Friday, June 14, 2013

What Do We Do With the Rich People?

In the course of establishing a revolutionary society, we will eventually have to deal with an important problem: what do we do with the rich people? Being non-coercive, we don't want to just kill them. And having a respect for personal property (i.e. possession, c.f. private property or capital), we don't just want to dispossess them of all their wealth. But we also want to create an egalitarian society, so surely we can't just let them keep their yachts and mansions and golf courses! ...can we?

Well, let's think this through: is property the extent of wealth? No. Let's see why:

Wealth depends on public power to defend it both from roaming hordes of peasant criminals who might wish to take it by force and the pesky egalitarianism of real democracy — the Founding Fathers of the United States consciously established a state that would defend the rich against the poor. In a real democracy, the accumulation of wealth would be impossible since the poor could just vote to redistribute land and capital; this, in fact, has been the main cry of every peasant revolt in history — cancel the debt and redistribute the land.

Wealth just as crucially depends on something a little more subtle: the private power of the wealthy to command the resources needed to sustain and maintain their property. By this I mean the army of servants, groundskeepers, housekeepers, mechanics, drivers, sailors, caddies, security guards, technicians, etc, that are needed to keep a mansion, yacht, golf cart, kitchen, etc, stocked, operational and convenient. Without the economic power to hire and fire the said army, the lifestyle of the rich becomes impossible for any length of time. Machines break down, houses become decrepit, country clubs grow weeds.

With the rapid or eventual elimination of the State, the public power to defend the rich obviously disappears. But less obviously, with the rise of socialism (that is, the control by workers of their own labor) the private power disappears as well. When workers are not dependent on the workings of financial and labor markets to feed themselves but instead organize work and distribute goods based on principles of mutual aid and the needs of the many, there's no time to do upkeep on the toys of the rich.

The upshot of all this is, a libertarian socialist society doesn't need to do anything with or to rich people. It's almost certain that we'll never really need to commandeer the land that mansions sit on, or the harbors that yachts are docked at (not to mention the mansions and yachts themselves). The rich can keep them, for what they'll be worth with no workers willing to do maintenance on them, or provide them with fuel and food and service besides the basics that anyone would be entitled to. We can let the rich keep everything they can make a reasonable claim to using, and just wait for them to get sick of living in broken-down palaces, with rusting yachts in their rotting docks. No coercion, appropriation or, really, action necessary.

(This of course says nothing of what we do with those things that the rich cannot reasonably claim to use, such as huge tracts of empty land, factories, business places, etc, which can in no way be construed to be personal possessions as they fundamentally depend on the labor of others for their very existence.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Conscionable Consciousness Conduction

This is something I wrote a long time ago, but which still bears out, I believe. It is a method I would be willing to employ to transfer my consciousness into another body, or into a computer.

To illustrate why this is important, let me say that I would not be willing to use a teletransporter that copied my entire physical form, sent the data to another terminal which reconstituted me, and then destroyed the original. Although I have no philosophical objections to this happening, I find the idea highly emotionally disturbing and would never go through with it. For that matter, even if the original wasn't destroyed but was rather pulled apart and transferred, I still wouldn't do it for reasons I think are obvious.
Likewise, I would not be willing to be, say, put to sleep, have my brain scanned, then be uploaded to a machine and have my body destroyed. I would not object, of course, to having a copy of my mind made, to be run later or used as a sort of back up.

However, there is a way I would be willing to actually abandon my body and live in a virtual world (assuming of course all assurances of liberty and safety, etc). If my various faculties — sight, hearing, language, independent limb motor control — were to be transfered one by one to an emulator running on a computer connected to the various sensors and devices which would temporarily mimic said faculties, I would be able to track the progress of my mind from my head to the computer. I imagine the process something rather like this:

