his audience of impressionable, frustrated, and economically precarious young men makes him what I would characterize, somewhat ironically, a “useful idiot” for the far-right. This is why Peterson’s “I’m so misunderstood” schtick is disingenuous, as are the claims that he is “misinterpreted.” I think it’s pretty clear from the evidence above, in his own words, what he believes.

The tragic thing is, there was a guy who wrote in very similar terms about the rootlessness, despair and alienation that young men would inevitably experience under capitalism. He also gained a following as well. His name? Karl Marx:

Matthew Syed in the Times gives us a wonderful example of Marxist thinking. He asks why marathon running is so popular, and says it’s because it satisfies a desire for self-improvement which we cannot get from paid labour:

We live in a world where the connection between effort and reward is fragmenting. In our past, we hunted, gathered and built…We could observe, track and consume the fruits of our labour. We could see the connection between our sweat and toil, and the value we derived from them. In today’s globally dispersed capitalist machine, this sense is disappearing.

This is pure Marxism. Marx thought that people had a desire for self-actualization through work, but that capitalism thwarted this urge. In capitalism, he wrote:

Labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.

Jon Elster claims that Marx “condemned capitalism mainly because it frustrated human development and self-actualization.”

Marx was right. The fact that we spend our leisure time doing things that others might call work – gardening, DIY, baking, blogging, playing musical instruments – demonstrates our urge for self-actualization. And yet capitalist work doesn’t fulfill this need. As the Smith Institute said (pdf):

Not only do we have widespread problems with productivity and pay, as well as growing insecurity at work, but also a significant minority of employees suffer from poor management, lack of meaningful voice and injustice at work. For too many workers, their talent, skills and potential go unrealised, leaving them less fulfilled and the economy failing to fire on all cylinders.

This poses the question: why isn’t there more demand at the political level for fulfilling work?

Alienation: The Non-Issue (Stumbling and Mumbling)

Perhaps because people like Jordan Peterson and his ilk would rather we focus on the threat from radical postmodernist feminist college professors, and the identitarian Neoliberals just want to make sure that there are enough minorities represented among the exploiters. Divide and rule has been a standard tactic to maintain power in America since Bacon’s Rebellion invented the very concept of “race” to keep working classes from teaming up against the aristocracy who were–dare we say it–oppressing them. It was only when Martin Luther King attempted to bring poor whites into his movement that he was assassinated.

The meaning and self-actualization Peterson is peddling in his book simply isn’t possible under the capitalist system. And that’s the problem. No amount of self-help or story-building is going to change that fact.

Combining white paranoia about being a minority with a deteriorating economy and constant fears of cultural Marxism, and peddling those ideas to angry young men has not shown itself to lead to a good result, historically. Is Peterson too ignorant of history to see this?

Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish between a harmless retro eccentric and a peddler of poisonous and potentially murderous ideas. So let’s take stock: Masculinist persecution myth? Check. Repeated appeals to Darwinism to justify social hierarchies? Check. A left-wing conspiracy to take over the culture? Check. Romanticization of suffering? Check. Neurotic angst about “chaos”? Check. Like many of his sort, Peterson sees himself as a defender of the best traditions of Western civilization and the Enlightenment. But there is an old adage: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck.

A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits: On Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Finally, here are some more good comments from that YouTube video. I’ve combined several of them together which make the point that Marxism and Postmodernism have nothing to do with the identitarian politics on college campuses.

I’m so fucking tired of people using the term postmodernist as a catchall for leftists – postmodernism has literally nothing to do with Marxism, in fact by its very nature is at odds with the material nature of Marxism… Derrida wasn’t a Marxist, he wasn’t even a political radical unlike many of his colleges. Derrida didn’t even write about Marx at all until the 90s, after the time in which all of his intellectual cohort had given up on Marx. Derrida’s philosophical heritage is by way of the structuralism of Saussure and Levi-Strauss, and hermeneutic philosophy of Heidegger and Gadamer…

Something that most people who aren’t in the academic left don’t realize is that Foucault is seen as a clear break with Marxism, and distinctly not as an extension of it. Foucault was the first one to pose a distinctly different understanding of oppression, a sort of anarchist flavoured one, against the Marxists. There have been attempts at reconciliation, the most significant of which is Empire by Negri and Hardt, where they incorporated Foucault’s biopolitical framework to create framework for analyzing the world after the cold war. Postmodernism, insofar as that term refers to anything at all, is the wave of thinkers who broke with Marx after reading Nietzsche, which is both the case for Foucault and Deleuze. Lyotard and Baurillard also broke with Marx altogether, though for different reasons. Negri, Deleuze, and Althusser all also became anti-Hegelian, all adopting Spinoza as a model for bizarre anti-dialectical forms of “Marxism”.

Basically, this is a lot more complicated than Peterson, or you, understand. The people who are collected up into ‘postmodernism’ were serious intellectual with real insight, and while most of it I don’t think is correct, it’s important and interesting stuff.

Because Postmodernism doesn’t actually refer to anything, it is an empty label and basically exists only as a term of abuse by people who don’t want to actually engage with various philosophers and social thinkers. The really is no common factor philosophically that link Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Rorty, etc etc… What connects all these people is really just their attempt to explain society in the era they lived in. …Peterson just straight up doesn’t understand the topology of the left. Peterson has never lived in a place where ‘the left’ and ‘liberals’ where universally understood to be categorically different orientations in politics. For Peterson communists are just ‘very liberal’ people, while in European politics, for most of the most of the postwar period being ‘very liberal’ was the same as saying ‘very anti-communist’. In places like France and Italy the Communist party was often the second or third biggest party, and was distinctly separate from anything called a ‘liberal’ party. This fact means that Peterson totally conflates the Marxist left with the ‘left-liberalism’ or progressive liberalism…

Next time we’ll take a look at how Peterson defends and shores up those systems.

The World According to Blyth, Keen & Curtis

Mark Blyth is a popular speaker. You have probably seen his talks all over YouTube. His specialty is explaining the politics of austerity (and why it’s a bad idea), and the rise of populism around the world, what he calls “Global Trumpism.”

I’ve seen several of his talks, and the ideas behind them are very simple. So I’m going to try and explain them in a straightforward manner below, sprinkled with a few quotes.

I’m also going to incorporate two other thinkers whose views are very similar and who fill in some of the gaps: economist Steve Keen and filmmaker Adam Curtis. Each has their own unique take on our situation, but all of their views gel together into one coherent big-picture summation of what has happened to the post-war world, and how we got into our economic predicament. I’m also going to add a few points of my own along the way where applicable.

The First Macroeconomic Regime 1945-1973

After the Second World War, nearly the whole world lay in ruins. Over 50 million people were dead. The architects of the post-war order vowed that they would do whatever possible to ensure that it would never happen again, no matter what the cost.

They realized that it was the economic dislocations and upheavals of the Great Depression–the joblessness, the inflation, the lack of a safety net, the radicalization of the population, that had ultimately led to the rise of Fascism and war.

At the same time, Communism was ascendant. Stalin had taken over Eastern Europe and was flexing his muscles. Mao and the Communists came to power in China. These two countries alone represented a significant share of the world’s total land area and population. They were joined by numerous smaller states–Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam–and numerous revolutionaries in places like Africa and Central America.

No one would support capitalism if all the gains went solely to the very top and most people were becoming worse off. So the post-war order would focus on one thing above all: full employment and social stability. Blyth uses the term “macroeconomic regime” to describe the set of policies that run the economy. The post-war macroeconomic regime was based around stability, Keynesianism, national economies, unionization, and especially full employment as the goal.

During this period, labor’s share of income went up, while capital’s share went down. This had never happened before. A prosperous, consuming middle class was created in the industrialized world. The results of this were spectacular. Here’s Blyth:

“Back in the day, from the end of World War two, from 1945 to about 1975, this is the golden era. It was the period where something very weird happened that never happened before. The top of the income distribution came down, the bottom went up, and the whole distribution jumped. This is when you got the birth of the American middle classes. This is when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said to the working people in Britain, ‘You’ve never had it so good,’ and he was right.”

“And there was a unique combination of circumstances that produced that world. Mainly the reaction to the great Depression, fascism, world war two; and the success of the Soviet Union appealing as an alternative economic model after the chaos of the Twenties and Thirties.”

“So at the end of that period, we built a world that looked like this: The Cold War Era. The policy target was full employment, regardless if you were Sweden or the United States. That’s what the government cared about, because we saw the disastrous consequences of unemployment on a decade-long period.”

