Empire of Empiricism

I just got called a “crypto-reactionary” for laughing at a “leftist” American for tweeting this bit of intellectual frippery:

“Capitalism is empirically unsound and can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism. From a humanistic standpoint it is no less grounded in mysticism and dogma than any other reactionary ideology.”

Hard as it is to disagree with the notion that capitalism has attracted a set of intellectual apologists who indulge in “mysticism and dogma” in praise of their chosen subject, it’s even harder to see how “mysticism and dogma” are somehow unique to reactionary ideologies.

While there is little doubt that Marx used the word “science” in a way that is not precisely consonant with what most people think of when they think of physicists working on the A-bomb or chemists brewing up ever more clever plastics with which to destroy the environment, he was hardly a dogmatic mystic. This is absolutely not the case with all the varieties of “leftist” critique of capitalism-patriarchy-white supremacy that today claim to be downstream of Marx the social scientist. If there is an ideological faction out there in the world today that is not saddled with “mysticism and dogma” I would love to meet it in the flesh.

My real problem with this vaguely tautological bit of hollow virtue-signalling is the double whammy of absurd claims made in the first sentence.

“Capitalism is empirically unsound”: what can this even begin to mean? Empirically, capitalism has grown from its meager beginnings in 16th C England and Holland to a world-straddling colossus the likes of which has quite frankly never before been seen. “Empirically”, that is.

“[Capitalism] can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism.” Now what this means seems rather evident even though it also seems to be referring to life on another planet.

Empirically, if we allow that something as reliant on textual interpretation as history can be called empirical, the opposite appears to be true. The earliest incubators of capitalism were also arguably nations where the cultures were far more accepting of empiricism than most of the rest of the world. Some writers might even go so far as to suggest that one reason capitalism was born in England of the 16th century, rather than 13th century Siam or even 15th century England, was the embrace of empiricism after centuries of intellectual enslavement to dogma and mysticism.

After a little hostile back-and-forth, it emerged that our interlocutor actually meant: ” my critique is that the theoretical basis for capitalism is empirically unsound”. So now we see that it isn’t capitalism that is “unsound” as stated ever so clearly in the initial tweet, it is “the theoretical basis for capitalism” that is “empirically unsound”.

It is my impression that capitalism was a praxis well before it ever gained such a thing as a “theoretical basis”. This would seem to me to mean that “theories of capitalism” are not remotely its “basis” but merely post facto rationales or analyses of its reality. Once this is taken on board it becomes rather mundane to point out that attempts to “theorize” a reality as complex and ever-shifting as actual existing capitalism fall short “empirically”. This would be as true of Adam Smith’s formulations as of Marx’s or Hayek’s.

Unlike socialism or communism, whose theorizations have always preceded and outrun and indeed usually denied its realities, capitalism is what it is and theories run around trying to keep up with its chameleon-like disappearances into whatever social and cultural background it inserts itself.

It’s almost as if Karl Rove or whoever it actually was had put it this way:

“Capitalism’s an empire now, and when it acts, it creates its own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—it’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. It is history’s actor…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what it does.”

This is the reality that anything calling itself “left” has to confront if it is going to further the cause of a socialist future rather than impress followers on Facebook and Twitter with just how apparently intellectual we can be in our little snippets of “anti-capitalism”, regardless of how actually inane they turn out to be.

The problem of course is the virtual impossibility of contemporary westerners, especially North Americans, attaining escape velocity from the liberalism that they stretch and crimp here and there to represent themselves as leftists. When identitarian left-liberals want to let their “leftist” flags fly, they say things like what I laughed at in that tweet exchange.

Looked at closely, these “leftists” rarely manage anything remotely close to a hard-edged critique of the bourgeois society and culture they so perfectly reproduce in almost everything they think and say.

If seeing and saying so makes me a “crypto-reactionary” in their eyes, I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. It sure beats playing middle-class revolutionary while scrambling to get a better job and taking my political stances from Column A, B or C of the contemporary left of neoliberalism.

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Nothing Left

Well, well. Here we are again.

You really have to ask yourself why it is that Americans will flock spontaneously to their local airports to protest their president’s illegal banning of immigrants but can’t be bothered to do the same in equal numbers to protest their president’s illegal bombing of yet another war-torn nation in the global south.

It could be that immigration falls naturally under the “racist-white supremacist” clause of the identity politics version of the social contract, whereas illegal wars that take place far away among “people of colour” who are on all kinds of different “sides” just cannot be comprehended in the “racist-white supremacist” analysis of the world.

It could also be that Americans of whatever political stripe are vaguely in favor of war because they can never really be sure whether it is for good or for ill, so best to just let the bosses have at it.

