The Dim-Post

October 27, 2016

Further reading

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:30 am

When I wrote my screed about Marxism one of my fears was that Scott Hamilton would show up and tear it to pieces. Happily he has not done this, instead he directed me to this post he wrote a few months ago also critiquing the base-superstructure model.

Giovanni Tiso has written a post about Why he is a Marxist.

Someone in the comments linked to this, a post by a US based blogger. He read one of the same books I did (Singer on Marx) and reached similar conclusions.

He also wrote an excellent review about Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty. I read this a few years ago (and I thought I wrote about it too but cannot find the post). This really was a key book for me, especially on the issue of capitalism and climate change. It’s axiomatic on a lot of the left that capitalism causes climate change (because of the drive for endless economic growth), and Red Plenty showed that you can get rid of capitalism and have a planned economy and have it work pretty well, actually, thanks, and still have your public and leaders demand continued high economic growth, because that’s a great solution to many political and economic problems, regardless of whether you’re a capitalist economy or not – and then dig up and burn huge amounts of coal and oil to fuel it.

Actually it occurs to me now that birth rates tend to drop off in advanced capitalist countries, and that they might soar in post-scarcity, post-capitalist utopias, driving really very rapid economic growth and environmental destruction.

Anyway, just while I’m recommending books, Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is one of the most useful books I’ve read in a while. Lots of people here will have read it already. Also, some of the findings on psychological priming are now contested. But the material on cognitive bias is very important. Our brains are very easily tricked, no matter how clever and educated we are. In fact, the smarter you are the more effectively your intellect can conspire against you, because if you’re smart then you can very effectively rationalise being wrong about something. Especially if it’s a core belief of the in-group you happen to identify with.

Most of the books on Scientology (Going Clear etc) are very good on this point. Most members of the Church didn’t believe in Scientology because they were stupid. They believed in it because they were smart: very high achievers, who knew they all couldn’t possibly all be wrong, that non-Scientologists were obviously deluded or stupid, and who were very well equipped to convincingly rationalise away any evidence suggesting they were members of an evil cult.

October 26, 2016

What bought that on?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:11 am

Yesterday a few people asked me why on earth I wrote a long confused rant about Marxism. Like, what does that even have to do with anything that’s happening in the real world? Possibly nothing, increasingly so, but I think it’s relevant to some of what’s happening on the left. The post is a culmination of stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while. My train of thought went like this:

  • About a year ago, just before the Paris conference I went on the Climate march to Parliament. It was a good crowd. Various speeches were given, and everyone cheered. And then someone (I don’t recall their name) got up and gave a speech explaining that climate change wasn’t the real problem. Capitalism was the real problem. Some people cheered, but lots of people didn’t, and as he went on in that vein, telling us all that we needed to smash capitalism because colonialism and cultural hegemony were the true enemy, people drifted away. ‘I’m not here for that,’ one of my friends – not very political but worried about climate change – said as he headed over the road to the pub.
  • It was always part of the conservative critique of climate change that it was ‘communism by stealth’. And the climate movement spent years arguing that it didn’t have an ideological agenda: climate change was a real, empirical scientific thing. And then Naomi Klein came along with This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. Climate change was a crisis, Klein argued, although not one she’d been very interested in – until now, because she’d figured out that it was also a great opportunity to . . . get rid of capitalism. Quite what this would look like, or what would replace it is never clear in the book. Sometimes she wants to get rid of ‘deregulated capitalism’, other times she wants to get rid of markets altogether. How do we do that? Join international protest movements. Then what? What does post-capitalism look like? How will it solve climate change? Klein doesn’t say. The book was a bestseller, and became a documentary movie, but what really took off was the sentiment that ‘The real problem is capitalism.’
  • It’s a conviction that’s gained a lot of ground on the left over the last eighteen months, metastasising from climate change to social justice and economic issues. I don’t know why. Corbyn and Sanders? Historical materialism? Whatever the policy problem, getting rid of capitalism is the increasingly popular solution.
  • At the same time I happened to be reading  a number of books about the Russian Revolution. Firstly that gives you a really visceral look at what ‘smashing capitalism’ actually looks like and it is pretty damn horrible, not just for fat bourgeois parasites like me but for everyone. The boilerplate response to this from every Marxist is that the revolution wasn’t supposed to happen in Russia: it was supposed to happen in an advanced capitalist country where things would have gone really well. The USSR wasn’t real socialism and neither were any of the other failed socialist dystopias. Next time everything will be fine. (Whenever I am obviously wrong about something on this blog and trying to justify myself, Andrew Geddis likes to mock me by comparing my thoughts to the Ptolemaic model of astronomy, bolting on new epicycles to try and justify my original wrongness. The argument that none of the socialist revolutions that tried and failed were ever actually really socialist anyway is classic Ptolmeism)
  • What actually went wrong in Russia though? Lenin and Trotsky were smart guys. Geniuses, even. They lived and breathed Marxist theory their entire lives. Yet they had no plan of how to run their country after they seized power, and they spent years improvising various doomed solutions while their country starved. War communism. ‘Electrification + socialism = communism!’ State capitalism. Eventually it was back to capitalism on the assumption that they could then progress through capitalism to socialism to communism, just like Marx said. It didn’t work.
  • Why didn’t they have a plan? If you study Marx you quickly learn that this is a feature not a bug. There’s no discussion in his work of what communism will actually look like, beyond very vague assurances of how great it will be and a promise that if you change the economic base of a capitalist society then all the political and social superstructure will transform into a communist state. And since Marx the list of problems that are allegedly caused by capitalism and will be solved if we ‘smash capitalism’ has expanded greatly but the notion of what comes after it is still amazingly vague. Overthrow capitalism and things will sort themselves out is a highly conserved gene in the DNA of radical left-wing theory.
  • If you’re a Marxist because you studied, say, history or geography and think it’s a useful model for your work, or you don’t think the theory of the base and superstructure works like that, then I’m not talking about you. And if you want to set me right about something you think I’ve got wrong, then please do. The literature is hard to understand. But that’s what the revolutionaries thought and seem to think again today, to the degree they actually understand any of this stuff beyond slogans.
  • The left is very prone to intellectual fads and I guess this one too will pass, to be replaced by something hopefully less silly. And less frightening, because ‘Smash capitalism’ really means, ‘Let’s destroy society and see what happens.’ I don’t think the activist left has the slightest chance of actually doing this. But they can scare away non-crazy people who want to join left wing parties and causes to find real solutions to problems, like all the people who walked away from the climate march.

