“[Atlas Shrugged] is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” – Attributed to Sid Ziff of the Los Angeles Mirror-News
Despite being a firm believer in reading your enemy (as evidenced by the copies of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Frideman’s Free to Chose that I have gathering dust somewhere), I must confess I have never read Ayn Rand’s most well known novel, precisely because of reviews like the one quoted above. Atlas Shrugged is something of a bible for libertarians since it delineates her philosophy known as Objectivism which is based around ‘rational egoism’ and the economic system best suited to promote it, laissez-faire capitalism. The book was critically panned during its day and Rand was never taken seriously as a philosopher (or a novelist for that matter) although this has not stopped the book from finding its way into millions of college dorm rooms by “edgy” econ and political science undergraduates who fail to realize the lifelong cognitive and moral impairment that reading it and believing in it might entail.
The book itself is about a group of industrialists who, oppressed by excessive government bureaucracy and regulation, decide to abandon their businesses in order to create a new community based entirely on laissez-faire principles. The community would be called Galt’s Glutch, named after the mysterious character of John Galt who masterminds the capitalist rebellion and also outlines the community’s philosophy. Since then, the idea of forming a real-life Galt’s Glutch has been something of an obsession for many libertarians, although finding a location for such utopias is not easy. There is not a square inch of land left on Earth that is not claimed by a government as sovereign territory. This leaves only one place where states have no authority: international waters. Continue reading
The Black Death. Smallpox. Spanish Flu. By now we have all read how these pandemics ravaged humanity, leading to death tolls in the tens of millions. We have also seen how they raved the human body in gruesome, graphic ways. The bubonic plague caused black pustulent swellings that give the disease its nickname. Smallpox deforms the body with thousands of blisters. The Spanish Flu had many symptoms, some of which included uncontrollable nose bleeds and cyanosis, a darkening of the skin into a blue-black hue due to lack of oxygen. In many cases it was so swift that people feeling fine in the morning were gone by the end of the day, often simply dropping dead. More recently we have seen the scourge of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, that not only has death rates of 80% among its most lethal strains but also kill you in a horrifying manner, effectively liquefying your insides and bleeding them out from every orifice.
Compared to that, the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 (or specifically, the disease that it causes which is Covid-19) that is currently affecting the planet is remarkably unremarkable in terms of its lethality and gruesomeness. Death rates have been widely quoted as being around 3%, give or take depending on a country’s demographics as well as general levels of health and preparedness, but they are far lower when all of the untested, asymptomatic cases are considered. Certainly worse than “just the flu” but considerably lower than some of its corona-cousins like SARS (1-in-3 dead) and MERS (2-in-3 dead), the latter being by far the most deadly of the bunch and up there in lethality with most hemorrhagic fevers. And although the clinical description of what Covid-19 does to so many parts of the body is nightmarish, it is all mercifully hidden under the skin. A Hollywood summer blockbuster disease this is not.
Which leads me to believe that although Covid-19 may not be an apocalyptic “perfect killer” disease, it is quite possibly the most perfect destroyer of a modern globalized economy. In fact, if one had to design a disease to bring global capitalism to its knees, it would probably be this. Continue reading
No list of the greatest PC games is complete without Doom, the classic 1993 first-person shooter with revolutionary 3D graphics. In the second installment of retrogaming for this blog, I picked up my pixelated shotgun and navigated through Doom’s nightmarish landscapes to remember just why this game was so damn good… and so damn controversial.
My first encounter with Doom must have come sometime around 1994, shortly after I made the jump from console to PC gaming. My mother had thankfully spoiled me with a brand new 486DX-50 which was as close to top of the line at the time as an eager, 15-year old could want. One of the early gems in this new life as a PC gamer was Wolfenstein 3D, the delightfully campy Nazi-killing slug-fest that was one of the first true first-person shooters, at least one that was played in full screen and fast pace, something that at the time required the type of processing power that only a top of the line PCs could provide. Wolfenstein 3D was a bit repetitive but maddeningly fun, as you rampaged your way through Nazi bunkers adorned with swastikas and Hitler portraits while killing Wehrmacht grunts, SS officers, zombies, mad scientists, and even Der Führer himself in a mech-suit. The violence was also over the top, offering blood and guts on a scale that Nintendo at the time would not dare come remotely close to.
It was then that my neighbor (also an avid Wolfenstein fan) told me that another kid on the block had a new game he wanted to show us. “Better than Wolfenstein”. A cynic even in my teenage years, I would not be convinced until I saw it for myself. But when I did, my jaw dropped. As great looking as Wolfenstein was by late DOS-era standards, Doom was a quantum leap ahead. Rooms were decorated in complex techno-futuristic textures, lighting was used to create an atmosphere of ever-present terror, and the monsters were just so much scarier: I still remember jumping the first time a “Pinky” Demon appeared out of nowhere, it’s now iconic growl forever etched into my gaming consciousness. The game also did a wonderful job of prepping you for danger, such as by the subtle hisses and cackling of enemies (particularly the ever-present Imps) whenever they were lurking around the corner. To top it off, Doom was dripping with macho bravado by taunting you when you tried to quit (“go ahead and leave, see if I care”), challenging your manhood with the labels of the easier difficulty levels (“Hey, not too rough”), or by sublime touches like your character’s devilish grin whenever you picked up a new weapon. The 90s were all about the ‘tude, and Doom was the 800-pound gorilla.
