Studying Idiots

I have expressed before my frustration with ideologies. As I understand the term it is a functional equivalent in politics to the expression ‘dogma’ in religion; a group of ideas that someone famous held which hereinafter must be adhered to as a group. I have several problems with this, not least being that it means people who think ideologically write off what I’m saying without ever stopping to understand it. If I agree with someone famous (e.g. Lenin) about $idea, and the famous person was wrong about $idea2 (which I don’t agree with them on anyway) I can be safely ignored by ideologists, who write me off as ‘a Leninist’. Or ‘a post-modernist’, or a whatever-the-hell-else-ist. I’m really not an anyone-ist. I’ve learned from lots of different thinkers: I can operate within someone else’s paradigm when I need to, provided their paradigm is internally consistent and coherent. But when I’m thinking as me, I have a set of paradigms derived by standing on the shoulders of giants yet not uniformly adherent to any of my source paradigms. I don’t believe there is a single influence on my thinking who I don’t also argue was wrong about something.

Much more importantly, though, I have a problem on purely pragmatic grounds. Ideologies discourage the replacement of broken ideas with working ones as further information becomes available. This is the problem with having a Religion of The Book: it precludes the possibility of a better book, later. Ideologies make really good marketing; one reason ‘the right’ has tended to win in the modern, sound-bite oriented political debate sphere is that their ideology is very simple and very easy to explain. Basically, it says “Status quo ante favours us and our inheritors: therefore, that status quo should be maintained.” Simple. Clear. Doesn’t change from generation to generation. The ‘left’ has a harder time, because they are not locked into a single paradigm; but they certainly don’t win in the ideology stakes. If anything, the left has worse problems due to ideologies than the right; at least the right really only has one (we are winning: let’s keep winning please). The left has many and none of them are winning, because they’re all busy fighting one another.

Let’s look at an example. One of the ideologies that really gets up my nose among the broad church of ‘the left’ is this one: capitalism is intrinsically useless and evil. I have a big problem with the underlying thinking there. Humans have been on this path, though they have progressed along it at very different speeds, for between twelve and fifteen thousand years, minimum. There’s no way that so many distinct and non-communicative polities would have evolved precisely the same economic and social organisation systems if there wasn’t something those systems were better at than any available competition. Anti-capitalists from well before Marx have fundamentally failed to ask themselves the question ‘What is it that statist/hierarchical capitalism is good for?’.

“Capital, Ain’t It?”

Those who’re watching closely and are used to the modern habit of elliding ‘statist/hierarchical market capitalism’ into a single word (for convenience) will have noticed that twelve thousand years is a lot longer than most people think capitalism has been around for. So let’s deal with that first. To begin with, Marx was wrong about several things. Among those things I would include his idea that Communist revolutions would happen in industrialised nations (not one, so far), that Germany or Britain would be the first Communist states (one too committed to hierarchy, the other too stable politically), and that the bourgeosie are parasites (some, yes; all, no). Another one is the idea that state accumulations of capital and private accumulations of capital are in some way functionally different.

Let’s contextualise Marx. Firstly, he’s a German operating in England, which influences both his underlying view of statism and his underlying view of monetarism. He’s a product of an industrialising country who emigrated to an industrial one. He’s a product of Hegelian thought in German acadaemia, and oh my, does it show. And above all, he is committed to an ideological narrative of the history and future of the human race which informs his academic work as well as his polemic and political activities. All of these things blinker his understanding of how to define ‘capital’, though in many ways his models are accurate. The ways they’re accurate are precisely the ways in which they can be applied to industrial, monetarised societies.

Capital is variously and badly defined all over the place: the closest available modern definition is that capital is “money that is used to generate income or make an investment”. This isn’t really good enough: if you approach the issue functionally, instead of ideologically, this definition reveals flaws very quickly. Why does the definition depend from money? Societies that were not monetarised clearly had wealth accumulators, viz. the invention of taxation recording by the Egyptians. They specifically invented chits to record paid taxes which then got traded, and those chits eventually evolved into a state-sponsored fiscal system. In other words, the wealth accumulations came first by some margin.