October 25, 2016

‘Social investment’

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:16 am

Via the Herald:

The new Vulnerable Children’s Ministry wants to recruit 1000 more foster parents in a dramatic bid to improve the quality of state care for children.

Gráinne (pronounced ‘Gronya’) Moss, the former chief executive of Bupa rest homes who will head the new ministry, says she particularly wants to recruit a lot more Māori foster parents.

Last year only 30 per cent of the 3500 foster parents registered with Child, Youth and Family (CYF) were Māori, compared with 60 per cent of the 5000 children in state care.

“We need a third more caregivers,” Moss said in her first extended print media interview since taking the new job last month.

“It’s about having a choice for children.”

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, that we don’t have volunteer police or teachers or doctors or nurses or prison wardens: these are all well paid professional roles. But if the state wants someone to raise a child from another dysfunctional family, something quite a lot more demanding than any of the jobs we pay people in the public service to do, and the success or failure of which has massive benefits and costs to society, then their labour is unpaid. Which means not many people want to do it. Which means we had CYFS, and now a ‘Vulnerable Children’s Ministry’ which is going to cost more than CYFS, which cost over a billion dollars a year to manage the foster system, which is a train wreck.

What would happen if you made foster parenting a profession and paid them 50,000/year? The cost would be $175 million/annum, a pretty small fraction of the cost of the current system, quite a lot of which could be scrapped. It would breach the convention that child raising has to be unpaid work though, which seems to be an important taboo in our society.

October 24, 2016

Labour day thoughts about Marxism and the radical left

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 4:24 pm

The Standard has one of those ‘Maybe Marx was right‘ posts you see a lot on the left nowadays, linking to a column in the Guardian suggesting the same thing. Reading the Trotsky biography I’ve mentioned on here before has lead me to a lot of secondary reading about Marx and Marxism, and my half-informed take is that Marx was right about some things but very wrong about other, very major things, and his total wrongness on those major things hasn’t yet sunk in for the radical left, which is a source of a lot of their failure and irrelevance. I want to talk about one of the wrong things. And no, it’s not the Labour Theory of Value, but rather one of the more philosophical tenets of Marxism that still has a lot of currency today.

One of Marx’s big ideas was that history operates according to scientific laws. This was a much more sophisticated way to think about history than people back then were used to. A lot of intellectuals thought that history was shaped by a ‘world spirit’, viz Hegel. Most normal people – In Europe, at least – thought the Judeo-Christian God made everything happen. Most historians thought that ‘great men’ shaped history. The idea that technological and economic change and other materialist factors drove history was, well, revolutionary.

