March 6, 2013

On Chomsky on civilization and capitalism
"Stupidity and egoism are the roots of all vice."
-- Buddha [1]

If 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."
-- William Hazlitt


1. On Chomsky on civilization and capitalism
About ME/CFS


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:

1. 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. [2]

Chomsky concludes:

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 also seems 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 in Nederlog, 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 power, 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. [3]

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 "really exists".

But what I would agree with, 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. [4]

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. [5]

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 discuss

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 that

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 risky transactions.

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:

  • 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 alternative.
I do not know - I merely chart possible outcomes, and also give no probabilities, though more authoritarian states do seem likely [6], 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).

Also, as I have argued before in Nederlog, my take on environmental disasters and dangers is that modern states are anyway not 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 [6], corrected some typos, and added some links to my Philosophical Dictionary, for the usual reason: to clarify the senses in which I use words.


[1] 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 for this.

[2] It is a problem of definition, that is 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 little 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 mostly deregulated the last decades.

[3] It may be fairly objected that rationality and reason never have been the motive forces of government, that always has been used to further the interests of particular men, particular groups, particular ideologies or religions, 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.

[4] 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 corrupt.

[5] 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.)

[6] 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.

About ME/CF (that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)

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