Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Taming the Donors by Linsey McGoey

Is there any way for civil society organizations to put a halt to the Gates Foundation efforts to increase Coca-Cola and Monsanto’s presence in Africa? The answer is: not really. The foundation is mostly free to spend its endowment however it likes, as long as it’s not breaching domestic laws or regulations in the US or in countries where it operates. Even then, when the foundation underwrites projects which appear to breach domestic laws, as India’s parliament found in the case of the PATH HPV trials, it’s difficult to hold the funding organization to account.

For years, critical observers have proposed different measures for increasing the transparency and public accountability of philanthropic foundations. At the forefront of this struggle are US-based philanthropy experts such as Ray Madoff, Michael Edwards, Mark Dowie, Rob Reich, based at Stanford University, Robert B. Reich, based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Pablo Eisenberg, to name just a few key figures.  There is also no shortage of outspoken voices in developing and middle-income countries most affected by the Gate’s Foundation’s grants in areas of global health and agriculture, including Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva, both of whom have criticized the lack of transparency, tax allowances and lack of accountability at large foundations such as the Gates Foundation, calling for radical reform of the philanthropic sector.

In a recent article, Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a founder of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, offers a list of specific proposals – all of which are worth heeding by policy-makers. US foundations currently have to spend 5 per cent of their endowments each year. Eisenberg has suggested that the figure should be increased to at least 8 percent, and that restrictions  to invest in areas of the greatest need should be implemented forcing foundations to invest in areas of the greatest social need. More investment in family or youth shelters for the homeless, for example, may do more good than funding another named chair at Harvard.

[ Emphasis on polio vaccinations at the expense of other inoculations is not lost on local villagers. Time and time again, they question the emphasis on a disease that places a less burdensome toll on them than other scourges. A number of villagers say “What is polio? We’ve never seen it – why are we worried about it?.. our children are dying of measles. “When you are doing polio, you’re not doing other things such as DPT and measles vaccines” or establishing permanent, general practice clinics in areas where there are none.  Another example is that although the Gates Foundation spend millions on HIV/AIDS prevention, it resisted efforts at treating the disease, despite its prevention effects, because of the challenge such efforts presented to the current system of patent protection by which Gates made his billions in the first place.]

Eisenberg’s second proposal is the reduce the tax incentives for setting up philanthropic foundations, something that would increase the amount of federal money for social programs. His third  suggestion is to limit the size of large foundations, as well as rethink board representation. In his view, there is no reason why some of the largest and most powerful foundations in the world, including the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Trust, should be composed of a tight nucleus of family members. “At family foundations over a certain size,’ he suggests, ‘at least two-thirds of board members should be non-family representatives of the public.” Dowie has reiterated this point as well: a portion of each ‘foundation’s endowment really belongs to the public, whose state and federal treasuries would hold that portion of any large estate not left to a foundation,’ he notes. ‘It would seem fair, therefore, for 45 per cent of a foundation’s trustees to represent ordinary citizens.”

Reich, now a professor of public policy after serving as labor secretary under Bill Clinton, has pointed out that in 2007 alone, charitable deductions came to a total f $40 billion. “I see why a contribution to, say, the Salvation Army should be eligible for a charity deduction. It helps the poor,’ he writes. ‘But why, exactly, should a contribution to the already extraordinarily wealthy Guggenheim Museum or to Harvard University (which already has an endowment of more than $30 billion)?

Rob Reich, co-director of Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, suggests that we need to think  more deeply about what the tax incentive is for. ‘If you think that charitable giving should be for redistributive purposes [which is] the usual understanding of the word charity .  .  . then the evidence  . . . is not going to provide you much support for the tax subsidies that now exist because so relatively little charitable money goes to support the disadvantaged or the poor. If you thought that that was the justification for the tax subsidy, you’re going to wind up very disappointed.”

So far there is little evidence that US philanthropy helps much to alleviate the harms caused by inequality. Worse, public policy currently rewards some  philanthropic behavior –in the form of tax concessions – that worsens and causes harm.

Madoff, an expert on trust and estate law based at Boston College Law School, has suggested we need to question whether the current law is doing enough to ensure that charitable dollars reach those organizations that are doing charitable work in a timely fashion.  She is particularly concerned with the failure of the US Congress to address the surge in donor-advised funds, a vehicle where cash or other assets such a stocks are set aside in accounts that are to be dispersed to public charities over time. Contributions to donor-advised funds are given all of the same tax benefits as contributions to a food bank or other operating charity. Yet, there is no time period during which funds must be distributed since donor-advised funds aren’t subject to minimum pay-out requirements imposed on private foundations. Madoff suggests that the growth of donor-advised funds in the US (they now account for about 7 per cent of individual charitable donations) might have actually reduced the amount of funds available to operating charities. While aggregated donations have stayed at about 2 per cent of the GDP since the 1970s, the surge in new organizational vehicles that stash money rather than distributing suggests  that the effect on the rate of overall giving is negative. Donor-advised have become financial holing pens for the assets of people who want to grab a tax deduction but have no immediate plan for any actual charitable giving.

