Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Norbert Elias and System Collapse

As part of my studies toward my Masters' degree in history, I had to read excerpts from The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias. This reading is part of a seminar on historiographical methods and analysis, focusing on different social theories and the way they affect the work of historians in trying to explain the past.

I found Elias's work to be quite fascinating. Basically, it theorizes that the process of "civilization" is largely the result of people subordinating their impulsive drives -- the repression of the id by the ego and superego, in Freud's terminology -- as their social organization changes over time. Elias says that this process is mutually reinforcing and not entirely rational. People demonstrate greater self-restraint as their social organization becomes more complex and interdependent. Likewise, increased levels of self-restraint propel a greater level of complexity and interdependence. Central to Elias's notion of "progress" along the scale of impulsiveness to self-restraint is the level of security under which people live. In societies that do not provide a high level of physical or material security, the impulsiveness of the id reigns. For those that achieve a high level of security, the restraint of the ego and superego keep the id in check.

To support this idea, Elias cites the changes in human behavior as Western Europe changed from a feudal society of warrior-nobles and knights into the court society of absolutist kings and aristocratic nobles. In the former, the use of violence was highly decentralized. Most people did not have adequate levels of security -- especially physical security. To venture on the roads outside of town was to invite the certain predations of highwaymen or rival soldiers. Disputes between individuals (particularly nobles) were settled by violent confrontation. By contrast, in the society of absolutist kings, the use of violence was monopolized by the monarch. Nobles could no longer settle their disputes through violence, so the court society (with its emphasis on manners, fashion, elaborate titles and intrigue) evolved instead as a forum for noble competition and a means of differentiating the aristocracy from the commoners. The latter was also a much more complex and interdependent society than the former. Finally, the former had a general world view largely characterized by fear and emotion (superstition and religion), while the move toward "civilization" appealed increasingly to empirical rationalism (observation and science).

As far as historical reference goes, Elias provides a decidedly Marxist superstructure for his theories. Basically, his history begins in medieval Europe and proposes a rather linear view of civilization's development, as well as describing Western Europe as the vanguard of civilization's progress. I wonder how Elias would describe the notion of a society moving away from "civilization" -- from a highly complex, centralized, interdependent society to one that is decidedly less so.

Central to any analysis of collapse through Elias's lens is the loss of material or physical security. Also, the relationship between changing social organization and the loss of security must be viewed as a mutually reinforcing process. I believe that if Elias had gone back a little further, he could have found an excellent model for this process-in-reverse: the Roman Empire.

The collapse of the Roman Empire was certainly predicated by internal problems -- declining harvests, political intrigue, etc. However, these internal problems greatly contributed to the rolling back of the frontier by Germanic barbarians. When the highly complex society of Rome lost steam, it lost its cohesive force among its populace. Where the citizens of Rome once were willing to sacrifice for her, now they concerned themselves with the circuses of the Colosseum even as the empire crumbled around them. A substantial internal proletariat -- people who lived within Roman borders but felt no affinity or allegiance to Roman ideals -- swelled in number. A fine example of this proletariat is offered by the rapid spread of Christianity through Rome, in spite of its initial criminalization by the Roman authorities. (Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History)

So, the short version is that eventually complexity imploded, the "barbarian" conquered the "civilized," and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. However, traces of the "civilized" still remained after 476 A.D. -- namely the Catholic Church. It is strange that what initially was a proletarian movement within Rome (Christianity) became its vehicle for the preservation of classical culture as society became less complex, less secure, less rational and more violent. What this demonstrates, however, is that the move either forward or backward on the scale of "civilization" is often a process of negotiation between the old and the new, the more and less "civilized." Even as Rome fell, it planted the seeds of what would eventually bloom after the Dark Ages had passed. Many ideas of the Renaissance, scientific revolution and Enlightenment found their genesis in the work of classical Greek and Roman scholars.

Fast-forward now to the present. Currently, we face a wide range of predicaments -- climate change, peak "everything," overpopulation, unsustainable debt, etc. The unprecedented complexity and interdependence of our social organization is largely the result (and cause) of increased material and physical security. What happens if these predicaments cause this security to deteriorate? Will we become stuck in a downward spiral like Western Europe after the fall of Rome, unable to regroup until after we hit rock bottom? Or will we be able to adjust our organization to meet new realities? Will the negotiation between complex and decentralized take place in a more rational manner this time around, or is a lack of rational forethought a fait accompli of this process?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Marx, McCain and Health Care

Back in the second Presidential debate, a question was asked of the candidates which I found very penetrating and revealing. A woman asked, "Do you believe that health care should be treated as a commodity?" Barack Obama's answer was standard, nondescript fare, and I really can't remember a whole lot from it so I won't bother discussing it.

McCain gave a long-winded answer about consumer choice and a national medical records database and the like. However, his answer could have been a lot simpler and to the point if he had simply replied, "yes." I say that because basically his answer revealed that he thinks health care should be treated like a commodity.

Thus, the title of this post.

Karl Marx wrote extensively on the nature of "commodities" in Das Kapital, even dedicating an entire chapter to them (The Fetishism of Commodities). The subject of Marx also recently came up in email exchanges I had with a friend of mine in reference to Barack Obama (whom he does not trust as a candidate). I certainly can come up with many criticisms of Obama's economic plans, but calling it "Marxist" is nowhere near the truth -- it is a bugaboo paraded around by the right wing to scare and divide people that we are moving toward some kind of dictatorship of the proletariat, as if a candidate backed by significant Wall Street interests is somehow surreptitiously leading that charge.