But really, the failure of the American “left” to actively oppose American imperialist militarism since the last gasp of that One Big Rally back when Cheney and Rumsfeld organized Bush II into invading Iraq is not a failure of any actual “left”.

Because for all intents and purposes there is no American left, just a simulacrum thereof consisting of online identity politicking claiming the leftist label and the occasional socialist-materialist leftist so frightened of the attacks from the Id Pol Vampire Squad that they might as well be on the radical liberal team themselves.

The Emperor has orange hair and bad clothes and zero effective internal opposition.

May we hope that Russia and Iran backed by China will step up where leftists fear to tread?

Brasilia on the Chao Phraya: Same Same but Different

As has become apparent to all but the most dedicated right-wing neoliberals, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil is in all essentials a coup.

In a nation whose political system is rife with corruption from bottom to top, there is something almost amusing about a po-faced left-wing bureaucrat like Rousseff, who is quite possibly one of the few incorrupt actors in the farce, being removed from office for corruption by the votes of corrupt senators and deputies on the recommendation of corrupt judges.

Anyone who pays attention to Thai politics will be familiar with the notion of the corrupt removing the corrupt from office on charges of corruption. Also familiar will be an opposition which has proved itself utterly incapable of winning at the polls stirring up street protests with the assistance of a mendacious media in order to create the appearance of a popular uprising against a sitting government. And then there is the willing involvement of elements of the judiciary in support of the coup.

Rousseff, like Yingluck Shinawatra, was the first woman to hold her country’s highest office and both women have undergone impeachment by their respective parliaments.

But at that point, the differences become more significant than the similarities.

The women themselves could hardly be more different. Whereas Rousseff entered office at 64 after a lifetime of political involvement, which included 3 years spent in prison on charges related to her activities as a Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla, Yingluck was elected at age 44 as her brother’s stand-in after 20 years working as an executive in companies connected to her brother’s communications empire.

While it could be argued that the flatly uncharismatic Rousseff could not have been elected without the support of Ignacio Lula, whose chief of staff she was for 5 years, her political bona fides are all her own. She was a founding member of the Democratic Labor party, a left-wing social democratic party. And while she has clearly migrated rightward over the years, which is one of the reasons she has lost popularity with her party’s voters, she has been involved for decades in ideological politics.

The inexperienced Yingluck proved surprisingly adequate as a Prime Minister and her obvious beauty and apparent kindness inspired devotion in a good many Thais. Like the party she represented, however, she has no ideology to speak of. “Populist” is a label that gets thrown around in relation to all the Thaksinite parties that have dominated electoral politics in Thailand for the past 15 years, but an electoral technique is not an ideology.

And for all intents and purposes, that is why ultimately there is very little significance in the superficial similarities between the recent series of military and judicial coups in Thailand and the quasi-constitutional “coup” in Brazil.

Brazil, in spite of the weaknesses of its democratic institutions, has a political system wherein parties of the left contest with parties of the center and parties of the right for control of the presidency and the houses of congress. Since the military was forced out of power in 1985, Brazilian politics have been chaotic and deeply corrupt but what you see is what you get.

As in all contemporary democracies, money talks, and the Brazilian media is far more concentrated and biased than its Thai equivalent, but there is no “deep state” in Brazil. To the extent that it is possible anywhere in these neoliberal, “globalized” times, the Brazilian government actually governs.

The Thai system is not at all similar to this. In many ways, electoral politics is little more than an intra-elite competition over control of great chunks of the national budget and the graft generated as that budget is dispensed. Vast bureaucracies, none vaster than the military, operate as independent fiefdoms, sometimes cooperating and often opposing whatever party or coalition is “in power” at any given time.

Whenever a parliamentary force rises up to challenge the elements of this state within a state, there is a coup. In recent years, judicial approaches to coups have been experimented with but ultimately it is the “Thai way” to have the generals move to the foreground when an elected government threatens to become powerful enough to threaten the real power in the land.

When the dust clears in Brazil, there will still be labor unions and associations of the poor standing behind a left-wing party that will stand for elections, no matter how many individuals are tainted by the corruption scandals presently unfolding.

In Thailand, if the military government succeeds in its bid to remove significant portions of the Shinawatra family’s extended phuak from politics, there will be the usual jumble of political parties built around one man’s wealth or a small cadre of ex-generals or a regional godfather to contest for the chimera of government that is the elected parliament.

Ordinary Thais have yet to find real political representation in their genuine desire for democratic governance. NGOs and “civil society” tend to lean right and support anti-democratic forces that would keep the populace in a constant state of dependency. Unions, when they do not also support the right, are almost completely powerless. There is no political representation on the left. More importantly, there is apparently no one who actually supports even the basics of liberal democracy.

And that is very different from the situation in Brazil.