Ahmed Afzaal

Systemic Problems (1)

The following discussion is based on, and inspired by, the work of Jack Harich and associates, found at their website.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes, and they vary in terms of causes, scope, duration, etc. Here I am concerned with problems that seem to result directly or indirectly from the decisions made by individuals. Some of these problems are rarely encountered, since they occur due to mistakes or accidents, while other problems tend to occur over and over again.The problems that show up repeatedly may simply be the result of individuals making wrong decisions on a regular basis. Such problems are relatively easy to solve, since it usually doesn’t take a lot of effort to trace the symptoms of the problem to the particular decisions of particular individuals and then educating or training those individuals so they start making the right decisions.

Not all problems are so easy to solve. The most important problems are those that are so widespread that we might file them under the category of “social problems.” Typically, these problems persist over multiple generations and tend to resist commonsense or intuitive solutions. Examples include drug addiction, prostitution, obesity, and domestic violence. In any given case, we may be tempted to identify the victim’s own past decisions as the cause of his or her current undesirable state; for example, obesity can be traced to the consumption of large amounts of junk food and domestic violence can be traced to poor judgment in selecting a spouse. Upon deeper investigation, however, we discover that those past decisions were made under constrains over which the individual had little or no control, and that relative to those constraints the decisions seemed pretty rational at the time they were made. This insight becomes even more compelling when we approach these problems not as individual events or isolated occurrences but in terms of large-scale patterns that repeat themselves over and over again. If only a handful of people were to become addicted to alcohol or another drug in the course of a year, we may attribute the problem to the individuals’ personal situation and bad decisions; but when drug addiction starts affecting millions of people at any given time, we have to abandon our individualistic approach and start thinking in terms of social systems. For this to happen, we must zoom out in order to look at the behavior of many more people than just the ones who are directly involved, at which point we would realize that the problems that occur repeatedly and on a large, society-wide scale cannot be traced to particular individuals making wrong decisions. Rather, these problems occur precisely because all who are directly or indirectly involved are trying to do the best they can with the resources they have under the objective conditions they’re facing.

Such problems may be called systemic problems because they originate not so much from the behavior or decisions of individuals, but rather from the structure of the system itself.

Imagine a situation where everyone is making the right decisions—they are doing more or less what they’re supposed to—and it is precisely these decisions that are giving rise to certain undesirable symptoms on a large scale. You might ask: how can right decisions lead to problems? The answer is that these decisions are “right” only within the constrains of the particular system that is shaping the behavior of the individuals in question; and so, when we look at the situation from a viewpoint that is not constrained by the system, it becomes obvious that the decisions being made are actually wrong. This does not mean that individual behavior plays no role in the genesis of these problems. Individuals, after all, do not stand totally aloof or apart from the system; they participate in the system and thereby make it happen through their decisions. The point, rather, is that the decisions of individuals are themselves influenced by the rules and goals of the system in which they participate. We cannot, therefore, pin the blame for a systemic problem on anyone in particular. The individuals making the problematic decisions are part of the system, yet they are not the real culprits; their decisions only represent the intermediate causes of the problem. The root causes of the problem lies elsewhere, i.e., in the way the system itself is structured.

Consider obesity as a case in point. The responsibility for the problem of obesity in the United States cannot be placed simply on the poor eating habits of large sections of population. We must ask: why are so many people eating unhealthy food? It turns out that certain government policies are providing strong incentives for doing so, including subsidies for corn farming that makes high-fructose corn syrup available at low prices, which results in junk food being considerably cheaper than healthy options like fruits and vegetables. And if we ask the next logical question—why do these policies exist in the first place?—we would only uncover additional layers of systemic causation.

The lesson here should be obvious: We cannot solve a systemic problem simply by replacing some individuals or by educating or training them differently; the fresh arrivals will behave in the same way as their predecessors, and education or training will not have a major effect—unless we change the rules and/or the goals of the system. The only way to solve a systemic problem is to find and implement a systemic solution. The individuals through their decisions are merely responding to the expectations and constraints that the system imposes on them; if those expectations and constraints are changed, so would their decisions.

A systemic solution is one that change those elements of the system’s structure that represent the root causes of the problem. In contrast, a superficial solution is one that addresses the intermediate causes while ignoring the root causes. By definition, a superficial solution cannot solve the problem, or solves it only at an insufficiently small scale and/or temporarily. Thus, Michelle Obama’s effort to inspire and encourage healthy eating habits among kids is a superficial solution to the problem of obesity, just as her husband’s effort kill suspected terrorists through drone strikes is a superficial solution to the problem of terrorism. Once it becomes obvious that a particular solution is not working, it’s time to take a step back and consider the possibility that the solution being implement is only addressing intermediate causes. What is needed at that point is a deeper analysis of the systemic structure (i.e., the rules and goals of the system) in order to find the root causes of the problem so that systemic solutions can be devised and implemented. The insistence on using the failed superficial solutions not only prevents the problem from being solved while wasting time, energy, and resources; it also makes the problem bigger and more complicated and therefore harder to solve. In due course, superficial solutions themselves become part of the problem.

A solution consists of several solution elements. The place in the structure of a system where a particular solution element is to be applied is known as a leverage point. Results vary depending on whether the leverage point being pushed will affect the intermediate causes or the root causes. When a relatively large amount of force is applied at a particular leverage point in the system for a relatively long period of time but the systems shows only a small amount of change, then this provides good evidence that we’ve been pushing at a low leverage point, and that our effort only affected the intermediate causes. In other words, we were implementing a superficial solution, not a systemic solution. On the other hand, when the solution elements are applied at high leverage points in the system, they affect the root causes of the problem; in this case, the application of a relatively small amount of force can produce a large amount of change in the system.

Superficial solutions are based on an incomplete understanding of the system’s structure, which is why they provide solution elements that are applied at low leverage points and only address the intermediate causes of the problem. Systemic solutions, in contrast, are based on a sufficiently complete understanding of the system’s structure, which is why they provide solution elements that are applied at high leverage points and affect the root causes of the problem.

Requiem for the American Dream (3)

Throughout the history of the United States, there has been a constant struggle between two tendencies: On the one hand, we have “a democratizing tendency that’s mostly coming from the population—a pressure from below.” On the other hand, there is the tendency coming from the elite to maintain the status quo, and to reverse any concessions that may have been given in response to popular demands—a pressure from the top. As a result of these two tendencies acting and reacting in relation to each other, we see in our history alternating “periods of progress” and “periods of regression.” Thus, the 1960s constituted a period of “significant democratization,” and so the rights and freedoms won during that time brought about a powerful backlash from the elite, resulting in decades of regression and the reversal of those victories.

According to Chomsky:

[In the 1960s] sectors of the population that were usually passive and apathetic became organized, active, started pressing their demands.And they became more and more involved in decision-making, activism, and so on.It just changed the consciousness in a lot of ways: minority rights, women’s rights, concern for the environment, opposition to aggression, concern for other people. These are all civilizing effect. And that caused great fear. . . . I should have, but I didn’t anticipate the power of the reaction to these civilizing effects of the 60s—the backlash!

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Chomsky continues: “There has been an enormous, concentrated, coordinated business offensive beginning in the 70s, to try to beat back the egalitarian efforts that went right through the Nixon years.” Chomsky suggests two key documents from the early 1970s as excellent sources for understanding what the elite were thinking at that time and how they decided to respond to the challenge of democracy: (1) the Powell Memorandum from the conservative side of the political spectrum and, (2) from the liberal side, the first major report of the Trilateral Commission, titled The Crisis of Democracy. Both documents reveal the American elite’s alarm at the fact that the population is becoming too informed, too conscious, and too assertive in demanding its rights, as well as their recognition of the urgent need to influence the institutions that shape public opinion.

Chomsky views the Powell Memo and the Trilateral Commission’s report as representing the two ends of the extremely narrow range of thinking that goes on among the American elite. Despite their apparent differences in ideology, both the conservative and the liberal camps agree on doing everything possible to expand capitalism and keep the population in its place by subverting the democratic impulse.

The Powell Memo: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”

In the late 60s and early 70s, the U.S. federal government responded to popular pressure by expanding its regulatory control over big business. This included legislation meant to ensure environmental protection, occupational safety, and the safeguarding of consumer rights. The new regulatory regime was seen by the business elite as an attack on their profits, leading them to the conclusion that they must organize politically in order to maintain their economic power.

PowellOne of the most important documents that we must study to understand the elite reaction is the famous “Powell Memorandum.” Titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” the memo was submitted to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971. It was written by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, at the request of his friend and neighbor Eugene Sydnor Jr., who at the time was chair of the Education Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. Powell himself was appointed by Richard Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court only a couple of months after he wrote his famous memo. The document was originally intended to be confidential, but it was soon leaked to the press and subsequently published in the newsletter of the Chamber of Commerce.

The key point of the Powell Memo was that business must use its financial power for political purposes; it was vital for the business elite to gain influence over the government and the legislature in order to ensure the survival and empowerment of the “free enterprise system.” Powell argued that “Business must learn the lesson … that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” To achieve greater influence over the political sphere, business must organize itself and plan for the long-term. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

An important part of Powell’s prescription was the necessity of changing public opinion in favor of the “free enterprise system” through influencing the media and the education system. He wrote:

Reaching the campus and the secondary schools is vital for the long-term. Reaching the public generally may be more important for the shorter term. The first essential is to establish the staffs of eminent scholars, writers and speakers, who will do the thinking, the analysis, the writing and the speaking. It will also be essential to have staff personnel who are thoroughly familiar with the media, and know how to most effectively communicate with the public. The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs (such as ‘Selling of the Pentagon’), but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system.

While changing public opinion was a slow and gradual process, Powell emphasized that business must maintain an uncompromising focus on gaining political power.

But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination —without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

The Powell Memo is available here, along with other primary sources that provide additional background. Commentaries are found herehere, here, here, and here.

Report of the Trilateral Commission: The Crisis of Democracy

crisisThe Trilateral Commission was created in July 1973 under the initiative of David Rockefeller. According to the Commission’s website, it was formed “by private citizens of Japan, Europe (European Union countries), and North America (United States and Canada) to foster closer cooperation among these core industrialized areas of the world with shared leadership responsibilities in the wider international system.” The American members of the Trilateral Commission included, among others, Henry D. Owen (Brookings Institution), George S. Franklin (Council on Foreign Relations), Robert R. Bowie (Harvard Center for International Affairs), William Scranton (former Governor of Pennsylvania), as well as Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker (later heads of the Federal Reserve). Members of the Trilateral Commission were heavily represented in the Carter Administration, including Walter Mondale (Vice President), Zbigniew Brezinski (National Security Adviser), Cyrus R. Vance (Secretary of State), W. Michael Blumenthal (Secretary of the Treasury), Harold Brown (Secretary of Defense), and Andrew Young (Ambassador to the United Nations). Jimmy Carter himself is a member, so are Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. It is interesting to note that President Obama has appointed several members of the Trilateral Commission to important positions in his own administration, including Tim Geithner (Secretary of the Treasury), Susan Rice (Ambassador to the United Nations), and James L. Jones (National Security Adviser), among others.

The first report of the Trilateral Commission was published in 1975 under the title The Crisis of Democracy. The chapter on the United States was written by Samuel P. Huntington, who is now known mostly s for his “clash of civilization” thesis. Huntington begins by identifying the democratizing tendency that has become unleashed in the previous decade:

The 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of the democratic spirit in America. The predominant trends of that decade involved the challenging of the authority of established political, social, and economic institutions, increased popular participation in and control over those institutions, a reaction against the concentration of power in the executive branch of the federal government and in favor of the reassertion of the power of Congress and of state and local government, renewed commitment to the idea of equality on the part of intellectuals and other elites, the emergence of the “public interest” lobbying groups, increased concern for the rights of and provisions of opportunities for minorities and women to participate in the polity and economy, and a pervasive criticism of those who possessed or were even thought to possess excessive power or wealth. The spirit of protest, the spirit of equality, the impulse to expose and correct inequities were abroad in the land. … It was a decade of democratic surge and of the reassertion of democratic egalitarianism.

Huntington then goes on to explain what he believes to be the heart of the problem, the inverse relationship between the “vitality” of a society and its “governability.” Too much vitality in the general population leads to the erosion of authority, making the society less governable from the viewpoint of the elite.

The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, this challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private associations, politics, the governmental bureaucracy and the military services. People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents. Within most organizations, discipline eased and differences in status became blurred. Each group claimed its right to participate equally —and perhaps more than equally—in the decisions which affected itself.

Huntington attributes the erosion of older forms of authority to the fact that the population has become too assertive in demanding equal rights, including the right to participate in both private and public decision-making. It is this change in popular ideology that poses the greatest danger to the ruling class. For Huntington, it is perfectly fine to believe in egalitarian and democratic values so long as it is understood that they cannot be fully established in the real world. Motivated by a new egalitarian ideology, the population is seen as demanding large-scale changes that will effectively turn the structure of society upside down.

American society is characterized by a broad consensus on democratic, liberal, egalitarian values. For much of the time, the commitment to these values is neither passionate nor intense. During periods of rapid social change, however, these democratic and egalitarian values of the American creed are reaffirmed. The intensity of belief during such creedal passion periods leads to the challenging of established authority and to major efforts to change governmental structure to accord more fully with those values.

