What’s Wrong with the World

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More on materialism and plutocracy.

The philosophical discussion of plutocracy’s principle is said by some to amount to nothing more than “idle abstraction.” The demand from one corner is for facts, facts, facts.

They can be found here.*

Now then, it is curious to me that discovering this principle should be thought so idle and so abstract. To me this principle has factual character that is very much concrete. My attempt below, which may well have failed, was to use a snippet of famous Greek philosophy to illustrate a very real and concrete fact about our political circumstances.

That fact is that materialism with a defiantly amoral twist is coextensive or at least highly correlated with plutocratic forms and innovations. This mercenary aspect, combined with the thrill at outdoing and conquering, is evident it every narrative about finance capitalism over the past 40 years. It is not always (as I have pointed out in the past) simple avarice that drives this usury machine. It is a broader seduction of excellence and ambition. The flow of talented minds from academia to Wall Street is decades-long trend.

This seduction of excellence by power is clearly materialist and even progressive, on my reading. They’re not saying, come to Wall Street to save your soul, or come to Wall Street to immense yourself in the glorious past.

It begins by reducing the world to a narrow band of matter and sensation; next is the denial that there is anything more real than interest and desire. It reaches out to the strong — and strength in our age is largely mental — and offers wealth and influence unfettered by the antiquities of the benighted past. It requires extraordinary proficiency in certain endeavors, but its appeal to society is very broad. We’re not talking about some WASP elite here. It reaches middle class Italian kids from the mail rooms, bridge-playing salesmen, shy math geeks, in addition to the hard-bitten dealmaker and businessman. Plutocracy has a palpable meritocratic aspect.

But more importantly, plutocracy is driven by amoral materialism. It cares as little for spiritual matters as it does for ethical matters or patriotic matters. Nor is it troubled by any abstract notion of free enterprise or size of government; it will as easily avail itself of the instruments of the state, and the emollients of the welfare state, as any public sector union organizer. Philosophy, theology, ethics, justice — all these and more are but the mummery of deluded fools.

This is why I say that for plutocracy what’s real is advantage. Think of it as an aristocracy of sophisters, economists and calculators.


______________________________________
* And here. And also here. It turns out there are ways of collating such assays of the facts about usury, plutocracy, and finance capitalism, as have appeared at What’s Wrong with the World.

Comments (34)

Paul,

Just lat night I was thinking about a great many people, movie stars came to mind, but also the great wheeler and dealers you mention, who amass wealth and what do they do with it for their pleasure?

Well, I look at movie stars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt et al, and they seem to spend a good deal of it entirely on themselves in terms of houses, land, and cars, maybe some art for their properties.

The plutocrats buy yachts of great size, throw million dollar birthday parties, buy an island, a Gulfstream jet, and so on.

Fine, and then they often throw a good deal into leftist foundations and make life worse for everyone by funding the Bill Ayers and Obamas of the world.

What interested me in my looking at the meritocratic rich and their spending (which isn't all that much actually of their wealth) is how little good they actually do with the money, how little excellence is fostered, how little interest they have in supporting that which is truly "good" in the best moral, religious, spiritual sense.

They do so little to add anything beautiful to their community let alone ours in terms of buildings, colleges, art, music, literature, health, medicine, science, and so forth.

It is not their self-indulgence that disturbs. It's their money, they can spend as they like. What furrows my brow is how small, dull, and ignorant they are. How circumscribed in mind and mediocre in feeling for the Good.

Not only are they men without chests, they are men without nets. They are incapable of casting out into the world and drawing in much insight to being or reality. They have no idea of truth. I find them rather pathetic creatures for all the money they have which I occasionally envy.

Thorsten Veblen's phrase, "conspicuous consumption" comes to mind - the plutocrat buys and consumes goods and services not just in order to survive, but also to proclaim his superior wealth and high social status. It's of the essence of a plutocrat that he can thoughtlessly squander what others desire and sincerely value.

Our social identity is not only established by what we do and say; it's further defined by the symbolic value of what we buy, where we live, where we shop, our clothes, our taste in art and music, etc. The affectation of superior taste and judgment in such matters isn't usually exhibited through parsimony or an austere "image", but often through extravagance, waste, and vulgar materialism.

Whether expensive and high tone habits among the plutocrats are an indictment of capitalism and a source of envy and resentment in the relatively unsuccessful majority, is pretty much taken for granted, I think.

This is why I say that for plutocracy that’s real is advantage. Think of it as an aristocracy of sophisters, economists and calculators.

Wherein Burke complains about "the bourgeois turn."


". . . even in servitude itself . . . an exalted freedom . . ."

Translation: From my perspective, servitude really doesn't look that bad.


" . . . vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness"

Translation: Crap flows downhill, thank God.


