Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 29 March 2019


It’s been nearly a year since Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, to loud cries that it would bring nothing but woe to the United States and our interests in the Middle East.
So far, the result has been closer to the opposite.
That much was further made clear thanks to excellent reporting this week by The Times’s Ben Hubbard. “Iran’s financial crisis, exacerbated by American sanctions,” he writes from Lebanon, “appears to be undermining its support for militant groups and political allies who bolster Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.” 
Well, heavens to Betsy. When the Obama administration negotiated the nuclear deal, the president acknowledged that sanctions relief for Tehran would inevitably mean more money for groups like Hezbollah. But he also insisted it wouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of Iran’s capacity to make mischief in the Middle East.
Hubbard’s reporting suggests otherwise. Iran can no longer finance civilian projects or credit lines in Syria. Hezbollah fighters and Palestinian militants aren’t being paid, and their families are losing subsidized housing. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has complained publicly about the effects of U.S. sanctions.
Nor are those the only benefits of withdrawal. The U.S. is no longer looking the other way at Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises, including drug smuggling and money laundering, the way it did during the Obama administration in order to engage Iran diplomatically. Iran’s protest movement, quashed in 2009, has shown signs of renewed life, not least because of public fury that the regime spends money on foreign adventures while economic conditions worsen at home. 
Most importantly, Iran has not used the U.S. withdrawal from the deal to restart its nuclear programs, despite its threats to do so. Part of this has to do with Tehran’s belief that it can wait Trump out, especially since Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have promised to re-enter the deal if elected. 
But it also suggests an edge of fear in Tehran’s calculations. The U.S. can still impose a great deal more pain on the Islamic Republic if it chooses to do so.
How so? Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me earlier this week that the sanctions needle now stands at around a 6. With a nod to Spin̈al Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, he says, “We need to get to 11.” 
Iran still exports about a million barrels of oil a day; the administration could bring it to zero by refusing to hand out sanctions waivers. The State Department could also designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, on a par with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Such a designation, Dubowitz says, would “make the entire Iranian economy radioactive” to foreign investment, since the I.R.G.C. is heavily involved in scores of Iranian businesses.
Even here Dubowitz is merely warming to his theme. Freeze Iran’s foreign exchange reserves? Doable. Expose the immense wealth of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and sanction the companies he and other leading regime figures control? Ditto. Unleash lawsuits against companies still doing business with Iran to recover billions of dollars in outstanding terrorism judgments against the country? That, too.
The point isn’t to punish Iran for punishment’s sake. It’s to create leverage for a better nuclear deal. Last May, Mike Pompeo set a dozen parameters for an agreement, including “unqualified access” to U.N. nuclear inspectors, permanent cessation of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, the end of Iran’s ballistic-missile program, withdrawal of its forces from Syria, and the release of U.S. nationals held in its prisons. 
Pompeo’s demands have been alternatively dismissed as silly or reckless by most of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. But it says something about the debasement of diplomatic expectations — both of what we have a right to demand and what we think we can achieve — that any of it should be controversial.
Non-nuclear states that sponsor terrorism and subscribe to millenarian ideologies should never have access to any part of the nuclear fuel cycle, ever. Any U.S. administration that abdicates the responsibility to do everything it can to prevent such access effectively renounces America’s status as a superpower as well.
Iran’s G.D.P. is roughly equivalent to that of the greater Boston area, with 17 times the population. The regime may be a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. But it is hardly a giant on the world stage, immune to any form of economic pressure. 
The Trump administration has succeeded in dramatically raising the costs to Iran for its sinister behavior, at no cost to the United States or our allies. That’s the definition of a foreign-policy achievement. It’s time to move the needle up again. The longer Hezbollah fighters go unpaid, or the Assad regime unaided, the better off the people of the Middle East will be.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

The Dialectics of Nature - Part 2: Darwin

Our Parts 2 and (later) 3 of The Dialectics of Nature are intended as a tribute to Simone Weil. Enjoy!

