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.

Who really supports the arc of Western civilization?

“All that is real in the universe is an infinity of void space, and an infinity of primary particles in random and everlasting motion. Such is the physics of Epicurus…The Epicurean idea of an infinite universe of matter and space, indifferent to human hopes and concerns but whose workings can be understood, is the predominant scientific idea with which we now live. We have fellow feeling with the importance Epicurus attaches to happiness in this life, with his desire to diminish pain and overcome irrational fears, and with his attempt to understand and come to terms with death, the frontier we shall all reach but not cross as the individuals we now are…

The one world realism of Epicurus is made sharper by the principles 1. No thing is ever created out of nothing by divine will; everything happens according to natural laws without the aid of gods. and 2. No thing is ever put out of existence: natural laws resolve each thing again into its primary parts.

…This would commonly be taken as a contradiction of the Genesis story which forms the foundation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic credos about God creating ex nihilo.

But there is an ambiguity. The first two verses of the Book of Genesis may mean either (a) ‘In the beginning God created (out of nothing) the heavens and the earth and (when he had done this) the earth was without form and void…’ or (b) ‘In the beginning the earth was without form and void and (from the pre-existing condition) God created the heavens and the earth…’

The first time that meaning (a) appears unequivocally in the Hebrew canon is in Maccabees 7:28. Generally Christians have preferred (a) and Muslims (b)” (Gaskin, John. 1995. The Epicurean Philosophers: ix, xxiv, xxvii.).

Deleuze’s "Bartleby; Or The Formula"

Deleuze, Gilles. 1998. “Bartleby; Or, The Formula,” pp. 68-90 in Essays Critical & Clinical. Verso.

This is a sometimes-breathtaking work of social-literary analysis, see especially pp. 84-90.

(According to Melville,) “If humanity can be saved, and the originals reconciled (with secondary humanity, the inhuman with the human), it will only be through the dissolution or decomposition of the paternal function…As Joyce will say, paternity does not exist, it is an emptiness and nothingness-or rather, a zone of uncertainty haunted by brothers, the brother and sister…Melville will never cease to elaborate on the radical opposition between fraternity and Christian ‘charity’ or paternal ‘philanthropy’…(The fraternal/sororal society) requires a new community, whose members are capable of trust or ‘confidence,’ that is, of a belief in themselves, in the world, in becoming…Long before Lawrence, Melville and Thoreau were diagnosing the American evil, the new cement that would rebuild the wall: paternal authority and filthy charity” (Deleuze 1998: 84-88).

“And what was Bartleby asking for, if not a little confidence from the attorney, who instead responds to him with charity and philanthropy–all the masks of the paternal function?” (Deleuze 1998: 88).

If they haven’t already (and I’m sure they have), someone should take Deleuze’s essay as foundation, and focus more penetratingly, in a more sustained fashion, on Melville’s anti-conservative unfinished-Enlightenment politics, his class politics, and how they inform his critique of the (Anglo-)American Confidence-Man–i.e. the betrayal of fraternity/sorority and confidence/trust for the sake of profit/surplus accumulation, power accumulation (Not necessarily one’s own; usually one’s employer’s or client’s surplus/power accumulation).

Doesn’t the Confidence-Man betrayal = Magical Rectitude, eg. liberal social progressivism?

"Markets" are Confident When They’re Flaunting Moral Hazard

 “In Italy, the key programmatic points were listed last summer in a letter (meant to remain secret!) from the European Central Bank to the Berlusconi government. To restore market ‘confidence’, it was necessary to proceed rapidly down the road of ‘structural reforms’, an expression now used as a synonym for social devastation: in other words, wage cuts, attacks on workers’ rights over hiring and firing, increases in the pension age, and large-scale privatization.” –Marcello Musto, discussing the replacement of elected governments with technocracies, on the occasion of the bank failures. 

“Restore market confidence”–this causal explanation and imperative begs for a new, blistering Marxist critique.

How does an institution “gain confidence”? Well, there actually is a small group of “confidence”-craving humans behind the institution. We’ll call them the Confidence Men. Recall “effective demand,” which means that the market most certainly does not register billions of preferences. The market registers the preferences of whomever holds the majority shares in it, that is, whomever has the most control over the wealth, however this Confidence-man minority commandeered that wealth, which is certainly not by abstaining from any of the following: exploitation, dispossessing others, despoiling nature, maintaining totalitarian work conditions, corrupting politics, and generally abusing power. It is this small group of effectively-sociopathic Confidence Men that demand that their staff in governments reassures them that it’s all for them, by for example, transferring the massive costs of their confidence schemes and failures to the rest of society.

David Harvey on crisis-explanation points from The Enigma of Capital.

What’s the alternative to endlessly pouring money down the black hole of “restoring market confidence”? The state could transfer the task of supplying credit to responsible, accountable institutions, such as cooperative credit unions or national banks.

We are considering undertaking a study of the responses to the initial 2007-2008 financial crisis voiced by prominent members of the North American left, looking not to out poor responders, but to name reliable commentators who had the political literacy to know that in a crisis you forward alternative policies, rather than join the conservative drumbeat for TINA policies (like bailouts). There’s been much recent  handwringing (by leftists trained in econ) about economic illiteracy on the left. Arguably, political-economic illiteracy is the problem we need to be wrestling with.

Richard Peet takes a small stab at it in his article “Contradictions of Finance Capital” (Monthly Review 12/ 2011):

“Finance capitalist agents exercise power by controlling access to the markets through which capital accumulations become investments, directing flows of capital in various forms—as equity purchases, bond sales, direct investment, etc.—to places and users that are approved by the financial analytic structure of the Wall Street and City of London banks and investment firms. 

The gaze of the “investment analyst” representing the “confidence of the market” is the active form taken by the financial capitalist interest, although “investor confidence” is presented as somehow neutral and technical, in the best long-term interest of everyone—“professional economics” is to blame for this misrepresentation

The accumulation of surplus in the relatively few hands of the super-wealthy intensifies the financial component of capitalist growth and increases the power of the financial capitalist class fraction over not just the industrial fraction, but everyone else as well. Control over investment capital and financial technical expertise gives finance capital and its banking representatives tremendous power—over policy making, over economies, over employment and income, over advertising and image-production…over everything. Production, consumption, economy, culture, and the use of environments are subject to a more removed, more abstract calculus of power, in which the ability to contribute to short-term financial profit becomes the main concern” (Peet).

Radicalized Keynesian Paul Krugman has been a great chronicler of the various grotesque, pathetic exploits of the undead Confidence Fairy.

Most recently, from Krugman’s “The Austerity Debacle” (1/29/2012):

“How could the economy thrive when unemployment was already high, and government policies were directly reducing employment even further? Confidence! ‘I firmly believe,’ declared Jean-Claude Trichet — at the time the president of the European Central Bank, and a strong advocate of the doctrine of expansionary austerity — ‘that in the current circumstances confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery, because confidence is the key factor today.’

 Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs. Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas” (Krugman, explaining how it came to be that the British conservative government’s obliging extension of capitalist class warfare resulted in that country’s economic decline).

 Don’t be fooled by the cuteness. She’s undead, and she’ll destroy your economy.