Controlling Asia by installing and enforcing Middle East tyranny

From Tom Stevenson’s May 2019 LRB review of David Wearing’s Angloarabia (2018):

The Middle Eastern Tyrannies Serve to Allow Anglo-America to Control Europe and Asia

Starting in the late 18th century, Britain installed satraps in the Middle East. Installing and working primarily with the Saud family as its proxy, Britain developed these satraps into monarchical family dictatorships serving as a colonial, geographical flying buttress to the British Empire. What the Middle East primarily offers to empire is great supplies of particularly cheap and high-quality oil, which continental Europe and Asia are dependent upon. The Anglo-Americans that installed and enforce the ruling Middle East tyrannies are strategically independent of Middle Eastern oil. By installing and enforcing a proxy tyranny in Middle Eastern countries, the Anglo-America wing of the Atlantic ruling class quietly holds a knife over the  throats of continental Europe and Asia. Relations between Middle East tyrants and the US and UK are secondarily girded with the re-circulation of oil wealth through arms sales and finance. Moreover, the Middle East ruling class is reproduced through the British military college Sandhurst.

The Costs of Middle Eastern Colonialism

The most terrible, primary cost of of the US and UK maintaining the Middle Eastern  tyrannies is to the 400 million nonelites in the Middle East, from Palestinians to the local population and imported Egyptian and South Asian workers all forbidden democracy, enslaved, surveilled, imprisoned, tortured, and finally, continuously disrupted, traumatized, and dislocated, as the massive US military and the Saudi tyrannies that purchase US, UK, and French arms bombard these populations to maintain absolute control of that region and the leverage it confers over Asia and continental Europe. The Middle Eastern dictatorships draw in fresh supplies of hapless labor from overpopulated Asia and North Africa, which workers are maltreated and soon bombed around the Middle East and North Africa, and onto Europe and the Anglo-American settler states. 11.4 million refugees circulated within the Middle East in 2017, as the global (internally-displaced and cross-regional) refugee population soared in recent years above WWII records to over 65 million disrupted, traumatized, and displaced people (UNHCR 2019).

It is important to understand that these migrant laborers are the wretched unprotected of the Earth. As a recent study by has shown, countries that rely on migrant remittances are more tyrannical rather than less (TBD).

A second cost with far-reaching antidemocratic implications is the reverse control, beyond support, that the Saudi dictators exert over their colonial patrons, as the huge profits of oil secured by the absolute control provided courtesy of the American military sloshes around within the colonial relationship. The Middle Eastern tyrants’ piling wealth is used to prop Anglo-America financially, with anti-democratic results: 1) Chicago darling Monica Prasad tells a sweet, mendacious story of financial innocence, starring Nixon defying the French, taking the dollar off gold, and finding to his “surprise” that the financiers of the world rushed in with cash to support the US as the global financial center. The truth is that financiers had been organizing to deregulate finance from the moment FDR regulated it (Fridell & Hudson 2010), and they accomplished deregulation quickly in Britain (Blyth 2002), which served as global finance’s power base. Defying France wasn’t completely a Nixonian feat of capitalist solidarity and faith, the dollar backed by aught but heroic, immaterial financial speculation. While Nixon was being cut out of power in 1974, US treasury secretary William Simon arranged with the Sauds for the Middle Eastern tyrannies to back the US dollar with their all-too-materially-based oil revenues (Spiro, David. 1999).

Saudi support accomplished a lot, a lot on behalf of finance and military. It enabled the US to continue military expansion, and provided the additional independence to Wall Street-City of London finance it needed to maintain inflation as capital strike and liquidate and privatize the working-class accountable state in the US and UK. Backing the US dollar with Middle East oil permitted the reversal of democratic gains in the US and UK, enabling neoliberalization as the conservatization of liberalism as well as the Nightwatchman State militarization of the US and UK. Swiftly deprived of state institutions supporting working class organization and democratic citizenship, the US and UK working classes were converted from an indirect brake on finance and war into a militarized police force topped by a management class, all with no capacity for independent organization. 2) The Middle Eastern tyrants ostentatiously finance the City of London as a global elite real estate holding, an ever-more gilded hole in which to hoard rents far away from the excluded 99% of humanity. This has become a decadent urban model throughout the world, proliferating not just inequality and inegalitarianism, but housing and transportation poverty as well. 3) When the unregulated Anglo banks were self-aggrandizing, self-deluding, and profligate in the 21st century, it was the Middle Eastern tyrants that bailed them out and allowed them (including Barclays) to avoid economists’ beloved moral hazard reckoning. The Middle Eastern tyrants make Too Big to Fail work. The Middle Eastern tyrants maintain the lack of regulation over Anglo-American finance. The significant secondary costs of Middle East colonialism accrue to core capitalism’s vast smallholding class and to democracy.

Is the Middle Eastern Tyranny Indispensable?

The one flaw of Stevenson’s account is the notion that the primary, humanitarian cost (with its immigration impacts) could be reversed if only the US encouraged Britain’s satraps to behave more kindly. Stevenson lays the blame for this great, rolling imperial disaster squarely on the shoulders of the US, on account of the US’s general barbarism and ignorance. Would that the British could manage everything absolutely, surely they would restore a kinder, gentler colonialism. Though the Anglo ruling class didn’t maintain a kinder, gentler colonialism from the late 18th century up to 1943, when the US joined Britain in bankrolling the Saud’s war on the Gulf, nor up to 1971 when Britain was no longer able to cover the costs of the Gulf military protection racket and transferred the military economy over to the US. Invoking the beloved liberal political-science phantasm of socially-rational state bureaucrats (This may be the sensitive Anglo elite v. US barbarian contrast that liberals and Anglos are imagining as the norm.), perhaps Stevenson has in mind that the UK could finally volunteer to be the benevolent dictator today that it formerly failed to be, and the US fails to be, and that it’s the US that forces the UK to continue to maintain the enabling military support the Gulf States rely on to crush democracy at home and abroad. It seems the British terror of US barbarism is real and not just performative, and yet surveying history as well as contemporary imperial relations (For example, to forestall an Iran-style revolution, “Britain equips and trains the Saudi police force, has military advisors permanently attached to the internal Saudi security forces, and operates a strategic communicaions programme for the Saudi National Guard.”), it is difficult to see how the British offer a positive alternative protection racket, any more than capitalist Russia offers “multipolarity” (distinct from patronage for a handful of political scientists).

