Economy of Thought, such as it is

There are thoughts that live in the minds of any given thinker in the world today (American, white, Daniel, perfectly general), the reasonable thoughts, the general thoughts, the common-sensical. Clean them up with a bit of bite and a reasonably mean-spirited bonne-mot against any and all anti-Hobbesian or two and you can live in a tower of money and pulp. Such is the case of any professional ethicist, political philosopher, opinion writer, or prosecuting attorney you might come across. It is a decent life, but it will come to nothing.

There are other thoughts, dustier thoughts, locked-away thoughts, those existing above (abstract, transcendental, critical) and behind (historical) the world of common-sense. To devote one’s life to these thoughts without looking outside is to live the ideal of the academic quadrant. It is a cramped life, filled to bursting with stability, but while there may or may not be joy, it will come to nothing.

There remain the thoughts of abstracted, critical, brutal engagement with the reasonable thoughts of the everyday world. These have the chance to ruin every well laid plan and every common sense. This life will be hard, and there are no guarantees of joy or hope or anything at all, it is the only path that leaves a meaningful possibility of any detritus being left behind when you have disappeared; it is the only possibility of passing beyond the laws of economical life.

Communism is the Middle Ground

translated by me from Der Kommunismus ist das Mittlere, by Bertolt Brecht (

To call for a revolution against all presently existing orders
Seems terrible.
But this present existence has no order.

To take refuge in violence
Seems evil.
But there, where violence is practiced every day,
It’s nothing special.

Communism is not the most radical proposal,
Of which only the smallest part can be made real, but rather
Before it is completely, utterly made real,
There is no situation which
(Except for the truly heartless) would be bearable.

Communism is really the very least demand
The obvious next step, the middle ground, the reasonable.
Whoever places themselves against it isn’t a dissident,
But rather a diffident, selfish, unthinking little rodent,
An enemy of the human race


Wanting the most radical proposal, to make even the smallest part of it real,
All of humanity would charge into the grave.


Ethical living cannot change the world

I found this article ( in Current Affairs incredibly useful to my thinking about the relation between ethics and politics. It is unhelpfully stuck within a model of politics that focuses on individual ethical relationships, but it makes the failures of that model exceptionally clear.
It is making a case not unrelated to Robespierre’s argument against providing a trial against Louis XVI, and in favor of just executing him for the crime of being a king, tout court. The ethical fault of Louis in 1789, to the extent that is worth calling it such a thing, is that he continued to occupy the position of kingship, a position that he could not or would not willingly abdicate from, and which could not be completely destroyed unless the royal line were extirpated. It did not matter if he were a good king or a bad king or even an indifferent king. His personal ethical crime, such as it was, was being the ultimate force in an unacceptably coercive and inegalitarian system.
Smith’s article posits an unceasing sequence of decisions not to give the money away:
“The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.”
I am extremely sympathetic to this argument and agree with much of it, but it leads to questions that are pretty damning:
1. Maybe most people can be convinced that a billionaire is committing this kind of constant sequence of crimes against the masses of the poor, but Smith wants to say that anybody hoarding wealth is an ethically bad person, billionaires, millionaires, everyone. But does this include my own desire to have two months of savings in the bank to deal with calamitous events? What if I only have 100000 dollars? This argument that the hoarding of wealth is an immoral action by specific individuals leads to a conception of money as an original sin, common to all human beings, but one that is uniquely common in the upper classes. Now, perhaps that’s an argument worth making, but it gets closer into essentialist understandings of various segments of the population having political views that are unchangeable and not particularly situational. We can agree that there is no relevant distinction between the Good Capitalist and the Bad Capitalist, but then it sounds like we’re making systematic or political claims, not ethical ones. Smith addresses this point somewhat, but only at the level of policy (presenting a maximum accrual of funds limit as a policy to strive for), but this isn’t particularly helpful in getting past this concept of money as sin on an individual level. Smith explicitly states that “the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have.” Perhaps this moral framework will be helpful in getting support for a bill, but it isn’t tied into a broader political ideology that would give this argument a thrust beyond the emotive feeling of the ethical failure.
2. Very relatedly, what is the lived experience of being immensely wealthy? Is it a constant ability to do whatever one wants? What anxieties are felt? How much of one’s income is immediately usable, and how much is tied up in systems uncontrolled by the capitalist? How much needs to be retained to provide responses to and deterrents against the threatening actions of their competitors? This is not to say that the life of a capitalist is hard or harder than the life of a poor person, but simply to point out again that thinking about politics as a game between individuals, as a sequence of ethical, rational decisions, is to give the entire game away.
As socialists, we should not accept the model that if the bad actors were taken away, the system would be fine. Blaming all owners of capital as opposed to just The Bad Ones is a great step. It’s still necessary to move from there to saying that the problem is capitalism, the system in which everyone, rich and poor alike, is compelled to act in their rational, econometric self-interest, because if they don’t, they will lose everything the market tells them has value.
Ethics is a great system of thought for personal relationships, for figuring out who should clean the bathroom, for how to help a friend in pain. It’s utterly useless for determining how a society should change to promote the well-being of all the people living in it.

Sometimes a Morning

I’ve drunk an age of coffee and held the world in my eyes, sold a book to a child and bought a pig from an Austrian prince. There have been better days before now, but only one that is deservedly called today.

I wonder every now and then what the point of all this sadness is. Am I learning something? Does someone, somewhere, have it all in hand? Because I know the prompts for sadness are only ever going to get worse. I’ve read enough books to see this, known enough lives. I’ve read the bibles, of course, the recitations, the constitution, but those big old men in the sky never quite seemed to have the things under control, truly, more Sunstein than Lenin, is what I mean, and look how that turned out.

I suppose what I’m really asking: is Robespierre still alive? How about Joyce? Sontag? Susan Sontag always seemed to have the feel of the bend of the world in an important way. This is certainly the best guide I’ve had these last 8.5 months:

Although Dylan Thomas isn’t too bad.

Well, The Experiment is The Experiment, I guess,- Song, Dance, Dance, Repeat, Bed.

Litany, Collins

This is a poem I memorized at work a few weeks back. It’s very lovely, and while it’s mostly just a sweet little frippery, there’s some very important work done in it staking out a conception of what it means to describe a person metaphorically. The rules are different for poetic description than prosaic description, but once you’ve set out the metaphors that are always true of a subject, the ones that are never true of the subject, and the ones that might be or sometimes are true of the subject, and once you introduce a second position into the metaphorical landscape (namely, me, Billy Collins), then we’re pretty darn close to a respectable topology of the world.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope you’re all feeling splendidly.

Things I have never understood

Names of Trees
Voluntary Waking
Real Estate
Inside Voices
Why the Violin is so Very Awkward to Hold
Active Enjoyment of The West Wing, Benjamin Britten, or Charles Dickens
Why All Children are Surnamed After Fathers
Whole Milk
Animals, Generally
Sign Language
The Appeal of Car Ownership
The Appeal of Private Property
The Study of History
Contemporary Academia, as a Material Situation
Reality Television
The Wall Street Journal

I would greatly appreciate any answers.

On Comedy

These two clips from the film Du Levande in one viewing session are very close to my exact comedic ideal:
Every comedy should be 1. incredibly funny, 2. filled with sadness and wonder, 3. damn odd, and 4. filled with true music that makes you just fucking dance with the crowd.
This holds true, by the by, of most every tragedy, but I’m willing to bend the rules on tragedies, since they are significantly less important to the proper functioning of society.


I am filled with sickness and unpleasant nose juice and have had to spend the day in bed, so have not been going to protests at airports to stop one of the most abominable actions my country has taken in the course of my entire life.

I feel ashamed of this inaction, even though I can’t really control it. Does this make sense? What do people recommend a failing body do in this moment when bodily presence is demanded by events?