Democracy à la Carte

I’ve been pondering the notion of democracy. This is not new for me. I’ve looked around and asked myself, ‘If democracy is so great, why is it not more widely adopted’. I don’t mean why don’t other countries try it? And I don’t mean to confound the issue by arguing that a republic is not a democracy, the last refuge of the desperate.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. 

H. L. Mencken

Mencken offers more critique in his Notes on Democracy.

What I wonder is why, if it’s so good, why don’t companies structure democratically? Why not the military? I’ve always found this particularly humorous: An autocratic, socialised structure defending democracy. Some of the biggest democratic flag-wavers are military and ex-military.

I know that most military members in the US would be lucky to work flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Some speak of the mental illness and homelessness of military veterans, but this misses the direction of the arrow of causation. These people had a free ride, room, and board on Uncle Sam’s dime in the States—some other denomination elsewhere. It’s really no wonder that one wouldn’t want to give these people a voice in military affairs, and yet they do get a voice in civilian affairs. It’s a good thing almost half of Americans eligible to vote don’t.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

I’ve already mentioned that democracy is a sham and its best feature is the illusion of control. I suppose if I come up with something better, I might write about it. Until then, it’s just one of many mediocre options.

Interestingly, some people’s options are asinine. Frank Karsten hawking his book and ideology on Beyond Democracy thinks that downsizing is the answer. Hans-Hermann Hoppe agrees, as he posits in several essays in Democracy: The God that Failed. I don’t disagree, but his basic point seems to be that 300MM people deciding is too much, so perhaps 10MM or 20MM might work better. What’s the limit? Why not 150? How is conflict among this smaller political units adjudicated? With this downsizing, how does the system control the urge for upsizing? In the end, this feels like more Libertarian, anarcho-capitalistic mental masturbation, which as I type this feels redundant. Unfortunately, the common denominator is people, and that’s Achilles’ heel.

Jacques Lacan, anyone?

I’m wondering whether I should delve into Lacan. I am only vaguely aware of him and have never read any of his published essays or lectures. From what I’ve gleaned, I may end up down some rabbit hole. His interest in the function of language interests me, but his analogy of that to psychoanalysis is disconcerting.

The analogy is fine, but I have a problem with the entire field of psychoanalysis as I view it as pseudoscience. As with Freud and Jung, the speculation around the unconscious and their metaphors are fine storytelling, but that’s about it.

My interest is in his structural approach to language and the notion I share concerning the lack of specificity in language, but it seems to me that my time would be better spent reading Derrida.

Lacan is categorised as both a structuralist and a post-structuralist, which might be correct given the period in which he lived, but I am still trying to figure out how he might be considered to be a post-structuralist, as he seems to be concerned with a sense of order, which is somewhat antithetical to this worldview.

The Mind is Flat

So, given the wide gap between the last post and this, it may be apparent that I’ve been otherwise occupied. I’ve been a bit distracted, but, among other things, I’ve just commenced reading The Mind Is Flat by Nick Chater.

Although this is more about the pseudoscience that is psychology, there is a bit of a philosophical, subjectivist undertone, and I find the political and jurisprudent implications interesting.

No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives’, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. It is not hard to plumb our mental depths because they are so deep and so murky, but because there are no mental depths to plumb.

Of course, this perspective is right up my street: There is no there there, and this is where it becomes problematic: in the US anyway, much of law is based on the concept intent and motives—and the underlying belief that these can be sussed out. But in reality, as it were, it’s not much more than rhetoric obfuscated with smoke and mirrors.

Our ‘computational innards’ are not a churning sea of experiences, feelings, beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, whether conscious or unconscious. Our mind spins stories about how we work – driven by motives, beliefs, percepts, moral norms, religious precepts. And they are such compelling stories that we can imagine that they are true, or partially true, or surely at least along the right general lines.

From the perspective of evolution, humans are storytellers.  More to the point, humans are storylisteners, and they can be are influenced by compelling narratives. These narratives range from a sense of identity to the yarn about history and progress. As Foucault might have noted, people in positions of power leverage these narratives and spin their own in order to maintain their advantage.

In practice, humans are mere parsing machines. Their brains may not work precisely like a computer, but practically, the brain is an interpreter and it generates ‘consciousness’ based on experiences and sense data. Input a new narrative and the brain will interpret it in context with other experiences—or as Chater puts it, ‘motives, beliefs, percepts, moral norms, religious precepts’.

Marketers, politicians, and other hucksters use this to their every advantage.

