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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, December 15, 2005

R.A. Wilson: Privilege and Unequal Exchange

From The Illuminatus! Trilogy:

"Privilege implies exclusion from privilege, just as advantage implies disadvantage," Celine went on. "In the same mathematically reciprocal way, profit implies loss. If you and I exchange equal goods, that is trade: neither of us profits and neither of us loses. But if we exchange unequal goods, one of us profits and the other loses. Mathematically. Certainly. Now, such mathematically unequal exchanges will always occur because some traders will be shrewder than others. But in total freedom— in anarchy— such unequal exchanges will be sporadic and irregular. A phenomenon of unpredictable periodicity, mathematically speaking. Now look about you, professor— raise your nose from your great books and survey the actual world as it is— and you will not observe such unpredictable functions. You will observe, instead, a mathematically smooth function, a steady profit accruing to one group and an equally steady loss accumulating for all others. Why is this, professor? Because the system is not free or random, any mathematician would tell you a priori. Well, then, where is the determining function, the factor that controls the other variables? You have named it yourself, or Mr. Adler has: the Great Tradition. Privilege, I prefer to call it. When A meets B in the marketplace, they do not bargain as equals. A bargains from a position of privilege; hence, he always profits and B always loses. There is no more Free Market here than there is on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The privileges, or Private Laws— the rules of the game, as promulgated by the Politburo and the General Congress of the Communist Party on that side and by the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve Board on this side— are slightly different; that's all. And it is this that is threatened by anarchists, and by the repressed anarchist in each of us," he concluded, strongly emphasizing the last clause, staring at Drake, not at the professor.

Just thought I'd put that up front, since it's by far the most important part. The whole thing is worth reading, though:

Somehow the conversation got around to a new book by somebody named Mortimer Adler who had already written a hundred or so great books if I understood the drift. One banker type at the table was terribly keen on this Adler and especially on his latest great book. "He says that we and the Communists share the same Great Tradition" (I could hear the caps by the way he pronounced the term) "and we must join together against the one force that really does threaten civilization—anarchism!"

There were several objections, in which Drake [Robert Putney Drake, a leading figure in the Illuminati] didn't take part (he just sat back, puffing his cigar and looking agreeable to everyone, but I could see boredom under the surface) and the banker tried to explain the Great Tradition, which was a bit over my head, and, judging by the expressions around the table, a bit over everybody else's head, too, when the hawk-faced dago [Hagbard Celine] spoke up suddenly.

"I can put the Great Tradition in one word," he said calmly. "Privilege."

Old Drake suddenly stopped looking agreeable-but-bored— he seemed both interested and amused. "One seldom encounters such a refreshing freedom from euphemism," he said, leaning forward. "But perhaps I am reading too much into your remark, sir?"

Hawk-face sipped at his champagne and patted his mouth with a napkin before answering. "I think not," he said at last. "Privilege is defined in most dictionaries as a right or immunity giving special favors or benefits to those who hold it. Another meaning in Webster is 'not subject to the usual rules or penalties.' The invaluable thesaurus gives such synonyms as power, authority, birthright, franchise, patent, grant, favor and, I'm sad to say, pretension. Surely, we all know what privilege is in this club, don't we, gentlemen? Do I have to remind you of the Latin roots, privi, private, and lege, law, and point out in detail how we have created our Private Law over here, just as the Politburo have created their own private law in their own sphere of influence?"

"But that's not the Great Tradition," the banker type said (later, I learned that he was actually a college professor; Drake was the only banker at that table). "What Mr. Adler means by the Great Tradition—"

"What Mortimer means by the Great Tradition," hawk-face interrupted rudely, "is a set of myths and fables invented to legitimize or sugar-coat the institution of privilege. Correct me if I'm wrong," he added more politely but with a sardonic grin.

"He means," the true believer said, "the undeniable axioms, the time-tested truths, the shared wisdom of the ages, the . . ."

"The myths and fables," hawk-face contributed gently.

"The sacred, time-tested wisdom of the ages," the other went on, becoming redundant. "The basic bedrock of civil society, of civilization. And we do share that with the Communists. And it is just that common humanistic tradition that the young anarchists, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, are blaspheming, denying and trying to destroy. It has nothing to do with privilege at all."

"Pardon me," the dark man said. "Are you a college professor?"

"Certainly. I'm head of the Political Science Department at Harvard!"

"Oh," the dark man shrugged. "I'm sorry for talking so bluntly before you. I thought I was entirely surrounded by men of business and finance."

The professor was just starting to look as if he spotted the implied insult in that formal apology when Drake interrupted.

"Quite so. No need to shock our paid idealists and turn them into vulgar realists overnight. At the same time, is it absolutely necessary to state what we all know in such a manner as to imply a rather hostile and outside viewpoint? Who are you and what is your trade, sir?"

"Hagbard Celine. Import-export. Gold and Appel Transfers here in New York. A few other small establishments in other ports." As he spoke my image of piracy and Borgia stealth came back strongly. "And we're not children here," he added, "so why should we avoid frank language?"

The professor, taken aback a foot or so by this turn in the conversation, sat perplexed as Drake replied:

"So. Civilization is privilege— or Private Law, as you say so literally. And we all know where Private Law comes from, except the poor professor here— out of the barrel of a gun,' in the words of a gentleman whose bluntness you would appreciate. Is it your conclusion, then, that Adler is, for all his naivete, correct, and we have more in common with the Communist rulers than we have setting us at odds?"

"Let me illuminate you further," Celine said— and the way he pronounced the verb made me jump. Drake's blue eyes flashed a bit, too, but that didn't surprise me: anybody as rich as IRS thought he was, would have to be On the Inside.

"Privilege implies exclusion from privilege, just as advantage implies disadvantage," Celine went on. "In the same mathematically reciprocal way, profit implies loss. If you and I exchange equal goods, that is trade: neither of us profits and neither of us loses. But if we exchange unequal goods, one of us profits and the other loses. Mathematically. Certainly. Now, such mathematically unequal exchanges will always occur because some traders will be shrewder than others. But in total freedom— in anarchy— such unequal exchanges will be sporadic and irregular. A phenomenon of unpredictable periodicity, mathematically speaking. Now look about you, professor— raise your nose from your great books and survey the actual world as it is— and you will not observe such unpredictable functions. You will observe, instead, a mathematically smooth function, a steady profit accruing to one group and an equally steady loss accumulating for all others. Why is this, professor? Because the system is not free or random, any mathematician would tell you a priori. Well, then, where is the determining function, the factor that controls the other variables? You have named it yourself, or Mr. Adler has: the Great Tradition. Privilege, I prefer to call it. When A meets B in the marketplace, they do not bargain as equals. A bargains from a position of privilege; hence, he always profits and B always loses. There is no more Free Market here than there is on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The privileges, or Private Laws— the rules of the game, as promulgated by the Politburo and the General Congress of the Communist Party on that side and by the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve Board on this side— are slightly different; that's all. And it is this that is threatened by anarchists, and by the repressed anarchist in each of us," he concluded, strongly emphasizing the last clause, staring at Drake, not at the professor.



8 Comments:

Blogger Adem D. Kupi said...

hehehe.

I love synchronicity.

December 15, 2005 2:10 PM  
Blogger iceberg said...

fnord!

December 15, 2005 2:53 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Hail Eris! Hail Discordia!

December 15, 2005 7:40 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

I seem to be doing points of information lately. Although any particular privilege implies exclusion and separation of haves and have nots, the system of privileges started as something that gave everybody some privileges. It gave a mutually supporting divide and rule that gave have somethings and have something elses, so that everybody had an interest in preserving their own although naturally some were better off. It broke down as it evolved into de facto have nots who had been marginalised - the haves externalised the costs of their gains onto the fabric of society. Some societies got all revolutionary as a result, but not all decayed that far before reforming in self defence (e.g. Denmark).

December 16, 2005 4:42 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

PML,

I suspect that even in those better days, when privileges were distributed among the various component groups of a corporatist society, the real state of affairs was a devil's bargain:

the "privileges" of those on bottom (supposedly intended to balance those of the rich) were in fact licenses to do what they could have done anyway in a free society, whereas the privileges of the rich were things they couldn't have accomplished without privilege.

Something like that happened under the 20th century corporate liberals, with their idea of a "general welfare" that transcended class. In return for their reduced bargaining power in the labor market, workers got a minimum wage and Wagner-emasculated unions; and thus bought off by the "privilege" to receive what was already theirs, they acquiesced in the subsidies and cartelization of the corporate economy.

December 16, 2005 2:12 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

You cynic, you. Your mistake is supposing that the decayed condition of things is no different from the original one. Herewith some genuine differences that used to apply in a system of privileges:
even the landlords couldn't put their beasts on commons (that privilege was reserved for the commoners of each particular common, apart from drovers paying thistle rents etc.);
the aristocracy were barred from practising trade (so not competing with the merchant classes - poor aristocrats were often worse off than rich merchants, since they also had feudal obligations to perform);
the poorer sort were often exempt from direct taxes in cash (though not other obligations and the incidence of it), which cushioned them from fluctuations in the cash economy.
As you will understand, the differnt benefits weren't remotely equal, net, but they did mean that everybody had something material to lose - which gave them all a stake in things and made the system more self supporting.

December 17, 2005 12:43 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I think that probably bears out my point. In a system of labor-based property, the peasants would have owned the whole manor, including the landlord's domain, and the landlord would have been out there with a hoe like everyone else. In that circumstance, they'd have had pasturage rights, anyway. But the distribution of "privileges" among the classes of the corporate society made them feel that their share in the vastly unequal distribution of benefits was a "stake" that they had to lose, and gave them a sense of attachment to it.

Their unique privileges were akin to the inability of the rich man, under the majesty of the law, to urinate in public and sleep under bridges.

December 17, 2005 4:32 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Actually, I think my examples bear out my position, that the privileges didn't give the peasants net benefits but did give them some particular things that they would not otherwise have had. Certainly the English peasants who were deliberately settled in the Pale of Calais, West Pembrokeshire or the Pale of Dublin wouldn't have had the same benefits without their privileges - those would have remained with the previous occupiers.

More importantly, commoners' rights (say) would have been replaced with a true free for all, the scenario that most people misunderstand as coming with common land: everybody would have had rights on lands that were reserved to their own commoners under the system of privileges. This was what I was trying to bring out, that certain valuable rights were always available to peasant groups and these were denied to their feudal masters and the world at large.

That is not claiming that things could not have been arranged more equitably, but that everybody had some particular benefit that might have been lost and that was esteemed as a bird in the hand. These were not privileges that would immediately and intrinsically have been replaced by something just as good, which is what your position suggests. To get that, they would have had to substitute some other system rather than fall back on a default alternative.

December 18, 2005 4:59 AM  

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