". . . confounding ranks . . ."

Translation: I got your fraternity . . . right here!


". . . a noble equality . . ."

Translation: It's even better than the real thing!


". . . mitigated kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings . . ."

Translation: I'm kind of a big deal.


". . . power gentle and obedience liberal . . ."

Translation: It is better to give than to receive --you go first.


Look, I went through an anti-bourgois phase for a number of years once upon a time after falling under the spell of Allan Bloom. Well, I'm still under that spell, but sans the anti-bourgois nonsense. It took a while to work through, but I'd encourage anyone to think and read deeply about this subject. I found much of literature and history to be incomprehensible before understanding the viewpoint. At the end of the day, I just couldn't square this ideology with my theology or philosophy.

Seems to me if one doesn't buy into this ideology, there isn't going to be a lot of agreement on other matters.

Oops, I meant fraternité . . .

"That fact is that materialism with a defiantly amoral twist is coextensive or at least highly correlated with plutocratic forms and innovations."

You haven't established that, you've merely asserted it over and over. We need some numbers.

"It is not always (as I have pointed out in the past) simple avarice that drives this usury machine. It is a broader seduction of excellence and ambition. The flow of talented minds from academia to Wall Street is decades-long trend."

This is likely a more realistic assessment,

"Engels condemns the greed and callousness of the bourgeoisie, recounting in one telling vignette, how he described the wretched lot of the workers to a bourgeois associate, who nodded and then said: "And yet there is money to be made. Good day, sir"

Back off on regulation, slash the top marginal rates, and mix in technology and guess what happens: One gets his PhD in math or physics and finds out his choices include very solid six and even seven figure Wall Street salaries or he can try and secure a tenure track position somewhere in the mid-fives. What to do, what to do!

This is 2009 article is still useful,

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html?_r=1&ref=paulkrugman&pagewanted=all

Paul, I've been reviewing some of your posts and am struck at the paucity of serious analysis and the skewing of data. For example, in the third part of your article on American Exceptionalism you write,

"Before us lies a wreck of financial speculation rescued by socialism. Our tradition of political economy has been derailed. From 1950 to 2005, the proportion of American business profits derived from finance increased from 10% to 40%..."

One has only to look at the graphs you posted in "Graphic Plutocracy" to see how misleading that statement is. Note that from 1929 to just past the mid 1980s real corporate profits for financial and non financial companies roughly maintained the same trend line. The trend lines have diverged sharply since. We need to account for the divergence with a little more sophistication than a bald assertion that something called "materialism" led to an emergent plutocracy.

I searched a couple of the articles you referenced in the thread just below for references to "Reagan", "Greenspan", "conservatism", "deregulation", etc. and found nothing. I did find this passage,

"A shadow bank is a financial institution operating outside the heavy regulation of the traditional banking sector, but basically doing the same thing that traditional banks do."

One would never guess that regulation was proposed and rejected and the Fed - under Greenspan - slacked off on what it could have done.

All you focus on is the technology and ignore the political economy. In short, complacency, Vietnam, identity politics, and the financial shocks of the 1970s led to a conservative reaction to liberalism by the electorate that put a conservative president in office who sold the nation on the notion that "government is the problem" and gave us a New Democratic president who allowed that 'big government was over" after the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994.

We know that a Democratic president would appoint a Volcker to head the Fed and we can be confident that a president Mondale wouldn't have appointed Alan Greenspan to head the Fed in 1987. To the extent that your materialism thesis has any traction it lies in the fact that a conservative Republican president appointed an acolyte of an "ox cart materialist" to a central role in the nation's economy who, after the fall, repented with this mea culpa,

"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,”

and when asked by liberal Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman,

“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”,

he replied,

“Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

The lesson seems that the election of Ronald Reagan was a likely fatal error. I understand that your ignoring the "political" in political economy by generalizing this "materialism" thing allows you to "eat your cake and have it too" by allowing you to make second and third tier issues dispositive while still allowing concerns over social justice but in the end, all we have is an evasion of the real problems we face.

Al -- I have no intention of narrowing my field of analysis to just the last three decades. Your animus toward Reagan is clouding your vision. Get over it, man.

It is obvious that many vital development occurred long before Reagan was elected. The Bretton Woods structure with the dollar gradually replacing gold as the world's storehouse of value; globalization and the reduction of national-level checks on capital flows; the development of the mortgage-backed security; the increasing sophistication of probabilistic modeling, which permitted the abstraction of risk and the rapid expansion of bond arbitrage strategies; hyper-mobility of the labor force; the growth of suburban development patterns, financed by debt. I could go on. All these vital pieces in the story of the usury crisis occurred before 1981.

