24 September 2022

Freedom in liberal democracies

The freedom in liberal democratic societies consists in the freedom of the individualized, dissociated subjects to pursue income of all kinds and to consume it as they will. The democratic freedom in such liberal societies amounts to the subjects' being able to vote in free and fair elections for the representatives who are to govern them. Whether this is empirically the case in a given society is another question.

Confronted in the present time with the grave problems of climate change and the so-called 'limits to growth', the politico-economic task is now viewed as how, through democratic government on national and international levels, to make the transition to a sustainable economy sufficient to limit global warming, with its catastrophic consequences. Political action of activists aims at collecting the individualized subjects in public opinion to exert pressure on the elected government in the right direction.

The hidden movement underlying the gainful game in which the subjects pursue their happiness as players, however, is the limitless accumulation of thingified value through never-ending circuits. Neither the democratic subjects (who are, in truth, not subjects but players in an endlessly competitive game) nor their government know anything of this underlying circular movement of valorizing thingified value. All the players conform to the movement of limitless accumulation by seeking their thingified happiness, driven by the boundless will to have more and more.  Nevertheless they all (including the entrepreneurial subject-players through to huge capitalist corporations) and the democratic societies of which they are members, are unknowingly constrained by thingified value's success or otherwise in valorizing. All suffer when the circular accumulative movement of global thingified value stutters, but no one can name the culprit as such. Therefore it is continually misnamed by innocuous terminology that economists are versed in.

The voting citizens are never able to vote for or against 'valorization of thingified value' because this party is not on the ballot paper. Nevertheless, the right wing of the political spectrum unknowingly and invariably votes in favour of further endless accumulation. Without their knowing it, their highest value is thingified value and its valorization, coupled with the freedom to transform thingified value acquired as the highest freedom. 

The complex, competitive interplay in the gainful game is forcefully reduced — that is, led back — to the freedom of movement of thingified value transforming itself through its value-forms as the ultimate boundary condition of social movement itself, of which, as I say, the players and their democratic governments are unaware. The democratic subjects are not the underlying subjects of society's movement, but rather players caught up in a game, fulfilling their roles as income-earners and consumers in the endless valorization that, as a purely formal sequence of transformations, is indifferent to how the players fare and whether the Earth can bear this endless accumulation.

The circular movement of valorizing thingified value is itself a linear movement around a circle that is counted off by the linear time of turnover of capital and its accounting periods. The accumulative movement of total global valorizing value is the movement from which global time is counted. The interplay in the gainful game on the surface of society, however, is played out as a complex movement in three-dimensional time beset with contingency whose outcomes are unpredictable. At best, the movement's indeterminacy can be roughly modelled for various scenarios, but remains outside the reach of the subjects' collective will to control it. The player-subjects themselves know nothing of three-dimensional time as the time enabling genuine freedom of movement. Instead they all, from the lowliest to the most powerful, remain on the treadmill of endlessly valorization thingified value.

And yet liberal democracy, that is said to be rooted in the collective free will of subjects, implicitly asserts itself as up to the task of taming the beast of valorizing thingified value and guiding the globe to a sustainable future. This is one of the most comforting self-delusions born of the metaphysics of subjectivity. 

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness,
Movement and Time in the Cyberworld,
Da Capo (forthcoming, perhaps posthumously).

29 August 2022

Limits to Growth? Limitless Growth?

This year sadly celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth. It's taken fifty years for the ruthless exploitation of the Earth to come to the top of the political agenda of urgent issues. Climate change is staring us in the face, yet the inertia, the prevarication, the dragging of feet continue. Given the enormity of the threat to human living on the planet, the inevitable geopolitical upheaval, whence the resistance? The culprits are soon found: the large corporations that generate profits at the expense of environmental degradation down through multiple levels to the normal greed of individuals making money in any way possible without regard to the environment. The source of the problem seems to be human beings themselves and their shortcomings, and the solution seems to lie in the collective political actions of responsible, enlightened democratic subjects to agitate for and force through environmentally friendly measures of all kinds to achieve sustainability for the human species to survive.

