Sunday, October 23, 2011

Confluence and Coincidence -- the Calculus of 99 Percent

What do the 99 Percent stand for? Since the OWS movement started, that has been the question repeatedly asked, not only by corporate politicians and pundits but also by voices from the progressive-left. The frustrating non answer from “the movement” has been: nothing & everything.

This formlessness makes people decidedly uncomfortable. Geometry is a fundamental construct of the human mind and, as a result, the need to “box things in” becomes a basic intellectual urge. “Ti esti?” -- “what is it?” was the first and most annoying question Socrates kept asking.

Among political analysts and strategists, the Socratic question gets translated into: How can you achieve anything if you don’t lay down goals and demands? The question is certainly not illogical. Apart from boxing things in, if you don’t have a formulated destination, how can you get there, wherever there might be?

Isn’t the calculus of politics all about platforms and goals? It is. But the calculus of history -- that is, of whether movements will be successful or not -- is a different issue. What makes things happen and why do they happen the way they do?

Once Newton had explained the motions of the heavenly bodies and why things fall the way they do, Western philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Marx applied their minds to deducing the laws of history. If we can figure this out, so the thinking goes, we can soothsay the future.

Tolstoy was skeptical. His epic ‘War and Peace’ was an account of individuals within the inexorable flow of events. At the end of the novel he wrote an “Epilogue” in which he sought to explain the “calculus of history.”

Tolstoy dismissed the notion that “the movement of the peoples at the time of the Crusades” or “the ferment of the peoples of the West at the end of the Eighteenth Century” could be explained by the activities of popes, magnates or kings and “their mistresses and ministers.”

The French, he says, did not invade Russia because Napoleon wrote certain letters to Vienna and issued certain orders on a particular date. “Why then did the French invade Russia?” Tolstoy asks. “Because the impetus of the nation drove them there; and when the impetus was spent they receded back home. The letters and orders of Napoleon simply coincided with the will of the people; other letters he wrote, which did not, are simply forgotten.”

By a confluence of motives, Tolstoy did mean an identity of motives, or in other words, a shared platform of goals. On the contrary, he assumed that the 100,000 individual motives that made up the Army of the French were entirely idiosyncratic. The motives, each different from the other, simply flowed together and gave rise to an impulse in a given direction.

Just as Tolstoy was dismissive of attributed causes which seek to explain an event, he was equally unimpressed by strategies which seek to bring about a result. His hero of the war was General Kutuzof who was excoriated as an incompetent as he retreated before Napoleon’s advance and hailed as a hero as he advanced after Napoleon’s retreat.

Kutuzof understood the “calculus of history;” Napoleon (at that point) did not. In Tolstoy’s opinion, the calculus of history is formed by the swelling confluence of a myriad of individual motives and impulses which are beyond human calculation.

Tolstoy’s Epilogue finds little resonance in an epoch addicted to the scientific method. We want maps not the meandering of a herd. The Occupation Movement, we are told, needs a brilliant, cunning strategist in the order of Carl Rove or at least in the magnitude of Lenin!

The historians among the strategists will argue that the Occupiers will fail unless they come up with a strategy. After all, is it not true that the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th Century England and the Peasant’s War in 16th Century Germany failed for want of a map?

This is not a patently unreasonable argument; but it is based on a false historical premise. The picture painted by the 14th and 16th century feudal-bourgeoisie was that of a rudderless mob of angry, dirty, uppity peasants who, being ignorant, resentful and dirty got what they deserved. Most subsequent historians have simply accepted the propaganda of the triumphant party as fact.

But the propaganda is over-painted. The coming together of English, and later German, peasants certainly was that “swelling of impulses” which Tolstoy says is the calculus of history. But it is incorrect to say that the peasants had no platform. In both cases, the uprising had very specific demands.

The English and German peasant revolts provide a good historical analogy for today’s 99 Percenters. In both cases, the peasant class was being destroyed by excessive taxation and laws which embarrassed their economic development.

In order to see how this was the case, it is first necessary to disentangle one’s thought from the anti-feudal capitalist propaganda that passes for orthodox history.

It is typically said that the peasants revolted against the oppressions of serfdom. But that is incorrect. Since the 4th Century, serfdom had provided much desired economic security. It may have bound the peasant to his land but it also prevented foreclosure on his land. What is called feudalism was a complex balance of horizontal and vertical economic flows. What caused the peasants’ revolt was that, as feudalism gradually gave way to a nascent capitalism, the flows down were all but eliminated by the suck ups.