Maybe the problem is that the Anglo-American ruling class is too tight. Maybe the recursive jackboot could be eased by splitting the US and UK’s territory in the Middle East, creating a sort of Anglo-American multipolarity. Maybe that’s what a powerful state would do, if it actually valued and pursued humanitarian goals. Both the Obama and Trump administrations suggested publicly that the US has the strategic latitude to cut out the middle man. Presumably if the UK and the Middle Eastern tyrannies attempt to exert too much control over the unholy imperial alliance, the US could roll up its military and, following Nixon, treat directly with the East Asian states, what Stevenson refers to in alarm as “the Asian plot.” Curiously on the affronted Saudis behalf, Stevenson warns US strategists that with climate change, Middle Eastern tyranny affords more precious control over East Asia than ever.

So many questions open up. Does the US need the UK and its colonial satraps as much as they need the US? With this perhaps small or merely-symbolic divergence in UK and US interests in mind, it would be interesting to assess the indispensability of the Middle East tyrannies, within them distinguishing alignments with the US and UK, versus the relative strength of the US’s v. UK’s coercive ties and alliances with China. Certainly, within the British Commonwealth, Canada and Australia have been integrating with China. Why are UK partisans so keen to keep space between the US and China? How do the US and UK interests align with or diverge from China’s interests?

How do US and UK interests diverge from each other, not just in arms sales (The Middle East tyrants are the world’s largest buyer of military equipment, and the US, UK, and France compete with each other to bribe them.), but particularly in finance, as its independence is propped and wagged by the Middle East tyrants? Yes, Saudi oil wealth maintains the US’s war economy, and absolute libertine finance in both Wall Street and the City of London. It helpfully dismantles democracy in both the US and UK. Yet are the Saudi dictators necessary to controlling East Asia, putatively their primary role? The British assure us they are. But can the US exert sufficient control over East Asia in its alliance with the Israeli and Egyptian tyrannies, and by colonial dominance over Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and perhaps Yemen and Iran? (Note: Check out Sunni v. Shi’a alignments.)

A League of Innocent Tyrants

I do not think that the British Empire fell quite as gracefully, in the early 20th century, as is commonly told. The story goes that the expense of WWII was the end of the British Empire, and the transfer of Atlantic ruling class leadership to the US as well as the granting of Indian independence. And it’s true that the locus of power shifted within the Atlantic ruling class family coalition, but did not completely retract from the UK. The Atlantic ruling class is a robust, inbred alliance, and it commands enough of world wealth to grease its internal conflicts. However, together with 20th century financial history, UK-US relations in the Middle East reveal fissures within that robust league of imperialists.

See my brief account UK v. US states and finance from the 1950s – the early 1970s, in “6 Pivotal Class Collective Actions in the US in the Second Half of the 20th Century.” To preserve its power, Britain deregulated finance in the 1950s. This deregulation provided US and global finance extra degrees of tactical freedom and leverage over the US state, including the power to enforce inflation as a form of capital strike. Indicative of solidarity within the UK ruling class and a lack of solidarity between the UK’s rulers and a then-fractured US ruling class, US political leaders did not grasp that the US state had been subordinated to international finance until Nixon was brought down in 1974, a couple years after he inadvertently demonstrated, with state-coordinated price control boards, that (finance-coordinated) capital was manipulating inflation to end US state accountability to the working class (See Blyth 2002: 135-6).

Contrary to much-circulated conservative theorization, inflation was not simply caused by the working class, or even the US’s imperial wars against SE Asians and the OPEC oil embargo (from which the UK was secretly exempted, see Stevenson p. 11). The results of the price-control boards clearly showed that capital was intensifying domestic US inflation, which indicates that capital had heightened coordination and strategic capacity, a capacity typically provided by deregulated finance. With Nixon serving as the publicly-flayed goat of American provincial political miscalculation, the US political class was deeply embarrassed, cowed, and fully chastened for decades, bound to faithfully serve finance and military in exchange for top-manager income and financially-advantageous marriages for their daughters, until the rise of socialists over the last couple of years.

Not only running the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and adding to US inflation panic, the Saudis were right there throughout the 1970s, supporting US imperialism, US and UK de-democratization, and a financial hegemony that turned the City of London and New York City into powerbrokers and international elite real estate enclaves populated inter alia by Middle Eastern tyrants and Russian oligarchs. The Saudis switched from the British currency, pounds sterling, to the US dollar in 1971, when Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard to defy anti-imperial runs on US gold reserves. Three years later, in 1974, while Nixon was being removed (arguably more for his presumption of state capacity than for his connivance with petty political party crimes revealed by plucky newsmen), in an agreement with the US Treasury Secretary William Simon, the Saudis infused US finance with oil revenues to again back up with material wealth the speculation-backed US dollar (Spiro 1999).




Blyth, Mark. 2002. Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge.

Fridell, Mara and Mark Hudson. 2010. “Financialization, Enabling Policy, and Elite Policy Networks.”

Schenk, Catherine R. 1998. “The Origins of the Eurodollar Market in London: 1955-1963.” Explorations in Economic History 35: 221-238.

Spiro, David. 1999. The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony.

Stevenson, Tom. 2019. “What are we there for?” LRB 11, 9 May.

Wallich, Henry C. 1971. “One chance in a generation: Guideposts for the Commission on
Financial Structure and Regulation.” Journal of Money, Credit and Banking 3(1): 21-30.

