Monday, October 28, 2013

Hostility Towards Nihilists

Initially upon realising and admitting that I do not believe in ultimate value I only experienced a small amount of blow-back, and it was mostly from people that seemed to misunderstand the position. Strangely enough, the most support I received at the time was from theists. Perhaps they saw it as somewhat of a validation of their own beliefs, that without a god nihilism is the only honest conclusion a person could arrive at. However in a fairly short period of time I've encountered several instances of people expressing utter contempt for nihilism. "Nihilists don't deserve to live", or insinuating that the only honest nihilists are those that commit suicide, and other such similar statements.

What is the reason behind for such apparent hatred for nihilistic beliefs? Perhaps it stems from a sense that widespread nihilism would be threatening the stability of society? Such a sense is understandable. When I first left my religious beliefs behind years ago, I received many questions from believers asking why I don't just go around killing people without God. I never really understood such questions. I was raised in the same culture as they were, and the same (or similar) values were inculcated into me as a young child. The idea of murdering someone is incomprehensible to me. I have a strong sense of empathy, and you could say a rational fear of death, at least insofar as I enjoy living and would like to continue doing so. I still hold the core of those 'Christian values' that I was raised to believe in. Some of the details have changed considerably, and for the sake of brevity I will not go into them here, but things like the golden rule have been engrained on my conscience. All that has changed is that I now believe that those values do not have any meaningful grounding. They are to me simply pragmatic ideas that inevitably seek only to perpetuate the existence of the societies that teach them.

Perhaps however, the hostility towards nihilism is not out of a fear of what nihilistic beliefs could do to society as a whole, but instead is drawn from a fear of the ramifications for the values that the critics hold? Without armchair psycho-analysing my friends and acquaintances too much, I think this may at least contribute a bit to the level of hostility I've seen. Perhaps they fear that if there are no ultimate values, that there is no intrinsic meaning or overarching teleology their own cherished values would be without foundation. Those fears are once again completely understandable, as they would be correct in my opinion. There is no solid foundation to any value as far as I'm concerned and I'm okay with that.

To return to the idea that without ultimate values society would not be able to peacefully exist, I think I might agree at least a little bit. So while I have no intention at this stage in my life of having children, my advice to anyone who does is to indoctrinate them, euphemistically known as teaching them. If the continued existence of humankind is something that you personally value, inculcate in your children values that teach respect for others, the golden rule and other such ideals that contribute to the reproduction and continuation of society. Don't tell them that these values are without a foundation, let them figure that out for themselves later, if they ever do.

So there you have it, I hold a belief that I would not pass on to any children I might ever have. Call it self-defeating if you like. Call it elitist even, that I wouldn't trust humanity to free-float in valueless space, but am content to live peacefully in it myself. In that sense you could also call it anti-humanistic and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you. I have very little faith in humanity to hold to the values that many believe are 'written on our hearts' by a deity, or are 'natural law', or self-evident, to quote Tim Minchin: "We're just fucking monkeys in shoes." As a product of evolution, it would be disingenuous and childish to believe that there is some kind of goodness in the collective human spirit unless you hold a teleological worldview that is, in which case it would be justifiable. Existential nihilism is the logical conclusion of any non-teleological world-view, though I'm open to critique on that. For me, this conclusion is still just a starting point. Where we go from there and how we create meaning and purpose out of meaningless and purposelessness, are the interesting questions that deserve continued open-minded consideration.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Electoral Democracy - The West's Sacred Cow

As you're probably aware, just recently the comedian Russell Brand has created some waves in suggesting that people shouldn't vote. In his interview with Jeremy Paxman, he argued that the current electoral system only serves the power elite and corporations. I don't disagree with him. However it seems many are jumping on a bandwagon, criticising him for being a wrecker. They see him as only providing negativity, wanting to tear down the established system and replace it with '???'. Russell Brand isn't claiming to have all the answers, he is simply pointing out that our system is failing us. It is failing the environment, it is failing the poor, the dispossessed, and primarily serves entrenched political and economic powers.

