MMT On Inflation

Posts in this series
The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction And Index
Debunking The Deficit Myth

The second chapter of Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth deals with inflation. In Chapter 1, Kelton explains that the deficit is not a constraint on government spending. Instead, inflation is the important constraint. A deficit does not prove that the federal government is overspending. Only an increase in inflation proves Congress is overspending. Kelton says Congress shouldn’t tax and spend so as to deliver a balanced budget. Congress should spend and tax so as to deliver a balanced economy, one that serves all of us. She says that historically we have not done this, that we have chosen to focus of deficits and in so doing our economy has not served us well.

Definition and Description of Inflation

Inflation means a continuous rise in the price level. A bit of inflation is considered harmless and even something economists like to see in a healthy, growing economy. But if prices start rising faster than most people’s incomes, it means a widespread loss of purchasing power. Left unchecked, this would mean a decline in society’s real standard of living. In extreme cases, prices can even spiral out of control, gripping a country in hyperinflation. P. 44.

The danger of eroding incomes explains why everybody worries about inflation, and explains why politicians can use the threat of inflation to terrorize voters. It works, even though the problem for more than a decade hasn’t been too much inflation, it’s been too little. Ever since the Great Crash inflation has been less than 2% annually despite efforts of the Fed.

Kelton says that economists think of inflation as either cost-push or demand-pull. Demand-pull inflation occurs when consumer spending rises faster than the economy can produce goods and services. That hasn’t been a problem for a long time. Cost-push inflation can arise from disasters, which reduce the supply of something; from pricing power, as in the case of Big Pharma with its patents and trade secrets; or from workers gaining market power and demanding higher wages which businesses pass on to consumers. That last one is the only fear mainstream economists suffer, as far as I can tell.

The dominant theory of inflation stems from Milton Friedman’s monetarism:

According to Friedman, “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” What he meant was that too much money is the culprit in any inflationary episode. If prices weren’t stable, it was because the central bank was trying to force the economy to create too many jobs by allowing the money supply to increase too rapidly.

The early neoliberal Friedman insisted that the Fed must never interfere with the workings of the market. Specifically, the Fed should not try to reduce unemployment below a certain level, which came to be called NAIRU, the non-accelerating inflationary rate of unemployment. Friedman thought there had to be some minimum level of unemployment in the economy. [1] The Fed bought into this view, as did politicians of all stripes. They all agreed that to keep prices stable, the US has to accept a certain level of unwanted unemployment. And to be on the safe side, maybe a bit higher level of unemployment. In practice, Congress dumped the problems of inflation and unemployment on the Fed.

But problems arose. The NAIRU isn’t visible or measurable. It can only be seen in retrospect. And now we are pretty sure there isn’t a clear relationship between inflation and unemployment, as the Fed assumed. [2] The Fed Chair, Jerome Powell, freely admitted to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that the Fed has been wrong about NAIRU, but defended its use on the grounds that “We need to have some sense of whether unemployment is high, low or just right.” P. 53.

2. The Problem of Unemployment

It turns out that the Fed used the purported correlation between inflation and unemployment as its primary tool for controlling inflation, ignoring all other causes of inflation. When the economy heated up and unemployment dropped, workers gained market power, and their share of national income increased. That led the Fed to raise interest rates leading to a tightening of the economy and usually a recession, as the following chart shows.

Gray bars indicate recessions.


Kelton calls this a “human sacrifice”, forcing some people out of the workforce when they want to work and can be productive. She thinks we are asking too much of the Fed. It can’t spend money into the system; only Congress can do that. All the Fed can do is change the cost of borrowing. If unemployment is too high, the Fed can make borrowing cheaper, but it can’t force anyone to borrow. Usually when unemployment is high, no one wants to borrow. I note that this was what happened after the Great Crash. The Fed cut interest rates to zero and lowered bank reserve requirements, hoping to increase money going into the economy. It didn’t work.

3. The Job Guarantee

Kelton argues that a better way to deal with unemployment is a job guarantee. Every person who wants to work should be able to get a decent job with decent pay and decent benefits. If the private sector won’t provide those jobs, the government should. [3] Kelton discusses this idea and its foundations.

It would probably be impossible for Congress to monitor the economy closely enough to manage full employment by tweaking taxes and spending. A job guarantee would act as a safety-valve and an automatic stabilizer for the economy and help solve this problem, leaving the Fed free to focus on inflation. If the private sector needs all the workers it can find them. If not, the government hires people to do jobs that need doing. There is plenty of work that needs doing, and, as Kelton pointed out elsewhere, we can always use more flowers in our parks and boulevards.

4. Preventing Inflation

So how should Congress budget knowing that the only effective constraint on spending is inflation? What would change? The way Congress currently works is that every bill that calls for expenditures gets a score from the Congressional Budget Office that assesses the impact of the expenditure on the deficit over a ten-year period. If inflation were the constraint, then the CBO would offer a score based on the probable impact of the expenditure on inflation. If the economy is, as now, operating well below its capacity for producing goods and services, the possibility of inflation would be low.

If the economy is close to capacity, either as a whole or in part related to the area of expenditures, then Congress has to make hard calls. How important is the expenditure? Can we create “fiscal space” for the expenditure with taxes? For example, in the case of the entire economy humming along, a general income tax hike would take money out of most people’s hands so they would not be buying as much, leaving room for the government to buy more. If there is a bottleneck, a more focused tax or some other step might be necessary.

Conclusion

MMT recognizes that inflation is a crucial problem. It shows how it arises and how we should protect ourselves from it.

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[Graphic via Grand Rapids Community Media Center under Creative Commons license-Attribution, No Derivatives]

[1] Marx said that the reserve army of labour is a necessary part of capitalism. Hmmm.

[2] This relationship is embodied in the Philips Curve. I discuss it here.

[3] Other economists favor a universal basic income. Both have the added benefit of freeing workers from abusive or irritating employers. Your family won’t starve if you walk out on a bad situation.

Debunking The Deficit Myth

Posts in this series
The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction And Index

The first chapter of Stephanie Kelton’s book The Deficit Myth takes up the biggest myth about federal government finances, the idea that federal budget deficits are a problem in themselves. The deficit myth is rooted in the idea that the federal government budget should work just like a household budget. A family can’t spend more than its income will support. The family has income, and may be able to borrow money, and the sum of these sets the limit on household spending. Those who propagate the deficit myth say government expenditures should be constrained by the government’s ability to tax and borrow. First the government has to find the money, either through taxes or borrowings, and only once it has found the money can it spend. The way things actually work is different.

