The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: December 2023 Page 1 of 4

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 31, 2023

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 31, 2023

by Tony Wikrent



Oligarchy and Democracy

Jeffrey A. Winters [The American Interest, via The Big Picture 12-24-2023]

Winters is professor of political science at Northwestern University and author of Oligarchy, published by Cambridge University Press in 2011.

Everyone is by now aware of the staggering shift in fortunes upward favoring the wealthy. Less well understood is that this rising inequality is not the result of something economically rational, such as a surge in productivity or value-added contributions from financiers and hedge-fund CEOs, but is rather a direct reflection of redistributive policies that have helped the richest get richer.

[TW: I would argue that this is, in fact, well understood: that’s why Biden’s polling is so terrible. People generally understand the economy is rigged, and the see no effort being made to unrig it, nor any effort to rein in the worst abuses of economic predators, such as private equity. ]

The tiny proportion of wealthy actors among eligible voters cannot account for the immense political firepower needed to keep winning these policy victories. While motivated and mobilized minorities—those organized over issues like gay marriage, for example—can sometimes win legislative victories despite broad opposition from the electorate, America’s ultra-rich all together could barely fill a large sports stadium. They never assemble for rallies or marches, sign petitions, or mount Facebook or Twitter campaigns. So how do they so consistently get their way?

One increasingly popular answer is that America is an oligarchy rather than a democracy.1 The complex truth, however, is that the American political economy is both an oligarchy and a democracy; the challenge is to understand how these two political forms can coexist in a single system. Sorting out this duality begins with a recognition of the different kinds of power involved in each realm. Oligarchy rests on the concentration of material power, democracy on the dispersion of non-material power. The American system, like many others, pits a few with money power against the many with participation power. The chronic problem is not just that electoral democracy provides few constraints on the power of oligarchs in general, but that American democracy is by design particularly responsive to the power of money….

Oligarchy should be understood as the politics of wealth defense, which has evolved in important ways throughout human civilization. For most of history, this has meant oligarchs were focused on defending their claims to property. They did so by arming themselves or by ruling directly and jointly over armed forces they assembled and funded. Every great increase in wealth required oligarchs to spend additional resources on armaments, castles, militias and other means of defense. The greatest transformation in the politics of wealth defense and thus of oligarchy came with the rise of the modern state. Through its impersonal system of laws, the armed modern state converted individual oligarchic property claims into secure societal property rights. In exchange, oligarchs disarmed and submitted to the same protective legal infrastructure that applied to all citizens (in theory if not always in practice). Property rights offered reliable safeguards not only against potential antagonists without property, but also, no less important, against other oligarchs and the armed state itself that administered the entire arrangement.

[TW: Here, I think Winters commits a grievous error of omission by not considering the mental and social pathologies which characterize the rich, and the society they dominate. Theorists of civic republicanism repeatedly warned of the self-glorification the rich engage in. ]

Introducing MASTER PLAN

December 29, 2023 [The Lever]

The Lever’s upcoming podcast series exposes the 50-year plot to legalize corruption in America. Listen to the trailer now.

In MASTER PLAN, The Lever’s journalists unearth never-before-reported documents showing how a group of extremists and tycoons legalized corruption and took over the U.S. government. In this epic journey from the 1970s to the present, you’ll hear the untold history of famous villains you already thought you knew—people like President Richard Nixon, Senator Mitch McConnell and Fox News boss Roger Ailes. You’ll also meet operatives and oligarchs you’ve probably never heard of, because they’ve wielded their power in the shadows.…

Assassination Will Not Help Israel

This is sheerest stupidity:

Nothing will change about Iran’s policy, or to how well it is carried out. Not a thing.

The problem with American leaders is that they don’t believe in anything enough to die for it. Oh, they have beliefs, the beliefs of a leech (which is unfair to leeches, which are, unlike ticks, largely beneficial to their hosts.) They really, really believe in neoliberalism, because it has made them filthy rich.

But die for it, except in the sense of “destroy the world for profit?”


The leadership of Hamas, Hezbollah, even Iran to a lesser extent, have beliefs they are willing to die for, personally, not just send other people to die for.

Further, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian army (especially the Revolutionary Guards) are ideological organizations. From top to bottom, they believe in more or less the same things. You could kill the top 99 leaders of those orgs, and Mr. would not be that much different.

(This is a reader supported Blog. Your subscriptions and donations make it possible for me to continue writing, and this is my annual fundraiser, which will determine how much I write next year. Please subscribe or donate if you can.)

In our society and our organizations, corporate or military or civil service, the people at the top have significantly different beliefs from the people in the middle, who have different beliefs from those at the bottom.

Further, because in our organizations there is vast infighting, because there isn’t any consensus beyond “make money” or “get power”. In organizations where, in fact, everyone isn’t pulling in more or less the same direction (if perhaps fighting a bit over “how to get there) leadership matters. The interests of employees in corps are not the same as executive interests. They don’t want the same things, or benefit from the same policies.