Marx and Engels were very impressed by 19th Century physical sciences, especially chemistry. So rational! History, they decided, worked the same way as a chemical reaction. If you heated water it turned into steam, directed by immutable physical laws. They decided that if you overthrew the capitalist system and changed the relationship of workers to the means of production then history itself would follow its own scientific laws and transform society into a communist utopia. Human behaviour – which they thought was completely malleable: ‘a product of history, not nature’, as Gramsci put it – would transform. Later on Communism became synonymous with planning, but Marx felt you didn’t have to plan. Why would you? Change society and the laws of history would sort everything out, and humanity itself would change, just as water phase-changed when heated. Get rid of capitalism and everything else will follow.

After the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks were very disappointed to learn that (a) history and (b) humans didn’t work like this at all. Firstly their revolution happened in an underdeveloped, mostly agrarian economy, not an advanced economy like Marx predicted. Second, the revolution failed to spread so they were stuck with ‘Communism in one country’. Thirdly, it turns out that if you have a capitalist economy – even a very basic one like Tsarist Russia – and you take away the market and put the workers in charge of the means of production (and execute anyone trading on the black market) then instead of transforming itself into a utopia because of the scientific laws of history and the malleability of human nature, the entire economy collapses, and people in cities end up eating their own children to stay alive, and everyone who can still walk rises up and joins the capitalist counter-revolutionaries trying to overthrow you.

The revolution endured, through a combination of extreme ruthlessness, dumb luck and the ineptitude of their enemies and also, humiliatingly, by bringing back an attenuated form of capitalism. It took them a long time to work out an alternative economic system that didn’t involve either capitalism or keeping the population in a state of abject terror by just randomly murdering people or imprisoning and enslaving them for life, en-masse. They got there though, by the 1950s. And the form of communism they wound up with was very materialistic: very consumerist, focused on high economic growth at the cost of extraordinary environmental destruction. Actual communism was all the things the left dislikes about late capitalism, in other words, except it didn’t work as well as capitalism.

Marxist intellectuals in the west didn’t put that much effort into trying to figure out how to make Communism work. For most the assumption was that it did work, because science, and that reports of famine in the Ukraine were obviously western propaganda. So they carried on critiquing capitalism, applying a Marxist analysis to whatever was intellectually fashionable in the west. When psychoanalysis was in vogue, the theory was capitalism caused alienation and schizophrenia: the traditional family became the agent through which capitalist production repressed the revolutionary desires of the child. When people became interested in colonialism, then Marxists decided that colonialism was caused by capitalism. Now racism, patriarchy and climate change are caused by capitalism. (It’s an endlessly repeated trope on the left that capitalism, with its assumption of infinite growth is the driver of climate change, without discussing why non capitalist economies won’t also seek growth and drive it with greenhouse gas pollution. And why won’t the powerful head of the People’s Coal Miners Union have all the climate change scientists imprisoned or executed as traitors?). Whatever people are upset about is caused by capitalism, and the solution to all our problems is to get rid of capitalism.

When the failure of actual Communism became horribly apparent Marxist intellectuals comforted themselves that the revolution wasn’t supposed to happen in places like Russia and China. It was supposed to happen in developed capitalist economies, like their own, so they went on critiquing capitalism. There have been recent socialist revolutions in proper capitalist countries like Venezuela. That would have been a good time for Marxist theorists to go prove their theories correct. Did Venezuelans become less racist? Did patriarchy disappear? Did Venezuela’s policy of paying for their socialist state by selling lakes of oil to capitalist countries address the issue of climate change? But with the exception of hand-waving about droughts and capitalist sabotage, there is near total silence on the left about Venezuela. We don’t talk about Venezuela.

So there’s no reason to assume that history works the way Marx and his intellectual heirs think it does. Although it was supposed to be scientific, it doesn’t work like a successful scientific theory in the sense that it makes falsifiable predictions which are proved correct. As a response to this failure, a lot of  intellectuals in the Marxist tradition assert that the scientific method and reason itself are capitalist plots. The Frankfurt School used to say that their theories would be ‘proved correct on the day they came true’. Which they have yet to do: Marxist theorists aren’t very good at predicting historical outcomes. There are no Marxist stock-market tycoons using the insights of dialectical materialism to finance the revolution by gaming the markets.  And as capitalism becomes more developed, the people living in capitalist countries become less and less interested in alternatives to capitalism. As the system becomes more complex and more entrenched, the more catastrophic the prospect of its removal and the more bizarre and nihilistic the radical left, with its endless demands to ‘smash capitalism’ sounds to the rest of us.

