Wednesday, October 10, 2007

eco solipsism

Tom and Barbara: kept pig in kitchen

I was going to write this whole thing about ecology - I'm reminded of this with Warszawa's essay. This was an interesting essay. I disagree about Iraq though. The revealed powerlessness of the general population in this country is surely a very bad sign. These banal points relate more to other things:

1. Consumption is related to work - all other things equal the more people work the more is consumed and vice versa. A reduction in consumption is equivalent to an increase in leisure. That this leisure is expressed as unemployment rather than a shortened working week is really political not economic. How much people would work if the only factor to think about was consumption, so not including this constructed insecurity, is hard to gauge. Probably people would want to work less.

2. In the most industrialised countries only a small proportion of the population work in agriculture now (in the UK 1%, in the US 2%, Denmark 3%*). Even in a crisis this figure is not going to be greatly multiplied. the most realistic response to a food shortage would be more intensive agriculture not a return to peasant agriculture, especially for office workers etc. Reprocessed neoliberal "knowledge workers" are not going to be better at farming than experienced farmers. They might be better at writing CROP FAILURE on one of those jumbo pads in marker pen with arrows pointing out the reasons: FARM MANAGEMENT, CLIMATE CHANGE, SKILL BASE, WEEVILS etc, or setting up a projector slide of a cartoon character saying WHAT NEXT? in front of a withered field.

*proportion of those in work, Economist World in Figures 2007


Penelope Keith said...

'Well, naaaaoooo, Tom and Barbara, go duh-ty up your aaaaaooown bahth'.


[sees smudge on wall on stairwell]
'Does eney-one have ennney-thing to saaaaayyy...'

Jerry (after Tom and Barbara have left, he's alone with his big wife): 'Ummmm...uh...Margo, howza about we try the same know, together in the bath...'


ktismatics said...

"Consumption is related to work."

The work ethic has of course been attributed to the Protestant ethic. Contemporary consumerism is often touted as a release from Puritan self-denial (the unspent wages inevitably amassing capital in the ascetic workers' hands). But consumption is also a form of self-denial: I desire what I cannot have for free; I have to defer my pleasure in order to work in order to buy what I desire. The desire to buy is instilled by the law saying you cannot freely take. It's like the desire to sin is instilled by the law telling you "thou shalt not."

catmint said...

thankyou Ktismatics/Penelope - ( your Goodlife parody was near perfect)

what this was meant to be about is, there used to be an ecology column in the Guardian by Leo Hickman encouraging lower consumption of the worlds precious resources, which cet. par. isn't such a bad thing. My own poor contribution to this imaginary debate is to assert that "overconsumption" can only really be "forced consumption" of people unable to "reverse substitute" consumption for leisure, i.e. a hypothetical rentier class who don't, in the first place substitute their "leisure" for consumpion items. I had the idea for this when I was paying half my salary to my landlady who probably wasted it on eco-unfriendly items like patio-heating and teak furniture. Apparently rent only represents a small amout of GDP - something like 2% in the US so this isn't really a massive feature of capitalist economics, though it is, probably, a real one. This is why I've stressed only the political determination of consumption rather than saying there's a quantifiable rate of overconsumption.

I've been reading Baran & Sweezy's Monopoly Capital where they do attempt to quantify "surplus" as a percentage of GDP - it hovers around 50% between 1925 and 1965 according to their method, with a rising trend. I haven't finished the book so I won't comment on the veracity of their method - but this sort of thing has been attempted...

catmint said...

..Leo Hickman seemed appallingly unaware of the relationship between consumpion and work, truly a fault in a "consumption" specialist: that one works, goods are produced, one consumes. Habituation to abstract work, one supposes this applies to Guardian readers as to Leo Hickman, encourages the idea that work and consumpion belong to different spheres of intellection.

catmint said...

"The work ethic has of course been attributed to the Protestant ethic."

I haven't read Max Weber's book - it struck me as probably a bit...overly Germanic - it seems somewhat cart-before-horse. I read too Johann Huizinga's book about the middle ages and the Dutch already had within Catholicism quasi-protestant religious movements - Thomas À Kempis sort of thing - correlated with minor key proto capitalism. In Italy too at this time there's mercantilism correlated with individualism. You can't really prove the causality but I haven't been troubled enough by this to have to read Weber.

