The great challenges of our time, San Patrignano 2015
Translated from the French by Tim Gupwell.
In our capitalist system, the « advances » which are consented to by some, the holders of capital or « capitalists », in order to render a production process possible or to allow a consumer to consume are remunerated by interest payments. In my book Le prix (2010), I showed, using examples of “separate systems” in Africa or in Europe, how this system of interest must have appeared: interest being originally conceived as part of a newly created wealth, attributed to one of the partners who had contributed to its creation. The enduring dimension of this original logic in the current form of the capital system is the fact that each time interest has to be paid out, new wealth will have been, or will have to be, created in one way or another, in order to be the source of it. This aspect of the problem usually remains unnoticed but its implications are dramatic because they ensure that the capitalist system is, in economic terms, a dead-end.
We have treated the non-renewable resources of the planet on which we live as a “godsend” in Proudhon’s sense, as a “gift from Heaven” to share amongst ourselves, following the dividing lines traced out by the principles of private property. The non-renewable character of some of these “gifts from Heaven” has remained unseen for as long as the Earth has seemed to us to be infinite. Today, the Earth appears to us to be far too small when we take into consideration our insatiable appetites.
The exhaustion of the planet resulting from our activity is what is discreetly termed negative external factors, which are, moreover – just like godsends – loftily ignored in the calculation of the Gross Domestic Product. “Growth”, or in other words a rising GDP, implies therefore the irreversible destruction of the planet and, as capitalism requires this same growth (so that the interest can be paid), the fact that the logic of capitalism implicitly contains the destruction of the planet, assumes the value of a theorem.
An English translation by Bernard Bouvet of the post “QUESTIONS À RÉSOUDRE (VI) DILEMMES DE LA PROPRIÉTÉ PRIVÉE”.
Private property, as we saw previously, allows you or I to selfishly take advantage of our planet’s generosity towards us and claim ownership of what she bears within her or what she produces spontaneously thanks to the sun, the wind, the rain, and derive a rent from it.
The impact of such an institution is quite obviously unfair. The French Revolution, nonetheless, stopped at its edge. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen even affirms: “Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage, if it is not when the public necessity, legally noted, evidently requires it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.”
Gide and Rist comment on the revolutionaries’ attitude in this regard: “The Revolution removed the benefits of caste; it abolished primogeniture (the rights of the first born) which consecrated the children’s’ inequality within the family. But it upheld individual property rights – property rights which confer the most unjust of privileges, the right for the owner to “levy a premium on another’s labour”” (1909 : 247).
What justifies that tolerance towards private property, when no principles can and when its inherited redistribution becomes arbitrary after a few generations?
Private property, according to its proponents, at the very front the Physiocrats such as Richard Cantillon (1680-1734), François Quesnay (1694-1774), or Turgot (1727-1781), stimulates production and wealth creation.
Private property, supposedly, optimally brings out the best in people, first to their own benefit, but above all, in their view, to the benefit of their own children. This the prodding force: the care of their offspring is the motivation that is proposed that brings out the best in people.
But right then the Saint-Simonians protest: admitting that private property permits, to a certain extent, a production’s optimisation thanks to the motivation it provides, inheritance, as far as it is concerned, is counterproductive: the benefits of being productive are undermined if property is transmitted according to the “randomness of birth.”
On this topic Gide and Rist remark with a kind of fatalism: “One can justify inheritance only if one sees it as a strong excitant for the fathers to accumulate capital, – or again, for lack of a rational method, one cannot argue against randomness of birth any more than any other distribution’s method.” 190 251)
Private property officialises the spoliation of the community. Inheritance exaggerates its arbitrariness. Attempts to abolished it have so far proved at best inconclusive, at worst disastrous. Mother Earth has shown tremendous patience until now towards such little idiosyncrasies, but certainly the time is approaching when she will judge enough has been given.
