The Philosopher, the Austrians, and the Occupiers

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It was called, “A Marxist and Free Market Analysis of the Crisis in Capitalism and public forum. It was sponsored by the Old Dominion University Philosophy club. Who would’ve thought that such a thing as a philosophy club could possibly exist in this era of untrammeled free markets and Ayn Randian supermen striding like colossi across the post 9-11 landscape?

The ODU Philosophy Club, Halie Hovenga photo
Well it does, they do, and it all unfolded on April 6 on the campus of Old Dominion University. It was organized by members of the ODU Philosophy Club and facilitated by Halie Hovenga, president of the Club and a philosophy major/women’s studies minor, working towards her undergraduate degree.
Halie Hovenga offers the introduction.

Featured speakers included Dr. Lawrence Hatab, Dr. Rod Evans, and Prof. Anthony Nattania, along with Ed Hightower of the Socialist Equality Party, several young men from ODU Out, plus two Occupiers, Tess Amuroso, artist and photographer, and Deb Lassiter, a local activist. An interesting, if combustible mix.

Dr. Hatab was the first to speak. A tweedy, affable and clearly thoughtful fellow, Dr. Hatab was a University Professor and Eminent Scholar and has variety of degrees from Villanova, Fordham et al. and a resume brimming with the variety of publications one would associate with an Eminent Scholar, spanning neighborhoods from Nietsche to Heidigger, through Postmodern Politics and “The Redemption of Time and Politics.” Brimming with a sense of both incredulity and outrage at the excesses of the market and their government enablers in 2008, Hatab came to engage the assignment, that being an analysis of a “crisis in capitalism.” One of his more fascinating observations was that he thought that the Marxist view of capital would work if it weren’t for the phenomenon of corporate welfare. He noted that we do not have the capitalist system whether we have a crony capitalist system in which government picks winners and losers through the various mechanisms of tax breaks, favorable legislation, and outright gifts, not to mention no-bid Government contracts . . .

Dr. Hatab described our state as “welfare capitalism” and that without welfare capitalism, Marx would’ve been right. He noted the meltdown of 2008 as an example, in which massive wealth was transferred to banks while risk transferred to the taxpayers, in the form of debts that will likely prove unpayable. He talked at some length about the way that what used to be tangible has become abstract– the phenomenon of derivatives, and “rehypothification,” et al . . .an interesting rabbit hole regarding the nature of money as a quantitative unit standing for qualitative things. His opinion was that these thieves and pirates on Wall Street understood exactly what they were doing: “These people make the old industrialists of the Gilded Age look like choir boys.” Lending used to have something to do with relationship. Time was your mortgage banker was an individual, who looked you in the eye, assessed your value and reliability, and who otherwise had an interest in who you were and what your ability to pay might be.No more. Hatab decried the fact that the financial transaction itself is become utterly and completely abstract, its value restricted to the fees gained on their resale.

Hatab described the chaos of 2008 as a game of musical chairs: “As long as I can get my deal done before the music stops I am good to go,” the prevailing ethic. And it’s a long haul from the 1980s and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street:” as Hatab noted, “Even Gordon Gekko had to look at the books from time to time.” Not this crowd today. These people are taking the “creative destruction” of the markets to new heights, and are interested only in getting paid. He observed these Great Players as “ubermenschen,” having corrupted Nietsche’s concepts by way of Ayn Rand into arrogance and bullshit.
Cue the apologists for the Masters of the Universe, fully thus arrayed.
In stark contrast to the assessment provided by Hatab, the next speakers came to establish a beachhead of free market libertarianism on the hostile shores of academe. I refer to them as “Austrians” because of the obvious reference to and dependence upon the work of Friedrich Hayek and that body of economic theory known as the “Austrian school,” which extolls the virtues of the blessings of the free-market, the primacy of individual responsibility and action, and the magical belief in the healing power of laissez-faire economics.

A “Free Market Analysis” was presented by Prof. Anthony Nattania, a professor of philosophy and religious studies since 2001. Nattania, tall, slender and understated, asked rhetorical questions to frame his argument. He laid many ills at the feet of Fannie and Freddie, and the infamous “no document loans” I had never heard of. The motives of fee-mongers had apparently not crossed his mind as a potential ill.

Prof. Nattania: Halie Hovenga photo

Nattania equated people who receive government services to “thieves.” He decried the attempts on the part of government to mitigate the problems caused by the poor choices made by individuals. and he thought that this level of coercion in which government picks winners and losers was the root of the problem.

His fellow Austrian, Dr. Rod Evans, was far more voluble. He came not to analyze, but to deliver a blistering manifesto of accusations against the state, in one instance managing to work “Nancy Pelosi” into the conversation twice in five minutes. Evans evidently intererned for a summer at the H. Ross Preot school for presentation, so ready was he with a variety of flipcharts for the easel. They appeared then disappeared with a staggering frequency. One example of the many in which he provided proof that it was the umngrateful proles of the working class that should bear the responsibility for all the ills that affect society: Unhealthful diet+inadequate exercise+drug use= explosion of health care costs. Why should they have to pay for health care because of the poor choices “they” make?

