Friday, 29 June 2012


Just making the obvious official: I'm not finding time to write anything here, and I have a very busy summer ahead, so I'm going to put this blog on the back burner for a while. I'll probably put up occasional notes and links, and I hope to return to more regular and substantial blogging eventually, but for the next few months there won't be much to see here.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

GTA pay

The British Postgraduate Philosophy Association has published a survey of GTAs' working hours which suggests that many UK institutions, including Lancaster, pay their GTAs less than minimum wage in real terms.

I was first startled by this, and then ashamed that I hadn't done more, in my role as Part I Convenor (and therefore our GTAs' line-manager) to check with them how much work they were actually doing.

Brian Leiter posted about this, and got a little bit of discussion, including from me:
[1st comment]
I convene part I philosophy at Lancaster, one of the intitutions picked out by the BPPA as paying less than minimum wage in real terms, and I therefore manage the excellent group of teaching assistants who are being paid so badly. I have several responses to this survey:

1) I agree that GTAs are underpaid and generally undervalued, and I’m pleased to have some extra ammunition for arguing that case with the people who set wages and conditions at Lancaster. I hope the UCU and other unions will also do some pushing here.

2) I find the results worrying in a different way. Working backwards from a real pay less than £6.08/hr and our official rate of pay and hours (2 hours of prep for every hour in the classroom), a GTA doing 3 seminars/week would have to be doing about 6 hours of prep and marking per seminar, per week, to be getting less than minimum wage. Someone doing 6 hours per group per week is not working efficiently, and needs training and mentoring. I’m unhappy that my GTAs are overworking to this extent, and while I do not believe that amount of preparation is necessary for the teaching we ask them to do, I clearly need to do more here.

3) There’s a tension in how we understand GTA work. Traditionally in UK universities, it’s a valuable apprenticeship in university teaching offered as part of postgraduate training, on the assumption that our students plan an academic career. Pay isn’t the central point, and we rely on our GTAs to be enthusiastic amateurs who do the work for its own sake and for career-development purposes, not just to put food on the table. But UK universities increasingly rely on professional adjuncts including GTAs to deliver first-year and other undergraduate teaching, and adjunct teaching is turning into a career, or a substitute for one. The UK is following a path already taken by the US in this, of course. If that’s what being a GTA is, then it ought to be paid and supported far better, and be far less precarious, than it is. But I’m not convinced that the way to make that case is to advocate increasing hourly pay, or adding an extra hour or two of prep. Why shouldn’t being a GTA be a proper part-time job with a salary?

[2nd comment]
Addendum: It’s been pointed out to me by one of Lancaster's GTAs, Sarah Hitchin, that prep time includes marking every 5 weeks, so my claim in (2) that an average 6 hours of prep per week per seminar is inefficient work isn’t fair. What I intended as the main point of (2) – that I and probably others who manage GTAs need to do more to monitor and help them to avoid overwork, as well as to push for better pay – stands, though.
Some further calculations:

Over a 5-week period of teaching 3 groups, we pay:
  • 15 taught hours = 45 paid hours
  • 15 hours of seminars leaves 30 paid hours for prep (= reading, planning), marking, and admin (= attending plagiarism and standardisation meetings, office hours, email, physically getting coursework to and from Gillian, etc.).
  • 2 hours per week lectures = 10 hours lectures leaves 20 hours for prep, marking, admin
  • 2 hours a week prep (total, not per seminar) = 10 hours prep leaves 10 hours for marking
  • 10 hours to mark 45 pieces of coursework = less than 15 minutes per piece (which isn’t enough, obviously)
  • no time at all for admin
This is clearly inadequate. At this rate of pay, a GTA would either have to skimp on the work, or - much more likely - allow themselves to be exploited.

Over a 5-week period with 3 groups, to be paid minimum wage in real terms, i.e. £6.08 per hour’s actual work:
  • total pay = £41.55 x 15 hours = £623.25
  • divided by £6.08 = 102.5 hours (= 20.5 hours per week)
  • 15 hours of seminars leaves 87.5 hours for prep and marking
  • 2 hours per week lectures = 10 hours lectures leaves 77.5 hours for prep and marking
  • Guesswork from here on:
  • 4 further hours per week prep and admin = 20 hours leaves 55.5 hours for marking
  • 55.5 hours to mark 45 pieces of coursework = nearly 1¼ hours per piece
  • So to be paid less than minimum wage, some or all of marking, prep and admin are taking even longer than these estimates.
Comment: more than an hour to mark a 1,500-word piece of coursework strikes me as excessive. I realise that this includes preparation (e.g. reading) for the marking as a whole and some double-checking and returning to borderline cases, but I do think there's room for training and mentoring to speed this up. It takes me about an hour to mark and write extensive comments on a 5,000-word third-year essay, for comparison. I'm more experienced than most (not all) of our first-year tutors, but I don't have some special magic talent for marking fast, I've just learned to do it efficiently.

More detail still: the PHIL100 coursework isn't all essays: it's (1) a close reading exercise; (2) 'critical thinking', i.e. formal and semi-formal logic exercises plus a short essay; (3) a bibliography; (4) an essay. My experience of marking samples for standardisation is that (1) and especially (2) are quick to mark, (3) rather slow, (4) middling. If that's true for others, this suggests that the average of 1¼ hours per piece includes the bibliography (3) taking a lot more than that each. Perhaps that coursework needs to be redesigned.

A first sketch of a more realistic rate of pay, again for 3 seminar groups over 5 weeks:
  • 15 taught hours
  • attend 2 lectures/week = 10 hours
  • PREP: 4 hours/week prep including reading, planning, office hour, email = 20 hours
  • MARKING: ½ hr for each of 45 pieces of coursework, plus 2-3 hours for standardisation, plus 2-3 hours for plagiarism cases, plus a bit of leeway = 30 hours
  • = 75 hours total actual work (15 hours or 2 days per week)
= Rate of pay of 5 hours per taught hour (compare our current rate of 3/1)

A pie-in-the-sky idea: Why shouldn't being a GTA be a proper part-time job pro-rata on the official salary scale, with benefits?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Poetry news

Obviously The Onion is great in general, but this is something like a work of genius.

Paul Fussell is dead

NYT obituary here. His most famous book is The Great War & Modern Memory, but Wartime, which is about the second rather than the first World War, is the one I'll remember him for. It pushed me into thinking that I should write about war and soldiers (my 'Under the Mountain' is forthcoming in Res Publica); just as importantly, it suggested that I was allowed to write in the way I wanted to, rather than the professional academic way I believed I had to.

UPDATE: Jay Winter in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Civic Health Talks

The series of talks I organised is now done. I recorded them, with their question-periods; click on the talk titles below to listen or download.

