Archive for February, 2010

overview

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Probably the most important aspect of the Quigley theory of civilization is that it functions as a sort of unified field theory, in that it supposes an objective criteria that applies, and explains human social structures as they pertain to all civilizations and societies. It identifies the central dynamic of these structures as the interplay between the “instruments” society develops to fulfill human needs, and how these instruments always turn into “institutions” that inevitably develop their own vested interests that (to a certain degree) degrade their original function, and (can) ultimately act as a drag on the societies ability to continue to expand, grow or develop. When an institution degenerates into a serious drag on society this creates a discord that can only be answered by three possible outcomes, of either reform, circumvention, or a reactionary move by the institution to prevent the first two options The beauty of this is that it provides a simple structural base of analysis that applies equally to large civilizations and large institutions down to society level institutions both large and small.

When the above dynamic is applied to to the six divisions of potentialities of; military, economic, religious, economic, social, and intellectual – as these potentialities form the basic nucleus from which instruments or institutions are formulated around, and often are in a sense, the institutions themselves – a general picture of both how a society is structured (through the interaction and relationships between the potentialities), and how effective/efficient/successful the society functions in answering the needs for its population. Along with as a result the likely trajectory and consequences the society might experience as the result of its particular configuration of these dynamics at any particular time.

Update, of sorts:

I stole this from Sebastian Jones via John Cole:

“As Ridge counseled the administration to “put that package together,” he sure seemed like an objective commentator. But what viewers weren’t told was that since 2005, Ridge has pocketed $530,659 in executive compensation for serving on the board of Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power company. As of March 2009, he also held an estimated $248,299 in Exelon stock, according to SEC filings.

Moments earlier, retired general and “NBC Military Analyst” Barry McCaffrey told viewers that the war in Afghanistan would require an additional “three- to ten-year effort” and “a lot of money.” Unmentioned was the fact that DynCorp paid McCaffrey $182,309 in 2009 alone. The government had just granted DynCorp a five-year deal worth an estimated $5.9 billion to aid American forces in Afghanistan. The first year is locked in at $644 million, but the additional four options are subject to renewal, contingent on military needs and political realities.

In a single hour, two men with blatant, undisclosed conflicts of interest had appeared on MSNBC. The question is, was this an isolated oversight or business as usual? Evidence points to the latter.”

What does this more or less garden variety reportage say about the functioning of the military, the political, and the ideological institutions of America?

reform? not

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Digby posts some excerpts from an interview with Paul Volcker that Fareed Zakaria did yesterday. What Volcker says near the end of the interview is relevant to the previous post on the failure of our financial institution to either reform or be circumvented, and resist change.


ZAKARIA: When you look at this crisis, there are many regulatory problems. There are many issues that the bankers did wrong. There are many issues government regulators did wrong.

But many people argue that the one key issue, the biggest weapon the United States government has to slow down, to tamp down excesses, is to have raised the interest rate.

Do you believe, during this period, if interest rates had been higher, some of this would have been — some of this froth would have subsided?

VOLCKER: Well, I have certain rule that ex-chairmen of the Federal Reserve don’t comment on monetary policy of their successors. I’ll tell you how good monetary policy was 30 years ago, but I don’t want to comment on it now.

But I don’t think there’s any question that the Federal Reserve — and the other regulators, it wasn’t just the Federal Reserve — were not on the top of this housing picture, or they weren’t on top of the regulatory picture. And unfortunately, you know, when this was all going up, where was the SEC? And you ask, where was the Federal Reserve? Where was the comptroller of the currency?

There was a whole attitude, a kind of philosophic attitude that the market would take care of itself. And that became quite ingrained. The complexities, the so-called “financial engineering,” a whole school of thought said you don’t have to worry about a breakdown. These smart mathematicians are taking care of it. And all the risks have been dispersed to the point where they won’t upset anything.

Well, when the screws became loose, we found out a lot of the risks were pretty concentrated.

ZAKARIA: All in AIG, for example… VOLCKER: And AIG was one case.

ZAKARIA: … insuring almost all the risk.

VOLCKER: Part of the problem was that it got so complex, that a lot of the management, you know, couldn’t understand it, and didn’t understand it. But they were kind of reassured that somebody down in the bowels had it under control. But there was just a complexity which made it very opaque.

ZAKARIA: Is it true that you once said that the only financial innovation that you believe has added any real value in recent years is the ATM machine?

VOLCKER: I have said something like that to make the point, yes. And I guess I’ll have to add the ATM machine was a mechanical innovation.

