Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 78

readingsHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Has China become Africa’s overlord?

The Left and Liberalism, a conversation.

Why a just and sustainable economy looks like a doughnut.

Ivanka, the Fire Festival, and others’ facile misuse of philosophy quotes.

Disturbing report of the NYT on “liberal” anti-free speech protests on campuses.

BONUS: my book, How To Be A Stoic, finally published in the US!

266 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 78

  1. saphsin


    What’s called Socialism in modern technical terms (or arguably, since the earliest socialists) is democratic ownership of the means of the production. There’s nothing about Sweden that’s socialist, it’s a state-capitalist economic system. Switzerland has a form of direct deliberative democracy that’s a bit closer to the socialist ideal, though their economic system is all state-capitalist just the same. Every developed country has heavily regulated industry provided by public subsidies, the only thing called “capitalism” as portrayed by the classical liberals are the poorest countries in the 3rd world. The difference between Sweden and the United States is the structure of regulation rather than the degree of regulation per say. In Sweden, they structure the state-market relationship to provide for their population’s need. The United States structures the state-market relationship by spending trillions of dollars to the military industrial complex by the Pentagon System so corporations can profit from the technology from what’s developed, all paid by the taxpayer.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Not sure if people have noticed, but comments are now moderated. And since I’m about to go to bed (I’m in Vienna for a conference), that means nothing else will get through until tomorrow morning, Central European time.

    In general, I got sick and tired of the repetiveness of the discussion, not to mention of the nasty comments or condescending tone. While I admit to be occasionally guilty myself, no more. Expect significantly fewer comments to get through from now on, and certainly not comments that are highly redundant with the already ongoing thread, or that insult or condescend to others.

    And if you don’t like it, there are plenty of other blogs on the internet… good night!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. synred

    IKEA? All those nice restaurants?

    If the people (workers) own the means of production they still need some mechanism to manage it. If you have democracy the ‘state’ can take that role. It’s what we call today ‘democratic socialism’; What else could take this role?

    Bakunin had a mess of committees with overlapping authorities. I didn’t seem too workable to me.

    The Soviet Union was certainly not socialist. The means of production where controlled/pwned by a small elite.


  4. Thomas Jones

    BTW, Massimo, I did enjoy the article on the Left and Liberalism. Learned a new concept: periodization of modernity. There is, I learned, an article of periodization in Wikipedia. I value your efforts to keep me informed in my retirement. I hope you understand that at times we may take different approaches when it comes to what is personally meaningful to me and my experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. synred

    So, you can’t think of a good reason to disrupt someone’s event, but you defend peoples’ “right” to disrupt someone’e event.

    Close. I don’t think there is a ‘good reason’ (at least the Ann/Murrray level) and thus I’m not trying to, but I do defend their right to do so (though I would not likely carry that defense as far as Patrick Henry).

    I might go for disrupting the Klan burning crosses in public space and if sympatize with those who disrupt even private cross turnings.

    This maybe more effective:


  6. ejwinner

    I welcome your decision to moderate.

    I suffer from insomnia, and take medicine for it; but when it occasionally doesn’t work, it actually backfires, and I end up a blazing nervous wreck. I’m completely ashamed of the comment I made to Coel, regretted it immediately. I haven’t revisited that page in the comments, and actually hope that comment deleted. I can guess Coel’s reply, and in this instance I would deserve it. However I know he has a thick skin, so the embarrassment is largely mine.

    That’s exactly why I herald your monitoring comments here. Commentators here are intelligent and well-meaning, but also opinionated and sometimes cantankerous. Moderating not only benefits the blog and raises its standards, but really benefits the commentators too, reminding us to take greater care, especially when we’re not at our best.