In the real world, it goes like this. Congress votes to direct an expenditure and authorize payment. An agency carries out that direction. The Treasury instructs the Fed to pay a vendor. The Fed makes the payment by crediting the bank account of the vendor. That’s all that happens. It turns out that the real myth is that the Treasury had to find the money before the Fed would credit the vendor. That’s because the federal government holds the monopoly on creating money. U.S. Constitution Art. 1, §§8, 10. In practice this power is given to the Treasury, which mints coins, and to the Fed, which creates dollars. [1]

It also turns out that for the most part, the Treasury does cover the expenditure by taxing or borrowing, but because the government is an issuer of dollars, it isn’t necessary. [2] In the last few months, the Treasury has been selling securities and the Fed has been buying about 70% of them. Here’s a chart from FRED showing Fed holdings Fed holdings of treasury securities. The Fed may or may not sell those securities to third parties. If it doesn’t, they will be held to maturity and remitted as a dividend to the Treasury.

The recognition that spending comes first, and finding the money comes second is one of the fundamental ideas of MMT. Kelton describes her meeting with Warren Mosler who introduced her to these ideas; the stories are amusing and instructive. I particularly like this part:

[Mosler] began by referring to the US dollar as “a simple public monopoly.” Since the US government is the sole source of dollars, it was silly to think of Uncle Sam as needing to get dollars from the rest of us. Obviously, the issuer of the dollar can have all the dollars it could possibly want. “The government doesn’t want dollars,” Mosler explained. “It wants something else.”

“What does it want?” I asked.

“It wants to provision itself,” he replied. “The tax isn’t there to raise money. It’s there to get people working and producing things for the government.” Pp. 24-5.

Put a slightly different way, people accept the government’s money in exchange for goods and services because the government’s money is the only way to pay taxes imposed by the government. Kelton says she found this hard to accept. She spent a long time researching and thinking about it, and eventually wrote her first published peer-reviewed paper on the nature of money. [3]

The monopoly status makes governments the issuers of money, and everyone else is a user. That fundamental difference means that governments have different financial constraints than households, and that it certainly isn’t constrained by its ability to tax and borrow. Kelton offers several interesting and helpful analogies that can help people grasp the Copernican Revolution that this insight entails.

Once we understand that government doesn’t require tax receipts or borrowings to finance its operations, the immediate question become why bother taxing and borrowing at all. Kelton offers four reasons for taxation.

1. Taxation insures that people will accept the government’s money in exchange for goods and services purchased by the government.
2. Taxes can be used to protect against inflation by reducing the amount of money people have to spend.
3. Taxes are a great tool for reducing wealth inequality.
4. Taxes can be used to encourage or deter behaviors society wants to control. [4]

She explains borrowing this way: government offers people a different kind of money, a kind that bears interest. She says people can exchange their non-interest-bearing dollars for interest bearing dollars if they wish to. “… US Treasuries are just interest-bearing dollars.” P. 36. Let’s call the non-interest-bearing dollars “green dollars”, and the interest-bearing ones “yellow dollars”.

When the government spends more than it taxes away from us, we say that the government has run a fiscal deficit. That deficit increases the supply of green dollars. For more than a hundred years, the government has chosen to sell US Treasuries in an amount equal to its deficit spending. So, if the government spends $5 trillion but only taxes $4 trillion away, it will sell $1 trillion worth of US Treasuries. What we call government borrowing is nothing more than Uncle Sam allowing people to transform green dollars into interest-bearing yellow dollars. P. 36-7.

It might seem that there are no constraints, but that is not so. Congress has created some legislative constraints on its behavior, including PAYGO, the Byrd Rule, and the debt ceiling, but these can be waived, and always are if a majority of Congress really want to do something. They also serve as a useful way of lying to progressives demanding public spending on not-rich people, like Medicare For All. We have to pay for it under our PAYGO rules, they say, while waiving PAYGO for military spending (my language is harsher than Kelton’s).

The real constraints are the availability of productive resources and inflation. The correct question is not “where can we find the money”, but “will this expenditure cause unacceptable levels of inflation” and “do we have the real resources we need to do this” and “is this something we really want to do. As Kelton puts it, if we have the votes, we have the money.

In my next post, I will examine some of these points in more detail. Please feel free to ask questions or request elaboration in the comments.

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[Graphic via Grand Rapids Community Media Center under Creative Commons license-Attribution, No Derivatives]

[1] Art. 1, §8 authorizes the federal government to create money; §10 prohibits the states from issuing money. That leaves open, for now, the possibility that private entities can issue money. Banks and from time to time other private entities play a role in the creation of money, but I do not see a discussion of this in the book.

For those interested, here’s a discussion of the MMT view from Bill Mitchell. I may take this up in a later post. In the meantime, note that every creation of money by a bank loan is matched by a related asset. Thus, bank creation of money does not increase total financial wealth. In MMT theory this is called horizontal money. It is contrasted with vertical money representing the excess of government expenditures over total tax receipts, which does increase financial wealth. Here’s a discussion of this point.

[2] There are, of course, constraints on government spending, especially inflation and resource availability. We’ll get to that in a later post.

[3] Kelton cites the paper in a footnote: The Role Of The State And The Hierarchy Of Money.

[4] Compare this list to the list prepared by Beardsley Ruml, President of the New York Fed, in 1946.

The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction and Index

Posts in this series.
The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction And Index
Debunking The Deficit Myth
MMT On Inflation
Reflections On The Deficit Myth
The National Debt Is Soooooo Big
The Wonkish Myth Of Crowding Out
MMT On International Trade
Social Security And Other Entitlements
Reviews Of The Deficit Myth

The last two chapters of Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit MythThe Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy is now available, and I will be discussing it in a series of posts. [1]

Kelton lays out the structure of the book in her Introduction. She starts with a common bumper sticker approach to the federal deficit: Uncle Sam looking abashed while holding out his pockets to show they’re empty. That image dominates most discussion of budgeting in the US. It depicts an individual facing the limits of personal finance. It relies on this image to create panic about federal deficits. This is the dominant view among politicians of both parties. In a New York Times opinion piece, Kelton reminds us that a group of 60 Congressmen, 30 from each legacy party, are terribly worried about the deficit. This kind of deficit hawkery hit President Obama in 2010 after the weak financial stimulus offered by Democrats after the Great Crash.

That month, in his State of the Union address, he committed to a reversal of fiscal stimulus, telling the nation, “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” What followed was a sustained period of self-inflicted harm.

These 60 legislators learned nothing from the misery created by Obama’s turn to austerity, and just like Obama are prepared to hurt Americans in desperate need of assistance following the collapse of the economy, a pandemic, and political upheaval. These supposedly principled people couldn’t agree on actual proposals to increase taxes or cut programs.

Instead, they called for the Government Accountability Office to issue an annual report detailing the government’s fiscal health. They also endorsed legislation introduced last year that would create “rescue committees” to recommend fixes for Social Security, Medicare and other trust funds that are projected to become insolvent.

And they called for adopting goals for managing the debt, such as setting a limit based on its share of the economy. Such a move, they said, “would reduce debt-limit brinkmanship as long as the budget remains on a responsible path.”