Madoff writes that “in the United States, the tendency is for the public to respond to a large charitable gift by saying: “Oh, that’s great – isn’t that rich person nice for giving to charity.” She stressed that while there’s no doubt charitable gifts can create public value, it’s also  important to recognize public investment that these charitable gifts entail:

When an individual commits $100 million of their business or other appreciated property to charity, the foregone taxes from the government are often far greater than the after-tax cost to the donor. Had the donor not given that $100 million, donor would have had an additional tax liability of up to $66 million just based on the foregone capital gains tax and savings from the income tax charitable deduction. If one adds in estate taxes, the tax savings may be as much as $75 million. Given the size of the tax subsidy, it is important to ask what society is getting in return.

Another concern is that the 1969 Tax Reform Act- the last major overhaul of US charity law – is out of step with the proliferation of new charitable vehicles that work in practice to circumvent the principles that underpinned the Tax Reform Act in the first place. Madoff pointed out that  at the heart of the 1969 Act was an attempt to draw distinctions between grant-making institutions funded by a small number of individuals, called private foundations, and  organizations directly engaged in charitable work called public charities. The Act was established to strengthen public oversight over private foundations, subjecting them to limitations on self-dealing and the introduction of the 5 per cent payout rule.  ‘Our whole edifice is that we are going to treat private foundations differently from public charities.’ Madoff said – yet today the distinction is easily breached. First, though public charities are supposed to represent organizations tat have broad public support, due  the niceties of the tax rules, a single individual can create a public charity simply by funneling the funding through a donor-advised fund. The distinction is also less meaningful because the 5% pay-out rule can be met by administrative expenses (including salaries for the donor and donor’s family) and by making contributions to a donor-advised fund, from which there is no payout requirement! What is the point of having a complex statutory structure tat draws essentially meaningless  distinctions?

Philanthropic donors don’t like to be told how to spend their money, and to some extent they have robust grounds for defensiveness, freedom from political intervention is what makes philanthropy
a check on rather than a handmaiden of political power. But when philanthropy is used as a loot bag for well-financed hedge funders and private equity buccaneers, as is the case of US education, then more restrictions are warranted. If the donors kick up a fuss, one could easily repeat back to them what they often stipulate to their own grantees : a close watch on how dollars are spent is essential to ensuring the creation of ‘social value.’ And if you don’t like the rule, then don’t give the money. Pay the taxes instead.

The proposals above might seem restrictive. And yet,  they pose fewer constraints than the atmosphere in Congress over a century ago, when those across the political spectrum questioned the value of permitting philanthropic foundations at all.

Esienberg is a respected doyen of US philanthropy, something of a folk hero for grassroots non-profit groups. His scrappy admonishments of the concentration of philanthropic resources in the hands of a few elite figures are almost identical to the public concerns that compelled Wilson to establish the Walsh Commission. But today, in the post-Citizens United era of unlimited political campaign financing, suggestions from pro-grassroots activists such as Eisenberg are increasingly non grata in DC power circles.

On the one hand, articulate criticisms of the ‘new’ philanthropy are growing louder, a pushback that, as Benjamin Soskis suggests, ‘can be traced to the nation’s mounting uneasiness with income inequality and to the spread of an economic populism that refuses to regard the concentration of wealth charitably.

On the other hand, legislators don’t seem to have yet taken enough notice. ‘If I was a betting man,’ Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy said to me, ‘I would not be putting money on the idea that there would be any major legislative changes implemented soon.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson spurned the infantilizing effect of charity, the tendency for giving to entrench a relation of inequality between individuals. In a stunning denunciation of Christian morality, Emerson scorned Samaritan notions of one’s duty to strangers, to one’s immediate brethren, to fellow countrymen. “Are they poor?” he when asked, recalling a time when a ‘foolish philanthropist’ insisted that he owes a duty to the less affluent. No, he asserts, they are not: he owes them nothing and they owe him nothing. When people  give, it’s as if they are offering an apology, as if they must expiate themselves for the sin of living. The act of expiation is the true sin, an immoral renunciation of the gift of life, false penance for living and breathing to the fullest. “I do not wish to expiate,” he wrote, “but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.” And Oscar Wilde seconded that opinion : “Why should the poor be grateful for the crumbs that fall from a rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”