"the unspent wages inevitably amassing capital in the ascetic workers' hands"

Baran/Sweezy in fact point this out in making a Thorstein Veblen type conspicuous consumption argument - depending on the amount of capital you need to set up as an independant capitalist the ethic varies from asceticism to liberality. How much capital would you need to set up today as a capitalist? My impression is a lot more than 100 years ago, in terms of hours labour.

"The desire to buy is instilled by the law saying you cannot freely take. It's like the desire to sin is instilled by the law telling you "thou shalt not.""

Have you tried using reverse psychology on kids? It works a little bit, yeah? You could use it occaisionally, tactically. But as a general theory à la Dr Zizek? And for the Economists - in their world a fairy dies whenever someone advances claims like these.

catmint said...

"I have to defer my pleasure in order to work in order to buy what I desire."

...this though I think is mas important - this is the real thing from psychoanalysis, yeah? & maybe deserves working through

anyway, thanks for your comments

ktismatics said...

"You could use it occaisionally, tactically. But as a general theory à la Dr Zizek?"

It's intended to be a restatement of Lacan's theory of desire, framed in the Judeo-Christian traditional understanding. The Law channels instinctive appetites, backed up by threat of castration. But the prohibited source of pleasure becomes the phallus, that which the Big Other reserves for himself, that which gives him plenitude. So you desire the forbidden object just because it's forbidden, as a fetish, beyond its value for bestowing use or pleasure. It's as old as the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit

catmint said...

I agree, it's a perfectly good restatement of Lacan - it's the Lacan I find disagreeable though

catmint said...

according to the Max Weber wikipedia page:

"Emil Kauder expanded Schumpeter's argument by arguing the hypothesis that Calvinism hurt the development of capitalism by leading to the development of the labor theory of value. Kauder writes "Any social philosopher or economist exposed to Calvinism will be tempted to give labor an exalted position in his social or economic treatise, and no better way of extolling labor can be found than by combining work with value theory, traditionally the very basis of an economic system."[54] In contrast, Catholic areas that were influenced by the late scholastics were more likely to adhere to the subjective theory of value."

actually I think i aprove of Max Weber's method if not his conclusions. It occurs to it's something like a materialistic analysis of market failure or disequilibrium.

also it may be that Leo Hickman's tacit assumption (according to me) that a significant diminution of aggregate consumption couldn't really have bad effects - i.e. throw a lot of people out of work - this may be a variation of the Spirit of Protestantism

jonquille de camembert said...

Clysmatics's integrity is in doubt. I did the Penelope, of course, understanding her without a doubt better than ennney-wun in the entire blogosphere, right-wing blogs included!

Clysmatics should have protested such credit tout de suite! He's already on thin ice, going around talking about 'cultural product'!

catmint said...

"I did the Penelope, of course"

it was expertly done. I didn't think it was ktismatics.

ktismatics said...

Did I take credit for the penelope? I don't think so. I did enjoy it though, and i did suspect Jonquillean authorship. I am suspect on other grounds, however.

Away from the fray... I thought my referencing "cultural product" was apt in the context of Jameson -- or at least what I know of him from Wikipedia.

Weber offers a bottom-up, immanent view of how modern capitalism emerged as an outgrowth of Protestant values like diligence and frugality, combined with a perpetual anxiety about whether one is among the elect or not. Catholics keep a balance sheet: a little diligence, a little license, it all evens out. But in Calvinist Christianity you're either in or out, and a sign of being in is that your sinful nature is gradually replaced by a persistent desire to do good. So diligence is never offset by license; you work hard and save your money, and pretty soon capital accumulates in your regenerated Protestant hands.

ktismatics said...

This whole idea of loving your job is an outgrowth of Calvinism. The elect don't do good out of duty but because they want to -- their corrupted desires have been regenerated. Instead of wanting to while away their time in frivolous pursuits and forcing themselves to work, now they spontaneously and joyously seek out opportunities to work.

When you love to work, the distinction between job and hobby gets blurred. You work hard on your mountain biking and your home decorating and your world traveling and your gourmet palate. Just as pay is an indicator of how much you enjoy your job, so expenditure demonstrates your sincerity in working at your pleasures.

ktismatics said...

"it was expertly done. I didn't think it was ktismatics."