Huntington predicts that the democratizing tendency of the 1960s, being part of a normal political cycle, will gradually lose steam with the passage of time. Moreover, he argues that it is important that this tendency loses steam, otherwise it would become difficult for the elite to continue their task of governing the masses.

Predictively, the implication of this analysis is that in due course the democratic surge and its resulting dual distemper in government will moderate. Prescriptively, the implication is that these developments ought to take place in order to avoid the deleterious consequences of the surge and to restore balance between vitality and governability in the democratic system.

Democracy is a good thing, according to Huntington, but only in moderation. American population has recently become too passionate in demanding greater participation in shaping the nation’s political and economic system. This democratizing tendency is giving birth to an “excess of democracy,” and must therefore be restricted within limits determined by the ruling elite.

Al Smith [former Governor of New York] once remarked that “the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Our analysis suggests that applying that cure at the present time could well be adding fuel to the flames. Instead, some of the problems of the governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy — an “excess of democracy” in much the same sense in which David Donald used the term to refer to the consequences of the Jacksonian revolution which helped to precipitate the Civil War. Needed instead is a greater degree of moderation in democracy.

Huntington identifies two areas in which he would like to see this “moderation in democracy” implemented. First, he insists that “democracy is only one way of constituting authority, and it is not necessarily a universally applicable one.” In fact, democracy is not desirable in most spheres of social life, and the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are … limited.” Secondly, a well-informed and politically active population poses a serious threat to the maintenance of a democratic system of government, and “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” This is evidenced by the fact that “every democratic society has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in government.” Huntington admits that the marginalization of some groups “is inherently undemocratic,” but then immediately claims that it “has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.” For Huntington, we can either have a society in which some groups are severely marginalized or one in which all groups are moderately marginalized; what we cannot have is a society in which all groups have equal access to resources and political power. To help stabilize the American democracy, Huntington wants to see greater apathy and less political involvement on the part of the population; group clamoring for more rights should accepts some reduction in its egalitarian agenda and agree settles for whatever they’ve already achieved: “Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups.”

Insofar as The Crisis of Democracy reflects the views of the Trilateral Commission, it reveals the mindset of the liberal wing of the American elite and its similarity to the mindset of the Framers of the U.S. Constitutions. In both cases, there is a clear desire to prevent an “excess of democracy.” In both cases, a small group of people decides that it represents the rational and enlightened element of society, and then arrogates to itself the right to rule in a way that bypasses the demands and opinions of the majority. The only difference is that the Framers never claimed that they were establishing a democracy, while the contemporary elite are far more cynical in their use of the English language.

The complete text of The Crisis of Democracy is available here. Commentaries can be found herehere, here, and here.

Requiem for the American Dream (2)

What follows is my interpretation of Noam Chomsky’s words, as presented in the film “Requiem for the American Dream.” My aim in these blog posts is not to provide a full and faithful representation of Chomsky’s thinking; he is perfectly capable of doing that on his own. Instead, I will emphasize those of his points that I think are worth emphasizing, ignore or downplay the ones that I don’t find important or interesting, and add my own elaborations whenever I feel the urge to do so. Moreover, I won’t try very hard to distinguish my own sense of what Chomsky means from what he actually says in the film; I leave that task to the readers.

principle 1

Chomsky often points out the difference between “professed values” and “operative values,” i.e., the difference between what people say (or even believe) and what they actually live by. This is a critical distinction. If you want to know what someone wants you to believe about their commitments, you should listen to their words; but if you want to know what values or principles someone is actually committed to, you have to watch their actions. Actions speak louder than words. This rule holds even when a person is convinced that their professed values are the same as their operative values. Sometimes people lie in order to deceive others, but at other times they may have been lying to themselves as well as others for such a long time that they can no longer tell they are lying. As a result, there may be a huge gap between someone’s professed values and their operative values, yet they’re virtually incapable of seeing that gap.

This point is easy to understand in theory but difficult to apply in practice, especially when it comes to our own party or nation. The power of education, mass media, and socialization is not to be underestimated. Any American kid with a high school diploma—with rare exceptions—will tell you that the United States is a democratic society where the government acts in accordance with the wishes of the people, for that’s what the teachers and the textbooks say. We take pride in our democratic institutions and look with pity at other nations who haven’t reached the milestone that we reached more than two centuries ago. As a result, when someone talks about “exporting democracy” to the Middle East or Latin America as a quasi-religious obligation of the American nation—our “calling” in the world, as it were—the idea makes perfect sense to most people.

There is a lot here that we fail to see simply because we have been trained to not see it, or because we have never been trained to see it. In order to discern what has been made invisible to us, we have to be brave enough to view ourselves more objectively, i.e., from the eyes of an outsider who has no particular stake in the matter.

Discussing the first principle of concentration of wealth and power, Chomsky says:

Imagine yourself in an outside position, looking from Mars. What do you see?  In the United States, there are professed values, like democracy. In a democracy, public opinion is gonna have some influence on policy. And, then, the government carries out actions determined by the population. That’s what democracy means.

The word “democracy” refers to an ideal, but we often use the word in the sense of an actual political system; the distinction is important to keep in mind. Since the word has acquired positive connotations, we tend to describe what we like in politics as “democratic” and what we don’t like as “undemocratic,” and we usually make such pronouncements because of our prejudices rather than on the basis of good reasons. Since democracy is an ideal, any actual political system is best evaluated in terms of how closely the reality of the system approximates that ideal. Furthermore, the degree to which a political system embodies the ideal of democracy cannot be something that we assume a priori but something that we must judge based on our observation of the actual performance of the system.

Thus, it would not be very helpful to ask whether or not the American political system is democratic; we ought to ask, instead, exactly how democratic is it? To answer this question, we have to judge the empirical reality of the American political system against some given standard of ideal democracy. It turns out that there are two such standards at our disposal, viz., what we have been told already exists, and what we think it ought to be. Consequently, our question regarding the American political system bifurcates as follows: (1) Is it as democratic as it wants us to believe? (2) Is it as democratic as it ought to be?

Noam Chomsky would respond to both of the above questions with a resounding “no.” He would then go on to present what can be accurately described as an overwhelming amount evidence in his support.The evidence Chomsky has presented over the last half-century is at least ten times as much as any court or tribunal could possibly require for reaching a guilty verdict. For anyone who is objective enough to look dispassionately at the evidence, the conclusion is unavoidable: The United States not only falls considerably short of how democratic it should—and definitely could—become, it is light years away from how democratic it claims to be, or, indeed, what most of its citizens have been led to believe that it already is.

Consider the following premises:

  1. A political system is democratic insofar as it provides effective ways for the public to influence and shape government policy.
  2. In a society with gross inequality of wealth and power, a small minority gains most of the advantages while depriving the vast majority of its rightful share of resources.

I believe that these premises are uncontroversial, and I invite you to examine them carefully before deciding for yourself. If you agree that they are true, it follows that democracy and inequality are mutually exclusive states of affairs. If a given population is able to influence and shape government policy, which is the very definition of democracy, it would never allow a small minority to enjoy most of the wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority. If the majority of a population is deprived while a minority flourishes, such an arrangement cannot possibly exist with the consent and willing acquiescence of the majority; it can only exist through imposition from the outside. Inequality and democracy, in other words, are inversely related. As a society becomes more democratic, we would expect it to also become more egalitarian. Conversely, to the extent that a society allows wealth and power to concentrate in the hands of a small number of people, we would be correct in attributing this to a relative lack of democracy.

Most Americans tend to view the rising inequality and declining democracy in their society as unfortunate deviations from the ideas and ideals of the Founding Fathers, as violations of the spirit of the Constitution if not its letter, and as corruptions of what was originally a state of democratic perfection. Due to their reverence for the mythic past that has been instilled through years of socialization, it is hard for them to recognize that the American political system was never intended to maximize democracy or minimize inequality; in fact, the exact opposite is true.


Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that the incompatibility between democracy and inequality is not a new discovery; Aristotle had identified this problem as far back as the fourth century BCE. The solution, in his view, was to reduce inequality. Writing in Politics, Aristotle proposed:

… the truly democratic statesman must study how the multitude may be saved from extreme poverty; for this is what causes democracy to be corrupt. Measures must therefore be contrived that may bring about lasting prosperity. And since this is advantageous also for the well-to-do, the proper course is to collect all the proceeds of the revenues into a fund and distribute this in lump sums to the needy, best of all, if one can, in sums large enough for acquiring a small estate, or, failing this, to serve as capital for trade or husbandry, and if this is not possible for all, at all events to distribute the money by tribes or some other division of the population in turn … (6.1320a-b).

The Founding Fathers—or, more specifically, the Framers of the Constitution—were fully cognizant of this tension between inequality and democracy, but they chose a solution diametrically opposite to the one proposed by Aristotle. They decided to keep democracy at a bare minimum so that inequality could be maintained. The Framers were land-owning elite who viewed their own class as representing the rational and enlightened element of the nascent American society, inherently superior to the rest of the population. As such, they were no fans of participatory democracy or proponents of a fair distribution of wealth. They feared democracy because, in their minds, it represented the anti-social tendencies of debt resistance, peasant uprising, breakdown of established authority, redistribution of wealth, and the danger of states printing their own paper money. John Adams famously said: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” John Jay, the President of the Continental Congress and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, expressed the conventional wisdom of his peers in this pithy dictum: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

In the eighteenth century, the term “democracy” was used almost exclusively in a negative sense—it suggested such horrors as social chaos, mob rule, and lack of government. Charles and Mary Beard, pioneering historian couple, observed the following in their book America in Midpassage (vol. 2), published in 1939:

At no time, at no place, in solemn convention assembled, through no chosen agents, had the American people officially proclaimed the United States to be a democracy. The Constitution did not contain the word or any word lending countenance to it, except possibly the mention of “We, the people” in the preamble. … When the Constitution was framed, no respectable person called himself or herself a democrat.

It took almost fifty years before “democracy” acquired the positive but very limited sense of popular representation. 

James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, was a big defender of the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority; what is often forgotten, however, is that by “minority” he meant the rich land-owners, whose property rights he wanted to safeguard against the egalitarian demands of the “majority,” the masses of ordinary people. During one of the debates of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, Madison said:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, —when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation.Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.

Madison foresaw that the land-owning minority of his time was going to further shrink while the numbers of the working class will increase due to the growth of trade and manufacturing. If genuine democracy were established, it would only empower the poor majority to eventually demand—and in all likelihood achieve—a greater share in both wealth and political influence. He argued, therefore, that the Constitution of the American republic ought to be designed in such a way as to permanently limit democracy and to ensure that wealth and power remains concentrated in the hands of the rational and enlightened elites. One of the main mechanisms through which this was to be achieved was the Senate. Madison argued that “the Senate ought to come from, and represent, the wealth of the nation.” The U.S. Senate was modeled after the aristocratic British institution, the “House of Lords,” and, unlike the House of Representatives, the members of the Senate were to be chosen by State governments. The Senate was given greater power than the House, so it could play its assigned role of safeguarding the interests of the establishment by acting as a check on the aspirations of the popularly elected House of Representatives. It was only in 1913, during the Progressive Era, that an amendment to the Constitution allowed direct election of the Senators, though the amendment did not touch the other undemocratic features of the Senate.


The American political system was designed to create and maintain a constitutional republic, i.e., a state that is run according to the rule of law and not by the arbitrary whims of a monarch—hence the system of checks and balance. Government by representation was one element in the architecture of the republic, but there was no room for allowing or encouraging direct participation; the ideal before the Framers was the Roman Republic, not Athenian democracy. Elsewhere, Chomsky quotes Gordon S. Wood, a leading authority on early American history, who reached the following conclusion in his book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787: “The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period ….” In the late eighteenth century, the goal of the American political elite was to make sure that rational and enlightened elements would remain in charge of the republic—though only land-owning white men were believed to be rational and enlightened enough for this purpose. The ideal of a representative government was therefore conceived in rather narrow and limited terms. Over the next two centuries, the center of concentrated wealth gradually shifted away from traditional land-owners, first to the entrepreneur class and then to banks and large corporations. Not surprisingly, this migration of concentrated wealth was accompanied by an identical migration of concentrated power.

In contemporary United States, the mutually reinforcing relationship between the concentration of power and the concentration of wealth is worth examining. According to Chomsky:

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of power, particularly so as the cost of elections skyrockets, which kind of forces the political parties into the pockets of major corporations.And this political power quickly translates into legislation that increases the concentration of wealth.So, fiscal policy, like tax policy, deregulation, rules for corporate governance, a whole variety of measures, political measures designed to increase the concentration of wealth and power, which in turn yields more political power do the same thing. And that’s what we’ve been seeing. So we have this kind of vicious cycle in progress.