While Emerson’s scorn for philanthropy was marked by unnerving elitism, there is something enduringly relevant about his suggestion that a dollar given in charity is a ‘wicked dollar’, one that places its recipients under  a boot rather than recognizing their equal right to foster their own independence, to realize their individuality. Against the egotism of Thiel, Balsillie,or the Gateses, individuals who eponymously stamp their mark on their endowments, the best donations are those that extend as far as possible the courtesy of indifference. By indifference I mean, quite literally, gifts offered with a lack of self-involvement. Because if it is a gift actually to be give- that is, if it’s actually meant to be surrendered by a donor, preventing her or him from further claims on that gift – then a donor has no right to involvement [ nor to profit from it]. Recipients deserve their own independence. They don’t deserve sympathy, which suggests a sort of false rapport with the recipients, which crushes grantees under the taxing weight of a donor’s goodwill. They don’t deserve pity, which demeans as much as it empowers. If the real motivation is to avoid embroiling others in chains of enduring dependency or obligation, then true gifts should offer the respite of autonomy.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Paradise Regained by Gordon Teskey

[ The theme of this poem is the temptation of Christ which is told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to these texts, after being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert. During this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. Jesus having refused each temptation, the devil then departed and Jesus returned to Galilee.]

Paradise Regained the old adversaries from the battle in Heaven, recorded in book 6 of Paradise Lost, meet again. But in Heaven they were hardly adversaries: The Son’s victory over the armies of Satan is sudden, overwhelming , and total. This time Satan, who is prince of this world (John 12:31), has supernatural powers, and Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, has no powers above human, although he is a perfect human being in every way,. But surely even a perfect human being would not be equal to the powers that Satan now has. Or might he be?

Nor does Jesus have any memory of the war in Heaven, of who he is or what it means to be God’s “Son.” As we have seen, the word Son, obsessively repeated, is the riddle of this poem. Satan wants to find out the meaning of the phrase, “This is my son beloved, in him am pleased” (PR, 1.85), and whether it applies to the prophetic judgment on the serpent uttered by the Son when Adam and Eve were judged: “her Seed shall bruise thy head, thou bruise his heel” (PL, 10.180). Is the meaning of “Seed” the same as the meaning of “Son”? For the climatic episode in Paradise Regained, when Satan tries something harsher and more direct than temptation, he reveals his uncertainty on this question: “Therefore, to know what more  thou art than man/ Worth naming Son of God, by voice from Heav’n,/ Another method I must now begin” (PR, 4.538-40). Satan recalls the Son’s judgment shortly after the action of the poem begins and refers to this wound as “Fatal” and “long threatened” (PR, 1.53 and 59).  What does this wound consist of? Satan conjectures the prophesy means he and the other devils will no longer be left free to range in “this fair empire of earth and air” (PR, 1,.63). They will be driven back to hell, as they are in the Nativity Ode. Is Jesus this “Seed” who will inflict the bruise? That is what Satan wants to find out above all. But whether Jesus is the “Seed” or some other sense of “Son of God”, Satan intends to corrupt him if he can and destroy him if he must – and if he can.

If Jesus can defeat Satan’s efforts to tempt and destroy him, he will have undone Adam’s crime, which persists in the entire human race as original sin, and which Milton understands as the lust of dominion and the lust of possession, but also, especially now, after the collapse of the English Revolution, as cowardice. If Jesus wins, he will have become a perfect instrument for his ministry, which will start after the close of this poem.

Paradise Lost expands upon the Biblical Creation and Fall in the most literal and physical sense. The essential thought of Paradise Lost, about the Bible as well as about human ethics, is direct and uncomplicated. It affirms human freedom, and the exaltedness of human reason, within the horizon of our createdness. We are created beings and owe God thanks and praise for our existence. We also owe God obedience to what was originally a single command: not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But after the Fall this original command branched out into many prohibitions, not all of them reasonable and free. The many laws are an effort to plug the leaky holes in the hull of our corrupted nature, while the ship slowly sinks. We are still reasonable and free beings, but overwhelmed by the sins we commit and even more by the sins we inherit from all who have been sinning before us, which inherited sins cumulatively may be termed “history.” History is our great excuse, but it is also our greatest burden. The Son of God comes into the world to remove this weight of sin and restore us to our original state of innocence – although this, as it happens, will take time, and will require, in conventional Christianity, a sacrifice. To remove the weight of sin means for Milton to reverse the direction of history, to turn Paradise lost into Paradise regained – or, rather, to turn the desert of history into a new Paradise that exists only in the barest outlines. The new Paradise, for which the secular version is Utopia, is for Milton in the process of being slowly built. That is the meaning of the phrase in the introduction to Paradise Regained: “An Eden raised in the waste of the wilderness” (PR, 1.7)

Paradise Regained is biblically allusive, conceptually challenging and stylistically spare. It also makes an unexpected advance, intellectually speaking, upon Paradise Lost, which becomes strikingly quietist, with nothing more to recommend than obedience, suffering and meekness, ideas not well coordinated with Milton’s ethically paramount, humanistic concepts of freedom and reason. In books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost, the synthesis of classical values and Christian faith comes apart and Christian faith overwhelms humanistic values. Transcendental engagement -  that is, engagement with the world, because human beings are inherently noble and deserve better – begins to regress into transcendence pure and simple, because human beings deserve what they get from one another. In these final two books of Paradise Lost Milton almost seems to recommend giving up the world and hoping for Heaven.

Paradise Regained shows renewed intellectual vigor, and the thinking, the dianoia, which is to say, the thought expressed by the characters, is more immediate, disclosing a reawakened engagement with the world. The engagement is dialectical and transcendent because it will have nothing to do with improvement. It begins by rejecting all that the world has to offer and all that the world thinks it needs, in order to begin making a new world out of the old. In a further dialectical subtlety, the thinking in Paradise Regained does not struggle, as we might have expected, to fight its way free from an unalloyed Christian tradition that comes to dominate in the final books of Paradise Lost, nor does it welcome back the classical, humanistic values that make up the anthropology of Paradise Lost. Instead,  Paradise Regained goes straight into the heart of the Christian tradition, in the New Testament Gospels, and includes for good measure a condemnation of the classical tradition. In Paradise Lost, Milton expresses thinking he had already done before beginning the poem, mostly in the prose works written over nearly two decades. In Paradise Regained, we feel the pressure of thinking as it is happening now.

The Jesus of Paradise Regained is like the supremely authoritative Jesus of John’s Gospel, but in a state of becoming. It is almost as if Milton set out to discover where Jesus got his strength of mind from and sought an answer by expanding imaginatively on an episode that is not in John’s Gospel, but that is in the other three. The temptation by Satan is understood ,and so presented by him, as the final and decisive stage in the formation of Jesus’s mind, preparing Jesus for his ministry, and also testing him to see if he is worthy. The portrait we are given of his mind is fascinating, in his private thoughts as well as in his statements to Satan. It is an entirely human mind, without divined knowledge, but it is a mind of a genius and an idealist, one who has read intelligently enough in the Hebrew scriptures to know he is the coming Messiah to which the prophets refer. But exactly what does this mean, and what is to be done? Jesus has come into the desert to think this over, and Satan will have some solutions to offer him.

In the choice of the temptation episode, Milton discovers a thought we see clearly expressed nowhere else in his work: that the Crucifixion, the climatic episode of all four Gospels, is less important than the temptation in the desert, a minor episode at the outset of the synoptic gospels. As Milton sees it, Jesus’s Crucifixion is a victory over the consequences of the original sin of Adam and Eve, the chief consequence being death. But Jesus’s victory in the desert  is a victory over the cause of original sin, the temptation of Adam and Eve. This is the more radical solution.

It is hard to emphasize enough how unorthodox and extreme this idea is, got from a thoughtful and repeated reading of the Greek text of the gospels, with attention and with total disregard for tradition – or for other parts of the Bible, notably the epistles of Paul. As we have come to expect with Milton’s thought, his solution to the problem of what Jesus does to save us [preach against greed, dominion and political cowardice] goes down to the root.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Authentic Hope by Terry Eagleton

Ernst Bloch acknowledges the reality of tragedy, but he is not for the most part a tragic thinker – not because he is a utopian visionary, but because he recognizes only fitfully that a transformed existence can spring only from an encounter with dispossession.

There are times, to be sure, when he takes the full pressure of this truth. Only by a confrontation with the void can new life emerge. He writes in The Principle of Hope of how “the humanity of Marx, which turned towards the humblest of his brothers, proves itself by comprehending the humbleness, the resultant nullity of most of his brothers  in its foundation, in order to prize them from the foundations. The zero point of extremist alienation which the proletariat represents now at last becomes the dialectical point of change: Marx teaches us to find out All precisely in the Nothing of this zero point.” It is an arresting insight into the tragic nature of Marxism – a tragedy which is by no means undercut by its positive political goals, since a loss of being is a condition of achieving them. If these words of Bloch are remarkable, however, it is not least because they cut against much else in his general sensibility. Such a tragic perception is by no means the keynote of his work. The Principle of Hope gives one little sense of immersing itself in the malignant impulses with which hope must contend. We do not hear as much as we should of the arrogance of power, the stubborn persistence of violence and self-interest in every epoch of human history, the chronic recurrence of internecine conflicts, the prevalence of false consciousness, the deep-seated drive to maim, exploit, and humiliate. Any humanism which turns its eyes from such unsavory realities is bound to put its hope on the cheap. Past history for Bloch is for the most part a foretaste of paradise, not, as for Marx, a nightmare that weighs on the brains of the living.

Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope records how Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the American Crow tribe, saw that his people’s way of life was on the brink of a catastrophic collapse, and that “in order to survive – and perhaps flourish again – the Crow had to be willing to give up almost everything they understood about the good  life” with no assurance of a successful outcome. Ravaged by disease, devastated by the rival Sioux and Blackfeet, and almost bereft of their buffalo, the Crow lost nearly two-thirds of their number in the 1890s before they were finally herded onto a reservation. Plenty Coups had received in a dream the divine appeal to accept the ruin of his tribe’s way of life, in the trust that only in this way could his people struggle through to a good end. His hope, in Lear’s words, was that “even with the death of the traditional  forms of Crow subjectivity, the Crow can nevertheless survive and flourish again.” One thinks of Job’s words to Yahweh: “even if you kill me, I will have hope in you.”