Marx n'explique jamais pourquoi les forces productives tendraient à s'accroître ; en admettant sans preuve cette tendance mystérieuse, il s'apparente non pas à Darwin, comme il aimait à le croire, mais à Lamarck, qui fondait pareillement tout son système biologique sur une tendance inexplicable des êtres vivants à l'adaptation. De même pourquoi est-ce que, lorsque les institutions sociales s'opposent au développement des forces productives, la victoire devrait appartenir d'avance à celles-ci plutôt qu'à celles-là ? [p.15]
La grande idée de Marx, c'est que dans la société aussi bien que dans la nature rien ne s'effectue autrement que par des transformations matérielles. « Les hommes font leur propre histoire, mais dans des conditions déterminées. » Désirer n'est rien, il faut connaître les conditions matérielles qui déterminent nos possibilités d'action ; et dans le domaine social, ces conditions sont définies par la manière dont l'homme obéit aux nécessités matérielles en subvenant à ses propres besoins, autrement dit par le mode de production. (Weil, Reflections, p.17.)

Simone Weil erects a barrier between social relations of production and forces of production that in Marx does not exist. In Marx, as Weil correctly perceives stressing the Hegelian derivation of his worldview, the social relations of production are already intrinsic part and parcel of what he calls “the forces of production”. The famous Marxian distinction between “base” and “superstructure” is meant to refer to the “dialectical contradiction”, in Hegelian parlance, that Marx believed to exist between the forces of production, which include the social relations of production, and those social relations that are not “productive” but are rather “ideological”. The historical materialism propounded by Marx is a direct excrescence of the Hegelian dialectic according to which “human beings make their own history”. But “they do so in determinate conditions” not because, as Weil believes, Marx is erecting a barrier – ontological or epistemological – between objective natural forces of production and subjective historical social relations: - because for Marx no such barrier or hiatus can exist between Nature and History. Rather, the “determinate conditions” to which Marx is referring are those self-same “social relations of production” that ultimately prevail over the ideological superstructure whenever the two come into conflict.
For Marx, all human reproduction, simple or expanded, all “forces of production” relate purely and solely to relations between human beings inter se! Nature quite simply plays no autonomous role – again, ontological or epistemological – in determining social relations of production. Indeed, Hegel and Marx have this in common – that there is no separation or schism or hiatus between Nature and History because Nature does not and cannot play an autonomous role in the course of human history. In this respect, it may be argued that ultimately Hegel’s and Marx’s systems share a historicist Vichian foundation and a Judaeo-Christian eschatological teleology. Nowhere in Marx’s entire oeuvre is there any hint of preoccupation with the effect that “the development of the forces of production”, dictated by humans, can have on the natural environment that humans share with all other living things. As Weil herself points out, Marx believed firmly in the unlimited development of human forces of production. Perhaps the only area in which Marx comes close to setting a lower limit to human production is in the notion of “socially necessary labour time”, which seems to refer to the labour time needed for the reproduction of human populations in line with the most basic human needs. – Although even in this regard Marx is quick to note that this “necessity” and these “needs” are more of a historical than of a biological nature. And the unlimited “growth” or “development” of the forces of production in Marx can be construed only in relation to a notion of “growth” or “development” that indicated a linear qualitative progress in these forces of production – something that Weil is clearly going to contest.
Enfin pourquoi [Marx] pose-t-il sans démonstration, et comme une vérité évidente, que les forces productives sont susceptibles d'un développement illimité ? Toute cette doctrine, sur laquelle repose entièrement la conception marxiste de la révolution, est absolument dépourvue de tout caractère scientifique. Pour la comprendre, il faut se souvenir des origines hégéliennes de la pensée marxiste. Hegel croyait en un esprit caché à l'œuvre dans l'univers, et que l'histoire du monde est simplement l'histoire de cet esprit du monde, lequel, comme tout ce qui est spirituel, tend indéfiniment à la perfection. Marx a prétendu « remettre sur ses pieds » la dialectique hégélienne, qu'il accusait d'être « sens dessus dessous » ; il a substitué la matière à l'esprit comme moteur de l'histoire ; mais par un paradoxe extraordinaire, il a conçu l'histoire, à partir de cette rectification, comme s'il attribuait à la matière ce qui est l'essence même de l'esprit, une perpétuelle aspiration au mieux. Par là il s'accordait d'ailleurs profondément avec le courant général de la pensée capitaliste ; transférer le principe du progrès de l'esprit aux choses, c'est donner une expression philosophique à ce « renversement du rapport entre le sujet et l'objet » dans lequel Marx voyait l'essence même du capitalisme. L'essor de la grande industrie a fait des forces productives la divinité d'une sorte de religion dont Marx a subi malgré lui l'influence en élaborant sa conception de l'histoire. Le terme de religion peut surprendre quand il s'agit de Marx ; mais croire que notre volonté converge avec une volonté mystérieuse qui serait à l'œuvre dans le monde et nous aiderait à vaincre, c'est penser religieusement, c'est croire à la Providence. (P.16.)

There are at least three distinct implications in Weil’s trenchant critique of Marx’s own critique of political economy. The first is that, as we pointed out above, all economic activity, whether analysed from the bourgeois viewpoint or from his own “critical” standpoint, is seen by Marx as involving purely and solely relations between human beings and not also between human beings and their environment. Even in the charitable hypothesis that Marx regards “social relations of production “ as also involving the natural environment to the extent that they satisfy “human needs”, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Marx regards “nature” as a wholly passive entity, as an object open entirely to human use and abuse. The second corollary implication is that Marx sees the development of the forces of production purely and solely in quantitative terms – in terms, that is, of the “socially necessary labour time” needed for the reproduction of human society. And the third implication is that Marx sees this growth or development as a totally unlimited, unstoppable process of technological progress in the human exploitation of the environment both in qualitative and in quantitative terms!
The notion of progress indeed contains within itself by implication the linearity of the changing forces of production in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense – a growing perfection of these forces (a defecto ad perfectionem). And in turn, this linear perfectibility of the forces of production implies the univocal ability of human beings to adapt to their environment and to transform it in a suitable manner. Yet, this Marxian “scientific” belief in the progress of the forces of production – a belief in what he considered a scientific discovery of Darwinian proportions - is precisely what Weil calls into question, and with justifiable reason! For not only does the human transformation of the environment inevitably raise the possibility of its irreparable degradation, but also, and consequentially, this degradation calls into question the linearity of human adaptation both in terms of conscious human agency and in terms of perfectibility in the sense that this adaptation cannot be determined, judged or least of all measured ex ante, but can only be determined, if at all, ex post facto! This is why Weil insists on disabusing Marx about the “Darwinian” basis of his social theory: as Weil rightly points out, Marx’s social theory is in truth “Lamarckian” in that it relies on the principle that “the function shapes the organ”. But Lamarck’s functionalist, or better, interventionist theory of evolution runs directly counter to, where it does not contradict, Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution! For Lamarck, just as for Marx, it is the positive activity of a species that leads to the physiological development of organs that are most fitted to its surviving the existing environment. This interventionist or functionalist theory is founded on the twin premises that (a) a species pursues actively a function to which it is pre-disposed, and (b) this active pursuit then brings about the organs or instruments that will lead to the function’s fulfilment. Quite to the contrary, for Darwin, “the survival of the fittest” occurs not through active physiological adaptation by a species, but rather through its genetic pre-disposition to adapt to a changing environment!
The difference between the two theories could not be starker. Whereas for Lamarck’s theory, the survival of a species is due – in line with what Marx theorized for the human species - to a process of active and, in the human case even conscious, adaptation, for Darwin instead this process is entirely passive in the sense that survival of a species or of some of its members is due entirely (a) to changes in the environment, and (b) to reproductive competition between its members! In neither case, however, can a species change its genetic make-up actively to ensure its eventual survival – because both conditions are constraints external to the collective activity of the species. In other words, for Darwin, and contrary to Marx’s thesis, no species can ensure its survival ex ante: for Darwin, and again contrary to Marx, “survival of the fittest” is an attribute that can be assigned only ex post facto – after the event, not beforehand!
The epistemological and, above all, deontological and therefore practico-political repercussions of this fundamental reversal of our understanding of our relation to our natural environment are quite earth-shattering because, forcefully put, they invert the order of our understanding of how human action affects the natural environment and, consequently, also our understanding of how human beings should conduct themselves with regard to that environment. The universal attitude or orientation of humans toward the environment is that it is a passive “tool” or inert “recipient” of human activity. But seen from this novel perspective, it turns out that “nature”, far from being a passive or inert receptacle and quarry for human activities, is in fact a very active or at the very least “reactive” agent in our complex interaction with the world.
First to be subjected to critical reappraisal is the ubiquitous notion that human beings are masters of their own destiny, that indeed human beings can shape the external world or “nature” in conformity with the demands of their needs and the ideality of their spirit or minds. This pervasive ideology of human sovereignty over the lifeworld is something that can be traced from the myth of Prometheus all the way to German Idealism, Marxist theory and the most recent capitalist ideologies of political and social transformation through the development of “the forces of production”, a process figuratively known as “progress” or “civilisation”.
Even if we agree, against Weil, that Marx intended “the forces of production” (“the base” as distinct from “the superstructure”)) to constitute a socially-defined historical and dialectical force and not a mechanical one, still Weil is entirely right to expose the fallacy of Marxist thought in terms of the “passivity” or at best the “neutrality” or inertness of “nature” with regard to human action (cf. in this regard, as a corrective, Hannah Arendt’s homonymous work, Human Action. We shall address the oblique link between Arendt and Weil presently). We could identify Marx’s original mistake highlighted by Weil in his insistent use of the dialectic as a “positive” tool of historical analysis. For the question then arises of why the development of the forces of production should result, at a determinate point in history, in the elimination of social oppression:
La réflexion sur cet échec retentissant, qui était venu couronner tous les autres, amena enfin Marx à comprendre qu'on ne peut supprimer l'oppression tant que subsistent les causes qui la rendent inévi-
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 30
table, et que ces causes résident dans les conditions objectives, c'est-à-dire matérielles, de l'organisation sociale. Il élabora ainsi une conception de l'oppression tout à fait neuve, non plus en tant qu'usurpation d'un privilège, mais en tant qu'organe d'une fonction sociale. Cette fonction, c'est celle même qui consiste à développer les forces productives, dans la mesure où ce développement exige de durs efforts et de lourdes privations ; et, entre ce développement et l'oppression sociale, Marx et Engels ont aperçu des rapports réciproques. Tout d'abord, selon eux, l'oppression s'établit seulement quand les progrès de la production ont suscité une division du travail assez poussée pour que l'échange, le commandement militaire et le gouvernement constituent des fonctions distinctes ; d'autre part l'oppression, une fois établie, provoque le développement ultérieur des forces productives, et change de forme à mesure que l'exige ce développement, jusqu'au jour où, devenue pour lui une entrave et non une aide, elle disparaît purement et simplement. Quelque brillantes que soient les analyses concrètes par lesquelles les marxistes ont illustré ce schéma, et bien qu'il constitue un progrès sur les naïves indignations qu'il a remplacées, on ne peut dire qu'il mette en lumière le mécanisme de l'oppression. Il n'en décrit que partiellement la naissance ; car pourquoi la division du travail se tournerait-elle nécessairement en oppression ? Il ne permet nullement d'en attendre raisonnablement la fin ; car, si Marx a cru montrer comment le régime capitaliste finit par entraver la production, il n'a même pas essayé de prouver que, de nos jours, tout autre régime oppressif l'entraverait pareillement ; et de plus on ignore pourquoi l'oppression ne pourrait pas réussir à se maintenir, même une fois devenue un facteur de régression économique. Surtout Marx omet d'expliquer pourquoi l'oppression est invincible aussi longtemps qu'elle est utile, pourquoi les opprimés en révolte n'ont jamais réussi à fonder une société non oppressive, soit sur la base des forces productives de leur époque, soit même au prix d'une régression économique qui pouvait difficilement accroître leur misère ; et enfin il laisse tout à fait dans l'ombre les principes généraux du mécanisme par lequel une forme déterminée d'oppression est remplacée par une autre.
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 31

