Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism

By Tim Rogan, Aeon

Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust. 

Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.

The first kind of argument for capitalism’s reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.

But then there is Amartya Sen.

[Read more…]

Blockchain could reshape our world — and the far right is one step ahead

Josh Hall writes:

Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain reads the title of a 2017 book. From currency speculation through to verifying the provenance of food, blockchain technology is eking out space in a vast range of fields.

For most people, blockchain technologies are inseparable from bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that has been particularly visible in the news recently thanks to its hyper-volatility. Crypto-entrepreneurs have made and lost millions, and many people have parlayed their trading into a full-time job. But blockchain technology, which allows for immutable records of activities, stored on a ledger that is held not just in one place but massively distributed, has applications in every conceivable area in commerce and beyond. Soon, there will be blockchains everywhere that transactions happen.

While the focus has so far been on currencies such as bitcoin, what’s less well known is the large and growing community of blockchain developers and evangelists, many of whom believe that the technology could herald radical changes in the ways our economies and societies are structured. But there’s a big question at the heart of that community: what might a world built with the help of blockchain technology look like?

Unchain, a large bitcoin and blockchain convention based in Hamburg, seems to have a potential answer. Along with speakers from blockchain startups, cryptocurrency exchanges and a company that purports to offer “privately managed cities as a business”, the conference programme also features Alice Weidel, listed on the site as an “economist and bitcoin entrepreneur”.

In fact, Weidel is the co-leader of Alternative für Deutschland, which recently became the third largest party in Germany’s Bundestag. Weidel’s election campaign in 2017 was the party’s breakthrough moment, and what many have seen as a watershed in German politics – the return of far-right, populist ethno-nationalism to the federal parliament. [Continue reading…]

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In Syria’s war economy the worst of enemies are also partners in business

Century Foundation Fellow, Aron Lund, writes:

After the October 2017 fall of Raqqa to U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab guerrillas, the extremist group known as the Islamic State is finally crumbling. But victory came a cost: Raqqa lies in ruins, and so does much of northern Syria.

At least one of the tools for reconstruction is within reach. An hour and a half’s drive from Raqqa lies one of the largest and most modern cement plants in the entire Middle East, opened less than a year before the war by the multinational construction giant LafargeHolcim. If production were to be resumed, the factory would be perfectly positioned to help rebuild bombed-out cities like Raqqa and Aleppo.

However, although the factory may well hold one of the keys to Syria’s future, it also has an unseemly past.

In December 2017, French prosecutors charged LafargeHolcim’s former CEO with terrorism financing, having learned that its forerunner Lafarge was reported to have paid millions of dollars to Syrian armed groups, including the terrorist-designated Islamic State.

The strange story of how the world’s most hated extremist group allegedly ended up receiving payments from the world’s largest cement company is worth a closer look, not just for what it tells us about the way money fuels conflict, but also for what it can teach us about Syria’s war economy—a vast ecosystem of illicit profiteering, where the worst of enemies are also partners in business.

This work was supported, in part, by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It draws on interviews with Syrian and international experts, diplomats, fighters, and people involved with Lafarge’s operations in Syria, as well as on a wide range of written sources in English, Arabic, French, and Norwegian, including press coverage, company reports, memoirs, and social media.

Lafarge’s behavior, which is now under investigation in France and could result in criminal convictions, was far from exceptional for companies operating in civil-war Syria—or perhaps in any similar war zone. The need to consider opportunistic compromises, dubious deals, and under-the-table payoffs to criminal and violent actors to keep Lafarge’s factory in operation will therefore also be difficult to avoid for others hoping to operate in Syria’s fragmented politico-economic landscape.

The fact that President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now clearly dominant and the Syrian war seem to be moving toward a reconstruction stage will only exacerbate the problem.5 The fighting is far from over and the country remains divided, with rival armed actors ruling several peripheral areas. The most important one is the northern, Kurdish-controlled region propped up by the United States.

As long as these divisions remain in place, many humanitarian and commercial actors will be forced to work under two or more rival regimes, negotiating a path among militant actors who routinely prey on industry, trade, and relief operations. During the war, a new class of conflict traders has emerged to facilitate cross-line connections of this type. Though they hail from different backgrounds and areas, most retain strong links to Assad’s government. As reconstruction money starts pouring in, it will be near-impossible to avoid some level of dependence on these regime-connected fixers and war profiteers—the new kings of Syria’s economy, whose power grows as the Syrian army advances. [Continue reading…]