The unbalancing of the feudal equilibrium was not just a matter of taxation but also of the privatization of common lands. For centuries the common use of fields, forests and streams had served as a kind of “public service” to the peasantry and these were now be foreclosed on and handed over to private individuals. Thus, the Twelve Articles of the German revolt (1525) demanded the return of communal lands.

The disequilibrium was also the result of legal class war. A major cause of the English revolt was the Statute of Labourers (1351) which forbade workers from demanding better pay and working conditions. What was occurring in both England and Germany was a gradual but inexorable dis possession and reduction of what had been a stable and relatively prosperous class.

Of course it was entirely within the interest of the newly emerging feudal-bourgeoisie to mischaracterize the balance they were destroying, so that to this day people are taught and believe what boils down to capitalist revisionism. Feudalism was by no means perfect, but it was a remarkably stable, generally equitable, and culturally democratic system. It did not last near 1000 years by being unremittingly unjust.

Once feudalism is cast in a more balanced light, the analogy between the peasants’ revolts and today’s Indignados and 99 Percenters can be seen. In all cases a defined and previously secured class protests against economic pillage, political disempowerment and cultural monopolization.

In each of these cases, the problem of the movement was not a failure to formulate specific demands. Nor was it a failure of collective impulses. The peasants’ revolts ultimately failed because both the substance of popular impulse and the form of their goals failed to coincide with an historical cycle.

The peasants’ revolts illustrate that Tolstoy’s calculus is only half correct. It is not sufficient to say (as he would) that the revolts failed because the collective impulse “spent” itself. No impulse lasts forever. The question is whether the impulse engages into a wheel that moves events.

Here the prognosis becomes elusive. Whether we regard history as cyclical or progressive, the critical factor becomes knowing where in the historical cycle (or progression) the present moment stands. This in turn becomes a question of knowing whether the present moment is a time to build on pre-existing achievements or to destroy the existing order.

If the confluence of impulses flows in a destructive direction and if the “historical moment” is one which is fertile for destruction, then the “movement” will amount to something. If not, not e converso.

Is all this not just a pompous way of singing Que será, será? I think it’s a tad more than that. It gives us a set of values to balance-out in an historical equation.

The peasants’ revolts failed not because there wasn’t a confluence of impulses among the peasantry, but because that confluence did not coincide with a generative stage as represented by the capitalist movement. The West was not simply destroying something old but building up to something new. The peasants, for all their radical “communistic” articles, wanted to revert to the statu quo ante; a quo ante that itself had started when the collective impulse of the German Barbarians had coincided with the decadence of the Roman Empire in a moment that was fertile for destruction.

Those who are quick to quibble will point out that every end is a beginning and all creation entails destruction. And right they are. All I can say is that if soothsaying were a matter of mere logic anyone could predict the future. But soothsaying is not mere logic. The one-eyed Russian general sniffed the wind, the world historical Man of the Moment got it all wrong. In this respect, Tolstoy was right.

The absence of a platform by the 99 Percenters is not critical. A platform will eventually emerge from the confluence of impulses assembled; and that emergence will manifest democracy in its most raw and pure form.

But whether the 99 Percenters succeed, depends on whether their impulse is revolutionary or reformist and, whichever it is, whether the present historical moment is one of generation or decay.

That is my calculus.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peeking in to the GOP Cave

I don’t have a T.V. In fact, for about half of my life I have gone without television. Even when my father was producing television shows our teevee was usually broken.

But from time to time, I have owned a television. Once, after a long hiatus, I bought a television to watch an advertised German series that seemed interesting. To this day, I remember the day I first switched it on.

Although the series was in black and white, this was my first color set. I was immediately struck by the glowing, bright carnival colors that magically appeared at the flick of a switch. For an instant, it was like: ballons, painted horses, party hats, streamers and cotton candy! I smiled like a child.

Then I heard the sound. It was as if the raving lunatics of bedlam had suddenly spilled into my living room. I can’t remember what all was said except that it was loud, hysterical, vulgar, inane and loud some more. I sat and stared transfixed, as if peering through a funnel into an alternate universe of alien insanity.

People watch this? I watched my series and then put the box aside using it only to tape documentaries and old newsreels. Then I moved to where there was no reception anyways.

Of course, now we have streaming video; but I only use it to catch the occasional speech or exceptional event. The last thing to stream onto my screen was the Pope’s visit to Westminister which was rather historic, all things considered.

For some reason, though, I decided to tune into last night’s GOP debate. There have been several of these events of late and I suppose I felt that given all the hoopla in the press I might as well have a look see. So I tuned in.

Then I heard the sound: a roar of cheers within a din of applause. “ on the ground...” “...electronic wall...” “...drones...” The candidates were declaiming against them aliens sneaking in here to “anchor” them selves in our homeland and the audience was respounding with shouts of atavistic anger.

If the Bible teaches us anything it is that the knowledge of good and evil is evil; for it is that divide from which all our woes flow. Once we know that evil lurks all around us out there, then the 'in here' becomes full of suspicion, fear and anger. We are caught by a divide that forces us to be arrayed in perpetual war.

And the candidates played to that divide ferociously: illegals, criminals, terrorists -- the vast swarm of evil thems lurking to attack the righteous us. No self respecting dog would think this way, and when he does we call him mad and put him down.

Of course, mixed in with the poisons were dollops of pure bullshit the basic texture of which was the candidates’ shared belief in something called Market Magick. With slight variations in verbal packaging, each of the candidates subscribed to ending government infringements on laissez faire capitalism. With nary a second thought or blush, each claimed to be the most experienced at letting the market do its thing and the best equipped to do nothing.

With nary a second gulp, the audience swallowed the oyster whole, just as they swallowed such nostrums as getting the federal government out of government and “returning sovereignty to the states.” But what, one might ask, are “the states” if not goverment? If the goal is to let the free market be totally free to do its market thing without supervision, regulation or control, why bother with states at all? Why not simply parcel out and hand over everything to private corporations?

That to be sure is exactly what each of the candidates truly stands for. What they call “America” or “our country” is simply a hallucinogenic narcotic to get the audience to believe that them corporations are us the people.

But it was an opiate that did not dull. The salient thing about the debate was that everything said was aimed at evoking a primitive snarl. A snarl against anchor babies, against criminals, against Iranians, against terrorists, against gubmint, against protestors, against lazy people. After a while, the pop-up targets were no more important than little tin ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. It was firing off against that mattered.

When the candidates duly and in sequence took turns at intoning the obligatto that they were not against legal immigration, the audience was perceptively indifferent. Yeah, yeah... “We’re a nation of immigrants...” Move on. Give us something to snarl at! As Rick Perry did with stunning, subliminal elegance when he pronounced that he offered the “brightest contrast” to president Obama.

As the candidates stood on their bright and colorful podium exchanging clichés and talking nonsense to the boos, hoots, cheers and whistles of the audience, I thought of Plato’s ancient cave where where imprisoned humans were trapped watching shadow puppets moving and talking on the cave’s wall. Being prevented from turning around and seeing the fire or the puppet masters behind them, the imprisoned audience did not doubt that the shadows before them were real and truly spoke to them. Never being allowed outside the cave, they had no idea that the world they lived in was a dark and insubstantial illusion.

I was affirmed in my decision not to allow a cave into my house.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Silence of the Shams

One month into the Occupation protests, our editorial staff of one got to wondering what, if anything, the Democratic members of the U.S. Senate had to say about the movement. The answer is: nothing.

Since the corporate media tried its best to suppress news of the OWS protests, it stood to reason that it would suppress any reaction to it. So, this Sunday, we went to the U.S. Senate home page and clicked on the links to the Senators' official pages. We checked each senator's Pet Issues & Legislation as well as their "Newsroom" and press release sections. The absence of any comment at all on a growing world-wide protest against bankster and corporate graft and pillage told us all we might ever have needed to know.

The silence in the United States contrasts with the eagerness of German politicians of all stripes to show their solidarity colors. Monday's on-line issue of Der Spiegel reported that Chancellor Merkel's finance minister, Wolfgang Schäubel, vowed to take the protests "very seriously" adding that banks needed to submit to "clear controls." The leader of the center-left Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, stated that "we have to force the banks back into their role as servants to the real economy." Even the pro-business Free Democrats came out in favor of stronger bank regulation.

According to Spiegel, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso chimed in, calling for legislation to criminalize "abusive behavior" by the banks. Future head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi said that "the young people have a right to be furious."

But in the United States Senate -- the self-proclaimed "world's greatest deliberative body" -- the deliberation was so intense one could hear the sound of flesh on flesh hand-wringing. What to do? What to do? For now, the fearless tribunes in the Democratic Party have evidently decided that mum is the better part of mutt (that's German for "courage").

