Against hedonism

The modern obsession with self-indulgence is bad for the individual and even worse for society

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that we live in the Age of Hedonism. An age in which people’s lives, or at least the fictitious online manifestation of them, seems to be dedicated primarily to the obsessive pursuit of pleasure with no attempt at restraint. That the 2008-09 global financial crisis not only failed to contain this excess but perhaps even amplified it is all the more surprising and unprecedented. In 2009, the cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote about “capitalist realism”, the idea that capitalism had so permeated every aspect of our existence that we have been unable to imagine a future without it. One can easily argue that our cultural self-indulgence, so tied in with capitalism’s image of how we must look, think, and behave, is part of this phenomenon, producing the contradiction that the more individualistic we are made to be, the more we become like everyone else.

To me, one of the most visible manifestations of how the Age of Hedonism is upon us is the rise in popularity of music festivals. Granted, music festivals are hardly new, but it’s the “festival culture” that is now inescapably attached to it that is more notorious. It seems that festivals are less about the music nowadays and more about the “experience”, this being the pleasure in dressing in obnoxious boho chic, rave, or cybergoth outfits, behaving equally obnoxiously and taking as many pictures of oneself as possible. In a sense, festivals are now three-day long fancy dress or stag/hen parties, music be dammed. By far the most egregious offender is Burning Man, which nowadays resembles a hyper-sexualized Mad Max carnival filled not with marauding gangs but very affluent tech bros and Instagram influencers. If capitalism has ever had its greatest cultural victory, it is by perverting the original intention of this festival from an experience in communal self-reliance, to an orgy of Silicon Valley excess. Continue reading

The delusions of liberalism at the end of the end of history

Why liberals need to accept that the foundational ideology of the West is obsolete

No serious political scientist or pundit today would deny that liberalism, the foundational ideology of the Western world for the last few centuries, is under attack. Autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or Turkey’s Recip Erdogan have offered an illiberal challenge to liberal democracy that has gained strong appeal with its constituents. But in the very bastions of the liberal West, liberalism is also succumbing from the onslaught of far-right populism. That people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson would become leaders of their respective countries would have seemed inconceivable just a few decades earlier. Now the question seems to be which country will be the next to fall into the cracks.

Despite these concerns, liberals from both the left and right of the political spectrum appear hopeful in their hubris. In the first two centuries after its inception, liberalism successfully dismantled the political absolutism of the ancien regime, and universalized the Western values of individual rights and liberties that almost every society on earth now takes for granted. In the 20th century it also fended off two great illiberal challenges in the form of fascism and communism. Although the term is annoyingly taken as a synonym of “left-winger” in the US, almost everyone in the Western world today believes him or herself to be a liberal from a political-philosophical perspective. Unfortunately, this label is usually self-applied without stopping to think what being a liberal actually means which is extremely problematic: a foundational political ideology that remains unchallenged eventually becomes a hindrance rather than a help to human progress when its adherents fail to realize it may be obsolete.

This lost post will make the controversial point that liberalism has reached that point of obsolescence. More so, I will argue that it is a political ideology tarnished with blood, riddled with hypocrisy and contradictions, and which has become a rhetorical concept intended to justify the presumed superiority of Western civilization and thought as a justification for Western hegemony. And even if by the end of these lines you remain steadfast in your belief that liberalism is a sacred pillar of modernity and must be defended at any cost, hopefully it would make you uncomfortable enough that you will never look at liberalism the same way. Continue reading

Metroid: how to make an atmospheric masterpiece

Among the countless Alien rip-offs in gaming, this is one of the few that got it right

Metroid cover

Not everything in life is politics and economics. I will be be adding the occasional cultural content to this blog including music, movies, and retro gaming, the latter which I have been recently spending some of my spare time on. Enjoy this first post and there will be more to come!