    Finally, thank you for allowing me to post here (and at Sci Sal). I think we should all be grateful for your efforts to provide a space for the development of a community of those interested in the intersections of science and philosophy.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. SocraticGadfly

    Indeed on no such thing as “unqualified” capitalism. Given that Smith’s “invisible hand’ is based on the Deist wind-up-the-universe god, capitalism is as philosophically untenable as Marxism.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. saphsin


    Point taken. Apologies for contributing my own contribution of derogatory comments that made you resort to this, will make sure to keep it down. I guess my impatience about subject matters that are important to me get riled up.


    Yes but state control is precisely not anything like socialism. The state government is hierarchical institution, with very limited public control. And you made a good point about the Soviet Union. There’s nothing about the Soviet Union that was socialist, or at the very least, it changed the meaning of socialism in every sense of the term of how it was used by all the mainstream socialists until Trotsky & Lenin.

    Maybe I’m not in the position to say this because I’m not a Christian and burning crosses don’t offend me (or burning mostly anything offends me) but once you cross that line of freedom of expression, we may at one point let the state from imprisoning people for the burning of the American Flag.


    Well Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has nothing to do with what is described by conservative economists, it’s a total myth. The term was only used once in his Wealth of Nations, which was that if tariffs are lowered, wealthy merchants may want to produce abroad and harm the economic situation for the population, but by an invisible hand, they would want stay in their home country and contribute to their country’s economy. (of course he was wrong) Actually try reading his book and that’s what he says, it’s just that he’s worshipped by conservatives but rarely properly read.

    And it depends on what you mean by “Marxism” Do you mean the economic analysis (which there is a lot of value, even with its shortcomings) or the historical materialism nonsense? And remember, Marx himself wasn’t a “Marxist” it was a framework developed from a cultish following of his work after his death. He was just a guy who said a lot of interesting and insightful things, and was wrong about a lot of things, just like every other political thinker.


  9. stevenjohnson

    saphsin somehow concludes my comment on Mill was a “side rant.” It is true that a great deal of it was quotations from Mill, maybe as much as half. No doubt this sort of thing seems like a great imposition, a rant, rather like someone reading Bible verses in a discussion on religion. However, it was not a side issue, not least because it was someone else who cited Mill as an authority. Looking at the real Mill, not just an imaginary one cleaned up of beliefs now conventionally accepted as backward, or even hateful, is directly relevant for a simple reason:The ways in which Mill’s ideas of free speech actually functioned then is how they actually function now. That’s why his authority was appealed to in the first place. Mill’s notion of free speech was limited to discourse within an elite. Any speech that could lead to popular action was to be restricted, even criminalized. That is the point of invoking him now. Mill’s tract was not about reforming laws to promoted free speech. It was aimed largely at persuading the respectable to be more tolerant of a diversity of opinion within their own rank. The pages at the end which begged the gentry not to ostracize their brethren for deviations were not an afterthought, they were the point. But that point is irrelevant to the real issues of owned fora for speech today, just as they were then. Invoking Mill is the true “side rant,” but the despotism of custom hallows this imposition. Nonetheless, it is not an argument to sputter, “Mill is great!”

    Incidentally, the “historical materialism nonsense” you attribute to Marx was not especially unique to Marx. Engels himself in his eulogy made it clear that it wasn’t Marx who invented historical materialism, which is pretty much the Enlightenment in social science. Dissing “Marx” for the historical materialism is dissing people like Montesquieu, Vico, Millar, Ferguson, Adam Smith, Thierry, Guizot…well, a large encylopedia article of people.


  10. brodix

    Massimo’s need to moderate illustrates a very basic point; There is that cycle of raw, bottom up energies that eventually invoke top down feedback and control, from internet discussion to entire economies.

    Capitalism has come to be synonymous with free markets, but that overlooks a basic fact, that markets need a medium of exchange in order to function and when that medium is privately held, the markets are ultimately about as free as domestic animals. As our current economic mechanisms are showing.

    The problem is that putting the financial system under political control means it will be used for the short term needs of the current leadership, usually resulting in inflated money, while having it under private control means it will be used as a mechanism to siphon value out of the rest of the economy, rather than circulate it most effectively.

