| "Stupidity and egoism are the roots of
-- Buddha 
mankind had wished for what is right, they might have had it long ago.
The theory is plain enough; but they are prone to mischief, "to every
good work reprobate."
1. On Chomsky on civilization and capitalism
I am still having trouble
with my eyes - keratoconjunctivitis
sicca - and with too little sleep, so once again
again this is a fairly brief Nederlog.
And as you may have
noticed, I kept changing the subjects the last
days, and I am doing so again, today to this:
On Chomsky on civilization and capitalism
My source is a brief essay
by Noam Chomsky
that I found here:
His subject is the future
of civilization, about which he is quite
pessimistic, and not without reason. He starts with noting that "capitalism" is a
vague and ambiguous term:
The term “capitalism” is commonly used to refer to the U.S.
economic system, with substantial state intervention ranging from
subsidies for creative innovation to the “too-big-to-fail” government
insurance policy for banks.
It s is true that the term
has been used for quite diverse social and
economical systems. Chomsky briefly discusses several meanings, and
does not mention that these days it does not so much seem to be capitalists
- "private owners" as the Wikipedia has it, and as Marx had it, that
have the economic power
under "capitalism", as the managers -
especially the managers of of big
banks - as has been argued by Burnham and
discussed by Orwell,
though it is also true that these managers these days are rich, and
that the rich anyway have more power than they
used to have, at least between 1950 and 1980. 
The current political-economic system is a form of
plutocracy, diverging sharply from democracy, if by that concept we
mean political arrangements in which policy is significantly influenced
by the public will.
There have been serious debates over the years about whether
capitalism is compatible with democracy. If we keep to really existing
capitalist democracy – RECD for short – the question is effectively
answered: They are radically incompatible.
It seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive RECD
and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it.
I agree with the
conclusion in the last quoted paragraph, at least in the sense that it
to me that the form of civilization that involves a welfare state, good
public education, civil rights, personal freedoms, and the rule of law
may not last long if the crisis
continues, deregulation endures, and the few rich get richer while
the many poor get poorer, the middle class disappears, and state
powers, state surveillance, and state control all increase, on the
totally false but widely accepted pretext that this is necessary in
"the war against terrorism".
There is more on the
subject in my crisis
series and elsewhere
but then Chomsky may be thinking of other things than I am.
And I doubt whether I agree
that - as I use terms - "The current
political-economic system is a form of plutocracy", since I believe it
are rather particular men (managers, politicians,) in particulat social
institutions (corporations, governments, parliaments) that can exercise
through the institutions they lead, rather than merely the rich.
Also, one may well ask
whether "political arrangements" have ever been
"significantly influenced by the public will", except in times of
social revolution, perhaps. It would seem that usually and mostly "the
public will" is not very effective, as such. For "the public will" gets
exercised not by the public but by the politicians they elect, and/or
the men who control these, while it gets heavily influenced by all
kinds of propaganda,
misinformation, and secrecy.
This also applies to the
question "whether capitalism is compatible
with democracy": it depends on what one means by one's terms, and in
any case "democracy"
is a state of affairs where ideology,
propaganda and careerists rule rather than
where rational men take reasonable decision on the basis of true or
probable relevant information. 
Next, it seems Chomsky's
conclusion in his second paragraph should be
that, logically speaking, then, there is no "really existing capitalist
democracy", rather than that it is incompatible with democracy and
But what I would agree
and what is perhaps Chomsky's intention, is that the vast democratic
majority in what are nominally the postmodern Western democracies has
no real power: It is and has been heavily manipulated, misled,
misinformed and badly educated for decades, indeed from the beginning
of (nominal) democracies during the last 120 years or so, if also most
succesfully through modern media like TV, and that it also seems as if
most politcal leaders are not so much bad as rotten. 
But as I said, I mostly
agree with Chomsky's conclusion - chances for
high or indeed enduring civilization in Europe and the US are not high,
it also seems to me - if probably not quite for his reasons. 
And there is something else
Chomsky is concerned with, for he ends his
last quoted paragraph thus:
But could functioning democracy make a difference?
and then proceeds to
the most critical immediate problem that civilization
faces: environmental catastrophe.
Chomsky is on the side of
those who consider this a very grave problem,
and concludes after a discussion of various points of view that I skip
The current financial crisis (..) is partly traceable to the
major banks and investment firms’ ignoring “systemic risk” – the
possibility that the whole system would collapse – when they undertook
Environmental catastrophe is far more serious: The
externality that is being ignored is the fate of the species. And there
is nowhere to run, cap in hand, for a bailout.