1. Derek Edyvane, 'Civic Health & Civic Vitality'
2. Sam Clark, 'Good Work'
3. Kerri Woods, 'Solidarity, Vulnerability, & Civic Health'
4. John O'Neill, 'Living Well Within Limits'

I'm glad I did this, even though it was quite a lot of work and stress - I'd slightly forgotten what it was like to fret about whether anyone's going to turn up to the play or gig I'm promoting. Thanks again to all the speakers.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Adventures in public philosophy

I was in the Spurriergate Centre in York today for lunch, and remembered that I'd tried and failed to engage them in philosophical conversation a while ago. Here's the letter I sent them:

Dear Spurriergate Centre,  

I visited your café on Sunday 7 November with my wife and son. We enjoyed our drinks and food, and reading your website suggests that you do admirable community and social justice work. 

However, while we were in the café, there was a video playing on continuous loop on a large screen. It offered an argument about the creation of the universe. I think you’re doing yourselves no favours showing it, because it’s a very bad argument.  

The argument was as follows:  

There are only three possible explanations for the existence of the universe: 

a) it created itself; 

b) it has existed eternally; or 

c) it was created.  

a) was dismissed as impossible, because ‘nothing comes from nothing’ and ‘the first law of thermodynamics forbids the creation of energy’ 

b) was said to have been disproved by Einstein and Hubble 

c) was then interpreted as the claim that the universe was created by an ‘eternally existing' being with ‘superior knowledge’ and ‘no matter’ The rest of the video then illustrated passages from Genesis.  

There are several things wrong with this argument. In the first place, (a), (b), and (c) aren’t the only possibilities: Maybe this universe grew from a seed produced by another universe, like a plant. Maybe the universe continually expands, contracts, and then expands again in a new big bang. 

In the second place, the argument against option (a) doesn’t work: the first law of thermodynamics and other natural laws are features of the created universe. They don’t tell us anything about how universes are created. 

In the third place, on the argument against option (b): you don’t get to cherry-pick just the bits of science you like. If you accept Einstein, what reason have you to reject the paleontological, genetic and other evidence that animals weren’t all created at the same time in their current forms? But if that’s true, Genesis is false.  

In the fourth place, the argument for option (c) contradicts the argument against option (a): if the first law of thermodynamics applies to universe-creation (as the argument against (a) requires) it also forbids the creation of energy by this being of superior knowledge. Where did the matter/energy for the universe come from, if it can’t be created?

In the fifth place, even if option (c) is the best, and the universe was created, that doesn’t show that it was created by a being with the characteristics stated. Why only one being? Coral reefs, for example, are complex and beautiful things created by large numbers of simple creatures with no plan at all. Why ‘superior knowledge’? Why shouldn’t the universe have been created by accident? Or by unconscious processes? Why ‘eternally existing’? Why shouldn’t the creator itself have been created by a previous creator, itself created by another one, and so on? Maybe universe-creation is a craft like traditional boatbuilding: honed by generations of makers, none of them particularly clever or powerful in themselves, each relying on gradually accumulated wisdom and inherited tools. 

None of these are original counter-arguments – most of them are in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (first published in 1779).  

I don’t mean, by objecting to your video, to denigrate your faith or work. But respect for others requires telling them when you think they’re wrong. And I think you’re wrong here.  

Best Wishes,  

Dr Sam Clark 

Lecturer in Philosophy, Lancaster University.
And here's their eventual reply:
HI Sam
thank you for your message, I shall pass it on to our pastoral manager.regards
Jesper Sorensen, Centre Manager 
 Philosopher 0, public 1.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Author, author

My friend Ryan Shirlow has written a novel. Buy now so you can say you were into him before he sold out.

Maurice Sendak is dead

Where the Wild Things Are is one of my and my son's favourite books; I just read it to him, for the hundredth or thousandth time, yesterday. The New York Times obituary contains the unbeatable description of that book's Max as a 'pocket Odysseus'.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Civic Health Lectures

I've organised a series of public talks on the idea of civic health:

Civic health: four public lectures on living well together

What is a sick society, and what would a healthy society be? What relations does civic health require between citizens? What must citizens be or do or have to live well together? What does the current civic health agenda in politics have to say about these questions, and is it adequate?

Visiting and local philosophers will reflect on these questions in this series of free public lectures, organised by the Department of Politics, Philosophy, & Religion at Lancaster University and funded by the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

1. 730pm, 9 May: Dr Derek Edyvane, University of Leeds: ‘Civic Health & Civic Vitality’
2. 730pm, 16 May: Dr Sam Clark, Lancaster University: ‘Good Work’
3. 730pm, 23 May: Dr Kerri Woods, University of York: ‘Solidarity, Vulnerability, & Civic Health’
4. 730pm, 30 May: Professor John O’Neill, Manchester University: ‘Living Well Within Limits’

Venue: The Storey, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster

Free & open to all

Friday, 20 April 2012

Chris Watson interview

Worthwhile interview with sound-recordist/sound-artist Chris Watson, whose Weather Report is one of my favourite records of the last few years:

Apart from Watson's appealing joy in his work, this is interesting to me because of his focus on trained perception and its pleasures and risks.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A former self speaks 2: another sketch utopia

I've found another one...

Rint: a utopia

I first met Josef Rint in a shanty-town in old Bombay. His door - soldered together out of roadsigns - was the fourth I’d banged on that morning, I was sweating in the orange community-service bomber-jacket the supervisor’d given me, and I was beginning to think that vee-jail couldn’t be that bad. I’d been caught with six gees of knock-off anti-depressants, only a few days before the medbiz’s exclusivity ran out, and the expert-system’d plea-bargained me down to ‘volunteering’ to do this Red Cross survey. The option was a year subjective in a monchrome virtual space. A year to me, two hours to everyone else. But just try getting health insurance after your metabolics’ve been amped that high.

I flicked a mozzy off the scratched screen of my clipboard, and banged on the door again, just as Rint yanked it open. He looked like Karl Marx after years of solvent abuse, and I could’ve snapped him in two – I was big then too, but it used to be muscle – but he still made me feel like some tribal beggar kid. We looked at each other. The clipboard booted up, and I started out – “Good morning. I wonder if you’d mind if I asked you a few questions. It won’t take long.” – as if this guy had anything to do beyond going and getting his hand-out at the reprocessor station. He shrugged, asked me in. We sat down on a couple of cushions made from salvaged bubblewrap, and he made tea. Not chai, black tea made by pouring boiling water on leaves. Tasted like engine oil, but I didn’t like to say.