I have seen people say that Russell Brand's suggestion to stop voting is "dumb" and "dangerous". Why might this be? Is voting for selected candidates of the political class the only legitimate form of political expression? Are we as a society unable to accommodate alternative forms of political expression, or are people just terrified that a non-voting mass movement may de-stabilise the status-quo? I see no problems with encouraging people to not vote when they have no representation in the political establishment. After all, electoral politics is only a small part of democratic engagement, though seeing the reaction to this suggestion you would assume it was the be all and end all.

We, in the West have deified electoral democracy. It is the god of our political system. Those that criticise its efficacy at providing the best outcomes like Russell Brand become pariahs to those that seek to maintain the current political establishment. Nothing should be beyond reproach in our discourse, all assumptions should be questioned, including electoral democracy. Brand is right in pointing out that we are destroying the environment, and electoral politics is not solving it, and no solutions are brewing on the horizon. Every international meeting to try and stop catastrophic global climate change has failed, often by design, our system is not providing us with the answers. Electoral democracy is a false god.

I stand with Brand.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Poverty of Economics

What is the purpose of economics? To explain and describe the production and distribution of goods & services? Perhaps it is simply that. Though what good is an understanding of how trade, production and currencies work if it is divorced from an understanding of the underlying goal of the system? The study of economics has and always will be an utterly value-laden discipline, though unfortunately it seems like it is often portrayed as a disinterested 'science', only concerned with the ways things are. In reality, economic analyses always bring with them unstated assumptions. Much of modern economic policy, disguised in the language of efficiency and individual freedom (see my post on Economic Nihilism) serves to benefit those who already wield vast economic power. To adopt the language of the occupy movement, who are economies built and maintained by and for? The 99% or the 1%?

These value-laden assumptions that underlie all of economics need to be brought out into the open and laid bare. I cannot take the discipline of economics seriously unless something of a dialectical approach is brought to the fore of the public discourse. Ethical justifications that take into consideration the real world implications of economic policy and the associated patterns of distribution need to be taken into account. Economics isn't simply about impersonal forces, it isn't physics—though some pretend it is— it's about people, and so often this seems to be ignored. What good is economic growth if large portions of the population are struggling to get by?

In a discussion I was involved in on a message board this week about living wages and government funding for education, a laissez-faire capitalist argued that tertiary education should be entirely user-pays. What was his justification for this? Simply that subsidised education is a "market distortion". No other justification was given initially. This extremely value-laden justification was simply offered as an a-priori truth. "Market distortions are bad." Understandably, as this discussion was taking place in a forum where some kind of evidence is considered necessary for claims he was asked to explain why market distortion was bad. His response was that it removes the education market from its optima.

The laissez-faire capitalist mentioned in the last post was no dunce either. He's well educated and certainly has reasons for why he believes what he does (what I think of those reasons is another matter entirely), but simply offering a-priori justifications for economic beliefs as if they are based on something other than value judgements seems standard faire in modern political economic discourse. As you probably gather, I reject this paradigm entirely. The neoliberal quagmire of so-called efficiency our discourse has become trapped in needs to be abolished in favour of a much more humanistic and ethically focussed one.

Admittedly I do not devote much of my spare time to studying mainstream economics, so while these ideas seem somewhat original to me, I realise that they may have been said many times before by people much more in touch with economics than I.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Economic Nihilism

As promised in the first post on nihilism and socialism, I am going to elaborate on what comes to mind when I use the term 'economic nihilism'. I am not using it to describe a complete lack of economic interaction, simply a situation where no value is ascribed to any distribution of economic power, and typically where patterned distributions are ascribed a negative value.

In this context a patterned distribution is basically any doctrine that prescribes how much or how little economic power any individual can hold. So in a system without anything like this where no inherent value (positive or negative) is given to distributions, there is nothing one could say against a situation where one individual has 1000 times as much power and wealth as another, or if a small group of individuals collectively held more power than the rest of society as a whole. There is nothing just or unjust, good or bad, right or wrong with this scenario, it simply is.

