Chapter 31. Shoot! whether or not one is right

Recently I’ve been revisiting the capitalism vs. socialism debate, in all its shades, stimulated  by David Harvey’s very important  The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (2010), in which he highlights the various  forms of inequalities owing to what he calls ‘neoliberalism’, which is for him a mode of capital accumulation without reflective reservation. As a Marxist philosopher Harvey charges the free market, private property rights and capitalism with full responsibility for the perceived immoral and unjust in-egalitarian outcomes of the economy in recent times.  Most of all, he pins it all down to,  the defense of private property. Thus Harvey  commends his readers to confront Hayek’s defense of private property “head-on” in order to effectively challenge “capital accumulation and the reproduction of class power” (2010:233).

My own diagnosis of today’s economic and social woes points not at the free market economy as the problem, but at the corrupted practical epistemologies, metaphysical cultures and agencies (designers’ included) residing within such a free economy. Like Frederick Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (various editions) I am still inclined to worry that the dismantling of the free economy leads to a gradual dismantling of freedom of thought and of moral thinking, because thought comes under duress (or ‘coercion’, in Hayek’s sense) given central planners and their powers.

Economic freedom and the affordances of private property rights of course free people to think good and evil, and to act on behalf of either. Yet at the very least both are possible, and recent historical infelicities in favor of evil does not rule out the conditions for thinking and acting on behalf of the good. On the other hand, I would think that, contrary to what David Harvey imagines, the case for a socialist state that fails to protect private property throws the baby out with the bath water, and dismantles the freedom to think good along with evil, if Hayek is right.  Such a price for radical egalitarianism seems therefore too great, and locks us all into a spiral down to a hellish in-ablility to think straight and morally right even if we wanted to.  This entails therefore that any criticality – ethical, social or even economic –  if born at all, will not live.

Harvey’s socialism is correct to denounce the obviously shocking and atrocious inequalities in postmodern societies, but his ‘scholarship of the obvious’ seems wrong to ignore the side-effects resulting from the realization of egalitarian states of affairs he imagines, viz. the centralizing of powers that have the effect of corrupting thought – even those thoughts, moral as they are, that inspire in Harvey the love of equality and the criticism of depraving inequality.

Ignoring these epistemic side-effects of central planning powers, or conversely, what is the other side of the same coin, the beneficial side effects on behalf of freedom of thought in a free market economy without monopoly or central planning, is what I find least convincing in the case against private property, capitalism and the free market economy. In other words, I would myself defend as important a political economy that protects private property and a free market economy since these seem to me to be structures that can afford that very ethical criticality that engages criticality a corrupt market logic. These ideas will need to be elaborated and discussed in a full length paper – which I intend to write, and will for better or worse set me on the right of the political and economic spectrum.  (In relation to this, a competitive free market supplies information for developing a thomistic account of prices of commodities that serves justice and common goods. See Jude Chua Soo Meng, “What Profits for a Main to Gain: Just (the) Price (of the Soul)”, (Calihan Lecture, University of Notre Dame), Journal of Markets and Morality, Vol. 8 (1), 2005, 7-27).

But even if I am right, and even for those who share my views on political economy, and for those who live in conditions which instantiate these free economies, there is still every the threat of  coercive powers and their effects on thought – even if not from the state, then certainly from the ongoing temptation, to secure prestige and expressions of that, some of which deviate from dimensions of human flourishing, and which lend themselves to the terrors of performativity focused on the realization of a monistic axiology or numbers. Leaders who are freed from coercion in a free economy are still subject to the tyranny of epistemic distortions that derive from a variety of factors: vanity, greed, anger and the desire for revenge, lust for power, personal covetousness… the capital sins.  But its not just that: even if we are good fundamentally, there’s that driving instrumental thinking that displaces practical reasoning and the prescriptions of its first principles, and gradually, what truly matters is forgotten.  It is not an evil forgetting, not as if driven by the capital vices, but a kind of epistemic distortion of the speculative displacing the practical grasp of the basic goods, and the direction of the natural law. 

The free economy frees you to think good, but also allows you to think and act evil, as I said. The free economy affords the virtuous society – as a mere potency, and relatively better than does socialism – but does not at all guarantee the latter. The possibility of evil needs correction, even if we are agreed such correction should not from a central planning socialist leviathan.  The law can address some of that, but certainly not invade our lives completely.  At least the law may at most tell us what not to do, negatively shaping our epistemologies by setting up the perimeters, but unlike a norm it does not supply the spirit of goodness. in any case, what besides the law? Here is where I think photography can be relevant.

I’ve been arguing in various ways how photography helps us enter into practical reasoning, by inviting choice that asks what is it that matters, and what ought to be included and not in the frame. The details of that has been worked out in other chapters, and should certainly be further detailed.   But it is enough for us here, to grasp, quite quickly, that even in the free economy, but under the threat of amnesia, of the forgetfulness of the first principles of practical reason, of the dominance of the speculative and instrumental logics geared towards given ends, free persons in the free economy, on the right, should also do range-finder photography on a regular basis, as a ongoing unconcealment of their true selves. Shoot!  if you on right.

But also if you are on the left, where centralist powers threaten moral thinking even more, since the urge to focus on instrumentalizing to state-prescribed ends is yet greater, and practical reasoning against a backdrop of open possibilities much more rare. Except that after photography, you still have leftist effects and structures of centralised powers to struggle with, and so photo-ethosemiosis may end up futile, since these may dismantle the fragile abductive insights into the plurality of basic goods, including religion and practical reasonableness.

Still, shoot, whether you are left or right, but those on the right should have it easier.

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