Consider the steps in the positive feedback loop that’s built into the system:

  1. To successfully run for public office, candidates require extensive publicity, which requires money; the cost of running a campaign increases every year.
  2. Wealthy individuals can contribute a lot more money to election campaigns than ordinary constituents.
  3. Candidates (and political parties) ask for, and receive, the required sums of money from the wealthy, which allows the candidates to win elections.
  4. In return for their financial contributions, the wealthy donors ask that government policy, including laws, be made favorable to their interests.
  5. The public officials and lawmakers do the bidding of their donors so they can continue receiving the donations they need to run in the next election.
  6. With business-friendly policies and laws in place, the rich are able to become increasingly richer.
  7. As wealth accumulates in the hands of the already rich, they are able to buy even more influence in the government.

money and legislation

Once again, Chomsky notes that the close relationship between the concentration of wealth and the concentration of power is not a new discovery. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith pointed out that the economic policies in England were designed to serve the interests of the “merchants and manufacturers,” whom he saw as the “principal architects” of the economic system. In his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith wrote:

It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects. In the mercantile regulations . . . the interest of our manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to; and the interest, not so much of the consumers, as that of some other sets of producers, has been sacrificed to it.

Elsewhere in the same book, Smith noted that the business leaders of his time, the merchants and manufacturers, had no inclination to share any of their wealth with the rest of their country’s population. Their actions were aimed at increasing their own wealth at the expense of everyone else. For “the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures” had

gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons.

In Smith’s time, the merchants and manufacturers constituted the selfish minority that acted as “masters of mankind.” Today, as Chomsky notes, “it’s the financial institutions and the multinational corporations” that are playing the same role. “And they are following the vile maxim:  all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. They’re just going to pursue policies that benefit them and harm everyone else.”

The history of the United States, therefore, is the history of a constant struggle between the “masters of mankind” and the rest of us. Much of the democracy that does exist has not been the free gift bestowed by the system but rather the outcome of popular pressures,  in some cases of long and arduous struggles carried out by mass movements. Most Constitutional amendments and several changes in political institutions and processes fall in this category. In Chomsky’s words, “there’s been an ongoing clash between pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” Since the struggle is ongoing, it follows that as the masses win a few victories here and there, the elite would try to reverse those victories as much as possible. Democracy is not something we achieve once and for all; it has to be gained over and over again because we are constantly losing it to reactionary forces. The lesson here is that the masses cannot afford to become complacent once they’ve acquired some rights and freedoms, for those rights and freedoms are always under attack by the elite—and so the struggle continues.

Requiem for the American Dream (1)

“Requiem for the American Dream” (73 minutes; 2015) is a documentary film by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, based entirely on interviews that the filmmakers conducted with Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist and political commentator, over a period of four years—along with some historical footage and cool animations. According to its official storyline, the film is supposed to be “the definitive discourse with Noam Chomsky,” intended to illuminate the processes and mechanisms that are responsible for creating and maintaining an unprecedented “concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few” in the United States.

RequiemThe premises of the documentary are fairly straightforward: (1) income inequality has been a long-standing feature of American society, but (2) it has become increasingly worse since the 1970s, which is due to (3) a massive concentration of wealth in a tiny segment of the population, since (4) under capitalism, most of the income comes from wealth. Given these premises, which are easy to establish empirically, the question arises: How did we end up in this situation? What are the processes and mechanisms through which our present state of unprecedented inequality has come about? This is precisely the question that the film seeks to answer. The question has more than academic significance, since no attempt to reverse the trend towards inequality can be successful if it doesn’t take into account the forces responsible for causing and maintaining it in the first place.

If you are already familiar with Chomsky’s political ideas through his countless speeches, interviews, essays, and books, you won’t find a lot of fresh material in “Requiem.” If you are new to Chomsky, however, the film will introduce you to a whole new way of looking at and making sense of the world. But even if you belong to the former group, the potential benefit of this documentary cannot be overstated. The value of the film does not necessarily lie in what Chomsky has to say—he has been saying the same things for a long time—but in how his various ideas have been organized by the filmmakers. What makes “Requiem” worth watching, even for long-time Chomsky fans, is the way in which the filmmakers have selected just the right snippets from the vast amount of interview footage, and the way in which they have put those snippets together under specific categories. The result is a rich and insightful description of the complex processes and mechanisms responsible for the concentration of wealth and power—all in the relatively easy-to-digest form of ten principles.

Ten Principles

Taken together, these ten principles reveal the highly consequential, but normally hidden, social machinery that continuously enriches the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. It is this social machinery that many people tend to blame as the main cause of their misery—the much despised but poorly understood set of processes and mechanisms that we call “the system.” The social machinery responsible for making the rich richer and the poor poorer is easy to grasp with the help of a competent teacher, which is the role Chomsky plays in the film, but is hard to understand otherwise, partly due to the fog of obfuscation produced by the same machinery.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “the system” is that it functions right before our eyes and in broad daylight—there is no conspiracy by the Illuminati or another secretive group of elites—but somehow still manages to confuse and mystify its victims on a staggering scale. It hides in plain sight, which is both its strength as well as its main weakness; for once the curtain has been raised and you’ve seen the knobs and dials, there is no going back.

Each of the ten principles of concentration of wealth and power deserve a closer examination, but here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Reduce Democracy
  2. Shape Ideology
  3. Redesign the Economy
  4. Shift the Burden
  5. Attack Solidarity
  6. Run the Regulators
  7. Engineer Elections
  8. Keep the Rabble in Line
  9. Manufacture Consent
  10. Marginalize the Population

Earth-Honoring Faith (1)

Rasmussen_bookLarry L. Rasmussen is a prominent Christian ethicist and the author of numerous books, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (1972), Moral Fragments and Moral Community (1993), and Earth Community, Earth Ethics (1996). (I remember reading the last mentioned book during my first semester of graduate school in the fall of 1999.) Rasmussen served as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1986 until his retirement in 2004. In his latest book, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (2013), Rasmussen offers a wide-ranging exploration of the ecological predicament of humanity, presenting what he believes to be the essential building-blocks for a new kind of religious ethic intended to inspire and empower the world’s religious communities to address that predicament.

Earth-Honoring Faith is a challenging book, not only because of its length (400 plus pages) but also because of the depth and breadth of the topics and themes it covers. The presentation is multi-disciplinary and contains numerous lengthy digressions; Rasmussen likes to take his sweet time as he painstakingly builds up each of his arguments, drawing upon a large number of both contemporary and ancient sources, the diversity of which is clearly reflected in his copious (and very informative) endnotes. This is both a strength of the book as well as a possible weakness; a novice or half-committed reader can easily get lost in the complex labyrinth of names and concepts, giving up prematurely. Yet, a serious effort to engage with the text is likely to reward the reader in unanticipated ways. Overall, Earth-Honoring Faith can be seen as the product of a lifetime of research and reflection on the part of its author, a work that demands from the reader nothing short of a similar investment of sustained attention and thoughtful engagement.

It would be presumptuous of me, therefore, to try and condense the contents of the entire book in a few blog posts. Due to the richness of Rasmussen’s text, any such attempt is likely to distort rather than illuminate. What I would like to do, instead, is to summarize and paraphrase those sections of the book that I’ve personally found most interesting. In doing so, I would probably have to jump back and forth through the text, rather than strictly follow the order of the author’s own presentation. Basically, this is going to be a subjective, and highly selective, interpretation, with no pretension of either complete objectivity or anything close to thoroughness. Furthermore, since my plan is to eventually write a full-fledged response to Rasmussen’s proposal of an “earth-honoring faith,” these blog posts are also intended as my preliminary attempts to understand the significance of his arguments, as well to help me figure out how I feel about them.

I will begin with a brief outline/overview of the book. Earth-Honoring Faith is divided into two main parts. The first part deals with four fundamental questions:

  1. What kind of creatures are we? (We are bio-social beings who use symbols and seek meaning; we are moral by nature but not infallible.)
  2. What is the state of the world we are living in? (Our world is at the brink of ecological collapse because of our own misguided choices.)
  3. What kind of faith should we look for? (We ought to seek a faith that honors the earth and allows us to live in harmony with the rest of nature.)
  4. What sort of ethic do we need? (We need a new kind of religious ethic that invests nature with sacred value and meaning.)

In the first part of the book, Rasmussen argues that the modern industrial-capitalist path of humanity has led us into a truly disastrous situation, and that business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. Humanity needs to change its ways. This involves giving up certain habits of thoughts and action, and adopting new ones. Since we don’t like the consequences that have resulted from our recent choices, we need to learn how to make alternative choices. If one were to imagine the modern, global human civilization as analogous to a huge ship traveling at high speed toward certain disaster, then our task is to turn the ship around as quickly as possible, despite its tremendous momentum. For Rasmussen, the required turn-around involves a number of “long-haul transition,” as listed below:

  1. A perspectival transition (characterized by a reenchantment of the natural world)
  2. An economic transition (so that economic activity does not exceed the earth’s carrying capacity and other natural limits)
  3. A demographic transition (involving a reduction in the total human population as well as the size of each person’s ecological footprint)
  4. A polity transition (involving a shift away from capitalism, and a democratizing of social, political, and economic power)
  5. A policy transition (characterized by adoption of integrated policies that address societal and ecological concerns together)
  6. A religious and moral transition (so that religious communities promote an earth-honoring faith, and religious ethic includes the care of creation)

In order to bring about these transitions, Rasmussen argues, humanity is going to need an earth-honoring faith, as well as a corresponding moral framework needed to realize that faith into concrete practice.

In the second part of the book, Rasmussen offers an inventory of key religious resources necessary for developing the required religious ethic. Even though Rasmussen’s focus is on Christianity, he provides numerous illustrations from non-Christian traditions as well, emphasizing that these resources are not limited to any one tradition. His choice of the most appropriate religious resources for this purpose seems to be at least partly guided by their perceived opposition to, and their incompatibility with, the dominant habits of thought and action that characterize the modern industrial-capitalist society. The basic idea seems to be that certain specific religious teachings, if properly revived, will be able to counteract certain specific, and highly egregious, tendencies of our ecologically destructive civilization.

In the second half of the book, therefore, Rasmussen proposes five essential elements for constructing a new moral framework that would help the world’s religious communities realize an earth-honoring faith. These are:

  1. Asceticism (as opposed to consumerism)
  2. Sacramentalism (as opposed to commodification)
  3. Mysticism (as opposed to alienation)
  4. Prophetic-Liberative Practices (as opposed to oppression)
  5. Wisdom (as opposed to folly)

If and when I return to this project, I will discuss each of these five elements, mainly by drawing upon the second part of Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-honoring Faith. I’m not sure when that will happen, if at all, so don’t hold your breath.

The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (4)

In chapter 5 of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (titled “The Ideology of Capital”), Heilbroner discusses the role of ideology under capitalism, as seen in three different areas of social life: economic, political, and cultural.

Heilbroner defines ideology as a system of “thought and belief by which dominant classes explain to themselves how their social system operates and what principles it exemplifies” (p. 108). He emphasizes that an ideology is not the same thing as propaganda, which is consciously designed to manipulate people; ideology, in contrast, is not intended to deceive but to enlighten. In other words, “the purpose of an ideology is not to mystify but to clarify; not to mislead the lower classes but to enlighten all classes, in particular the ruling class” (p. 117). Ideology is an explanation that the dominant class uses to rationalize its own behavior, explaining to itself how its actions are morally righteous as well as utterly necessary for the greater good of society. Ideology is the lens “through which the ruling class observes its own actions” (p. 117) and finds them to be justified, meaningful, important, and praiseworthy.

It’s important to note that ideology is not unique to capitalism; every exploitative system requires an ideology to justify the status quo. As the mode of exploitation changes, however, so must the specific form of ideology. In both imperial and feudal societies, the extraction of surplus was legitimized primarily through religious beliefs and symbols; in the capitalist social formation, in contrast, the ideology generally takes a secular form.

Since ideology is an interpretation of social reality that is produced by the ruling class and is intended for the ruling class, it ignores and/or conceals all those aspects of social reality that are either irrelevant or inconvenient from the viewpoint of the ruling class. The power of ideology lies in its ability to provide a convincing picture of social reality; this picture presents itself as the complete, unadorned truth, while actually being a particular interpretation of social reality that serves a particular set of class interests.

Ideology in the Economic Sphere

How does the ideology of capital function within the economic realm? One of the central attributes of capital is its imperative to expand, and this requires that the pursuit and accumulation of wealth be considered a morally desirable trait. In every precapitalist society,” Heilbroner notes, “we find acquisitive activity disliked or despised” for a variety of reasons. This was particularly true of medieval Christian societies, where the charging of interest was a sin and earning anything more than a small profit was a serious offence. For capitalism to become the dominant force, the status of avarice in the popular mind had to change from vice to virtue. As feudalism began to crumble with the rise of the merchant class, people’s beliefs about the legitimacy of interest, profit, and acquisitiveness also began to transform. By the 17th and 18th centuries, a new belief system had started to take root that viewed acquisitive behavior in a positive light. Heilbroner shows that this metamorphosis happened by means of two simultaneous but separate developments. First, avarice was gradually reinterpreted not as a “passion” but as an “interest.” Citing the work of Albert Otto Hirschmann (The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments For Capitalism Before Its Triumph, 1977), Heilbroner writes that “the drive for wealth was perceived as a calming influence compared with the unruly disposition over which no similar rational, calculating attribute exerted its restraints” (p. 110). Second, political economy (or “economics,” as it is now called) made its appearance as a serious academic discipline. Heilbroner writes that the discipline of political economy emerged as “an explanation of how the commercial or nascent industrial system works, from the point of view of the ruling class” (his italics). This was not a matter of “willful distortion,” Heilbroner cautions, but simply the result of a selective interpretation of social reality from a particular perspective, that of the ruling class.

