Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life


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Idiotism: Capitalisation and the Privatisation of Life

Being knowledgeable or gaining more knowledge does not necessarily permit a person to escape the self-enclosure of their world.

Knowledge that organic food, for example, is better for the planet, and that the planet might be undergoing radical climate change that could transform life on earth, does not necessarily stop me from buying cheap food at the supermarket because I also need to pay a mortgage, utility bills, insurance policies, and God knows what else. To some this will indicate a fundamental flaw in my character; a lack of commitment, or lack of courage, perhaps. This might be true, but I would like to argue that I carry on not because I am morally defective, but because I am an idiot.

My personal or private concerns press upon me in such a manner so as to make any exit or radical alternative very difficult, and these private concerns become more pronounced precisely in a world that atomises and individualises. This requires a couple of important qualifications which will be developed more fully below. Firstly, there is something self-enclosing and self-reproducing about my world and the everyday practices from which it is comprised.

In many respects it is predictable, routine and, by definition, habitual. This means that I also use idiotism to refer to a self-generating or self-reproducing system. Ordinarily such reproduction has been addressed via an attention to ideology critique.

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The work of Althusser is exemplary in this regard. However, this axiom of ideology critique is also very revealing. In the first instance I am not sure that every child knows this. My child knows a lot, especially about superheroes and dinosaurs, but he has not yet explained to me how his primary school is reproducing the conditions for the reproduction of the capitalist system, even though it evidently is. Secondly, then, this means that ideology critique tends to overplay the role of knowledge. This is part of the critical tradition that has attributed the continuation of capitalism to some form of false consciousness.

Again, there is the suggestion that we are all duped, that we are either naively innocent or blindly stupid. Change can therefore only come about through a programme of revelation and re-education, a claim that has profoundly disturbing consequences. The central problem, however, remains this privileging of knowledge. Even if ideology critique refrains from treating people as worse than infantile the privileging of knowledge or some faulty consciousness fails to address how idiotism as a condition has an ontological component that supports its epistemological content.

It is also epistemological in that these discourses become common sense and are repeated, reproduced and legitimated by all manner of everyday utterances, gestures and rituals, but the capacity for idiotism to become all-embracing is supported by ontological conditions that tie each and every person into the world they know. When Althusser spoke about living imaginary relations to real conditions he was certainly presenting an argument about how we come to know ourselves and our world, but the use of the imaginary here did not mean that we live in some kind of fantasy world.

In evoking the imaginary Althusser was addressing the psychological and ontological function of ideology. Here, Althusser is directly borrowing from the work of Jaques Lacan to account for the way in which ideology reproduces any given system by enabling the recognition of our place within it. Again, this does not aim to show how we are duped into thinking and acting in particular ways, but how our identity is tied up with the social system into which we are born, and the practices and rituals that enable that system to reproduce itself. This phase in psychological development was in turn borrowed from Hegel and stages a reformulation of his struggle for recognition between the master and the slave that Hegel presents as the motor of History.

The brilliance of Hegel was to formulate the idea that humans ought to be understood in terms of negativity rather than any predetermined positive content that would secure their identity before the fact. Without any pregiven identity humans variously posit identities that require validation through a process of recognition.

Such an identity is inherently unstable, but such instability can be overcome by regular and persistent rituals and practices that confirm who we are. For Hegel, lack of recognition undoes the subjectivity assumed and violence will often ensue from such a crisis. Such individuals and groups are seen as threats to social stability, making another key function of ideology the construction of delinquency, criminality, or perversion.

The point being that none of these are epistemological categories. Instead they point to a deeply ontological component in the success of any ideology, and it is this ontological component in addition to the content of the ideology that idiotism highlights. This is why knowledge and the explanation of false consciousness are entirely inappropriate. My subjectivity is tied into my world to such an extent that changes to my world demand radical changes to my subjectivity that are not easily or readily achievable.

Very often alternatives are not so much genuine alternatives as permutations of the recognition function: idiotism as a condition has become ever more sensitive to the productivity and profitability of a plethora of personal life-style choices all modelled on some ideal Subject.