As depressing as the silence was the burble and blather that brimed over from the senatorial home pages. With allowances for "local varietal packaging," all senators lent their voices to the same cant. After expressing various degrees of outrage at Iran's dastardly, nefarious narco-for-hire bomb plot, they went on to assure their readers that: we had to rise above politics in order to get our "fiscal house in order," find a long-term solution to our budget crisis, while helping our struggling middle class by supporting the president's jobs bill, cutting taxes for small businesses and supporting more free trade agreements.

All that is why Senator [so-and-so] supports [such-and-such bill] to provide incentives and support for his/her state's [energy/agriculture/green technologies/old technologies/ transportation / research / whatever... ] sector.

Senator Jeff Bingham (D-NM) informs his readers that "we can lower deficit only by cutting spending or increasing taxes." Senators Max Baucus (Dem-Montana) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) ask constituents to send in their ideas about the debt.

Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) announces that he is "Keeping Massachusetts' Fishing Industry Strong" and then pronounces that "The American people deserve a serious dialogue about our fiscal situation, discretionary spending, entitlements, and revenues. We need a long-term solution."

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) feels constrained to tell us that he "supports a strong middle class" and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), standing in front of a sign that reads EXXON 4.29, 4.39 and 4.59, assures us that he "has a long record of standing up for consumers."

California Senator Dianne Feinstein trumpets her bill to "ban dangerous chemicals in Baby Products" while Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ.) announces that he is working on legislation to "elminate" smuggled tobacco. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tells us that she supports legislation to promote medical device innovation and boost international tourism. "Minnesotans believe in hard work, fair play and personal responsibility," she intones, "We believe that no matter where you come from, if you work hard...." etc. etc.

Virtually all senators acknowledged that the country was in a "recession" and that millions had been thrown out of work and stood in danger of loosing their homes. But they spoke of this as if the recession were something that just kind of, well, happened, like a storm or something. The causal connect between bankster malfeasance and the global economic crash was simply not spoken.

Within this public relations wasteland, a few senators intimated, tepidly and indirectly, that bad banking may have had something to do with the economic crisis.

Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) announced that, as Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, he takes "an active role in seeing that a competitive marketplace ensures the lowest possible prices for high quality and innovative goods and services." It might appear odd that he is silent on Bank of America's debit-card charges until one deciphers the code-speak. What Kohl thinks will insure low prices is a "competitive marketplace" -- in other words market magic will do the trick. Taking an "active role" in laissez faire is quite a feat.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Oh.) says he's been fighting for Ohio’s middle class families who are demanding Congress address weaknesses and loopholes in our financial regulatory system. Apparently he has teamed up with Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to "continue fighting for good, effective regulations that balance consumer protection and allow for sustainable economic growth." But "economic growth" is simply what official Washington calls corporate or banking profit. The juxtaposition between "consumer protection" and "economic growth" bespeaks the usual trade-off that will seek to get by with as little consumer (or environmental) protection as possible without cutting much into profits.

Four senators spoke with some specificity about banking and/or investment reform.

Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) trumpeted that fact that he "co-sponsored and championed bankruptcy reform legislation in the Senate. After years of stalemate on this issue, Congress finally passed a bipartisan bankruptcy reform bill in 2005." That's the bill that makes it more difficult for ordinary people to get out from under crushing bank debt.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced that she had supported the Dodd-Frank bill in order to create a "new transparency of our financial markets to keep our economy stable, growing, and working for all." At the same time she pointed out that "the future well-being of New York City depends on the recovery of the financial sector."

Senator Carl Levin (D-Minn.) went a little further promising to "support continuing efforts to protect consumers from abusive practices in the financial industry" and to insure that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, would not be "watered down" by federal regulators.

Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank "reform" was pretty much water to begin with. It provided the clear-view of "transparency" but it did nothing to control usurious interest rates or to sever the connection between commercial banking and investment speculation.

Only Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) addressed part of the overall problem stating that the Dodd-Frank bill's limitations on commodity index swaps had been so eviscerated by federal regulators that the ultimate effect would actually be to "encourage speculation and make markets more volatile." Nelson's Anti-Excessive Speculation Act of 2011, would set limits on energy contracts ... aiming to cap the overall level of speculation in the market...."

Thus, of all the Democratic senators, four addressed banking issues directly (one on the wrong side of aisle) and none at all had any response to the broad discontent in the streets against a financial-corporate capitalist system that works to despoiling peoples economic and social well being.