I also think you have violently truncated your vision by insisting that its all about greed. It's not. There is also the allure of mathematical excellence, of capturing risk with such subtlety that no one else can compete. There is also the professional rivalry, like that of the two early innovators in mortgage-backed securities, Laurence Fink and Lewis Ranieri, of First Boston and Salomon Brothers, respectively. There is also the profound desire to outdo established elites: this played a particularly decisive part (again before the 1980s) in the overthrow of the old WASP predominance in high finance. "Gentlemen prefer bonds" was a slogan of this old class of bankers; many of the new upstarts who would in time revolutionize the fixed-income business were out to conquer and even humiliate the old guard.

You will, of course, search my writing in vain for any defense of Alan Greenspan, much less Ayn Rand. Even if I grant, arguendo, your strictures against Reagan's signature domestic legislation (the tax cut), that has never formed a major part of my estimate of his greatness as a statesman. The peaceful resolution of the Cold War with the Communists losing -- that extraordinary achievement forms the major part of that estimate. If you want to join Michael Kinsley in living in the past, like the Japanese soldiers holed up on Pacific islands into the 1960s, and carry on your rhetorical war on Reagan, be my guest. It will not persuade anyone. Even your fellow liberals are coming around in droves to Reagan's greatness.

Mark -- No where in the original post, nor in the previous posts to which it refers, is there even a trace of anti-bourgeois argument. I'm talking about Wall Streeters earning more than sports stars, globe-trotting bankers and bureaucrats, and financiers noted not for their boring bourgeois sensibilities but their extreme excess. Your sneering at Edmund Burke on ancillary matters does not incline me toward a favorable view of whatever you have to say.

"I also think you have violently truncated your vision by insisting that its all about greed. It's not. There is also the allure of mathematical excellence, of capturing risk with such subtlety that no one else can compete. There is also the professional rivalry, like that of the two early innovators in mortgage-backed securities, Laurence Fink and Lewis Ranieri, of First Boston and Salomon Brothers, respectively. There is also the profound desire to outdo established elites: this played a particularly decisive part (again before the 1980s) in the overthrow of the old WASP predominance in high finance. "Gentlemen prefer bonds" was a slogan of this old class of bankers; many of the new upstarts who would in time revolutionize the fixed-income business were out to conquer and even humiliate the old guard."

I read "Liar's Poker". Anyway. I will note that the above has nothing to do with materialism as a philosophy and much to do with hormones. I give greed a central place because if there was no money in it, these animal spirits would channel themselves elsewhere to a certain extent and there would be far less money to buy courtier academics and politicians. Take the cops off the beat and lower those marginal rates.

"Al -- I have no intention of narrowing my field of analysis to just the last three decades. Your animus toward Reagan is clouding your vision. Get over it, man."

Which I didn't ask and don't do. My criticism is that you fail to deal with what is clearly an inflection point. All of the changes and innovation to which you refer would have been far less destructive had we had a robust regulatory structure in place.

What actually happened was that the lessons from the Great Depression and even the Gilded Age were discounted ("things ARE different this time!") by academics (see Krugman's article) and conservative politicians (voodoo economics) as well as those who saw the benjamins.

"You will, of course, search my writing in vain for any defense of Alan Greenspan, much less Ayn Rand."

I didn't claim you defended him, I only pointed out that you ignore him in your articles. He was a central economic actor who later admitted that his approach was deeply flawed, yet you seem to see no significance in his presence. Do you really believe that a Fed Chair who saw a need for regulation to keep up with innovation would have had the same results?

You were in college in the 1980s so you will likely live to see Reagan's position in history realistically reevaluated - provided, of course, we survive the results of the conservative ascendancy that propelled him into office.

Truman and Kennan get the credit for the strategy that required that we only needed to wait until the contradictions inherent in Communism brought it crashing down (and we shouldn't forget the Polish Pope).

While liberal error and timidity is as responsible for the current attitude towards government as conservative reaction and mendacity, greatness is a comprehensive evaluation. The fall of the Evil Empire was on auto pilot for the most part; domestically, he taught us that "deficits don't matter" and "government is the problem" and backed it up by appointing a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle to a key post.

The gutting of the middle class and the rise of the plutocracy mirrors the conservative ascendency. You can't seem to see that even when its in graph after graph.

I will note that you seem to have abandoned the notion that all this has anything to do with abstract philosophical constructions.

I actually haven't read Liars Poker, myself. Nor was I in college in the 1980s. Nor have I abandoned for a moment the problem of philosophic error. Nor have I neglected the problem of abstraction.

The gutting of the middle class and the rise of the plutocracy mirrors the conservative ascendency.

If you date the conservative ascendancy to the 1950s, a full 30 years before Reagan became president, sure. But that is an interesting timeline for conservative ascendancy, to say the least. I have shown you why I believe it is proper to date plutocratic forms from the early postwar years. There is even a case to be made that important feature of the real estate ruin date from the New Deal.

