Monday, October 4, 2010

Wall Street, Assholes, Hegel, Plato and Rousseau

This article, "Hegel on Wall Street," on the NYTimes website caught FLG's eye. FLG isn't as familiar with Hegel as he is with other authors. But something didn't quite ring true about the article and it's by J.M. Bernstein, the same asshole whose articles FLG always finds very flawed.

Berstein writes:
Hegel, of course, never directly wrote about Wall Street, but he was philosophically invested in the logic of market relations. Near the middle of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” (1807), he presents an argument that says, in effect: if Wall Street brokers and bankers understood themselves and their institutional world aright, they would not only accede to firm regulatory controls to govern their actions, but would enthusiastically welcome regulation. Hegel’s emphatic but paradoxical way of stating this is to say that if the free market individualist acts “in [his] own self-interest, [he] simply does not know what [he] is doing, and if [he] affirms that all men act in their own self-interest, [he] merely asserts that all men are not really aware of what acting really amounts to.” For Hegel, the idea of unconditioned rational self-interest — of, say, acting solely on the motive of making a maximal profit — simply mistakes what human action is or could be, and is thus rationally unintelligible.

FLG found this interesting and, again, not being that familiar with Hegel and not trusting Bernstein, went to find the original text. While he was scanning the book, FLG found this:
The labour of the individual for his own needs is just as much a satisfaction of the needs of others as of his own, and the satisfaction of his own needs he obtains only through the labour of others. As the individual in his individual work already unconsciously performs a universal work, so again he also performs the universal work as his conscious object; the whole becomes, as a whole, his own work, for which he sacrifices himself precisely in so doing receives back from it his own self.

FLG could see this going in one of two ways, but remembered while reading this that Marx drew heavily from Hegel. Consequently, FLG began to think that Bernstein really just wanted to launch a Marxist critique of Wall Street without dropping Marx's name because a bunch of people would simply stop reading at that point.

Anyway, FLG never could find the quotation Bernstein used. Probably different editions. However, he did run across this passage on, which FLG read with great interest:
The basis of Plato's Republic was the ideal of justice, defined as keeping one's proper place in the city or fulfilling the traditional duties of one's station in life; it was the honouring of the established social morality of the city, its ethical life or Sittlichkeit. This, in general, was the true Greek ethical ideal, but in the Republic according to Hegel it was given an unusually oppressive interpretation. Plato was conscious of elements of self-interest and critical reflection, which he feared had undermined the existence of the polis, and he sought to counter them through restrictions on marriage, property, the choice of career and other rights, and the despotic power of the guardians. The fact that he was prepared to go to such length, Hegel argues, revealed a fundamental defect of Greek ethical life - its indifference to 'subjectivity' or 'subjective freedom'. It needed centuries of cultural and social development, above all the rise of Christianity, for the ideal of subjective freedom to become recognised and accepted, at least in the Western world.

The thinker in Hegel's opinion who expressed the ideal most clearly in the context of modern secular life and society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau's political thought is therefore the antithesis of Plato's, so to say the opposite pole of the community-individuality relationship. On Hegel's rather extreme interpretation Rousseau asserts the absolute primacy of the individual over the community. The individual, his conscience and his will, however arbitrary, are the foundation of society and the state. Traditions, customs, established institutions and laws have no validity whatever unless men have accepted them voluntarily. The essence of human liberty consists precisely in this voluntary acceptance.

So, FLG, what do you say to the Hegelian dialectic of Plato, thesis, and Rousseau, antithesis? A few things. First, FLG thinks Hegel misreads both Plato and Rousseau. Second, this leads FLG to question Hegel's larger judgement. Third, he'll probably have to sit down and read the crazy bastard to understand what the fuck is going on here, but FLG doesn't like it one bit.


FLG also wanted to point out this passage from Bernstein, but forgot: is not motives but actions that matter, and how those actions hang together to make a practical world. What makes the propounding of virtue illusory — just so much rhetoric — is that there is no world, no interlocking set of practices into which its actions could fit and have traction: propounding peace and love without practical or institutional engagement is delusion, not virtue. Conversely, what makes self-interested individuality effective is not its self-interested motives, but that there is an elaborate system of practices that supports, empowers, and gives enduring significance to the banker’s actions. Actions only succeed as parts of practices that can reproduce themselves over time. To will an action is to will a practical world in which actions of that kind can be satisfied — no corresponding world, no satisfaction. Hence the banker must have a world-interest as the counterpart to his self-interest or his actions would become as illusory as those of the knight of virtue. What bankers do, Hegel is urging, is satisfy a function within a complex system that gives their actions functional significance.

This dovetails with FLG's theory of time horizons. For the liberal, tangible, empirical, short-term analysis leads to vastly different conclusions than FLG. Motivations do matter, FLG'll even grant that they only matter at the margins of decision-making. But over time, economic science tells, the margins are what matter. When you ignore the motivations of people, and just deal with what happens in the material world, then you are dealing largely in the present. FLG realizes that Bernstein, and FLG assumes Hegel, then brings in the idea of practices as an enduring, and one might argue long-term, creation, but FLG doesn't think it is. Success is defined by mere continuation here. Continued for how long? Dunno. A year? Two?

Ideas of virtue, morals, ethics, etc are enduring and frame decision making. Again, often at the margins. But the margins matter.

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