In Plenty Coups’ view, to hope was to recognize that there were possibilities that surpassed what could currently be conceived. Faith and hope are most needed when knowledge is hard to come by. When the buffalo went away,” Plenty Coups remarked, “the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After that, nothing happened.” The departure of the buffalo heralded the end of history. As Lear argues, the Crow had lost the concepts with which they might construct a narrative. Since the schema that what counted as an event was shattered, there was nothing more to recount. Yet the death of “Crow subjectivity,” as Lear calls it, might clear the ground for rebirth, so that history might begin to happen once more.

The decisions that the chief confronted were not ones that could be reasoned about in existing moral terms. Only afterward, when a new matrix of understanding had emerged from the cataclysm ,might the significance of his hope become clear to him. A storm is approaching, Plenty Coups dreams, but the devastation that it will wreak will only be understood retrospectively, in the light of concepts that will themselves have been transformed by the impending turmoil. Radical hope, Lear writes, “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”

Revolutionary upheavals transform the very hermeneutical frames within which the occur, so that the attempt to understand them must be deferred. It is an exemplary case of Hegel’s late-flying Owl of Minerva. “If a people genuinely are at the historical limit of their way of life,” Lear observes, “There is precious little they can do to ‘peek over to the other side.’ Precisely because they are about to endure a historical rupture, the detailed texture of life on the other side has to be beyond their ken.” It is in this spirit that Marx begins his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by aiming a satirical shaft at those revolutionaries who draw their symbolic resources from the past, rather than being attuned to what he cryptically calls “the poetry of the future.” If radical transformation is a hard concept to seize, it is because it demands foresight and lucidity, precision and calculation, but all in the name of an end that is necessarily opaque. To project a future is inevitably to draw on the experience of the present; and thus to fail to surpass what we know already; yet how otherwise can a future which exceeds our present understanding be brought to birth?

The struggle for a just society involves an instrumental rationality, but it is not only that. The left would continue to protest against sweated labor and mass unemployment even if it were morally certain that capitalism is here to stay. Bertolt Brecht speaks in his poem “An die Nachsgeborenen” of despairing only where there is injustice and no rebellion; but even if rebellion was to evaporate altogether, the fact that men and women have fought for their freedom so tenaciously over the centuries would still be a source of value. There would, so to speak, be something salvaged on Judgment Day. Though justice might not flourish in the end, a life devoted to the pursuit of it remains a credible one. Not to succeed in the end is not necessarily to have failed, any more than it is true that all’s well that ends well. It is only the lure of teleology that persuades us of this fallacy. Even if history were to fall into utter ruin, it would be a matter for despair only if that catastrophe were predestined; and even then it is possible, like many a tragic protagonist, to pluck value from combating the inevitable. Indeed, unless one combats the inevitable, one will never know how inevitable it was in the first place.  The truth, however, is that catastrophe is not written into the march of history, any more than hope is. However desolate the future may prove, it might always have been different. The contingency that can make for misfortune can also make for success. Besides, a lamentable future would almost certainly be the handiwork of a rapacious ruling minority, not the product of humanity as a whole.

Despite all this, one does not need to view hope in excessively existential terms. Goals are important. One does not have to view hope in too absolute or unconditional terms. Bloch is mistaken to imagine that it a question of all or nothing. According to psychoanalytic theory, we shall never be cured of desire, but this is not to say that we cannot strike a diplomatic pact with it. Though there will be no utopia, in the sense of the world purged of discord and dissatisfaction, it is sober realism to believe that our condition could be mightily improved. It is not that all will be well, but that all might be well enough. One does not need a breed of archangels in order to refrain from genocide or put paid to the trafficking of sex slaves. It is those who deny this good sense who are the fantasists, whatever their vaunted pragmatism. Nothing is more otherworldly than the assumption that the world as we know it is here to stay.

Yet though hope need not in general cut to the foundations, it is just this variety of it that is needed for radical change, given the formidable resistance such a project would confront. In the end, one would need what the theologian Herbert McCabe calls a hope that “goes through defeat and crucifixion to resurrection.” Or as Raymond Williams put it in rather more secular terms: “the fact is that neither the frankly utopian for, nor even the more qualified outlines of practical futures, can begin to flow until we have faced, at the necessary depth, the divisions and contradictions which now inhibit them.”

Tragic hope is hope in the extremis. The concept of progress, Walter Benjamin insists, must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. The optimist cannot despair, but neither can he know genuine hope, since he disavows the conditions that make it essential. Erik Erikson, with the development of a small infant in mind, speaks of hope as “the enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes, in spite of the dark urges and rages that mark the beginning of existence.” Only through trust in the love of its parents can the child resist being claimed by those malign  forces.