In any case, I think I have shown to the satisfaction of any reasonable man the connection between a philosophy of materialism and the advance of plutocracy. Since you cannot give me a material defense of justice, I am confirmed in my view that materialism cannot defend justice and so, perforce, produces in its stead the lust to conquer and possess. Advantage of the stronger. There is no reason, on material grounds, why a man should not aspire to become a plutocrat.

Let me just note that it would be very interesting to me if you could deliver a material defense of justice. I'm all ears if you can enter the language of obligation and say that a man should not become a plutocrat because plutocracy is unjust and all men should avoid injustice. Lots of "shoulds" in there.

But that is a conversation you will not have, preferring rather to recount the aged polemics of the Reagan era.

Paul,
Newton's law in physics says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Although that isn't quite a law of social justice, it does have a degree of historical support, especially when the reactions are suppressed and accumulate over time. Notice there aren't any obligations involved, just a recognition of probable consequences.

Mark -- No where in the original post, nor in the previous posts to which it refers, is there even a trace of anti-bourgeois argument. I'm talking about Wall Streeters earning more than sports stars, globe-trotting bankers and bureaucrats, and financiers noted not for their boring bourgeois sensibilities but their extreme excess. Your sneering at Edmund Burke on ancillary matters does not incline me toward a favorable view of whatever you have to say.

Paul, I was disapproving of what I take to be Burke's sneering. I don't sneer at his substantial points. As far as "no trace of anti-bourgois arguments" . . . well ok, but I just strain at thinking the term "sophisters, economists and calculators" and the link to "Reflections on the Revolution in France" given the context of that really helps here. If it is an expression emblematic of what I take Burke's overall point to have been at the time as I understand it, I don't see how it is any explanation whatever for "Wall Streeters earning more than sports stars." Besides which, I find the disapproval of that odd to say the least, but I'm not even going to go there.

"Besides which, I find the disapproval of that odd to say the least, but I'm not even going to go there."

Mark, sports stars are a side show - one that a reasonable marginal rate would easily fix. In general, they do little or no harm to the commonweal and do provide entertainment to those interested.

On the other hand, when not outright theft the bulk of financial folks earnings are the result of rent seeking and other unsavory practices. They earn billions and almost crash the world's economy, why would anyone object?

Check the charts at Paul's "Graphic Plutocracy" just south of hee.

Mark, sports stars are a side show - one that a reasonable marginal rate would easily fix. In general, they do little or no harm to the commonweal and do provide entertainment to those interested.

Yeah, its a sideshow. It was an idle comment that I probably shouldn't have made. But I didn't mean to imply anything needed to be fixed though.

Mark -- I lifted a phrase so I cited the source. No need to read any more into it than that. I probably should have used a different phrase to avoid any confusion.

Step2 -- So in counseling an ambitious young man, what you would say to him is that he shouldn't become a plutocrat because there's a chance he'll end up like Madoff -- in the slammer? Not sure how persuasive that will be. And in any case, it's still an appeal to interest, no? It tries to show that "what goes around comes around" -- that if the young man wants wealth and power he should find a less treacherous path to it. It tacitly agrees with the proposition that wealth and power are the primary human drives.

"I am confirmed in my view that materialism cannot defend justice and so, perforce, produces in its stead the lust to conquer and possess. Advantage of the stronger. There is no reason, on material grounds, why a man should not aspire to become a plutocrat."

And I would hold that there is no idealistic reasoning that will defeat the lust for power and riches in any person so inclined by their constitution. All that is likely is that one so inclined will resonate to those idealisms that allow for the satisfaction of their innate needs. Did not Christianity produce the cruel Conquistador and the saintly Bartolomé de las Casas? Christians can repent and Jews atone - consider Ralph Reed and Jack Abramhof.

"So in counseling an ambitious young man, what you would say to him is that he shouldn't become a plutocrat because there's a chance he'll end up like Madoff -- in the slammer? Not sure how persuasive that will be."

This seems to be your ideal; the problem is that it applies to few, if any. Our young man is mostly formed by the time he sits for this philosophical guidance; do you really believe your counsel will be effective (which counsel, BTW, you have yet to present)?

"It tacitly agrees with the proposition that wealth and power are the primary human drives."

They are, in part, but only in part.
"If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain.2 No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary."

http://onthehuman.org/2010/10/morals-without-god/

We are still digging our hunter-gatherer selves out of the hole in which we dug ourselves during our adoption of agriculture several millenia ago.


"If you date the conservative ascendancy to the 1950s, a full 30 years before Reagan became president, sure."

Paul, you seem to be equating Bill Buckley founding of a magazine or Russell Kirk writing a book with the election of a president. The graphs you posted show a clear trend change. In my world one accounts for such things and your story doesn't do that. If you believe the change to be irrelevant, you still must account for it in order to dismiss it.