    I suspect though, that humanity will have to first recognize the power and function of feedback loops, before developing an effective economic circulation mechanism.

    The fact is that everyone wants to ride a positive feedback loop to infinite wealth, but the process both builds up and breaks down. As wealth and power are accumulated and concentrated, it takes ever more energy to sustain the forward momentum, because at any point it tries to slow down or stabilize, negative feedbacks start to take hold and the wealth and power starts to dissipate.

    Any true happy medium would also be a flatline, so there are always going to be cycles and wave actions, of building and dissolving. We just have to find a way to accept this in a deep cultural fashion, a religious statement, so to speak. Nature does it, so can we.


  11. saphsin


    All I can see is what you’re ranting about Mill is missing the point of what we were discussing in the comment section.

    And I should point out your strawman, to which I actually attributed historical materialism specifically to Marxism, an ideological framework that was treated akin to an empirical theory by many to this day, not focusing on Marx himself. And yes, there was a theory of history developed by previous brilliant thinkers. So what? What’s the relevance? Newton had weird occultist beliefs. Newton was a brilliant man who made extremely important contributions, but some of the stuff he spent his time on was ridiculous, and so were the following practitioners who persisted afterwards.


  12. saphsin


    A good antidote to the “Trump is worse than the rest of the Republicans” myth

    I mean after Trump got elected, the Republican Congress tried to block his bill on the massive increase in military spending because they thought it was insufficient for national defense. That’s right, insufficient. And something similar happened that lead to the previous Congressional failure of trying to get rid of ObamaCare.

    “President Donald Trump is seeking what he called a “historic” increase in defense spending, but ran into immediate opposition from Republicans in Congress who must approve his plan and said it was not enough to meet the military’s needs.”

    “President Trump intends to submit a defense budget that is a mere 3 percent above President (Barack) Obama’s defense budget, which has left our military underfunded, undersized, and unready to confront threats to our national security,” John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. SocraticGadfly

    Let’s go to another subject — China.

    Not just Africa’s overlord. It owns a port in Greece, from which it is massively increasing its economic reach in the Balkans. It’s currently building a major new railroad into SE Asia.

    I don’t agree with “free” trade that’s done unequally — like the West with China and it’s inadequate environmental protections leading us to export pollution, its theft of technology and trade secrets, or forced hand-overs of them, it’s lack of labor rights, etc. But, Beijing doesn’t care. It’s all about neo-mercantilism.

    Anyway, that piece is worth a definite read.

    Twenty-plus years of “engagement” in the Clinton-type style have done little but hand China the keys to a new vehicle.


  14. synred

    Trade: If LA-LA land has good land of growing oranges and Wash has good land for apples, there will be more net worth in the world (oranges+apples) if the trade – basic Adam Smith.

    If LA-LA trades trades with big C and big C advantage is virtual slave labor, that is less wealth over all, but a few get very rich.


  15. saphsin


    The problem is far beyond uneven trade, but that Africa needs to undergo the path to development by state coordination in providing public subsidies to home industries protected with tariffs, the so-called “Asian Miracle” path of development. That’s how every country developed, and what every underdeveloped country hasn’t undergone. Africa literally has to kick out China & the West economically & militarily to even consider the path to development, and that seems to be an issue with terrible circumstances at the moment. (And no, there is no poverty reduction in the African continent from globalization. Most poverty reduction in the past few decades has been in China & Latin America and the World Bank arbitrarily changed the standard for what’s to be considered poverty that lead to the myth that we hear now from The Economist and other business press)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. saphsin


    Adam Smith is just wrong, though his take on free trade is different from what’s said by modern elites. That’s all I’ll say.


  17. stevenjohnson

    saphsin, your position that quoting Mill after someone else cites him is ranting confesses you don’t really have a case. You just have your confidence that you are part of the civilized people that Mill addresses. His entire picture of how persuasion is supposed to work is entirely irrelevant to the real world. It was then, and it is now. Markets don’t even work the way Mill assumes, much less the marketplace of ideas, which is an ideological obfuscation, rather than a thing. It remains the case that citing Mill is missing the point. I may be the only one here who’s actually read On Liberty. But I haven’t stolen the only surviving copy, so anyone else is perfectly free to cite the supposedly relevant parts of On Liberty.

