Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The hero and the masses

I posted a link the other day to Corey Robin's article, Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek. There are a couple of good critiques up as well: Critics respond to “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”. Henry offers his view in Nietszche and the Marginalists.

Let me take a brief detour. I've noticed that undergraduate economics offers no rigorous account of what drives long run economic growth. Furthermore, there's no rigorous account of how and why capital, which is a sunk cost, gets "baked into" perfect competition and zero economic profit. Economics, as Henry notes, is about equilibrium, and at a true equilibrium, there's no growth at all. Economists talk about long run economic growth, but their writing is almost mystical. It either "just happens" or it relies on the magic of "entrepreneurship."

Henry finds an important theme in both Nietzsche and the Austrians: the idea of the "heroic individual." In Nietzsche (as best I can recall from reading him many years ago), the heroic individual is the "ubermensch" who rejects the slave morality of Christianity. In the Austrians it is the entrepreneur. In Weber, according to Henry, it is the politician; politics "provides a ground in which these very few individuals can fully develop themselves through struggle."

One way that some communists view communism is that in communism, the concept of the heroic individual is deprecated rather than extolled. Individuals, in this view of communism, should not try to become exceptional; the acme of virtue is to be the undistinguished member of the masses. I can't blame capitalists for this view: real communists really hold this view.* But I think this view is naive and simplistic.

*I can blame capitalists for insisting that anything that any communist wants to do (that they don't like) necessarily entails every controversial or erroneous view that any other communist ever had.

It is true that communism is necessarily concerned with the well-being of everyone. It is not, however, true, that the trade-off between the well-being of the many and the well-being of exceptional few is as the capitalists describe it, and it is not true that we must somehow eliminate exceptionalism to achieve communism.

The issue is not exceptionalism per se, the issue is the moral status of the exceptional individual. In one view of human nature, the exceptional individual has the moral right, and perhaps has even a moral obligation, to dominate, subordinate ordinary individuals. Taking away this moral right, in this view, is tantamount to stamping out exceptionalism. Domination of the ordinary is the incentive to and reward for becoming exceptional; if we take away this social incentive, no one will become exceptional, and we will be doomed to a civilization of static mediocrity.

But wait... I have failed to define a key term: what precisely do I mean by "exceptional." The dictionary definition doesn't help: "exceptional" just means being unusual or out of the ordinary. But everyone, from Nietzsche to the Austrians, means something more: there are some particular characteristics that are both morally valued and exceptional. There is a thread running through Nietzsche to the Austrians to present-day "common knowledge": by exceptional in this context, we mean the person who has the awareness to see the world as something that can be shaped, the will to try and shape the world into what he or she wants it to be, and the skill, energy and cleverness to succeed in shaping the world. Such people are indeed unusual; most people are asleep, most who are awake lack a strong will, and most who are awake and willful lack skill, energy, or cleverness. For the sake of brevity, I will label a person with awareness, will, skill, energy, and cleverness as an "entrepreneur."

The naive communist view, then, is that in capitalism (and to a lesser extent in previous social structures) the entrepreneur achieves domination over the ordinary. Communists do not like any relations of domination and submission; therefore, if we eliminate exceptionalism then we eliminate relations of domination and submission. Go to the root cause, n'est pas?

There are, however, two subtleties that this naive view ignores. Why should the entrepreneur be incentivized and rewarded by dominance? More importantly, why should the entrepreneur be exceptional in the first place?

I argue first that entrepreneurship is its own reward. We do not need to socially incentivize and reward the entrepreneur. At the beginning of capitalism, incentivizing the entrepreneur with social dominance was one effective way of achieving industrialization. We know this is true because that's what we did, and it got us to the modern industrial civilization. It is possible that the capitalist way was the only way, or perhaps just the best way, but that's an argument about the past. The question today is whether we still want to reward the entrepreneur with social dominance, or, more precisely, to believe we reward the entrepreneur with social dominance. I argue second that the entrepreneur is exceptional is an artifact of modern civilization, strongly leveraged by capitalism. It is not that most people are not entrepreneurs, it is that modern civilization actively molds the masses of people into non-entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs are exceptional in that they have, for one reason or another, overcome or escaped this process.

Thus, a more nuanced communist view abandons the idea that we should eliminate the entrepreneur as an exceptional insult to the non-entrepreneurial masses. Instead, we should first establish that the entrepreneur has no consequent right to subordinate others. Secone, the goal of communism should be to turn everyone into entrepreneurs. We should all be aware that the world is to be shaped, we should all have the will to shape it, and we should all develop the skill, energy, and cleverness to be successful in actually shaping it.

17 comments:

  1. I know you will probably swear and call me bad names again, but I truly am hoping to have a civil discussion about this topic.

    I see it the other way and I'm not sure modern vs historical precedence is relevant.
    Capitalists are not dominators, but inclusionists. Work for me, join me in a partnership, trade with me, and we will build a successful enterprise that benefits all. Evil capitalist try to force others out of the market via illegal/immoral means, but that means they are not capitalising.
    Communists want to make every one equal so that noone dominates anyone else. Sounds great, but the only way to achieve this, because you can't bring everyone up is to force the "highly successful individualist entrepeneurs" down. Which is done through domination.
    I alway wondered how Russia/China invaded all those countries to force communism upon them while calling everyone else empirialists. Then to keep the people from fleeing their efforts to free the masses and make everyone equal, they had to erect walls, fences, and machine gun nests to keep them from fleeing.

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  2. Capitalists are not dominators, but inclusionists. Work for me, join me in a partnership, trade with me, and we will build a successful enterprise that benefits all.

    You have a naive view of capitalism.

    Evil capitalist try to force others out of the market via illegal/immoral means, but that means they are not capitalising.

    Shrugs. There seem to be a lot of evil capitalists in the world who are not capitalizing. A "good" capitalist system would tend to force such people out of business, which does not seem to actually happen.

    If you're going to say that communism is what communists have done, then you have to say that capitalism is what capitalists have done.

    Communists want to make every one equal so that noone dominates anyone else. Sounds great, but the only way to achieve this, because you can't bring everyone up is to force the "highly successful individualist entrepeneurs" down. Which is done through domination.

    How do you know that's the only way to do so?

    I alway wondered how Russia/China invaded all those countries to force communism upon them while calling everyone else empirialists. Then to keep the people from fleeing their efforts to free the masses and make everyone equal, they had to erect walls, fences, and machine gun nests to keep them from fleeing.

    As I've mentioned before, there are a lot of historical issues here that have nothing to do with communism. What outcomes are the results of what causes is a matter of considerable historical controversy.

    While I don't believe that that communism per se was responsible for most of bad outcomes in Russia and China, I don't assert that I'm certainly correct. I do, however, reject that one can assert without specific historical evidence that communism per se was certainly responsible for those ills.

    We can go only so far asserting contrary opinions. There are a lot of methods that historians, political scientists, economists, and other social sciences have developed to investigate these kinds of questions. I'm happy to evaluate scientific efforts, even informal scientific efforts (this is just a blog, not an academic journal) with an open mind.

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    1. Keep in mind that, if you have read this blog, you will know that I do not hold up Russia and China as paragons of communism, in much the same sense that capitalists do not hold up 18th century England as a paragon of capitalism, even though that century produced Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

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    2. Only one personal attack vs a reasoned argument, you're getting better.
      This is becoming intriguing.

      I agree that the ideal of communism has never been truly practiced, but I don't see how it can be. Especially, now that the world is so interconnected or "flat".

      "How do you know that's the only way to do so?"
      Because you argue: "the goal of communism should be to turn everyone into entrepreneurs."

      And just so we know where we are starting from.
      Entrepreneur: an individual who organizes and operates a business or businesses
      Capitalism: an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, with the goal of making a profit
      Kind of go hand and hand, don't you think.

      How do you go about forcing everyone to be an entrepreneur? They tend to be self-motivating.

