A Rational Case for Panic

Paul Mason’s 2015 book, Postcapitalism A Guide to Our Future, provides a striking visualization of a possible exit from the disasters of our current capitalist world system to something else: a more life-affirming, empathetic, creativity-fostering and fun world of cooperative progress. But before we get there, we need to manage a couple of problems that capitalism has created for us which present, as the title to Mason’s penultimate chapter suggests, a rational case for panic. And mind you, this book was published before the United States elected a mentally disordered narcissist with the vocabulary of a 4-year old as its President. These problems are, of course: climate change, debt overhang, demographic dynamics and automation.

The picture that Mason paints is starkly visible at the beginning of the twenty-first century. How will we possibly exit from an apparently inevitable conveyor belt to carbon pollution oblivion? How will an aging population maintain social peace? How will the reign of fiat money end? How will we “earn a living” when information and the products made from information have “zero marginal cost?” For me Mason’s book is marred by a really irrelevant homage to Marx’s labour theory of value. Irrelevant because what Mason visualizes is closer to the end visualized in Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” than that in Capital. It is actually closer to the picture that a young Marx painted in the Grundrisse in the famous “Fragment on Capital” and then ignored or abandoned in Capital. This is the problem that if machines become fully implemented in our economy there becomes less and less need for the labour that Marx and Mason imagine is the source of value. But let’s get to those problems that capitalism has thrown at us first.

Climate Change

The scariest problem is clearly climate change. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, our climate has warmed by approximately one degree Centigrade since the beginning of the twentieth century. That is nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The World Resources Institute projects that 90% of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030 and all of them by 2050, due to ocean warming and acidification. Sea level rise is has recently been projected at over 8 feet by 2100 resulting from melting of land ice in the polar regions. These changes will clearly have devastating effects the lives of those that follow us. The oceans provide livelihood for tens of millions of us. Our coastal cities will need total rebuilding or abandonment as sea levels rise. These problems are already happening. What can be done to prevent them from doing the most damage?

CO2 ChartCO2 Long History

The average carbon dioxide concentration in our planet’s atmosphere just reached 400 parts per million (See here.) US Department of Energy measurements of ice cores have shown that Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration had not been greater than 300 parts per million for 800,000 years prior to 1950. Almost all climate scientists that are not working for the fossil fuel industry understand that global warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification are due to burning of fossil fuels which transform reduced carbon buried millions of years ago into carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. It is the burning of fossil fuel that causes global warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification. There is no other cause that accounts for the effects that we have seen. (See the IPCC reports, for example, or US EPA pages put together before they are deleted by the Trump administration.)

This is a really scary prospect and it is clear that capitalism is the reason it is so difficult to manage. Why? Simply because capitalism is based on a system of “free trade” and “free enterprise” that ignores “externalities.” In a pure capitalist state, there is no penalty for dumping pollution into the commons. In such a world, the capitalist makes a rational case that the long-term damage done to others will not come back to harm him, leaving him free to enjoy the profits from his investments in the short term. Of course, as Karl Polanyi made clear, such pure capitalism could not long exist. The horrors of Dickens’s Victorian Age for the poor have since his time been ameliorated to some extent by countervailing actions in the public interest by governments. The problem with climate change is that the interventions required to curb it are staunchly resisted by the owners of fossil fuel companies who have in the past been subsidized by these same governments and have sufficient power to influence these governments to not take actions that clearly are needed to avert catastrophe.

Mason has a clear vision of the problem. He references the International Energy Administration, which writes,

“Policy choices and market developments that bring the share of fossil fuels in primary energy demand down to just under three-quarters in 2040 are not enough to stem the rise in energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which grow by one-fifth. This puts the world on a path consistent with a long-term global average temperature increase of 3.6°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that in order to limit this temperature increase to 2°C – the internationally agreed goal to avert the most severe and widespread implications of climate change – the world cannot emit more than around 1000 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2014 onwards. This entire budget will be used up by 2040 in our central scenario. Since emissions are not going to drop suddenly to zero once this point is reached, it is clear that the 2°C objective requires urgent action to steer the energy system on to a safer path.”

The same IEA document estimates that world-wide fossil fuel subsidies in 2014 were $550 billion, four times more than subsidies for renewable energy sources.

So how will this possibly not end badly? Well, Mason is not convinced that “market solutions” like carbon taxes will be effective in ameliorating the worst consequences of climate change. What then? He writes,

“However, to meet the critical emissions targets we are going to have to use some centralized control. Governments – at state and regional level – will need to take control, and probably ownership, of all big carbon producers. As the energy distribution grid becomes ‘smart’, using technology to predict and balance supply with demand, it makes sense for the grid to be a public resource.”

To this I say, “Here, here!,” but based on personal experience, trying to convince a status quo clinging community to purchase its own electrical distribution infrastructure from a fossil fuel giant is a daunting task, and this much less than trying to socialize the failing energy companies themselves.

Demographics and Government Debt

Mason points out that the world’s populations are aging fast.

“Globally, the population of older people to those of working age will increase. In 1950, 5 percent of the world’s population was over sixty-five; by mid-twenty-first century it will be 17 percent. . . . the crucial problem is the age dependency ratio: the number of retired people compared to the number of those of working age. In Europe and Japan, there are currently three workers for every one retired person. By 2050 the ratio will be one-for-one. And though most developing countries will continue to have mainly young populations, China bucks the trend due to its one-child policy. By 2015 China will be the ‘oldest’ of the big economies in the world, with a projected median age of fifty-three.”

The problem that Mason sees is that debt overhang caused, he thinks, by replacement of the gold standard by fiat money, has been part of a run-up in stock market pricing that cannot continue, resulting in great threat to pension funds. With an aging population and slower growth and a smaller workforce, this seems a spiral to impoverishment. With more than 50 percent of all private pension money invested in government debt, 40 percent of this foreign owned, “No matter how safe a company pension fund looks now, if 60 percent of all countries’ bonds become junk – so that to lend to them becomes a crazy proposition – the private pension system will not survive.” He says, “Are you panicking rationally, yet?”

The Four Waves and Wayward Bolsheviks

Mason is very fond of the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff, executed by firing squad in his cell in a Stalinist prison in 1938. Kondradieff’s

“real crime, in the eyes of his persecutors, was to think the unthinkable about capitalism: that instead of collapsing under crisis, capitalism generally adopts and mutates. In two pioneering works of data-mining he showed that, beyond short-term business cycles, there is evidence of a longer, fifty-year pattern whose turning points coincide with major structural changes within capitalism and major conflicts. Thus, these moments of extreme crisis and survival were not evidence of chaos but of order. Kondratieff was the first person to show the existence of long waves in economic history.”

Mason sees four major waves in modern capitalism up to our current (fifth) era:

1) 1790-1848: The rise of the factory system with steam-powered machinery and canals. Peaking and then leading to the depression of the 1820s.
2) 1848-1890s: Railways, the telegraph, ocean-going steamers, stable currencies and machine-produced machinery set the cycle into upwards motion. The wave peaks in the 1870s with financial crisis in the United States and a Long Depression (1873 – 96) in Europe.
3) 1890s-1945: Heavy industry electrical engineering, scientific management and mass production start a new wave upwards. The break occurs at the end of the first world war leading to hyperinflation in Germany and the Great Depression.
4) Late-1940s – 2008. Synthetic materials, mass consumer goods, factory automation, nuclear power and computing start les trente glorieuses. The peak is the oil shock of 1973 leading to a period of instability.
5) Late 1990s to present: Overlapping with the previous wave, network technology, mobile communications, truly global marketplace and information goods start a new wave upwards. But this cycle has stalled, according to Mason, who thinks it will not lead to a new wave without a structural change to capitalism.

Mason is well schooled on Kondradieff and clearly admires him, along with other wayward Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Alexander Bogdanov. Bogdanov was the author of the “vintage sci-fi novel”, Red Star, about a world on Mars where there are no labor shortages and no money, an early visualization of a postcapitalist world. He was a founding member of the Bolshevik party who was ousted after a disagreement with Lenin. Mason says of him, “Though he could not imagine a computer, he had imagined the kind of communism that society based on mental labor, sustainability and networked thought might produce.” What a thought!

The Robots

A good part of Mason’s book (in especially the important 5th chapter, “The Prophets of Postcapitalism”) is devoted to visualizing what happens in our societies as machines become smarter and more capable to the extent that livelihoods based on unskilled human labor become untenable. Mason discusses important contributors to analysis of this subject by Peter Drucker, Schumpeter, Paul Romer and Marx; especially an apparently anachronistic work of his youth, from the Grundrisse, “The Fragment on Machines.” I will just discuss the latter. In this fragment, contained in the collection of notes for a future work, Marx addresses the question of what would happen if the tendency of machines to replace manual labour were extended to its logical conclusion: a world without labour.

This fragment starts out mixed up in Marx’s current version of the labour theory of value, roughly that Ricardo’s three factors of production; land, labour and capital, really boiled down to just labour (neglecting land, given by nature, the story goes) since it takes labour to make machines and build capital. But then Marx says,

“Further, in so far as machinery develops with the accumulation of society’s science, of productive force generally, general social labour presents itself not in labour but in capital. The productive force of society is measured in fixed capital, exists there in its objective form; and, inversely, the productive force of capital grows with this general progress, which capital appropriates free of charge.”

So what happens when information (“general progress”) is free and machines can make themselves as well as all of the products that you may want? He says, “Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” What replaces capital (and remember Marx still sees fixed capital as consisting of labour) is information, the general progress of science which can be owned by no one.

Mason sees this as somehow explained by the labour theory of value. I will address my puzzlement (and appreciation) at this in what follows.

The Labour Theory

Chapter 6 of Mason’s book presents his extended remarks on the labour theory of value (LTV). In the words of Adam Smith,

“It was not by gold or by silver but by labour that all of the wealth of the world was originally purchased and its value, to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.”

Mason admits that Smith assumes that this labour-only theory of value applied to primitive societies and that in the newly industrializing world of Smith’s late 18th century it was rather a combination of land, labour and capital that produced things of value. But he insists that Smith was rather being inconsistent. He gives the standard paragraph on Ricardo’s theory saying that “Ricardo, who had witnessed the great upsurge of the factory system, ridiculed the idea that machines were the source of increased wealth. Machines merely transfer their value to the product; only labour adds new value.”

Walras, who strongly contradicted Ricardo’s LTV, is mentioned, not for his insistence on scarcity as the source of value which he (and I) think was his major contribution; but as one of the founders of the marginal utility school, which is the basis for most all of the economics that followed. Actually, Walras pointed out that Ricardo had admitted that scarcity had an impact on the value of certain types of products like works of art and fine wines. His critique of Ricardo was not that he was wrong for these types of products, but that he failed to see that scarcity is involved in the valuation of ALL products.

Marshall Supply and Demand

I have discussed the LTV in another post. The figure above comes from that post. The figure derives from Alfred Marshall’s famous economics textbook. The various elements of the chart are explained in that prior post. I want to point out just one thing about this here. The chart shows a demand curve and supply curves assuming different types of return on scale. The important thing to note is that the pure LTV has a horizontal supply curve: the quantity of labour is the only thing that determines the cost of production, according to this pure theory. So the price that would be commanded in the market is indifferent to demand. If we were producing a product that no one wanted, the value of that product by the pure LTV would be the same as if it were in great demand.

Clearly we know that this is not the case. A product that no one wants has no value, no matter how much labour went into making it. Marx, of course, was also aware of this objection. To get around it he developed an ingenious ruse (in my view), the concept of “socially necessary labour time.” The basic idea is that the value of a product is the cost of labour to produce it only for products that have social value and includes all of the other things that went into its production. Except that Marx assumes that land has not value and that capital is only stored labour. So he gets back to labour as the source of all value. And a demand curve is smuggled in by the back door.

Mason explains socially necessary labour time by example:

“If we know what an hour of basic labour costs – in Bangladesh the minimum wage pays about 28 US cents an hour – we can express it in money. Here I will just stick to hours. Two things contribute to the value of a commodity: (a) the work done in the production process (which includes marketing, research, design, etc.) and (b) everything else (machinery, plant, raw materials, etc.) Both can be measured in terms of the amount of labour time they contain.”

Again, the assumption here is that land, raw materials, energy and capital have value only to the extent that they are the product of labour alone. A brilliant idea, except that it seems to me to be a simple example of petitio principii, the fallacy of assuming as a premise a statement which has the same meaning as the conclusion. Labour is the source of all value, because labour is the source of all value. This apparent fallacy becomes all the more striking since elsewhere in Mason’s book he uses the vocabulary of the marginal revolution in making his case that information processing presents us with the prospect of machines that last forever, as had been anticipated by Marx in the “Fragment on Machines.” A result of that would be that more stuff created by those machines would have “zero marginal cost” and that the LTV helps us to understand this. Let’s forget the irony, for the moment, of using insights from the marginal cost revolution of the late nineteenth century to defend a theory of value from the 18th century. But this is the crux of Mason’s argument.

He proposes a thought experiment of putting into a spreadsheet the costs, accounted in terms of labor time (of course), and iterating it as machines become more efficient and longer lived over time. He proposes a model with four initial cost elements:

1) Capital: 200 (labour units)
2) Energy: 200
3) Raw materials: 200
4) Labour: 200

As the spreadsheet is iterated the amount of labour time going into capital decreases along with the labour. Eventually these shrink towards “zero marginal reproduction costs.” We could even go further by assuming that some very smart robotic machines could make equipment (that lasts forever) to make solar energy and dig raw materials out of the ground. Wouldn’t the cost of these elements also head towards zero marginal cost? And then the whole production would tend to zero marginal cost. Mason thinks that this is why the LTV is so good. It is the only theory, he maintains, that can explain the difficulty in pricing things under conditions of improving productivity. But is it? And under such conditions why would we worry about pricing at all?

I have discussed Walras’s critique of Ricardo and Marx’s versions of the LTV. His main point against both theories was that under conditions of scarcity, it is relative scarcity that determines price. But what about conditions where there is no scarcity? What about conditions where it is no longer necessary for us to “earn a living,” that living having been earned by the accumulated knowledge of generations past? Now this is a very important question to ask and I very much appreciate Mason’s prolonged evaluation of it.