It would serve them right if the GAO read Kelton’s book and concluded, as she does, that they are dangerously wrong. By the way, the Fed disagrees with these spineless wonders, and says more fiscal stimulus is needed. It goes without saying that the Fed is more likely to be right than legislators mired in the economics and politics of the past.

Kelton calls for a Copernican Revolution:

MMT changes how we view our politics and economics by showing that in almost all instances federal deficits are good for the economy. They are necessary. P. 7.

There is no doubt that Modern Monetary Theory would require a revolutionary change in our understanding of economics. Here’s a tweet from Paul Krugman [2]:

No revolutionary thinking needed says Krugman, carry on. I assume this is a reference to Krugman’s general view that the US can borrow cheaply thanks to the low interest rates set by the Fed, and that bonds will be issued to “pay for” economic support. That’s not what’s happening. The Fed is buying the securities issued by the Treasury to “pay for” whatever Congress said to pay for. Between February 27 and May 31, the national debt increased $2.4 trillion while Fed holdings of treasuries increased by $1.657 trillion. [3] In other words, the Fed bought about 70% of the new issuance, simply by marking up the Treasury’s account at the Fed. That’s blatantly creating money out of thin air. It’s important to add that no one is going to pay off the securities owned by the Fed unless the Fed decides to sell them to third parties. I wonder if the 60 Representatives who signed that letter know that. Or care. Or understand why it’s relevant.

Kelton takes up six myths about the economy in her book.

1. The US government should budget itself like a household.
2. The deficit is evidence of overspending.
3. Deficits will burden the next generation.
4. Deficits crowd out private investment undermining long-term growth.
5. Deficits make the US dependent on foreign investment.
6. Entitlements will cause a huge future problem.

Then she discusses our real crises:

The fact that 21 percent of all children in the United States live in poverty—that’s a crisis. The fact that our infrastructure is graded at a D+ is a crisis. The fact that inequality today stands at levels last seen during America’s Gilded Age is a crisis. The fact that the typical American worker has seen virtually no real wage growth since the 1970s is a crisis. The fact that forty-four million Americans are saddled with $1.7 trillion in student loan debt is a crisis. And the fact that we ultimately won’t be able to “afford” anything at all if we end up exacerbating climate change and destroying the life on this planet is perhaps the biggest crisis of them all. These are real crises. The national deficit is not a crisis. P. 11-12.

And I’ll add one more: the grotesque skewing of wealth and income to white poeple is a crisis.

This book is a joy to read. It’s written for non-economists. The language is lucid and precise, with no jargon. I hope people will discuss it in the comments as I move through it. I’ll try to answer any and all questions to the best of my ability.

I will also add my own comments, but I will separate my thinking from Kelton’s. I know of two areas I want to discuss in more detail. First, as I see it MMT is an example of a pragmatic approach to the study of economics. I offer a primer on pragmatism in three posts, here, here, and here. In contrast, mainstream economics rests heavily on Bentham and Mills’ Utilitarianism, but it’s buried deeply in the history of economics, and is never discussed as a normative principle. For an introduction to this area, search the site for William Stanley Jevons.

The value of pragmatism is that it strives to be non-normative. It leaves discussion of what should we do to political or some other discourse. Mainstream economics claims to know how things should be: the market is all-knowing and politics should never interfere with its operation.

This book lays out an argument for MMT as the foundation for an economics for progressives. It offers an understanding of the way our government funds itself which can free us from the constraints demanded by the rich and powerful. It shows us how to use federal monopoly control over money for the benefit of all of us, not just the filthy rich. With this book, we can master the basic concepts and teach them to our friends and neighbors, and especially to our politicians.
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[1] My original plan was to discuss John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems, but that was derailed by a bad case of quarantine brain. I’ll return to that excellent book next. One of the reasons to discuss that book is that Dewey, the leading pragmatist, opens with a discussion of that theory.
[2] I replied to this tweet.
[3] The Fed’s weekly balance sheets are here. Debt figures from the Treasury are here.

[Graphic via Grand Rapids Community Media Center under Creative Commons license-Attribution, No Derivatives]

Covid-19 and Class Structure

The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the class structure of the US. I’ve written several posts on the issue of class in the US, but most such analysis takes an index of some kind, wealth, education, income, and places people sequentially, then divides the line into groups which are called classes. For example, in this post I described Thomas Piketty’s classes based on wealth.

I discussed a modern Marxian class structure analysis here. Class is defined in terms of social and ownership relationships. Typically we think of three classes, the capitalists, the workers, and a small class of professionals and artisans who own their own means of production and work for themselves, but are to some extent dependent on the capitalist class. [1] This simple structure leads to difficult problems for people trying to use the analysis for social change.

1. In a large corporation, those at the bottom of the hierarchy own nothing but their labor and can only survive by selling that labor. They have little, if any, control over their working conditions. They are subject to the orders of those above them in the hierarchy. In higher levels of the hierarchy workers have limited control over the means of production, and have the power to control the actions of their subordinates. In even higher reaches, people achieve actual control over the means of production and control the actions of larger numbers of people. At the top are people who control the means of production through their power to direct their subordinates. In this more complex setting, the boundaries of class are blurred, and it is easy for people to misunderstand their position in the class structure.

It’s also difficult for people to understand that the problems they face in their jobs are common across all jobs. It isn’t just your boss who’s a jerk, your employer who has appalling policies on health care, sick leave, vacation and day-to-day irritations. Everyone faces those issues.

2. People don’t understand that capitalists exploit workers. This chart shows that the share of national income going to the labor sector has trended down since 1960. It dropped dramatically and stayed low during the last 20 years. That loss goes to the rich. I discuss the way in which capitalists justify this exploitation in this post.

3. Most people do not understand how they are exploited operationally, because everything they experience seems natural. That’s because capitalists exercise substantial control over the public understanding of issues of political economy. Their version of business history dominates. Their theory of economics, neoliberalism, is not threatened by any widespread alternative. Their concept of the role of government has controlled since the 1950s. They have an out-sized input into our choices for political office in both legacy parties. They have used that power to hold onto and increase their power.

But.

This pandemic has the potential to wake people up from their torpor. This article by Robert Reich is a good starting point. Reich identifies four classes defined in relation to the lockdown.

A. The Remotes: “…professional, managerial, and technical workers – an estimated 35% of the workforce” who are working and reasonably well-paid. They are largely unaffected by the lockdown.

B. The Essentials: the people who are required to go to their workplaces despite the lockdown, including health care workers, care-givers, farm workers, meat packers, grocery store and pharmacy employees, employees of gun stores and liquor stores.

C. The Unpaid: the non-essential workers who are now unemployed and subjected to lockdown, about 25% of the work force. Most of them lost their health insurance as well as their income, and face an unpleasant future.