At the end of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, perhaps the most magnificent of all literary portraits of evil, the narrator speaks of what he calls “the most frightful lament ever set up on this earth.” It is the symphonic cantata The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, the final musical composition of the damned Adrian Leverhuhn before his pact with the devil drags him off to hell. It is a work of profound mourning, a “dark tone-poem that permits up to the very end no consolation, appeasement, transfiguration.” Yet is it not conceivable, the narrator asks, “that out of this sheerly irremediable hope might germinate?” He goes on:

It would be but hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair – not betrayal of it, but the miracle that passes belief. For listen to the end, listen with me: one group of instruments after another retires, and what remains, as the work fades on the air, is the High G of a cello, the last word, the last fainting sound, slowly dying in a pianissimo-fermata. Then nothing more: silence, and night. But that tone which vibrates in the silence, which is no longer there, to which only the spirit hearkens, and which was the voice of mourning, is no more. It changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night.

It is not that the cantata ends on a tremendously hopeful note. On the contrary, like all pieces of music, it ends in nothing: silence. Yet this particular silence is a peculiarly palpable one, retroactively transforming the final tone of mourning into one of affirmation, and allowing it to make something new of itself in the very act of vanishing. The death of the music generates a ghostly aftermath. It is as if the cantata ends twice: once in reality, as the final note fades, and then again in the mind, the mere specter of a sound, as something mysteriously merges out of nothing. The last note is experienced twice, the first time as living and the second time as dead, but it is in death that it seems most alive. When the note is literally living, it is, like Faustus himself, full of grief at the prospect of its impending demise; but once it has passed into that void, it is repeated with a difference, sounding out again with a transfigured meaning. There is hope, as well as sorrow, in the fact that things pass away. Perhaps there is also hope that some unfathomable source of mercy might extend its favor even to the novel’s demoniac hero, who is caught ,like the final note of his cantata between life and death, yet whose death-driven genius has, after all, given birth to an art in the service of the living.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What is Wealth by Matt Bruenig

In "Capital," Piketty tracks as far back as he can the history of wealth inequality, which is also described as the history of inequality in the ownership of capital. In order to embark upon such a project, one must provide a definition of wealth and capital, which turns out to be a contentious undertaking.
For Piketty, wealth and capital are ultimately socially constructed categories. When he refers to wealth, he is not talking about land or machines or buildings necessarily. He is talking about anything that can be traded as an asset that generates a financial return in a society at a given moment in time. In periods when people could be bought and sold like capital, those people counted as wealth. Right now, monopoly rights over ideas (patents) and media (copyright) count as wealth as well.
So he is not tracking the history of wealth and capital in a physical sense. He is tracking the history of the distribution of asset values. The decision to track wealth this way is clearly the correct one for his project, but it already appears to be driving some confusion in the crush of reviews and reactions.
Wealth Is Socially And Politically Constructed
The source of this confusion is that, within economic discourse especially, we often conceptualize wealth as this almost objective thing: there is a building here and it has a certain market value and that is the amount of wealth it represents. But the "market value" of a given asset is totally dependent upon the way our laws construct our economic institutions.
Consider an apartment building for instance. The market value of that apartment building is supposed to be the net present value of the flow of future rents the building will generate. But the future flow of rents depends upon the laws surrounding the leasing of apartments. In a legal universe with rent control, the market value of the apartment building is lower than a legal universe without rent control. Moving from a non-rent-control universe to a rent-control universe would not change the building at all, but it would destroy a lot of "wealth" (defined here as asset values) because it would reduce the net present value of the flow of future rents the building will generate. Moving in the opposite direction would create a lot of "wealth."
Obviously, changing rent laws does not literally create or destroy wealth in the physical sense of the word. The building is still the building. All it does is change legal relationships such that the market value of the building has gone down, making total wealth in the national accounts decline. Market values, and therefore wealth, do not track objective valuations of things in the abstract; rather, they track the valuation of legally constructed rights and powers with regards to things.
It is precisely this legally constructed nature of wealth that JW Mason hit on in an excellent post on Piketty at his blog. In the post, he walks through the puzzle that economic powerhouse Germany has the least wealth in Europe. He points out that they don't actually have the least wealth in some physicalist sense of the word. It's just that their legal institutions grant less rights and powers to people with regard to a variety of wealth assets. And that causes wealth to show up much lower in the national accounts.
For instance, Germany's corporate governance structure limits the power of shareholders over firms, delegating a significant chunk of power to workers in the firms instead. This means that the asset value of corporate stock is lower, which means "wealth" in the country is lower. But that wealth valuation does not reflect the physical reality of machines and buildings and tools and so on that firms actually hold. It just reflects, as all market values do, the way German law has constructed economic power and control over firms.
Robert Hale
The pioneer of this legal constructivist account of market valuation was legal realist Robert Hale. Instead of just remarking on how rent control of corporate governance reform can cause asset values to rise or fall, Hale goes all the way to the bone with his analysis. Laws do not just affect valuation of assets. Laws are the very core of asset values.
The net present value of the future flow of income from an asset is entirely structured by legal regimes. A country that has no property law, for instance, would have asset values of $0 even if it was identical to the US in terms of the buildings and machines and so on that was contained within it. If that same country invented some real weak property laws, then asset values would pop into existence because future flows of income would suddenly become a thing you can account for in the present and therefore capitalize into an asset price. I could go further with this, but the point should be clear enough here: since laws create and enforce powers and rights with respect to things and their future use, they are also the primary determinant of "wealth."
Failure to appreciate the legally constructed nature of asset values and therefore "wealth" causes economists and courts alike extreme confusion. They often analyze wealth and economic interactions as if they are these scientific, pre-political things, and in so doing totally miss the institutional forces that are actually determining things like asset prices.
Hale provides an amusing example of this confusion in the form of court cases where judges are trying to figure out what rates to set for public utility prices. The way these courts often handled this question was to determine the market value of the assets of the utility, multiply those assets by a particular rate of return, and then set the utility prices accordingly. This seems reasonable enough except that the "market value of the assets of the utility" is entirely determined by what the utility prices are. Since the utility's assets are valued by the net present value of the future flow of income, and the future flow of income is established by the price the judge selects, the judge is actually determining the value of the utility's assets when they establish the prices even though the judge thinks they are reflecting the value of the utility's assets.
The public utility cases are an especially egregious example of this sort of confusion about what wealth is, and one that seemed to have unhealthily obsessed Hale. But it's emblematic of the broader trend here. Our discourse in this world, even in learned policy circles, still talks about our economy as if it is this quintessentially pre-political, natural thing. Politics in this discussion is described as something that invades, intervenes, and distorts the natural, independent workings of this separate thing called the economy.
Accordingly, deep confusion abounds as people try to scope in hard on what capital or wealth really is as if they are physicists studying a natural phenomena. Wealth assets are always and anywhere political and social constructs. Things exist, but "wealth" is a fiction, the contours of which are fully derivative of how we create our systems of control and power over the material things of the world. This is not some kind of abstract philosophical point either. Just look at asset value data (as in Germany) and you see it, empirically.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Making of Salafism by Henri Lauziere

