"Apokalipsa" by Albert Goodwin is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus is usually thought of as a major ethical teacher (the famous slogan “What would Jesus do” is a major testament to this), but most of his preaching was not so much about how we should live, but rather, what will happen in the upcoming apocalypse. Yes, he gave a lot of ethical advice, but as Albert Schweitzer frequently reminded us, his ethics must always be understood in the context of apocalypticism. Jesus was, above all, a doomsdayer.

Screen Capture of "Arrival Trailer (2016) by Paramount Pictures (via Youtube)

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Arrival and Passengers.

If you were to see your life unfold ahead of you, with all of the triumphs but interspersed with the tragedies in all of their grittiness and grief, would you choose to experience it, in all of that detail? Not just in spite of the inconveniences and harms, not full of regrets, but could you wholeheartedly say “Yes!” to the life that will be, or has been, yours?

"IBM Blue Gene P Supercomputer" by Argonne National Laboratory is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty-one years ago (February 10, 1996), Deep Blue, an IBM Supercomputer, defeated Russian Grand Master Gary Kasparov in a game of chess. Kasparov ultimately won the overall match, but a rematch in May of 1997 went to Deep Blue. About six years ago (February 14-15, 2011), another IBM creation named Watson defeated Champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in televised Jeopardy! matches.

The capabilities of computers continue to expand dramatically and surpass human intelligence in certain specific tasks, and it is possible that computing power may develop in the next several decades to match human capacities in areas of emotional intelligence, autonomous decision making and artistic imagination. When machines achieve cognitive capacities that make them resemble humans as thinking, feeling beings, ought we to accord them legal rights? What about moral rights?

"Plato's Symposium" by Anselm Feuerbach is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

Is colonialism a bad thing? It is fashionable to think so, and with good reason. Genocide, racism, slavery, depredation, epidemics, cultural inferiority complexes, etc., are all traceable to Europe’s colonial expansion beginning in the 16th Century. It would be naïve to think it is over, even if the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories is rather short. Colonialism persists. Whether it is America invading Iraq to get its oil, or Nike setting up sweatshops in Bangladesh, colonialism is alive and kicking, and it continues to cause great damage to people of color.

"Derek Parfit at Harvard" by Anna Riedl is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Philosopher Derek Parfit died on January 1st. Let us hope he will go to heaven. Will he? Parfit, who was an agnostic, was not much concerned with the existence of heaven or hell. But, he did famously argue that, even if such places do exist, the person going there would not be the same person who previously died. And, thus, someone would be punished or rewarded for the deeds of another person. This is deeply unjust, as unfair as sending someone to prison because of the crimes committed by his identical twin brother.

"Pinochet en Historia Plitica BCN" by Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile is licensed under CC BY 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Just before Christmas, prisoners serving long terms for human rights abuses during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile received a mass and asked for forgiveness from the families of their victims. Some families of the victims protested the mass, and many human rights advocates dismissed these moves by the prisoners as empty, and not genuine steps towards earning forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often seen as a virtue, a good-making feature of a life well lived. To forgive is to let go of the blame we feel towards those who wrong us. Letting go of negative feelings can seem like an obvious good, a move towards a more positive way of living. When we hurt each other and let one another down, we make amends, apologize, and aim to get past states of blame and hurt. When someone who harms us apologizes, forgiving them is how the relationship can move forward.

"Looking over the shoulder of a US voter" by Lars Plougmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

This past election cycle has been particularly divisive. In the last week, the response to a Trump victory has sparked protests across the country. Students have walked out of classes at UC Berkeley, and as protests in major cities have been more or less continuous since election day, violence broke out in Portland, OR in the hours between Friday and Saturday morning. Chants outside Trump Tower in New York City have included “Not My President” and “Love Trumps Hate.” In Los Angeles, protestors chant in Spanish and hold signs defending the rights of immigrants and undocumented Americans, a group that has been a focal point of a great deal of divisive rhetoric of the president-elect’s campaign. Opponents of the Trump candidacy have used personal messages throughout protest, rejecting the underlying meaning of a Trump presidency more than any particular policy he might adopt.  

"Poor People's March at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue" by Warren K. Leffler, June 1968 (via Library of Congress, LC-U9- 19271-33A)

This post originally appeared June 16, 2015.