People who advocate such systems tend to actually go further than this. Rather than just have a valueless distribution they place value on the lack of patternicity. It is the system of complete economic self-determination, or "economic freedom" as they would describe it, that has value and not the outcomes of such a prescription. As I argued in my post Nihilism and Socialism, this concept of 'economic freedom' is misleading at best, as actual freedoms in such a system are completely contingent on possessing wealth and power.

I think it is more than a little hypocritical for people who advocate such an economic system—which in other circles might be called full neoliberalism, laissez faire capitalism, anarcho-capitalism or the awful misnomer libertarianism—to go on to make ethical judgements about the consequences that arise from a system of economic nihilism. If the concentration of wealth and power due to unrestricted individualistic greed results in corrupt political processes, poverty and famine then that system should be held accountable.

Before I get accused of mischaracterising the position of economic nihilists, I will acknowledge that they appear to believe sincerely that their economic doctrines if applied fully will bring about an equitable distribution. I do not share their apparent faith in the 'goodness' of humanity. Nor their belief in the rationality of human action. I find both of these positions to be unpalatable, and extremely naive. This perhaps deserves a post of its own in the future.

In the world today on a global scale we already have a predominately non-patterned economic distribution. There are small pockets of patternicity around the world, but most of these are relatively weak. Some countries like North Korea, or the United Kingdom have a patterned distribution that goes, I would argue, in the wrong direction. The ruling class in the DPRK live in affluence, while large portions of the population struggle to be fed. Meanwhile in the UK, most of society live a largely non-patterned existence, while the royal family lives in opulence at the expense of the populace. However, situations like this are rare. Most of the inequality and class differentiation by wealth and power in the world today occurs through predominately un-patterned means.

So I hope I have made it clear what I mean by 'economic nihilism'. I think it is a much more descriptive term than things like 'laissez-faire capitalism' when referring to the actual consequences—the distributions of wealth and power—of such economic systems.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nihilism and Socialism

Continuing from the last post, I do not think it is possible to have anything that could be described as meaningful self determination without a political/economic system like socialism, and that in a fully capitalist system it is impossible.

What does it mean to be able to determine one's own course in life? I would imagine that under any definition, the ability to decide what to do with your life would be fundamental; to be able to choose your own educational path, and to choose a career path. However I would argue it can not involve anything akin to laissez-faire capitalist (or anarcho-capitalist) notions of liberty, which I shall call economic nihilism (more on this in a later post). This is because in order to be able to choose educational and career paths you first have to have options available to you. Under a system of economic nihilism however, having options available to you is not universal, or inherent in the system, in fact such a system rejects from the outset any patterned distribution.

Even the most one-eyed capitalist enthusiast will likely acknowledge that under such a system, the distribution of liberties and freedoms mirrors the distribution of wealth. Those with the greatest amount of wealth would have almost unhindered levels of self-determination while those, who by no fault of their own are born into poverty on the other hand have nothing of the sort. Wealth and income inequality as you are probably aware are at a staggering level which compounds this objection to the system; this means that there are very few people with a lot of freedom and a large capacity for self-determination and a lot of people with very little of either. However, even in a mixed economy, with lower entry levels into education through subsidies, government funding for arts, and a strong safety net for unemployment even those from the lower ends of the socio-economic distribution hypothetically have a chance to 'make it'.

This concept of 'making it' from conditions of relative poverty I find problematic too. This is because the concept itself is rooted in competition. It is all about rising to the upper echelons of the socio-economic distribution and the increase in quality of life and self-determination that goes with it. What would a system look like that is built around the ideal of maximising self-determination across the board? I envisage a society where all are provided for and losing your job doesn't mean destitution. Every individual would have equal access to a quality education throughout their lives, meaning that education is free. If it is a wage-based economy, the minimum wage would be tied to a maximum wage, to ensure that whatever path one takes in life they and their potential children will not be disadvantaged. The point of this is that such a system would at the very least resemble something that would be described by most as socialism.