Archive for May, 2011

Happiness Redux

May 27, 2011

You remember that blog post I wrote about happiness? No? Anyway, I wrote a forum post today which was more or less a continuation of it. Being too lazy to write a proper blog post, here it is.


On a bit of a different note, the whole good emotions, bad emotions thing sounds a bit like hedonism. It’s not something I know much about, but to my understanding it says that the attainment of pleasure and happiness is what to strive for, and to avoid pain. I think that idea may have been around for a while. I also wonder about this whole culture of happiness thing I’ve heard a little bit about- apparently people prize happiness, and being happy is seen as priority. Happiness as a goal… not something that’s unheard of, but perhaps something that’s not too healthy. Again, it might be a matter of the individual.
Ah, the word “happiness” can be a bit confusing, because the English language has two somewhat similar, yet very different concepts as homonyms. Using the two Swedish words can clear up some linguistic entanglement: glädje and lycka. Glädje is an emotion; it makes me happy to pet a cat, for example. I do not believe that lycka, the sort of happiness baked into for example the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”, is an emotion, however. I believe it can be construed as, at its heart, contentment.

When yet more governments come out and say that this “happiness” should be the true goal, and not GDP (I’m very sceptical about GDP as well, though, which is hardly controversial). Bhutan would be the clearest example, but we’ve also got the Tories in Britain and of course China – which have a vision about what they call “Harmonious society”. Basically, it’s about having a “good leader, a good mother and a good worker”. Which of course sounds very similar to corporative fascism.

Now, while it’s easy to drag up “Godwin’s Law”, I don’t think this is merely guilt by association, it has a strong basis in fascist “thinking” (if that word can be used). What we must conceive of here is fascism ‘more radical than Hitler’ – ultra right as opposed to extreme right. What strikes me is how similar these “ultra right” fascists are with what we might call the hippie movement. There’s this same obsession with Eastern mysticism and paganism, the same conception of this mythical ‘nature’, Mother Earth, which is supposedly in balance, as opposed to the chaotic civilization (never mind that there have been five so-called “super extinctions” – which are just what they sound like). There was even a Swiss health resort in the interwar which was like a fascist hippie haven. It’s not strange that Hitler had a copy of Bhagavad Gita with him wherever he went.

Now, what’s significant about all the major non-Abrahamic religions/philosophies is their conception of a hierarchical society, everyone having their place in the organic whole, and the conception of time as cyclical, as opposed to linear. What’s significant about early Christianity is its radical rejection of this. We can take the book of Job as an example, by far the most awesome story in the Bible. Some have said it’s a story about the infinite ways of God, but it should be seen as a story about the impotent god. We have Job being told three different theories about why God would test him, only for God to turn up by the end of the story and basically tell him that there was no reason for it. What appears here is the conception of that of things actually not always happening for a reason – all that talk about it raining in the desert, even when there’s no one around and all that. By this incredible impotence of God, it lies the crown on the humans – the basic message is that a clean slate, radical change possible, the choice lies in your hands.

How Christianity is actually conceived of and practiced is very different in the present of course, but I believe this paved the way for much of its success. Speaking of hedonism, I’d say deontological morality is basically hedonism, in a round-about way. It lies down a set of rules which should be followed, and beyond that everything is permitted. The oft-quoted saying attributed to Fjodor Dostojevsky (actually something Sartre made up in a letter) of “If there is no God, everything is permitted” is false. To quote Jaques Lacan instead: “If there is no God, everything is prohibited. In the utter lack of objective meaning morality must be “made up”. Somewhat incisively, it can be said that the only true Christian is an atheist.

TLDR; Happiness sucks.




Asexuality and Anti-Capitalism

May 8, 2011

I read a blog post about asexuality and psychiatry which I found interesting. This blog post is not about that (it’s worth a read though), it’s about a comment which I read:

Asexuality is pathologized because it is anti-Capitalist. Asexuality is a lack of desire; desire is what drives the economy. In particular, sexual desire really is what drives the economy, as the vast majority of things we buy are either advertised WITH sex and/or purchased in the hopes of obtaining it. As my friend mentioned, asexuals and their former friends tend to drift apart, even if they are accepted, for reasons relating to this.

Basically, being asexual is an assault on the philosophies of the market and desire, and is in turn an attack on the inner “life of spectacle” that advanced capitalism has created. This “life of spectacle” exists in the subconscious of every member of the advanced capitalist society, and when it is threatened, the person in question feels similarly threatened. Wanting sex isn’t just a basic fact of life, it is one of the basic mechanisms by which our entire economic system works. I think people, whether they are aware of it or not, are tuned in to that fact enough to sense it being challenged.

