Those who claimed that the economy could be understood as a system of commodity production also made greatly exaggerated claims about the market’s ability to dissolve older social hierarchies. Henry Sumner Maine’s famous formulation that society was evolving “from status to contract” was echoed by many nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theorists who imagined that older distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin would soon disappear in the new system of voluntary contracting to buy and sell commodities.5 Even Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto insisted that in the new bourgeois order, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. . . .”6 Such assertions were recycled in the twentieth century in Gary Becker’s argument that firms with a taste for discrimination against women or racial minorities would be effectively punished in the marketplace.7
The reality is that the market economy has routinely exploited and intensified many of these old hierarchies. Plantation owners in the Caribbean and the American South used sophisticated management and accounting schemes to organize the labor of their slaves.8 Employers routinely used differences in gender, race, ethnicity, and national origin to play groups of workers off against each other. Meatpacking firms in North Carolina replaced undocumented Latino immigrants with workers from Haiti and Honduras who are in the United States with Temporary Protective Status. And while employers and businesses have alternated between pushing women into the housewife role and pulling them into the labor force, gender inequalities persist.
In sum, the view of the economy as a system of commodity production was never completely accurate. It mistook a part of reality for the whole, with the consequence that both the autonomy and the emancipatory potential of markets were greatly exaggerated. And yet, at another level, there was and continues to be some truth to this formulation. Marx highlighted this in his discussion of “the fetishism of commodities.”9 He argued that the buying and selling of things in the marketplace, including the labor of human beings, had the consequence that people came to misunderstand actual social relations among people as relations among things. People routinely make the calculation, for example, that it is necessary to work another week to purchase a specific product rather than questioning why the owner of my firm earns many times the wage of an average worker. What we learn from Marx is that it is important to examine the actual social relations that lie behind buying and selling in the marketplace.
Should the icon be traditional? Of course it should be...Should the icon be modern? Undoubtedly. Corresponding to each significant time period of the past was a specific iconographic style and also a unique view of the icon. Such is only natural and cannot be otherwise, which is why an icon transplanted from a different era often looks like an imitation.
In my opinion, the question runs much deeper. It would be somewhat superficial to declare that an icon MUST be this or MUST NOT be that; it would be very hard indeed to say what an icon MUST really be. It is more practicable to look into what an icon actually IS.
Several years ago, a priest from Grodno came to order icons for the iconostasis from us. He generally gave iconographers a wide berth of artistic freedom, with just one stipulation: he wanted his icons painted “Rublev Style”. Such a preference is well known to iconographers. The phrase “Rublev Style” is a sort of magic buzzword uttered by many clients. With the Grodno priest, we agreed that I would pick several icons as models to guide me during my work. I then made the selection which included the 13th-century Hilandar Icon of the Saviour, the Byzantine fresco of the Saviour by Manuel Panselinos, the Icon of the Saviour from Vatopedi Monastery, and a few other photos of works which, like the ones I just mentioned, had nothing to do with Andrei Rublev but were highly expressive in terms of beauty and artistic vision. During my next meeting with the priest, I laid out the samples in front of him, and he replied with complete satisfaction “Yes! This is exactly what I had in mind”.
[Image: Icon of the Savior from Hilandar Monastery, 13th century]
A more compelling framework for understanding contemporary political trends on both sides of the Atlantic emerges from considering the character of modern democracy. In his 2006 book A World beyond Politics?, Pierre Manent distinguishes “several broad categories of separation” that characterize modern democracy: “separation of professions, or, division of labor; separation of powers; separation of church and state; separation of civil society and the state; separation between represented and representative; separation of facts and values, or science and life.”1 These separations have been the engine on which liberal democracy runs, economically, politically, and socially. By its own admission, liberalism sought to separate matters that had historically been combined. The division of labor would allow for the maximization of profit. The separation of powers would allow modern states to retain power while not succumbing to tyranny. The separation of church and state would free churches to preach the Gospel while allowing the state to focus on civil goals. Civil society would flourish without the state’s interference. Representative government would secure the benefits of democracy without the need for direct democracy. And finally, a science free to pursue knowledge as it understands it would be wholly beneficial to mankind.
Yet what currently characterizes Western democracies is not this movement of separations but rather reactions against the system of separations. These reactions take various forms, and no reaction is comprehensively against the whole. Indeed, one could hardly imagine what a complete reaction against the system of separations would be: the division of labor, after all, is hardly on the verge of disappearance. But a protest against excessive separation has emerged across Western democracies. Many economic enterprises have become unmoored from their countries of origin, and have become global behemoths beholden to no one. The separation of professions has led beyond the optimization provided by the division of labor to phenomena like those noted in small print on the back of the iPhone: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” The vulnerability of pharmaceutical supply chains under globalization has now been made painfully clear in the reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. In the United States, the separation of powers often seems to have led to administrative inefficiencies and political deadlock. The separation of church and state has steadily pushed churches out of public life, to a degree that would have surprised Americans of the nineteenth through even the mid-twentieth century. Meanwhile, the marvels produced by science and engineering in the twentieth century seem destined to be overshadowed by the monstrosities of a new biopolitical tyranny coming, like eugenics the last time, in the guise of humanitarianism. Finally, the separation of represented and representative seems to have grown, as representatives become captured by financial interests and corporate pressure.2
Serious consideration of the asymmetry of conditions often leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university, to use some of its enormous capital reserves to bring in more members of the underclass. But this response, I believe, flows from a lack of either imagination or courage: either we can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of the highly professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities, or we can but lack the courage to make it happen. Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning and wondering can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school day and the gray walls of the classroom. I feel the urgency of such a view every day, and increasingly so as higher education becomes more endangered by the approaching double-edged crisis of finances and social trust. The pandemic, in addition to exacerbating the crisis of higher education, threatens a new outbreak of acute loneliness. As we begin to imagine—and, hopefully, to realize—alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone thoughtful souls shining like beacons in the night, desperately trying—and failing—to find one another.