By now we have witnessed some of the most astonishing levels of governmental incompetence in response to arguably the greatest human crisis of our lifetimes. On the right, there is Donald Trump calling it a “hoax” and using the pandemic as an excuse for further corporate enrichment, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro insisting that “Brazilians don’t get anything” and clashing with state governors that have enacted lockdowns. On the left there is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador who has breached social distancing and hygiene protocols in public with zero regrets and claimed that he is protected by religious amulets. At first glance, the common denominator seems obvious: populism. Almost all of the coronavirus deniers appear to be your standard “new right” populists as well as a few others on the left (like López Obrador). But there’s a better explanation. Bad pandemic responses are strongly rooted in the toxic masculinity of their country’s leader. And a good proxy for this is their attitude towards climate change.
Why climate change you ask? Well, there is already considerable body of research that suggests that climate denial is strongly linked to toxic masculinity. Men are more likely to be climate deniers, less likely to adopt environmental-friendly behavior, and also more likely to interpret this behavior as being “feminine” or “gay”. The psychological underpinnings of this should be obvious. Men have been traditionally raised to think to be in control of nature, rather than let nature be in control of them. Polluting the water, extracting resources, and filling the air with smog are very manly ways to tell Planet Earth we are in charge. As for the flora and fauna, they exist to serve our needs. This idea is as old as the Bible itself, which calls upon man to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28) Continue reading
As the battle for our lives against the novel coronavirus pandemic rages, another battle is being ready to be fought: for the economy. It is not an exaggeration to say that that the second quarter of 2020 will see the most severe decline in global economic activity in the history of human civilization, and the question is whether we can come up with the right policies to ensure that the this does not deteriorate into another great recession or worse, another great depression.
For starters, let’s understand the scale of the carnage. Entire sectors of the economy like restaurants, hospitality, and travel have already collapsed. Entirely collapsed. The millions of workers that are now unemployed or which will be soon unemployed as a result of this will require a social safety net of epic proportions in order to survive the 3 or more months of lockdowns, with no guarantee that their jobs will still be there when the crisis is over. For countries that have pushed forward a comprehensive package of corporate lifelines and worker’s support (pay guarantees, moratorium on interest, utilities, mortgages, and rent, etc.), it is estimated that these may end up costing as much as 10% of GDP (maybe even more), putting further strains on national finances which in many cases have not yet recovered from the 2008-09 crisis. And for developing countries, with masses of informal workers and lack of social safety nets, the outlook could end up being as apocalyptic as the virus itself. Continue reading
With less than two weeks left before Super Tuesday, the single most important day in the US’s highly convoluted and highly un-democratic primary elections, Bernie Sanders has consolidated himself as the candidate to beat, particularly following a very strong showing in Nevada and polls that show him gaining an ever greater share of national support. There are, of course, still obstacles to his nomination. Michael Bloomberg (the 9th richest man in the world) could still find ways of ad-blitzing his way to the nomination with his virtually unlimited cash. Or the Democratic establishment (namely the so-called Super Delegates) could end up voting for someone else in the event of a contested convention, even if Sanders gets the most delegates. Suffice to say that that the Democratic establishment is not keen on a Sanders candidacy and will continue doing everything it can to derail his chances at securing the nomination.
But even as the Sanders steamroller continues to get stronger, one of the most frequent criticism I hear about him is that he can’t beat Trump, and that if the Democrats are unwise enough to select a radical leftist, they will suffer a similar defeat like that which Corbyn faced in December 2019 in the UK. Trump, after all, continues to enjoy the support of a rabid, fired-up support base, Republicans are united behind him, and the prospect of the country that pretty much invented modern capitalism voting for a self-declared socialist seems almost preposterous. Well, for starters, the polls show otherwise. Even in 2016, polls showed Sanders having much wider leads in match-ups against Trump than Clinton did, because both represented anti-establishment figures willing to take on entrenched elites (only one of them, Sanders, clearly meant it). This time around, polls also show Sanders ahead of Trump and I suspect the difference will keep getting wider as his campaign continues to strengthen. Continue reading
One of the most shocking aspects of anyone who has spent any amount of time living in the US is its lack of public healthcare provision. It is the only industrialized economy not to offer either a universal healthcare service like Britain’s NHS, or a universal healthcare insurance scheme like that which is provided in countries like Germany and France. Even most of the richer developing countries offer services that the vastly wealthier US lacks: in my country, Mexico, you have access to the main public healthcare system with most formal jobs and even those in informal jobs have some limited coverage from a separate public scheme. Worse still is that the cost of private insurance in the US is horrifically expensive: the average monthly premium is estimated at over $300 a month for individuals and over $800 for families. Then there’s the copayments and the fact that insurers may decide not to cover you at all for a myriad of reasons.
However, there is another aspect of the US’s dysfunctional and inhumane healthcare system that is arguably the most troubling. That it exists solely for the purpose of private profit is problematic in itself but its nature as an instrument for labor’s subservience to capital is much worse. This is because for the grand majority of Americans, healthcare is obtained through their employers and is widely seen as an important “perk” of a good job. Although the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) of 2010 made it much easier for to obtain insurance while not employed, the fact that employers can generally negotiate a better deal with insurers as an institution than you as an individual means that job-based insurance schemes generally have better coverage and are cheaper than anything that you as an individual could obtain on your own. Consequently, the cost of losing a job is two-fold: not only your obvious loss of income but also the increased risk of suffering some health-related emergency or losing coverage for any condition that you or a loved one under your plan already had. Continue reading
When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.
Plucked Chicken Award 2019: Workington Man
It is the third installment of the Plucha (remember, every award needs its shorthand) and a memorable one, being the final year of a putrid decade. One in which fascism arrived on the shores of the Anglo-Saxon world that just seven decades earlier fought to save Europe from it. It is the decade that that brought us austerity and lost futures for a generation that will not have it nearly as good as the ones before it (and if you’re among the ones buying Steven Pinker’s whiggish optimism, read my upcoming book). And I haven’t even started talking about the music. At least in previous times of turmoil, we had a kick-ass, riff-laden soundtracks to bear through it. Now we have Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber duos. It has come to this.
There is, of course, no shortage of candidates for an award like this, with people like Donald Trump having a standing invitation on the shortlist. Or Australia’s Scott Morrison who continues to deny climate change while his country burns as I write this. Or former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann who is this year’s living example of Silicon Valley’s pathological narcissism and hubris, blessed with an aura of messianic, new wave bullshit. Elizabeth Holmes and Elon Musk, we hardly knew ye. But no, this year, I’m making it special. It’s not just one person. It’s thousands. Possibly millions. And yet it’s no one. I’m talking about Workington Man, the mythological British electoral beast that was mocked for being yet another offensive London stereotype of Northern working class men.
Until Workington Man won the 2019 election. For all the wrong reasons. Continue reading
It’s Endorsement Week and Britain’s liberal centrist establishment once again did what the liberal centrist establishment does: cower out of supporting a party (Labour) that is its only hope of averting the very Brexit that they allegedly stand against, as well as the horror show that would be five years of a Boris Johnson government. I am talking, of course, of the Economist and the Financial Times, the country’s two main liberal centrist publications, which for reasons that I find quite flabbergasting, have not received a smidgeon of the blame for the political mess that Britain finds itself in despite having significantly contributed to it.
It is conventional wisdom to blame Britain’s media for much of the current political malaise. On one hand there are the obnoxious right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail and the Sun which have spent years promoting a toxic Euroscepticism that has contributed to the widespread support for Brexit. These have been tabloids that have consistently told their working class and conservative readerships that their problems are not caused by Whitehall but by Brussels; that the country has more to fear from immigrants than elites; and that somehow Brexit is going to usher in VE Day-like euphoria. “Believe in Britain!” they say, obliviating the mountains of evidence of how Brexit is going to deepen the immiseration that nine-years of Tory government has already inflicted on working people. Continue reading
What does a famous atheist with degrees in philosophy and neuroscience, a mathematical physicist and investment fund director, a YouTube comedian-slash-right-wing troll with millions of followers, the host of the world’s biggest podcast, and the host of a somewhat less popular but lavishly funded (by libertarian pockets) podcast have in common?
For starters, all of these people are well-known personalities of the New Right, particularly the ecosystem known the “Intellectual Dark Web”. This is a group of loosely collected pundits and intellectuals that have pushed forward many of the same narratives pursued by the more notorious Alt-Right, albeit with a more intellectually reputable facade (and which I have described at length in a previous long post). I am, of course, talking about Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Steven Crowder, Joe Rogan, and Dave Rubin; names that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any respectable amount of time wading through the battlegrounds of the internet’s culture wars. And in the case of Harris (one of the original “four Horsemen” of New Atheism) and Rogan (former Fear Factor host and stand-up), are also very well known in more mainstream circles as well.
What may be less familiar is the other thing that they all have in common: all five of them are seemingly terrified of having a conversation with former comedian, small-time Hollywood actor, occasional TV pundit, and full-time radio host Sam Seder. This is the story of the greatest debate on the internet that never happened and most likely never will. Continue reading