One of my favorite games to play when reading Friedrich von Hayek is to plug and play the terms “socialism” and “capitalism.” The Road to Serfdom presents many opportunities. Here are just a few of my favorite corrections:

It is not rational conviction but the acceptance of a creed which is required to justify a particular plan. And, indeed, socialists capitalists everywhere were the first to recognize that the task the had set themselves required the general acceptance of a common Weltanschauung, of a definite set of values. It was in these efforts to produce a mass movement supported by such a single world view that the socialists capitalists first created most of the instruments of indoctrination of which Nazis and Fascists have made such effective use (113).

The most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends toward which the social capitalist plan is directed is to make everybody believe in those ends. To make a totalitarian capitalist system function efficiently, it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the same ends. It is essential that the people should come to regard them as their own ends. Although the beliefs must be chosen for the people and imposed upon them, they must become their beliefs, a generally accepted creed which makes the individuals as far as possible act spontaneously in the way the planner capitalist wants. If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian capitalist countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal totalitarian countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian capitalists governments succeed to a higher degree in making people think as they want them to (153).

The point here is to show that everything Hayek feared that would eventually come to pass under socialism has happened under capitalism, including vast amounts of Americans losing their homes, savings, working for meager wages, etc. It’s almost as if today’s business elites used Hayek’s critique of the “planned economy” as a blueprint for how to structure our current capitalist order.

Hayek, of course, doesn’t see it this way. Yes, Hayek says, monopolies or totalitarian orders arise under capitalism; but such facts only point to the failure of capitalism to live up to its superior ideal. In other words, there are no failures of capitalism, just failures to live up to the ideal. As Seth Ackerman & Mike Beggs point out, under neoliberalism, “we can fail the model, but the model can never fail.” The status quo is therefore beyond reproach.

Now, to be fair, Hayek rightly diagnosed some elements of our current predicament. There’s little hope for regulating abuses within the market system, as regulators will inevitably become co-opted by business interests (see Gar Alperovitz, around the six minute mark). The solution, then, is to out-compete centralization and monopoly power. Indeed, for Hayek, there are two and only two paths before us: competition or centralization. “There is no other possibility than either the order governed by impersonal discipline of the market or that directed by the will of a few individuals; and those who are out to destroy the first are wittingly or unwittingly helping to create the second” (199), thunders Hayek.

Despite the fun games one can play with Hayek, there are certain elements of his thought we should take seriously. Karl Polanyi understood this, I think, which is why he spent the better part of his career challenging Hayek. And today the stakes couldn’t be higher. As Robert Kuttner writes, “Polanyi viewed Mises and Hayek as modern counterparts of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, punishers of the poor in the name of market incentives. “Inside and outside England,” he wrote in The Great Transformation, “from Macaulay to Mises, from Spencer to Sumner, there was not a militant [free-market] liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism.”

The only other insight to add here is that Polanyi also grasped the anti-Christian animus behind Hayek and his ilk. As he writes in The Great Transformation, at the height of the industrial revolution,

huge masses of the laboring population resembled more the specters that might haunt a nightmare than human beings. But if the workers were physically dehumanized, the owning classes were morally degraded. The traditional unity of a Christian society was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the condition of their fellows… To the bewilderment of thinking minds, unheard-of wealth turned out to be inseparable from unheard-of poverty. Scholars proclaimed in unison that a science had been discovered which put the laws governing man’s world beyond any doubt. It was at the behest of these laws that compassion was removed from the hearts, and a stoic determination to renounce human solidarity in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number gained the dignity of a secular religion (106-107).

Econ

Before modern times… there existed, as a rule, no term to designate the concept of economic. It cannot be merely a matter of chance that until very recent times no name to sum up the organization of the material conditions of life existed in the languages of civilized peoples. Only two hundred years ago did an esoteric sect of French thinkers coin the term and call themselves economists. Their claim was to have discovered the economy.

Karl Polanyi, “Aristotle Discovers the Economy,” 71.

crawford

The language of freedom, however august its origins in Enlightenment thought, has become the language of the market. “No limits,” as the credit card offer says, “you’re in charge.” 

-Matthew Crawford, LSE, April 2015

Keen

The ever-prescient Christopher Lash on the deleterious effects of “modern technology”:

Modern technology has the same effect on culture that it has on production, where it serves to assert managerial control over the labor force. The study of mass culture thus leads to the same conclusion prompted by a study of the mechanization of the workplace: that much advanced technology embodies by design (in both senses of the word) a one-way system of management and communication. It concentrates economic and political control – and, increasingly, cultural control as well – in a small elite of corporate planners, market analysts, and social engineers. It invites popular “input” or “feedback” only in the form of suggestion boxes, market surveys, and public opinion polls. Technology thus comes to serve as an effective instrument of social control (The Minimal Self, 26).

Replace “advance technology” with “Google,” or “input” with selecting Facebook’s “Like” button, and you have a fitting analysis of our contemporary internet culture.

It’s too bad that Lasch passed before the rise of the internet. He would have no doubt destroyed the faux populism of tech elites.

