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An Ethic of Virtue and the Modern Condition, Part I

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Morality and politics, and the connection between the two, have been the undercurrent of my thinking of late, the leitmotif of my recent essays. It’s a classical conception to be sure, dating back to Aristotle for whom politics was but an outgrowth of ethics, an extension of personal relations to the social and beyond; and once this extension was carried forth, the political was born: a clan became a tribe, a tribe a coalition of tribes, eventually a city-state (the polis, as Greeks would have it), and then a federation, a compact between city-states. A nation-state is where we are right now, representing as it were the pinnacle of our efforts, a point beyond which we can’t seem to see our way past.Have we reached thus the end of our evolutionary or moral development as a species? Does this centrifugal movement away from the parochial to the universal, this constant progression towards human enlightenment and the ethos of inclusion, represent the end of the road for us? Can’t we do better? I’d like to believe that we can. More importantly, however, I’d like to provide you with reasons, cogent reasons, why we can. There is a basis for hope.   

No question that extraneous circumstances, whether due to nature and its elements or events beyond, engineered by humans because of strife, desire for conquest or plain hostility, have all accelerated this relentless push towards consolidation and the making of alliances. The commonality of purpose has always served as the most immediate impetus for coalition-forming, whether you’re an aggressor or a defender. Only a fool would dismiss pragmatic considerations as representing the first step, if only the first step, in all such endeavors. Still, to say there is strength in numbers, that it makes perfect sense to present a united front against common enemy, again, either natural or human, is not to say very much. We can do better.

In the remainder of this article, I’d like to argue that what really matters is the basis of human consensus and coalition-forming. Practical Reason, to borrow from Kant, may be the first step in the process, but only the first step. If we truly believe ourselves to have progressed on the evolutionary or moral scale, beyond the exigencies of the moment or of dire necessity, then we must look for human consensus on more lasting, more solid grounds. Pragmatism, as far as I’m concerned, is only a platform, a launching pad on the way to transcendence, ultimate transcendence. It instills in us the habit, a very useful habit for humans connecting, but it falls short of the mark by ignoring the possibilities. What ultimately matters about humans connecting is the nature of the underlying purpose, beyond what’s merely practical or prudential. And to my thinking, there is no better candidate for building a meaningful and lasting consensus than commonality of values, shared values, no better principle of construction if our aim is inclusion.

I used to be fond of saying there is no better basis for revolutionary thought and action than shared morality, with the emphasis of course on universal justice. And Kant’s dictum, amounting more or less to a proposition asserting “the moral equivalence of persons,” always served as the cornerstone. It’s not exactly as though I’ve come to question the validity of these propositions; they’re still true as far as they go. What’s missing, however, is their grounding in human psychology and the intricacies of our language, our moral language; in short, in our everyday practice. Indeed, apart from this grounding, Kant’s dictum comes across as a standalone, detached proposition with no particular rhyme or reason, divorced from everyday living and everyday concerns. Even if taken as a maxim, as an injunction to live by, a rule of thumb as to how we ought to act in each and every circumstance, it’s lukewarm and it fails to inspire because, as stated, it’s unconnected to everyday concerns, to the human psychology and ordinary language.

It’s the express purpose of this article to correct this oversight and sketch the necessary background in order for Kant’s dictum to come alive, as it were, a living truth. For unless it becomes a living truth, I’m convinced we’re destined to remain cavemen.




It’s been remarked lately by my comrade-in-arms that most of our personal relationships are communal in nature. (I shan’t say “communist” lest I estrange most of you!) This made a deep impression on me for it’s a deep, very deep thought. Just think! It’s not our desire for gain or for comparative advantage that dictates how we tend to relate to the people we know and associate with day in and day out: our acquaintances, neighbors, friends what have you. Granted, much of it may be grounded in pure practicality, the usual give and take, the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” good neighbor policy; in fact, it all may have started that way. But surely, there’s also an element of friendship, of certain affinity, if not at first then eventually. Human relationships, when given their due course, do tend to progress from what’s merely practical to something beyond. And friendships, affinity, all of the above, certainly suggest the sharing of values, common values. None could survive in the absence of such.In his recent book on the origins of debt and money, Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber makes pretty much the same point, though his focus is on our economic relations. Our original dealings in what we’ve come to call the market place, it’s arguable, weren’t motivated by any desire for personal gain. Even the idea of “fair exchange:” you have what I need, and vice versa, so let’s barter!  misses the point, according to Graeber. Indeed, even with the advent of money (in order to facilitate the ease of exchange, among other things), the so-called legal tender, Graeber argues, was essentially an IOU, a promise; and given the common practice of debt forgiveness every seventh as well as the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, there was no stigma that’s being attached nowadays to nonpayment of debt, no reflection on the debtor’s moral character. 

In essence, our so-called economic relations were no different at first from our usual comings and goings, the kind of stance we so readily adopt when it comes to friendships and relationships of reciprocity. It’s only with commercialization of human economies, in particular, with the quantification of an honest-to-goodness promise, if not gratitude, in terms of money (as though there were any inherent value to this money thing, this fictive repository of worth) that we begin to recognize our present and how we got from point A to point B. But initially, if we take human economies as our starting point, even when it came to exchanges, money acted more as a social lubricant, less as purchasing power: the English “thank you,” Graeber reminds us, derives from a phrasal verb meaning “I will remember what you did for me.”

