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Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 2, “The Great Utopia”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 13, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.
This article is the third installment of a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Analyses of Hayek’s introduction and Chapter I can be found here and here, respectively.

Hayek’s second chapter opens with several important reminders about the nature and history of socialism: that its rise was achieved not by the West having forgotten liberal ideas or the historical consequences of collectivism, but by an active campaign of persuasion against liberalism as an ideal; that it has roots in the French Revolution as an authoritarian answer to that movement’s more individualistic elements; and that only through the democratic influences of the revolutions of 1848 did socialism shed its authoritarian origins and assume a democratic veneer.

From there, it proves somewhat of a novelty to one accustomed to today’s concrete-bound, anti-conceptual political rhetoric. The chapter is, fundamentally, a brief lesson in political epistemology, dealing with the historical abuse of concepts that facilitated the popular adoption of socialist ideas.

Chief among the distortions Hayek notes is the socialist reconfiguration of the notion of liberty itself. The alleged “new freedom” introduced by socialists “was to bring ‘economic freedom’ without which the political freedom already gained was ‘not worth having’” (19). Hayek astutely describes this distortion of the concept of freedom:

“To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a supervisor to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restraints of the economic system’ relaxed… The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth” (19).

Hayek recognizes the epistemological methods by which socialists attained power, consisting largely of equivocation and anti-conceptual thinking, lumping together disparate concretes and attaching to them a single label—“freedom”—in order to pass off an intellectual package-deal on the general public, persuading them to embrace a contradiction. Though he does not go into this kind of detailed description of the process, Hayek at least acknowledges that the methods by which such intellectual smuggling is carried out form too large a subject to be discussed in the context of the chapter, and does not claim to have thoroughly explained it as a philosophical process but only as a historical one.

He proceeds to assess more recent, twentieth century distortions of the concept of socialism itself and how it has become muddled and confused by “progressives” who view fascism and communism as fundamental opposites, failing to recognize that both are merely species of the same genus. The processes of evasion and distortion, fueled by an excessive focus on concrete particulars at the expense of fundamentals, are thus seen to wreak as much havoc in the thinking of those twentieth-century advocates of socialism in their understandings of themselves and relations to one another as they did in the minds of nineteenth-century liberals who were persuaded to adopt socialist ideas. That statists are as much the victims of their own illogic as those they seek to oppress soon becomes clear.

In what might be one of the greatest compliments one could offer to liberalism, Hayek then points out, both in his own words and quotes by socialists themselves, how history and socialists’ experiences have shown time and again that despite their alleged fundamental opposition to one another, fascists and communists are known by the other to be prime targets for recruiting, fueling and perpetuating the hatred between them as each views the other as a competitor for the same pool of minds, but both are well aware of the immunity of true liberals to the propaganda of either. Liberals are viewed as resistant to their persuasions and unsuitable for the culture of perpetual compromise that characterizes socialist politics.

Again, in the end, Hayek effectively ties the subject back to contemporary Britain and how these same ideas, once prevalent in Germany between the two wars, are alive and well across the channel. “[I]n this country,” he writes, “the majority of people still believe that socialism and freedom can be combined… So little is the problem yet seen, so easily do the most irreconcilable ideals still live together, that we can still hear such contradictions in terms as ‘individualist socialism’ seriously discussed” (23).

Perhaps the only flaw in this second chapter consists of Hayek’s uncritical acceptance of the term “democracy” as being in any way synonymous with freedom or liberalism—a common error (even more so in today’s world!), and not one that deprives the chapter more generally of valuable insights, but one that it could have benefited from correcting. Hayek writes admiringly of Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, “Nobody saw more clearly than de Tocqueville that democracy as an essentially individualist institution stood in an irreconcilable conflict with socialism” (18).

Democracy, however, is not an essentially individualist institution. It is, in fact, not essentially anything except inclusive of a political process that allows for the popular, institutional expression of political preference and ideas. Democracy allows people to vote. Whether that vote is limited by a founding document protecting individual rights or any other principle is not inherent to democracy itself, and to think it so leads to many of the befuddled responses of policymakers today when they observe the imposition of democratic processes having failed to ensure peace, justice, or any other virtue of great political societies.

Let it not be forgotten that the first democracy in human history, that from which the concept derived and upon which its essentials rest, was Ancient Greece, where the life of a man such as Socrates could be voted away on grounds no more substantial than his having propagated ideas unwelcomed by the majority.

Democracy is thus neutral with respect to individualism, only upholding it when the republican qualities of a constitution, bill of rights, and limitations on the majority will are imposed. This leaves the phenomenon of democratic socialism, which Hayek sees as an oxymoronic distortion, rather justified in formal logic, if not in any rational morality or political ethic.

Overall, Hayek’s second chapter, “The Great Utopia”, is a dramatic improvement from his first. It sets out with a direct purpose to illustrate the epistemological errors that have aided the rise of socialism, and, with skilled application of political concepts and supporting evidence, it succeeds in that task. Whether this upward trajectory continues into his next chapter, “Individualism and Collectivism”, as he addresses subjects at somewhat of a conceptual middle-range between those of his first and second chapters, we shall see in the next installment.

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Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Introduction

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.

This piece commences a series of analyses on Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For those unfamiliar with the work, first published in 1943, it details the famed Austrian economist’s observations, drawn from having lived in Austria in the years after World War I, witnessing firsthand the culture of political ideas that preceded and led to the rise of Nazism there, and then, some decades later, living in England, teaching at the London School of Economics, and observing the rise of similar ideas at work in English political culture at the onset of her own period of experimentation with socialism.

Britain was, at the time, feeling the onset of what would become a set of devastating postwar economic ailments: the loss of many colonies—sold off one by one to finance the war, severe physical destruction (though not as bad as on the Continent), a trade imbalance skyrocketing the prices of much-needed American goods, and an economy of permits and privation in basic commodities. The end of the war would bring the sweeping 1945 victory of Labour and greater troubles with the onset of the Brain Drain, a period of bitter class resentment, and nationalizations of industry. Shortly after the second edition of The Road to Serfdom was printed in 1946, England was facing strikes, falling exports, and almost £200m lost every week as dollar convertibility was introduced in 1947.

In the midst of it all was a growing culture of socialism in both major parties. As Hayek wrote, “the socialism of which we speak is not a party matter, and the questions which we are discussing have little to do with the questions at dispute between political parties” (3). Though Labour would be its more avowed exponents, the fundamentals of socialist ideology were well enough embedded so as not to be challenged at any basic moral or systematic level by either side. What’s more, many Britons would see this as a proud new political and economic identity for a Britain without an empire. Historian Norman Stone writes,

“the British were pleased with themselves, supposing also that their example was one to be widely followed as some sort of ‘third way’ between American capitalism and Soviet Communism… combining the ‘economic democracy’ of Communism and the ‘political democracy’ of the West: socialism without labour camps…. People who argued to the contrary [such as Hayek—ed.] were in a small minority… but even in the later 1940s these supposedly half-demented figures were starting to have reality on their side. It struck with a ferocious blow, in the second post-war winter. The money began to run out, and the government became quite badly divided as to priorities.”

It is easy to imagine how remorsefully vindicated Hayek must have felt in those first few years after the publication of The Road to Serfdom—affirmed and disappointed in the way that all those who warn of impending danger are wont to feel.

Though the book would be praised by proponents of liberalism from the time of its publishing to the present and cause a stir among his peers in academia, policymakers would be, as they ever are, roughly a generation late in feeling the aftershocks of this groundbreaking statement. By the time began its creep into the political lexicon, Hayek had moved on from the LSE, going on to teach at the University of Chicago (in its Committee on Social Thought, as the School of Economics vehemently opposed his hiring under their banner), the University of Freiburg, the University of California, and the University of Salzburg, where in 1974 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Since the onset of the 2007 recession, sales of The Road to Serfdom, along with other works that challenge the fabric and assumptions of modern Western philosophy, political culture, and economics such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, have skyrocketed. In 2010, 66 years after its publication, The Road to Serfdom became a #1 bestseller on Amazon.

As this and other such works grow in popularity, it is important to take a second look at them, assessing both their virtues and faults, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. The analysis that follows sets out to do just that. It is an overall favorable assessment, as this author agrees with many of Hayek’s basic political premises. However, for that reason, it will also more scrupulously critique and highlight perceived flaws, ambiguous wording, platitudes, and those floating abstractions common in political treatises that, though they seem plausible at first glance, prove deeply flawed when translated into concrete practice. Though these analyses will strive to give an adequate overall summary of what Hayek himself writes, the reader is encouraged to read Hayek’s words along with these critiques and to judge for himself their validity.