If you're really incapable of distinguishing my position from Step2's, you've got a long way to go before comprehension dawns. To give you a hint: I don't believe justice for most of the more egregious plutocrats will come in this world. George Soros, for instance, will surely die a rich, comfortable and supremely influential old man.

You're the one who said the "gutting of the middle class and the rise of the plutocracy mirrors the conservative ascendancy," not me. These trends predate 1981 by decades. So it's not me who owes us an account of how the conservative ascendancy dates from 1950.

Personally, I don't see much evidence of conservative ascendancy at any point in recent American history. Liberalism tends to march along quite nicely through right-wing presidents and right-wing Congresses. Perhaps the defeat and discredit of Communism would count, but I'm not churlish enough to neglect the role played by anti-Communist liberals and even some few liberalizing Communists.

The graphs I posted last month show the accelerating advance of plutocracy and usurious finance beginning in the late 70s/early 80s. The reasons for this are varied and complex, some involving government policy, some not. Surely you do not expect us to believe that Reagan's tax cuts alone did it? Many of the important deregulation policies came under other presidents. Even I'm old enough to remember the 1990s, when Greenspan was praised across the political spectrum as the guru of ever-expanding prosperity.

"We are still digging our hunter-gatherer selves out of the hole in which we dug ourselves during our adoption of agriculture several millenia ago."

How very Rousseauian. Interesting.

So in counseling an ambitious young man, what you would say to him is that he shouldn't become a plutocrat because there's a chance he'll end up like Madoff -- in the slammer? Not sure how persuasive that will be. And in any case, it's still an appeal to interest, no?

You misunderstand what ambition is if you think you can convince him without appealing to his interest.

It tries to show that "what goes around comes around" -- that if the young man wants wealth and power he should find a less treacherous path to it.

Of course I'm going to make the argument that what goes around comes around, consequences are an important part of moral consideration. If he gets rich by producing something of value, I'll at least have some respect for his position, even as I appeal to his pride in being a model citizen and leaving a worthy legacy. If he gets rich by fraud or using exploited foreign labor to enrich dictators around the world, he doesn't deserve any respect.

It tacitly agrees with the proposition that wealth and power are the primary human drives.

I don't think they are primary drives, but they are undeniably secondary drives. The amount of history you would have to throw in the garbage to claim otherwise is absurd.

Going meta: since this debate began with Plato, you might notice the magnificent myth/noble lie concerning his eugenics program to maintain the quality of the guardian class, nothing cynical about that. You could also examine the death-to-all-heretics belief of an ancient pope ruthlessly obsessed with purity of the spirit described in Bill's thread above. Long story short, I'm not naive enough to think that materialism doesn't have some flaws, but I'm convinced they are less severe than the other options available. Which is vaguely reminiscent of Churchill's quip about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

"I'm not naive enough to think that materialism doesn't have some flaws, but I'm convinced they are less severe than the other options available."

Its being inherently self-contradictory is only a minor flaw, I reckon. Neither you nor Al responded to Lydia's comment on the other thread -- that materialism necessarily leads to either determinism (man as Dostoevsky's "organ stop") or sheer randomness (man as unpiloted bumper car), neither of which provides human life with any substantive meaning.

One might as well be a full-fledged plutocrat/hedonist, or else some version of O'Connor's "Misfit," just killing folks or burning down their houses for grins. Or perhaps we should take this route:

http://www.amazon.com/Conspiracy-Against-Human-Race-Contrivance/dp/098242969X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1298458809&sr=8-1

Neither you nor Al responded to Lydia's comment on the other thread -- that materialism necessarily leads to either determinism (man as Dostoevsky's "organ stop") or sheer randomness (man as unpiloted bumper car), neither of which provides human life with any substantive meaning.

An addiction to false dichotomies doesn't help your case Rob. To begin, religion's emphasis on prophecy and a final battle where good conquers evil requires determinism. So even if I thought it required a deterministic outlook, it couldn't be any more dramatic than the theist version. Secondly, I don't know why I should pretend there isn't a random element, which doesn't mean it is purely random either. To digress a little, there is a great quote concerning the human condition from a nun who spent her career ministering to death row inmates. In response to the questions about why she helps these depraved men her reply was that the less forgivable their crimes, the more they must be forgiven. That is an example of what makes humans truly unique, our ability to struggle against impossible odds, to take an apparent contradiction and transform it into a meaningful imperative.

One might as well be a full-fledged plutocrat/hedonist, or else some version of O'Connor's "Misfit," just killing folks or burning down their houses for grins.