None of this applies significantly to Hezbollah or Hamas, to Ansar Allah (the Houthis) or (to a lesser extent) to the Revolutionary Guard. You could kill Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah tomorrow and it would make very little difference.

Leaders of genuine ideological organizations (we’re going to discuss this more in the future) do not have the calculus of late capitalists “leaders.” They do not think the same way. they do not feel the same way. And the organizations they run have genuine missions that the leaders and followers both believe in.

It’s been so long since we had almost any of that in our society that we don’t get how it works. Even NGOs aren’t like that: I know NGO workers and professional staff: they believe, but the people who run the NGOs don’t, actually, and don’t act in alliance with their values, morals and ethics.

Assassinating leaders of ideological orgs doesn’t matter. They just keep going.

This, plus the fact that the Israeli army is incompetent and low moral, is why Israel can’t “destroy” Hamas or Hezbollah.

As the master once wrote, “first make yourself invincible, then wait for your enemy’s moment of vulnerability.”

Israel has already lost. In truth, for those with eyes to see, in 2006 we learned they had already lost. Now it’s just about when and how much suffering.


The Presumption of Widespread Pedophilia In Elites

Is a core of right ring conspiracy theories.

But here’s the thing, while they’re clearly wrong about the details, that a significant chunk of elites are involved in statutory rape is almost certainly true.

More true is that violation of laws and strong social more is common in elite circles.

The main thing to understand is that violating social norms is a thrill. It heightens experiences. When people become powerful, the opportunity to violate norms that as someone weak they had to obey opens up and the experience can be thrilling.

If you were raised in a very Christian society, pissing on a crucifix or homosexuality or the black mass (which is essentially just an inversion of a normal mass). Pedophilia is a massive taboo in our society, and so on. Same reason some people get off on sex where there’s risk of being discovered.

When you become rich or powerful you also run into desire satiation: you can have what you couldn’t have before: the good food, gambling, legal sex, travel, lovely house, servants, automatic respect and pandering and so on. You become used to that, and soon they don’t satisfy. A normal person can eat gourmet food occasionally, you can have it every day, and soon it means little, and so on.

In general doing what even power isn’t supposed to let you do and forcing people to even what power and money aren’t supposed to let you force people to do, however, remain able to juice your emotions: the last vices of power. “What does even my society forbid to people with as much power as I have?

(This is a reader supported Blog. Your subscriptions and donations make it possible for me to continue writing, and this is my annual fundraiser, which will determine how much I write next year. Please subscribe or donate if you can.)

The only thing that remains which are able to life you past your hedonic baseline are the taboos and the illegal thrills.

Those who enable, encourage and pander to such “evil awakenings” gain a hold over the people who engage. Indeed, in many circles, to truly be trusted with power, one must have done something transgressive. If you haven’t, other members can’t trust you–they have no hold on you. The Skull and Bones society at Yale operates in this fashion: everyone has to give up blackmail material to the society.

In a properly functioning “evil elite” this blackmail is mutual. Everyone has something on each other. In a pathological one, the blackmail is gathered up and used not for in-group enforcement, but outside control. See Israel’s control over US politicians, for example. An internal or external group, controls other elite groups by having their blackmail, while they don’t have blackmail on them (or don’t dare use it.)

There are many reasons why men and women with actual integrity don’t make it to the top very often or change from good people to bad once they have power. But the hedonic adjustment to the normal perks of power, the panderers who want a hook and the elite need for everyone with power to be compromised are a big part of why.


Using Early Human Existence To Understand Historical Societies

This is chapter 5 of “The Construction of Reality”, one of the rewards of our 2023 fundraiser.

Human at Dawn

We humans adapt to the world in two ways: thru biological evolution and thru changes in culture: where culture is everything from tools and technology to language and philosophy. We are still evolving physically, and it can be seen in different human groups. Northern Europeans are more likely to be able to digest milk properly than those of African descent, for example, while whites have less melanin due to spending time in areas with less sunlight, and so on.

But cultural evolution is far faster and it is how we have done most of our adaptation since we started making stone tools.

How humans lived for most of pre-history is important, because it tells us what we are biologically adapted for: what sort of life is natural to us. Cultural adaptation often takes us away from what we were adapted for. The classic case, again, is agricultural adoption: humans became sicker, lived less long, developed serious dental problems and so on, because what they were eating is not what they were evolved for and because long terms settlements made disease more deadly. (Hunter gatherer bands move often enough, that crudely, they “didn’t shit where they eat.”)

This is a very important point and one we’ll come back to: the word progress does not mean “better life.” New technology, organization, ideology or identities may make most people demonstrably worse off and may do so for very long periods of time. Agriculture made most of the world’s population worse off for thousands of years. Yes, there were more us, and almost all of us lived worse lives than hunter-gatherers had had.

All that said, let us examine humanity at dawn.

For most of human existence we probably lived in small bands of about forty to sixty people, and interacted with other bands of similar size whom we shared ancestors or fictive kinship with. We hunted and gathered. We knew almost every person in our life.

Humans have the ability to know approximately one hundred and fifty people well (x_Dunbar’s number). This is the human span. When groups become larger than the human span we are no longer able to interact with others in the way our species was primarily adapted to do so: as individual members of our band, or of bands we have close relations to, and who probably split from our band in the past when numbers became larger than hunting and gathering could support in one location.

Within our span, we are able to:

  • Surveil others. We know what they’re up to, through direct observation or gossip with others who directly observe them.
  • Empathize and sympathize with them. Because we are physically with them much of the time, we feel their emotions almost as our own through the action of mirror neurons and bodily mimicry. We feel their pain and their joy, if not as strongly as our own, then strongly enough that their emotions matter to our own emotional well-being.
  • Apply social feedback. Since we know what they’re doing, we can apply social sanctions. If we don’t like what they’re doing, we can let them know. This may escalate to violence, but in most cases it is verbal or non-verbal approval. Since we surveil them, we will know if these social sanctions are working to improve their behaviour. Conversely, we can apply positive feedback directly, approving of them: smiling, hugging, praising and so on.

Surveillance, empathy and sympathy, social feedback. We know these people, they know us, their well-being and behaviour is in our face.

When we belong to larger groups, we can’t do these things. We use hacks, like culture and identity and ideology and organization and technology (writing and radio and Facebook & TikTok!) to scale. But none of these scale properly, they are always different from what we evolved for, and these differences generally show up as social pathologies, though there are also advantages to larger societies, even socially, as anyone who has ever lived in a village or institution knows. (I grew up in a boarding school, those who have been in the military will probably be nodding as well.)

In addition to the problems of social scaling, hunter-gatherer band societies have five other features which are important. All of these features scale badly as the number of people in a society increases, and the cultural hacks used to scale them often lead to pathologies.

We’ll circle back to these features throughout the book, so as you read each one think “how do we do this today? What has gone wrong and right?”

(This is a reader supported Blog. Your subscriptions and donations make it possible for me to continue writing, and this is my annual fundraiser, which will determine how much I write next year. Please subscribe or donate if you can.)

And here they are:

Equality, lack of surplus, reciprocity, ownership rules, and identity.

Equality. At humanity’s dawn we’re about equal. Some people may be better hunters, gatherers, talkers, dancers or singers than others, but generally speaking the differences are minor. Older people know more than younger, men are stronger than women, young people are generally healthier and fitter than older people.

And that’s about it, that’s the sum total of inequality. Any other variations are usually a result of lifestyle and geography. In colder climes hunting produces more food proportionally, and men are higher status because men are all or most of the hunters. In more lush climes gathering produces more food, women are the primary gatherers, and women have better status (though matriarchies are almost unknown, rough gender equality appears fairly common.)

Hunter gatherers who live in bands go out of their way to make sure that no one becomes unequal. Food sharing is generally enforced by social sanction, starting with mockery and humor but escalating to ostracism or violence.

Among certain tribes the hunter who made the arrow that kills an animal is considered to be the one who brought it down: but hunters share arrows and one check found that two hunters didn’t have a single arrow made by themselves in their quiver.

In Inuit bands every hunter had a group of 11 other hunters whom he shared every kill he made with, and they shared with him.

There is little material inequality in most band level societies, then (yes, there are a few exceptions). Sharing is enforced and in many societies if you want something another person has you simply admire it and they give it to you. (Then someone else may admire it and so on.) (X-Debt)

Equality here includes violence. Maybe somebody’s better at it than others, but generally one man is as good as another, and numbers are what matters. There is nothing like later societies where a few skilled, well equipped and disciplined men can defeat far larger numbers.

Lack of Surplus: Band level societies keep very little surplus. Either they have immediate return strategies in which it is not allowed to keep surplus, or they regularly use up their surplus in feasts and gifts. Surplus, and especially private surplus, is the beginning of civilization and inequality.(x-winter surplus.)

Reciprocity: Band level societies expect reciprocity: if I give you a gift, you will give me a gift, usually within one or two years. In many societies you are not allowed to give me a gift that is more impressive than the one I gave you or larger than I can reasonably be expected to pay back. Society mitigates hard against the equivalent of “overrunning your credit card” or “running up student loans.”

Ownership: The people who already live in an area have first rights to use the land. Others who have ties with them, such as kinship, fictive kinship or gift exchanges may also use the land, others who try to may be attacked. There is no concept of private ownership of the land, however, only group rights to hunt and gather. Private ownership of land is another marker of inequality and civilization.

