What If God Was One of Us?

Did ancient peoples have a fundamentally different consciousness than modern people?

Horus is my co-pilot

It’s a question I think deserves serious attention. Of course, this leads to a discussion of what the heck “consciousness” even means—does it mean self-awareness, or self-conscious introspection, or our perception of consensus reality? What constitutes “reality?” Are dreams and hallucinations “real,” for instance? And what does “self-awareness” really mean, anyway? Solipsism? Or something else?

Even in a secular age, consciousness retains a mystical sheen. It is alternatively described as the last frontier of science, and as a kind of immaterial magic beyond science’s reckoning. David Chalmers, one of the world’s most respected philosophers on the subject, once told me that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, like space-time or energy. He said it might be tied to the diaphanous, indeterminate workings of the quantum world, or something nonphysical.

These metaphysical accounts are in play because scientists have yet to furnish a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. We know the body’s sensory systems beam information about the external world into our brain, where it’s processed, sequentially, by increasingly sophisticated neural layers. But we don’t know how those signals are integrated into a smooth, continuous world picture, a flow of moments experienced by a roving locus of attention—a “witness,” as Hindu philosophers call it.

Do Animals Have Feelings? (The Atlantic)

As one commenter to the Atlantic article above article on Reddit points out:

“Consciousness” is an archaic sort of catch-all phrase without much empirical definition and usefulness. Sort of like how physicists used to use “ether” to describe things. Of course we’ve upgraded our concepts (and respective language) for a more enriched understanding, not needing the idea of “ether” anymore.

As the Atlantic article referenced above describes, “If one of the wasp’s aquatic ancestors experienced Earth’s first embryonic consciousness, it would have been nothing like our own consciousness.” But the question we’re pondering today is whether even our own remote ancestors had a consciousness very different than our own.

To deal with this question, let’s take a look at the 1979 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by psychologist Julian Jaynes.

The idea is that in these ancient Mediterranean civilizations, the typical human had one or more ‘gods’ — spirits, agents, separate intelligences — living alongside the conventional ‘self’ in the brain. In other words, the dominant pattern was to maintain two separate, verbally-intelligent control centers in the same brain — one for the ‘gods’ and one for the ‘humans’/’mortals’/’selves’.

Jaynes refers to this arrangement as bicameral, which means two-chambered. That’s because he postulates that the gods and conventional selves were headquartered in the two chambers of the brain — the right and left hemispheres (respectively). I think this is plausible enough, but Jaynes admits that it’s speculative, and it’s not strictly necessary for the rest of his theory. What matters is only that the human brain is (empirically!) capable of something like this arrangement.

In other words, the gods took on some of the functions we think of as the “will” or volition. (But not the conscience; that would only later become a function of a very different kind of god.) Here’s Jaynes:

“The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system… and from stores of admonitory and preceptive experience, transmuted this experience into articulated speech which then ‘told’ the man what to do.”

Think of it this way. Today we have a lot of mental phenomena we can’t really account for, like “intuitions” or “gut feelings.” … Now imagine that “bad feeling” in the form of a voice telling you, “Be careful! Don’t agree to anything!”

Mr. Jaynes’ Wild Ride (Melting Asphalt)

Of the theory, Ran Prieur says, “I’m sure that ancient people had different consciousness than modern people, but Jaynes thought it was *really* different: that they were basically all schizophrenic, hearing voices and seeing visions, which they interpreted as gods.” That is, “Julian Jaynes believed that ancient people experienced their gods as auditory hallucinations.”

The experience of multiple personalities or hearing disembodied voices is extremely common even today, and not only in people suffering from acute schizophrenia:

As much as 10% of the population hear voices at some point in their lives, much higher than the clinical incidence of schizophrenia (1%)…And around 65% of children say they have had ‘imaginary friends’ or toys that play a sort of guardian-angel role in their lives.

Jaynes thought children evolve from bicameral to conscious, much as Piaget thought young children are by nature animist (ie they attribute consciousness to things, and may attribute special consciousness to favourite toy-companions…

Gods, Voice Hearing and the Bicameral Mind (Philosophy for Life)

This Aeon article is a fascinating overview of how psychologists have tried to explain how our “inner voice” integrates our personality over the course of our development. It describes the research of Charles Fernyhough, a leading researcher of inner speech and auditory hallucination at Durham University in the United Kingdom:

It’s possible to inner “hear” your own voice rather than speak your own voice,’ … Here, people listen to their own voice in their heads, perceiving the same sonic characteristics as expanded speech, but without the agency. Such experiences have been recalled by participants as their voice ‘just happening’, as ‘coming out of its own accord’, as ‘taking place’ rather than ‘being uttered’.

Some people passively experience inner speech in voices not their own – essentially as auditory hallucinations that they cannot control. Founding member of the Beach Boys Brian Wilson described the experience to Larry King in an interview on CNN in 2004: ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to hurt you’, an inner voice had continually repeated to him since his initial experiences with LSD in the 1960s. The value of understanding such hallucinations is self-evident: they are a hallmark of schizophrenia, a condition that affects almost 24 million people worldwide.

Of great fascination, Fernyhough has concluded that a small but significant part of the general population also experience auditory hallucinations – a phenomenon the researchers call ‘voice hearing’ to distinguish it from schizophrenia. Such voices have been reported by noted individuals throughout history, says Fernyhough. The Greek philosopher Socrates described what he called a ‘daemonic sign’, an inner voice warning him that he was about to make a mistake. Joan of Arc described hearing divine voices since childhood – the same ones that influenced her motivation to help in the siege of Orleans. The 15th-century mystic and autobiographer Margery Kempe wrote about inner conversations with God. Sigmund Freud was not immune: ‘During the days when I was living alone in a foreign city … I quite often heard my name suddenly called by an unmistakable and beloved voice.’

All this leads to another, confounding question: are verbal thoughts reaching awareness just the tip of a mental iceberg, offering only a glimpse of the unconscious mind?

The inner voice (Aeon). Or are verbal thoughts themselves consciousness?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds on first blush. In fact, we commonly experience all sorts of “altered” mental states throughout our lives—hypnotic trances, hallucinations and visions, flow (a.k.a. “being in the zone”), fever delirium, getting stoned or drunk, orgasm, dizziness, out-of-body experiences, and most obviously, dreams and nightmares. Then of course, there are our moods (anger, excitement), and feelings (ennui, jealousy).

Here are a few examples to get started: tunnel vision, runner’s high, ‘flow’, déjà-vu, daydreaming, and orgasm. Then there are spiritual or religious experiences, which are characterized by a suppressed ego and a heightened sense of unity…Then there are the states attending to physical illness — stupor, delirium, lightheadedness, or (in extreme cases) out-of-body experiences. Moods and emotions also correspond to states of consciousness: sadness, fear, surprise, laughter, joy, lust, anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, pride, boredom, and nostalgia.

Drugs put us into all kinds of interesting states…let’s not forget all the weird things that happen around sleep. Drowsiness, hypnagogia, hypnopompia, the Tetris effect, and of course dreaming itself. Every night we spend an hour or so cavorting around in a rich hallucinated fantasyland — and we think nothing of it. But this should give us pause. A brain that’s capable of dreaming should be capable of almost anything.

And all of this is only the tip of the iceberg — the states that most people have experienced at some point in their lives. In fact the brain is capable of many more and stranger things, especially if we admit into our catalogue all the states attending to brain damage, mental illness, torture, and sleep- or sensory-deprivation. Alien hand syndrome and face-blindness are but two examples.

Accepting Deviant Minds (Melting Asphalt)

The author of the above piece speculates that in our age of constant digital distractions and stimulation, we may one day lose our ability to let out mind wander—that is, to daydream (interestingly, the first sign of self-consciousness in the androids of Westworld is the “Reverie,” which is a synonym for daydreaming). If something like that were to happen, future humans would have a hard time trying to understand what the heck daydreaming once was, even though it’s well attested to in literature. People who engaged in such behaviors in the future would be considered “deviant” or “mentally ill” and in need of treatment. Descriptions of this behavior in the past would be considered as some sort of archaic collective psychosis, if not downright fantastical.

It’s not hard to imagine a world — 500 years from now, say — in which adults have lost the ability to daydream. Children, even infants, will grow up immersed in computer-mediated reality and be bombarded every waking moment with ‘optimal’ stimulation. In such a saturated world, a normal human brain may well become incapable of “day-dreaming” — of pulling up anchor from reality and drifting off into aimless daytime fantasies.

I’m not putting this forward as an actual prediction of what’s likely to happen, but merely as a hypothetical “what-if” scenario.

So what would this future society think of the few remaining people who are prone to “day-dreams”? Theirs will be the brains that, by definition, don’t respond in the normal way to environmental conditioning. It will be easy and tempting, then, to classify such people as mentally ill — to diagnose them with Aimless Imagination Disorder, perhaps. And surely there will be drugs to help keep them attending to reality, i.e., to what’s happening on their screens.

Accepting Deviant Minds (Melting Asphalt)

We would treat these daydream believers in much the same way as we treat the people who “still” hear voices in their heads today. For example:

In the 1980s, a Dutch psychiatrist called Marius Romme was treating a 30-year-old voice-hearer called Patsy Hague. She was on tranquilizers, which failed to stop the voices and made it difficult for her to think. She became suicidal.

Then Romme happened to lend her a copy of Jaynes’ book. It made her think perhaps she was not ill so much as ‘living in the wrong century’, and also gave her confidence that her voices were ‘real’, or as real as the invisible God that Romme and others believed in. Hague told Romme: ‘You believe in a God we never see or hear, so why shouldn’t you believe in the voices I really do hear?” Why not listen to what the voices had to say, rather than dismissing them as meaningless pathological symptoms?

Romme set up a meeting between Hague and other voice-hearers, who enthusiastically swapped stories and shared their sense of helplessness, vulnerability and alienation from their society. A sort of peer-led support network emerged, and has continued to blossom since then…

Gods, voice hearing and the bicameral mind (Philosophy for Life)

So who is to say what is ultimately “real” and “not real” when it comes to mental states? Our “sense of self” is just as imaginary a construct as all those ghosts and demons and other assorted imaginary friends, as this writer points out:

The brain…is capable of some pretty weird stuff. It’s not just a blank slate holding symbolic impressions of what’s happening out in the world…

I’ve spent a lot of effort…preparing us not to reject the idea of hallucinated gods out of hand. But now I ask that you keep just one thing in mind as you continue to read about Jaynes — namely, this objective fact about our species:

The human brain is capable of hallucinating voices.

Yes, hallucinated voices are weird — but they really happen. And sometimes we can even be quite cavalier about them. Every night, for example, we spend an hour or so immersed in a rich hallucinated fantasyland — only to dismiss it, when we wake up, as “just a dream.”
Wait a minute. “Just” a dream? If a dream wasn’t perfectly normal, it would be the weirdest thing that ever happened to you.

When we accuse a hallucinated voice, or the spirit that takes over during a possession, of being unreal, on what do we base the accusation? Both voices and spirits are, as we’ve seen, neurologically real — they correspond to a real pattern of neurons capable of exhibiting real intelligence. Both can be treated as agents, i.e., the kind of thing toward which it’s productive to take the intentional stance.

If anything, our objection lies in the fact that voices and spirits don’t have any reality in the world outside our minds. But there’s something else that has all these properties: the self. I, ego, myself, my conscious will. A neurologically real agent with no physical reality outside of the mind.

Hallucinated Gods (Melting Asphalt)

In fact some people even go so far as actively trying to cultivate their inner voice. This is a part of both Eastern esoteric traditions (e.g. Tibetan Buddhism) and Western (e.g. Magick). Many otherwise “sane” people with addictions often describe their addiction as a separate consciousness from their own which “makes” them drink, or do drugs, or whatever, with their “real” selves going along for the ride. These are “drives,” or “sub-personal agents” which our minds possess. Even today we refer to our personal “demons”—a telling expression, I think. Sometimes people even go so far as to give their addictions or inner voices a name. Maybe in the past, they called the voices things like Utu or “Osiris” or “Aten” or “Apollo”:

…there’s no objective sense in which one of your voices could be the “same” as one of my voices. The process of naming/identifying one’s voices is strictly a symbolic, interpretive act — and as such it would have been fraught with social and political implications. There were personal gods, household gods, state and local gods, each a meaningful token of a different kind of loyalty.

No doubt identification was influenced by all sorts of factors in the child’s life: his parents, priests, and peer group; norms about whether it’s OK to ‘invent’ new gods; where he spent his time; where he heard his voices. If a child hallucinated one of his voices with particular strength at the temple of Osiris, while bathing in the imagery, mythology, and personality of Osiris — well, it only makes sense for that voice to ‘be’ Osiris.

Hallucinated Gods (Melting Asphalt)

Nor is this just ancient history. Yesterday I was reading an article in The Guardian about a British lady named Amanda Feilding who is leading a one-woman crusade to legalize psychedelic drugs around the world for use in the treatment of serious mental disorders. Of her childhood, there’s this fascinating tidbit:

Before the light outside goes, Feilding insists that we have a wander around the grounds, where the seeds of her curiosity were sown. Out among the ancient hedges and ponds she points out the mound and tree stump that she believed housed a private god figure; her game, aged five or six, was to find ways to make that god laugh, “that kind of orgasm experience that I think a lot of young children have and then forget”.

Feilding did not forget. She wanted afterwards, she says, to recreate that childlike intensity of experience…As Feilding explains this former life, in digressive fits and starts, fretting a little that she is saying too much, she leads me through the twilit garden, over well-trodden stepping stones, pointing out a pond she dug “based on sacred geometries”, with a half-submerged colonnade as if from a forgotten civilisation…

Amanda Feilding: ‘LSD can get deep down and reset the brain – like shaking up a snow globe’ (The Guardian)

Incidentally, the idea of spirits inhabiting a particular inanimate object or place is called a tutelary deity in theology, and is quite common across cultures. It appears to be an outgrowth of animism:

A tutelary (also tutelar) is a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron, or protector of a particular place, geographic feature, person, lineage, nation, culture, or occupation. The etymology of “tutelary” expresses the concept of safety, and thus of guardianship. (Wikipedia)

It’s interesting to contemplate the fact that in ancient literature–religious or not–humans are almost always depicted as communicating directly with the deities! For example, in every ancient legal code I’m aware of, the laws were received directly from the gods by the lawgiver, like dictating to a stenographer. Moses is one case, but hardly the only one. What if this was more than just simply colorful metaphor?

Aeon has a fascinating piece up on the origins of monotheism, which seems to have arisen more-or-less simultaneously in both Egypt and in the Hebrew culture. While many have speculated that one must have influenced the other (such as Freud), there is no record of any direct contact.The change in religion happened rapidly, over just a few decades, rather than by gradual evolution, contends the author. What’s especially interesting is the author’s speculation of how a direct communication with the deity brought about the monotheistic revolution:

My theory is that Akhenaten himself very early in his reign (or even just before) experienced a theophany – a dream or some sort of divine manifestation – in which he believed that Aten spoke to him. This encounter launched his movement which took seven to nine years to fully crystallise as exclusive monotheism.

Great idea, but based on what evidence? Mention has already been made of the two major Aten Temples called Gemet Pa-Aten constructed at Karnak and Akhet-Aten. A third temple by the same name was built in Nubia. Three temples with the same name is unprecedented, and suggests that its meaning, ‘The Aten is Found’, was vitally important to the young king’s religious programme. Could the name of the three sanctuaries memorialise the dramatic theophany that set off the revolution?

Akhenaten also uses the same language of discovery to explain how he found the land where he would establish the new city, Akhet-Aten. The aforementioned boundary inscription records Akhenaten’s words when travelling through the area that would become his new capital:

“Look, Aten! The Aten wishes to have [something] made for him as a monument … (namely) Akhet-Aten … It is Aten, my father, [who advised me] concerning it so it could be made for him as Akhet-Aten.”

Later in the same inscription, the king again repeats the line: ‘It is my father Aten who advised me concerning it.’ These texts point to an initial phenomenological event in which the king discovered the new form of the sun-god and then, through a later revelation, Aten disclosed where his Holy See should be built.

The first God (Aeon)

Interestingly, Islamic monotheism began in a similar fashion century when the Arabic merchant and trader Muhammad heard a voice commanding him to “Recite!” That voice was later attributed to the archangel Gabriel, depicted as the messenger of God (Allah) in Islam.

This is naught but a revelation revealed,
taught him by one mighty in power,
very strong; he stood poised
being on the higher horizon,
then drew near and suspended hung,
two bows’-length away, or nearer,
then revealed to His servant that he revealed.

What struck me in the passage above is how it does seem as though Akhenaten is being compelled to do various things by some sort of commanding entity, just as Jaynes hypothesized. Akhenaten even implies that the the god Aten is his “father” (monotheism is suffused with patriarchal ideas). Of course, Moses is also depicted as speaking with God directly in the Scriptures. Again, we “moderns” interpret this stuff as simply poetic license. But if Jaynes’ suppositions are to be taken seriously, it could have been much more than that!

Hammurabi receiving the laws from the sun-god Shamash

Put another way, the “self” may not be something intrinsic to the brain’s function, but something that is wired up in the environment (or not), depending on the circumstances. That is, it’s environmentally constructed. After all, the human brain is uniquely plastic, and, unlike most animals, does much of its “hardwiring” in the first twenty or so years of life outside the womb:

If we accept that the brain is teeming with agency, and thus uniquely hospitable to it, then we can model the self as something that emerges naturally in the course of the brain’s interactions with the world.

In other words, the self may be less of a feature of our brains (planned or designed by our genes), and more of a growth. Every normal human brain placed in the right environment — with sufficient autonomy and potential for social interaction — will grow a self-agent. But if the brain or environment is abnormal or wrong (somehow) or simply different, the self may not turn out as expected.

Imagine a girl raised from infancy in the complete absence of socializing/civilizing contact with other people. The resulting adult will almost certainly have a self concept, e.g., will be able to recognize herself in the mirror. But without language, norms, shame, and social punishment, the agent(s) at the top of her brain hierarchy will certainly not serve a social/PR role. She’ll have no ‘face’, no persona. She’ll be an intelligent creature, yes, but not a person.

Neurons Gone Wild (Melting Asphalt)

A real-world example is that of Helen Keller:

Another way to think of this is to imagine what would be in our heads without language. What would be left of you, had you no language with which to express your experience to yourself? I suggest no “you” at all, beyond the immediacy of existence. In this respect, it is instructive to recall Helen Keller’s words in her essay Before the Soul Dawn:

“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.”

“I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.”

And her awakening upon beginning to know language, when she first appreciated the relationship between a finger-movement against her palm and the idea of ‘water’:

“That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought.”

(As an aside, notice here the striking contrast between the non-world of conscious unconsciousness first described and the bounding, fulsome world of metaphor that springs forth in that final paragraph).

Julian Jaynes and the Analog “I” (Science Philosophy Chat Forums)

In this way, the “self” takes on a structure that depends on (and reflects) the environment it was raised in. Perhaps auditory hallucinations and split personalities are something like vestigial behaviors such as goosebumps, or the palmar grasp reflex, that were part of our brain’s deep evolution. Their manifestation (or lack thereof) depends on the particular environment, genetics, and certain complex personality dispositions.

This presents tantalizing connections with the work of a long-forgotten Soviet psychologist named Lev Vygotsky. He work was eventually suppressed and forgotten in the West until the 1980’s according the Aeon article above. Therefore, Jaynes may not have heard of it. But one wonders whether he could have incorporated Vygotsky’s ideas on the inner voice being a product of the environment into his research:

Lev Vygotsky…said the human mind was shaped by social activity and culture, beginning in childhood. The self, he hypothesised, was forged in what he called the ‘zone of proximal development’, the cognitive territory just beyond reach and impossible to tackle without some help. Children build learning partnerships with adults to master a skill in the zone, said Vygotsky, then go off on their own, speaking aloud to replace the voice of the adult, now gone from the scene. As mastery increases, this ‘self-talk’ becomes internalised and then increasingly muted until it is mostly silent – still part of the ongoing dialogue with oneself, but more intimate and no longer pronounced to the world. This voice – at first uttered aloud but finally only internal – was, from Vygotsky’s perspective, the engine of development and consciousness itself.

The Inner Voice (Aeon)

So is the “integrated self,” with its inner voice simply a bunch of neurons firing in the brain, or is it a product of particular environmental circumstances? And did it emerge as the dominant mental paradigm fairly recently in recorded history, perhaps as recently as the Bronze Age? And, prior to that, was our inner voice considered to be a numinous experience by ancient peoples, one that they related to the only way they could (because of theory of mind)–as another sort of living being (daemons, manes, spirits, angels, jinn, elves, and so forth)?

We’ll be considering that next time. But, before that, we need to consider what we talk about when we talk about consciousness.

Snow Day

I came across an older episode of Tangentially Speaking on my computer, so I’ll lazily recycle Chris Ryan’s words:

[8:16] “Thank you to all of you who wrote to me expressing your opinions and your encouragement and your hesitations and everything else after the intro to the last episode where I talked about the conundrum and the conflicts that I’m feeling about this project. It is so cool, really. Really, it’s so cool for people to be writing to me from, you know, dropping out of the sky and expressing your support and your concern. I feel like I’ve got so many friends that I haven’t met, and that’s a wonderful, beautiful feeling to have. So I really–thank you for that.”

And I echo his sentiments. Thank you for all your letters of support and encouragement.

Right now, we’ve just been hit with another snowstorm; this one has already dumped well over a foot based on when I walked out my door. I’m at Hi-Fi Cafe right now, but I have a long afternoon of shoveling when I get home, and somehow figuring out how to shovel out my mom’s house as well. On a lighter note, I’m apparently officially their most dedicated customer:

At the moment I’m just enjoying the time off and not having to commute across town in blizzard conditions. I’ve really got to get out of here. Some of you who wrote to me are Milwaukeeans/ex-Milwaukeeans/Wisconisinites etc. Wherever you are, take care. Honestly, I don’t know how you (we) do it anymore.

My internet is now restored, so I’ll have time to respond to all of you hopefully over the rest of the week. Before I do anything, I’ve got to close out my mother’s estate, which is still a ton of work, even a over year later. It also means selling the house. I have no idea how to do that, but I want to do it as economically as possible since I’ll probably have to live on the proceeds. Right now I’m looking at For Sale by Owner. But with the epic weather we’ve been experiencing (which seems to happen every year now), it will most likely be Spring before I can realistically even think of hitting the road to anywhere (When I say ‘Spring’ I mean on the calendar—Wisconsin has no true spring. It goes from cloudy and 30-40 degrees to 70’s and sunny sometime around late May/Early June. Those of you who live here will know what I’m talking about).

I’ve got some thoughts loosely based on a post I wrote on Ran Prieur’s subreddit, which I see he has addressed on his site. I should get that up soon. Incidentally, would anybody be interested in a r/hipcriminals subReddit for discussion of posts?

I’ve also seen a couple of articles on the 200th birthday of John Ruskin, whose thoughts, as I learn more about them, echo my own in many of ways. So here’s a quote that’s apt for clearing out an estate. Turns out, getting rid of everything you own is surprisingly *hard*:

“Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.”

Happy 200th birthday, John Ruskin (Lloyd Alter, Treehugger)

Was Ruskin the most important man of the last 200 years? (BBC)

Apparently, the new Marie Kondo television program has got people saying goodbye to their possessions and giving them away to thrift stores en masse. This is leading to a massive glut, which I’ve definitely noticed myself. Consignment stores are throwing in the towel left and right and often going out of business entirely. Antique stores are flooded and have signs outside their stores stating that they won’t buy anything from anyone, ever. Even thrift stores are becoming reluctant to take more stuff. The antiques my mom collected are now practically worthless and tough to get rid of. Not great for me right now, but great for changing social mores away from overconsumption.

Why are antiques now so cheap? (Marginal Revolution)

Related, this comments thread on Naked Capitalism:

This article reminded me of another trend but that is more long term. We had to move my mother out of her unit not that long ago as she was too old to stay there and had already broken her hip and had to wait until somebody checked on her to find her.
We had to get rid of most of her stuff as she could not take it to the nursing home she was moving to. A lot of the smaller goods and trinkets we took to charity shops and I saw how the shelves were almost overflowing with such good quality things. And I mean good quality stuff.
It then occurred to me that nearly all her generation was either passing away or downgrading or moving to a retirement home to live. As these people had to downsize in any case, or had family having to get rid of their things, a lot of this stuff was going to such charity shops which explained possibly why there was so much stuff there. As the baby-boomers age even more, I would expect the tempo to increase here.
The very same mechanism is driving the collectibles market in a downwards spiral of too much inventory coming on the market as baby boomers and their parents downsize, while millennials could care less about the debris field they leave behind, they aren’t into it.
More and more of that stuff will end up in landfills since fewer and fewer in the generations after the Baby Boomers have the 3-level homes to house all that shit. 2 bedroom apartments if they’re lucky, or 1 small room in a motel. Or homeless. As George Carlin said, “Houses are containers for holding crap,” and millennials won’t be buying those 3-level, crap-holders.
One of my siblings is a major hoarder (real problem), who also sells antiques and used items in a number of different stores in their area (western PA). The three stores where they work are LOADED to the gills, and I regularly hear tales of lots of “looking” but not much buying.
Indeed, it’s true that as the older generation – now mainly the Korean War gang – moves into retirement/nursing homes, they are purging their stuff, and the boomers aren’t far behind.
What is this ongoing trend going to do to Target and other retailers of cheap Chinese crap as well as clothing sales? It’s got to hurt them. Not only are younger people buying less, but now they have all this almost free higher quality stuff available.

