Quotable (#136)

On private governance as the key to modernity:

Judges, police, and regulators are a deus ex machina. Government is often dysfunctional and crowds out private sources of order, or it is simply absent or too costly to use. That means parties can either live with their problems or attempt to solve them. In some cases solutions have yet to be found or are too difficult to implement. Such is the world. But quite often solving problems is a profit opportunity and the more at stake, the more potentially profitable the solutions. Throughout history we can see lots of examples of private parties benefiting by figuring out better ways of facilitating exchange or protecting property rights. These protections of the market come not from government but from the market.

Private governance is responsible for creating order not just in basic markets but also in the world’s most sophisticated markets, including stock markets, futures markets, and electronic commerce. The role of private governance in enabling stock markets and modern capitalism is one of the least known but most important achievements in the history of the world. Private governance also protects contracts and property rights in scores of other markets. Private governance can be found working in ancient and modern societies, in small and large groups, among friends and strangers, and for simple and extremely complex transactions. It often exists alongside, and in many cases in spite of, government legal efforts.

The invisible hand analogy in economics sheds light on underappreciated processes of coordinating behavior, and the study of private governance sheds light on similarly underappreciated mechanisms for creating order. Private governance works behind the scenes so most people miss it, but it makes the modern world possible.

(We haven’t seen anything yet.)

Templexity Matters

Postulated: The intensity of time-travel fiction — and specifically backward time-travel fiction — is a critical index of modernity. As the time of modernity, initially grasped as a departure from traditional cyclicity, is prolonged into deepening nonlinear vortex, it provokes time-travel narrative as a figure in which to seek resolution. The apocalyptic, or communicative action of the end upon its past (through prophecy), is destined to final subsumption within the image of templexity. With the formulation of the Terminator mythos, in the last years of the 20th century, this process of subsumption is essentially complete. In this rigorous sense, the Terminator — as its name suggests — announces the inauguration of the End Times, when the thought of auto-production, emerging in phases from developments in cybernetics, is culturally acknowledged in its comprehensive cosmic-historical implication. The time-travel ‘bootstrap‘ or ‘ontological paradox’ is hazily recognized as the occult motor, or operational singularity, of the modern historical process.

Any positive cybernetic dynamic is open to logical interpretation (and dismissal) as a paradox. The Epimenides or Cretan Paradox, for instance, describes a reality-consistent recurrent cycle of escalating skepticism from the perspective of positive cybernetics, but nothing more than a concurrent self-contradiction from that of formal logic. The ontological paradox invites the same divergent reception. Auto-productive being is either a realistic foundation, or a formal absurdity, with the variance depending on whether self-reference is apprehended as a substantial dynamic or a static formality. From a certain — respectably established — orientation, the encouragement of circuit ontology within advanced modernity can only appear as a solicitation of madness.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) is a movie whose narrative loop is based explicitly upon ontological paradox. (It arrived too late to be referenced in Templexity.) The circuit of auto-production it describes is looped around black-hole cosmology, involving specific gravitational information that is inaccessibly occluded by the event horizon of collapsed stars, yet indispensable to the survival of the civilization eventually capable of retrieving it. The templex pattern outlined in the movie is exquisite. (Kip Thorne is doubtless owed considerable appreciation for that.)

The hypothesis of templexity is that the machine stimulating cultural absorption in the ontological paradox cannot stop. In regards to what has already happened, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Objectified Growth

In The Nation, an exceptionally thoughtful article by Timothy Shenk explores the strange novelty of capitalism as an academic object. When examined by historians as an event (or thing), rather than by economists as a generic form (or type), it emerges as a peculiarly neglected target of attention which — despite its apparent familiarity — remains to a remarkable degree theoretical terra nova. Shenk notes:

Capitalism might seem like a strange topic to require discovery, yet until recently, scholars concerned with the subject tended to style themselves practitioners of economic history, or social history, or labor history, or business history, not the history of capitalism as such. But that is the genius of the label: it names a topic, not a methodology, opening the field to anyone who believes capitalism worth studying.

Taking the work of Harvard historian and “academic entrepreneur” Sven Beckert as a clue, Shenk outlines the emerging problems — and ironies — of the shift towards a growth-oriented perspective. Rather than representing the incarnation of a political-economic idea, or a ethico-political dilemma, “capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results — not by what it is, but by what it does.” The new capitalism studies sheds presuppositions in order to gain cognitive traction upon the plastic dynamism of a self-expanding system. Previously-dominant modes of engagement in both economics and history are disrupted in consequence:

Instead of focusing on the experiences of wage workers, scholars now dwell on the variety of ways in which labor of all sorts can be commodified and exploited. Plantation slaves and factory workers become different points on a common spectrum, rather than fundamental opposites. Commodified persons and the deft financiers capable of exploiting their commodification provide these narratives with their central figures — new embodiments for the old categories of labor and capital. […] In this rendering, capitalism is less a specific entity whose precise contours can be outlined than an infinitely resilient blob capable of absorbing every blow dealt against it and emerging stronger. It is a view that imposes stark limitations on the realm of the politically possible. Hyman is explicit on this point, arguing that “American capitalism is America, and we can choose together to submit to it, or rise to its challenges, making what we will of its possibilities.” Reform might be achievable, but the only revolution on offer is what Beckert, with a sly wink to Leon Trotsky, calls the “permanent revolution” of capitalism itself.

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