But what of the limits to growth and the disregard thereof? The limits reside in the 'obvious' finiteness of the planet and all it provides by way of resources to exploit and consume. Hence, for instance, the concern with explosive population growth, the loss of habitat for animal species, the population pressure on the Earth to produce enough food, and so on. And the limitlessness? At first glance, and so we are often told, it lies in an incessant drive of human beings to want to improve their standard of living by consuming more and more, in lock-step with the drive of corporations to generate even larger profits ad infinitum. Hence the usual left critique of capitalism, its insatiable thirst for profit whilst keeping wage-growth to an acceptable level, whose acceptability amounts to not eating into capital's profitability. Insofar, both capitalists and workers, employers as well as employees have a vested interest in endless economic growth to raise the general material standard of living. It's called 'lifting millions out of poverty'.

Capitalism itself, however, is an 'it', not a human being, albeit borne and practised by human beings as a very simple principle of social, sociating movement. As a first approximation this can be formulated as the principle of movement from money to more money: money capital is advanced with the aim of making more money. The human being who undertakes this enterprise is called the capitalist, who is simply the character-mask of capital as this principle of social movement. The capitalist need not be a single human being; it may be a collective, called a firm, company or corporation.

The formula, 'movement from money to more money', is inadequate as long as it remains unknown what money itself is, paradoxically, even when everyone well understands what money is. To ask what something is, is to ask for its essence, its whatness. What is money? Its whatness lies in its being a form of value and, more particularly, a form of thingified value, for, after all, it is some kind of thing, whether it be a bit of precious metal, a piece of state-issued paper, an electronic bit-string in a computer or the electronic bit-string entry in a block-chain ledger. As a form of thingified value money shows itself in a certain 'look' as valuable, and hence as desirable. It seems to embody within itself the power of exchange-value, the power to exchange for other valuable things. The value-form is highly Protean, highly mutable, assuming many guises from commodities via means of production, wages and interest through to parcels of land. Capital itself is nothing other than this movement of thingified value through its forms to generate more thingified value, a surplus that is usually measured as an amount of money appearing on a balance sheet. Only if the bottom line is positive has the circuit of capital succeeded in generating a profit and the principle of movement been fulfilled. The advanced thingified value must accumulate, must valorize to be successful. This is an absolute condition of survival of individual circuits of thingified value in its endless simple circular movement. The accumulation of thingified value on a social or global scale has no inherent limit: its principle of accumulative movement is limitless.

Thingified value shows its face only through its various looks, its various forms, but these looks do not show themselves as such, not as forms of thingified value. It is only by asking what thingified value itself is and what its principle of movement is that the secret of the circular movement of thingified value in limitless accumulation is revealed. Otherwise we remain clueless; the very medium of thingified value in which economic and social activity takes place everywhere remains invisible, disguised in various guises, and hence the source of the heedless infringement of the limits to growth imposed by the finite Earth itself is misidentified.

In particular, the culprits who do not heed the limits to growth are misidentified. They are, indeed, we ourselves, we human beings, but we human beings as the wearers of character-masks, as the bearers of roles in a gainful game that is only the surface appearance of the deeper lying accumulative movement of thingified value as a whole. Through this misidentification, multiple deluding inversions in thinking are generated. One of these is the character-mask of the consumer in the gainful game. The consumer is generally conceived as the human being who needs to consume certain goods and services to support a material standard of living ranging from luxurious down to below the poverty line. The needs themselves are relative to the customary usages of a way of life. 