My last post discussed the bifurcated incentivization structure of capitalism: owners profit while workers become disempowered by working harder. In this post, I want to address an accompanying myth to the myth that capitalism compensates you better for working harder which is that collective ownership divests individuals of motivation to work.

People say that the problem with collective ownership in producing an incentive to work is that no one takes responsibility. If you don’t own it, you won’t care to maintain it. But the incentive in capitalism isn’t that you work on a thing because you own it, you work because otherwise, you will starve. The ideology here is that we are working on our own thing and that we have more investment because it is ours. This is the case in capitalism for the self-employed and small business owners–the middle class–but the middle class has shrunk considerably. A 2011 Pew Charitable Trust study shows that a third of those raised in the middle class (earning between 30 and 70% of their state’s average income) fall out of it in adulthood. A recent article on The Washington Post on the cost of college shows that it isn’t college costs that have risen but the purchasing power of the middle class that has shrunk.

The second myth–that collective ownership divests individuals of motivation to work–follows from the failure to think the collective as such. Instead of having the value of your work product going to the pocket of the owner, let’s suppose that you own the means of production collectively with all the other workers — that is, let’s say you live in communism. Ending the division between the worker and the owner and thus ending the cross-purposes between them would change the opposition between the work and the benefit of the work. It would incentivize you to work, not because otherwise you would die, but because in fact, you would reap the rewards of your work, but the you is part of a collective you, not an individual worker. Capitalism lives and dies on getting the worker to see herself more as an individual than as part of a collective. If the collective is something that we have to struggle to conceive in order to recognize, the individual is too, capitalist ideology has just been better at achieving it through limiting possibilities for subjectivization to that of the individual, as Jodi Dean argues in Political Theory and as I discuss here.

There are two ways we think that collectivity fails to incentivize: the one is a fear of getting more than you deserve and the other is a concern that what is in common won’t be taken care of. In one of the earliest defenses of private property, Aristotle argues in Politics II.5, that if citizens communally work the land and communally enjoy the profits from it there will be resentment when citizens who do less take more (Pol. 1263a9-14) and further that people tend to care for what is their own. Though, note that even in that situation, “friends share everything in common” (Pol. 1263a29).

Both of these concerns–getting more than you deserve and not taking care of the common seem to be about desire and motivation. And they assume that the desire and motivation of individuals is at odds with the community. How do we make people work? How do we make people care? When people say capitalism incentivizes, they say, the way to make people work and care is to threaten them with death. So much for right replacing might.

We think the individual’s desires and motivations are opposed to the collective’s desires and motivations–well, we deny that there are any collective desires and motivations altogether–because we have already interpellated the subject as individual and then we deny that the subject has become an individual through this process and suppose that it is natural and given. Then we foreclose the possibilities for interpellating the subject as the collective (most of pop culture is an engine for this foreclosure). This foreclosure justifies the anxiety that the individual will try to take advantage of the community, finding her ends at odds with its ends.

My point here is not to contribute to the imaginative work of conceiving the collective, but to argue that capitalism produces the conditions (the individual as the only conceivable way of thinking of the subject, the individual’s desires at odds with the community’s) to which it then argues it is the only solution.

Colt's armory complex--east armory workers, 1909 (via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

This post originally appeared June 9, 2015.

In my youth my parents would defend capitalism by saying that it incentivized work in contrast to communism. If you thought you could get paid the same amount whether you worked hard or not, you would see no reason to work hard or better. It isn’t just my parents. A recent This American Life podcast, “Same Bed, Different Dreams (transcript),” includes a recording smuggled out of North Korea in the early 1980s of Kim Jong-Il saying that North Korean filmmakers have no incentive to make creative and interesting work because of communism. How did everyone from one of the last communist dictators to my parents come to believe that capitalism incentivizes hard work, creative and inventive work, while communism does not?

It turns out that the men who defend and articulate the systems under dispute here–Adam Smith and Karl Marx–agree on quite a bit when it comes to what incentivizes workers. Workers work in order to eat. Smith and Marx agree that capitalists try to pay workers as close to whatever it costs to reproduce labor: “A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him” (Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 61). To reproduce labor can be understood in two ways: to get it to come back again the next day or to add more labor to the force. In the first sense, to reproduce labor is to renew the body of the worker for more work. In the second sense, to reproduce labor is to produce more bodies of workers through biological reproduction. Both senses are biological reproduction, one is the furthering of energy in the same body and the other is procreative.

Smith explains the reproduction of labor in connection to the law of wages:

If this demand [for labor] is continually increasing, the reward of labour must necessarily encourage in such a manner the marriage and multiplication of labourers, as may enable them to supply that continually increasing demand by a continually increasing population. If the reward should at any time be less than what was requisite for this purpose, the deficiency of hands would soon raise it; and if it should at any time be more, their excessive multiplication would soon lower it to this necessary rate. The market would be so much understocked with labour in the one case, and so much overstocked in the other, as would soon force back its price to that proper rate which the circumstances of the society required. It is in this manner that the demand for men, like that for any other commodity, necessarily regulates the production of men, quickens it when it goes on too slowly, and stops it when it advances too fast (71).

You need workers, so you have to attract them through wages. You pay them. They produce. You pay them. But this doesn’t seem to produce wealth. To produce wealth you do two things: you invest your capital into machines and you divide the tasks of labor. So then you need more workers. You produce more. The more you divide labor, the less your workers needs skills, so the less you need to pay them. But demand cannot keep up with this cycle. Demand levels off and now you don’t need those workers. What happened while you were needing more workers is that the workers were responding to the labor market demand for more workers by having more workers, ie. children. Now they have more workers to satisfy the market, but the market is glutted. Demand levels off. You can pay your workers a whole lot less because you don’t need to pay as much to reproduce the worker because if that worker can’t sustain herself to come back the next day, someone else who wasn’t working can step in to fill that worker’s place.

In a capitalist society, the incentive to work is to live. The capitalist has an interest in keeping the worker as close to the edge of living so that she will work for a lower wage. Even Smith warns against this outcome of his own system when he says that “Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low” (72).

The capitalist’s incentive is productivity and the capitalist might realize that she can pay workers more and find more productivity. But she can also realize that she can pay them less than they are worth (less than the value they produce by adding labor to the raw materials on which they work), and still recoup a profit. The reason the capitalist can pay the worker less than she is worth is that she must work in order to eat. There is very little bargaining when one would have to walk away to protest and to walk away is to die. Part of the problem with supposing that capitalism incentivizes workers to work harder is that it assumes that workers recoup the benefits of their increased productivity. But if you work a wage job in capitalism, you actually find yourself in a more precarious situation and get paid a smaller percentage of the value that you produce the more productive you are. The capitalist pays you an hourly wage. Say you work eight hours and are paid ten dollars an hour for 80 bucks a day. If you make a widget that will be sold for $12 and it costs the capitalist $2 in materials, you add $10 in value for the widget.  Let’s say you produce 8 in a day. Then the capitalist is paying you for as much as you have produced. You are paid as much as the value you produce. The capitalist examines this situation and wonders whether you can live on less in order to reduce the wage and make more profit or she can find ways to make you more productive by dividing labor or giving you some tools. So the next day you make 16 in a day. You are really productive. But you went from getting 100% of the value you added to 50% of the value you added. Now really, what’s your incentive to work harder? The harder you work now, the more it costs to reproduce your labor, but you aren’t producing more for yourself but for the owner. Perhaps you think this makes you more indispensable so you are more secure in your work? But no, as the labor is divided in smaller parts to make workers more productive and tools are added to make you more productive as well, the easier it is to replace you and so the more willing you are to work for less.

So when people say that capitalism provides an incentive where communism does not, they are saying that capitalism does a better job of keeping people in the precarious position where they must work for whatever little they can get in order to live. The harder workers work the less of their own value they recoup. So what does capitalism incentivize? The problem with saying it incentivizes people to work harder and be more creative is that it assumes that everyone has the same incentives in capitalism–the owners and the workers. But this is not the case. Smith argues that everyone pursues her self-interest in capitalism, but the interest of the capitalist is to be more creative about how to make more money by creative uses of machinery and labor, reading the market well, and paying labor less while the interest of the worker is to be paid more so that she can stop worrying about the day-to-day concern for living. The better the capitalist organizes work, the more she recoups. The harder the worker works, the less she recoups.

Dan Horn, columnist at the The Cincinnati Enquirer interviewed a middle-class citizen, Donna Palmatary, about the lifestyle and income of the middle class for a USA Today article on the 2015 Pew Charitable Trust Study on the shrinking middle class, who aptly distinguishes the middle class from both owners and workers when she says, “You have to work for what you have.” Owners don’t work for what they have, and the workers don’t have what they work for.