I sit down in the chair, my head shaved and access plugs and sub-cranial scanning mesh installed. The technician behind me takes one long wire and inserts the end of it into the plug square in the back of my head. He asks me if I'm ready. I take a deep breath and then nod. I hear a switch flip, and then I vomit. My body thinks that I'm having a stroke, or have an eyeball knocked out of its socket, or am spinning faster than my eyes can focus on anything. After a few moments, I start to orient myself. I am looking ahead, at a large black box, the size of a television set, with a forest of instruments sticking out of it. I also see my body, sitting in a chair, a host of medical equipment and one technician behind me. I raise my right hand from the arm of the chair, and see it both out the corner of my eye and from across the room simultaneously. Finally, I come to grips with the fact: my brain is getting direct data from a video camera hooked up to a computer. The technician asks me again if I'm ready. I've long ago memorized the sequence of the procedure. I hear another switch flip and a loud humming, and slowly my vision of the computer in front of me fades. However, I can still clearly see my body. Nothing has changed, but that the part of my brain which receives data from my eyes has temporarily stopped working. Luckily, I am hooked up to a camera, which replaces the function of the eyes, and a computer, which now hosts the software needed to interface between eyes and cognitive and reflexive areas of the brain. The technician inserts another wire into the top left of my skull. Now I feel as if I have a third arm. I move the arm on my body, and it responds as it should. Then I move this new appendage, and see something wave in from of my new field of vision. It is a robot arm, identical in shape and construction to my natural arm. When the inhibitor is turned on, it prevents my brain from sending signals to my muscles, and I am no longer able to control my fleshy right arm. But I can still quite easily control both my left arm and the robot arm to the right of my field of vision. This continues — left arm, left leg, right leg, diaphragm — until every part of my brain has been mapped, transferred, and inhibited. Now comes the final moment. Up to now, I have been physically connected to all of my wetware. I could have, at a moment's notice, regained control of any part of my brain. But now the technician removes the first wire he inserted. My visual cortex is completely dormant and no longer connected to the computer, yet I can still see my body — I am still connected to my body — and I can still feel every part of it as if I'm still in my brain.
And so on. In this way, there would be no point at which I could feel “myself” “die” or disappear. I would simply phase from one substrate to another, and be awake and (at least nominally) in control the entire time. Of course, none of this might ever be possible, but it’s not completely unreasonable.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Prescriptivism and Mysticism

It struck me that grammatical prescriptivism bears a very similar relationship to linguistics as does mysticism to science. This can be analyzed from a philosophical as well as a political perspective.

[Edit: It was pointed out to me that my use of the word "mysticism" here is inappropriate. By it I mean any sort of magical or supernatural thinking, rather than the more usual notion of special states of consciousness meant to put one in touch with the divine. Additionally, a few edits were made towards the end to make my main point clearer.]

Both mysticism and prescriptivism operate on the basis that there need to be certain well-defined rules for how the world works (even if that rule is just "because that's how God did it"). In each case, there is a very strong reluctance to let go the reigns of reality, as it were, for fear that utter chaos would result. The mystic needs their magical system to keep their crops growing, their cities plague-free, and their soul saved. Similarly, the prescriptivist needs strict usage rules to make sure their sentences are (what they consider to be) optimally readable, socially and politically correct, and up to some abstract standard, lest all semblance of readability and communication disappear. In each case the advocate of such rules fails to see that their rules are arbitrary and related to reality only through social convention and particular modes of thought. They miss the point that their devotion to the actual facts of the world is outweighed by their devotion to an already-given system of rules. The rules of both the mystic and the prescriptivist are arbitrary rules.

Now, there is certainly a place in society for arbitrary rules. In the United States, people drive on the right side of the road. If we don't all agree to do so, there will be a lot of head-on collisions. But we don't look at England or Australia and scream that they are doing things wrong and need to change which side of the road they drive on. There may be a bit of inconvenience in shifting from one to the other, but no one in their right mind would claim that there is a correct side of the road to drive on, and an incorrect one, and that America is correct and England incorrect. They are just arbitrary stylistic choices. (Well, maybe.)

Similarly, religious prescriptions are arbitrary rules insisted upon by people with an interest in standardizing the behaviors of members of a given community (including thoughts and utterances). And grammatical prescriptions ("no dangling modifiers", "no stranded prepositions") are arbitrary rules that have been historically insisted upon by people with an interest in standardizing the grammar of a given language.

Of course, I am assuming my reader agrees with both of these assertions. The first one is easy for many people to accept (or at least grant for the sake of argument), as opposition to mystical ideas has a long and proud history, in the form of rationality and science. The second one, though, has its basis in the very young and very much still growing field of linguistics, whose goals, methods, and justification few people have been exposed to, and fewer still understand. But prescriptivist accounts of language fly out the window the moment you actually look at human language as a natural phenomenon. Just as the thunderbolts of Zeus turned into electrical imbalances between the ground and atmosphere, dangling modifier and double negatives turn into simple sentences perfectly comprehensible to speakers of the relevant language. If one speaker says something and another understands the utterance, then grammatically correct linguistic exchange has transpired, regardless of whether any English Grammar Rule Book rules were violated. By way of example, I ended an above sentence with the phrase, "which side of the road they drive on." Nothing exploded. No hair-pulling confusion resulted. Yet I violated a rule of "proper English grammar". But this post isn't about convincing people that prescriptivism is wrong — only that it shares a certain key feature with mysticism.

I insist that in both the case of the mystic and the prescriptivist, there is either a lack of competence in understanding the rules by which nature operates or an emotional attachment to the social implications of the rule set. The mystic cannot grasp the science behind evolution, quantum mechanics, or cosmology, much as the prescriptivist cannot grasp the science behind linguistic universals, childhood language acquisition, or sociolinguistic discrimination. The mystic feels that they are saved and loved and special, much as the prescriptivist feels that they are proper, correct, and supremely literate. But both case are driven by either ignorance or contempt. In neither case is one able to recognize the elitism involved. Or, if the elitism is recognized, it's immediately defended as good and justified. One must be a speaker of "good English" much as one must be a "good Christian". And failing to be so means that you are inferior to the defender of this (dubious) Good.

But because linguistics is a young field which has not yet permeated the cultural fabric, we scoff at linguistic discrimination just as readily as we decry racial or religious discrimination. If you can't talk good, you must be stupid and inferior to all of us who can speak well. This, however, is just ignorance of the way in which people learn language and the way in which language changes, and an almost-mystical assumption about the existence of some Platonic True Form of a given language. It is ignorance of the fact that this Platonic language almost always coincides with the way the elite speak, be they London aristocracy (where "standard" British English comes from) or Muscovite czars (where "standard" Russian comes from).

As an aside, it must be pointed out that this ignorance costs people in very real ways. Being a speaker of a non-standard dialect cannot, on principle, relate in any way to intelligence or ability. There are astrophysicists in Memphis, Manchester and Mumbai alike, each speaking very different versions of English. Sounding Black on the phone is often a sure-fire way of not getting past a first interview. Having a Queens accent is just the same. Yet such linguistic variations have nothing to do with intelligence, training, education, personability. They are merely artifacts of our physicality, of our vulnerability to our social environments as children. We speak the way the people around us speak.

A final thought: there are good reasons to have arbitrary rules. And this applies to grammatical rules. Writing is a suboptimal translation of language, because it misses so many of the nuances essential to conveying understanding, such as tone, pace, volume, expression, etc. So in order to make writing understandable to others, it is important to have usage and spelling rules. In a written document, double negatives are recognized as negating each other, rather than the sentence as a whole (as is the case in, for example, Italian). Standardized spelling and punctuation are essential to the way English is written and read. But insisting that such rules be transferred from the page to the spoken word is ludicrous. Writing is the only place that needs the extra stringency of arbitrary grammatical rules. And it inherits this property from the already-natural-rule-governed richness of spoken language.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A More Efficient Method?

What follows is a conditional. If you reject the antecedent, then obviously you reject the entire conditional.

Let us assume that you are a member of a large-scale libertarian socialist society. Almost all the world runs along collectivist or similar lines in some way or another, and runs well enough that no one is starving or suffering due to systemic failures. But you get a good idea. Well, two good ideas. The first is some very efficient new method for producing some desirable good or service. The other is that, since the idea is yours, you're going to see if you can't use it to benefit yourself more than other people. What's to stop you? Surely there's nothing wrong with hiring some workers on relatively exploitative terms (although probably still far, far less exploitative than those in modern society) and produce said good or service to the net benefit of all society! Why would anyone be opposed to that, so long as everyone involved agrees to the arrangement?

This was a question I was unable to answer in a recent conversation. However, having had time to reflect, I have not some several answers.

