Brutal Systems

I wrote this a year ago. Rereading it today made me realize that I still think this is a useful way of reasoning about people, one that doesn’t characterize them as evil. That helps me. I hope it helps you.

When humans come together to work together in collaborative systems, there comes a time when values have to be encoded into those systems. This usually comes down to a retreat to commitment if the process has no battle over power, or system for choosing who decides. One of the ways human societies have overcome this of late is to eschew directly encoding morality into the system in favor of foregrounding the system itself, whose knock-on consequences down the road, in the future, are left unknown, but whose consequences remain hypothetical or unexplored. Rather than say something like, “We want to make sure wealth does not tend toward concentrating in the hands of the few rather than the many,” we encoded a system by which wealth would concentrate in the hands of the few.

But it is entirely possible that the outcome of that process was not what was championed by its most ardent believers. It is entirely possible that most participants of 20th century neoliberalism were not seeking to recapitulate past class structure or enshrine the concentration of wealth in the few, but rather that the system they were designing and building was the means by which they could reach some consensus about what to do about regulating economies and monies without retreating to specific moral commitments (which would lead to an impasse). Instead, they focused on building a system whose rules were mutually intelligible. This way the argument was not over intent, or will, or morality, or duty, or virtue, or grace, or any of the things that are unique to human beings, but to the systematic properties they sought to enshrine.

In the realm of multiple perspectives it is easier to focus on and work on building things that all the parties involved can see their facets of, and their neighbors’ facets. If there is some retreat to commitment that does not get resolved through force or the brute application of power, then the losers of those arguments and battles won’t support the system. So if we want a unified system by which all countries can trade, then we look to the system, not the things the system encodes.

In other words, it is much easier for disparate human morality to decide on a complex system with rules that are hard to derive the consequences of than it is to start, from first principles, with enshrining the morality we want in the system. So we focused on the system, did not heed (or when rarely noticed, acquiesced to) the brutish and elitist consequences of that system, and plodded along. This is an account of how we got to now that doesn’t rely on people being monsters, or actively seeking to maintain class hierarchy, or any other narrative involving a specific and evil person or group of people on which we can rest the mantle of the brutality of the past.

It’s just less awkward and easier to narrow focus onto systems rather than start with the moral questions of what we want to do, then derive systems to enshrine those. It was easier, that’s all.

Categorized as Philosophy

Within Our Planetary Means

There’s a bit in Phil Christman’s latest newsletter where he talks about how rising global temperatures mean we will have to in some way come to terms with the fact that in order to live as a species, we will have to live “within our planetary means.”

Perhaps the next bit of human history—who knows how long, a hundred years, a thousand years, many thousands—will be figuring out how to live under those constraints. We spent the last few thousand figuring out how to live without constraint, and we overdid it.

The Scope of the Night

Night time is for narrowing my scope. It’s for closing the horizon, for donning blinders, for setting the limits of my suite of concerns to fit between the walls of my bedroom. That is the only danger the phone poses; it can punch holes through space-time. It’s no different from a wandering thought that nags and scrapes at a sleeping mind. But focus on breath. Focus on the body. It’s here, so you’re here. Now: read the novel. Its vast infinity will lull you away. And everything that matters will still be there in the morning, like you.

Fiction in the Morning

Something in me has become somewhat cattywampus because I cannot decide between writing or reading in the morning, and am starting to prefer to read, over nonfiction—usually depressing or at least soberly descriptive of the world and currently Surveillance Capitalism—the fiction I usually read before bed, currently Within a Budding Grove. Reading the fiction over the nonfiction starts the day with a dreamy context. I think it goes back to what I wrote above, where what I’m interested in is the removal from time. It’s like what Lazenby said about philosophy in his “gun to my head answer“, that it, at least to his interpretation of the ancients, was to find a permanent present from which one could seek a kind of refuge from any one given time or occurrence, a permanent present which by virtue of its permanence affords a kind of endurance and allows a respite from any situation as isolated in time.

That’s not entirely what he said, but that’s my reading of it now. And in the morning novel, like the evening I look for something like that. It’s not quite there because its descriptions of situations and relations isolated in time, rather than a set of declarations or assumptions about the world that allow a kind of consistency through or despite time, but it moves me away from the storm winds and vicissitudes that the demand of emotion can cry out for in a moment and puts me—especially with Proust—in a kind of extended meditation within a moment, where we have all the time in the world to go over the emotional content present in a relation and luxuriate in that in a way reality could almost never afford.

Of course, today, I started writing. Which I think is healthiest, like a constitutional.

“We’re the ones you cannot touch because we are too near.”

Photograph by Allen Warren

Let the record show that the American Dream is so many nightmares that some Americans dream of death for comfort; and what are we doing to make it better? The profiles that paint this man’s life as some kind of literary fairy tale marred only by the political climate, are lies. Gay and Black and famous and beautiful and walking over the edge every day, James Baldwin longed to leave this world as much as he worked to save it from evils like race prejudice, homophobia, capitalism and imperialism—let the myth of the jovial cultural servant die at last, that he may live.

Preface to James Baldwin’s Unwritten Suicide Note

Content warning for suicide. This article is powerful.

(Photograph by Allen Warren.)

Werner Bonefeld: On Class and the State of Money and Law

This lecture goes into the early philosophy of neoliberalism and how it was used to shape European fiscal policy. I normally don’t like these lectures where the speaker reads something almost prepared word for word, but in this case it works pretty well. (Also, it’s kind of weird that Werner Bonefeld doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry.)