Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Email Out

The following is what I have just written to a student at the "prestigious" Cheng Kung University here in Tainan in response to a link to this documentary entitled "Commanding Heights: The Battle For The World Economy". I think it's fair enough to deserve a blog-post of its own, though I'll withhold the name of the student it was written for.

"Regarding the "documentary" - I had a quick scan of the written synopsis, and these two lines leapt off the screen at me:

[1] "With communism discredited, more and more nations harness their fortunes to the global free-market."

[2] "In the United States Republican and Democratic administrations both embrace unfettered globalization over the objections of organized labor."

Can you see what my problem is with both of these lines?

It is the use of the adjective "free" to modify "market" and that of "unfettered" to modify "globalization". Now I know that I myself sometimes talk about "degrees of freedom", but nevertheless it is simply a gross de-contexualization or LIE to describe the globalization of markets as "free" or "unfettered". There are myriad restrictions from multiple States upon, and conditions for, international trade. There are so many such restrictions and conditions across the world, that it would be no exaggeration to describe a man's knowledge of them in just one country alone as "encyclopedic". How many restrictions on imports from China are there here in Taiwan for example - even with the pro-China KMT in government? To what extent does the ROC, both under this administration and previous ones, place restrictions on the nature and extent of Taiwanese capital investment in China? It is not a short list...

Now you might make an argument that some of these restrictions are justified or even that, against memories of communism and outright dictatorship, they are of comparatively minor importance. I would reject such an argument on several counts, but that isn't really what interests me here.

The important point concerns the function of language. When the words people use cease to refer to reality, then what such people say simply cannot be trusted. But such corruption of the language, in this instance describing the global market as "free" or "unfettered" instead of simply referring to it as "the global market" (sans modifiers), is increasingly common AND increasingly left uncorrected. What effect might you suppose this has upon ability of growing minds to integrate conceptual data and think?

For this reason alone, I cannot take this "documentary" seriously - for the act of documenting some aspect of reality presupposes certain virtues of truthfulness (not only sincerity but also accuracy). To unwittingly reveal in the very synoptic wording of this "documentary" itself that these virtues are absent, not only indicates a certain tactical carelessness but more importantly it thus invalidates any claim the authors may make to their video being a "documentary". It is not. It is a piece of lying propaganda - and a bad one, since it is transparently so. It is a clumsy attempt to try to combine empirical documentation with ideological critique - but it ends up being nothing more than an ironic self-document of dishonesty.

An honest documentary would have to stipulate to the premise of the "mixed economy" - with economic relations among people (both domestically and internationally) being comprised of one part market and one part government. When you consider purchasing a Nikon camera imported from Japan, you are in a very obvious sense free to decide to do so or not, but the price at which that camera is sold to you was not freely determined for reasons of taxation, subsidies and the State-manipulated value of the currency itself which you must use to effect the purchase; moreover, the location of the shop in which you buy the camera, unless online, was likewise not freely determined - city zoning regulations and the state monopoly over land values and registration narrowly restricted the possibilities for this location. So you are "free" to choose whether to buy that new DSLR or not, but your decision will be partly influenced by consideration of the price relative to what you can afford - and both the price and the value of the cash you can afford to spend will have been indirectly determined by State compulsion to varying degrees. Tranpose that analysis of the prosaic example of buying a camera to a more serious question, like that for example, of why is there so much effective unemployment (i.e. higher than any government's own face-saving estimate), or "sweatshops" or environmental pollution, and once again you find that although there are obvious instances of "freedom of choice" involved, many of the background economic conditions against which such choices are made are conditions shaped by the application of State compulsion to market relations.

An honest critique of the free-market ideal (and it is an ideal - a set of abstract principles to guide political thought and action, and as such it is very different from the empirical reality to which your video lyingly claims it represents) would have to either (a) explicitly reject the ethical premises of individualism (i.e. self-ownership and free will) in favour of collectivism (i.e. the enslavement of the individual and his interests to serve those of a collective {e.g. nation, class, race, party, movement} or else the denial of free-will) and thereby reject the free-market ideal on ethical grounds, or (b) accept the ethical premises of individualism and argue for the necessity of the State in some degree on consequentialist grounds (e.g. the so-called "paradox of freedom", whereby the State must violate the freedom of individuals to a limited extent {e.g. by taxation} in order to provide law and order services so that the wider conditions of freedom can be enjoyed).

Remember Marx's last of his theses on Feurbach - that the point is to change the world - well the authors of your video (and this is to grant them far more credit than their likely intelligence deserves) appear to have taken that thesis and raised it to a principle superceding the virtues of truthfulness.

Hope that helps - I think it's worth at least one pint of Guinness."

See 'ya later...


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