Let's start with the least obvious: if you try to create a subset of society where such exploitation is driven by anything other than survival necessity, you will inevitably be reintroducing all the problems of classism and authoritarian hierarchy — in this case, though, those are your problem, not the workers' problem. In capitalism, exploitation works out fine because workers have pretty much no other choice except to participate in a capitalist economy. If they lose or leave their job at a capitalist firm (and a magnanimous welfare state won't subsidize their unemployment) all they can do to survive is get another job at a capitalist firm (which might be a firm where they are their own boss, but that doesn't really change their relationship with the material wealth of society). In a libertarian society, if they are dissatisfied with work at your firm, they can simply leave and go work anywhere else in a voluntary organization. That is, unlike in capitalism, there is almost no cost to leaving your job, outside of purely physically practical considerations. So unless your hypothetically superior good or service is SO desirable, and SO beneficial to the people working for you (not to mention society at large), then there is little chance that people will be willing to continue working under inferior conditions. It is easy, when one holds the mistaken belief that we currently live in a free society, to forget that there are huge social and economic impediments against most people actually improving the conditions of their lives, set up both consciously and implicitly by capitalists and the institutions which they support and which support them. Such barriers would not exist in a free society, so there would be nothing to stop brain-drain (and hand-drain, as it were) away from any given exploitative firm and towards voluntary, libertarian firms.

A second reason this would be unlikely to work is illustrated best by the results of the Ultimatum Game. Expanded to a larger society, it seems highly unlikely that a group of people would be willing to bequeath to any one individual so large a share of their collective wealth that a productive firm could be established with the resources. On a smaller scale, it seems unlikely that you would find many people who would be willing to work for a firm where they would earn relatively less than another worker, even if they (somehow) earn more than workers in other firms (again, without the societal and institutionalized economic coercion of capitalism). (That this entirely begs the question of what they are earning in a largely collectivist society without large-scale fiat currencies is left aside for the purpose of this discussion.)

A final reason this is unlikely to arise is the lack of institutionalized secrecy in a free society. If you were the manager of a firm which had a superior method of production, the only way to keep it from being copied by anyone and everyone (including all the libertarian, collective firms in that particular line of business) would be to keep it completely secret — high fences, pledges of confidentiality, dark windows. But whatever facility you use to run your firm would be owned by society at large — after all, outside of a capitalist system (including state capitalism), no one seriously thinks of a factory, a storefront, or a suite of industrial machinery as belonging to a single individual for their personal use. And outside of a society with capitalist-style property rights, you would have no right to stop people entering your factory or store or whatever to observe your methods and use them elsewhere. After all, if your firm can produce SUCH excess wealth that it's worth reinstating exploitative labor relations for, then everyone else will want to use it too. And since no capitalist firm is an island, huge chunks of the rest of society will have to be involved in you establishing your firm (building your factory, supplying your raw materials, etc, etc.). So, pretty soon, workers will have no reason to stay with an exploitative firm to produce that exact good or service, and will instead move to collective ones the first instance the exploitation outweighs the benefit.

There are probably other reasons besides the idea stated at the beginning of this post wouldn't work in a free society, but those three are the ones that I was able to articulate to myself in the last couple of days. They are, like any highly hypothetical discussion like this, premised on many assumptions which not everyone agrees with, including, I'm sure, the person who raised the hypothetical scenario in the first place. But they are all, I believe, answers consistent with the view of society, politics and ethics I advance.

Friday, June 8, 2012

State vs. Government

When I talk about anarchism, I mean it as opposition to the State: that is, the institution which claims sole authority to violence in a geographic territory. Strictly speaking, I do not oppose government. Now, the terms "State" and "government" are generally interchangeable in English, and I usually follow that convention. But the word "government" to me evokes the sense of "maintaining function and control". And it's certainly true that humans want control over their environment, both physical and social (that they can rarely have it is beside the point). The confusion comes in the assumption that a State is required for government, and that any society without a State is without government. Two hundred years of libertarian political theory and a handful of historical examples put the lie to this. Humans are able to govern their affairs quite efficiently without the continual threat of violence. Violence is, of course, a possibility in many everyday situations, but that's certainly no less a fact in a Statist society than in a Stateless one. Simply put, State is not necessarily government, and government is not necessarily State.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Institutional Imperative, Part 2

One important consequence of the institutional imperative is that institutions tend to staff themselves with exactly the sorts of people who would tend to work to preserve those institutions. That is, someone who would not make it their first priority to preserve a given institution would not be knowingly selected for a position in that institution. This is why a country would not elect a leader whose stated goal it was to destroy that country's government — a so-called revolution is needed for that. Likewise, it is why a corporation would not hire a CEO whose goals did not match up with the company's.