How exactly things have deteriorated to the point whereby outstanding debt started to accrue interest so as to become a burden, leading to the debtor’s enslavement, imprisonment or other innumerable hardships, is a story in its own right and I don’t think it need concern us now. Suffice it to say, it was a gradual process. And even though the Church was always opposed to money lenders and the practice of usury, I think it’s a safe bet the process crystallized and assumed its present dimensions with the inauguration of capitalism.

To make a long story short, human relationships, which used to underlie exchange of goods and services, took a back seat and have become supplanted by transactions. (That’s the meaning of commodification or commodity fetishism that Marx talked about, along with the attendant by-product, alienation.) And what has became apparent in the sphere economic was paralleled by a similar development when it came to the political.

Relationships have been supplanted by transactions! I’m not as clear as I ought to be about the exact nature of the relationship between the two spheres, more specifically, of how the impoverishment of the individual in one realm had led to a similar impoverishment in the other; nor am I as clear as I should be about the direction of causality: perhaps what we’re dealing with here is a complex, a highly interactive complex whereby the events and trends in one area give rise to similar events and trends in the other; and vice versa of course. Of one thing, however, I’m certain: there’s got to be one, some kind of relationship, that is. After all, Adam Smith and John Locke were on the same page insofar as their conceptions of the human subject are concerned. Both the economic man and the political man come out equally truncated on either account if the classicist view is to remain our standard. In the interest of brevity, let’s just say both have merged into one: the one-dimensional man!




The relevance of these remarks to the subject under discussion should be apparent by now. If human relationships could be said to constitute the bloodlife of social organization, its building blocks, as it were, starting at the micro level and then proceeding outwards, it would stand to reason we should see them manifested in all walks of life, public or private. When we look at our institutions, however, we walk away with a different picture. If anything, human interactions emerge as having a disrupting influence on the smooth functioning of our organizational structures, let alone the purposes these structures were supposed to serve.  

I’m not exactly against formalization or streamlining for efficiency’s sake whenever humans conduct their business for public purpose. I can appreciate the fact that some of it may be necessary if we’re wholly intent on attaining that end to the exclusion of all other concerns and with a minimum of waste. (A bureaucratic/technocratic mindset is the natural outgrowth, the general tenor pervading most of our modern-day organizations, public or private, whenever the goal of efficiency is taken to the extreme, but that’s just an aside.) But surely, the codification of rules of conduct to govern organizational behavior cannot be the whole answer, for we’re not talking here about keeping down the static that may result from humans relating to one another as they normally do, and interfering thus with the organizational purpose, but about eliminating it altogether.

So understood, one can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t something categorically wrong with our institutions if they require of us that we abandon our personhood. The fact we accept this condition as a given and never question it doesn’t make it right. If anything, it should only make us suspicious of our institutions for not allowing us to be ourselves. There’s something unnatural about it, I daresay, a cause for concern, let alone puzzlement.




It wasn’t always so, I hasten to add. Prior to Augustus, the presumed founding father of civil service in what had become by then the Imperial Rome, the business of politics, in spite of such formal institutions as the Roman Senate, was conducted for the most part in an informal kind of way, behind closed doors. Pater familias was the most pre-political nexus and unit of political will of note, and amicitia, along with the extensive system of patronage and the army of clients to back one’s political demands, the lubricant that greased the wheel. (It doesn’t say very much for our modern notion of transparency we’ve come to value, but then again, this is not the point!) 

Caesar’s overtures to Cicero weren’t empty gestures or mere exercise in Caesar’s literary talents. They reflected the underlying reality. Caesar needed Cicero’s approval, he needed Cicero’s good will and friendship to help him implement his political program. The fact that Cicero refused tells us about the kind of man Caesar was and Cicero was not. But it also tells us about the tenor of the times and how the Romans, in the pre-Augustan era, conducted their politics.

The Middle Ages, which featured a feudal mode of human relations, from economics to practically everything under the sun, offer a more recent example. Whatever the faults of that long bygone era, and there are many, the ensuing relationships between humans in all walks of life were personal to the core, up-close-and-personal, to use the modern idiom. And loyalty, personal loyalty, was the glue that held the medieval society together, whether the relationship was between the lord and the overlord, the lord and his vassal, or the lord and his serf. The respective duties and obligations, as well the proper recompense, may have been written in stone and therefore irrevocable, but they weren’t based on any kind of contract requiring you to sign on the dotted line. Your word was your contract, and allegiance (not alliance) was understood to cut both ways.

An oath of allegiance, a knightly custom, to be sure, was all that was required (though I’m certain the function was mostly ceremonial, pure formality). But the same kind of oath, I contend, was in effect even between the serf and his lord, though it remained unexpressed, In short, human relationships ruled over transactions. There were no transactions!