D. The Forgotten: those “…for whom social distancing is nearly impossible because they’re packed tightly into places most Americans don’t see: prisons, jails for undocumented immigrants, camps for migrant farmworkers, Native American reservations, homeless shelters, and nursing homes.” The lockdown doesn’t affect them, as their lives sucked already.

Reich doesn’t mention the Fifth Class, those who are largely unaffected by the lockdown. This group has two segments. One is retirees and those near retirement, who presumably have the income and assets they need and to maintain their lifestyles. They have Medicare, stable housing, access to grocery stores and pharmacies, and generally can shelter in place with no discomfort. The second segment is people who have so much money they are not at all affected. They can just hop on their private jets and come and go as before, maybe with fewer people to serve them drinks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened the blurred lines described in Point 1. There are only two groups: the Reomoters and the Fifth Class who can can stay home and protect themselves; and the Essentials and the Unpaid. The Essentials who can’t stay home, and are at risk of serious illness and death, with whatever insurance they can cobble together. The Unnpaid are unprotected from financial ruin. The serious risks facing the Essentials and the Unpaid are the same across all jobs.

The exploitation described in Point 2 is now in the open. The rich and their politicians value capital over the lives and well-being of the Essentials and the Unpaid. First, capitalists were heavily subsidized by the Fed and Congress, Second, politicians are granting the demands of the capitalists to reopen the economy and shield them from liability if they don’t protect their workers from deadly illness. Republicans force people to choose between working for the rich or protecting their health at the cost of their unemployment benefits and their life savings.

The domination of discourse raised in Point 3 has been eroded by the rise of the political rhetoric of Sanders, Warren, and others. A large number of working people of all incomes don’t accept the assertions of the rich and their media giants as gospel. They can see the impact of Covid-19 on themselves and everyone they know. They can read about the problems faced by other workers, and see that they are in the same position.

The practical outcome? Workers at a number of giant corporations are planning a work action for May Day.

“It’s more powerful when we come together,” Chris Smalls, a lead organizer of the May 1 walkout, who was fired from Amazon’s Staten Island fulfillment center after staging a walkout on March 31, told Motherboard. “We formed an alliance between a bunch of different companies because we all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities. Right now isn’t the time to open up the economy. Amazon is a breeding ground [for this virus] which is spreading right now through multiple facilities.”

The strikers are asking consumers to boycott Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt. They say that many of the workers will walk out, call in sick, or take other action. Their demands are astonishingly minimal: personal protective gear, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and a few company specific needs.

The Essentials and the Unpaid are forced to risk their health and their finances so the Remoters and the Fifth Class can live comfortably. That’s a concrete way of showing people their position in the class structure. Where are the politicians and media people capable of articulating this so everyone gets it?

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[1] In this post, I use the term “capitalist” to mean the top .1% in wealth and the top managers of the largest businesses. It’s useful here where the basis of the analysis is more or less Marxist, but I’m ambivalent about it because I’m not particularly a Marxist. I’m just a guy who reads books. I usually use the term “filthy rich” which my mother loved, but it seems perjorative.

From Flickr, Creative Commons License

We Have Never Been Modern: Conclusion

Posts in this series. In earlier posts I focused on the parts of We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour that seemed relevant to my discussion of neoliberalism and its discontents. I did not discuss a number of fascinating issues raised by Latour about the state of philosophy today, and I did not exactly describe his overall project. This post will conclude my discussion of this book with two thoughts.

Background

Latour thinks the big problem with modernity is that it enables us to ignore quasi-objects and their impact on us as individuals and as a society. We do this because the tools we use to learn about things are focused on the separation of culture and nature through the work of purification. We assign objects for study to one or the other category, and use the tools we developed to study that domain to look at the problem. Latour thinks these tools are inadequate to study things that are combinations of culture and nature, which he calls quasi-objects.

The Role of Neoliberalism

Latour is worried about the unregulated and misunderstood quasi-objects that have overrun our society. He thinks what he calls the Modern Constitution facilitated the onslaught. He was writing in the early 1990s, as neoliberalism was emerging into our consciousness as the dominant economic structure. It’s not surprising that Latour ignored the important role played by this economic system. We didn’t even have a name for that system when he wrote. Latour’s foresight in recognizing the the problems that would result from failure to control quasi-objects was impressive.

Looking back, I’d argue that a big part of the blame for the failure to control quasi-objects should be assigned to the free-market economists who shilled for the capitalists, ignored any negative consequences of the changes that were underway, and assured everyone that markets were the only solution to any problem that involved the allocation of resources. One obvious example of the contribution of neoliberalism to our current plight is the failure of economists to pay attention to rising inequality and the possibility of domination of the economic and political systems by the richest capitalists and their minions.

As another example of the contribution of neoliberalism, consider the outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19. We first saw a coronavirus in the SARS epidemic of 2003. The study of the SARS virus ramped up and began to produce results. Then the possibility of an epidemic evaporated, and work slowed to a crawl. Then the new coronavirus, COVID-19 emerged. Now we are forced into a panic-driven research project.

There was no profit in studying the coronavirus family, and therefore there was no reason to think about it during the 16 years since the emergence of SARS. The role of government is to fill that gap, but the neoliberal state is supposed to operate like a business, so government funding dried up. The government was further weakened by the selection of an incompetent and ignorant businessman as President:

“I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” Trump said. “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

This is a perfect example of the consequences of electing fools. But it’s also an indictment of neoliberalism.

The Role of Purification

Latour blames a lot of the problem on the work of purification, the separation of nature from culture. Purification weeds out all aspects of culture when we study the objects of nature, and weeds out all aspects of nature when we study society/culture. Obviously it’s impossible to study a rock or a proton or COVID-19 without isolating it from all other aspects of nature and culture. The work of purification is essential to any formal study of material things. But we seem to think it should be used to study culture, and that we can learn all we need to know about society through specialized tools developed to study canonical societal categories, such as politics or the economy.

The choice of things to be studied, and to some extent the methods of study, are embedded in our social structures. This fact is perhaps less important in the study of nature, but it remains a crucial fact. There are many areas of scientific research that would be valuable. The selection of the things to be studied is a function of culture, not nature. Stupid choices have horrible effects, as the failure to study coronaviruses demonstrates.

The study of culture works the same way. There is some value in looking at specific aspects of culture through closed-off academic study, such as political science, sociology, or economics. We can gain some insights into the workings of our broader culture through these disciplines. But they are not exhaustive of our understanding of culture as a whole, or of society in the broadest sense. For that we need new modes of thinking. In addition, these disciplines ignore the role played by science in the way society operates. This last is the central insight of the Nonmodern Constitution, which I discuss here.

