On Contradiction I
Contradiction has many meanings. In logic it denotes situations when we are led to conclude p&¬p for some proposition P. In much of modern logic, contradictions are explosive, which is to say that contradictions imply everything and anything, i.e., ∀q((p&¬p)→q). Logical contradictions are an example of oppositional contradictions, i.e., contradictions arising from opposing beliefs.
In the real world, contradictions can be managed for a while - let’s say you think socialism is a good idea and I think private enterprise should run every service. We can vote for candidates who represent our respective positions and let the consequences to the economy lead to future electoral success. Until authoritarians of one sort or the other take over and shoot all the socialists (or capitalists). Managing contradiction is part of the art of politics.
Accumulation generates a host of contradictions. There’s the contradiction of scale, where accumulation at the individual level leads to depletion at the macro level. There’s the contradiction of good things leading to bad things (yesterday) and there’s the contradiction of self-undermining behavior. Marx was insistent that capitalism will collapse of its own internal contradictions. Then there’s the biggest contradiction of them all - between accumulation, which knows no limits, and the planet, which is finite. I am building towards that contradiction (though not in the way you might expect), but today, I want to talk about an internal contradiction that’s often invoked in discussions of the globe:
I call it the virtue-vice contradiction, when one group of partisans says a system encourages virtuous behavior and another group of partisans says it encourages vice. Globalization is routinely acclaimed and derided along these terms: for its adherents, globalization lifts all boats, let’s economies specialize in what they do best and gives consumers more choices at a cheaper price. To its detractors, globalization decimates unions and outsources jobs, entrenches imperial control over the developing world and increases carbon emissions.
Now it’s possible that both could be true at once. Outsourcing jobs from the US Midwest to China might both increase jobs and wages in China and offer cheaper goods to American customers. The force of the contradiction cannot be blunted by nuance, because of the real world consequences for the winners and losers in this debate.
One particular aspect of this debate is playing out on the biggest stage right now: the rise of China and its challenge to the US led world order. One camp says (or used to say) that bringing China into the neoliberal order will give China a stake in the system, turn it into a responsible actor and nudge it towards liberal democracy. Another camp says making China richer will only increase its authoritarian tendencies and help it compete with the West on the global stage. Camp one was the ruling ideology for a while but camp two is winning since the last days of Obama.
What fascinates me is how this geopolitical debate is the latest instance of a long running argument over the moral virtues and failings of capitalism. Hirschman writes perceptively about this contradiction. Capitalism’s early backers extolled the pacifying and cooperative tendencies of commerce:
In contrast, its detractors seem to think that capitalism turns us all into atomistic individuals who reason instrumentally about the most sacred things:
Which one is it: do the players of the accumulation game want to stay playing because they have too much to lose or do the winners take their winnings, buy a couple of guns and set the pistol on the table before the next round starts? And finally, what about those who don’t have a seat at the table?