    You equate the views of the Enlightenment thinkers who Marx followed with biblical literalism and alchemy. The Counter-Enlightenment agrees with you on this. I do not. It may be that you have confused the terms historical materialism and dialectical materialism. It is not clear why you think Marx’s political economy has any value. The agreement that Marx’s economics are the equivalent of Newton’s alchemy is even more universal than the agreement that Mill’s marketplace of ideas is normative.

    By the way, you write “Africa literally has to kick out China & the West economically & militarily to even consider the path to development…” Getting some foreign direct investment from China on better terms is a tactic for kicking out “the West,” which is why the NYT article is whipping up fears about the Yellow Peril. Your position that Africa needs to fight China as well is like advising Greece to fight China and the EU. A Chinese firm may have bought the port, but it was the EU who forced the sale in the first place. You advocate a diversion of fire from the main enemy.


  18. saphsin


    Ok let me churn out the mess first, because I’m in a bit of a hold honestly losing my patience with reading your comments here.

    I don’t know where you’re getting at with you making assumptions about what I think about Mill. I’m not a liberal, and I have made comments jabbing at classical liberalism earlier in this very thread for not representing how capitalism actually works (although Mill’s treatise on Political Economy was much more progressive actually, it even provided a slight critique of capitalism and endorsed worker owned production facilities) I agree with much of what he said about free speech, though I think it’s a bit abstracted from reality and a much stronger one can be made on an institutional understanding of the preservation of individuals’ priveleges in society. I’ve also mentioned that Mill has used his liberalism as a fanatical justification for his support for the British Raj in India, which I find disgraceful.

    Of course you could have read all of of what I said about Mill here in this thread if you wanted to. You either jumped to conclusions without actually looking what I said or blatantly ignored it. Also quite sure the people here, me, Massimo, and some of the others, actually read On Liberty. But no one is stopping you to believe whatever you want and what you want to accuse other people. Whatever beliefs you want to hold about us, we were talking about the benefits of free speech and merely briefly mentioned Mill’s attribution to the matter, we weren’t eulogizing Mill and everything in On Liberty, of which there is plenty to criticize (Massimo has explicitly expressed that he found what he said about the marketplace of ideas as being disproven in another thread) In that case point, your entire rant was not crucially relevant to the core topic we were discussing.

    “You equate the views of the Enlightenment thinkers who Marx followed with biblical literalism and alchemy.”

    Quite sure it was clear that this wasn’t the main point of what I was trying to show. You were churning out a list of respectable thinkers as if on the basis of authority that presented an argument in defending Marx and I was responding directly to that. Brilliant people in history have had baseless ideas, I honestly could care less if Marx’s ideas were based on those before him.

    “It may be that you have confused the terms historical materialism and dialectical materialism.”

    You can think what you want.

    “The agreement that Marx’s economics are the equivalent of Newton’s alchemy is even more universal than the agreement that Mill’s marketplace of ideas is normative.”

    While I don’t see any universities publishing works justifying Newton’s alchemy, plenty of books and papers are published every year on Marxist Economics and/or analysis, so as I said, you can think whatever you want.

    It is true that even among many left-leaning economists, there is a large (but not universal) agreement that much of the mathematical basis of his economic theories, especially based on his labor theory of value, is obsolete and falsified. This is quite separate from his economic analysis in general, of which there is a lot of value. I might as well quote another well known economist, Ha-Joon Chang, to say it for me:

    “At the other end of the political spectrum is Karl Marx. With the collapse of communism, people have come to dismiss Marx as an irrelevance, but this is wrong. I don’t have much time for Marx’s utopian vision of socialism nor his labour theory of value, but his understanding of capitalism was superior in many ways to those of the self-appointed advocates of capitalism. For example, when free-market economists were mostly against limited liability companies, Marx saw it as an institution that will take capitalism on to another plane (to take it eventually to socialism, in his mistaken view). In my view, 150 years after he wrote it, his analysis of the evolution of labour regulation in Britain in Capital vol. 1 still remains one of the best on the subject. Marx also understood the centrality of the interaction between technologies (or what he called the forces of production) and institutions (or what he called the relations of production), which other economic schools have only recently started to grapple with.”