It is broadly understood that those concerned with the cause of liberty must be vigilant in our criticisms of its destroyers, but it is no less essential—if not more so—that we be judicious toward those authors and works on which we base our own beliefs, as every philosophy is a structure and every flaw in that structure a weakness. The closer our faults are to our foundations, the greater our vulnerability. As more and more libertarians and capitalists turn to works such as Hayek’s to form understandings and shape their beliefs, let us look carefully to what ideas we are resting upon. We have nothing to lose but our contradictions.

Note on citations: all page references, unless otherwise stated, are based on the February 1946 edition published by George Routledge & Sons LTD.

Introduction

Hayek’s introduction effectively sets the tone for the rest of the work by illustrating his own unique perspective, having come “as near as possible to twice living through the same period—or at least twice watching a very similar evolution of ideas,” (1) then giving us a brief summary of what wisdom that twice-lived experience has offered him: an understanding of the linkages between the spread of socialist ideas, the various debates it engenders in countries operating on similar philosophical premises, and the eventual rise of dictatorship.

The summary of events transpiring in the half-century leading up to World War II that Hayek describes is perhaps most powerful and most distinctive for its recognition of the role of ideas in man’s life. Hayek superbly recognizes the consequential nature of ideas in human life, writing “If in the long run we are the makers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created. Only if we recognise the danger in time can we hope to avoid it” (2).

In this short passage, just a few paragraphs in, Hayek has already distinguished himself from the long and destructive philosophical and political tradition of determinism and, more subtly and implicitly, by viewing the connection between man’s ideas and actions, rejected the mind-body dichotomy, which has long divided philosophers and intellectuals between those who concerned themselves with the workings of man’s mind, dismissing his physical actions as inconsequential marginalia, and those concerned with man’s physical nature but who view the content of his mind as meaningless.

These abstract philosophical notes are crucial, allowing us to establish several inferences as to what misguided political camps and ideologies Hayek will successfully avoid being mired in. By denying the metaphysical premise of determinism (whether in its environmental or genetic forms), Hayek embraces the concept of free will and the essential premise that ideas matter, inviting us to commence his work with the presumption that what wisdom we glean from it individually might be actionable and applicable in our own lives and experiences. This quickly separates him from the philosophical premises of the Left (or, to indulge a common but unbearably ironic label, “progressivism”), whose policies largely rest upon some variant of determinist metaphysics, leading them perpetually to the conclusion that man, left to his own free will, is doomed to irrationality, but that the ideal society is achievable through the right amount of systematic tweaking and statist controls. It already begins to become clear what premises lead Hayek to become the symbol of liberalism he is today.

In embracing the importance of the mind and the function of ideas, however, he does not assume a mysticist rejection of reality. To the contrary, he presents to us the implicit proposition that the “ideas we have created” will have very real consequences, and that to change our fates we must scrutinize and perhaps alter our ideas and those of our culture. It rests on the recognition that man is not immune from his own illogic and that, to paraphrase Rand, while the practice of reason may be evaded, the consequences of evading reason cannot be. This acknowledgment separates him from the premises that underlie much of conservative political thought, also concerned with the perfection of man, but oriented toward controlling his thoughts and beliefs, viewing the force of government as a means of instilling values in the minds of its people to produce a more moral citizenry.

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a warning, and all warnings are fundamentally rejections of the determinist premise.  What’s more: it is an intellectual warning connecting certain ideas and beliefs to their metaphysical consequences. While common logic, particularly among those who recognize the practical benefits of liberty, would suggest that that which one values should be left free to flourish, to the contrary, both progressives and conservatives seek to control those aspects of man which they most value—progressives, man’s body; conservatives, man’s mind—relegating its opposite to a status of expendability.

If all philosophy can be thought of as the great duel between two men—Plato and Aristotle—both sides of the political spectrum in Hayek’s time, as in our own, are operating on a fundamentally Platonic premise that divides man’s physical and spiritual nature. True liberalism is fundamentally a diversion from this view in favor of the Aristotelian view of man as a unified entity, to be treated and thought of as such, his life and fate as his own, and his right to dispose of them as he sees fit unchallenged. Thus, Hayek, as an exponent of such liberalism, whether he recognizes and describes it as such himself, begins with this philosophical framework. Whether he maintains it in the chapters to come is a separate question, but his grounding is thus far solid.