Wearing, David. 2018. Angloarabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Polity.






Canadian semi-public health care

The problem with Canadian health care is not that it is too socialized. It is that it is too capitalist. It places too high a priority on delivering profit to doctors and hospitals. Indirectly, this works out pretty well for those consumers who have pronounced medical-intervention requirements, and thus can serve as profit-delivery vehicles to doctors and hospitals.

In the US, by comparison, only rich people can serve as profit-delivery vehicles to doctors and hospitals, so the advantage of the US’s extreme, conservative-liberal medical market regime is that rich consumers deliver the fattest profits to the doctors, so that some doctors in the US, the ones with the richest medical consumers, can get FAT rich. On the other hand, the Canadian system controls pharmaceutical rents. US policy favors pharmaceutical sales reps’ power over doctors. And HMOs take rents and provide another layer of market domination over US doctors.

However, this is not to say that Canada’s is a fully-developed health care system for humans. It’s medicine, triaged for capitalist requirements. Because Canada is liberal.

If you are not regularly sick or requiring physical relief and readjustment, then you are excluded from the Canadian health care system. You can’t deliver steady money to doctors and hospitals, then you are likely to not be able to access a doctor. You have to rely on continuing exercise, good food, luck, and, if you’re an adult with a little income or wealth, affordable physiotherapy. This is not too much different from Americans, though the adult access to effective, affordable physiotherapy is superior in Canada, and is an okay skeletal (ha! see what I did there?) health care system for usually-healthy adults.

However, normally-healthy Canadians often do not have access to doctors for health monitoring (eg. through childhood development or changes through aging) and consultation, nor for treatment of unusual, fleeting, or minor diseases and injuries, however much these may impact the body’s structural integrity and development. Thus, without exposure in their practice, Canadian doctors are not as adept at identifying health issues that crop up amongst a generally-healthy population. Canadian doctors tend to become experts in cancer, heart care, and broken bones. Neither liberal subject, Canadian or American, has decommodified access to dental care. This is to say that bodily structural integrity and development is never a right nor a priority in a liberal-conservative regime.

But if your luck runs out in a way that is a fast, explosive emergency (broken bones, cancer, heart events), then unlike most Americans, Canadian citizenship includes social protection in those emergencies, as access to medical treatment. And because the sick and differently-abled have access to medical intervention regardless of their own private wealth, Canada has better control over infectious diseases.

After “Who Made Me?”

Star Wars: A Democratic-ish but  Patriarchal Discourse on Ethics

I am of life. To exist in (inegalitarian, alienated) human society, I need a guarantor. So, Who made me?

The Star Wars series locates this weird, infantile, alienated, possibly patriarchal question as the root anxiety spurring our ethical and political choices as we grow older; and Star Wars shows the political consequences of how we are able to settle on this (socio-)psychological question–a decision, a judgment we must take responsibility for, we cannot evade, once we recognize the question. Though to be clear, you don’t have to recognize the question. Han Solo doesn’t worry about it.

Well, also, there is a very common way to evade responsibility, see below, but that way dehumanizes you, turns you into part of the war machine, a Stormtrooper to show the cards.

I find the question odd. I don’t know why life needs a guarantor, why this should be the anxiety.  Whose culture is creating this anxiety? To be transparent again, I really suspect it’s an inability, conferred by patriarchy, to accept coming from a female, coming from Earth. The question does give more reason to creepy philosophical efforts to break down the ontological divide between humans and the commodities they produce and which are owned by an elite in an inegalitarian social order. Anyway, I do know why life needs to protect itself from human tyranny. But the anxiety that this should spur is the anxiety over whether you can organize other people.

From orphaned hinterlands farmboy Luke Skywalker to orphaned hinterlands scavenger Rey, the main audience-avatar character walks us through their variable processes of settling the root infantile anxiety with a judgment that commits them to a democratic ethics, and puts them on a democratic political path. Another, side model is Han Solo, a skilled, strategic orphan who doesn’t care about patrimony, but unlike his girlfriend the Mother of Dragons (Qi’ra), is naturally oriented toward cooperation with democratic organizing, a “good guy” as Qi’ra pronounces. We don’t know what is propelling Qi’ra toward the Dark Side. A lack of options path-dependently leading to a lack of democratic confidence, apparently.

We also see in the distance, by contrast, that the para-princes Darth Vadar and Kylo Ren arrive at contrasting decisions upon that root infantile anxiety, a commitment to a contrasting Dark Side political path and ethics. (There’s also some indication that mother-attachment propels the Dark Side ethico-political decision. This can be read as trashy 1970s cultural psychology, or it can be read as a diagnosis of exception-fetishizing conservatism: When the conservative rejects life, he has to create a pocket of exception–typically Mother and Wife–to sustain the advantage of his own nurture.)

Pursuing the freaky, infantile dread-hope, Who Made Me?, down into its dark hole, the protangonists and antagonists can find no father, no parent, no god, no protective, recognized lineage. Just the self. But it is not clear what this means. A decision is required.

We see that the emotional responses to this discovery are variable and consequential; but, contra conservatism, the emotional response flavors–but does not determine the consequent ethical and political judgment. The interpretation of what it means that one does not come from a direct, parental Maker, a protective lineage recognized by all, does determine one’s ethics and politics; and in the Star Wars cosmology, the interpretation is to a large extent a fateful choice of reason.

There are two possible opposing ethical-political interpretations containing judgment: 1) I made me. Man is will to power. This is a conservative insistence that there must be a monadic originator. 2) I make myself. I am (Wo/man is) life, a diverse collective in development/(We are Groot, to borrow another narrative). These opposing interpretations entail judgment, and thus ensuing ethics and politics.

As a sociologist, I would have to point out that the interpretative choice is generally overdetermined by the built social environment. In that sense, interpretation is not usually, really a choice of reason, but a reflex instilled by institutions. Thus, most people slip the responsibility, and hegemonic liberals call this deference virtue.