But there was a problem. This problem was articulated in 1943 by a Polish economist named Michał Kalecki who was working in the basement of the London School of Economics. His seven-page paper was called The Political Consequences of Full Employment. His paper effectively predicted what was to come in the 1970’s.

The Political-Economy of Kalecki (The Ad-Hoc Globalists)

The Old Macroeconomic Regime Crumbles: 1973-1979

We all know what happened next. The wheels came off in the 1970’s. Everything started falling apart the same year I was born–1973–which I’m sure was just a coincidence. But the question is, why did it fall apart?

Kalcecki’s explanation was that if you had a siloed economy of restricted capital and labor flows that targeted full employment, employees would take advantage of the situation to demand higher wages. If anyone can simply go out and get another job, businesses have to keep wages high to be competitive. But that eats into their profits. So they raise their prices to compensate. But rising prices eats into the workers’ pocketbooks. So the workers demand higher wages still. Businesses again raise prices to compensate for higher wages. Workers again demand more money to compensate for higher prices. And so on, and so on, in what economists call a wage-price spiral. More specifically, they call increasing wages pushing inflation up “wage push inflation“. Wage push inflation resulted from the full employment policies of the first macroeconomic regime:

Wage push inflation is a general increase in the cost of goods that is preceded by and results from an increase in wages. To maintain corporate profits after an increase in wages, employers must increase the prices they charge for the goods and services they provide. The overall increased cost of goods and services has a circular effect on the wage increase; eventually, as goods and services in the market overall increase, then higher wages will be needed to compensate for the increased prices of consumer goods. (Investopedia)

Blyth explains it this way:

“So what killed that first regime was inflation.”

“But it failed in the 1970’s. And the reason it failed was the following. Imagine you’ve decided that I’m going to target full employment, and that’s going to be my one policy goal. So you’re going to run a very tight, restrictive set of labor markets. And wages are going to get bid up, to the point that when you get to the late sixties when you’re running the Vietnam War off the books, your real unemployment rate is about 2-1/2 to three percent.”

“So the worst guy in your firm can leave work and then walk straight into another job and get a pay rise. The only way that firms can deal with this is by pushing up prices. So they push up prices, then what happens? Labor figures out they haven’t really had a pay rise. So they want more money. So they get a pay rise. So they want more money. And it all gets pushed up into inflation.”

“When inflation goes up and up and up like this, it becomes irrational to be an investor. So the investment rate collapses. Unemployment goes up despite the inflation. We get the great stagflation of the 1970’s.”

What high inflation and rising wages did was make it easy for people to service their debts. It was a “debtor’s paradise.” But creditors were not so happy. The value of their investments was eaten away by inflation. So they stopped investing, going on what was effectively an “investor strike.” The result of the dearth of investment due to high inflation was economic stagnation. Stagnation + inflation = stagflation.

“The Great Inflation of the 1970s destroyed faith in paper assets, because if you held a bond, suddenly the bond was worth much less money than it was before. But it was a brilliant time to be a debtor.”

“How many of you took out a mortgage in the 1970’s? You made out like bandits! Because if you have a 3 percent mortgage and there’s 10 percent inflation, it’s great; the bank was eating it and you were getting the capital gain. And then when you elected Reagan you locked in high real interest rates and your house increased in value. What a deal!”

So in the Blyth/Kalecki view, full employment policies, combined with an investor strike, caused the stagflation of the 1970’s. But there are a couple of alternate explanations I’d like to add.

One was the Vietnam War. That war caused a massive increase in government spending, as do all wars. At the same time, instead of raising taxes, they were being cut by the administration. Throughout history it has been the position of governments to “pay for” wars by raising taxes and/or borrowing.

I put “pay for” in quotes because MMT tells us that taxes do not fund government spending for war, or for anything else for that matter. So why the need for increased taxes? Because if the government is printing more and more money to pay for war costs, but it’s not “unprinting” money via taxation or soaking up the excess with war bonds, then you’re increasing the overall amount of money circulating in the economy. If you do this without a corresponding increase in productivity, then of course you will get inflation. It doesn’t help that the increased economic activity was mostly going to things that were being shipped halfway around the world to be blown up.

The other explanation is a sudden spike in the cost of oil. The formation of the OPEC cartel in the years prior cause the price of oil to triple overnight in the early 1970’s. Gas lines formed. The Arab Oil Embargo for the Six-Day war was another blow. This occurred as the U.S. hit domestic peak oil in 1972. Later in the decade, the Iranian Revolution would cause speculation in oil markets to raise the price once again (there was no actual supply shortage). It was the single largest transfer of national wealth in human history from the industrialized world to the oil producing nations of OPEC, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Interestingly, it was after this transfer of wealth that the threat of Islamic terrorism began to rise, funded by this money.

The price of oil tends to coincide with the change of macroeconomic regimes and financial dislocations. This is ignored by many economists.

Economists have a name for this phenomenon too. They call it cost-push inflation:

Cost-push inflation is a phenomenon in which the general price levels rise (inflation) due to increases in the cost of wages and raw materials. Cost-push inflation develops because the higher costs of production factors decreases in aggregate supply (the amount of total production) in the economy. Because there are fewer goods being produced (supply weakens) and demand for these goods remains consistent, the prices of finished goods increase (inflation). (Investopedia)

In this alternative view, full employment did not cause the problem. Rather it was an ill-advised war that the government refused to “pay for,” coupled with an unpredictable rise in the cost of the substance most dear to the economy–energy–as the result of cartel manipulation and geopolitical tensions.

Who’s right? What was the real cause? Hard to say, but I lean towards oil. If full employment was such a problem, then why did it take Kalecki’s prophecy thirty years to come true? Maybe because that’s when the energy costs spiked. The ugly conclusion from Blyth’s view, as I see it, is that is we cannot have full employment, otherwise inflation will inevitably be out of control. That is, we “need” a certain portion of the populace to be unemployed. I find this disturbing. It amounts to what is basically human sacrifice.

Inflation was running rampant. Stagflation. The Misery Index. Put on a sweater. Malaise forever. History’s greatest monster. You know the deal.

1970s stagnation (Angry Bear)

The system badly needed a reset. How was this accomplished?

The New Macroeconomic Regime 1980-2007: Neoliberalism

Blyth describes a macroeconomic regime as a sort of “software” written on the the “hardware” of capitalism. After 1980, a new software was written. Now, not only would full employment NOT be a goal anymore, but labor would now be “disciplined”–forced to accept declining wages, longer working hours, less benefits, less stability (and it’s converse-more “flexibility” for employers), more international competition, and so on. It was, essentially, a revolt of the elites rather than the masses; from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Instead of elected governments, policy was handed over to the central bankers, who were unelected. What they did was to “cure” the inflation by raising real interest rates to extremely high levels. This caused a terrible recession between 1979 and 1982, and unemployment rates to spike to over ten percent. But it did bring down inflation and reset the system. This coincided with the transition from the Democratic Carter administration to the Republican Reagan one.

“And what’s the solution to stagflation? Hand policy to central bankers, because they’re not elected and they can’t be thrown out of office, and they can jack up interest rates to twenty percent when inflation’s sixteen percent, cause a massive hemorrhaging of the economy and a constriction of credit and you get the big recessions that happened in the 1980’s. But it really reset the system.”

“There was a new software written onto that hardware, and that was the ideas of Thatcher and Reagan and the people behind them. That open markets, price stability, going global, that was they way you do it. That flexibility was good, that labor was bad. That the returns to capital had to go up otherwise what was the point of capitalism? That was the Neoliberal compact.”

In addition, markets would open up to globalization. Regulations would be abolished. Capital would be free to seek its highest return. Markets would be liberalized. Trade unions would be crushed. Banks would be deregulated. Taxes would be lowered. Labor would become flexible and footloose. Economies would remove tariffs and open themselves up to foreign competition. Labor would no longer be protected.

Globalization would neutralize the power of workers, because now if unions demanded more money, production would just move somewhere else. First it moved to the “right to work” states of Dixie, and then abroad to places like China and Mexico. Workers could no longer demand raises from their employers. This ended the push for inflation, because rising wages are what drive inflation. I’d also note that high oil prices led to new reserves being tapped, especially Alaska and the North Sea, breaking the power of the OPEC cartel and bringing oil prices back down.

As banks lent more and more money, and as capital was “freed” to seek it’s highest return anywhere in the world, the total amount of money increased. This drove interest rates down and down and down. The problem with low interest rates, though, is that it decreases the returns to capital. It also penalizes savers and investors, since their accounts are not earning much of a return. So how could high finance ensure adequate profits in a world of low interest rates and low inflation? The answer: leverage.