It reminds me of the old depression era song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I’m bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains …
I’ll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

The great virtue of Mason’s book is to visualize this possible world. And we don’t need to just sleep all day. We could all be reading Homer and Plato and Darwin and talking about it all day with other “universal educated persons,” described by Drucker in HIS 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society and quoted by Mason.

Hannah Arendt, in her magnificent book, The Human Condition, divided our situation into categories as follows:

Animal laborans, the laboring animal
Homo faber, man the maker
Vita contempletiva, the meditative state of the sage
Vita activa, the life of the human on the political stage

At any one time, humans find themselves living one or more of these lives. I think Arendt made no mystery of her preference for the last, the life of the human active on the public stage in some form or other. The LTV, on the other hand, elevates the first, animal laborans, to the highest position. This is the proletariat, the vanguard of change in Marx’s rhetoric. Animal laborans was for Marx the lever arm to a better world. But did Marx himself live this life? Actually no. He lived the vita activa as a revolutionary leader and speaker and worked toward the goal of the Big Rock Candy Mountain in hours of toil at the British Museum, supported by the profits from Engel’s family factory. Why is animal laborans the model for the human condition?

For me, a life lived in Arendt’s last two categories is the highest form of value. I have lived the other two as well, but I would be happier in the Big Rock Candy Mountain than in “bullshit jobs” (one of Mason’s best phrases). And if we are heading to a Big Rock Candy Mountain world, and I surely hope we are, what use will we have of the LTV? Something to have a think on.

The Rest of the Story

OK. The vision of The Big Rock Candy Mountain is great, but the real scene in the cities of the United States looks more like this. Those that don’t work at “bullshit jobs” and don’t have trust funds are suffering. In the Global South things are so much worse. How do we get from the increasingly unequal societies in which we live to ones that are more equitable, cooperative and creative? Mason’s last chapter, “Project Zero” describes his vision for a transition from our world that is lousy for so many to one that is better.

He proposes five principles of transition:

  1. Understand the limitations of human will power in the face of a complex and fragile system. Test solutions at small scale and model them before trying them at full scale.
  2. Ecological sustainability. This one is obvious. We need to stop burning fossil fuels, control our populations and develop and put into place renewable energy sources.
  3. We have to have a human transition. We have to develop some courage in our populations to challenge the status quo.
  4. Attack the problem from all angles.
  5. Maximize the power of information.

The “internet of things” is a vast social network. How do we avoid “siloing”  this information into the hands of profit-seeking corporations and liberate the spread of information? We need networks that are vibrant, but also open.

His goals for the end game are bold:

  1. Rapidly reduce carbon emissions
  2. Socialize the finance system
  3. Equalize prosperity
  4. Replace bullshit jobs with human development

Are these impossible given the realities of the power of violence and propaganda in the hands of global elites? I will leave it to the reader to explore how he approaches this. He mentions the obvious things: expand the spread of open source knowledge, expand collaborative work, socialize monopolies, cultivate non-market productivity and pay everyone a basic income.

Can this ever be achieved? We’ll see, but it is important to visualize goals more explicitly than Marx did in the Critique of the Gotha Program. In my view, Mason has made a good effort. The rest is up to us.

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Resolution of the Paradox

After Abner Shimony

A Cognitive Science Puppet Play

Dramatis personae: Zeno, Pupil, Lion

Pup. Master! There is a lion in the streets!

Zen. Very good. You have learned your lesson in geography well. The fifteenth meridian, as measured from Greenwich, coincides with the high road from the Temple of Poseidon to the Agora – but you must not forget that it is an imaginary line.

Pup. Oh no, Master! I must humbly disagree. It is a real lion, a menagerie lion, and it is coming toward the school!

Zen. My boy, in spite of your proficiency at geography, which is commendable in its way – albeit essentially the art of the surveyor and hence separated by the hair of the theodolite from the craft of a slave – you are deficient in cognitive science. That which is real cannot be real. Being is, and not-beng is not, as my revered teacher Parmenides demonstrated first, last, and continually, and as I have attempted to convey to you.

Pup. Forgive me, Master. In my haste and excitement, themselves expressions of passion unworthy of you and of our school, I have spoken obscurely. Into the gulf between the thought and the word, which, as you have taught us, is the trap set by non-being, I have again fallen. What I meant to say is that a lion has escaped from the zoo, and with a deliberate speed it is rushing in the direction of the school and soon will be here!

The lion appears in the distance.

Zen. O my boy, my boy! It pains me to contemplate the impenetrability of the human intellect and its incommensurability with the truth. Furthermore, I now recognize that a thirty-year novitiate is too brief – sub specie aeternitatis – and must be extended to forty years, before the apprenticeship proper can begin. A real lion, perhaps; but really running, impossible; and really arriving here, absurd!

Pup. Master . . .

Zen. In order to run from the zoological garden to the Eleatic school, the lion would first have to traverse half the distance.

The lion traverses half the distance.

Zen. But there is a first half of that half, and a first half of that half, and yet again a first half of that half to be traversed. And so the halves would of necessity regress to the first syllable of recorded time – nay, they would recede yet earlier than the first syllable. To have traveled but a minute part of the interval from the zoological garden to the school, the lion would have been obliged to embark upon his travels infinitely long ago.

The lion bursts into the schoolyard.

Pup. O Master, run, run! He is upon us!

Zen. And thus, by reductio ad absurdum, we have proved that the lion could never have begun the course, the mere fantasy of which has so unworthily filled you with panic.

The pupil climbs an Ionic column, while the lion devours Zeno.

Pup. My mind is in a daze. Could there be a flaw in the Master’s argument?

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No time but the present“No time but the present” from my friend Jeff Courtney’s Digital Dao

What is time? Was there a beginning to time? If so, what preceded it? Is time “real”? If so, is time more real than chairs, for example? Is time continuous or is it a string of moments? Is time affected by the presence of human beings? Is time “being”? Or is there no such thing as time? Does time pass or do we exist in a beginning-less and endless now? An argument could be made that our attitude to time is the most fundamental of our philosophical or religious thoughts or positions. What difference does our attitude to time make in our lives?

I was about to say “in the twenty-first century” but that sort of marker is part and parcel of the very question of time. I should state right away that I will use such conventions as “twenty-first century” very much in the conventional way. We have enough to worry about in discussing time without living under the cloud of this conundrum. But this conundrum itself points to the enormous difficulty in discussing time, because of the self-referential problem that we always have time with us. How we could gain distance on it? This is very much the problem we have in discussing it.

Since Zeno, space and time have been considered together and this joining has only been more firmly emphasized in our post-Einstein world. Can these two be separated or do they only exist together? In this piece I want to explore several attitudes to time, from Zeno and Aristotle to Reverend Gotama and Dogen on up to the amazing world of contemporary astrophysics and cosmology.

Heracleitus or Parmenides (or Both?)

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.” Heracleitus of Ephesus (Freeman’s English translation, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Fragment 91)

“There is only one description of the way remaining, (namely), that (What Is) Is. To this way there are very many sign-posts: that Being has no coming-into-being and no destruction, for it is whole of limb, without motion and without end. . . . For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless.” Parmenides of Elea (Freeman translation, Fragment 8)

Time is at the heart of physics, the study of the natural world and metaphysics, the study of thinking about the natural world. The two pillars of Western thinking about time are Heracleitus and Parmenides. The first seems to have emphasized the real nature of time and motion, the second imagined a timeless world complete and motionless. Which one is correct? We will see that, now over 2,500 years after these two set out the poles of the argument, the discussion still rages.

Zeno on Motion, Time and Infinity

DSCN4752The Porta Rosa in Elea (Photo by the author)

What little we know of Zeno comes primarily from the writings of Aristotle and Plato. The Zeno that we are talking about here is the Zeno who lived in Elea and who was, according to Plato’s Parmenides dialog, a contemporary of Socrates. Elea was a colony of Greeks who had settled in Western Italy. A small ruin remains of the ancient city near to the contemporary town of Velia, south of Salerno. The train from Salerno travels through a tunnel directly beneath the acropolis of the ancient city. It is visited today by a very few tourists (including the author) and nearby school students on field trip. The Porta Rosa above separates the main town from the acropolis.

Diogenes Laertius has a very short note on Zeno of Elea as compared with close to the 150 pages of Greek / English in his Loeb volume devoted to Zeno of Citium, the Stoic. Plato tells us that Zeno was a student, or at least a fellow-traveler with, Parmenides, the great philosopher and law giver of Elea and that the two discoursed with Socrates on their trip to Athens for the Great Panathenaea. Zeno is known for his paradoxes of motion which are bound up with the interplay of motion and time:

1) The Dichotomy
2) Achilles and the Tortoise
3) The Arrow
4) The Stadium

These arguments were apparently aimed at supporting the Parmenidean position that reality is one (although there is some doubt (See here.) As Plato says in the Parmenides,

“In reality, this writing is a sort of reinforcement for the argument of Parmenides against those who try to turn it into ridicule on the ground that, if reality is one, the argument becomes involved in many absurdities and contradictions. This writing argues against these who uphold a Many, and give them back as good as they gave; its aim is to show that their assumption of multiplicity will be involved in still more absurdities than the assumption of unity, if it is sufficiently worked out.” (Burnet’s translation in Early Greek Philosophy)

The only bits of writing that we have directly attributed to Zeno by Diels amount to one page in the Freeman’s English translation; three bits treat of the One versus the Many and one tiny, but interesting, fragment deals with motion, “That which moves, moves neither in the place in which it is, nor in that in which it is not.” (Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers)

Aristotle relates the arguments on motion (and time) as follows:

“Zeno’s arguments about motion, which cause so much trouble to those who try to answer them, are four in number. The first asserts the non-existence of motion on the ground that that which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal. . . .

The second is the so-called Achilles, and amounts to this, that in a race the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. . . .

The third is that . . . . to the effect that the flying arrow is at rest, which result follows from the assumption that time is composed of moments: if this assumption is not granted, the conclusion will not follow.

The fourth argument is that concerning equal bodies which move alongside equal bodies in the stadium from opposite direction – the ones from the end of the stadium, the others from the middle – at equal speeds, in which he thinks it follows that half the time is equal to its double.” (Physics, 239b10-240, revised Oxford translation by Hardie and Gaye.)

Burnet summarizes the goal of these arguments as follows: “This argument (the fourth, the Stadium), like the others, is intended to bring out the absurd conclusions which follow from the assumption that all quantity is discrete, and what Zeno has really done is to establish the conception of continuous quantity by a reductio ad absurdum of the other hypotheses.” In other words, Zeno was arguing not that moments are all that we have, but that to think so is absurd. It was apparently an attempt to support the idea of a block universe, a concept that was reborn 2,500 years later in Einstein’s general relativity theory, of which more anon.

The twentieth century saw an explosion of interest in Zeno by philosophers. Most of the concern with Zeno’s paradoxes focused how they interact with the concept of infinity and infinite series. Bertrand Russell’s lecture on “The Problem of Infinity considered historically” appeared in his 1914 book, Our Knowledge of the External World. Towards the end of this lecture, he writes,

“Zeno’s arguments, in some form, have afforded grounds for almost all the theories of space and time and infinity which have been constructed from his day to our own. We have seen that all of his arguments are valid (with certain reasonable hypotheses) on the assumption that finite spaces and times consist of a finite number of points and instants, and that the third and fourth almost certainly in fact proceeded on this assumption, while the first and the second, which were perhaps intended to refute the opposite assumption, were in that case fallacious. We may therefore escape from his paradoxes either by maintaining that, (1) though space and time do consist of points and instants, the number of them in any finite interval is infinite; or (2) by denying that space and time consist of points and instants at all; or (3) lastly, by denying the reality of space and time altogether.”

Russell goes on to say that it seems Zeno was arguing for the third possibility, that Bergson argued for the second, but that Russell himself sees that the first is justified by the mathematical theories of Cantor in the nineteenth century.

The last half of Russell’s lecture is reprinted as an introductory essay in the 1970 book edited by Wesley Salmon, Zeno’s Paradoxes. This book, which has been used in many philosophy courses in the US since, includes classic essays on Zeno by Henri Bergson, J.O Wisdom, Max Black, G.E.L. Thompson and concluding articles by Adolf Grunbaum, to whom Salmon gives the credit for coming closest to “solving” the paradoxes, following the suggestions of Russell and based on the mathematics of Cantor: “Thus Zeno’s mathematical paradoxes are avoided in the formal part of a geometry built on Cantorian foundations”. (Grunbaum, “Zeno’s Metrical Paradox of Extension,” in Salmon, Zeno’s Paradoxes)

Many other philosophers have taken a crack at Zeno, including very stimulating essays by Gregory Vlastos, reprinted in the book Studies in Greek Philosophy, Volume I, The Presocratics, Gilbert Ryle in his book, Dilemmas and even David Foster Wallace in his book Everything and More, A complete History of ∞. No one really doubts that we can’t walk across the street, as would be implied by The Dichotomy, for example, but Zeno’s paradoxes have been heroically difficult to unravel. DFW concludes his infinity book with the words,

“Gödel’s own personal view was that the Continuum Hypothesis (that there exists no set whose power is greater than that of the naturals and less than that of the reals) is false, that there are actually a whole ∞ of Zeno-type ∞s nested between 0 and c, and that sooner or later a principle would be found that proved this. As of now, no such principle’s ever been found. Gödel and Cantor both died in confinement bequeathing a world with no finite circumference. One that spins, now, in a new kind of all-formal Void. Mathematics continues to get out of bed.”

The important issue for the current project is Zeno’s concept of time: essentially that time is an illusion. But note Russell’s conclusion that Zeno’s argument for the particularity of time, in spite of his goal to prove the opposite, was impregnable, at least up to the nineteenth century. We will see that Zeno’s arguments really set the table for the strife that we have seen in contemporary cosmology.

Aristotle’s Reply to Zeno

Aristotle’s own attitude was that “Zeno’s reasoning . . . is fallacious, when he says that if everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always in a now, the flying arrow is therefore motionless. This is false; for time is not composed of indivisible nows any more that any other magnitude is composed of indivisibles.'”[239b, 5-13, Oxford revised translation]

Aristotle’s attempts to define time positively are typically meandering. He says,

” . . . . it either does not exist at all or barely, and in the obscure way . . . . Again, the ‘now’ which seems to bound the past and the future – does it always remain one and the same or is it always other and other? It is hard to say. . . . . For we may lay it down that one ‘now’ cannot be next to another, any more that a point to a point. If then it did not cease to be in the next ‘now’ but in another, it would exist simultaneously with the innumberable ‘nows’ between the two – which is impossible. . . . Clearly then it (time) is not movement . . . But neither does time exist without change . . . it is evident, then, that time is neither movement nor independent of movement. . . . . Time, then, also is made continuous by the ‘now’ and divided by it. . . . In so far as the ‘now’ is a boundary, it is not time, but an attribute of it; in so far as it numbers, it is number, for boundaries being only to that which they bound, but number (e.g. ten) is the number of these horses, and belongs also elsewhere. . . . It is clear (!) then, that time is number of movement in respect of the before and after, and is continuous since it is an attribute of what is continuous.” [217b29 – 220a26]

So Aristotle was a believer in time as a continuum. This is an attitude that would have powerful force in the West in the millennia to come.

Reverend Gotama on Time

DSCN1539Monkeys at Anatha Pindika’s “pleasuance” in the Jeta Grove in Ancient Savatthi (now Shravasti – Photo by the author)

Reverend Siddhattha Gotama, aka the Buddha, in general stayed far away from metaphysical (or physical) speculation. In the Potthapada Sutta, however, which I have addressed in more detail here, he does address the issue of the beginning of time and space. The sutta tells the story of a discussion with a wandering mendicant, Potthapada, which took place in the Jeta Grove, a park given by the rich merchant Anatha Pindika for the use of Gotama and his group of followers. The suttas say (elsewhere) that Gotama spent the last twenty years of his life residing in Savatthi during the rainy season. The park today is maintained by the Indian government as a place of pilgrimage and as a tourist attraction (visited by the author.)

The first four questions by Potthapada deal with questions of time and space:

Then, sir, if that be so, tell me at least: Is the world eternal? Is this alone the truth, and any other view mere folly?
‘That, Potthapada (Gotama answers) is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’
[Then, in the same terms, Potthapada asked each of the following questions: –
2. Is the world not eternal? –
3. Is the world finite?
4. Is the world not finite?
. . . .
And to each question the Exalted One made the same reply:-]
‘That too, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’ (Potthapada Sutta in the Dialogues of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya) translated from the Pali by T.W. Rhys Davids, Pali Text Society, Part I)

This is also the sutta in which Gotama expresses no interest in the subject of rebirth of the Tatagatha (himself), but that is discussed in the earlier post that I have referenced. In the current post, I am interested only in Gotama’s lack of a theory on the beginning or finitude of the world. This sutta, and a similar sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya (the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta) suggest that Gotama was a sceptic on these metaphysical issues. As we shall see, many Western philosophers and physicists have not been so humble.

Genesis or Cyclic Rebirth

Creación_de_Adám“Creación de Adám” Sistene Chapel Ceiling – Photo from Wikipedia

The ancient Hebrew view of the nature of time was straightforward; there was a beginning and it was created by God.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. . . . And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds . . . . So God created man in his own image . . . ” (Genesis, 1-2, 25, 27, The Oxford Annotated Bible)

But on the other side of the “civilized world,” in India, a cyclic world was being imagined.

“There comes a time, Vasettha, when, sooner or later, after a lapse of a long, long period, this world passes away. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn in the World of Radiance; and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory, and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time, Vasettha, when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance, usually come to life as humans. And they become made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory, and remain thus for a long period of time.”(Agganna Suttana, A book of genesis, Dialogues of the Buddha, Part III, [84-85] translated from the Pali of the Digha-Nikaya by T.W. and C.A.F. Rhys Davids)

But doesn’t this contradict Reverend Gotama’s disavowal of speculation on metaphysical matters that I have quoted above? Of course it does. I chalk this up to the fact that the Pali Canon was compiled in writing several hundred years after the life of Reverend Gotama and was used for many purposes other than those Gotama may have intended. Have we ever seen that happen in the world before?

My point here is not to illustrate contradictions in the Pali Canon, but to show the contradictory theses about the beginning of time held in ancient Palestine compared to ancient India. Strangely, these contradictory theories will reappear in modern cosmology.

Dogen on Time Being

eiheijiEiheiji – Founded by Dogen Kigen (Photo from the Web)

Dogen Kigen is credited traditionally as the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school and is widely recognized as one of the most profound, and also one of the most enigmatic, of the philosopher zen men. He lived in the thirteenth century and was trained from the age of thirteen in Tendai monasteries in or around Kyoto. He spent years studying at a Tendai temple in Kyoto where the priest Myoan Eisai had been teaching the practice and methods of the Chinese Lin-Chi (Rinzai in Japanese) school. At the age of twenty three he traveled with Eisai’s student Myozen to Sung Dynasty China.

Dogen himself says of this,

“After the thought of enlightenment arose, I began to search for the dharma, visiting teachers at various places in our country. Then I met priest Myozen, of Kennin Monastery, by whom I was trained for nine years. Thus I learned a little about the teaching of the Rinzai School. Priest Myozen alone, as a senior disciple of ancestor Eisai, correctly transmitted the unsurpassable buddha-dharma; no one can be compared with him.

Later I went to Great Song China, visiting masters on both sides of the Zhe River, and heard the teachings of the Five Schools. Finally I studied with Zen master Rujing of Taibo Peak and completed my life’s quest of the great matter.” (On the Endeavor of the Way, Bendo-Wa, in Moon in a Dewdrop, writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, this fascicle translated from the Japanese by Lew Richmond and Kazuaki Tanahashi)

This quote is contained in the Japanese collection of Dogen’s essays and talks titled the Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. One of the more famous of the fascicles in this collection, and one of them most puzzling, is the fascicle titled Uji, variously translated as The Time Being, Being Time or Being-Time. This fascicle has been translated into English (differently) by Tanahashi (in Moon in a Dewdrop), Norman Waddell and Masao Abe (in The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Thomas Cleary (in Shobogenzo, Zen Essays by Dogen; and by Rein Raud (in ‘The Existential Moment: rereading Dogen’s Theory of Time’, Philosophy East and West, Volume 62, Number 2).

Uji starts out (in Waddell and Abe’s English translation) as follows:

“An old Buddha said:
For the time being, I stand astride the highest mountain peaks.
For the time being, I move on the deepest depths of the ocean floor.
For the time being, I’m the three heads and eight arms.
For the time being, I’m eight feet or sixteen feet.
For the time being, I’m staff or a whisk.
For the time being, I’m a pillar or a lantern.
For the time being, I’m Mr. Chang or Mr. Li.
For the time being, I’m the great earth and heavens above.

The “time being” means time, just as it is, is being, and being is all time.

The sixteen-foot golden Buddha-body is time; because it is time, it has time’s glorious golden radiance. You must learn to see this glorious radiance in the twelve hours of your day. The [demonic ashura with] three heads and eight arms is time; because it is time, it can be in no way different from the twelve hours of your day. Although you never measure the length or brevity of the twelve hours, their swiftness or slowness, you still call them the twelve hours. As evidence of their going and coming is obvious, you do not come to doubt them. But even though you do not have doubts about them, that is not to say you know them. Such sentient being’s doubting of the many and various things unknown to him are naturally vague and indefinite, the course his doubtings will take will probably not bring them to coincide with this present doubt. Nonetheless, the doubts themselves are, after all, none other than time.”

What to make of this? Ramblings of a mad zen man? Deep understanding of the contradictory nature of time and life? Which will it be? Cleary says of this in the introduction to his translation,

“This essay has provoked the interest of most modern writers on Dogen, presenting what seems to be his most original idea: the identity of being and time. This might be represented by the statement that time is a necessary factor of all manifestations of being. But Dogen is less abstract. In effect, time here is seen as being concrete, being is seen as concrete, and the two are seen as inseparable in this concreteness. Ordinary definitions of time, understood in terms of duration of objects or events, or as differentiations of velocity and distance, demand a concrete context so the notion of the inseparability of being and time, arresting though it may be when expressed as being-time, is not especially difficult for the modern reader to acknowledge. What is more, Dogen’s idea of being time bears a degree of resemblance to the concept of space-time in the relativity theory of modern physics. In space-time, time is the fourth dimension, or fourth coordinate in terms of which, along with three space-like coordinates, events are described.”

Raud is anxious to point out the difference between the durational view of time characteristic of Aristotle and the momentary time of Dogen and Zeno’s argument. He thinks that interpretation of Dogen has been infected with too much of that durational bias: “There is also an important conceptual difference between ‘time’ and ‘moments’ flying by. When we read the text in the durational mode, we have to assume that some of the time that flies by is constantly present, while some of it has passed (Abe / Waddell: ‘if time were to give itself to merely flying past, it would have to leave gaps’; Cleary; “if time only were to fly, then there would be gaps’; it remains unclear where the gaps come from — the reading of Tanahashi, ‘If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time,’ although more logical, is not supported by the text). But the problem is solved if we assume that what are seen to fly by are moments: if we would, indeed, against the text’s admonition, presume that moments fly past, one after another, like the stages of the movement of Zeno’s arrow, it would be logical to ask what is present during the almost imperceptible interval when one moment has passed and another one is still not here.”

Raun is speaking of a passage translated by Waddell and Abe as, “Hence, pine trees are time. So are bamboos. You should not come to understand that time is only flying by. You should not only learn that flying past is the virtue inherent in time. If time were to give itself to merely flying past, it would have to leave gaps.” Raun’s translation of this is: “This being so, the pines are momentary and the bamboos are momentary as well. You should not conceptualize a moment as something that flies by, nor study ‘flying by’ merely as the capacity of a moment. If moments could be fully defined by the capacity to fly by, there would be gaps in between them.” Raun insists on the translation of the Japanese word, kyokyaku, as “shifting”, rather than the Waddell and Abe translation of this word as “seriatum passage,” and Tanahashi’s translation as “flowing.” Raun insists that this better gets at what Dogen was saying: “What it requires is dismissing the notions of ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, and ‘tomorrow’ from among the categories of our direct experience, and assigning them the role of merely linguistic devices to help us approach reality but are never able to completely fully refer to it.” Raun translates “Uji” itself as “existential moment,” and maintains that if we so translate it, “as opposed to measurable and divisible time, we obtain much more lucid reading of many of the passages of the fascicle.”

Maybe, but what exactly IS Dogen getting at here? Masao Abe, who is probably the most prominent Dogen scholar of the twentieth century, starts the chapter, ‘Dogen’s View of Time and Space’ in his book, A Study of Dogen, with the words, “Dogen’s view of time and space cannot be understood apart from his standpoint of Buddha-nature.” OK. We have been reading in the wrong place, if we are trying to figure Dogen out simply by reading Uji.

But what is “his standpoint of Buddha-nature?” Abe writes, “Dogen’s standpoints of Buddha-nature and continuous practice are based primarily on subjectivity that was forged in his encounter with and overcoming of his doubt concerning Tendai original-enlightenment thought and his formulation of the doctrine of the oneness of practice and attainment.” To roughly summarize, the Tendai thinking was that you already have perfect enlightenment, you just need to realize it. Dogen was puzzled by this. Why am I studying the Way if I am already enlightened? What was his answer? Abe points to a passage from the fascicle, ‘Bendowa’ translated by Waddell and Abe as ‘Negotiating the Way’:

“When just one person, one at a time, sits in zazen, he becomes imperceptibly, one with each and all of the myriad things, and permeates completely all time, so that within the limitless universe, throughout past, future and present, he is performing the eternal and ceaseless work of guiding beings to enlightenment. It is, for each and every thing, one and the same undifferentiated practice, and undifferentiated realization.”

This seems to be a succinct summary of Dogen’s view. Abe quotes the entire passage twice in his essay. Our experience of time is subjective, as needs be from our perspective as an impermanent living being, but with connection to ‘the myriad things,’ including past and future. Abe goes on to identify what he suggests are three points to ‘clearly establish’ Dogen’s view of time and space:

1) “Each and every being as it is realizes all other beings, and each and every time as it is realizes all other times. It is in and through the self that being and time in the above sense are identical. This is the truth of being-time.”

2) “Each and every being does not sequentially turn into or become (naru-seiseisuru) another being, and in the same way, each and every time does not continuously pass away (naru-seiseisuru)  into another time. Rather, each and every being is the spontaneous manifestation (genjo) of all beings while maintaining its particular dharma-stage, and in the same way, each and every time makes a passageless-passage (kyoryaku) to other times while maintaining its particular dharma-stage at this very moment.”

3) “The truth of being-time is never realized apart from this very place (absolute here) and this very time (absolute now).”

Note the change in Abe’s English translation here from his 1992 book of the term “kyoryaku” as “passage-less passage” to “seriatum passage” or simply “passage” in the Waddell translation of Uji, originally published in the Eastern Buddhist magazine and in book form in 2003.  Abe emphasizes the subjective standpoint in Dogen’s thought of the “self-liberating Self that has cast off body and mind.” This is a classic image from Dogen’s writing. Another is the image of contradiction. In Abe’s words, “Uji is not realized apart from mind and the body-mind that have been cast off. In this sense uji cannot be sufficiently grasped from the standpoint of being-time. Uji must be grasped from the standpoint of muji, that is nothingness-time. It is only when grasped from the standpoint of muji, or nothingness-time, that uji, being-time, can be truly grasped as uji, being-time.”

The depths and great fun of Dogen’s writing cannot be conveyed in a single blog post. The English reader is very much encouraged to delve into the English translations of Dogen’s Japanese by Waddell and Abe, Cleary and Tanahashi that I have referenced above. I was introduced to Dogen first by listening to the audio cassettes published by North Point Press  and read by the poet Gary Snyder. I can still hear Snyder’s voice reading Tanahashi’s translations. Actually, I can hear them right now, since the Walkman that I purchased in Singapore in 1993 still works! Snyder reads, “On the Endeavor of the Way – Bendowa. All buddha tathagatas, who directly transmit inconceivable dharma and actualize supreme, perfect enlightenment, have a wondrous way, unsurpassed and unconditioned. Only buddhas transmit it to buddhas without veering off; self-fulfilling samadhi is its standard. Sitting upright, practicing Zen, is the authentic gate to the unconfined realm of this samadhi.” (Also listen to Snyder here.)

Let’s give the last word to Dogen in Uji (from Tanahashi’s English translation):

“Mind is the moment of actualizing the fundamental point; words are the moment of going beyond, unlocking the barrier. Arriving is the moment of casting off the body; not arriving is the moment of being one with just this, while being free from just this. In this way you must endeavor to actualize the time-being.”