For example, the Abrahamic religions instill the need for, and so overdetermine the “choice” to reassert an abstract monadic originator, as the alienated, individual, willful self, substitute for God the Father. Thus the Abrahamic religions reproduce inegalitarianism and inegalitarian economies. Because this overdetermined “choice” means no shared space for development, most of us become processed down into dehumanized, violent Stormtroopers, or, in its less-destructive version, sheep. The “Great Men” that end up on the top of the pile dominate and own. Society flinches, genuflects, and reflects upon the Ubermensch the myth of their apotheosis.

The Star Wars narrative doesn’t precisely deny the social, built environment. Rather, it places the responsibility for the interpretation/judgment on the individual because it is interested in the ethical torch carried by a small, beleaguered band of comrades in the long historical moments when institutions do not reproduce the collectivist, democratic, Light Side I am of life judgment.

The Dark Side decision is idealist. In the discovered absence of the mythical consciousness-giving father, as the culturally-foreign, alien-ness of complex, developing life (See also Vanderbeek’s Annihilation) is rejected in favor of the choice to incorporate the mythical God into the individual self, the moment of judgment is fetishized (See Carl Schmitt). All emotion and rationality recoils and wraps around the individual self’s will to power against all else, all others. Because humans are objectively a social (part of) life, the idealist Dark Side decision requires working in tension with that reality, working strategically with other Dark Siders, idealists, enemies all, to kill them when you can, to assert your will, to torture all others into serving as your voice, your idealist self.

By contrast, the Light Side decision reconnects to philosophical materialism. It is oriented to development, and full human expression, including connection, organization, and balancing reason. Understanding that one is not a wanted, recognized projection of a superhuman father into a guaranteed space of existence, but that as life, one becomes onesself, the self is developed, in the materialist approach is foremost recognition that the self is material, existing in a unique interstice, and connected. “You’re not alone,” Rey tries in vain to convert Ren; the Nietzschean idealist is unmoved, and I say, enthralled. The materialist Light Side is a mutualist ethics of creating the space, organizing the infrastructure, relating with others– for life to develop into its own complex, historical, changing self. It foregrounds proliferating and activating full human capacity, working with others, as opposed to imposing one’s self upon, diminishing and obliterating the others.

In the Disney corporation’s hands, it’s hard to say where the Star Wars discourse on ethics will end. They have performed above expectations, particularly in Rogue One, and yet there is much foreshadowing that the Ubermensch and the democrat will be reconciled in some sort of neoliberal alliance between Rey and Ren. Or perhaps, more hopefully, the Light Side Resistance will be taken up by the stableboys and the class conflict will continue and advance.

The great tactic of conservativsm, a la Strauss, is lying to the hoi poloi, the repository of conservatives’ misanthropy. Conservative Austrian tactician and Anglo-American consultant Friedrich von Hayek best formulated this tactic for the modern era, in portraying the elite-owned heap as a porous social formation, full of degrees of freedom putatively for all, while portraying universally-developmentalist democracy as an excessively-demanding ethos and infrastructure, and in that way constricting, a kind of “servitude.” Would it be true to the democratic spirit of the Star Wars discourse on ethics to conclude with some Stormtroopers and stableboys, having observed and suffered the contrasting relations the Sith lords and Rebel Alliance have made (the arguments the philosophers and social scientists have forwarded), casting off the enculturated disposition to Mastery/Servitude, and enjoining the deferred decision to organize a new social space for shared life development? In the 20th century, most philosophers rejected working for democratic development. In the 20th century, most philosophers rejected working with social scientists. As the narrative develops, will the philosophers and Jedi figure out a way to contribute to the liberation, the full human development, the organizational capacity of the stableboy and Stormtrooper class?


Extrapolation from Gordon 2016

Gordon, Robert J. 2016. The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Princeton.

Note: GPT, General Purpose Technology, is the fundamental technology upon which a society is built. For example, Gordon cites both electricity and oil extraction and processing as the GPTs of the 20th century US. GPTs pave paths of technological and social-organizational dependency in which specific trajectories of subsidiary technologies are developed.

1) Kalecki thesis: capitalists fundamentally seek control, in order to secure capital, fungible social power.

a) When they have managed to constrain workers’ human-capacity development, particularly their organizing capacity, capitalist control means deploying workers as expendable, dehumanized machines. In aggregate, this takes away from developing the forces of production.

i) Conservative ideology helps reproduce the capitalist Human Waste economy, as per the slavery, servitude model.

b) Upon a Depression separating capitalist exploitation from labour, social-liberal (pro-worker) policy and institutions and war nationalism combined to promote the collective infrastructure required for rigorous subsidiary tech improvements in the US. This extremely-heightened activity, based on the war-social democracy convergence, formed the basis of the exceptional US Trente Glorieuses growth (Gordon 2016).

Social democracy sustains the worker capacitation required to maintain this tech innovation pressure. But without war nationalism, economic growth from tech innovation is moderated; affronted by worker capacitation, elites petulantly go on strike (See 1970s inflation). Conservatized liberalism dismantles social democratic developmentalist infrastructure in favor of control-prioritizing war nationalism only. Without social democracy, subsidiary tech innovation is constrained and the GPT is petrified; economic growth declines.

c) Because it does not mute working-class feedback, a philosophical-materialist, socialist-backbone society has superior capacity to collectively decide on the GPT (General Purpose Technology) governing subsidiary innovations in tech and organization. Examples of superior GPT intervention capacity: Scandinavian social democracies, Germany, China.

i) Societies that delegate GPT decisions strictly to the market, the global capitalist class, relinquish and have no capacity to guide GPT change. They serve as stupid, senseless global bulwarks against GPT shift, prioritizing predictability, ROI, and rentier capitalism (producing increasingly-absolute ownership rights). Anglo-American capitalism is an island aristocracy-designed machine for constraining and muting (torturing into a ventriloquist’s dummy, per Scarry 1985) a domestic working class in favor of maintaining a global-elite-coordinating GPT regime. Imperialism, colonialism, and the military necessarily grow out of and support this primary solution to exclusionary value accumulation (which is why capitalist marketeers once claimed that capitalism would dispense with this violent outgrowth–They misrepresented the successive outgrowth as an optional tactic in poor taste). In order to secure global elite cooperation with their leadership while disrupting societies globally, these Anglo-American model societies prioritize control over, and effective criminalization of their domestic working class, capacitating them and offering them to global elites strictly as consumers and working-class-targeting police/managers and imperial soldiers. Management, militarization, and finance are the governing economic institutions of these capitalist “core” or “metropole” societies.