I can’t remember how we got talking, but by the time the clipboard crashed the second time, and the shadow of the supertower out in the bay’d covered the whole shanty town, and I was almost getting a taste for the tea, we were like old schoolfriends at a reunion. Rint invited me back for the next day. Said he had a story to tell me.

I signed off with the supervisor, went to the bank to pick up that month’s trust money, got the usual lecture from the manager – an old friend of my father’s – and headed back to my flat. I spent the evening drinking cheap beer and faking survey results, and I was there at Rint’s door good and early next morning, only a little hung over. This is his story:

After the old Europe fell to bits, there were thousands of places like the one Rint grew up in – microrepublics, back-to-nature citadels, strong-man chiefdoms. His was some sort of neo-Marxist mir, a fishing-in-the-morning, criticism-in-the-afternoon commune. He mostly remembered dinners with the whole village, like a cross between a union-meeting and a barquiz – “I ask our younger comrades – what is commodity fetishism?”

He never told me exactly where it was – security habits die hard – but I’m guessing Bohemia somewhere. The short version is, that the commune were tough guys – Rint knew judo and could field-strip an AK blindfold by the time he was eight – but that they still got smashed by some raiders, and Rint and three other teens found themselves, with nothing but what they’d managed to grab while running, heading north in bitter, mountainous country.

So far, this could be any of a thousand stories, most of them never told. Plenty started again with less. There’s a guy bossing half of what used to be Poland who started with the same. But most of the lost people just quietly died.

Rint’s story’s different because of what he and his friends found in the mountains. This is the place where you’re going to stop believing me, but I’ll swear to this at least – Rint believed what he told me, and I’m telling it to you just the same.

It was Rint’s sister Jana who spotted it first. The gate – a shimmering between two pines in a hanging valley. No big deal for someone brought up on blockbuster special effects, but plenty for someone who’s idea of light entertainment was Battleship Potempkin projected onto a sheet in the refectory. They moved up to it two-by-two, ready to give covering fire, the way they’d been taught. Rint, Onza and Jana had AKs, big blunt Sascha had a beaten-up SA80. He went forward first, stepped into the shimmering, and disappeared without fuss. Jana yelled and charged after him, to vanish the same. Rint had to pick Onza up by his webbing and throw him through, before he took a breath and followed. He told me, ashamed, that he thought of running and forgetting it.

On the other side, the world had changed. Same splintered mountains, even the same saddleback peak they’d been heading for, but a thicker forest – pine, feathered moss ground-cover, bilberries, ‘shrooms – and where there’d been an abandoned village slumping down the valley side, three terraces of garden surrounded a low, white, windowless dome. They only had a few seconds to wonder before the hum they’d been hearing turned out to be the sound of engines.

Three vehicles were splashing along the middle of the shallow stream at the bottom of the valley, two trikes and what Rint called a baba-yaga house – a two-storey caravan on beetle-like legs. All were the same plastic white as the dome. Rint and the others did what they knew to do – dived for cover, guessed the distance and set their sights, and tried to secure a line of retreat, but the shimmer was gone. A white bird hovered over their position, nearly drawing fire from Sascha.

The vehicles pulled up, and there was a pause. Rint watched through field-glasses as two bulky, copper-tanned women got off the trikes and stared up at their position. One pulled a book out of a thigh-pocket and peered into it, before shutting it again, shrugging, and yelling, in oddly-accented english - “Hey comrades, if we’ve got a beef, why don’t we play chess for it or something? There’s no need for the guns.” I don’t know if it was “comrades” or “chess” that got Rint and the others, but after a whispered argument, Rint put down his AK, stood up and walked a little way down the hill to meet one of the women coming up.

She was taller than him, shaven-headed, and some of the bulk was the white, much pocketed boiler-suit she was wearing. The first thing she said was to ask Rint if he was OK, did he need some food? Rint told me this leaning forward, frowning, trying to get it across just how important that was. Positions reversed, he’d have assumed they were an ambush. This woman’s first worry was for him. He nodded without thinking – their rations had run out the day before, they’d been living off berries – and she passed him a crumbling block of something rich-smelling before sitting crosslegged on a stump and watching him stuff his face. Rint backed far enough to throw three-quarters of the block up the slope to his friends. He and the woman looked each other over.

Rint was not a big guy when I knew him or ever, and I imagine him eighteen, scrawny and filthy from days in the wild, Russian-surplus webbing over home-woven jacket and trousers, ancient boots. He must’ve looked like the tramp you ignore in the street. The woman grimaced, then suggested they come down to the house to get clean and eat more. 

Saturday, 31 March 2012


I recently took part in a study of mood and sleep patterns (the EMOTE project). This involved a week of wearing an activity monitor and being prompted by text ten times a day to fill in a questionaire (what were you thinking when you got the text? How happy are you right now? To what extent is your mood under your control right now? etc.). I was in the control group—the real concern is people with bipolar disorder or fibromyalgia—so I wasn’t expected to produce anything terribly exciting. Nor did I: my  mood varies slightly and predictably in step with my blood-sugar and blood-caffeine levels. The most interesting result for me was recognising that I mostly live in accordance with John Stuart Mill’s advice:
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. (Autobiography chapter 5).
I am generally a pretty calm and positive person, but I rarely think about my own mood (apart from ‘a coffee will perk me up’) and I found having my attention repeatedly drawn to my own state of mind disconcerting. Excessive self-consciousness, I’m inclined to think with Mill, is risky.

But the oddity of Mill’s advice is that he gives it in the paradigm case of extreme self-consciousness: an autobiography. In its strong form, it’s advice which could only be authoritatively given by someone who ignored it (as, in a smaller way, is this post).

There are weaker forms, which are perhaps what Mill meant: continuous self-consciousness would be bad, but there are appropriate times for turning one’s attention on oneself, and appropriate amounts of self-monitoring. Ten times a day is too much. Once in a lifetime, taking stock near its end, might be right.

But the sort of person who might write an autobiography—not me—perhaps needs to be thinking much more about her own states and moods at the time, if she’s to recall and make sense of them later. And again, that might be risky.