In future, historians (if there are any) will look back on
this curious spectacle taking shape in the early 21st century. For the
first time in human history, humans are facing the significant prospect
of severe calamity as a result of their actions – actions that are
battering our prospects of decent survival.
There seem to be a number
of alternatives for capitalism-as-it-exists-now in the European Union
and the US:
I do not know - I merely chart
possible outcomes, and also give no probabilities, though more
authoritarian states do seem likely , now that
the politicians and the
intellectuals of the last three decades have in large majority betrayed
civilization and done effectively nothing to solve clearly existing
problems (of the environment, of education, of population, of
technology, of energy, of sustainable development).
- it continues more or
less as was and is: muddling through, without changing into an
authoritarian or police state, and without collapsing because of the
economic crisis or because of an environmental collapse or disaster;
- it does not collapse
economically or ecologically, though things probably grow (much) worse
before they grow better, but it turns into some sort of authoritarian
state, thereby also "solving" social problems by repressing them, e.g.
as Hitler, Stalin and Mao did;
- it collapses
economically and then politically - the most probably effect, if there
remains anything like civilization, again being authoritarian states;
- it collapses through
some sort of ecological disaster(s), and otherwise as per the last
Also, as I have argued before in Nederlog, my take on environmental
disasters and dangers is that modern states are anyway
equipped with the knowledge or the persons to be able to deal
rationally with them: That is also why the environmental problems that
do exist, of which there are many, have arisen in the first place -
namely, because existing and past governments and political leaders had
no effective ways of coping with them or solving them.
Finally, while I note the ominous sounding "historians (if there are any)", and agree that it may well be as bad as that, it is also
the case that it is not really true that "For the first time in human history, humans are facing the
significant prospect of severe calamity as a result of their actions", and namely for two reasons.
First, human societies and humankind have been in grave danger before,
notably in the Cold War
and during the Cuba
Crisis. And second, human societies and mankind on a smaller level
have often faced and indeed also often suffered extinction, in
fact often because of evident stupidity, egoism or mischief - as
illustrated by the great historians, such as Thucydides on History
of the Pelopponesian War and Gibbon on the History
of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
It is true, though, that it must be feared that few modern politicians
will have read these works (with any real understanding) and also that
it seems more true than not that "Those who cannot learn from history
are doomed to repeat it" Santayana).
Mar 7, 2013: Added note , corrected some
typos, and added some links to my Philosophical
Dictionary, for the usual reason: to clarify the senses in which I
I am certain I have read this decades ago as attributed to Buddha, but
I do not know on what basis. I have also seen it denied he said so,
whence this note, to the effect that I cannot quote chapter and verse
 It is a problem of definition,
not easily solved (in a useful sense: of course one can use words as
one pleases, but some definitions and uses are more rational than
others): What are the characteristics of the present socio-economical
systems in the US and Europe? My reason to hold it are not "the owners"
or "the share holders" but managers, is that share holders have
effective power, at least usually; that banks tend to hold most shares
anyway; and that what banks do and don't do is mostly up to their
managers - whose possible courses of actions and decisions have been
the last decades.
It may be fairly objected that rationality and reason never have been
motive forces of government,
that always has been used to further the
interests of particular men, particular groups,
and often has been based on illusions.
Granting this, one
may answer that rationality
and reason in
government as elsewhere are a
matter of degree, and that effective policies and practices require
true information and means fit to their ends.
 It is not only that "all power
corrupts", but that the corrupt seek power, and that (nominal)
democracies, with a majority of badly educated, misinformed, ignorant
and misled men and women as electorate is most fit to give power to the
 Again, one problem is vagueness of meaning:
When does "civilization" "survive"? When some human
beings survive, even if most of technology and most of social life and
most who were alive before a crisis are extinct? When most who live
survive some sort of crisis but find themselves in police states that
may endure for centuries? When things continue as they have been -
"democratic elections", "modern technology" - if perhaps not in Europe
and the US? (I am merely asking, and do not know what Chomsky had in
mind. It did take several dark centuries from the collapse of the Roman
Empire to the High
Middle Ages, for example.)
 In fact the senses of "probability"
and "likely" here are vague and ambiguous and it is a major
intellectual problem to articulate clearly what would enter into
judgments that involve such terms, especially as regards social events
depending on many factors that are for the most part unknown or not
fully known. Then again, this is the case with nearly all judgments
people make about the future of society or parts
of it, and about the effects of their own actions: These judgments are
"probable" only, and in what precise sense - e.g.: subjective,
empirical, rational - is often difficult to say, and also varies with
the case and the circumstances and with one's relative (lack of)
knowledge of relevant factors.