An English translation of my post QUESTIONS À RÉSOUDRE (I) TOUS CEUX QUI SONT RÉMUNÉRÉS LE MÉRITENT-ILS VRAIMENT?
There is a question that neeeds to be answered at all costs; 19th century thinkers have devoted much thought towards its solution. Here it is: when we consider rent obtained by a landowner or by the owner of mineral ore extracted from the ground, interest obtained by the owner of capital also known as capitalist, the profit gained by an industrialist or entrepreneur, and the wages paid to a worker, is one of these incomes unjustified and thereby undeserved?
The only point of agreement reached so far is the following: wage-earners truly deserve their earnings, without a shred of a doubt in any case for that part of those wages needed for mere survival. Workers provide their labour and it goes without saying that they should for their own good turn up at work the following day; they therefore deserve without any dispute wages sufficient to survive until tomorrow. For all other types of earnings unfortunately, the answer to that question remains desperately out of reach.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) took up this question from the same point of view as David Ricardo (1772-1823). He simplified the problem radically by asserting that the only justified income are wages: value is created by work and by work only, therefore any other income allocated to other interested parties, such as land owners, “capitalists” as holders of capital, or industrialists as entrepreneurs is undeserved. Marx calls “spoliation” any payment to participants other than workers.
Other 19th century authors, essentially socialist and anarchist thinkers such as Sismondi (1773-1842) or Proudhon (1809-1865), following on the tracks of 18th century economists such as Richard Cantillon (1680s-1734), François Quesnay (1694-1774), or Adam Smith (1723-1790), were of a different opinion. For them several types of advances participate in the production process and each of them deserves as its reward a part of the newly created wealth (*). Thus income ensuing from property rights was according to some authors a reward for work previously performed – sometimes several centuries prior – by some forefather of the current beneficiary; profit accruing to the entrepreneur was a reward for management and supervision of the production process; lastly, interests and dividends collected by the capitalist were compensation for relinquishing control of the loan amount until later.
A solution to such a baffling conundrum remains far from obvious: newly created wealth obviously results from the combination of a number of elements but how can one assess the true contribution of every one of them? The only sure thing is that lacking an unambiguous answer to this question, throughout the ages and until now only the power balance between parties has determined how much every party ends up getting at the end of the day.
(to be continued…)
(*) See for example what I have to say about the splitting of “parts” in the case of an african dugout canoe used for sea fishing in Le prix 2010 : 145-149
An English translation by Bernard Bouvet of my « QUOI QU’ON FASSE, CE SERA LA MÊME CHOSE ! » of March 11.
77% of you, my dear blog readers, not all of you, but a “comfortable majority” of you, happens to be French. Your country is now in full “election showbiz” mode, and the mainstream media, in the press, on the radio, on television, are full of it, news on why the moment is “crucial” and “how to vote”, are front and centre.
Still, you are perfectly conscious of the fact that whatever which way you vote, either for one of the two candidates facing each other in the second round, or someone else, as a protest vote favouring either the extreme-left or the extreme-right, or a blank vote, or even if you don’t bother voting, all that is of no importance since the result will be the same: either actively or passively, you will elect or help elect a candidate who will either immediately set out to carry out the program of any such “troika” (EU, IMF, ECB) forgetful of the meaning of “democracy” – if it ever understood it – or a candidate who will, after a perfunctory six month delay, carry out the exact same program, in “former president Miterrand’s fashion”, following a “valiant” last stand.
No doubt, that last stand will turn out to be “valiant”, but again, a fat lot of good it’ll do you.
One can sense the weariness, the discouragement pervading your comments on this blog since the election campaign started.
Throughout history, particularly in the 19th century, that kind of hopelessness had led to several social change attempts from within the system. For instance, it gave birth to an array of communal groups, rendered vulnerable from the very start, to some extent, by an exaggeratedly idyllic view of human nature, but mostly due to the hostility of an outside world, a world which had stood unchanged. How many a grandiose project of a cooperative, of a social workshop, of abolishing money, of an alternative currency, did not succumb to the assaults of those from the outside who had retained their, let’s call it… “business sense”? Virtue, as Saint-Just realised far too late, can only be exercised within a protective institutional framework, otherwise, it is purely and simply trampled under foot.
What to do? Those unanswered questions require resolving, if the goal for a preferred tomorrow is to achieve a decent, livable world. A world where, in retrospect and in contrast, we will realise what a nightmare the previous world had been that we contended ourselves with.
Indeed, those 19th-century associationists, collectivists, socialists, communists, anarchists, even enlightened liberals such as Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, posed those unanswered questions, but still, they remained unresolved. The 20th century, for its part, has had its share of false solutions ending in atrocities.
In France, the Revolution of 1848 gave birth to numerous projects founded on generosity but soon failing, due to the instigators’ lack of a proper analysis of principles. Proudhon laments the “premature birth” of the Revolution. But aren’t all revolutions always, and by definition, born prematurely, otherwise they wouldn’t even have been considered as necessary. The excuse has been abused throughout human history, of having been caught unprepared in the face of an “unpredictable” collapse, even if predicted with some accuracy by a few.
Last Sunday, I launched a five-part series called: “The Remaining Unresolved Questions”. I have only been back home last night, following a series of speeches in Belgium and Holland, with no time yet to read your contributions to the debate, but I am readying myself to do so.
Anyway, those “Remaining Unresolved Questions” are already well-known. What I am expecting of you, is for a few (the rest of the troops fill follow suit in no time) to initiate an undertaking of resolving those questions. A precise list will take shape along the way, but in the meantime a few questions can be clearly formulated: “How do we smash the wealth-concentrating machinery?”. “How do we terminate speculation?“. “How should newly created wealth be redistributed?”. “How do we re-invent an economic system neither based on private property, nor on “growth”, both recognised as life destroying on our planet?”. “How do we eliminate work, without reducing to misery those who lived from it?”. Etc. Etc.
Time has come to define in new terms this insane world that – because of weariness and because of discouragement – we have contented ourselves with until now.
So, have a nice day, get set, ready, go! Use your pens, emails, phone calls, your arms, your legs… whatever works!
It Is Time to Restructure Capitalism
Is there anything more depressing than the spectacle of the short-term remedies that are being applied at present with a view to saving the capitalist system, in the absence of determination to do what would actually be necessary to achieve that objective?
Look at what is happening in Greece, where the Troika (the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) is endeavouring to impose on the Greek Government measures which everyone knows to be unworkable. And what will be achieved if agreement is reached? A reduction of that country’s sovereign debt to 120% of its GDP by… 2020!
Even if in the coming days a formula were to be arrived at for a partial default of Greek sovereign debt which might be tolerable for the Greek people, Portugal and Ireland would step into the breach and immediately lay claim to the same benefits for themselves, which it would be beyond the capacity of the Eurozone to provide, repeating ad nauseam as it does that the solution which it is aiming for in Greece will have to be an exception, come what may. And, as everyone knows, the Greek problem all by itself is already ‘systemic’, i.e. capable of bringing about the collapse of the Eurozone. (This was not the case when warning signs first appeared at the beginning of 2010… but it is now in consequence of the failure to take action in time!)
On August 2nd the United States raised its debt ceiling to $14.3 thousand billion. One need hardly make the point that dollar bills for this sum of money, if stacked up, would cover the distance from the Earth to the Moon by a factor of X, as it should be apparent that this hole will not be filled up all by itself no matter what improvement may occur in that country’s economy.
The squaring of the circle that economic recovery represents, combined as it is with austerity, is but one insoluble problem among a host of others at the heart of the capitalist system.
When, on September 25th 2008, in his Toulon address, Mr Sarkozy drew attention to the need to restructure the capitalist system, it is a pity that the means to undertake this indispensable task were not immediately made available. Precisely because it is a very ambitious project, it was perverse to leave it to individual initiative to carry it through. A council of distinguished individuals – preferably international – should have been convened without delay, and adequate means should have been put at their disposal to draw up the measures which are required.
More than three years have passed since the Toulon address and, apart from rather disorganized anti-capitalist protests in various parts of the world, individual initiatives aimed at restructuring capitalism have proved inadequate. Valuable time has thus been lost, but it is not too late, the problems with which we are faced, and which have become more serious everywhere, having become clearer in consequence of this.
Let us demand that the powers that be immediately engage in a debate on the restructuring of capitalism and that unchallengeable authorities on financial, economic and moral questions be brought together (rather than economic and financial ‘experts’ who are associated with an accumulation of embarrassing failures) and that they be given the task of drawing up a schedule for this (addressing structural and institutional questions, of course, as distinct from short-term tactics aimed at nothing more than gaining time in the face of a collapse which has become unavoidable). Let us entrust to these people the task of restructuring capitalism and, if they conclude that this is not feasible, let them provide us with a plan for creating a system to replace it.
I’m hoping that a parallel discussion in English starts here.
Here an excerpt of the paper to whet your appetite:
… nearly 4/10 of the control over the economic value of transnational corporations in the world is held, via a complicated web of ownership relations, by a group of 147 transnational corporations in the core, which has almost full control over itself. The top holders within the core can thus be thought of as an economic “super-entity” in the global network of corporations. A relevant additional fact at this point is that 3/4 of the core are financial intermediaries.
They wanted to extend market logic to absolutely everything. In attempting to do so they disregarded the domain of ethics which had governed human affairs up to that point. The trader – the quintessential victim of gold fever according to Aristotle – has ceased to be considered to be a victim if he succumbs to the disease, having been elevated to the status of prototype of the rational human being! The employee in turn has ceased to be regarded as the victim who makes do with what is left after the investor and the board of directors have taken their share of the booty and is now defined as a ‘manager of human capital’, the ‘human capital’ being none other than his good self.
The state is henceforth viewed as a more or less thriving private enterprise, the performance of which is evaluated by other private entities known as rating agencies . . . which are legitimately concerned with market share, at whatever the cost may be. Take note, however! This is on condition that the sacred law of perfect competition is respected!
Meanwhile, gamblers are raising the stakes, betting on which state will go under first. “If it’s Spain, I’ve won; if it’s Italy, you’ve won!” says one. “But why stop there?” says another, raising the stakes: “If it’s Moody’s that sinks the Eurozone, I win; if it’s Standard & Poor’s, you win!”
Come on. Don’t just stand there watching from the sidelines. Why not join in? Don’t be shy! The stakes are HIGH!
The fall of the Roman Empire, live on the Internet. And you witnessed it at first hand!
Original French version at rue89.com.
Does the name “Donald Crowhurst” ring a bell? He was one of the contenders in the Golden Globe Race a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race held in 1968–1969. While he was ahead and therefore a potential victor, his radio signals stopped abruptly. His craft was later located but it was empty. His log-book was found, revealing that at no point had Crowhurst attempted to leave Southern Atlantic waters : he had all along communicated the fictitious positions of his alleged progress while actually waiting for the other contenders to complete their circumnavigation. He apparently would have contented himself with ending last in the race. But circumstances prevented this from happening : the hardship of the race made it such that he found himself as sole potential winner. He then drifted erratically in the mid-Atlantic for a while, his log-book betraying the way his mind was failing, developing pathetically a theory of the human fate that was sparing him his abominable dilemma : a winner through deceit or a cheater unmasked. His theorizing must have failed at convincing him as he took away his own life.
What reminded me of Crowhurst is of course the current Bernard Madoff-Affair. My first impression had been that of a modern-day Machiavelli : a man convinced that a Ponzi scheme amounts to the ideal business plan and developing a strategy based on that concept. However the information that has recently become available about the detailed statements he was sending his clients makes me think now of something of an entirely different nature : a human tragedy à la Crowhurst. These statements – some mentioning dozens of operations over a single month period – display indeed the very “split-strike conversion strategy” that he claimed he was implementing for the benefit of the participants in his fund. In that strategy, “collars” – being a particular montage of options, are associated with a dynamic stock portfolio, allowing indeed to make regular gains as long as stocks rise constantly and in a quiet manner. A strategy impossible to implement however at the billions of dollars’ scale where Madoff was actually managing his fund.
That he had to turn to deceit derives no doubt from the fact that a plan that may have worked to perfection for his early clients rapidly reached a scale where the stock volume required was too high for the market to absorb without considerable slippage. Then, instead of turning down new applicants he must have begun to pretend, until that is he switched to a pure Ponzi scheme, claiming that his method was still the one he had used at inception but remunerating in fact his early clients with the fresh money brought in by newcomers.
Should my surmise be correct, Madoff’s story would be that of a man who initially sees himself as a giant as his complex plan, worth of a genius – and that the statements sent to his clients persisted at displaying, appears to succeed but who – when he finds out that his scheme is bound by size, can’t reconcile himself with this fact, due to oversized pride, due to hubris. To maintain the fiction he must have at first allowed himself some minor infringements to his principles – of the sort that Michael Ocrant seems to have astutely guessed when he interviewed Madoff back in 2001 , to finally succumb. At that point he started cheating and ceased to be a giant in his own eye to become a dwarf instead. Then, many years later, faced with financial headwinds, and in the likeness of Crime et Punishment‘s hero Raskolnikov, he cannot take it any longer and confesses his evil.
Let’s not forget indeed that Madoff was not found out: he confessed to his sons, and they in turn alerted the law. Just as with Crowhurst, justice didn’t catch up with him but his own conscience. The human drama here is not so much then that of those who once believed in Madoff but the grotesque manner in which he was led to believe in himself.
 Michael Ocrant, Madoff tops charts ; skeptics ask how, MAR/Hedge (RIP), No. 89 May 2001
At Latitude 33 in Laguna Beach, CA 92651, I saw this book called Exile or Exiles with writings about Los Angeles by famous people. I read the preface waiting for Brenda at the end of her shift at the bookstore. It said that intellectuals don’t choose LA: those who lived there had no such intent when they first landed there: like me, they were heading elsewhere, meant to leave soon. Then they got stranded for some reason or other, like a woman who didn’t want them back to some distant planet. It explained also that once they had seen “this” they didn’t mind staying after all, and what they meant by “this” was the powdered light bathing the city of Our Lady of the Angels.
Oh glorious light of the early mornings at Caspers Wilderness Park! (The deer stares at you with nonchalance from under the sycamores and the gliding vulture craves with grace for your bones).
I saw the light, I saw the light,
No more darkness, no more night,
Now I’m so happy, No sorrow in sight,
Praise the Lord, I saw the light! (Hank Williams)
And the heat, the heat that comes with the light, my waking up without those aching joints that plagued my thoughtful Cartesian Amsterdam winter as well as my gusty Cambridge nights. Wading through the kelp and being trashed by the surf on All Saints Day! Why would you ever get back to where you supposedly belong, and that you long for – for some stupid and silly and crazy old reason?
Faceless LA, with some cultural identity in this particular block and then some other, unrelated, in the next. The land of the one million different villages from every place under the sun. The posh plush lady who used to design for Wedgewood and Royal Doulton, sipping Napa Valley nectar on this one side of the road, and on the other, the gang of locals speaking another tongue spraying their bullets at each other across the alley.
Oh My Lady of the Angels, your non-descript urban sprawl without a town allowed me to remain whatever it is that I am and call myself. When no other place had any taste for having me around, you Pasadena, CA 91107 (all zip codes kindly and automatically provided by Microsoft Inc.), you hugged me in a welcoming embrace while it was feeling cold within my heart.
I need to report to you what might be a case of acute poisoning while on mission on planet Terra.
Yesterday, in the course of my duty, I happened to hold very tight for a couple of minutes a human female (from now on HF). Today, as a consequence of this I developed disturbing symptoms. Repeatedly during the day, and for no apparent reason, my train of thought was brought back to holding the HF tight. Each time the memory occurred my body was overwhelmed by a powerful feeling reminiscent of the influence of a toxic substance. The feeling started as a swirling motion in the abdominal region that rapidly spread until it involved the whole body. The sensation is difficult to define as it feels simultaneously as a warmth and a glow and is accompanied by a great weakness of the body, so great sometimes that I felt ready to faint. My description may not convey that despite (or maybe because of?) the great weakness, the feeling is utterly pleasurable. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the inhabitants of Terra have developed an addiction for the experience.
There is a huge database accessible to the inhabitants of this planet, called “Internet”. I sought for an explanation of the phenomenon and found a number of reports with relevant information. The phenomenon is called “love.” Supposedly, it has nothing to do with poisoning. Apparently there is no known explanation, although authors agree that – despite no role being played by substances – it is still a question of “chemistry”. From what I understand, the HF is likely to have gone through the same difficulties as I have encountered today. Her denying that this is the case should be ignored, say the texts, as it is common for HF to claim that “love” has no power on them. The effect may recede rapidly but it has been documented that it can remain just as potent for dozens of years.
Human culture apparently claims that anything done under the influence of “love” is automatically right. I find this very difficult to admit as the phenomenon, as I already said, puts you in a state very close to intoxication, with the body very feeble, and judgment very much obscured.
To be complete, I need to add that during the day, I also felt the sudden urge to build a house for the HF. Such odd effect is not mentioned in the reports I read on “love” and may not be related to the phenomenon described here.
I believed it my duty, Sir, to report on my worrying experience on planet Terra.
Galactic Explorer Joe Ryon
PS: Any letter written under the influence of “love” is supposed to be regarded as a “love letter”. I imagine that this applies therefore to the present one too.
I just had an odd vision. It happens on Judgment Day and I am shocked at the questions being asked from me: “How many gold fish in your care died of neglect? How many babies did you leave crying in the dark? Who were they? How many daisies did you trample?” I say “I feel very unprepared for such questions, I had concentrated on – you know – the broader issues, like honesty or being courageous…” And the official presses on “How many daisies? Come on! give me a figure! Two thousands? Five thousands?”
Religions are most often associated with a representation of the after-life where immortality, which is clearly unattainable in the nether-world, is ultimately achieved.
Other widely held belief systems don’t share that view, in particular Taoism, the “atheistic religion” or “philosophy” of the Chinese people over the ages. Indeed, some disparagingly called “superstitious” versions of Taoism put the stress on attaining immortality in our everyday world, recounting numerous tales of princes going to great length to secure lifesavers of various kinds. In the West, alchemy shared that same concern, being not only focused on the transmutation of antimony into gold but also on the achievement of immortality, either under the highly idealized form of a perfect identification with the person of Jesus-Christ or under the more prosaic form of the incorruptibility of the material body. Cagliostro and the count of Saint-Germain, among others, allegedly realized this aim. The British anthropological school of hyper-diffusionism, widely popular in the 1910s and 1920s (Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, William J. Perry et al.) held that culture had spread at the surface of the Earth as a consequence of the more advanced civilizations’ quest for lifesavers, the ancient Egyptians most prominently.
World representations entailing that immortality is only achievable in an after-life clearly constitute the pessimistic version of the more upbeat assumption that immortality is attainable in the material world that we’re familiar with. Now that medicine and biology are on the eve of making immortality a reality, the final push will no doubt come from these cultures which consistently envisaged immortality as an achievable pursuit: they are unencumbered by the pessimistic view that the only desirable form of immortality is the one requiring us to first die.