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“So I’ve been thinking a lot about whether the freedom of the day really amounts to anything we’ll miss—as individuals, as a society, as a species. If its loss leaves us deprived, then deprived of what? And at what cost to the psyche of the young hominid? What are the hidden implications of the house arrest (as Richard Louv so aptly calls it) of our young? Whither the well-adjusted person, polity, and planet, after the death of free, unmediated play?”  – Robert Michael Pyle, from “Free-Range Kids” in Orion

Class War in New York

I was on vacation in the desert last week so I didn’t get a chance to write about the class war in New York, manifested as a police protest against protesting the police. Two articles help frame the conversation: one of them wrongly and one of them correctly.

The first (wrong) one comes from a writer I really like and respect, Ta-Nehisi Coates. He writes in his piece “Blue Lives Matter” in The Atlantic:

“We do not live in a military dictatorship, and police officers are not the representatives of an autarch, nor the enforcers of law handed down by decree. The police are representatives of a state that derives its powers from the people.”

Now, Coates is an avid Civilization player (as am I), so he should know better. States don’t derive power from the people; the whole job of the State is to consolidate power in a super elite, walled circle, and to suppress dissent for the purposes of resource extraction to service this elite’s lifestyle. If the police were enforcing some kind of collective will, they wouldn’t evict people or arrest them for smoking a joint, because most people are poor and like using drugs.

This piece gets it more correct: The Origins of the Police:

In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades—roughly from 1825 to 1855.

The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. The most common way for authorities to solve a crime, before and since the invention of police, has been for someone to tell them who did it.

Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to challenges posed by collective action. To put it in a nutshell: The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s

— strikes in England,
— riots in the Northern US,
— and the threat of slave insurrections in the South.

So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.

I will be focusing a lot on who these crowds were, how they became such a challenge. We’ll see that one difficulty for the rulers, besides the growth of social polarization in the cities, was the breakdown of old methods of personal supervision of the working population. In these decades, the state stepped in to fill the social breach.

We’ll see that, in the North, the invention of the police was just one part of a state effort to manage and shape the workforce on a day-to-day basis. Governments also expanded their systems of poor relief in order to regulate the labor market, and they developed the system of public education to regulate workers’ minds.

The Myth of Markets

On the durability of harmful ideologies, here’s an interesting piece about an economist I had never heard of, Karl Polanyi, called “The Power of Bad Ideas.” The premise is summarized thusly:

Polanyi challenges the choice between free markets and regulated markets as a false one. Not only are efforts to impose free markets destructive, the assumption that markets can, in principle, be free has never been true, nor could it be.

Yet the free market axiom is now widespread, notwithstanding glaring and recurrent market failures. Once the ideological stomping grounds of the Republican and Tory right, it now forms the rhetorical bedrock of policy paradigms across the Western world. And the neoliberal project to realize this political utopia seems to have advanced since the 2008 crash.

Polanyi rejects the idea that markets are independent from states, and that they therefore can self-regulate (and even, on some level, that they exist in the first place). People take abstract markets’ existence as a given, however, because of the strong cultural narrative associated with them:

Block and Somers’s unique contribution is to argue that these public narratives about the economy are key drivers of regulatory policy. Why, for instance, did free market ideals, revived under Reagan and Clinton, weather the storm of the Great Recession, while policies adopted after World War II—policies rooted in people’s connectedness and the public good—are long lost? Free market narratives have immense cultural power; the popular rhetoric about the economy plays into centuries-old ways of thinking about the economy and indeed into people’s very sense of identity. And this power explains why the free-market policy paradigm is so persistent.

And oh how persistent it is:

Social naturalism, the idea that markets are pre-political, autonomous, and ultimately guided by natural laws, is not simply something embraced by Chicago school economists or policymakers. Market fundamentalism taps into our individualism, our independence, our conception of freedom, our sense of self, our very ethos.

And as with many quotes I read about economics, my response is “speak for yourself.” I am an individual, with a strong desire for independence (independence from work, for starters), and with a very well-developed sense of self, etc. Does that make me a free-market fundamentalist? Methinks not. In fact, putting so much power into abstractions of abstractions (numbers on a computer screen, which represent pieces of paper, which represent fabricated wealth, and so on) necessarily diminishes the autonomy of individual, living people.

But I don’t think this is news. A lot of people realize the inherent stupidity of riding the wave of market capitalism, as if on some kind of bucking bronco (a sorcerer’s tempest that has escaped the command of the sorcerer, as Marx described it). I think people believe the myth that all problems are solved by markets—or at least profess to believe it—because it’s simply easy to do so. Everyone knows that banks foreclosing on someone’s house never had the money they loaned to begin with, or that capitalism requires at any given time a number of unemployed people who want to work, but so what; concentrated wealth is concentrated power, and when the boss wants you to believe the myth, you typically at least say, “Sure, that makes sense,” even if you secretly know it’s illogical. It’s just like at the office.

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“Every click is indicative of who we are: indicative of our likes, our dislikes, our emotions, our politics, our world view. Of course, marketers have long recognized this, but literature hasn’t yet learned to treasure—and exploit—this situation. The idea for this class arose from my frustration with reading endless indictments of the Web for making us dumber. I’ve been feeling just the opposite. We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are reading and writing differently—skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, retweeting, reblogging, and spamming language—in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary.”  – Kenneth Goldsmith, from “Why I am teaching a course called ‘Wasting Time On the Internet.'”