The early Christian churches, established by Paul throughout the Greco-Roman world, represented perhaps the finest example of people relating to one another, to their fellow believers and to their God, in a totally personal way, unencumbered by their relative importance or unimportance, their status in society or their wealth, but we’re getting too far afield, I’m afraid. Suffice it to say, the idea of contract and financial obligation are relatively speaking modern notions, and I can’t think of any epoch other than capitalism which made them all-important. And the same goes for transactions, which usurped the realm traditionally reserved for human relations. You might point to The Merchant of Venice as a counterexample; I think of it as but a precursor.




Where am I going with this? In particular, what is the relationship between politics and ethics, between morality, human relationships and virtue?

By way of answering these questions, let me rephrase my friend’s formulation concerning the essentially communal character of most of our everyday dealings. It’s a fairly accurate, descriptive term as far as it goes, descriptive in terms of the sheer practicality underlying it, in terms of what’s visible on the outside. We’re being treated to a sociological fact, that’s for certain. But all along, throughout this essay, I tried to argue on behalf of something beyond mere practicality which, I remain convinced, underwrites our everyday comings and goings. I don’t care what name you give it, but there is something beyond, of this I’m certain too.

To cut to the chase, I contend that most human relationships are in essence moral relationships. And if they’re not moral, then they’re not relationships if we want to speak truly, but mere transactions masquerading as the real. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the communal description or turn of phrase, as long as it’s understood that what underlies it and what makes it possible is none other than the common morality we all share and practice.

In the concluding part, I’ll connect the dots. In particular, I’ll argue on behalf of an ethic of virtue, to enable us to make the quantum leap from what’s merely practical to what’s ideational and desirable, and in the process, try to make Kant’s dictum come alive, if possible. Lastly, I’ll end with an ode to an ethic of love, that all-embracing principle of total inclusion.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Talking of communism, I’ve recently watched an over nine-hour trilogy, same source, The Human Condition, every minute of it gripping.

  • Here is the link to the first of a three-episode series, available though Hulu Plus.

    I don’t know whether you’ll be able to access if you don’t have a subscription. It’s one of the things I’ve simply got to have, even though I must economize on other things.

  • Rosselini’s Medici? I put them on my list. I am rather behind on my movies. I spent a week or two watching Synecdoche, New York rather intermittently, trying to figure out whether it is a great work of art or a total mess or both. In the realm of politics, last Saturday I spent another two or three hours trying to mediate between two groups of activists who hate one another; one group is on the identity side and the other is on the communist side. Progress: zero, probably. I am not a good mediator because I am pretty solidly on the communist side. Anyway, it tired me out, especially since some of the convo was conducted while standing in the snow. These people are young and have a lot of energy for this sort of thing, I guess. Maybe I should pull rank and order them to be good in the name of the Supreme Central Anarchist Executive Authority. Slavoj Žižek says we have ‘secret masters’ — where the hell are they when you need them?

  • Cannonshop

    #60 Roger, thank you. I’m not always the clearest poster, though-there have been more than enough times when my words and thoughts came across muddled, muddied, and unclear.

    On a tangent (of sorts): In my opinion, Ethics are personal-that is, if a person doesn’t embrace them as they apply to him or her self, then they’re worthless words made of hypocrisy.

    Now, the problem in a legalist society like we’re currently saddled with, is that too many people take the easy way out- they let what is Legal or Illegal determine for them the standard of Ethical behaviour-and no code of law, no matter HOW detailed, will ever be enough to handle personal ethical dilemnas.

    Further, it’s a short step from letting what is illegal determine your limits, to pushing those limits beyond that line and then excusing it-esp. when there are many, many, laws that are flatly arbitrarily applied, unevenly enforced, and in some cases utterly un-enforceable.

    I’m a “Conservative” because I believe we have too many laws, too many of which are grounded not in solid foundations, but in desires and fantasies of Utopia.

    I don’t think a perfect world is a desirable world, Roger. I think an IMPERFECT world is better-because it leaves people room to grow and live, whereas perfection is, by its definition, a static, and therefore dead, condition.

  • Cannonshop

    61 Glenn, the Kim dynasty couldn’t rule North Korea without soldiers-where do you think those troops come from, if not the People they are oppressing? Consent doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, Apathy, acceptance and fear work just as well as consensus builders from the perspective of a tyrant-and that’s kind of hte point the old greek was making when he said it.

  • Well, I too need to reread parts of it to get good grasp of some key concepts. Will talk about it later, I guess.

    Have you caught my comment on the Medicis?

  • I have read only a few pages more. I am up to page 195. I will then probably want to reread parts of it. Debt is certainly one of the forms, or I should say families or categories of forms, by which whatever holds human societies together is described, but I would not say it is fundamental, like the desire for power.

    I’ve had a number of other things to do lately, plus I’m lazy.

  • So Anarcissie, have you got further along with Graeber’s MS?

    I find him to be thinking like a philosopher. Interesting, debt emerges for Graeber as a central concept, something akin to the way in which the concept of power functioned for Foucault – the glue which held society together. I mean the quantification of of what we owe to society, our parents, ancestors, etc. in terms of debt.