You seem to think materialism is inherently anti-social, which is completely true of Rand's philosophy, but isn't a required part of materialism.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Edward_Hickman

"Neither you nor Al responded to Lydia's comment on the other thread -- that materialism necessarily leads to either determinism..."

Speaking for myself, I see no value getting distracted by red herrings. It should be apparent from the discussion above that we have serious first order differences amongst ourselves. These should be made clear and hopefully resolved to some extent before we wander off into second and third order mazes. Florence Reece gives us all the philosophy we need for now.

Paul has stated that things like plutocracy and usury are bad things. As near as I can tell he proposes to cure these evils by supporting plutocrats politically while endeavoring to convert them through arguments. There is much work to be done here without getting distracted by shiny, shiny philosophical thingies.

Those who failed to read the Atlantic article Step2 referenced above should read it. Among the billionaires who have financed policy shops, as opposed to Gates/Buffett style philanthropy, three names readily come to mind - George Soros, Pete Peterson, and the Koch brothers.

"To give you a hint: I don't believe justice for most of the more egregious plutocrats will come in this world. George Soros, for instance, will surely die a rich, comfortable and supremely influential old man."

Paul, I find it interesting that Soros is singled out for mention when he has used his gains to promote freedom while the Koch brothers and Peterson have used theirs to further the reach of plutocracy. Or you could have mentioned the Waltons who have manged to use some of their billions to promote the "death tax" lies that they might avoid socially responsible taxation.

There is an interesting take on plutocracy over at the current Mother Jones (along with some nifty charts) that might be of interest.

http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-labor-union-decline?page=1

"religion's emphasis on prophecy and a final battle where good conquers evil requires determinism. So even if I thought it required a deterministic outlook, it couldn't be any more dramatic than the theist version."

In Christianity the only thing determined is the final outcome. Since human freedom is real, all the battles and skirmishes along the way matter -- their outcomes are not determined. See David Bentley Hart on this, esp. his little book 'The Doors of the Sea.'

"You seem to think materialism is inherently anti-social"

Yes, if followed to its logical ends. Solipsism or nihilism, either way "it'll end in tears." And the tears mean nothing.

On the "materialist" thing . . .

It seems to me that it is way too easy to use the term "materialism" in a shifting mix of technical, metaphorical, and cultural meanings in a discussion like this, so that determining the meaning of propositions is very difficult.

I can't help but wonder if there aren't shifting meanings expressed or understood within the same discussion, and even possibly within a single person's expressed thoughts. Obviously, technical understandings and their supposed cultural out-workings don't always hold, and this is why I think only strictly enforcing the scope of a debate to arguing over certain clear and stated meanings of such terms will be very clear. For example, I know some hard-core Calvinists who believe the common understanding of free-will is an illusion, which as far as I can tell works for them since they don't seem to be living their lives as if everything were determined at all.

Another possible measure of dissonance, for me at least, might be that I think at least some here arguing against materialism have strenuously argued for the truth of genetic predispositions to human moral behavior. I seriously doubt that Chesterton would agree with this, though someone may correct me if I'm wrong, but exactly what it is that "has been found out" that would ground such beliefs in my view tends to vanish upon close inspection. For this reason I would call these naturalist assumptions, but I could be wrong and I'd love to hear Feser's view because I think he disagrees, but I can't find where he's answered any rejoinders, thought perhaps he has. At the end of the day I guess I don't see how using materialism in this discussion is really anything but confusing.

/End_materialism_threadjack, and back to your regularly scheduled plutocracy discussion, with or without its "materialist" underpinnings.

~~End_materialism_threadjack, and back to your regularly scheduled plutocracy discussion, with or without its "materialist" underpinnings~~

I'll stop here as well. It's an interesting sidetrack, IMO, but if folks don't want to dig that deep into the thing that's fine. The plutocracy is an interesting enough subject on its own.

I do find it interesting that while Paul is able to cast his net near and far, and identify culprits all across the ideological spectrum, Al seems unable to admit that liberals qua liberals ever do anything wrong.

"Al seems unable to admit that liberals qua liberals ever do anything wrong."

Rob, check out my postings above where I make it clear that one of the key ingredients was liberalism forgetting roots and jumping the shark with identity politics. "Kitchen sink" lists aren't really useful.

What do you think about the clear inflection points in all of the charts?

Thanks to Al for his clear statement about his presuppositions for even entering the discussion. Don't you dare talk about determinism, Rob, because this daggum thread is about Reagan! Kinda pushy for a two-character Algorithm, but I appreciate the clarity.

Now then, to Step2's much more genuine efforts at discussion.

Going meta: since this debate began with Plato, you might notice the magnificent myth/noble lie concerning his eugenics program to maintain the quality of the guardian class, nothing cynical about that. You could also examine the death-to-all-heretics belief of an ancient pope ruthlessly obsessed with purity of the spirit described in Bill's thread above. Long story short, I'm not naive enough to think that materialism doesn't have some flaws, but I'm convinced they are less severe than the other options available.