This is why the heads of corporations, despite any contrition to the contrary, will never work toward the interests of people in general, but only toward the interests of the corporations they work for. When the legally required goal of a corporation is profitability, anyone who becomes a head of a corporation must consent to their actions being directed primarily towards that goal, rather than any humanitarian or just one (profitability, after all, rarely aligns with humanity or justice). No matter how much a CEO or board of directors might in their heart of hearts wish to improve the lot of their workers or the people they generally exploit, they only come into their positions if they are already willing to put these better natures aside for the sake of the corporations survival in the market. And should their consciences prevail, they would promptly be fired and mocked as weak and incapable.

This is why the claim that merely selecting better people to fill the positions in an institution can change the fundamental values of that institution is mistaken. An institution has its own values and priorities, which must be accepted by any person who fills a role in that institution before they would be allowed to do so. The institutional imperative results in a continuous vicious cycle whereby institutions are established with nominal goals, adopt the primary goal of survival, and then staff themselves with people already willing to carry out those nominal goals and necessarily the primary goal, and maintain this state for as long as possible, until collapsing.

Compare this to what I earlier called a group of individuals. Such a group would come together with the primary goal of solving a certain problem. However, unlike an institution, there would be no formal organization to the group that did not arise from the very character of the problem to be solved. The group would be recognized from the outset as a temporary, fluid system for dealing with the specific problem at hand. If the problem were a permanent one (for instance, waste management in a city) then the group would be constantly working, but would have no offices or formal rules. Rather, it would shrink and grow as needed, with procedures determined by the needs of any given moment. This would certainly be more difficult to maintain and run, but would ultimately be worthwhile, I believe, in that it would avoid any chance of corruption, as well as the risk of deviating from its stated purpose.

There are, of course, many other aspects which would have to be explained to account for how a dynamic, informal group could run any of the complex systems which make up modern society. The previous paragraph was meant simply to provide contrast to the way institutions work. At the least, I hope I made clear what I mean by the institutional imperative, and why it can lead to serious problems in society.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Institutional Imperative, Part 1

[Got my first really good night of sleep in a week today, so I'm finally back to blogging. Did y'all miss me?]

An institution is, loosely defined, a formal system for organizing human effort which has a permanent nature independent of the people who make it up. The reason for forming an institution is so that there is a centralized, legalistic authority which can make decisions necessary for completing the work the institution was established to do. Institutions are the traditional way of solving societal problems, from governing people and resources at the largest scales to running the local girl's hockey team.

However, as Clay Shirky so eloquently points out in this TED talk, institutions have a big problem. No matter what problem an institution is formed to solve, that problem is never the number one priority of the institution. Whatever the nominal prerogative of the institution is, its main priority from the moment it is actually formed becomes self-preservation. No matter what problem the institution sets out to solve, the institution can't work to address that problem if it no longer exists. It's that election-year mentality that says that it doesn't matter how poorly the incumbent governs because if they don't win, they won't get to govern at all.

This is what I call the institutional imperative. It is an inherent feature of any institutional organization. And it is the reason for a great deal of the problems in the world. It is responsible for the inhumanity of modern corporate capitalism, in which individuals are powerless to stop the cold financial logic of human exploitation and environmental destruction. It is likewise the feature which I believe is chiefly responsible for the counter-revolutionary fervor of the Soviet system and its descendants, whose inhuman slaughter of their own populations was truly inhuman.

Marxist Leninism, which seeks to destroy class distinctions and the State through a specific series of political events (which are, it should be noted, completely opposed to both the spirit and letter of Marxian Communism as an ideological system) is incredibly vulnerable to the prerogative because it is so blind to it on principle. Its very goal was to transfer all power into a single institution, the Communist State, so that it could be eliminated with a single blow once the proletariat was organized for self-sufficiency. What it tragically ignored was the intermediate step of getting power from the many varied institutions of contemporary society into the single Communist State. Because its nominal goal was the ultimate elimination of the State, it was ideologically impossible for Communism to admit that any state established by a Communist Party was going to suffer from the institutional imperative, and have as its first priority its own survival. More and more repressive measures were necessary to maintain the "revolutionary" government, because if it ever fell, they could never achieve the revolution.

This mad state of affairs was largely possible only because many people immediately assume that institutions are the only way to organize human labor, be it in a State, a corporation, a trade union, or a bureaucracy. In fact, this is assumed completely implicitly by most. People are almost never taught to consider the possibility that there are non-institutional solutions to societal problems. Although I will not go now into the alternatives, it should at least be recognized that there is such an assumption, that institutions have this feature which dictates a large chunk of their behavior, and that such behavior can be hugely destructive to humanity and the world.