For it is undeniable that Marx regarded “progress” in a linear as well as functionalist dimension, in terms of socially necessary labour time: for him, the specific “exploitation” of the worker by the capitalist consists crucially in “the theft of labour time”, that is, in the quantitative difference between the labour time that is “socially necessary” to ensure the reproduction of a society and the “surplus labour time” enforced by the capitalist to realise a monetary profit. Clearly, then, as Weil argues above in opposition to Marx, the origin of social oppression and its final elimination cannot be found and sought solely in the relation between humanity and “nature” through “socially necessary labour time” or “human needs” – that is to say, through an unavoidably mechanical “social function” that pre-destines human beings to subjugate “nature” actively – consciously and intentionally. Rather, the origins and eventual elimination of oppression bear an essential and fundamental relation to the objective “conditions of existence” that constrain how and to what extent humans can actively “exploit” this (presumably passive) “nature”. The vice or error of Marx’s critique of capitalism is that it locates its oppression and its eventual supersession in a purely functional dimension whereby human beings in the historical semblance of the working class or proletariat are “destined” to overcome the “historical dialectical contradictions” that this oppression expresses.
Thus, in Weil’s justified critique, the Marxian theory of social oppression and exploitation fails to confront the specific ways in which oppressive social relations of production have a deleterious destructive, even cataclysmic effect on the human “exploitation” of nature itself – and therefore Marx also neglects the reality that at least part of this “social oppression” may be due to the inalterable limits and constraints that this “nature” imposes on humanity! In this Marxian functionalist perspective, the relation between human beings and “nature” is mediated by the forces of production and obstructed by the social relations of production in such a manner that “nature” appears irrevocably as a “tool” open to human evolutionary manipulation. This functionalist and intentionalist perspective vitiates the entire Marxist exegesis of the phenomenon of oppression.
Bien plus, non seulement les marxistes n'ont résolu aucun de ces problèmes, mais ils n'ont même pas cru devoir les formuler. Il leur a semblé avoir suffisamment rendu compte de l'oppression sociale en posant qu'elle correspond à une fonction dans la lutte contre la nature. Au reste ils n'ont vraiment mis cette correspondance en lumière que pour le régime capitaliste ; mais de toute manière, supposer qu'une telle correspondance constitue une explication du phénomène, c'est appliquer inconsciemment aux organismes sociaux le fameux principe de Lamarck, aussi inintelligible que commode, « la fonction crée l'organe ».
Consequently, for Marx and Marxism, the elimination of social oppression is simply the inevitable future outcome of humanity’s functional and progressive domination of “nature”.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more erroneously, Darwin’s theory of evolution itself(!) is turned upside down – by Marx and by all evolutionary science after Darwin - and misconstrued as a Lamarckian process of conscious (for humans) and wilful or intentional (for all animals) “adaptation”! As Weil impetuously yet quite correctly stresses in the passage below, all science after Darwin has misconstrued his theory of evolution as an internal “adaptation” by species to their external environment that ensures “the survival of the fittest”. But the “adaptation” and “fitness” that Darwin meant is an attribute that is determined entirely by factors external to the actions and intentions of species – as something that can be attributed only after and not before the eventual “survival” of a species! In other words, evolution is an objective process quite independent of the actions and intentions of species.
La biologie n'a commencé d'être une science que le jour où Darwin a substitué à ce principe [i.e. le fonctionnalisme de Lamarck] la notion des conditions d'existence. Le progrès consiste en ce que la fonction n'est plus considérée comme la cause, mais comme l'effet de l'organe, seul ordre intelligible ; le rôle de cause n'est dès lors attribué qu'à un mécanisme aveugle, celui de l'hérédité combiné avec les variations accidentelles. Par lui-même, à vrai dire, ce mécanisme aveugle ne peut que produire au hasard n'importe quoi ; l'adaptation de l'organe à la fonction rentre ici en jeu de manière à limiter le hasard en éliminant les structures non viables, non plus à titre de tendance mystérieuse, mais à titre de condition d'existence ; et cette condition se définit par le rapport de l'organisme considéré au milieu pour une part inerte et pour une part vivant qui l'entoure, et tout particulièrement aux organismes semblables qui lui font concurrence. L'adaptation est dès lors conçue par rapport aux êtres vivants comme une nécessité extérieure et non plus intérieure. Il est clair que cette méthode lumineuse n'est pas valable seulement en biologie, mais partout où l'on se trouve en présence de structures organisées qui n'ont été organisées par personne. Pour pouvoir se réclamer de la science en matière sociale, il faudrait avoir accompli par rapport au marxisme un progrès analogue à celui que Darwin a accompli par rapport à Lamarck.