Prioritizing control over, and effective criminalization of the domestic pool of workers and their families and communities (smallholders), such a global capitalist-subordinated, militarized nationalist society cannot sustain worker capacitation and does not have the capacity to collectively decide on or intervene in the GPT orientation.

Hence, the Anglo-American societies, for example, are bound to contribute increasingly to climate crisis, surveillance and carceralism, and disruptive imperialism, and dismantle or forgo public infrastructure and assets, policy and technology supporting environmental repair, and public education, libraries, and substantive democratic capacity building.

Maintaining a GPT in defiance of broad, shared human development and welfare ratchets up pressure. The belligerence sustains the aging GPT, by shifting around the mounting structural pressure building against GPT-maintenance, which further requires capitalist hoarding and militarization. Anti-social democratic regional economies most tied to the aging GPT, such as the oil states of Texas, Alberta, and Saudi Arabia, will produce the most militant, and methodically inhumane and destructive opposition to GPT shift.

See also: Erica Benner (Actually-existing Nationalisms) for informed identification of Marx’s arguments around human development, sovereignty, including in relation to economic catch-up, and idealist philosophy and nationalist ideology traditions (as these are embedded in liberal-conservative approaches to uneven development), particularly in The German Ideology, also The Jewish Question, and the Grundrisse.

Conservative wheelhouse: Assuming the impossibility of mutual recognition

David Graeber summarizes Hegel’s account of human desire for recognition in the Master-slave dialectic as a prime example of conservative theory’s assumption of the impossibility of mutual recognition. Most philosophers and many social theorists playing in the conservative wheelhouse proceed to theorize recognition upon the assumption of highly-unequal, slavery relations as normal, universal human relations. “But it’s one thing to say that the quest for mutual recognition is necessarily going to be tricky, full of pitfalls, with a constant danger of descending into attempts to dominate or even obliterate the other,” Graeber cautions. “It’s another thing to assume from the start that mutual recognition is impossible.”

“As Majeed Yar has pointed out (2001) this assumption has come to dominate almost all subsequent Western thinking on the subject: especially, since Sartre refigured recognition as ‘the gaze’ that, he argued, necessarily pins down, squashes, and objectifies the Other.

As in so much Western theory, when social relations are not simply ignored, they are assumed to be inherently competitive. Todorov notes (2000) that much of this is the result of starting one’s examples with a collection of adult males” (Graeber 2015).

Philosophy rejects collectivist, knowledge-building science, rigorous, collectively-regulated empirical methods to discern the range of –not just probability but also– possibility, including by identifying trends, averages, standard deviations and other summaries of main dynamics in a select place and time, as well as variations within that milieu and in main dynamics across space and time, identifying via theory, correlation, time-order, and comparison together their contributing factors, to systematically refine and correct these descriptive and explanatory frameworks collectively. In science, empirical disconfirmation of theory is maintained as part of the knowledge ideal–thus, the pursuit of scientific knowledge employs a diverse collectivism; one study is not science, nor is uniformity stable in this kind of collectivism (per Kuhn 1962).

Science constructs probable descriptions of what tends to exist or not, how–under specified relations or conditions, within a comparative understanding of the constellation of possibility in complex, often reflexive life relations. Philosophy’s desultory knowledge method, by contrast, tends to rather rely on a few, fetishized “expertly”-chosen cases (Olympe de Gouges!) exclusively confirming elite interests (Social rationality = death!). Philosophy celebrates the exception.

Not theory exactly, but due to its method, in particular philosophy’s (including theory primarily based on philosophy) long-term characteristic problem tends to be importing, as its bed of assumptions, the wisdom of the ruling social segment–classically, property-owning man between the ages of 20 and 50. While we have arrived at a point in global capitalism where such perspective can be readily denounced, the discrediting move tends to issue from within the desultory, antidemocratic-elitist philosophical knowledge project itself, and in the conservative effort to maintain manufactured scarcity across global integration, it tends to be directed at waged workers and science, or rather, commercial scientism qua science tout court. Weber saw doom in the shift from princely state managers to working-class state bureaucracies. Bruno Latour has made a career and academic institute based on showing that white-coated technicians working in commercial labs are irrational. Foucault reified opportunistic, scientistic Psychology as his reduction of science, even while admiring conservative economics. Philosopher GA Cohen argued that in the communist utopia the affront to philosophy that is social science would die, as it contributes nothing to knowledge besides demystification of labor and commodities. With these expert Great Man philosopher selections of cases “demonstrating” that Enlightenment scientific method offers no advantages to knowledge issued by Great Men serving warlords, and many disadvantages (a lack of independent genius, per Nietzsche), philosophers–particularly the French school by way of the German-Catholic idealist philosophy tradition–protect and advance the reputation of philosophical contributions to knowledge, based upon an elitist assumption bed–particularly elite distributions of misanthropy and anthrophilia, elite assumptions about the distribution of sovereignty and rationality, and elites’ recognition failures, in addition to assuming that humanity is reducible to young, elite male experience, including autism and unbound competitiveness. These elitist assumptions provide the foundation for arriving at the philosophy and theory objective, the foregone conservative-wheelhouse conclusion that non-elite human development and democracy are impossible. It is a venerable, neat political ecology.