Bonus: some of my answers to ‘what were you thinking when you got the text?’
  • ‘In what way is Ed Milliband like Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit)?’
  • About helicopter parenting
  • How to teach a seminar on workplace democracy
  • Watching my son be fascinated by geese
  • ‘I fancy a beer’
  • Time to put Hal to bed
  • ‘I tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.’
  • About the children’s book author Judith Kerr
  • About the pleasures of repetition
  • ‘Mmm, ice-cream’
  • Watching my son dance, thinking I should play him more dance music
  • About the meaning of the term ‘harbouring’
  • ‘If I get enough work done this afternoon, I could take tomorrow morning off’
  • What is the past tense of ‘cast’?
  • Is my son ever going to go down for his nap?
  • ‘Amazing sunset’
  • ‘Time to light the fire’
  • About virtue ethics
  • About communally-organised childcare
  • ‘Mmm, noodles’
  • ‘It would be really nice to be able to cycle into work’
  • How to make coleslaw
  • About how to organise essay-planning tutorials next week
  • About how to deal with a student plagiarism case
  • About modernist architecture
  • About how to deal with a failing student
  • Nothing much—walking to stretch my legs
  • About irony in utopias
  • About how to deal with a problem student
  • About government in an online society
  • Is Derrida worth reading?
  • ‘Beautiful evening’
  • About gender in utopias
  • ‘I stayed up too late last night’
  • About how to gently tell a supervisee that her dissertation draft is very weak
  • About moving house
  • About the book I’m writing

mic check

[...stumbles over ashy drifts of old lecture handouts ... blows dust off lectern ... clicks laser-pointer a few times, without effect ... 'um... is this thing on?']

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Linking will continue until morale improves

I am clearly failing to write anything substantive for this blog at the moment, let alone the book drafts I promised. This term has been an effort, for a variety of reasons, but posts that don't just consist of near-contextless links will appear soon. Fairly soon. Probably.

5 Lessons of fieldwork

From Zoe Cormack.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Capitalism book drafts: placeholder

Failed to get a draft finished last week; will probably fail this week too. Normal service will be resumed soon, I hope.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Capitalism book drafts: Ownership

3 Ownership

One of the revolutionary features of capitalism is individual ownership: the concentration of rights over things including land and labour, and the creation of a new right to sell, in one legal individual. This creates the distinctive capitalist form of inequality: some own much and others own only the labour of their own bodies, which they must sell to survive.

This chapter describes and criticises a rights-based justification for individual ownership. The defence is that unequal ownership is the result of legitimate acquisitions and transfers of property in the past. To change it, we would therefore need to violate the rights of owners. In later chapters, we will pursue the alternative defence that unequal ownership is justified by its results, rather than by its history.

3.1From the State of Nature to Individual Ownership

The social contract tradition offers a way of thinking critically about our form of life by asking, If this didn’t exist, what reason would there be to create it? We discover or imagine a ‘state of nature’ which lacks some interesting feature of our form of life; we consider what reasons there would be to move out of the state of nature by creating it; and if they’re good reasons, we take that as a justification for it. Reasons to start are taken as reasons to continue. Hobbes, for example, thinks about the justification of State power by thinking about our reasons to create the State out of anarchy.

The seventeenth-century philosopher, doctor, and political organizer John Locke offered a social contract justification of individual ownership, and we’ll follow him in our investigation of our current regime of property. There are three stages to his argument: the state of nature without individual ownership; legitimate acquisition of property by individuals; and the development of material inequality.

3.1.1 The State of Nature

Locke’s state of nature is a state of political equality, natural law, and common ownership of the Earth. First, no-one has any natural authority, and so kings and other authorities must be made rather than found. Second, the natural law tradition is the long-standing idea that there are some things that humans can know we should do, without their being asserted by State or divine authority, just by reasoning from our natural situation. Locke’s version of natural law is a duty to preserve human life in oneself and in others, from which he derives universal rights to resist threats like tyrants and thieves, to punish wrongdoers, and to make a living. Third, the land and its fruits begin as everyone’s property.

These are position statements in the political conflicts of Locke’s time and place: James II is not the latest inheritor of the one branch of humanity with natural authority and ownership of the Earth, he’s just a human being with no more natural rights than anyone else. But they are also fundamental claims about what would be needed to justify political authority, the State’s monopoly on violence, and individual ownership.
That third problem is, How can we legitimately get from commons to our regime of unequal individual ownership? Locke’s answer is in two stages.

3.1.2 Working Land

Humans acquire property in land by working on it to make a living. After walking for days, I come to a piece of fertile land. I cut down trees to make a cabin. I dig out stumps and rocks. I plough and sow seed. I keep the birds off. By the time I’m ready to cut the corn, we might think, the corn is mine. And, Locke claims, so is the land improved by my work on it. By acting on the land to fulfil my duty and right to get the food and shelter I need to live, I’ve taken that land out of common ownership and made it my property. Before I came, you would have had just as much right to settle here as I did, but now I have a right to keep you out, and you have a duty to keep walking.

But acquisition by work is only legitimate within limits. I have a duty to preserve human life, not just my own life, and so my work for my own survival may not compromise others’. Locke states two constraints on acquisition. First, I must leave ‘as much and as good’ available for others to work. There needs to be more fertile land over the next hill for you who are walking into the wilderness behind me. Second, I may not take more than I can use. There’s to be no waste, nothing left to rot uneaten. If I put up a fence round ten thousand acres, anyone may legitimately tear it down and start to plough and sow for their own livelihood. However, others’ consent is not a constraint on acquisition: I don’t need to ask the permission of any or all of the other commoners before I start to farm.

This is an attractive idea, but also a difficult one to defend. Why should working create ownership? What is the route by which my effort turns into particular rights to keep others off a piece of land and to keep its fruits for myself?

The work is mine—it’s my effort, my planning and sweat—and that self-ownership spreads into what I mix it with.

That’s what Locke says, and it’s proved a powerful idea for thinkers from Marxists to right-wing libertarians. For many Marxists [need a particular example name here], what’s wrong with work under capitalism is that workers own their labour, and therefore own what they make with it, but the capitalist takes some of it as profit. Exploitation is theft. For Robert Nozick, what’s wrong with redistribution of wealth is that citizens own their labour, and therefore own what they makes with it, but the State takes some of it as tax. Taxation is theft. For both, the root of ownership is self-ownership.

Self-ownership is having over myself, my body and action, the rights that a master legally has over a chattel slave. But even if everyone does or should own herself in this sense, it’s not clear why that ownership extends to what she acts on. Mixing owned things with unowned or commonly-owned things doesn’t normally extend ownership. If I mix my rice into the village cooking-pot, I haven’t taken our stew out of common ownership, I’ve given the rice into it. Why not think the same way about the land I improve, that I’ve made the commons better for all?

Perhaps working extends the self into the world? What I labour on becomes me, and moves into the protection of my self-ownership.

That’s appealing, but no easier to understand. As a maker myself—not a farmer but a writer—I certainly identify with and want to claim rights over what I make. I can know and care about it as much as I know and care about my own self. But it isn’t me in the literal sense: I can abandon it, and it will continue to exist when I’m dead. The land outlasts any farmer, and authors hope that our books will outlive us. ‘Hear what the Earth says: —
Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide—
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.’
Perhaps ownership is a matter of what people deserve: the worker deserves ownership rights as a reward for effort; the lazy who don’t work don’t deserve to eat what others grew or enjoy what others sweated over. The state of nature is a meritocracy of effort, where work gets its just reward.