Latour emphatically rejects postmodern thought as a way forward. In this book, he suggests applying the principles of our broadest discipline, anthropology, to our own society. That would be possible if we stripped out the Modern Constitution with its absolute separation between culture and nature and its insistence that we are not like our ancestors and our society is not like theirs in any way.

In later works, he offers a broader method of studying quasi-objects. which is generally known as Actor-Network Theory. He doesn’t like the name, for reasons discussed in this article. For further discussion, check out this Wikipedia entry.

Conclusion

We can no longer ignore the way quasi-objects change us as individuals and as a society. We have to face up to the changes they make in nature, through climate change, piles of waste, and consumption of resources. Latour thinks we need a new kind of intellectual discipline for the study of what he calls collectives, which include all groupings of people and things. I think this is a fascinating idea.

From Flickr, Creative Commons License

The Nonmoderns

Posts in this series. The first posts in this series discuss some of the main terms used by Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern. The book defines ours as the age of the Moderns, as contrasted with the Premoderns who came before; that’s the subject of the previous post. In this post I discuss Latour’s view of the conceptual underpinning of the Moderns, and his proposal to amend that constitution for Nonmoderns.

Latour describes the conceptual basis of the moderns by stating what he calls its constitution. The meaning of a constitution is its guarantees. Here are the four guarantees of the modern constitution, taken from figure 5.2, Kindle Loc. 2834:

The first guarantee is that Nature is transcendent, that is, it cannot be affected by us humans. At the same time, it is immanent, in the sense that once we discover something about nature, we can use it as we see fit. The second guarantee is that society is immanent, meaning we create it and can modify it, but at the same time it transcends any individual, and so it is at the same time transcendent. The third guarantee is that nature and society are totally separate things. Neither affects the other. The fourth guarantee is that the Crossed-Out God is present in our hearts for the purpose of deciding on moral issues that confront us, especially when they involve conflicts between society and nature.

Latour says that the hallmark of modernity in action is the combination of the conscious work of purification which proceeds from the third guarantee, and the unacknowledged creation of quasi-objects. That is underwritten by the third guarantee, which essentially says that everything is either culture or nature, society or science. By implication, there is no space for quasi-objects which are combinations of these two separate things.

I won’t go into all of the implications of this set of guarantees, which Latour works out over Chapters 3 and 4. This part of the book shows how pervasive these guarantees are, and how deeply we rely on them in the way we structure our approach to studying both science and nature and the way we create our society. He also discusses the reactions to modernity by the antimoderns and the postmoderns.

The antimoderns firmly believe that the West has rationalized and disenchanted the world, that it has truly peopled the social with cold and rational monsters which saturate all of space, that it has definitively transformed the premodern cosmos into a mechanical interaction of pure matters. But instead of seeing these processes as the modernizers do – as glorious, albeit painful, conquests – the antimoderns see the situation as an unparalleled catastrophe. Except for the plus or minus sign, moderns and antimoderns share all the same convictions. The postmoderns, always perverse, accept the idea that the situation is indeed catastrophic, but they maintain that it is to be acclaimed rather than bemoaned! They claim weakness as their ultimate virtue, as one of them affirms in his own inimitable style: ‘The Vermindung of metaphysics is exercised as Vermindung of the Ge-Stell’ (Vatimo, 1987, p. 184). Kindle Loc. 2475. [1]

The antimoderns are reactionaries. Latour dismisses the postmoderns as useless. [2] Latour calls for us to become nonmoderns, disavowing the Constitution of the Moderns and the anti- and post- criticisms. He proposes a new set of constitutional guarantees.

The point of this new constitution is to make explicit what we are actually doing. The first Nonmodern guarantee recognizes that the form of our society is in part generated by the things we create, including quasi-objects. Scientific inquiries are driven by what we as a society need or would enjoy far more than by scientists seeking knowledge for its own sake. The second Nonmodern Guarantee recalls the first two guarantees of the Modern Constitution, but recognizes that the transcendence of nature and the immanence of society are related.

The third Nonmodern Guarantee tells us that our society and the nature we are studying are a continuous whole with those of out forebears and of other existing and previous nature/cultures. We are not distinct and new, just the same human beings with different and shinier stuff and some cool new ideas. The fourth Nonmodern Guarantee says that the process of hybridization should be democratically controlled. In a nice turn of phrase, Latour refers to this democracy as the Parliament of Things.

Discussion

The first three Nonmodern Guarantees seem to me to make the processes of society explicit. We use science to create stuff. The processes of science are not some black box, but something we do for a purpose. Each breakthrough leads to exploitation, and it’s the exploitation that leads to quasi-objects. To take an example, the creation of the transistor was a breakthrough, but the exploitation of the breakthrough has recreated our society in fundamental ways.

The Fourth Nonmodern guarantee seems to me to be the most challenging. The founding principle of the US Constitution is the protection of property rights. One of those rights is ingrained in us from birth: I can do whatever I want to with my property. Only grudgingly do we allow laws to restrict that freedom, and not infrequently the Supreme Court strikes down those laws. Let’s examine what I hope is a neutral example: the dramatic increase in the use of liquid soap.

On one hand, liquid soap has benefits. It is easy to use, and possibly more effective than bar soap. It’s easy to replace and clean up in public lavatories, and it encourages and speeds up hand-washing. That’s also the case in medical facilities and kitchens.

On the other hand, liquid soap uses lots of water and one-time plastics. The water has to be purified, then shipped, so there is an increase in the use of fossil fuels for those purposes. One-time use plastics are made out of fossil fuels, have to be moved several times before final production, and then shipped. Then they wind up in waste dumps.

Liquid soap has become the norm for many of us, so much so that bar soap is becoming rare. Fun fact, the bar soap I like, Trader Joe’s Green Tea soap, has disappeared. I don’t think that was a total market choice. I think it was driven by capitalism’s urge to make money. It’s an example of the US way: Lever Brothers and Colgate-Palmolive can do what they want to with their money, including encouraging the use of liquid soap. They don’t have to and don’t care about any of the negative consequences of their actions. They make their decisions based strictly on the amount of money they can make.

The Fourth Nonmodern Guarantee says that we as a society have a right to weigh the positive and negative consequences of the uses of property. That’s a bold claim in the case of liquid soap. It’s a crucial claim in the case of climate change.

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[1] I have no idea what that last quote means. I tried to figure it out, but I can’t, and strangely I don’t care.
[2] Here’s a taste:

The postmoderns have sensed the crisis of the moderns and attempted to overcome it; thus they too warrant examination and sorting. It is of course impossible to conserve their irony, their despair, their discouragement, their nihilism, their self-criticism, since all those fine qualities depend on a conception of modernism that modernism itself has never really practised. Kindle Loc. 2687.

Quasi-Objects for Moderns and Premoderns

Posts in this series. In the first post I give some background on We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour. The second post describes quasi-objects. In this post I try to explain why Latour thinks this is an important distinction.