(For a prime example, see the neo-Hobbesian, French (cum German idealist)-school philosophy of Justin Smith, as his recent contribution to this tradition offers a crystallization of this ancient, antidemocratic Atlantic elite project.)

Elitist Idealism v. Democratic Materialism

Graeber discusses Catholic Europe’s Medieval psychology theory, which started with the proto-Cartesian premise of a human soul divorced from an object world, where a kind of intermediary mucus or film, a “pneuma,” was posited to represent that world like a script or teevee show to the temporarily-embarrassed (separated from Heaven) soul of man. Desiring to apprehend and embrace that world–for example with the human body– was pathological, in Catholic Medieval thought. In its ethics, the externally-imposed passion must be self-managed, via a priest-like, contemplatory orientation to the imagined pneuma.

This baroque and improbable idealist theory set up a few conceptualizations useful for inegalitarian organization in feudalism: 1) Humans are conceived as utterly alien to Earth. This alienation will be useful, from a warlord perspective, in isolating people and extracting and exploiting. 2) As shared sovereignty within human relations is impossible, desire is reduced to unrequited sexual tension. The male adolescent experience is reconceived as the universal human condition, and we all pretend priests don’t molest children. 3) Ethics: The proper business of man is not to organize and engage in collective action with other people, since slavery relations are universal and we cannot share sovereignty. It is to sit alone on the couch and absorb the Pnetflix…er, pneuma, a normative individualism sanctified as a relationship between a man and his imaginary lord. Man is a teenage monk.

Graeber’s genealogy identifies an historical shift from understanding individualist, imaginative desire as erotic, in Medieval Catholic Europe, to understanding it as consumption, eating food, a universal, individualist act of private property destruction and incorporation in global capitalism.

“The ultimate proof that one has (absolute) sovereign power over another human being is one’s ability to have them executed. In a similar fashion, one might argue, the ultimate proof of possession, of one’s personal dominium over a thing, is one’s ability to destroy it—and indeed this remains one of the key legal ways of defining dominium, as a property right, to this day. But there’s an obvious problem here. If one does destroy the object, one may have definitively proved that one owns it; but as a result, one does not own it any more.”

In either the conservative Catholic tradition or the liberal capitalist tradition, desire is propelled, and an inegalitarian social order is perpetuated, by the logical impossibility of an isolated individual simultaneously having a cake (or bang, or slave) and eating it too. These are logical proofs of the impossibility of absolute sovereignty distributed across human individuals. What ho, we’re not gods. The infantile passion imposed by the gulf separating man from consumerist utopia in capitalism is conceived as the proper focus of individualist man. (This is why psychologists classify philosophers as neurotics.) Man’s passion is imposed upon man from outside, above. It is solitary man’s duty to self-manage the imposed passion, and not to judge, decide, and act collectively, not assess and allocate resources to wants and needs over time and across life, as per materialist philosophy. Selecting illustrative cases, philosophers and economists pump out denunciations of such shared, socially-rational use of full human capacity, while conservative Catholic legal authorities forbid it in favor of elite rationality.

Note by contrast what democratic Enlightenment’s scientific approach to knowledge does with the reality that humans are not gods: It devises social knowledge-acquiring methods that both deploy our human capacities and compensate for our human limitations. Not Genius-boy philosophy, tho, based as it is upon a misanthropy that instrumentally excludes the exceptional.

Ideas before Organization

In Graeber’s theory, the origin of capitalism is Medieval Catholic Europe’s individualist idealism, the conceptual requirement for consequent capitalist individualist practice.

“The shift from a conception desire modeled on erotic love to one based on the desire for food (“consumption”) was clearly a shift in the direction of popular discourse; at the same time, though, one might say the innovative aspect of modern, consumeristic theories of desire is to combine the popular materialist emphasis on consumption with the notion of the ephemeral, ungraspable image as the driving force of maximization of production.”

“The idea of human beings as creatures tainted by original sin, and therefore, cursed with infinite wants, who therefore were in an almost natural state of competition with each other, was already fully developed in authors like St. Augustine, and therefore a part of Christian doctrine throughout the Middle Ages… the notion of the maximizing individual existed in theory long before it emerged in practice.” Still in Catholic European Medieval society, “almost any increase in popular wealth was immediately diverted into communal feasts, parades, and collective indulgences. One of the processes that made capitalism possible then was the privatization of desire.”

Distinguishing Making (Unalienated Work and Social Reproduction) from Consumption

Graeber calls for scholarly specification of what we identify and analyze as consumption, limiting consumption to those activities that involve incorporation and destruction (eg. burning fossil fuels) driven by capitalist possessive-individualist desire. He argues that expanding the concept of consumption to encompass all of human life beyond the manufacture of commodities renders absurd moral narratives. “When ‘creative consumption’ is at its most creative, it’s not consumption; when it’s most obviously a form of consumption, it is not creative.” In inflating the concept of consumption to conform with a marketeer’s desiderata, scholars are rendered sub-critical, ridden by the historical, hegemonic metaphor, not scholarly. Scholars of integrity–as opposed to court philosophers–have to be able to distinguish between activities that are really semi-sovereign, unalienated, and creative making (in Scarry’s 1985 sense), and those that are not.

This distinction, however, requires of conservatives and liberals a perhaps-impossible conceptual shift to recognition of non-elites as humans, with a human range of capacities and limitation, capable of human development and making. It forces a conceptual shift in our understanding of sovereignty–not to dispense with the notion, but to shift it from a God-like absolute ideal, jealously monopolized over a dominion, to an alloyed and socially-distributed attribute, fit for a social life on Earth.