Links 2/7/19 (Naked Capitalism)

The things you find in the time capsule:

Yep, once upon a time women were terrified of being too skinny and looking for ways to help them put put on weight. Then we discovered putting sugar in everything. Now our magic beans do other things.

Postscript: a lot of you who wrote to me are dealing with various health conditions. I was in a very serious relationship with a woman who had severe Fibromyaligia—to the point where she was basically disabled. So I have some idea what it’s like. I’m glad I could provide you with some distraction and food for thought. Take care.

P.P.S:A few of you mentioned Morris Berman’s writings. Funny enough, not only have I followed Morris Berman’s blog and read a number of his books, he was actually one of the first commenters to this very blog! All the way back in 2011, shortly after I first started working on the hipCrime Vocab, I wrote a 9-part series called Is Japan the Future?. I posted link to it on http://morrisberman.blogspot.com/. Berman was actually working on a book about Japan at the time (which has since been published), and wrote to me encouraging me to publish what I wrote in book form. It was very kind of him to do so, especially given that I’m essentially nobody. I know he’s moved to Mexico and seems to like it there.

Also, some people suggested teaching English abroad. I’ve actually contemplated that idea before. A few years ago I visited WESLI in Madison. Anyone have any experience/thoughts on their program? Thanks.

My Life as a Statistic

“The life of a man is a struggle for existence with the certainty of defeat.” -Arthur Schopenhauer.

This will be very, very hard and very personal post to write, so you may want to skip this one. It’s also going to pretty long. Okay, you’ve been warned.

Why is it so hard?

I’ve alluded a few times to how awful the past few years have been for me, so I thought I might as well briefly share what has happened to me; Kind of a last will and testament, if you will.

Grandparents’ wedding day photo

Around 2015, as I have mentioned before, after spending more than ten years at the same architectural firm, I was given a “poison pill” job. After that I started getting called into HR repeatedly and given vague warnings about my performance and “attitude” (although very little in the way of specifics). I was placed on a humiliating “performance plan,” where I would have to report weekly and grovel before slimy sociopaths who made my skin crawl. I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I quit.

Well, you know, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.

That was almost exactly the same time my mom was first diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Now, I have no other family. My absentee deadbeat dad passed away a long time ago. I have no brothers or sisters. My mother’s brother lives in New Jersey and could not care less whether his godson were alive or dead (we’ve only communicated briefly my whole life). He and his wife (a university math professor) are retired have no children. They spend most of their time sailing on their 40-foot yacht. He’s the stereotypical baby Boomer to a T- recipient of a nearly free university education that could easily be paid for by working a summer job (1960’s), graduated into a red-hot job market ( early 1970’s), and invested in East-Coast real estate (late 70’s-early 80’s) before the prices for houses on the coasts went stratospheric. He has openly stated that only reason he will vote for a political candidate is whether they will lower his personal taxes—nothing else matters.

Mom and uncle as children

I also have one sole cousin who lives in Ankeny Iowa, but she will come into our story a bit later. Growing up, I had almost no contact with my father’s side of the family, except for the awkward and tense occasional visits to LaCrosse now and then with my dad.

I had nowhere to go at that time. With only a four-year degree and no way to just spend 2-3 years with no income whatsoever, graduate school was out of the question. Besides, it takes years just to get accepted. Plus, I wasn’t particularly interested in running up at least $70,000 more of nondischargeable debt in my 40’s—I’d be paying it back for practically the rest of my life. As I’ve mentioned before, it is de facto impossible to become an architect in this country without significant parental wealth. The same is becoming true for most of the “skilled” professions—you know, the ones we are all supposed to acquire right away with our own resources so as to not get replaced by machines and AI.

I could tell stories about the staggering wealth of some of my coworkers and their families over the years at various firms. (Okay, just one: one of our school interns’ dads paid for a vacation for a week to Hawaii because, hey, why not?). Scholarships aren’t available for people like me, and part-time and night school aren’t options. I need to support myself constantly, or I’m homeless or dead. Because, freedom, or something?

Grandpa T.’s mother and father – Otto and Emilie. Grandpa is dressed in customary girl’s clothes of the time in the lower left.

Another issue is that I could see just how utterly miserable the people above me were. You know the stereotype—working crushing hours, constantly putting out fires, sending emails at 10:00PM at night, unable to take a vacation for fear of being buried upon returning to work, “laptop on the beach” syndrome, never being off the clock, etc. Architecture project management is truly one of the most miserable and thankless tasks on the planet (especially considering the pay). This paragraph from an article struck me as familiar (just replace ‘writing staff’ with ‘architectural staff’, and “content to harvest” with “work to do”):

At the contemporary office (or “co-working space”), you are your own taskmaster. You and your colleagues are not members of a collective, but a competitive market. I found this out slowly, after mistakenly assuming I was not under scrutiny. Yet no matter how hard I tried, how much earlier I came in, at least half the writing staff would be there before me. There was too much content to harvest for anyone to get away with sleeping in. Even more alarmingly, no matter how late I forced myself to stay, I was never the last one to leave.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying (Popula)

Mom at 6 weeks old with grandpa and grandma. My grandpa died of a stroke long before I was born; I never met him.

And so I asked myself, do I really want that? For what? It’s not like I had kids to put through college, after all. I did not want to insert the final brick into the wall of my cubicle prison. Unfortunately, like most places today, it had become an “up-or-out” type of firm. You were either moving up, or you were moving out. And I clearly didn’t have what it took to move up, even had I wanted to. But I needed to do something.

Now, I was always fairly good with computers and took a large number of comp-sci courses at university, which I enjoyed, so I signed up for a newly opened coding bootcamp in my city in the hopes of transitioning to a job with more demand and geographical mobility. I’ve sure you’ve seen these springing up all over the place, especially if you live in a big city in the U.S. I was able to take the same bus I had taken to work to get there.

Great-grandma Priebe. This tough old German bird pumped out ten kids, including my grandmother!

I’m not sure what to make of it. You could call it a ‘scam’, and maybe you’re right. But I had literally no other options, and nowhere else to go. Given my mother’s recent diagnosis, the timing was far from optimal, to put it mildly. I paid $15,000 out of pocket. I could sure use that money back now.

Mom age 7, I think.

People came from very different backgrounds. A good number were people who were fairly recently out of college and had majored in something “impractical” (e.g history, marketing, etc.). These were usually the smartest cookies. Some had little formal schooling–perhaps some community college or trade school–and they were the stereotypical “living in mom’s basement playing computer games” folks. Some were older and stuck in dead-end professions they didn’t like, such as sales, insurance, marketing, etc. Some were bartenders or sandwich artists. Suffice it to say, I was one of the few who had had an entire other “career” in an unrelated profession, and was the only licensed architect.

Grandma and grandpa posing with classic cars. Old school cool.

That was from October 2016 to February, 2017 five days a week. After finishing with that, I hit the job trail with my slim Github account, and a few web programs written in C# and JavaScript.

Grandma with a dog apparently called “rags”

At the time, my mom was doing fairly well. She was being treated with drugs instead of chemotherapy, and was responding well to treatment. The her wide circle of friends was able to take her to her doctor’s appointments. My mom, being the stereotypical mom, did not want to trouble me with her problems. She was still physically active, and betrayed no obvious outward signs of being ill. She did need to have stents replaced in her kidneys every three months to keep them functioning. She also had routine cataract surgery.

Grandpa’s brother Herbert fought in Europe during the War. I was told he was at the Battle of the Bulge.

Now, there were, of course, some people from my graduating “class” who ended up with jobs. So I don’t want to say it didn’t work out for everyone. But I was not so lucky.

It seemed the demand for entry-level programmers was highly overstated, at least in Southeastern Wisconsin. I endured a few execrable job interviews, which were few and far between. A few times, they would even force you take quizzes. The business were usually located far, far out in the distant cornfields surrounding the city, in nondescript office parks. Many of these companies seemed like awful places to work, based on the vibe. Office Space hardly seemed a parody. I won’t bore you with the horror stories.

Mom in the center, looking ready to star in Mad Men. This is where I get my height from.

But, of course, this is America, and anyone who doesn’t have a job just didn’t try hard enough and has only themselves to blame. Right?

…Or they’re lazy or hooked on drugs, right? I’ve been working nonstop since I was 16 years old, with hardly a vacation in all that time. And Ibuprofen and the occasion glass of wine is about as hard as my drug use gets (save that single Ayahuasca trip in Topanga).

Anyway, I was eventually contacted by some technical staffing firms. This was 2016, and the job freeze was starting to thaw a little. I endured another round of excruciating and humiliating job interviews at a number of firms. The begging for jobs, and the aggressive interrogation one receives in any interview makes me a little reluctant to embrace the “plenty of jobs” narrative. I constantly had to think of responses to the inevitable grilling of why someone with an architect’s license wanted to be a programmer. If I interviewed for architecture jobs, however, they wanted to know why I quit my last firm, and what the hell I had been doing for the past six months. In any interview, the “default” is: we don’t want you.

I just couldn’t win, it seemed.

My first portrait. Pretty much the exact moment when life started going downhill for me. You can see how thrilled I already am at the supposed “gift” of life.

After a long period of no work (remember, I quit and so received no unemployment benefits during this time period and my money was running out), I finally found a job in Third Ward, just down the street from my old firm (literally). I can’t say the name, of course. But my role was essentially as a Revit/BIM specialist. This particular company had a manufacturing plant where they fabricated the interior fixtures for restaurants. I won’t mention their biggest client, but here’s a hint—think golden arches. They had a large library of 3D Revit objects, which they used to do the layouts. My job was to maintain and extend this library and the associated templates.

Now, I was a temp, which means I could be let go at any time. I had no holiday pay, no vacation time, and no health insurance, despite putting in the same amount of hours and working as hard as anyone else. Fun fact: my supervisor, a grizzled, taciturn fellow in his fifties who had been in the same job since forever, guzzled a dozen Mountain Dews every single morning before lunch (I’m being absolutely dead serious here—I’m not exaggerating!). He had a mountain of tin cans beside his desk.

My dad’s parents inspecting their grandson. My grandmother died when I was 2; I never knew her. My grandfather later remarried. I never had much contact with them.

Nevertheless, I did have a job and a steady paycheck at least. I didn’t really like the job, but it paid the bills. I tried to rebuild my shattered life (and my depleted savings account). I even found myself in a pretty happy romantic relationship starting in August of that year.

My mother’s condition worsened significantly throughout 2017. She had been doing well. Her cancer was in remission. But cancer has a way of coming back. She started experiencing headaches. Then came the double vision. Then trouble walking. This severely limited her activity level.

Now, my mom had always been very physically active, and had hardly seen a doctor her whole life before this. Her inactivity was really torturing her psychologically. She complained constantly that all she could do was sit in a chair all day (which some old people actually seem to like). She actually enjoyed gardening and doing yardwork, and was very unhappy about not being physically able to do those things. She was not into reading or any intellectual pursuits, so a lot of passive activities were out. For her, mowing the lawn and pulling the weeds was a privilege and not a chore (as it is for me.)

The doctors could not determine the cause of the double vision. Initially, they thought that the cancer had spread to the brain, and that was the cause. But subsequent MRI scans showed no sings of cancer in the brain. Then they thought maybe it was pressure from the bones of the skull on the optic nerve. When it comes right down to it, despite our impressive technology, it’s striking how little doctors know sometimes.

Every weekend I was splitting my time between taking care of her and the house and trying to spend time with my then girlfriend.

“Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere”

Them came December of 2017.

The first of the many terrible, awful, miserable, horrible Christmases to come.

After a trip back to her home over Thanksgiving (Savannah, Ga.), my girlfriend ended our relationship. At least she gave me a reason (unlike most others). She wanted a family and a typical American lifestyle—a mortgage in the suburbs, a child, a minivan, Sunday School and Church, and all the rest. She, too, was an only child, and her biological clock was not just ticking, but ringing. I never made it a secret in our relationship that I had no desire for any those things—for me, life is about simply surviving; it must be. So, it made sense, but it still hurt. I guess we probably never really belonged together, anyway. Still, it had been nice to have someone to talk to.

A few days later, I got cut loose from my job. The person who had held the position before me decided to come back to his old job, and they liked him a hell of a lot more than they did me. And so I was unemployed once again in the dead of winter, just in time for the Holidays.

By this time, my mom had become much more severely ill. The drug treatments were no longer working, and her doctor decided to discontinue them. Mom was very weak and could barely get out of bed. She was in severe pain. She couldn’t cook, so I had to bring her food. We were looking into in-home hospice care.

Mom and grandma. Being a single mother, my grandma did much of the work of raising me. They both loved flowers.

Now, you hear many stories about how fucked up the American health care system is, but when you are deep in the weeds, only then do realize how bad it really is. I’ll try and summarize this succinctly.

Thanks to the “opioid crisis” legislation signed by Mr. Trump, doctors can now no longer prescribe opioids without the patient physically coming in to see the doctor. Yet my mother was physically unable to leave the house! There was no way she could visit her doctor in person. Yet she needed her painkillers, without which she would be in constant, severe pain.

The only “solution” was to sign up for in-home hospice care, which was covered by Medicaid. Nurses would come into her home, and write the necessary prescriptions. But there was a snag. My mom had to have surgery to replace stents in her kidneys every three months or her kidneys would stop functioning. If her kidneys failed, of course, she would die. Yet, if we agreed to in-home hospice care, medicaid would no longer pay for the requisite kidney surgery!

I remember our last Christmas together. I had brought over a film starring her favorite actor, George Clooney–Hail Caesar! She told me it was the first time she had laughed in as long as she could remember.

The day after Christmas, December 26th, mom couldn’t get out of bed. Fortunately, I had stayed overnight. She told me to call an ambulance. We went to the hospital–West Allis Memorial Hospital, coincidentally the place where I was born. After several hours, she was released was moved to a hospice facility in Wauwatosa.

After a few days, she was upgraded from “acute care” meaning that she was technically not imminently dying, by the medical definition, at least. This meant she had to leave the hospice (which was only for the terminally ill), despite being unable to get out of bed. It also meant that Medicare was no longer paying for her stay, and so ,the hospice tab started running, which is approximately $9,000 dollars a month (or roughly $300 per day).

Probably the last time I genuinely smiled, captured om Kodak film. Note the Young and the Restless on the Teevee.

At times like these, survival mode kicks in. Without any job or income, I was now my mother’s full-time representative/guardian. My ‘job’ was to be in the hospice and run around taking care of all the legal, financial and medical issues (with no help whatsoever). One particular memory that sticks with me was sitting in the dead of winter in an empty hospital cafeteria watching a large hawk outside in the frigid parking lot snatch a small bird, and take the still living and struggling animal to the top of a lamppost to watch it slowly suffer and die. I couldn’t help but take it as an omen.

Obit anus, abit onus

Now here’s the catch with elder care. As a social worker confided to me, when it comes to long term health care in this country, you either have be either extremely rich or extremely poor, and nothing in between.

This because MEDICARE DOES NOT PAY FOR LONG TERM CARE. Read that fact again, and let it sink in. Yes, despite it being a health care program designed for the elderly, and with people living with acute and chronic diseases where they can’t take care of themselves for years at a time, Medicare does not pay a dime towards extended round-the-clock nursing care. Keep in mind, even the average long-term care facility in my relatively cheap part of the country costs in the neighborhood of  $100,000 per year. As you can imagine, an extended illness where an elderly person cannot take care of himself or herself for whatever reason (dementia, immobility, incontinence, etc.) could easily run into the millions of dollars. Very few people have that kind of money saved up and available. Most people have their “wealth” stored in their house, as my mom did.

Now, here’s another thing—a long term care facility will not take a patient unless they know exactly where the money is coming from upfront. That is, my mother could not be moved from the hospice to anywhere else unless there was a dedicated income stream upfront. And so she languished.

Bizarrely, Medicaid, the U.S. government’s health care program for the poor and destitute regardless of age, DOES cover long-term round-the-clock care. However, you must be utterly destitute. And when I say that, I mean DESTITUTE–you must have less than $1,000 to your name, or you do not qualify. Even my “poor” mom, who probably never made more than $35,000 her entire life, was considered too “rich” to qualify.

So the hospice financial advisors told me that I need to do a “spenddown” to make my mom “poor enough” to qualify for Medicaid. From my understanding, this is an extremely common and typical occurrence, as most people cannot pay such staggering costs upfront. When one has too much money in any savings or checking account (i.e. is not utterly destitute), that money needs to be gotten rid of, and quickly. Retirement assets are not counted, nor is housing equity, but there is a catch, which you will soon see.

Modeling 1970s fashions.

I used the money to pay off all the credit cards, and had the bank put the remaining money towards paying off what was left of the mortgage.

Yes, despite inheriting the house from the my grandmother, my uncle insisted he get his share of the house, despite already owning multiple properties on the East Coast. My mother was just a secretary and single mom with a kid to pay for. Plus, she took care of my grandmother when she was sick, since my uncle lived on the East coast and only flew in on occasion. None of it mattered. He insisted he get his half of the house, forcing my mom to take out a mortgage to pay him off. That mortgage is still on the books.

On the East Coast with my uncle and his ex-wife looking thrilled to babysit their idiot nephew

The other thing about Medicaid is that it’s really more of a loan than any true kind socialized insurance. What that means is Medicaid has a number of aggressive “clawbacks” that it takes to reclaim every red cent paid by the State (which administers it) for the recipient’s care. So, for example, even though one’s house isn’t included as a liquid asset for the purpose of the “spenddown,” if and when the house is ever sold, the State (Wisconsin) will come after every penny it is owed in Medicaid expenses. The same is true for any of the estate’s assets—Social Security, retirement funds, etc. If any part of the estate becomes liquid, it will be immediately seized by the courts. As I mentioned, just a single year stay in an assisted care facility can easily cost in excess of $100,000. So a two-year stay would cost far, far in excess of what most houses in the country are worth, including my mom’s. In other words, the estate would be utterly bankrupt (insolvent).

So if you think that the wealth amassed by the Baby Boomer generation will be passed down to the next generation (which I sometimes hear occasionally), and that this will cure our economic ills, I can assure you from personal experience that you are probably mistaken. Given how long the elderly are living with chronic conditions nowadays, and how common that is, I suspect that in actuality a huge portion of the Baby Boomers’ wealth will end up in the coffers of the State/medical insurance complex, preventing the lion’s share of that wealth from ever being passed down to future generations—generations that are already far poorer than their parents and grandparents and dealing with massive levels of debt. The macroeconomic implications of this are not being discussed anywhere, as far as I can tell (have you heard this stuff I’ve told you talked about in any media outlet??)

Lite-Brite, Lite-Brite, the magical things you can do with light! Note the awful interior decoration.

Anyway, back to our story.

While I was running ragged trying to take care of all this stuff in the dead of winter, Mom was now heavily drugged most of the time to ease the agonizing pain of the cancer that had now spread to her bones. Panicked and scared, she became paranoid and accused the nurses of trying to kill her with drugs. She accused them of making her weaker, but of course it was the disease. I received calls from exasperated nurses at all hours of the day and night because she refused to take her medications. I had to try and reassure her as best I could, even though she was not capable of thinking rationally at this point. Often mom wanted me to stay overnight at the hospice, but I really didn’t want to do that, as I would just be in the caregivers’ way. And besides, I needed the rest.

(Parenthetically, in order to kill time in the hospice, I made use of their library. There was one book in particular that offered some comfort, and I can highly recommend it, whether or not you are facing the imminent death of loved one. It’s called In the Face of Death by Peter Noll.)

I did spend most days in the hospice, though, to the point where it became like a second home to me. After all, I had no job and nowhere else to go! With no other friends or family to rely on, or even to tell my problems to, I had to take care of everything myself. I won’t bore you with all the pettifogging details of legal and financial struggles during this time, though there were plenty of them on a literal daily basis. Honestly, the entire time is now a blur. I was exhausted, gallivanting all over gray and frigid southeastern Wisconsin from dawn till dusk. I informed several of my mom’s friends who had helped take care of her, and they came out to visit occasionally. How much longer did she have? Doctors couldn’t tell me. It could be years or weeks. Or anything in between.

By the time I had finally completed the exhausting task of this “spenddown,” and seeing to all the other related legal and financial matters, it was the nearing the end of January. But by then it was too late. I could see that she was getting weaker by the day. The doctors agreed, and upgraded her condition to “officially” terminal, meaning that a hospice was now the appropriate place for her. There would be no move. The Medicare insurance kicked back in, (it does cover hospice care). At the Tuesday morning meeting with the doctor and nurses, they informed me that it was now a matter of days, perhaps a week at the most.

If you don’t know what happens when people are on the very brink of death, here it is—they stop eating, and they often lose the ability to speak. Indeed, there are no poetic “last words” in modern dying: there are often no words at all. The nurses assured me that she could still hear me. Who knows? I said what reassurance I could. But what can you say at a time like that?

January 31, 2018 my mother’s life finally came to end, just over one month after she went into the hospice. They ask if you want to go into the room and spend some time with the now lifeless body. At this point, my mom had shrunk to just skin and bones. One thing I’ll never forget is they gray pallor of the skin. The unearthly ashen color still haunts me to this day. I didn’t have any desire to look at this empty, withered shell; this grotesque caricature of a formerly living being. Finally, at long last, the suffering was over. Relief, and then guilt at one’s own relief, seems to be the universal response to such events.

Now you know why I was so excited about this year’s World Series run.

Since she had been initially diagnosed several years earlier, my mother had made the necessary arrangements for her final internment—cremation, and a slot in the mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery here on the south side of Milwaukee. My grandparents are interred elsewhere in this park. I’m sure you’re aware of just how expensive it is to die in modern America—even an urn costs a fortune! I paid for it out of pocket (despite being unemployed). My mom was adamant that she wanted the simplest, plainest, most unassuming memorial possible, and absolutely no formal funeral, either in a church or a funeral home. If you’ve been fortunate enough to never dealt with the funeral industry, I can inform you that they will do their absolute best to upsell you everything they possibly can (with the requisite sympathy, of course). After all, you’re extremely emotionally vulnerable at this point in your life, and they know it. So you are easy mark. Even death is not safe from hypercapitalism in America. Luckily, my mom was a “no frills” type of person. Besides, our entire family was now pretty much gone by that point.

They day before my mom died I had a job interview with another tech placement firm. I interviewed at a few places. One of them offered me a job. They wanted me to start right way. It would be on Valentine’s Day, just after my mom’s memorial service.

Around this time, I decided to visit a psychiatrist. While my mom was alive, I knew I couldn’t kill myself because she depended on me for so much. It would devastate her. But now, hell, why not? Is it normal to spend your days constantly thinking about how you’d “rather not be here?” Probably not. The doctor put me on antidepressants. While some of the acute urge to die faded, I still can’t say that I’m particular happy. Every day, I wish I didn’t have to get up and face another day. I still rather wish I weren’t here.

High School yearbook photo–Bay View High School.’61, I think? Richie, Potsie and Ralph were a few classes ahead.

On a chilly February day in 2018, about twenty of mom’s friends and coworkers from the Milwaukee Country Transit System—where she had worked in a tiny cubicle for nearly 50 years—gathered outside in the cemetery to pay their final respects. My now ex-girlfriend was kind enough to come out for support. People said some kind words. I gave a short speech, which I can’t remember now but I hope was sufficient for the occasion. And then it was over. All except for the cleanup, of course.

It was at this time I was contacted by my dad’s cousin, who lives in the Minneapolis area. My cousin Joan had been diagnosed with state 4 cancer. It was lung cancer, and apparently, it is very common for lung cancer to spread to the brain, which hers had. The prognosis was not great. She was 60.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

“In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World”

My parents divorced, I think in 1980.

One of the very few times my dad was even around. Christmas, year unknown.

I remember the day I finally severed all contact with my father. I was at a friend’s house playing an RPG (yes I was/am a nerd). I received a panicked call from my mom. My dad was in jail again—he had crashed a motorcycle and claimed that I was the driver (which I was not, of course). That was the kind of shit that happened on a pretty regular basis. Dad had spent most of his time in jails and hospitals, and the spare bedrooms of his sympathetic friends.