That left Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.) as sole voice on the "liberal-left" to speak up for the protestors and to call for fundamental reforms. [Read]

While there is nothing inherently wrong in senators functioning as a conduit for funding specific projects in their home states, what was dismal (beyond the utterly smarmy blather) was the bland acceptance of the systemic status quo. The usual and vaguish cant about making this system work better simply refers to tinkering around the edges. The Democrat senators are incapable of acknowledging that the system is fundamentally disfunctional and requires deep-cutting and pervasive reforms. Their dilemma is to find a way to seem to support the protest movement without giving it any momentum.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bank of America versus America the Beautiful

A public hew and cry has arisen against the announced plan of major banks to charge depositors three to five dollars a month for the use of debit cards to make purchases. In an extremely rare instance of 'market justice' the value of Bank of America’s shares tumbled.

As significant as the fact of the planned charges is the logic that drives them. Facts on the ground are always merely manifestations of a paradigm in the air. As important as opposing the charges is opposing the twisted thinking behind them.

The shylockian mind-set behind the planned debit-card charges was best illustrated by JPMorgan-Chase's Jamie Dimon who stated, “If you’re a restaurant and you can’t charge for the soda, you’re going to charge more for the burger.”

Dimon was referring to the fact that, under the Durbin-Frank financial “overhaul” law, banks are prohibited from charging more than 24 cents in service fees per purchase transaction. Prior to the “overhaul,” banks were charging 44 cents per purchase transaction. The law halved the amount they could charge.

But like most garbage flowing down from Capitol Hill, the overhaul contained a loophaul. (We are shocked!) The debit fee was charged to the merchant not to the customer and the law only limited the amounts banks can charge their merchant customers. There was a silver streak in the legislative swill after all.

With this background in mind, Jamie Dimon’s twisted logic boils down to saying that what the banks can’t take from Paul’s hide, they will take from Peter’s. But one way or another the banks will get their pound -- a full English pound -- of flesh.

The rhetorical cheat behind the financial cheat is easy to see. The banks are not charging more for one service (a coke) to make up for price controls on another (the burger); they are rather like gangs of hoods prowling the street looking for pockets to plunder. “Hey! If we can’t roll the guy in the suit, let’s roll the little old lady in the walker.”

But, irrespective of Jamie Dimon’s spurious analogies, the driving force of the paradigm is the notion that banks are entitled by some divinely ordained law of nature to a certain maximum level of profit. The point of departure for Bank of America, JP Morgan-Chase and Wells Fargo is simply the presumption that they are entitled to 44 cents per purchase transaction.

The banks would have us believe that this amount reflects some sort of “natural market law” like water seeking its own level. If they can’t get the quantum of flow from one source it is “only natural” that they should extract it from another. Dimon’s analogy simply assumes and would have us believe that 44 cents is what banks are entitled to and cannot be faulted for demanding.

Wherefrom this 44 cents? Banks no longer bother with the pretence of justifying the charge on the basis of costs of operations. The amount is simply what they (on average) have decided to charge. The “natural market level” is nothing more than the ad hoc level of banker avarice.

A 2010 Nilson Report report showed that in 2006 debit card usage generated just over 10 billion dollars in profits. In 2010 those profits had soared to just over 20 billion. This roaring, soaring surge of money certainly did not reflect a doubling of the costs of maintaining installed telemetric swiping machines.

In fact, the Federal Reserve has calculated the average variable costs of a debit charge at $0.071 for transaction processing, $0.059 for network fees, $0.049 for fraud losses, and $0.018 for fraud prevention costs, for a total of .19 cents per purchase. There can be no claim that banks are simply passing along their operating costs to the customer be it in the price of a coke or of a burger.

In fact, the Federal Reserve limit of 24 cents has a built in profit of 4.8 percent per transaction. That’s over half the average State sales tax. But that is not enough to satisfy the rapacity of Jamie Dimon or Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. They want more, more and more of your flesh.

The bankers’ lust for geld is epitomized by a famous motto from Spain’s Siglo de Oro which symbolized the conquistadors’ lust for gold.

Al espada y el compás, más y más y más y más.
By sword and compass, more and more and more and more!

The lust for more is the same sin as the ne plus ultra of rapacious Iberia. The only difference is that today’s river of gold is extracted from the diminishing pay checks of struggling workers rather than from the sweat of Indian press gangs.

