Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Prize

Hammer Museum, Westwood, July 15, 2014

- They put us down here. I feel uncomfortable.
- A whole auditorium of people looking at the back of your head. The front row probably was reserved for important people who didn't show up. Anyway we'll see faces of the important people on stage. If you consider them important.
- You don't?
- They're going to talk individual entrepreneurial genius. But I think there might be a direction to history somewhat independent of important people. This one of the two who's from XPrize seems to think so too. His company holds prize competitions: reusable space shuttles, oil spill cleanup kits, etc. He says poverty has been reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500 years, and that over the next several decades it will be possible with exponentially increasing technology to significantly raise global standards of living.
- But?
- In that same last 50 years, the net worth of the average American family went from about $170,000 to less than nothing.
- Because of debt.
- Yes. In another, famous prize competition, in 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality on a subject proposed by the Academy of Dijon, which was in full: "What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men, and is it Authorized by Natural Law?" The epigraph he chose was from Aristotle:
We should consider what is natural not in things which are depraved but in those which are rightly ordered according to nature.
Rousseau believed the arts and sciences corrupted human nature.
- That human nature was naturally good. I know. I read about him in school.
- I'll show you something on my computer. I don't think you've read this.
- The discussion is going to start.
- We have a couple minutes. Here:
The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man's economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken. These interests will be very different in a small hunting or fishing community from those in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on noneconomic motives.*
What if our technological development is relying on unnatural economic relations?
- How do you define unnatural relations?
- Doing for the sake of doing.
- Why do things for no reason?
- For no specific reason: for the feeling of power. Rousseau described how we go from naturally doing what we learn is good for ourselves to do, to learning what other people want us to do, then doing it, for the sake of the power over others it gives us.
- What good is power for its own sake?
- None. Power has its reward in displacing fear. The more we know we can do things because we've already done them many times before the safer and more powerful we feel. Anthropologists call this practice ritual.
- I think I understand.
- If economics in our times excludes or dominates all other aspect of life, and technology is now taking place within that constraint, what can we expect?
- Better health, less poverty.
- But greater inequality too throughout the world, as in the past 50 years? The CEO of XPrize discounts the economic downturns, wars, climate catastrophes of the 20th century as surmountable obstacles.
- You disagree.
- Free Market economic jargon has it that executives "grow" their corporations, as if there was a natural direction they are entrusted with nurturing.
- But Rousseau saw an unnatural growth.
- Yes. If we are going to imagine a direction to history we have to have a model of how history grows. Say we use the model of ritual, doing for the sake of doing. We are worried about wars, and economic reversals, delaying the course of progress despite technological advance. Economic reversal has happened clearly in the case of the U.S., but not in the case of poor countries, so the argument goes. Let's look at it logically. Four categories:
economics for their own sake, outside the country
economics for their own sake, inside the country
war making for its own sake, outside the country
war making for its own sake, inside the country
Recent history of the U.S. shows both war making for its own sake and economics for its own sake in foreign lands.
- How?
- By invading and developing markets without concern for other factors in those countries. If we look within our country, we see economically, as I mentioned, the entire destruction of the middle class by exclusive focus on economic interests. What about internal war?
- Civil War?
- We have suspension of civil rights since 2002 and the Patriot act, torture, secret prisons, abduction, denial of legal representation, assassination. We have government spying on all communications. Still we have a long way to go before totalitarianism.** We have economic freedom. We can choose our jobs, quit at will. The question is, how does technology fit in? Technology facilitates economic transactions, shipping and high speed trading, both inside and outside the country. Technology facilitates foreign war, suppling equipment and communications. Won't technology be turned also to civil war, the powerful acting deliberately against the powerless, if not directly militarily, then with economics exclusively in their control, financial war waged to increase further inequality? ***
- There should be a prize to stop it.

Further Reading:
Einstein & Intellectual Physics
Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Doing For The Sake Of Doing

P.S. "Science has not given men more self-control, more kindliness, or more power of discounting their passions in deciding upon a course of action. It has given communities more power to indulge their collective passions, but, by making society more organic, it has diminished the part played by private passions. Men's collective passions are mainly evil; far the strongest of them are hatred and rivalry directed towards other groups. Therefore at present all that gives men power to indulge their collective passions is bad. That is why science threatens to cause the destruction of our civilization."(From: 'Icarus or The Future of Science', by Bertrand Russell, 1924.
* The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi
** See: The United States & Totalitarianism
*** See: Slavery On A Walk In Beverly Hills