COVID Reaction: The Triumph of Ethics

Lots of folks have been wondering if the COVID-19 pandemic carries any legitimately hopeful meanings. Here at TCT, we think there’s at least one, and that it’s a doozy. Permit us to explain.

In his classic (though admittedly pretty hard-to-read) book, The Great Transformation, the Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi argued that, despite official doctrine, no sane person really believes that human beings and natural objects are actually commodities, actually things that can be bought and sold, up to infinifty or down to zero, without regard to underlying physical and ethical realities.

Under certain conditions, Polanyi argued, certain groups of people can get away with pretending that land and labor really are merely salable things. But not always and not forever. When things get over- or under-heated, as they inevitably do, capitalist theory falls away, as people sense the truth of what Polanyi called, on page 76 of The Great Tranformation, “the commodity fiction”:

Now, one of Polanyi’s main subordinate hypotheses was that, despite the efforts of TPTB, society — meaning the democratic majority — would often be forced to defend itself against the commodity fiction by creating “welfare” policies based on the reality that land, labor, and money are not, in fact, infinitely salable quanta, but rather precious, ethically primary, qualitative realities of their own.

With this in mind, TCT would like to suggest that social distancing is, among many other things, a very major proof of the Polanyian “self-protection of society.”

As the most hardcore and/or naive capitalists among us are trying to point out, we could quite easily go back to letting the commodity fiction organize our everyday affairs. Doing so would undoubtedly be very good for capitalism.

But we are instead doing something else, aren’t we?

Why is that?

It is because we are choosing human life and human ethics over market valuations.

Just as Karl Polanyi predicted we would.

And, the news might be even better than this. We seem to be doing this astounding thing with little serious resistance. This may speak to the gradual improvement of our culture, in Polanyian and later culture-war terms.

We are voting with our feet, marching in the direction of the basic pragmatic point that, ultimately, in the real world, economic “markets,” as some have said, can be great servants, but are always, at the end of the day, terrible masters.

A big question now is whether we will somehow become aware of what we are, in fact, doing, and then use our new level of self-clarity to keeping stepping toward the other kinds of self-defenses we pretty obviously need to enact against our other impending realities, which promise to make COVID-19 look like, ahem, a tea party.

Public Enterprise: Topic Not Completely Verboten

It’s hard to know what to make of such an event, which speaks volumes in several directions, not least being the patent idiocy of Donald John Trump and his many almost-all-white friends.

Nonetheless, Trump’s AG (itself a comical phrase), William Barr, is now talking about the United States purchasing controlling interests in Ericsson and Nokia.

Yahoo reports:

“American ownership of a controlling stake, either directly or through a consortium of private American and allied companies,” [Barr] said.

“Putting our large market and financial muscle behind one or both of these firms would make it a far more formidable competitor and eliminate concerns over its staying power.”

“We and our closest allies certainly need to be actively considering this approach.”

You, the loyal TCT reader, may have noticed something here: There is no mention, either in Barr’s statement or in the press coverage, of such ownership ruining the resulting endeavors.

How is it, you might wonder, that the public could possibly own and operate a competitive organization endeavoring to supply useful goods and services?

The answer, of course, is that it is possible for the public to own and operate a competitive organization endeavoring to provide useful goods and services.

The problem is that such possibilities are almost always unmentionable, due to the nature of existing power and privilege.

Every once in a while, though, an inept elitist will tip the overclass hand.

Answer to Facebook Spying

Were it charged with doing so, the United States Postal Service could easily create and maintain a non-commercial, not-for-profit, no-advertising, completely secure alternative to Facebook, which exists to harvest marketing data for its corporate clients. The fact that such an obvious thing remains unmentioned and unmentionable speaks volumes.

The Comatose Left

homer brain Google is apparently heightening its censorship of news sources, in response to the Duopoly©’s “fake news” flap. Mirroring the Democratic© brand of the duopoly’s proposed answer to the latest worsening of the nation’s information-and-education climate, Google is running with the notion that “more authoritative content” is what is needed within the otherwise uncriticized structure and flow of the corporate mass media. “Authoritative,” of course, means “mainstream,” which, in turn, means what is squarely conventional within the usual logic of corporate media properties.