Functionally, capital is whatever allows a single authority to invest wealth in order to generate more wealth than they started with. This means nothing to most Western readers because they and their ancestors back several hundred years have no personal understanding of the phrase ‘subsistence economy’. You don’t just get capital wealth appearing one day. Everyone starts from the same place; I have enough food / I don’t have enough food. It takes millennia to even start thinking about “I have enough food even if the harvest fails.” Structurally, therefore, the concept of capital depends from somebody acquiring and defending the ability to maintain stores of unused wealth. Therefore, if one removes the ideology from the picture one can arrive at a definition of capital that is purely functional: “accumulations of unused wealth”.

Ideologies are designed to stop people thinking. One of the things ideologies are designed to stop people thinking about is words and why they mean what they mean; and, indeed, whether they in fact mean what you’re being told they mean. This is why I am doing this whole thing in the first place: I am uncomfortable with unstated assumptions. I want my readers to know what I mean when I say ‘capitalism’; why I mean it, what the chain of reasoning is, and why it deviates from the ideological tit and tat that eviscerates debate by converting it into factionalism. People are not pigeons; I want them thinking outside their boxes.

We’re currently in a recession caused entirely by short-term thinking on the part of people who had accumulated vast stores of unused wealth. Such large stores of capital, in fact, that their idiocy was able to destroy lives across the globe who had no connection except that they contributed wealth to the capitalists. Short-term thinking is a bad idea. Ideologies are intrinsically short-term, because no ideology can survive very long without major modifications, and the whole point of ideologies is that they are modification-resistant. To get out of this recession, we need people to start thinking long-term: therefore, we need to break, or at least loosen, the grip of ideology on our culture.



Filed under Context, Signal

12 responses to “Idiotology

  1. Anon

    wow – great. How do I join your group? Does it have a name? Can I buy a t-shirt with your slogan?

    • johnqpublican

      Funnily enough, “no”. Good try, though.

      What I’m doing above is paradigm engineering. Keeping with my theme of making my reasoning and my assumptions clear: one difference between an ideology and a paradigm is that a paradigm is subject to redefinition in the face of changing facts; an ideology is not. Another difference is that a paradigm is a tool for analysing reality with, an ideology is an attempt to dictate what reality must be. The third major difference is that for an ideology to be useful, it must by definition hide its assumptions, embedding them in language and expressions which conceal their arbitrary nature.

      For example: “homosexuality among men is perverse and evil because God says so” is a statement of ideology. “Homosexuality among men is counter-productive because we’re stuck in a desert, have more women than men anyway, and if we’re going to survive this we need as many kids as we can get to beat the high infant mortality rate” is an axiom for a social paradigm. It makes clear exactly why it is true, with reference to the observable universe rather than to unstated assumptions. It should be noted for the hard-of-thinking that both are accurate paraphrases of the Levitical attitude to homosexuality. The second can be debated and updated: for example, “And today, when this situation does not apply, there is no earthly reason to deprecate homosexuality.” The first is incontestable: one cannot engage in reasoned debate because the reasons have been occluded, and one cannot question the underlying assumptions because they are hidden behind “scripture”. It should also be noted that I could have made the same points using the history of dialectical materialism viz. applicability to the Labour party.

      I don’t mind people learning from each other: just learn critically. I don’t mind people putting together coherent bodies of thought and paradigms for living: as you so acutely spotted, I’m in the process of doing just that. All I’m asking is that those paradigms be examined; and that when one starts to break, that we be allowed to strip it down for parts and throw out the broken bits. I want my axioms stated clearly, and my reasoning publicly available, because I want anyone who decides they agree with any part of what I think to be able to take out the bits they don’t like and build their own version. Yes, I am (in a way) an Open Source philosopher.

  2. Mark

    The problem is that they didn‘t destroy their own wealth.
    Managers rather than capitalists are the problem here.