    Bring to mind a movie I saw lately, revolving about a custom in the Spanish society for the youngest daughter not to marry but serve instead her mother into her old age — a means of squaring with one’s parents, by sort of repaying them in kind.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Cannonshop –

    I agree with much of what you said there, but when it comes to “No Tyrant has ever ruled without the (Grudging) consent of the Governed”, I think there’s a lot of people in North Korea and what used to be Kampuchea who would disagree with you.

  • @58

    It’s encouraging, Cannon, to hear that from a conservative. But then again, though we disagree on many premises, you’ve always been able to present an elegant argument in support of your views, not to mention a detailed account of your reasons.

    Re: identity politics I spoke of on another thread, yes, I do agree that it’s not a desirable goal if we’re talking about the endgame (though it may be a valuable tool in consciousness raising).

    As to the former, the ideal situation I envisage would be one in which local decisions and actions in economics and politics are the expression of the local community’s political and economic interests. And on that scenario, it is the local community, not identity politics, which provides the needed bond between the members.

  • Zingzing

    Does politics not register as a “predictable line” to you? It’s getting more and more that way…

  • Cannonshop

    #39 as long as they aren’t killing people, raping people, overturning or shitting on cop-cars, and they clean up after themselves? Yes, Zing. I am. Just like I supported the Tea Party in its formative stages-our national problem is self-inflicted, a result of neglect by the citizens. Power corrupts, and it draws the corrupt, and the only peaceful hedge against it, is the ballot-box and making noise with protest.

    Those require the populace to be AWAKE.

    (and, if you didn’t follow my comments a couple months ago, I mentioned this back then.)

    Politicians will go as far, as we the people LET THEM GO. remember the saying: No Tyrant has ever ruled without the (Grudging) consent of the Governed.

    It is, of course, easier for Tyranny when the people are divided against one another along predictable lines like race, religion, or Ethnicity. The leaders of the dominant two political parties in this country know that, which is why they both engage in “identity Politics” as a means to keep the rank-in-file ignorant and in line.

  • Wasn’t referring to you, Glenn, or any drive-by commenters. But that’s OK, if I opened myself “so easily” it’s only indicative of the degree of my disappointment.

    Let’s you didn’t know, my articles haven’t been geared of late for general consumption. But no consumption at all … I may as well be talking to myself.


  • Glenn Contrarian

    You know more overseas than I ever will? Perhaps. But until I know more about your travels, I’ll keep my doubts since I’ve traveled more than most – and there are fewer still who are as close to an entire family overseas, to a different culture, a different way of life as I am. To be sure, there are still many who have traveled more than I – of course there are! But of course there’s a big difference between going someplace and really learning that place.

    “Knowing more than someone ever will” is not a boast I’d make about anything, Roger. Maybe your boast is justified – there’s no way for me to know. Conversely, there’s no way for you to know, either.

    Lastly, you said your “friends have abandoned” you. That might be simply a throwaway gripe because no one else is posting on this thread. Or it might be another indication of my accuracy in #54. Personally, I think it’s the former, because I really don’t think you’re so careless that you’d open yourself up so easily unless you were inebriated or intoxicated…and the only reason I feel comfortable in saying that is because I have an idea of your level of intelligence. And that’s a compliment, btw.

  • If you say so, Glenn, only if you say so.

    And for your info, I was responding in kindness, trying to have a decent conversation with you against my better instincts, but now you’re telling me to go back to where I came from.

    Thanks, buddy, but I won’t take your suggestion under advisement. Plainly, shove it where the sun doesn’t shine — I’m certain you get my meaning.

    And just in case you didn’t know, I know more about “overseas” than you;ll ever will. Thanks for kind thoughts, however, and thanks for visiting this thread.

    My friends have abandoned me, so I suppose I’m destined to get bogged downed in going nowhere conversations.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    No, Roger, I’m spot on. I’ve seen it too many times before. You’re giving up. The world is unfair and (you think) undeserving of your efforts…and you’re focusing on an easy target, demanding from it more than any government in history has ever given – perfection, even though it’s made up entirely of quite imperfect human beings.

    That, and those who are deep into self-pity or even clinical depression quite often react spitefully to those who try to help them.

    Once more, always once more I advise you to take your degree overseas and teach in a third-world nation, learn the meaning of gratitude in the faces of those you teach, and learn how very good you have it here. It will be the greatest adventure in your life, and you won’t regret it. You don’t have to take my word for it – ask Kenn Jacobine, whose beliefs are almost a polar opposite of my own. He’ll tell you much the same thing.

  • There was so self-pity whatever in my remarks. I haven’t the faintest how you derive that. I’ve led exactly the kind of life if wanted to lead, which isn’t to say I haven’t made my share of mistakes. Everyone does.

    I’d have no problem with paying taxes if I truly believed (a) they’re being put to good use; and (b) that our government is legitimate.

    Since I’ve long disavowed myself of the latter belief, your diagnosis of my state of mind is off by more than a country mile, way more. You’re not even close.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    The difference lay in that while they may not be able to pay, but would have little or no compunction about paying those taxes if they could. You, however, think that you shouldn’t have to pay any more taxes whether or not you are able to do so. THAT, Roger, is the difference. You are too intelligent and erudite to have any excuse for your deliberate intransigence.