The “science” of Economics has had an ideological aspect to it from the very beginning. For Heilbroner, it is precisely for this reason that mainstream Economics has no understanding of how surplus is systematically extracted from the production process and transferred to a small dominant class.

Heilbroner goes on to show a few glimpses of the intellectual process that created the ideology of capitalism, with particular reference to the writings of John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, 1689) and Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). In the early 19th century, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism established the principle that the pursuit of individual self-interest was the key to achieving the greatest happiness for everyone. This “utilitarian framework provided the final resolution of the moral dilemmas of the economic process by its assertion that whatever served the individual served society.” From there, one only had to take a simple step to reach the conclusion that “whatever created a profit (and thereby served the individual capitalist) also served society” (p. 115). The pursuit of individual self-interest ceased to be a sin and became, instead, a positive social value.

Heilbroner explains that there have been two major consequences of the ideology of capitalism within the economic realm. First, it has provided the dominant class “the moral self-assurance without which it could not carry on its historic mission with such dedicated conviction” (p. 117). Second, it has established the belief that “moral and aesthetic criteria . . . are without relevance within the realm of economic activity” (p. 118).  As already noted, capitalism is characterized by a process of “relentless commercialization” that continuously brings more and more of the previously self-determined aspects of private life under the regime of capital (pp. 117-118). The process of commercialization — which is “perhaps the single most self-destructive process of modern capitalist civilization” — is itself a consequence of commodification, i.e., “the continuous search of business for areas of social activity that can be subsumed within the capital-generating circuit” (p. 118). The only way to control these inherent tendencies of capitalism is through appealing to values higher than that of profit, but the ideology of capitalism refuses to recognize that any such values are relevant in the economic sphere. Through the lens of capitalist ideology, any legal activity that creates wealth appears as unconditionally desirable, even if the consequences of that activity are morally questionable and/or repugnant to human sensibilities.

Ideology in the Political Sphere

The second main area of social life where capitalist ideology plays a significant role is the political sphere. Heilbroner begins by noting the importance of legitimacy for any political system, calling it the “indispensable requirement for the effective exercise of political authority.” In precapitalist societies, religion was the main source of political legitimacy. In such societies, the “inherent legitimacy of government itself” was taken for granted, though the legitimacy of individual rulers was subject to challenge. Under capitalism, in contrast, government is viewed as a human creation that comes into being when a group of individuals “bands together for their mutual safety and protection” (p. 119) by means of a social contract. In precapitalist societies, the individual has no real existence apart from the community, but under capitalism “he or she is imagined to be a self-sufficient cell from which a living social organism is constructed” (p. 120). Heilbroner contends that the ideological element in “this political conception is not just its fictive history but the assumptions about the nature of the ‘individuals’ who meet to form governments.” Such a political narrative imagines human beings as isolated units who could exist by themselves in some kind of a vacuum, without any social connections and without being subject to any social influence. They are further imagined as “coexisting in a state of latent hostility and suspicion,” interacting only “through market exchanges and contractual obligations.” According to Heilbroner, this conception of the “monadic individual is foundational for many aspects of bourgeois ideology,” including the “premise of its economics” (p. 120). More importantly, it is the very basis for political liberalism.

The central idea of political liberalism is that political authority ought to be restricted as much as possible, in order to allow “the largest possible space” for the individual to exercise his or her free choice. For this to happen, the government must exercise “a self-inhibitory discipline, withdrawing from areas previously occupied by state authority and creating legal barriers to secure those liberated territories for their inhabitants’ unfettered use” (p. 121). So far so good. But when political liberalism emphasizes the need for expanding and safeguarding the freedom of the individual to determine his or her own actions, exactly what sort of action are we talking about? The ideological element in political liberalism is exposed when we notice that the particular kind of free choice at issue here is “the economic act of participating in the market bargain,” and that this is precisely the arena in which “the order-bestowing functions of government have been curtailed.” This doesn’t mean that political liberalism was not concerned with liberating the workers from a variety of “legally enforceable subservience,” but this shouldn’t detract us from the fact that the main beneficiary of the liberal reform was always intended to be “the merchant or nascent industrial capitalist” (p. 121). The principal theorists of political liberalism — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith — all agree that the main purpose of government is the preservation of private property (p. 122). Heilbroner explains the parallel roles played by Economics and political liberalism, as follows:

Economics . . . explains the positive effects of a generalized search for capital and “explains away” any inhibitory reservations with respect to the moral consequences of unleashing the acquisitive drive through society. Political liberalism explains the appropriate activities of the governing branch as the partner of a society that has already accepted and legitimated individual accumulation.

Next, Heilbroner tackles the problem of the relationship between political liberalism and democracy. He is interested in understanding how that question has been understood, not how it has been answered. The question can be framed as follows: Does the separation between the political and economic spheres have any causal connection with the achievement of political freedoms in the broad sense? Historically, no clear-cut answer can be given, suggesting that the relationship between the two is complex. There have been regimes where capitalism coexisted with lack of democracy, and many such regimes still exist. One can still generalize, Heilbroner argues, that “political freedom in modern times . . . has only appeared in capitalist states.” That is to say, “democratic liberties have not yet appeared, except fleetingly, in any nation that has declared itself to be fundamentally anticapitalist” (p. 126). Even though capitalism does not always produce democracy, anticapitalist regimes have always been undemocratic and repressive. How does one explain this state of affairs?

Political liberalism argues that the separation of the economic and political spheres is the key to achieving political freedoms, since it prevents the government from enforcing “its will through economic sanctions” (p. 126). Heilbroner acknowledges the strength of this argument, but still feels the necessity of subjecting it to closer scrutiny, in order to detect whether the argument has any ideological elements.

There are three main points to note in this regard. First of all, we should recognize that “capital itself has no inherent dependence on or affinity to political freedom.” This is because capital is primarily “oriented to the creation of profit, not to the attainment of freedom” (p. 127). Capital wants nothing more than its own continuous accumulation; it will support any state policy that will enhance the M-C-M’ circuit and resist any policy that will cause it to slow down.

Second, when political liberalism champions the freedom of the individual, we need to know exactly what kind of freedoms are being considered. Typically, we hear about “the pressures of state-imposed conformity that destroy the individual’s capacity for independence and self-development.” It is true that political liberalism has significantly reduced the state’s ability to coerce the individual, and it should be applauded for that achievement. At the same time, it is also true that the state is not the only mechanism for curtailing “the individual’s capacity for independence and self-development,” for “the pressures of the marketplace and of the ethos of capitalism also erode these capacities significantly” (p. 128). Yet, we don’t normally notice these latter pressures to conform.

Third, when it comes to the rights of the individual under the regime of capital, there is a double standard in how these rights are conceptualized and applied. Thus, if citizens are prevented from voting “on the determination of national or local affairs,” it is condemned as a violation of their rights. At the same time, it is considered perfectly legitimate to deny the same citizens “the opportunity to cast a vote on the determination of the affairs of the company that employs them.” Similarly, the democratic idea of “one person, one vote” is applied in the political sphere but not in the marketplace, where “every market participant may rightly cast as many votes as his or wealth permits” (p. 129).

Hielbroner acknowledges the positive contributions of political liberalism in championing the individual’s freedoms and rights, but he also emphasizes its ideological elements by noting the asymmetric way in which these freedoms and rights are conceptualized and applied.

Political and intellectual liberties are perhaps the greatest bourgeois civilizational triumphs. Nevertheless they are bourgeois triumphs; and the ideology that tends to depict them in absolute terms becomes evident when we reflect only on the limitations but the definitions of the freedoms that have been won. (p. 129)

Ideology in the Cultural Sphere

The term “culture,” according to Heilbroner, covers “the diffuse values, the style of art and thought, unconscious customs, and general outlook of the system.” The culture produced and developed by the bourgeoisie has always been “extraordinarily rich, brilliant, and diverse,” and so it cannot be reduced to a single idea or tendency. There are certain aspects of the bourgeois culture, however, that show a remarkable influence of — and compatibility with — the needs and interests of capital. From this latter category, Heilbroner chooses to discusses an aspect of culture that has not received adequate attention,” that is, “the bourgeois attitude toward nature” (p. 132).

In sharp contrast to the dominant culture under capitalism, the cultures of most precapitalist societies are characterized with a “sacred view of the world.” In this view, “the earth is seen . . . as peopled with spirits and living presences, suffused with an animism that inhabits every rock as well as every living thing.” Such a world is often seen as possessing its own vitality and subjectivity, it “is endowed with the capacity for suffering and rejoicing, for vengeance and for beneficence.” According to these cultures, the world “exists to be cajoled, propitiated, rewarded, and thanked.” It is “not to be abused, invaded, violated, or ignored” (p. 133). The ancient Israelite religion inaugurated a “striking departure from this animistic” view of the world, which continued under Christianity (and Islam). Nature became “desacralized and objectified,” and it became possible — and even divinely mandated — to exploit the natural world for human ends. Capitalism did not invent this objectification of nature; it did, however, provide a cultural context that encouraged an increasingly rational and utilitarian approach to nature, reducing it “to the purely abstract considerations of income statements and balance sheets” (p. 134).

The objectification of nature — and human labor — has not been the sole result of the pressures created by the profit motive, for a key role has been played by modern science. Citing Max Weber, Heilbroner contends that the reification of nature has received intellectual support by the disenchanted view of the world that modern science propagated. This is a view that “reduces the objects in the material world to atoms and particles, propelled or held in place by ‘forces’ capable of being described by mathematics but no longer by art or imagery” (pp. 134-135). In the modern world, science provides the authoritative explanation of how the world works, fulfilling a critical social function that was served by religion in past civilizations. Science is not an ideology in the sense of a belief system that overtly supports certain class interests; rather, the ideological element of science lies in its tendency to desacralize the world, particularly through the concept of “an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality” (p. 135). An ever-increasing exploitation of nature that is unchecked by any moral considerations would have been simply unimaginable in a world where people approached nature “with awe and veneration.” For capitalism to become dominant, in other words, nature had to be emptied of all sacred value. Insofar as modern science helps in creating a “view of nature as object, the obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man,” it engenders “a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material world,” and therefore plays an ideological role in the service of capital accumulation (p. 135). Under capitalism, the exploitation of nature is only the flip side of the exploitation of human labor.

Another important characteristic of bourgeois culture is its capacity to assimilate and co-opt anticapitalist ideas by turning them into commodities. Under capitalism, it is common for cultural products like books, music, movies, and fashions to start their lives as protests against the capitalist establishment and then gradually become part of the same establishment as means of capital accumulation. Heilbroner makes two important comments regarding this phenomenon. First, he argues that capitalism’s “extraordinary tolerance for heretical, skeptical, or disconcerting thought and cultural activity is a direct consequence of the desacralization” mentioned above (p. 138). Second, he contends that the unprecedented intellectual freedom offered by the capitalist social formation is closely related to capitalism’s tendency toward commodification; it is precisely because ideas can be turned into commodities that “they can be so lightly and indifferently regarded.” Under capitalism, “the contest of thoughts” is depicted as a competition in the “marketplace of ideas,” thereby providing a remarkable degree of protection to dissenting views. Commodification and desacralization work together to create an extraordinary freedom for the intellect. In contrast, “a culture based on sacred beliefs would have great difficulty in tolerating continuous threats to the validity and sanctity of its world view” (p. 139).

The downside of intellectual freedom within capitalist culture is the resulting cacophony of opposing ideas. As a result, capitalist ideology “lacks the basis of a religious certainty, the granite in which other world views are imprisoned but on which they can build with utter confidence.” Capitalism, Heilbroner notes, “has no intrinsic moral dimension, no vision of art or idea aside from the commodity form in which it is embodied.” Under the regime of capital, “ideas thrive but morality languishes.” The bourgeois culture is rich and diverse, but it fails to produce any “organizing moral force” (p. 140).

The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (3)

Chapter 4 of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is titled “The Role of the State.” The issue here is the nature of the relationship between two kinds of power, political and economic.