“Now here’s the problem, those interest rates go down over time because you make more and more financial transactions, you integrate different markets, you open up globally, so the pool of money gets bigger. As the pool of money gets bigger, the price of money falls. What’s the price of money? The interest rate.”

“So how do you make money on a declining spread? You pump up the leverage. And the banking system of the West became multiples of the underlying size of the economy. And it was all working great so long as everyone was revolving credit, whether it was your credit card, your house, the mortgage, the corporate loan book, whatever it was, so long as it doesn’t go bust.”

Instead of full employment, financial policy in the new regime would focus on something else–controlling inflation, aka price stability, above all else. At the very hint of inflation, central bankers stood ready to raise interest rates. The central bankers became household names as the ability of politicians to influence the newly globalized economy waned. Inflation went away, never to return. This now made the world safe for investors, but it made debts harder to service. It was now a “creditor’s paradise.” Even though inflation stayed low for decades, the 1970’s fear of inflation lingered on.

However, as Blyth points out, this fear was irrational; the long-term trend in interest rates was for them to go down. He cites statistics showing that the interest rate for government debt has been declining since 1350! In fact, literally the only period of high inflation we see in the data was the 1970’s, and yet all of our macroeconomic thinking today is based on that one short time period (when oil prices spiked, interestingly enough):

“You all watch Game of Thrones Right? Right; Game of thrones; ‘Hi, I’m the king, I’d like to borrow some money.’ I’m the Iron Bank of Braavos. You know what happens–everybody dies.”

“In that world, you have very high real interest rates, because if you get a bond from a government, they might rip you off. There’s no secondary market where you buy and swap different bonds around to offset the risk. So you have very high real interest rates.”

“The Italians and the Dutch come along in the 15-16th century and invent a secondary market for government debt. That starts to grow rapidly. The risk dissipates.”

“And then by the time you get to the 1700’s, real interest rates are below four percent. The Brits can issue a perpetual bond, a ‘forever’ bond to fight the Napoleonic wars at three percent and it’s oversubscribed. By the time you get to 1941, the real rate of interest is 1.88.”

“So the long-run real rate of interest rate for the global economy is two percent. Then there’s the 1970’s. All the inflation is in the seventies because of the unique confluence of events which was the post-war regime and its breakdown. But all of the economics we’ve ever learned is based on that one bit of the trend series. Everything else is forgotten.”

At the same time, wages in the wealthy countries stagnated. The labor/capital split now shifted. Labor’s share of income, formerly going up, now went down. Wages became decoupled from productivity. Real wages, when adjusted for inflation, remained flat for decades.  As the economist Thomas Piketty later asserted, if the rates of return to capital are higher than the overall growth rate of the underlying economy, inequality will dramatically increase without bound. This is especially true when wages are stagnant.

“Capitalism is run by investors, investors and firms. Once those firms go global as they did in the eighties and increasingly in the nineties, then the ability of domestic labor to demand their share of the profit split with capital really declines. And that begins the wage stagnation that we see in 1979 which continues all the way through to the present day, such that 60 percent of Americans, when adjusted for inflation, haven’t had a wage rise for thirty years.”

A small, coastal elite, who held much of the paper wealth, became fabulously rich. But workers who depended on labor for their income, particularly in places that had deindustrialized like the American Heartland or the English Midlands, were hard hit,faced with declining wages, dead-end jobs, shrinking government services, budget cuts, jobs moving to other countries, and mass immigration into their communities. At the same time, the costs for “non-tradeble” goods like education and  healthcare soared into the stratosphere. Although globalization resulted in cheap consumer goods, the costs for things like college, health care, child care, and later, housing, became an increasingly onerous burden.

With declining wages, how would consumption keep up? How would Americans pay for the rising costs? By using credit to substitute for the lost wages. And this wasn’t just true of individuals, but governments as well. Governments, too would lower taxes and make up for the difference by borrowing from the private sector. Here’s filmmaker Adam Curtis explaining the role finance played in the 1980’s:

14:00: “The interesting thing about the 1980’s is that everyone thinks that Thatcher and Reagan really were successful. But increasingly historians are looking back and going, ‘No they weren’t.’ They came in saying they were going to regenerate industry. But by about 1986-7 most of the industries in Britain and America had collapsed because of the economic experiment. So what Thatcher and Reagan did was they turned to finance. And they said, ‘Can you help us?’ And what finance did was to say, ‘We’ll lend the money.’ Wages weren’t going up. Wages were actually collapsing at that point.”

“So what happens is you had a switch and they gave power to finance. And finance came in and introduced the idea of lending on a much grander scale. The politicians allowed that because they facilitated all sort of new acts of parliament that allowed all that lending to happen.”

“So what you’ve got is a shift away from the idea that you were on a constant travelator of increased wages, increased security in the industries you worked in. Your income stagnated and it was supplemented by lending money. So finance got a great deal of power.”

“Now underlying finance is a deep desire to keep the world stable, to avoid chaotic situations. So we began to move into that world where were always trying to avoid risk. What then happens is that idea begins to spread out, not just literally in terms of you lending money. The idea of avoiding risk becomes the central thing in our society. And I would argue that weve all become terririfed of change. Which is conservative.”

And thus, beginning in the 1980’s finance became the new basis for the economy. Manufacturing, meanwhile, practically disappeared–felled by a combination of offshoring and automation. Service jobs, at lower pay, became the most common job type. At the same time, a college degree became a basic requirement for any job that paid more than minimum wage. And, finally, the main alternative to this system–Communism–collapsed and went under. Now, there truly was, as Margaret Thatcher put it, no alternative.

The problem was that financing living standards with debt was unsustainable, especially with declining incomes for the majority of wage earners:

“So how do people survive when wages aren’t growing? They borrow…In 2004 I lived in Baltimore. I went away for two weeks. I couldn’t open the door when I came home cause I had so many credit card offers…That’s why banking’s so big. Because every single one of us is running a deficit.”

“For everyone who fifty years old or older, do you remember a time when you didn’t have credit cards? For everybody who’s under fifty, that happened. We used to have this thing called the state that ran deficits for us and paid for stuff. But now you do it yourself. Through student loans. Through revolving lines of credit. Through borrowing from your house as if it’s an ATM. Because that’s what you’re using to fill in the gap.”

The problem with such skewed rewards to globalization was that the people at the top can only buy so much. They save much of their income. Meanwhile the bottom sixty percent have seen their wages stagnate and have been taking out student loans, mortgages, credit card debt, payday loans, etc. to make up for lost wages and shrinking public services. This leads to a fall in consumption once all the debts start going bad and people are tapped out and can no longer borrow against their incomes and the asset bubbles burst:

“Now this created a big problem. I like Mitt Romney, but there’s only so many fridges he can buy. You do have a basic consumption problem if you’ve been running your economy as we have for the past thirty years on credit. And if people’s wages haven’t been rising and they’re strapped with too much debt–which banks call credit, [because assets and liabilities sum to zero]–then they can’t service their debts. At the same time they’re being told if you don’t go to college you’ll never amount to anything, there’s no jobs for anyone who doesn’t have a college degree these days, you end up with a world where your share of the national income is falling despite the fact that the country has never been richer. And it’s not just this country, it’s every country.”

Here’s Steve Keen explaining how it was done under the new macroeconomimc regime:

“The fundamental engine that drove the apparent success of Neoliberalism until the crisis struck was an increasing level of private debt–leverage.”

“The reason that private debt matters is because credit is the source of a large part of demand.”

“When you borrow money, what you’re actually doing from banks is: the banks are creating money, creating a debt for you at the same time, you then spend the money you’ve borrowed, so that additional change in debt becomes a component of demand today. But of course with that change in debt that gets added to the level of outstanding debt, and you can have a process where that level rises over time.”

“In the UK’s case…from 1880 right through to 1980, there was no trend in the level of private debt compared to GDP in the UK, it never exceeded 75 percent of GDP. When Maggie Thatcher came to power it was 55 percent of GDP. The debt level from Maggie Thatcher rose from 55 percent of GDP in 1982, to 190 percent in 2008…The reason the crisis occurred was the rate of growth of debts went from positve to negative, and bang, you had a crisis.”

“So the bubble was caused by a rise in leverage, the crisis after it was caused by an absence of the same substantial level of credit simply because both households and businesses are unwilling to borrow at the rate they were willing to borrow when the bubble was going on and the banks aren’t so willing to lend either. So we’ve got a sclerotic effect from the level of accumulated debt. That’s the real story.”