ZAKARIA: Not a financial…

VOLCKER: But I’ll tell you, it is a very useful innovation. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Heavily used, efficient, saves you a lot of money.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you a final question.

What is the crisis you’re worried about now? Because one of the things people talk about is, does the United States still have the credibility to continue borrowing at the quantities we borrow? The people who — you know, the rating agencies are now saying our AAA creditworthiness might be in doubt.

Is it something that we need to worry about? Larry Summers says…

VOLCKER: I hate to give you this answer…

ZAKARIA: … can the world’s greatest power be the world’s greatest borrower?

VOLCKER: I hate to give you this answer, but the crisis I most worry about is the crisis in governance.

ZAKARIA: In government.

VOLCKER: In governance, yes. Have we got the capacity to develop programs, get them enacted and in a constructive way?

And that — it’s not just a political problem. That will underlie your question about the confidence in the United States, and confidence in American leadership.

ZAKARIA: And your basic concern is, can our democratic system make the hard choices that it needs to make…

VOLCKER: Yes. ZAKARIA: … the reform — to push these reforms forward?

VOLCKER: Yes.

I think Volcker understands the seriousness here, of what happens when one of societies primary (the economic/financial) institutions, not only finds itself in the midst of a world class state of crisis, of their own creation – but can then also stand atop the smoking wreckage and still  manage to successfully resist all attempts at reforming itself.

Volcker also seems to  understand not only the gravity of the situation, but, that the problem is also an intractably political one, no doubt in many ways, the result of our political system itself, with its insatiable dependence on money. The truly scary thing about all this is that we seemed locked into an uncontrollable trajectory that is blind to consequences.

expansion

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Living as we do, in a society based intrinsically on expansion, Quigley’s observations on this point are worth a closer look. As has been outlined:

We have said that an instrument of expansion, like all instruments, becomes an institution and that as a result the rate of expansion begins to decline. This institutionalization of the organization of expansion, which usually takes the form of a decreasing rate of investment (rather than a decrease in either invention or in accumulation of surplus), leads to a crisis. This crisis, which we have called increasing “tension of evolution”, arises from the clash between the decreasing rate of expansion, on one hand, and the fact that people’s minds and the organization of society are arranged for expansion, on the other hand. […] We might also point out here that it usually gives rise to conflicts between the vested-interest groups that control the uninvested accumulations of surplus (because they control the surplus creating organization in the society and are sufficiently satisfied with the existing social organization to desire no change and the great mass of the population who are discontented at the dwindling prospects of expansion.

He follows with three possible outcomes to the crisis: 1) reform, internally changing the institution back into an effective instrument; 2) circumvention, the creation of a new instrument that leaves the former institution intact but largely ceremonial, and 3) reaction, when the privileged vested interest groups are able to prevent either reform or circumvention and, in consequence, the rate of expansion continues to decrease. If the outcome is neither reform of circumvention, the decline becomes chronic. He goes on to point out several examples one of which is western civilization:

The clearest example to be found in the evolution of our Western Civilization, where both circumvention and reform have occurred. As a result Western Civilization has had three periods of expansion, the first about 970-1270, the second about 1420-1650, and the third about 1725-1929. The instrument of expansion in the first was feudalism, which became institutionalized into chivalry. This was circumvented by a new instrument of expansion that we might call commercial capitalism (the nobility got to keep their nobility, but lost their power), which became the instrument of expansion of the third age of expansion in the history of Western Civilization. By 1930 this organization had become institutionalized into monopoly capitalism, and the society was for the third time, in a major era of crisis.

There are several interesting inferences to be drawn from this model, that may apply to our current situation. The first of which is as Quigley illustrates, Western Civilization has staved off three times the evolutionary trend of progressing from an “age of confusion” toward the three final stages of “universal empire”, “decay”, and “invasion” through either reform or circumvention of its institutions. Of which the age of confusion stage is illustrative of trying to find expansion through artificial means, while keeping its institutions intact and trends toward the universal empire stage through lack of other means of expansion. I think quite obviously, since 1930 we have been locked into a meandering age of confusion state, but whats particularly interesting is that over the last 40 years or so, there has been an expansion of sorts, in spite of other ahistorical conditions such as population saturation, global change, peak oil, and other external limitations on expansion. Continued expansion under these conditions can only mean that we have entered the stage of universal empire, or perhaps onward to the beginning stages of “decay”. Because, throughout the recent appearances of expansion there has not been neither reform or circumvention of institutional monopoly capitalism. What we have witnessed instead can only be (following this narrative) is a successful “reaction” to the need for change. The institution of monopoly capitalism has not been reformed or circumvented by another instrument, but has designed a modality that has expanded itself, probably through the effects of globalization ( a form of empire) and rote deregulation of finance. Or in other words, what has evolved is a kind of hyper global monopoly capitalism, that has precipitated in its wake, the current economic meltdown. And underlining this possibility, is the very evident and endemic response to the collapse, which is the unprecedented and profoundly reactionary taxpayer bailout of the financial institutions by the political institutions as – being “to big to fail”. To which one can only surmise, that we’ve doubled down – and rejected either reform or circumvention – in favor of reaction, to shore up the institutions that have only brought failure.

Kinda puts whats been going on in a new and rather terminal perspective, doesn’t it?

UPDATE

I reread the above this morning and because it is such an important point, I’d like to rephrase it in more plain language. The recent bailouts of America’s financial institutions is indicative of several significant developments, that when put into structural and historical perspective, indicate we are on course toward some very grave consequences. It would seem that the financial/economic institutions of this country have become so powerful that they have been able to co-opt the other networks, especially the political network, into the exclusive service of their own self/vested interests. What this means is that they have become so powerful that they can resist all attempts at either reform and/or prevent any attempts at circumventing their status – that would benefit the economic interests of the population – and have instead been able to turn their function of an “instrument of expansion” away from their original function of invention, savings, and investment, and use its instruments against the population itself. The striking thing about this development is not only that they have been able to resist change and reform with the full cooperation of the political network, but when the entire charade collapses in a heap, the government immediately, and without a shred of oversight or accounting, throws trillions of taxpayer dollars at them to re-inflate these institutionalized vested interests, turning its instrument of expansion into a parasitic extraction of wealth from the population itself. This can only be regarded as an affirmation that we have endorsed and are now locked into a zero-sum race toward the bottom. Characteristic and not unlike other catastrophic failures of civilization throughout history, when the only remaining alternatives of survival are reduced into schemata that is ultimately and unavoidably self destructive.

UPDATE #2

The revised formula would then be as such:

970 – 1270 The instrument of feudalism was institutionalized into chivalry.

1420 – 1650 The institution of chivalry was circumvented by commercial capitalism.

By 1930 The instrument of commercial capitalism became (degenerated into) institutional monopoly capitalism.

Since 1930 The institution of monopoly capitalism has resisted reform and circumvention and has degenerated into institutional predatory capitalism. Whereby the instrument of expansion can be characterized by global expansion, political collusion, military collusion, and eventually feeding directly upon the tax base itself.

Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations

Friday, February 12th, 2010

I’ve finished reading the Carroll Quigley book The Evolution of Civilizations, and while there are a couple of presumptions that bother me, on the whole the book is really all its cracked up to be. In short, The Evolution of Civilizations is an amazing, solidly grounded empirical analysis of both the essential structure of society and civilization, and how they evolve through various predictable stages. This evolution is presented both as a structure composed of essential characteristics and is followed by four case studies of civilizations and how they illustrate the similarity in structure and evolution. There is much here that is useful/enlightening about Wester civilization in general but, particularly, how these observations may apply to contemporary American society. I will outline a short abstract of the important points by specific chapter:

#2 Man and Culture

The differential between animals and man is established through culture, which “intervenes” between man and the natural environment and instinctual drives. Human nature has a wide variety of potentialities and motivation to make these potentials “actual” – and so, human culture produces various “patterns” of beliefs, actions, and thought that are passed on as traditions. There are 6 divisions of human potentialities that account for all manner of material and spiritual human needs. These are :

1) Military

2)Political

3)Economic

4)Social

5)Religious

6)Intellectual

Culture is adaptive and integrative (but never fully integrated in the sense of being complete), trending the various potentialities into an interlocking unified, but perpetually changing system.

#3 Groups, Societies, Civilizations

Aggregates of persons can be divided into Collections, Groups, and Societies. Societies then, can be divided into either “Parasitic” or non(wealth)accumulating societies or “Producing” societies. The latter of which can evolve into Civilizations. Historically, there have been many more non-producing societies than producing ones, and fewer still the number of civilizations (with no more than two dozen in total).

#4 Historical Analysis

The 6 divisions of potentiality correspond to 6 degrees of human need:

1) the need for group security

2)the need to organize intewrpersonal power relationships

3)the need for material wealth

4)the need for human companionship

5)the need for psychological certainty

6)the need for understanding

To satisfy these needs, there comes into existence, on each level, organizations (or networks or “personal relationships) “Instruments” which are designed to address these needs with relative effectiveness. The essential problem here – and the central thesis of this book – is that these “Instruments” take on a life of their own, distinct from the original purpose, and evolve into an “Institution”. All social instruments trend toward becoming institutions, which accordingly is a “rule of history”. The institutionalization of the original instrument happens because #1) it takes on activities and purposes of its own that are different from the purposes for which it was intended, and as a consequence, an institution achieves its original purpose with decreasing effectiveness, because it s original purpose is subverted by its own needs become its own ends. #2) Because every institution is human, it is subject to the human weakness and ambitions of seeing from a self interested perspective – and away from the original intent that absorbs its time and energies. #3) And because the social conditions surrounding any such organization are constantly changing in the course of time, it makes it doubly hard to adapt to changing circumstances when its having trouble keeping the original intent in focus.

When instruments become institutions – “and they all do” – the declining effectiveness of the institution generates discontent with its performance. Which gives rise to what he calls a “tension of development” which in turn calls for three possible outcomes:

1)Reform, reorganization of the methods to return its effectiveness to instrument status.

2) Circumvention, where the institutions existing “vested interests” are left intact but is left impotent or largely ceremonial, while a new instrument is designed to perform its real function.

3)Reaction, where the institution fights back against reforms and wins, leaving those reliant upon its original intent, stuck with an ineffective institution for an indefinite period of time.

#5 Historical Change in Civilizations

The pattern of change within any civilization consists of 7 stages:

1) Mixture

2) Gestation

3) Expansion

4) Age of Conflict

5) Universal Empire

6) Decay

7) Invasion

resulting from the fact that that each civilization has an “Instrument of Expansion” that becomes an institution. The civilization rises when this organization is an instrument and declines as this organization becomes an institution.

An “Instrument of Expansion” is an organization that facilitates:

1)the incentive to invent new ways of doing things – invention

2) the accumulation of surplus wealth – savings

3) whereby the accumulated wealth is used either to utilize the new inventions and to invent more – investment

When the instrument of expansion becomes an institution (institutionalized) we get “tension of evolution”. The society as a whole has become adopted to expansion and the mass of people expect it and desire it. And when they don’t get it they become disappointed, restless, or bitter, because the society at large is often organized so that if it cannot expand it will collapse. While this true of all Civilizations it is especially true of late Western Civilization and particularly true of the United States – which at the time of writing, appeared to be in the stage 4 age of conflict, and threatening stage 5 universal empire – all of which are characterized by “growing class conflicts, declining democracy, dying science, decreasing inventiveness, growing irrationality, foreign entanglements, and sweeping religious movements”.

Not bad for a book written in 1961. In spite of the many dreadful epiphanies it conjures up.

where’s the re-training?

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Having lived through a half dozen recessions in the past, one peculiar thing I’ve noticed about the current one thats different from the others (aside from the severity of this one) is the governments public response and remedy. During all the other recessions (from the 70’s on) a major part of re-engaging public confidence involved an effort toward re-tooling the workforce to adapt to changing conditions. In spite of the fact that these earlier recessions were driven primarily by the price of oil and/or interest rates, the government initiated highly publicized education programs aimed at retraining the workforce to adopt to rapid changes in technology happening in the economy. Seeing that these recessions were mostly resource driven, I’m not sure these programs had much actual effect in reversing economic decline. But nonetheless, these programs had  important practical and psychological effects in highlighting education as the primary tool, in meeting the challenges of an unpredictable and changing world that would most importantly, establish a renewed confidence in the future.

By contrast, the current (dep)recession, now 2+ years and running, has seen absolutely no such programs. No re-tooling, no re-education, no re-adopting to a changing world. What does this not so subtle, but unmentioned, exclusion mean? Is someone trying to tell us we have no prospects for reversing economic decline, or a future that could benefit from education – or are they simply telling us we have – no future at all?

if everyone stopped looking for work, we’d have full employment

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Today on the news there was a bit of crowing over the .3% drop in unemployment. This was followed by some more crowing that the job loss numbers had also fallen, down to 20,000 lost jobs last month. I asked a friend how it could be possible that if you need 150, 000 new jobs created each month just to keep up with population growth, and that loosing 20,000 jobs in addition to the 150,000 needed to just to keep even, could result in a fall in the unemployment numbers. He said the assbackward numbers were probably due to an increase in the number of unemployed that have given up looking for a job have increased, and are no longer counted as being unemployed. Wow I thought, that sounds like a plan. Encourage the unemployed to give up on finding a job and pretty soon those unemployment numbers might start looking pretty good. And sooner or later, when all those who’ve lost their jobs have given up finding a job, we’d be all the way back to full employment.

UPDATE: As absurd as it seems, I just saw Mort Zuckerman, on the McLaughlin Group confirm the above reasoning for the unemployment numbers. Take your pick, we’re either living in an Alice in Wonderland, or a Charles Dickens world. Or maybe both at the same time.

opportunity

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

This morning, I saw this post by masaccio at FDL that included the following NYT quote regarding the financial industry’s worries over the potential of new regulation:

The unacceptable idea, a fee charged to banks to repay the lost TARP money, really has bank CEOs scrambling.

… [M]ore chief executives [are] stepping over their government relations staff to request personal meetings with lawmakers. The big banks, the lobbyists say, have become increasingly alarmed that the legislative process may move in unexpected directions outside their control.

Chief executives of big banks have been in Washington for meetings with White House and Treasury officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, had lunch with Mr. Obama last Tuesday, and then met separately on Friday with the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, and the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner.

And while this quote serves as another stark example of just how much power the economic network has over the political and other networks of power – it also illustrates something unique about the times we live in. I can’t remember another time when such a matter of fact sharp edged truth would be published so unapologetically, and without the usual layers of sugar coated narrative designed to help make the medicine go down.

In many ways, these times present themselves as a rare and unique opportunity – especially for art and culture in general. As a time to seize the revelations spilling out all before us as a means to both acknowledge failure and decay and to redefine a better more human way forward.

more on the structure of American power

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

By happenstance, John Robb at Global Guerrillas unearths the 1961 book The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley. Robb outlines some of the major points of the book, which caught my attention because the foundation on which the book is grounded:

Universal Empire

Quigley’s models for how civilizations function are also very useful.  One model breaks a civilization’s culture into six categories (there could be more, but these are useful):  Intellectual, Social, Economic, Political, Military, and Religious. These categories develop at their own pace, and often (depending on the civilization), get out of synch (some are advanced and others very rudimentary).  In Western culture (don’t think of this as related to any specific nation-state, but rather Western Civilization as a whole), Quigley maintained that the Intellectual, Economic, and Military cultural factors predominate.  The sophistication of political culture less developed.  Social and Religious cultural development is rudimentary.

These levels of cultural development play a roll in how a civilization advances through Quigley’s model (very similar to Toynbee and other historians) for a civilization’s development.  These are:  1) Mixture, 2) Gestation, 3) Expansion, 4) Age of Conflict, 5) Universal Empire, 6) Decay, and 7) Invasion.  His analysis confirmed that all civilizations progress on this path, with an occasional jump from stage 4 (conflict) to 6 (decay).   At the time the book was being written, our current level of development was 4, an Age of Conflict (the Cold War) and he was unsure about the final outcome.

What falls out of Quigley’s models is something totally unexpected.  Universal Empire has arrived for Western Civilization (stage 5), but in a form unique in history. Due to relative weakness of our political, social and religious cultural development, economics took control and vaulted to dominance.  Economics alone led the drive to Universal Empire (everyone has adopted financial capitalism, from China to Russia), and it is now firmly in control, while the other elements of Western culture wither.

Whats interesting here is that Quigley’s model (my bold above) of civilization is virtually identical to the William Domhoff/MichaelMann Four Networks Theory of Power that I’ve referenced several times before, HERE, and HERE. While the WD/MM four networks of power are modeled upon American culture specifically and the Quigley model is more generalized as Western culture – the primary structures, of the Economic, the Military, the Political, and the Ideological are essentially identical to the Quigley model of the Economic, the Military, the Political, should the Ideological be a combination of the Religious, Intellectual, and the Social, which is not inconsistent to Mann’s interpretation of what the Ideological network would include.

The good news from all this is that Quigley takes these networks (in their respective roles of American power) and (apparently) does a scientific critic of how they evolve and function – or fail to function/decay – as primary institutions of society.

I haven’t read the book yet, as it’s on order, but hopefully as it looks to be an important addition to creating a credible unified image of the  structure of American power. And what makes it “exceptional”.