    But like any non-emotionally-challenged human being, you are still subject to the vagaries of emotion. Self-pity is destroying your self-respect. You’ll claim you have no self-pity, of course, but that’s what it is.

  • Why don’t you preach that message to all those who are less privileged or fortunate than I happen to be, to be able to enjoy our government’s largesse? Preach it to all African-Americans who get incarcerated for minor drug offenses and with no virtual future ahead of them, preach it to all the undocumented workers who are being haunted down by our immigration policies, preach it to all our poor and our invisibles who no longer have a stake in America because all they’ve known was poverty from the day they were born. See how far you’ll get with your sermon about the goodness of America.

    Yes, I don’t judge her anymore by what she’d done for me. That’s immaterial. But I do judge her and will continue to judge her by what she hadn’t done for the least amongst us.

    Perhaps that’s the difference between you and me.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    You’ve already paid everything the government has done or will ever do to protect you? From ensuring you’re drinking clean water and breathing clean air to giving you sidewalks to walk on and world-class roads to drive on? From free representation in case you can’t pay for a lawyer to law enforcement to protect you from crimes (and to investigate crimes against you should they happen)? From essentially free health care when you go to the emergency room and can’t pay for it, to paying for your medical care from age 65 to the rest of your life?

    You’ve already paid for all that? Riiiiiight.

    No, I’m not trying to impinge on your conscience. I’m simply trying to show you how far off the edge of the map you’ve gone…and how it can really come back to haunt you.

  • I paid my dues and I’m merely getting back what I’m owed. But even if I haven’t, I’d have no compunction of robbing the thief. If they want to jail me, let them jail me, but I no longer recognize their authority to do so — so for as long as I can, I’ll remain as free as a lark.

    You’re not going to impinge on my conscience here, hard as you may. But I suppose you’re right, I ought to go underground. Soon, perhaps.

  • Glenn Contrarian


    So do you then reject any assistance given to you by the federal/state/local government? Especially given the fact that your income is low enough that you pay little in the way of taxes?

  • I’m not beyond the reach of the law, because the arm of Rome is long and far reaching. But yes, I consider our government illegitimate.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    So are you going to stop paying taxes, then, and consider yourself beyond the reach of the law of the land?

  • I don’t regard myself as citizen, not insofar as this government is concerned.

    Call me a homegrown terrorist.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    Do you now consider yourself to be a ‘sovereign citizen’?

  • No it isn’t, not thatthat kind of government. Our government deserves no better fate than the government by Mubarak.

    Self-government is.

  • Igor

    The government is the only chance that the citizen has against the New Corporate Soviet that the ruling elite has in mind for us.

  • Missing the point, Igor, I’ve long given up on the US government and all its operations (as evident by my relative lack of participation in discussions about what passes here for political subjects of any importance), and it’s about time you did, too.

    Ever since, my articles have been geared to the would-be revolutionary.

  • Igor

    I just wanted to save Roger from wasting his poor brain on ‘Ethics’ when the job is already privatized out and will be decided in corporate boardrooms and Wall Street conference rooms.

    The US government was privatized years ago when we turned a blind eye to open bribery disguised as ‘campaign contributions’. The breathtakingly adverse “Consumers United” decision by SCOTUS just anointed the practice.

    For example, the privatized Corporate Ethics Consensus has decided that while it’s unethical for mere citizens to snatch a 20 year old copy of “Cheers” without paying them a dollar for it, it’s perfectly alright for the corporations themselves to steal the multi-trillion dollar internet whole with their iron laws and draconian punishments, such as SOPA and PIPA.

    It’s a trillion dollar theft they have in mind. To steal an invention built voluntarily by the community and designed for the benefit of the community.

    That’s after their own creation, SNA, staggered to ultimate defeat under the weight of it’s corporate needs. If the corps had their way the internet would run at 30cps, viewed on a green 3270 screen with 24×80 display (no color, no graphics, who needs that?) and costing $1000/month for a leased ISDN line.

    If they have their way the internet may soon look just like that. Except that they’ll put a coin slot on your 3270. And a cop will be looking over your shoulder making sure you don’t try to use a washer. Paid with your tax dollars, of course. And you’ll pay those taxes at a 30% tax rate while they use corporate privilege to pay 15%.

    Welcome to the future, sucker.

  • zingzing

    so you’re all for the occupy movement, cannonshop?

  • Cannonshop

    #34 How many Trillion dollars in bailouts and you don’t think they already HAVE that power, Igor? Corporations have the Government to protect them from the Marketplace they exploit, and you don’t think they have that kind of power, Igor?


    Executives steal Tens of Millions from their investors, get to live in “house arrest” or country-club minimum security for a handfull of months to a handfull of years, while their ill-gotten gains gather interest offshore, and you don’t think they already have that power??

    Defense contracts float in development limbo, bloating with cost overruns to the tune of ten times the original agreed to price, only to be cancelled when the contractor can’t deliver, and you don’t think they have that power?

    Congressmen, Senators, are traded like baseball cards in the executive suites, they get regulation custom-made to guarantee both their profit, and the squelching of any potential new competitors, and you don’t think they have that kind of power??