One point worth stressing is that the last thirty years of the twentieth century saw the appearance of an indigenous literature about the purist notion of Salfism. Until then, the concept was not an object of study per se. Purist Salafis used the term and sometimes gave brief and indirect definitions of it. But prior to the 1970s we can hardly say that systematic attempts were made to explain what purist Salifism meant. By the end of the 1990s, the opposite situation prevailed. Countless books and articles now dealt with the origins and meaning of Salafism, as understood by purist Muslims.

Even more significant is the novel way in which a majority of purists Salafis articulated the concept. Beginning in the 1970s, a process of ideologization took place whereby Muslim scholars recast purist Salafism as a totalizing system reminiscent of the Islamism of Sayyid Qutb (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood). Far from being a theological doctrine and an approach to Islamic law, Salafism became a worldview that encompassed the whole of existence, from knowledge to practice, from morality to etiquette, and even from religion to politics. Salafism was now a total ideology, as defined by sociologist Daniel Bell: ”a total ideology is an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality , it is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole way of life.” The Arabic term that best encapsulates this process of ideologization is manhaj, or “method,” an Islamic civilizational world view.

The vast majority of self-proclaimed Salafists worldwide define salafiyya as the most authentic and purist religious orientation within Sunni Islam and have placed themselves at the center of intra-islamic polemics because of their claim to follow the only true  Islam that can lead to salvation. To its many detractors, this form of Salafism is virtually synonymous with Wahhibism – the conservative approach to Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia and that was first expounded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century. But purist Salafis have long denied this characterization, both because they abhor such terminology as Wahhabism  and because they reject the idea that Wahhab created a new religious orientation. Salafism, they argue, is nothing other than Islam as it was first revealed, unsullied by innovation, deviation or accretion and uncontaminated by exogenous influences. It is the pure Islam to which the pious ancestors of the first three generations conformed.

Given the difficulty of defining purity in absolute terms, contemporary Salafists often must define it negatively – that is, by elaborating on all things they deem contrary to the pristine Islam of the pious ancestors. In matters of creed, which they view as the highest priority, purist Salafists reject all forms of speculative philosophy, known as kalam in Arabic. According to them, Muslims who seek to explain thorny issues such as God’s names and attributes should never resort to Philosophy, Aristotelian logic, or metaphorical interpretation (tas’wil), all of which distort the meaning of scriptures. The pious ancestors, the argument goes, never used such devious techniques: they merely described God as He described Himself in the revelation. In order to revive this ‘originalist’ approach to theology, purist Salafists insist on the need to avoid nearly every theological doctrine that has emerged since the first fitna, or civil war, which split the Muslim community in the mid-seventh century. They find them all – including the Ash’ari and Maturidi doctrines followed by millions of Muslims today – to be misguided, heretical, or offensive to God in one way or another. In short, they regard these theological doctrines as reprehensible innovations that the pious ancestors either did not encounter or did not tolerate.