    • johnqpublican

      Er, what?

      The problem is that who didn’t?

      Also, what on earth are you suggesting by attempting to separate ‘managers’ and ‘capitalists’? One might as well try to differentiate ‘civil service mandarin’ from ‘manager’ (from capitalist). Ever asked yourself why the vast majority of CEOs and other senior management come specifically from two out of many management streams within the corporates: sales/marketing and accounting? Management are capitalists.

      Stay tuned for the next 4 Great Machine articles…

      • Mark

        By capitalist I mean the owner of the wealth. The guys who lost all the money were the money managers – completely (financially) protected from the failure of their investments by ridiculous contracts.
        In a way you`re right – these guys DO have more in common with civil service mandarins than entrepeneurs and the owners (us) of the wealth that they manage.
        Most of these guys haven`t actually told any lies – the problem lies with our inability to control the actions of our managers and to match their interests to ours. And the reason for that is that the vast majority of people don`t like to take an interest in their own affairs.

        • Mark

          (the distinction is important because a criticism of capitalism can be used to give *more* power to management (this time in government), which fails to adress the real problem – our refusal as citizens and investors to take responsibility over our own lives)

          • johnqpublican

            Not refusal, inability. See forthcoming articles on why the system is designed to keep the plutocracy small. “Taking responsibility for your own life” sounds great when you’re a middle-class, fully-educated engineer who inherited wealth and status from two generations of college-educated professionals. It sounds like bull-shit to a kid from the ghettos we created in the 80s.

        • johnqpublican

          By capitalist I mean the owner of the wealth. The guys who lost all the money were the money managers – completely (financially) protected from the failure of their investments by ridiculous contracts.

          Contextualised with:

          […] entrepeneurs and the owners (us) of the wealth that they manage.

          You are committing a conflation which has been the subject of much propaganda. Entrepreneur != capitalist, in the sense that it is possible to be both but they are entirely different concepts.

          An entrepreneur actually creates wealth; they do something no-one else is doing. New idea, new type of vacuum cleaner, new search algorithm, whatever; they do something real. A capitalist is someone who owns a lot of unused wealth. Very, very occasionally they are the same person. Usually, the entrepreneur who created the wealth does not end up with it; his backers, his creditors and his venture capitalists do.

          Most of these guys haven`t actually told any lies – the problem lies with our inability to control the actions of our managers and to match their interests to ours. And the reason for that is that the vast majority of people don`t like to take an interest in their own affairs.

          Your mileage may vary. I think that the reason for that is that to the people at the centre of the Great Machine, as long as the money keeps flowing inwards they don’t give a fuck.

  3. Mark

    Hmmm… not sure that the wealth has to be unused, but yeah, ok – a capitalist is a person with wealth.
    The problem was that they weren`t risking their own wealth and that either people aren`t interested enough or as you would have it, are too stupid.

    Either way, this has to be deeper than *lynch those nasty men in suits* and we all have to take responsibility for society, even if we are uneducated swill-heads.
    The sooner someone tells them that the better.

    • Mark

      Tells the uneducated swill heads to take responsibility, that is.

    • johnqpublican

      Hmmm… not sure that the wealth has to be unused, but yeah, ok – a capitalist is a person with wealth.

      To be leveraged, that is, to allow for high capital expenditure in setting up a project, that wealth has to be stored until it accumulates. It is thus intrinsically unused, until invested.

      The problem was that they weren`t risking their own wealth

      The distinction you’re talking about is functionally irrelevant to social progress and 97% of Britons; because they aren’t in that club. The traders who were using ‘other people’s wealth’ are still in the same club; at the centre of the great machine, where all the money funnels to.

      I don’t believe in hanging bankers. I believe in out-performing hierarchical/centralised systems by leveraging high-bandwdith, high-education society.

  4. Mark

    Small amounts of wealth can be used – you could invest in public companies for example.

    I`d say that more than 3% of people in Britain have some kind of savings/pension.