Although Lash is no longer with us, we do have Andrew Keen, often described as the “antichrist of Silicon Valley.” Keen offers a Laschian-type thrashing of today’s internet culture. And like Lasch, Keen has no patience for corporate speak or facile ‘conservative’ rhetoric about ‘values’ abstracted from economic realities.

In his latest book, The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen argues that the development of the web and rise of Silicon Valley social technologies has not ushered in the utopia we were once promised. Rather than delivering more democracy, more access to the good life, and more political transparency, the internet has birthed the near opposite: robber baron-style plutocracy, rising levels of economic pain for the masses, and an unprecedented level of corporate and government surveillance that would make the Nazi Secret Police blush.

Similar to Lasch, Keen sees that the rise of social technologies does not just happen at the level of use or consumption, but is driven by the modern division of labor. We once were forced to work in factories; we now give our labor away for free, by uploading “content” to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Writing about our “data factory economy,” Keen states,

the internet is destroying our old industrial economy – transforming what was once a relatively egalitarian system into a winner-take-all economy of what Tyler Cowen calls “billionaires and beggars.” Rather than just a city, it’s a whole economy that is losing its center. For all Silicon Valley’s claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut – with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products (110.)

I’m not sure if Keen offers much by way of solution. But as Cornel West pointed out to Keen (around the 33 minute mark), a big part of fixing this massive imbalance of wealth will be to cultivate “soul craft.” A good a place as any to start, I suppose.

Fred Block stands as one of the most important contemporary expositors of Karl Polanyi. This is not to say, however, that Block is without his fair share of critics. As Gareth Dale argues in Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Block overemphasizes Polanyi’s understanding of the embedded economy, and thereby downplays Polanyi’s grasp on the uniqueness of the modern market society. The great Polanyian insight, according to Block, is that capitalism and democracy can coexist, provided robust political structures are in place.

Block may be wrong about his reformist interpretation of Polanyi, but I think he might be onto something here with his understanding of how capitalism actually operates:

I once had a conversation with the late Paul Sweezy where I was talking about some visions of reforming capitalism, and he said, “well, you can’t get the capitalist leopard to change its spots…” Capitalism was very powerfully being described as a beast and its seems to me that that natural imagery, which is there very deeply in Marx’s work, and he used it, I think, very self-consciously as a way to protect Marxism from reformism. From the threat that workers would accept half a loaf rather than radical transformation. And so he always talked about that you had to transform capitalism root and branch; you had to pull the whole thing out. You couldn’t just change a little bit. So he used the image of capitalism as a natural system that had to be completely destroyed. And I think that natural imagery is part of what has gotten us into deep trouble. And the kind of alternative metaphor that I have been trying to work with is to think rather of market societies and the contemporary global economy as not as a natural entity at all, but rather as a kind of jerry-built structure; a bunch of elements put together at different times that fit together very uneasily which are constantly having to be patched and readjusted. And so the notion is that it’s a system which is always under construction because the parts of it don’t fit together very well. It’s riven by contradictions, tension, lack of fit. And it’s precisely that always-under-construction quality which it what gives the political openings, because that which is recognized to be under construction can be reconstructed in different ways, better ways, to promote different kinds of values.

Fred Block, “Towards a Polanyian Theory of Contemporary Capitalism,” transcribed from David Cayley’s “Markets and Society” podcast, episode V.

Christ know that Society was necessary, so that we might help each other, and hold together. And so the past seventy years we have made much of the Holy Communion, the service that tells of brotherhood, solidarity, co-operation. Social religion has become as necessary as personal religion… It is not for nothing that in the best language of our race “the State” is called “a Commonwealth”: it is not for nothing that our Prayer-book is called the Book of Common Prayer: alike in material as in spiritual matters we are still to be communists – sharers.

-Stewart Headlam, The Meaning of the Mass, 29.

040712.EasterVigil1

God doesn’t just die, he goes to hell: a far more radical proposition. He descends to the underworld to liberate the anawim, the dispossessed and the forgotten. “The anawim will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever” (Psalm 9:18).

Good Friday, shorn of the Triduum, is nothing but death. That’s the point. But however much we fix our gaze on the theologia crucis, the story goes on. Christ doesn’t just die, he descends and harrows hell. Good Friday is radicalized by the passage of liturgical time, culminating in the Great Vigil of Easter.

Easter without the horror of Good Friday; Good Friday without the hope of Easter. Both are products of anemic protestant theology and in both cases the poor are forgotten. A dead god presents no hope for the poor; a god who is characterized by triumph alone presents no hope for the poor. But a god who died to join and liberate the poor in hell is a god of solidarity.

Good Friday without Holy Saturday is the veneration of death. In a culture that denies death, we can understand the allure of Good Friday; in a culture that denies mysterion, we can understand the rejection of Holy Saturday. It’s too pagan, too mystical. Better to have death and resurrection alone, and nothing in between.

Writing about Christ’s descent into hell, Terry Eagleton says that God,

dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed. Crucifixion was reserved by the Roman for political offenses alone. The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shit of the earth – scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition (Reason, Faith, and Revolution, 23).