Kant on the Beginnings of Time

And speaking of contradictions, Kant’s first antimony treats of the exactly same questions addressed by Gotama two thousand years earlier: whether time and space have a beginning. Kant forms these in his famous Thesis and Antithesis form as follows:

“Thesis:The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space.

Antithesis: The world has no beginning, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards space and time.” (Critque of Pure Reason, A.426 B. 454, translated into English by Norman Kemp Smith)

Kant provides “proofs” to both sides of these dichotomies, as examples of his transcendental reason. That the proofs of both thesis and antithesis are fallacious has been maintained by both Kemp Smith in his commentary and Russell (in the early part of his lecture on infinity referenced above). There is no need to go into these arguments here. My  point here is to lay down an eighteenth century Western milestone in our tour of theories on time.

Modern Cosmology

We have given several indications of contradictory theories about time reappearing in modern cosmology. I want to conclude this post by discussing several books which illustrate this controversy.

The first is the book, About Time, by Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a co-founder of the NPR blog: 13:7 Cosmos and Culture. Frank’s 2011 book provides an illuminating survey of the history of modern cosmology;  the evolution from the pre-history of humans in the West to debates at astrophysics conferences in our own time. The first signs of speculation about time he sees in the story of markings on a bone fragment found on the floor of a cave in the Dordogne which was later argued to represent a marking of the passage of lunar time. This fragment dates from twelve to twenty thousand years ago. From here Frank gives a very entertaining telling of the story of our fascination with cosmology: from our paleolithic ancestors, to the neolithic megalith at Stonehenge, the agricultural view of Hesiod’s Works and Days, the urban revolution of Ptolemy, the Renaissance invention of the mechanical clock and to Newton’s absolute time and absolute space and Einstein in his patent office job reviewing electromechanical time synchronization patents.

Newton’s work described a world of time, force, matter, and motion that would transform our understanding of the physical world. According to the physics of Aristotle, which still dominated the world into which Newton was born, “the universe was a plenum, a material continuum. In their view there could be no space without matter. In an echo of Parmenides, a truly empty space was thought to be impossible. . . . If time and space did not exist without matter, how was matter supposed to move though them?” Following up on his study of Kepler, Galileo and Descartes, Newton’s innovation was “to make space and time separate realities.” Frank describes Newton’s revolutionary achievement as follows:

  • “Absolute, true and mathematical time passes equally without relation to anything external and without reference to any change in matter of the way in which it is measured (e.g., the hour, day, month or year).
  • Absolute, true and mathematical space is the same everywhere; its properties remain fixed without relation to changes in matter.
  • Absolute motion is the movement of a body from one position in absolute space to another.”
Newton 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05058

Newton 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05058

Frank concludes, “In what might be considered a marriage of the visions of Parmenides and Heraclitus, change and eternity were fused. Timeless, immutable laws governed the universe and the progress and nature of change.” Newton’s mechanics were a leap of imagination, but the practical application of his laws of mechanics have been crucial to the development of our industrial world. Perhaps this is what so bothered Blake about Newton!

Einstein’s day job led, as we all know by now, to his working out in the evenings at home  the theoretical mechanics of time, waves and simultaneity that became his special theory of relativity and which was later expanded by Minkowski into a general theory mapping out the 4-dimensional world of space-time. “The philosophical implications of the new perspective were startling. Once again the ghost of Parmenides would hover behind a new development in theoretical physics. The future and past took on a different character in the so-called block universe of space-time. In this vision of relativity, next Tuesday, which we consider to be the future, already exists. The past and the future are reduced to events that exist together in the totality of a timeless, eternal block of space-time.”

While Einstein’s and Minkowski’s block universe bring us back to the poetry of Parmenides, an empirical discovery by Edward Hubble was to lead to the true transformation of cosmology into astrophysics, a science with predictable results that can be tested. Hubble was working with the 100-inch Hooker telescope at  Cal Tech’s Wilson Observatory. He was trying to unravel the riddle of whether recently discovered spiral nebulae lie within or somewhere without the Milky Way. Hubble used measurements of the brightness of a pulsating star called a “Cepheid variable” in the Andromeda spiral nebula to predict the distance of the object from the earth. By calculating the brightness of star, he calculated that Andromeda could not be part of the Milky Way, but must be another distant galaxy. He and an associate were subsequently able to determine from changes in the wavelength of light emitted by the star the velocity of its motion. Doppler shifts (changes in wavelength over time) toward shorter (blue) wavelengths would indicate that the star was moving toward the observer. Doppler shifts toward longer (red) wavelengths would indicate that the star was moving away. In an “epochal” paper in 1919 Hubble and his associate Humason were able to demonstrate that nearly all of the galaxies that they had identified were red-shifted. Hubble and Humason further determined that the further away the galaxy, the greater the “recession” velocity. The expanding universe had been demonstrated.

Hubble’s results would lead Lemaitre and others  to the theory of the “Big Bang.” For this story, you will need to turn to Frank’s book, but I want to point out the charming personal story that he tells in the Prologue to his book, which starts with, “The girl in the third row raises her hand and I know I’m in trouble.” Her question, of course, is “But Professor, what happened before the Big Bang?” It is this question which will lead modern cosmologists in the last decades of the previous century to question the theory of the Big Bang. Alternate theories will propose the “Big Crunch,” multiverses, branes and cyclic models reminiscent of ancient Buddhist theory.

Along the way, Frank considers the “A-word of cosmology: the Anthropic Principle . . . . . hovering in the background of cosmological thinking for decades. In its simplest form, it states that the universe and its laws must take a form consistent with our existence within it.” Frank says, “After its introduction in the late 1960s and 1970s, most scientists rejected anthropic thinking, seeing it as so obvious as to be useless or so constrictive as to be an exercise in mysticism.” My own view on this was formed many years ago during a week-long hike in the Lassen Wilderness Area in California. My conclusion: the universe really doesn’t care that we are here. We are lucky to be so. That it should have come to be what it is in order that we should be here seems to me quite absurd.

Frank’s book concludes with a discussion of four “rebels” in modern cosmology: Julian Barbour, Andy Albrecht, Lee Smolin and Roberto Mangabiera Unger. Barbour is a British farmer physicist who has proposed a modern version of Parmenides’s Way of Truth or Dogen’s being-time in his book,  The End of Time. “As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows and the question is, what are they. . . . We have the strong impression that things have been definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”

Water Clock in the AgoraWater Clock in the Agora in Athens (Photo by the author)

While Barbour seems to be a Sceptic, Albrecht was drawn into physics as a Platonist. “I got enthralled by the appendix (in his high school physics textbook) on quantum physics. I just loved the idea that there were deeper laws behind what we see. After all these years it still keeps me going.” But he then started wondering about time. “The problem relates to time and what you decide to call a clock. . . . What does it mean to measure ‘time’? You have to divide the world into the part you want to study and the part you call a clock. When I tried to implement this in my quantum cosmology equations I ran into a big problem.” He calls this the “clock ambiguity.” “Basically, different choices of a clock lead to different kinds of physics.”  Albrecht finds that “both time and the laws of physics rested on an ambiguous and arbitrary choice.” In thinking about current theories of multiverses he comes to a sceptical conclusion: “The clock ambiguity implies that the concrete set of physical laws will occur in any given universe until you sit in the middle of it and see what happens.”

The last of the “radicals” considered in Frank’s book are Lee Smolin and Roberto Mangabiera Unger. Smolin is a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute in Toronto and a member of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto. Unger is a philosopher who has associated with Smolin. Smolin’s 2013 book, Time Reborn, covers much the same ground as Frank’s book, telling the story of why classical physics banished time and why it needs to be considered as real. He is in definite opposition to Newton and Einstein’s expulsion of time from physics in their absolute and block universes. He maintains that physics needs to embrace a cosmology that respects the apparent irreversibility of time, the so-called arrow of time.

Just one concept Smolin develops is his question as to why the universe that we live in is so improbable, full of highly ordered things, like stars and us. He makes a distinction between a Leibnizean universe in which the “law of the identity of the indiscernibles” flourishes and a Boltzmanian universe in which everything runs down according to the second law of thermodynamics. His preference for the Leibnizean version for our universe is based on the observation that the second law holds only for closed systems, while the universe in which we live is an open system through which energy flows. This leads him to the conclusion that time is very real and needs to be brought back into physical theory.

A last consideration in our exploration of time by modern physicists will be a brief discussion of a book by H. Dieter Zeh, The Physical Basis of The Direction of Time. Zeh is prominent as the physicist who first proposed the theory of “decoherence” to explain the transition from the quantum to the classical world. His 2002 (Second Edition) book on decoherence is a joint product with E. Joos and others, Decoherence and the Appearance of the a Classical World in Quantum Theory. His time book is an attempt, as implied in the title, to give a “physical” explanation for the arrow of time. He finds not one, but six arrows of time:

  1. Radiation
  2. The Second Law
  3. Evolution
  4. Quantum Mechanical Measurement
  5. Exponential Decay
  6. Gravity

Zeh’s books are not for the timid. He seems to assume that his audience has at least an undergraduate degree in physics. If you are not familiar with the “Dirac notation” of, for example, T|p>=|-p> or that combined with integral calculus (|p>=(2π)^(-1⁄2)∫dq (e)^(-ipq) |q>) you had better become familiar or you will soon be lost. A typical quote: “Other (more or less physical) compensating symmetry operations are known (See Atkinson 2006). For example, the time reversal symmetry of the Schrodinger equation is restored by complex conjugation of the wave function. This can be described by Wigner’s anti-unity operation T which leaves the configuration basis unchanged, Tc|p>=c*|q> for complex numbers c.” Got that?

But what does he think about time? Truth is, I am not completely sure, but I note that in his epilog he repeats a story about Einstein, which is also quoted in Smolin’s book:

“According to Carnap (1963), ‘Einstein said that the problem of the Now worried him considerably. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation.'”

Cannot occur within physics? Smolin certainly doesn’t agree. But if true, does that really matter to us humans? Zeh has an answer:

“Memories, in particular, have to be stored in physical form, and are then correlated with sources in their past (they are ‘retarded’). This drastic asymmetry may be sufficient to explain the apparent flow of time once there is a psycho-physical parallelism based on a presumed local moment of awareness. Only this (not necessarily asymmetric) concept of local present is fundamentally subjective, while the asymmetry between past and future directions is part of objective reality. What we usually call the preserved identity of a person (who changes considerably during a lifetime) is ‘in reality’ nothing but a particularly strong and robust ‘causal’ correlation between different local physical states which represent the individual carriers of a subjective present. As pointed out by Einstein and Carnap, it is the here-and-now subjectivity as the center of all awareness that goes beyond objective reality, while it must severely affect our perception of the ‘real world’.”

Well, at least he thinks he has proven that the arrow of time is “part of objective reality.” And if my “retarded” experience of my “center of awareness” is just “subjective” isn’t that what we mean by subjective!


So, Heracleitus or Parmenides, or both? Beginning of time or cyclic time? Is time an illusion or is it real? Or do we go with Gotama and Socrates and concentrate on liberating our minds. I tend toward the latter, but appreciate the manic human determination to make sense of things that we can’t see.

I will give the last word to the poet, Paul Valery:

“A drop of water falling into water barely colors it, and tends to disappear after showing as a pink cloud. That is the physical fact. But suppose now that some time after it has vanished, gone back to limpidity, we should see, here and there in our glass – which seemed once more to hold pure water – drops of wine forming, dark and pure – what a surprise! . . . . We then speak of genius, and contrast it to diffusion.”


Posted in Buddhism, General Philosophy, Scepticism | Leave a comment

Free Market Fool

The Free Market Existentialist, Capitalism Without Consumerism is a 2015 book by Willam Irwin and published by Wiley Blackwell. Irwin is the “General Editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series” and the “Herve A. LeBlanc Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania, USA.” This from the back of the paperback sent to me by Laura Fabiani at iRead Book Tours. I agreed to provide an honest review in exchange for a complimentary copy of the book. Laura declined to post my review on her blog. I agreed not to post my review until after her “book tour” ended on 10 December.

Irwin’s book starts with the words “I am all alone . . . in the intersection of circles in a Venn diagram . . . a set of free market philosophers and . . . the set of existentialist philosophers.” Not unlike the beginning of perhaps my favorite twentieth century book, Murphy by Samuel Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative on nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free . . . . alone in his chair of undressed teak . . . ” Beckett’s book is a comic masterpiece. This one by Irwin, not so much.

Unlike Dante’s circles of Hell, which were concentric, Irwin’s circles overlap only at the center, where he stands as what he imagines is the solitary member of groups advocating three kinds of ideology: 1) the free market, 2) existentialism and 3) moral anti-realism.

Free Market Fool

The Free Market

Irwin defines the free market as “an economic system in which the government plays no role aside from providing rule of law and protecting property rights.” No public schools, no public libraries, no GI bill, no welfare, presumably child labor and unchecked pollution of the commons by private individuals. A return, it seems, to the world of Dickens’s London praised by the nineteenth century liberal, Herbert Spencer (in The Man versus the State, for example). I have explored what I consider to be a devastating rebuttal to this theory by Karl Polanyi here. But Irwin says he doesn’t want to convince us that the free market would be a “superior system” (and could actually exist.) No, he maintains that his purpose is to make the case that the existentialists should really have embraced what he insists in calling the “free market.” The fact that none of these existentialists seem to have done so (Kierkegaard was a radical protestant, Sartre a Marxist, Heidegger a Nazi, Nietzsche contemptuous of the philistinism that he saw in bourgeois life) is part of what he tries to explain (away).

Irwin says “there is a lot that is ugly and unappealing about capitalism,” but what he means here is the tendency of capitalism to encourage consumerism, a vice of which he claims to be mostly innocent. What of capitalism’s other ills: its tendency to create a large mass of relatively impoverished people while a tiny minority become obscenely rich, its tendency to periodically collapse or its rapacious devastation of the commons? Not a problem, according to Irwin, as will become clear below.