Dr. Evans

At no time did Evans give shrift of any kind to the role of Big Pharma in escalating drug use of market manipulation…

His presentation was a farrago of anecdotes and unfinished stories and selected instances– a broadside fueled by a slavish devotion to the Gospel according to Milton Friedman. (“You like Nobel prize Winners, don’t you?”) A familiar voice was heard to growl, “Not particularly,” thinking immediately of the Dronemeister-in-Chief. It was when he played the excerpt of a Friedman interview with Phil Donahue that a voice, sounding much like mine, could be heard arising to say, “May he burn in hell.” At this point my friends prepared to restrain me. Guess the white knuckles gripping the tabletop gave me away.
Evans made the mistake of accepting questions, and received several verbal brickbats tossed his way. People challenged his analysis. In response, his tactics was to make jokes, belittle, or to answer by posing a question he would then answer himself. My friend asked, “What obligation do the capitalists have toward the labor forces which made them rich? Should they share the fruits of their labor or abandon them to fend for themselves?”
Evans replied by asking if the questioner owned property or stocks? “If so, then you’re a capitalist.”
My friend responded, “I am simply a citizen trying to make my through the capitalist system.” Another Occupier demanded, “Answer her question.” No dice.
Dr. Evans: Halie Hovenga photo
I asked Evans, “Why it was that the apologists for the one per cent, disciples of Hayek and Friedman, wanted to blame working people for the ills of society when they wielded exactly zero per cent of the power over the levers of action? How in a system captive by and servile to the interests of capital, the workers were responsible for bad outcomes? So the solution must be to remove such few protections to workers as remain? And how, in this much to be hoped for absence of regulation of any sort over large corporate movers, American life would be in any wise distinguishable from that in Somalia, which, a society of warlords and pirates? Evans’ response was to to ask another question: “Were we not all interested in freedom? That a government strong enough to provide for your rights was strong enough to take them away.” While I have a continued, if quaint interest in both freedom and the Bill of Rights, I failed to see how this was a constructive answer; rather it was the good doctor’s attempt to jab himself out of a corner.
Evans made it clear that corporations owe nothing to anyone but themselves, a system based on delusion. Which works quite well for one per cent of the population.
One woman across the hall made an interesting observation that had the smell of truth, much like cordite: She said, “Government is not the problem. Government is the prize, which is why so much effort and treasure is being expended right now by the radical right to seize the reins of government and rewrite the rule of law.” Res ipsa loquitor.

 

***

After a break, Ed Hightower offered a brief 20 minute summation of Marx’s analysis of capital. I was somewhat familiar with these, having reread the “Communist Manifesto,” A Christmas gift from my daughter. His presentation was basic: how “surplus value” is sieved from the working class by the capitalists. Some discusion of how socialism is not a moral idea, and discuision materialism v. idealism. This presentation was intellectual and could have benefitted from making the almost self-evident with more immediacy. Which is precisely what happened as the presentation came closer to the present day, as we saw how the economic position of the working class has collapsed since 1980, corresponding almost one-to -one with the transfer of wealth to the one per cent. The top 20% have realized a 277% increase in their income since 1970. As most of us know, the Reagan revolution has corresponded with the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle-class to the upper class in American history, an enormous boondoggle benefiting the upper 1%.The conservative professors sat and listened to this presentation, Hatab having already left. Then as the occupiers made ready to speak, and they all left and went outside, as if they had nothing left to learn. One could have made the excuse of other commitments, except that they stood outside and talk to one another while the occupier presentations were going on.

Tess Amoruso speaks at rally in January, 2012

Tess Amoruso was first. An artist and photographer, Tess showed a slide show of her pictures from various occupations ranging all over the country, while she made her appeal for peace and justice through people power, and envisioning a better world through the use of peaceful non-violent demonstration. Her words were deeply moving, her pictures absolutely riveting. I was transfixed by her work, and how the images, in series, moving from one occupation to another all along the East Coast, captured the essence of the essentially decency of most people who self-identify as Occupiers. With an eye for the telling detail or small truth, her images captured that oft-repeated truism that “we need to be the change that we envision in our world.” It is precisely those images I wish these self-satisfied professors had had the patience and willingness to see.

Deb Lassiter addresses January rally
Deb Lassiter followed. Deb is a guerrilla gardener, a longtime activist and, like Tess, another founding member of Occupy Norfolk. Deb and her partner Leo have reclaimed a crack house on a marginal neighborhood and have made it a place of beauty and goodwill, even creating a Peace garden. Deb spoke about the connection of the different movements from Tahrir Square through Wisconsin through OWS, and even this small group of of activists plunked in the navel of one of the greatest concentrations of military force in the world. In these movements we see the stirrings of a political consciousness that this generation has not seen, and that those of us a certain age of not seen since the Vietnam era. This is a struggle there will be largely led by the millennials. Rather than the intergenerational war suggested and hoped for by some, we shall see the boomers actually supporting the millennials in a search for for systemic change, in the hopes that we can leave a country worth living in for our children and grandchildren.
The Occupiers left the audience at the end of the three hour event with a sense of hope and possibility. What we see in front of us is a scramble for winners and losers, as people try to suss out a winning position before the music stops. And stop it will: peak energy, peak oil, peak education, peak bullshit. They urge us to consider that another world might indeed by possible. How we get there, especially given the forces arrayed against us, is anybody’s guess.
~Surly1
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