Unlike most relativisms today, however, Boethius’s relativism is hierarchical: reason grasps reality better than the senses, and divine intellect grasps it better than reason. Such hierarchical relativism demands from humans an attitude of epistemic humility: we should be diffident about our powers to attain knowledge of the truth. However much we might esteem human reason, we should also realise that, by its very nature, it is limited, and that the ultimate explanation of the universe is open only to a cognitive power superior to ours.
In short, the major economic problem America faces today is not just concentration of profits—which characterizes both the Fordist and current era—but concentration into specific kinds of politically powerful firms subsequent to a legal fissuring of production activities and labor forces. Nothing about the three-tier economy is inevitable or technologically determined. Franchisors’ immunity from obligations to their franchisees’ workers is a domestic legal artifact, as is copyright duration or the robustness and ease of patent protection. Access to cheap offshore labor and tax havens is an internationally negotiated legal artifact. As noted above, the big change is not a wholesale physical reorganization of production processes but rather a wholesale fissuring of the legal containers—firms—that plan those production processes and the creation of a legal architecture supporting the global dispersal of production. In this respect, the fiscal and Federal Reserve responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have already up-ended the old relationship between the state and the economy and opened up space for policy that might ameliorate or reverse the economic problems that the past thirty years of vertical disintegration and offshoring have produced.
Relatively simple solutions that now seem much less politically difficult include higher minimum wages, stronger antitrust enforcement, and more stringent criteria for granting IPRs, as well as shorter terms for such protections. While the $600 per week federal unemployment supplement is unlikely to become a permanent basic income, it not only shows that higher wages and incomes at the bottom are possible but has created a constituency for a permanent expansion. Similar to the wartime experiences driving a federal commitment to health care for veterans, Covid-19 has already exposed the fundamental irrationality of a health care system in which many actors see profits as priority one and patients simply a source of cash flow. Doctors used to constitute a phalanx against federal intrusion, but layoffs and pay cuts at the many practices owned by private equity firms may change attitudes about where the real danger to income and autonomy lie. Finally, forcing lead firms in commodity chains to take some responsibility for workers in the bottom tier would go a long way towards fixing the problems limned above. Similarly, giving franchisees more leeway in the sources of inputs, or making franchisors true risk-sharing partners, would level the playing field in those commodity chains. Right now, franchisors enjoy all the benefits, disclaiming legal responsibility towards franchisees and their workers, while exerting near total control and taking a guaranteed cut of operating revenues. The National Labor Relations Board tried to level that playing field in 2015 in the Browning-Ferris case, but new appointees reversed that decision in 2017.13 Finally, incorporating and actually enforcing labor and environmental standards will help shift production away from China.
In Francis’s understanding of the Passion there was a centrality to the generosity and gratuitously diffusive and life-giving self-gift of the good God. Here is the touchstone of Francis’s post-conversion aesthetic. And in looking at the specific expression of this in the San Damiano crucifix, there can be seen the utter self-emptying of the Cross, though in the broader context of divine victory, wherein Christ can smirk and ascend in glory. The Cross seen in this light reveals the beauty of God.
For Francis, to rejoice in the works of the Lord would be all-compassing, the tension between the beauty of creation and the beauty of the Cross seen as not a tension at all, but as the same glorious diffusion of the divine goodness. He could see that at the heart of the garden of the world stands the tree of the Cross.
It’s Nobel Prize season again. News reports are coming out each day sharing the name of the illustrious winner of the various categories — Science, Literature, etc. But there’s one of the prizes that’s a little different. Well, that’s putting it lightly… you see, the Nobel Prize in Economics is not a real Nobel. It wasn’t created by Alfred Nobel. It’s not even called a “Nobel Prize,” no matter what the press reports say.
The five real Nobel Prizes—physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and medicine/physiology—were set up in the will left by the dynamite magnate when he died in 1895. The economics prize is a bit different. It was created by Sweden’s Central Bank in 1969, nearly 75 years later. The award’s real name is the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” It was not established by Nobel, but supposedly in memory of Nobel. It’s a ruse and a PR trick, and I mean that literally. And it was done completely against the wishes of the Nobel family.
Sweden’s Central Bank quietly snuck it in with all the other Nobel Prizes to give retrograde free-market economics credibility and the appearance of scientific rigor. One of the Federal Reserve banks explained it succinctly, “Few realize, especially outside of economists, that the prize in economics is not an “official” Nobel. . . . The award for economics came almost 70 years later—bootstrapped to the Nobel in 1968 as a bit of a marketing ploy to celebrate the Bank of Sweden’s 300th anniversary.” Yes, you read that right: “a marketing ploy.”
Here’s a Nobel family member describing it: “The Economics Prize has nestled itself in and is awarded as if it were a Nobel Prize. But it’s a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation,” Nobel’s great great nephew Peter Nobel told AFP in 2005, adding that “It’s most often awarded to stock market speculators. . . . There is nothing to indicate that [Alfred Nobel] would have wanted such a prize.”
What is special about polyphonic music is that, eventually, my attention passes even from my own bodily awareness to an awareness of the corporate activity of singing the piece, which is not something I can do, not on my own.
To be sure, my voice can contribute to filling up the acoustic space of Graybar Passage in a purely physical sense, like one tap among several helping to fill up a tub with water. But the musical character of the sound means that there is no single act in which I am uniquely engaged that creates the music, but only a special joint activity, for which many are necessary.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor