Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

Updates from the Exciting New Grad School

The Global Center for Advanced Studies is offering a one-credit course on contemporary philosophy of religion. It will consist of four class sessions team-taught by John Caputo, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis, with special guest lectures by Thomas Altizer, Jeff Robbins, and Pete Rollins — a rare case of having more professors than class sessions. Despite this surplus of instructors, however, it appears that they were unable to find room for a single woman or person of color for either the teaching docket or the reading list.

In a blow against neoliberal hegemony, the class will consist of video lectures supplemented by online discussion sessions — i.e., it is distinguished from a MOOC only by the fact that they’re charging. In a bold stand against corporate domination of the university, those discussion sessions will be held on Facebook and Google+, and the textbooks (which mainly consist of the writings of the professors themselves) are made available through links to Amazon.

Under the section on credit, the syllabus specifies that “This course is designed to be as rigorous academically as any graduate (upper level under-graduate) course.” And it shows — students are expected to write a five-page research paper that cites at least two sources. Those of us who suspected that GCAS would amount to little more than an American version of the European Grad School can feel a certain vindication, given that this section also reveals that the GCAS will be piggy-backing on the EGS’s European accreditation for the time being.

This course may very well prove to be informative and helpful for the participants on some level, but I don’t think any but the most blinkered advocates can claim it adds up to anything revolutionary or paradigm-shifting. People have suggested various theories for why I’m so skeptical of this venture, including personal animus toward the school’s founders or jealousy at not being invited to participate. I think that a careful reading of this syllabus can lay those speculations to rest. I’m skeptical of this venture because the gap between the insane hype and the lackluster reality is a yawning, nigh-unfathomable abyss.

First as tragedy, then as farce: Communism and neoliberalism

The twentieth century saw the advent of two heavily state-driven strategies for capital-intensive economic development: communism and neoliberalism. The difference is that communism focused on the development of fixed capital (above all, “heavy industry”), whereas neoliberalism focuses on fictitious capital. Both demand extraordinary amounts of effort and sacrifice on the part of the majority of the population — but where communism held out an ostensible goal of very rapidly creating the conditions for a vastly improved quality of life, in neoliberalism there is no promised end to the sacrifice. The pile-up of fictitious capital in the hands of a few cannot conceivably benefit the masses in the way that improved industrial capacity could. It serves only to increase the power of the elites over the masses, which brings me to another distinctive trait of both movements: the creation of a “zone of indistinction” between the economic and the political. Particularly under Stalinism, the “economic forces” at play were literal forces of violence, and the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by a dramatic reemergence of violent repression as a key form of political control — most emblematically in Pinochet’s Chile, where neoliberal reform was achieved by means of a horrifying campaign of state terror.

There are fine-grained similarities, too. Take the much-lauded idea of “disruptive innovation.” Surely if there was ever a disruptive innovation, it was the communist project of collectivizing agriculture! They took a system that, though it was certainly not operating up to the highest possible productivity, basically worked most of the time in the sense of keeping the population fed, and they very rapidly replaced it with a radically new and different system that they believed would produce better results. We can see a similar logic at work with the disruptive innovation afoot in the education system. For all its faults, the U.S. education system does provide a certain baseline education for those who complete it — the literacy rate, for example, is very nearly 100%, and the vast majority of people can do the basic math necessary for everyday life — but the thought-leaders (a term that’s always struck me as somewhat Maoist) have decided it’s inadequate and needs to be replaced with a radically different one. In both cases, the short-term results proved to be devestating. Collectivization of agriculture led to famine and starvation, while de-collectivization of public schools has led to an active degradation of the quality of education. In both cases, the short-term damage caused by the rapid change is deployed as evidence that we need to move all the more quickly.

I’ve already written on the striking similarity between Stalinism and neoliberal corporate governance, so I won’t belabor that here. Suffice it to say that the same bizarre cocktail of lock-step historical necessity and voluntarism are at work in both systems. In communism, there was an attempt to immanentize the eschaton, to force their way through the necessary steps of historical progress in order to reach the promised land as quickly as possible. All that’s different is that in neoliberalism, there is no historical telos, no equivalent to the dream of “full communism.” We must continue cutting costs and disruptively innovating and giving 110% — forever, for its own sake. It is our ineluctable fate, and our only space of freedom consists in preemptively imposing our fate on ourselves. We must cut the budget, or else circumstances will arise that force us to cut the budget — this is how we express our amor fati.

The historical failure of Soviet Communism and the ambiguous status of Chinese Communism may have made all the sacrifices endured under communism seem pointless — but neoliberalism is inherently pointless, forthrightly and avowedly nihilistic. Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism. Perhaps we missed our chance to cash out of capitalism and turn its amazing productive forces toward constructive human ends. Now all we can do is watch as the machine destroys itself, and us along with it.