Locke hints at this when he says that God made the Earth for ‘the use of the Industrious and Rational’, and when he repeatedly insists that almost all of the value of cultivated land comes from the work invested in it not from unimproved nature.

Any of these justifications, and others, might be refined and defended further. At minimum, the idea that work creates ownership draws on some powerful stories and moral emotions: the covered wagon heading out into the wilderness stuffed with seeds and tools, the Mayflower pilgrims, the spacecraft bound for Mars. The sense of meritocratic justice, that we should get the results of our efforts. It’s an attractive idea even if an unclear one.

3.1.3 Markets & Merit

Suppose that we can eventually make sense of acquisition by work. Even then, we haven’t got to our own regime of individual ownership. If I own the land and its fruits because I work on it for my living, then I own it only as long as I continue to work and live there. This gets us usufruct property but not permanent property: rights to use and to exclude others so long as I am actually using and occupying, but no rights to transfer to others. No inheritance, no landlords, no shareholders. When I die, the land is back in the commons. If I leave, whoever takes over the work now owns the land, so I can’t lease it out and live somewhere else on rent payments. There are no rights to a share of production or control for other people who live somewhere else, either. Those who don’t work here don’t own here.

Locke’s problem is, How can we legitimately get from commons to our unequal individual ownership? So far, we’ve got only to usufruct. The second stage of his two-stage answer aims to make the final move, but is fragmentary and flawed. Rather than pursue it in detail, I’ll suggest what we we need to add to acquisition by work to get there, and what it costs.

To get from usufruct to our individual ownership, we need to add markets and their supporting rights and technologies. The right to produce surplus goods—that is, goods beyond what I can use and enjoy. The right to exchange those goods for others’ surplus, made easier by money as a medium of exchange—that is, the right to sell. The right to own things on which I have not worked—or, equivalently, the liability to be sold to. The right to sell rights themselves, by taking money for the use of my property, for example by tenants who farm my land and give me some of their produce in return. What we need to add to our rights of acquisition through work is rights of transfer, and adding these rights has large consequences.

Markets create inequalities. Usufruct property-holders will differ in their success at farming, in the productivity of their different pieces of land in different climates, in their luck with weather and disease. But the differences will be limited by the similar levels of work they can put in, as equal human beings, and by the lack of motivation to produce a surplus. What’s the point, if anything over what my family can eat will be left to rot in the ground? Rights to transfer allow those small differences to be entrenched and magnified. If I can sell a surplus, and use the money to hire others to work land for me, to produce more surplus, my advantages snowball. If I can leave my estate to my children, they start with a great advantage over others who walk into the wilderness with nothing.

Markets also detach ownership from work. Part of the attraction of Locke’s account of acquisition was the meritocracy of effort it imples: I get what I work for. But the children who inherit my farm haven’t worked on it, they’ve been given it. Still more, if their grandfather got rich in currency speculation, and they and I live off the interest on his capital, our rewards have nothing to do with our work. Humans have powerful cognitive biases in favour of thinking that people deserve what they get, regardless of its source, but this is clearly false under capitalism, if desert is proportional to effort. Many rich people did not work hard for their wealth, or at least no harder than some poor people. Capitalism is not a meritocracy.

How worrying you should find this depends on how attractive you found Locke’s work-based account of property-acquisition. If you think that legitimate ownership comes from work, then in consistency you should reject our capitalist regime of individual ownership, in which transfer rather than acquisition is all-important.

3.2 Levellers

A consistent believer in justification of ownership by work would be a leveller. Under capitalism, ownership is highly unequal and unrelated to work. Levellers, first, want to reclaim land and other goods which are ‘owned’ on paper, but unworked, for the commons, and to be taken back out of the commons by people who work it for their livelihood. Locke’s contemporary levellers invaded park and waste land ‘owned’ by aristocratic landlords to clear, dig and plant. Our contemporaries might, with the same justification, reclaim their factories and neighbourhoods. Second, levellers imagine a world of free commoners making a living in roughly-equal self-sufficient smallholdings in place of our world of vastly unequal and transferable estates.

But that world would be impoverished by comparison with ours. Market societies create wealth.

True. But that’s a different argument, which we’ll consider in later chapters. The point here is that Locke’s attempt at a social contract justification of individual ownership fails. If we need reasons to start to have reasons to continue, we haven’t found reasons to continue. Humans living in Locke’s state of nature of political equality, natural law, and common ownership might create usufruct property in owner-occupied smallholdings, but would not create our regime of property. So, perhaps we should reject it.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Random philosophical anti-monarchism fact

Gilbert Ryle turned down a knighthood in 1965, according to the Telegraph (they actually describe those who turn down honours as having 'snubbed the queen', of course).

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Capitalism book drafts: Freedom

2. Freedom

Freedom is valuable. To be a slave, to be imprisoned, to be constrained by social convention or trapped by your own past, to be unfree in any of a wide range of other more or less subtle ways, is terrible. The felt demand for freedom can be transformative and overwhelming. The former slave Frederick Douglass writes:

I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition which tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trumpet of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
So, we should ask: What is the relation between capitalism and freedom? This is a pressing question for us, because if capitalism realizes this ‘beautiful, needful thing’, that’s a very strong ethical argument in its favour. And if it does not – if it leaves us without freedom or even enslaves us – that’s a very strong ethical argument against it.

We might hope to answer this question by saying what freedom is, and then investigating whether capitalism provides it. But it isn’t clear what freedom is. Is poverty lack of freedom, for example? For Amartya Sen, freedom is the means, opportunities, and capacities to achieve central human ways of being and doing, from getting enough to eat, to appearing in public without threat or shame, to having a voice in communal decision-making. To be poor is to lack some or all of these, and poverty is therefore lack of freedom. But Friedrich Hayek distinguishes between freedom and the powers needed to make use of it. For Hayek, poor people are just as free as rich ones, even though they can do less with their freedom. Someone who will have to sleep rough tonight, because she doesn’t have money or friends, either lacks the freedom to sleep warm and safe, or is free but without means to do so.

We can’t resolve this dispute by discovering the real or original meaning of the word ‘freedom’. It doesn’t have a real meaning, just multiple uses, and its original uses are no guide to its current ones. We don’t discover anything about the Pope’s views on contraception by noting that one root meaning of ‘catholic’ is ‘universal’.

Instead, we should recognise that ‘freedom’ means many different things, ask which of them is most valuable, and see whether capitalism realizes these most valuable freedoms. This chapter considers the value of three different regimes of freedom in relation to capitalism.