Wasting no time, Hayek soon enters the fundamental comparison of his book: that of the ideological roots of Nazism and the rise of socialist thought in Britain precisely at a time when the two nations are at war.

Much equivocating in classrooms, editorial pages, and student coffee shops has transpired in the last seventy-plus years as to the differences between Nazism and true socialism, with socialist apologists quibbling about how Nazis abused what was a noble ideal in socialism. Most engage in such momentous evasions and distortions as to treat socialism and fascism as in any way opposites, portraying what is in fact a genus-type distinction as fundamentally inimical, when they are, in fact, merely differences in application of the same basic premises.

Hayek tolerates none of this, observing,

“Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies… As a result, many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny” (3).

Indeed, one cannot help but feel that little has yet changed in Western intellectualism when Hayek describes the parallels between Germany after World War I and England during World War II: “There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious ‘realism’, and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of ‘inevitable trends’… It does not affect our problem that some groups may want less socialism than others, that some want socialism mainly in the interest of one group and others in that of another. The important point is that, if we take the people whose views influence developments, they are now in this country in some measure all socialists” (2-3).

More familiarity ensues when Hayek notes how Germany was once held in England and other Western countries as an ideal to be pursued and how that idealized conception has since been transferred elsewhere: “Although one does not like to be reminded, it is not so many years since the socialist policy of [Germany] was generally held up by progressives as an example to be imitated, just as in more recent years Sweden has been the model country to which progressive eyes were directed” (2). One so often sees the case of Swedish socialism invoked as a statist ideal in today’s world, since the recession of 2008, but it is often forgotten how old this example is—mentioned here by Hayek in the 1940s, discredited for its proclaimed cultural superiority by Ayn Rand in the 1960s, but still going strong as part of statist mythology today.

In support of his parallel, Hayek rightly rejects the concrete superficial details of German National Socialism to which the broader abstraction of ‘fascism’ is so unproductively and irrationally married in the minds of most who refer to and write of it. More than any other ideology, the word ‘fascism’ has attained a pejorative quality that has overcome its literal meaning and distorted the popular understanding of it to such an extent that most today will readily proclaim that they reject it, but remain utterly incapable of defining it. Modern dictionaries and encyclopedias are similarly unhelpful, as much victims of the disintegrated epistemology of their times as those who reference them.

(This is not the place to go into a fuller explanation of the meaning of fascism, but those interested would do well to refer to my previous essay on the subject, “Understanding Fascism”.)

Thus, in Hayek’s understanding of National Socialism will be found no deterministic German racial explanations, recognizing both the influences of German fascist thought on the English and the early role played by Thomas Carlyle and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Scot and an Englishman, on the formation of fascist ideas.

A cautious approach is wise here, as while no racial explanation to the effect that some innate German-ness led to National Socialism can be held as rational, the role of culture and philosophy in German society is indispensable to understanding its rise. Hayek goes on to write, “It would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism. It was the prevalence of socialist views and not Prussianism that Germany had in common with Italy and Russia—and it was from the masses and not from the classes steeped in the Prussian tradition, and favored by it, that National-Socialism arose” (7).

True as much of that is, to say “the socialist element produced totalitarianism” is perhaps only to scratch the surface by acknowledging that one political idea was connected to another It does not explain why the socialist element was accepted in the first place. For that, one must look to German culture. To that end, Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels offers an incomparable philosophical genealogy of Nazism that would serve as a necessary complement to Hayek’s work, assuming Hayek continues down the path he is setting out here.

Perhaps the most detrimental statement in Hayek’s introduction is said rather in passing. After having written that “by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes watch similar phases of intellectual development… They suggest, if not the necessity, at least the probability, that developments will take a similar course” (1), “some of the forces which have destroyed freedom in Germany are also at work here” (2), and “our chance of averting a similar fate depends on our facing the danger and on our being prepared to revise even our most cherished hopes and ambitions if they should prove to be the source of the danger” (2-3), Hayek betrays the premise upon which he has built up his whole work by conceding, “All parallels between developments in different countries are, of course, deceptive; but I am not basing my argument mainly on such parallels” (3).

Certainly it must be admitted that parallels between such developments are not deterministic or without mitigating factors, not immune to changes in trajectory. But to suggest that they “are, of course, deceptive” is perilously asserting a skepticist rejection of the principle of causality and the recognition in earlier statements of the role of ideas. Hayek would do well to apply the same social scientific rigor to the subject of politics that he does in economics, recognizing that just as effects of supply and demand on prices are assessed by holding constant certain variables, so the effect of ideas presumes a measure of ceteris paribus, but this does not negate the principle demonstrated by such models or demand of the author some token measure of self-doubt.

In all, Hayek’s introduction is strong and offers much to think about, hope for, and consider proceeding onward into his analyses. His overall support for the importance of ideas, propensity (if somewhat unconfidently) toward conceptual integration and a comparative approach to political ideologies, and positive views of individual man and political freedom make for a promising start. Hayek even provides sound reasoning for why England should be interested in engaging in such self-critical analysis, arguing,

“[T]his will enable us to understand our enemy and the issue at stake between us. It cannot be denied that there is yet little recognition of the positive ideals for which we are fighting. We know that we are fighting for freedom to shape our life according to our own ideas. That is a great deal, but not enough. It is not enough to give us the firm beliefs which we need to resist an enemy who uses propaganda as one of his main weapons not only in the most blatant but also in the most subtle forms. It is still more insufficient when we have to counter this propaganda among the people under his control and elsewhere, where the effect of this propaganda will not disappear with the defeat of the Axis powers… It is a lamentable fact that the English in their dealings with the dictators before the war, not less than in their attempts at propaganda and in the discussion of their war aims, have shown an inner insecurity and uncertainty of aim which can be explained only by confusion about their own ideals and the nature of the differences which separated them from the enemy. We have been misled as much because we have refused to believe that the enemy was sincere in the profession of some beliefs we shared as because we believed in the sincerity of some of his other claims” (4).

Likewise, we begin to see his potential faults: a propensity to begin at the level of politics without looking more deeply toward philosophical and cultural ideas, and a creeping skepticism that may lead him to an unconfident defense of his comparative approach and, thus, the warning he seeks to achieve with it. Whether these virtues and potential faults continue, only time and further reading will reveal, but as for the introduction, Hayek hits all of his marks: providing context, provoking questions and challenges, establishing a conceptual framework, and enticing our curiosity. A solid start to a modern defense of classical liberalism.

Law and Literature at the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Conservatism, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on January 14, 2012 at 9:55 am

Allen Mendenhall

The Seventh Annual Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society will take place in Bodrum, Turkey, at the Hotel Karia Princess, from Thursday, September 27, through Monday, October 1, 2012.  Readers of this site may be interested in some of the proposed talks for this event.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Stephan Kinsella will speak on Philosophy and Law.  Professor Hoppe’s paper is titled “The Nature of Man: Does Any Such Thing Exist?”  Mr. Kinsella’s paper is titled “The Market for Law.”

Sean Gabb and Benjamin Marks will speak on Literature and Literary Criticism.  Dr. Gabb’s paper is titled “On Literature and Liberty.”  Mr. Marks’s paper is titled “On H. L. Mencken as a Libertarian Model (and Some Romantic Libertarian Delusions).”

Other literati to speak include Jeffery Tucker, who interviewed me about literature and the economics of liberty and who now is the executive editor for Laissez Faire Books, and Theodore Dalrymple.

 

Ciceronian Society Annual Conference, March 29-31, 2012: Call for Papers

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, News and Current Events, News Release, Western Civilization on November 30, 2011 at 8:27 am

 

Allen Mendenhall

The Ciceronian Society will be holding its annual meeting at the University of Virginia, March 29-31, 2012. This will be an academic conference in which panelists can present on a variety of topics related to the themes of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine.’ A more elaborate description of these core-themes and their relation to the humanities is provided on the Ciceronian Society website

Possible panel themes include the following: 

 

  1.  The Relationship of Modern Thought to Tradition and the Divine. 
  2.  Greek and Roman Thought. 
  3.  Place, ‘Things Divine,’ and Tradition in Medieval Thought
  4.  Human Scale, Decentralism, and Federalism
  5.  American Thought/Experience and Tradition and Place
  6.  Literature, Localism, History, and the Divine. 
  7.  Agrarianism, Localism, and Economics 
  8.  Social-Political Theology

 

Speculations About Baudrillard

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on November 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post originally appeared here at Austrian Economics and Literature.

The emancipation of the sign: remove this ‘archaic’ obligation to designate something and it finally becomes free, indifferent and totally indeterminate, in the structural or combinatory play which succeeds the previous rule of determinate equivalence. The same operation takes place at the level of labour power and the production process: the annihilation of any goal as regards the contents of production allows the latter to function as a code, and the monetary sign, for example, to escape into infinite speculation, beyond all reference to a real production, or event to a gold-standard. The floatation of money and signs, the floatation of ‘needs’ and ends of production, the floatation of labour itself—the commutability of every term is accompanied by speculation and a limitless inflation (and we really have total liberty—no duties, disaffection and general disenchantment; but this remains a magic, a sort of magical obligation which keeps the sign chained up to the real, capital has freed signs from this ‘naïvety’ in order to deliver them into pure circulation).

—Jean Baudrillard, from “Symbolic Exchange and Death”

Baudrillard’s hyperreality is fascinating. I’ve written about it here and here. I have reservations about Baudrillard, but I think his theories could be useful to libertarians and Austrian economists. What follows is merely speculation. I’m seeking feedback, not advancing an argument that I’m invested in.

What Baudrillard calls the “political economy of the sign,” economists call the “subjective theory of value.” Claiming that his term is inadequate because its signification is allusive and coded, Baudrillard seems to multiply the subjective theory of value until it (and what it evaluates: the good or service for which people exchange currency) becomes something else, something re-signified. In so doing, Baudrillard seems to mimic or participate in the very semiotic processes that he is describing.

The re-signified version of the subjective theory of value can no longer be called the subjective theory of value because the re-signified version is, to a degree, counterfeit; the same can be said of the materiality (the thing used to facilitate or complete an economic transaction) constituting the monetary unit described by the subjective theory of value. Strictly speaking, the re-signified version of this theory is itself a replacement copy of the theory, just as money and other units of exchange are merely signs standing in the place of “worth.”

The subjective theory of value holds that a thing does not possess inherent worth. Instead, worth arises because of the social value that attaches to a thing. Worth, or cost, is the price which one person is willing to pay and which another person is willing to sell. Standing in contradistinction to the labor theory of value, which Baudrillard seems to pooh-pooh (perhaps because of his disaffiliation with the Marxism of his youth), the subjective theory of value maintains that worth or cost depends upon the ability of a thing to satisfy the wants of consumers. A consumer is satisfied to the extent that a thing is useful to him. Utility here is measurable in psychological and not just “practical” terms; a person may want something because it makes him feel good. What seems to bother Baudrillard is the extent to which consumers exchange goods (themselves mediated by signs and representations) to become plugged into a symbolic network rather than to satisfy an immediate need. The satisfaction is what comes with the entrance into a symbolic order.

A thing, according to this conception of value, is not worth a lot simply because a lot of people mix their labor with it. Nor is a thing worth a lot because of some essential properties or qualities it contains. Rather, thing A is worth a lot because people think it is worth a lot: because people are willing to exchange something they own (thing B or C or D) in order to own thing A.

For Baudrillard, the subjective theory of value (a term he never uses) has vast implications for the sign in the postmodern world, just as the sign has vast implications for the subjective theory of value in the postmodern world. Because the worth or value of a thing is not tied to labor, it is, in a way, as Baudrillard suggests, subject to infinite speculation and free from all reference to production. Media of exchange (e.g., money) float outside the real—which is to say, outside of material things. They became simulacra for some temporary and contingent concept of value. Perhaps more importantly, the media of exchange are themselves distorted and fabricated by structures of symbols marking various exchanges. Fiat money brings about the complete arbitrariness of the sign, which is entirely divorced from use value. The ability of a green piece of paper (speaking in terms of American dollars) to become exchangeable for products depends upon social signification; the economy itself is dominated by signs and images, which are, after all, what producers and consumers exchange for products. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview with Troy Camplin, Interdisciplinary Scholar and Author of Diaphysics

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Communication, Creative Writing, Humanities, Information Design, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Theatre, Western Kentucky University, Writing on May 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall interviews Troy Camplin.

 

Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas.  He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.  
 

 

Q:  Your interdisciplinary background seems to lend itself to commentary on this site.  Tell us a bit about that background and a bit about your thoughts on the value of interdisciplinary scholarship.

A:  I have an unusual educational background that I only made more unusual in my independent studies. My undergraduate degree is in Recombinant Gene Technology, with a minor in chemistry, from Western Kentucky University. When I am interested in something, I spend all of my time learning about it. So, as an undergrad, I not only learned about molecular biology through my classes, but also in my independent reading. I read the journals and I read even popular works on molecular biology. This led me to John Gribbin’s book In Search of the Double Helix, in which he talks a great deal about quantum physics. I didn’t know a thing about quantum physics, and I really didn’t understand what he was saying about it in that book, so I decided to read his other books on quantum physics, including In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. I cannot say I understood quantum physics much after reading that book, either, but I was hooked, and read every popular book on quantum physics I could read. In addition, I ran across several other popular science books that introduced me to what would become much more central to my thinking, including Gleick’s Chaos and Ilya Prigogine’s works on self-organization. These provided several of the seeds of my development as an interdisciplinary scholar.

Another element to my interdisciplinary development was a class I pretty much lucked into. Undergraduates have to take several required courses, of course, and one semester I wanted to take a New Testament class with Joseph Trafton (who was highly recommended, and whose class I eventually did take), but it was full. So I took an Intro. To Philosophy class just to get the hours in that section in. By chance I chose a class taught by Ronald Nash—a random choice that ended up changing my life completely.

Nash taught his class using three texts: a collection of Plato’s dialogues and two books Nash himself wrote. One of the books Nash wrote was Poverty and Wealth: A Christian Defense of Capitalism. It was through Nash that I was introduced to free market economics. I was hooked. I read everything I could find in the university library with the word “capitalism” in the title or as the subject. I read Walter Williams, Milton Friedman, Hayek, and a little book titled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal  by Ayn Rand. The latter, of course, led me to Atlas Shrugged, and that led me to the rest of her work. Rand hooked me on the idea of being a fiction writer and made me interested in philosophy. I began reading the fiction writers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why) and the philosophers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why). I read and fell in love with Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky, Aristotle and Nietzsche. Particularly Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, whose tragic worldviews were deeply appealing to me. Nietzsche deepened my appreciation for philosophy, and introduced me to tragedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of Diana Ramey Berry’s Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Georgia, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on March 28, 2011 at 8:17 am

Allen Mendenhall

Book Theses

Quotation: Swing the Sickle seeks to break down binary opposites such as house labor equals skilled work and field labor equals unskilled work to explore more subtle dynamics that involve skill, talent, seniority, experience, personal relationships, and circumstance.  Building on recent scholarship on various aspects of slave labor from organizational structures to occupational hierarchies, this book examines the intricacies of enslaved labor, family, community, and economy.” (2)

Quotation: Swing the Sickle explores the ways different crops created a social hierarchy among the enslaved and the effect of such power dynamics within the quarters.” (3)

Introduction

Southern planters generally divided labor by skill, not by sex.  Specialized labor crossed gender lines.  This book explores this fact while paying attention to the quotidian operations of enslaved persons and slaveholders in Georgia.  What constituted skilled labor differed from plantation to plantation and crop to crop.  Labor itself defined slave life and community.  For that reason, the author uses the term “working social” to refer to “public work environments where bondpeople labored to complete a task and used the balance of the evening for socializing” (3).  Examining working socials gives us insights into the private lives of slaves.  Slavery was not just about producing for masters; it was also a way of life.  Although labor was always connected to the public world of commerce, agriculture, and politics, it was first a private, family, familial, and familiar institution in which slaves were subject to exploitation.  This book focuses on two regions of Georgia: the upcountry and piedmont county of Wilkes, and the lowcountry and tidewater county of Glynn.  These counties are representative of the general development of open and closed systems of slavery.  Glynn County was marked by large plantation settings, and Wilkes County by farms and smaller slave-holding units. 

Quotation: “[S]tudying gender allows us to identify the numerous ways bondspeople experienced slavery in addition to regional variance. […] We cannot understand slavery until we know more about the work that men and women performed.” (8)       Read the rest of this entry »

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