Blyth summarizes the problem as, “Debts are too high, wages are too low to pay the debt off, and inflation is too low to eat the debt.” Leverage works so long as the debts can be paid. But once they can’t, the whole thing falls apart like a house of cards. Leverage also tends to raise asset prices, causing bubbles. This is what happened during the global financial crash 2007-2008. Here’s Steve Keen again describing what happened:

“What Neoliberalism allowed the West to do was to use leverage to dramatically add to total demand, but of course adding to debt at the same time. And then when we reached the situation where so many interventions which were debt financed went bankrupt, where there were assets that were overvalued and then collapsed and then wiped out the banks in the process, and where people realized that rather than house prices rising forever they sometimes fall so you get the hell out of mortgage debt, all those things came along and they became what I called the walking dead of debt…”

“…The levels of debt are the highest they’ve been in human history, and well beyond what we can service reliably, and also investment and consumption are both diminished dramatically because people don’t want to invest beyond their income levels which they do during a boom. So the only way to solve it is to get the debt level down.”

The Second Macroeconomic Regime Collapses: 2007–Present

The second regime collapsed during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. Why did that happen?

Blyth doesn’t explain the specific timing of it, but it’s interesting to note that this, too, coincided with a dramatic spike in the price of oil.

The fundamental cause, however, is easier to understand. The financial sector was leveraged to the hilt. The total assets were multiples the size of the underlying “real” economy of goods and services.

If enough liabilities go bad that they exceed the assets of a typcial bank, the bank goes under. QE bought up the bad assets.

Blyth explains the concept of leverage, assets and liabilities using the example of a mortgage:

“People confuse debt and what a debt is. It’s not just this bad thing. Debt on the public side or the private side is an asset. The people who got bailed out got their assets bailed out.”

“Now, a very simple way of thinking about this: I have a mortgage, you have a mortgage. That to a bank is a liability. They don’t want your house. They want the income stream coming from it. [That’s their asset]. My asset is my house. My liability is paying the mortgage. It all sums to zero.”

40 Years Of Income Inequality In America, In Graphs (NPR)

However, unlike the previous regimes, this time there would be no “reset.” There would be no new software written for the hardware of capitalism. Instead, banks and the wealthy were bailed out by taking their assets onto the public balance sheet through “money printing” and buying up junk bonds:

“In the 1970s the system failed. It had a heart attack because of inflation. The Neoliberals came along and reset the system. They wrote new software for the hardware. We didn’t do that in 2008. We let the money doctors come in. What they did was they pumped 13 trillion of Euros, Dollars and Yen into the global banking system to keep the system going. They had a heart attack, and we basically put them into intensive care for ten years.”

The corresponding rise in public debt sparked calls for “austerity” on the part of elites to bring down the government’s debt. But, even as the investor class was bailed out, savage austerity cuts would be aimed squarely at the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who had been borrowing like crazy just to maintain their living standards in the face of decades of stagnant wages and rising costs:

“When you bail out the assets of a bank, you’re bailing out the assets and incomes of the top twenty percent of the income distribution, particularly those at the very top. So when you’ve just done that, they’re not going to turn around and say let’s pay extra taxes because we got bailed out. No, they want to put that on the other part of the income distribution–the ones who are now being told, we can’t have this, you need to pay more, your education can’t be free, et cetera.”

With interest rates at practically zero, there was nothing for the central bankers to do to stimulate the economy this time. Instead of increasing government spending as prescribed by Keynesianism, politicians preached the need for “belt tightening” due to the rising debt. This had the effect of shrinking the economy:

“There’s no inflation in the system. Why? because labor produces inflation. And once you’ve globalized your labor markets, there’s no inflation anymore. Why can’t Janet Yellen bring inflation rates up? Why can’t Draghi bring interest rates up? Because there’s no reason to. There’s no inflation. When you do it, you’d simply slow down the economy. But what does that mean for savers? What does that mean for pension funds? Whoops!”

“Now, in my opinion, add this all together and you get populism. Debts are too high. Wages are too low to pay off the debt. Inflation is too low to eat the debt. You can’t play the trick you did in the 1970’s when you got a mortgage. It’s the other way around–this is a creditor’s paradise, not a debtor’s paradise.”

“The Left response is ‘blame capital, blame globalization. And they’re not blameless. The Right response is blame immigration, blame globalization. We can disagree on the immigration one, but they’re basically hitting on the same things.”

Enter Populism

The Neoliberal economic regime hollowed out the middle classes of the industrialized world, even as they raised incomes in much of the developing world. The “elephant chart” compiled by economist Branko Milanovich shows the incomes of everyone in the world from the poorest person on earth to the richest, along with the percent change due to globalization:

The graph shows that incomes for the poorest countries went up, from a pittance to something less than a pittance. The biggest gains represent the emerging middle classes of Asia. The American middle class was represented by the 65-80 percentile in the global distribution. Their incomes have taken a beating. And notice that the last four squares represent the wealthiest 10 percent of people on the planet. They’ve captured the majority of the growth under Neoliberalism, such that 42 billionaires now own the same wealth as the bottom half—3.7 billion people—of the world’s population.

“Guess what? The top 20 percent have made off with all the cash. And if you’re actually in the bottom?…it’s hardly budged since 1980. And that’s true for the bottom three quintiles. So sixty percent of the country hasn’t had a pay rise when you adjust for inflation since 1980. Meanwhile, people like me on the coasts, we’ve been lapping it up. I’ve been having lobster thermidor in the bath!..”

These declining living standards for the majority in wealthy countries gives rise to populism. Even as the country as a whole has never been richer, and the stock market and GDP are hitting new heights, workers are having a harder and harder time making ends meet. Their wages are declining. They are heavily indebted. Their formerly good and stable manufacturing jobs are replaced with low-paying “flexible” service jobs with no benefits. Digital technology is forcing people to become “independent contractors.” And now workers hear even those jobs will soon be replaced by robots. Blyth illustrates this phenomenon with a hypothetical Rust Belt worker named Gary:

“There’s a guy called Gary. Gary lives in Gary, Indiana. Gary [has] ten years in the union in 1989. He gets seniority. He’s a line supervisor with seniority, he’s turning thirty, he gets married, everything’s going great. And he’s getting $30.00 an hour, real [wages].”

“Now, who knows why, but they’ve been moving the plant and the equipment down South for a long time. China didn’t take most of the industrialization; the South did. Texas did. North Carolina did. So they’ve been losing a lot of the industrial base. But then they signed this thing called NAFTA. And the plant disappeared, the supplier plant disappeared, and the town takes an enormous economic hit.”

“So a lot of people move out. the tax base goes down. The schools get worse. And he bootstraps himself and says, ‘I’ve never relied on anybody; I’ll get another job.’ They were meant to retrain him as a computer programmer; that’s what everybody said, but the governor at the time really just gave a shit about tax cuts, so they just cut the budget for that and handed it out to people.”

“So then he ended up getting a job in a call center. So he went to $15.00 an hour. And then five years later the call center went from Indiana to India. And now Gary works in his dotage, very hard, long hours, for $11.67 an hour for the largest employer in the United States–WalMart. And every day Gary reads in the papers how him and all of his mates are about to be replaced by robots. Because you do, every day. Whatever sector you’re in in the low end of the labor market–automation, robotiztion, it’s going to happen.”

“And the guys on Wall Street who got bailed out with everybody else’s money, they love this. They’re going to make a fortune off this. All these internet entrepreneurs, [the] Uber guys, they’re the ones who will own the patents on the robots. And he’ll be thrown on the scrap heap with his mates. And the only person who articulates anything he actually gives a shit about is this guy Trump.”

“Now he knows [Trump’s] a buffoon. He knows he’s a reality TV star. But [Gary] has had politician after politician after politician showing up and saying ‘vote for me better jobs, vote for me more security,’ and life’s gotten crappier and crappier and crappier. So he has no reason whatsoever to believe a word they say. So he has a liar on one side, and a bullshit artist on the other. Which one gives you more possibilities?”

Communities around the country have gotten worse and worse outside of the coasts and major cities for decades. Many can’t even afford to maintain their outdated infrastructure. The main losers from the situation were the center-left and center-right parties who unanimously supported Neoliberalism. Under their watch, things have gotten worse and worse for at least half the population, and they are fed up.

So the fringe parties come to the fore. Despite their differences, their core planks are:

1.) Left Populism: Blame globalization, blame capital.
2.) Right Populism: Blame globalization, blame immigration.

Both sides essentially converged on the same basic program–turn inward, against globalization. They exploit the anger caused by debt and falling living standards. And sometimes they use racism and xenophobia to do it. We’ve seen this before. It’s the world the architects of the post-WW2 war order were so desperate to avoid, because they knew where it inevitably led.

“So what you have is a sort of debtor’s revolt against the world we’ve built over the past 30 years which is a creditor’s paradise. So what you see is a left wing expression and a right wing expression, a racist expression and a non-racist expression of fundamental discontent with the way the rewards of the system have been skewed over the past thirty years.”

The key is that there are no real solutions being offered to the above problems by the mainstream political parties, and the people in charge don’t look like they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, the workers have done everything capital asked of them. They went back to school. They retrained. They took out huge debts for college. They became flexible. But their living standards didn’t budge. Life kept getting harder. Because the mainstream parties offered no alternatives that actually translated into improving the status of anyone besides the top 20 percent, people turned to buffoons and demagogues, and some of them are very ugly indeed. Trump, the alt-right and Brexit are all examples of this trend.

What is the Solution?

Mark Blyth and Steve Keen both suggest possible solutions.

Blyth opposes undoing globalization and turning inward to economic nationalism and tariffs. He notes that the wealthy countries of the West have not had enough children, and without immigration their economies will shrink.

Instead, he recommends the state take over the things that have skyrocketed in price. He recommends universal health care, universal free education and free child care. Do those things, he claims, and you will nip populism in the bud.

Keen’s prescription is more ambitious. He advocates using the money-issuing power of central banks for a “people’s qualitative easing.” He explains the concept by describing the money-creation powers of central governments and how it was used to make the banking sector whole:

“If you owned your own bank, and people accepted checks you wrote on your bank as complete payment of any debt you had, would you feel worried about a large amount of debt? And the answer is fundamentally no, because if you could draw checks on a bank you owned…when as soon as you gave that check to somebody else, they basically wrote off what you owed them, and they then used that themselves to exchange money with other people, you’d be on easy street. The only danger you’d face is creating so much of the stuff that you caused a bubble, that the economy itself fell over because you were importing too much from overseas and the trade balance exploded and so on. That’s the real danger of somebody who owns their own bank spending without limit.”

“But that’s fundamentally the situation that the government is in. Any region where the government produces its own currency, and of course the UK government has the Bank of England which produces Pounds…it can pay its debts with its own bank. Now we’ve put all sorts of legal restrictions on them doing this…”

“When the treasury records that it’s going to, say, spend 50 billion Pounds and it’s going to get 45 billion in tax, therefore it has a 5 billion dollar gap, it then issues bonds to the equivalent of 5 billion pounds to pay for that. And let’s say its going to charge an interest of 10 percent, which is far higher than current levels. So 5.5 billion pounds of bonds it issues.”

“Currently those bonds have to be sold to the private sector, which means there’s a transfer from the financial sector to the government of money, and then the government spends that money into the economy.”

“And then, of course, they’ve got a debt to the financial sector. But that debt is effectively paid for by the central bank–the Bank of England– crediting the accounts of these institutions that own the shares; that own the bonds they’ve bought off the government. So it’s an accounting operation all the way through.”

“And if the central bank actually bought *all* the bonds outstanding, which is pretty close to what it’s done with QE…We know that in 2010 or 2011 when the Bank of England began Quantitative Easing, the amount of money that it created for bond purchases off private banks and off private financial institutions was 200 billion Pounds. Now did you get your part of the QE tax bill that year? The answer is, no you didn’t. There was no QE tax. The central bank simply said, ‘we’re going to deposit 200 billion Pounds worth of money in financial institutions’ bank accounts in return for them giving us the ownership of 200 billion pounds worth of bonds, whether they’re government bonds or private bonds. So its just an accounting operation.”

[…]

So, what you can do is, as I said, the government pays its own bills with what fundamentally amounts to an accounting operation. They pay QE which is fundamentally an accounting operation. And the level of QE which was running at 200 billion pounds per year was on the order of 1/6 or 1/7th the size of the economy per year. That’s the scale that they can do.”

“So government money creation could be used for what has been called ‘People’s Quantitative Easing,’ or what I call a Modern Debt Jubilee. Use that money creation capability to give a per capita injection to everybody in the country with a bank account. If they are in debt at all then the money reduces their debt level. If they’re not in debt they get a cash injection, but that cash injection could also be made conditional on them buying shares from companies that were required to pay their debt levels down. So you could actually use it as a way of using government money creation capability to effectively rebalance this from a far too much credit, far too little fiat-based money to a more sensible balance of the two.”

“You can do that level of spending politically during something like the Second World War because it’s an existential threat and nobody in their right mind is going to criticize using government money creation to mobilize as many physical resources as possible for a particular objective that virtually everybody in the society supports…in the UK’s case the government’s deficit in the first year of the Second World War was 40 percent of GDP. Nobody stood up in parliament and said ‘we cant afford this bill because our children will be indebted for the future,’ because somebody on the other side would say, ‘we cant afford *not* to spend this money because if we don’t your kids will be speaking German.’

Adam Curtis isn’t an economist, but an observer of society. He describes the period we’re in now as “Hypernormalization,” a concept taken from the last days of the Soviet Union. It’s described as a state where everyone knows the politicians are lying, the people know they’re lying, the politicians know they’re lying, and the politicians know that we know they’re lying. But everyone is just going along with it because nobody knows how to do anything else besides make-believe. He also points out that finance desires a predictable world which is fundamentally conservative, and the power of finance means that this is what politicians support. This means that measures that would shake up the system are less likely to be supported.

The reason there are no mass movements against this situation, Curtis argues, is that coming out of the Hippy Movement of the 1970’s was an attitude that prized individual self-expression and not being told what to do by others above collective self-sacrifice. This made mass movements impossible, since they require people to sublimate their individuality to the goals of the movement.

Instead, advertising, and later, social media platforms, learned how to exploit this desire for self-expression while still finding a way to manage and herd large groups of people for the benefit of elites. It accomplished this though cybernetics:

28:35: “The genius of modern power is that it managed to what politics failed to do. Politics can’t deal with individualism, because how can you have a political party where everyone wants to be an individual and not be a part of something? What modern managerial systems managed to do was square the circle. Look at modern social media. It manages to allow you to feel that you are totally yourself, expressing yourself online…Yet at the same time you are a component in a complex series of very complex circuits that is looking at you doing that and saying, ‘Hang on, if hes doing that, then hes very much like these people here which we’ve categorized like that.’ So we can say back to that person in they circuit, ‘Hey if you’re doing that, would you like this as well?’ and you go, ‘Hmm, all right, because its a bit like what you’ve just done. And it makes you sort of feel secure within your individuality.”

“So what they’ve managed to do, increasingly, the modern systems of management, is accept your individualism and your expressiveness; allow you to feel that you’re being more and more expressive, while at the same time managing you quietly and happily so that you become part of a very large group that you don’t see, because you’re just a little component in the circuit, but the computers look at you go, ‘Oh, well, there’s about 300 million of those sort of types, we’ll put them in that group. And its not a conspiracy; a group of people going ‘We’ll do this.’ It’s a system that can see from the information that it’s reading from you and lots of other people the patterns that you are part of and saying, ‘Well we’ll fit them all together into that pattern.’

And its benign in their terms. If you talk to the tech Utopians from Silicon Valley, they will go ‘This is incredibly efficient.’ And they’re right. It’s an incredibly efficient way of managing the problem that politicians can’t manage, which is our individuality and our desire to be self expressive. It’s problem is that its fundamentally conservative because its feeding back to you more of what it knows you like…

With online systems, the way to get people to participate is to make them outraged enough so they go online and click. This puts us all into little bubbles where we only see ideas that we already agree with. And so, we get politicians endlessly fanning the flames of the “culture wars” and getting people upset, but nothing substantial ever really changes. The economy just chugs along, making the rich richer and the poor poorer, with people becoming more and more frustrated because seem to have little impact on government. This, he claims, is because they are being micromanaged in a way that they don’t actually see by tech utopians in the name of efficiency.

Finance, as he points out, wants stability, not change, and in this goal they are assisted by the cybernetic control systems such as Google and Facebook. This can keep people forever atomized in their own groups and prevent fundamental change. Instead, people’s frustrations are channeled to cultural issues, egged on by politicians whose prime goal is not to unite people, but to keep them continually divided:

48:28: I have a very cynical theory about Trump. As politics became…less and less substantial and less and less confidently able to change things and power shifted away to all sort of other things that we were participating in…Really what people like Trump are is, they’re not politicians, they’re pantomime villains. They’ve turned politics into a Vaudeville. And what they do is they come onstage and we go THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS!!! This is absolutely terrible! We type away on social media saying, ‘This is is really really really bad.’ And…a marketeer for online told me once, angry people click more. And clicks are gold dust. And really what those clicks do is feed modern power. And everything stays the same…

This makes huge profits for media conglomerates and Silicon Valley, but everything stays the same. Until when? How will the system reset itself? When will it? Can it? Will it take another world war? Or will things just continue to get worse and worse forever for the majority? Is there any alternative? That, it seems, is a question no one can answer.