Heilbroner begins by noting that a social formation is a complex totality consisting of many different elements; some of these elements function harmoniously while others may be in conflict with each other. Obviously, it would be a mistake to describe any given social formation by paying attention only to its most obvious or most active element. At the same time, all of the various elements of a social formation should not receive the same amount of attention, for some of them play a more central role than others in determining its nature and logic. Indeed, every social formation is characterized by a “central organizing principle,” i.e., a key element that exerts a disproportional influence over all other aspects of society. In the case of capitalist social formation, that principle is “capital with its self-expanding attributes” (p. 79). While we don’t want to reduce everything that happens in a capitalist social formation to the sole influence of capital, we cannot afford to ignore its pervasive influence either. Heilbroner summarizes his point as follows:

Thus it seems to me that the failure to accord centrality to one principle and its embodying institutions — not, of course, the same ones for all social formations — robs social analysis of its clarificatory potential as gravely as the dogmatic insistence that all attributes of any given society can be explained as mere epiphenomena of its mode of production or of any other organizing structure. (p. 83)

Given that capital is “the dominating principle” of a capitalist social formation, Heilbroner argues, its influence cannot possibly remain restricted to the economic sphere alone; rather, it “must color and infiltrate the institutions and beliefs that lie beyond its immediate ambit of operation” (p. 84). This does not mean that capital acts like a puppet-master, controlling all of our beliefs and behaviors in a mechanical or deterministic way. Heilbroner’s point, rather, is that we cannot underestimate capital’s influence over all aspects of society without compromising our understanding of what’s really going on around us. In order to establish that capital is indeed the central organizing principle of modern societies, we need not argue that powerful interests other than those of capital either do not exist or are too weak to have any effect; rather, we only need to show that there is an overall compatibility between the demands of capital and those of other interests. According to Heilbroner, “The influence of the economic realm on its intertwined political and social realms does not therefore involve any mechanical dependency or slavish passivity of the latter but only their congruence with, and complementarity to, the operating relationships of capital” (p. 84). While emphasizing that the “general priorities and interests” in a capitalist social formation are mostly shaped according to the needs and preferences of capital, Heilbroner acknowledges that other aspects of society do enjoy some degree of independence from the dominating influence of capital. We must, in other words, “accord to the political and ideological realms a degree of freedom to act on behalf of motives that antedate those of capital accumulation and that persist alongside it, although generally subordinated to it” (p. 85). To summarize, even though capital calls the tune, it cannot eliminate all anti-capitalist tendencies from society; its reign is pervasive but not total.

In the capitalist social formation, therefore, the state is not a mere tool in the hands of capital, though it normally does act in ways that tend to prioritize the needs and preferences of capital over all other interests. To understand this phenomenon, we must begin by comparing the properties of the economic sphere (consisting of the productive and distributive activities of society) and those of the political sphere (the realm that deals with governance).

In precapitalist societies, there is no formal boundary between economic and political spheres. There are two reasons for this: first, there is no independently existing economic sphere, and second, there is no mechanism that prevents the state from exercising its power over the processes of production and distribution (pp. 85-86). As a result, an economic sphere cannot emerge in a society unless the ruling elite or the state bureaucracy gives up some of its power and thereby allows the emergence of an independent realm that deals with production and distribution. This phenomenon began only in the tenth century, when the fall of the Roman Empire created a widespread political vacuum in which the merchant class was able to gain increasing prominence. An independent economic sphere, in other words, began to appear as a nascent phenomenon even when feudalism was still in its early stages. This was a slow process that took several hundred years to mature. Heilbroner notes:

Very gradually, there arose from the widening importance of mercantile dealings, and from the increasing dependence of all levels of society on the market mechanism, the foundations of a regime of capital. On the land, surplus continued to be gathered through the lord’s political domination over the serf, but in the towns and cities, surplus more and more welled up in the form of profits accruing to merchant traders, later in merchant guilds (p. 87).

In his book Class and Nation (1980), Samir Amin suggested that a key difference between an imperial social formation and a feudal one was that only the former was based on centralized tribute collection; he used the term “incomplete tributary society” to describe the nature of feudalism. Following Amin’s analysis, Heilbroner explains that “the logic of feudalism was to remedy its incompletion by seeking self-sufficiency through military and dynastic struggles and alliances” (p. 87). In late medieval Europe, the hundreds of autonomous political fiefdoms were feeling an enormous pressure toward unification in order to centralize tribute collection and consolidate political power. The same was true of the mercantile world. As the small political units of medieval Europe coalesced to form nation-states, the small centers of mercantile power began to combine as well; the latter phenomenon gave rise to large commercial operations that eventually turned into the modern business corporation. It’s hardly a coincidence that two of the most powerful forces of our world, i.e., capitalism and nationalism, emerged in the same place and at the same time.

In light of the above discussion, we can see that the economic sphere has come into being through a gradual process of separation from the political sphere. Instead of a single sphere that was responsible for governance as well as production and distribution, we now have two interdependent spheres. The political sphere “retained the ancient trappings and much of the military power of the original imperium and was vested with the formal responsibility of enforcing the will of the state, both through its monopoly of legal violence and its position of moral authority” (p. 88). The economic sphere took over “the task of superintending the daily work of the population of amassing the surplus” (pp. 88-89). The relationship between the two spheres, however, is clearly asymmetrical. As the economic sphere gained prominence and autonomy, constraints were placed on “the power of the state to violate the private space of the individual or to commandeer his or her property.” The state was excluded from the workings of the market, leading to “the gradual loss by the state of its right of direct access to surplus,” as well as “its command over the labor or materials, or even the money.” In effect, “even though the state retained the ultimate weaponry of rule and the authority of awe, it became dependent on the operation of its self-created republic for the nourishment of revenues” (p. 89). It is for this reason that “the regime of capital is the dominant active influence in the normal relationship between the two realms,” and that “the state is normally its obliging servant.” The state has access to a tremendous amount of violent force while capital lacks any means of direct coercion; yet, the state must “support and advance the accumulation of capital” if it is to maintain its own power (p. 90).

What all of this means is that “at the very heart of capitalism” there lies a tension that vastly complicates the relationship between state and capital. The tension results from a fundamental conflict between the logic of political power and the logic of economic power. The logic of economic power dictates that chains of production and distribution be organized solely “according to opportunities of profit,” while the logic of political power is “concerned primarily with considerations of boundaries” as well as other limits and constraints (p. 90). In precapitalist societies, the logic of political power reigned supreme. With the emergence of an autonomous economic sphere, the logic of political power was increasingly disrupted as society’s surplus began to flow not toward the centers of political power but toward those of economic power.

Despite the state’s control over the means of mass surveillance and legitimized violence, the logic of economic power is such that it often brings capital “into conflict with, or beyond the effective control of, the state” (p. 93). This allows capital to become “increasingly capable of defying, or of existing ‘above,’ the state.” Basically, a “network of commodity flows” comes into existence that “cuts through the boundaries of national sovereignty,” forming an increasingly autonomous system capable of operating “according to the dictates of its own logic, with less and less regard for those of politics” (p. 94). As the logic of economic power gains momentum, capital becomes increasingly able to shape and influence all aspects of society, while the “full powers of the state . . . remain largely in the background.” It’s only during “periods of overt internal disruption or external war” that the state exerts its full power; during such times, the state “advances the interests of capital as a natural response to the appeals of capital, as well as in a calculating fashion to promote its own peacetime strength” (p. 95).

We may generalize at this point by observing that the “basic interests of capital usually exert their sway without opposition” (p. 95). Under the capitalist social formation, the political and the economic spheres remain interdependent rivals with capital almost always prevailing over the state.

In reality, the political and economic spheres penetrate each other in a variety of ways. Exploitation, for example, is a political phenomenon. In precapitalist societies, the surplus produced by peasants and other workers is made to flow upwards to the ruling elite, and this is accomplished through the use of coercion and the threat or use of violence. In capitalist societies, on the other hand, the political and economic realms exist separately, yet the upward flow of surplus continues. The exploitation of the labor force is a political act in both cases, but its political nature becomes concealed or masked in the latter instance. Heilbroner writes that the political nature of exploitation is obvious “when a lord wrests his share from a serf’s crops” but that it “becomes invisible when the same diversion of output is carried out by the market mechanism.” The reason for the invisibility of this exploitation is the lack of direct coercion of the labor force that characterizes capitalism. It is “precisely because the worker under capitalism is free to quit and to appeal at law if the wage contract has been abrogated that the continuing exploitative diversion of surplus remains unnoticed” (p. 99). The “freedom” enjoyed by the workers under capitalism is precisely the mask that hides their exploitation.

Heilbroner then goes on to explain another characteristic of capitalism that conceals the political nature of the economic sphere. The very capacity to organize production and distribution, he points out, is an instance of political power. “The deployment of the legal authority of the capitalist within the confines of his business enterprise thus constitutes an unrecognized transfer of political power from the state into private hands” (p. 100).

Just as there are important political elements within the economic sphere, we can find economic elements within the political sphere. Thus, the power of the state is used “for the protection of activities within the economic realm.” The state ensures that the rights of private property are maintained; it also provides law and order so that the the process of production and the generation of surplus can go on without interruption (p. 101). The military and diplomatic resources of the state are routinely used to enhance and promote the interests of the economic sphere (p.103). At a more fundamental level, it is clear that the economic sphere needs a variety of goods and services for its proper functioning, but that many of these goods and services cannot be produced and maintained profitably. The state provides these goods and services at public expense; the public bears the cost while private businesses reap the resulting profits. Examples include “the network of canals, railways, highways, and airways that have played an indispensable part in capitalist growth, as well as the provision of literate and socialized work forces through public education programs, [and] the protection of public health” (p. 102). The fact that the public at large also seems to benefit from these state activities shouldn’t prevent the observer from noticing that they are meant primarily to serve the interests of capital while also strengthening the domination of the ruling elite. Indeed, the conventional distinction between “private” and “public” seems to break down at this point.

Toward the end of the chapter, Heilbroner summarizes the nature of the relationship between capital and state as follows:

Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain, although it might change dramatically; remove the state and the regime of capital would not last a day. In this sense politics is prior to economics in that domination must precede exploitation. Thus one again we encounter the tense relation of realms characteristic of the social formation in which capital calls the tune by which the state normally dances but takes for granted that the state will provide the theater within which the performance takes place. (p. 105)

The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (2)

Heilbroner begins chapter 3 (“The Regime of Capital”) by reiterating the main points from the first two chapters. He describes capitalism as a “stratified society in which the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige . . . and the expression of power.” The accumulation of capital is driven partly because it is the means for acquiring “preeminence and distinction” in society, and partly because it is the way in which “the dominant class expresses and renews its social control” (p. 53).

For Heilbroner, the “sublimation of the drive for power into the drive for capital” is not only what defines the nature of capitalism but it is also what shapes its logic. The logic of capitalism, its historical trajectory, displays a number of distinctive features that I shall summarize below.


Capitalism is inherently unstable. This results from the never-ending circuit of transformation of capital symbolized by the M-C-M’ formula. Money must be converted into commodities and commodities must be converted into money in a continuous spiral that has no logical end-point. Within this relentless circuit of transformation, the capitalist must seek “both the means and the motive to pursue an endless quest for aggrandizement.” This quest, according to Heilbroner, is “patently without rationality” and “perilously liable to bring psychological discontent” (p. 54).


In precapitalist societies, wealth is typically embodied in specific use-values, i.e., the worth of an object is judged according to its capacity to satisfy a particular human want or need. In contrast, capitalism reduces all forms of wealth to monetary terms, i.e., to exchange-values. Money becomes the common unit by which the value of an increasing number of goods and services is measured. As a result, a strict means-ends rationality comes to prevail over all other considerations, including sentimental and moral values. In precapitalist societies, the ownership of material wealth is ultimately limited by its sheer physical bulk; given the abstract nature of money, no such limits are believed to exist in the accumulation of capital.


Each capitalist must distribute some of his money to the public (employees, suppliers, etc.) in order to procure the materials and labor needed for transforming capital into commodities. Once the transformation has been accomplished, the capitalist must sell these commodities in order to win the money back from the public. But the money he spent in the process of manufacturing has now become part of a “common reservoir,” and there is no guarantee that the public will buy his products rather than those of a rival capitalist. This is because all capitalists have equal access to the common reservoir of money, i.e., to the purchasing power of the public at large. Consequently, capital is always “in a constant state of vulnerability as it passes through its never-ending circuits” of transformation (p. 56).


The process of “continuous dissolution and recapture” of capital exposes each capitalist “to the efforts of others to gain as much as possible of the public’s purchasing power,” making competition among the capitalists inevitable. This competition is “an element in the working of the system that directly stems from the nature of capital itself” (p. 57).


Because of the inevitable competition among capitalists, self-preservation becomes a significant motive that further intensifies the process of capital accumulation. Heilbroner points out that, among animals, the powerful instinct of “self-preservation is a response mobilized by a threat to existence,” while in the case of human societies “the threat is not that of death but of social diminution.” The strong urge to maintain one’s social and economic position provides an “additional stimulus” that “sharpens and intensifies” the energy that each capitalist must devote to the protection and accumulation of capital (p. 58).

Acquisitive Orientation

The desire for self-preservation under conditions of intense competition requires from each capitalist “an unrelenting concentration on the successful recapture of capital-as-money from the hands of the public” (pp. 57–58). The need to survive in a cutthroat world is “the root of the acquisitive behavior of the business world” as well as “a necessary expression of the nature of capital itself.” According to Heilbroner, the acquisitive orientation has two aspects. The first refers to “the aggressive attitude of participants in the economic sphere with respect to money-making itself,” while the second has to do with “the encouragement given to protective maneuvers.” Regarding the former, Heilbroner writes that the constant need “to recapture capital from its dissolved form encourages — indeed, requires — an antagonistic stance toward the other participants in the marketplace.” This aggressive attitude is expressed, among other things, in the attempt to reduce, as much as possible, all “human contact” in business transactions, “in order to minimize the emotional entanglements that might interfere with the necessary stance of impersonal acquisitiveness.” Concerning the latter aspect of the acquisitive orientation, Heilbroner mentions “the use of all available means to gain a competitive advantage” over rival capitalists. The most effective way to gain such an advantage is through “the development of new modes of organizing the M-C-M’ circuit in its middle link,” i.e., by “changing the manner in which commodities are gathered or made” (p. 59). This imperative drives the need to increase the efficiency of the production process as well as to create entirely novel commodities or to re-design existing ones. Much of the technological progress of the modern era can therefore be seen as an outcome of “the M-C-M’ sequence itself” (p. 60).