By classifying all non-productive activities as consumption, commodified acts of ceremonial destruction making way for more production, we deny all human making (imagination and realization to address a suffering) beyond the capitalist class. Consumption scholars “are categorizing all non-alienated forms of production as consumption, which has the incredibly reactionary political effect of treating almost all every form of unalienated experience we do engage in as somehow a gift granted us by the captains of industry.” Graeber calls for us to replace the (pseudo-) “Marxist” (capitalist) opposition between production and consumption with another understanding of human activity–effectively Marxist social reproduction, what Anthropologists conceive more idealistically as “the sphere of the production of human beings, not just as labor power but as persons, internalized nexes of meaningful social relations.” Human creative activity essential to capitalist value accumulation, because mostly uncommodified and so expropriated.

(Graeber, an anarchist, sometimes is a little sketchy on Marxist theory, or at least prone to viewing the Frankfurt School as a logical extension of Marx, rather than an historical-psychological extension from the Holocaust. Note that while Marxists do analyze consumption as one of several forms of capitalist alienation–commodity fetishism, the Marxist “sphere” distinction is between the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation (not a “sphere of consumption”), and that contrasting-spheres conceptualization serves in Marxist theory to explain capitalist incentive, anxiety to secure the surplus, profit.)

“Insofar as social life is and always has been mainly about the mutual construction of human beings, the ideology of consumption has been endlessly effective in helping us forget this. Most of all it does so by suggesting that: a)human desire is essentially as a matter of a relation between individuals and phantasms; b)our primarily relation with other individuals, then, becomes an endless struggle to establish their sovereignty, or autonomy, by incorporating and destroying aspects of the world around them; (MF: So idealist capitalist phagocytotic desire compels us to revoke others’ sovereignty absolutely.) c) this logic ultimately becomes the basis for ways of imagining the very possibility of relations with other people (the (Sartrean) problem of “the Other”); d) materially, it becomes the basis for imagining society as a gigantic engine of production and destruction in which the only significant human activity is either manufacturing things, or engaging in acts of ceremonial destruction so as to make way for more: a vision which in fact sidelines most (social reproduction) things that real people actually do, and insofar as it is translated into actual economic behavior, is obviously unsustainable.”

“Even as anthropologists and other social theorists directly challenge this view of the world, the (overly-broad,) unreflective use and indeed propagation of terms like ‘consumption’ ends up completely undercutting their efforts and reproducing exactly the tacit ideological logic we would wish to undercut” (Graeber 2015: 30).

…That is if consumption theorists wish to undercut the Catholic-capitalist logic. But it’s not clear that anyone playing in the wheelhouse of conservatism wants to undercut conservatism’s logic. Perhaps all they aspire to do is wittily, pseudo-critically, conservative-ethically coordinate and regulate pneumatic contemplation, prescribe the self-management of the delegated passion, wonder at the creativity–a munificence bestowed by capitalist lords upon the multitudinous bellies, and assert the fatal impossibility of mutual recognition, shared sovereignty,  non-elite development, and democracy.

See also: Post on Star Wars: An Ethics Discourse on Who Made Me?


Elitism & Patronage: The Inegalitarian’s Theory of Justice

Theory literacy & its application

On how theoretical assumptions provide specific foundations producing specific varieties of knowledge:

Methodologically, comparison is a great way of understanding what exists, what is possible, and how alternative approaches and projects function. In the contrasting discipline of Linguistics, theory tends to be based on the distinct philosophical ontological assumption that the knowable world is a projection of human discourse—oral and/or written language. In a world of language, there is no inequality, no violation of shared commonality. There is only difference within language. Thus, in the philosophical linguistic ontology, the diminishment of difference is injustice. Recall Burke from Unit One: Arguing that when democratic Enlightenment theorists reduce inequality, they reduce the beautiful, natural difference that is Excellence, and so they reduce justice, is the conservative social philosophers’ political argument.

Conceiving of injustice as strictly the diminishment of difference, philosophical-linguistic ontology historically emerges from and is built for supporting the reproduction of high-inequality societies. The world-as-text assumption foundation justifies linguists’ disciplinary knowledge, including against the social scientific knowledge that arose within the struggle toward Western Enlightenment.

Social scientific knowledge distinctively assumes that humans exist together in an historical, material, embodied way within a knowable world that exists in but also beyond our linguistic networks. Corrollaries:

  • Social scientific ontology distinctively recognizes inequality, the violation of human commonality, as injustice.
  • Scientific knowledge is not only about what is, but also what can be. Fully specified science is descriptive (identifying trends), predictive (identifying the trajectory of trends), and normative (identifying alternatives we can socially construct).

In linguistic theory, “aporias” are empty spaces, treated as black boxes beyond knowledge, that within language structure the linguistic world, which for linguists is the whole world. Linguistic theory’s “aporias” correspond to the material world in science.

However, in science, the world beyond discourse is not treated as a black box, but is rather the focus of scientific knowledge-seeking. Recall from Marxist historical-materialism: In science, we strive to mobilize across space and time our distinctively human, material capacities to know the world. These capacities include not only our logical and emotional capacities, not only our social communication capacity, but also our hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and proprioreceptor senses as well. With our distinctive human physical manipulation capacity (manual dexterity), we can build technological augmentations for our capacities, to further help us know the world beyond human language networks. Through scientific method employed across the community of shared scholarship to compensate for our human limitations, this aggregate knowledge will be incorporated in theory, in language according to democratic methodology, changing language in a distinct way. We think the virtue of scientific knowledge for democracy is that science is fundamentally built to involve a diversity of people, including a wide range of non-elites, in continually probing and searching for knowledge beyond elite exceptionalist, strategic interests. Scientific findings thus are not transcendental “truth,” but have validity. The ongoing conflict between elitist philosophy and scientific validity, as between inegalitarianism and egaliberte, is which is more just: transcendental truth, perhaps cherry-picking history, but always secured strictly by righteous power and entitlement, or validity, a provisional truth based on methodically apprehending and collectively interpreting aggregations of knowledge across humans.

How do contrasting ontologies, epistemologies,[1] and corresponding theory assumption bases impact the knowledge we produce?