In this regard, Althusser argued that religion best exemplifies the recognition function. God is the ultimate example of the idiotes. He works in mysterious idiomatic ways through the free use and disposal of his personal property, which extends to the entirety of creation.

He alone is separated from it as sole creator. Having mixed his labour with the tehom to give form to all things he became the proprietor of all that is. Present everywhere yet separated off God is the private Subject to which all other private subjects aspire.

It is thus hardly surprising that religion sits so well with many, if not all, advocates of capitalism. The Ontology of Idiotism While Althusser helps us think about the enclosure and reproduction of a system in terms that are ontological rather than purely epistemological there are problems with this approach, not least the apparent lack of agency or history.

It has been the source of much perplexity that Althusser should be a Marxist and yet in this essay offer an account of ideology that seems so self-perpetuating as to leave no room for manoevre. In order to draw out the issue of how some change, confrontation or challenge might be incorporated into a seemingly closed system it will be necessary to consider another approach taken from the work of Heidegger. However, because Dasein is defined as the being for whom its being is an issue, this is also a hermenuetic analysis.

In other words, because it places the role of interpretation and contestation very much at the heart of the human condition, it also offers a means for thinking the resistance and possibilities for change that I will address in the final chapter. For now, though, I would like to introduce the element most in keeping with the idea of systemic reproduction and dogmatic closure, but one that takes us beyond issues of epistemology and false consciousness.

To properly understand what Heidegger means by the term Dasein, literally translated as being-there, some discussion is required of what he understands by the term world. Importantly, Dasein is always in-the-world and cannot be otherwise. The world is our home in a way that exceeds volition, choice and decision. To address this fully, however, it is necessary to note the specific way Heidegger uses ontology. For Heidegger, the usual understanding of the world thought in terms of objects and objectivity is an ontic rather than properly ontological understanding.

Although Hannah Arendt was well aware of the distinction, the ontic is in keeping with her use of the term in The Human Condition, where various objects that are the product of human work carry, display or epitomise the values of a given community or society. Such things then produce an objective world that mediates between people and endures over time. Here Heidegger still adheres to some element of the ontic understanding of a world as a what, but he is already attempting to show that human life cannot be separated from a sense of the world.

Living, for humans, is always, and can only be living as something or for something. There is no human life that makes sense outside of its world. This also means that being-in must not be understood in a spatial sense. If you take the dress out of the closet it is still a dress. In the language of the early lecture series, life always refers to a world and this referentiality is always acutalised in life. This is the basic fact of our existence.

According to this understanding life is also always lived within a certain inheritance and is moved in a certain direction; always operating within a given history and with certain possibilities in view. Dasein is thus always historically framed. Post-history is alien to Dasein. The particular world in which Dasein takes up home is what Heidegger calls a referential totality, where each thing, idea, or practice makes sense and has its use only with reference to other things, ideas and practices. For Heidegger there is no such thing as a useful thing, only a totality of useful things.

According to this understanding even the physical attachment of one thing to another, like the board attached to a wall in a classroom, only exists because of the environment in which it appears. Even at the ontic level understanding the world as a referential totality already challenges the conception of self- subsistent objects. Everything ultimately refers to the market and its efficient functioning. We are so comfortable with the tools we use, he argues, that we remain largely unaware of them as long as they do what they are assigned to do, only bursting into our consciousness when they breakdown — the pen that runs out of ink, the bike that loses its chain.

This also applies to the world more generally. For the majority of the time the world is unproblematic. This is because any breakdown in the system of references and assignments can induce an experience of profound anxiety. As each useful thing is tied to every other useful thing a break in any one of them can bring about a chain reaction in the entire system. Because each element in the system is a bearer of significance there is potential for the world of references and assignments to collapse into meaninglessness.

The malfunctioning of even a minor point of reference can lead beyond the problematising of the task at hand to the entire world manifesting itself as something obtrusive, overburdening and even intolerable. This is because, as noted above, the relevance of useful things ultimately leads back to our sense of who we are. Ordinarily, such questioning is held in abeyance by the world in which we are absorbed.

Thus when the world becomes problematic it is not something I can simply respond to as a detached spectator. This is why a purely epistemological view of common sense needs to be countered. Although I might project possibilities for myself that are based on conscious decisions, the world itself is not something I am free to either take up or refuse. This dependency is absolutely crucial as it completely contradicts the tradition of autonomy and independence that has become the model for the self-contained or self-sufficient individual so integral to the marketised view of life.

