Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ayn Rand Will Enslave You! (2 Feb. 2013)

            Okay, "Ayn Rand Will Enslave You!" is a little over-stated, but I think I can pull off a snarky variation on a theme by F. A. Hayek and argue that fully-achieved, radical Libertarian capitalism would put us on a road that ironically returns to the essence of serfdom.

            Let me start with that "most of us."

            We humans have the bad habit of hearing stories or reading histories and identifying with the winners. (Americans nostalgic for the Confederacy are an exception: The rebel-traitors lost, pendejos! Get over it.).

            We humans have a bad habit of identifying with the winners and the privileged, and this is odd in Americans 'cause if our ancestors were doing all that well Over There, most of us wouldn't now be Over Here.

            I'm Over Here, in the US of A, in part because in 1903 my father's father fled Russia ahead of the Czar's police after him on a murder charge. He'd killed a Cossack; in the family version of the story — which we're sticking to — my grandfather killed the Cossack while the Cossack was raping his (my grandfather's) sister during a pogrom. Still, if my grandfather had murdered a Cossack in a fit of unfortunately premature revolutionary zeal, that would be all right with me.

            A lot of us are here in the USA because our ancestors mistimed their revolutionary zeal or lack of zeal or found themselves POWs at a time and place where POWs were sold to the local slave traders — or preferred not to starve to death in a potato famine or fled press gangs and conscription or a bad marriage and debt collectors; in short, for whatever reasons, they found it best to get the hell out.

            Granted, some were aristocrats who had to get the hell out: a few revolutions succeed, or nobly-bred conspirators took the wrong side in a coup that failed; but there never were that many aristocrats, not relatively speaking, not relative to the masses of peasants and lower.

            I had a friend who bragged that his family was on the losing side of wars and rebellions going back at least six generations; you probably lack bragging rights that impressive, but there's a really good chance your ancestors like mine were among that teeming "wretched refuse," the mongrels of the Earth.

            So none of this identifying with the aristocrats, already! It's not just un-American but unhistorical and disloyal. The odds are your people were peasants or lower on the food chain, and you'd damn well better be capable of thinking like a peasant or, in this case, a serf.

            So: What's the essence of being a serf?

            It's going to piss you serfs off that you're trapped in the precursor of a company town and have to get your grain ground at His Lordship's mill and get ripped off on assessments when His Lordship gets captured in battle and you have to help ransom his ass — or pay for his son's getting knighted or his daughter getting married. It will piss you off if His Lordship and Ladyship can't be hauled into court by a peasant like you when their thugs mug and rob you: "a jury of his peers" meant exactly that, his peers, not necessarily yours. And your heirs will be pissed off when the Lord gets the best of whatever you have to leave when you die.

            Sure, but the essence of your lowly estate is the demands on your time.

            That's the essence of serfdom and more so of slavery: the day-to-day, routine expropriation of time and labor.

            "But," you say, or should say, "but," you say, "freedom from oppression is exactly what capitalist Libertarianism is all about. Freedom from oppression by the State!"

            There wasn't much "State" back in the bad old days of feudalism, so let's all accept the idea that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" primarily from the State but also from other possible oppressors and exploiters. And let's accept the idea that exploitation nowadays can get subtle. A "wage slave" isn't a slave and "working as a serf in a cube farm" isn't being a serf in Imperial Russia. But …

            But consider day-to-day life in a necessarily imaginary actually-existing capitalist Libertarian utopia: that's life as lived by you, a probable descendent of a slave, serf, peasant — or even an aristocrat not too good (or lucky) choosing sides in power struggles.

            So you're probably not an Ayn Randian general of industry leading the Makers of the world. You're probably a wage-earner pushing virtual buttons at home or in a cube farm and wondering if a capitalist Libertarian utopia offers a union you can join.

            What interests me more, though, is everyday life outside of work for a grunt like you or me in a rigorous market economy, life spent mainly as a consumer, and a consumer who is highly unlikely to have a staff.

            What's life like in a hyper-capitalist, high-tech world, where you're surrounded by choices in a grand array of overlapping free markets — mostly unregulated markets — caught up in the swirl of dynamic, rapid, capitalist change?

            With the money to hire a staff, life could be very good.

            Without a staff, though, I think you'd be trapped in a system that expropriates your time as much as — if far more gently than — in feudalism.

            Consider what happens when you have to negotiate and contract for health-care, paying for health-care, arranging public health services — good luck with that! — contracting for school, water, power, police and fire protection? And what happens when you have to negotiate those contracts more and more frequently as corporate persons fine-tune ways of maximizing profit by tweaking contracts as often as Travelocity changes rates for plane flights?

            There isn't much of a State in a capitalist Libertarian utopia, but what there is will spend most of its energy enforcing contracts. What happens when you really have to read all those agreements for Terms of Use?

            Choice is good. Change is often good. Choices forced upon you, however, continual and rapid change: those are not so good.

            If you have no choice but to spend large hunks of your time shopping around and operating as a "Midas-Plagued," product-consuming, free-market economic animal; if you have to negotiate your way through the day knowing that tomorrow you may have to renegotiate — what then?

            The bitter joke in recent, economically modernized and liberalized Eastern Europe has it that Karl "Marx was wrong about everything about Communism; unfortunately, he was right about capitalism." As Marx and Frederick Engels said about the slow-speed capitalism of their time: "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air […]."

            The turbo-charged capitalism of our time has placed even more strain on people. A capitalist-Libertarian "utopia" of rampant markets would be worse. The markets might be free, but those systemically coerced into using them are far less free. The working conditions will be a whole lot better, but like our "huddled masses"/"wretched refuse" ancestors, much our time and labor will have been appropriated: appropriated by the aristocrats of the new world, with money to hire us peasants as staff to do the grunt work of consumption.

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