2.1 Hayek’s Regime of Liberty

Hayek argues that the most valuable freedom is liberty, which is just not being coerced. Coercion is the use of power, by some other human being, to make you act on their will rather than your own. The forces of circumstance and nature, including your own nature, are not coercion. So, liberty is not actually getting what you want. You can freely try and fail through mere bad luck. It’s not self-command. You can be free but weak-willed or confused. Contra Sen, it’s not power or wealth or capacity. You can be free without the internal or external means to get what you want. It’s not having a range of possibilities to choose between. In Hayek’s example, the climber who sees only one way of getting off the mountain alive is free, even though she has only one path into the future. It’s not political freedom, having a say in communal decision-making. You can have liberty in a dictatorship. (We’ll return to this last point in a later chapter.)

Hayek’s vision of the best form of life is a regime of liberty in which everyone has the status of free person, not slave. Each person is a protected member of the community with the rights gained by Roman slaves at manumission: immunity from arbitrary arrest, the right to work at whatever she desires, the right to movement according to her own choice, and the right to own property. This status is a private sphere of uncoerced action defined by the State’s public rule-governed use of coercion. Property, for example, is a sphere of rights to use things, created and defended by State-mandated contracts, courts, and force. This form of life is the life of individuals striving against circumstance and nature to get what they want, by their own efforts and by uncoerced agreement with others. Their striving doesn’t always succeed, but they succeed or fail as free people.

This is an idealized picture of capitalism: Hayekian liberty defended by a rule-governed State.

There is a common argument that capitalism is freedom because it’s human nature, and non-capitalism is interference with that nature. Non-capitalist forms of life are therefore thought to need special justification, where capitalism doesn’t. It’s thought to be the human default, and to exert a gravitational pull which distorts attempts at other ways of organizing ourselves. That argument is a mistake, and Hayek doesn’t make it.
First, if any human social form is natural, it’s anarchy. For most of the time there have been humans, we lived in small, nomadic, egalitarian bands connected by kinship and friendship. We divided labour by gender and age. We had no property except a few personal items and no trade except gift-exchange. We had no formal authorities or institutional centres of power. We organized our collective lives by negotiation, social pressure, temporary enthusiasm for individual initiatives, and shared ritual. That’s how humans lived for perhaps 90,000 years before some of us took up agriculture sometime around 10,000 BCE.

Second, slavery is commonplace in more recent human history. Every one of us is descended both from slaves and from slave-holders.

For both reasons, Hayek’s liberty is a recent and incomplete achievement, not a default. Both anarchy and slavery are centres of gravity in human nature which pull away from it. Hayek know this, and is clear that capitalist liberty depends on State interference and limitation of liberty. The private sphere is defined and sustained by State action, and it’s no accident that capitalism and the modern nation-state arise together in recent history.

2.2 The Value of Freedoms

But why think that liberty is worth having? We might say that it’s valuable just in itself, but that would have the strange consequence that it would be equally valuable for creatures who could do nothing with it. Dandelions pursue sunlight and water, but have no use for property, so liberty is of no value to them. Liberty must therefore be valuable for what it does to us, not just what it is. It’s beautiful and needful for humans.

This is how Hayek defends the value of liberty: it’s needed to live and make progress in a world we don’t fully understand. If we knew everything about human nature, society, and the future, we’d have no need for liberty, because we could see what would be best to do. But without such perfect knowledge we have to rely on experimentation. Different individuals make different uses of their liberty to try out various possibilities; the failures are abandoned or die off; the successes grow and are copied. Gradually, we develop a form of life, a set of habits and institutions, which expresses what we’ve learned about how to survive in our circumstances. Trial and error in practice comes first. Theory incompletely follows. The great mistake of forms of life which don’t provide liberty is their quixotic attempt to theorise and plan for the unknown future instead of adapt to it by multiple experiment. In the twentieth century, liberal societies displayed their superiority to centrally-planned ones by outliving them, and they did so by trying out many plans at once, rather than applying one five-year plan from the top down. 

If liberty is valuable, its value is as a means to the gradual progress of knowledge in practice about how to live.

2.3 The Regime of Real Possibility

That means that if some other freedom creates more progress than liberty does, we ought to adopt it instead. Liberty is the absence of coercion, not the actual opportunity or means to do what you want, so you could have liberty and still not be able to do it. You might want to experiment with self-sufficient communal living, but be unable to make the attempt because there’s no free land, and your group lacks the money to buy it. You might want to experiment with the potential of your musical talent, but have to work long tiring shifts to pay rent. You might have an idea for greener transport, but have no capital to invest in developing it. An increase in opportunities, by a distribution of means to take them, would therefore make more experiments possible. If the value of liberty is its necessity for experiment, then real possibility, based in the wider distribution of means like money, is more valuable. So, we should redistribute wealth to maximise the number and range of experiments. If everyone has some possibility of trying new things, more experiments will be made than if only a few have it.

But some people pursue their artistic talent while working long tiring shifts.

Of course, but how many more would be able to pursue their talent without that necessity? How much more would those who struggled on have been able to do without it? The argument isn’t that progress is impossible without these extra possibilities, it’s that we’d get more progress with them than without.

But redistributing wealth just moves opportunity from some to others. It doesn’t create more opportunity.

That would be true if the number and range of experiments were proportional only to the means available, and had nothing to do with the number of people they’re distributed across. But why think that?

A rich person – Paris Hilton, say – has the means to pursue more experiments than she’ll ever imagine, desire, or have time for. Transferring some of her money to the musician, communards and inventor increases the number of experiments carried out, and therefore creates more possibilities for progress.

Neither is the range of different experiments proportional only to the means available. If all the means are concentrated in one class or group, their similarities and mutual emulation will limit what’s tried to a narrow range of possibilities. Transferring some of Paris Hilton’s money to someone very unlike her increases the range of experiments attempted.

But how do we know that the people we transfer means to will make good use of their new possibilities?

We don’t. But we don’t know that about the few who have the means now, either.

This regime of real possibility, created by distribution of means to experiment, could happen under capitalism. One form of it is universal basic income: every adult citizen gets a guaranteed income to use as she chooses, funded from taxation, so higher earners will pay more in tax than they get from the UBI, but everyone will have some means for experiment. But my brief here is not to make detailed policy proposals, it’s to argue that the demand for freedom, if based on the good of progress it produces, is a demand for real possibility not just liberty. My argument is the progressive effect of everyone really being free to pursue her own experiments. Its result is a freedom-based demand for redistribution of means, and therefore of possibilities, rather than an egalitarian demand.

But this destroys autonomy and independence. It turns free strivers into slavish clients of the redistributive State.