This leaves contemporary purist Salafists with only one reliable doctrinal system – Hanbali theology – to which they adhere in its later and more refined iteration, as articulated and defended by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 13428). Yet unlike medieval Muslim scholars, contemporary Salafi usually refrain from claiming  that they are Hanbali in creed because that would imply the blind following of a single man – namely Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855)- who has no inherent authority. To speak Hanbali theology would also imply that ibn Hanbal and his disciples were innovators who constructed a doctrinal system more than two hundred years after the death of the Prophet. To avoid these potential objections, purist Salafis claim to follow the doctrine of the forefathers (madhhab al-salaf), thus enlisting the collective authority of all the pious ancestors in matters of theology. Ibn Taymiyya, the controversial medieval scholar, had made it a point to draw the distinction during one of his trials in Damascus in 1306. When asked to acknowledge that his writings conformed to the Hanbali creed – an admission that might have satisfied his judges and ended the trial – Ibn Taymiyya refused and retorted: “I compiled nothing but the creed of all the pious ancestors, and it is not particular to imam Ahmad. Imam Ahmad only transmitted the knowledge that the Prophet brought forth.”

Contemporary Salafis also search for impurities beyond the realm of theology. In legal matters, they usually deny that the four Sunni schools of Islamic law have any authority apart from the canonical primary sources on which each body of jurisprudence is supposed to be based. In principle, few self-respecting Salafi scholars today would argue to the contrary, even if, in practice, they tend to follow one school in particular. Their rationale is that the schools of law and their institutionalization of disagreement did not exist at the time of the pious ancestors. Therefore, the cumulative legal precedents and methodologies of these schools should not carry more weight than the Qur’an, the hadith, and the consensus of the salaf. Purist Salafis are particularly cautious not to let legal pluralism justify actions that could be construed as shirk ( literally “association”, by which they mean a breach of tawhid, or God’s unicity) because in such cases the distinction between a wrong action and a wrong belief tends to disappear. Allowing Muslims to build structures over tombs and declaring it permissible to seek divine favor through the auspices of a deceased patron are examples of legal pinions that, according to the purist Salafis, endorses idolatry. This is one of the many reasons why they abhor Sufism, which they view a a hotbed for such innovations in deeds and, ultimately, in creed.

The most uncompromising purist Salafis usually leave no stone unturned to locate and eradicate actual or potential impurities from all aspects of religious experience. Not only do they reject what they regard as misguided beliefs and actions, but also attack the epistemologies that enable these beliefs and actions to emerge in the first placed. For this reason, they deny the validity of any intuitive or esoteric knowledge whose content is not accessible to all. Purist Salifis are equally adamant about the primacy of scriptural evidence (naql) over rational proofs (‘aql) as the best means to arrive at the truth. Again, only the Qur’an, the hadith, and the authenticated reports from pious  ancestors who have assimilated infallible prophetic teachings may yield certitude. Reason alone never does, and according to purist Salafi, it would be irrational. They agree that one must appeal to reason, or common sense, to appreciate the superiority of sound transmitted knowledge. But Muslims are not at liberty to interpret textual sources as they please. Nor can they explain away passages that do not serve their views and tastes. Failing to interpret the scriptures as the pious ancestors allegedly did would be an innovation. It would open the door to relativism and could render one liable to accusations of unbelief (kufr). According to some purist Salafi, a Muslim’s deliberate failure to act on this proper understanding of the scriptures, even in matters of etiquette (such as shaving one’s beard) could have similar consequences. In that sense, purist Salafis raise the specter of heresy to a particularly high degree. Even Muslims who personally live up to Salafi standards of orthodoxy or orthopraxy could theoretically stray into heresy if they fail, or hesitate, to anathematize heretics.

In the last twenty years or so, scholars and commentators of various backgrounds have further divided this purist conception of Salafism into several distinct subcategories, the most well known of which are jihadist Salafism and quietist scholarly Salafism. These labels intended to provide better tools for analysis, but it must be remembered that they are often imposed by outsiders. Moreover, the attempt to capture differences on questions pertaining to politics and violence, which, although important, are not at the core of Salafism. By this, I mean, again, that purist Salafists tend to evaluate the soundness of all thoughts and actions – including those pertaining to politics and the use of violence – by standards of religious purity. Ultimately, it is not so much what Salafis do or say about politics that matters as it is  how well they can avoid or defend themselves against charges of epistemological, theological, and legal impurity. As a rule, the stronger the case against them, the weaker their claim to Salifism becomes among their peers.