      "We should all be aware that the world is to be shaped, we should all have the will to shape it, and we should all develop the skill, energy, and cleverness to be successful in actually shaping it." This scares me a little, too reminicent of the old world communist dogma.

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  3. Only one personal attack vs a reasoned argument, you're getting better.

    Adjust your attitude, please. Expressing an opinion is not a personal attack.

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    1. Calling me naive rather offering a counterpoint or response is a personal attack.

      For example, if I said you are a dumbass for even contemplating communism has any place in reality. Would you take that as personal attack or a discussion.

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    2. That was not a personal attack. This is a personal attack: come back when you've removed the rod from your ass.

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    3. Again with the negative vibes, Moriarty.

      Boy, you really are thin-skinned. Or you realize how thin arguements really are.

      Rod? I prefer the term "stick of learning".

      When is your Mom going to kick you out of her basement and make you get a real job.

      No THAT is a personal attack.

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  4. Second, read the post in its context. I'm using "entrepreneur" in a non-literal sense, which I explicitly note.

    Finally, Before you commented, I already knew that millions of people disagreed with me. Knowing that you personally are one of those people helps neither my readers nor myself. If you have anything substantive to add, I'm happy to discuss it, but until then, the best I can do is note your objections.

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    1. I am truly trying to understand your viewpoint. Seriously.
      You think millions read your blog? Just kidding.
      There are also growing millions attracted to the concept of "new communism" and I want to know the appeal.
      I have been reading a number of 20th century history books lately and I get the desire to transition from the class societies to one where everyone has an equal chance. Which I think is what the US has or is as close to that ideal as it is possible to be. But forcing everyone to be totally equal is a contradiction in terms.

      I have read your article several times, doesn't help. The three questions I need answered are:
      What is YOUR non-literal definition of entrepeneur?
      It is not clear and maybe this will help me get it.
      Secondly, How (not why) do you propose to "turn everyone into entrepreneurs?"
      Most importantly, Explain how capitalist have a RIGHT to subordinate others? In the US, workers can vote with their feet, or strike, or call the cops if it is illegal.



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  5. I don't see any point in continuing this discussion, Major Nav. You don't have anything that interests me, and, while I can't speak for you, I can't think of anything I have that would interest you.

    I'm not angry or offended. I just have a limited amount of time, and I don't like wasting it.

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    1. So why blog? To hear yourself speak? There are medications for that.

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  6. For a person who condemns personal attacks, you seems to enjoy using them.

    I've asked you to leave twice now, and yet you're still here.

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  7. With due respect, Larry, I take issue with this:

    "One way that some communists view communism is that in communism, the concept of the heroic individual is deprecated rather than extolled."

    I can't speak for all communists, but the above sounds odd, to me.

    In reality, there is not much talk about "heroic individuals" in "communism" and I don't think heroic individuals are deprecated at all. Which, if we think about it, is a lucky thing, as many Marxists see Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and others as heroic individuals without deprecating them.

    At least within Marxist thought what there is, and in abundance, is the notion that the game is essentially, fundamentally, intrinsically, objectively, rigged: people don't win the game because they are heroic (or smart, or thrifty, or visionaries, or risk-takers, or because they contribute more than others to society, or whatever), but because the game is designed that way.

    Those who lose the game, whatever their virtues or lack thereof, lose the game by design.

    That's why one may deprecate fake "heroes" until one is blue in the face and it will change nothing.

    The point is to end the game.

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  8. Eh. Some communists really do say that. I don't think it's correct, and I don't think it's all that big; I just bring up the concept to dismiss it.

    I do think most communists are more sensible.

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  9. I didn't really understand this article's central thesis, if there was one. I just want to point out that the ubermensch is an ideal in Nietzsche's philosophy, floated tentatively. The rejection of "slave morality" does not entail the ubermensch, and the ubermensch only rejects "slave morality" insofar as he rejects everything beneath him, including every other human morality as heretofore formulated.

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    1. Good point. I'm not entirely convinced myself. Still, Robin has an interesting idea.

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