But there is also the inverted view of the consumer as the player in the gainful game whose role it is to enable thingified value to turn over and accumulate. Hence total social capital can accumulate only if the consumers play their part in 'supporting the economy' by consuming to the hilt of their disposable income. This is an entirely formal role played in the formal, augmentative movement of thingified value through its various forms back to money-form. As a formal social movement, the limitless accumulation of capital is wholly indifferent to its content. As a simple, formal principle, it is also senseless. Consumers fulfil their role in the valorization of thingified value simply by consuming what seems desirable or needful to support their standard of living. For the formal principle of valorizing value, it is entirely indifferent whether the consumption is beneficial or harmful, e.g. whether consumers ruin or enhance their health through consumption.

Ditto for the Earth: it is entirely indifferent to the formal principle of movement of valorizing value whether the environment is degraded or not. Hence the formal principle is indifferent, in particular, to climate change. Yet, even today after having insinuated itself over centuries, the sociating medium of thingified value itself remains invisible in its various guises, and also our roles in this alienating gainful game in which we unknowingly thingify ourselves as well as allowing the Earth itself to be subsumed under a form of thingified value called ground-rent. Insofar as we remain blind to thingified value, captive to its fetishized power, and its principle of limitless accumulative movement, we are fighting windmills.

Challenging the principle of limitless accumulation of thingified value as the underlying principle of sociating movement in globalized society ultimately demands of us that we challenge the deludedness of the human subject, that is, that we challenge the illusoriness of the metaphysics of subjectivity. A pivot to an alternative way of thinking is required.

If, instead of being individualized subjects, we are all life-long players in interplays of mutual estimation and esteem, then there are no limits to growth in how we can benefit and care for each other, preferably — but not necessarily — without the mediation of thingified value. Mutual esteem and care are able to turn the inverted world generated by the cold and indifferent principle of limitless accumulation of thingified value right side up.

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness

25 August 2022

Challenges for Today’s Thinking digital edition

Michael Eldred on the Digital Age: Challenges for Today’s Thinking 

Interview with M.G. Michael & Katina Michael

is now available in a digital edition.

27 July 2022

The greatest misfortune

According to Socrates in Plato's Philebos, the greatest misfortune to befall humankind is to be wilfully blind and ignorant, and to cover this up with the "false conceit of wisdom" (δοξοσοφίας ψεθδοῦς 49a).

It is the way in which humankind falls most short of the Delphic dictum, "Know thyself!" (γνῶθι σαυτόν 48c).

Welcome to the present day.

Turing test inverted

Alan Turing was dead wrong when he proposed his famous Turing test for computer intelligence in 1950. It needs to be turned upside down to speak the truth.

Humankind will have passed the inverted Turing test when the human mind has dumbed itself down to be no smarter than a supercomputer.

It's already well on the way to success.

07 May 2022

Migration of whos

In my last post I wrote, "The freedom of movement of thingified value is the hidden highest value of liberal democratic societies". This value asserts itself invisibly behind our backs, outside the reach of the democratic mind-set that floats above it on the surface. Here's an illustration:

Today there is a global crisis of migration with multiple sources, including the increasingly tempestuous, violent, encroaching climate change. The rise of defensive nationalism under unsavoury demagogues who know how to skilfully bring out the worst in their voters and stoke hatred and fear among their populations has raised political tensions across the globe. Nation states strive to implement border protections against what some media call tendentiously a "flood" of undesirables into the country. The right to asylum, that is an item on the list of human rights, is watered down to become a perverted inversion of its original purpose.

Gone are those halcyon days in past times when nations were hungry for immigrants and welcomed them with open arms, either permanently or, disgracefully, as Gastarbeiter. The criterion for being more welcoming back then? The nation concerned needed more workers for its economy's workforce, and the respective government set the criteria for whether a given prospective migrant was up to scratch on the yardstick of potentially valorizable, human material. 

In certain phases, migrants can be welcomed not as who they are in their multifaceted, estimable whoness, but as bearers of labour power willing to thingify themselves for wages. In other phases, such as today, migrants have to jump over a higher bar of skill and qualification to be a desirable addition to a country's workforce; otherwise they are undesirable and have to be kept out by all means, including nationalistic, lying, demagogic politics. With exquisitely nauseating hypocrisy, politicians vow to "protect" would-be migrants from human traffickers, to the satisfaction of their xenophobic electors who are intent on preserving their comparatively advantageous situation as citizens.

