Literary Obsession ~ Chapter Three



I feel that the young people of Cairo are counting on me to save them.     Now that they have overthrown their dictator (in March of 2011), they want decent jobs at decent pay, peace, freedom, democracy.       Unfortunately their dawn is dawning at twilight, when decent jobs are scarce all over the world, when social safety nets are unraveling even in the old democracies.    Today they want a yesterday that is now vanishing in Europe.   My fear that the same old untenable but dominant ideas that are unraveling the rest of the world will unravel Egypt is fed by seeing lines of unemployed men leaving Egypt to seek work elsewhere on Cable News Network and British Broadcasting Corporation television.    Then come interviews with experts saying Egypt needs development to create jobs;   calling for improving Egypt’s global competitiveness; declaring that political and economic stability require a secular state following international models,  neutralizing the local radicals, hermetically sealing off the corridors of power to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups regarded as Islamist,  tribal, socialist, radical  and/or extremist,  doubting that the Egyptian military will be able to perform the delicate balancing act needed to reassure the financial markets  that Egypt’s new democracy will not become populism.  The experts on television say politely but clearly,  in discourses studded with euphemisms decorating but not disguising their meanings,   that if appearances of people-power cannot  reliably be alloyed with realities of money-power, then the military can be counted upon to impose  on Egypt now as we speak dancing in the streets to celebrate the end of Hosni  Mubarak’s  thirty-year-long de facto government, yet another de facto government  – which would be one, but only one,  of the outcomes I feel the young people of Cairo are counting on me to save them from.    I have been a faithful student of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein;  I have made with him the transition from his early Tractatus to his late Untersuchungen;  from the logic of universal science to the anthropology of diverse language-games.   Since I do not believe there is a Single Truth in Science in Marx or in God,  I do not conceive of saving Egypt from the Single Truth seen on television as delivering Egypt to some other orthodoxy.   But one need not be totalitarian to recognize  a single world-wide dominant  cultural (or “social”) structure, from which humanity and earth need to be liberated.   Some language-games, like the buying and selling for profit game, rule the world.   It is the dominance (not the existence  — which is fine–  but the dominance) of that basic buying-and-selling-for-profit game that made it  impossible to continue (for example) the “Swedish Model”; impossible to continue because (for example)  promoting social equality by raising wages (for example) tended to drive those buying and selling for profit overseas (Volvo to Brazil for example); and therefore the problem of reviving and deepening social democracy is (in part) the problem of making it more defensible than was Sweden’s (for example)   against the devastating juggernaut  Bowles and Gintis call “the exit power of capital.”   If  the dominance of one logic, one pattern of  gainful activity, is undesirable because (among other reasons) it tends to make a nation defenseless against capital flight, then we will see Egypt’s diverse activists more as promise and less as threat.

As I hear the familiar words of the dominant discourse I feel a tightening of breath;  it is so coherent, so specious, it is repeated so often by so many well-dressed gentlemen and ladies;  it is presented as the good sense of the good people, contrasted with the naiveté, the superstition, the fanatic violence,  and the ignorance of the seething masses western civilization has not yet reached and drawn into its orbit of prosperity; I think of my mother in her dotage looking at her television set believing all of it;  I think of the blank faces of thousands of students I have taught who come to college with no frame of reference for comprehending any of the alternative ideas the world at this juncture so desperately needs. But what I mostly think  Is that I must stop watching television and start washing the dishes  as fast as I can–since it was Miriam’s turn to cook it is mine to wash — so I can get back to work explaining concepts and making constructive proposals, articulating a Game Plan for turning the tide.

