Supersonic Man

July 17, 2021

civilization is exploitation?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 8:24 pm

In certain circles, it is not difficult to hear someone pronounce the phrase “Capitalism is exploitation.”  Is this valid?  I’m not gonna answer yes or no to that fraught question, as neither is entirely valid. What I am going to do is question the unstated implication that capitalism is somehow distinct in its exploitativity — the suggestion that since we’re equating exploitation to capitalism, this must mean that lots of other -isms are non-exploitative.  If you put capitalism up against all the other organizing systems it has competed with, such as monarchy and theocracy and feudalism and colonialism and warlordism and all the rest… well, it’s less exploitative than most.

The history of civilization mostly consists of an endless succession of different kinds of emperors, god-kings, priesthoods, titled nobilities, conquering hordes, colonial occupiers, and other groups which use some combination of social control and brute violence to put themselves in a privileged position above other people, where they get to keep the lion’s share of whatever they want.  And what they usually want in the largest quantity is labor.  Ever since the human race started to urbanize, the fabric of every kind of society that we call civilized has usually consisted of a set of rules which define one group of people which serve and another which are served.  In every land and in every age, self-appointed lords have declared themselves entitled to direct the labor of the masses, often for the benefit of their own class or their own family.  And fighting and dying for their rulers in warfare was just one more form of this labor.

Pre-urban peoples mostly lived in small groups where the only leadership was whichever elder or elders were most trusted to know what to do if something bad happened.  (And age is definitely a plus for this trusted role — in preliterate societies, the single best asset one can have for making wise decisions is a long memory.)  Such leaders have only such authority as the people around allow them, and cannot enforce their wills through violence. Examples of larger-scale organization among hunter-gatherers — pre-agricultural societies with kings — have existed, but they are far from common.

But wherever some people live as harmless farmers or hunter-gatherers, there will be some who try to parasitize them by living as bandits.  These groups are usually not led by the old and wise, but by the strong and violent and charismatic — those who have the knack for leading people into battle.  So some exploitation always existed, but before cities it was marginal and intermittent.  Before cities, preying on little villages or wandering hunter-gatherer bands could not support big conquering armies.

Herding cultures probably managed to create social organizations on a larger scale before cities, but it was only once it became possible to have buildings and officials and record-keeping that we started to see the emergence of a full-blown ruling class, and judging by the archaeological record, it took a fairly long time.  The earliest cities had an egalitarian layout with no big central edifices.  But by the time urban living became widespread, there were kings and princes and courtiers and ministers and generals and priests — in short, hierarchy.

The common people were as a rule completely uneducated, and pretty much had to take whatever they were given for a belief system.  If the priesthood came out and said that the king was the son of God, or that the crops depended on peasants’ daughters being sent to the temples to serve the priests, then it was probably rare for there to be another narrative or viewpoint to contradict them.

Of course, such social control is never perfect, and such a power structure will also have violence at its disposal.  Some went for full authoritarian police-state brutality — the Assyrians, for instance.  And of course this would also happen if one group were conquering and assimilating another, as the new people would believe different stories and ideologies until made to conform to their new rulers.

At best, the ruling class was a management structure that kept civilization running with relatively little greed and graft, and at worst they drained so much from their underlings that the whole society became unsustainable. And the incentives were always to increase the exploitation to a bit more than it had been before.

Urban agricultural society depended on heavy manual labor in a way that hunter-gatherer or even small-scale subsistence farming did not. The new lifestyle doubled or tripled how hard the average person had to work. Without constant labor there’d be famine. And that labor would need to be managed and supervised, to make sure that all necessary tasks were covered. And the people would understand the necessity, as the possibility of a food shortage was never very remote. Bad crop years were not rare events, and their consequences could be severe. So generally the ruling class’s position and authority was secure, though competition within that class could be vicious.

So this basic way of life does not change very much from before the bronze age all the way into early industrial times. Even if there’s no king, organized society would build around gentleman farmers who control lots of land, and hence lots of people. Either you find a way to do your own subsistence farming privately on land that nobody decides to take away from you, or you participate in a class system divided between owners and laborers. All that the development of industrial capitalism did during its early heyday was to move this arrangement indoors.