    We are already beyond the stage where your “nightmare scenario” is on display, we’re at the point now, where it’s so corrupted that the guys doing the corrupting are scared that they might have eaten too much…because they have.

    We’re at the “Bread and Circuses” stage for the same reason that the Romans got there-the people put in charge have botched the job over successive generations and the only thing holding it up, is the ignorance and distractability of the populace-neither of which is infinite.

  • Igor


  • And it’s not just corporations, Igor. It’s our “democratic” government that’s equally to blame, as per this Democracy Now! report concerning NDAA.

  • Are you willing to live in that kind of world?

  • Igor

    Roger, stop worrying about ethics, it’s all getting privatized. Corporations will determine what is ethical for us. Corporations owned anonymously by owners protected through corporate privilege from the consequences of their acts. That way they have free rein to exercise even the most bizarre ideas without fear of consequences.

  • Used “herd instinct” only as shorthand; should have put it in scare quotes. Still am not sure about your meaning though — is the well-being of the community as a whole — apart from merely the security issue, defending it all all cost, right or wrong — part of your idea? I don’t see how the latter can be, but the way you originally put it is ambiguous.

    Everything can be coopted, so I don’t think it’s the soundest argument. I’d still say people at large don’t respond on the intellectual level, but only when you appeal to their emotions (am not used trivially here). And speaking to the issue of general societal injustice, in the way that MLK spoke, will move most everybody (and those it won’t, well, we don’t worry about it). For example, the rate of incarceration among the African-Americans, as a result of the War on Drugs, has not been part of the OWS message and it should be. And that’s surely one example of murderous undoing of whatever civil rights gains made since the sixties. And it should be connected with the recent assault on “undocumented workers” and their families and voter registration suppression. Unless all those who are being marginalized in our society in a programmatic way are included and perhaps be made the centerpiece of the OWS message, OWS is going to be perceived as just another lily white movement. (There are already efforts at cooptation by the authorities, aimed at reducing the burden of student debt, and Bloomberg’s proposal I alluded to earlier is but one example.) Lastly, I wasn’t referring to Plato’s blueprint of an “ideal society,” as per Republic, but the Socratic question concerning the nature of justice and self-interest — one of the underlying themes of Platonic dialogues.

    Are you familiar with the Age of the Medicis from your readings? Rossellini’s top-notch production raises some interesting questions vis-a-vis Graeber’s treatment of the world of finance. It’s a somewhat romantic version, though hardly uncritical as well. Rossellini well understood the issues Graeber is tackling, and there are some interesting questions which arise from a more detailed examination of the period comprising the flourishing of the Italian city-states.

  • What you’re calling the herd instinct is just a fact, for better or worse. ‘Herd instinct’ is not a very good name for it, however, because human communities are a lot more complicated than herds.

    Last summer I reread about half of Plato’s Republic and it remained as it was in my youth, a piece of crap.

    Martin Luther King was the best orator of our time. However, it is evident that his thoughts can be coopted and neutralized by murderous people like Bush and Obama, so I think something else is needed.

  • Interestingly, just watching a three-part Italian TV production by Roberto Rossellini, The Age of the Medici. It makes a similar statement about the state of Florence that Graeber does, with a bit of fiction, of course, thrown in here and there.

  • Cannonshop

    #18 “One of” the longest run-ons, but I think I still have the record for bad grammar.

  • Again, Glenn, as I tried to hint at earlier, I tend to regard the very notion of the individual rights as a vestige of (I don’t want to use the term “legacy” for its positive connotation) of liberalism, perhaps the best kind of vestige that’s left, but vestige nonetheless.

    (By “liberalism” I mean an ideology which is constructed on the basis of what I regard as an erroneous and unrealistic conception of atomistic individuals, each going about their own way, apart from the life of the community.)

    If I were to endow the concept of “rights” with any lasting merit, it would have to be “rights vs. the government” — liberty, in other words. But in that case, if one needs a declaration of rights to protect themselves from the government, than what good is that government? So in that restricted sense, I side more on the side of libertarianism rather than liberalism. I said “restricted” because both strands share the same picture of the atomized individual.

    To take this discussion to another level, how often do we really resort to the language of “our rights” in the course of our daily interactions with the people we know? This should be a telltale as to the extent the very notion is rather out of place and artificial within the life of a community.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    One can’t construct a better future if one doesn’t properly define the rights that we should have. That IMO should be one priority of the government – to properly define the rights that people should have and then protect those rights. With proper extrapolation, this does cover most (if not all) of what government is supposed to do.

  • In a way, it’s being implied, Igor, when he speaks of protecting the individual rights.

    But I take issue with this whole idea of “protecting.” My idea of governance has more to with constructing a better future than merely protecting what we don’t as yet have

  • Igor

    16-Joseph defines government waaayy too narrowly:

    “…the proper function of government, to me, is protecting the individual rights of citizens and legal residents so that they may attempt to actualize their respective full potentials.”

    No consideration of conflict?

  • MLK:

    The man and his universal message.

  • Maurice

    Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • It’d seem to me that some people, like Joseph Cotto, for example (see comments above) tend to conflate the respect we ought to extend to each individual with the methodological individualism as their philosophy, thinking erroneously that the former is the natural and logical extension of the latter. And this only adds to the confusion.