We could certainly broaden the discussion. There have been threads on most of those subjects here at W4 over the years. My tendency would be to broaden in the direction of pointing out the other aspects of liberal modernity that appeal to and cultivate desire and ambition, for instance the sexual: the effort to make your pleasure your very identity and so forth. I would likely note the superabundance of sexual depravity on Wall Street. I might even gesture toward a theory about the introduction of so many women into that dark world.

Or, speaking of tyrants, I would surely adduce the 20th century philosophical materialist totalitarian collectivists (that's piling up the descriptors, I know) who were eventually defeated by American statesmanship; and furthermore the explicitly materialist doctrine behind the other 20th century totalitarians, the German pagan ones, defeated in World War II.

So those are all discussions to me had. But I would prefer to point out that I don't agree with this statement:

You misunderstand what ambition is if you think you can convince him without appealing to his interest.

Not all ambition is linked to interest in the material sense; surely even if you deny the spiritual aspect of in man, you do not deny that this illusion has truly moved a great many men and women: such that their actions ought to be accurately judged as emanating from non-material matters.

Al, I hope you can see that when Rob says "Al seems unable to admit that liberals qua liberals ever do anything wrong," and you answer "check out my postings above where I make it clear that one of the key ingredients was liberalism forgetting [its] roots," you are not refuting his point but rather reinforcing it.

"I find it interesting that Soros is singled out for mention when he has used his gains to promote freedom..."

If only he would have used his power for niceness instead of for evil! Oh wait...

"What do you think about the clear inflection points in all of the charts?"

They show what many of us conservatives have known for a long time: whatever their original intentions, unions themselves have become plutocratic. In general they are merely the Democratic flip side of the GOP corporate special interests. Old news, bud, old news. (And btw, my distributist leanings mean that I'm not a kneejerk anti-union guy like many conservatives.)

"you are not refuting his point but rather reinforcing it"

Exactly, Paul -- you beat me to it. In other words the only times liberalism is wrong is when it's not liberal enough.

Btw, why do Soros-worshippers bitch and moan about Murdoch, Scaife, etc. using their wealth to influence politics? Am I missing something or is that a rank bit of pot, kettle, black?

"Long story short, I'm not naive enough to think that materialism doesn't have some flaws, but I'm convinced they are less severe than the other options available"

Of possible interest, this review of D.B. Hart's most recent book, in which is discussed this very issue:

http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1453&theme=home&page=1&loc=b&type=cttf

"Al, I hope you can see that when Rob says "Al seems unable to admit that liberals qua liberals ever do anything wrong," and you answer "check out my postings above where I make it clear that one of the key ingredients was liberalism forgetting [its] roots," you are not refuting his point but rather reinforcing it."

Here is Rob's complete statement:

"I do find it interesting that while Paul is able to cast his net near and far, and identify culprits all across the ideological spectrum, Al seems unable to admit that liberals qua liberals ever do anything wrong."

I was writing within the context of the current discussion on the sources of our current plutocratic ascendancy and economic distress. Rob asserted that I failed to acknowledge errors by liberals. I pointed out that losing focus on certain core concerns was central to the reaction that led to the ascendancy of movement conservatism and the plutocracy that is its core project.

If liberalism had kept focus and unions were still an adequate force we would likely still have problems and I would have answered differently. What we wouldn't be discussing is the plutocracy and our near brush with economic collapse steming from regulatory pullback.

Paul has tossed out an unfocused "kitchen sink" sort of list over the past couple of posts. Rob, failed to elaborate on his admiration so it is hard to reply without any specifics (one example - if GSEs are an important factor why were there bubbles that also burst in nations that had no GSEs?).

"Btw, why do Soros-worshippers bitch and moan about Murdoch, Scaife, etc. using their wealth to influence politics? Am I missing something or is that a rank bit of pot, kettle, black."

Yes, values. As far as I can tell Soros has used his philanthropic efforts to enhance individual freedom. Murdock had created a propaganda machine to further the goals of the plutocracy. The Koch brothers have used theirs to the same effect as well as using their political contributions (at least in the case of Wisconsin to advance their fortunes. Pete Peterson's deficit reduction efforts would benefit the wealthy and harm everyone else. Scaife's black operations against Clinton speak for hemselves. The Waltons and other billionaires behind the "death tax" scam don't want to pay their fair share to the society that made their wealth possible.

"For Hart, it was a tragedy that the church as an institution ever played a role in political life or assumed responsibility for national or imperial unity—and so he has little nostalgia for the comprehensive dream that was Christendom."

Good advice.

As far as I can tell Soros has used his philanthropic efforts to enhance individual freedom.

