Savage Irrationalities


The titans of American capitalism no longer control their useful idiots; just talking them down from the ledge was touch and go.  The Tea Party has become their Frankenstein.

Their favorite political instrument, the GOP, is already a casualty; it may be damaged beyond repair.  And who can say, at this point, how much harm Tea Party shenanigans over the debt ceiling have done to their already shaky hold over the world economy?

It doesn’t stop there; to get their way, Tea Party zealots were happy to court a worldwide economic catastrophe.  That seems to have been averted – for now.  But there is always tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Democrats, including the handful who comprise the so-called “democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — the very people who let themselves be taken in five years ago — are begging for it again.

Robert Borosage’s piece in the October 21 Nation magazine, “The New Populist Insurgency,” illustrates this pathology perspicuously.  Unlike some of his co-thinkers, Borosage doesn’t even call on Democrats to break free from the grip of the Clinton family.  Saving the world, for him, is about moving Hillary, and like-minded opportunists, off dead center.

Is there anyone who doesn’t realize by now that the Obama presidency has been about continuing the policies of its predecessors, and that it has been more useful to the Tea Party’s paymasters than a dozen Tea Parties could have ever been?

Evidently, the answer is Yes.  Democratic Party cheerleaders face reality no better than befuddled Tea Partiers.  And their views are nearly as preposterous.

Therefore, when “progressives” set out to revive Obamamania under Hillary’s aegis, are they really less nutty than the Republican legislators who stood firm (for a while) on cutting the salaries of their own staffs (by removing employer contributions to their health insurance)?  The call could go either way.

With so much insanity about, and with a general sense that things cannot go on this way forever, what better time could there be to step back and reflect on the ideology that helped bring us to this point?

By “ideology,” I mean what Marx had in mind when in The German Ideology he declared the ruling ideas of any epoch, the ideas of its ruling class.

Today’s ruling ideas are eminently susceptible to criticism.  But there is no need to go that route to gain a purchase on how far off things have gotten.  The prevailing ideology shows that well enough.

It illuminates and helps explain the nature and extent of the irrationalities that afflict us.  They are becoming more savage with each passing episode of “bipartisan” craziness.

* * *

Let’s agree that in principle we can measure how much individuals’ desires are satisfied; call that measure utility.  The idea that utility is what matters — that value is utility — has long been a dogma of our intellectual culture.

It is not always clear how to measure utility levels or how to make comparisons between individuals; in many instances, there seems to be no way.  But no one thinks these problems undo the prevailing dogma.  It is enough that desire satisfaction is real and that there is always more or less of it.

The idea that value is utility has always coexisted with other conceptions, drawn from earlier strains of ethical or religious thought or from modern criticisms of the prevailing assumption.

A frequently leveled charge is that identifying value with utility misidentifies what matters with what matters for individuals.  This criticism has come both from the left and the right, from socialists and from conservatives.  It is a sensible reproach, but, as I said, there is no need to pursue it here.

I mention it, though, to underscore the fact that the idea that value is utility is not and never has been uncontested.  Nevertheless, throughout the modern era, it has been a basic, often unacknowledged, assumption of mainstream economic and philosophical thought.

Its importance depends in part on its connection with another dogma, the idea that what rational agents do is maximize utility.  In other words, the idea is that rational individuals will seek to obtain as much utility as they can in the circumstances they confront.

Observation often bears this contention out, but, strictly speaking, the identification of rational agency with utility maximizing is a normative, not an empirical, claim.

This would be true even if we suppose that we know what kinds of outcomes generate more or less utility for individuals — perhaps because we know, or think we know, what human beings generally desire.

Theories of human desire, sometimes based on theories of human nature, generally go along with the usual understanding of rational agency.

But, in principle, we could be wrong about desires, and it would still be the case that reason is (utility) maximization.  Like the idea that value is utility, this dogma of the prevailing intellectual culture is a normative stipulation.

Conceptions of rational agency have differed over time, but rationality itself, on one understanding or another, has been the most fundamental normative standard in Western thought since the birth of Western philosophy in Greek antiquity.

From that time too, rationality has been understood to have both a theoretical and a practical dimension – theoretical reason governs belief; practical reason governs action.

Mathematical demonstrations are the gold standard for belief acceptance; anyone who understands a proof and then denies its conclusion cannot be reached by rational argument.

There is also another standard that is more widely applicable and nearly as good – namely, that it is rational to believe what evidence supports, and therefore irrational to believe what evidence disconfirms.