Professor Mark Blyth on Post-WW2 Economics and Neoliberalism (YouTube)

Mark Blyth – Why People Vote for Those Who Work Against Their Best Interests (YouTube)

Mark Blyth ─ Global Trumpism (YouTube)

Professor Mark Blyth on Policy Goals, Trump, and China (YouTube)

Adam Curtis – Do We Really Want Change? (Under the Skin)

Burying Neoliberalism Before It Buries Us (Sputnik News)

The Cucumber or the Grape?

…Calvinism is “perhaps the first systematic body of religious teaching which can be said to recognize and applaud the economic virtues.” No longer was “the world of economic motives alien to the life of the spirit.” Here is Zwingli, quoted by Wiskemann, quoted by Richard Tawney: “Labor is a thing so good and godlike…that makes the body hale and strong and cures the sickness produced by idleness…In the things of this life, the laborer is most like to God.”
Adam Smith: Supermoney, pp.137-138

Last time we took a historical survey of how large-scale civilizations were made possible by human slaves, and all of the major forms that it took. We also looked at some of the common misconceptions about how slavery worked in ancient societies.

Today, slavery is essentially illegal everywhere, despite all the underground forms of slavery that persist (human trafficking, migrant labor), and legal forms (incarceration and indentured servitude like H1-B Visas and student debt).

I’d like to consider this post by Nate Hagens et. al. which delves into the psychology of work: Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us? (Cassandra’s Legacy)

Hagens makes a familiar point: much of the “work” performed by modern society today is no longer performed by flesh-and-blood human and animal slaves but by devices powered by fossil fuels, which he calls “energy slaves.” Some of this is performed via heat engines like internal combustion engines, electric dynamos, boilers, and so forth, while others tasks are performed through electricity: electric motors, transistors, heat pumps, cybernetic devices and so on. Recall that the ancient world had none of these:

…every American has over 500 invisible energy slaves working 24/7 for them. That is, the labor equivalent of 500 human workers, 24/7, every day of the year, mostly derived from burning fossil carbon and hydrocarbons…

We use the “slave” metaphor because it’s really a very good one, despite its pejorative label. Energy slaves do exactly the sort of things that human slaves and domestic animals previously did: things that fulfilled their masters’ needs and whims. And they do them faster. And cheaper. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a big coincidence that the world (and the USA) got around to freeing most of its human slaves only once industrialization started offering cheaper fossil-slave replacements.

The things we value are created with a combination of human and energy-slave work combined with natural capital (minerals and ores, soils and forests, etc.). There are huge amounts of embedded energy in the creation and operation of something like an iPad and the infrastructure which makes it work…To an ever-increasing degree over the last two centuries, wealth has been created more by fossil slaves than by human labor, significantly more – and it’s at its all-time peak about now…

In fact, we have so much energy, we actually make things expressly designed to be used once and thrown away! Or to fall apart quickly–so-called “planned obsolescence.” People who buy used goods often notice that older products tend to last longer than new ones, and often perform better and more reliably. Recently Apple admitted that they intentionally slow down older devices in order to get people to upgrade.

We increasingly buy disposable everything – used once and tossed away. Most everything is short-life these days; when your authors were young if you bought a fan, you expected it to last 20+ years. Now if it lasts 2-3 before you toss it, that’s about par for the course. Planned obsolescence exists because it’s “good for GDP.” A new dishwasher now lasts 6-8 years when it used to last 12-16, because they now have integrated cheaper electronics that fail.

Our GDP has become tethered to rapid product-replacement cycles keyed to our short attention spans and our enjoyment at buying new things. This creates “jobs” for car salesmen, advertising executives, etc., but has tilted the scales in favor of “useless GDP” rather than real societal utility. We know how to make things with high quality that last, but due to time bias and the financialization of the human experience, such an objective is relatively unimportant in our current culture. Many people get a new phone every 18 months with their cell plan, and perfectly functional ones wind up in the landfills.

After making a good case that our prosperity is actually the result of a massive surplus of energy channeled into heat engines of various types, Hagens and his co-authors consider the concept of “work.” Why, they ask, if so much of the work in our society is performed by energy slaves, do we place such a high value on “work”?

And place a high value on it, we do. In fact, we are well on our way (if not there already) to a society of “total work” where work encompasses every aspect of our lives and determines our entire value as a human being. Silicon Valley enthusiasts use polyphasic sleeping to reduce their “downtime” (a computer term) to only three hours a night. They scarf down meal replacement shakes and powders to avoid eating so they can spend more time at the office. Family time is seen as “unproductive,” and students labor away at several hours of homework a night. Entry to many professions has less to do with necessary training time as being a hazing ritual (e.g. law, medicine). Amazon employees openly weep at their desks and answer emails at three in the morning. We skip vacations for fear of being cast aside, or inundated upon our return. We cower at the tyranny of the punch clock and time sheet. The most admired person in our society is the business executive who sleeps only a few hours a night and arrives at the office by 4 AM, or the Wall Street trader who works past midnight.

We (especially Americans) then castigate anyone not willing or able to embrace this Stakhanovite work ethic as “lazy” and not deserving of any consideration; not even the bare social minimums of survival like healthy food, decent shelter and basic health care.

For upper-middle class men, notes sociologist Michèle Lamont, ambition and a strong work ethic are “doubly sacred…as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity.” Elite men’s jobs revolve around the work devotion schema, which communicates that high-level professionals should “demonstrate commitment by making work the central focus of their lives” and “manifest singular ‘devotion to work,’ unencumbered with family responsibilities,” to quote sociologist Mary Blair-Loy. This ideal has roots in the 17th century Protestant work ethic, in which work was viewed as a “calling” to serve God and society. The religious connection has vanished…or has it?

Blair-Loy draws parallels between the words bankers used to describe their work — “complete euphoria” or “being totally consumed” — and Emile Durkheim’s classic account of a religion ceremony among Australian natives. “I worshipped my mentor,” said one woman. Work becomes a totalizing experience. “Holidays are a nuisance because you have to stop working,” said one banker interviewed by Blair-Loy. “I remember being really annoyed when it was Thanksgiving. Damn, why did I have to stop working to go eat turkey? I missed my favorite uncle’s funeral, because I had a deposition scheduled that was too important.”

Work devotion marries moral purity with elite status. Way back when I was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, I used to call it the cult of busy smartness. How do the elite signal to each other how important they are? “I am slammed” is a socially acceptable way of saying “I am important.” Fifty years ago, Americans signaled class by displaying their leisure: think banker’s hours (9 to 3). Today, the elite — journalist Chrystia Freeland calls them “the working rich” — display their extreme schedules.

Why Men Work So Many Hours (Harvard Business Review)

Every moment of our waking lives becomes “work”, from the creation of art, to eating (“still working on that???”) to sex. Everything we do must contribute to the totalitarian productivist ethos of society. Even social maladies such as obesity and mental illness are never dismissed as intrinsically bad, but rather only undesirable to the extent that they “decrease productivity.” We have been reduced to productivist meat-machines, where anyone who does not continually contribute to the maximization of GDP must be ruthlessly cast aside as a mere speed-bump on the highway to the Singularity and Martian colonies.

Work-obsessed indeed.

…how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census.

Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin…In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting – closely monitored and ever-optimised – would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive…

Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act in order to complete total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully manifest.

This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own… We are on the verge of total work’s realisation. Each day I speak with people for whom work has come to control their lives, making their world into a task, their thoughts an unspoken burden…

If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living? (Aeon)

Thus, despite all our fossil energy slaves, despite all our labor-saving devices and cybernetic achievements and artificial intelligence and self-driving cars and robots and fully-automated lights-out factories churning out more widgets than can ever be consumed, it seems like we are more “work-obsessed” than ever before in human history! People in past societies worked far less than we do.

And yet it’s difficult to see what much of the extra added “work” has really contributed to society:

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the century, the average workweek would be about 15 hours. Automation had already begun to replace many jobs by the early 20th century, and Keynes predicted that the trend would accelerate to the point where all that people need for a satisfying life could be produced with a minimum of human labor, whether physical or mental.

