Author: Sean Calvert

Richard Russell, Kierkegaard, and the Crisis of Modernity

By Sean Calvert | United States

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.” – Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death


On August 10, 2018, a man by the name of Richard Russell stole a passenger plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and crashed it into Ketron Island. What is most interesting is that a number of individuals on the internet deemed him, in heroic fashion, the “Sky King”. Many, finding meaning in his suicidal action, see him as the embodiment of the modern condition, the feelings of despair, hopelessness, and lack of purpose that pervade society. Among the thinkers who have addressed the modern condition is the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose ideas of despair and the Self are highly relevant to our own time.

“Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose,” is how Russell described himself.

In Kierkegaard’s view, one may be depressed about his current situation, but no matter the severity of the depression, still maintain hope that that his life could be improved. Once hope is lost, however, one plummets into the spiritual affliction known as despair. But what leads an individual down the path to personal desolation?

For Kierkegaard, the Self is a synthesis of opposites, including the finite and the infinite. Entrapment in the realm of the finite negates the possibility of change and deliverance. That is because people do not have full control over their choices. They are dependent on others and perceive their environment as an inescapable prison. One could liken this condition to the feeling of being a cog in a machine. Once lost in the churning wheels of the finite, one becomes “an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.” Lost is any sense of personal agency. 

Kierkegaard posited the idea of leveling, a social process by which an individual loses his individuality and therefore cannot assert anything meaningful in life. Instead, he aligns with the abstraction known as the Public. Fully adapting to society’s system of norms reduces the individual to a member of the herd. Whereas the path to selfhood is “venturesome,” the effort “to be like the others” is convenient and easy. Kierkegaard points out that within all human beings there is dread of loneliness, of being overlooked and forgotten by society. By submerging himself in the finite, a person abandons the responsibility of becoming a fully-realized individual.  

It is easy for a person’s despair to turn into anger. If he or she cannot, or refuses, to see a way forward beyond the prison of his or her environment, they may engage in suicide, mass murder, or terrorism. As psychologist Jordan Peterson puts it, people may act out their anger by making “a display of their hatred for Being by massacring the innocent”, and then doing away with themselves. Peterson makes the point that individuals who display violent discontent with existence often believe that it is better to be notorious than to be ignored. Instead of looking inward and bearing their responsibility, they target that which they hold in contempt.

For Kierkegaard, most people living in modern society are in despair, whether they know it or not. They have the illusion of freedom, but in fact their lives are severely circumscribed. Once the individual’s social purpose is fulfilled, he or she is discarded, and another takes his or her place. This absence of meaning is compensated by the immediate satisfaction of our desires. By relating oneself solely to the external world, the individual deceives himself by masking the lack of individuality. When the finite world fails the individual, he descends into despair, thinking that the loss of external validation is the reason for this emptiness.

As Kierkegaard states. “You work yourself into the tightest group, see to it, if possible, to get yourself shoved up over the others so that you come to be above them, and as soon as you are up there you make yourself as comfortable as possible, and in this way you let yourself be carried through life. But when the crowd is gone, when the event is over, the person again stands on the street corner and looks at the world.”  By moving from one satisfaction to the next, one drifts through life without clear direction or purpose. Although a person exists, he or she does not necessarily live.

The despair of Russell, the aircraft hijacker, is precisely the crisis of the modern condition. Pervasive feelings of insignificance and alienation can lead an individual to take drastic action. In this case, Russell felt that his only solution was to escape existence entirely. Moreover, the manner he chose his escape represents, metaphorically speaking, a break from the modern machine; an attempt to regain individuality.  This is the solution to the modern crisis: a rebellion of the individual against the destruction of the Self, brought on by modernity.

It is highly ironic that modern society, with its technological advancements and unparalleled comforts, has done nothing to soothe the quandaries of existence. In some cases, it has made life far worse. Kierkegaard believed the balance between the syntheses gives rise to freedom which, in turn, is the grounded Self. Thus, one can then say, in his act of defiance, Russell took the first step towards selfhood by, in a sense, finding his way out the confines of the finite. For once, he lived. 

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The Socialist Myth that is Late Stage Capitalism

By Sean Calvert | Canada

Late stage capitalism, or late capitalism, is an idea that has re-emerged in recent years to explain the purported failures of contemporary capitalism. According to this notion, absurdities and failures in the economy are symptomatic of capitalism’s death throes. These perceived failures, however, are not inherent to the system, as many Marxist economists believe, but are rather due to intervention by the state. As for the absurdities, none provide evidence that capitalism is failing.

While Marx himself never used the term late stage capitalism, he did describe what the final stages of capitalism would look like. In volume three of Das Kapital, Marx described how in capitalism’s last stage, market competition would decline as capital centralized in fewer hands. Marxist economists, such as Michał Kalecki, believed that capitalism was inherently monopolistic and that its fate was to move towards a system that would eventually devour itself.