Thus, there are two orders of objections that Weil moves against Marx, and indeed against nearly all Western political and economic theories of social oppression, as well as against the ubiquitous misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a theory of (conscious and intentional) “adaptation”.  The first order is that Marx’s theory seeks to establish a mechanical, functionalist link between human needs, forces of production and oppressive social relations of production. The second order is that this functionalist link, unlike and contrary to Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution, has a deterministic or even teleological bias in that human beings are deemed to be capable of dominating consciously and intentionally their environment or “nature” in accordance with their “ideation” or planned intentions. Marx himself, in one of the most deservedly renowned passages in the first Book of Das Kapital, refers to this “ideal” ability of the human species to plan beforehand in its mind its intended projects in the external world. Marx calls this Gattungs-Wesen (“species-conscious being”). By contrast and in total opposition to this erroneous belief, Darwin establishes that the survival of species is due entirely to factors wholly external to the actions and intentions of existing species – factors such as genetic heredity and competition within and between species, on one side, and environmental factors, on the other. Adaptation is therefore seen by Darwin as “an external necessity”, that is, a necessity independent of the will, actions and intentions of a species. That explains the overriding role and weight that Darwin attributes to “chance” or “hazard” in the survival and evolution of species! In the Grundrisse, Marx fails to understand his own theory of overpopulation engendered by capitalist accumulation as an external barrier in terms of the unsustainable human demands this places on the ecosphere. Instead, throughout his writings, Marx always believed, in line with the Hegelian dialectics of nature, that “the barrier to capital is capital itself” – in other words, an “internal barrier”!
But this “hazard” or “chance” is not pure fortuitousness, sheer contingency: it is rather itself constrained by the objective “conditions of existence” of a species which, although they do not indicate the evolutionary process in a particular or specific direction, nevertheless delimit or constrain the evolutionary outcomes for that species.
Les causes de l'évolution sociale ne doivent plus être cherchées ailleurs que dans les efforts quotidiens des hommes considérés comme individus. Ces efforts ne se dirigent certes pas n'importe où ; ils dépendent, pour chacun, du tempérament, de l'éducation, des routines, des coutumes, des préjugés, des besoins naturels ou acquis, de l'entourage, et surtout, d'une manière générale, de la na-
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 32
ture humaine, terme qui, pour être malaisé à définir, n'est probablement pas vide de sens. Mais étant donné la diversité presque indéfinie des individus, étant donné surtout que la nature humaine comporte entre autres choses le pouvoir d'innover, de créer, de se dépasser soi-même, ce tissu d'efforts incohérents produirait n'importe quoi en fait d'organisation sociale, si le hasard ne se trouvait en ce domaine limité par les conditions d'existence auxquelles toute société doit se conformer sous peine d'être ou subjuguée ou anéantie. Ces conditions d'existence sont le plus souvent ignorées des hommes qui s'y soumettent ; elles agissent non pas en imposant aux efforts de chacun une direction déterminée, mais en condamnant à être inefficaces tous les efforts dirigés dans les voies qu'elles interdisent.
[Bacon] In this optic, in this per-spective, from this a-spect, “nature” cannot be seen as mere ob-ject, as passive op-position, as Gegen-stand, but rather as an active containment - indeed, says Weil, as an inter-diction (!), a prohibitive dictation or in-junction that limits human action by con-straining and re-straining it! It is, if you please, a barrier in guise of “un-intended con-sequences”. Human beings illude themselves to be demi-gods who can actively determine the direction of life and the world – to mould the cosmos in our likeness; when in fact we find that we are in the cosmos and that we must therefore be conscious of the unintended consequences of our actions due to the restraint and constraint – the containment – of these actions by our environ-ment, our sur-rounds, our Um-welt, ambience – “the natural milieu,” says Weil -  that con-ditions, hence erects conditions, to our activity. We pro-pose but nature dis-poses, like a divinity. Nature is the Epi-metheus (hind-sight) to our Pro-metheus (presumed fore-sight). Nature is both a hostel for us and hostile to us: it is both hospitable and hostile, it is our host yet we are its hostages! It both entertains and constrains us.
These are, precisely, the “conditions of existence” – ec-sistence, Da-sein – our being “thrown” and de-jected in the world, in the cosmos, to which Weil refers repeatedly. And great part of these conditions of ec-sistence is also our own human nature – by means of con-flict (a mutual in-fliction of pain) and com-petition (a mutual craving) between and even within so-called in-dividual (indivisible) humans.
Ces conditions d'existence sont déterminées tout d'abord, comme pour les êtres vivants, d'une part par le milieu naturel, d'autre part par l'existence, par l'activité et particulièrement par la concurrence des autres organismes de même espèce, c'est-à-dire en l'occurrence des autres groupements sociaux.