Keynes turned out to be right about increased automation…But he was wrong about the decline of work.

As old jobs have been replaced by machines, new jobs have cropped up. Some of these new jobs are direct results of the new technologies and can fairly be said to benefit society in ways beyond just keeping people employed. Information technology jobs are obvious examples, as are jobs catering to newfound realms of amusement, such as computer game design and production.

But we also have an ever-growing number of jobs that seem completely useless or even harmful. As examples, we have administrators and assistant administrators in ever larger numbers shuffling papers that don’t need to be shuffled, corporate lawyers and their staffs helping big companies pay less than their fair share of taxes, countless people in the financial industries doing who knows what mischief, lobbyists using every means possible to further corrupt our politicians, and advertising executives and sales personnel pushing stuff that nobody needs or really wants.

Economists Are Obsessed with “Job Creation.” How About Less Work? (Evonomics)

Anthropologist and activist David Graeber contends that if we consider the economy-wide job profiles we had in the 1930’s when Keynes wrote his treatise, then we truly have eliminated most of the jobs! That is, we have indeed eliminated most of the human labor from large swaths of the economy thanks to our energy slaves, along with dramatic gains in efficiency.

Conventional economists argue that economic growth engendered by these changes to the economy has created enough new positions to absorb all the displaced labor from the automated and eliminated sectors of the economy such as manufacturing and agriculture. Furthermore, they argue the need for labor is essentially unlimited (the “Lump of Labour” fallacy). Graeber, however, argues that, even in theoretically “efficient” capitalist economies, a good portion of the displaced labor has been absorbed into unnecessary, or even socially harmful, make-work tasks, what he terms “Bullshit Jobs.”

Graeber lists five categories of Bullshit Jobs:

1. Flunkies – People who are there just to make someone else look good.

2. Goons – People whose jobs only exist because their competitors have them as well, such as corporate lawyers, lobbyists, telemarketers, etc. in a sort of zero-sum arms race.

3. Duct Tapers – people paid to continually apply patches to a broken system without fixing the underlying problems which are clearly identifiable. See, for example, the entire American health care system.

4. Box Tickers – people who are there to permit an organization to say they are complying with various rules and regulations that they are not actually complying with.

5. Taskmasters – people who are there to supervise people who don’t need supervision, and to make up new bullshit jobs.

An increasing number of people in capitalist societies are also employed in “guard labor,” that is, working to keep other people in line—police officers, FBI agents, prison guards, security guards, detectives, investigators, and countless other assorted “criminal justice” occupations. Keeping people in line and imprisoning them has been a major source of new jobs. And many new jobs have been created attempting to cope with the corrosive effects to the fabric of modern society such as counselors and social workers. We even have people whose full-time job it is to get other people into full-time jobs!

Graeber notes that, had we kept the same job profiles as we had in the 1930’s, we truly could have eliminated most of the jobs! Instead of doing that, though, we have instead created millions of low-productivity make-work tasks like those he cites above, most of which revolve around useless paper-pushing and professional lunch-eating:

“They could have done that if we’d kept up the same type of job profiles…you look at what jobs existed in the 1930’s. There were a lot of people working in industry, there were a lot of people working in agriculture, there were a lot of domestic servants—all that’s gone. A lot of the domestic servants have been replaced by service jobs.”

“There are a lot less people employed in industry, even if you count places like China where the factories have gone. People think it’s gone to the service sector. But actually, it’s not so much service. What it’s gone to is the administrative/clerical and supervisory sector. If you count service and that together, its gone from a quarter of all jobs to seventy-five percent today. So, you have all these people administering other people. And they’re not really doing anything—they’re just pretending.”

“It seems to come from the idea that work is a value in itself…”

BULLSHIT JOBS – David Graeber (YouTube)

Graeber also notes that there seems to be a notion that if you’re getting something meaningful out of what you do for a living (for example, making art or helping others) then you shouldn’t get paid at all, or at least you certainly shouldn’t get paid very much. That is, the knowledge that you’re actually doing something of value has come be seen as subtracting from the value of the job rather than adding to it! There’s resentment on a unconscious, or sometimes even conscious level against those who actually do real work, he contends. He cites the resentment against teachers and auto workers receiving high salaries and good benefits, despite bankers, corporate lawyers and middle-managers earning much, much more. The reason, he suspects, is because the main tasks of the latter cohort—filling out useless paperwork and attending boring meetings—are so soul-crushingly pointless and awful that we convince ourselves that they somehow “deserve” to be paid more money. Notice how business executives, Silicon Valley programmers, and Wall Street bankers constantly tout their endless work hours and personal sacrifices as the justification for their outsized paychecks, perks, and golden parachutes, without referring to what, if anything, all their excess work actually accomplishes for the benefit of anyone but themselves.

Gray notes that the problem is really not a technological one, but an economic one:

The real problem, of course, is an economic one. We’ve figured out how to reduce the amount of work required to produce everything we need and realistically want, but we haven’t figured out how to distribute those resources except through wages earned from the 40-hour (or more) workweek. In fact, technology has had the effect of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller percentage of the population, which compounds the distribution problem. Moreover, as a legacy of the industrial revolution, we have a cultural ethos that says people must work for what they get, and so we shun any serious plans for sharing wealth through means other than exchanges for work.

And that last point is the core of the most interesting part of Hagens’ argument. He has already established that “work” is primarily performed by energy slaves in one form or another in modern Industrial societies, whether mechanical work, or, increasingly, routine intellectual (i.e. non-creative) work. Most of our “jobs” have been purposely routinized and made fungible by design through “deskilling.” This was done long ago during the Industrial Revolution to ensure that labor was easily replaceable, and hence would be at the mercy of capitalist employers (i.e the “job creators”). These days “digital deskilling” is advancing rapidly thanks to complex algorithms.

Hagens’ et. al. contention that work isn’t all about accomplishing anything intrinsically useful at all. Rather, they contend, it is really all about the socially accepted amount of “suffering” that we must go through to “earn” our paycheck. There is nothing inherently good about jobs or work per se. They point out that most animals in nature do not seek out extra work and see it as something to be avoided if possible:

…if you kick open an anthill or a beehive, the insects will not be grateful for the sudden boost in job creation, and they will effectively utilize the cross-species language of biting and stinging to inform you of this opinion. From this we may infer that insects don’t understand economics…

Many hunter-gatherer societies don’t even have a concept of work:

Some anthropologists have reported that the people they studied didn’t even have a word for work; or, if they had one, it referred to what farmers, or miners, or other non-hunter-gatherers with whom they had contact did. The anthropologist Marshal Sahlins famously referred to hunter-gatherers as comprising the original affluent society—affluent not because they had so much, but because their needs were small and they could satisfy those needs with relatively little effort, so they had lots of time to play.

Hagens argues that the 40-hour work-week job is simply the rationing mechanism we’ve ended up with which allows people to get access to the collectively-produced wealth of society, including the output of our ubiquitous energy slaves. As they put it:

… there are a lot of jobs in the USA, which keep us very busy not making much of anything of long term value.

We do advertising, hairstyling, consulting, writing, and a lot of supervising of the things our fossil slaves do. We don’t care all that much what we’re doing as long as we feel we’re getting paid at least as well for the same task as the other…people around us…

These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes. Many people would consider it an optimum situation, a great job, to sit in a room for 40 hours per week and make $100,000 per year, just pulling a lever the way a capuchin does for a cucumber slice…

The reference to cucumber slices comes from a famous experiment where researchers had Capuchin monkeys complete a nonsense task in exchange for a food reward. Some monkeys got a cucumber slice, while others got a grape for doing the exact same task:

If you give capuchin monkeys the “job” of doing a nonsense task in exchange for a reward, they will happily do it all day long as long as they keep getting a reward – cucumber slices. But if a capuchin sees the monkey in the next cage get a (better tasting so higher value) grape while it still gets a cucumber slice, it’ll go ape, throwing the cucumber slice in the face of the experimenter in a rage. It gets the same cucumber slice it has been happy to work for before, but it no longer wants it, because it no longer feels fair in comparison to its cage mate’s effort and reward. Instead, it wants the experimenter and the other monkey to be punished for this inequity.

We’ll…refer to the term “capuchin fairness” because a similar mechanism turns out to be behind a great deal of human behavior. We’re outraged at the notion of somebody getting more reward than we do for doing the same thing. Indeed, many large-scale human institutions now stress perceived fairness of process over quality of end results.