Needless to say, if they don’t bother justifying the charges on the basis of costs, it would never occur to Dimon or Moynihan to justify them on the basis of social utility. The idea that privilege, position and property should subserve the social good simply does not exist in the world of so-called “financial services”.

Understandably, most people oppose the monthly charges because they financially hurt. But there is a more fundamental point that progressives in particular need to press.

Defining the Progressive platform a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt insisted that corporate profit should be allowed “only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” “The true conservative,” he said, “is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.”

Progressives should not concede or overlook fundamentals while complaining about symptoms. They need to drive home the point that banks and all financial institutions should be treated and regulated as public utilities. They exist to lubricate the economy, not to suck it dry.


But the issue is broader than utility. The other half of the equation is sin which, in its most primary sense, refers to those concepts of conduct and being that arise from subjective knowledge, shared by all, concerning the objective phenomenon of the “all” -- of society, of creation and, ultimately, of the cosmos.

There is a reluctance in progressive circles to talk about sin, as if doing so entailed an abandonment of reason and a return to archaic and repressive mind-sets. I believe this is a mistake. Social utility and social morality are two sides of the same coin. They are complimentary perspectives which, when harmonized, broaden perception and strengthen the argument.

Utility represents what the French mathematician and philosopher, Pascal, called l’esprit de geometrie -- so called ‘linear thought’ which orders inferences and causes toward postulated conclusions or goals. The concept of ‘sin’ reflects what he called l’esprit de finesse -- best translated as ‘collective intuition’.

This intuition is more than just an historical consensus or agreement among individuals. Like the faculty of physical sight, it is a ‘brain wiring’ which we all share and which enables our awareness to be embraced by the whole of all parts and to be infused with a sense of the whole in each of the parts. When we see the whole we necessarily see our place in it; and seeing one’s place understand how we are supposed to be.

Philosophers have used various terms to denote this intuitive faculty. According to Pascal, l’esprit de finesse “is simply a question of seeing -- but of seeing well and completely.” Plato called this faculty ‘nous’ which, he said, was a passive state of knowing one step beyond the struggling effort or 'mathesis' of learned, logical knowledge. In Medieval usage, the act of intuitive knowing was referred to as an intellection or “in-taking” of the true nature of things.

Howsoever called, the myriad insights which comprise intuitive thought are “so fine and so numerous” (Pascal) that they can only be expressed in the form of a metaphor, an allegory, a parable, a poem or a song wherein the ‘argument’ consists in shades of meaning and resonances of feeling. It is from this esprit de finesse that we derive our concepts of sin.

Sin is typically thought of in terms of discrete personal failings. But before we can call something “wrong” we have to have a sense of what is “right” - what Eastern philosophy calls Tao. More essentially than any particular wrong, “sin” denotes an absence of harmony and this absence presupposes an ordered social relation which we intuit ought to be there.

Thus understood, our concepts of sin are fundamentally social in two ways. First, they arise from an intuition that we are part of the whole. Secondly, they are formed by an intuition which is itself collective.

Man’s earliest intuitions identified sin with harm to the pack. As a young man once told Socrates, “the just man is he who does good to his friends and harm to his enemies.” In a famous exchange, Socrates proved that the young man was wrong; that the just man, if he truly loved justice, had to do good to his enemies. Socrates did not deny that evil or injustice or sin consisted in doing harm to the pack, he simply enlarged the circle so as to include a greater whole.

Over the course of history the scope of our shared subjective awareness of sin has enlarged as we ourselves have evolved. What was at first viewed as transgression against a tribal god and “our” pack got reformulated into the unawareness of a “universal father” and alienation from humanity. But within the process of becoming, the constant has always been a consciousness of our shared predicament with others “of our own kind”. At whatever stage of our historical development, the idea of sin derives from a societal sense of social self -- from social self-recognition.

This collective mutuality is what the words 'society' and 'community' hearken to. The Latin 'socius' means companion or ally, and the word 'comunis' derives from sharing or commingling. From these roots, 'society' is defined as a collaborative fellowship for a common purpose. Thus, Aristotle wrote that all social interaction was comprised of varying levels of friendship.

This friendship is not just something that takes place “within” society (a geometrical perspective); society itself is a state or condition of friendliness. The concept of society is, at its core, coextensive with the Golden Rule which is the sum and whole of moral law.