Instead of envisioning capitalism as a totalising system responsible for everything that annoys you, the removal of which will instantly solve all our problems, I think it’s more useful to see it as a series of kludges that allow complex, high population technological nation-states to function and interact with each other. A kludge is a term-of-art in engineering, especially software engineering: it describes an improvised, inelegant and inefficient solution to a problem. Over time, complex engineered systems tend to accumulate kludges, all creating unforeseen consequences that then proliferate more kludges, which all become interdependent on each other. They create lots of problems, but if you get rid of them then the entire system collapses – just like capitalist countries do when you get rid of capitalism.

Fixing kludges can be really hard. You need to have a deep understanding of the system you’re working with, and come up with realistic improvements, and make them work, and then move on to the next one. That’s hard in the political context, because a lot of the flaws in contemporary capitalism are now baked in, because they privilege the powerful, who will fight very very hard to stop anyone from fixing them. But social democrats have succeeded in the past, and they’ll succeed again. Not all problems have easy solutions. My favourite quote about politics is this, from Max Weber: ‘Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’

That kind of incremental improvement isn’t as much fun as running around blaming capitalism for everything and demanding it be smashed, but it can lead to tangible gains: improving the lives of actual people. Maybe, over time it will lead to the gradual erosion of capitalism, replacing it with something better. Maybe automation will take us to a point where the only viable option is for everyone to own the means of production and share in the proceeds! And maybe it won’t.

I recently read a book about the history of cancer. For much of the 20th century, the most brilliant physicians and doctors in the world struggled to find cures for cancer. They didn’t really understand what was causing the disease – they thought it radiated out from the centre of the body in a spiral pattern – but they knew that sometimes surgery cured tumours, and sometimes chemotherapy cured tumours, or at least caused them to remiss. The culture of the profession drove them towards more and more radical solutions. Radical surgery, radical chemotherapy. They stopped paying attention to statisticians and molecular biologists, who were telling them that they’re weren’t actually curing anyone, and that cancer didn’t function the way they thought it did. Weren’t they the most brilliant physicians in the world? How could they all be wrong?

But they were.   The big lesson there is that a large groups of brilliant people all trying to do the right thing can all be completely wrong, for many decades, and cause incredible suffering and harm, while basically wasting their lives. It seems to me that something similar has happened to left-wing intellectual theory, especially the radical left. That it’s taken a very wrong turn somewhere, and a lot of very brilliant people have been studying, teaching and writing nonsense, for a long time now and that they’re in a deep state of epistemic closure about this, because no one likes to think they’ve been wrong about almost everything. Especially people who fetishise intelligence, like surgeons, or left-wing intellectuals.

It is very meaningful, I think, that Piketty’s critique of capitalism didn’t come from the radical Marxist tradition. He’s read Marx but he trained as an economist and describes himself as a ‘believer in capitalism, private property and the market’ and he discovered a deep and powerful truth about capitalism that none of the tens of thousands of Marxists and Critical Theorists ever uncovered over the last hundred years. There’s still a lot of serious work to be done critiquing capitalism and solving its problems, but right now the radical left aren’t doing any of it. At best they’re wasting their time, running around telling everyone ‘The problem is capitalism, sheeple!’, at worst they’re trying to impose their nonsense on mainstream left-wing politics and preventing actual progressive change.

Of course, it’s not only the radical left who want to burn it all down: Trump’s campaign manager is a guy called Steve Bannon who describes himself as a Leninist who wants to destroy society and rebuild from the ashes. There’s also a growing ‘neoreactionary’ movement advocating the abandonment of both capitalism and democracy, and a return to the ‘western tradition’ of monarchical feudalism and ‘traditional gender roles’. Smash modernity, and it’ll all come out in the wash. It worries me that there’s so much of this about.

October 22, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:14 am

I have total Trump fatigue, especially Trump parody fatigue, but I thought this was funny enough to overcome it.

The Elves, they’re very sharp. I know them, I have negotiated with them, I understand them, they respect me, because I have worked with them and made deals with them. Isildur was not a negotiator. The great House of Gondor, not a negotiator, none of them. That’s why they wander like losers in the woods now. The Elves are negotiators. They make deals, and they take us to the cleaners because the Men are led by losers. The Elves do not respect losers. Look at what happened the last time. “Oh no,” Elrond said, “you take the Ring, Isildur.” And Isildur, he’s a dummy — the Gondorians are dummies, all of them, their wives all tell me that, beautiful women except their country is stupid — and he takes it. What does it get him? Face down in a ditch, a very low-class waterway, filled with arrows.

I’ve been too busy to pay much attention to political news recently. All the debate, which I’m usually so invested in and outraged by has been a very distant buzz. This must be what it’s like to be a normal person. It’s quite nice. It occurred to me that I’m usually like a person listening to music with the headphones on, but to most people politics is an iPod accidentally switched on and playing in the pocket of someone’s jacket somewhere on the far side of the room.