There are no similarly timeless standards, golden or otherwise, for rational conduct.  But in the modern period, there is the widespread conviction that Reason compels individuals to maximize utility, and therefore that anyone who fails to do so is in violation of a fundamental norm.

* * *

If value is utility and reason is (utility) maximization, the question arises: what, if anything, can we say about the consequences (again, for individuals) at the societal (aggregate) level of individual maximizing choices?

This is essentially the question posed by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  His answer has served as a point of departure for political philosophers ever since.

Hobbes showed how, if we make certain (uncontroversial) assumptions about human nature and the human condition, unconstrained individual utility maximizing will lead to a devastating “war of all against all.”

This outcome, he argued, is worse than need be – not compared to some ideal standard, but in precisely the sense that utility maximizers assume.  In a state of war, individuals get less utility than they otherwise could.

As Hobbes famously put it, because a “state of nature,” a world without political authority relations, is a state of war, life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  It need not be so, however; indeed, it would be far better for everyone if the consequences of untrammeled utility maximizing could somehow be kept in bounds.

The basic question of Hobbesian and post-Hobbesian political philosophy, then, is how to get from a state of nature to that better, more peaceful, condition?

Hobbes excluded solutions that involve peace being imposed from outside by a superior force – say, by a pre-existing political state.  He also broke from the tradition that held that God, as superior a force as can be, is the source of political authority relations, that rulers rule by “divine right.”  In the Hobbesian account, to escape a war of all against all, individuals – all relatively equal in natural endowments — have only their own resources upon which to rely.

And acting irrationally is not an option; the rationality standard cannot be breached.

In Hobbes’s view, the only way out is for individuals to turn states of nature into political states – by establishing a sovereign power, an overwhelming force capable of assuring compliance through the use or threat of force.

* * *

He deployed considerable ingenuity in showing how utility maximizers living in state of nature conditions could do precisely that.

Philosophers after Hobbes have had different views about the nature and extent of sovereignty, but they are all Hobbesians in the sense that they accept the idea that sovereignty is indispensable; they all agree that it is rationally required.

The only exceptions are anarchists who think that people can coordinate their activities well enough without coercion.  Their influence has been nil.

Individuals in a Hobbesian state of nature find themselves in what game theorists call a prisoners’ dilemma.  In a prisoners’ dilemma game, players would be better off if they could coordinate their activities, but they are unable to do so because it would be irrational for them to forbear from doing what is individually best.

The well-known “tragedy of the commons” illustrates their situation.  Suppose that sheep graze on a commons and that there is always a market for their meat.  When the carrying capacity of the commons is exceeded, thanks to excessive grazing, yields decline.  But each individual sheepherder still has an incentive to add sheep, and so, if unregulated (coercively or cooperatively), they will keep adding sheep (because it is in their interest to do so), while making less money from selling sheep than they did before.  If this goes on long enough, the sheepherders will improve themselves to ruin.

Of course, they could agree voluntarily not to add sheep beyond a certain point; perhaps, under certain conditions, they could even find ways to abide by the agreements they make.

But, according to Hobbes, this is not the case in a state of nature.  Hobbes’s argument, universally accepted (except by a handful of anarchists), holds that individuals cannot cooperate their way out of that.

The only solution is political – the requisite degree of coordination must be achieved coercively.

It is remarkable when real world situations have prisoners’ dilemma structures; most human interactions have no discernible structure at all.  When this is the case, it is impossible to conclude, on a structural basis alone, what the outcome at the aggregate level of individual utility maximizing will be.

But some real world situations do have determinate structures, and they are not all prisoners’ dilemmas.  There are also invisible hand situations.

These are, in fact, the opposite of prisoners’ dilemmas.  In these cases, the unintended consequences of doing what is individually best are, in well-defined senses, as good as can be at the aggregate (societal) level.

This was what Adam Smith conjectured for unfettered market transactions in private ownership economies.   Nearly two centuries later, neoclassical economists demonstrated that his conjecture was sound – but only if a host of background conditions that do not obtain, and that never can obtain (outside highly stylized models), are actually the case.

Among other things, there would have to be no monopolies (all economic agents would have to be “price takers,” unable by themselves to set the terms of trade), no economies of scale (so that costs of production are the same no matter how much or how little is produced), no externalities (economically relevant consequences for parties not directly involved in transactions), complete sets of markets (including futures markets), no information asymmetries (all economic agents would have to have access to the same information), and so on.