The Moderns

Quasi-objects play a central role in Latour’s thinking. He uses a diagram similar to this

Above the line we see the separation of culture and nature, driven by the work of purification. Below the line we have quasi-objects, created by the work of hybridization. The work of purification is acknowledged to be a central part of our self-understanding. As a society we are conscious of this work, and we think it is important. Below the line is the vast bulk of the work we do in contemporary society, and have done for some decades. Our productive lives consist in the creation of quasi-objects, and our social structures revolve around these new creations.

But we do not subject quasi-objects to study, we do not pay serious attention to them, or demand accountability for their consequences. They are, for the most part, invisible to our understanding of our society. At most, we notice them when their consequences cannot be ignored even by the most committed moderns. Here’s a horrifying example.

The Premoderns

Latour contrasts this description of the condition of modernity with his discussion of pre-moderns:

So are the moderns aware of what they are doing [in the act of hybridization] or not? The solution to the paradox may not be too hard to find if we look at what anthropologists tell us of the premoderns. To undertake hybridization, it is always necessary to believe that it has no serious consequences for the constitutional order. There are two ways of taking this precaution. The first consists in thoroughly thinking through the close connections between the social and the natural order so that no dangerous hybrid will be introduced carelessly.

The second one consists in bracketing off entirely the work of hybridization on the one hand and the dual social and natural order on the other. While the moderns insure themselves by not thinking at all about the consequences of their innovations for the social order, the premoderns – if we are to believe the anthropologists – dwell endlessly and obsessively on those connections between nature and culture. To put it crudely: those who think the most about [quasi-objects] circumscribe them as much as possible, whereas those who choose to ignore them by insulating them from any dangerous consequences develop them to the utmost.

The premoderns are all monists in the constitution of their nature-cultures. ‘The native is a logical hoarder’, writes Claude Lévi-Strauss; ‘he is forever tying the threads, unceasingly turning over all the aspects of reality, whether physical, social or mental’. By saturating the mixes of divine, human and natural elements with concepts, the premoderns limit the practical expansion of these mixes. It is the impossibility of changing the social order without modifying the natural order – and vice versa – that has obliged the premoderns to exercise the greatest prudence. Every monster becomes visible and thinkable and explicitly poses serious problems for the social order, the cosmos, or divine laws. Kindle loc. 686, cites omitted; paragraphing and emphasis mine.

The moderns feel free to ignore all the restrictions the premoderns imposed on creation of quasi-objects. They cannot see themselves as a continuation of the premoderns but insist that they are completely new and different.

The Divine

As the foregoing quote shows, the premoderns included the Divine in their conception of the world. Both Hobbes and Boyle discuss the Almighty in their treatises, but they call on a distant God, one not involved in the discovery of natural law or the laws of society. Their God created the world and the natural laws that operate in it, and then left the construction of society and the discovery of the laws of nature to human beings. Latour refers to this vision of the Almighty as the Crossed-Out God. This Crossed-Out God lives in our hearts, but only in our hearts. Today we would call this Deism; remember that many of the Founding Fathers were Deists.

Discussion

The history of Galileo and the Copernican Theory gives us a nice example. By Latour’s definition, Galileo lived at the end of the premodern era (1564-1642). Like Boyle, he applied some of the tenets of the scientific method. The details are laid out in Wikipedia. Galileo adopted the Copernican theory in the early 1600s based on his own published observations. There were two kinds of objections to heliocentrism. One was scientific, largely the work of Tycho Brahe using Galileo’s own methods.

The other was religious, based on several passages of the Bible. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Ecclesiastes 1:5; here’s the King James translation:

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

That clearly conflicts with Galileo’s findings and the Copernican theory. Galileo took up the challenge directly, arguing in an unpublished but widely read letter that he was right, and that the Bible should be read as the authority on matters of faith and morals, but not on nature. The Catholic Church claimed that Galileo was interpreting the Bible, which under Church doctrine was solely the province of the Church, and looked dangerously like Protestantism. Galileo’s views were declared heretical, his books and others on the Copernican theory were banned in 1616 and he was ordered not to defend his opinion about the motion of the earth.

Let’s examine this conflict in Latour’s terms. The premodern Catholic Hierarchy saw that this new idea about nature would have a big impact on the social structure. The Church read the Bible as an authority on all that it contained, as the inspired work of the Deity. Galileo’s data calls into question the authority of the Bible. If the Bible gets nature wrong, what else does it get wrong? How can the Deity be wrong? Was God intentionally misleading his creatures? In his reply, Galileo indeed questions the Church as the ultimate interpreter of the Bible, asserting that his way of understanding the Bible is better than that of the Pope.

Ideas like these could disrupt everyone’s life, destroying their faith, destroying their trust in the dominant class and the social structure it led, and leading in uncontrollable directions. With the incredible violence that followed the Reformation, these are reasonable concerns. [1]

We moderns just dismiss these worries. We think the Church acted like barbarians. We argue that the Church was simply trying to protect its privileged position, and the privileges of the hierarchy and of monarchs ruling by divine right. We say they denied facts in front of them and and used their power wrongfully. There is an element of cynicism in our dismissal, a denial of actual concerns that the Church might have had for its flock, a denial of the deep religiosity that stirred many clerics and the laity. Maybe there’s also a touch of arrogance, a belief that all scientific understanding and progress is automatically good.

I probably would have agreed before I read Latour. But look at precisely what the Church ordered: Galileo was free to follow his ideas as theories. He was merely ordered not to teach that his theories were physically true. That’s pretty much how we moderns think of his theory. We know it’s physically true, but we talk about sunrise and sunset. I don’t get up from my desk after an hour of reading and say to myself oh look, the earth has spun 15 degrees on its axis. For all the good it does in the world of theory and calculation, it still contradicts what we and our ancestors for millennia see with our own eyes.

Maybe we aren’t so modern after all.

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[1] In exactly the same way, the Industrial Revolution, and the Darwinian revolution caused enormous social uproar and misery. This is a central point of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. I discuss the book in a series indexed here. I discuss Polanyi’s view of the social problems created by disruptive change in this post.

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From Flickr, Creative Commons License

Subject, Quasi-Object, Object

Posts in this series. Bruno Latour uses words in ways that are not always clear. Discussion of unusual usages of words may appear in earlier posts.

We Have Never Been Modern is Bruno Latour’s effort to define the nature of modernity. Latour looks back in time to a point where we can see the beginnings of modernity. [1] The point he chooses is the 1660s, shortly after the end of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle had a war of words over their respective conceptions of society and science.

The air pump was a recent invention, and Boyle and his associates spent a lot of time and money improving it. Boyle used the air pump to conduct experiments on air and air pressure. He described the methods and results in a a 1660 book, an early example of the scientific method.

Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651. The book is usually thought to be the first on political philosophy, an effort to understand the nature and structure of human society as a human construction, not a divine creation. He offers his ideas about the best way to organize society.

Each man wrote on the subjects covered by the other, according to Latour. But eventually people focused on Hobbes as a student of society and ignored his abstruse science. Boyle’s methods became the model for science, and his writings on politics and society were ignored. Nature and society became two separate things. Society doesn’t change the laws of nature, and nature doesn’t impact the structure of society. Society is about people, and science is about things. Latour identifies this as the decisive step to modernity, separating it from previous societies he identifies as premodern.

The distinction between nature and society has endured to the present. The two poles of our thinking are society, culture, people, the state on one hand; and nature, things, objects, on the other. [2] In order to study these separate topics, we are constantly involved in the process of purification, as Latour calls it. Science tries to rid the object of all traces of the subject. People studying society try to erase all traces of objects from their studies.

At the same time, we are engaged in a different process, which Latour variously calls hybridization, mediation, or translation, [3] This is our constant creation of new objects made up of elements of society and nature mixed together. We have made a vast number of these things that don’t fit the two categories of nature and society.

An air pump is a thing, but it talks to people about other things. Not everyone can hear it speak: only specially trained people are able to comprehend the message. Today there are instruments like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so vast that they are hard to comprehend, staffed by 17,500 people, using thousands more computers, detectors, and other pieces of equipment. The LHC tells specially trained people things about fundamental particles. The air pump and the LHC are tools to study nature, but they also change us and they change our understanding of nature, and society as well.

Hobbes’ theory helps us understand and work with government and power, but there were entities that exercised power outside the government in his time, including the Church of England, masters, guilds and others. That’s true now, when we have enormous corporations which organize the production and distribution of vast amounts of material goods and services; giant universities; enormous churches; and more.

Latour calls all these objects and entities hybrids or quasi-objects. I understand a quasi-object as a node which focuses the efforts of people and other objects and at the same time changes the people and the other objects and is changed by them. It is something in itself, but its existence and its meaning depend on human action. Here’s an explanation by Levi Bryant:

Quasi-objects are objects that are neither quite natural nor quite social. … [T]hey are operators that draw people together in particular relations as well as drawing people into relations with other nonhuman objects while being irreducible social constructions in the semiotic [and?] in the humanist sense.

Quasi-objects do not fit neatly into either society or nature, but are composites, featuring some of the attributes of each. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Large Hadron Collider. It is the node around which many people gather to work at their projects. Some use it to think about dark matter. Some use it to confirm the existence of the Higgs Particle, some fix the electro-magnets, some run the massive electrical plant that supplies the power, some clean the floors and some watch the budget. There are various kinds of governance, for example, the group that decides who gets to use it, and the group that decides what upgrades to add.

The LHC cannot be understood as a physical object, nor as a social construct. It is a quasi-object.

Discussion

This distinction, between society/culture, science/objects, and quasi-objects is central to an understanding of this book. In future posts I’ll look at some of Latour’s analysis of modernity in terms of these categories. For now, two brief points.

1. One aspect of this distinction seems to be that we understand society through Hobbes’ lens, as organized around human beings and their society. Politics, economics, and other social sciences study parts of society. Each of them focuses on human beings, and ignores the objects with which humans construct society.

We understand science through Boyle’s’ lens, as the investigation of material things. Physics, chemistry, biology, math, all are focused on understanding the rules of operation of the physical world. To do this we isolate the object under study, and erase all traces of human society from it and the process of studying.

Neither of these lenses enable us to come to grips with quasi-objects, because each leaves out important aspects of quasi-objects. As a result, moderns have ignored quasi-objects, allowed them to proliferate, and ignored the consequences of ignoring them. Mostly we simply allow quasi-objects to come into existence with no thinking or planning. Our general rule is that people do stuff, and then we deal with the consequences, pleasant or unpleasant, through law and regulation or through the courts. Two obvious examples: Elon Musk is throwing random satellites into space and no one stops him from clouding our ability to look into the starry night. Southeastern Australia caught fire.

2. As Latour says in Sec. 1.2, “… America before electricity and America after are two different places; ….” In the same way, America with cell phones is a different place than America without cell phones. Those differences are how we recognize a quasi-object.

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[1] I offer a rationale for this approach in the Introduction to this Series.

[2] The subject-object distinction has been a fixture of philosophy since the ancient Greeks. I read Latour to say that premoderns did not use that distinction, leaving it to academic speculation where it belongs.

[3] These words have a technical meaning, to which I may return in a later post.

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Introduction and Index To We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

Posts in this series.
Subject, Quasi-Object, Object
Quasi-Objects For Moderns And Premoderns
The Nonmoderns
We have Never Been Modern: Conclusion
I’ve been reading We Have Never Been Modern, a 1991 book by the French thinker Bruno Latour, pictured above. It doesn’t lend itself to my usual treatment, reading and commenting on a chapter or two. Instead, I’m going to try to lay out some of the aspects that seem important enough to merit discussion.

Background

1. It seems to me that we as a nation, and me personally, are caught up in the controversy of the day, and that dominates our conversations. I notice it not just on Twitter and in the media, but in my personal life, talking with friends.

That’s especially true in our political discourse. In the Democratic party, two candidates talk about systemic problems, but nobody focuses on their critiques. Instead, the media and the other candidates focus on details of the specific plans that rise from those critiques. They complain about cost, argue about whether those plans could be turned into law, nit-pick personalities, and say anything to distract from the central critiques. Those responses turn into the controversy of the day, and the two central and powerful critiques are never discussed. We will never know what we think about corruption or about grotesque inequality, because they are not fodder for the controversy of the day.

I hope this book will help get away from short-term thinking and into a larger perspective.

2. I agree with the definition of problems laid out by those two candidates, corruption and obscene inequality. I see them as the expected outcomes of the capitalist system. Capitalism is one part of an even bigger structure in which we find ourselves. The other part is our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as members of society. You will note that in this structure, I have divided the large structure into two parts, a) our conception of ourselves and our role in society, and b) the economy, taken as a proxy for all that isn’t human.

These two systems might seem to be separate, but they are intermixed. Neoliberal capitalism is a product of the philosophical tradition of utilitarianism. It teaches us that the individual is homo economicus, fully defined by individual production and consumption. [1] This is not a subject of discussion in the public sphere, only in backwaters in academia and the occasional blog. Other ways of understanding ourselves as individuals and as members of society are rarely discussed in any serious way outside those backwaters.

I’ve been thinking that we need a framework that places these two systems in a more united perspective. After all, these systems do intermix into an overarching system that generates each on a continuous basis, a system in which both society and the conception of the self evolve over time, all the while affecting each other.

3. In my introduction to the series on The Origins Of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, I quoted this from Leszek Kolakowski’s book Modernity On Endless Trial:

If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one’s own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic (“absolute”) presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a ” history of mentalities” (as opposed to the “history of ideas”); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, … we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch. P. 3.