Curiously, the limited “pack morality” of primitive societies was more closely connected to an intuition of the greater animated natural whole and it is only now that we are re-opening our minds to an intuition of the great natural society that is our ultimate home.

But it was never entirely lost. The Tenth Century abbot, Aelred of Rievaulx, describes our universal friendship thus:

“What forest bears but a single tree? Even in inanimate nature a certain love of companionship, so to speak, is apparent and thrives in society with its own kind. And surely in animate life who cannot easily see how clearly the picture of friendship is, and the image of society and love? For, although in other respects animals are rated irrational, yet they imitate man in this regard to such an extent that we believe they act with reason. How they run after one another, play with one another and betray their love by sound and movement. So eagerly do they enjoy their mutual company, that they seem to prize nothing else so much as they do whatever pertains to friendship.”

What Aelred intellected “rings true” just as the tones of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony convince us that an elixir of joy permeates all creation from the lowly worm to the cherub by god’s throne. Ultimately, sin is simply un happiness.

Pharisees and moral philosophers have brought discredit on the concept of sin by trying to rationalize it with l’esprit de geometrie thereby reducing it to a species of accounting which in turn leads to a “privatization” of morality and a divorcing of sin from its primary social context.

On the other hand, to say that the concept of sin is intuitive does not signify an individualistic “feels right” relativism. The intuition is social and shared universally. It requires us to submit ourselves to the broader social conscience. The less shared, the more the acuity of the vision is suspect as astigmatic or partial.

It is certainly true that throughout time witchdoctors and priests have misused the concept of sin to agitate and mislead people. But the same might be said of science which can just as readily be abused in order to wreak harm. Collective intuition is not less reliable than scientific objectivity; it simply represents an alternative basis of knowing. We should trust our subjectivity and not be frightened away from a proper awareness of sin.

In allowing itself to be frightened away and in seeking refuge in a supposedly more certain “objective rationality,” progressives concede the field of “public morality” to fundamentalists who would trivialize sin into questions of sex, alcohol and nudity. The concession looses half the argument and fails to give tenor to what we all intuitively know.


Bringing l’esprit de finesse to bear on Jamie Dimon’s paradigm of behavior allows us to see the fundamentally sinful and socially destructive nature of the bankster soul.

The geometry of avarice is simple. It consists in grabbing more than one needs and, given the finitude of resources, thereby taking what is needed by others. The finesse of the matter is not simply charging more than what is needed to cover the costs of operations, but a repudiation of our communality. It is a mindset from which fellow feeling is absent.

This absence is expressed in art by paintings of the hunched and inwardly turned miser counting his coin. The miser’s turn inward is a turn away from society. He represents the paradox that a bloated ego is a shrivelled one.

In the Old Testament, indifference to the needs of the poor is the Sin of Sodom. (Ezekiel 16:46-50) The New Testament calls avarice "the root of all evil." (1 Timothy 6:10) Medieval thought viewed avarice as the sin most offensive to the spirit of love which, as we have noted, was understood to be the animating and unifying force of society.

It is a mistake to ignore this tradition of moral understanding or to be embarrassed by it. William Jenning Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech is powerful to this day not because it is good rhetoric but because the image is true.

And crucifying man is what Dimon and Moynihan have done and continue to do. We should not forget that Bank of America, Wells Fargo and banks throughout the land were, directly or through fraudulent alter egos, responsible for the mortgage meltdown and global financial collapse that ensued.

We do well to remember that the corporate cretins who want to charge “more for the burger” are the same criminals who fraudulently colluded in chopping, packaging and off loading knowingly worthless mortgages. These same crooks are now trying to foreclose on properties they don’t have title to precisely because they “diced and dished” the securities. Next to such scum, Shylock was a saint.

But in the twisted world of perfect bankster equity, the same parties who caused the financial meltdown, get bailed out with tax-payer money. When flooded with treasury dollars at effectively negative interest, these same banks still refuse to lend or to renegotiate mortgages. When the common economic interest depends on restimulating consumer spending, these same banks still insist on charging 15% to 24% credit card interest and now insist on the right to suck out of the economy 20 billion a year in debit card fees.

The planned debit charges are not some isolated incident of over-reaching. They are yet another maw of a man eating plant that needs to be raked up, eradicated and purged from the garden.

America the Beautiful sings to us about more than amber fields of grain. Katherine Lee Bates, gave voice to an American exceptionalism grounded in a higher consciousness purified of sin,

Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

And nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

That happier song should be our anthem.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011