Friday 22 March 2019


We have often denounced on these pages the attempt by the Western capitalist bourgeoisie to enslave our democracies in the image of Asiatic servitude - from India to Japan and above all China. They have achieved this in large part (a) through large direct investments in these countries of utter abject slaves - and (b) by allowing these servile rats to infest our Western nation-states. Unable even remotely to comprehend the extent of this catastrophic exitus, the Western Left has been a willing enthusiastic accomplice in this apocalyptic destruction of Western democracies and values. The inevitable denouement, of course, is that the unsustainable pressure on global resources (remember: the Earth cannot sustain 9 billion Americans!) will soon lead to a devastating global conflict, a Third World War, that is clearly in the making and will erupt soon enough. As a result, human civilisation as we know it will collapse before this century is over. The “secular stagnation”, the overindebtedness of businesses and households the world over, and relentless socio-economic conflict will soon be reflected in the imminent collapse of global financial markets. Sauve qui peut!

I have no time to go into this into greater detail, but for a quick resume’ of the situation, here is an excellent if tangential article by Judith Sloane in ‘The Australian’ today:

This week the Morrison government announced its intention to reduce the annual cap on new permanent migrants from 190,000 to 160,000. This lower figure will apply for the next four years.
The trouble with the announcement is that an effective cap of about 160,000 has been in place for the past two years. It’s a Clayton’s change — the cap change you have when you’re not having a cap change.
In combination with other announcements, which will mean even more temporary migrants, the government has decided that the population will continue to grow at a rapid pace, mainly as a result of immigration.


Rather than act on a very clear message from the public that the migrant intake should be cut, the government has preferred to appease various sectional interests while pretending otherwise. We should expect better, even of a government in its last throes.
The bigger picture is that there has been a significant disintegration of the broad consensus on immigration — you could call it a settlement — that was achieved by prime minister John Howard. This consensus involved strong border protection preventing the entry of illegal migrants while expanding the pathways for legal migrants to enter and stay in the country.
For a while this worked well. Let us not forget that the number of permanent migrants went from about 90,000 per year when Howard was first elected to close to 160,000 when he left office. Nonetheless, the public’s generally favourable view of immigration and high migrant intakes persisted for some time.
In more recent times, however, there has been a marked shift in the public’s view on immigration and the related issue of population growth. I won’t go through all the results of these surveys — it would take too long — but let me mention some of the sources: Newspoll, Essential Research, Lowy Institute Poll, Scanlon Survey and the Australian Population Research Institute.
To give you a flavour, last year’s Lowy poll found there had been a 14 percentage point jump from the previous year in the proportion of respondents who agreed that “the total number of migrants coming to Australia each year is too high”. A majority (54 per cent) now agrees with this statement.
A poll conducted by Essential Research last year also found that 54 per cent of respondents thought Australia’s population was growing too fast (only 4 per cent thought it was too slow) and 64 per cent expressed the view that the level of immigration had been too high during the previous 10 years. The poll found 37 per cent thought the level of immigration was “much too high”.
Let me also just touch on a recent Newspoll survey in which the respondents from NSW were asked: “When thinking about the population of NSW, would you like to see the population of NSW increase, stay about the same or decrease?” Note that the question was not about population growth but about the level of population.
A mere 16 per cent stated that they wanted the population to increase. About 55 per cent wanted it to stay the same and a quarter wanted it to decrease. Bear this in mind, there is no way that the population of NSW is about to stay the same given natural increase and the migrant intake.
To tease out the reasons for this shift in attitudes towards immigration, the key is to look at the figures. To be sure, the lift in the permanent migrant intake that has occurred across time was always likely to cause some members of the public to query the change. But another factor is the explosion in the number of temporary entrants during the past 15 years. Traditionally, temporary migration was insignificant in the scheme of things. Migrants came to the country to settle or not at all, with the exception of visitors.
In more recent times, the number of international students, working holidaymakers and temporary workers has exploded. About 700,000 international students are in the country and it is estimated there are more than two million temporary migrants with work rights.
The best summary measure of the movements of migrants, both permanent and temporary, is net overseas migration, which is published quarterly by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The figure includes arrivals and departures of those migrants who have lived in Australia for at least 12 months out of 16 months.
In the 10 years ending in 2005, the annual NOM averaged 105,000. Since then, the NOM has averaged more than 220,000. In other words, the NOM has more than doubled, which undoubtedly is behind the public’s growing opposition to immigration. The latest figure for the NOM (for the year ending in the September quarter of last year) was 242,000.
Note that net overseas migration accounts for more than 60 per cent of the growth in the population. Australia has one of the highest rates of population growth among developed economies, with the population growing at close to an extra 400,000 people a year. This is more than Canberra’s entire population.
Moreover, the pattern of growth is not even across the country. In Victoria, the population grew by 2.2 per cent in the year ending in the September quarter last year compared with a figure of 1.6 per cent for the country as a whole.
Given that all the evidence indicates the consensus position on immigration — endorsement of high rates of immigration in the context of strong border protection — has crumbled, how have politicians reacted? The main response has been denial, leading to a continuation of current policy settings, which encourage high rates of migrant intake.
This has been particularly noticeable in relation to the Morrison government’s refusal to countenance any substantive cut to the migrant intake or to place any restrictions on the entry of temporary migrants.
While conceding that high rates of population growth impose significant costs on residents — think congestion, overcrowded schools and hospitals, loss of urban amenity and the like — the government has not been prepared to make any noteworthy adjustments to the core features of its immigration policy.
There is a faux appeal made to the supposed economic and fiscal benefits of immigration. The economics of immigration are quite clear: the overall economic benefits are relatively small; they take many years to emerge; and in the meantime productivity is lower as more workers enter the market before the capital stock adjusts.
Moreover, the benefits of immigration are largely captured by the immigrants themselves as well as by the owners of capital and employers.
The truth is that immigration is not really about economics; it’s about the kind of society we want. Do we want a big Australia with very large groaning cities or do we want a medium-sized country with an enviable lifestyle?
Do we want our politicians to act in line with the preferences of voters or to cave in to the pleas of vested interests (big business, property developers, universities, employer associations, some ethnic groups) when it comes to formulating immigration policy? It’s clear what we’ve got from the Morrison government; it’s less clear what a Shorten government would deliver.