Consider this case of the equivalence Mill (1869, “The Subjection of Women”) was arguing between slavery and patriarchy.

For a disciplinary Linguist, what is important is that slavery involves race, whereas patriarchy is about gender, and these concepts reflect distinct linguistic networks. A discourse theorist would argue that connecting patriarchy to slavery in terms of their function, as Mill did, creates an injustice against racialized people because it erases linguistic difference. Erasing linguistic difference is the ultimate injustice within philosophical-linguistic theory. You might recognize that this is a type of justice philosophy, the elite, conservative justice of the exception, which is oriented to find injustice where solidaristic connections are made between non-elite majorities and non-elite minorities. German idealism, including its Nietzschean, Weberian, and Ordoliberal branches, developed this approach through the German university system, originally dedicated to training the princely managers of European monarchies.

Perhaps ideally, exception-justice theory could be incorporated in democratic knowledge, could correct for science’s focus on aggregating positional knowledges and finding central trends. However, instead, in a capitalist society of manufactured scarcity, exception-justice theory tends to be deployed as a proprietary antithesis to scientific knowledge. In that context, it relies on righteous moralism.

For example, in a 2018 account of the Nazi construction of Asperger’s as a designation allowing for special socialization of sub-social boys into productive German society, a writer, L. Sheffer, married into Silicon Valley tech wealth, links Dr. Asberger’s cruel Nazi treatment of non-Asberger child deviants to the welfare state, in its social coordination functions that impinge on the lives of the exceptional. The conservative logic and morality are structured to support elite interest: opposing state intervention in market power.

For the conservative wealthy mother of a child on the autism spectrum, justice is a state free of democratic redistributive capacity, a social contract that permits economic elites to retain wealth without redistributive taxation or income and wealth compression, while the responsibility is laid upon presumably-brutish sea of Muggles to adjust, like the servants they are, to the autism-spectrum Silicon Valley inheritors of society’s wealth. To market this elite interest requires a moving–emotionally manipulative–story, ostensibly about Asbergers, connecting and reducing the welfare state to shameful, murderous Nazis…who did not kill boys designated with Asbergers. No matter the leaps and strains in the story (this time, putatively about Asbergers). Painting elite interest as moral crusader for the most vulnerable and marginalized is the feminized half of the inegalitarian conservative social order. In place of egaliberte, elites shall gift us a society of patronage (and servitude). Then when conservatives retell another cobbled, holey, moralism-patched account of why everyone should support inegalitarian absolute private property right, the tale is always marketed (as M. Pridmore-Brown did in the March 29, 2019 LRB) with hype around how brilliantly nuanced and complicated the argument is–That is conserva-code for crookedness and emotional manipulation.

To demonstrate the “truth” of exception-justice theory, a Linguist might gesture to a justice-of-the-exception argument forwarded by a community of African-American philosophers, such as the claim that slavery is an exceptional, incomparable experience of difference. This project argues that 99%-solidarity arguments such as Mill’s are injustice, from within the difference morality of the justice-of-the exception paradigm.

By contrast, a Sociological social scientist would be more likely to understand Mill’s argument about the slavery nature of patriarchal relations within the historical-materialist theory of capitalist development, in which capitalist relations (allocating to a small elite exclusive ownership and control over the means of production) repeatedly rely on and reproduce a “sea of appropriated work” (Jason Moore 2014), such as both slavery and patriarchy, among other kinds of expropriation.

Because it is based in a democratic-justice paradigm, does this mean that social science cannot forward a morality argument like a discursive exception-justice paradigm can?

No. Sociologists can gesture to, for example, Du Bois’ democratic justice arguments finding homologies (similarities) between the development of patriarchy, slavery, and racism (among other injustices, like ecological destruction) in the history of capitalist relations. Today, scholars of color including Angela Davis, Sedef Arat Koc, Glenn Coulthard and Leanne Simpson, et al, forward democratic-justice arguments rooted in social science and other (eg. indigenous) historical-materialist paradigms. Likewise, climate scientists have found their moral voice in recent years.

Moralism is a classic crutch propping up inegalitarianism. Although exceptionalist knowledge tends to be especially defended with moral arguments (eg. Burke), moralism is not an exclusive property of any one kind of justice paradigm or political wheelhouse. As the philosophical materialists, and as Dewey, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft maintained, democracy requires moral development, toward a capacity to balance goods (or “pleasures”) over a lifetime and across lives. Yet advancing democratic capacity requires us all to learn theoretical literacy and scientific craft, rather than to lean on moralistic discourse.

Feminist social reproduction theorists JS Mill, M Wollstonecraft, V Woolf, and E Clews-Parsons would argue that education for democratic development requires us to rigorously study the theory and practice the empirical skills to move beyond reproducing an inegalitarian, gender-segregated society disposing feminized people to specialize in the moral regulation of segregated private worlds, as a social-reproductive complement to men disposed to be club conservatives bound to exploitation and imperialism.


Historical context: Social science knowledge v. Social philosophy knowledge

In the 20th century, as part of their neoliberal mobilization to reorient liberalism, as it’s centered on private property right, back toward the conservative wheelhouse of inequality and inegalitarianism, conservatives organized scholars around the claim that scientific, democratic social knowledge is unjust and requires correction–specifically correction with the elite-governed justice-of-the-exception paradigm. To make this claim, some conservative scholars depicted science as nothing more than state-subordinated scientism. Others, such as conservative economists, practiced and proliferated scientism.

Yet arguably, the neoliberal project to demonstrate that the elite-interest-governed justice-of-the-exception best represents the interests of the most marginalized non-elite peoples tends to be a co-optative reaction to democratic justice approaches and projects. Along with scientism, restoring justice-of-the-exception theory is part of a “neoliberal” conservative restoration project explicitly formulated to disrupt, dismantle, and replace democratic knowledge development.

[1] Ontologies: philosophies of what exists. Epistemologies: philosophies of how we know.