As usual, the excellent Stephen West has produced one more excellent podcast episode. This time on Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle. Definitely worth a listen. All episodes are worth a listen and more than a few are really inspired.
Here’s some quotes from Debord that will give you the idea.
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
“Just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”
“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
Counter-relatedly (if that is a word), also worth a read or listen, or re-read or re-listen, is the very brief and very classic I, Pencil. Read here. Listen here.
Listen to both a podcast on Debord and a reading of I, Pencil, and you’ll know more about economic and political philosophy than most college graduates. Ugh. And voters, of course.
But if you only listen and don’t read, you’ll miss the most excellent 2019 Introduction to I, Pencil. Copied here for your convenience.
Eloquent. Extraordinary. Timeless. Paradigm-shifting. Classic.
Six decades after it first appeared, Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” still evokes such adjectives of praise. Rightfully so, for this little essay opens eyes and minds among people of all ages. Many first-time readers never see the world quite the same again.
Ideas are most powerful when they’re wrapped in a compelling story. Leonard’s main point—economies can hardly be “planned” when not one soul possesses all the know-how and skills to produce a simple pencil—unfolds in the enchanting words of a pencil itself. Leonard could have written “I, Car” or “I, Airplane,” but choosing those more complex items would have muted the message. No one person—repeat, no one, no matter how smart or how many degrees follow his name— could create from scratch a small, everyday pencil, let alone a car or an airplane.
This is a message that humbles the high and mighty. It pricks the inflated egos of those who think they know how to mind everybody else’s business. It explains in plain language why central planning is an exercise in arrogance and futility, or what Nobel laureate and Austrian economist F. A. Hayek aptly termed “the pretence of knowledge.”
Indeed, a major influence on Read’s thinking in this regard was Hayek’s famous 1945 article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” In demolishing the spurious claims of the socialists of the day, Hayek wrote, “This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”
Maximilien Robespierre is said to have blessed the horrific French Revolution with this chilling declaration: “On ne saurait pas faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs.” Translation: “One can’t expect to make an omelet without breaking eggs.” A consummate statist who worked tirelessly to plan the lives of others, he would become the architect of the Revolution’s bloodiest phase—the Reign of Terror of 1793–94.
Robespierre and his guillotine broke eggs by the thousands in a vain effort to impose a utopian society with government planners at the top and everybody else at the bottom. That French experience is but one example in a disturbingly familiar pattern. Call them what you will— socialists, interventionists, collectivists, statists—history is littered with their presumptuous plans for rearranging society to fit their vision of the common good, plans that always fail as they kill or impoverish other people in the process. If socialism ever earns a final epitaph, it will be this: Here lies a contrivance engineered by know-it-alls who broke eggs with abandon but never, ever created an omelet.
None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies. How utterly preposterous, and mournfully tragic! But we will miss a large implication of Leonard Read’s message if we assume it aims only at the tyrants whose names we all know. The lesson of “I, Pencil” is not that error begins when the planners plan big. It begins the moment one tosses humility aside, assumes he knows the unknowable,
and employs the force of the State against peaceful individuals. That’s
not just a national disease. It can be very local indeed.
In our midst are people who think that if only they had government power on their side, they could pick tomorrow’s winners and losers in the marketplace, set prices or rents where they ought to be, decide which forms of energy should power our homes and cars, and choose which industries should survive and which should die. They should stop for a few moments and learn a little humility from a lowly writing implement.
While “I, Pencil” shoots down the baseless expectations for central planning, it provides a supremely uplifting perspective of the individual. Guided by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of prices, property, profits, and incentives, free people accomplish economic miracles of which socialist theoreticians can only dream. As the interests of countless individuals from around the world converge to produce pencils without a single “master mind,” so do they also come together in free markets to feed, clothe, house, educate, and entertain hundreds of millions of people at ever higher levels.
. . .
– Lawrence W. Reed