What does the political left have to say about fixing this blatant attack on free and open thought? Nothing. The #Occupy folks are too high on anarchist fantasy to maintain organizing efforts, let alone name detailed demands. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, remains too tied to the overseers and tactics of the Democratic© brand to dare mention the obvious remedy.

That remedy, by the way, is to empower the United States Postal Service to live up to its Constitutional mandate. This would involve modernizing the USPO, to make it a fully-funded and aggressively-managed provider of not just ISP and cellular access, but also secure, marketing-free, non-commercial search engine, web browsing, and social networking software/services.

Needle in the Haystack

Conservative media host Hugh Hewitt said a mouthful in the 1/28/2016 edition of The New York Times Magazine:

NYT: Most Americans think we should raise taxes on the rich, but the Republican candidates don’t, except Trump, who has said he would consider it.

HH: I asked him about a wealth tax, and he said no. But I find that concentration of wealth in Silicon Valley deeply disturbing. Those billionaires are very smart, but they moved to Silicon Valley at the right time. Someone was going to invent Facebook. I’m glad Mark Zuckerberg did it, but it wasn’t an act of genius; it’s an act of timing. Should he have tens of billions of dollars?

NYT: That’s a pretty radical position for a conservative.

HH: I don’t think it’s very good for the society to have billionaires. It creates envy. And envy destroys republics.

NYT: So you’d say to the Silicon Valley elite, ‘‘You didn’t build that.’’

HH: No. They did build it. I would say, You should keep an enormous amount of money for your entrepreneurial ability and your success. But there is a limit in America to how much any one person is going to have. You don’t need 10 billion dollars. Nobody does. The country does.

It is overclass arrogance and decrepitude, not mass envy, that destroys republics, and why those who “build” what was already going to get built, usually after much public-sector expense and groundwork, get to keep even millions is also very highly debatable. Likewise, there has only been one time “in America” when serious limits on personal greed existed — that was WWII.

But still, point taken. It’s a shame the left doesn’t speak this plainly and pointedly.

The Land of Private-Sector Boondoggles

The New York Time Magazine this week carries a brief essay about how South Korea runs its internet. They don’t do what we do here in the proving ground of capitalist dictatorship. While we permit private profit ranchers to own our internet infrastructure, South Korea has its Ministry of Science lay and control the pipes.

The results are predictable:

Seoul is blanketed with free Wi-Fi that offers the world’s fastest Internet speeds — twice as fast as the average American’s. Back in 1995, the government began a 10-year plan to build out the country’s broadband infrastructure and, through a series of public programs, to teach Koreans what they could do with it. South Korea also eased regulations on service providers to ensure that consumers would have a multitude of choices — in marked contrast to America, where a handful of cable and telecommunications monopolies dominate the market. Such healthy competition in Korea keeps the cost of access low.

To maintain South Korea’s lead, the country’s Science Ministry recently announced a $1.5 billion initiative to upgrade Korea’s mobile infrastructure. By 2020, the government predicts, it will be 1,000 times faster — so fast you could download a feature-length movie in approximately one second. In the same time frame, the Federal Communications Commission hopes to wire most American homes with broadband Internet with speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, or roughly one-sixtieth of South Korea’s goal.

Here’s one telling result:

American mobile design is fetishistically minimalist. Silicon Valley applauds itself for good taste in this regard, but this aesthetic has sprung up partly in response to a deficiency: Americans have learned to strip out bandwidth-guzzling elements because they slow down loading times. Korean designers, lacking such bandwidth restraints, can stuff their apps full of all the information and widgets they like. On-screen real estate isn’t an issue, either, because Koreans prefer massive phones. While the “phablet” — the missing link between a phone and a tablet — is popular as a punch line in the United States, it’s been in high demand in South Korea for years.

This trans-Pacific gap in bandwidth is so pronounced that Korean developers often have to strip down their software if they want to take it stateside.

None of this, of course, enters into our pathetic debates over whether to place a few paltry regulations on our holders of licenses to steal. Despite such stark facts, even our reformers dutifully refrain from mentioning what a terrible idea it is to let capitalists own basic public facilities.