    I’d rather argue that it is precisely the kind of thinking which envisages each and every one of us as being inextricably bound to our communities which promotes mutual respect both in speech and in deed.

  • Was wondering about that.

    Locke also seems to have been such a philosopher, don’t you think?

    Not certain about your comments about the herd instinct. How exactly do you mean it? Herd above anything else – right or wrong – or concern about the well-being of one’s community? Don’t always have to be the same thing.

    You seem to fall back on empirical evidence to argue vs. methodological individualism; nothing wrong with that.

    But Plsto’s also useful in that it may help us reflect on the question of “self-interest,” namely that it doesn’t have to be as narrowly conceived as some axiomatically assume. Internal dialogue with oneself is a good thing too, and it’s been know to produce results.

  • I haven’t finished Graeber’s book about debt yet, so I won’t have much to say until I do.

    However, in regard to Randian stuff, the idea of self-interest is pretty tricky. For highly social, trooping animals like humans, group interest and group social processes are very important both practically and emotionally. It is in the interest of most human selves to be interested in the groups to which they belong. And evolution has no doubt programmed us that way, since individual survival depended on it. The notion of the paramount atomized individual, which is how most people seem to interpret Rand and other philosophers of individualism, just doesn’t exist and can’t exist in real life — not for human beings, anyway.

    You don’t need Plato for this — common and horse sense will do the trick.

  • Be that as it may, Joseph, we’re still dealing with different conceptual systems.

    I really think you should give that article by Charles Taylor a read.

  • Roger,

    Excuse my spelling error; it should have been Locke in the first sentence. That is what I get for typing too quickly.

  • Roger,

    I do not agree with all that Lock has said. However, when it comes to his focus on the individual, I find that the lion’s share of opposing arguments are irrational at best. This is because his perspective was not merely a theoretical one, but rooted in empirical evidence; that being human nature in action. As humans, we seek our own betterment first and foremost. If personal rights are revoked, then we will descend into anarchy as people will use one another as means to their own ends in horrid ways. In short, we need civilized laws, and civility rests on single human actions, and these actions only comes to pass because they make a positive relationship of any stripe probable, and self-fulfillment is derived from positive experiences. I think that not only sums up my opinion very well, but might qualify for one of the longest run-on sentences in the history of Blogcritics comments.

  • You’re being consistent, Joseph, within the model you’re operating with — with the emphasis on individual rights, etcetera and etcetera, but you still don’t question the premises which underlie the Lockean conception of the individual. I do, which is why we end up with different results. On on the alternative view, whereby it’s the interaction of the individual with respect to his or her community is what counts, the notion of individual rights sort of fades away and becomes less significant.

    We’ve got to come up with another central concept to adequately express the nature of the individual-community relationship.

  • Clavos,

    I have read Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness”. It, like so many of her other works, paints a finely detailed, and, at least in my view, accurate portrait of the human condition.


    In my view, tracing widespread societal problems to strictly individual relationships is the only rational way to address them. I do not see humankind so much as an entity in search of conflict or aggression; quite the opposite. By following our respective self interests, so long as this does not impede on others doing the same, we all can become content and, therefore, function as productive members of society.

    While Plato did have interesting sociopolitical ideals, they were just that: ideals. As everyone has his or her own set of norms and goals, attempting to build a sustainable collectively idealistic society is impossible. The proper function of government, to me, is protecting the individual rights of citizens and legal residents so that they may attempt to actualize their respective full potentials. By promoting the most beneficial aspects of human nature, and punishing destructive ones, the government can easily allow for a fruitful, reasonable civilization to flourish. Politics is merely a legislative and administrative means to this end.

  • Alright, Joseph, here’s how I construe your conception of politics (and notice, btw, how it emerged from the Lockean picture of the individual, a picture you seem to be beholden to).

    Since we already come into the political arena fully-equipped, so to speak — with clearly defined (for each and everyone) reasoning powers as well as thorough understanding of ourselves, our needs, and what constitutes our (best) self-interests, what there remains for politics and politicians to do is merely to navigate the ship of state (forgive the metaphor, for it’s an apt one since it comes with this picture) in such a way so as not to tread on anyone’s natural or constitutionally-defined rights. The art of politics, on this picture, comes down to nothing more and nothing less than mere management, and the politician’s art is the art we have been known to attribute to statesmen (with the capital S, of course). See, for example, the writings by Sir Lewis Namier.

    But this picture, Joseph, more or less presupposes that all of us, both as individuals and as a society, have more or less “arrived,” and it fails to take into account the very process of arriving, the very aches and pains that come with growing up and coming of age.

    It’s the kind of politics, Joseph, that Plato had in mind once the utopian society was already set up and firing on all fours (The Republic), a politics that only can work in a rarified atmosphere of Mount Olympus or some other such place, a politics where all you have to do is to administer the laws in a judicious way, preferably by the philosopher king. Indeed, one may well ask the question why do we need politics in the first place if we are already there (because we already have the just laws, and a super computer could conceivably be programmed to administer those laws for us on a case by case basis.

    Of course it’s a parody of sorts, but my conception of politics has mostly to do with how to get there.

