Friday, December 08, 2017

The Wisdom Of The Old

     I'm reading a recently-published Ursula K. LeGuin book (No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters), a collection of essays from her blog.*  It's interesting reading.  She and I are poles apart on many things, but closer than either of us might think at first.  The years have left her not exactly disillusioned, but well aware of the illusory nature of things -- especially politics.  I have always admired someone who could build her personal-ideal anarcosocialist utopia (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia) and proceed to tell a story that poked holes in all the weak points,† and she remains as willing to examine what she perceives.  Our axioms differ and our lexicons are not entirely congruent, yet I find we agree on important things, central things: the need to treat people decently, to use the planet like it's the only habitable planet we have, and to have an eye to the long term.

     We're also both quite fond of cats.

     LeGuin identifies all capitalism as "growth capitalism," and is concerned that, like cancer, it requires endless growth to survive.  By her definition, she's right.  I'd point out that government efforts to regulate it, to channel it, have resulted in many of the deleterious effects she lays at its door: corporations are actively discouraged from looking much past quarters, or single years at best -- "What's good for General Motors is good for the county" once carried the implicit assumption that GM was in it for the long haul, century after century, in the kind of way that we now call "sustainable."  It no longer does, and has not for quite some time.  Other regulations encourage rent-seeking, regulatory capture and the use of regulations to stymie new entrants and thwart competitors.  And vast defense budgets ensure many corporations have a vested interest in war.  This does not strike me as a wise long-term strategy.

     A mess like that, is that "capitalism?"  Karl Marx said it was -- but he was defining an enemy.  When I go to a hamfest, a farmer's market, an antique mall, a gun show or the Feast Of The Hunter's Moon, what is that selling of things you've got plenty of for tokens that will let you buy what you need and want, if not capitalism?  And does it not manage to achieve an equitable -- or at least mutually-acceptable -- distribution of goods and services?  To limit "capitalism" to the goons of Wall Street, to a game best played by those with money to gamble that doesn't risk their physical survival, is to ignore all those regular people, getting by selling loose cigarettes for a penny profit each, selling excess honey from their backyard hive to buy Christmas presents (or, like my Mom, simply giving the honey as gifts -- how she missed her hive when she and Dad moved to a subdivision that was shocked, shocked at the notion of a tiny home apiary, and forced her to rehome it) and a jillion small businesses and minor exchanges.

     So, sure, I've got my disagreements with LeGuin -- and that makes her more worth reading, not less.  She's not a politician; she's not scoring points in some verbal game -- she's 88, what would she win? -- she actually thinks things through.  In a time of so much shouting and so little listening and thinking, it's a rarity.  A gem, a flower.  If for no other reason than to note points of difference and ponder how they might be reconciled or buffered, it is worthwhile reading.

     We're all in this together, all stuck on this same rock, at least for now.  There's a vast universe out there but as a species, we need to stick around here if we're ever going to get there.  Some of us have been around longer than others -- and some of those elders just may have have picked up a useful notion or two.
* A word she finds ugly but, uncharacteristically, does not know the derivation.  These odd combinations of op-ed page and public diary were once a collection of links and things one had found on the World Wide Web: a "web log."  We blog.

 † She goes after, and correctly for the purposes of story-telling, the functional weak points of Odonianism-as-practiced.  In hindsight, I think the world-building can be faulted for an excessive reliance on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a miscasting of mercantilism as capitalism and a fundamental misreading of the idea of property -- but as an example of world-building per se, it is among the best.


Glenn Kelley said...

Communism will never work because people like to own stuff .
Frank Zappa

I may be paraphrasing a bit

Roberta X said...

This is also a problem with some forms of anarchism -- which is what Ms. LeGuin was on about in The Dispossessed.

The older I get, the more empathy I have for the english teachers I have known.

Drang said...


Indeed; "capitalism", strictly speaking, is the process of investing "capital" to grow and operate a business. Capitalism, mercantilism, and a free-market economy are not synonymous, although they are also certainly not mutually exclusive.

That's about the extent of my ability to hold forth on the subject of economics.

Le Guin is one of those authors I never got into, for no particular reason. Seems odd, actually, given my interest in anthropology and the fact that the K is for Kroeber, as in Ishi: Last of His Tribe (Bantam Starfire Books): Theodora Kroeber

(The anthropology department at EMU occasionally put SF on the reading list.)

Anonymous said...

"Price. Cost. Value. Not the same things." Just a more nuanced way of stating, "Supply/Demand", which is all capitalism is.

Including those corporate "vested interests" in producing military hardware. Not a long-term view? Quite the opposite I think; there is no long term without self defense and that fact ensures a continuing market. That's actually the definition of a long-term view.

Roberta X said...

"Self-defense" and "war" are not completely synonymous. The United States has involved itself -- indeed, initiated -- several wars that I do not think can be considered acts of self-defense. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

I guess I was going on your term "defense budget". But either way, my point was that the "corporations" are just supplying a demand. Capitalism.

Roberta X said...

I am not at all certain that the demands of a government are the same thing as the demands of individuals and their freely-entered associations. I rarely declare war on the next street over and need to stock up on tanks and guns, using money I have taken from my next-door neighbors regardless of their interest in contributing. The coercive elements, though secondary to the transaction, seem to me to undermine its validity as a free exchange.

Anonymous said...

I am unaware of any coercion, but if the delineator is the nature and purpose of the goods, that does not address the free exchange validity of every other demand of gov, all of which are funded by your neighbors under color of law and force.

Too, it is a slippery slope for gunnie types to demonize the suppliers of death and destruction; some would say that S&W and Ruger supply a defacto shadow/anarcho gov. Or maybe they too are just filling a demand in search of profit and in service to shareholders?

Anonymous said...

Ah, all things in moderation...

Ken said...

I've pointed my students to "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" to get them asking themselves questions about utilitarianism.

waepnedmann said...

I just bought Le Guin's book.
Looking forward to reading it on rainy days.
Thanks for the education.

Roberta X said...

Anon of 10 December at 5:57, so you're "unaware of any coercion," are you? Skip paying your taxes some year and you'll get plenty of it. Taxes are not voluntary. So there's one coercive element, used to get the money to buy the hardware. The other coercive element would be the act of initiating war, which this country has done repeatedly. If the Feds acted in a purely defensive way, that'd be one thing -- but they do not consistently do so. There's your other coercive act. The "suppliers of" THE MEANS "of death and destruction," I'm not faulting at all; presumably they will sell whatever is legal to whoever can afford it, but I'm pretty sure Colt never rained down shock and awe on a bunch of self-important goatherders and various collateral damagees.

At least we don't have the draft. Or are you down with corvee, too?

Roberta X said...

Oh, and I would point out that *every* tax-funded service of government is funded via coercion and thereby morally questionable. I should not have to explain this, and I don't require people to agree with it, but it's my conclusion. If the gummint wants to Do Good or Do Bad other than by means of their very own elected or appointed sweaty effort, they can have a damn bake sale to fund it, and/or pass the hat. Maybe they could try sex work.

Anonymous said...
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Roberta X said...

Anon, you are reading things into what I have written that simply aren't there. There's a damn big difference between an AR-15 in my hands and an M-4 (or an F-15) in the hands of a government and all the more so if said government is initiating force, and one of the differences is how the two entities get the wherewithal to pay for 'em: GOVERNMENT CAN ONLY GET MONEY FROM US. And they don't ask, they take: coercion. I work to earn the price of a rifle, I don't steal the funds from the widow down the street. Uncle Sam sends the IRS to grab it out of my paycheck, willy-nilly.

Bedamned if I know where you find any "examples in history" of libertarianism not working out, though it did indeed devolve into something worse, which we live in -- the U.S. from founding through the late 1850s isn't a pure-enough example of libertarianism working? (And what broke it? Slavery and the Federal reaction to a mess it had helped perpetuate, in large part.)

Personally, I'm an anarchocapitalist, though I recognize that most of the people around me need to have a government to feel happy. I don't have a problem with capitalism; I do have a problem with regulated capitalism that looks no farther ahead than the next quarter's profit and is entwined with its regulators.

The Dems are gutless, purchasable socialists and the GOP has become the same thing, only with Protestant fundamentalism in place of socialism. I have no use for either side, both of which have a vested interest in a big, growing and crooked government. If you don't like knowing that's what I have concluded, you'll find plenty of blogs more to your taste. I know my notions are not widely shared -- which is (IMO) why things are so fucked up.

Roberta X said...

Also, Pawnroker, GO AWAY. You're not wanted here.