While we might understand ourselves as sovereign we are in fact wholly dependent on an interpretation of the world that, through the liturgy of the dominant discourse and the regular performance of innumerable practices, has gained a semblance of solidity. Hence when the system of privatisation and deregulation collapses we blame the lack of money on a bloated public sector and unnecessary public spending, thereby rescuing the referential totality of privatisation from being undermined.

The point to note here is that our first heading when set adrift by a crisis is the shortest course back to where we came from. For Heidegger, the primary response to crisis is not to accept it, learn from it and find an alternative, but to hysterically re-bulid what has fallen apart. This is why dogma can have such a hold. If we are to revolutionise our world we invariably need another one in which to feel secure, and nothing is more comforting than a set of teachings to which all thought and action should refer. A problem that Heidegger himself fell prey to.

This is often why the dogmas of liberalism and neo-liberalism are countered by the dogmas of communism, socialism, communitarianism, multiculturalism, anarchism or indeed any other political model. The homelessness of freedom is practically impossible for Dasein to bear. Conceiving of the world as a referential totality is important because the implications give us a clear insight into our ontological vulnerability and our tendency for becoming wrapped up in the comforting dogma that preserves the environment that in turn sustains us.

This absorption, however, is something that Heidegger found deeply troubling because, according to him, it alienates Dasein from the essential questioning that defines it. I would prefer to stay with the idea that everyday practices remain essential for any future interpretation of the world and be critical of specific types of public discourse rather than public discourse per se.

It is in this context that Heidegger himself uses the term idiotism. The unconditional, being- historical essence of the They is: idiotism. Any criticism of idiotism should focus on the extension of the ideology of private enclosure rather than primarily complain about a supposed public sameness. At stake here are two basic understandings of the term public that are almost diametrically opposed. In the first place public denotes something that is used by all. In this sense public refers to something everyone knows or has access to, something that involves the greatest number of people, which for thinkers like Heidegger always translates into mediocrity and sameness.

In line with this usage, public represents what is most widely understood, the most broadly accepted world-view, and the dominant ideology. This relationship to ideology is important because what is public for Heidegger is not something derived from reflection, but what is always already familiar to us as our world.

It is manifested in all kinds of speech-acts, gestures, and discursive practices, and exemplified by institutional decision and procedure. The public in this sense is therefore always a site of disagreement and confrontation over the dominant interpretation of the world. In the first sense of the term public, idiotism can be said to exaggerate our absorption in the world by closing down, or rather closing off this second, hermeneutic understanding of the public realm as the site for the conflict and contestation of interpreta- tions.

What idiotism works against is any refraction of the light that might cause me to question the image I have of myself and the world that sustains me. However, as I will show in the final chapter, while idiotism seeks to close off the public realm understood in the second sense by reducing it to the reproduction of private concerns it cannot enclose it completely because our hermeneutic condition persists. What they give credence to, however, is the idea that what is truly democratic is the irruption of a different interpretation of the world within a specific formation of power.

That this democratic expression is quite alien to the formal democracy that will seek to claim, capture, regulate and tame it is something that many democratic commentators overlook.

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Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life by Neal Curtis

In this regard the final chapter will return to the hermeneutic character of our being-in-the-world to address a conception of democracy understood primarily as a challenge to the world as it is given. This means that any critique of idiotism necessarily demands a critique of the market system, but it also requires us to think beyond equally dogmatic alternatives we might turn to in the search for a different way of being together. The human condition is regularly understood in terms of the reflective capacity that has enabled us to dominate through our use of reason and technology, and yet there is a profound vulnerability to the human condition that also comes from this ability to reflect upon the nature of the world we live in.

This vulnerability also, and rather unfortunately, gives us a proclivity for the sort of dogmatic closure that supposedly puts an end to the potentially disturbing questioning that our reflective freedom opens up.


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There is no single solution to the problem, no privileged counter to the current totalitarianism, but there is hope that we can live in a world that does not enclose human freedom according to a single interpretation but celebrates its openness, despite the anxieties that may accompany such anarchy.

It is his work that remains the foundation stone for the ideology of idiotism. While I will return to remarks already made about the structure of ideology at the end of this chapter it is important to spend some time here setting out the content of this particular world view in order to understand and contest its basic axioms. With this phrase Smith was able to tap into the deep-rooted religiosity of a secular discipline and give the free market a near divine status in the economic and political thought that was to follow.

Manual Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life

Although writing as a man steeped in the tradition of scientific enlightenment Smith nevertheless presented a view of economics with deeply theological overtones. As will be noted when returning to the structure of ideology, at a time in which the assumed natural order of things was being challenged on a number of levels the idea the market reflected a hidden harmony would have resonated with great power.

Two of the key passages from Wealth of Nations that have become central to the ideology of idiotism discuss the importance of the pursuit of self-interest as the path to both the furtherance of those private interests and the interests of society as a whole. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Here it is capitalist self-love rather than a collectivist love of others that is the prime mover and social regulator.

He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick [ However, what has not been handed down as part of the popular digest of Wealth of Nations is the point at which Smith directly contradicts himself and sets out in much detail precisely how and why the public good should be pursued.

The fact that he had earlier published an influential book on moral sentiments has always been something of a problem for the ideological purists who wish to reduce everything to the functioning of the free market, and Book V of Wealth of Nations introduces further difficulties for the most doctrinaire of free marketeers.

Interestingly enough this problem emerges directly out of the principle method of social organisation that is almost universally recognised by orthodox economists as contributing to the greatest wealth and advancement of nations, namely the division of labour. This mode of organisation is of such importance to Smith that it is the subject of the first chapter of Book I.

It creates particular talents, as people find it is in their interest to pursue a particular line of productivity or service that is in demand. The division of labour, however, is insufficient on its own. It is peculiar to humans to do this. For Smith, different breeds of dogs with their varying talents are unable to get together to tackle a problem more swiftly or more efficiently because they lack the capacity to barter and exchange. In the natural world, then, the pursuit of a very rigid, fixed, or closed self-interest is very limiting, if not entirely counter- productive.

Here then is the first problem for the ideology of the private. The division of labour pre-supposes a sense for co-operation and of social roles. Indeed, for Smith the division of labour emerges out of this prior sociality. The person in a tribe who makes bows and arrows does so in pursuit of his own self-interest, but this possibility only emerges out of his relations with other members of the tribe, and by extension with other tribes. This may appear a very technical point, but the status of the collective is at stake here. It is certainly not something that can be cut away to leave the purity of private interests standing in the full glory of their independence.

In fact what emerge as economic roles stem from already existing social roles that purely economic functions can never transcend. What is more, the opening analysis of the division of labour also shows Smith to be something of a social constructionist, which is an undoubted problem for his more conservative disciples. Those who are unsuccessful — which today only means poor — are so due to an unfortunate, but innate lack of talent, if not laziness.

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That Smith should maintain that the division of labour is a result of functional differentiation within society and is not to be taken as the marker of natural divisions premised on talents inherent in individuals from birth is interesting because it raises the issue of respect for, and equality of occupations that tend to be more central to collectivist or socialist theories of social organisation.

Had this come from a Marxist treatise on equality of occupation it would not seem out of place. One can only surmise from this passage, then, that if the talents emerging at maturity are the effect of the division of labour, what other talents, characteristics and dispositions are the effect of our mode of social organisation? In many respects self-interest and competition can only be assumed as primary and pre-social if some artificial firewall is built between these traits and other socially moulded characteristics.

If these two issues are only suggestive of problems when advocating the division and free exchange of labour and its products, Smith is absolutely adamant in Book V of Wealth of Nations that the division of labour can be so detrimental to society in one important respect that intervention on behalf of the state, or Sovereign, is actually imperative. There is something about Book V that is very un-Smith-like, but this is only because the Adam Smith we have come to know and love has been effectively divorced from any suggestion that public works are either worthwhile or necessary.

Much in the way he has been divorced from his earlier work on morality. Every society requires the monopoly on violence secured by the sovereign to protect against civil war and foreign invasion. Related to this, every society also requires that the state uphold the principles of law and justice. Every society requires legislation and an executive power with the capacity to enforce it. But [ For Smith, then, the division of labour and the free market did bring into being the most complex and wealthy societies, but, in his view, if left entirely without intervention they were also capable of producing a level of social degeneracy and ignorance that outstripped even the so-called barbarous societies.

It might be argued that the free market has found its own solution to this problem through the use of regular redundancy and the demand to retrain, thereby lifting people out of what Smith regarded as the stupor of repetition and the comfort of habit. The point, however, is not whether we agree with Smith on the type of intervention necessitated by the social relations of free market capitalism. Despite believing the division of labour supported by a system of free enterprise and exchange was the best of systems, he still believed that some form of intervention was required.

Unlike contemporary idiotism, which claims the work of Smith for itself, he had his questions and his concerns about such a system. By contrast idiotism has expunged any and every doubt. It has become a purified, unblinking faith in the messianic qualities of the free market liberated from any trace of public intervention, governance, or regulation beyond the juridical-military function.

Writing in and anticipating a postwar world where Britain, the country in which he was exiled, would be required to rejuvinate itself economically, politically and culturally, Hayek was concerned that the British people were becoming too accustomed to the collectivism necessary for the war effort. His book was intended to recapture the spirit of individual liberty that British philosophers including Adam Smith had done so much to contribute to in the past and challenge the idea that collectivism would need to be retained when the immediate necessity for it had passed.

There is no greater tragedy, he warns, than the pursuit of our highest ideals unintentionally bringing about the opposite of what we seek. For Hayek the enemy that Britain was then facing would become its fate if it continued to be enthralled by the collectivist spirit. His argument was that an organised economy leads to an authoritarian society, and the collectivist pursuit of the Good can only bring about the evils of National Socialism. Collectivism, especially the institutionalised version we call socialism, is the enemy of freedom according to Hayek.

He feared that amongst the sacrifices and the hardships of the war socialism as an ideology was benefitting from the enforced practicalities of wartime collectivism. This meant that while we were fighting to remain free we were at the same time building our road to serfdom. Yet this development merely confirms the warnings of the fathers of the liberal philosophy which we still profess.

We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past. This is very much in keeping with the philosophical tradition that posits the autonomous subject as the foundation of morality, politics and law, and hence economic activity. This means that the capacities of human reason for spontaneous creation and deliberate reflection exemplify the independence of thought and deed that must be protected and nurtured if man is to be fully human.

If these remain part of the postwar psyche Britain will have exchanged the liberal principle of freedom from coercion for the socialist principle of freedom from necessity, which for Hayek is no freedom at all. Reading Hayek today becomes very interesting if one is in any way sensitive to the ways in which market liberalism has become increasingly dogmatic, if not fundamentalist.

The fears that authori- tarianism was on the horizon even with a successful completion to the war for the allies has turned out to be very true. The only difference is that the authoritarianism that currently dominates our lives is very much based in the tradition that Hayek claimed to be advocating.

The problem — a problem seemingly endemic to economics as a discipline, or at least its neo-liberal strain — is that in pursuit of both economic purity as the best defence against tyranny, and the desire to operate as if it is a natural science it has emptied itself of both the philosophy and sociology that would make it the rigorous social science it should be. The sort of economics that still has a stranglehold over the discipline today makes all sorts of claims about the human condition and human behaviour, as well as asserting a host of principles pertaining to the socio-political realms, but in fact it has very little to say about any of these things.

The result has been that in the last few decades the promotion of the pure form of market liberalism has had very little to do with resisting authoritarianism and by contrast has had very close dealings with dictatorship and tyranny, especially in South America Klein Recent liberal practice, then, is a far cry from the idealism of Hayek.

The fact that market liberalism is in the end comfortable with dictatorships is because it has such a scant regard for political freedom. By arguing that political freedom is derivable only from the securing of economic freedom — something evident in Hayek, but even more pronounced in the work of Milton Friedman — it fails to understand the dogmatic and authoritarian potential of its own thinking, refusing as it does to properly interrogate or think through the implications of its basic premise.

As a formal system of exchange amongst free and supposedly equal individuals the market is claimed to be the most suitable ground out of which a more extended notion of freedom can grow. However, what Hayek fails to recognise is that for anything to be supported by a free market within a capitalist system it can only survive by securing a profit, which thereby achieves the supremacy of a single social purpose. It cannot be doubted that anything unable to run at a profit within a capitalist free market will cease to be available; anything that does not find a successful commodifiable form will not survive.

Further to this, anything that does not pass the test of the free market ought not be mourned because it must automatically be invalid, illegitimate or unworthy as people cannot desire or want it. This, of course, is because the market is not only assumed to be the formal exchange between free and equal individuals, but is also supposed to represent the aggregate of the social will where the market canvasses unmediated desire. Leaving aside for the moment the discussion of the social operations at work within a market that make it genuinely problematic to speak of it as a realm of free and equal exchange it is clear that market liberalism already contains within it a substantialist argument about what is good and what is not.

What is good makes a profit and survives; what is bad runs at a loss and should be allowed to wither and die. That everything gains its legitimacy, social value, and capacity to endure only by securing regular and continuing profit in a market of purely private exchange is exactly the sort of single social goal that Hayek equates with totalitarianism.

In every aspect of our lives we are becoming captive to the idea that only the private realm can cater for the variety of personal desires and deliver the breadth of public provision. In this sense the Nazi [ This reference to utilitarian machinery is in a chapter devoted to the rule of law and the need for that law to be purely formal, but what Hayek either fails to see, or actively tries to deny, is that the market already contains the substantial moral claims I have referred to above.

But what Hayek seems to be relying on here is an argument for a formal system that protects both natural equality and natural inequality, depending on whichever one suits his purpose. Firstly, the Law should treat everyone equally because humans are fundamentally the same. They are deserving of protection by the law because they are all by nature reasoning creatures. However, if we are supposed to be protecting individuals, what makes individuals individual is precisely the inequality of their experience, biography and material conditions.

To abstract individuals from the materiality of their lives is to no longer have individuals but some empty template of sameness that seems rather more totalitarian than Hayek would care to admit. Secondly, when we do consider material conditions it is perfectly correct, according to Hayek, to accept the economic inequality that we find there. The argument is that because the system of private property reflects a natural condition the inequalities it produces are also natural.

The Law as it stands has not designed this, but merely facilitates the natural inequality we find among individuals as they go about their lives. This means that when making an argument about how society ought to be conceived we assume the naturalness of formal equality, but if we wish to make an argument about society as it is we rely on the naturalness of substantial inequality. Where Hayek takes this argument, though, is also very revealing and is exemplary of the abstraction and doublespeak so crucial to contemporary idiotism.

They are one and the same, and the naturalness of either can be used to support the privileging of the private realm. I would agree with Friedman here, but what is so troubling about idiotism is that it refuses to countenance the fact that such concentrated power can stem from the economic realm organised under free market principles. This fundamental tenet, of course, is only thinkable if, like Hayek, thinking is abstracted from the operations and dealings of economic agents within a social context — something I will consider in more detail in chapter four.

The economic realm is never so divorced from the legal, political, bureaucratic and communicative components of society as to be able to operate in any pure form. This is nonsense, but it is very self-serving nonsense. This is because history is not some objective record of everything that happened, but the selection and interpretation of events by people in socially powerful positions like Friedman.

What is often not selected by free marketeers is the testimony of those whose lives have been torn apart by the imposition of free market principles. Again, I have no case to make against the inventiveness of the minority. I would, however, challenge any view that seeks to strip the minority from social or collective practice. This is not to say that Friedman has no sense for interdepend- ence. Having inherited the work of Adam Smith he is well aware of the need for co-ordination amongst individuals and their families, and like Smith he believes that the free market is the best method for doing that.

Like Hayek, it is not that there is no social realm, it is rather that starting from the level of the social or collective can only result in coercion. The market alone stands for voluntary co-operation as it takes as its point of departure the free individual. This source of coercive power, maybe, but not every source of coercive power.

The problem is that for Friedman only political power is understood to be coercive because coercion is something that can only come from the executive function of the state. Like Hayek, however, Friedman can only be this optimistic for free market economics and have such a limited sense of coercion because he has such an abstract and formal understanding of how the market works.

In its simplest form, he writes: such a society consists of a number of independent households — a collection of Robinson Crusoes, as it were. Each household uses the resources it controls to produce goods and services that it exchanges for goods and services produced by other households, on terms mutually acceptable to the two parties to the bargain. It is thereby enabled to satisfy its wants indirectly by producing goods and services for others, rather than directly by producing goods for its own immediate use. Co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion. But this simplest form of the free market surely assumes everyone has equal access to land and other material resources.

What appears incredible to anyone not immediately aligned with this doctrine is that this utopian, if not bucolic Eden of reciprocity and mutuality is taken to be the basis for how exchanges amongst individuals ought to take place today. This fanciful vision of some state of nature purity is not in any way hampered by the pristine economics he proposes, it is only undone by politics and the evils of regulation and public intervention.

Because his vision is freed from any social contaminant — and this is done simply by refusing to admit that power can enter purely economic relations — his Eden is also free from any and every inequality. Presumably, if a sapphire miner in Madagascar enters into an exchange of his or her labour in return for a pittance, the fact that they would starve if they did not, does not seem to affect the judgement that this remains mutual and voluntary. Coercion does not come from executive diktat alone, but because these exchanges have become so abstracted from real conditions the most obscene inequalities can once again be portrayed as equality.

It is the spectre of a bucolic and ancient communism, one where everyone is related on purely equal terms with each having access to the means of production and the free, unalienated access to the results of that production. This is an idealised communism that politics is supposed to have pulled apart and only free market economics can restore, but in many respects this is representative of the uncontaminated worldview essential to every authoritarian movement.

It is the purity of such a vision that has given legitimacy to innumerable fundamentalist purges and all kinds of totalitarian violence. Given that amongst her disciples we can count such once luminary figures as Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve who oversaw the economic conditions that led to the financial crisis, her work is very important from the perspective of the history of ideas. For a system of thought supposedly based in objectivity and rationalism such absurdity is undermining. This will involve a somewhat lengthy engagement justified, I think, by her importance in the pantheon of free marketeers, and because her philosophy carries with it some of the fundamental assumptions and prejudices that will need to be returned to a number of times in the following two chapters.

Idiotism loves to count. However, given that her selection of what is necessary for survival seems quite arbitrary it is hard to see how this escapes subjectivism, but that is not the point. Indeed it seeks to counter any ethical argument that does not start and finish with the self and its interests. The argument for the morality of self-interest follows a series of steps. This consciousness of what is good or ill for life is the basic means of survival.

For the lower organisms such direction through sensation is automatic and instinctual. However, man, she argues, has no such automatic code that determines his survival. But what is interesting here — although Rand does not seem to consider this might apply to her own thought — is that volition and reason introduce fallibility, which in turn generates the need for responsibility. Or, rather, she is talking about both, but this opens up a fundamental fault line that runs through all her work.

What is very revealing here is the slippage from the collective use of Man as a species to the use of man as a particular human being. It only makes sense, however, if we refer to this capacity for invention as a collective process, but Rand wants to say that it is individual. Throughout her writing Rand uses the collective noun to define what is proper for an individual, and while it is perfectly legitimate to move from a definition of the human condition to the implications that condition has for each person, what Rand continually aims to do is to extricate the individual and separate it out from any notion of the collective.

In other words she perpetually uses the collective and the social as a device for privileging the separate and the individual but never properly argues the case for the move she makes. We might ask how the will can exist prior to consciousness, and we might ask how this can be done without deeming some forms of individual consciousness less willful and therefore less worthy than others, but more immediately how does this explain language, or those concepts we share, or are taught through processes of socialisation that produce a world for us and permit communication?

Such solipsism would not permit the kinds of co-operation that even her extreme version of the free market requires. How could such separated, self-starting conscious- nesses ever exchange anything when all their time would be spent seeking the means for translating their own worlds into the worlds of others. Again, Rand attempts to reduce everything down to the self-contained, self-generating individual, but all the while deploying some denied element of collectivity to make the whole thing work. It is the unacknowledged presence of the collective as the necessary ground of human relations, or better the active denial of social dependency.