What went wrong? Most people simply assume it was alcoholism, because this is Wisconsin, after all. But I never saw my dad drink. No, whatever was wrong, it was something else—mental illness, chronic lead poising, schizophrenia, who the hell knows? It certainly wasn’t raw intelligence—he was a member of MENSA, a mathematics whiz, fluent in two languages, and had several engineering degrees from MSOE (which is why he had moved here in the first place). No, IQ does not always equal success. Perhaps the old genius/insanity dichotomy.

Probably the saddest and most heartbreaking thing I found while cleaning out the house was my mom’s diary from 1979, detailing her disintegrating marriage. I found it among the piles and piles of stuff long hidden away. It brought back a lot of repressed memories for me. Here are some selected entries. Read it and weep, as they say:

Friday, May 18th:
Don late for work @ WOKY and angry because wrong part for motorcycle. I took car to get new belts – needs alternator. Mom’s ring not in at Gimbels. Shopped for groceries.

Monday, May 21st:
Worked Claim. Chad home from school. Don angry again that he had to babysit Chad all day and furiously violent. He supposedly had lots to do to prepare for his trip on Wed. – in other words, Chad was a burden to him.

Tuesday, May 22nd:
Worked Claim. Sent Chad to school sick as Don wouldn’t babysit. Was so worried all day. Came home – Don argued some more about how Chad won’t leave him alone. Don wanted to watch TV & yelled and yelled at Chad.

Wednesday, May 23rd:
I had a good day. Shopped in A.M. and got coat for wedding. Don played with motorcycle till 2PM – then left for LAX – or wherever? He gave me card and awful geranium for our anniversary. “Happy anniversary, Irene.”

Thursday, May 24th:
Had a good day till noon. Got 20% off on coat I bought Wed. and bought another coat–London Fog–saved $60.00 on both coats. When picking up Chad – teacher angry with me and Chad because Chad cries; won’t conform. I was so upset I cried, and he came out of school in tears. Mrs. W. is unreasonable. Called Carol, mom & K. said not to trust her.

Friday May 25th:
Had a good day! Washed. Chad did as his teacher told him but had problems with a magic trick which made him cry. Mrs. W. hates crying. I told Chad to forget school and we’d enjoy 3 days. Only 3 more days of school – thank goodness! If next year follows this year in school, I’ll leave the church and school.

Thursday, May 31st:
Chad’s last day of school. Chad’s graduation at night from Kindergarten – I was nervous. He was only one not to kiss teacher. Don came to church 10 minutes late and put motorcycle on sidewalk. We left early.

Friday, June 8th:
I asked Don if he’s planning another trip – he’s been so nice. He got angry and said I was being sarcastic but didn’t deny anything except he won’t change oil again in car. Everything has a $ sign on it – it’s so disgusting. Why can’t he just be nice to be nice – instead of difficult?

Saturday, June 9th:
Wrote thank-you’s and L & I. Joyce called. Ken agreed to divorce settlement. Final 6-14. I’m so happy everything went well for her and she’s happy too. I wish I had the courage she has!

Some of the last entries recorded in the diary:

Saturday June 23:
I left for 2 hours with K. Don beat Chad with belt. I am so sad I left Chad knowing Don was in a bad mood. If he ever beats Chad again I’ll leave. When I come home at 10:30 he left to go to his boss’s wedding, which he never told me about.

Sunday June 24:
It’s pretty bad when I can’t leave Chad with his father for fear his father will beat him. How much longer can I go on?

So it goes. That ought to give you a general flavor of my childhood. But I’m sure it’s all my fault somehow…

My dad was semi-homeless and working as a motorcycle mechanic here in Milwaukee when he collapsed one day, and was rushed to a hospital. He had no health insurance, so by this time his entire body was riddled with incurable lung cancer. He want into a coma almost immediately as his body shut down. He lasted not even a week before succumbing. Thankfully, because he was veteran of the U.S. army, the Veterans Administration took care of all the medical expenses and burial. He is buried in the Southeastern Wisconsin military cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin. I have never visited.

Here’s the wonderful inheritance I received:

A bit less than Donald Trump’s “small loan” of a million dollars, n’est-ce pas? It also makes it kind of hard to follow Mitt Romney’s advice. I guess I’ll just have to bootstrap harder.

I remember another family member a few years back who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, decided not to seek any treatment. Like an unusually large number of my family members, she had no spouse or children. She worked a variety of jobs, including as a car salesman (I once bought a car from her) and a real estate agent (her final job). After I bought my house she cut off all contact. Mom thinks it was because I didn’t buy it from her (circumstances didn’t allow it). The reason she gave for the lack of any effort to fight the cancer was that “she didn’t want to outlive her money.” She was in her late fifties, I think. My family in a nutshell. So it goes.

The following spring, a cardinal repeatedly rapped on my window every morning as I was getting ready for work. I later found out that cardinals were supposedly signs of departed loved ones vising you according to Native American folklore, or something. Of course, I’m sure he just saw his reflection in my window and thought it was a rival male. I even managed to capture his agitation on video:


The next week I stated my job at the new architecture firm—a “real” job with a salary and benefits. Ironically, it was not far from where the hospice was located. It seemed like a (sort of) happy ending, but as you’ll soon see it was anything but. For me, there are no happy endings.

You know the drill when you get hired—in addition to the W-2 forms and proof of citizenship they require to designate an emergency contact and beneficiary for the CYA insurance policy they take out on you. I had to assure them that there was literally no one to identify in either of those roles. I had to really fight to convince them that, yes, I have no other family or friends capable of that role. This, of course, was unheard of to them. I guess I really am special.

Shortly thereafter, my my dad’s sister Jane (my cousin’s mother), went into the hospital, and died within a few days. My cousin and her family had to arrange the funeral and deal with the accompanying mess in the midst of beginning her aggressive brain cancer treatments.

My only cousin Joan, old school cool. Courtesy Facebook. Hopefully she won’t mind.

My cousin was not even raised by her mother, in fact, but rather her (our) grandparents. My dad’s sister had spent much of her wasted youth getting drunk in bars and shacking up with various assorted violent and alcoholic criminals (my cousin’s father is, in fact, a convicted murderer. She never met him). Abortion was illegal back then, and besides, that side of the family is very Catholic. And so, Joan only returned to Des Moines from LaCrosse when she was 18. She jokes that she was “raised by wolves,” or else that she raised herself, and that’s essentially true. By this time, her mother was repeatedly strung out on various drugs. For most of her life, she has taken care of her mother rather than the other way around.

My cousin’s cancer continued to worsen and spread over 2018. Thankfully, unlike me, she has a huge support network. She has two daughters in in their thirties from two previous relationships (they have different fathers). Both of them are happily married to husbands with good careers and have several kids of their own. Her husband Gary, has a large and colorful family, including six kids of his own from his previous marriage. Those kids are a mixed bag–some are rather troubled, others not. His twin daughters and their families are the most stable and consistent visitors. Between the two of them, they have something like twenty grandchildren. Add to that all the various friends and neighbors.

So I guess some small branch of the family will continue. Our surname, however, dies with me.

Despite my dad’s many problems, my father’s side of the family has been far more welcoming and friendly than my mom’s ever was, despite me having hardly any contact with them until I was in my late thirties (maybe that’s because they’re the Catholic side, LoL). Two things I always liked visiting Joan: She was one of the only people who understood how messed up our family was. There was no need to obfuscate or hide anything, so I could speak openly to someone who could relate. And we shared the same dry, cynical sense of humor.

My ex-girlfriend’s company folded in a very public bankruptcy in 2018 that the employees all knew was coming for some time. Thus, I have a little bit of insider knowledge of the so-called “retail apocalypse” (it was a major retail department store chain headquartered in Milwaukee). After a short job search, a former coworker recommended her for a position at a major Southern retailer in beautiful, sunny Bradenton, Florida. The company paid for her move, and set her up in a spacious corporate condominium with a swimming pool right on the beach, where I’m told the tropical sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are quite stunning (despite the smelly red tide this year). She really likes it, and it sounds like paradise. So there IS a happy ending after all—just not for me. I’m sure she’ll find someone who has been successful in life with whom she will be able to have the white picket-fence lifestyle she has envisioned for herself in such detail.

Meanwhile, I hoped to visit my cousin, since I didn’t know how much time she had left. But given the fact that her treatments essentially wiped her out for weeks at a time, I had to make sure I wouldn’t get in the way. I was finally able to arrange a visit over Labor Day, 2018. I had arranged it through her husband, who was her caregiver, so it was a surprise. Joan seemed fairly lucid, despite clearly showing outward physical signs of the disease. She told me she was throwing a “half-birthday” party the next month. What else do you do when you don’t know whether or not you will live to see your next birthday? Suffice it say, my cousin loves life far more than I do.

So I drove back to Iowa the following month, and it was a pretty impressive turnout. This time, however, I could see that she was much more “out of it.” She was now undergoing aggressive radiation treatment for brain cancer. She had poor balance, and had fallen down the stairs a few weeks earlier. The treatment was taking a heavy toll on her, and her entire family. I stayed with my second cousin Kate, and we talked about what she and the family were going through. I shared my own perspective, having just gone through something similar. Fun fact: Kate actually makes a living by blogging! Not so fun fact: her husband, also named Chad, was recently diagnosed with the early stages of MS.

The next day about 20 of us went out for breakfast where the party was held the previous afternoon – Fletcher’s restaurant in Ankeny if you’re ever in the neighborhood. The breakfast buffet is quite impressive.


In May 1846 at the height of the ‘taming of the Wild West’ and gold fever, the intrepid colonists of the Donner Party set out from Little Sandy River in Wyoming on the last stage of a long trek to California and a new life, a journey that had begun in Springfield, Illinois, more than a month before. Several untoward events – disorganisation at the start, some ill-advised routing, and attacks by Indians along the way – conspired to delay the party, which at its height numbered eighty-seven men, women and children. As a result, they reached the Sierra Nevada mountains, the jagged line of snow-covered peaks that barred their way west, much later than they had intended, just as winter began to close in.

Though they struggled on, they ended up trapped in the mountains by snowstorms at an entirely anonymous spot now known as Donner Pass. Here, they tried to sit out the winter. But since they had expected to be through the mountains well before winter set in, they had come unprepared. Their food gave out, and some even gave in to cannibalism. By the time a series of rescue parties arrived from California in February and March the following year, forty-one of the eighty-seven pioneers had died.

What makes these bald statistics interesting is who died and who survived. Disproportionately more people who travelled alone died, while the chances of surviving were much higher among those who had travelled as families. Frail grannies travelling with their families made it, but not the strapping young men travelling alone. It paid to be travelling with kith and kin.

A second example is provided by another of the iconic events in American folklore. When the Mayflower colonists set foot on the American mainland in 1620, they were ill prepared to face the harsh New England winter. They suffered from severe malnutrition, disease and lack of resources, and no fewer than fifty-three of the 103 colonists died in that first winter. But for the intervention and generosity of the local Indians, the colony would have died out completely. Again, mortality was highest among those who came alone, and lowest among those who came as families.

The issue is not so much that families rush around and help each other, though that is certainly true, but rather that there seems to be something enhancing about being with kin. Being surrounded by family somehow makes you more resilient than when you are simply with friends – however much you argue with them. This much is clear from two studies of childhood sickness and mortality, one the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the 1950s and the other on the Caribbean island of Dominica during the 1980s. In both cases, the amount of childhood illness and mortality experienced by a family was directly correlated with the size of its kinship network. Very young children in big families got sick less often, and were less likely to die. Again, this is not just because there are more people to rush around and do things in large families. Rather, it has something to do with just being in the centre of a web of interconnected relationships. Somehow, it makes you feel more secure and content, and better able to face the vagaries the world conspires to throw at you.

from “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?” by Robin Dunbar. pp. 39-41

Everything That Remains

“she no longer threw out anything, because everything might eventually come in handy: not even the cheese rinds or the foil on chocolates, with which she made silver balls to be sent to missions to ‘free a little black boy.'”
― Primo Levi,
The Periodic Table

Now, here’s another thing about my mother—she was a hoarder. Every nook and cranny was crammed with stuff. My grandmother, being a child of the Great Depression and growing up the child of impoverished immigrants, saved literally everything no matter how trivial, because it might be useful someday, and she passed that trait on to my mother who never, ever, threw anything out. You would not believe the stuff I found!. My mom also had the habit of never throwing any piece of paper away, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. Boxes and boxes are piled high with credit card statements, credit card offers (!), energy and water bills, bank statements, greeting cards, thank-you notes, letters, postcards, correspondence, old newspaper clippings, retail advertisements, coupons, and other scattered miscellany dating back to the 1960’s.

I think this was outlawed by the Geneva Protocol.

Thus, I was burdened with getting rid of several decades of accumulated crud. Words fail in conveying the sheer magnitude of the task that lay before me. In essence, I had two full-time jobs in 2018—one paid, the other not—and every fleeting snatch of free time that year was spent engaged in one job or the other. I feel like this entire year of my life was a write-off. There was no “me” time (save for occasionally writing this blog). Fun and recreation were a distant memory.

I printed up hundreds of flyers and went door-to-door in the neighborhood. The turnout for the few weekends of estate sales in June was pretty good. This was an “old fashioned” Milwaukee neighborhood where people spent their entire lives in the same spot, and it wasn’t at all unusual for neighbors to know each other for over 20 years, help each other out, etc. Many neighbors came over to buy stuff and offer condolences. Some of them had lived there since my grandparents were still alive. Many knew my mother. An empty-nest older couple from across the street took pity on me and helped me organize and run the sales, even donating some tables to help me out.

As people strolled though the house to shop, their typical reaction I got was usually the same—pity. They felt sorry at the magnitude of what I had to accomplish by myself and told me horror stories of their own experiences clearing out an elderly relative’s estate. To me, this indicated that I wasn’t just feeling sorry for myself—this really was an unusually gargantuan task. “I sure don’t envy you” was something I heard often in sympathetic tones.

Despite selling a ton of stuff over several exhausting summer weekends, it was still a drop in the proverbial bucket. Every week I filled up the garbage bins to the hilt. I hit up eBay to sell off my old toys that my mom insisted on saving because she thought taht they would be worth a lot of money someday. They weren’t worth a lot of money, but some of it was worth something. That’s fortunate, as I really need that money right now.

Just a bit of the swag I sold on eBay. Sorry, it’s already gone!

Let me tell you that once you’ve gone through this, you will realize just how empty buying and consumerism really is. Minimalism and decluttering will become a religious experience. “You can’t take it with you,” indeed.

Interestingly, if you’ve ever read the book by The MinimalistsEverything That Remains—the author of that book had a similar experience. While cleaning out his mother’s possessions after her death, he realized just how utterly futile it is to spend a lifetime accumulating stuff that all gets thrown out anyway. Like me, the author of that book was the child of a single mother growing up poor in the Rust Belt. Unlike me, he actually once had a wife and a successful and lucrative career. I still think Fight Club put it best, “The things you own end up owning you.”

I had to engage the services of a local attorney to arrange the probate proceedings. Even though my mother had a will and I was the sole heir, the probate proceedings are still a requirement. The bank filed a claim for the home equity loan, but that and the mortgage are the only claims.

[Estate planning tip: if your state allows for a “transfer on death deed”, (it’s quite recent and varies from state to state) and you are in line to inherit real estate property (especially if you are the sole heir), get that drawn up by an attorney right away. You’ll save a ton of hassle. Thank me later.]

Now, almost exactly a year later, nearly everything has been binned, sold, auctioned, put out on the curb, demolished, donated to any number of thrift stores, food banks and charities, burned, shredded, recycled, or otherwise disposed of. There are still many assorted items to deal with—an antique vanity, an old blender, a mahogany display case from Germany, etc. (anyone want these?). I am also getting rid of everything I own as well. No matter what happens, I’m not going to be needing them anymore.

Genuine mahogany hardwood. On wheels. Lockable with key. From Germany (allegedly). Only $500.00 cheap!

And finally, I must sell the house my grandparents built in 1940 for $3700—where they raised two children; where I spent all of my youthful summers; and where my mom spent the last 25 years of her life.

My mom asked me to do an architectural rendering of the house. In my defense, I didn’t have much to work with.

It’s an odd thing liquidating the legacy of two families. Of being the last. Of immanent extinction. At least I have plenty of fellow travelers in the natural world to contemplate. The photos you see here are all going to be destroyed eventually, along with everything else. Nothing but confetti and ashes. When I am done, there will be no record of my family ever having been here. What would my immigrant great-grandparents make of such an end? What would they think knowing that this country would chew up their descendants and spit them out without mercy? That I would be the last ever holder of our surname? I’m reminded of the Chinese term, guanggun, or “bare branches”. I sometimes wonder—would they do it all over again if they knew that it was all going to end this way?

Great-nana’s immigration papers. Anyone out there read German? I can see she sailed from Bremen but can’t make out her home province.

This might explain to readers just why I hold many beliefs that I do: fatalism, cynicism, philosophical pessimism, antinatatalism, and a profound sense of the tragic. It also explains how I can write so dispassionately about a future which is looking more and more grim by the day. I have no stake in it, whatsoever. I simply observe, and have no reason to be unduly optimistic (or pessimistic, for that matter). Things are neither good nor bad, they just are. I never wanted anything more than a tiny modicum of happiness before the lights go out forever. I only wish I had found it.

So when I write about things like collapse and extinction, I have a uniquely visceral, intimate perspective on what I’m taking about.

Fun fact: Fun fact: Both John F. Kennedy’s sister and Joseph Stalin’s daughter died in Wisconsin in the 2000’s.

Gallery of Endangered Animals (Tim Flach, photographer)

Wanderer’s Nightsong

Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!

Last week I heard that a close friend from high school had died. He was exactly two days older than me (his birthday August 17th, mine the 19th). Although he lived in Arizona, I did know that he had been in and out of the hospital for several years, thanks to Facebook (which I am no longer on). He was rather obese and suffered from poor health his entire life. I don’t know the ultimate cause of death, but my guess is something like heart failure.

(One of my other best friends from high school died many, many years ago. He was asthmatic and foolishly went swimming on a hot summer day with very poor air quality. He had an asthma attack and drowned. He was 28 as I recall).

Now, ere we are, exactly one year on, and the architecture firm I worked for fired me last Friday.

I keep wondering what I could have done differently. Perhaps I really am just too stupid to do this job. Maybe I truly am incompetent, despite doing this for so many years. Maybe I’m not a good enough politician. Perhaps I lack the killer instinct. In any case, my career has been the epitome of abject failure. It’s brought me nothing but pain. At what point does the sunk cost fallacy apply? But, as I’ve learned, once you are specialized, past a certain age, the job market gives you no leeway. F. Scott Fitzgerald got it right as usual: “there are no second acts in American lives.”

Assuming I’m not too stupid to do this job, the only other conclusion I can arrive at is that even after doing it for so long, I have not been adequately trained. And if I’ve spent almost 25 years in this profession and still don’t have the requisite skills, then I’m never going to have them. A rather damning indictment of the architecture profession, don’t you think? I’ve read many a lament over the fact that generational skills are being lost, and there are too few people coming up to replace those leaving. But whose fault is that? In my case, it seems I have little choice. The architecture profession truly is eating it’s young, as indeed are many other professions, it seems. But what does that portend for the future?

Personally, I don’t really care anymore. Not my problem.

The fate of the architect is the strangest of all. How often he expends his whole soul, his whole heart and passion, to produce buildings into which he himself may never enter.–GOETHE

As I write these words, my cousin is still fighting on. But for how much longer? Not to be morbid, but the grim reality is, I can’t see how she will finish out the year. When she is gone, the glue that held that part of the family together will also be gone; scattered to the winds. And my last blood relative will be gone from the earth.

And so here I am. No family. No friends. No significant other. No job. No viable profession or career to speak of. No mentor. No helpers. No income. No retirement savings. On the bright side—no kids and no debts. As I write this, we are experiencing an epic cold blast of biblical proportions. The wind chills are expected to be around 40 below zero this evening, conveniently the same temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit if I have any international readers. Yesterday, I spent an hour shoveling the foot or so of snow we were blanketed with. It’s a hard, hard land, indeed. At least the sun is out today—a rare occurrence. Tomorrow, the city will essentially be shut down due to the cold—and this is Wisconsin!

The snowed-in entrance to The Hipcrime Vocab international headquarters. Send in the Saint Bernards!

Coldest Blast in Years Heading for Midwest, Great Lakes (Weather Underground)

Football season is over…

Don’t worry, I don’t have a gun on the table as I write this (I’ve never even fired one!). And yet I wonder: is there ever a rational case for suicide? And if so, when is it time to throw in the towel?

Typically when I read about rational suicide, it’s in the context of a painful, incurable disease, which I don’t happen to have (as far as I know, but the way things are going…). But, honestly, I struggle with finding a reason to go on. Why suffer? It seems that life itself is a painful, incurable disease, and one that offers very little in the way of recompense for all of its burdens and the suffering it inflicts.

I contemplate the late Anthony Bourdain, who lived the type of life that I would consider ideal. And yet, even he ultimately found no reason to go on. Although I was aware of Mr. Bourdain’s work, I never saw a single show he was on (they were on Cable, after all), nor did I read any of his books. Yet I can’t help but feel a certain philosophical kinship with the man.

As I observed in a disturbingly popular post from a few years back, they don’t have to kill you if they can get you to kill yourself. In that post I was pondering whether the epidemic of deaths across America’s Heartland was a symptom of spreading mental illness, or rather merely a rational response to intolerable circumstances. Fentanyl doesn’t seem like that bad of a way to go, all things considered.

I’ve since made peace with the prospect of my own death. Not that I welcome it, mind you. Since it is inevitable, after all, I never saw much of a point in immanentizing it. I still very much consider it as a last resort. If I had another option, I would not hesitate to take it.

I feel like this world has no place for me. Perhaps I should have been born a hundred years earlier. Really, I don’t know how many more messages the universe can send me saying, in effect: “it’s time for you to go.” You were never meant to have been here in the first place. I mean, really: my mom mentioned offhandedly how surprised she was when she found out she was pregnant, since my parents were apparently hardly ever intimate throughout their miserable clusterfuck of a marriage (Aaaargh—too much information, mom, too much information!!!!). That’s why I’m an only child, an accident of evolution. I often told my mom that I wished she had opted for abortion (legal as of 1973). Instead, here I am, lucky recipient of the “gift” of life without a valid return receipt.

Anyway, I felt I owed readers a reason if ever this blog should ever end, and now seemed like a good time. It won’t be right away, though—I’ve got several posts already written in various states of completion. Plus, I have no job and it’s too cold to be outside. Nothing else to do but read and write!

And so I come to the end of my tale. What I could really use right now is some advice. I would especially prefer practical advice (someplace warm to move to, something else to do to earn money, etc.) Anything at all will be accepted, no matter how crazy or ridiculous it sounds. After all, at this point I literally have nothing left to lose. Leave comments below, or email” admin@hipcrimevocab.com. I’ve now set this up to send messages directly to my Gmail account.

Thanks for reading.



Some Must-Reads

I recently ran across a couple of good articles that relate to a lot of themes The HipCrime Vocab project has been discussing lately.

This article in The Guardian: Who’s correct about human nature, the left or the right? makes the point that I’ve made repeatedly over the past year. As the byline says, “Most conservatives see it as ‘common sense’ that humans are selfishly competitive – but things looked different pre-capitalism.”

Indeed they did. Pre-capitalism, society was tasked with “habitation” rather than “improvement,” and social ties were based around one’s group ties. Economic relations were “embedded” in social institutions. That means constraints as well, but the constraints served an important purpose. The idea of everyone being in a zero-sum competition for a small number of jobs would have struck most people as an absurd way to organize society. I’ve been reading a book called, The Market as God, by theologian Harvey Cox which makes a point I’ve also made repeatedly here on this blog: economics is far more of a religion that it is a science. The author writes of the Market’s mythical Genesis:

The relationship between religion and The Market is a long and convoluted saga. When did it start? One day a Cro-Magnon man traded a chiseled-stone spearhead with a hunter for a slice of newly slain saber-toothed tiger. He was so pleased with the exchange that the next morning he laid out some other tools he had made on a large rock and watched for passersby to stop and deal. The first market was born, and that was about forty-three thousand years ago.

This, of course, is a myth, and like any other myth it takes place on some other plane of time and space. It has no basis in fact; its purpose is to explain or justify some feature of our own times.

But there are good myths and bad ones…Its lack of any basis in real history is not what makes it a bad myth. Many good myths share that quality. Still, since those who use it often assert it is historical.

It is important to remember that anthropological and historical research has shown that the earliest people did not have markets. Rather, theirs were gift cultures, at least within social groups. One was expected, of course, eventually to reciprocate for gifts accepted. But the reciprocation was not expected to happen right away; otherwise it would amount to tit-for-tat bargaining. What little barter did happen took place only with outsiders. Thus trust, reciprocity, and the importance of community are more primal and more natural, if that word is relevant in this case. They were present before markets or even bartering appeared.