I know it is crazy to feel that the young people of Cairo are depending specifically on me to explain the trap they are in and how to get out of it,  since  there is no reason to believe anybody there would be interested in the opinions of a retired professor  down here scribbling away in a small rural town in the world’s most southern and least probable country, but nevertheless, crazy as it is, that is how I do feel.  I know the young people of Cairo could learn constructive alternatives to today’s  dominant discourse by reading  many books already written, some by Karl Polanyi,   by Hazel Henderson,  Mfuniswela Bhengu,  Jean-Louis Laville,  Ronnie Lessem,  Jose Luis Coraggio,  Pierre Calame….some by me… but I still feel driven to keep writing.   I feel so frustrated seeing my allies and I reaching the public so little, hearing the experts on and off television getting away with repeating over and over the same old arguments we have refuted a thousand times, while the people and the planet go on suffering and suffering and suffering; that I want to try something different, something new, something neither I nor anyone else has tried before,  to get the message across.  This book is different because I am taking a more personal approach, talking more about my life and my feelings, struggling to state my reasons so clearly nobody can pretend not to understand them, and at the same time sharing the dreams that drive the reasons, not because I know this approach will work but because in my desperation, in my frustration, I am ready to give anything a try.  I will give it a try first attempting to discern some of the origins in early childhood of my strange feeling that I am called to solve the problems of Egypt, leaving for later chapters the question why my megalomania has persisted into maturity and old age; alternating doses of memories tending to show where I am coming from with doses of expositions of concepts tending to show where I am going, as I have done in the previous chapters and as I will do in the following ones; starting with tales I have been told about my mother during the nine months when I was an honored guest in the comfortable quarters provided by her womb.   My mother took me for rides before I was born, and after I was born my father took me for rides; she on the big red Pacific Electric trolley, Oak Knoll Line, to San Marino, where she carried me inside herself to the Henry Huntington Gardens and Art Gallery, where she stood before Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,”  Lawrence’s “Pinkie,” and other famous paintings there, as at home she would listen to Mozart on an old-fashioned gramophone, for the benefit of her as-yet-unborn first child whom she already knew would be a marvel; he, who so wanted to be a country gentleman, who subscribed to a magazine of that name, cruised the walnut groves of El Monte on his bicycle with his first and at-the-time only son riding in a box-seat above the rear wheel.