He seems to think that the main problem with capitalism is consumerism. He says “for an existentialist to dismiss capitalism because of such things (consumerism) is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” He then immediately goes on to reference Ayn Rand, whose fictional character, Howard Roark, “does not design any structure for the sake of money, and he is quick to reject a job if he can’t do it on his own terms.” He wouldn’t be so quick to reject a job if he had been born as a Bangladeshi farmer moved off of his land by sea level rise. The commitment of Rand and Irwin to free market ideology seems to be pure; in other words, unconnected to worldly concerns of survival, much less profit. But does lack of realism make their ideology true? No; only disconnected from the rest of the story of capitalism’s reality. Irwin’s capitalism is that of the Rotary Club motto “he who serves best profits least.” Of the garment workers locked in a factory in Bangladesh and burnt to death in a fire, he speaks not a word.

In the remainder of this review, I will refer to what Irwin calls his embrace of the “free market” as libertarianism, since this view seems to be co-equal with the views of libertarians like Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick, all of whom he quotes or references.


The second circle of Irwin’s Venn diagram is existentialism. Here he relies mostly on what seems to be a pretty good understanding of the development of the thought of J.P. Sartre. The problem here is that while Sartre’s early magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, is pretty easy for a libertarian to embrace, Sartre’s turn to Marxism (Irwin calls it a “conversion”), after serving in the Resistance against the Nazis and being held in a prisoner of war camp, is a problem for Irwin’s thesis. Irwin is anxious to see this as a “historical, cultural accident.” Sartre turned to Marxism because he spent a lot of time in smoky bars after the war full of left-wing intellectuals. Another possible explanation, that this turn by Sartre was a result of maturity gained during the war years, Irwin doesn’t entertain.

Moral Anti-realism

The third circle in Irwin’s world is what he calls “moral anti-realism”. His definition for this is “the metaphysical view that there are no moral facts”. To explain this he says that while he accepts that humans have a “core morality” derived from their evolutionary history, he denies that these “moral beliefs, concepts, or feelings” are based in moral facts. But what are moral facts? Is the statement “Suffering is bad” a moral fact or an illusion? Is this feeling to which this statement refers any less “real” than chairs, say, or the second law of thermodynamics? Aren’t chairs “really” just jumbles of atoms moving in (relatively) enormous space? Is our everyday experience of them more “real” than our feeling that pain is bad. The debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists has been raucous in the twentieth century and beyond. One of the proponents of the anti-realist position, Richard Joyce, who is liberally quoted in Irwin’s book, wrote a summary of this debate in what is the gold standard of reference platforms in philosophy these days, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. His conclusions are not promising:

”This entry has not attempted to adjudicate the rich and noisy debate between the moral realist and moral anti-realist, but rather has attempted to clarify just what their debate is about. But even this much more modest task is doomed to lead to unsatisfactory results, for there is much confusion—perhaps a hopeless confusion—about how the terms of the debate should be drawn up. . . .The embrace of moral anti-realism, it is assumed, will have a pernicious influence. This concern presupposes that most of the folk are already pretheoretically inclined toward moral realism—an assumption that was queried in the supplementary document Moral Anti-realism vs. Realism: Intuitions. But even if it is true that most people are naive moral realists, the question of what would happen if they ceased to be so is an empirical matter, concerning which neither optimism nor pessimism seems prima facie more warranted than the other. As with the opposition to moral non-objectivism, the opposition to moral anti-realism is frequently based on an under-estimation of the resources available to the anti-realist—on an unexamined assumption that the silliest, crudest, and/or most insidious version will stand as a good representative of a whole range of extremely varied and often sophisticated theories.”

Whether or not we can sort out where we stand in this debate, the important question, it seems, is what Irwin does with his clear preference for the anti-realist position. He thinks that moral beliefs are based not in metaphysically “real” facts but on our evolutionary history. And it is here that he brings in something that seems contradictory to his embrace of free market ideology. He says (page 5) “The development of moral feelings, a kind of ‘core morality’ rooted in reciprocity, was adaptive for humans living in groups (my emphasis).” Whether or not morality can be grounded in “moral facts,” it seems that Irwin grounds his anti-realist beliefs in the adaptive nature of human development in groups. How does this fit with Irwin’s embrace of the free market? To my mind, it simply doesn’t. He devotes the last three chapters of his book to trying to convince us that these two positions are compatible. How does he do?

Is Moral Anti-realism Compatible with Free Market Ideology?

Irwin would have us believe that while there cannot be any metaphysical grounding of morality in facts, because our beliefs are rather the result of our evolutionary history, this is consistent with a libertarian view of society and government. How does Irwin get from “adaptive for humans living in groups” to embracing “minimal government” and “the minimal state.” Having read the last three chapters of Irwin’s book, my answer would be “by libertarian dogmatism.”

What I find in these last chapters is not a convincing argument as to how the libertarian world view can be justified by our evolutionary history, but instead a string of unsubstantiated declarations, many of them ripped out of the mouths of right wing libertarian writers like Murray Rothbard, Fredrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, the Cato Institute and the Wall Street Journal editorial page team. In these chapters we find the following quotes:

• “Of course we may choose to sell our labor for pay and give up claims to the direct fruits of our labor.” (What about the Bangladeshi workers I mentioned earlier?)
• “It is best to let property law develop spontaneously . . . . just as government is inefficient at planning an economy, it is inefficient at planning a legal system.” (See my summary of Oscar Lange’s rebuttal of this argument.)
• “And as the free market existentialist sees it, it is up to each of us to play the hand that we are dealt.” (By whom?)
• “There is simply no such thing as distributive justice because things such as wealth and beauty don’t need to be distributed.” (Perhaps, but why is this based on our evolutionary history?)
• “If I cannot be shown to have done anything wrong in terms of force, fraud, or theft in acquiring my current holdings, then the holdings are justly mine.” (Proudhon didn’t agree! And how is this justified by evolutionary history?)
• “That virtually every American has internet access makes even the poor wealthier than previous generations could imagine.” (Tell that to the thousands of homeless in America’s cities.)
• “The demand for approximate equality of outcomes, to the extent that it is natural, is one of the most obnoxious things about us as humans.” (But as you allow that this is based in our evolutionary past, how does this tell you that it is “obnoxious.”)
• “But the truth is that the government has no money of its own; it can only redistribute what it takes from its citizens.” (What part of ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’ don’t you understand?)
• “The opposite of ‘we’re all in this together’ is ‘you are on your own.’” (Again, as explained by our evolutionary history, or by the Cato Institute?)
• “The envy and resentment that drive people to cry “not fair’ in response to the increasing inequality in wealth between top earners and bottom earners is misplaced.” (I can understand why Donald Trump would approve of this statement, but not so sure as to why this is justified by ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’.)
• “Our lives and liberty are in that sense our property, in need of protection.” (I get the “lives” part and Hobbes would agree, but how is property justified by ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’?”
• “The free market is a much better arbiter of the worth of a degree from one college to another than the government agency could be.” (Have you read Propaganda by Edward Bernays?)
• “Markets do not necessarily require governments and governments certainly do not create markets.” (Interesting claim. How justified?)
• “Money is property, and the tyranny of the majority enacts a law that takes more of it from a minority group than from the majority group. This is nothing short of theft.” (And what about the accumulation of wealth of that minority? One of Marx’s most important (and well-taken) points was that social product is the product of all, but because the workers have an individual contract with the capitalist, the capitalist unjustly expropriates the entire surplus which has been due at least in part to the social form of production. I have addressed this here, from a perspective critical of Marx’s labor theory of value. And how is this justified by ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’?)
• Referring to his “equal tax” proposal, he says “. . . I believe that it is unlikely, given the way the economy would likely flourish under such a system.” (An amazing reference to supply-side economics, totally refuted by post-Reagan economic history. See my post here.)
• “ . . . . the person who is discontent should be free to leave and form a new state or to go to another state, including the state of nature.” (Another amazing quote. Let the refugees from Syria eat cake!)

Have I given enough quotes from Irwin? I think I have given enough for me to conclude that he is a dogmatic libertarian ideologue whose arguments may resonate with many, but which leave me profoundly unconvinced. I am actually quite sympathetic to moral anti-realism or its closely associated theory, moral scepticism. But I do not conclude from the explanation of morality as deriving from “adaptive for humans living in groups” that a free market could actually exist, much less be a realistic solution for human thriving.

A quote from US Senator Elizabeth Warren is apt here:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate…. Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

To imagine, as Irwin does, that capitalism is productive solely as a result of individual initiative, is to me a simple fantasy. Capitalism has succeeded in dramatic increases in productivity partly because of human initiative, but more profoundly as a result of social cooperation. It is a pure libertarian fantasy to think otherwise.

Climate Change Foolery

There is no mention of the words “climate change” in Irwin’s book. This is puzzling because the propensity of the “invisible hand” to encourage pollution of the earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would seem to be a glowing potential counterexample to Irwin’s embrace of the free market. Even the defenders of global capitalism (in the Stern commission report) have called global warming “the greatest market failure the world has ever see.” Why doesn’t Irwin, as an advocate for minimal government, wrestle a little at least with this negative consequence of a free market economy? Well, he doesn’t address this here, but in 2010 he did in an article published in the libertarian magazine, Reason. He addresses it by what he calls “skepticism” of the theory of anthropogenic climate change (global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, moderation of the ocean’s currents). His evidence? Mainly arguments by well-known climate change deniers Don Easterbrook and Willie Soon.

Easterbrook is a retired geologist from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. In his emeritus years he has been an active presenter at climate denial conferences sponsored by the Heartland Institute and the shadowy Western Institute for Study of the Environment. Irwin’s paper shows a figure from an Easterbrook talk showing that temperatures of Greenland ice cores over the last 15,000 years show a drop in temperature up to “the present.” The reference from the Western Institute for Study of the Environment has disappeared. The trouble with Easterbrook’s thesis is that the present to which he refers is actually 1855, just prior to the beginning of the significant global warming presented in the IPCC reports. See here for a full rebuttal to Easterbrook’s argument. Easterbrook predicted in 2008 that “historic records of past natural cycles suggest global cooling for the first several decades of the 21st century to about 2030.” Turns out that the first decade of that period has been the hottest on record.

The other prominent resource upon whom Irwin relies is Willie Soon, part-time Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Simthsonian Center for Astrophysics and an “expert” for the Heartland Institute. A 2003 paper in the journal Climate Science by Soon and his co-author Sallie Baliliunas provided a review of 240 papers in climate science and concluded that “Across the world, many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium.” This conclusion was very soon afterwards contradicted by several prominent climate scientists and led to the resignation of three editors at the journal over the issue of inadequate peer review. It turns out that Soon’s research over the years had been largely funded by the fossil fuel industry including such usual suspects as the Koch Brothers Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute and Exon Mobil.

Irwin and his co-author Brian Williams conclude their 2010 article with the words “We are ready and willing to embrace AGW (anthropogenic global warming) theory if the scientific evidence ultimately points in that direction. In fact, as of this writing, 2010 is shaping up to be a warm year that may depart from the recent flat period. If 2010 begins a new warming trend, that would certainly count against skepticism and cause us to reevaluate the merits of AGW theory.” 2010 was not only a warm year, but the evidence is now in that 2014 was the warmest year in recorded history; yet, there is no mention of this in Irwin’s 2015 book. This is quite typical of climate change deniers; they maintain that they are “skeptics” who represent the best qualities of science, but when facts that falsify their theories are presented, they are silent or stick to their narrative. There is a word for this type of attitude, “dogmatism.” Not a promising attitude for a philosopher.


This book is full of contradictions, and not the good contradictions that occur at the limits of thought which I have talked about here and here, but the bad contradictions in which the consequences of the author’s statements invalidate statements that he makes elsewhere. For example, Irwin says “it is not the purpose of this book to argue for the superiority of the free market” on page 2, but on page 74 he says “By advocating the free market I am not advocating greed” (even though he references Ayn Rand, who praised it, with reverence.) He says that “the state should be restricted to acting as a night watchman, protecting us against force, fraud, and theft” (page 162), but how can the state determine what is fraud or theft if “nothing is wrong” (the title to Chapter 4 on page 89?) While he claims that it is not money that motivates his embrace of the free market (page 74 and following) he reminds us that “Shakespeare wrote his plays for money (page 84).”

It is clear enough that I find this book extremely distasteful. I am particularly disturbed by what I can only call Irwin’s bad faith with regard to climate change. I would hope that few would embrace his message of amoral free market existentialism. To those who would be tempted, I would just say, “Caveat emptor.”

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Thoughts on the Labor Theory of Value

Why does something have value? It is clear that this “metaphysical” question is at the heart of the theory of political economy. Depending on how one answers this question, one sets off in very different directions with one’s economic theory. I have recently been reading the little-read nineteenth century economist, Leon Walras. Besides his more well-known Elements of Pure Economics I have also been reading the French and English translation of his Studies in Social Economics. In these two books I have been concentrating on Walras’s critique of the labor theory of value (LTV). In the first book, he attacks “the English School,” concentrating on Ricardo and Mill (the son). In the Social Economics book he takes on Marx.


Leon Walras was one of the founders of modern economics. Schumpeter said of him, “Walras is in my opinion the greatest of all economists. His system of economic equilibrium, uniting, as it does, the quality of ‘revolutionary’ creativeness with the quality of classic synthesis, is the only work by an economist that will stand comparison with the achievements of theoretical physics. Compared with it, most of the theoretical writings of that period—and beyond—however valuable in themselves and however original subjectively, look like boats beside a liner, like inadequate attempts to catch some particular aspect of Walrasian truth.” (History of Economic Analysis, Routledge, 1954, p 795.) What is less well known is that Walras considered himself a socialist and specifically put himself at odds with the “liberal” defenders of capitalism.

Marshall Supply and Demand

To understand this question of the LTV, one needs to understand the modern concept of supply and demand. The figure above presents a simple depiction of the supply and demand curves at the heart of political economics since the end of the nineteenth century when Walras, Menger, and Jevons independently founded what I think has been misleadingly called the marginal utility theory of value; misleading because Walras’s emphasis was not so much on utility, but on scarcity as the source of value and price. The figure is a representation of Figure 19 from Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics. Marshall systematized the work of these founders of neoclassical economics for a generation of twentieth century students, including Maynard Keynes and Joan Robinson. Rather than risk misleading the reader by paraphrasing what Marshall says about this, I will quote exactly what he says in the footnote in the Principles where this graph first appears (Page 288 of Eighth Edition),

“To represent the equilibrium of demand and supply geometrically we may draw the demand and supply curves together as in Fig. 19. If then OR represents the rate at which production is being actually carried on, and Rd the demand price is greater than Rs the supply price, the production is exceptionally profitable, and will be increased. R, the amount-index, as we call it, will move to the right. On the other hadn, if Rd is less than Rs, R will move to the left. If Rd is equal to Rs, that is, if R is vertically under the point of intersection of the curves, demand and supply are in equilibrium.

This may be taken as the typical diagram for stable equilibrium for a commodity that obeys the law of diminishing return. But if we had made SS’ a horizontal straight line, we should have represented the case of “constant return,” in which the supply price is the same for all amounts of the commodity. And if we made the SS’ inclined negatively, but less steeply than DD’ (the necessity for this condition will appear more fully later on), we should have got a case of stable equilibrium for a commodity which obeys the law of increasing return. In either case the above reasoning remains unchanged without the alternation of a word or a letter; but the last case introduces difficulties which we have arranged to postpone.”

In the case of a supply curve for constant returns to scale we have just the case of the supply curve proposed by the labor theory of value. The cost of production is assumed to vary only with the price of labor, when appropriately considered (assuming free land and capital!) The problem with this for the entrepreneur, whether he is a private individual or a manager of a state enterprise, is not that the price cannot be determined, but that the quantity of production cannot be determined unless one has knowledge of the demand price relation. But this demand relation is shielded from view in the labor theory of value and as a result, there is no way to determine the appropriate scale of production.

Walras’s Critique

Critique of the English School

Walras’s critique of the LTV as embodied in the classical English school of political economy is found most succinctly in Lesson 38 of Elements of Pure Economics. Ricardo doesn’t completely ignore scarcity, which for Walras was the true source of the theory of value or price, but once acknowledging it, Ricardo says it is important for only an insignificant number of goods. Walras quotes Ricardo,

“There are some commodities the value of which is determined by their scarcity alone. No labour can increase the value of such goods, and therefore their value cannot be lowered by and increased supply. . . . These commodities, however, form a very small part of the mass of commodities daily exchanged in the market. By far the greatest of those goods which are the objects of desire are procured by labour; and they may be multiplied, not in one country alone, but in many, almost without any assignable limit, if we are disposed to bestow labour necessary to obtain them.” (On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Chapter I, page 12 of the Sraffa Edition.)

Of this Walras says,

“What this fundamental distinction evidently amounts to is a division of products into two categories: one consisting of a small number of products which cannot be increased in quantity, and the other of a large number of products which can be increased without limit. . . . That being granted, the English economists . . . confined their attention to the second. . . . Had they simply divided products into two classes, those that cannot be increased in quantity and those that can, and then merely declared that the selling prices of the latter class tend, under free competition, to equal their costs of production, we should have no objection to raise. But when they assert that the products of the second class can be multiplied without limit, and that a certain value of their costs of production determines their selling prices, then we are faced with two fundamental errors which must be refuted.

There are no products that can be multiplied without limit. All things which form a part of social wealth – land, personal faculties, capital goods proper and income goods of every kind – exist only in limited quantities. . . . In the production of most things, however, land-services, labour, and capital-services are found together. It follows, therefore, that all things constituting social wealth consist of land or personal faculties or the products of the services of land and personal faculties. Now Mill admits that land exists in limited quantities only. If that is also true of human faculties, how can products be multiplied without limit?

Nor are there any one value of costs of production, which having itself been determined, determines in turn the selling prices of products. The selling prices of products are determined in the market for products by reason of thier utility and their quantity. There are no other conditions to consider, for these are the necessary and sufficient conditions.” (Page 399 in the Jaffe English translation.)

Walras followed his father Auguste in seeing scarcity as the source of “value” combined with utility, rather than the classical notion of labor as the measure of value. In elaborating his father’s theory of “rareté” Walras secured his place with Jevons and Menger as one of the founders of the neoclassical school of economics that more or less reigns supreme today in Anglo-American universities. But it is this emphasis on scarcity, rather than the heavier emphasis on utility in the English and Austrian schools, that (in my view) sets Walras’s work apart.

In the second book mentioned above (Studies in Social Economics) Walras proposes two theorems: I) “Personal faculties are, by natural law, owned by the individual” (page 142 of the van Daal and Walker English translation) and II) “Land is, by natural law, the property of the state.” (page 144) Walras would have the state buy back all property from private owners by selling bonds which would be paid back by collecting rent on the land. The remainder of the rent would be used to fund other natural tasks of government. These beliefs he considered sufficient to allow him to say “we socialists” without irony.

Walras’s Critique of Marx

On Marx he says “First, consider Marxist collectivism. It is completely based on a twofold mistake in the field of economic theory: first, only labour has value, and the normal value of any good is nothing other than the quantity of work it embodies; second, all types of labour may be reduced to only one type, whose unit can serve as standard measurement of value. This mistake has now been cleared away; it was partially made by Adam Smith, but he did not retain it Karl Marx, on the contrary, pursued its deductions and consequences with rigorous logic.” He then goes on to show what he sees are the illogical consequences of these errors.

My reaction to Walras had been to find his critique of the LTV quite devastating from a purely logical point of view. We don’t, in fact, value commodities because of the labor that went into them, but rather because they are scarce and useful. Great labor could go into constructions of no interest to anyone but the lunatic who created it. Commodities have value because they are scarce and useful, not because of the labor that was expended upon them. Classical economics has no demand curve! Prices are determined (for the case of constant returns to scale, at least) by cost of production. And labor is at the root of costs of production (but only if you can get land and capital for free!) But with no demand curve we are unable to determine how much to produce. So the classical LTV of both Ricardo and Marx fails to adequately explain value or price.

In Defense of Marx

Marx (partially, at least) addresses the issue of the lack of a demand curve in his version of the LTV by defining labor as “socially necessary labor time.” He says in Theories of Surplus-value (Part I, Chapter IV, p. 232 of the Progress Publishers edition, for example) that “The total product – that is to say, the value of the total product – is in this case therefore not equal to the labour-time contained in it, but is equal to the proportionate labour-time which would have been used had the total product been in proportion to production in other spheres.” He blots out useless labor from his theory of value. In this way, it seems, he smuggles a demand curve into his analysis. This partially blunts one avenue of critique of Marx’s version of the LTV. But his understanding that only labor contributes to value, exposes him to Walras’s complaint that capital and land also contribute to value because of their scarcity.

To make further balance in my evaluation of the subject of Marx’s LTV, I turned to Ronald Meeks’s book Studies in the Labor Theory of Economics. Meeks is an economic historian and his book is a full-bore defense of Marx and his LTV. My copy of the book has many stick-on notes exclaiming with disdain the number of times he speaks about the “unearned” rewards of capitalists. But these are only “unearned” if you subscribe to the LTV! Petitio principii!

The LTV was important to Marx, of course, because he saw the concept of “surplus value” as unlocking the key to understanding capitalism. Workers make individual contracts with capitalists and in the process of their social interaction in the workplace create more value than the sum of the parts. The capitalist claims this value for his own, since he has an individual contract with each worker in isolation. He (unjustly if you embrace the LTV) claims this surplus value as his own. This is Marx’s theory of exploitation. The clarity of his belief in the “unearned” value of capital (and land) provides the moral engine of Marx’s rage against capitalism and the goal of his political agitations.

I had often wondered about Marshall’s justification of interest as “reward for waiting.” Rather, “a reward for having money”, I had often thought. Having now read Walras, I think I finally see this as rather, a reward for having (and not spending) a scarce commodity. But, as I kept on reading in Meeks, I came upon a rock which struck the hull of my smooth sailing through this critique of the LTV. The words come from Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: “a definite production . . . . determines the consumption, distribution, exchange, and also the mutual relations between these various elements.”

I am reminded of the old Woody Guthrie tune, Do Re Mi:

“Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot If you ain’t got the do re mi.”

There is no demand curve if no-one has funds to buy. This was the basis for “Fordism,” Henry Ford’s realization that he needed to pay his workers enough so that they could afford to buy his cars. But Fordism was not able to prevent the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. And it has been forgotten almost entirely in our post- Reagan/Thatcher era. As Fordism has been forgotten, world inequality of wealth and income have fallen back to nineteenth century levels as well-documented in recent books by Atkinson and Piketty.

And as carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels accumulates in our atmosphere and oceans with resulting sea-level rise, acidification of the oceans, and devastation of fisheries and species diversity, among other consequence, this brings us back to the question, “How could the invisible hand possibly protect us against public harm by private interests?” How do we prevent the interests of wildly powerful capitalists from preferring vast negative consequences to most of us as long as their income stream is protected (by governments!?)

What is to be Done?

If we are agreed that amelioration of public harm for private gain is not likely to be taken up by the capitalists themselves and that private gain is protected by the state, what are we to do? What do we do about the cases where private profit produces clear public harm? A growing number of us, including Gar Alperovitz and my neighbor David Korten to name just two, have come to the conclusion that it is time for a systematic change from the capitalist system.

Free-market capitalism has no answer to the question of how to curb public harm caused by the invisible hand. State socialism in the Soviet Union had the very positive consequence for the West of providing an alternative that frightened capitalists into accepting the New Deal, which addressed some of the worst outcomes of capitalism. Now, in the absence of that viable alternative, how can we solve the growing problems of devastating climate change, pollution, corruption and massively growing inequality that are a direct consequence of private ownership of social production?

Recently I spent a wonderful evening dining in the middle of 40 acres of productive agriculture in the center of the island where I live. I was reminded that one half of that 40 acre parcel was publicly owned and that the the municipality owned a total of 60 acres on this island which are leased to farmers for production of the food and wine that we enjoyed in the summer light that night and which we regularly buy in our public market each week. This reminded me of Walras’s second theorem. One solution to public harm by private ownership, is to replace it with public ownership. I am also in the midst of a campaign to buy back the electrical utility owned by a bank in Australia who delivers us power at a price that is higher than 80 different public utilities in my state and which is generated from one of the 10 most polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States.

These are examples of significant local steps that we can take to bring some amelioration to the disastrous world that global capitalism has brought us. But they are not enough. The US government owned two major auto companies and one giant insurance company in the public interest in the wake of the Great Recession. It had significant stakes in most of the large banks that brought down the world economy in 2008.

Why did it sell these back? What right do private persons have to reap profit from social production? Well, we have discussed this above. By Walras’s logic, private persons have a right to return on investment based on their thrift (or inheritance, for that matter). That right comes from the historical fact of the scarcity of capital. But do they have a right to the profits from banking, large-scale industrial production, health care, and power production enterprises (to name just a few) that are inherently social when they are harmful to the public interest?

It seems to me that this right is granted only by governments, that is, by the consent of all. I, for one, am inclined to withdraw that consent. Public managers can operate these social organizations in the public interest as well or better than private entities. Isn’t it time for us to start acting on this thought? Hume famously declared, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” But only the public can grant that power for public harm to private interests. I find it to be disproved by Hume by logic and by all of the last two centuries of experience with capitalism that we should trust to private persons by virtue of their capital the right to the power for public harm that they currently wield in our economies. It seems to me (and many others) that we need to take those rights that harm the public interest back from private hands. And may the day come soon that we do so.

Back to the LTV

We have strayed away from the LTV in our enumeration of the many and obvious contradictions of modern day capitalism. But what does this have to do with the LTV? I would say that Marx’s critique of capitalism in his theory of exploitation is compelling, even if I find his embrace of the LTV, which appears to be logically prior to his theory of exploitation (which I have discussed here), not so very compelling. And his theory of exploitation is at the heart of his critique of the capitalist system as a whole. Which leaves us with a gap, as I see it.

How does one support Marx’s compelling case against capitalism without the LTV? Well, for one thing, it seems to be true to say that the capitalist takes all of the surplus from what is really a social activity. The sum of the individual labors of the workers in an industrial operation is less than the total due to the cooperative nature of factory work. And the roads that bring the raw materials to market and the education of the workers in that factory also add significant value to the surplus. For these reasons the workers and society itself are owed a significant part of the product. This would justify a significant tax on industrial production and a higher wage share than subsistence. It would even justify partial or complete ownership of the surplus and the factory that produces it by society. But isn’t the capitalist that put disposable funds into the mix not owed some recompense as well, due to the scarcity of the capital (not to mention the ideas that he might bring to bear) that the he put to work in the production? Not the whole of the surplus, but some part of it? Walras (and many of his followers since) thought yes.

Even many socialists, starting with Walras, have thought the same. The overall capitalist critiques of Lange and Joan Robinson, for example, were not based on the LTV. Both accepted the basics of the scarcity / utility theory of value while maintaining that large scale expropriation of common resources by privatizers leads to large scale public harm. The prominent Polish economist, Kalecki, who is usually considered a “Marxist,” wrote little about the LTV. His critique of free market economics did not seem to include a full embrace of the LTV. And Walras, himself, was one of the founders of not just the scarcity theory of value, but likewise considered himself a socialist. He argued that there was no justification for private ownership of land and that the public interest dictated ownership of all land by the State. So it seems that there is no necessary connection between socialist economics and the LTV. I will leave it to another time (or perhaps to another writer) to re-establish Marx’s compelling theory of exploitation on a firmer basis than the LTV. I look forward to such a better grounding.

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Proudhon and His Critics

Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) and his children in 1853, 1865 (oil on canvas) (see 99577 for detail)

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a prominent radical thinker of nineteenth century France. He was, apparently, the first person to call himself an anarchist. He became a member of parliament during the revolution of 1848. A printer by trade, he was friends with Karl Marx when Marx came to Paris in the 1840s and a fellow member of the First International; but Marx became a prominent critic of Proudhon, writing the broadside, The Poverty of Philosophy, in 1846-47 mimicking the title of Proudhon’s book,  System of Economical Contradictions or The Philosophy of Misery.

Marx was not alone in attacking Proudhon. Joseph Schumpeter’s conclusions about Proudhon in his book, History of Economic Analysis, were equally harsh:

“And we are interested in his economics only because it affords an excellent example of a type of reasoning that is distressingly frequent in a science without prestige: the type of reasoning that arrives, through complete inability to analyze, that is, to handle the tools of economic theory, at results that are no doubt absurd and fully recognized as such by the author. But the author, instead of inferring from this that there is something wrong with his methods, infers that there must be something wrong with the object of his research, so that his mistakes are, with the utmost confidence, promulgated as results.

Proudhon’s Système des contradictions économiques ou philosophie de la misère (1846) is the outstanding monument to this frame of mind. He was, among other things, unable to produce a workable theory of market value. But he did not infer: ‘I am a fool,’ but: ‘Value is mad’ (la valeur est folle). Marx’s scathing criticism (Misère de la philosophie, 1847) was fully deserved . . . “

Leon Walras, one of the first developers of economic equilibrium analysis and who Schumpeter mentions in the work cited above as “in my opinion the greatest of all economists,” like Marx, also wrote a book criticizing Proudhon (L’economie politique et la justice, examen critique et refutation des doctrines economiques de M. P.-J. Proudhon). Walras considered himself a socialist, but as one of the three inventors of marginal theory he criticizes Proudhon; not just for his confusions in economic thinking, but specifically for his use of the labor theory of value, which he shared with Marx and the English classical school.

Alan Ritter, in his book-length study, The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, points out that Proudhon has been championed by those from all sides of the political spectrum, from the anarchist left to the nationalist and reactionary right and, as can be seen from the foregoing, likewise savaged from all sides. Ritter says, “Proudhon’s theory would not merit analytic treatment if two or more of these familiar portrayals of its aim could withstand critical examination, for then his theory would be proved a hopeless muddle. Fortunately, evidence abounds to refute all of these interpretations.”

I will take a somewhat different tack, following up on a comment from Marx that “he imitates the contradictory method of Kant, the only German philosopher that he knew at that time, from translation, and he leaves a strong impression that for him, as for Kant, the solution of these contradictions is “beyond” the human understanding, that is to say, that his understanding is incapable of solving them (extract from Sozial-Democrat, January, 1965 and included as an appendix to the Prometheus Books edition of The Poverty of Philosophy).” I agree with Marx that Proudhon presents the contradictions of capitalism as true, but I question Marx’s certainty that an historical solution is readily at hand, even today, over 150 years after Marx wrote these words.

The Contradictions

I will concentrate on Proudhon’s book, The Evolution of Capitalism, also known as, System of Economical Contradictions or, The Philosophy of Misery (Système des contradictions économiques ou philosophie de la misère), and primarily on the first of its two volumes, available from Project Gutenberg in English by an anonymous translator. Contradictions has a very symmetrical structure from the Introduction, which proposes the necessity of the hypothesis of God, to Chapter VIII, where the opposite is maintained. In between, each of the major concepts of: value, division of labor, machinery, competition, monopoly, and taxation, are critiqued, first stating the necessity or benefit of each topic and then the opposite.

Right at the start, one must say that Proudhon’s style is outrageously ironical and exaggerated. He seems the William Blake of philosophy or economics (in whichever category one places him) in contrast to the deadpan style of someone like Walras or most economists, for that matter. Marx’s style is more like Proudhon’s, though Marx tends more towards the polemically sarcastic than Proudhon, who seems more truly manic, at least to this reader.

Introduction – The hypothesis of God

Proudhon starts the Contradictions as follows: “Avant que j’entre dans la matière qui fait l’objet de ces nouveaux mémoires, j’ai besoin de rendre compte d’une hypothèse qui paraîtra sans doute étrange, mais sans laquelle il m’est impossible d’aller en avant et d’être compris : je veux parler de l’hypothèse d’un dieu. [Before entering upon the subject matter of these new memoirs, I must explain a hypothesis, which will undoubtedly seem strange, but in the absence of which it is impossible for me to proceed intelligibly: I mean the hypothesis of a god.]”

Why is this hypothesis necessary? He says “I need the hypothesis of God to establish the authority of social science. . . I need the hypothesis of God, not only, as I have just said, to give a meaning to history, but also to legitimate the reforms to be effected, in the name of science, in the State. . . I need the hypothesis of God to show the tie which unites civilization with Nature. . . . I need the hypothesis of God to prove my good — will towards a multitude of sects, whose opinions I do not share, but whose malice I fear: —  theists . . . I need the hypothesis of God to justify my style. . . . Finally, I need the hypothesis of God to explain the publication of these new memoirs.”

But he concludes this introduction saying, “Remember only, and never forget, that pity, happiness, and virtue, like country, religion, and love, are masks. . . .” He presents the hypothesis of God to gain perspective on humanity’s ways of justifying its purposes here on Earth.

He affirms the hypothesis of God in the course of his identification of the true contradictions of philosophy:

“Philosophy knows today that all its judgments rest on two equally false, equally impossible, and yet equally necessary and inevitable hypotheses,–matter and spirit. So that, while in former times religious intolerance and philosophic disputes, spreading darkness everywhere, excused doubt and tempted to libidinous indifference, the triumph of negation on all points no longer permits even this doubt; thought, freed from every barrier, but conquered by its own successes, is forced to affirm what seems to it clearly contradictory and absurd. The savages say that the world is a great fetich watched over by a great manitou. For thirty centuries the poets, legislators, and sages of civilization, handing down from age to age the philosophic lamp, have written nothing more sublime than this profession of faith. And here, at the end of this long conspiracy against God, which has called itself philosophy, emancipated reason concludes with savage reason, The universe is a NOT-ME, objectified by a ME.”

Economical Science

The first formal chapter in Contradictions presents Proudhon’s understanding of the work of his predecessors in the field of political economy. He says, “But I hasten to say that I do not regard as a science the incoherent ensemble of theories to which the name POLITICAL ECONOMY has been officially given for almost a hundred years, and which, in spite of the etymology of the name, is after ail but the code, or immemorial routine, of property. These theories offer us only the rudiments, or first section, of economic science; and that is why, like property, they are all contradictory of each other, and half the time inapplicable. The proof of this assertion, which is, in one sense, a denial of political economy as handed down to us by Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and J. B. Say, and as we have known it for half a century, will be especially developed in this treatise.” Before we agree with Schumpeter that Proudhon simply didn’t understand that of which he spoke, let’s look at what he says in the rest of his book.

Of Value

Chapter 2 in the Contradictions presents Proudhon’s somewhat confused presentation of the profoundly puzzling nineteenth century notion of “Opposition of value in USE and value in EXCHANGE.” He warns the reader to pay close attention because ” . . . this chapter being the only one in the work which will tax the patience.” The problem, of course, is the famous “transformation problem” of Ricardo and Marx: “But how does value in use become value in exchange?” He starts in not too promising a fashion: “For it should be noticed that the two kinds of value, although coexisting in thought (since the former becomes apparent only in the presence of the latter), nevertheless maintain a relation of succession: exchangeable value is a sort of reflex of useful value; just as the theologians teach that in the Trinity the Father, contemplating himself through all eternity, begets the Son. This generation of the idea of value has not been noted by the economists with sufficient care: it is important that we should tarry over it.”

Proudhon starts in his evaluation from a surprising place; with a quotation from August Walras, who’s son Leon took over the father’s theory of scarcity on the way to “transforming” economics with his discovery of the marginal utility theory. Proudhon doesn’t directly mention scarcity in this quote, but insists on the productivity of labor overcoming that natural scarcity: “Labor, as an author (M. Walras) has beautifully expressed it, is a war declared against the parsimony of Nature; by it wealth and society are simultaneously created. Not only does labor produce incomparably more wealth than Nature gives us, . . . but, labor infinitely extending and multiplying its rights by the changes which it makes in natural values, it gradually comes about that all wealth, in running the gauntlet of labor, falls wholly into the hands of him who creates it, and that nothing, or almost nothing, is left for the possessor of the original material.”

Is he thinking here of the wage laborer or of the capitalist, whose labor is of an organizing, rather than a direct production activity? He goes on to say that “The economists have very clearly shown the double character of value, but what they have not made equally plain is its contradictory nature. Here begins our criticism.”

He goes on to get close to understanding the work of scarcity:

“I summon, therefore, every serious economist to tell me, otherwise than by transforming or repeating the question, for what reason value decreases in proportion as production augments, and reciprocally what causes this same value to increase in proportion as production diminishes. In technical terms, useful value and exchangeable value, necessary to each other, are inversely proportional to each other; I ask, then, why scarcity, instead of utility, is synonymous with dearness. For — mark it well — the price of merchandise is independent of the amount of labor expended in production; and its greater or less cost does not serve at all to explain the variations in its price. Value is capricious, like liberty: it considers neither utility nor labor; on the contrary, it seems that, in the ordinary course of affairs, and exceptional derangements aside, the most useful objects are those which are sold at the lowest price; in other words, that it is just that the men who perform the most attractive labor should be the best rewarded, while those whose tasks demand the most exertion are paid the least.

So that, in following the principle to its ultimate consequences, we reach the most logical of conclusions: that things whose use is necessary and quantity infinite must be gratuitous, while those which are without utility and extremely scarce must bear an inestimable price. But, to complete the embarrassment, these extremes do not occur in practice: on the one hand, no human product can ever become infinite in quantity; on the other, the rarest things must be in some degree useful, else they would not be susceptible of value. Useful value and exchangeable value remain, then, in inevitable attachment, although it is their nature continually to tend towards mutual exclusion.”

He sees exchange as reciprocal liberty: “Whatever the abundance of created values and the proportion in which they exchange for each other, in order that we may exchange our products, mine must suit you when you are the BUYER, and I must be satisfied with yours when you are the SELLER. For no one has a right to impose his own merchandise upon another: the sole judge of utility, or in other words the want, is the buyer. Therefore, in the first case, you have the deciding power; in the second, I have it. Take away reciprocal liberty, and exchange is no longer the expression of industrial solidarity: it is robbery. Communism, by the way, will never surmount this difficulty.”

So far, so good. But Proudhon never gets to a real resolution of this. That resolution had to wait for Walras, Jevons and Menger to draw up supply and demand curves as a theoretical means in establishing, not value, but price. Instead, he sees the apparent opposition between use and exchange mired in contradiction: “So, given man’s needs of a great variety of products together with the obligation of procuring them by his labor, the opposition of useful value to exchangeable value necessarily results; and from this opposition a contradiction on the very threshold of political economy. No intelligence, no will, divine or human, can prevent it.”

Elsewhere he makes a distinction between contradiction and antimony:

“ANTINOMY, literally COUNTER-LAW, means opposition in principle or antagonism in relation, just as contradiction or ANTILOGY indicates opposition or discrepancy in speech. Antinomy,–I ask pardon for entering into these scholastic details, comparatively unfamiliar as yet to most economists,–antinomy is the conception of a law with two faces, the one positive, the other negative. Such, for instance, is the law called ATTRACTION, by which the planets revolve around the sun, and which mathematicians have analyzed into centripetal force and centrifugal force.

Such also is the problem of the infinite divisibility of matter, which, as Kant has shown, can be denied and affirmed successively by arguments equally plausible and irrefutable. Antinomy simply expresses a fact, and forces itself imperatively on the mind; contradiction, properly speaking, is an absurdity. This distinction between antinomy (contra-lex) and contradiction (contra-dictio) shows in what sense it can be said that, in a certain class of ideas and facts, the argument of contradiction has not the same value as in mathematics.”

He is apparently thinking of Zeno in his infinite divisibility paradox, which Kant didn’t solve. It took Cantor to do that. To this reader the distinction Proudhon tries to make here is lost.

Instead of inventing supply and demand curves then, Proudhon, rests with the cost of production theory of Ricardo and Say. In fact, he explicitly rejects the theory of supply and demand put forward in a quote from Le Journal des Economistes (no author quoted):

“There is no measure of value, no standard of value” it said in its conclusions; “economic science tells us this, just as mathematical science tells us that there is no perpetual motion or quadrature of the circle, and that these never will be found. Now, if there is no standard of value, if the measure of value is not even a metaphysical illusion, what then is the law which governs exchanges? . . . . . As we have said before, it is, in a
general way, SUPPLY and DEMAND: that is the last word of science.

To which he responds:

“Now, how did “Le Journal des Economistes” prove that there is no measure of value? . . . This journal repeated, with accompanying examples, the exposition that we have just given of the variability of value, but without arriving, as we did, at the contradiction. . . . I confine myself for the moment within the limits of the discussion, and say that SUPPLY and DEMAND, held up as the sole regulators of value, are nothing more than two ceremonial forms serving to bring useful value and exchangeable value face to face, and to provoke their reconciliation.

They are the two electric poles, whose connection must produce the economical phenomenon of affinity called EXCHANGE. Like the poles of a battery, supply and demand are diametrically opposed to each other, and tend continually to mutual annihilation; it is by their antagonism that the price of things is either increased, or reduced to nothing: we wish to know, then, if it is not possible, on every occasion, so to balance or harmonize these two forces that the price of things always may be the expression of their true value, the expression of justice. To say after that that supply and demand is the law of exchange is to say that supply and demand is the law of supply and demand; it is not an explanation of the general practice, but a declaration of its absurdity; and I deny that the general practice is absurd.”

Proudhon concludes this chapter on value with words that sound reminiscent of Marx:

“It is labor, labor alone, that produces all the elements of wealth, and that combines them to their last molecules according to a law of variable, but certain, proportionality. . . .

Labor produces, capital has value: and when, by a sort of ellipsis, we say the value of labor, we make an enjambement which is not at all contrary to the rules of language, but which theorists ought to guard against mistaking for a reality. Labor, like liberty, love, ambition, genius, is a thing vague and indeterminate in its nature, but qualitatively defined by its object, — that is, it becomes a reality through its product. . . . .

Now, the effect of labor is continually to eliminate scarcity and opinion as constitutive elements of value, and, by necessary consequence, to transform natural or indefinite utilities (appropriated or not) into measurable or social utilities: whence it follows that labor is at once a war declared upon the parsimony of Nature and a permanent conspiracy against property. . . .

The principle that ALL LABOR SHOULD LEAVE AN EXCESS, undemonstrable by political economy, — that is, by proprietary routine,–is one of those which bear strongest testimony to the reality of the collective person: for, as we shall see, this principle is true of individuals only because it emanates from society, which thus confers upon them the benefit of its own laws. . . .

If labor is the source of all wealth, if it is the surest guide in tracing the history of human institutions on the face of the earth, why should equality of distribution, equality as measured by labor, not be a law? If, on the contrary, there is wealth which is not the product of labor, why is the possession of it a privilege? Where is the legitimacy of monopoly? Explain then, once for all, this theory of the right of unproductive consumption; this jurisprudence of caprice, this religion of idleness, the sacred prerogative of a caste of the elect. . . .

Now that we have determined, not without difficulty, the meaning of the question asked by the Academy of Moral Sciences touching the oscillations of profit and wages, it is time to begin the essential part of our work. Wherever labor has not been socialized, — that is, wherever value is not synthetically determined, — there is irregularity and dishonesty in exchange; a war of stratagems and ambuscades; an impediment to production, circulation, and consumption; unproductive labor; insecurity; spoliation; insolidarity; want; luxury: but at the same time an effort of the genius to perpetuate the anomalies of value and the prerogatives of selfishness, is truly the theory of misfortune and the organization of misery; but in so far as it explains the means invented by civilization to abolish poverty, although these means always have been used exclusively in the interest of monopoly, political economy is the preamble of the organization of wealth. . . .

The error of socialism has consisted hitherto in perpetuating religious reverie by launching forward into a fantastic future instead of seizing the reality which is crushing it; as the wrong of the economists has been in regarding every accomplished fact as an injunction against any proposal of reform. . . .

For my own part, such is not my conception of economic science, the true social science. Instead of offering a priori arguments as solutions of the formidable problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of wealth, I shall interrogate political economy as the depositary of the secret thoughts of humanity; I shall cause it to disclose the facts in the order of their occurrence, and shall relate their testimony without intermingling it with my own.”

I have quoted Proudhon’s own (translated) words here at some length to give a flavor of his exaggerated and ironical style. For all the disorder that seems to be in the microstructure of his chapters, this reviewer, at least, finds considerable order in the macroscopic structure of the book. It is the Kantian order about which Marx complained. The elements of capitalist reality contain their contradictory elements, but what is brought out by Proudhon, and not by Marx, is that some, at least, of these contradictions are real; that is, part of the structure of economic life in general, and may well not be overcome by the dawn of some future historical synthesis. Where Marx sees the harmful elements as something to be swept away in the (not very well defined) future, Proudhon gives more credit to the beneficial elements and has a less hopeful attitude towards the possibility of elimination of the ill effects.

The Rest of the Book

In the remaining central chapters of the Contradictions we find Proudhon’s analysis of some of the central concepts of political economy: the division of labor, the impact of machinery, competition, monopoly, and taxation. The final chapter of Volume One attempts not to sum up what has been accomplished in his analysis of political economy, but instead to answer what he says in his Introduction, about the hypothesis of God. Each of the inner chapters has a similar structure. First the basic concept is presented, often with quotes from previous economists. Then the truth of the basic concept is shown. Then the contradictory truth is developed.

For example, the division of labor is found to be the “primary cause of the multiplication of wealth and the skill of the laborers” but he also finds that “the more that we increase the productive power of labor; but at the same time the more does labor, gradually reducing itself to a mechanical operation, stupefy intelligence.” It is true that the division of labor creates wealth, but only at the expense of creating profound alienation. He finds that not only does the division of labor create alienation, but it also results in lowered wages and the lengthening, not the shortening, of the working day.

He concludes, “But you, critic, the reader undoubtedly will ask, what is your solution? Show us this synthesis which, retaining the responsibility, the personality, in short, the specialty of the laborer, will unite extreme division and the greatest variety in one complex and harmonious whole. My reply is ready: Interrogate facts, consult humanity: we can choose no better guide. After the oscillations of value, division of labor is the economic fact which influences most perceptibly profits and wages. It is the first stake driven by Providence into the soil of industry, the starting-point of the immense triangulation which finally must determine the right and duty of each and all. Let us, then, follow our guides, without which we can only wander and lose ourselves.”

His reply is ready, but what exactly does it mean? This is not really a reply to his critics. Along the way he is eager to throw in seemingly irrelevant asides, such as, “Such is the ordinary argument of all those who seek to justify Providence, but generally succeed only in lending new weapons to atheism.” Again, his appreciation for contradiction is on full display, but ultimately for Proudhon leading nowhere.

And likewise for machinery. He says, “Every machine may be defined as a summary of several operations, a simplification of powers, a condensation of labor, a reduction of costs. In all these respects machinery is the counterpart of division. Therefore through machinery will come a restoration of the parcellaire laborer, a decrease of toil for the workman, a fall in the price of his product, a movement in the relation of values, progress towards new discoveries, advancement of the general welfare.”

These are good things. But this coming of the machine age also presents questions and contradictions:

“From the very fact that machinery diminishes the workman’s toil, it abridges and diminishes labor, the supply of which thus grows greater from day to day and the demand less. Little by little, it is true, the reduction in prices causing an increase in consumption, the proportion is restored and the laborer set at work again: but as industrial improvements steadily succeed each other and continually tend to substitute mechanical operations for the labor of man, it follows that there is a constant tendency to cut off a portion of the service and consequently to eliminate laborers from production. Now, it is with the economic order as with the spiritual order: outside of the church there is no salvation; outside of labor there is no subsistence. Society and nature, equally pitiless, are in accord in the execution of this new decree.”

And so on with competition. He first references the work of contemporary economists, Louis Rebaud and M. Donoyer, to the effect of the necessity of competition to reduce cost and stimulate innovation. Real necessity. And as a vigorous defender of liberty, Proudhon can only praise the right of the individual entrepreneur to innovate and act freely in the international marketplace. But competition, in its relentless drive to reduce costs, brings much pain.

“Competition, with its homicidal instinct, takes away the bread of a whole class of laborers, and sees in it only an improvement, a saving; it steals a secret in a cowardly manner, and glories in it as a DISCOVERY; it changes the natural zones of production to the detriment of an entire people, and pretends to have done nothing but utilize the advantages of its climate. Competition overturns all notions of equity and justice; it increases the real cost of production by needlessly multiplying the capital invested, causes by turns the dearness of products and their depreciation, corrupts the public conscience by putting chance in the place of right, and maintains terror and distrust everywhere.”

Proudhon’s analysis of monopoly and taxation follows the similar pattern to his consideration of the division of labor, the impact of machinery and competition. He points out the bad, but also the good. He has less good to say about taxation. While he recognizes that taxation and regulation are aimed at alleviating the worst social consequences of capitalism, in practice he sounds more like our contemporary Grover Norquist than John Maynard Keynes on the subject of taxation.

Marx’s Critique of Proudhon

Marx’s book The Poverty of Philosophy is Marx’s answer to Proudhon’s Contradictions. His reaction is scathing. Marx is very well aware of Proudhon’s Kantian rather than Hegelian framework for his analysis of capitalism. It is here that he finds it’s chief fault.

In the article from which I quoted above Marx says, “He borrows from the economists the necessity of eternal relations; he borrows from the Socialists the illusion of seeing in poverty only poverty. He is in agreement with both in wishing to refer it to the authority of science. Science, for him, is reduced to the insignificant proportions of a scientific formula. It is thus that M. Proudhon flatters himself to have made the criticism of both political economy and of communism: he is below both the one and the other. Below the economists, since as a philosopher, who has under his hand a magic formula, he has believed himself able to do without entering into purely economic details; below the Socialists, since he has neither sufficient courage nor sufficient intelligence to raise himself, were it only speculatively, above the bourgeois horizon.”

These words strike the current reviewer less critique than character assassination. In the end it seems to this reader that the economics of Proudhon and Marx have more similarities than not. Both remained within the sway of the labor theory of value. Both recognized the magnification in productivity produced by social labor and railed against the sole expropriation of that productivity by the capitalist class. In the end I find Marx’s critique of Proudhon more personal than theoretical. Of course, Proudhon was prone to exaggeration, but so was Marx.  Could it be that Marx’s obvious irritation with Proudhon was that Proudhon insisted upon the positive qualities of capitalist social organization? Marx, too, insisted on the positive character of capitalism, but only in an historical context. Proudhon saw  it as persistent.

Walras’s Critique of Proudhon

Walras says, in his examen critique:

“Pour en revenir a M. Proudhon, qu’on me permette cette figure epique, revetu de mon armure es sachant quelles pieces manquent a la sienne, je vais l’attaque. Convaincu qu’il ignore la theorie de la valeur et pensant, quant a moi, la connaitre, je crois etre en mesure de prouver: Que M. Proudhon n’a pas une intelligence vraie des rapports de coordination ou de subordination qui lient les sciences economiques et la morale; 2 Que M. Proudhon n’a que des idees fausses sur l’origine de la valeur d’echange, et par suite, sur l’echange, sur la monnaie: 3 Que M. Proudhon ne sait pas distinguer nettement un capital d’un revenu; a fortiori, qu’il ignore les rapports qui existent entre la valeur du capital et la valeur du revenu, et les lois des-differents revenus. Qu’enfin, par suite de l’ignorance complete ou se trouve M. Proudhon de la theorie de la valeur d’echange, ses Balances economiques sont, pour la plupart, des utopies impraticables.

[Getting back to Mr. Proudhon, if one permits me to face this epic character, wearing my armor and knowing which parts are missing in his own, I will attack. Convinced that he ignores the theory of value and thinking, and to me of knowledge, I think to be able to prove: 1) That Mr. Proudhon has not real understanding of either the coordination or subordination linking economic and moral science; 2) That Mr. Proudhon has only false ideas about the origin of exchange value, and thus on the exchange of currency: 3) That Mr. Proudhon does not clearly distinguish a capital of income; a fortiori, he ignores the relationship between capital value and income value and the laws of various revenue. Finally, as a result of this complete ignorance that one finds in M. Proudhon’s theory of exchange value, his economic balances are mostly impractical utopias.]”

“Aside from the assassination, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

In Walras’s chief work in economics, the Elements of Pure Economy, he presents his full critique of the labor theory of value as a useless dead end in the theory of price. He follows his father, Auguste, in seeing scarcity, and not labor, as the source of value in the economy. In the Elements his critique is not of Proudhon and Marx, but of “The English Theory of the Price of Products.”

This comes in Lesson 38 of the Elements. He quotes Ricardo as correctly seeing the importance of scarcity, but then rejecting this as a basis for determination of price. Ricardo says, “There are some commodities the value of which is determined by their scarcity alone.” Ricardo give the examples of “rare statues and pictures, scarce books and coins, wines of peculiar character” but Ricardo then goes on to say that they “form a small part of the mass of commodities daily exchanged in the market.” Walras, on the contrary, sees all commodities partaking of the character of scarcity: “There are no products that can be multiplied without limit. All things which form part of social wealth — land, personal faculties, capital goods proper and income goods of every kind — exist only in limited quantities.”

I won’t go on here with Walras’s detailed critique, but rather point out that this critique came to be wholly accepted in the twentieth century, by economists of all stripes, from “laissez faire” economists like Milton Friedman to the prominent left-Keynesians like Joan Robinson and avowed socialists like Oscar Lange and Karl Polanyi.


What to make of P.J. Proudhon? Here I have focused solely on his attempts at economic theory as presented in his book, The Evolution of Capitalism, System of Economical Contradictions or, The Philosophy of Misery. I have not addressed his earlier work, What is Property?, or his later work in anarchist theory. But as an economist, how should he be judged? One would have to grant to Schumpeter and Marx that Proudhon was, at best, an extreme amateur economist. Many (including this reader) would grant to Walras that the base of his theory of value in labor is on shaky ground. His writing is “manic excessive” like our contemporary Zizek, but also like his predecessor Blake and his contemporary Marx. But while recognizing these limitations, this reader at least, must have an open heart to a man who tried to look into the true nature of human society. What he saw there were inherent contradictions that don’t go away. Have they gone away yet?

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Sorabji’s Self

The Cartesian virus has infected what is now known as philosophy of mind since the great mathematician first appeared on the scene in the seventeenth century. Westerners are typically either Cartesians, if we catch the virus (or were born with it), or Materialists, if we resist it. The resistance started immediately after Descartes’s philosophy first reached the reading public when Hobbes argued against the Meditations.

Hobbes writes in his Second Objection On Meditation II, “‘I am a conscious being (sum res cogitans)’, he says; quite correctly. From the fact that I experience (cogito), or have a phantasm, whether I am awake or dreaming, it is to be inferred that I am something that experiences (sum cogitans); for I experience (cogito) and I am something that experiences (sum cogitans) have the same meaning. But when he adds: that is, a mind, a soul (animus), an intellect, a reason, there arises doubt. It seems not to be a valid argument to say ‘I am conscious (cogito)’, or ‘I am intelligent, therefore I am an intellect’. For I might as well say ‘I am walking, therefore I am a walk’.”

Hobbes was the first modern Materialist to resist this virus. But since then we have had many critics of Cartesianism: Gilbert Ryle, Strawson, Place, Smart, Feyerabend, and many more come to mind (!) up to Dennett, who (at least in his earlier books) admitted that he didn’t think minds existed at all. Searle fought back with his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, but never succeeded (to the satisfaction of this reader) in placing his finger on how the obvious fact of minds could be squared with a naturalistic explanation of our place in the world. In his 2007 book on the subject (Freedom & Neurobiology) Searle resorts to quantum mechanics for an explanation; not promising.

These days we tend to think that Descartes invented the mind/body “problem”, but actually, the notion that the mind, self or soul exists and is an independent entity from the body goes back at least to Augustine, who first maintained that this independent soul couldn’t possibly be mistaken about the existence of itself. In his book, Self, Richard Sorabji maintains that the argument probably goes back further, to Plotinus. Sorabji mostly traces the roots of this argument in Western thinking back to the pre-classical through Hellenistic period of Greek philosophy: Plato, Aristotle and Aristotle’s commentators, the Stoics, Epicurus, Sextus, Porphyry, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, and many more. But he doesn’t stop there. There is good discussion of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. He even gives a brief survey of Indian philosophy: the Buddhists Nagasena, Vasabandhu, Nagarjuna, Candrakirti and Santideva; and the Hindu philosophers of the Nyaya school. But for a continuation of this story one really needs to follow the path of Sorabji’s University of London and Oxford student Jonardon Garneri in his books The Concealed Art of the Soul and the more recent book of the same name as Sorabji’s, Self. Of which more later.

Sorabji’s answer to the question of the self? He is no Cartesian. But he resists the formidable attacks of the Materialists. He is an embodied self man: “By a ‘person’ I mean someone who has psychological states and does things, by a ‘thinker’ someone who has thoughts. This having and doing can be summed up by saying that a person owns psychological states and actions. He or she also owns a body and bodily characteristics. A person is not just a stream of experiences and actions, but the owner of experiences and actions . . .” I find his argument generally convincing, but the finer details of the story are better developed (I think) in his student’s book of the same name. What better tribute.

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