Aristotle vs. Wall Street

In his Introduction to a new translation of Aristotle’s Politics, published in 1912, William Ellis pointed out that:

The Greek doctrine that the essence of the state consists in community of purpose is the counterpart of the notion often held in modern times that the essence of the state is force. The existence of force is for Plato and Aristotle a sign not of the state but of the state’s failure (emphasis mine). It comes from the struggle between conflicting misconceptions of the good. In so far as men conceive the good rightly they are united. The state represents their common agreement, force [represents] their failure to make that agreement complete. The cure, therefore, of political ills is knowledge of the good life, and the statesman is he who has such knowledge, for that alone can give men what they are always seeking.

If the state is the organisation of men seeking a common good, power and political position must be given to those who can forward this end. This is the principle expressed in Aristotle’s account of political justice, the principle of “tools to those who can use them.” As the aim of the state is differently conceived, the qualifications for government will vary. In the ideal state power will be given to the man with most knowledge of the good; in other states to the men who are most truly capable of achieving that end which the citizens have set themselves to pursue. The justest distribution of political power is that in which there is least waste of political ability.

Further, the belief that the constitution of a state is only the outward expression of the common aspirations and beliefs of its members, explains the paramount political importance which Aristotle assigns to education. It is the great instrument by which the legislator can ensure that the future citizens of his state will share those common beliefs which make the state possible. The Greeks with their small states had a far clearer apprehension than we can have of the dependence of a constitution upon the people who have to work it.

How curious and how ironic in today’s context. Aristotle followed the logic of his position as he saw it and came to some lamentable conclusions, especially regarding women and slavery. Yet the idea is sound. Polanyi (1) wrote presciently in 1944:

Looking back from the rapidly declining heights of a world-wide market economy we must concede that [Aristotle’s] famous distinction of householding proper and money-making, in the introductory chapter of his Politics, was probably the most prophetic pointer ever made in the realm of the social sciences; it is certainly still the best analysis of the subject we possess.

The idea of production for gain, at least on the scale now extant, is novel, not some inherent predilection of the human animal. Although profit was not entirely unknown in ancient times, the assertion that it is the natural goal of humankind, programmed into our very being, is a result of the Industrial Revolution.

The position of those in power and their sycophants (that is, most economists, and virtually all politicians) is that since profit-seeking (i.e. greed) is in our very nature, it cannot be altered significantly, and therefore it is the only and best way to conduct affairs. That this is a self-serving position should be self-evident, but power-holders make a fetish of denial, because they want things to continue as they are at any cost.

Once in denial, capitalists (both in “democracies” and in authoritarian societies, nominally communist, but capitalist in practice) need no longer consider the effects of their activities on posterity. Yet they will have to answer to their children and their children’s children for what they have wrought. Unfortunately, for most of these characters, they will answer posthumously, as the process of destruction of the planet does take a year or two.

Polanyi continues:

In denouncing the principle of production for gain “as not natural to man,” as boundless and limitless, Aristotle was, in effect, aiming at the crucial point, namely the divorcedness of a separate economic motive from the social relations in which these limitations inhered.

Thus we come to the state of the world today. No thing comes before the Masters of the Universe that is not considered first for its profit potential. In the Aristotelian world, the state would comprise a community of purpose, for the common good. That state would be embodied in a government of those who are best able to promote that common good. This is in direct opposition to the modern Western state, the purpose of which is to protect private property and to provide force with which to do so.

As Derrick Jensen points out time after time after time, civilization is killing the planet. I maintain simply that this civilization is killing the planet. The ancient Greek ideal of the state as a community of good is still possible. The details of how the Greeks thought to behave within the confines of that state are no doubt different from how we might like to do it today. Today we are faced with the imminent destruction of not just civilization but of all Creation, at least on Earth. Thus we must have priorities not precisely congruent with the Greeks of more than two millennia ago. But production for gain is not an unalterable law of existence. It is an institution invented and developed by humans in the very recent past.

Today we are in the midst of an economic crisis emanating directly from the motive of greed and the pursuit of pecuniary gain. This is a zero sum game. Competition, lauded by economists, pundits, politicians, and media gurus alike, since it inherently includes a winner, must also have losers. This very day, oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a disastrous rate, and thus far no one knows how to stop it. A giant rig was employed to drill for oil in the Gulf, precisely because competition demands it. Ironically but predictably, the corporation responsible for this debacle is BP, British Petroleum, a predator that propagandizes a myth that they are diligently working to develop new sources of energy. Maybe trivial amounts have been expended, but at bottom BP is seeking profit, and they will take it any way they can get it. This does not make them special, it rather confirms them as a typical modern corporation.

Propaganda abounds from diverse sources, purporting to show that if we follow their advice, all will be well. Not enough petroleum? Use gas. There is plenty of it around. But this is not so. There is enough to continue our wasteful ways for a few decades, perhaps a century or two. But a century or two is a blink of the eye in historical terms. We have been using this stuff for a couples of centuries thus far. But most people would prefer that humans remain around for a long, long time. At least as long as we’ve been here thus far, and that’s a couple of million years, not a couple of centuries. It is self-serving drivel to posit such a switch (to gas) as a solution. And citizens are more than happy to participate in the propaganda by, for example, appearing in commercials in the media, or fashioning those commercials, or any of an almost limitless array of ways to self-deceive. Why? Because it’s a job.

A world free of the destructive forces of the modern corporate state is imperative. Ofttimes when I inveigh against the corporate hegemony, I am met with two responses in particular. First, I hear the argument that capitalism has provided unprecedented wealth to the world. Quite so, for a slice of humanity, but it’s not a huge slice, and it comes at an unaffordable cost. Are we, that is those who are a part of that slice, really so selfish that we must have that wealth at the price of destroying the world for our descendants? I hope this will ultimately prove untrue. Second is the assertion that the fundamental changes needed are simply not possible, that human nature guarantees willful self-centered egoism, ethical or otherwise. This claim is simply a position, not subject to proof. Proof, such as there may be, is a reductio ad absurdum of the contrary position. One assumes that the changes are indeed not possible, and by pointing out the existence throughout most of history of societies working toward Aristotle’s community of the good, then the changes are possible.

Another World is Possible says the World Social Forum. Another US is Necessary is the theme of the US Social Forum, scheduled for June 22 – 26, 2010 in Detroit, the city of my birth. I think another world is necessary, and we ignore this imperative at our peril.

1. Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation, Rinehart & Company, 1944, paperback edition published 1957 by Beacon Press, Boston.

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