I.e., if it's expertly done it can't have been ktismatics.

catmint said...

you could express this historical process in a different way, that development of a capitalist economy on the basis of massive primitive accumalation undermined the conservative forces at work in feudal society, and that Protestantism represents the working out of a viable compromise between the demands of bourgeois freedom and social cohesion. It's not so much a disagreement over the facts (this is a very rough approximation) as over the kind of causality involved between Protestantism and capitalism. It's really unproveable. A matter of individual conscience.

catmint said...

"it can't have been ktismatics"

I haven't read this book and I'd like to know if it's worth reading; do you know this book by Mikhail Bakhtin: Rabelais and his World?

ktismatics said...

I agree that the causality was probably bidirectional. Certainly the newly Protestant countries surged ahead economically vis-a-vis the Catholic and Orthodox countries at the beginning of the modern Western age. The Reformers collapsed the medieval hierarchy on Scriptural grounds, and pushed a sort of empirical approach to Biblical scholarship that served as a foundation for Enlightenment science.

One of the distinctive feature of Calvinism (as I've probably already beaten to death) is that it transformed diligence from a discipline, a way of earning sanctification, into a desire. Those who are saved will feel, welling up inside themselves, a spontaneous urge to work hard. So whether diligence really is a desire, or Protestants suffered perpetual anxiety at being thought of as not having this desire, it kept people working even when their immediate needs were met.

The question about Rabelais I presume is directed at Penelope, but no I haven't read it.

catmint said...

this is what J.M. Keynes wrote about theories of underconsumption as a cause of economic of stagnation against theories of underinvestment as a cause of this. From a "Marxian" perspective Baran and Sweezy broadly agree with Keynes' (or Kalecki's) point of view that stagnation follows from insufficient demand for consumption goods rather than insufficient investment.

"The theories which we have examined above [heterodox criticisms of neoclassical economics from Malthus on] are directed, in substance, to the constituent of effective demand which depends on the sufficiency of the inducement to invest. It is no new thing, however, to ascribe the evils of unemployment to the insufficiency of the other constituent, namely, the insufficiency of the propensity to consume. But this alternative explanation of the economic evils of the day - equally unpopular with the classical economists - played a much smaller part in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinking and has only gathered force in relaively recent times.

Though complaints of under-consumption were a very subsidiary aspect of mercantilist thought , Professor Hecksher quotes a number of examples of what he calls "the deep-rooted belief in the utility of luxury and the evil of thrift. Thrift , in fact, was regarded as the first cause of unemployment, and for two reasons: in the first place, because real income was believed to diminish by the amount of money which did not enter into exchange, and secondly, because saving was believed to withdraw money from circulation. In 1598 Laffemas (Les Trésors et richesses pour mettre l'Estat en Splendeur) denounced the objectors to the use of French silks on the ground that all purchasers of French luxury goods created a livelihood for the poor, whereas the miser caused them to die in distress. In 1662 Petty justified "entertainments, magnificent shews, triumphal arches, etc", on the ground that their costs flowed back into the pockets of brewers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers and so forth. Fortrey justified "excess of apparel". Von Schrötter (1686) deprecated sumptuary regulations and declared that he would wish that display in clothing and the like were even greater. Barbon (1690) wrote that "Prodigality is a vice that is prejudical to the Man, but not to trade ... Covetousness is a Vice, prejudicial to both Man and Trade." In 1695 Cary argued that if everybody spent more, all would obtain larger incomes "and might then live more plentifully".

But it was by Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees that Barbon's opinion was mainly popularised, a book convicted as a nuisance by the grand jury of Middlesex in 1723, which stands out in the history of the moral sciences for its scandalous reputation. Only one man is recorded as having spoken a good word for it, namely Dr. Johnson, who declared that it did not puzzle him, but "opened his eyes into real life very much". The nature of the book's wickedness can be best conveyed by Leslie Stephen's summary in the Dictionary of National Biography:

"Mandeville gave great offence by this book, in which a cynical system of morality was made attractive by ingenious paradoxes. . .His doctrine that prosperity was increased by expenditure rather than by saving fell in with many current economic fallacies not yet extinct. Assuming with the ascetics that human desires were essentially evil and therefore produced 'private vices' and assuming with the common view that wealth was a 'public benefit', he easily showed that all civilisation implied the development of vicious propensities. . ."