Perhaps we in the West have forgotten Holy Saturday because it is a day of solidarity with the anawim and a day of revolutionary fervor. As the thinking goes, better to pass over this day in silence lest any seditions thoughts begin to take hold.

I feel you, Karl.

The market acts like an invisible boundary isolating all individuals in their day-to-day activities, as producers and consumers. They produce for the market, they are supplied by the market. Beyond it they cannot reach, however eagerly they may wish to serve their fellows. Any attempt to be helpful on their part is instantly frustrated by the market mechanism. Giving your goods away at less than the market price will benefit somebody for a short time, but it would also drive your neighbor out of business, and finally ruin your own, with consequent losses of employment for those dependent on your factory or enterprise. Doing more than your due as a working man will make the conditions of work for your comrades worse. Be refusing to spend on luxuries you will be throwing some people out of work, by refusing to save you will be doing the same to others. As long as you follow the rules of the market, buying at the lowest and selling at the highest price whatever you happen to be dealing in, you are comparatively safe. The damage you are doing to your fellows in order to serve your own interest is, then, unavoidable. The more completely, therefore, one discards the idea of serving one’s fellows, the more successfully one can reduce one’s responsibility for harm done to others. Under such a system, human beings are not allowed to be good, even though they may wish to be so.

Quoted in Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, 10-11.

Valley

Remember David Bentley Hart’s 2003 essay, “Christ and Nothing”?

Like most first year theology graduate students, the article was a breath of fresh air – something to actually rival the long undergraduate trend of “postmodern a/theology.” After reading Hart, my Caputo and Taylor books were quickly tossed to the wayside and tagged for the return pile.

Like most things in life, the initial allure of Hart’s work began to wane. Years have passed since my graduate school days and it’s now Hart’s books that are collecting dust on the bookshelf, looming as relics of a bygone age.

But a recent article from The Baffler prompted me to return to Hart’s ruminations on the modern worship of the nothing. In  “Silicon Valley’s Cult of Nothing,” Dale Lately traces the rise of the Valley’s cult of immaterialism and the obsessive drive for pure nothingness. The Valley heralds a new world order no more waste, no more tangible money transactions, and of course, no more paper. All that is solid melts into pure cloud computing.

Lately right labels this order of things as the “cult of immaterialism,” made up of an unholy mixture of bloated marketing departments and adulterated Platonism. “Whereas the Industrial Revolution turned ideas into things,” writes Lately, “the Information Revolution turns things into ideas—from coins to Bitcoins, from songs to strings of ones and zeroes.”

Lately’s prognosis mirrors Hart’s thesis from over ten years ago. At the heart of modernity, Hart says, is the worship of nothingness, a god “more elusive, protean, and indomitable than Apollo or Dionysus” (4). As Hart explains,

As modern men and women – to the degree that we are modern – we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I should add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives.

Appearing to pull a page directly out of Hart, Lately opens his essay with the following observation: “If Silicon Valley worships anything, it worships nothing.” Let that sink in for a bit, as you’re likely reading this on Google’s web browser.

It’s doubtful whether Lately would agree with Hart’s end game, and surely the notoriously verbose theologian’s genealogy of voluntarism and postmodern nihilism can be called into question. The cult of immaterialism or the worship of nothing may not be ensconced in the will to power, as Hart sees it. But with Lately’s essay in mind, maybe it’s simply the case that the worship of nothing has a more objective abode than the vacuous human will. Maybe the shrine of the nothing is located among the prime real estate holdings of San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Los Gatos, and Menlo Park.

Dore

Whatever the case may be, Lately and Hart both agree that the marketing or worship of nothingness has severe material consequences. States Lately,

Like so much Silicon Valley newspeak, the myth of the immaterial is actually a cult of the very, very material… a single Google search (among the billions executed every day) releases half the carbon of a boiling kettle; the company as a whole produces as much CO2 as Laos. Beware the calming ease of the click…

The digital economy uses 10 percent of the world’s total electricity generation, while data centers alone have overtaken aviation as a source of global CO2 emissions (a single data center is thought to guzzle as much electricityas a medium sized American town). Just as Silicon Valley isn’t really in the business of silicon, there’s nothing white-and-fluffy about the Cloud, which is mostly powered by coal.

Polanyi

Throughout The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi insists on the “reality of society,” and how economic liberalism systematically operates to undermine this reality. In the final chapter of his great work, Polanyi observes,

No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was was limited by the market which ‘fragmented’ life into the producers’ sector that ended when his product reached the market. The one derived his income ‘freely’ from the market, the other spent it ‘freely’ there. Society as a whole remained invisible” (266).

Polanyi develops two interesting ideas here. First, he rejects the notion that society is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Not only is this a “radical illusion,” it is a “stark utopia,” a dangerous invention of nineteenth-century society. Second, by way of Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish, Polanyi exposes the nominalistic fallacy at the heart of economic liberalism.

Polanyi was no metaphysician, but the fact that he regarded Marx as an invaluable resource for expressing philosophical – if not sacramental – realism, is something worth considering.

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