Also, when two people met each other in even the most primitive of exchanges, they were already embedded in social and symbolic worlds which overlapped in both conflict and mutuality. There had probably been previous encounters and there would be more to come.

As intertribal connections increased, the role of traders, once peripheral, grew as well. But even when simple forms of currency appeared (in the form of shells or beads, for example) both the buyer and seller knew they were part of larger interlaced worlds that relied on some common assumptions. The spearhead-for-a-slice or any of its variants is ahistorical. It may be a useful fiction, for some people, because it serves as what theologians call a “myth of origin” for the religion of the Market God. It suggests that market values are primal, even ingrained in the human psyche. We are, as the T-shirt has it, “Born to Shop.”

But the truth is that market economies are not timeless. They appeared in human history under certain ascertainable conditions. The fact that they have existed for a long time does not make them eternal and it does not guarantee they will always be with us.

The Guardian article makes many of the same points. The primacy of the Market and the individual was an intellectual project from the start, and pressed into service to justify land and resource grabs that Europeans were undertaking across the globe, including within their own countries by the upper classes. History was subsequently ‘retconned‘ to make it seem like something natural and inevitable; dissenting views and ideas were quashed.

Liberalism, which first emerged in the 17th century, has at its core a distinctive conception of human nature. The most important point about humans for liberals is the fact that they are individuals. It involves “seeing the individual as primary, as more ‘real’ or fundamental than human society and its institutions and structures” and “involves attaching a higher moral value to the individual than to society” (Arblaster).

Furthermore, this conception of human nature “tends … to impute a high degree of completeness and self-sufficiency to the single human being, with the implication that separateness … is the fundamental, metaphysical human condition”.

As a fundamentally “complete” individual, the liberal human has pre-given and fixed, rather than socially constructed needs and preferences. More often than not, the liberal individual is also a radical egoist who enters into interaction with other individuals simply in order to satisfy pre-formed preferences.

The relationship between this conception of human nature and capitalism is obvious. The atomised liberal individual reflects the atomised conditions of bourgeois society in which social ties of kinship and fealty have been dissolved. It is worth stressing that this was a new understanding of human nature. In pre-capitalist philosophy wholeness or completeness usually belonged to the community rather than to the individual.

Rather than self-sufficient individuals, humans were seen to be embedded in communal relations that almost wholly defined them. The view of human nature that underpins the politics of the modern-day right, then, arose at a particular historical juncture. It is not some ideologically “neutral” description.

Definitely read the whole thing at the link above. The other eloquent post is entitled A liberal elite still luring us towards the abyss by journalist Jonathan Cook.

Cook points out that Liberalism itself has become something of a religion. For the true believers, anyone not on-board is a heretic. Yet the zealots of liberalism refuse to see the problems inherent in their own world view. Instead they tell themselves reassuring stories about they are on “the right side of history”, and cast anyone with the slightest doubts about their project as “irrational,” if not outright barbaric as John Gray points out,

…there has been a shift in the mood of liberals. Less than a decade ago, they were confident that progress was ongoing. No doubt there would be periods of regression; we might be in one of those periods at the present time. Yet over the long haul of history, there could be no doubt that the forces of reason would continue to advance.

Today, liberals have lost that always rather incredible faith. Faced with the political reversals of the past few years and the onward march of authoritarianism, they find their view of the world crumbling away. What they need at the present time, more than anything else, is some kind of intellectual anodyne that can soothe their nerves, still their doubts and stave off panic.

Thus, we currently stand between two options that are truly terrible to contemplate. On one side is the Neoliberal status quo that pits us against each other, sets up a hereditary aristocracy of wealth and PhD. degrees, seizes the public’s common heritage in a new Enclosure Movement, and pushes us ever closer towards what I’ve termed Neofeudalism. Its result is conflict and heartrending psychological despair across the globe, combined with the ongoing destruction of the natural world.

Davos Elites Love to Advocate for Equality – So Long As Nothing Gets Done (Branko Milanovic, Promarket)

On the other side is reactionary nationalism, inflaming racial and ethnic divisions as a pathway to gain and retain power. It uses the classic tactics of “us-versus-them” thinking, scapegoating, images of a mythic past, surrendering to a “strong-man” patriarchal leader, open hostility to intellectualism and the arts, and an utter disdain for the very concept of equality before the law.

Both of these options are quite grim to contemplate, as Cook points out. We need to find another way he argues, one that preserves the gains of liberalism but adopts a view of human nature more in line with who we really are as human beings:

…the abyss has not opened up…because liberalism is being rejected. Rather, the abyss is the inevitable outcome of this shrinking elite’s continuing promotion – against all rational evidence – of liberalism as a solution to our current predicament. It is the continuing transformation of a deeply flawed ideology into a religion. It is idol worship of a value system hellbent on destroying us.

Liberalism, like most ideologies, has an upside. Its respect for the individual and his freedoms, its interest in nurturing human creativity, and its promotion of universal values and human rights over tribal attachment have had some positive consequences. But liberal ideology has been very effective at hiding its dark side – or more accurately, at persuading us that this dark side is the consequence of liberalism’s abandonment rather than inherent to the liberal’s political project.

The loss of traditional social bonds – tribal, sectarian, geographic – has left people today more lonely, more isolated than was true of any previous human society. We may pay lip service to universal values, but in our atomised communities, we feel adrift, abandoned and angry.

The liberal’s professed concern for others’ welfare and their rights has, in reality, provided cynical cover for a series of ever-more transparent resource grabs. The parading of liberalism’s humanitarian credentials has entitled our elites to leave a trail of carnage and wreckage in their wake in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and soon, it seems, in Venezuela. We have killed with our kindness and then stolen our victims’ inheritance.

…the absolute prioritising of the individual has sanctioned a pathological self-absorption, a selfishness that has provided fertile ground not only for capitalism, materialism and consumerism but for the fusing of all of them into a turbo-charged neoliberalism. That has entitled a tiny elite to amass and squirrel away most of the planet’s wealth out of reach of the rest of humanity.

Worst of all, our rampant creativity, our self-regard and our competitiveness have blinded us to all things bigger and smaller than ourselves. We lack an emotional and spiritual connection to our planet, to other animals, to future generations, to the chaotic harmony of our universe. What we cannot understand or control, we ignore or mock…

Go check it out.

Fun Facts

First Fun Facts of 2019!!!

During the second wave of the Plague, more women died in childbirth than died of the Black Death.

As far back as 40,000 years ago, humans kept track of time using relatively sophisticated knowledge of the stars.

The suicide death rate for farmers is more than double that of military veterans.

We tracked the employment histories of ~150 Congressional officials most responsible for responding to the ‘08 crash: — 40% of senior staff have since worked for giant financial interests — 30% of lawmakers have as well.

A new analysis of global forest loss—the first to examine not only where forests are disappearing, but also why—reveals just how much industrial agriculture is contributing to the loss. The answer: some 5 million hectares—the area of Costa Rica—every year. And despite years of pledges by companies to help reduce deforestation, the amount of forest cleared to plant oil palm and other booming crops remained steady between 2001 and 2015.

There will be 18.1 million new cases of cancer and 9.6 million people will die with the disease this year worldwide, a report predicts.

Fake Art Can Be Detected Because of Nuclear Bombs Detonated in 1945

Enslaved people were the largest source of private wealth in the southern United States in 1770.

Every currently serving Democratic senator represents roughly 3.65 million people; every Republican roughly 2.51 million. Put another way, the fifty senators from the twenty-five least populous states—twenty-nine of them Republicans—represent just over 16 percent of the American population, and thirty-four Republican senators—enough to block conviction on impeachment charges—represent states with a total of 21 percent of the American population. With gerrymandering and voter suppression enhancing even more the systemic Republican advantage, it is estimated that the Democrats will have to win by 7 to 11 points (a margin only obtainable in rare “wave” elections) in the 2018 elections to achieve even the narrowest of majorities in the House of Representatives.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti loved wombats.

One in six adults – more than seven million people in England alone – take antidepressants.

The US military is now recruiting soldiers to fight in a war that started before they were born.

According to a US Embassy cable leaked by Wikileaks, Calabria would be a failed state if it were not part of Italy. The ‘Ndrangheta controls huge segments of its territory and economy, and accounts for at least three percent of Italy’s GDP through drug trafficking, extortion, skimming of public contracts, and usury.

One in ten of New York’s public school students is homeless.

Every three seconds, someone in the world receives a blood transfusion.

Long lost cities in the Amazon were once home to millions of people.

Prehistoric humans are likely to have formed mating networks to avoid inbreeding.

La Sagrada Familia, on which construction began in 1882, will be granted a building license for the first time in 2018.

More than 77% of India’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of its population.

The richest 1% own 50% of stocks held by American households.

Eighty years before Jamestown, the first intercontinental settlers on the East Coast of the United States were Africans who had escaped Spanish slavery.

Zoroastrian funerals involve a ritual called sagdid (dog-sight). A dog was brought in before the body. If the dog stares steadily at the body, the person is still alive. If it doesn’t look at the body, death is confirmed. This was useful in ensuring that a coma was not being mistaken for death.

12,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture, Earth had twice as many trees as it does now. Currently, our planet is losing 10 million trees a year.

80% of males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.

The budget process was established in 1974. Since that time only 4 budgets have been established before the start of the fiscal year. That is a 90% failure rate.

The Punic Wars officially ended in 1985. (Previously: the feudal system ended in 1999)

The data economy didn’t begin with Google or Facebook in the 2000s, but with electronic information systems called relational databases, first conceived of in 1969.

The streets of Boston carry an average of four gas leaks a mile.

Many doctors have difficulty accessing the health records of patients treated previously at another facility; fewer than half of hospitals integrate electronic patient data from outside their system.

Despite giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was worth $20 billion when he died, 48 percent more than when he signed the Giving Pledge in 2010 and promised to give away at least half his wealth.

Mouse urine is a major cause of asthma for poor kids in Baltimore.
83 Things That Blew Our Minds in 2018 (Atlantic)

Retconning History

“He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past.”–George Orwell

“The mistake of judging the men of other periods by the morality of our own day has its parallel in the mistake of supposing that every wheel and bolt in the modern social machine had its counterpart in more rudimentary societies…”–H.S. Maine

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” –L.P. Hartley

I’ve often referred to the “Flintstonization of history”—a concept I borrowed from the book Sex at Dawn. It’s the tendency to project our present-day circumstances onto the past, assuming that people basically thought and acted much as we do. But when we do that, we bring our “modern” sensibilities and worldview along with us. And those have been decisively shaped by the time and culture in which we live.

Today I’d like to introduce a related concept–the retconning of history.

Looking back, that’s been the theme of a lot of my writing over the past year. I’ve looked at a lot of history which challenges and overturns the conventional narrative that our present-day circumstances and social organization are basically the same as past societies, except with better technology and a few more creature comforts (i.e. the past, but with cell phones). Or that they are the way things have always been, and that there are no alternatives.

Now, most of you probably know what retconning is. It is short for the phrase “retrocative continuity”. In order to make a narrative coherent, the authors “rewrite” (or simply ignore) what has occurred in previous episodes or iterations of a long-running franchise in order to maintain continuity with the ongoing “new” narrative arc and characters. The phrase originated with comic books, and is typically used in reference to films, television shows, books, video games, etc.

From there, the word has passed into common parlance. Normally, retcon is still used in the context of a work of fiction. However, I’ve seen the word spread beyond just talking about movies and TV shows to the world in general. When people say retcon now, they are usually referring to an attempt to “rewrite” past events by deliberately distorting them or altering the record after the fact. That is, “[people] tell themselves a different story about what happened in prior events in order to maintain consistency with their current circumstances.” That story may include a blatant distortion of facts and a general disregard for reality. Much of this is derived from our current political situation. A politician may suddenly reverse their position, and then declare that what came before didn’t happen (“fake news”), or simply ignore it altogether if it doesn’t fit with the narrative “spin” of the political parties.

At it’s heart, it is an attempt to “erase” or “rewrite” the past for the sake of present circumstances. As one of it’s earliest descriptions had it, “retroactive continuity ultimately means that history flows fundamentally from the future into the past.”

What’s any of this got to do with history? It strikes me that much of what we learn about history are attempts to “retcon” the past.

What do I mean by this? It seems that history often adopts a “modern” point of view to explain past events. In this narrative, we were always heading to exactly where we are: globalized free-market corporate monopoly capitalism.This is done to depict our present circumstances not as deliberately engineered, or contingent on any historical circumstances, or political choices, but rather as something “natural” and just an expression of unchanging human nature. With this retconning, we are unable to think of different ways of organizing things, because those ways—even in the very recent past—have been retconed out of history. Even things in recent living memory—such as not going into debt for an education, or being able to afford a single family house on 25 percent of your income—are retconned to make it so that they never happened.

Here are just a few of the major retcons I have discovered over the past year or so:

1. Economists tend to depict all of human history as heading towards “free and open” markets, if only government would only just “get out of the way” and drop all restrictions and regulations on merchant princes and wealthy oligarchs. That is, globalized corporate free trade is “natural” (as is currency), and collective governance is “artificial” and unnecessary. Our “natural instinct” is to “truck, barter and exchange” declared Adam Smith. John Locke argued that the reason governments came to exist was to protect and secure private property, and that they should do little else besides this.

Of course, all of this is false. For example, an attempt at retconning history was engaged in by economists Santhi Hejeebu and Deirdre McCloskey (of ‘bourgois virtues’ fame) attempting to refute some of Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation. As political economist Mark Blyth countered, citing the works of Polanyi and Albert Hirschmann:

“While gain-seeking has indeed existed throughout history…the historical oddity was that gain-seeking became equated with market transactions only relatively recently. This was a qualitative and not a quantitative change; otherwise Incas, Mayans, Romans, and contemporary Britons were/are all living in societies that were more or less similar in their economic structure, despite the differences in, for example, the presence of slaves.”

“Painting the history of all hitherto existing societies as the history of capitalism in vitro probably obscures more economic history than it illuminates…capitalism did not simply evolve, it was argued for. It was propagandized by Scottish enlightenment intellectuals, English liberals, and French physiocrats long “before its triumph”. And it was as much a project of governance; limiting the state; constructing the commodified individual; building a singular notion of economically based self-interest, as much as it was one of creating wealth…”
“Capitalism was created, it did not just ‘happen’, and labeling all hitherto existing societies as ‘almost capitalism’ hardly erases the distinctions between historical periods and economic systems. The fact the ‘we’ today accept Smith far more readily than ‘we’ accept Polanyi speaks directly to the power of ideas rather than the discovery of facts…”

The great transformation in understanding Polanyi: Reply to Hejeebu and Mccloskey (Critical Review)

As Polanyi himself summed it up: “Laissez-faire was planned, planning was not”. From The Great Transformation:

Indeed, on the evidence available it would be rash to assert that local markets ever developed from individual acts of barter.

Obscure as the beginnings of local markets are, this much can be asserted: that from the start this institution was surrounded by a number of safeguards designed to protect the prevailing economic organization of society from interference on the part of market practices. The peace of the market was secured at the price of rituals and ceremonies which restricted its scope while ensuring its ability to function within the given narrow limits. The most significant result of markets—the birth of towns and urban civilization—was, in effect, the outcome of a paradoxical development. Towns, insofar as they sprang from markets, were not only the protectors of those markets, but also the means of preventing them from expanding into the countryside and thus encroaching on the prevailing economic organization of society…
Such a permanent severance of local trade and long-distance trade within the organization of the town must come as another shock to the evolutionist, with whom things always seem so easily to grow into one another. And yet this peculiar fact forms the key to the social history of urban life in Western Europe…Internal trade in Western Europe was actually created by the intervention of the state.

Right up to the time of the Commercial Revolution what may appear to us as national trade was not national, but municipal…The trade map of Europe in this period should rightly show only towns, and leave blank the countryside—it might as well have not existed as far as organized trade was concerned. So-called nations were merely political units, and very loose ones at that, consisting economically of innumerable smaller and bigger self sufficing households and insignificant local markets in the villages. Trade was limited to organized townships which carried it on either locally, as neighborhood trade, or as long-distance trade—the two were strictly separated, and neither was allowed to infiltrate into the countryside indiscriminately…neither long-distance trade nor local trade was the parent of the internal trade of modern times—thus apparently leaving no alternative but to turn for an explanation to the deus ex machina of state intervention…

This retconning has been particularly egregious by the debunked “Austrian economic school” which was expressly created to overturn history and rewrite it for the benefit of capitalists and the wealthy. Michael Hudson, an economist who probably knows more about ancient economic organization than anyone since Polanyi, writes:

…Karl Polanyi[‘s] doctrine was designed to rescue economics from [the Austrian] school, which makes up a fake history of how economics and civilization originated.

One of the first Austrian’s [sic] was Carl Menger in the 1870s. His “individualistic” theory about the origins of money – without any role played by temples, palaces or other public institutions – still governs Austrian economics. Just as Margaret Thatcher said, “There’s no such thing as society,” the Austrians developed a picture of the economy without any positive role for government. It was as if money were created by producers and merchants bartering their output. This is a travesty of history.

All ancient money was issued by temples or public mints so as to guarantee standards of purity and weight. You can read Biblical and Babylonian denunciation of merchants using false weights and measures so see why money had to be public. The major trading areas were agora spaces in front of temples, which kept the official weights and measures. And much exchange was between the community’s families and the public institutions.

Most important, money was brought into being not for trade (which was conducted mainly on credit), but for paying debts. And most debts were owed to the temples and palaces for pubic services or tribute. But to the Austrians, the idea was that anything the government does to protect labor, consumers and society from rentiers and grabbers is deadweight overhead.

Above all, they opposed governments creating their own money, e.g. as the United States did with its greenbacks in the Civil War. They wanted to privatize money creation in the hands of commercial banks, so that they could receive interest on their privilege of credit creation and also to determine the allocation of resources.

Rewriting Economic Thought (Michael Hudson)

So we see that in this case that there is a very specific political agenda behind the retconning of history. It’s pressed in economic textbooks and expressly designed to promote a libertarian point of view. Much of retconning history does serve a political agenda that benefits a select group of people.

Trying to analyze all premodern economies as though they were just proto-capitalists lead to all sorts of errors, as Branko Milanovich points out in a recent post:

“The equilibrium (normal) price in a feudal economy, or in a guild system where capital is not allowed to move between the branches will be different from equilibrium prices in a capitalist economy with the free movement of capital. To many economists this is still not obvious. They use today’s capitalist categories for the Roman Empire where wage labor was (to quote Moses Finley) ‘spasmodic, casual and marginal’.”

Marx for me (and hopefully for others too) (globalinequality)

2. The individual has always been the basic unit of social organization. People have always thought of themselves primarily as citizens of territorial nation-states (British, German, French, Canadian, etc.) with well-defined borders. The neolocal monogamous nuclear family is the only natural and logical form of human social organization.

None of these statements are true, of course. Such arrangements are very contingent upon time and place and culture, and often very recent. For most of human history, the nation-state did not exist. There is nothing “natural” about it–it was created from above by oligarchic elites, just like the One Big Market. They are artificial creations.

And while families are, indeed, “natural,” the form they take varies widely. Most families were extended, and consisted of many generations living either on the same land or under the same roof, together with agnatic relations. Who was or was not considered a part of the family had to do with kinship structures, typically encoded into the language and culture.

Extended kinship networks were the primordial form of human social organization (as Lewis Henry Moran discovered). Religion, too, played a significant role, especially ancestor worship, collective rituals, and food-sharing meals and feasts (even bonobos do it).

This was the conclusion made by Henry Sumner Maine by studying ancient legal structures and comparing to them to surviving village communities in India, Java, North America, and elsewhere. He writes, “We have the strongest reason for thinking that property once belonged not to individuals nor even to isolated families, but to larger societies composed on the patriarchal model.” Concerning private property, he concludes,

“…[P]rivate property, in the shape in which we know it, was chiefly formed by the gradual disentanglement of the separate rights of individuals from the blended rights of a community. Our studies…seemed to show us the Family expanding into the Agnatic group of kinsmen, then the Agnatic group dissolving into separate households; lastly the household supplanted by the individual; and it is now suggested that each step in the change corresponds to an analogous alteration in the nature of Ownership.”

“…if it be true that far the most important passage in the history of Private Property is its gradual elimination from the co-ownership of kinsmen, then the great point of inquiry…what were the motives which originally prompted men to hold together in the family union? To such a question, Jurisprudence, unassisted by other sciences, is not competent to give a reply. The fact can only be noted.” (p. 159)

This is why Marxists argued that “primitive communism” was the original form of property ownership, i.e. socialism. Historically, this is correct. The problem was that this was predicated upon extended kinship networks and not large, industrial, nation states, composed of strangers. That is, primitive communism does not scale, which is why market economies came to supplant them over time.

Regarding the “lone individual” posited by Classical Liberals as the primordial atomic unit of society, this, too, is ahistorical. Like the primitive barter economy, anthropology has failed to turn it up anywhere it has looked for it:

It is here that archaic law renders us one of the greatest of its services, and fills up a gap which otherwise could have only been bridged by conjecture. It is full, in all its provinces, of the clearest indications that society in primitive times was not what it is assumed to be at present, a collection of *individuals*. In fact, and in the view of the men who composed it, it was an *aggregation of families*. The contrast may be most forcibly expressed by saying that the *unit* of an ancient society was the Family, or a modern society the individual. We must be prepared to find in ancient law all the consequences of this difference.

[Archaic Law] is so framed as to be adjusted to a system of small independent corporations. It is therefore scanty, because it is supplemented by the despotic commands of the heads of households. It is ceremonious, because the transactions to which it pays regard resemble international concerns much more than the quick play of intercourse between individuals.

Above all…it takes a view of *life* wholly unlike any which appears in developed jurisprudence. Corporations never die, and accordingly primitive law considers the entities with which it deals, i.e. the patriarchal or family groups, as perpetual and inditinguishable…
Ancient Law pp. 134-135

Surveying continental Europe and much of the colonial world, French scholar Emile de Lavaleye came to the same conclusion:

Originally the clan, or village, is the collective body owning the soil ; later on, it is the family, which has all the characteristics of a perpetual corporation. The father of the family is merely the administrator of the patrimony: when he dies, he is replaced by another administrator. There is no place for the testament, nor even for individual succession…Such was also the law everywhere where these communities have existed; and, probably, every nation has passed through the system.

The point of all this, of course, is not to advocate a rewind to the past. Rather, it is to show us that social forms change over time; and what may adaptive in one context (say, Fordism), will not work in another (say, an information economy). Lavaleye points this out himself:

“…the object of this book is not to advocate a return to the primitive agrarian community; but to establish historically the natural right of property as proclaimed by philosophers, as well as to show that ownership has assumed very various forms, and is consequently susceptible of progressive reform.”

3. Everyone before the Industrial Revolution was miserable, sick, and hungry all the time, irrespective of time and place. Life was, as Hobbes argued, “nasty, brutish and short” throughout prehistory before the last hundred years or so. We’ve doubled the human lifespan—a thirty year-old man was considered “old” just a few generations ago.

I’ve written so much disproving this idea that it’s not worth reiterating here. But here is yet another item that shows us that life in the past was not as horrible as it is commonly depicted by the evangelists of the Progress Gospel:

Medieval peasant food was frigging delicious (BoingBoing)

This Reddit Ask Historians question: Was there ever a civilization that had proper nutrition prior to modern society? begs the question. Its very formulation assumes that everyone was malnourished—a product of such retconning. Here are some good answers:

According to my history professor at Dalhousie University, Cynthia Neville (one of the top scholars in early medieval Scottish history), the Scots in medieval times had an incredibly healthy diet compared to many other parts of Europe at the time.

Wheat doesn’t grow well so far north, but hardier grains like oats and barley do quite well, and provide much better staple foodstock, along with many native vegetable varieties. Also, because cows weren’t as viable (except for the wealthiest lowland nobles), they lived on sheep’s milk and goat milk, which are much easier on the human digestive system. Much of their proteins came from seafood, which, as we know today, are loaded with omega fatty acids and essential vitamins.

There was a bit more to it, but that’s about all I can recall off the top of my head from her classes. This is one of the reasons why the Scots had a reputation for being taller and stronger, because their diets and hardy lifestyles kept them fit and healthy.


When the Romans invaded Gaul, they noticed the Gauls were more than a foot taller, on average, than the Romans. This was due to better nutrition. Many prehistoric people’s had great nutrition. They were defeated by “civilized” people’s who had the advantages of greater numbers and organization. The same was true of the Indians of Massachusetts, when the Pilgrims arrived.

Not all prehistoric people had good nutrition, and not so people’s proliferate societies had bad nutrition. The Norse (Vikings) were dairy farmers and fishermen, and had excellent nutrition, like the Scotch, in medieval times.

4. People need “jobs” in order to feel valuable, or else they will go crazy. That is, we need to find a willing buyer for our labor, or we will feel like a useless burden on society. Furthermore, working forty hours a week is something we’ve just always done since forever. We would all be bored otherwise.

Of course, “jobs” are very recent invention. Most people in the past did not have formalized “jobs”—wage-labor was actually seen as a kind of slavery for much of ancient history. Yet today we’re told that jobs are an absolute necessity to feel “meaningful” and to have any kind of social outlet in today’s society.

Moreover, even when wages were paid, it was for a specific task and a specific duration (say, bringing in the harvest), not selling precisely 40 hours a week of your time to the highest bidder. Modern jobs are more of a babysitting operation than anything else. Of course people in earlier times had occupations and professions—farmers, craftsmen, warriors, artisans, clerks, priests, and so on. One of the biggest challenges capitalism faced was overcoming the previous work/leisure patterns and “disciplining” workers. Ryan Cooper sums up the very novelty of these ‘eternal’ notions:

The idea that work is a bedrock of society, that absolutely everyone who is not too old, too young, or disabled must have a job, was not handed down on tablets from Mount Sinai. It is the result of a historical development, one which may not continue forever. On the contrary, based on current trends, it is already breaking down.

The history of nearly universal labor participation is only about a century and a half old. Back in the early days of capitalism, demand for labor was so strong that all the ancient arrangements of society and family were shredded to accommodate it. Marx’s Capital famously described how women and very young children were press-ganged into the textile mills and coal mines, how the nighttime was colonized for additional shifts, and how capitalists fought to extend the working day to the very limits of human endurance (and often beyond).

The resulting misery, abuse, and wretchedness were so staggering, and the resulting class conflicts so intense, that various hard-won reforms were instituted: the eight-hour day, the weekend, the abolition of child labor, and so forth.

But this process of drawing more people into the labor force peaked in the late 1990s, when women finally finished joining the labor force (after having been forced out to make room for returning veterans after World War II). The valorization of work as the source of all that is good in life is to a great degree the result of the need to legitimate capital’s voracious demand for labor.

America is running out of jobs. It’s time for a universal basic income (The Week)

And here’s investigative journalist Yasha Levine recounting part of capitalism that have been retconned out of existence, citing the underappreciated work of economist Michael Perelman:

One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery.

Francis Hutcheson, from whom Adam Smith learned all about the virtue of natural liberty, wrote: ”it is the one great design of civil laws to strengthen by political sanctions the several laws of nature. … The populace needs to be taught, and engaged by laws, into the best methods of managing their own affairs and exercising mechanic art.”

Yep, despite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?

But in order for capitalism to work, capitalists needed a pool of cheap, surplus labor. So what to do? Call in the National Guard!

Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.

“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as “primitive accumulation.”

Yasha Levine: Recovered Economic History – “Everyone But an Idiot Knows That The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor, or They Will Never Be Industrious” (Naked Capitalism)

Indeed, average non-agricultural workers had much more autonomy and leisure time in the past, according to Perelman:

A medieval peasant had plenty of things to worry about, but the year-round control of daily life was not one of them. Perelman points out that in pre-capitalist societies, people toiled relatively few hours over the course of a year compared to what Americans work now. They labored like dogs during the harvest, but there was ample free time during the off-seasons. Holidays were abundant – as many as 200 per year. It was Karl Marx, in his Theory of Alienation, who saw that modern industrial production under capitalist conditions would rob workers of control of their lives as they lost control of their work. Unlike the blacksmith or the shoemaker who owned his shop, decided on his own working conditions, shaped his product, and had a say in how his goods were bartered or sold, the modern worker would have little autonomy. His relationships with the people at work would become impersonal and hollow.

Clearly, the technological wonders of our capitalist system have not released human beings from the burden of work. They have brought us more work. They have not brought most of us more freedom, but less.

Fifty Shades of Capitalism: Pain and Bondage in the American Workplace (Naked Capitalism)

Yet now we’re told that we need “jobs” to have any sort of meaning? Really?? WTF??? The vast majority of human existence has occurred outside of formalized wage work, as anthropologist James Suzman points out. Yet society will fall apart if we don’t submit ourselves to worker ‘discipline’ and scientific management? I don’t buy it. Whom does this narrative benefit, anyway?

See also this post from Reddit: What did an average day look like in medieval Europe? And this: Myths about the Medieval Times? Lots of good debunking in that last one.

In addition, laborers who recalled the previous autonomous lifeways–as late as the eighteenth century–were much more resistant to the constraints and insults of corporate capitalism. Now that the past has been retconned, we no longer even remember those past ways of being. Why is there no longer any resistance to the crushing or workers? Why do we not resist, even celebrate, the fortunes of today’s robber barons, unlike our forefathers? American resistance to our ruling elites has vanished. A lot of it has to do with the retconning of history, as this review of the Steve Fraser’s excellent book The Age of Acquiescence makes clear:

The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

A similar point is made in this review of the book in the London Review of Books:

Resistance to capitalism, it appeared, could look back as well as forwards; it was rooted not only in utopian visions of the future but also in concrete experience of the present and past, in older ways of being in the world, depending on family, craft, community, faith – all of which were threatened with dissolution (as Marx and Engels said) in ‘the icy waters of egotistical calculation’. Radical critiques of capitalism might well arise from conservative commitment to pre-capitalist ways of life, or memories of that life.

This wasn’t only an American pattern. E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), rescued the Luddites and other artisans from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ by showing that their apparently reactionary attachments to custom and tradition created the leading edge of working-class consciousness. Soon American historians were making similar discoveries.
The Thompsonian history of the working class revealed a common pattern on both sides of the Atlantic: as workers became less grounded in traditional ways, their critique of capitalism tended to soften.

The Long Con (The London Review of Books)

5. New technology and innovation increases leisure time.The Industrial Revolution was accomplished purely by technological advances with no dislocation or bloodshed, and it made everyone better off with no government intervention whatsoever.

If there’s one consistent trend in technology, it’s this – new technology increases the amount of work! Greater leisure has only and ever been delivered due to worker insurrection and deliberate organization, and not by the “invisible hand” of the Market. Furthermore, entire generations were sacrificed and written out of the historical narrative to make the Industrial Revolution seem like a harmless win-win. As this commenter to Slashdot writes:

“Luddites weren’t just angry conservatives (literal, not political) trying to maintain some mythical “way of life”, it was a movement stated due to massive unemployment brought on by innovation in the textile industry. It became a generic insult because we’re so far removed from their (very real) suffering.”

There was [sic] close to 80 years of unemployment following the industrial revolution that is seldom talked about (if you took history in high school or college you got maybe a paragraph at best). This is because text book historians like to keep an upbeat tone and because school boards are often staffed by economically conservative (political now) who don’t want anyone speaking ill of capitalism. Go find a book called “A People’s History of the United States” if you want a sense for how screwed up American history actually is.”


Or, just read this post: The US Government Has Always Been a Tool of Greedy Corporations (Vice)

5. Ancient people were uniformly ruled over by evil despots (i.e. ‘Oriental Despotism’). The “West” was all about freedom, justice, and democracy compared to the yoke of despotism the rest of the world lived under in primitive places such as Asia, Africa and the Americas.

As we’ve seen, Classical civilization–from the ancient Greeks to the Romans–was the most slave-driven economy in history to that point (only to be surpassed in the ‘Western’ colonial Americas). While that slavery decayed due to the dissolution of the Roman Empire, subsequent serfdom could hardly be considered freedom. By contrast, not all “primitive” societies were anywhere near as despotic as Western Europe and Imperial China were. That was a retconning of history to depict Western European civilization as “enlightened” in opposition to the ignorant “heathens.” For example, here is an excerpt from the book The Story of Manual Labor:

At no time in the history of ancient Mexico do we find that heartless oppression of the poor by the rich, that lack of humanity toward the wage-worker, that blackens the annals of so many European peoples. Luxury existed in the court of the Montezumas, it is true, but to support that luxury the poorer classes were not plunged into poverty and degradation. They were a simple people, and their needs were small and easily satisfied. Living in a tropical climate, upon a soil that repaid a thousandfold the slightest effort of the farmer; surrounded by forests full of game and rivers teeming with edible fish, the Mexican lived a life of comfort that to the Saxon churl or French bourgeoise of the same day would have seemed idyllic.

The Story of Manual Labor (Archive.org)

There are countless other examples, from long car commutes, to 20+ years of formalized schooling and expensive post-graduate degrees required for a job (or any formalized education at all), but I think you get the point.

As Chris Hedges poignantly writes in his latest book, America: the Farewell Tour:

If we do not know our history and our culture, if we accept the history and culture manufactured for us by the elites, we will never free ourselves from the forces of oppression. The recovery of memory and culture in the 1960s by radical movements terrified the elites. It gave people an understanding of their own power and agency. It articulated and celebrated the struggles of working men and women and the oppressed rather than the mythical beneficence of the powerful. It exposed the exploitation and mendacity of the ruling class. And that is why corporatists spent billions to crush and marginalize these movements and their histories in schools, culture, the press, and in our systems of entertainment.

Not only does the people have no precise consciousness of its own historical identity,” Gramsci lamented under fascism, “it is not even conscious of the historical identity or the exact limits of its adversary.

If we do not know our history we have no point of comparison. We cannot name the forces that control us or see the long continuity of capitalist oppression and resistance… p. 17

Anyway, here’s to a happy (or at least, tolerable) 2019, and I hope you all stick around and continue reading and commenting. Thanks!

Review and Summary of Quantum Economics by David Orrell

What is a price??? People use them every day, but they seldom think about what it is. It is, of course, a measurement. But a measurement of what? It is a measurement of value. But this just leads us to another question—what determines the value?

For a long time, the answer was thought to be the amount of labor, perhaps combined with materials. As Adam Smith put it, “The real price of every thing, what every thing costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.” (p. 101) Most classical economists followed suit. But it turned out that labor was not so easy to measure:

…unlike something like mass, labour isn’t easily measurable. For example, Smith equated the cost of gold with the labour required to extract it – but how did that square with the fact that most of the gold in circulation had been mined by slaves? for more sophisticated goods – say, an iPhone – it is even less clear how to add up the various sources of labour. Obviously there are the company’s employees, its suppliers, and so on, but where do you draw the line? Many of its technologies (such as internet capability, GPS, touchscreens, cryptography) were based on government-funded military technologies, so how do you factor that in? What about the basic science behind those technologies? What about the free websites such as Wikipedia, or open-source software, or digital information in general, which add value to the iPhone? And so on.

Labour is also subjective in other ways. How do you compare the labour value provided by a CEO who has just received a multi-million-dollar payoff in return for leaving a money-losing company (there is no shortage of examples) with the hard graft provided by an undocumented farm worker, or for that matter someone assembling iPhones?…Because labour is not directly measurable, one consequence is that the theory as a whole, including the invisible hand mechanism, is unfalsifiable in the sense that it can never be disproved by experiment. A broader point is that…there is no direct mapping between numbers and value…pp. 102-103

And so economists invented the concept of utility—how much use value someone derives from an item.

The concept of utility was first proposed in the late eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher and social reformer, who defined it as that which appears to ‘augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.’ Society’s purpose, Bentham argued, was to satisfy the ‘greatest happiness principle’ – i.e. provide the greatest happiness to the most people. The goodness of an action could be assessed by adding together its positive and negative effects on the people involved.

Bentham’s aim was to put social policy on a rational, enlightened basis. Neoclassical economics promised a way to do this, by expressing utility in terms of mathematical laws. Of course, utility was completely subjective, and even harder to measure than labour – but again that didn’t matter. The aim of utility theory was not to incorporate subjectivity; it was to replace it with numbers, which is not quite the same thing. p. 104

But even this did not explain everything. This was exemplified by the diamond/water paradox proposed by Adam Smith. Water is not only useful, but essential–we need it every single day or we will die. And yet it is relatively cheap, even free. Diamonds are utterly useless (except for things like industrial drills). Yet they sell for a fortune in jewelry stores.

We know prices to be connected to value, but how does it work? Why are the cookies made by your grandmother free, but the ones in the store cost money? Or put another way: if money is measuring something, what is it measuring?

So, exasperated economists threw up their hands and finally settled on the theory of marginal utility and called it a day. Marginal utility brings in the concept of the margin—a small increase in the quantity of something. The marginal utility of a the first slice of pizza is quite different from the tenth slice (the tenth slice being at the margin). If we just crawled out of a desert we would pay almost anything for a tall glass of water (assuming we had the misfortune to crawl into a libertarian compound), but probably nothing for a diamond ring at that moment. As Britannica summarizes, “[W]ater in total is much more valuable than diamonds in total because the first few units of water are necessary for life itself. But, because water is plentiful and diamonds are scarce, the marginal value of a pound of diamonds exceeds the marginal value of a pound of water.”

One of the founders of what was termed the “marginal revolution” was William Stanley Jevons (of Jevons’ Paradox fame).

As Jevons argued, if utility is equated with value, then it can be measured through price. He wrote: ‘I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the human heart. A unit of pleasure or of pain is difficult even to conceive; but it is the amount of these feelings which is continually prompting us to buying and selling, borrowing and lending, labouring and resting, producing and consuming; and it is from the quantitative effects of the feelings that we must estimate their comparative amounts. We can no more know nor measure gravity its own nature than we can measure a feeling; but, just as we measure gravity by its effects in the motion of a pendulum, so we may estimate the equality or inequality of feelings by the decisions of the human mind. The will is our pendulum, and its oscillations are minutely registered in the price lists of the markets.’

The economy could therefore be modeled using what Jevons called ‘a mechanics of utility and self-interest,’ similar to Newtonian mechanics. More precisely, exchange prices were determined by marginal utility, which took into account a person’s current state – you will pay less for a loaf of bread if you already have as much as you can eat. When the transaction is complete, both parties ‘rest in satisfaction and equilibrium, and the degrees of utility have come to their level, as it were.’…Today, economists often prefer to work instead with preferences, which simply rank things or desires in order, but utility is still seen as a mysterious, unmeasurable, subjective quantity which individuals aim to maximise (a word invented by Bentham) through economic exchange, subject only to budgetary constraints. Perhaps the most famous description of this process is supplied by what Jevons called ‘the ordinary laws of supply and demand.’pp. 104-105

The law (or laws, as it is sometimes called to distinguish the two components) of supply and demand is…a graphical representation of [Adam] Smith’s invisible hand. If the price of some commodity is too high for whatever reason, then more suppliers will enter the market, while at the same time demand will fall. The result will be a surplus of supply, which will bring the price down. Conversely, if prices are too low then the combined response of and demand will push them back up again.

In fact, the only real difference is that utility has been substituted for labour as the presumed source of value. Since neither can be measured directly – only inferred from prices – this has no effect on the equations. Money has no role, other than as a book-keeping device for things like prices or budgetary constraints, so has dropped out of the calculations altogether, with any increase in budget leading only to increased consumption,” Genuine subjectivity has also been removed; individuals are treated as a black box, in the sense that the reasons for their motivations are left alone, but at the same time their actions are reduced to the maximisation of an equation. p. 106

This, then, represents the mathematical foundations underpinning modern economic “science” (hence my oft-used scare quotes). It is (still) based on Newtonian classical physics. It assumes people are “particles”: highly rational actors constantly attempting to maximize their ‘utility’ (an invented phantom quantity). It argues that prices are fixed entities that are “naturally” headed towards equilibrium (a magic number where supply = demand), assuming no “interference,” of course. And it assumes money is just a neutral medium of exchange with no effects on the underlying economy.

To make people as regular and predictable as elementary particles in physics, economists invented the concept of Homo economicus—rational economic man. Rational economic man makes rational decisions based on perfect knowledge according to his or her utility—utility being defined as above. Rational economic man is also purely selfish, looking out for only his own satisfaction and no one else’s. The rational economic man consistently asks only one question: “What’s in it for me?”:

When neoclassical economics was first developed in the late nineteenth century, the idea was to literally translate concepts from Newtonian physics into economics, to produce what the French philosopher – and founder of sociology – Auguste Comte had called a social physics: A property of Newtonian dynamics is that it can be expressed mathematically as a kind of optimisation problem: objects moving in a field take the path of least action, where action represents a form of energy expenditure.

For example, the diffraction of light through a glass prism can be viewed as light waves (or individual photons) taking the most efficient path. Newton’s contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, explained the idea by comparing God to an architect who ‘utilizes his location and the funds destined for the building in the most advantageous manner.’ Following the same script, neoclassical economists assumed that in the economy, individuals act to optimise their own utility by spending their limited resources. Economists could then make Newtonian calculations about how prices would be set in a market economy, to arrive at what William Stanley Jevons called a ‘mechanics of self-interest and utility’. p. 176

The equating of mechanics with economics was illustrated in the 1892 book Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Value and Prices by Irving Fisher, which was based on his Yale thesis (he was awarded that university’s first PhD in economics)…Economic agents were viewed as particles, while the marginal utility or disutility for a particular commodity (defined as the satisfaction gained from consuming one more unit of it) was viewed as a force acting in a kind of commodity space...

But the idea of people acting rationally has been substantially undermined by modern psychology. People are hardly rational. They are full of various ‘cognitive biases’ and errors. They use rules of thumb and simplification. They do not have perfect knowledge or judgement. They are often highly irrational. They are sometimes selfish, and sometimes altruistic. They are social animals, and therefore vulnerable to social pressures and herd behavior. While there is a branch of economics that theoretically studies this (behavioral economics), none of its conclusions have been incorporated into fundamental economic concepts or models.

Now, if physicists’ fundamental model of the particle were to be somehow disproved, then how could the entire field not be called into question? Yet this never, ever happens in economics. Instead, it’s just swept under the rug as “necessary simplifications” with a few minor exceptions that can safely be ignored. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except for the fact that economics is supposedly the principal determinant of the social order according to politicians. We exist for the health of the economy, not the reverse.

Indeed, the libertarian’s entire philosophy and world view is dependent upon this idealized clockwork mechanism operating as smoothly as the orbit of planets around the sun or the falling of objects in a vacuum.

One big idea in the book is that prices are actually a quantum phenomenon. Prices have no objective, independent existence apart from our observations; prices can only decisively determined at the time of sale. Before said sale, it is an ‘indeterminate’ quantity—existing in theory, but impossible to be pinpointed with 100% accuracy. Only once the transaction is completed does the price becomes reified and measurable in various currencies.

Orrell makes an analogy with quantum physics, where a particle’s speed and position are unknown and indeterminate until it is observed and measured. We can, for example, assign a position or direction to a particle (but not both). It only exists in a range of potential; once a transaction is completed the potential ‘collapses’, into a fixed number we call ‘price’, but before that it’s properties are indeterminate, not fixed.

The diffuse nature of the wave equation meant that the true state of a particle could never be completely nailed down. The German physicist Werner Heisenberg argued that it therefore made no sense to speculate about what was going on inside the atom. The true state of a particle was unknowable, and all we had were observations, which were subject to inherent uncertainty because of the wave equation. He quantified this with his uncertainty principle, which stated that the more accurately a particles position was measured, the more uncertain was its momentum, and vice versa. p. 34

Think of items at a yard sale or an estate sale. Having conducted a number of these this past year, I can tell you that there is no set value—and hence no absolute price—for any item. An item is only “worth” what someone agrees to pay for it; before that it is just an indeterminate idea or concept, and one that is often quite wrong.

Of course, when we go to a store, we see prices on everything. This tricks us into thinking that prices are some sort of absolute value measurement like temperature or distance. But even these “set” numbers are only theoretical until someone actually purchases the item—that is, the money exchange takes place. Until that event takes place, prices are imaginary. Think of stores selling highly inflated prices for bottled water just before a hurricane, or slashing the prices of items like turkeys after Thanksgiving.

For example, what is modern art really worth? Why are the paintings of Van Gogh, which were literally worth noting in his lifetime, now auctioned for millions of dollars? What some people see as random splotches on canvas, others are willing to pay top dollar for. While this may be an extreme example, even a casual glance at Craigslist or eBay will confirm that value is not so easily mapped to prices, even at the margin.

I would argue that value is inherently a subjective quality, and thus impossible to determine! In that sense, it is analogous to beauty, which is also inherently subjective. While some things can be classified as objectively beautiful with a high degree of certainty (say, Renaissance paintings or Classical sculpture); others are much more de gustibus (i.e. ‘in the eye of the beholder’). However, we do not profess to measure beauty by an absolute, numerical scale. Nor do we claim that it is regular and predictable, or that it can be modeled accurately.

But the key point is, if price is an indeterminate quantity, then the smooth supply and demand curves used by Neoclassical economists (which treat prices as stable and heading towards equilibrium) are not valid. Instead, prices are better described by the principles of quantum physics:

The transaction is rather like the measurement process in physics, where we measure – put a number on – the position of a particle, or record how far it moves in a certain time. Even there, we know from quantum physics that position and time are not simple, linear, external quantities. They warp and connect and break into small parts. In other words, they are not like number. Measurement is a far more complex procedure than appearances suggest – hence the uncertainty principle.

Money therefore acts in markets as a measurement device: a means to collapse the estimate of an assets value down to a single point, akin to the process of wave function collapse which occurs during quantum measurement. Rather than measuring labour, or utility, it is measuring money, which in quantum economics is treated as a fundamental quantity (it might be made-up, but so is the economy, and money at least has well-defined units). Like a photon, a money object is not an inert particle, but a quantum entity in its own right which affects what is being measured.

…The economy as a whole can be viewed as a giant market where producers’ asks are being reconciled with consumers’ offers. As individuals we may usually feel like pricetakers, paying whatever our budget can afford, but as a group we act so as price-makers. Our bids are constrained and channelled by price lists and conventions, but nothing is set in stone, and there is always an element of uncertainty…supply and demand cannot be neatly separated, but are two aspects of a coupled system. pp. 116-117

The invisible hand is invisible because it doesn’t exist.

This view of prices demolishes the whole idea of supply and demand curves which stand at the heart of Neoclassical economics. Rather than markets “naturally” heading towards equilibrium, Quantum Economics argues that the economy is inherently unstable, using examples from unorthodox thinkers like Frederick Soddy and Hyman Minsky. That’s why, he argues, “the most appropriate models for economics tend to be based on mathematical techniques such as complexity and network theory that have proved useful for the study of complex organic systems in general.” (p. 49)

[An economics] textbook…explains that ‘A good way to think about the market equilibrium is to imagine that the demand curve is blue, that the supply curve is yellow, and that the only color we can see in the real world is green.’ The market equilibrium comes at the point where the two curves intersect, and the punch line – yellow and blue makes green! – carries an important lesson: the green dot has no independent existence of its own, and it doesn’t move unless either the yellow line or the blue line moves.

…Even though textbooks routinely claim that these lines have been empirically measured, (and people have certainly tried) it is in fact impossible to properly measure a ‘supply curve’ or a ‘demand curve’ – all we can do is measure transactions at a particular price (the green dots) and the result we obtain will include the effects of both supply and demand, is. We are therefore trying to tease out the values of two variables – supply and demand- from a single number, which doesn’t work (in mathematics this is known as the identifiability problem). And in fact there are plenty of reasons to believe that it makes no sense to view supply and demand as stable (for a time) and separate entities, rather than as parts of a coupled dynamic system.
pp. 117-118

As Orrell sums up in an online article for Aeon:

To sum up, the key tenets of mainstream or neoclassical economics – including such things as ‘utility’ or ‘demand curves’ or ‘rational economic man’ – are just made-up inventions, no more real than the crystalline spheres that Medieval astronomers thought suspended the planets. But real things like money are to a remarkable extent ignored.

Economics is quantum (Aeon)

Indeed, real things like money are indeed ignored in economics, to the surprise of most laypeople (i.e. outside of the “priesthood”). Economic “science” considers money to be nothing more than a neutral medium of exchange—just a convenient item to facilitate transactions. The total amount of this intermediate item in existence may effect prices to some degree, but the fundamental nature of the item itself (precious metals, paper, cowrie shells, iron nails, Newfoundland cod)—and how it is brought into existence—does not matter; only the exchanges do.

This grows out of the orthodox origin story of money as merely an intermediate item that can exchanged for all other items in an economy to facilitate barter transactions. So economists study only the transactions and ignore the role of money; it is just a “veil” over what is essentially a barter economy at heart.

…what does money do?…Most economists, the answer has long been very simple – nothing special. Money is just an inert chip with no special properties of its own. To understand the economy, economists should not focus on money – in fact, they should do the opposite, and ignore its bewitching and distracting activities…This attitude was born in part from the Aristotelian creation myth that money evolved as a substitute for barter, so it was just another commodity that could be exchanged like any other. As Paul Samuelson wrote in Economics, ‘if we strip exchange down to its barest essentials and peel off the obscuring layer of money, we find that trade between individuals and nations largely boils down to barter.’ But it also reflected a Newtonian view of the economy as a mechanistic system, in which the two sides of money were collapsed down to a single point, and money became no more than another inert particle to be held or exchanged. pp. 99-100

Quantum Economics argues that money should be a fundamental element of economic analysis. Furthermore, it embodies multiple, simultaneous qualities, just like light can be described and modeled as both a wave and a particle—both/and as opposed to either/or. Both of these “mental models” can be used to understand light. Similarly, money embodies multiple qualities at the same time. We can choose which model or aspect to examine for our purposes—medium of exchange, store of value, or means of denominating debts, etc.

Throughout its history, money has alternated between these two sides, presenting either as a virtual system for accounting (clay cuneiforms in ancient Mesopotamia, wooden tally sticks in early Medieval England, electronic money today), or as a treasured thing (Ancient Greece and Rome, the gold standard), while retaining the essential characteristics of each. The dichotomy is also reflected in our two main theories of money: chartalism, which says that money represents a virtual debt to the state; and bullionism, which says it boils down to metal. Most economists ignore the debate and treat money as an inert medium of exchange with no special properties of its own. The situation therefore resembles the old debate about whether light was a virtual wave (Aristotle) or a real particle (Isaac Newton). Eventually, quantum physicists came to the conclusion that light isn’t a particle or a wave, it is both at the same time. Most people didn’t care, and just worried about keeping the lights on, and so it is with money.

Economics is quantum (Aeon)

There is a good section on the history of money. Quantum Economics examines what’s sometimes called the Endogenous Theory of Money. That is, banks do not lend money that’s already in existence that has been deposited with them. Rather, new money is brought into existence anytime the bank initiates a new loan.

Mainstream economists, remarkably, do not believe that this is true (despite the banks admitting to it). They instead argue that it is fractional reserve banking which increases the money supply. That is, banks can loan in excess of what they have on deposits (holding, say, only 10 percent of a loan amount on deposit). When that “new” money is subsequently deposited elsewhere, it can be used as a deposit for further loans.

But in reality, the banks are not constrained by the amount of money on deposit in their vaults and on their spreadsheets at any given point in time. Instead, they first make the loans, and then secure enough deposits to cover their reserve requirements. Where do these new deposits come from? From the central bank, of course! They simply ask for it.

So that means that the amount of money circulating in an economy is inherently connected to the amount of overall debt. As debts grow, so too does the amount of money in circulation. If there is too much money circulating for proper investment, it can lead to bubbles—particularly asset bubbles. People buy assets which are increasing in value not because they derive any utility from it at all (for example, an empty flat in London), but because they can use the appreciation of the asset’s value to get more money.

…Since money is created by private banks when they issue debts, a flip side is that when the debts are repaid, the money just disappears back into the void, like a particle annihilating with its anti-particle. As noted by the Bank of England, Just as taking out a new loan creates money, the repayment of bank loans destroys money… Banks making loans and consumers repaying them are the most significant ways in which bank deposits are created and destroyed in the modern economy. So unless new loans are constantly created to replace these funds, the money supply will shrink, further exacerbating a downturn. p. 133

The most obvious reason for omitting the pivotal role of banks…was because economists wanted to keep money out of the equation. Only by doing so could they maintain the pretense that the economy is some kind of barter system based on rational exchange. Just as subjectivity is considered taboo in sociology, so the emotion-laden topic of money creation is taboo in economics. More troubling, perhaps, are indications that attempts were made to obfuscate, as if authors were at times willfully trying to confuse their audience and lead them away from the important insight that each individual bank creates new money when it extends credit…p. 134

Consequently, a capitalist market economy is a highly complex, interconnected, dynamic, stochastic system. Thus, it cannot be modeled by the tools of classical physics with its Classical pretensions of exact measurements and deterministic, interacting particles. With this flawed conception of market economies, it’s no wonder economic models have failed to make accurate predictions. Having documented the problems with the concepts and worldview of orthodox economics, much of the latter half of the book is devoted to analyzing the failures of economists to predict recurrent financial panics and crashes.

Economics is often compared to meteorology, and even sometimes models itself after that field. William Stanley Jevons wrote in 1871 that economics would become ‘a science as exact as many of the physical sciences; as exact, for instance, as Meteorology is likely to be for a very long time to come.’… p. 229

The most obvious difference between the weather and the economy, from a forecasting perspective, is that we create, and have some direct control over, the latter. Recessions are not random storms that come out of nowhere, as economists like to portray them, but are things that we take part in and can take steps to actively prevent. Economists are also entangled financially with the system they are studying. Viewed this way, it is true that it is not completely fair to compare economics with weather forecasting. Economists’ responsibility is far greater, and is more like that of engineers or doctors – instead of predicting exactly when the system will crash, they should warn of risks, incorporate design features to help avoid failure, know how to address problems when they occur, and be alert for conflicts of interest, ethical violations, and other forms of professional negligence.

Its failings in these areas, rather than any particular forecast, are the real reason so many are calling for a genuinely new paradigm in economics, as opposed to a rehashed version of the old one. And the danger is not pluralism (doctors don’t always agree either), but a monoculture based on flawed ideas. Macroeconomic forecasting might be a relatively small part of economics, but its missed predictions and mis-analysis, with their dramatic real-world consequences, are just the most visible and concerning symptom of a deeper problem which starts with the basic assumptions, and affects other branches of mainstream economics. pp.257-258

What this means, Orrell ultimately concludes, is that the concepts derived from quantum physics have much to contribute in fixing the conceptual errors in the conventional Neoclassical economic framework. But while physics is actively incorporating quantum models into its framework, economics remains resistant to any change or development. Perhaps this is because the tenets of the current economic pseudo-science is so very amenable for protecting and promoting the interests of the already rich and powerful around the world.

If quantum economics has a central principle, though, it is that it is not possible to take this kind of detached, impersonal view of the economy. We are entangled with each other and with the economy as a whole, and our subjective judgements about value both define the economy, and are shaped by the economy. The quantum T has an independent, localised, ‘particle aspect’, but also a diffuse and entangled ‘wave aspect’ – in a very real sense, we are not just influenced by, but are actually formed by our relationships, especially when money is involved. This quantum objectivism, if we call it that, might sound a bit mystical, but really it is a more realistic version of Randian objectivism: reality has a quantum nature that is dependent on consciousness; one cannot always attain knowledge about this reality through the use of inductive logic; the purpose of life is more than the pursuit of one’s own happiness; individuals are entangled. And as we have already seen, it has a number of practical implications for the field of economics… p.301

Quantum Economics Paper at Real World Economics Review (PDF)

On MMT and Venezuela

For those of you not members of the C-Realm Vault podcast, the latest episode features some correspondence from me, so because I’m feeling lazy this weekend, I’ll just feature that correspondence here.

The context was an older episode I listened to after finally getting around to watching Westworld. Getting even more meta, the relevant part was another letter from a listener called Gus. Gus was reacting to an interview with Charles High Smith, of the Of Two Minds blog.

Charles is not a fan of the Universal Basic Income idea, and he argued that it was ‘unaffordable.’ It would simply cost too much money to implment. This isn’t unique—it’s clearly the most common criticism of UBI (along with moral hazard). Charles also felt that people needed formal work in order to feel like a valuable, contributing member of society, and that not having a job was detrimental to one’s self-esteem—also a common argument.

Listener Gus took issue with that, using Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as a takeoff. Here is some of his correspondence, read by KMO on CRV293:

“The piece of the puzzle missing is actually understanding money, debt, accounting. A lot of the stuff in the interview sounded like it came from 5-10 years ago, before people learned MMT, or Modern Monetary Theory. Charles [Hugh Smith] mentioned the old notion that money is anything that acts as a store of value, a medium of exchange, [or] a unit of account, which was the best people could come up with when they didn’t really understand money–just defining it by what it does, rather than what it *is*. It’s like saying that a tree is anything that is tall, provides shade, and that you can climb. So in prison, basketball hoops can be trees.”

“Money is transferable credit – an IOU – debt for the issuer; credit for the bearer. An emergent social phenomenon existing in accounting balance sheets, and there are loads of repercussions in your thinking once you really grasp the concept, plus learn a bit about how the plumbing of government finance works. So all the opinions, predictions, evidence, etc. about the psychological effect of jobs and work for humans–great. But having strong opinions about money, UBI, Steve Keen’s proposals, inflation, etc. without actually understanding debt and money? It’s like listening someone talk about orbits in the solar system before they learned basic Newtonian physics.”

“For example a ton of very smart people get sucked into the Right/Libertarian black hole when their staring assumption–that government spends our tax dollars–is faulty, even if they have sound, principled logic applied after that…”

KMO then reacts to this part of the letter:

“This is something I encounter a lot–A LOT. ‘If you didn’t mention my pet theory, then you’ve never heard of it.’…I can assure you that Charles Hugh Smith has encountered Modern Monetary Theory. It’s not a new discovery…”

KMO goes on to compare MMT advocates to the acolytes of Ayn Rand, in the sense that they believe that those who don’t share their point of view either must not have heard of it, or are just too dumb to understand it (i.e. either stupid or ignorant). This attitude is also shared, he says, by advocates of Peak Oil Doomerism, Techno-utopians, and many other topics.

Let me just break in for a moment here (I realize this is confusing as to who is saying what, but I don’t know how to make it any clearer—sorry!). I certainly hope that I don’t display the rigidity and fanaticism of a Randroid in my advocacy of Modern Monetary Theory. But I don’t think Gus’s assumptions were all that unreasonable.

First, there is no way from just hearing the interview to know whether or not CHS was familiar with MMT or not. Second, he may reject the premises, but we don’t know why. Is it for legitimate reasons, or is just for emotional reasons?

And this may be behind the “attitude” of some MMT advocates CHS criticizes. Here’s something I encounter a lot–A LOT–people don’t wish to logically refute the points raised by MMT, they simply refuse to accept it! I’ve literally heard people say that they simply “refuse to believe” that the national debt is not a horrible crisis, or that taxes are not required for the government to spend. It’s literally a “faith-based” argument. It’s like people saying “I experience the earth as a flat plane, thereby it is so,” and refusing even to look at a globe or a photo of the earth from space for emotional reasons.

So, if there’s a bit of arrogance and frustration on the part of MMT supporters, I would say it’s partly because people refuse to engage in legitimate, good faith debate, or even attempt to refute its logic, and just keep repeating the “conventional wisdom” as a kind of religious mantra.

Anyway, back to the show. KMO then presents a “steel manning” of the MMT point of view, using the analogy of running out of inches to build a house when all the labor and materials are present. He also brings up David Graeber’s book to dismiss the bullionist theory of money in favor of chartalism. He then backs up, apparently deleting some of his thoughts, and says the following:

[19:36] “…MMT gets presented to people nowadays as a coherent and new body of thought, and it is nothing of the sort. With reguard to the idea that a government can create as much money as it thinks is necessary with no underlying basis for that wealth; no physical correlate for that currency, well, let me just direct you to the example of Venezuela. Here’s a very short piece from Reuters:”

He the reads the following new story:

Venezuela annual inflation exceeds 6,000 percent in Feb – National Assembly (Reuters)

Followed by:

“So that short piece from Reuters brings in one very relevant piece of information which is that Venezuela is rich in oil. They should be able to convert that oil into monetary wealth and, if they are of a mind to, share it broadly with the people. Hugo Chavez managed this for some years, in spite of the fact that the U.S. administration was as opposed to the Chavez’s regime as they are to the current one. I’m definitely not discounting the portion of the narrative that says that Venezuela is struggling in this way in part because of economic warfare being waged against it by the United States and its allies.”

“But I would ask you, Gus, and anyone else who is enamored with MMT, how is the Venezuelan example not in line with the prescription of Modern Monetary Theorists? That is not a rhetorical question; I invite your feedback.”

“How is the Venezuelan example not in line with the prescription of Modern Monetary Theorists?” It’s a valid, and I think an important, question. Now, I didn’t think the example of Venezuela was a particularly valid demonstration of the core ideas of MMT , but I wanted to do a bit of research to verify that this was truly the case. Honestly, I wish MMT advocates would address this question a bit more heads-on; I had to dig to find good information.

But first, a few words about MMT. Is it, or is it not, a coherent body of thought? I would argue that various gaps in knowledge do not render it incoherent, otherwise we could dismiss the entirety of Neoclassical economics just as easily! We could also dismiss Marxism, Keynesianism, and a whole lot of other traditional economic and sociological concepts using the same logic. No one seems to be bothered by the many holes and inconsistencies in “traditional” economics which is taught in universities every single day—from the absurd fiction of Homo economicus to weaseling concepts like externalities and ceteris paribus. Yet, economics IS presented explicitly as a locally consistent and coherent body of thought to the public all the time! For example, just one idea—the Theory of the Second Best—seems to undermine much of Neoclassical economic thought:

In fact, it could be argued that Neoclassical economics—which eliminates money entirely from its analysis—is the more incoherent body of thought. It not only failed to predict the latest economic crisis, but may have even contributed to it with it’s ideas of rational expectations and markets tending towards equilibrium. By contrast, MMT does not have the same blind spot. This is pointed out in the introduction to the book Quantum Economics by David Orrell, author of Economyths:

What is economics?

How about this for an exciting definition: economics is the study of transactions involving money.

Obvious, right? Economists talk about money all the time. Everything gets expressed in terms of dollars or euros, yen or yuan. The health of a nation is reduced to how much they produce, as measured by Gross Domestic Product; a person’s value to society is expressed by how much they earn. Economics is about money! Everyone knows that.

And yet, if you look at an economics textbook, it turns out that the field is defined a little differently. Most follow the English economist Lionel Robbins, who wrote in 1932 that ‘Economics is a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.’ Gregory Mankiw’s widely-used Principles of Economics for example states that ‘Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources.’ Or as it is sometimes paraphrased, economics is the science of scarcity. No mention of money at all.

And if you read a little further in those same textbooks, you will find that economists do not talk about money all the time – in fact they steer clear of it. Money is used as a metric, but – apart perhaps from chapters to do with basic monetary plumbing – is not considered an important subject in itself. The textbooks are like physics books that use time throughout in equations but never pause to talk about what time is. And both money and the role of the financial sector are usually completely missing from economic models, or paid lip service to.

Economists, it seems, think about money less than most people do: as the former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King observed, ‘Most economists hold conversations in which the word money hardly appears at all.’ pp. 1-2

Second, is it something new or not? In fact, the term “Modern” in the name is a bit misleading. As KMO notes, many ideas date to the early twentieth century and earlier, including the work of Alfred Mitchell-Innes, G.F. Knapp, Frederick Soddy, Joseph Schumpeter, and Hyman Minsky, among many others.

But, I would argue that “Modern” does, in fact, make sense, in the sense that it analyzes our current monetary regime. If we were to analyze the operation of the monetary and economic systems for the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, medieval England, Renaissance Venice, or Ancien Régime France, its analysis would not be valid. Instead, iIt analyzes our MODERN monetary system, which was established after 1688 when a consortium of wealthy merchants and bankers formed a joint-stock corporation called the Bank of England in order to manage King William of Orange’s war debt. The king’s debts now circulated as negotiable currency, with taxes now going to fund the debt to the bank which managed the state’s finances. As David Orrell notes in Quantum Economics:

In medieval England the stock half of a tally stick became a money object representing a credit, made up by the king, that could be collected. With the founding of the Bank of England, the direction reversed, so that money is now based on the state’s debt to the private sector. With modern fiat currencies that are backed only by the word of the state, the central bank goes a step further and creates money not by loaning real assets to the state, but by loaning made-up funds, produced magically at the press of a button. p.92

In some other ways, Modern Monetary Theory IS new. The modern renaissance in this subject began with a bond trader named Warren Mosler. Later, economists such as Randall Wray and Stephanie Kelton, among others, began to flesh out the paradigm, using economic history as a guide. Numerous other economists have also contributed to this field—Steve Keen, Bill Mitchell, Michael Hudson, Pavlina Tcherneva, et. al. So, a good part of the formal development and propagation of MMT ideas has, indeed, taken place in the last thirty years or so.

Finally, about the theory part. As MMT advocates never tire of pointing out, MMT is descriptive of how the monetary system of a sovereign nation works. I have not yet seen its description of how money works in modern economies actually refuted. The worst you could say is that it’s irrelevant, which is what mainstream economics usually does.

I compare it to the hydrological cycle. The hydrological cycle describes the movement of water on planet earth. The ramification of this to the ecosystem, expressed by things like monsoons or droughts, would be the theory derived from it.

Similarly, there is a theoretical aspect to MMT in the sense that it’s proscriptions–how we should run an economy based on this information–are theoretical. It’s fair to discuss and criticize them. But in that sense, all of economics is a theory, described by Wikipedia as, “a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking.” MMT is at least based on the reality of how money works, unlike “traditional” economics. And, like any theory, it will be developed, refined, and extended over time based on new data and research.

My letter is below. If you’ve listened to CRV319 then you’ve already heard it.


Re: Venezuela: The most common factor I’ve seen cited for Venezuela’s economic crisis is the fall in the price of oil. Being a major oil producer, paradoxically, is a cause of, rather than a palliative, for Venezuela’s economic woes. The reasons stem from the Resource Curse phenomena, or something called the “Dutch Disease” (for reasons too obscure to go into here.)

We all remember the spike in oil prices around 2008, when many believed that the Peak Oil “reckoning” was upon us. Basically, the Chavez administration used the windfall from the years of high oil prices to implement a suite of generous social policies—his “Bolivarian Revolution.” And, in those years, it really did reduce poverty and increase the living standards of poorer Venezuelans quite substantially based on economic metrics. This led to support for Socialist policies, which is still ongoing in a significant portion of the electorate.

The Dutch Disease is when a nation’s entire economy is centered around one particular commodity (such as oil). Thus, the country’s national budget is tied to the price of that commodity, which fluctuates. When the price is high, the government’s budget is flush. But a reversal in the price of that commodity causes the entire national budget to go into the red, and the overall economy takes a significant hit, affecting the currency and interest rates. This tends to not happen in more diversified economies, although it’s worth noting that even in the United States, the state budgets of places like Texas and Oklahoma also take a hit during periods of low oil prices (less so California in recent times). Texas is, however, not a sovereign currency issuer.

The problem is, that because the Venezuelan government’s revenues were so tightly bound to the price of oil, when the price of oil plummeted after 2013 or so, it took the government’s budget down along with it. The socialist government, however, chose not adjust the social spending it put in place during the era of high oil prices. As this economic blogger put it:

“…growth has been tied to terms of trade and the price of oil. Also, not only the economy collapses when the price of oil collapses, but exchange rate depreciation, in the black market now, leads to high inflation, which goes often with shortages. Anybody that has lived through high inflation in Latin America in the 1980s knows this. It has nothing to do with fiscal policy, or with the central bank printing money. The fiscal situation worsened as a result of lack of growth and the external problems.”

A brief note on Venezuela and the turn to the right in Latin America (Naked Keynesianism)

The above blogger points out that this is not a new or unique phenomena for Venezuela. Long before the Maduro or Chavez administrations, a very similar thing happened in the late 1980’s. Falling oil prices caused a budget crisis, and the implementation of Neoliberal economic “reforms.” This, in turn, led to urban rioting in the capital of Caracas, called the Caracazo. Wikipedia has this to say about the Caracazo:

“A fall in oil prices in the mid-1980s caused an economic crisis to take hold in Venezuela, and the country had accrued significant levels of debt. Nevertheless, the administration of the left-leaning President Jaime Lusinchi was able to restructure the country’s debt repayments and offset an economic crisis but allow for the continuation of the government’s policies of social spending and state-sponsored subsidies. Lusinchi’s political party, the Democratic Action, was able to remain in power following the 1988 election of Carlos Andrés Pérez as president.”

“Pérez then proposed a major shift in policy by implementing neoliberal economic reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)…Measures taken by Pérez included privatizing state companies, tax reform, reducing customs duties, and diminishing the role of the state in the economy…The most controversial part of the economic reform package was the elimination of the gasoline subsidies, which had long maintained domestic gasoline prices far beneath international levels and even the production costs. When the subsidy was eliminated, gasoline prices rose by as much as 100% and so the costs of public transportation rose by 30%.”

Caracazo (Wikipedia)

SO I don’t think that analogies between the Venezuelan economy and our own can tell us very much. They are fundamentally different creatures. After all, the United States is the world’s largest economy, and issues the world’s reserve currency. Those facts alone make any analogy difficult, if not impossible. There is always a demand for dollars. There has never been a single case of hyperinflation in the postwar period in any major industrialized G-7 economy. I’m sorry, comparing the U.S. to Zimbabwe, which I often hear, is absolutely ridiculous. No one who does that should be taken seriously.

Furthermore, despite popular belief, most of U.S. debt is held domestically and denominated in U.S. dollars. As MMT economists will tell you, this makes a huge difference. It effects the level of allowable domestic spending by governments. This is not the case with Venezuela. This is the best one-paragraph summary I’ve seen of the situation from a poster on Reddit:

“Venezuela gave up being monetary sovereign when they borrowed US Dollars, Euros, and gold. They borrowed these, in part, to finance trade with foreign powers. The idea was to repay these loans with dollars earned by the sale of oil — but the oil market dropped and they were unable to obtain enough dollars from the sale of oil, so they printed more of their own currency to trade in exchange for dollars. When that happened, prices began to increase, due to there being more and more bolivar in the system. To keep prices down, the government enacted price caps. This backfired, causing producers to stop producing, effectively destroying the productive capacity of the country. So now they owe a lot of foreign debt, their currency is crap, their productive capacity is trashed, and people are mad.”


So the debate is not whether any sovereign state does, or does not, have the money to accomplish any particular social goal it sets for itself–whether that be poverty alleviation or infrastructure improvement. The question is, rather, “What the macroeconomic effects will be?” To say, “We don’t have the money,” is not a valid argument for a sovereign currency issuer (although it might be valid for a currency user, such as a corporation or a municipality). To say, “we don’t have the resources,” or “it will be inflationary” IS a valid argument, however. Furthermore, the amount of debt is immaterial. The amount of debt is only significant if it affects the costs to borrow. Confidence in the currency is also tied to confidence in the institutions of any particular government, including its levels of corruption and its ability to reliably collect the taxes it is owed by its citizens. Many so-called “banana republics” struggle with this, as do even some Mediterranean states like Greece and Italy.

For a smaller economy like that of Venezuela, it needs to borrow, and it needs to import. It is not an autarky. Just because it has lots of oil does not mean it can be self-sufficient, or make all the resources it needs to run its economy. Thus, issuing more money without the ability of the economy to supply more goods and services WILL be inflationary according to MMT. It’s worth noting that Venezuela is under an economic embargo, which is not, of course, true of the United States. I’ve also heard credible stories of right-wing business leaders deliberately hoarding goods and refusing to distribute them specifically to undermine the socialist government. I can’t reliably confirm this, but if true, this would also factor into Venezuela’s hyperinflation problem. That’s also very different than the case in the U.S.

SO, in conclusion, there are significant differences between the situation in Venezuela and that of the United States. Having said all that, however, many economists working in the MMT paradigm DO, in fact, believe that a Universal Basic Income would be inflationary. If you increase the supply of money faster than the economy can absorb it, inflation is a likely outcome according to MMT. No contradiction there. Also, if you increase government spending without adjusting the level of taxation, you increase the supply of the currency floating around. This will “dilute” the value of that currency, causing inflation. If a UBI scheme is to be truly Universal, its quite likely that the economy would not be able to accommodate the sudden increase in spending power in the short run, leading to inflation. Such inflation would eat into the real monetary value of any UBI scheme we wish to implement.

That’s why most of the MMT economists I read and follow advocate something called the “Job Guarantee” rather than a Universal Basic Income. This would simply be the hiring by the government of people who cannot currently find remunerative work in either the public or private sector. Essentially, this is simply the government acting as the employer of last resort. Such workers could then be deployed to accomplish important social tasks that the private sector currently finds unprofitable. AS MMT economists point out, the U.S. can purchase any commodity for sale in U.S. dollars, including the labor of its own citizens, in whatever quantity is able to be supplied.

The debate over the Job Guarantee usually does not center around whether or not we have the money to accomplish it. Governments already employ millions of people, after all. Rather, the debate centers around whether there is enough useful work to give these people to do, or whether such jobs would end up being merely useless busywork; in David Graeber’s phrasing—”Bullshit Jobs.” That is open to debate. In my experience, people who believe that such jobs would be useless are the ones who gravitate towards UBI, as do people who already have non-remunerative creative gigs (we might include ourselves here).

In parts of Europe, in the age before Neoliberalism, the government was often commonly used this way. Aspiring politicians would promise–and then create–all sort of new government positions for their supporters and patrons in the cause of “job creation.” That’s why, back in the day, visitors to Southern Europe would be struck by the numerous government employees appeared to do little ease besides eat lunch and watch football while smoking. This, in turn, plays into the European stereotype of “lazy Southerners” that effects the debate over things like Greece’s economic problems to this day.

I would put forward the argument that the United States already has a similar program in place: The U.S. military. In my opinion, the U.S. military acts as an employer of last result and an economic stimulus package for the private sector. Surely, the level of military spending is far in excess of any practical need. And it keeps going up. Furthermore, no one EVER questions whether or not we have the money to pay for military spending. Here are some statistics I ran across:

“The U.S. Department of Defense is the nation’s largest employer, with over 1.4 million active duty personnel and 1.1 million reservists. It also employs 861,000 civilians. There are 450,000 employees stationed overseas in 163 countries. An additional 3 million Americans receive income from DoD.”

“There are also 1.1 million people serving in the National Guard and Reserve forces, and two million veterans and their families who rely on this income from their past service. Because of the enormous number of past and present personnel, the DoD is also the nation’s largest healthcare provider, serving 9.5 million military members, retirees, and their families.”

Department of Defense, What It Does, and Its Impact (The Balance)

So, although your correspondent was technically correct about us having the money, the actual picture is more complicated. But I don’t think that Venezuela or Zimbabwe tell us much about the case in the U.S.


Interestingly, it appears that something like the Caracazo is taking place in Paris right now. It’s even caused in part by rising gasoline prices (in this case by new taxes rather than the elimination of subsidies).

The Social Effects of Scale

What originally brought to mind Maine’s conception of ancient societies were some passages I read in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book Skin In the Game.

Taleb makes the point that things don’t necessarily scale up; when they do, they lose the characteristics that allow them to operate on the smaller scale. They transform into something altogether different, with very different characteristics. Last time, we pondered why the old kinship-based, non-hierarchical “gentile constitution” fell apart. I think the simple answer to that question is: as societies got bigger, that system could no longer work. That is, it could not scale. New modes of living came to replace it, as we’ve seen, bringing things like social classes, currency, written laws, markets, and government offices. This was not a simple or linear process.

But the new systems favored certain unscrupulous individuals—the ‘Triple-A’ type personalities—who could take advantage of this change to enhance their own power and prestige in ways that they could not before. This, in turn, leads to many of the social dysfunctions that plague our modern Liberal world order today.

In ancient societies, as we saw, people belonged to various groups and subgroups, and this is not only what defined their core social identity, but their quotidian behavior as well. Furthermore, this allowed society to function in the absence of written laws or formalized institutions. “Society”, such as it was, was the aggregate of these various groups, and not a single, unified thing. This is very important. This is why ancient governments could be so minimal. Their modern functions were accomplished largely via other methods, but in ways that did not scale.

In his book, Sources of Social Power, sociologist Michael Mann begins by arguing this very point—that the bounded, unitary, linear conception of society as a whole completely misrepresents what a society actually is. In his attempt to understand where power comes from and how it is wielded, he begins by eliminating this unitary conception of society from his analysis:

Societies are not unitary. They are not social systems (closed or open); they are not totalities. We can never find a single bounded society in geographical space. Because there is no system, no totality, there cannot be “sub-systems,” “dimensions,” or “levels” of such a totality…Because there is no bounded totality, it is not helpful to divide social change or conflict into “endogenous” and “exogenous” varieties. Because there is no social system, there is no “evolutionary” process within it. Because humanity is not divided into a series of bounded totalities, “diffusion” of social organization does not occur between them…Yet most sociological orthodoxies – such as systems theory, Marxism, structuralism, structural functionalism, normative functionalism, multidimensional theory, evolutionism, diffusionism, and action theory – mar their insights by conceiving of “society” as an unproblematic, unitary totality…State, culture, and economy are all important structuring networks; but they almost never coincide. There is no one master concept or basic unit of “society.” It may seem an odd position for a sociologist to adopt; but if I could, I would abolish the concept of “society” altogether. pp. 1-2

A theoretical assumption lies at the base of the unitary conception: Because people are social animals, they have a need to create a society, a bounded and patterned social totality. But this is false. Human beings need to enter into social power relations, but they do not seed social totalities. They are social, but not societal, animals. p.14

To conceive of societies as confederal, overlapping, intersecting networks rather than as simply totalities complicates theory. But we must introduce further complexity. Real institutionalized networks of interaction do not have a simple one-to-one relationship to the ideal-typical sources of social power from which I started. This will lead us to break down the equation of functions and organizations and to recognize their “promiscuity.”

This lead to Mann’s working definition of society:

A society is a network of social interaction at the boundaries of which is a certain level of interaction and cleavage between it and its environment. A society is a unit with boundaries, and it contains interactions that is [sic] relatively dense and stable; that is, internally patterned when compared to interaction that would cross its boundaries. p. 13

Let us examine the etymology of “society.” It derives from the Latin societas. This elaborated socius, meaning a non-Roman ally, a group willing to follow Rome in war. Such a term is common in Indo-European languages, deriving from the root sekw, meaning “follow.” It denotes an asymmetrical alliance, society as a loose confederation of stratified allies. We will see that this, not the unitary conception, is correct. Let us use the term “society” in its Latin, not its Romance, sense. p. 14

All of which feeds into Taleb’s salient observations. A society is a collection of people who have, in his terms, “skin in the game”—that is, their actions affect everyone else in their peer group, and everyone else’s actions affect them in turn. This allows society to function in ways very different that our large-scale anonymous contractually-based social order. This can be at the level of a village, a tribe, a monastic order, a corporation, or many other things. The rules and behavior towards people inside the collectivity are substantially different than those toward those outside the group. Here is the passage I noted in Skin in the Game:

Things don’t “scale” and generalize, which is why I have trouble with intellectuals taking about abstract notions. A country is not a large city, a city is not a large family, and, sorry, the world is not a large village. There are scale transformations we discuss here…

When Athenians treat all opinions equally and discuss “democracy,” they only apply It to their citizens, not slaves or metics (the equivalent of green card or H-lB visa holders). Effectively, Theodosius’s code deprived Roman citizens who married “barbarians” of their legal rights, hence ethical parity with others. They lost their club membership. As to Jewish ethics: it distinguishes between thick blood and thin blood: we are all brothers, but some are more brothers than others.

Free citizens, in ancient and post-classical societies, were traditionally part of clubs, with rules and member behavior similar to those in today’s country clubs, with an inside and an outside. As club members know, the very purpose of a club is exclusion and size limitation. Spartans could hunt and kill Helots, those noncitizens with a status of slaves, for training, but they were otherwise equal to other Spartans and expected to die for the sake of Sparta. The large cities in the pre-Christian ancient world, particularly in the Levant and Asia Minor, were full of fraternities and clubs, open and (often) secret societies-there was even such a thing as funeral clubs, where members shared the costs, and participated in the ceremonials, of funerals.

Today’s Roma people (aka Gypsies) have tons of strict rules of behavior toward Gypsies, and others toward the unclean non-Gypsies called payos. And, as the anthropologist David Graeber has observed, even the investment bank Goldman Sachs, known for its aggressive cupidity, acts like a communist community from within, thanks to the partnership system of governance.

So we exercise our ethical rules, but there is a limit from scaling beyond which the rules cease to apply. It is unfortunate, but the general kills the particular. The question we will reexamine later, after deeper discussion of complexity theory, is whether it is possible to be both ethical and universalist. In theory, yes, but, sadly, not in practice. For whenever the “we” becomes too large a club, things degrade, and each one starts fighting for his own interest. The abstract is way too abstract for us. This is the main reason I advocate political systems that start with the municipality, and work their way up, rather than the reverse, which has failed with larger states. Being somewhat tribal is not a bad thing-and we have to work in a fractal way in the organized harmonious relations between tribes, rather than merge all tribes in one large soup. In that sense, an American-style federalism is the ideal system.

This scale transformation from the particular to the general is behind my skepticism about unfettered globalization and large centralized multiethnic states…But you don’t have to go very far to get the importance of scaling. You know instinctively that people get along better as neighbors than roommates.

When you think about this, it is obvious, even trite, from the well-known behavior of crowds in the anonymity of big cities compared to groups in small villages. I spend some time in my ancestral village, where it feels like a family. People attend others’ funerals (funeral clubs were mostly for large cities), help out, and care about the neighbor, even if they hate his dog. There is no way you can get the same cohesion in a larger city when the “other” is a theoretical entity, and our behavior toward him or her is governed by some general ethical rule, not someone in flesh and blood. We get it easily when seen that way, but fail to generalize that ethics is something fundamentally local.

Now what the reason? Modernity put into our heads that there are two units: the individual and the universal collective–in that sense, skin in the game for you would be just for you, as a unit. In reality, my skin lies in a broader set of people, one that includes a family, a community, a tribe, a fraternity. But it cannot possibly be the universal.

Recall our discussion of Kant: theory is too theoretical for humans. The more confined our ethics, the less abstract, the better it works. Otherwise, as we will see with Elinor Ostrom’s result later in this chapter, the system cannot function properly. And, before Ostrom, our old friend Friedrich Nietzsche got the point:

“Sympathy for all would be tyranny for thee, my good neighbor…” pp. 57-60

This is also echoed in a passage from Mann’s book where he explicitly rejects the unitary conception of society:

Empirical proof [of a nonunitary, open conception of society] can be seen in the answer to a simple question: In which society do you live?

Answers are likely to start at two levels. One refers to national states: My society is “the United Kingdom,” “the United States,” “France,” or the like. The other is broader: “I am a citizen of “industrial society” or “capitalist society” or possibly “the West” or “the Western alliance.” We have a basic dilemma – a national state society versus a wider “economic society. From some important purposes, the national state represents a real interaction network with a degree of cleavage at its boundaries. For other important purposes, capitalism unites all three into into a wider interaction network, with cleavage at its edge. They are both “societies.” Complexities proliferate the more we probe. Military alliances, churches, common language, and so forth, all add powerful, sociospatially different networks of interaction. We could only answer after developing a sophisticated understanding of the complex interconnections and powers of these various crosscutting interaction networks. The answer would certainly imply a confederal rather than a unitary society. p.16

Which is exactly Taleb’s point, above. Fukuyama, in The Origins of Political Order, argues that the history of the modern state consists primarily of the process of transferring people’s primary social identity away from the family/tribe/confederacy to the territorial nation state. This underpins much of the last 6,000 years of history. One may be a firefighter, a Mason, a member of the Elk’s Club, a member of the Schmidt family with ethnically German roots, but above all, one is an American. The contrast is summed up in the Talking History podcast:

The Oxford English dictionary defines “nation” as, “A large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory so as to form a distinct people.” Note how this is not the same thing as a state, or a self-governing political entity. A nation is a collective identity that may or may not be self-governing or independent. Only in the modern world, beginning with the eighteenth century and growing ever since, do we associate nations and states to the point that we use the terms interchangeably.

Wikipedia notes that, “In Europe, before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a region or to a particular leader rather than to their nation. With the emergence of a public sphere and integrated economy in the eighteenth century, a broader sense of identification with one’s country began to permeate society. Nation states have their own characteristics differing from those of pre-national states. For a start, they have a different attitude to their territory compared to the dynastic monarchies. It is semi-sacred and non-transferable. No nation would swap territory with another state simply, for example, because the king’s daughter married.”

This gives you an important idea of the differences between the old and the new way of thinking. The pre-national era in Europe wasn’t based around countries, but [around] ruling families. For example, one doesn’t normally think of Austria, the Netherlands and Spain having much in common. However, due to marriage alliances, they all ended up being ruled by the same man—Charles V (known as Charles I in Spain), from 1519 to 1556. That’s thirty-seven years. Imagine if Japan, Canada, and Denmark abruptly agreed to have a joint prime minister for the next 37 years. Up until World War I, when Europeans sat down to draw borders, they tended to be more concerned about making all the dynasties happy rather than any logical plan with respect to who actually lived where.

Talking History: The Italian Unification 1790-1870, Episode 2

Of course, everyone should know by now that the arrangement of sovereign states in the modern world, particularly in the Near East and Africa, was drawn up by European colonizers based on power relations, with nothing whatsoever to do with the nations that lived there, or the geography, or the history, or anything else. The impact of this on our modern world cannot be overstated!

In 1884 at the request of Portugal, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark called together the major western powers of the world to negotiate questions and end confusion over the control of Africa. Bismark appreciated the opportunity to expand Germany’s sphere of influence over Africa and desired to force Germany’s rivals to struggle with one another for territory.

The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African Continent. By the time Africa regained its independence after the late 1950s, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily. The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy acquisitiveness during a period when Europe’s search for minerals and markets had become insatiable. At the time of the conference, 80% of Africa remained under Native Traditional and local control.

How African Countries Got Their Borders (TYWKIWDBI)

Another prominent example is the Zomia region of Southeast Asia. This is a highland region the size of Western Europe containing up to 100 million people that have largely remained outside the control of territorial nation-states, and was examined by James C. Scott in his book, The Art of Not Being Governed. Many of the tribal nations in this region stand apart from the nation-states they nominally occupy. As Scott points out, if the entire existence of H. Sapiens is seen as a single day, then most people have been living under state control only in the last five minutes or so.

Taleb, as we saw above, argues that ethics are something inherently local; a point he makes concerning the ethics of economic transactions. In this, he makes the distinction between laws and ethics, or, we might say, a distinction between formal laws and ethical behavior:

The question “Is it ethical to sell something to someone knowing the price will eventually drop?” is an ancient one…the debate goes back to a disagreement between two Stoic philosophers, Diogenes of Babylon and his student Antipater of Tarsus…Assume a man brought a large shipment of corn from Alexandria to Rhodes because of shortage and famine. Suppose that he also knew that many boats had set sail from Alexandria on their way to Rhodes with similar merchandise. Does he have to inform the Rhodians? How can one act honorably or dishonorably in these circumstances?

Diogenes held that the seller ought to disclose as much as civil law requires. As for Antipater, he believed that everything ought to be disclosed—beyond the law—so that there was nothing that the seller knew that the buyer didn’t know.

Clearly Antipater’s position is more robust—robust being invariant to time, place, situation, and color of the eyes of the participants…We traders had a straightforward answer…an upright trader will not do that to other professional traders…There were some people with whom we had a relational rapport, others with who we had a transactional one. The two were separated by an ethical wall, much like the case with domestic animals that cannot be harmed, while rules on cruelty are lifted when it comes to cockroaches…Indeed much of the work of investment banks in my day was to play on regulations, find loopholes in the laws. And counterintuitively, the more regulations, the easier it was to make money.

Take for now that: The ethical is always more robust than the legal. Over time, it is the legal that should converge to the ethical, never the reverse.


Laws come and go; ethics stay.

Thus we see that tribal societies had their own code of conduct, and were self-governing. One of the largest tribally-organized societies still in existence to this day are the Pashtun people. Note that there is no Pashtun territoriality-based state; Pashtunistan is not a self-governing nation-state by our modern legal standards. They are instead dispersed mainly between the lands of the modern-day territorial-based nation-states of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But they largely “govern” themselves through various means, as Dmitry Orlov describes in his book The Five Stages of Collapse:

The term “ungoverned” is, as usual, misapplied here: the Pashtuns have an alternative system of governance whose rules preclude the establishment of any centralized authority. At over forty million strong, they are one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet…Their ancient and eternal code of conduct is Pashtunwali, or “The Pashtun Way.” The reason for following Pashtunwali is to be a good Pashtun. In turn, what a good Pashtun does is follow Pashtunwali…Needless to say, the Pashtuns cannot be seduced with offers of social progress and economic development, because that is not the purpose of Pashtunwali. The purpose of Pashtunwali is the perpetuate Pashtunwali, and at this it is apparently very good.

Pashtun society is classified as segmentary, a subtype of acephalous (leaderless). The main figures of authority are the elders (maliks) whose serve a local tribal chief (khan), but their leadership positions remain at all times contingent on putting the tribe’s interest first. All decision making is consensus-based, severely restricting the scope of unlimited action. However, when faced with an external threat, the Pashtuns are able to appoint a dictator, and to serve that dictator with absolute obedience until the threat is extinguished.

Pashtunwali defines the following key concepts: honor (nang) demands action regardless of consequences whenever Pashtunwali is violated. It is permissible to lie and kill to protect one’s nang. Revenge (badal) demands “an eye for an eye” in case of injury or damage, but crucially allows payment of restitution to avoid bloodshed. Incarceration is considered unacceptable under any circumstances. It is seen as interfering with justice, since it complicates the process of exacting revenge and precludes the payment of restitution. This is why Afghanistan has been the scene of spectacular prison escapes, where hundred of inmates are freed in a military-style attack; the attackers’ goal is not just to free prisoners but also to kill them later or collect restitution from them. The law of hospitality (nanawatai) demands that any Pashtun must welcome and provide sanctuary to anyone who asks for it. As a matter of nang, the guest must be kept perfectly secure and safe from all harm while a guest. Once over the threshold and no longer a guest, he can he sniped at one’s leisure should such an action be called for. Laws against harboring fugitives, serving as accessory after the fact, impeding official investigations and so forth are meaningless and attempts to enforce them automatically result in badal.

The local Pahstun governing body is the jirga, which is convened only on special occasions. It takes its roots from Athenian democracy, although some scholars argue that it predates it. The participants arrange themselves in a circle, and everyone has the right to speak. There is no one presiding, in accordance to the principle that no one is superior in the eyes of the Pashtunwali. The decision is based on a majority consensus. Those who defy the decision of the jirga open themselves up to officially sanctioned arson and murder. It is significant that the jirga does not allow representation: it is a direct rather than a representative democracy. It is also crucial that the jirga reserves the right to abnegate any agreement previously entered into, making treaty-based state-legal relations with the Pashtuns impossible. Lastly, only those who follow Pashtunwali can participate in a jirga; all outsiders are automatically excluded. pp. 189-192

Thus we see that this fractal insider/outsider arrangement is how ancient society functioned in the absence of large, abstract, impersonal structures. This also allowed for management of economic resources that did not fall into our modern Liberal “public/private,” “statist/collectivist” dichotomy:

Universal behavior is great on paper, disastrous in practice. Why? As we will belabor ad nauseam in this book, we are local and practical animals, sensitive to scale. The small is not the large; the tangible is not the abstract; the emotional is not the logical. Just as we argued that micro works better than macro, it is best to avoid going to the very general when saying hello to your garage attendant. We should focus on our immediate environment; we need simple practical rules…In other words, Kant did not get the notion of scaling–yet many of us are victims of Kantian universalism. (As we saw, modernity likes the abstract over the particular; social justice warriors have been accused of “treating people as categories, not individuals.”) Few, outside of religion, really got the notion of scaling before the great political thinker Elinor Ostrom…p. 21

Let us get into the gut of Ostrom’s idea. The “tragedy of the commons,” as exposed by economists, is as follows–the commons being a collective property, say, a forest or fishing waters or your local public park. Collectively, farmers as a community prefer to avoid overgrazing, and fishermen overfishing–the entire resource becomes thus degraded. But every single individual farmer would personally gain from his own overgrazing or overfishing under, of course, the condition that others don’t. And that is what plagues socialism: people’s individual interests do not quite work well under collectivism. But it is a critical mistake to think that people can function only under a private property system.

What Ostrom found empirically is that there exists a certain community size below which people act as collectivists, protecting the commons, as if the entire unit became rational. Such a commons cannot be too large. It is like a club. Groups behave differently at a different scale.

This explains why the municipal is different from the national. It also explains how tribes operate: you are part of a specific group that is larger than the narrow you, but narrower than humanity in general. Critically, people share some things but not others within a specified group. And there is a protocol for dealing with the outside. Arab pastoral tribes have firm rules of hospitality toward nonhostile strangers who don’t threaten their commons, but get violent when the stranger is a threat.

The skin-in-the-game definition of a commons: a space in which you are treated by others the way you treat them, where everyone exercises the Silver Rule.

The “public good” is something abstract, taken out of a textbook…the “individual” is an ill-defined entity. “Me” is more likely to be a group than a single person. pp.60-61

Taleb argues that the “Silver Rule” is more robust in ordering the social behavior towards insider and outsiders than the more well-known “Golden Rule” of the salvationist world religions. It is ultimately anchored in the primordial law of reciprocity. Taleb describes the Silver Rule this way:

Leviticus is a sweetening of Hammurabi’s rule. The Golden Rule wants you to Treat others the way you would like them to treat you. The more robust Silver Rule says Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you…Why is the Silver Rule more robust? We know the wrong better than what’s right; The good is not as good as the absence of the bad, Ennius, reported by Cicero. p. 151

Now a word about the “others” in treat others. “You” can be singular or plural…Same with the “others.” The idea is fractal, in the sense that it works at all scales: humans, tribes, societies, groups of societies, countries, etc., assuming each one is a separate standalone unit and can deal with other counterparts as such. Just as individuals should treat others the way they would like to be treated (or avoid being mistreated), families as units should treat other families in the same way…And…so should countries…for Isocrates, the wise Athenian orator, warned us as early as the fifth century B.C. that nations should treat other nations according to the Silver Rule. He wrote:

“Deal with weaker states as you think it proper for stronger states to deal with you.”

Nobody embodies the notions of symmetry better than Isocrates, who lived more than a century and made significant contributions when he was in his nineties. He even made a rare dynamic version of the Golden Rule: “Conduct yourself toward your parents as you would have your children conduct themselves towards you.” We had to wait for the great baseball coach Yogi Berra to get another such dynamic rule for symmetric relations: “I go to other people’s funerals so they come to mine.” pp. 19-20

So it appears that a commons can indeed work in the absence of private property, state ownership, or “free and open” markets, and the like, as long as it is below a certain scale and all parties possess some “skin in the game.” In fact, it appears that this is how many resources did work for much of human history! That’s why the constant debate over whether the ancient world was more capitalist, or more socialist, miss the point: it was neither! We constantly filter the ancient world through our modern sensibilities, a classic “Flintstonization” of history–projecting modern assumptions and beliefs onto earlier societies. This leads to all sorts of absurd conclusions, like the entire world was just waiting to develop capitalism and the industrial revolution, and that these represent the Omega Point of the historical process. I don’t think that’s likely.

The Composition of Ancient Society

We’ve been taking stock over the last few weeks at how the ancient world prior to the modern Nation-State was organized—as a collection of various families, groups, factions, cliques, solidalities, fraternities, associations, colleges, cults, regiments, companies, cohorts, etc., all loosely managed by hierarchical networks of elites. The most common of these forms was the tribe, which was based around imagined descent from a common ancestor. Eventually tribes became nations, and later states, but that’s another story. “The Individual” was a rare breed, and was created as a legal fiction mainly for contractual obligation purposes as literacy became more widespread and trade more extensive in the Renaissance and Early Modern period. “The Individual” first appeared in Roman Law, and then disappeared with the dissolution of the Western Empire, only to return emphatically during the modern era. In his study of the sources of social power, Michael Mann puts it succinctly on page 52: Societies are actually federations of organizations.

Prior to contracts, economic production in advanced societies was organized mainly on a household basis, with markets being secondary appendages, and tightly regulated by governing authorities. Early tribal elites presided over the redistribution of surpluses (redistributive chiefs); eventually being supplanted in this role by just issuing coins and demanding taxes back in return, which allowed decentralized exchange to take place. They then skimmed off the surplus of the resulting commercial expansion. The lord’s expenditures were mostly relegated to lawgiving and military affairs (along with luxury goods and image-building). Most day-to-day economic production was undertaken within the extended household, often by slaves in the Classical world. The word family, in fact, comes from the term for a domestic slave—your “family size” was based on the number of slaves you controlled. Markets were confined to goods that had a high bulk-to-value ratio (e.g. cloth, spices) or were “self-propelled” (i.e. slaves and livestock). States were not territorially-based, but centered around loyalty to a particular ruling family, and the household of that ruling family essentially formed the “government,” such as it was. Government was very minimal at this time, again, because it was not organized around a collection of unrelated individuals, nor around “free markets,” but rather around collections of households, families, and other groups (guilds, etc.)

This was, in effect, a “fractal” organization of society. It allowed for the daily functioning and cooperation in the absence of the large-scale organizational structures (political and economic) provided by the modern industrial nation-state. The emergence of the nation-state out of this fractal organization was taken to the furthest extent in Western Europe, especially in England, which had a fairly centralized bureaucracy as far back as the Norman conquest. It appears that the need to fund war and maintain standing armies played a crucial role in the establishment of the nation-state. Technology, especially in communications and transport, also played a decisive role, especially after the First Industrial Revolution (iron, factories & steam engines).

Sir Henry Sumner Maine came to this conclusion in his book Ancient Law. These paragraphs from the first chapter of the book give a good account of his major thesis. I’ve condensed and cleaned up his prose a bit. See the link for the original:

If I were attempting…to express…the characteristics of the situation in which mankind [find] themselves at the dawn of … history, I should …quote a few verses from the Odyssey of Homer:

“They have neither assemblies for consultation nor themistes, but every one exercises jurisdiction over his wives and his children, and they pay no regard to one another.”

These lines are applied to the Cyclops, and…I suggest that the Cyclops is Homer’s type of an alien and less advanced civilisation; for the almost physical loathing which a … community feels for men of widely different manners from its own usually expresses itself by describing them as monsters, such as giants, or even as demons.

However that may be, the verses [demonstrate] the hints which are given us by legal antiquities. Men are first seen distributed in perfectly insulated groups, held together by obedience to the parent. Law is the parent’s word, but it is not yet in the condition of those themistes…When we go forward to the state of society in which these early legal conceptions show themselves as formed, we find that they still partake of the mystery and spontaneity which must have seemed to characterise a despotic father’s commands, but that at the same time, inasmuch as they proceed from a sovereign, they presuppose a union of family groups in some wider organisation.

The next question is, what is the nature of this union and the degree of intimacy which it involves? It is just here that archaic law renders us one of the greatest of its services and fills up a gap which otherwise could only have been bridged by conjecture. It is…of the clearest indications that society in primitive times was not what it is assumed to be at present, a collection of individuals. In fact, and in the view of the men who composed it, it was an aggregation of families. The contrast may be most forcibly expressed by saying that the unit of an ancient society was the Family, of a modern society the Individual.

We must be prepared to find in ancient law all the consequences of this difference. It is so framed as to be adjusted to a system of small independent corporations. It …therefore…takes a view of life wholly unlike any which appears in developed jurisprudence. Corporations never die, and accordingly primitive law considers the entities with which it deals, i.e. the patriarchal or family groups, as perpetual and inextinguishable.

This view is closely allied to the peculiar aspect under which, in very ancient times, moral attributes present themselves. The moral elevation and moral debasement of the individual appear to be confounded with, or postponed to, the merits and offences of the group to which the individual belongs. If the community sins, its guilt is much more than the sum of the offences committed by its members; the crime is a corporate act, and extends in its consequences to many more persons than have shared in its actual perpetration. If, on the other hand, the individual is conspicuously guilty, it is his children, his kinsfolk, his tribesmen, or his fellow-citizens, who suffer with him, and sometimes for him.

It thus happens that the ideas of moral responsibility and retribution often seem to be more clearly realised at very ancient than at more advanced periods, for, as the family group is immortal, and its liability to punishment indefinite, the primitive mind is not perplexed by the questions which become troublesome as soon as the individual is conceived as altogether separate from the group.

Ancient Law: Its Connection to the History of Early Society by Maine (Project Gutenberg)

To our modern post-Enlightenment sensibilities, the notion of “collective punishment” is abhorrent. So, too, is the idea that we are culpable for actions undertaken by family members or relatives. When people read about this in ancient societies, they are often shocked. But that’s only because they don’t understand how ancient society was fundamentally constituted.

As stated above, the basic unit of society (as far as law & governance were concerned at least) was not the individual, but rather the group to which the individual belonged. Thus, the punishment and sanction was applied to the entire group, and group members bore responsibility for all of their members. This meant that they were ‘self-policing.’ Also, punishment was not time-bound, and so groups could be held liable for the sins of their ancestors down through the generations; something totally alien to our modern point of view. This probably led to the ranked lineage structure, where some families held more or less prestige than others, a critical first step along the line to hereditary inequality and social rank.

A vivid example is the concept of wergild, (‘man-gold’) so common in the tribal societies of pagan Europe, where payments were made from one corporate group to another when an offense was committed by any one of its members. The payments were assessed according to a strict payment schedule, and overseen by chiefs, elders, or tribal councils (‘lord’ and ‘king’ are just European terms for a chief). According to some sources, these payments, and the scheduled equivalencies they were assessed according to, were the origin of money and prices. David Graeber writes:

Money, then, begins, …”as a substitute for life.’ One might call it the recognition of a life-debt. This, in turn, explains why it’s invariably the exact same kind of money that’s used to arrange marriages that is also used to pay wergeld (or “bloodwealth” as it’s sometimes also called): money presented to the family of a murder victim so as to prevent or resolve a blood-feud. …On the one hand, one presents whale teeth or brass rods because the murderer’s kin recognize they owe a life to the victim’s family. On the other, whale teeth or brass rods are in no sense, and can never be, compensation for the loss of a murdered relative. Certainly no one presenting such compensation would ever be foolish enough to suggest that any amount of money could possibly be the “equivalent” to the value of someone’s father, sister, or child.

So here again, money is first and foremost an acknowledgment that one owes something much more valuable than money…Debt: The First 5,000 Years; pp. 133-134

The reference to themistes above was a bit puzzling. A Google search turned up this passage from Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Tragedy, and Philosophy by Richard Seaford, a book we looked at when we discussed the origins of money and coinage in the ancient Greek world:

…The key word is themistes, which men ‘judge’ in the agora. The savagery of the Cyclopes is expressed in their lack of ‘council-bearing agorai,’ and themistes. Themistes are a sign of civilization. The related word themis means (impersonal) established principle, and is associated explicitly with the public space of the agora…Themistes are not ad hoc judgements, but rather, as etymology suggests, something like ‘established norms’, used in the public settlement of disputes. We do not know where they stand on the spectrum between at one extreme laws (subject inevitably to personal interpretation, but orally transmitted in roughly the same form) and at the other extreme mere norms or customs (only vaguely, variously, or briefly formulated, and so dependent on personal reformulation for their judicial application). And yet they are certainly impersonal in two respects, firstly in that they are publicly applied not by a single person but by a group, and secondly in that being imagined as traditional they thereby stand in this sense at least above judges and the parties to the dispute.

…we can infer that in various city-states the relatively recent invention of alphabetic writing was used, at least from about the middle of the seventh century, to record publicly codes of law that were impersonal both in that they were uniformly binding on all citizens and in that they were decided on by the polis–or at least, if said to have been devised by an individual, were administered not by him but by the institution of the polis and were dependent for their authority on acceptance by the citizens who had appointed him. Indeed the distance between the archaic lawgiver and the laws is expressed in the lawgiver being frequently a political outsider or even a foreigner, as well as in stories about the lawgivers being subjected to their own laws…
pp. 178-180

So themistes is the mark of civilization—it’s what separated Classical Greek civilization from the barbarian hordes around them, personified by the monstrous Cyclopes—”primitive” societies where there was no such thing as impersonal law or collective justice. Following Maine, we may consider this the first “revolution” of ancient law—making justice impersonal, and subjected to reason and collective assent. Surely it is significant that this same Greek civilization was also the first European tribal society we know of to impersonalize debt as money in the form of precious metals. It was a social transformation destined to have profound consequences down the line.

Maine further argues that the only basis of political union in ancient times was the ‘shared fiction’ of descent from a remote common ancestor. This seems very limiting; however, this ancient ‘legal fiction’ was made flexible enough for large-scale social organization through the adoption of individuals into various tribes or families (fictive kinship), and the union of disparate families through bride exchange/intermarriage (affinal kinship). This is why political alliances in the ancient world were inevitably based around marriage. Such an arrangement lasted up until the Enlightenment—the ill-fated Austrian princess Marie Antoinette was married off to the King of France at age 13 in order to secure a political alliance between the Austrian ruling house (the Hapsburgs) and the French (the Bourbons) against the Prussians. To this day, most of European royalty is related (Queen Elizabeth’s husband is a distant cousin). Maine continues:

…[W]e could…suppose that communities began to exist wherever a family held together instead of separating at the death of its patriarchal chieftain.

In most of the Greek states and in Rome there long remained the vestiges of an ascending series of groups out of which the State was at first constituted. The Family, House, and Tribe of the Romans may be taken as the type of them, and they are so described to us that we can [conceive of] them as a system of concentric circles which have gradually expanded from the same point. The elementary group is the Family, connected by common subjection to the highest male ascendant. The aggregation of Families forms the Gens or House. The aggregation of Houses makes the Tribe. The aggregation of Tribes constitutes the Commonwealth…the Commonwealth is a collection of persons united by common descent from the progenitor of an original family.

Of this we may at least be certain, that all ancient societies regarded themselves as having proceeded from one original stock, and even laboured under an incapacity for comprehending any reason except this for their holding together in political union…It may be affirmed then of early commonwealths that their citizens considered all the groups in which they claimed membership to be founded on common lineage. What was obviously true of the Family was believed to be true first of the House, next of the Tribe, lastly of the State.

The Family then is the type of an archaic society in all the modifications which it was capable of assuming; but the family here spoken of is not exactly the family as understood by a modern…We must look on the family as constantly enlarged by the absorption of strangers within its circle, and we must try to regard the fiction of adoption as so closely simulating the reality of kinship that neither law nor opinion makes the slightest difference between a real and an adoptive connection…It is this patriarchal aggregate—the modern family thus cut down on one side and extended on the other—which meets us on the threshold of primitive jurisprudence. Older probably than the State, the Tribe, and the House, it left traces of itself on private law long after the House and the Tribe had been forgotten, and long after consanguinity had ceased to be associated with the composition of States.

The composition of the state, uniformly assumed to be natural, was nevertheless known to be in great measure artificial.
This conflict between belief…and…fact is at first sight extremely perplexing; but what it really illustrates is the efficiency with which Legal Fictions do their work in the infancy of society. The earliest and most extensively employed of legal fictions was that which permitted family relations to be created artificially, and there is none to which I conceive mankind to be more deeply indebted. If it had never existed, I do not see how any one of the primitive groups, whatever were their nature, could have absorbed another, or on what terms any two of them could have combined, except those of absolute superiority on one side and absolute subjection on the other.

So, in Maine’s estimation, the ‘legal fiction’ of adoption is what allowed larger, more complex societies to form out of smaller tribal ones (I would add bride exchange as well). For example, we see that when Europeans ran away to join the Native Americans in Colonial America, they were not granted “citizenship” (it didn’t exist) but rather were adopted into an existing clan. Their rights, duties, and interpersonal obligations then followed from that clan affiliation, and not from things like contracts, free markets or citizenship. By contrast, our modern states are territorially based. The idea that people should have some sort of ongoing interpersonal relationship merely because they lived in close geographical proximity to each other was totally foreign to ancient sensibilities, as Maine points out:

No doubt, when with our modern ideas we contemplate the union of independent communities, we can suggest a hundred modes of carrying it out, the simplest of all being that the individuals comprised in the coalescing groups shall vote or act together according to [proximity]; but the idea that a number of persons should exercise political rights in common simply because they happened to live within the same topographical limits was utterly strange and monstrous to primitive antiquity. The expedient which in those times commanded favour was that the incoming population should feign themselves to be descended from the same stock as the people on whom they were engrafted; and it is precisely the good faith of this fiction, and the closeness with which it seemed to imitate reality, that we cannot now hope to understand.

One circumstance, however, which it is important to recollect, is that the men who formed the various political groups were certainly in the habit of meeting together periodically, for the purpose of acknowledging and consecrating their association by common sacrifices. Strangers amalgamated with the brotherhood were doubtless admitted to these sacrifices; and when that was once done we can believe that it seemed equally easy, or not more difficult, to conceive them as sharing in the common lineage. The conclusion then which is suggested by the evidence is, not that all early societies were formed by descent from the same ancestor, but that all of them which had any permanence and solidity either were so descended or assumed that they were.

Even when institutions formed based around factors other than blood relationships, for example, occupational categories or religious affiliation, they took the basic form of the extended family as Lujo Brentano— the first historian of European guilds—explains:

There remains, in conclusion, to state briefly the chief result of this inquiry. The family appears as the first Gild, or at least an archetype of the Gilds. Originally, its providing care satisfies all existing wants; and for other societies there is therefore no room. As soon however as wants arise which the family can no longer satisfy—whether on account of their peculiar nature or in consequence of their increase, or because its own activity grows feeble—closer artificial alliances immediately spring forth to provide for them, in so far as the State does not do it. Infinitely varied as are the wants which call them forth, so are naturally the objects of these alliances.

Yet the basis on which they all rest is the same: all are unions between man and man, not mere associations of capital like our modern societies and companies. The cement which holds their members together is the feeling of solidarity, the esteem for each other as men, the honour and virtue of the associates and the faith in them not an arithmetical rule of probabilities, indifferent to all good and bad personal qualities. The support which the community affords a member is adjusted according to his wants not according to his money-stake, or to a jealous debtor and creditor account; and in like manner the contributions of the members vary according to the wants of the society, and it therefore never incurs the danger of bankruptcy, for it possesses an inexhaustible reserve fund in the infinitely elastic productive powers of its members. In short, whatever and however diverge may be their aims, the Gilds take over from the family the spirit which held it together and guided it: they are its faithful image, though only for special and definite objects.

The first societies formed on these principles were the sacrificial unions, from which, later on, the Religious Gilds were developed for association in prayer and good works. Then, as soon as the family could no longer satisfy the need for legal protection, unions of artificial-family members were formed for this purpose, as the State was not able to afford the needful help in this respect. These Gilds however had their origin in direct imitation of the family. Most certainly, none were developed from an earlier religious union: as little as were the Roman collegia opificum from the Roman sacrificial societies, or the Craft-Gilds from the Gild-Merchants, or any Trade-Unions from a Craft-Gild. p.16

On the history and development of gilds, and the origin of trade-unions (Archive.org)

Eventually, of course, people dropped the “shared fiction” pretense of common descent and formed political and economic institutions based on territoriality, occupation, religion, or propinquity. Kinship ceased to matter very much at all, replaced by “modern” notions of citizenship and individualism.

The big question this raises is: How exactly did this happen? Well, nobody knows for sure. All we know for sure is that it did happen, and we are living in that world. It likely happened over a fairly long time span. We know that in the ancient Greek world, for example, there must have been a large number of “kinless” individuals–metics, who were foreign laborers, and slaves. Sailors and mercenaries, too, we can assume, were composed largely of individuals living outside any family or kinship structure. Such people did indeed depend on money and markets for their livelihood—mercenary soldiers appear to have been among the first people regularly paid for their services with bullion currencies, and chattel slaves appear to be among the first commodities bought and sold in “free markets.”

Maine argues that this led to the next iteration of government which supplanted chiefs and tribal councils—aristocracy, or rule by elite noble families. Aristocracy supplanted consanguinity. Wikipedia defines aristocracy as “a form of government that places strength in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning “rule of the best-born”. As Engels put it, the primary social relationships transitioned from being kinship based to becoming class based as society’s “productive powers” and specialization of labor increased. Clearly, sedentism, money, and trade all played crucial roles in this transition.

One thing seems fairly certain: that cities played an essential role in this process. Cities were spaces ‘demarcated’ (i.e. set apart) from the surrounding countryside where people organized themselves according to kinship. In cities, unrelated people came together to conduct trade and interpersonal exchange. Money was minted by the city-state, stamped with its seal, and distributed by its temples. While rural farmland was passed down through the generations in families (genē), it was in the cities that the first real estate markets formed. Here, land was owned by merchants, craftsmen, artisans and politicians, rather than farmers. This is also where market relations took place in the agora, which doubled as space for political assembly and themistes. It was within the city-state that people were first organized into administrative districts called demes by the constitutional reformers during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Here we see place of residence (deme) become more politically important than family ties (hence “democracy”). This change takes place throughout the ancient Greek city-states in this time period.

While social organization on the land remained kinship‑based, that of the cities became part of a higher and more cosmopolitan social ordering. Neolithic urban sites, for instance, seem to have begun as publicly demarcated spaces cut out from the surrounding land to provide evenhanded arms-length commercial contacts. This is something quite different from what occurred in classical antiquity…the classical city became more a center of government than of industry. The modern type of state developed out of the communal sector as a whole rather than out of the temples as a corporately distinct public sector.

The urban shift away from family‑oriented to territorial space began with temple cults. Individuals were initiated into corporate groupings that replaced their biological families. Paternal authority and family structures were transposed onto the public plane in the form of temple and palace households, cults and professional guilds.

Over a century ago the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1878) placed civilization’s urban watershed in the sixth century BC. He focused on the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens (509/07) and Servius in Rome (537) as replacing the clannish family contexts, based on rural landholding, with neighborhood political units. Toynbee (1913) followed with a similar analysis for Sparta’s changes in the seventh century BC. Subsequent archaeologists have established that cities were organized on a district or “ward” basis thousands of years earlier. Already in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Egypt each local area took responsibility for maintaining its irrigation dikes and canals.

Assyriologists have noted that early Mesopotamian rulers downplayed their family identity by representing their lineage as deriving from the city‑temple deities. Sargon of Akkad, often taken as a prototype for the myth of the birth of royal heroes (including Moses and Romulus) emphasized his “public family.” In any event archaic clan groupings seem to have been relatively open to newcomers. There is little Bronze Age evidence for closed aristocracies of the sort found in classical antiquity. Mesopotamia seems to have remained open and ethnically mixed for thousands of years, and the Sumerians probably incorporated strangers as freely as did medieval Irish feins and many modern tribal communities.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple City (Michael Hudson)

Although the details are unclear, we do know that this process had reached its final stage during the centuries in which the Roman Empire ruled the Mediterranean. The Empire ruled over huge amounts of unrelated peoples. It was also fabulously rich by ancient standards. It had extensive markets, banking, and sophisticated legal systems. Roman law and religion ‘supplanted’ local and tribal laws and customs. Sometimes this led to conflict, as illustrated concretely by the life of Christ detailed in the Bible. There we see that Roman law “trumped” Jewish law, and the local king (Herod) was a puppet client of the Roman state, which was overseen by a Roman governor (Pontius Pilate). Jesus’ enemies appeal to the Roman state for his execution. Later in history, rebelling against this order caused the Jewish state to be utterly destroyed and Jerusalem razed in 70 AD.

An indefinite number of causes may have shattered the primitive groups…At some point of time—probably as soon as they felt themselves strong enough to resist extrinsic pressure…all these states ceased to recruit themselves by factitious extensions of consanguinity. They necessarily, therefore, became Aristocracies, in all cases where a fresh population from any cause collected around them which could put in no claim to community of origin.

Their sternness in maintaining the central principle of a system under which political rights were attainable on no terms whatever except connection in blood, real or artificial, taught their inferiors another principle…the principle of local contiguity, now recognised everywhere as the condition of community in political functions. A new set of political ideas came at once into existence, which, being those of ourselves, our contemporaries, and in great measure of our ancestors, rather obscure our perception of the older theory which they vanquished and dethroned.

The history of political ideas begins, in fact, with the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions; [there is no]…[revolution]…so startling and so complete as the change which is accomplished when some other principle—such as that, for instance, of local contiguity—establishes itself for the first time as the basis of common political action…In one all-important instance, that of the Roman law, the change was effected so slowly, that from epoch to epoch we can observe the line and direction which it followed, and can even give some idea of the ultimate result to which it was tending. And, in pursuing this last inquiry, we need not suffer ourselves to be stopped by the imaginary barrier which separates the modern from the ancient world. For one effect of that mixture of refined Roman law with primitive barbaric usage, which is known to us by the deceptive name of feudalism, was to revive many features of archaic jurisprudence which had died out of the Roman world, so that the decomposition which had seemed to be over commenced again, and to some extent is still proceeding…

Ancient Law: Its Connection to the History of Early Society by Maine (Project Gutenberg)

The barbarians who migrated into Roman territory and sacked their cities in the first few centuries C.E. were organized primarily on a tribal basis. This is obvious from the various Germanic and Celtic law codes that were written down and preserved, and which formed the basis for Maine’s studies. The Roman Empire, however, had long since lost its initial tribal identity centered around the Gens (what Marx and Engels called the Gentile Constitution). By this time it had become thoroughly class-based, certainly by the time Justinian’s legal scholars compiled the Corpus Juris Civilis, which profoundly affected subsequent legal thought in Western Europe.

We talk about the transition to a class-based society, but what, exactly, are classes, anyway? We use the word regularly, and we instinctively know what it means, but how do sociologists define it? According to Michael Mann in his three-volume opus, Sources of Social Power, ancient Greece was the earliest society where we have clearly recorded instances of extensive class conflict. He writes:

Classical Greece is the first historical society in which we can clearly perceive class struggle as an enduring feature of social life. To understand this better, one can distinguish between the principal forms of class structure and class struggle found in human societies.

Classes in the broadest sense are relations of economic domination. The sociologist of class is principally interested not in inequalities of wealth but, rather, in economic power, that is, in persons’ ability to control their own and others’ life chances through control of economic resources – the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Inequalities in economic power have existed in all known civilized societies. As they are never fully legitimate, class straggle has also been ubiquitous – that is, struggle between groups arranged hierarchically, “vertically,” with different amounts of economic power. In many societies, however, this struggle has remained at a first, latent, level and been prevented from attaining any very pronounced organizational form by the coexistence alongside “vertical” classes of “horizontal” economic organizations – constituted by familial, clientelist, tribal, local, and other relations. We saw these to be characteristic of later prehistory and, to a lesser extent, of the earliest civilizations…

This brings us to the second level of class organization, extensive classes. They exist where vertical class relations predominate in the social space in question as against horizontal organizations. The growth of extensive classes has itself been uneven, and so at this second level we may make two further subdivisions. Extensive classes may be unidimensional, if there is one predominant mode of production, distribution, and exchange, or multidimensional, if there is more than one (and they are not fully articulated with each other). And extensive classes may by symmetrical, if they possess similar organization, or asymmetrical, if one does or only some do (normally the dominant class or classes).

Finally, a third level of class emerges, political classes, where the class is organized for political transformation of the state or political defense of the status quo. This is less likely in a thoroughly multidimensional structure, but again the political organization may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. In the latter case only one class, usually the ruling class, may be politically organized. This began to be the pattern in the empires of domination…as dominant groups began to unify into an extensive, organized ruling class while subordinates were predominantly organized into horizontal groupings controlled by the rulers.

These distinctions are especially useful in the case of classical Greece. It is the first known society to have moved fully into the third level of class organization, exhibiting to us symmetrical, political class struggle (though only on one of what we shall see to be two principal dimensions of its extensive class structure).

Classes did not totally dominate relations of economic power in Greece. Two principal horizontal groupings remained that effectively excluded large numbers of persons from the class struggles…The first was the patriarchal household…The second horizontal grouping was the local city-state itself, which privileged its own inhabitants at the expense of all resident “foreigners.” As the city-state was small and interaction between states was great, there were many resident foreigners. These were mostly other Greeks but included many other “nationalities.” They were called metics, and they had definite political rights somewhere between those of citizens and those of serfs and slaves…Like women, metics were actually divided by their supposedly common status. They organized themselves only on rare occasions. So only a minority of the population engaged directly in class struggle… pp.216-218

When the Germanic and Celtic tribal societies melded with the class based societies of the Classical world, we get the curious society of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages—an ad hoc melding of both contractual obligations and petty household production. Contractual obligations between various warlords formed the centerpiece of the overarching political structure—the Feudal System. Economic production, however, was highly collectivized and organized around the local Roman villa, or manor–the Manorial System. Mediating all of this was not a territorial empire but a spiritual one—the Roman Catholic Church.

Feudalism combined kinship forms in the village and the manor, and contractual relationships among the ruling classes (vassalage). Above and apart from all of this was the hierarchically organized Catholic Church operating across ethnic and national boundaries as a sort of international quasi-corporation. Eventually, tribal and kinship structures were broken up and atrophied, particularity in post-Norman England Some argue that the Church played a crucial role in this process. Brentano has the best short summary I’ve ever come across:

Though in more ancient times the family connection was strong, and of importance in various ways, as in the maintenance of justice, in the formation of the nations, and in its first settlement, nevertheless, after this settlement had taken place, the relations which it called forth obtained the preponderance. The natural bond of the family became more and more relaxed with the increase in number of relatives, and with the rise of special interests among the individual members; and would also lose its importance as regards the maintenance of justice. Moreover, the constantly increasing number of kinless people, and of strangers, would further the formation of new institutions; for the State alone was not at that time able to satisfy its members’ claims for legal protection.

This chance had, above all, to take place in the Anglo-Saxon States through the intermixture of people with Britons and Danes. Here, artificial alliances would take the place of natural ones, and of the Frankpledge founded thereon. Already in passages of Ina’s statutes which refer expressly to the legal protection of the stranger, mention is made of “gegildan” and “gesid;” and strangers are the very people who, we are told, lived, later on, in societies or Gilds, to which probably a great antiquity must be ascribed. p.10

Thus, in Western Europe, the ancient order once again was gradually supplanted by civil society, mediated by public institutions and quasi-voluntary contracts, eventually culminating in the nation-state, as during the late Roman Empire. This process began during the Renaissance, and accelerated during and after the Age of Enlightenment. Yet, as Europeans ventured out during the colonial period in search of trade goods and other commodities, they came into contract with societies all around the world which still organized themselves under the primordial social arrangements detected by Maine in Ancient European tribal law—cultures inn North and South America, the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Australia, and beyond.

Today, the nation-state comprised of unrelated individual “citizens” united by an implicit social contract and common law is the dominant social order around the entire world. It is this social order which Fukuyama assumed to be the “final” form that human society had been heading towards all along—the so-called “End of History.” But is it truly? We’ll ponder that question next time.