Ok, I must confess that I never owned Metroid. It was already two years old when I first got an NES around 1988 and looked decidedly antiquated by the standards of later NES titles. Although I may have rented it a couple of times, this was not a game that was easy to get into and it quickly became a bit too daunting to invest more time into it. But in the age of emulators and online strategy guides, I recently decided to take a plunge into the depths of Planet Zebes and lead the intrepid intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran (one of videogame’s first female heroes, though you wouldn’t find out until she took her mask off during the end credits) into the adventure that launched one of Nintendo’s most famous franchises.

The birth of the action/adventure game

First some history: Metroid was Nintendo’s first true action/adventure game, intended to bridge the gap between the side-scrolling jump-fest of Super Mario Bros. and the adventure and RPG elements of The Legend of Zelda, all three of which were released the same year. Particularly unique about Metroid was its non-linearity: there are no levels in the traditional sense, the game is one giant interconnected whole. The seemingly endless corridors and shafts of Zebes were often dead ends, and most areas required you not just to reach a certain item but to backtrack your way to where you started. For example, the entrance to the game’s final section (Tourian) is found not too far from the starting point but you’ll first need to find and beat the two mini-bosses, Kraid and Ripley, to go through. Frustratingly, the game did not include any in-game mapping feature which means the unaided explorer was forced to map the game the old-fashioned way: with pencil and paper. Even then, there is a chronic same-ness to the different areas of Zebes, with the layout of many corridors being identical to each other giving you no sense of whether you had already explored that area or not. Many areas are also only accessible by shooting or bombing “false” floors or ceilings. And yet if you are to map the whole game, hours will have to be spent exploring every corner of the game’s five main sections, only the last one which is mercifully linear (and where you first encounter the game’s eponymous enemy, the Metroids). Continue reading

The exorbitant privilege of capital

Why we need to rethink capital’s relationship with labor

The robber barons

Capital has an exorbitant privilege. With capital we are able to undertake productive investments and reap a potentially infinite amount of rewards. However, capital is not the only factor of production: for those investments to succeed, we also need labor. Unfortunately the rewards received by labor are infinitesimal and declining. In the majority of the industrialized world, the share of national income received by labor has been dropping over the past decades as a result of a myriad of factors like globalization, deregulation of labor markets, and the neutering of the power and influence of unions. The root of this privilege goes back to the origins of capital and its historic process of accumulation.

Where does capital come from? One source is from capital itself. Any increase in the value of an asset provides the owner with additional income which can then be reinvested into other capital assets. Similarly, some assets like stocks and bonds provide a regular stream of income in the form of interest payments or dividends.  Additionally, physical capital like robots or other types of automated equipment can also produce additional capital without human input. However, the main source of capital is labor. Your work, as an employee of any firm, contributes to the profits of the firm through which the firm is then able to accumulate further capital. No amount of capital will make a firm thrive in the absence of labor which is why the two are not perfect substitutes. But capital’s exorbitant privilege comes from the fact that, unlike labor, it can generate infinite returns. Let’s see how this process takes place in practice. Continue reading

Justice as outcomes

For the good society to be realized, we need to forget about justice as an institutional design

 

The rise of right-wing authoritarian populism has triggered an intellectual tsunami of works attempting to understand why liberal democracy is failing in the 21st century. All of these accounts, however, rest on the premise that liberal democracy itself must be preserved. Yet liberal theorists have never reached anything resembling a consensus on one of the fundamental reasons behind the appeal of liberal democracy: justice. Most of us have an idea of what we mean by “justice”, usually one that is grounded in the idea of fairness or the rule of law. But as I will argue below, using justice as a synonym for other distinct ideals, or mechanisms to achieve those ideals, leaves us intellectually shorthanded.

To understand why we need to separate the ideas of fairness, rule of law, and justice let’s describe four related societies:

Society 1: Imagine a modern, constitutional state where slavery is legally permitted, such as the US before 1863. Although slaves do not count as people but as property, and lack the basic political rights that are afforded to free men, they are subject to the law rather than the whims of their masters. There are laws, for example, that prohibit a master from killing his slave, or from subjecting them to particularly cruel punishment. These laws are known to both slaves and masters and they are compelled to abide by them. The laws are enforced by the courts without discretion: a master who kills a slave finds it impossible to bribe a court to let him go unpunished. Clearly this state is not fair since a segment of the population lives under different rules than the other. It is also not just, given that slaves will not have the same outcomes in life than free men. But it is clear that there is, at least, the rule of law and that both slaves and masters are subject to it. Continue reading

An open letter to Maduro-supporting leftists

Support the Venezuelan people, not our ideology

Dear fellow leftists: Maduro needs to go. Now.

The excuses have been all but spent by now. Since 2014, Venezuela has suffered one of the most brutal economic crises that any modern country has ever endured in peacetime. Living standards in what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations have plummeted to the point that people are now suffering undernourishment and hunger. The fortunate ones have left the country, triggering the largest refugee crisis ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, with 3 million people estimated to have fled in the last few years according to the UNHCR.

Amid this chaos, the Maduro regime remains obsessed with remaining in power at all costs. In 2016, following the election of a majority-dominated National Assembly, Maduro effectively sidelined the legislature and has ruled by decree since. That same year government-controlled electoral authorities cancelled a recall referendum under bogus pretenses. This effectively denied the opposition and the people the legal means to remove him even though it was the very constitution passed by Chavez in 1999 that allowed a recall vote. By then the Maduro regime was all but eager to incarcerate its opponents, and suppress dissent by force. This slide into authoritarianism was complete by the time of the sham May 2018 elections, which were neither free nor fair. This is the failed state that some of you insist on defending, while at the same time complaining whenever the right uses Venezuela as the scapegoat for their distorted definition of socialism. Continue reading

On inequality and consumption

A vibrant market economy benefits from more egalitarian income distribution

Inequality matters. Not just as an issue of fairness but also because a vibrant, market economy is much better off when wealth and income are spread around more evenly among the population. There are two reasons for this. First, consumption of certain goods and services “takes off” after a population reaches a certain level of income. Secondly, because the more people consume these goods and services, the more competition there is and the cheaper they become. In other words, the same amount of GDP among two populations but with vastly different distribution of income will result in vastly different consumption patterns; and consequently, production patterns as well. Let’s see how this manifests in real life.

A tale of two countries

When it comes to inequality, it’s hard to think of two regions in the world more disparate than Latin America and Scandinavia. Latin America has long held the title of most unequal region of the world, and even though most countries in the region are now considered “middle income”, a significant share of their population are still poor. Furthermore, those in the so-called middle class still have considerably lower purchasing power than a middle-class Westerner. In contrast, Scandinavia is one of the most egalitarian regions in the world thanks to a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state. When using Gini coefficients, a measure used by economists to measure inequality (with 0 being perfectly equal and 1 being perfectly unequal), Latin America tends to fall in the .45-.55 range. In contrast, Scandinavia usually ranks at .25-35. Continue reading

Embracing democratic socialism

Be on the right side of history and start wishing capitalism goodbye

Democratic socialism

There is just one New Year’s Resolution worth having in 2019: become a democratic socialist.

If you already are one, congratulations! This post may be preaching to the choir but I’m sure you’ll enjoy it anyway and will at least give you some good arguments against those who are still in denial (which sadly includes many on the left). If you’re not, keep reading and if these arguments don’t convince you, then perhaps nothing ever will.

What is democratic socialism?

The best way to describe democratic socialism is to start by what it’s not: communism. If you’re the kind that instantly has a mini heart attack by even a fleeting mention of the word “socialism”, relax, we’re not nostalgic for a return of the Soviet Union nor are we here to provide lame apologies for the disaster that is Venezuela (more on this later). With that out of the way, let’s explain in detail. Democratic socialism is the economic system whereby the means of production are owned and directly controlled by the people who work it. The key word here is directly. Whereas communism attempted to do this by having the state take control of these means (which proved disastrous), social democracy seeks no intermediary. Imagine an economy where every business was a worker-owned cooperative and workplaces guaranteed similar democratic rights to their workers as citizens are guaranteed in the public sphere. That’s basically it.

Democratic socialism might sound similar to social democracy but in practice, social democracy remains capitalist: there is no fundamental difference in the corporate ownership structure in social democratic countries to liberal capitalist ones. The main difference is that social democratic societies tend to provide a wider array of public services (a welfare state and state-owned firms) as well as take a more active role in preventing market excesses (regulation). They also encourage strong trade unions to give voice to workers in the workplace; in fact, many social democratic parties were born from the late 19th century and 20th century labor movements. Social democratic systems like the Nordic Model therefore sit in a muddled middle ground between socialism and capitalism, incorporating the capitalist ownership structure but with strong and active states that help ensure a socially just society. Continue reading

The New Right ecosystem

The communities and personalities behind conservatism’s lastest bid for your hearts and minds
The New Right Ecosystem

The New Right Ecosystem (click to enlarge)

The emergence of a new conservative movement in the Western world in the 21st century has been one of the most important political developments of our time. But despite the way that this movement has influenced recent elections and produced shocking results like Trump and Brexit, the grand majority of people still fail to understand how and where it emerged. Ever since Hillary Clinton first spelled out the “alt-right” in a campaign speech in 2016, this term has been used as a catch-all for all right-wing politicians and pundits that have pursued a populist, anti-establishment rhetoric but this too proven to be far too limiting in scope for understanding the breadth of the movement. It also ignores that many of the people pushing the movement’s ideas don’t identify with the alt-right, aren’t anti-establishment, and may even be coming from the left itself.

I have therefore created a convenient infographic on what I call the New Right Ecosystem: the assortment of communities that are supporting the New Right movement. Some are obvious, like the original alt-right, the men’s rights activists, or the troll and meme armies that proliferate on forums such as 4chan. Many of these were mentioned in a seminal 2016 Breitbart piece co-authored by who was then the rising superstar of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopolous. But over the past decade even other communities that once appeared to embrace left-wing values have shifted squarely into the Trump camp, as is the case with the New Atheist and skeptic communities that initially arose to combat religious fundamentalism of all kinds in the post-9/11 Bush years. Finally, others like the libertarians are using the New Right as a platform to pursue their free market agendas. The fact that nearly all alt-right and anti-establishment pundits refer to themselves as libertarians or “classic liberals” (an increasingly used euphemism for libertarian sympathies) is telling of how nationalism and market fundamentalism have formed a strange and toxic marriage.

I am confident that the infographic is mostly self-explanatory after reading the legends.  However, this post will serve as a basic F.A.Q., with more analysis coming in future posts. Continue reading

Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

What happens when you grow up without ever knowing the limits of power

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 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

Last year’s Plucha (every award needs its shorthand) was awarded to
Aung San Suu Kyi, not because she was the most horrible human being the world, but being the one that fell most from grace in the shortest of times. In fact, it’s hard to think of someone who went from a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a sponsor of genocide (Kissinger, you came close). This year, however, it does go to one of the most horrible human beings living on planet Earth, and worse still, running a country. And that is the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud. At the tender age of 33 he has demonstrated nearly every psychopathic quality that emerges in a human being who has been raised to know nothing other than absolute power, for tyrants begotten from other tyrants are invariably magnitudes worse than their predecessors. Were he the ruling monarch of some hermit kingdom or dysfunctional third-world kleptocracy, the problem would mostly be contained. Unfortunately, he presides over one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world, a Middle East powerhouse which is a protagonist of nearly every conflict in the region, mainly the ongoing Syrian and Yemen civil wars. His actions matter. Continue reading