Personally, I support that challenge wholeheartedly

I find the implication that if everyone didn’t want sex (which is slightly different from being asexual, though for obvious reasons they tend to overlap) capitalism would collapse quite ridiculous. The sex part of modern capitalism as seen in advertising could be argued to be a response to the sexual revolution – but it would be just that, a response, not particularly contingent with the plasticity of capitalism. This blog post, the latter part, which I wrote earlier might with some modifications be an indication of a world where noone desires sex (or raising children).

Though desires as such might be a central part of the capitalist system, and it would stop if there were no desires, it would stop because nobody has a desire to live and, well, dies. As such, I am not sure what asexuality as a concept would offer people. It is simply an orientation: nothing more, nothing less.

Acapitalist practices create acapitalist desires. There are many things that could serve as “escape lines”, but asexuality as such isn’t one of them. We should try to make a common, a practice, regarding what is sometimes referred to as “love, sex and companionship”. I think relationship anarchy fits into this. I believe that through the mindset of relational anarchy, we can go a long way towards a new manner of living. While capital could spread its tentacles to incorporate this as well, it has a great potential nevertheless. If creating acapitalist desires is impossible, then I dare say that the revolution is doomed from the start. I would like for it to be possible.

The Penultimate Result

May 6, 2011

This blog post is about something that has been weighing heavily on my mind for quite a while, and which reflects my very greatest fear. Criticism is welcome, for I would like to be proven wrong.

Hans Rosling has been a doctor working in the poorest parts of Africa, and also a professor of international health at Karolinska Institutet. The above TED talks video has made him a bit of a celebrity, and he has been dedicated to deconstructing people’s mental “Tintin” image of the world. His ambitions are admireable, but there is something about his thinking that I’m very sceptical of: his general disregard of environmental factors.

From a radio interview with him:

I was four years old when we got a washing machine. I belong to the group of people who have seen my mother wash clothes and blankets by hand. It was completely fantastic when we got a washing machine. And dad took me on a trip to Järlåsa outside of Uppsala and showed me the power lines, “here comes the electricity from Harsprånget, it’s what driving the washing machine”. That was how we got there, now we have time to do something. So mom put in the clothes in the washing machine and said “now we can go to the library and loan books”. […]  Tanzanian families should [also] have access to washing machines.

One must understand how hard it was [in Sweden] 1850, 1880 and how fantastic it was to get to 1920 and 1950. That’s what Tanzania is currently trying to do.

That strikes at the heart of any Swede – after all, we were relatively late to industrialize compared to the countries down on the continent, and the difference between 1920 and 1970 cannot be understated. I recall my grandmother mentioning that the washing machine were one of the new things she was happiest about. Still, comparing Tanzania to Sweden in the latter half of the 19th century can be misleading. Tanzania has 43 million people and is projected to become 80 million in a couple of decades. However, they have no North America to emigrate to.

On a direct question on whether 10 billion people in Earth would be sustainable Hans replies:

Well, it’s what we must plan for. Because I would never consider the possibility of killing 2-3-4 billion people I think the question is pretty weirdly put. […] We will become 9 billion and we must plan for that. The alternative would actually be… to just ask that question is to start planning a mass-murder we have not seen in modern times. So we can forget about that.

Speaking of “overpopulation” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more than just the amount of people, it’s about the carrying capacity of these people. Now, while the UN estimates that population growth will level by 2050 or so, it is also clear that Asian countries have started to catch up on the West, and Hans also wants Africa to do so. It is also clear that Hans is a friend of economical growth, not only in Africa but everywhere, even the West. The results of that can be shown with a hypothetical scenario. Say the world 6000 years ago until this day experiences a growth of a mere 0.1%, and that the material possessions of that world can be represented by a meter. That can be expressed with this mathematical equation:

1 * 1.1^6000 =  2.3^263

Check it out on your calculators. The average distance to the moon, by comparison, is 3.8^8 meters. The sheer vastness of the number 2.3^263 is so great that it is very hard to imagine it. Theoretically growth could go on forever, if the world was infinite. But the world isn’t infinite. What that means is that compound growth is fundamentally unstable, yet it is also a fundamental part of the global economy, both for poor and rich countries.

To quote Kurt Cobain:

Most economic justice work is currently premised on the view that greater economic equality requires continued economic growth.

As such, those operating under this view assume that the natural resources required to attain the needed growth will continue to be available in the quantities required at prices that will make such equality possible. In other words, the seemingly politically impossible task of redistributing wealth will be sidestepped in favor of redistributing current income from future growth. This constitutes a wholehearted embrace of a cornucopian future; it recognizes no limits to growth that are implied by climate change, world peak oil production, and the rapid depletion of other resources including metal ores, water, soil and fish. And, if any of these limits are acknowledged, the resulting problems are assigned to the “technology will save us” category.

This quest for economic growth in developing countries, no matter at what costs, counter-intuitively also worsens the food situation for a whole slew of countries. A lot of it is because African countries simply can’t compete with the subsidized farms of Europe and the US, thus having to instead sell cash crops or biodiesel. Lots of land has been bought, too. Daewoo Logistics in South Korea has negotiated a 99-year lease of land of about 50% of the arable land on Madagascar, and plans to have about 75% of the land growing corn and 25% palm oil. “Food security” is an alien concept (except possibly as it applies to them):

although Daewoo plans to export the yield of the land, […] it plans to invest about $6 billion over the next 20 years to build the port facilities, roads, power-plants and irrigation systems necessary to support its agribusiness there, and that will create thousands of jobs for Madagascar’s unemployed. Jobs that will help the people of Madagacar earn the money to buy their own food – even if it is imported.

It is widely considered that Malthusianism has been disproven by the “Green Revolution”. I would say that this is not true. In fact, the agriculture of the green revolution is actually unsustainable, as it depends on resources that will soon be limited. It has been remarked that industrialized farming is a way of converting petroleum into oil, and there is much truth to that. Arguing that African countries should adopt this method of farming – as Hans Rosling has recently done – is to head in the wrong direction.

If African countries should have any chance at all of avoiding a Malthusian catastrophe, then they must adopt ecological farming on a large scale. Only that way can they build a sustainable agriculture. Food on the table, running water and electricity wouldn’t then be so uncontroversial. However, material affluence on the level of current OECD countries?

The sad truth is that it’s not possible. This affluence has been built on the systematic plunder of natural resources from poorer countries. The imperialism which developed in the late 15th century is what made Europe rich. What I’m saying is that for poorer countries to truly flourish, to be improved, then some of the standards of the rich countries must be lowered. This may not be necessarily bad; perhaps it could be put as “more with less”. There is after all enough food in the world to feed everybody, it’s just that it’s inequally shared, and that’s why people are starving.

To really solve our problems, I believe that a grand plan, something along the lines of Plan B 3.0 (avaliable here) is needed. And that is optimally done through a democratically planned economy. Though Tim Jackson who wrote Prosperity Without Growth argues at the end that capitalism could restructure itself to deal with this, I would argue that it would be just as difficult to change the Business As Usual model to that than a democratically planned economy.

Unfortunately, those who would profit from the inequities of this world have quite a different mind, and the forces who truly want to change the world break against the wall of the status quo like a wave towards the beach. It goes completely against the cultural narrative which has been set up. As Dick Cheney once said: “The American way of life is non-negotiable”.

To reply to Hans Rosling regarding mass-murder: it’s not going to be a particularly “planned” one. Food prices are going to go up, and it has already caused starvation in places such as Ethiopia and Haiti. Since the market will have it so that everything is grown in the mythical “somewhere else” it is the poorest, the damned of the Earth, which will be without a chair when the music stops playing. This could have effects on political stability:

Perhaps there is no better case than Rwanda of state killing in which colonial history and global economic integration combined to produce genocide. It is also a case where the causes of the killing were carefully obscured by Western governmental and journalistic sources, blamed instead on the victims and ancient tribal hatreds.

A country the size of Belgium, with a population of 7 million people (overpopulated according to most reports but Belgium supports over 10 million people), Rwanda experienced in 1994 one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Some 800,000 people, mostly but not exclusively Tutsis, were slaughtered by the Hutu-run state. Contrary to media and many government reports, the genocide was the result of Rwanda’s political and economic position in the capitalist world system. It involved such monetary factors as its colonial history, the price of coffee, World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, the global interests of Western nations, particularly France, the interests of international aid agencies, and Western attitudes towards Africa (Shalom 1996.

If nothing is done, expect to see more things like that over the next fifty years. It will overshadow the Holocaust and the Holomodor. Our descendants will look back to this time period with disgust, because they will be disgusted by how egoistical and passive we were They will be appalled to learn about how people ran cars on biodiesel grown in the Third World while people were starving. The history books will brand the 21st century even darker than the 20th. Hopefully they would also learn from our mistakes, and try to work together more.