  • Correction — 4th paragraph:

    As to “self-interest,” it all depends on the model …

  • A couple of points, Joseph.

    The idea that things proceed from a micro level is a rather new one to me, but I think it’s worthy of exploring. Just recently I came to a realization that corruption, let’s say, starts locally at first and then spreads concentrically. So when we blame Washington, D.C., for instance, for its corrupting influence, we’re missing the point. I’m not saying now there is nothing to it, but what’s left unsaid is that the very politicians we elect to represent us come from a corrupt environment, that the roots of corruption is for the most part local — our municipalities, townships, etc.

    There’s no question I’m stretching the point somewhat when I apply this idea to organizational structures, such as working for a mega corporation or even a mid-size concern. It’s precisely because such organizations are defined by their narrowly-construed purpose that said purpose must to an extent override some of the informal ways in which humans typically interact if they’re to accomplish anything. So it’s a matter of degree, I suppose, to which this organic model can apply to analyse and critique organizational structures.

    As to “self-interest,” it all on the model you’re guided by. You seem to be ignoring the reference I made to Adam Smith/John Locke model of an atomized individual bent on scratching and scrounging as though still in the State of Nature. The competing model (and I made a reference to it in another article, by linking to Charles Taylor’s paper) is one which posits the individual’s interests as irrevocably and intimately bound with the interests of the community. So on that conception, we’re going to come up with different results.

    For a more classical treatment of the subject, let me simply refer to the many Plato’s dialogues, in the course of which the question “What is in the person’s best interest?” is a very frequent subtheme.(You might also want to read Aristotle on the very subject.)

    I’ll post another comment shortly on what I see as your conception of politics; we discussed this to a point earlier, but my ideas are clearer now and I can articulate them better.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And I strongly disagree with Ayn Rand’s – and Joseph’s – summation.

    Good to see you back, Clavos – I was getting worried about you.

  • Clavos


    Have you read Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness?

    Your comment #9 above comes quite close to summarizing Ms. Rand’s central premise.

  • Will respond tomorrow, Joseph.

    Good comment.

  • Roger,

    I read all six pages of your article, and believe that you are on the right track in analyzing the finer points of micro-level human relations and how they bind together to form the macro-entity of civilization. However, I think that you do overcomplicate things a bit. In a nutshell, all human actions, as I lengthily noted last month, can be boiled down to self interest. By studying how individual acts self interest work to make modern society what it is, I believe many of the answers contemporary philosophers seek on nearly any given subject will be found.

  • You got to dig deeper than that, Cindy,. I think you’ve got to see the perfidy in the system, and the perfidy is to perpetuate the myth of blaming the victim. If there be anything there’s foolproof, the surest way to prevent insurrection and people rising, it’s to make them feel guilty, that’s it’s their own them fault.

    It’s the old story of blaming the victim for whatever befalls him or her, never the perpetrator.

    I couldn’t be more emphatic about the importance of your and “troll’s” posting on this here site. (I’m still waiting for Anarcissie and Grady to overcome their shyness and to speak their mind.)

    What’s of utmost importance, I contend, is to re-establish values, our values, to replace and take over the lame discussion on these here pages devoted to the trivia.

    The important thing is to set the tone, our tone. The rest will follow. That’s the only reason why I’ve been clamoring on your presence on these pages — and the same was directed at “troll,” Anarcissie, and Grady.

    It may not seem to any of your that it matters, that BC matters, but it does. Anywhere and everywhere we can make a difference, it matters a great deal!

  • (Only read a paragraph so far, Roger. Working on it.)

  • Hiya Roger and troll,

    I think economic problems don’t really exist outside the determination to see reality just one way. Give up that perspective and everyone could eat, have shelter and have medical care.

    I like Graeber for liking a gift economy (my personal favorite).

  • A convenient fiction, I should add, since it legitimizes in deprived moral terms, which we appear to have bought, line hook and sinker, the condition of violence.

  • I don’t think we even need go as far as pressing the communist dictum, unless it be taken in the strictly remedial sense.

    Given equally of opportunity, I happen to believe that for the most part, the differences between humans as to their abilities and intelligence are infinitesimal.

    Greaber’s text should be a required read for people like Kenn Jacobine, Cannonship, and all those who claim that’s our fiscal policy which is out of whack, that balancing the budget and implementing the austerity measures ought to be our utmost priorities.

    Graeber exposes all such notions as nothing but pure fiction.

  • tro ll

    Graeber positions his (ethical) theory and his analysis of communist action squarely in the observable moral landscape of people sharing stuff – a virtue indeed implying at least empathy and a cooperative attitude if not compassion – often based on principles akin to ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’

  • Thanks for featuring it, editors, if only for a day. My next assignment, if I dare to accept it, has got to be to try to rewrite this article in ordinary English.

  • In the interest of consolidating material, I’m re-posting the following links concerning Mr. Graeber’s featured text:

    (1) a CNN interview;

    (2) Conversation with Great Minds series, part one and
    part two;

    (3) interview with Amy Goodman;

    (4)Brian Lehrer show, a podcast;

    (5) Financial Times’ review;

    (6) a Social Text review.