In the end, in its flight from the social, this particular version of idiotism forces itself into the contradiction of a communicating solipsism. Without any account of how communication works Rand dismisses habitual, everyday exchanges in favour of communication that breaks with convention, but any social exchange, indeed any market, laissez faire or barter, needs a great deal of ritualistic or confirmatory communication Carey in order to function.

Where would the New York Stock Exchange be without its bell? There are, of course, great inventions in every social realm. Stock markets have seen their own share of the mathematical wizardry that supposedly changed the nature of risk management, but such innovations would be nothing without the myriad, multiple and rather dull acts of communication that house such invention and permit the particular institution to operate.

The repetitive and habitual in our every dealings with others act as the cement within any formation of human relations, but these are, for Rand, a sign of lamentable moral failing. In a passage that reveals the profoundly authoritarian and dictatorial nature of her work she dismisses the vast majority of people with the following pronouncement: If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals, the routine of sounds and motions they learned from others, never making an effort to understand their own work, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think and to discover the motions they are repeating.

The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance; their unfocussed minds are unable to know whom to imitate, whose motions it is safe to follow. First of all it is disturbing for its summary production of life stripped of political protection. Secondly, this passage is extraordinary because it raises the Roman principle of the res nullius to the level of thought. For Locke, a particular type of labour adds value to the land that would otherwise go to waste. Thus far some sense has been given of what is right, according to Rand, in the descriptive sense, i.

To do this it needs to be shown how the standard that is the affirmation of life breaks down into the three values of Reason, Purpose, and Self-Esteem, and the corresponding three virtues of Rationality, Productiveness, and Pride For Rand, a value is something one aims for and a virtue is the means by which one goes about securing it. I say: the sun goes round the earth. Nothing in my experience tells me otherwise. I am unable to find out the truth for myself, but I can find out from others. Of course, Rand would advocate this. It is suggested in the first part of her definition of rationality.

But in keeping with her rhetorical style, she immediately wants to privatise this extended cognition upon which we are all dependent. In fact, this is hardly a recipe for intellectual openness, but for dogma. It is not dissimilar with the virtues of Productiveness and Pride. This vision of collectivity as primitive and animalistic brings us back to the question of formal rights.

The liberal tradition out of which rights emerged evidently centred the question of right on the autonomous individual, but much of the liberal tradition contains an altruist principle that recognises all people are not equally advantaged and that the state and civil society ought to work towards the enfranchisement of the disadvantaged.

To this effect the United Nations charter on Human Rights explicitly sets out what all individuals should have access to in order to safeguard their dignity as human beings. Life, of course is reduced to the productivist model of rational self-interest. The only right, then, is the right to securely use the property gained in the pursuit of rational self-interest; and in this the trader becomes the exemplary figure of morality.

Among such men of rigorous moral fibre there is no disagreement because each recognises in the other the necessity of acting to secure the property necessary for life, and each respects the others actions in setting out to ensure they have enough to survive. Objectivist ethics consequently holds that: human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone [altruism].

It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash — that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, [ The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice. Today one would have to add, of course, unless they are bankers! The key here, as noted in the previous chapter, is the role of the image. While the mirror function or specular relation is essential to the promotion of specific partial views of the world it is also central to the production of any world as such.

This is a specular relation in which the subject is perfectly mirrored in its horizon of objects. Indeed one could start from any one of the specular objects and arrive at the subject. For idiotism this privileged object is, of course, the market. The introjected image of the other becomes the basis for future subjective development.

To complete this analysis, though, it is necessary to introduce one further element of asymmetry to account for the zealous evangelism of free marketeers like Friedman and Rand and explain why, despite numerous crises and failures, free market ideologues never see capitalism as at fault. This is because the Subject can only remain the guarantor if the specular relation can account for its failure. Instead the guarantor is shown to be lacking in some small degree, just enough to require some supplementary action on our behalf, or for us to find our place alongside it.

Just as the evil in the world is not the fault of the Christian God, but our fault for not being sufficiently Christian, so the Market is not to blame for the faults of capitalism. It is our fault for not being economically liberal enough — for not matching up to its purity. Original Title. Other Editions 3. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

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Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life
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Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life
Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life
Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life
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Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life

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