Let me be clear -- I do not believe that Karl Marx provided a realistic template for social or economic change. However, I do believe that he provided one of the best critiques of industrial capitalism that was ever written. The tendency of capitalism to commodify all areas of life is central to this critique, and I think it is one that deserves further attention.

On the surface, Marx's criticism of commodities focuses on the way in which the purchasers of "commodities" (anything that is a manufactured good and has labor-added value is defined by Marx as a "commodity") are insulated from exploitation at every step along the way of the process. At first glance, this may appear that Marx is simply outlining the way in which people should be aware that exploitation exists in the supply and manufacturing chain, and try to avoid supporting such behaviors in pursuit of profit. However, historical perspective is necessary in truly analyzing what is being said here.

Marx developed these ideas in the midst of the industrial revolution, and although he wrote extensively about the industrial proletariat, he traveled in circles of craft artisans. It was this class with whom he most identified. Therefore, it is imperative to consider the plight of craft artisanry during the industrial revolution in order to unpack what Marx is really saying here.

Prior to the industrial revolution, anything that could be considered a "commodity" was produced by artisans. These artisans were members of guilds that set prices and maintained standards for quality and production. Typically, they labored in small shops and created goods from start to finish. Artisans made up the backbone of a growing middle class -- not the middle class of literacy and bureaucracy that we recognize today, but one of skilled labor that produced manufactured goods. In this sense, Marx was probably expressing a somewhat narrowed class interest that he and his contemporaries criticized in the bourgeoisie.

The industrial revolution eviscerated the artisan class. Goods that previously had to be made by hand, from start to finish, were instead manufactured by unskilled workers and industrial machinery in piecemeal fashion. Perhaps most distressing in this turn of events to Marx, however, was the destruction of the social fabric.

When goods were made by artisans, economic exchange for those goods had an added social dimension. The artisan was, at most, one step removed from the economic exchange if he was a journeyman laboring for wages in a master's shop. Since prices were largely set by the guilds, the practice of different shops undercutting each other by better exploiting their labor force was not really an option. Sure, goods were much more expensive and there were less of them -- but the social dynamic at play ensured that all parties involved were not subject to the whims of the market.

As Marxist historian and philosopher Juergen Habermas pointed out, the development of bourgeois capitalism was based upon two primary assumptions that were a reaction against the feudal system it eventually replaced. The first of these was the notion of free competition -- the idea that all commodities were exchanged according to their "value." The second one -- and perhaps more important one -- was that all producers would have equal access to the means of production. This assumption in itself implies an economy based upon small producers -- the artisan's shop.

By Marx's time, it was painfully apparent that at least the second one of these presumptions was no longer valid. A journeyman artisan could reasonably gain access to the old means of production -- tools -- because they did not require a great capital outlay. However, the vast majority of artisans could not afford to buy their own factory, and as the industrial revolution took hold, this is what was required in order to have equal access to the means of production.

Where Marx focuses his critique, however, is not so much upon the change in control over the means of production, but rather on the effect of this transformation upon social relationships. To reference Habermas again, the development of bourgeois capitalism meant that even these social relationships themselves were transformed into commodities. I believe that this is to what Marx is referring when he outlines the layers of exploitation inherent in industrial capitalist production. At every step of the process, what previously was an economic exchange with a social foundation is transformed into a narrow focus on leveraging economic advantage devoid of any social consideration. I am not saying that the old world of artisans did not have exploitation, nor that economic advantage was ignored in these exchanges. I am simply saying that there was an attendant dynamic at play in these exchanges that highlighted broader social considerations.

Back to McCain and health care. The basic relationship in health care should be between a doctor and a patient. This is primarily a social relationship. The patient has a vested interest in seeing that the doctor is not taken advantage of, otherwise he or she could no longer continue to practice. Likewise, the doctor has an interest in providing quality treatment, otherwise he or she will lose his or her client base. However, the introduction of health insurance for profit has no concern over these relationships. It is removed from the level of social interaction and instead interested only in maximizing its profit from the patient while minimizing the payment to the doctor. If the patient suffers due to lack of coverage or the doctor's care degrades in quality due to being squeezed by the insurer, it matters not. What matters is profit, pure and simple.

Customer "choice" has nothing to do with helping customers, because the entire exchange is devoid of social utility. The providing of health insurance is treated purely as a commodity -- except in this instance it is a labor-added service that has "value" only in the sense that people in modern society need health care, and the insurers have exploited a niche in which they can turn a buck.

The question I inevitably come back to in this consideration is, "Is this really the best way we can do things?" I readily admit that I am a fan of a government-administered, single payer system for a few reasons. The first is purely economical -- it actually costs less to administer a single-payer plan because the government is interested in breaking even, not turning a profit. The second, however, is social. The removal of insurer profit from the system pushes it more in a social direction. The focus of the system can once again be on doctors and patients, and the expression of their mutually-beneficial self-interest.

Blind faith in "market solutions" assumes that capitalism always provides the best way for doing things. In the arena of health care -- a sector of economic activity more concerned with social interaction than the manufacture of goods -- I'm not certain that is the case.