The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Advertisements

Primitive Accumulation, Negative Externalities and Growth

Over the years, Stefano Bartolini has modeled economic growth, showing that whereas most models of economic growth feature accumulation and technical progress as engines of growth, a third engine is needed to ensure self-perpetuating economic growth. History, the theory of Polanyi & Hirsch, and Bartolini’s models suggest that third engine is 2 negative externalities that combine to drive growth: 1) positional externalities, and 2) externalities that reduce social and natural capital.

Pagano 1999 defined a positional good: consumption by an individual of a positive amount of a positional good involves the consumption of an equal negative amount by someone else. Power and status are fundamental positional goods; others include education and housing.  The positional goods/services/externalities theoretical tradition extends from Veblen 1899/1934 and Hirsh 1976. In addition to Bartolini, Robert H. Frank (“Falling Behind”) has continued to explore this tradition as well as Bowles and Park 2002, Schor 1998, and Corneo and Jeanne 2001.

“Industrial revolutions are the paradigmatic example of this (Growth as Substitution) mechanism: they are the most striking processes of labor supply and accumulation increase because they are the most striking processes of social and environmental devastation recorded by economic history” (Stefano Bartolini, “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth.” 2003: 9).

Williamson 1995, Krugman 1995, and Bartolini et al have shown that the transition to an industrial economy has always been associated with explosive growth in the labor force participation rate.

Such growth-propelling negative externalities are discussed within the Marxist tradition as primitive accumulation. To further explore: The relationship between primitive accumulation and other capitalist strategies of promoting profit-restoring growth to the point of increasing contradiction / social and environmental irrationality.

Bartolini’s growth-model can better explain the failure of conservative economics’ predicted relationship between growth and happiness (Bartolini 2003). Inter alia, political scientist Lane 2000 shows that American growth is not associated with increased happiness.

Capitalism & Corruption

Capitalism overfloweth with marketing. It’s fair enough to point out the system never does deliver the goods.

“First and last, it’s a question of money,” Clarence Darrow said. “Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have, and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in. The laws are really organized for the protection of the men who rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice. We have no system for doing justice, not the slightest in the world.” 

Not all condemnations of corruption are equal. Certainly, one can and should warn against getting stuck upon ‘corruption’ as a problem of individual moral failing, against assuming that such an individual moral failing can cause our age’s contradictions and crises. Zizek thunders against clerics’ efforts to blind us to the causes of our problems with their anti-historical, idealist framing:

“The first two things one should prohibit are therefore the critique of corruption and the critique of financial capitalism. First, let us not blame people and their attitudes: the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is neither Main Street nor Wall Street, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street. Public figures from the pope downward bombard us with injunctions to fight the culture of excessive greed and consummation – this disgusting spectacle of cheap moralization is an ideological operation, if there ever was one: the compulsion (to expand) inscribed into the system itself is translated into personal sin, into a private psychological propensity, or, as one of the theologians close to the pope put it: ‘The present crisis is not crisis [sic] of capitalism but the crisis of morality.’”

But you need not simply use the charge of “corruption” as an emotional tool with which to blind, distract, manipulate, and control nearly-powerless subjects, as the conservative Papacy, flexing its enduring utility to feudal power, does to the unsuspecting, the faithful, and the libertarian. Rather, you can, as does Marx, comprehend corruption as an inevitable product of a social order that demands concentrated economic surplus/power accumulation.

“In every stockjobbing swindle every one knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. ‘Après moi le déluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society” Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 10 (1867).

It is not that emotion or condemnation is wrong. Emotion is human, and often must be addressed strategically. Leftists would be autistic dupes to let conservatives monopolize emotions, and ridiculous to flatter themselves that to leave emotion to conservatives makes Leftists pristine, ethical…otherwordly, in imitation of imaginary deities, and similarly ineffable, ineffectual. That’s a trap that’s been laid before, and we should recognize it.

The problem is the socially-irrational concentration of the massive accumulation of wealth–capitalism. That is fundamentally corrupt. The problem is, as Zizek recognizes, “Main Street’s” rigid inability to function without Wall Street, to the point of compounding, brakeless social and environmental irrationality. Socialism is needed to break this free-fall, to put a brake on the capitalist corruption of human sociability.

Capitalism Takes Food from the Poor

Have you ever wondered how it is that capitalism causes malnourishment? Here’s one way.

“The global rush to buy farmland continues, and international investors are focusing on the poorest countries with weak land-rights security…Investor interest in land was triggered by the 2007-08 spike in food prices, and the long-term trends that drive deals are rising commodity prices, population growth, growing consumption and demand for biofuels and timber…The deals in the database amount to 83.2 million hectares (205.6 million acres) of land in developing countries…Most of the investors are private companies, accounting for 442 projects covering 30.3 million hectares, followed by state- owned companies with 172 projects and 11.5 million hectares, based on the data. Investment funds were behind 32 projects covering 3.3 million hectares….

 Governments often sell land already in use by smallholder farmers, according to the (research) group. About 45 percent of deals target cropland or crop-vegetation mosaics, where investors are competing for land with local farming communities, the group reported. ‘Investors are targeting countries with weak land tenure security, although they try to look for countries that at the same time offer relatively high levels of investor protection,’ the Land Matrix group said.”

Look at the Landportal Landmatrix data on capitalism incentivizing investors to steal arable land from the poor, that the moneyed might speculate on the dispossessed’s ensuing starvation.

Geist in the Machine

Arundhati Roy’s “Capitalism, a ghost story” is beautifully written and meaty.

“By calling their tower Antilla, do the Ambanis hope to sever their links to the poverty and squalor of their homeland and raise a new civilisation? Is this the final act of the most successful secessionist movement in India? The secession of the middle and upper classes into outer space? 

As night fell over Mumbai, guards in crisp linen shirts with crackling walkie-talkies appeared outside the forbidding gates of Antilla. The lights blazed on, to scare away the ghosts perhaps. The neighbours complain that Antilla’s bright lights have stolen the night. 

 Perhaps it’s time for us to take back the night.”