The text of the Fable of the Bees is an allegorical poem — "The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves turned honest", in which is set forth the appalling plight of a prosperous community in which all the citizens suddenly take it into their heads to abandon luxurious living, and the State to cut down armaments, in the interests of Saving:

"No Honour now could be content,
To live and owe for what was spent,
Liv'ries in Broker's shops are hung;
They part with Coaches for a song;
Sell stately Horses by whole sets
and Country-Houses to pay debts.
Vain cost is shunn'd as moral Fraud;
They have no Forces kept Abroad;
Laugh at th' Esteem of Foreigners,
And empty Glory got by Wars;
They fight, but for their Country's sake,
When Right or Liberty's at Stake."

The haughty Chloe

"Contracts th' expensive Bill of Fare,
And wears her strong Suit a whole Year."

And what is the result?—

"Now mind the glorious Hive, and see
How Honesty and Trade agree:
The Shew is gone, it thins apace;
And looks with quite another Face,
For 'twas not only they that went,
By whom vast sums were yearly spent;
But Multitudes that lived on them,
Were daily forc'd to do the same.
In vain to other Trades they'd fly;
All were o'er-stocked accordingly.
The price of Land and Houses falls;
Mirac'lous Palaces whose Walls,
Like those of Thebes, were rais'd by Play,
Are to be let. . .
The Building Trade is quite destroy'd,
Artificers are not employ'd;
No limner for his Art is fam'd,
Stone-cutters, Carvers are not nam'd."

So 'The Moral' is:

"Bare Virtue can't make Nations live
In Splendour. They that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns as for Honesty."

Two extracts from the commentary which follows the allegory will show that the above was not without a theoretical basis:

"As this prudent economy, which some people call Saving, is in private families the most certain method to increase an estate, so some imagine that, whether a country be barren or fruitful, the same method if generally pursued (which they think practicable) will have the same effect upon a whole nation, and that, for example, the English might be much richer than they are, if they would be as frugal as some of their neighbours. This, I think, is an error."

On the contrary, Mandeville concludes:

"The great art to make a nation happy, and what we call flourishing, consists in giving everybody an opportunity of being employed; which to compass, let a Government's first care be to promote as great a variety of Manufacures, Arts and Handicrafts as human wit can invent; and the second to encourage Agriculture and Fishery in all their branches, that the whole Earth may be forccd to exert itself as well as Man. It is from this Policy and not from the trifling regulations of Lavishness and Frugality that the greatness and felicity of Nations must be expected; for let the value of Gold and Silver rise or fall, the enjoyment of all Societies will ever depend upon the Fruits of the Earth and the Labour of the People; both which joined together are a more certain, a more inexhaustible and a more real Treasure than the Gold of Brazil or the Silver of Potosi."

No wonder that such wicked sentiments called down the opprobrium of two centuries of moralists and economists who felt much more virtuous in possession of their austere doctrine that no sound remedy was discoverable except in the utmost of thrift and economy both by the individual and by the state.

Petty's "entertainments, magnificent shews, triumphal arches, etc." gave place to the penny-wisdom of Gladstonian finance and to a state system which "could not afford" hospitals, open spaces, noble buildings, even the preservation of its ancient monuments, far less the splendours of music and the drama, all of which were consigned to the private charity or magnanimity of improvident individuals.

The doctrine did not reappear in respectable circles for another century, until in the later phase of Malthus the notion of the insufficiency of effective demand takes a definite place as a scientific explanation of unemployment."

catmint said...

"He's already on thin ice, going around talking about 'cultural product'"

I believe I once used "newsproduct" - and I'm not particularly sorry

catmint said...

"thankyou Ktismatics/Penelope"

you see, the widespread social practice, over many centuries, of reading the King James Bible has valorised the overcompression of English relative to, for example, French or Italian. This is explained in the first William Empson book Seven Types of Ambiguity. I meant something like: "thankyou ktismatics and thankyou Penelope".

catmint said...

...not to say Protestantism wouldn't also be an expression of "popular" ideas

ktismatics said...

That's very good: the personal pleasure of working must be balanced by the social duty of spending if we WASPs are continually to rise up together from glory to glory. This dutiful "trickle-down" spending, along with working/spending on one's pleasures, provides the societally-distributed fuel for running the neo-Puritan economic engine.

It's often contended that bohemian pleasure-seeking now serves to counteract the Puritan ethic in contemporary capitalism. However, Puritanism already has this two-sidedness to it -- pleasure in duty, duty in pleasure -- that obviates the need for admitting the foreign Eastern element of Bohemia.