My transition from the-world-as-it-should-be to the world-that-needs-me-to-fix-it happened between age five and age ten; starting on two islands of the world-as-it-should be, one at my grandmother’s rooming house in Pasadena, one at the half-acre in El Monte where my father dreamed of being a country gentleman; arriving by age ten at a tract house in Fontana where my parents quarreled incessantly.   Besides feeding me hamburgers soaked in melted butter, my grandmother would bloom ecstatic whenever I gave her pictures of cats, flowers, dogs, or grandmas labeled with one or two crayoned words.   Most of her roomers followed her lead in praising the drawings she dubbed my “stories,”  being mostly like herself elderly unpublished poets with bad credit,  including old Mr. Worrell, a blind gentleman, who wore a blue serge suit holding in its front pocket a golden watch on a golden chain,  who pretended to be able to see them.    “Little Alice” who lived in a small trailer parked behind the orange trees would reward me for my “stories” with oatmeal cookies made with raisins; and Harry Seaberg, who was born on a ship in mid-Atlantic half way between Stockholm and New York, taught me to waltz to the tune of Casey Would Dance with a Strawberry Blonde.  My self-confidence and my communitarian idealism were equally nourished  on our  half-acre in El Monte, where the sheets on my mother’s bed exhaled a supernatural softness; where my father would take down a peach from one of our trees and cut it in half with his jackknife, half a peach for him, half a peach for me; where I was supposed to tether the goat but the goat ran away dragging me along the ground as I faithfully held on to the rope;   where I first learned the names of the vegetables and  of the flowers; where the ducks cackled with delight when they were turned loose in the beds of iris to eat the snails –Pasadena in 1942,  El Monte in 1944, two places where I lived; where I still live today because, as Uncle Sigmund has taught us, all the times of our lives are simultaneously present to us in our subconscious minds; , where  I drank into the depths of my soul an optimism that does not die, that did not die when wartime prosperity faded; that did not die when my mother divorced my father; that did not die when my father went insane; that did not die when in Frederick Jameson’s words “the sixties ended on September 11, 1973, in Santiago, Chile,” with me as an eyewitness, watching from the window of a fifth floor apartment on Cummings Street as the Chilean Air Force bombed the presidential palace where its commander-in-chief, Salvador Allende, was preparing to shoot himself; an optimism that  survives to this day as a deep blue calm under everything.  By the age of  ten (1948) I felt my family counted on me to save it not just  because only I could possibly reconcile mother and father, but also because of the four of us I was the only one with an income, bringing a bit of cash into the family coffers by selling newspapers on the streets after school at five cents a copy, of which two and one half cents went to the publisher, while the product of the remaining two and one half cents multiplied by the number of newspapers I sold went to my family.    My father was a truck mechanic who had been steadily employed during World War II, but as normality returned and the supply of workers once again exceeded the demand for workers, he found himself permanently located near the bottom of the barrel, among those would-be sellers of labor-power with relatively outdated skills and relatively unpleasant personalities who never made the short list, but my mother was not allowed to work because my father insisted that he had to be the family breadwinner.    We survived on charity and on subsidies from grandparents supplemented by my meager earnings as a paper boy until our mother left our father and took us (my younger brother and I) to Barstow, a railroad junction on the desert where nobody who had a choice really wanted to live; where the School Board was so desperate to staff the classrooms that it hired my mother to teach third grade after she took (on a scholarship) one summer school course on how-to-teach, provided that she spend her subsequent summers studying for a teaching credential,  and paid her –as a trainee studying to become a teacher—two hundred and twenty five dollars a month.   Faced with the question how to feed herself and two hungry boys on her salary, my mother gave up and assigned to me the task of calculating the answer.   My answer was potatoes, rye bread, cabbage, and two eggs each per week.  Apples I bought too but instead of eating apples we traded with Mexican neighbors for flour tortillas, because the tortilla was then our optimal choice to maximize calories per dollar and we did not know how to make tortillas ourselves.   When a freight train wrecked dumping huge quantities of yellow-green grapes beside the tracks, we and other poor locals gleaned them and ate fresh grapes until they got too old; and with the help of our friend Alma –another teacher trainee—we dried some for raisins and preserved some.   I took care of my kid brother during the summers when our mother studied for her credential and we were shipped off to a foster home in the San Bernardino Mountains near Mount San Gregorio, a mountain affectionately known as “Old Grayback.”     I did a pretty decent job taking care of my brother and mother;  carrying my brother down the mountain when he fell ill as we were scaling “Old Grayback;¨  decorating my mother’s  “environment” (her classroom);  but I was scared, scared of being beaten up by other kids, scared of our father’s revenge, scared of our father’s insanity.      Our father  formed the habit of sleeping late,  breakfasting in his bathrobe on coffee and doughnuts in his bedroom at the  boarding house,  then  closeting himself  there  ruminating about superannuated grievances; donning shirt and pants around three; taking supper at six, overeating,  sleeping until midnight;   then pacing  the living room until dawn,   walking around it smoking in the dark — one could trace his elliptical orbit watching  the orange glow of the burning tip of his cigarette.

He spoke a private language only his mother and his two sons could understand, composed mainly of disguised complaints about his unemployment and his wife deserting him, and of futile attempts to exercise an authority he no longer had, like, for example, “My name is Kenneth and I am an American,” which meant immigrants got jobs while he did not, and “Where’s your mother?” which meant the divorce was illegal and his marriage still existed.     When my father told me that the Nazis won World War II and  put the German general Dwight Eisenhower in charge of America I could never tell whether he was complaining via extended metaphor about my mother leaving him and putting me in charge of the family,  or was playing his role still being my father in spite of the divorce by telling  me facts I needed to know.   My father’s incompetence fueled a fear I might turn gay that drove my mother to beg the school principals to assign me men teachers to model manhood, to inspire me to copy men, induce me to desire women.    The men teachers –Mr. Waitman, Mr. Cork, Mr. Bromberger, Mr. Leinkamper—  were four stalwarts in their twenties who had been to Europe and fought there,  who had been rewarded for their World War Two military service by a college education at the government’s expense, who were the first in their families to realize the dream of practicing a profession albeit the lowly profession of teaching school, who backed Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive politics; who saw themselves as the intellectual elite of a crumby little town, and who eagerly assumed the role of mentors to a bright little boy with a pretty divorcée mother — but who were quite different    from  my previous intellectual mentors, the  impecunious elderly ladies who would form a circle of chairs in the front room of the boarding house  (or of the foster home) in the evenings to talk about God and family ; for example  a retired cleaning lady from Boston who rented a room from my grandmother who gave me a Bible I still have autographed, “For Howard in the holy name of Jesus, from Nola Bartel.”

By age twelve my young male mentors and my elderly female mentors had accustomed me to thinking in terms of the Big Picture.   I understood that my father’s unemployment, sexism, racism, and insanity posed cosmic issues.   My formal commitment to being a philosophical do-gooder came at age fourteen as a result of  night terrors, panics that according to the leading expert  Harry Stack Sullivan you cannot possibly understand  if you have not experienced them yourself;  so unless you have had your own night terrors you will probably not understand how I escaped mine by making a deal with God that was actually not a deal since He (She?) did all the talking  –theologically it was a covenant, not a contract; a meeting of minds of unequals, not of equals—and what God said was that in this world so driven  by violence, fear, anger, sloth, indifference, economic calculations and lust my job was to use reason to try to devise a functional order; which was  a tough but not bad  assignment, and in any case  I was in no position to bargain since  I would have done anything to banish my night terrors.

One might say my work to articulate a Game Plan to transform the modern world-system that traps the young people of Cairo is tainted by false motives   since underneath I just want a job for my father, to cure his insanity, to unite my family, to escape my night terrors.   But one might also say that anyone so strongly motivated to seek solutions might  well have found some solutions, and if one took this latter tack one might be willing to consider a fundamental and far-reaching principle this particular seeker has found by  research and reflection: human beings are not naturally predictable like the planets in their orbits; we make ourselves predictable by organizing ourselves.       The organization of human life is about ethics, about human action, not about physics, not about mechanical action; it is about inventing and following rules;  so when a culture  is dysfunctional  it is either because of anomie (disorganization)  and/or because today’s organizing rules themselves cause dysfunctional behavior.   Caveat: rules only work when soaked in myths, dreams, ceremonies, good relationships, old habits.   Caveat:  nature judges culture in the end; we cannot simply invent cultures that ignore ecology and behavioral biology.

As l develop this idea of social science as ethics not physics by relating it to some ideas of Paulo Freire,  Max Weber,  Karl Marx, the Grenoble School  (Michel Aglietta, Robert Boyer….),  Hazel Henderson,  John Maynard Keynes,  Karl Popper; and  to one of my own ideas:  “cultural resources;”    I think you will see why I think this is stuff the young people of Cairo urgently need to know about,     and I think you will at least begin to see how a Game Plan for turning the tide is born from my conceptual matrix.    I think you will see that the themes of “inventing and following rules,”  “basic constitutive rules,” and “basic cultural structures of the modern world” provide lenses for understanding both the contemporary global economy and the classics of the social sciences.      Think of Paulo Freire´s   landless peasants in North East Brazil, who –while landless— do have Adam Smith´s natural liberty,   natural liberty that Charles Taylor calls constitutive rules of a bargaining society, that I call basic cultural structures of the modern world.    They are free to buy whatever they have money to buy.        Peasants and  landlords are formal equals in the market place, and the agreements to exchange the property of a peasant (labor-power) for the property of a landlord (money paid as wages) are contracts where the peasants of their own free will agree to the terms, since they are free to sell their labor-power  or to refuse to sell it. In a famous article, “Cultural Action for Freedom,” Freire outlines a method for freeing the peasants,  although the dominant ideology says the peasants are already free.    Issue is joined on the question:  What does it mean to say “freedom?”   Freire says “freedom” is something the landless peasants do not  yet have, which is to be won by acting to change the culture’s basic rules.

Prior to cultural action,  prior to the peasants  enrolling in Freire’s “culture circles” and having their consciousness raised,  they regard their fate  as natural because the social order  has been in Freire’s terms  “mythicized’  to make the peasants think being oppressed is natural.  The myth that makes the peasants see their oppression as natural is the myth that calls them juridical subjects, already free:  it is the myth of natural liberty.   What the peasants see when their consciousness rises is that their oppression is cultural;  it flows from  myths portraying landlords with land and peasants without land as the way the world has always been and will always be, it flows from today’s basic constitutive rules;  oppression does  not flow from  natural laws  nor from  human nature; just as similarly  feminists using Freirian methods facilitate women (and men) coming to see that patriarchy is not natural but cultural;     just as, conversely, we can describe a social science as consciousness-lowering when it treats Smith’s version of liberty and justice as natural.    Max Weber tempers denunciations of oppression-under-law with nuanced praise for formal freedom,  reporting that in early modern times serfs on Junker-ruled estates in eastern parts of Germany would flee the cruel tyranny of their masters to breathe the free air of the cities, even though in a city they were no richer, and often poorer.

More importantly for Weber in a capitalist world nobody is free   since the system is an   irresistible economic “machine,”   an “iron cage,” and all who are trapped in the cage must obey the machine.       If we look carefully at what Weber means by the metaphors of the “machine” and the “iron cage” we are led back once again to the basic cultural structures of the modern world, to the box, to Smith’s “natural liberty,” to Marx’s “Eden of the innate rights of man,” to the basic constitutive rules; beyond Weber’s  famous thesis that an inner-worldly puritanical asceticism motivated the early capitalists to accumulate (instead of spending their profits on luxuries), to something Weber says even more clearly: that accumulation is made possible by a neo-Roman legal system that protects property and enforces contracts, thus constituting an iron cage made of normative (legal/ethical) bars, thus constituting the rules that make the logic of accumulation possible, and often apparently necessary, for it often seems we have no choice but to play the game of profit-making, even if we play that game only as employees of profit-makers; and so we see that  “machine” is a metaphor that when  cashed out to refer to its literal referents” proves to be an “iron cage” made of games with rules.

Since rules (or norms) are regularities (sometimes just ideal regularities) in conduct,   licenses to criticize (and sometimes  punish) those who violate them, guides people use to monitor and direct their own conduct, (H.L.A. Hart) authorities, organizing principles that constitute and govern institutions, human life without them would be physically impossible.   Humanity’s key problem is that the particular set of basic rules now dominating both daily life and the global economy nails us into a box, traps us in an iron cage; our key solution is to change the rules.        Let us see how rules constitute the “economic machine” analyzing a diagram like one Karl Marx uses in the second volume of Capital.      The “machine” works this way:


M    —     C             ……………..P………………….     C’   —    M’



The diagram flows from left to right, starting with M,  money, then moving from M to C,  commodities.       The sequence M – C means first capitalists buy labor-  power, equipment, raw materials, and generally everything needed to produce something,  all of which are here called  C,  “commodities,” i..e. “things you buy,”  also known as merchandise; Marx calls them Waren, a German cognate of the English “wares” which Simple Simon wanted to taste, but which the Pieman would not let him taste until he paid.        Next in Marx´s diagram  the Commodities the capitalist  purchased are put to use in Production, P, in which the labor-power uses the equipment to process the raw material to produce  another commodity, this time C´   — greater  in value than the original C that the capitalist purchased;  C´  is then sold to yield  M´,  a sum of money  greater than the  sum of money originally advanced.    The net result is to transform money into more money.   The output M´ (the augmented money) can then be cycled back as input.   The new input M’ becomes M´´, a still larger sum.    Production depends on money accumulating forever.    The key to understanding accumulation  (and to changing it)  is to see that each step  depends on rules — on basic cultural structures.   Accumulation   begins with purchases of commodities, that is to say with contracts because  a purchase is a contract, and then continues with the exercise by capitalists of property rights over the use of labor power and other items  purchased.

Roman jurists debated who owned the product C´, but now the legal rules make the owner of the business undoubtedly the owner too of the increase in value resulting from production.     Finally the sales that turn the value added by production into cash are governed by the legal rules of contract.  The idea of “accumulation,” the repeated cycle of money turning into more money, can be extended –as the Grenoble School has extended it– to show that nobody is free, not even the more than six billion humans on this planet acting collectively –assuming we could act collectively—would be free, because we are all compelled to obey the systemic imperatives of “regimes of accumulation.”   Here is Grenoble (Michel Aglietta, Robert Boyer ….) popularized:   “Look guys: If nobody advances money (M) to get production (P) started, then there ain´t nothin´ to buy (no C´), there ain´t no jobs, there ain´t  nothin´, but  nobody advances a dime without thinkin´ there’s somethin´ in it for me, namely getting back more than a dime,  so guys, the one thin´ we got to do, before we do anythin´ else, because if we don’t do it we can’t do anythin´ else, is to set up everythin´ to  boost profits, to keep them profits rollin´in.”   Schools, police, sports, music, politics, psychology, culture, science, television, family … everything.   “Regime of accumulation” means everything organized to favor profit.  If one regime fails, as social democracy failed, another takes its place, like neoliberalism.

Hazel Henderson represents today’s growing trend to thinking outside the box.    We have both incentives and  opportunities to design ethical futures  free of the imperatives of the economic “machine”, and even now  a majority of the world’s work is not done in the  “machine” described by Smith, Weber and Marx; for examples:   the people’s economy where the objective is to eke out a living in a tiny business that makes no profits,   parents caring for children without  pay;  the public sector;  cooperatives;  non-profits;  subsistence farming,  do-it-yourself home improvement…..      Henderson calls for acting ethically, offering tons of upbeat ideas for “managing socio-economics,”  and she is obviously not just talking to a brick wall because many  –including some major corporate executives– respond to her; they put her on boards of directors, they set up ethical funds to be ethically managed, they rethink  missions and visions.    Today’s trend to ethics  follows yesterday’s failed consensus:    Not  long ago there was a near-consensus among sensible people that thanks to Keynes the way had been found to run mixed economies; and thanks to Karl Popper everyone sensible favored an open society.



Let’s take a peak at where yesterday’s  Keynes/Popper consensus went awry.   A desire for a mixed economy in an open society may well describe the dreams of many young people in Cairo even today.    It comes to this:   Keynes/Popper optimism and its parallel social-democratic regime of accumulation were incompatible with the basic cultural structures of the modern world.   The party had to end because given the constitutive rules of the system,  Keynesian policies  designed to counter the chronic deficit of effective demand by government spending and by central bank lending could only lead to mountains of unpayable debt and to stagflation.   Given the box,  Popper’s optimistic vision in The Open Society and its Enemies of democratic political power allied with  the empirical social scientists in the universities and think tanks rationally steering economic power to achieve social ends could not be realized, because,  given the box, economic power has a logic of its own that political power cannot dominate,  however much Popper may call on it to do so, for  — as Pierre Bourdieu notes–   one  need not believe the logic of accumulation governs all to believe it governs much,  enough to be  a formidable obstacle to  Popper’s dreams of  social engineering.     Our (Swanger and my) Game Plan defangs   the logic of accumulation at its source by  modifying and supplementing basic cultural structures, using a methodology of cultural action that  finds, invents, and nurtures “cultural  resources”  that   are (by definition) ways to organize   cooperation and sharing, ways to mobilize resources to meet needs  —counting the logic of accumulation as one cultural  resource that needs to be reined in and complemented by others; it needs to be demoted from being a logic that uses humans to being a logic that  humans use.