There are, I would say, three approaches to combating this tendency for society to divide between rulers and ruled. First there is the anarchist or libertarian approach, in which government and social organization are minimized, and each household can essentially be a law unto itself as long as it doesn’t cause trouble for its neighbors. This is often favored by pioneers moving into empty land, such as in the American west, or when Vikings settled Iceland. The second is the commune approach, much favored by utopian idealists. The latter has much more internal structure and governance at the community level than the former, but both mostly try to deal with questions of large-scale social organization and governance by having as little to do with the larger society as they can manage. Neither has found a way to scale up and create an alternate form of civilization.

The third alternative, however, can do so. What is it? Democracy. It’s the one thing that’s shown itself able to both run a full-sized modern civilization, and also put sharp checks on class privilege, when it chooses to do so. When it does, it’s a constant fight, as those with advantages will constantly seek out ways to leverage and increase those advantages, and whatever owning class remains will always work to increase its class privilege. Democracy can never eliminate this class; it can only minimize its elevation above the general populace. And of course even that only happens when the people are persuaded of the need to do so.

Revolutionary communism tried to be another way, but its success rate at ending privilege was so dismal that I am not even counting it as an option.

Capitalism can thrive in democracy, though always in subtle conflict with it. The older feudal systems of power and wealth are less compatible with democracy. There are countries that combine the two, by reducing old feudal privileges to a symbolic level. And there are countries where communists are just another party that competes in elections. There are countries which are now kingdoms in name only, and countries that are communist in name only. But being not really monarchist or not really communist is no benefit unless the replacement authority structure is democratic.

I conclude from this that what matters is not whether your economic system is capitalism or feudalism or communism or subsistence agriculture… what matters is whether everyone gets a vote or not. You can have equality or oppression in any of them, depending on whether the voice of the people has the authority to make changes.

There will always be a caveat on this. Equality is always imperfect and exploitation always exists, but democracy can reduce it to a tolerable nuisance rather than something which dominates the shape of society. (And as a side effect, this can also increase the economic growth that capitalism produces, because it thrives best with a strong middle class.) With democracy, capitalism may be exploitation, but we can choose how much exploitation it is. And without democracy, it looks to me like every form of large scale society is exploitation.

When apologists for capitalist exploitation make arguments to defend the ruling class, what they argue most vigorously against is the idea that the people can choose to vote for reducing exploitation. This is why they try to argue that social inequality is some kind of moral law or natural inevitability, and that opposing it is utterly unconscionable as a matter of principle — because if they admit it’s a matter of free choice, they’ve already lost the debate. Never forget that you hold the right to make this choice.

July 15, 2021

a comparison guide to asshole space billionaires

Filed under: spaaaace! — Supersonic Man @ 9:26 pm

Elon Musk (SpaceX):

  • wealth comes from overvalued Tesla stock that he can’t sell without crashing the price, so it’s mostly illusory
  • forced the entire car industry to start shifting to electric motors, so he has probably done more than any other person to reduce global warming
  • approaches all problems by thinking first of basic physics, then engineering, then manufacturing at scale, then financial stuff last
  • the only private space entrepreneur to successfully sell satellite launches in quantity and make a profit at it
  • reusing boosters forced the other rocket builders to scramble just as hard as the auto companies
  • in that scramble, the ones who suffered the worst losses were the Russians
  • will soon send tourists on a multiday orbital flight, which makes the brief suborbital hops offered by the next two look pretty feeble
  • is now filling the sky with thousands of internet satellites which will make life tough for astronomers and might trigger a catastrophic space junk crisis (google “Kessler syndrome”)
  • wants to move a million people permanently to Mars
  • had a child with pop star and art dilettante Grimes; naming the kid “X Æ A-12” was apparently her idea
  • can’t keep his mouth shut when ordered by the SEC to stop tweeting things that influence stock prices
  • other mouthing off has gotten him in legal trouble… and he’s in court right now, arguing that it’s good for the company because being “entertaining” saves advertising costs
  • denied the severity of covid and tried to force all his workers to stay in factories at the height of the pandemic
  • generally overworks employees, and responds with threats if they mention unionizing
  • abusive tirades have been reported
  • has a hiring philosophy of “no assholes”, but is one

Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin):

  • wealth comes from paying people the lowest possible wages for the hardest possible warehouse labor, with intentionally high rates of burnout and turnover
  • Amazon makes very little profit, so all the money it makes somehow ends up owned by Bezos rather than the company
  • said to be intensely envious of Musk, trying to equal his accomplishments without realizing that you’d have to equal his brains first
  • a Trump-aligned tabloid once tried to blackmail him over infidelity, and found out that Jeff don’t blackmail
  • but what they found may have brought about the biggest divorce property division of all time
  • spent billions and billions on space for twenty years without launching a single thing for a paying customer
  • sold United Launch Alliance (the Pentagon’s favorite rocket builder) on a new engine for their forthcoming Vulcan rocket, and is now failing to deliver the engine, forcing the Vulcan to be delayed
  • also wants to fill the sky with thousands of internet satellites, but will probably fail to compete with SpaceX’s version, thereby rendering the satellite swarm useless as well as obtrusive
  • wants to move a million people to Earth orbit, along with heavy industry to relieve the environment down here
  • suckered some schmuck into bidding $26 million to sit next to him on the first brief tourist flight of the New Shepard
  • is a way bigger asshole than Musk… some of the time

Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit):

  • wealth comes from selling music, airline travel, railroads, hotels, gyms, clothing, advertising, cellphone service, motorbike taxis, books, business services… just about anything they could think of, all under one name
  • but for some of those he just sells companies the right to use the Virgin name, like Trump does
  • why just have one space company when you can have two?
  • unlike Bezos, has actually delivered a satellite into orbit, and people to zero gee (though Bezos is days away from catching up on the latter)
  • started accepting money for SpaceShipTwo tickets back in 2006, but the first flight with private passengers was not until 2021
  • but on the other hand, was offered a billion dollar investment by the Saudis and turned it down over their human rights problems
  • has no plans to move a million people anywhere
  • was an “adventurer” before he ever dabbled in space… crossed the Pacific in a hot air balloon, etc
  • his love life is apparently adventurous too, with at least one open marriage, and a tendency to inappropriate behavior when drinking
  • likes recreational drugs and wants them legalized
  • likes to come up with creative ways to cheat on taxes, even after once being jailed for it
  • has gotten four people killed working on his rockets, and four more severely injured, in two separate incidents
  • yeah, these things qualify him as an asshole

Max Polyakov? (Firefly Aerospace):

  • I can’t verify for sure whether he qualifies as a billionaire
  • wealth comes mainly from commercial real estate and e-commerce
  • grew up in Ukraine, where his parents worked in aerospace, and where he has founded a new engineering school
  • moved to Silicon Valley and then to Scotland
  • was a co-owner of dating websites accused of being scams; for this reason, subject to distrust in the business world
  • …on top of the distrust they already have for the idea of mixing American national security work with Ukrainian aerospace companies that may be influenced by gangsters
  • Polyakov’s main goal other than profit is probably to revitalize high-tech industry in his homeland, which has suffered many setbacks
  • Firefly was sued by Virgin Orbit and bankrupted by legal troubles; that’s when Polyakov bought it and revived it
  • Firefly built their first completed rocket about eight months ago and delivered it to Vandenberg, but we’re still waiting for them to attempt to launch it
  • Firefly’s only advantage in competing with Virgin Orbit or Rocket Lab is that they can (theoretically) lift somewhat heavier satellites, at a substantial cost increase
  • much less public than the others, so I have no solid data on to what degree he’s an asshole

In summary, Musk is the most innovative, Bezos is the most despicable, Branson is the most reckless, and Polyakov is the most unimportant.

I haven’t mentioned the tendency to overpromise and exaggerate what their companies will do, because all new-space rocket company owners do that to roughly equal degrees, whether they’re billionaires or not.

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