Well, enough typing for the moment. Back to reading…

Looking back at books & such in 2017

Evidently, I ‘read’ a lot in 2017. To be perfectly honest, I listened to a lot of long-form audiobooks in 2017. Here is a summary of my favourites. The ♠ symbol indicates that I read rather than listened to the audiobook version.

  • Recommended Favourites
    1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
      This is a strong follow-on to his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He assesses the present and extrapolates from the past to formulate a vision of the future.
    2. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
      ♠ Whilst not philosophical, per se, this is a reminder of how much of what we analyse is based on systems and how poorly humans process complexity.
    3. What Is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
      ♠ I could have captured this under Classics, but Favourites rates higher. Proudhon does a bang-up job of critiquing private property, especially as rentier. Some have espoused stronger views, but he was a trailblazer and a trendsetter.
    4. Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
      Another non-philosophy book, this was more supportive of my rent-paying day job. He does a good job of defining strategy and explaining how poor most executives are at it—despite how many have done MBA-level coursework in Strategy at top-tier schools.
    5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
      One of the few fiction pieces I read this year, I am not sure if I’ve read a better book. Whilst it’s difficult to judge over an expanse of years and decades—given falible memory and circumstances—, it’s got to be one of the top two or three.
    6.  Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power by Peter Sjöstedt-H
      Although this work is entirely derivative, it is presented as a compact summary, and I enjoyed it on a plane trip from someplace to somewhere.
    7. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
      Full disclosure: I’ve been a McWhorter fanboy for years, but again I enjoyed his perspective on language and linguistics.
    8. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
      I like Pinker’s presentation style, though I am not quite on board with his defence of Humanism and neo-Enlightenment position. These aside, his analysis resonates once I compensate for the bias they introduce. I read this after having read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, which trod some of the same ground. I recommend it, too; I just found Pinker’s presentment to be superior.
    9. Philosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
      ♠ This came as a recommendation as result of an online conversation in a Libertarian forum. I listened to it as an audiobook and the read it to fully grasp the material. It was well worth it.
  • Classics
    1. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau
      I enjoyed this quite a bit, and though it’s viewed through quite the quaint Romantic lens, it is nonetheless enjoyable. I was strongly considering this as a favourite, but I opted to place it at the top of the Classics list.
    2. The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
      Although I appreciate Rousseau as a thinker and writer, I didn’t really like this. It was a decent thought experiment in its day, but in the end, it’s just a Romantic and fanciful sort of origin story.
    3. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
      I also considered placing this in Favourites. Nietzsche or his translator provide coherent exposition, but in the end, I found it to be spotty. Though many find it to be a hard pill to swallow, his extension of Hegel’s master and slave (herd) morality still resonates today.
    4. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic by Friedrich Nietzsche
      A strong follow-on to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, though not quite a favourite. Nietzsche is a master rhetorician, and this polemic is quite enticing. What struck me most is how he presaged Freud by at least a decade.
    5. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
      ♠ I actually read rather than listened to this classic. Hume, the Empiricist, was so far ahead of his time.
    6. Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
      More of a modern classic—whatever that means—, Nozick tries, but the entire idea is based on a faulty premise and wishful thinking. I understand he walked back some of his position in his later years (of which there weren’t many), but he never quite jumped off the Libertarian bandwagon.
    7. On Liberty and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill were refreshing, as I mention here. Whilst I don’t agree with his consequentialism, I appreciate what he has to say. Ultimately, he demonstrates what is wrong with empiricism. Still, definitely worth the read.
    8. The Republic by Plato
      I found this book to be sophomoric and lame logic. I truly don’t understand how this tripe is revered. It’s like listening to some random dude tripping balls at a party. It’s saving grace is his Allegory of the Cave, but I could have read that on the back of a cereal box. I didn’t need it to be buried in a book.
    9. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
      Not a favourite in the least. Probably the least interesting book I read in 2017. If I read a worse book, I mercifully put it aside and didn’t slog through it. Let’s just say I read this. Check that box. This was the epitome of boring. I almost quit, but as it was relatively short, I persevered. Weber’s main point of how Calvinism created the environment to allow Capitalism to flourish, could have been presented as a pamphlet. I was not interested in the deep historical perspective. YMMV
  • Great Courses
    In addition to reading and listening to the books above, I enjoyed several courses, which I recommend highly and I’d be remiss not to mention. Follow the links to read about them. 

    1. The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida (publisher)
    2. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life  (publisher)