Commodification of Life

In capitalist societies, a great deal of what is called “economic growth” actually results from the commodification of traditionally non-commercial goods and services. Capitalism expands internally, so to speak, as more and more elements of family or community life — activities such as cooking, cleaning, recreation, and childcare — are increasingly brought under the reign of capital.

Disciplinary Pressure

The drive to expand is an integral part of the nature of capitalism; this is true not only of capitalism as a whole but also of its individual units, i.e., individual businesses. As the units of capitalism expand, they inevitably come into contact with each other, giving rise to friction and collision. Heilbroner writes that this “mutual encroachment of the M-C-M’ circuits” generates a “general magnetic pull” that exerts “disciplinary pressure” on both the capitalists and the workers. In the case of the capitalist class, Heilbroner mentions “the subordination of the capitalists’ efforts to obtain wealth to the objective requirements of ‘the market’ — that is, to the purchases of usually unknown buyers.” The capitalist cannot acquire money except through satisfying, in one way or another, “the needs or desires of the public” (p. 61–62). In other words, the capitalist must offer some sort of use-value to the customers, or they won’t buy his products. However, the capitalist is not interested in the production of use-value as an end itself, but only as a means for acquiring wealth. Yet, the capitalist has no choice but to “abide by socially imposed limits on the accumulation process.” At least according to the idealized textbook version, the capitalist is completely subordinated to market forces. “The level of wages or rents or interest that the capitalist must pay, no less than the rate of profit he can expect, is also set by ‘the market,’ and further reflects the inability of the capitalist to coerce his suppliers of services or his buyers of output” (p. 62).

How does the disciplinary pressure affect the worker class? Heilbroner contends that the “maximizing drive of capital” has a tendency to become “generalized throughout all strata of society.” Under capitalism, workers are forced to “survive in a market milieu where access to livelihood requires the acceptance of prevailing rates of pay.” In such a milieu, “the need to secure employment instills a competitive point of view with respect to earnings.” This leads the workers to exhibit the same kind of “maximizing behavior” as the capitalists, “both engaged in a struggle to gain access to society’s money-wealth and both constrained by the mutual encroachment of others in the same pursuit” (p. 63). It is interesting to note that the market basically forces both classes to behave in similar ways, despite the disparity in power. As soon as the wages rise beyond a certain level, “the lure of income as a means to the acquisition of prestige becomes a force for mobilizing workers” (p. 64).


Heilbroner identifies profit as the “life blood of capitalism.” This is so not only because profit is “the means by which individual capitals obtain their wherewithal for expansion” but also — and more importantly — because profit is “the manner in which the relation of domination is evidenced” (p. 76). The most significant way in which profit is generated under capitalism is through extraction of the “surplus derived from the activity of production.” The “key institution” that makes this extraction possible is wage labor, which is also the institution that most clearly “reflects the inequality of power at the core of capitalism.” Under capitalism, “workers are entirely free to enter or leave the work relationship as they wish” (p. 66). This creates an illusion of freedom. In order to remove this illusion, one only needs to notice the particular legal provision underlying the relationship between capital and labor that maintains its basic inequality, i.e., the assumption that “the product itself belongs to the owner of the capital resources that are used in production, not to the owners of the labor resources.” Under capitalism, the owner of the capital is the owner of the product, while those who contribute their time, skill, and energy in the production process have no right to claim ownership on the fruit of their labor. The wage relationship can therefore be seen as the “manner in which the domination of one class over another is invisibly introduced into the workings of the system” (p. 67). Heilbroner points out that this is an absolutely unique feature of capitalist social formations, since “no ancient society uses the wage labor relation as a principal means of gathering surplus” (p. 68).

How is profit generated through the domination of capital over labor? In this arrangement, it should be obvious that profit “can only come into being if the employer pays the laborer less than the value of the laborer’s product” (p. 60). In effect, “a surplus is seized from the working population for the benefit of a superior class” (p. 74). This feature of capitalism was well recognized by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, and was subsequently given particular emphasis by Karl Marx. For Heilbroner, it is perfectly clear that capitalism is based on a system of property rights, which is why profits — whether they are obtained through trading gains, exploited labor, or technological rent — are always “deemed to belong to the owners of capital, not to the owners of labor power” (p. 74).

The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (1)

Robert L. Heilbroner (1919−2005) was a historian of economic thought and a professor at the New School for Social Research. He wrote about 20 books, one of the most important of which is titled The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (1985). In writing these blog posts, my immediate purpose is to summarize/paraphrase that book, and, in the process, try to come to terms with what its author is saying. My larger purpose is to understand capitalism.

In chapter 1 (“On the Nature and Logic of Capitalism”), Heilbroner starts by asking a deceptively simple question: What is capitalism? The book consists of his attempt to answer that question. Heilbroner notes that since capitalism is hard to define, economic thinkers have often avoided answering that question altogether; they have focused, instead, on describing more concrete phenomena, such as the “business world” or the “modern industrial society.” These phenomena represent the “outward-facing reality of capitalism,” and, for this reason, are part and parcel what capitalism means. Yet, there is much more to capitalism than what appears in the day-to-day activities of business, finance, and industry. In fact, these activities are the results of forces that originate in a hidden underworld, a world that’s neither tangible nor concrete but is essential to the reality of capitalism. How do we know that such forces actually exist if we cannot observe them? We know them by their effects on the empirical world. Heilbroner uses the metaphor of a magnetic force field. When a magnet is brought close to a heap of iron filings, the later move in particular ways to form a new pattern, indicating the presence of the force field. It is true that the design produced by the magnet does not reveal all the intricacies of its invisible force field; yet, the “order-bestowing influence” of the force field is nevertheless indisputable. In the same way, Heilbroner argues, the intangible aspect of capitalism makes itself known in how it shapes and influences the design and arrangement of the observable phenomena in society.

Heilbroner accepts the conventional view that there have been four major types of “social formations” (Marx’s term) in human history, viz., primitive, imperial, feudal, and capitalist. Each of these social formations can be approached through an analysis of its peculiar “nature” and the resulting “logic.” The “nature” of a social formation “refers to the ensemble of elements that influence the behavior of its members” (p. 20). These include: (1) geography and climate, (2) drives and capacities of the human animal as a species being, and (3) institutions, organizations, and belief systems. The “logic” of a social formation can be understood as its historical path, i.e., the movements and changes that occur in the society’s various processes and configurations over time, as the outward expressions of the “potential energy created by its nature” (p. 25).

Heilbroner seems to be saying that every social formation has a particular “nature,” which, just like a magnet’s force field, is invisible and intangible. We can’t see it directly, but we always know that it’s there. Furthermore, we can begin to feel the curves and contours of this hidden underworld by examining its effects or consequences over time. This is because the “nature” of a social formation necessarily gives rise to particular tendencies or tensions that, in turn, produce “large-scale and long-lasting” changes — both institutional and cultural — in the course of history. The pattern of such changes constitutes the “logic” of the social formation. We cannot understand such “patterned changes in history” without referring to the underlying “nature” of the social formation in question (p. 26).

In chapter 2 (“The Drive to Amass Capital”), Heilbroner focuses on the nature of capitalism. To understand the social formation called capitalism, he argues, we must start by looking at its”single most important element,” i.e., its nature, which is also “the primary aspect” of its “behavioral orientation.” The nature of capitalism, Heilbroner informs his readers at the outset, “is the driving need to extract wealth from the productive activities of society in the form of capital” (p. 33).

With the exception of primitive societies that function at a subsistence level, the productive activities of any social formation will necessarily give rise to something called “surplus,” usually defined as anything produced by a society that is “over and above that required for the maintenance” of that society. Adam Smith defined surplus as the “balance of the annual produce and consumption.” Heilbroner defines it as “the difference between the volume of production needed to maintain the work force and the volume of production the work force produces” (p. 33). The production of surplus, he emphasizes, is not unique to capitalism. The difference is this: In a non-capitalist society, the surplus becomes “wealth,” and wealth is typically used by the elite to acquire “goods and services devoted to luxury consumption” as well as to gain additional political power. In the capitalist social formation, the wealth resulting from surplus is not treated as desirable for its own sake; rather, it is treated “as a means for gathering more wealth” (p. 35). This is why, Heilbroner argues, the wealth produced by the great ancient civilizations was mainly represented in “physical embodiments,” such as palaces and temples, and that these were considered “its sufficient reason for being, its final purpose.” In sharp contrast, wealth under capitalism is never acquired as an end but always as a means for its own expansion. As a result, “in capitalism wealth inhabits material things only transiently” (p. 35).

Wealth, in the form of material things or in the form of money, is not identical with capital. Wealth becomes capital only when it is part of a process that transforms money into commodities and commodities into more money. Under capitalism, the “search for wealth” does not come to an end with the acquisition of money or the acquisition of material things. Commodities must be sold in exchange for money, and money must be reinvested to produce more commodities. Karl Marx identified the “never-ending cycle” of capitalism in his famous M-C-M’ formula. This is clearly a case of what is called a “positive feedback loop,” which is also the source of the incredible dynamism of the capitalist social formation. Heilbroner writes: “Capital is therefore not a material thing but a process that uses material things as moments in its continuously dynamic existence” (pp. 36-37).

Capital is not a concrete entity; it is the representation of a particular kind of social process. Capital represents a “web of social activities that permit the continuous metamorphosis of M-C-M’ to take place.” For Heilbroner, the central relationship in this web is between two main parties: “the owners of money and goods, [which are] the momentary embodiments of capital” and “the users of these embodiments, who need them to carry on the activity of production on which their own livelihoods depend.” The ownership enjoyed by one party ensures that the relationship will always be grossly unequal. This is because legal ownership of property involves the “right to exclusion,” which means that “owners can legally refuse to allow their possessions to be used by others.” According to Heilbroner: “The critical aspect of money or capital goods as private property does not lie in the right of owners to use them in any way they wish . . . but to withhold them from use if their owners see fit.” It is this legal right of preventing others from having access to one’s property that defines the nature of the social process that is represented in capital. In other words, the core of the social relationship that brings capital into existence is domination of one group by another (p. 38), a relationship that rests on unequal power.

nature and logic of capitalismHeilbroner emphasizes that the power enjoyed by the owner of capital is qualitatively different from the power enjoyed by the political or religious authorities. The owners of capital do not have the power to imprison, execute, fine, or excommunicate. “The owner of capital is not entitled to use direct force against those who refuse to enter into engagement with him as buyer or seller” (p. 39). The domination of the merchant results from “his legal right not to sell to those who will not meet his price,” and the domination of an industrial capitalist results from “his right not to offer employment to those who will not accept his terms.” Regardless of how severe the consequences of this domination may be, Heilbroner notes, “it . . . always operates at a remove, and with a degree of voluntary submission” that is absent from precapitalist modes of domination. The distinction is important because of the following reason: “capital can exert its organizing and disciplining influence only when social conditions make the withholding of capital an act of critical social consequences” (p. 40). Put differently, the domination of capital hinges on the appearance of two distinct classes: the capitalists and the workers. The former emerges when the merchant class rises “from a subordinate position within society to a position of leverage,” by way of capturing “increasingly strategic social functions from the financing of rulers to the provisions of cities.” The latter appears when a large number of people are deprived of access to the tools and lands on which their livelihood had previously depended. In precapitalist society, “the peasant was entitled . . . to retain some portion of the crops he directly raised,” and the artisan “owned his own means of production” in the form of a cottage loom, a potter’s wheel, etc. This social arrangement had to dissolve before a worker class could emerge. The dependency relationship between the two classes results from the fact that the workers’ access to their means of livelihood could now be legally denied to them by the owners of capital. Heilbroner writes:

That altered relationship was the end product of a protracted revolution, commencing in the fifteenth century or even earlier, continuing through the nineteenth, and in some parts of the world still in progress, in which the enclosure movement, the destruction of protected crafts and guilds, the creation of a proletariat from the cellars of society, and the whirlwind forces of new technologies disrupted the social relations of older socioeconomic regimes and prepared the way for the wholly different regime of capital. (pp. 41-42)

Regardless of which forces were involved, the end result was always the same, that is, “established rights of direct access to one’s own product were replaced by new rights by which peasants and workers were legally excluded from access to their means of livelihood” (p. 42).