The right of free movement of free persons is supposed to be among those 'values' in the catalogue of human rights cherished in liberal democracies, but the 'right' of free movement of free persons across the globe is heavily conditioned. Who the prospective migrant is in all his or her existential fullness does not count; only what the migrant is estimated to be as a bearer of labour power that can potentially be profitably thingified under the wage-form of value counts.

Compare this with the global freedom of movement of thingified value in the guise of investable money-capital. Countries vie against each other to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) for the sake of developing and strengthening their economy that is, in truth, on the subterranean level, the continually augmentative movement of thingified value in myriad circuits of capital. The global freedom of movement of these whats, investable money-capitals, trumps the liberal freedom of movement of whos as migrants. Whos have to subjugate themselves to the movement of whats to be estimated and esteemed as having any value at all.

Since thingified value as such is invisible, but demands sufficiently deep thinking to come to light, it is necessarily omitted from debates on the surface of society over 'our' democratic values engaged in by economists, sociologists, historians, ethicists, journalists, politicians, &c. The maintenance of the status quo depends upon this obfuscation.

29 April 2022

Democracy's highest (hidden, thingified) value

In the West we are said to live in liberal democracies where we enjoy certain freedoms and in which 'our' values are upheld by our elected governments and judicially protected constitutions. The past two decades or so, however, have seen the erosion of 'our' values, at whose core are the human rights enshrined in the UN charter, through the rise of demagoguery that brazenly challenges constitutionally anchored rights and in-built safeguards to limit government power for nefarious ends. The media speak ever more frequently of the "fragility" of democracy, of the need to defend it, and ask whether it will "survive". Liberal democracy appears to be our highest value with which 'we' identify, even when progressives and conservatives understand different things by 'liberal democracy'.

'Liberal' is the adjective derived from 'liberty' which, in turn, is a synonym for 'freedom'. Conservatives especially are fond of proclaiming that we live in the 'free world', the 'free West' as opposed to the unfree East, notably the repressive regimes ruling with an iron hand in Russia and China, apart from smaller, highly repressive dictatorships. In comparison to these countries, we certainly are freer and are well advised to uphold 'our values', most of which are formulated in political terms, such as constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech or the right to vote, both of which are currently under attack in some societies that are nominally liberal democracies.

At the core of 'our' liberal values is the rule of law, according to which the government protects the many forms of contractual intercourse in civil society with private property of all kinds, including labour power. The freedom to exercise property rights of all kinds enables the freedom of the individual in Western democratic societies, even when the individual freedom may consist of the impoverished freedom to spend a paltry income on the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. In general, there exists in liberal democratic societies under the rule of law a freedom of movement mediated by spending income that is often praised as 'freedom of choice'. Stealing to support one's own life, by contrast, infringes the property rights protected by the rule of law and is therefore outlawed and punished. Others living in liberal democracies have greater freedom of movement by dint of having considerably more income to spend how they want to. The possibility of achieving a higher material standard of living is said to be one of the major attractions in favour of liberal democracies, and the advertising indeed seems to be effective.

The member of civil society, in contradistinction to the political citizen, living in a democratic state enjoys individual freedom only mediated by the various forms of private property, all of which can be identified by the hallmark of having a price on the relevant market. The shareholder in a public company enjoys the individual freedom inherent in owning valuable, dividend-earning shares, whereas a worker enjoys the individual freedom inherent in owning labour power that can be hired out for wage income. This latter includes the individual freedom to band together for the purpose of collective bargaining with employers. Such freedom of association pertains to the idea of democracy even when it is savagely contested by employers and even when the government passes laws to restrict the freedom of workers to unionize in favour of big corporations. 