The term “Late Capitalism” can be traced back to Marxist economist Werner Sombart’s work Der moderne Kapitalismus, published in the early 1900s. In this work, Sombart explains that Capitalism developed in three stages: early (pre-industrial revolution), high (the industrial revolution), and late stage capitalism (World War I and beyond).

The term was popularized seventy years later by another Marxist economist, Ernest Mandel. For Mandel, Late Capitalism is characterized by the rise of multinational corporations, consumerism, and globalization. He argued that the last expansionary wave began with the birth of fascism in Europe and the advent of the US and UK command economies during the Second World War. This expansion lasted until 1972 when it reached its limit. Economic stagnation and class struggle followed.

When Mandel was writing, he was witnessing the very end of the post-WWII boom. He believed that the working class would soon rise in a mass, revolutionary movement.  Obviously, this did not happen. The slump did not create anything resembling the conditions that sparked the revolutions in Tsarist Russia.

Contemporary understandings of Late Capitalism have broadened out from the original definition to include all the deficiencies and absurdities of the current economy. These include the destruction of the middle class, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and popular focus on useless goods, such as wifi-enabled kettles.

The “late” in “late capitalism” implies that capitalism is at the end of its age.  Just as Late Antiquity marked the end of the Classical era and the transition to the Middle Ages, so too does late stage capitalism herald both an end and a beginning. Marx believed that the final stages of capitalism would be marked by the rise of the proletariat and the diminishment of the middle class as wealth was concentrated into fewer hands. These three factors, according to Marx, would result in the emergence of a proletarian revolution. Yet history proved otherwise. Crises, such as the Great Depression, came and went, yet there was no revolution.     

Marx predicted that the advent of monopolies would signal the collapse of capitalism. While it is true that large corporations came to control the economic landscape, their dominion is not natural. Economist Horace Gray found that aspiring monopolies would petition governments to designate them as public utilities to protect them from competition. AT&T enjoyed monopoly status until its government supplied patents expired in 1893. By 1907, AT&T’s competitors controlled 51% of the market.

Income inequality is touted as one of the elements of late stage capitalism. Inequality is not necessarily a bad thing – it exemplifies the choice of the individual in a capitalist society. One person may choose to be a schoolteacher and another become a doctor. The income gap between the two is no doubt large, but the two individuals made different choices, leading to different outcomes.

On the other hand, the wealth gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate. A Bloomberg article found that between 2010 and 2015 the average annual income between the top 20% and the bottom 20% increased by more than $29,000 to $189,000. New York Times columnist David Brooks reports that wealth inequality is greater in the United States than it is in Iran or Russia. Surely this must be a sign that capitalism is in its final stages.

While this is true, the major reason for the channeling of wealth to the super rich is due to collusion among the state, large corporations, and special interest groups. It is called cronyism, and it is inherently against the precepts of free-market capitalism. Corporations lobby the government to create policies, which range from subsidies to protective regulations, which in turn create barriers for new competitors, effectively killing most competition and funneling wealth up the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. It is not capitalism per se that has funneled the wealth to the top, but the state and its regressive regulations.

It must not be forgotten that capitalism allows more upward social mobility than alternative economic systems. “Oh, but the middle class is shrinking! Marx predicted this!” No doubt this is true in the United States. A Pew Research study showed that between 1991 and 2010 middle-income households fell to 59% from 62%.

Yet acording to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1967, the number of households which have an income of more than $100,000 has increased from 8.1% to 27.7%. In addition, the number of low-income households, defined as those that make less than $35,000, has decreased from 38.7% to 30.2% since 1967. From these statistics, we can conclude that most households are moving up rather than down the income ladder, contrary to what Marx predicted.

Some who believe that we are in late stage capitalism point towards absurdities and irregularities within our socio-economic system. A $1200 margarita is touted as evidence of decadence. Yet a $1200 margarita undeniably targets the exceedingly rich, and should be regarded as a non-issue because consumers have the choice to pursue lower priced margaritas.

Critics of capitalism fail to recognize is that most of capitalism’s perceived shortcomings are, in fact, not intrinsic the economic system. Rather, they are consequences of the anti-capitalist policies of the state that constrict the free market, and in doing so, give rise to the perception that capitalism is on its deathbed.

Mandel waited from 1973 until his death in 1995 for the proletariat to revolt. Yet his wait was in vain.  If capitalism is as unsustainable and as exploitative as many Marxists make it out to be, we would have already seen a revolution akin to the overthrow of Tsarist Russia. For now, and the foreseeable future, free-market capitalism remains the best economic system we have.

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