Contrary to what pro-capitalist ideologues insist, when these conditions do not hold, when they are not even roughly approximated, all bets are off.  Then, to make sense of what is going on, abstract structural models are of little use.

This is usually the case in the real world of politics – particularly when systemic and counter-systemic forces conflict.

There is therefore, in general, no substitute for theoretically informed, sustained, historical investigations – for what Lenin called “the concrete analysis of concrete situations.”

Marx himself was perhaps the greatest practitioner of this line of inquiry.  His analysis, for example, of “primitive (capital) accumulation” in the first volume of Capital is unsurpassed.

Nowadays, for reasons that are more political than theoretical, hardly anyone even attempts investigations of this kind.  Hardly anyone examines – in close enough detail – how prevailing property relations affect the development of productive capacities, or how the tensions between them affect the lives human beings lead.

* * *

Analyzing political and economic specificities with a view to making sense of historical trajectories and uncovering the material and political possibilities humankind confronts is an urgent task, especially in a world careening towards economic and ecological catastrophe.

And there is no mystery about where to look for precedents, and no need to reinvent the wheel; as already indicated, Marx’s accounts of the very different capitalist societies of his time remain viable – and obvious — points of departure.

It is equally obvious that, in our time, what needs most to be explained is the ever-intensifying “contradiction” (structural instability) between what Marx called forces and relations of production.

The problem, in short, is that while productive capacities (forces of production) have developed to a remarkable degree, prevailing property relations (relations of production) increasingly impede their deployment in ways that make human life better.

To be sure, it is better in some respects.  There is now more stuff around, and people, even badly off people, have more access to it than in the past.  There is no gainsaying the fact that increasing consumption improves the quality of life.

There is also no denying that its appeal, especially to people who are already fairly well off, is in large part meretricious.

It is also plain that on-going forms of consumption have deleterious consequences for other factors that bear on the quality of life, and that what we must do to produce all the stuff we consume invites environmental catastrophes.

As productive capacities increase, it should become increasingly possible for humankind to free itself not just from burdensome toil, but also from meaningless work.  Yet just the opposite is the case.

If only in this respect, capitalist exigencies make things worse for everybody, even the few at the top who have garnered most of the benefits of economic growth.

And, for the vast majority, global capitalism is now even holding back advances in consumption levels, the one thing earlier forms of capitalism had been good for.  The more most people in “developed” societies work, the less they have.

Their grievances are obvious.  But even the few at the top should realize, in their more reflective moments, that capitalism, in its current phase, is bad for everybody, the whole hundred percent.

It is bad because, compared to what is now materially and humanly possible, it delivers less of what matters most – less meaningful human interaction, less satisfaction at work and play, and less time and energy to enjoy the things they have.

The great Hegelian tradition out of which Marx’s thinking emerged depicted Revolution as a consequence of – and ultimately a culminating moment – in Reason’s unfolding; at the end of History’s trajectory, Reason would be in
control, and Revolution would have put it there.

It is worth recalling that one of the most widely read philosophical-political tracts of the late sixties and early seventies identified the two in its title – Reason and Revolution (by Herbert Marcuse, published originally in 1941).

The basic idea is that a rational society is one that accords with basic human needs or, to the extent there is a difference, with the desires of genuinely autonomous rational beings.

No one talks about Revolution any more; the idea has come to seem quaint and vaguely pernicious. And these days rationality at the societal level just means what the dominant ideology implies.

Nowadays, a rational society is just a collection of utility maximizers.

Yet, it is that very rationality that increasingly immiserates humankind and jeopardizes the ecological sustainability of the planet.  What is rational by its lights is blatantly irrational in the more robust, Hegelian sense.

How ironic that as the need for a more robust conception of rationality at the societal level becomes ever more pressing, and at a time when awareness of this need is becoming increasingly widespread, the concept of revolution with which it is historically and conceptually associated has gone missing!

Today, remedies for ills that were less rampant back when talk of revolution was still in the air seem entirely beyond human reach.

As the illness intensifies, no one any longer even dares imagine remedies.

* * *

Revolution has been off the agenda for quite a while — though the idea lived on in the imaginations of people in modern societies until just a few decades ago.

And so it was that, until not long ago, the question – reform or revolution? – shaped the contours of political life.

Unlike revolution, reform plainly was on the agenda.  Indeed, for most of the twentieth century, conditions of life under capitalism improved significantly thanks, in large part, to the sustained efforts of dedicated reformers.

The (still lingering) specter of revolution haunted their efforts and, to at least some extent, energized their reforming zeal.

But, as the Cold War unfolded, the idea of revolution became increasingly confounded with official Communism, and lost much of its appeal.  In time too, ever larger swathes of the population came to believe that the very idea of political redemption through revolutionary change is an illusion.  The conventional wisdom then had it that this illusion does more harm than good.

Meanwhile, thanks to evolving economic and political circumstances, capitalism itself changed – taking a monopolistic and then a financial turn.

In conjunction with technological developments in transport, communications and cybernetics, it therefore became (economically) “rational” and increasingly feasible to dissociate production from consumption geographically.

Capitalism had always been a world system, but in recent decades its far-flung regions have become increasingly integrated.  This has been a mixed blessing, but it is fair to say that, on the whole, for most of the world’s peoples, it has not been a boon.

It fell to low wage countries on the periphery to produce a good deal of what would then be sold to consumers in deindustrializing capitalist centers – permitting consumption levels in developed countries to be maintained, even as jobs disappeared and wages stagnated or declined.

The inevitable consequence is now becoming apparent: efforts to mitigate the vicissitudes of life in capitalist societies at the political level are losing their efficacy.  Increasingly, markets rule; and there is almost nothing states, especially small states, can do about it.

Thus reform too is going the way revolution did.  It is not yet off the agenda, but it nowadays lives on mainly in the imaginations of peoples whose political institutions can no longer do much to reform away the ills that the emerging neoliberal order creates.

In short, a “democracy deficit” is becoming a fact of life.

In countries that call themselves democracies, citizens still vote and elections are still, for the most part, free and fair.  But their outcomes matter less than they used to because economic “realities” limit what political entities are able to do.

We Americans have learned this lesson well.  By voting for “hope” and “change,” we elected a Wall Street toady who has made hash of privacy and due process rights and whose drones and assassins spread terror throughout the world.

In smaller states, even the ones joined together in the European Union, the lesson is even clearer.  Who anywhere wants austerity?  Who would vote for it?  And yet that is what elected governments impose — time and again.

Elections still have consequences, but only at the margins.  On most everything else, and certainly on what matters fundamentally, global capital rules.

The irrationality of our overripe economic system is therefore more insulated than it used to be from political remediation.

This is not a situation that we can elect our way out of, any more than individuals in a Hobbesian state of nature can cooperate their way out of a war of all against all.

Like those Hobbesian individuals, we can do better; and like them too, we all know it.  The problem is getting from here to there.

But there seems to be now way.

“The only solution, revolution.”  Never has that slogan rung more true nor been more urgent; and never has the prospect seemed so remote.

The reason is that the old way of building a new world on the ashes of the old – the model that came to fruition in the French Revolution – seems to have run its course.

Is there another way, another kind of Revolution, one that is consonant with prevailing circumstances?

Put differently: is there a way to put Reason in control – not the impoverished rationality of utility maximizers, but the robust kind envisioned in the great tradition of classical German philosophy, the tradition of Kant and Hegel and Marx?

At this point, the only sure thing is that the more unable we are to reform away the disabling irrationalities of the existing system, the more radical solutions must become.

No longer, then, is the pertinent question: reform or revolution?  The alternatives now are a yet unimagined form of Revolution or an indefinite prolongation of an increasingly untenable status quo.

This question will likely remain pertinent for as long or even longer than the question it has succeeded; and its resolution is more far-reaching.

For it is not just the old political models that have run their course, but the condition for their possibility as well.  How much longer, after all, can a system as irrational as actually existing capitalism survive?

It seemed after World War I that a new form of civilization was at hand.  It took many decades for that expectation to be crushed.  This was a tragedy of world historical dimensions because the need for epochal change is greater now than it ever was.

But needs don’t by themselves make changes happen; there must also be forces capable of bringing them about.  For the time being, those seem woefully lacking.

Instead, we have Tea Partiers and Democrats, with “moderate” Republicans wedged in between, fighting over Obamacare or whatever else partisan opportunists settle on as the casus belli du jour.

If only, at least, they were not all in the dominant ideology’s thrall!

It is a deplorable state of affairs.  And it will only get worse – until means arise for forging transformations as radical as the situation demands.

Will that ever happen?  Only time will tell.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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