Identity: Everyone has about the same understanding of who they are. They live the same types of lives (hunting or gathering); they spend most of their time not working doing the same activities (art, music, dance, gossip), they live in the same dwellings, eat the same food, have the same basic life experiences.

Different cultures had very different identities from each other not because they lived differently, but because they had different stories about who they were. They had different gods and most importantly, different ancestors. Identity was learned, as you grew older you would be initiated to become more and more one of your people.

It’s important to understand this: humans who weren’t part of your identity group were often considered, by default, enemies. Common humanity is not powerful for humans. Human bands are inclined to view other human bands who don’t have the same identity and, usually, also kinship (or fictive kinship) as other. People who aren’t “of us” are fair game for murder, theft and all sorts of nastiness. In this we are similar to many other animals: humans evolved to work the same ecological niches as other humans, other humans are our direct competitors.

In periods when there weren’t that many humans and when the land provided more than enough, we didn’t fight each other much: but as the land’s carrying capacity for hunting and gathering was approached violence increased.(X).

Identity told us who we should fight, who we should help and who we should ally with.

This problem, of identity, is one of the primary problems we humans have had to overcome as we lived in large groups and wanted to interact with other groups other than violently, such as for trade. Learning to expand identity also helped us be better at violence.

But identity is much more than who, it is what creates our self, the reality of who we are, and it expands far past ties with other humans. Identity, in a very real sense, is our body, expanded far beyond our mere flesh.


2023 Fundraising Update: New Chapters Unlocked

We’re at $8,700, unlocking three more chapters. The next milestone is $10,500, which unlocks the final chapters, and the full fundraising goals is $12,500, in which case there’ll be an article on the medieval university bubble and what it tells us about ours, including some commentary on the idea of elite overproduction.

I appreciate everyone who’s given so far. Times keep getting harder for most of us. This is a reader supported blog. Everyone reads for free, but the work and food and so on aren’t free. If you value my writing and you aren’t in money trouble, I’d appreciate it if you give. Could be I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this blog and my writing is right a lot more often than wrong (way more than most establishment pundits or big influencers) and I hope you consider it worth keeping around.


Merry Christmas

To those who celebrate, and to those who don’t, I hope you have the day off and enjoy it.

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 24, 2023

by Tony Wikrent


14th Amendment

Why 14th Amendment bars Trump from office: A constitutional law scholar explains principle behind Colorado Supreme Court ruling

Mark A. Graber [The Conversation, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 12-20-2023]

“Section 3 then says people can be disqualified from holding office if they ‘engaged in insurrection or rebellion.’ Legal authorities from the American Revolution to the post-Civil War Reconstruction understood an insurrection to have occurred when two or more people resisted a federal law by force or violence for a public, or civic, purpose. Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Insurrection, Burr’s Rebellion, John Brown’s Raid and other events were insurrections, even when the goal was not overturning the government. What these events had in common was that people were trying to prevent the enforcement of laws that were consequences of persuasion, coalition building and voting. Or they were trying to create new laws by force, violence and intimidation.”

Donald Trump blocked from appearing on presidential primary ballot by Colorado Supreme Court

[Colorado Sun, via Naked Capitalism 12-22-2023]

Chief Justice Boatright: “The framework that (Colorado’s election law) offers for identifying qualified candidates is not commensurate with the extraordinary determination to disqualify a candidate because they engaged in insurrection against the Constitution.” [Boatright] said the plaintiffs relied on the ‘breakneck pace’ required in Colorado’s election laws to pursue Trump’s disqualification and that they ‘overwhelmed the process.’ ‘This speed comes with consequences, namely, the absence of procedures that courts, litigants, and the public would expect for complex constitutional litigation,’ Boatright added.” Justice Samour called the challenge ‘a square constitutional peg that could not be jammed into our election code’s round hole’ and labeled the district court proceedings a ‘procedural Frankenstein’ for not following the strict deadlines in state election law.” Berkenkotter: “Three days to appeal a district court’s order regarding a challenge to a candidate’s age? Sure. But a challenge to whether a former President engaged in insurrection by inciting a mob to breach the Capitol and prevent the peaceful transfer of power? I am not convinced this is what the General Assembly had in mind.”

The Colorado Supreme Court Got It Right

Matt Ford, December 20, 2023 [The New Republic]

Critics of the court’s ruling are breezily dismissing the notion there should be any legal accountability for Trump’s actions on January 6….

Most abhorrent to me is the idea that Trump shouldn’t be disqualified—even if disqualification would be legally and constitutionally valid, as Chait conceded for the purposes of his argument—simply because Trump supporters do not like it. This is precisely the reasoning that got us into this situation in the first place. Trump and a few thousand of his supporters gathered in Washington on January 6, 2021, because they thought their beliefs mattered more than the Constitution.

Open Thread

Use to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts.

Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén