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kottke.org posts about Umair Haque

If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2018

In a thought-provoking essay, Umair Haque asks the question If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, Then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

Some systems are self-perpetuating. Like a forest. Like a river. Like an ocean. But some systems are self-annihilating. Like a fire. Like a storm. Like an epidemic. They burn themselves out. We tend think of capitalism as the former — but we are wrong. It is the latter — a self-destroying, not a self-sustaining, system. If we’re all really just trying to escape it — then what else could it be? After all, that means there will probably come a day when we do make our escape — and on that day, poof! — capitalism, at least in the sense above, winks out, like a storm, or a fire. So if we see for a moment through the great lens of human history — first there was tribalism, and we escaped it, then feudalism, and we escaped that — today now there’s capitalism, which we’re currently trying to escape, all over again. But while kings and knights might have not been so keen on escaping feudalism, what’s striking about capitalism is that we’re all trying to escape it — even most of the capitalists — because it makes us so miserable, mean, and foolish.

Humans don’t want money — that’s never been the goal — they want freedom from exploitation and the freedom to pursue meaningful lives free from fear and anxiety. Haque then argues that given humanity’s current levels of wealth, technology, and social structures, it is not only possible to provide everyone with those freedoms without the need for capitalism but it’s inevitable.

These three things, technology, finance, and public goods, have finally matured and developed to a degree that freedom from capitalism isn’t just possible. It’s becoming inevitable. What’s really happening as these three forces intersect? Society’s surplus is being reinvested back in precisely the very things we are really after — instead of being skimmed off by predatory elites. Freedom from exploitation, freedom from control, freedom to find, realize, and develop ourselves. We haven’t had the means, mechanisms, or tools, in the long history of humankind, to ever really achieve those on a mass scale yet. But we have them now.

Read the whole thing — it’s not that long and it’ll give you something to think about as you work.

A world that can’t learn from itself

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2017

From Umair Haque, a provocative question: Why Don’t Americans Understand How Poor Their Lives Are?

In London, Paris, Berlin, I hop on the train, head to the cafe — it’s the afternoon, and nobody’s gotten to work until 9am, and even then, maybe not until 10 — order a carefully made coffee and a newly baked croissant, do some writing, pick up some fresh groceries, maybe a meal or two, head home — now it’s 6 or 7, and everyone else has already gone home around 5 — and watch something interesting, maybe a documentary by an academic, the BBC’s Blue Planet, or a Swedish crime-noir. I think back on my day and remember the people smiling and laughing at the pubs and cafes.

In New York, Washington, Philadelphia, I do the same thing, but it is not the same experience at all. I take broken down public transport to the cafe — everybody’s been at work since 6 or 7 or 8, so they already look half-dead — order coffee and a croissant, both of which are fairly tasteless, do some writing, pick up some mass-produced groceries, full of toxins and colourings and GMOs, even if they are labelled “organic” and “fresh”, all forbidden in Europe, head home — people are still at work, though it’s 7 or 8 — and watch something bland and forgettable, reality porn, decline porn, police-state TV. I think back on my day and remember how I didn’t see a single genuine smile — only hard, grim faces, set against despair, like imagine living in Soviet Leningrad.

Haque places the blame on our inability as a society to look outward and learn from ourselves, from history, and from the rest of the world.

So just as Americans don’t get how bad their lives really are, comparatively speaking — which is to say how good they could be — so too Europeans don’t fully understand how good their lives are — and how bad, if they continue to follow in America’s footsteps, austerity by austerity, they could be. Both appear to be blind to one another’s mistakes and successes.

Reading it, I noticed a similarity to Ted Chiang’s essay on the unchecked capitalism of Silicon Valley (which I linked to this morning). Chiang notes that corporations lack insight:

In psychology, the term “insight” is used to describe a recognition of one’s own condition, such as when a person with mental illness is aware of their illness. More broadly, it describes the ability to recognize patterns in one’s own behavior. It’s an example of metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking, and it’s something most humans are capable of but animals are not. And I believe the best test of whether an AI is really engaging in human-level cognition would be for it to demonstrate insight of this kind.

Haque is saying that our societies lack insight as well…or at least the will to incorporate that insight into practice.