    “By the way, you write “Africa literally has to kick out China & the West economically & militarily to even consider the path to development…” Getting some foreign direct investment from China on better terms is a tactic for kicking out “the West,” which is why the NYT article is whipping up fears about the Yellow Peril. Your position that Africa needs to fight China as well is like advising Greece to fight China and the EU. A Chinese firm may have bought the port, but it was the EU who forced the sale in the first place. You advocate a diversion of fire from the main enemy.”

    I don’t know enough about the subject to talk about foreign relations between Africa with China & the West, though it’s again, irrelevant to the larger and truthful point that to go to the path of economic development, it has to go the path of economic isolation with intense development of industry through state directed development of public subsidies. Whatever power struggle Africa is going through that requires temporary negotiation with China isn’t inconsistent with what I’ve said. Though I’m pretty suspicious of what you have said because it sounds unconvincing on the one hand, and I don’t really trust your word on the other.


  19. SocraticGadfly

    Saph, I don’t think there is “a correct answer” involving China. That said, I do NOT expect it to face The Great Deflation like Japan did.

    First, that’s part of why they’re doing stuff that Japan didn’t. They’re exporting their “bubble” before it bursts.

    Second, while China has some shortages of natural resources, it’s nothing like Japan’s.

    Third, while its one-child policy will cause a sort of demographic donut hull, that policy officially ended several years ago, and China probably won’t have the demographic implosion Japan faces.

    Fourth, although it didn’t extend its tentacles this far, if one goes back more than 300 years, China Normally had 1/4 the world’s economy or more.


  20. saphsin


    Do remember that the U.S. treated Latin America as its backyard for half a century, establishing brutal dictatorships, and imposing Washington Consensus policies to extract resources and use for cheap labor (Canada helped too). Now in the past few decades, they largely kicked U.S. influence out of the hemisphere. The Bush Administration tempered down military attention in the area, which was arguably the only good thing that I can think of that was a positive development of his administration (even if it was because they were distracted committing crimes in the ME) Those developments can happen out of nowhere for the African Continent, though I think the situation is even worse there at the moment.


  21. saphsin


    Capitalism has the inbuilt tendency to overproduce far beyond what is needed without the production actually feeding into the needs of the population, it’s just a way for corporations to rake in huge profits. The most dramatic historical example was the Irish Famine, which was despite the famous mythology surrounding it, was not a result of the potato blight. I mean yes there was a potato blight that lead to starvation, but Ireland was producing large quantities of other food products in surplus, it’s just that the Irish people were not allowed to consume them because the British Empire refused to regulate the market to temporarily alleviate the famine, they just wanted to enslave and rob from the Irish people. Well that’s sort of what’s happening now with production of food and goods all over the world right now. It’s a feature of capitalism, corporations are not to incentivized to structure the market system for it to benefit the population if it cuts into their profits, and that will continue if we have the same system remaining in place where a small group of people control the system of production.



  22. stevenjohnson

    saphsin, when Chang wrote “Marx also understood the centrality of the interaction between technologies (or what he called the forces of production) and institutions (or what he called the relations of production), which other economic schools have only recently started to grapple with,” he was talking about what is generally called historical materialism when referring specifically to Marx. Nonetheless Marx did not invent this out of whole cloth, nor did this approach end with him. Even cranks like evolutionary psychologists are trying to mimic it when they babble about the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation. You did specifically announce that historical materialism is nonsense, and you followed up with the observation that eminent thinkers can hold bizarre ideas. Not only are you not alone in rejecting the notion that there can be a science of society based on material life, this may be the most widely held tenet held by academically trained philosophers.