Thursday 14 March 2019


Paul Krugman evidently reads our post - or do we flatter ourselves? Here is his latest column reproposing simple arguments that we have advanced here for years about the idiocy of “artificial intelligence”. Of course, our social and economic analysis is far more complex than his, but....Well done, Paul! More items like this!

The other day I found myself, as I often do, at a conference discussing lagging wages and soaring inequality. There was a lot of interesting discussion. But one thing that struck me was how many of the participants just assumed that robots are a big part of the problem — that machines are taking away the good jobs, or even jobs in general. For the most part this wasn’t even presented as a hypothesis, just as part of what everyone knows.
And this assumption has real implications for policy discussion. For example, a lot of the agitation for a universal basic income comes from the belief that jobs will become ever scarcer as the robot apocalypse overtakes the economy.
So it seems like a good idea to point out that in this case what everyone knows isn’t true. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, and maybe the robots really will come for all our jobs one of these days. But automation just isn’t a big part of the story of what happened to American workers over the past 40 years. 
We do have a big problem — but it has very little to do with technology, and a lot to do with politics and power.
Let’s back up for a minute, and ask: What is a robot, anyway? Clearly, it doesn’t have to be something that looks like C-3PO, or rolls around saying “Exterminate! Exterminate!” From an economic point of view, a robot is anything that uses technology to do work formerly done by human beings.
And robots in that sense have been transforming our economy literally for centuries. David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of economics, wrote about the disruptive effects of machinery in 1821!
These days, when people talk about the robot apocalypse, they don’t usually think of things like strip mining and mountaintop removal. Yet these technologies utterly transformed coal mining: Coal production almost doubled between 1950 and 2000 (it only began falling a few years ago), yet the number of coal miners fell from 470,000 to fewer than 80,000.
Or consider freight containerization. Longshoremen used to be a big part of the scene in major port cities. But while global trade has soared since the 1970s, the share of U.S. workers engaged in “marine cargo handling” has fallen by two-thirds.
Technological disruption, then, isn’t a new phenomenon. Still, is it accelerating? Not according to the data. If robots really were replacing workers en masse, we’d expect to see the amount of stuff produced by each remaining worker — labor productivity — soaring. In fact, productivity grew a lot faster from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s than it has since.
So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.
I’m not saying that coping with change was ever easy. The decline of coal employment had devastating effects on many families, and much of what used to be coal country has never recovered. The loss of manual jobs in port cities surely contributed to the urban social crisisof the ’70s and ’80s.
But while there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.
What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.
Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent. That divergence was politics, pure and simple.
The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. Canada is as unionized now as the U.S. was in 1973; in the Nordic nations unions cover two-thirds of the work force. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.
And the decline of unions has made a huge difference. Consider the case of trucking, which used to be a good job but now pays a third lessthan it did in the 1970s, with terrible working conditions. What made the difference? De-unionization was a big part of the story.
And these easily quantifiable factors are just indicators of a sustained, across-the-board anti-worker bias in our politics.
Which brings me back to the question of why we’re talking so much about robots. The answer, I’d argue, is that it’s a diversionary tactic — a way to avoid facing up to the way our system is rigged against workers, similar to the way talk of a “skills gap” was a way to divert attention from bad policies that kept unemployment high.
And progressives, above all, shouldn’t fall for this facile fatalism. American workers can and should be getting a much better deal than they are. And to the extent that they aren’t, the fault lies not in our robots, but in our political leaders.