Latour tries to answer the question anyway: what does it mean to be “modern”? Arguably we are at the very end of an epoch in human history, now that relentless capitalism has rotted liberal democracies and set the planet on fire. Arguably Latour follows Collingwood’s suggestion of looking back in time to the end of one period, the premodern and the start of this period, the modern.

4. There is little point in these abstractions unless they help us solve a problem. The problem I’m thinking about is approximately this: How should we arrange society so that each of us can flourish as individuals and as social creatures who inhabit the this world with others?

Observations

1. When confronted with a problem, we often try to break it into smaller problems. Then we try to solve those and put the results back together to form a solution. That seems to work pretty well in science, where things cleave in only one or a few ways. It works less well in other areas of life, because there are all sorts of ways to divide social things up, and putting the results back together is an exercise in judgment if not guesswork.

2. I divided society into the economy and the human, because capitalism is so all-emcompassing. This has the virtue of connecting two strands of thought that run through my posts. But there are other ways we could divide it into two parts. One might be nature and society. And there are many more, some more useful than others. We should think about these divisions from the perspective of the use we intend to make of them.

3. I talk about society as if it were a monolith. If we think of society as an umbrella term that encompasses the circumstances of life in the US, it seems so. But everyone experiences those circumstances differently. It’s impossible to take those different experiences into account when we think at this level of abstraction. That doesn’t mean that these different experiences aren’t important, they are. And any hypothesis we might develop should be examined to see if that important factor would make us see things differently.

Resources

This is a difficult book, and I am not going to discuss large parts of it in detail. [2] For those interested in a brief overview, I suggest listening to Episode 230 of the podcast Partially Examined Life. It features Lynda Olman, one of the authors of an article based on an interview of Latour (Lynda Walsh in the following citation.) The first pages summarize some of Latour’s thinking. Forum: Bruno Latour on Rhetoric, by Lynda Walsh, Nathaniel A. Rivers, Jenny Rice, Laurie E. Gries, Jennifer L. Bay, Thomas Rickert & Carolyn R. Miller, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 47:5, 403-462 (2017). It should be available online through your library.

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[1] The hidden assertion, that the people at the top of society are exempt from this condition, is never mentioned in this discussion, although it is one of the main points made by Philip Mirowski in his book, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste.

[2] One of the things I won’t discuss is Latour’s attitude towards postmedernists such as Derrida and Lyotard. This is sad because it’s funny and quite rude, and I agree whole-heartedly.

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The Ugly Results Of Inequality

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

In the last two posts in this series I looked at the the way unequal freedom and hierarchies of social relationships play out in the US. In this post I address two ugly consequences of those inequalities.

Anger and Hostility

Most people have a good idea of where they are in the social hierarchies described by Elizabeth Anderson in her paper Equality, those I discussed in previous posts in this series. They know who dominates them, who holds them in high or low esteem, and whether their opinions about their best interests influence decisions affecting them. They live their lives in these webs of influence and social relations, and they respond emotionally and practically.

I don’t think people have very clear ideas about freedom. Everyone understands negative freedom, because they constantly confront it. But I doubt people think about their positive freedom, the range of opportunities they can reasonably enjoy. If they do, they certainly don’t think they have any chance of changing that range. [1]

Freedom from domination is even less well understood. For people of color and most poor white people, domination is normal. That isn’t so obvious to most non-poor white people. I don’t know, but I’d guess working people don’t think of their employer as dominating them. I’d guess most people think this is perfectly normal, the natural operation of the job market. This is the view Anderson attacks in her book Private Government.

As we learned from Pierre Bourdieu, the dominant class arranges things so that both the dominant and the subservient classes think everything is normal, that one class should dominate and the rest should be subservient, and that everything is just fine. But today it’s hard to sustain that illusion.

The public at large is fully aware of their lack of freedoms available only to the dominant class. Too many of us are faced with the limitations imposed by the negative freedom of others, dominated, and lacking in realistic opportunities for human flourishing. People know they are low in all social hierarchies, they feel it in their bones. They are aware that the dominant class holds them in contempt, and controls their lives. This breeds anger and hostility.

Unequal distribution of material goods

The interests of the dominant class have controlled our political discourse, but the level of control has increased dramatically during the last 50 years. The result is historically high inequality in material wealth. In my view, the ultimate cause is neoliberal ideology, which is supported by both political parties. It drives the government to abandon the interests of the majority in favor of unregulated capitalism. [2] I think that underlying the neoliberal ideology is an economic theory, neoclassical economics, which is based on the hypothesis of marginal utility, which in turn is based on utilitarianism. [3]

One good example of the way utilitarianism creates norms is set out in this post. The theory of marginal utility is used to show that wages, rents, and returns to capital are balanced in accordance with a natural law, and everything works out justly. In the real world, this is nonsense, but lots of people believe it even today. The post also shows that other outcomes are possible.

In the real world, it’s a simple fact: the rich arrange the rules of the economy to benefit themselves at the expense of the lives, health and income of the rest of us. See, e.g., this detailed discussion of the manipulation of the “market” by the insulin cartel.

A Toxic Combination

As these inequalities increased and became apparent to the least observant after the Great Crash, the dominant class refused to allow any changes to the system that made them rich. Instead, they and their allies became even more vociferous in deflecting the blame from the dominant class to groups of people in the subservient class, immigrants, the poor, people of color, academics, activists, the left, scientists, liberals, and professionals. Their demagogues have inflamed a large group of people. History teaches us that there is always a substantial group that can be counted on to respond to that kind of rhetoric with anger, fear, and occasionally violence. [4]

The claim that they are responsible for the problems facing society seems preposterous to the targeted groups, especially academics, scientists and liberals. They see themselves as supporting a good society, one in which there is more freedom and equality. None of the targeted groups have a good way to engage with what they see as idiocy. Their responses seem patronizing, or defensive, or angry, or morally unmoored.

Right-wing authoritarian demagoguery cannot be tamed by counter-rhetoric or by PR fixes. It appeals to something deeper than rational argument. I hope it can be effectively countered by appeals to morals and values, coupled with actions to show that things can be better. I believe that the values Anderson discusses and the morality they represent are the basis for that battle.

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[1] For a general look at this, see my discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. See also Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short. This paper by Silva and Sarah Corse investigates factors that explain how some working class young people are able to drive themselves through to college.

[2] I arrived at this conclusion after a long course of reading and writing. You can find it on my author page, which is linked to my name above. For a summary, see this post.

[3] I give a brief description under the subhead Modern Monetary Theory here. You can find more by searching on Jevons at this site.

[4] See, for example, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, especially the discussion of anti-Semitism. See also Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. I discuss these books at length in earlier series, indexed here and here.

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