I’ve been reading a lot. I just finished The Time Machine, by H G Wells. He invented the time travel genre! And reading it, I wondered: are there loads of really great literary genres still out there, un-invented? How do you invent a genre?

I also liked The Emperor of all Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s history of cancer. It’s good science writing, and I couldn’t help but love a book in which biologists are the heroes.

There have been a few reviews of my book out recently. Landfall Online and Scoop, just to remind you all that actual people liked my book, and you might too. You can buy it here.


October 18, 2016

And we’re off

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:11 pm

Via the Herald:

Prime Minister John Key has effectively kicked off National’s 2017 election campaign, saying he is confident National could afford up to $3 billion in tax cuts after 2017 and he believes pressure for those tax cuts will grow.

It’ll be fun to see how many times Key and his Ministers can spend their $1.8 billion surplus. English will promise to pay down debt, Key will give us tax cuts, Joyce will presumably promise to spend more money on infrastructure through Gosplan MBIE, and we’ll probably get some more BILLION DOLLAR funds for schools and healthcare.

October 16, 2016

A question of etiquette

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:19 pm

This afternoon I was out walking and I saw a young guy at a bus stop reading a copy of The Fountainhead. I was with my daughter and one of her friends, so couldn’t stop, but if I could have, what – if anything – should I have said to him?

Update: I’ve been thinking about The Fountainhead a little more, and Rand is supposed to be the arch-propagandist of capitalism, which Atlas Shrugged definitely is, but maybe The Fountainhead is quite anti-capitalist?

Immigration and changing your mind

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 1:18 pm

Via NewsHub:

The Green Party believes shaving 5000 residency approvals off migration numbers doesn’t go far enough.

The Government’s target of between 85,000 and 90,000 a year for the next two years has been criticised as a token gesture.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw told TV3’s The Nation a sustainable policy should be based on about 1 percent of population growth.

“We think that the country needs a more sustainable immigration policy, so what we’d do is set a variable approvals target based on a percentage of the overall population. That would be at about 1 percent of the population, which is historically how fast New Zealand’s population has grown.”

Mr Shaw says the policy would even out peaks and troughs in annual migration numbers.

I don’t want this blog to be a place where I endorse various Green Party policies, but this one touches on a couple of things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

A few months ago I was discussing politics with a chemist who supported National. He liked the fact that John Key changed his mind about things. ‘Half of what I learned about science as an undergraduate has been proved wrong,’ he said. ‘I’ve had to change my mind and keep changing my mind my whole career. That’s what intelligent people do.’

I think Key’s tendency to blow with the wind has more to do with political expediency than intellectual honesty, and I said so. But I agree that the ability to change your mind is an important trait, and since then I’ve been trying to think of recent instances in which I’ve changed my mind on political issues, and I couldn’t really think of any, which worried me a bit.

But the whole Brexit debate did make me wonder why I supported a high level of immigration. The standard left-wing take on this is that immigration is a good thing, because it is, and anyone who disagrees is a racist and a xenophobe. Now, there are also economic arguments for immigration: it boosts GDP, it keeps the Labour market competitive, it is (possibly) an antidote to an ageing population with low birthrates and high superannuation liabilities. But none of them are very left-wing, or progressive, and some of them are notions the left should probably oppose. If there’s a coherent left-wing argument for high immigration – other than claiming that anyone opposing it is evil – then I haven’t heard it. It seems more coherent – to me – for an environmental party to argue for levels of immigration that are sustainable. And, if voters feel that high migration is causing problems – house prices, high demand on schools and infrastructure, etc – I feel like the left needs a more robust answer than ‘Shut up and stop being racist.’ If that’s all we’ve got then maybe we’re just wrong?

October 15, 2016

Allow me to ruin water for you

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 5:20 pm

So earlier today I was drinking a glass of water, as is my want, and it occurred to me what an unusual thing it is for an animal to drink clean water with no microorganisms in it. It’s not something any species of mammal would ever done on a regular basis. And we do it every day! I bet it’s giving us all cancer.

Trouble ahead

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:40 am

The thing that really scares me about Trump is not that he might win the US election – that never seemed likely to me at all – but that he’ll lose because of his personality flaws and transparent ineligibility for office: his ‘unpresidentialness’ – not his values, or racism or misogyny or ideology (such as it is), and that in four years time we’ll see the rise of a more politically astute, ‘credible’ version of Trump running on the same authoritarian – really, basically just fascistic – white identity politics platform. The death of neoliberalism looks a lot uglier and scarier than the left thought it would be.

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