A similar mechanism exists among ranked primates like chimpanzees:

…On the flip side, when two unrelated chimps put side by side were presented with a tasty grape and a less tasty carrot, the chimp with the grape sometimes threw it away. “I would say that the most likely cause was either fear of retribution or just general discomfort about being around an individual getting less than you,” says Brosnan. Differences in the social hierarchy also played a role, she says. Dominant chimps were angrier when they were on the receiving end of a lesser reward than those lower in the pecking order.

Why Do You Care About Fairness? Ask A Chimp (NPR)

And in human children too young to have been socialized in the concept of fairness:

A few years ago, a team of psychologists set out to study how kids…would respond to unfairness. They recruited a bunch of preschoolers and grouped them in pairs. The children were offered some blocks to play with and then, after a while, were asked to put them away. As a reward for tidying up, the kids were given stickers.

No matter how much each child had contributed to the cleanup effort, one received four stickers and the other two. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children shouldn’t be expected to grasp the idea of counting before the age of four. But even three-year-olds seemed to understand when they’d been screwed. Most of the two-sticker recipients looked enviously at the holdings of their partners. Some said they wanted more. A number of the four-sticker recipients also seemed dismayed by the distribution, or perhaps by their partners’ protests, and handed over some of their winnings…The results, they concluded, show that “the emotional response to unfairness emerges very early.”

They Psychology of Inequality (The New Yorker)

This, Hagens contends, is the reason we are so all-consumed with “working hard.” It’s got nothing to do with your real social contribution. Instead, he argues that this is rooted in human social instincts, which are biologically-rooted and which we share with other large-brained social primates such as chimps, bonobos and monkeys.

In other words, it all has to do with our innate primate sense of fairness. Especially in the United States, we are obsessed with punishing “cheaters” and ‘scroungers.” We constantly berate the “lazy,” as if all the people living in cars and shelters just collectively decided to suddenly stop working one day. We are collectively as crabs in a bucket. Everyone must suffer equally.

This is backed up by a recent book by a University of Wisconsin sociology professor who found that right-wing “blue collar” voters in the Rust Belt are motivated almost entirely by grievance and resentment toward “elites:”

What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.

When people are talking about those people in the city getting an “unfair share,” there’s certainly a racial component to that. But they’re also talking about people like me [a white, female professor]. They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right?

It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people.

And maybe the best way to explain how these things are intertwined is through noticing how much conceptions of hard work and deservingness matter for the way these resentments matter to politics. We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.

“Part of it is that the Republican Party over the years has honed its arguments to tap into this resentment. They’re saying: “You’re right, you’re not getting your fair share, and the problem is that it’s all going to the government. So let’s roll government back.” So there’s a little bit of an elite-driven effect here, where people are told: ‘You are right to be upset. You are right to notice this injustice.'”

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

In my mind, through resentment and these notions of deservingness, that’s where you can see how economic anxiety and racial anxiety are intertwined. Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough. Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult. I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get..

A New Theory for Why Trump Voters Are So Angry That Actually Makes Sense (Washington Post)

Trump voters were collectively throwing the cucumber slice back at the researcher.

Hagens contends that rather than 40 hours per week being some sort of necessary amount of work time to get done with the tasks-at-hand to keep society up and running, it is instead established as a sort of socially-acceptable threshold of discomfort that people are expected to endure in order to justify their right to the output of our energy slaves (our grapes and cucumber slices). The source of this is a historical contingency that has nothing to do with productivity or what we actually accomplish, but really operates as more of an adult babysitting operation:

And that’s where the perceived equality is: the equality of inconvenience. The 40-hour work week is a social threshold of inconvenience endured, which is now what we keep primary social track of rather than the productive output of a person’s activity…Because socially, everyone who isn’t a criminal is supposed to have a job and endure roughly equivalent inconvenience. Any segment of society which went to a 15-hour work week would be treated as mooching freeloaders, and be pelted by cucumber slices and worse.

In a society in which we’re all basically idle royalty being catered to by fossil slaves, why do we place such a value on “jobs”? Well, partly because it’s how the allocation mechanism evolved, but there also exists considerable resentment against those who don’t work. Think of the vitriol with which people talk about “freeloaders” on society who don’t work a 40-hour week and who take food stamps. The fact is, that most of us are freeloaders when it comes down to it, but if we endure 40 hours of inconvenience per week, we meet the social criteria of having earned our banana pellets even if what we’re doing is stupid and useless, and realized to be stupid and useless. Indeed, a job that’s stupid and useless but pays a lot is highly prized.

So “jobs” per se aren’t intrinsically useful at all… They’re mostly a co-opted, socially-evolved mechanism for wealth distribution and are very little about societal wealth creation. And they function to keep us busy and distract us from huge wealth disparity. We’re too busy making sure our co-workers don’t get grapes to do something as radical as call out and lynch the bankers. Keeping a population distracted may well be necessary to hold a modern nation together.

Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us? (Cassandra’s Legacy)

Finally, in a strange way, it turns out that the old Labor Theory of Value might be correct after all.

The Labor Theory of Value is one of the most controversial ideas in economics. It was an attempt by economists to identify such a thing as “value” and then determine how to quantify it. What makes some things more valuable than others? Many early economists (including both Adam Smith and Karl Marx) thought that the amount of labor that went into producing something determined its value (and note, not it’s price).

While most economists have dismissed this notion, looked at another way it is correct. Instead, we can determine the value of something by how long we are willing work to get it. That is, we will work longer for a grape than a cucumber slice, and that is how we can determine its value, as Chris Dillow argues:

…I think of major expenses in terms of labour-time because they mean I have to work longer. A trip to the vet is an extra fortnight of work; a good guitar an extra month, a car an extra year, and so on.

When I consider my spending, I ask: what must I give up in order to get that? And the answer is my time and freedom. My labour-time is the measure of value.

This is a reasonable basis for the claim that workers are exploited. To buy a bundle of goods and services, we must work a number of hours a week. But taking all workers together, the hours we work are greater than the hours needed to produce those bundles because we must also work to provide a profit for the capitalist….For Marx, value was socially-necessary labour time…From this perspective, exploitation and alienation are linked. Workers are exploited because they must work longer than necessary to get their consumption bundle. And they are alienated because this work is unsatisfying and a source of unfreedom.

In Defence of the Labour Theory of Value (Stumbling and Mumbling)

Seen from this perspective, the value of something can be determined by the amount of often socially useless labor time we must sacrifice in order to get it. And we are very sensitive to others getting value that (we think) they did not deserve. Thus we establish the 40-hour work week as the threshold to ensure fairness of distribution. But is that a good idea? Is it even relevant anymore??? It turns out that there is no connection between the 40-hour work week and productivity. In fact, it might even be less productive:

The reason we have eight-hour work days at all was because companies found that cutting employees’ hours had the reverse effect they expected: it upped their productivity. During the Industrial Revolution, 10-to-16-hour days were normal. Ford was the first company to experiment with an eight-hour day – and found its workers were more productive not only per hour, but overall. Within two years, their profit margins doubled.

If eight-hour days are better than 10-hour ones, could even shorter working hours be even better? Perhaps. For people over 40, research found that a 25-hour work week may be optimal for cognition, while when Sweden recently experimented with six-hour work days, it found that employees had better health and productivity.

This seems borne out by how people behave during the working day. One survey of almost 2,000 full-time office workers in the UK found that people were only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes out of an eight-hour day. The rest of the time was spent checking social media, reading the news, having non-work-related chats with colleagues, eating – and even searching for new jobs.

The compelling case for working a lot less (BBC)

In other words, the exact opposite of the way we’re going.

We know that most employees are disengaged at their jobs, and studies show that most of us only actually “work” for a small portion of the time we are on the clock, with the rest spent socializing, trying to look busy, or goofing off. Yet we must physically be physically present under some sort of supervision for 40 hours a week minimum to secure our right to our banana pellets. Does any of this make sense? Do any of us really want this? After all, books that promise a four-hour work week are best sellers.

In fact, all the evidence shows that many of us would be more productive if we worked a bit less. In addition, there would be many more jobs to go around:

Even on a global level, there is no clear correlation between a country’s productivity and average working hours. With a 38.6-hour work week, for example, the average US employee works 4.6 hours a week longer than a Norwegian. But by GDP, Norway’s workers contribute the equivalent of $78.70 per hour – compared to the US’s $69.60.

As for Italy, that home of il dolce far niente? With an average 35.5-hour work week, it produces almost 40% more per hour than Turkey, where people work an average of 47.9 hours per week. It even edges the United Kingdom, where people work 36.5 hours.

So why don’t we do that? That’s a story for another time.