“Privilege” and the rhetoric of austerity

In an individualistic culture, it can be difficult to get people to recognize structural inequality without making them feel as though they are being accused of personal wrongdoing. Privilege discourse is one of the most widespread methods for bridging that gap. It does this by pointing out the ways that certain people’s everyday experience is not natural, but is undergirded by a social structure that benefits some and hurts others. These goals are laudable, if limited, because making people aware of a problem is of course only the first step. It’s also been pointed out that certain privileged people view privilege discourse as a new form of political correctness, a way of policing their speech — so that they respond to this attempt to break out of the cycle of personal accusation as though it were a personal accusation.

For me, though, the biggest problem is that little word “privilege.” Why should precisely that be the key term? A privilege is something extra — and from a very young age, I knew that when something was referred to as a privilege, I was in danger of losing it. How does that make sense, for instance, with something like being free from fear of police harrassment? Undoubtedly, that is part of my privilege as a white, straight, cis, well-dressed man. But when it is called a “privilege,” my initial thought is that it is something unjustified that should be taken away — i.e., we should all have to be stopped and frisked. Something similar came up in my post about how I had some degree of autonomy and dignity in my work — do we really want to say that that’s a “privilege”? In both cases, aren’t we dealing with something more like a right that’s been denied to a great many people?

There are admittedly some cases where those implications of the term “privilege” very precisely describe the phenomenon in question. No one should be able to assume that their experience is the norm for everyone. No one should be taken more seriously simply because they belong to a particular demographic group. Yet there is no way to limit the term to those cases, and even here, perhaps a meme along the lines of “yet another oblivious white dude” would be more helpful.

More alarming to me, though, is the way that the term “privilege” plays into the rhetoric of austerity. We’ve all seen the dynamic at work, for instance when people talk about how teachers have summers off and a good retirement plan, etc. The response is always to say, “That’s unfair, that should be taken away” — never “my job should be like that too!” Deprivation is taken as the baseline assumption, and anything above that is an unfair imposition. There’s no hope that my situation will get better, and my only source of satisfaction is to tear others down. The language of privilege resonates a bit too closely with this embittered hopelessness, fits in a little too neatly with the ideology of permanent austerity.

And so, privileged though I may be, I propose that we move beyond privilege discourse and find a rhetoric of hope and aspiration to replace this rhetoric of zero-sum despair.

Neoliberalism and production

Neoliberalism always presupposes production. It is not interested in how it happens or how to cultivate it — indeed, its typical strategies evince an assumption that it exists more or less automatically and the goal of the market is to find and reward it. Take teaching reform. Clearly, the thinking there is that the ability to teach is a more or less inborn trait. Reform does not concern itself primarily with teacher training, and it undermines traditional ways in which teachers have governed and assessed themselves. Instead, it takes an output (test scores), assumes that it’s generated by an input (teaching ability), and then sets up a market-like mechanism to make sure that the “good teachers” rise to the top regardless of how they came by that ability.

A similar logic is at work in cultural production. What neoliberalism concerns itself with is delivery of something called “content.” How that “content” comes into existence is of no concern. The people who generate the “content” may or may not be paid, for example. The pay is not directly tied to the generation of “content,” in any case, but to the ability to attract people to the content-delivery platform. Certain niche providers do actively cultivate the direct production of original “content,” but that works in a similar way to paying high-profile content-providers — it’s a way of signaling prestige and attracting eyeballs.

It’s most interesting when the “content” involved is actual labor-power, which is unfortunately required in many more instances than would be ideal from the perspective of neoliberalism. The way that workers are produced and reproduced is not the responsibility or concern of neoliberalism. That will somehow take care of itself — either through government worker training in developed countries or through some mysterious and probably uninteresting means in emerging markets. The key is to get as cheap and flexible access to labor power as possible, and the “global economy” consists of a sprawling content-delivery system that renders the location and condition of that labor power a matter of relative indifference.

The shift from earlier stages of capitalist development is interesting here. Even Marx was fascinated by the productive power of capitalist industry — it was producing something genuinely new and unprecedented. Now, however, production always happens “elsewhere,” away from the real action, which consists of distributing whatever is produced and taking a cut. Never before has the absolute superfluity of the capitalists themselves been so undeniably clear. At some point, the world at large will have to ask the capitalist class, “What is it that you’d say you do here?