    As far as the many supposed books and papers on Marxist economics turned out each year, there is little to none that uses Marx’s actual work. There is a steady market in Marx refutation and Marx revision or combinations thereof. It is perverse to cite this as favorable to Marxian economics. Chang’s favorable reference to Marx’s sociology (as it would be classed today, I think, but maybe anthropology?) is in lieu of using Marxian economics. As best I can remember, Chang thinks capitalism can be reformed and favors a reformed capitalism, so I suppose you do too. As for Marx’s economic analysis in general, his conclusions such as the inevitability of economic crises and the role of unemployment in lowering wages to promote profit, are not widely accepted. My memory as to whether even Chang accepts those fails me.

    As to Mill, I don’t read all the threads and I don’t remember whether I read Massimo Piglucci’s remarks on Mill’s marketplace of ideas. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with Dan Kaufman, though. In any event I don’t have a high opinion of On Liberty. In my view, in practice Mill didn’t either, violating his own principles to support the Union during the Civil War, unlike fellow liberals such as Gladstone. Better to do the right thing than be consistent, so good for him. And The Emancipation of Women (well The Subjection of Women) unlike On Liberty makes a case for Mill as a genuinely progressive thinker. But that’s what I think about Mill. I only bring it up because you seem to think that’s an issue here. What I thought about your opinion of Mill was simply this: Attacking his authority after someone calls on it in a discussion about freedom of speech doesn’t just miss the point, but is wrong, for some reason. But Mill openly made the point saying something potentially inflammatory to a crowd is in itself a criminal act, a much severer standard than criminalizing calls for violent action. So no, I don’t agree that I was missing the point, and yes, I do think you’re wrong in thinking it irrelevant. I think if the powerful are free to ignore the masses when they speak, then there are times when making them listen is necessary. And if that contradicts the ludicrous principles of On Liberty, too bad. We know the principles of On Liberty are perfectly compatible with all sorts of horrible things that make a mockery of freedom.

    synred, despite your belief that speech is a function of property, owning a t-shirt won’t make me a Marxist.


  23. saphsin


    Don’t have time for a thorough response but I’ll just say our thoughts didn’t differ as much as it previously appeared. I meant much Marx’s political economy in a more broad institutional sense than his particular theories, of which I think as you mentioned don’t really have merit and what you bring up as historical materialism, Marx explicitly only laid it out as a guideline to think about how history may proceed and warned against a scientific theory of it. That’s why as I said before, I specifically leveled my charge against Marxism not Marx, but even with that, I was clearly referring to historical materialism as what specifically distinguished it to a general analysis involving the material forces of social life. And I have a more radical outlook than Chang on capitalism but he does support the worker co-op movement.

    I fail to understand your point about Mill really. We can agree with general strains of his thoughts on free speech while strongly disagreeing with elements here and there of his work. I probably disagree with Mill more than Massimo amd Dan Kaufman seems to be playing the more argument based on authority role yes (he assumes classical liberalism, I do not) but unless you play that into why you disagree with Mill in the context of this thread’s discussion, it’s going off tangent because we can agree with what you said about Mill but I’m afraid it doesn’t change much about how we were talking about free speech. I’m sorry but I’ll end that discussion there because it’s not going anywhere.


  24. synred

    synred, despite your belief that speech is a function of property, owning a t-shirt won’t make me a Marxist

    I don’t recall saying any such thing. As for people having ‘property’ rights and thus the ‘right’ to have anybody they want use their facilities and to exclude anybody they want, that is the way things are in US, not they way I think they should be.

    You seem to miss the point of the T-Shirt! Do you actually own one? I have one; it is one of my favorites though Zeppo and Gummo are given short shrift. As philosophers I prefer Harpo.

    Liked by 1 person

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