That might be significantly true. It also excludes (a) his political machinations, which do not fall under "philanthropy". It also does not reference his PRIMARY activity, which is to use speculation, arbitrage, and other high-falutin methods of the plutocrats to become, well, a plutocrat. If a guy uses the plutocrats methods, and becomes stinking filthy rich, I don't think his philanthropic efforts will get him out of the charge of being a plutocrat.

My tendency would be to broaden in the direction of pointing out the other aspects of liberal modernity that appeal to and cultivate desire and ambition, for instance the sexual: the effort to make your pleasure your very identity and so forth. I would likely note the superabundance of sexual depravity on Wall Street.

So you think Europe's more egalitarian wealth distribution is a result of their inhibited sexual culture? As for Wall Street, alpha males are like that (see Mad Men). Women were already introduced to Wall Street as secretaries, at least now they can legally fight harassment in the workplace.

Or, speaking of tyrants, I would surely adduce the 20th century philosophical materialist totalitarian collectivists (that's piling up the descriptors, I know) who were eventually defeated by American statesmanship; and furthermore the explicitly materialist doctrine behind the other 20th century totalitarians, the German pagan ones, defeated in World War II.

I agree that Communism was a materialist totalitarian collectivist society, but clearly not every materialist is a totalitarian or even a collectivist, so once again this is painting materialists with too broad a brush. I will also agree that there was a lot of statesmanship involved in bringing about the Soviet collapse, but there was also a lot of bribery and getting in bed (metaphorically) with those we now call terrorists. Regarding Nazism, that was a personality cult more than anything else, so unless you meant to point out that they were defeated by superior economic production and military firepower I don't understand how materialism enters the picture.

Not all ambition is linked to interest in the material sense; surely even if you deny the spiritual aspect of in man, you do not deny that this illusion has truly moved a great many men and women: such that their actions ought to be accurately judged as emanating from non-material matters.

There is tons of evidence that social opinion has a psychological effect. We have instincts and a lifetime of training that prime us for clues about acceptance, rejection, and status. That is how Madison Avenue creates desire for their products. It can be called an illusion, but it is based on knowledge of how the brain functions.

I could be called a trinitarian concerning my views of spirituality ;) One view is pleasure seeking, since contemplation and meditation as well as a feeling of acceptance are pleasurable. The second view is pain avoidance, whether it is a need to escape or something like a hunger. The third and most difficult to describe is a mixture of inspiration and incompleteness.

Rob G,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crates_of_Thebes

I don't know how dull Al thinks the rest of us are, but it's pretty rich for him introduce values as a vital feature of the discussion, given his long-running refusal to give even a bare-bones account of how values arise and how they might be defended philosophically.

Soros is a titan of the usury industry; and he plows his philanthropic efforts into causes ranging from the tendentious to the pernicious. But there is a particular irony in this, that though many on the Right firmly oppose these efforts, none (as far as I know) actually favors deploying coercive force to prevent them, as so many on the Left propose vis-a-vis conservative donors. As usual, the Left's espousal of the vague ideals of the Open Society is insincere. When it comes down to the brass tacks the Open Society is a vain ideal because it rests on glaring philosophical contradictions; so mostly the whole thing is just a debating tactic.

In any case, Al is in no position to read anyone a lecture on values until he can show us how his philosophical system even admits the idea of a "value" that demands public recognition.

Step2 -- I was being a little tongue-in-cheek with that last comment. The whole point of my sketches of the direction I might take the discussion was to express my demurral of your own invitations to wider discussions.

By the way, the materialist doctrine to which I referred in the case of German collectivists in the mid-20th century is the one grounding human nature and destiny in genetics and racial purity. These are materialist criteria.

"there is a particular irony in this, that though many on the Right firmly oppose these efforts, none (as far as I know) actually favors deploying coercive force to prevent them, as so many on the Left propose vis-a-vis conservative donors."

Yes, Soros spends hundreds of millions to defeat Bush or elect the Dear Leader, and that's fine, but God forbid some conservative donor does it, because then we get endless speeches from the libs on how "big money is corrupting politics" blah, blah, blah. Likewise, union money, wonder of wonders, always manages to be free of that taint which inevitably stains corporate money!

Modern liberalism is hagridden by the ghost of Marcuse. It was he who stated that the Left's tolerance need not be extended to those on the Right, and this has been an implicit working principle of the Left ever since. It results in strange conflicts w/r/t freedom of speech, such as the existence of liberals who simultaneously support the ACLU and the "Fairness Doctrine," or those who will defecate a concrete block over cutting funding to NPR, but would have little or no problem with legislative efforts to curtail or shut down Fox News (for the record, I don't like either NPR or Fox, but I've got no problem with the existence of either of them).


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