Next, Heilbroner notes that the relationship of domination that is represented in capital has two poles: (1) the dependency of the worker class on the capitalist class, and (2) the never-ending drive to accumulate capital. Since the former has already received a significant amount of attention from other scholars, Heilbroner says that he would focus on the later, less examined pole. He then asks the obvious question: why does this “restless and insatiable drive to accumulate capital” exists in the first place? Adam Smith had answered this question by referring to the “desire for prestige and distinction.” We have a desire to accumulate capital because it gives us prestige in our society. Heilbroner finds this answer to be relevant but insufficient. He points out that there are two main ways through which people acquire prestige: (1) through owning certain objects that are perceived to be special in a given culture, and (2) through personal qualities such as strength, courage, wisdom, and charisma. The objects in the first category could be virtually anything, depending on the culture in question. In all human cultures we find that certain inanimate things are perceived to have the capacity “to enhance the personae of their owners,” i.e., to endow them with prestige and distinction (p. 43). The drive to accumulate capital, however, can be explained only partially be appealing to the desire for prestige. It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. This is because, Heilbroner argues, “wealth differs in a crucial respect” from the two sources of prestige, i.e., ownership of prestige objects and possession of special qualities. The difference is as follows: “Prestige and distinction enlarge the authority and repute of their possessors but not necessarily their ability to force others to do their bidding” (pp. 44-45). In other words, wealth provides something extremely valuable to its owners that mere prestige ordinarily cannot, and that is power. In fact, my wealth gives me power over other people, i.e., I can make them follow my will, regardless of whether they like or respect me. When it comes to commanding obedience, power trumps prestige.

Allow me to quote Heilbroner at length:

The attribute of wealth that distinguishes it from prestige goods is that its possession confers on its owners the ability to direct and mobilize the activities of society, although it does not necessarily also confer the repute or authority of distinction. Capital calls the tune, even though an individual capitalist may be an object of contempt. Wealth therefore implies a rights of a kind that prestige objects do not have, in particular . . . the right of denying to others access to the goods that constitute wealth. These goods may enjoy no symbolic importance, but they have material importance so that control over access to them invests their owners with an attribute that goes beyond prestige and preeminence. This is power. (p. 45)

In a subsistence society, everyone has equal access to the means of survival, i.e., food, water, shelter, and safety. In such a society, there is prestige but no wealth. Thus, a skilled hunter or a shaman is likely to enjoy considerable prestige because of their personal qualities, but no one is able to own any wealth simply because the “right to exclusion” doesn’t exist. The spear or the fishing net does not belong to any one person, who could then exclude others from using them. In sharp contrast, wealth comes into existence “when the right of access of all members of society to an independent livelihood no longer prevails, so that control over this access becomes of life-giving importance.” This also means that “wealth cannot exist unless there also exists a condition of scarcity.” Here, scarcity does not refer to an “insufficiency of resources” but to an “insufficiency of means of access to resources” (p. 46). Without the “right to exclusion,” there can be no wealth; without poverty there can be no affluence.

The drive to accumulate capital is therefore inseparable from the drive to accumulate power. But why do we desire power in the first place? Heilbroner points out that the drive for power among other animals is of a different character than that found in human societies. “Domination among animals  is largely sexual in nature” and is related to natural selection; it has nothing to do with “any division of tasks or general subservience to the ‘will’ of a hegemonic individual.” In contrast, domination in human societies “entails a structured inequality of life conditions that has no parallel in the animal world” (p. 47). He argues that domination in human societies is completely unlike the hierarchies we observe in the animal kingdom, since in human societies domination involves a gross disparity of power that results in a great deal of misery and disadvantage for the majority.

What is it in human nature that can explain this state of affairs? Heilbroner finds the answer in the “prolonged infantile dependency, the uniquely and universally human experience out of which social behavior is formed” (p. 48). The human individual starts out in a state of undifferentiated fusion with the safe and nurturing maternal environment, and then develops gradually and painfully to acquire a separate and independent existence over an extended childhood. This universal human experience plays a decisive role in forming our nature and personality; it is also the source of our need to dominate as well as our need to submit.

Some individuals emerge from this childhood experience with unappeased and unappeasable needs for affect; others with a submissiveness acquired in coping with adult wills; and all with enough residue of both to give rise to a widespread empathetic understanding of domination itself, and of the needs it satisfied from above and from below. (p. 48)

For Heilbroner, the roots of domination in human societies are therefore found deep within our psyches.

Infancy is the condition from which we must all escape, and as such, the source of the emancipatory thrust that is also part of the human drama; but it is as well a condition to which we all to some degree wish to return, the prototype of the existential security that we also seek. (p. 49)

The pleasure we experience in imposing our will on others has its origin in our desire to overcome our infantile dependency, just as the pleasure of submission and obedience results from our desire to return to the same primordial state.

Heilbroner acknowledges that the above explanation for the origin of domination in human societies is incomplete and inadequate. It answers part of the question, but fails to settle it conclusively; in other words, it provides the necessary condition for domination, but not the sufficient condition. Heilbroner notes that the psychological explanation does not tell us why domination was not present from the very beginning, and why did it only emerge at a certain point in human history. Thus, even if we accept that domination is attractive, both “for those who seek it” as well as “for those who yield to it,” primarily due to the unconscious forces rooted in the experience of infantile dependency, we still have to solve the mystery as to “why humankind throughout the world took the extraordinary step of abandoning an equality of access to resources” and why did it “enter into a condition in which the great majority of individuals became more or less permanently dependent on a small minority” (p. 49). The psychological answer does not explain the emergence of inequality as a historic fact. Unfortunately, Heilbroner does not provide a satisfactory answer to this question. He suggests that, perhaps, some kind of “external factor” was responsible for pushing “self-sufficient communities into social differentiations, distinctions of rank, stratification, and finally differential access to resources.” He does note that the use of force (violence) must have played an important role in this development, as evidenced by “the universal ‘legitimation’ of property rights by military power” (p. 50).

Other scholars have done extensive work on explaining the development and expansion of domination in human societies; what they have neglected, however, is the way in which human nature itself allows for this possibility. It is human nature, characterized by the opposing elements of aggression and submissiveness in the unconscious that makes it possible for a “structure of domination” to emerge in the first place.

The Rules We Learn By

About a year ago, I stumbled upon the idea of compiling a list of rules that might help people learn better. I had noticed that I was not always as successful in my own learning efforts as I would have liked, and so I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to become a more effective learner. I had also noticed that some of my students were better at learning than others, and I wanted to find out whether the former knew something special that the latter did not. I thought if I could discover the most important rules for learning, I would be able to become a more successful learner by following those rules; in addition, I would be able to teach my students the same rules and thereby help improve their chances of successful learning as well.

There is an entire branch of psychology that deals with learning, and — not being a psychologist myself — I am obviously in no position to make any original contributions to that field. In any case, I had no intention of reinventing the wheel. What I wanted to do was to pick up some practical tips from other people’s research, especially ones that resonated with my own experience of learning and teaching, and to put them together in the form of a short, manageable list.

I have now come up with such a list; it is by no means complete or final, though it seems to me as more or less adequate for my limited purposes at this time. I do hope to improve this list in the future, as I continue to learn more about the process of learning.

I began compiling my list of rules with the following premise in mind: “Human beings are born with an incredible capacity for learning. In order to realize that capacity, we must follow certain rules.”

The premise is self-evident, in my view, and requires no further discussion. Based on that premise, I started collecting ideas for how to learn in the most effective manner. To prevent my list from growing out of control, I decided to group the ideas I had collected into categories. After numerous revisions, I ended up with three major rules: (1) there is no getting around the fact that learning requires hard work; (2) since I’m free to choose, I’m responsible for my own learning; and (3) since my knowledge will always be fallible, I must never stop learning.

Let me explain these rules in some detail.

Rule No. 1: Acceptance

Learning does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place within a world that exists independent of our thoughts and desires. To take effective action within such a world, we must come to terms with the way the world actually is. This means that if we are to succeed in pursuing our goals, we must begin by accepting the way in which reality functions and then adjust our own attitudes and behaviors in light of that reality. For example, if we want to build an airplane, we must understand and accept the laws of physics that exist independently of us. The only way to build an airplane that actually flies would require that we adjust ourselves to the laws of physics, rather than trying to adjust the laws of physics to our desire for flying. In other words, we are most likely to be effective when we work with reality rather than against it.

I have found that a major obstacle to learning is our resistance to certain facts. I am using the word “fact” in the sense of a knowable unit of reality. Simply put, a “fact” is a knowable unit of reality that, by definition, is what it is, regardless of anyone’s — or even everyone’s — beliefs, preferences, opinions, thoughts, feelings, desires, wishes, etc. It’s a complete waste of time, as well as a major cause of human suffering, to be upset about things that cannot be changed, i.e., to want the facts to be different than what they are. There is no point is resenting or complaining that “the water is wet” or “the ice is cold.” It so happens that the water will remain wet and the ice will remain cold, regardless of how much we may dislike these facts.

When it comes to learning, we are faced with a number of facts that must be embraced at the very outset or we won’t be able to make much progress. We must accept, for instance, that learning is neither easy nor painless, that we are almost certainly going to fail repeatedly before we start to succeed, and that any worthwhile learning requires a serious investment of time, attention, and effort.

While most people don’t reject these facts explicitly, there is often a subtle resistance or resentment within us based on certain subconscious assumptions. These assumptions tend to be unrealistic desires or expectations, such as “I should be exempt from pain” or “learning shouldn’t be hard” or “learning shouldn’t involve failure.” Even if we are unaware of harboring such unrealistic desires or expectations within ourselves, they can still exert a significant influence on our feelings, producing unnecessary suffering; and even sabotage our efforts to learn.


Rule No. 2: Reminders

The second rule is based on the recognition that human beings are liable to forgetfulness, which is why we must put into place some sort of mechanism that periodically reminds us what we are most likely to forget. Perhaps the most important truth that we tend to forget is that we are responsible.

Part of being human is that we are free to make choices. Each choice we make, no matter how big or small, gives birth to certain consequences. We are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose which consequences will emerge from those actions. The consequences of our choices, in turn, shape our own immediate and long-term future. The same consequences also ripple out far into the world, affecting the world’s circumstances as well as the lives of other people.

Waking up to the fact that we are free to choose is essential to becoming proactive. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey:

What does it mean to be proactive? It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.

The opposite of being proactive is to be reactive. Very often, we go through life as if we’re half asleep. In such a condition, we do not live deliberately or freely, but automatically — we react out of our past conditioning or we mindlessly imitate others around us. When we are reactive, we lose our capacity to shape our own future as well as our capacity to influence the world. We begin to see ourselves at the mercy of other people and of the circumstances that are beyond our control.

Becoming aware that we are free to choose is necessary for becoming responsible, in the true sense of the word. According to Stephen Covey:

Look at the word responsibility — “response-ability” — the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.

When we are proactive, we know that no matter how difficult or challenging our situation may be, there is always some amount of freedom available to us — the freedom to choose our response. And we know that this freedom isn’t static. The more we use our freedom, the more it grows. It is true that we can’t control how other people act, and that very often we don’t choose the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But we can almost always choose how we are going to respond to the stimuli we receive from people and circumstances. As Lou Holtz famously said, “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”


The purpose of the second rule is to help us become aware of how our freedom to choose is connected with our capacity for learning. We are responsible for our learning insofar as we are aware that learning is a choice that we make (or fail to make) in each moment. We are free to learn, just as we are free not to learn. The truth is that if I have chosen to learn, then nothing can really stop me from learning; and if I have chosen not to learn, then nothing in the world can make me learn. To quote a classroom poster I once saw, those who’ve made the decision to learn will always find a way, while those who’ve made the decision to not learn will always find an excuse. Since choice belongs to the individual, each person is individually responsible for his or her own learning.

When we are reactive, we blame others (“students these days don’t want to learn” or “the professor doesn’t know how to teach”). But proactive people know that learning is primarily a matter of choice. Proactive people don’t blame; rather, they take responsibility. As we become proactive, a mutually enriching relationship begins to develop between the student and the teacher. Both sides come to terms with the fact that the learner is responsible for learning and the teacher is responsible for teaching; yet, the teacher cannot cause learning to happen but can only provide the conditions in which the student is most likely to learn. As Roger Schank puts it, “learning happens when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach.” Or, as Herbert Simon was fond of saying, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”

In his book The Prophet, Khalil Gibran expressed the same insight as follows:

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.

And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

I like to think of learning as analogous to mountain climbing, for it allows me to visualize the responsibilities of the student and the teacher. A teacher is like a guide who knows a particular mountain well because he/she has been climbing that mountain for a long time. Such a guide can inform the climbers about the best routes to the top and can warn them about the dangers that may lie ahead. But a guide, no matter how skilled, can’t do the climbing for you. You must carry your own gear and supplies, and you must do your own climbing.


Rule No. 3: Attitudes

What sorts of attitudes are most conducive to learning? Or, to ask the same question from a different angle, what motivates us to do the hard work involved in learning? Many people would say that interest or curiosity is an important motivating factor. This is true as far as it goes. However, we are not born with an interest in any particular subject or a curiosity about any particular question; rather, we acquire these during the course of our learning. What causes us develop interests and curiosities that last a lifetime?

doubtThis is a very broad question, and a great deal can be said to answer it. For my limited purposes, however, one of Charles Peirce’s suggestions would have to suffice. In his paper “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), Peirce argued that human beings embark upon the path of inquiry whenever they wish to overcome a disturbing state called “doubt” and to replace it with a satisfying state called “belief.” Being a pragmatist, Peirce emphasized that “beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions,” each “according to its degree,” while “doubt” has no such effect. Having a “belief” means, for Peirce, that some sort of “habit” has been “established in our nature” that “will determine our actions.” In the absence of “belief,” we are unsure how to act, or how we would act, and this “uneasy and dissatisfied state” is called “doubt.” According to Peirce, since “doubt” is a feeling of unease, akin to having a splinter in the eye, we “struggle to free ourselves” from it, and seek to achieve “a calm and satisfactory state” known as “belief.” This struggle is known as “inquiry.” Hence:

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.


