Quotable (#223)

Mokyr:

The idea that European political fragmentation, despite its evident costs, also brought great benefits, enjoys a distinguished lineage. In the closing chapter of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘Europe is now divided into 12 powerful, though unequal, kingdoms.’ Three of them he called ‘respectable commonwealths’, the rest ‘a variety of smaller, though independent, states’. The ‘abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame’, Gibbon wrote, adding that ‘republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times.’ […] In other words, the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. Gibbon added that ‘in peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals’. Other Enlightenment writers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant for example, saw it the same way. From the early 18th-century reforms of Russia’s Peter the Great, to the United States’ panicked technological mobilisation in response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation. If conservative rulers clamped down on heretical and subversive (that is, original and creative) thought, their smartest citizens would just go elsewhere (as many of them, indeed, did).

Political disintegration combined with cultural-market integration was the key.

In 18th-century Europe, the interplay between pure science and the work of engineers and mechanics became progressively stronger. This interaction of propositional knowledge (knowledge of ‘what’) and prescriptive knowledge (knowledge of ‘how’) constituted a positive feedback or autocatalytic model. In such systems, once the process gets underway, it can become self-propelled. In that sense, knowledge-based growth is one of the most persistent of all historical phenomena – though the conditions of its persistence are complex and require above all a competitive and open market for ideas.

Quotable (#204)

Badiou is not amused:

I don’t say that there is noth­ing at all on this [Left] side. We know new riots, new occu­pa­tion of places, new mobil­isa­tion, new eco­lo­gic­al determ­in­a­tion and so on. So, it’s not the absence of all forms of res­ist­ance, prot­est­a­tion — no, I don’t say that. But the lack of another stra­tegic way, that is, some­thing which is at the same level as the con­tem­por­ary con­vic­tion that cap­it­al­ism is the only way pos­sible. The lack of the strength of the affirm­a­tion of another way. And the lack of what I name an Idea, a great Idea. A great Idea which is the pos­sib­il­ity of uni­fic­a­tion, glob­al uni­fic­a­tion, stra­tegic uni­fic­a­tion of all forms of res­ist­ance and inven­tion. An Idea is a sort of medi­ation between the indi­vidu­al sub­ject and the col­lect­ive his­tor­ic­al and polit­ic­al task, and it’s the pos­sib­il­ity of action across and with very dif­fer­ent sub­jectiv­it­ies, but under the same Idea in some sense. […] … the gen­er­al and stra­tegic dom­in­a­tion of glob­al­ized cap­it­al­ism, the decom­pos­i­tion of clas­sic­al polit­ic­al olig­archy, the pop­ular dis­or­i­ent­a­tion and frus­tra­tion, and the lack of another stra­tegic way — com­pose in my opin­ion the crisis of today. We can define the con­tem­por­ary world in the term of a glob­al crisis which is not redu­cible to the eco­nom­ic crisis of the last years, which is much more, I think, a sub­ject­ive crisis, because of the des­tiny of human beings is more and more unclear for them­selves.

Twitter cuts (#124)

(Massive tweet-storm follows that is too long to reproduce, but well worth your time.)

The “national capitalist” is a concept that arises in the Marxian tradition, but has also (recently) acquired a very different valency elsewhere. Countries come to appear as estates.

Quotable (#171)

Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley in The New Yorker:

The show’s signature gag, from the first season, was a minute-long montage of startup founders pledging to “make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols,” or to “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.” This scene was set at TechCrunch Disrupt, a real event where founders take turns pitching their ideas, “American Idol”-style, to an auditorium full of investors. Before writing the episode, Judge and [Alec] Berg spent a weekend at TechCrunch Disrupt, in San Francisco. “That’s the first thing you notice,” Judge said. “It’s capitalism shrouded in the fake hippie rhetoric of ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ because it’s uncool to just say ‘Hey, we’re crushing it and making money.’” […] … Roger McNamee, who has been a successful tech investor since the late eighties, told me, “When I first met Mike, I asked him, ‘What’s the gestalt you’re going for with this?’ His answer was, ‘I think Silicon Valley is immersed in a titanic battle between the hippie value system of the Steve Jobs generation and the Ayn Randian libertarian values of the Peter Thiel generation.’ I had never articulated it that well myself, and I lived it!” McNamee recently wound down his most recent venture fund, which he co-founded with Bono; he now spends most of his time touring the country with his two jam bands, Moonalice and Doobie Decibel System. He continued, “Some of us actually, as naïve as it sounds, came here to make the world a better place. And we did not succeed. We made some things better, we made some things worse, and in the meantime the libertarians took over, and they do not give a damn about right or wrong. They are here to make money.”

Continue reading

Quotable (#167)

Sam Kriss on Left Accelerationism:

[Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams] consistently refers to its future not as communism, but “postcapitalism.” It’s a world without work, but also without the commons. “The theory of the Communists,” write Marx and Engels, “may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” But here, private property remains untouched. The productive apparatuses are to be fully automated, removing workers as much as possible from every stage of the production process: who, then, will own them? Who will own the commodities that these apparatuses produce? And if humanity is unburdened from the need to work and left to produce freely in the pursuit of its own self-expression, who will own that? Without anything to oppose bourgeois property, the result could be fully monstrous: a bloated, gluttonous ruling class engaged in limitless production, and recapturing any losses when the new peons come to spend their universal basic pittance. The propertied classes would fuse with an automaton that requires no human parts except for ownership to form a single apparatus; Utopia as a cyborg dictatorship.

This future has, in fact, already been described – it’s E.M. Forster’s 1909 science-fiction story The Machine Stops. Here, all of humanity lives in tiny cells within the body of the vast subterranean Machine. The Machine produces all their consumer goods, it provides them with anything they might want or need at a moment’s notice, it speaks to them, and allows them to speak to each other through video-messaging. People tend not to leave their cells; it’s not forbidden, but it’s certainly not encouraged. Full automation. Universal basic income. A networked society. In the end the Machine starts to slowly disintegrate. Billions die, and Forster, who had something of a reactionary streak, can only see this as a good thing. Who owns the Machine? The Machine does.