Marriage and meritocracy

I want to begin by saying that the Supreme Court decisions today in favor of gay marriage are an unambiguously positive thing, a step forward for justice and equality. While I am skeptical for various reasons of the gay rights movement’s strategic focus on “inclusion” issues (such as gay marriage and gays in the military), it is my duty as an ally to defer to those directly affected when it comes to setting priorities, and I am very glad to see that the movement has had such a string of successes in recent years.

What I want to talk about in this post is not meant to reflect negatively on the movement and its priorities. Instead, it is an effort to think through the conditions of possibility of this victory. Conservatives are correct that the legalization of gay marriage changes the meaning of marriage — it really does, and in a good way. What is perhaps less noted is that this success presupposes a prior change in the meaning of marriage, or rather a series of changes over the course of the 20th century. Despite the claims of the traditionalists, marriage has actually been a very dynamic and fluid institution in modernity, serving a wide variety of functions and providing a momentary solution to a range of social, political, and economic conflicts. I don’t intend to account for the entire complex process here, but suffice it to say that marriage is constantly evolving — and in fact, much more momentous changes than the acceptance of gay marriage have happened in the last 100 years (most notably, the routinization of divorce).

In recent decades, marriage has taken up a new role with the emergence of a self-confident meritocratic elite under neoliberalism. Read the rest of this entry »

The 10 commandments of neoliberalism

This is a follow-up to The first job creator.

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Market thy God, which have brought thy GDP above the other nations, out of the bondage of reference to the flourishing of life. Thou shalt have no other gods before maximizing Wealth and individual Creativity.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image which might tarnish thy institution’s brand, or tarnish any brand that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: for I the Market thy God am a jealous God, visiting the bad credit rating of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto the 1% of them that love me, and keep my commandments, and have access to Wealth.

Thou shalt not take the name of Bankers in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that questions financialization of every aspect of life. Read the rest of this entry »

The purpose-driven life

Every summer, I come down with a case of existential angst. As the immediate demands of the school year slow down and the space for some self-directed work opens up, it seems that broader questions inevitably open up as well — what is the point of all my work? I eventually get over it as I become absorbed in whatever project, but this time around I’ve been reflecting on the claim that religions faith gives people meaning and purpose and that they are somehow to be envied because of that. What strikes me as I look back on my own religious upbringing is that the meaning and purpose provided had no actual content. “God’s plan” or “God’s will” was a purely virtual reference point, which was applied very selectively to what happened to people. Aside from very broad moral guidelines — it was obviously never going to be God’s will that I murder someone, for example — it seemed that the reference to God’s will provided no actual guidance. All it added was the idea of a purpose, a kind of purposefulness without purpose.

It may seem unfair to pick on popular piety like this, but actual theologians aren’t much better. Read the rest of this entry »

What St. Paul and the Franciscans can tell us about neoliberalism

Last night, I presented this paper (PDF) to the Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group at Northwestern University. In it, I try to situate The Highest Poverty in relation to Agamben’s work since The Kingdom and the Glory, and at the end, I address the issue of Agamben’s relationship to Marxism.

Our broken market in parenting

Meritocracy has long been one of America’s most cherished principles. It informs the structure of our educational system, which at its best tries to ensure that the most talented students get access to the resources they need to succeed. Yet doesn’t the social mobility provided by education come “too late,” as it were? Before arriving at school, children are exposed to more or less random differences in the distribution of resources, simply by virtue of who their parents are. Talented students may be mired in a stimulus-poor environment, while the mediocre children of the rich receive, by virtue of a kind of genetic affirmative action, a wide range of educational opportunities that will ultimately be wasted on them. This so-called “system” of parenting prevents pure meritocracy from being achieved, meaning that there can appear to be a moral imperative toward market-distorting redistribution of wealth.

To remedy this standing offense against human freedom, I propose that we apply market principles to parenting. While there is currently no getting around the need to be physically born to a particular person, we can minimize the element of randomness by providing infants with parenting vouchers in proportion to their innate talents (as indicated by an appropriate standardized testing regime). Better parents would naturally be able to command higher prices on the parenting market. Thus the more talented children could then be matched up with wealthier and more socially prestigious parents, promoting the deserving child’s life chances and also making sure that the social and economic resources of their parents are not squandered. Children who were never going to contribute significantly to society could be given to less capable parents. If some kind of error occurred in the placement process, the educational system, as the engine of social mobility, would be able to correct for the problem — though presumably the system would improve over time, so that eventually even that correction would no longer be necessary.

Plato already recognized that something like this type of system would be necessary for a truly just society to emerge, namely, one in which each is rewarded for his or her own merits. While there is a considerable sentimental attachment to our current system, I think we all need to recognize that until our broken market for parenting is repaired, we can never be completely sure that those who are rich or poor truly deserve to be in their respective conditions.


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