So, what is it that motivates us to invest our time, attention, and effort in learning something new? While the immediate cause can be correctly identified as interest or curiosity, Peirce’s suggestion helps us to see that what we call interest or curiosity is itself motivated by the desire to overcome the “uneasy and dissatisfied state” known as “doubt.” From this, we can draw the conclusion that “doubt” is a powerful motivator for learning. When we feel doubt, we are sometimes tempted to ignore or suppress that feeling; we try to wish it away by acting as if it doesn’t exist. To do so would be self-defeating. The irritation of doubt is really the awareness that we don’t know something that we do need to know. The uncomfortable feeling of doubt is not our enemy; it’s merely a message informing us of our own ignorance, a sign that we need to embark upon a journey of discovery. Even though doubt irritates, we ought to welcome that irritation, for without it we would have no reason to learn anything beyond what we already know.

Peirce says that the irritation of doubt stimulates a process of inquiry, and that this process of inquiry lasts as long as doubt continues to irritate. The process of inquiry can only come to an end when the irritation of doubt is replaced by “a calm and satisfactory state” which he calls “belief.” Peirce warns us, however, that reaching a state of belief does not mean that we have reached absolute truth. We attain a state of belief when we feel that we have found a resolution to our doubt, and that the resolution is somehow “true.” However, that may or may not be the case. Consequently, virtually any belief is vulnerable to further doubt, which initiates another process of inquiry, which leads to another belief. If we are lucky, every round of inquiry leads us to a belief that is better and truer than our previous belief. It is important, therefore, that we never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that we have reached the absolute final stage of inquiry. Even when we are more or less satisfied with our present beliefs, we ought to remain open to the possibility of further doubts and fresh avenues of inquiry. This is why Peirce said, in another context, that in desiring to learn, we must never be satisfied with what we’re already inclined to think.


You can find the above rules presented in the form of a poster here.

Iftar at the White House (2)

This post has been long overdue!

Even as I wrote “Iftar at the White House” (1) on August 11, I knew I wanted to write a sequel—for there were several things that needed to be clarified regarding the position I was taking. At that time, I was pretty sure I would be able to write the sequel over the next few days. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Now that more than two months have passed, I can barely recall exactly what I wanted to say!

Blogs usually contain commentaries on current affairs, and it is fair to say that my original topic is no longer “current.” For all practical purposes, the issue of American Muslims participating in a White House iftar is now ancient history. As such, I doubt that it is of much interest to anyone anymore. The topic is already obsolete by contemporary standards—like Windows 3.1—and therefore any further discussion would probably seem quaint and pointless to most readers.

White House Iftar 2012

Yet, there are larger issues at stake—issues that cannot be rendered obsolete or irrelevant by the passage of time. Instead of trying to recall what I had originally planned to write in this post, I would therefore try to say something useful about those larger issues.

Let me reiterate that I had no intention of issuing a fiqhi ruling when I wrote the original post, nor did I mean to condemn anyone for their participation; rather, I was expressing my sense that there was a deep-seated contradiction in the whole affair that somehow seemed to escape our attention. What I tried to do in that post, and what I am trying to do now, is to shed some light on that contradiction in order to make it more visible.

Why did I think there was something “wrong” with some American Muslims attending an iftar dinner at the White House? I promise I will answer this question, but I can’t give an honest answer without digressing for a little while. This is because I don’t think we can deal with this question in the best possible way without first dealing with another, more fundamental question: How does one know whether a particular choice is moral or immoral? There are many ways of answering this question, and I have no reason to reject any of those methods or theories. For my present purposes, however, I think it would be most beneficial to draw upon the approach that Max Weber described in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). According to Weber:

We have to understand clearly that all ethically oriented action can follow two totally different principles that are irreconcilably opposed to each other: an ethic of “ultimate ends” or an ethic of “responsibility.” This is not to say that the ethic of ultimate ends is identical with a lack of responsibility, or that the ethic of responsibility is identical with lack of conviction. There is naturally no question of that. But there is an immeasurably profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of ultimate ends—to speak in religious terms: “The Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcomes in God’s hands,” and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the “foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.

In this passage, I think Weber is making the following points:

1. There are two types of actions: (a) actions that we do out of habit or routine, and (b) actions that we undertake consciously and deliberately, believing them to be justified on ethical grounds. Only these latter ones are “ethically oriented” actions.

2. There are two main standards that we can use to judge our actions on ethical grounds. These may be called (a) the ethic of ultimate ends and (b) the ethic of responsibility.

3. The ethic of ultimate ends can be summed up in the following principle: Always, and under all circumstances, you must choose only that action which you know to be right, and pay no heed to the consequences that may follow.

4. The ethic of responsibility can be summed up in the following principle: You must choose only that action which will lead to the most desirable results, for you are fully responsible for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.

5.In any given case, I can either follow the ethic of ultimate ends or the ethic of responsibility, but not both at the same time.

Take, for example, the issue of truth-telling vs. lying. In theory, everyone agrees that truth-telling is moral while lying is immoral. But what if I find myself in a situation where telling the truth will lead to an innocent person’s persecution or even death? Suppose, for instance, that I am a French Catholic living under German occupation during WW-II, and I am hiding a Jewish person in my attic to save him from arrest and deportation. If Nazi soldiers were to knock at my door and ask whether I am trying to protect any Jews, what am I supposed to do? If I believe truth-telling to be the right thing, then, according to the ethic of ultimate ends, I am obligated to tell the truth to the Nazi soldiers, regardless of the consequences.

As Weber notes, the ethic of ultimate ends is not “identical with a lack of responsibility.” Following the ethic of ultimate ends does not mean that I am acting irresponsibly; rather, I see myself as responsible only for my choices and not for the choices that other people make. Telling the truth or lying is a decision that I must make myself, and therefore only I am responsible for making that choice. What the soldiers do or don’t do is their choice, and only they are responsible for making it. From this viewpoint, I am not responsible for any harm that my Jewish neighbor may suffer at the hands of the Nazis; rather, the individual soldiers will be responsible for any such harm.

But if I follow the ethic of responsibility, I am going to view myself as responsible not only for my own actions but also for all the consequences of my actions—direct and indirect—that I am able to foresee. I know exactly what the Nazis would do to the man hiding in my attic, and so I see myself as responsible for the harm that he is likely to suffer as a result of my truth-telling. Since the foreseeable consequences are unacceptable to me, the ethic of responsibility requires that I ought to lie to the soldiers. Again, this does not mean that the ethic of responsibility is identical with a lack of commitment to ultimate ends. I do believe that truth-telling is a moral virtue, but in this case I am willing to act immorally in order to ensure a desirable outcome.

The above example may suggest that the ethic of responsibility is somehow superior to the ethic of absolute ends. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Weber, neither ethic is inherently better than the other. In effect, every individual person must make his/her own moral choices according to his/her own conscience. Whether a particular choice is based on the ethic of responsibility or the ethic of absolute ends is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the choice is “right.” A great deal depends on the nature of the particular circumstances in which the choice is made, as well as who is making the choice.

To clarify the last point, let’s take another example. Yasir and Summayya, along with their son Ammar, were three early converts to Islam. They were particularly vulnerable to persecution because of their low social status in Makkah. Islamic sources report that all three were brutally tortured, their tormentor demanding that they renounce their new faith and return to the pagan beliefs of their ancestors. Clearly, one of the highest moral virtues for these Muslims was to remain steadfast despite all the pain and suffering. After weeks of torture, Yasir and Summayya were killed by their tormentor while Ammar saved his life by renouncing his faith. A Qur’anic verse (16:106) later absolved Ammar of any wrongdoing, since he was forced to renounce his faith in God even though his heart was in the right place.

What is a person supposed to do in a situation depicted above? The conduct of Yasir and Summayya is no doubt exemplary, representing the highest possible standard of commitment, perseverance, and faithfulness that any human being can demonstrate. In contrast, what Ammar did seems to fall short of that standard—and yet the Qur’an insists that he did nothing wrong when he renounced his faith only to save himself from torture.

This example shows, far more clearly than the first one, that the choice between the two ethical approaches is neither obvious nor unambiguous. Yasir and Summayya followed the ethic of absolute ends—holding on to their faith and refusing to lie, regardless of the consequences. Ammar followed the ethic of responsibility—lying about his beliefs in order to save his life. Since we can defend both approaches as ethically sound, it would seem that the individual person must consider his/her values and the particulars of the given situation before making a particular choice. Some times, for some purposes, and/or for some people, the “right” answer is found in the ethic of absolute ends. At other times, for other purposes, and/or for other people, the “right” answer lies in the ethic of responsibility.

With this background, I think I am ready to tackle the original question.

Should American Muslims participate in the civic and political affairs of their country? Yes, by all means. Should American Muslims maintain channels of communication with local and national authorities? Yes, certainly. Should American Muslims work with the White House in order to ensure that their civil rights are protected and that they have a voice in the policy-making process? Yes, definitely. Should American Muslims share an iftar dinner with a leader who is responsible for killing countless innocent Muslims, including children, and who is very likely a war criminal? Well ….

If you were to ask me, I would choose the ethic of absolute ends in this case and give a single, straight-forward, and unapologetic answer: no.

But if you were to consider the matter for yourself, in light of your own values, your own priorities, and your own assessment of the needs of American Muslims, it is certainly possible that you would decide to follow the ethic of responsibility. In that case, you may not see anything particularly problematic or questionable in enjoying an iftar dinner with President Obama and other dignitaries.

If you were to answer the above question with a yes, I can certainly understand your reasoning. But do you understand mine?

Iftar at the White House (1)

It started innocently enough.

It was late last night and I was looking at my Facebook news feed. I noticed a picture posted by someone who was attending the Iftar dinner at the White House. I knew this happens every year, and not seeing anything unusual in the picture (except the very large number of “likes”), I quickly scrolled down. Few minutes later, I decided to glance through my Twitter timeline, where I saw the following tweet:

I confess that I was shocked, but only for a brief moment. Of course, this was a valid critique. Why didn’t I think of this when I first saw that picture on Facebook? I felt a slight disappointment for not noticing the moral implications of attending a White House Iftar. I knew I had to atone for my complacency.

How would I respond?

First, even though I believed that the moral critique contained in the tweet by @irevolt was powerful and valid, I could also anticipate that at least some Muslims would become easily distracted by the quasi-fiqhi tone of the tweet and, therefore, they would fail to appreciate the real point. (I’ll have more to say about this issue in my next blog post.)

Second, I decided that I would not say anything too negative or harsh about the folks who attended the White House Iftar. I knew some of them personally, and I knew they were not bad people by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I knew that according to the usual criteria they were far better Muslims than I was. Clearly, I had no reason whatsoever to doubt their faith, and I was certainly not going to claim that I was somehow better than they.

Third, I thought about their possible motives. Why would they do such a thing? Since I had already decided not to attribute any immoral or hypocritical motive to them, the only option was to assume that they didn’t know the full implications of their choice. I had to assume they were sincere. I must be as gentle and generous with them as possible, because they couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing. We all make mistakes while having the best of intentions.

Fourth, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those who attended the White House Iftar. What would I had done if I was in their position? I decided that the only justification for visiting the President would be to speak the inconvenient truth to him. But that required courage. Did I have that courage? I thought about a recent experience in which I had failed to speak an inconvenient truth in front of people who were far less powerful than the U.S. President; I had remained quiet out of sheer cowardice. I decided that I didn’t have the courage needed to speak the inconvenient truth in a formal White House dinner, where such behavior would also have required breaking all etiquette and protocols, leading to rather unpleasant consequences. I knew I had no reason to demand that other folks must have the courage that I lacked.

Fifth, if I didn’t have the courage to do the right thing, what would have been my options if I were actually invited to the White House? I could have attended the Iftar with the President, followed the required etiquette and protocols, and afterwards enjoyed a celebrity status among my peers. But this would have injured my soul and done serious violence to my conscience. Therefore, lacking the necessary courage to rock the boat but also wanting to preserve my soul and conscience, the only thing I could have done under those circumstances would have been to decline the invitation. Sorry, I would have said to the White House, but I can’t come to your dinner.

In view of the thought process described above, I hope that the tweets I sent out would make better sense:

To summarize, here are the main points I’ve been trying to make:

1. It was not a good idea for any conscientious American Muslim to attend an Iftar in Barack Obama’s White House during Ramadan 2012. The reasons for this should be obvious to anyone who has not been living in a cave, but I will list them anyway in my next blog post.

2. Without questioning the faith or sincerity of a fellow Muslim, the least that can be said about his/her participation in the above program is that it must have been the result either of ignorance or a lack of critical reflection.

3. Cowardice in itself is not a moral defect. If you lack the courage to speak the inconvenient truth in the face of the powerful, you can do the next best thing and avoid being in the company of the powerful.

Comments are welcome, as always 🙂