Likewise, the exercise of private property rights has an inherent limit in the right to life. Accordingly, for example, workers must not be employed in working conditions that demonstrably impair their health. This restriction is inherent in the very idea of a free, democratic society even when it is trampled under foot in fact, and resistance against poor working conditions is undertaken, and is only conceivable, in the light of this idea.

Is the freedom in liberal democracies upholding at their core the rule of law exhausted by the catalogue of political rights and individual property rights enabling an individual to lead his or her life according to his or her individual free will? Is freedom of the individual, willed subject at the core of the freedom of liberal democracies? Is freedom itself synonymous with freedom of the individual willed subject that is free to pursue happiness in a society whose sociation is mediated via private property transactions of all kinds?

Subjectively willed freedom of movement is only possible in a form of society that enables the private-property-owning individual. Within our age's way of thinking 'naturally' in terms of subject and object, the other side to the free, willed, individual subject is the objective, private property of all kinds, all of which are valuable in the sense of commanding a monetary price, the purest form of thingified value. Private property covers a bewildering plenitude of such 'objective', thingified value-forms, starting with the value-form of commodity goods and money, proceeding to money-capital and productive capital, and including the employee's living labour power that is thingified via subsumption under the value-form of wages, alongside the interest that is paid for loan capital and the rent paid for leased land. Employees strive to thingify themselves under the thingified value-form of wages by holding a desirable, or even not so desirable, job. Jobs are highly desirable in liberal democracies. Other private property owners strive to enter into contracts to derive income from their specific form of property, e.g. contracts to supply raw materials or components, or interest-bearing finance capital for a business venture, or land upon which to erect a factory or a shopping mall, etc. All these different kinds of contracts have to dovetail in some kind of profit-earning, productive activity under the direction of an enterprising enterprise of some kind. Although the contracts concluded on the surface of civil society seem to proceed simply from willed subjects coming to an agreement, they cover up underlying transformations of form of thingified value.

The hiddenness of thingified value as such is due to its becoming visible only mediated by its many different forms of appearance. Each value-form as an _eidos_ is a 'look', 'guise', or even 'disguise' of thingified value itself that remains in hiding behind its forms, its guises. Because it hides, its forms of appearance in private property can present themselves deceivingly as the core of the personal freedom of the willed subject, starting with the consumer subject's freedom of choice in spending its income. 

Similarly, it seems that the movement of society itself can be steered by the political instances under the so-called primacy of politics. The political movement of society is mediated by political power struggles of all kinds among the subjective actors as if it were their power struggles in a more or less democratic state that determined the course of movement of social life itself. This is an illusion, however, for the augmentative, accumulative movement of thingified value, that goes under the bland name of the 'economy', has a life of its own that proceeds behind the backs of the willed subjects that imagine that they are the underlying subjects of social movement even though, behind their backs and entirely unbeknowns to them, it is the valorizing movement of thingified value that dictates the direction, thereby subjecting the willed subjects to all sorts of pleasant and unpleasant vicissitudes. The valorization of thingified value is indifferent to content. In particular, it is indifferent to the well-being of humankind and the Earth. It is quantitative, endlessly accumulative, a movement solely for its own sake whilst pretending to be for the benefit of humankind. However, even the desire of the human subjects themselves is moulded and shaped to fit the valorization needs of accumulating thingified value. 

The freedom of movement of thingified value is the hidden highest value of liberal democratic societies. The subjects are all unknowingly merely players, mostly mere, powerless pawns, in the gainful game in which their willed move may or may not come to nought. As liberal democratic subjects, we all swim for our entire lives in the invisible medium of thingified value, to whose sickly sweet scent we are all habituated to the point of insensitivity. The highest value, thingified value, is not enumerated among 'our' values, the values of liberal democracy, and is inconceivable for the liberal-democratic mind-set that is blithely still committed to the subject/object split, as if there were self-evidently a subject of inner consciousness vis-à-vis an external objective world, and as if it would remain that way to the 'end of time'.

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness.