Thursday, September 17, 2015

Galbraith on the Democratic Party

"The Democrats will always move to the left. You can always accomplish more in the Democratic Party than you can outside it, and since the Democratic Party is not ideologically exclusive it will always embrace such positions. In this respect I suppose, it has some parallel with the Liberal Party under Mackenzie King. It was King's genius, among other things, to make sure that he had no serious opposition to the left of him. Well, the Democratic Party functions in somewhat the same way."
--John Kenneth Galbraith in Peter Newman's Home Country, 1973, 128.

Imagine being able to hold that view...

Monday, September 14, 2015

CP Upswing and Disregard

Via Nanos, the CP's numbers are up 6%. One still should wait on ThreeHundredEight to correct for house effect, but if confirmed by other polls, this is a big swing (at least among those with landlines.)

Naturally there is twitter chatter. And one item did stick out. A few conservative snarks think that while it hurt them initially, the "refugee crisis is a perfect example of why Harper wins." The belief is that Alan Kurdi's death has played to the CP's advantage. Stating that Harper "campaigns to people" rather than "to journalists" we can infer that they likely endorse the view that Canadians are hesitant to support Syrians, or be lectured and led by shrill moralists, whether they are in the MSM, the LP, or NDP.

Me, I would think it has to do with incumbent advantage as those previously undecided start to settle their choice.

Another part of me, though, is not eager to imagine a Canada where empathy and provisions are (proudly?) denied to those that most need them. If, and this is still open, if this disregard is the explanation for the upswing, it would be another data point that reflects the relative success of Harper's quiet revolution. And it does not bode well for Canadians because these beliefs have a habit of eventually turning inwards.

The Value of Karl Polanyi

Rational institutionalists tend to confine the study of economy interactions to allocational choices between scarce means for preferred ends. By contrast Karl Polanyi showed how economies exist because humans need to produce things to sustain themselves, and these things come from nature. The rationale was to show that the economy should not be exclusively equated with the market, but is a sub-set of possible kinds of economic interactions. As he writes, “To narrow the sphere of the genus economic specifically to market phenomena is to eliminate the greatest part of man’s history from the scene.”

Basically, Polanyi wants economists to give due acknowledgement to the role of politics and other kinds of social interactions. This is best seen in The Great Transformation, where Polanyi explained the chaotic disruptions in the first half of the twentieth century—colonialism, world wars and the Great Depression—by pointing to the “self-regulating market” established in Britain in the nineteenth century. The general orientation was that the market had become the prime institution in society, subjugating other kinds of social institutions and interactions, and ideologically justified through a “stark utopia.”This transformation was a qualitative change from traditional society to a market system, politically induced through the “fictitious commodification” of “land, labor and money,” with a concurrent resistance movement. This process is best encapsulated by the phrase, the “double movement.”

Against this backdrop, Polanyi concludes that the economy is both the process by which persons relate to each other and to their surroundings, and that it is an institution. To this end he offers a theory of trade, markets, and the market society in an effort to describe market capitalism. Polanyi is not interested in economic history per se, but rather an attempt to trace how modes of allocation co-articulate with institutional changes, i.e. not a history of prices, but rather how prices come to exist.

Polanyi chides rational institutionalists for believing that the market is the rational way of circulating goods or allocating resources. The market society, rather than inevitable outcome, like all economies, is a mere historical contingency. Historical and anthropological evidence shows how reciprocity, redistribution and exchange have mixed and co-existed with social arrangements, and that each one of these interactions has taken on different forms, meanings and social functions for the participants. These economic interactions were often governed by social status or kinship. There are also differences between local and long-distance trade, and they are governed by different values. There is something else, market exchanges require “written records and elaborate administration” to track exchanges (1957, 48.) In contrast reciprocity and redistribution do not require such a complex organizational ambit. He writes “the need for trade or markets is no greater than in the case of reciprocity and redistribution” (1957, 53.) Thus, it makes no sense giving priority to one of these forms. Further, it would be a mistake to presume to analyse other kinds of economic allocations from this vantage using it as a ruler.

By inference Polanyi does not let orthodox Marxists off the hook either. Nowhere does he argue that that a division of labour automatically lead to a market society. Conversely, the division of labour exists in societies where reciprocity and redistribution exist. The same can be said for property rights. Stated simply, the presence of property rights, the division of labour, trade, exchange, nor their regulation or economization do not necessarily entail the market society. Throughout history, many societies have traded and exchanged, but not all have developed a market system.

One should also distinguish between markets and the market system: Sometimes exchanges are not over-determined by economic motives, or have any semblance of economic motives at all. Even markets can be subordinated to cultural norms. Therefore, the market is but one kind, one way, of trading. Polanyi puts this logic further. By relying upon anthropological evidence he argues that trade is not predisposed to creating a market system. If the market system does not arise from an evolution from the assemblage of individual exchanges and trades, then the best explanation is that it is an instituted order arising from the commodification of labor, land and money. Rather it is the institutionalization of ‘scarcity’ which had to be taught (1957, 216.) For example “Laissez faire was planned” (1957, 141.) A market society tends to ever expanding the range of commodification, and is not exclusively economic, but rather a particular institutionalized kind of economy, one that rests upon power differentials and the ability to use force, that is specific social relations that spring from the commodification of property and production. In summary, not every economy is capitalist market; not every exchange is a market exchange. Subsequently, this calls attention to understanding the institutionalization of the market system.

For Polanyi a market system begins when land and labour become commercialised. In other words when reproduction almost always hinges upon the market thereby “subordinate[s] the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.” When human life to overly exposed to market fluctuations, well-being and survival are market-conditioned. In these conditions, suspending this kind of exchange would threaten the society itself. Polanyi’s hostility towards liberalism is because its promotion of individualism—a misguided philosophical anthropology—that neglects that humans are social creatures. He forcefully argues that the market society rather than being the epitome of human nature, corrodes it. Accordingly, persons should seek protection. Petitioning and demanding institutional security against the market system is thus rational self-preservation. Collective organizing to form a resistance movement to the market society, is the second movement. In his mind, this organizing is a matter of life or death.

Notwithstanding the value that Polanyi offers with correctly rendering reciprocity and redistribution as social, he incorrectly fails to label the market economy as stemming from the same social system. Instead he views it is as disembedded and distinct, thus able to devour the social. But it is obviously apparent that social groups can undergo strife. In this respect Polanyi neglects to address differentials in power and the role of particular interests. In other words, his historical account lacks the actions of persons. Absent too is a theory of commodification, private property and wage-labor as either a pre-requisite for the transformation, or entailed within the transformation. Further, he fails to adequately acknowledge the origins of crisis in the feudal mode of production and its political precipitation.

Polanyi is certainly not a Marxist. His analysis did not rely upon categories such as surplus value, socially necessary labour time, exploitation, or class struggle between capitalists, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He was critical of what he perceived to be it economism and lack of cultural understanding, and instead insisted upon an institutional approach that prioritized the embedding and disembedding of the market economy from society. In this respect, he would deny that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle, but rather the motor of history is transformations that make the reproduction of life hinge upon market logic. Still, despite these oversights, I think there is much political economists can learn from Polanyi.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Vancouver is a Location but not a Setting

"To Hollywood, Vancouver is a location but not a setting. It’s a place with talent and scenery and tax incentives but almost no film identity of its own. Just other identities it can borrow." 
-- Every Frame a Painting's video essay on Vancouver and film.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Some Benefits in Studying Modern Philosophy

A benefit of studying older philosophical texts—and of trying to get a sense of the writer’s view as a whole—is that students can see how philosophical questions are shaped by the schema of thought in which they are asked.

Not only does this introduce other kinds of philosophical thought, but prompts students to consider, by contrast, their own schema of thought, perhaps still implicit or not well articulated, that shapes how they ask and answer questions. This self-clarification helps them to decide which questions they really want to resolve, which ones they can reasonably expect to settle, and much else. I think this is useful to help them understand how current predicaments are entwined in history.

One difficulty I have when teaching modern philosophy is the attempt to strike the right balance between the general and the specific. Favoring one to the detriment of the other makes it difficult to talk sensibly about this topic. So far the best way I know to deal with this dilemma is to look at how a writer’s rationale generally effect not only the way questions get posed but also the reasons they have for being concerned with the questions in the first place. But showing this convincingly is a matter of going into the details.

Teaching Modern Philosophy brings with it another set of challenges. Some students wonder why the lectures are so Eurocentric; others take this a step further and want to dispense with the Tales of the Mighty Dead for these 'Dead White Men's' concerns are not theirs. These kinds of attitudes, while often well intentioned, I think, are gravely mistaken.

First, European Feudalism is the only mode of production known to have spontaneously produced capitalism and then to have promoted the expansion of capitalist forces and relations of production. Capitalism was then instituted by European state power on a global scale through colonial subjugation. So, understandably there is considerable interest in Europe to understand feudal social formations and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. So it makes sense to try read the intellectual history of people who where caught in the middle of this change to see that they say and what they overlooked.

This bring me to my next point: Understanding the various biases, and lens of people caught up in these changes can help students who are similarly situated in their own social predicaments. It helps then identity their limitations, worry about, then assess whether, they share them.

Third, all this talk of dead white men, is a reification that clouds the diversity in modern European thought. It is mistake to impose our identity categories as it it unnecessarily puts our tacit thought in front of theirs, and so becomes a barrier to understanding.

Similarly, this broad lumping of European philosophers together often fails to acknowledge how Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Adorno, for example, where socially marginal in one way or another. Kant was agnostic in a highly religious age and so never had secure work. Hegel was refugee and impoverished by Napoleon’s wars. Marx’s was denied academic appointments because we was Jewish, was a political refugee who was persecuted, jailed, exiled from multiple countries. Nietzsche had mental illnesses. Adorno had to flee National Socialism and so on. If anything, we should be sympathetic for this is the writing of the marginalized.

Lastly, it should be remembered that the work of a philosopher is both personal and a product of and response to the age within which he or she lives. Sometimes they are  better than their societies. At other times not. For example Kant was opposed colonial and imperial action, yet also thought that other races were less advanced then Europeans. To me, this holds a lesson for how student assess the merits of their beliefs and general convictions, knowing that in time others will see weakness and hubris.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Workshop on Universal Basic Income

Here is a quick work related update. Within the next two weeks, before Fall really gets underway, Derek Kootte (@dkootte) and I will be hosting a workshop on Universal Basic Income. Tonight we confirmed several panelists, but still this isn't anything fancy really, just a few position papers and a round-table discussion. That said, it is coming together better than we even expected. Once all the remaining admin is set we will release full details for those interested in this topic.