“[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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
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 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 →
Use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel during rush hour at your peril. Every weekday from around 5pm onward (I have not crossed it in mornings), the Victorian-era tunnel that conveniently connects both sides of the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs becomes a shortcut for cyclists who speed through it at full speed from their finance jobs in Canary Wharf to their southeast London homes. The cylindrical foot tunnel, which as its name describes is for pedestrians, is not much more than 2 meters across at ground level. Most annoyingly, it has very large and very clear “NO CYCLING” signs at both entrances and also painted on the ground every couple of meters along the way. Despite this, only a fraction of cyclists who cross the tunnel during rush hour ever bother to dismount from their bikes and cross it by foot. Which by law, they should.
One typically expects reckless, obnoxious behavior in London to be committed by the usual suspects: chavvy youths or wolf-packs of loutish drunk working-class men. Not well-off bankers, most of which are white, middle-aged men. Furthermore, one expects blatantly illegal behavior like riding at full speed in a pedestrian tunnel, where a slight mishap might have them seriously injuring (possibly even killing) someone, to be the domain of cyclists. Cyclists, after all, are the good guys in the story. They don’t burn off CO2 from their cars or from using transportation. Many Western cities now openly encourage people to take up cycling to work.
Why are the most morally-minded, ethical people doing something so wrong? Continue reading →
The debate around free will is one of the longest running in all philosophy, and has huge ramifications well beyond it. By and large, we live in societies created under the libertarian notion that human beings possess free will: the ability to make decisions that are free of causal and coercive influences. If I go to a bar and choose beer over wine, it was an act of free will since nothing stopped me from choosing wine instead; I don’t dislike wine (though I prefer beer), they cost pretty much the same, and both were readily available on the menu. Laissez-faire economics runs on the notion that we have free will in nearly every element of our lives, and the way to maximize individual freedom is to provide people with more choice, while removing the constraints that would limit those choices (namely the state). It’s hard not to feel some natural sympathy for this position. We all feel like we have free will. The very notion of being human and feeling human (as opposed to being an automaton) depends on this.
Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of this libertarian view of free will is scant. In contrast to libertarians, determinists believe that every single human action was entirely determined by prior causes and therefore is not truly free even when there is no coercive influence that prevents us from doing otherwise. So perhaps nothing stopped me from choosing wine, but was I entirely in control of my physical desire for beer? Not really. Perhaps I want to “prove” my free will by next time choosing wine but did I choose the thoughts in my head that made me want to behave like a contrarian? Did I choose my contrarian personality? Perhaps there is some degree of randomness in the neural activity or quantum mechanisms in my brain that led me to this and so my choice is not fully determined in a strict sense, but since I cannot control processes at the micro-level, are they even relevant? Either way I did not have the free will to pick wine over beer in the first instance, or beer over wine in the second.
In recent years, determinism has exploded in popularity, particularly since it has been embraced by numerous celebrity public intellectuals like Sam Harris (who wrote an essay length book in 2012, Free Will). Determinism is to pop philosophy similar to what Freakonomics was to pop economics a few years back: it’s a great way to start a dinner conversation and look like you’re the smartest person in the room. After all, most people who haven’t read extensively on both sides of the philosophical debate would be naturally prone to thinking that they have libertarian free will. Getting swayed to the determinist camp is easy when done by an eloquent and convincing interlocutor, which Harris certainly is, and when one doesn’t particularly have a stake in the outcome – if anything, determinism seemingly justifies all the bad things you’ve ever done since you couldn’t help yourself from doing them!
The problem is that Harris performs a number of intellectual sleights of hand that are common among determinists: reduce the debate to a single definition of free will, claim that the opposing arguments are so rubbish that they cannot be taken seriously, and avoid discussing those arguments that seriously threaten his point. That Harris chooses a 66-page pop philosophy book to do this rather than undertake his battle in rigorous, academic channels is telling of his unwillingness to face serious opposition from compatibilists: those who believe that free will and a deterministic universe can coexist. So let’s dwell deeper into this topic. Continue reading →
The meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson to the status of public intellectual stardom has been one of the most interesting, if not regrettable, cases of how the internet has created idols out of people who would have best languished in obscurity. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, was a hitherto relatively unknown figure outside of Canada until a number of his videos caught the public attention in 2016. The videos were made in protest of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act (a bill known as C-16), which included “gender identity and expression” to the list of characteristics which would be subject to human rights protection. The bill also included a specific mention to “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” as grounds for discrimination. The bill was clearly seen as a victory particularly for the transgender community. But Peterson, along with many conservatives, decried it as an abuse of free speech. According to Peterson, the law opened the door for anyone to be jailed if they used the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender or non-binary person, even if they were unaware of it. Amid the poisonous atmosphere of identity politics that dominates the West (both on the left and right), Peterson’s objections went viral and a celebrity was born.