2.3 The Regime of Flourishing

This last criticism is a move from a defence of liberty out of what it does for us to a defence out of what it does to us. Lack of liberty is supposed to weaken and corrupt. Liberty is supposed to cultivate an admirable independence. Frederick Douglass would have agreed that slavery corrupts. The condition of subordination creates fear, cringing self-abjection, self-hatred, retreat into alcoholism and other forms of inner escape, and reactive violence, often against oneself or other subordinates. It destroys important elements of human flourishing, including self-love, self-command, and the ability to look other people in the eye and stand with them, or up to them, as an equal.

Manumission from slavery to liberty is a great good in that it removes these sources of corruption, but it doesn’t remove all sources of corruption. Advertising distorts desire the way fat and salt distorts appetite. Bad education misshapes our capacities of self-understanding and self-command. The examples of wealth-as-success offered to us by capitalism misdirect our efforts and admiration. There are many ways a life can go badly in a regime of liberty. So, if the argument for liberty is that it removes some sources of corruption, the same argument applies even more strongly to regimes which remove other sources. If the argument for liberty is that it makes us better, the same argument applies even more strongly to regimes which make us better still.

The conditions of flourishing, of living fully and well as a human being, are far more complex and demanding than just being left alone in a private sphere. They may include the education of desire, perception, and self-understanding; the resources to support oneself without having to become menial and cringing; mutually-transformative friendship.

We’ll return to the nature and conditions of flourishing in later chapters. For the moment, the moral to draw is that it is not obvious that capitalism’s regime of liberty is best for us. If we care about what freedoms do for us and to us, we need to pursue more and different freedoms than Hayek’s liberty.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Capitalism book drafts: Introduction

1. Introduction

[Proper introduction needed: perhaps a few vignettes of life in capitalism, including bourgeois professional, factory worker in China; core and periphery… I need to think more about this.]

Capitalism as an Ethical Problem: both parts of that title need to be explained.

1.1 Capitalism…

Capitalism, like socialism or fascism, is a contested term. James Fulcher defines it as ‘essentially the investment of money in the expectation of making a profit’. The Encyclopedia Britannica, as an ‘economic system, dominant in the Western world since the breakup of feudalism, in which most of the means of production are privately owned and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets’. Deirdre McCloskey, as ‘private property and free labour without central planning, regulated by the rule of law and by an ethical consensus’. There’s no interesting argument to be had about which is the ‘real meaning’ of the term: words have uses, not real meanings.

I shall use capitalism as the name of a form of life: our current global form, which deeply shapes the development, experiences, and possibilities of all living humans. It’s the result of a revolutionary change which happened over the last few hundred years. That ‘great transformation’ was perhaps the largest change in human life since the shift from hunting, gathering and gardening to agriculture and cities.

This recent revolution was the takeover of more and more of human life by markets: by individual ownership, exchange in pursuit of profit, and their supporting social and political institutions. The takeover began in the seventeenth century, and increased rapidly from around 1800. Industrial capitalism developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, and our global finance capitalism in the second half of the twentieth.

A critic interrupts: Capitalism isn’t a recent transformation, capitalism is natural. Humans always rationally pursue profit or self-interest, and have an innate tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ for advantage. The rise of modern capitalism was the freeing of that nature from the chains of feudal church, state, and culture—from sumptuary laws, the prohibition of usury, and the valorisation of holy poverty—leading to increased trade, accumulation, investment, and innovation. It was growth, not revolution. (This critical voice will continue to interrupt, in italics, throughout.)

That’s a widely held view, and not a stupid one, but it’s mistaken. One running theme of this book will be the historical particularity of capitalism and the range of humanly possible alternatives to it. For now, I’ll point out three major qualitative changes involved in the move to capitalism. I’m not claiming that self-interest and trade are not natural. They may well be, and capitalism must somehow connect with our natures or it wouldn’t be possible for us. But my argument here is that self-interest and trade don’t by themselves add up to our current capitalist form of life.

The first change is in how the relation of self to society is understood: the transition to capitalism is a move from understanding the basic social tie as blood to understanding it as bargain. In non-capitalist forms of life, people relate to one another and organise their shared lives in a variety of ways, but centrally by natural and artificial kinship: mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters; clans and marriages; shared ancestors. In capitalism, people understand and direct many of their relations as voluntary agreements between formal equals. Social roles aren’t assigned to the fitting person with a particular blood relationship, but are ‘careers open to talent’. In theory at least, capacity not descent is what matters.

Thomas Hobbes helped to define this understanding of social relations by recasting what a monarch is. For many seventeenth-century royalists, Charles II was the unique bearer of a sacred property—he was the king because of who he in particular was, the heir of the previous king. For Hobbes, Charles Stuart is no-one special unless we—individuals with our own powers and rights to use them to pursue our desires—make him so. Each of us offers the others a self-interested bargain: I’ll obey the king if you do too. This bargain is worth making because everyone’s obedience is better for me than everyone’s freedom (every else’s obedience and my freedom would be even better, but no-one’s going to agree to that). Hobbes’s starting place is what’s important here: society is a bargain between presocial individuals, and forward-looking agreement rather than history is what’s important in its organisation.

So, in capitalism, the roles available to us are temporary contracts which might be filled by any particular person, rather than identities which belong to us because of who and what we in particular are—manager, employee, or customer, rather than King Charles II, the knight Sir Francis Godolphin, or the serfs Mary and John.

Of course, kinship hasn’t disappeared as an organising principle, but its powers are changed and constrained by the market in contracted roles. James Murdoch’s role has something to do with being the son of Rupert Murdoch, but he can be fired and replaced.

The second change is in property, that is rights over things, and especially over things needed for survival. In non-capitalist forms of life, non-human nature is occupied and managed by groups who make decisions by some combination of tradition, hierarchy, and democracy. In capitalism, land is owned by an individual (often a legal individual, a corporation, not a single human being). The shift to capitalism involves both the concentration of rights which had been distributed, and the creation of a new right. Feudal serfs had a customary or common law right to derive a livelihood from the fields and forests they occupied; feudal lords had a right to a share of their crops. Neither had a right to transfer those rights, nor to change how the fields and forests were used and lived in. Capitalist land-owners have formal legal rights not only to do all of these things, but also to sell. The shift to capitalism recasts nature as land, that is as a commodity as well as a place and resource: it puts nature into a market.

The history of enclosure in England is one example of this shift. In the hundred years from the mid-eighteenth century, common land was frequently transferred into private ownership by acts of parliament. This was a move from shared local rights to collect firewood, cut turf, graze livestock, mow hay, and other particular activities, to individual ownership rights to use, derive profit, transform, and especially to sell. Enclosure involved considerable violence, and it made many new landowners, who were often the old aristocrats, rich. More importantly, it helped to create an urban working class. Many who could no longer make a living as farmers, foragers and gardeners went to the city to try to make a living by selling all they had left: themselves, the activity of their bodies and minds, also now become a commodity as labour.

In non-capitalist forms of life, there is no individual ownership of the strong kind we have in capitalism. I’m not making the obviously false claim that outside capitalism, no individual or group holds onto particular objects, occupies particular spaces, or excludes others from them. I am saying that the individual owner in whom all the rights of property including the right to sell are fixed, and who can own land and labour amongst other commodities, is a product of capitalism.

Nor am I saying that individual ownership is the only way in which people in capitalism have rights over things. Other forms of use and occupation survive, just as non-bargain forms of social relation do, and often in the same place: families use and occupy intimate spaces without needing always to make ownership claims against one another, even though they may make strong claims to monopolise the use of particular objects (my armchair) and territory (my bedroom). I am saying that the creation and expansion of individual ownership is a revolutionary change in how humans live.

The third change is in the production and distribution of goods, in three ways. First, why are goods made? In non-capitalist forms of life, goods are made for a variety of reasons: need, pleasure, ritual, status, gift-giving. In capitalism, goods are made in the hope of profitable exchange. The exchange is expected to be profitable because of all those other reasons why people might want or need goods, but goods are made for exchange and not directly for those other reasons. That shapes what is made, how it’s made, and who gets it.

Second, how are goods made? Groups normally make goods in both the capitalist and the non-capitalist case, but they’re different kinds of group. In non-capitalist forms of life, goods are made by groups including families, villages, and guilds, using organising strategies including the demands of friendship and care, reciprocity, the threat of mockery and social disapproval, the threat of violence, and gender-based divisions of labour. In capitalism, the preeminent group form is the bureaucratic corporation or firm: a formal, rule-governed hierarchy with horizontal and vertical division of labour (horizontal in that each person does only some small part of the group task; vertical in that the head-work of management is divided from the hand-work of labour). This firm exists in a market for which it produces, and in which it makes exchanges in pursuit of profit.

Third, how are goods distributed? In non-capitalist forms of life, the answer is again various: who gets what is a matter of traditional portions, or need, or centralised redistribution, or giving and returning favours, or expression of social approval and disapproval, or violent appropriation. In capitalism, access to goods is decided by ability to pay. Paying or bartering for goods in markets is an option available in many non-capitalist forms of life, but in capitalism, markets are compulsory, not optional. There’s no other way to get much of what I need or want than to buy it.

[Need an example here: competitive feasting as a form of distribution? potlatch?]

The capitalist revolution is incomplete, and perhaps can’t be complete. The creatures on the other side of the great transformation were still humans, and human universals like kinship continue across the boundary, though in changed forms and context. But the three major changes I’ve sketched are enough to reject the claim that capitalism is natural: our capitalist form of life is recent, revolutionary, and only one of the ways humans have lived and might live again.

1.2 …as an Ethical Problem

This book is about capitalism as an ethical problem. Any form of life raises the question, is this the best way to live?, because it shapes us. What we can do and be, individually and collectively, depends on the form of life we find ourselves in, which we didn’t create, but which is not merely a fact of nature we have to deal with. We make our current form of life together, in the face of and with the collaboration of human and non-human nature, we have made other forms of life in the past, and we could make another form in the future. We have alternatives, so as reasonable people we can and should think about capitalism in the context of those alternatives.

But how are we to think about them? If we’re so shaped by our form of life, we can’t get to an objective position outside it to judge it.

We’ll attempt a particular kind of thinking, which philosophers and others have taken up at least since Socrates. We’ll address current human predicaments by working from the particular and local towards the fundamental and general. We’ll go from particular experiences of lack of freedoms to the nature and value of freedom. We’ll use contrasts between capitalist and other kinds of work to make judgements about the value of work. The answer to my critic is that we won’t try to step up to the position of the outside judge. Our project is critical from multiple human perspectives, not from an imaginary godlike perspective.

Our topics are some ethically problematic and philosophically interesting features of capitalism as a form of life: freedom, ownership, individuals, opulence, making a living [and justice?]. We’ll also consider utopianism as one way of responding to these features. These topics are different angles on one thing, not independent, but we need to abstract if we’re to get clear about the complex whole.

Capitalism book drafts

As mentioned below, I’m going to write the first draft of a book out of my teaching this term. The working title is Capitalism as an Ethical Problem, and it’s intended as a piece of popular, but not dumbed down, practical philosophy. My plan is to post a draft chapter every week – that’s ambitious, and it means that they’ll often be scrappy, but I hope that the tight, repeated deadlines will work against my tendency to polish endlessly. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Teaching and writing this term

I’m teaching two related courses this term: PPR309 Practical Philosophy: Capitalism as an Ethical Problem (final-year undergraduate) and PPR459 Ethics & Governance (MA). Links go to module guides. I plan to write the first draft of a book about capitalism out of this teaching, and will post draft chapters here as I go.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

A sketch of a theory of responsibility

(Mostly inspired by discussions with Garrath Williams and Matt Matravers.)

1. There is no such thing as responsibility. That is, there is no thing, responsibility, out there in the world for us to discover or describe or respond to. Holding responsible is a thing humans do: an institution or practice. And we can do it in many different ways, or, perhaps, we could choose not to do it at all.

2. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to choose between different practices of holding responsible. Norms for those practices include causality and human flourishing, which set limits on the kinds of practices we ought to adopt, and ground reasons for and against particular practices.

3. Causality, unlike responsibility, is out there in the world. Some things really do cause other things, in the sense that but for the first, the second would not exist or have happened. To hold someone responsible is normally to assert causation, and a demonstration of lack of causation is a good criticism of an attempt to hold responsible. This means, for example, that a good reason against holding a witch responsible for an illness is that the alleged witch did not, in fact, cause the illness.

4. Human flourishing is also out there in the world. I can remain neutral here about what exactly flourishing is, and insist only that – obviously – some people’s lives really go better than others’ do, regardless of what we choose to say or do about it. Flourishing is normative for our practices of holding responsible in the straightforward consequentialist sense that the right practice is the one which best promotes flourishing. This means, for example, that the current punitive practice of the UK and US should be abandoned because of its disastrous results. It’s not that people in prison aren’t really responsible for what they did: there’s no such thing as being really responsible, only a practice of holding responsible. Rather, holding mostly poor, wounded, badly educated people responsible in a way which legitimates locking them up for long periods of time is bad for those people, and not good for the rest of us. So we should stop it.

Monday, 2 January 2012