Since then, Peterson has become one of the most identifiable members of the so-called “intellectual dark web”, a group of pundits and academics who share two main characteristics. The first is their massive online followings; many of them are regulars on the podcast circuit or are otherwise ubiquitous on YouTube. The second is that regardless of their backgrounds and ideologies, most of them share an opposition to radical progressivism, “social justice warriors” (SJWs), and the campus activism that has become commonplace in recent years, mainly in the US. Not all of them are declared conservatives. Most openly dislike Donald Trump or at least express serious reservations about him. Many of them describe themselves as “classic liberals”, an increasingly used cop-out that seems to be a euphemism for hardline libertarianism but which implies a belief in social liberty. Aside from that, the intellectual dark web comes from all walks of life, be it neo-conservative journalists (Douglas Murray), Bernie Sanders-supporting evolutionary biologists (Bret Weinstein), and more traditional conservative pundits (Ben Shapiro). Even unconventional feminists like Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia occasionally join their otherwise almost entirely male-dominated ranks. And the doors are also open to non-intellectuals, like disgraced Google programer James Damore of the infamous gender memo fame.
Not surprisingly, many of the most prominent members of the intellectual dark web have huge alt-right followings; in Peterson’s case, borderline rabid as evidenced by the commentary in any one of his YouTube videos. But given their academic credentials and their lack of overtly racist pronouncements, many of them (including Peterson) have been labelled the “alt-lite”. They may not be Tikki Torch-wielding white nationalists from Charlottesville but you’ll find many ideas that at best can be described as “hate enabling”, such as spouting contested ideas on IQ differences among race and gender, stringently denying concepts like white privilege, and condemning left-wing activism like Black Live Matters and the #MeToo movement while being remarkably complacent about the activities of the radical right. These views are not unique to the alt-lite or the intellectual dark web but have been spreading even among more respected intellectuals such as the New Atheists and New Optimists (notably Steven Pinker), many of which share an overlapping fandom and can be seen in many of the same online outlets such as the Rubin Report (arguably the headquarters of the intellectual dark web and the alt-lite), as well as the widely followed Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcasts. Snippets of their media appearances are everywhere on YouTube, usually given provocative click-bait titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS progressive interviewer on gender pay gap” and which in reality are far from the knockout blows their titles claim to be once you actually watch them. Continue reading →
A few posts back I made the case that beliefs don’t matter as much as the process in which you acquire them. This is not a problematic conclusion to anyone with any semblance of common sense, the logic being that even if your beliefs prove to be wrong, you will have been wrong for all the right reasons and also that in the long run, you are likely to have more beliefs proved right than in the case you adopt them arbitrarily. But just how do we go about choosing our beliefs? Is there a set of principles that we can use to weed out the good beliefs from the bad ones?
I believe there is. Read on to find out:
Step 1: Can your belief pass the Truth Demon test?
One of my favorite pieces of philosophical wisdom in recent months has been this article by Keith Frankish which describes the Truth Demon, a very simple thought experiment that everyone can use to test just how strongly you are committed to a belief. In summary and in slight variation to the original, imagine there is a Truth Demon that will torture you for eternity if the certain belief in question is wrong. Take god, for example. If you had to bet your soul’s eternal torment on whether god exists, I suspect that not only atheists but a large share of believers would bet against his existence. Why? Because there’s no real negative payoff in believing in god in real life. Pascal’s Wager even argues that this is a logical, rational choice. However, imagine if we modified the decision matrix to assume an infinite loss if you believed in him wrongly. Suddenly you need to be really, really convinced. The Truth Demon fits in neatly to what mathematician Nassim Taleb calls the “silent risk” of not taking payoff into account. Continue reading →