Guest Post: Life for Yourself as a Way Towards Putinism.

(Below is a essay by Dmitry Ahtyrsky which originally was written in Russian. I helped translate it into English as I think its message is not only applicable to Russia, but to modern-day US, and it echoes a lot of what I was writing about recently but with more depth and insight.)

By Dmitry Ahtyrsky.

One of the central shortcomings of anti-Bolshevistic discourse of post-Soviet Russia during Perestroika was the gospel of the so-called ‘life for yourself.’ The old notion of serving the ideals has compromised itself, as those ideals turned out to be false, simulative, manipulative, and buffoonish. As a result, selfish cynicism has been declared to be an ideal condition. “Thoroughly chewing your food, you help the society.”[1] Abstract economic doctrines of such economists as (Milton) Friedman’s, which are regarded as either neo-liberal or neo-conservative and which state that your best contribution to society is to maximize your own profit, proved to be conveniently handy.

‘Life for yourself’ evangelists, however, have ignored the fact that the society in USSR has not been collectivist, but, on the contrary, it has been deeply atomized. A cog didn’t serve in the interest of parts of the mechanism that comprised the machine. It didn’t serve anyone at all; to be more precise, it served only in its appearance, without possessing an agency. A society is a society, as opposed to a mere collection of individuals, only when it includes free, voluntarily cooperating persons. Even if this collection of individuals as a whole serves a purpose, that purpose is not the well-being of the whole, but some external interests. Moreover, those interests are those of a deity or an evolutionary process, but, instead, of people, who, along with the power, have also appropriated the function of speaking on behalf of a deity, delivering the laws of God and/or Nature to the masses. Enthusiasm fueled by repression is false. Such conditions of reigning false enthusiasm nurture atomized, profit-seeking, self-interested egoists – and ‘social’ becomes a euphemism either for a direct coercion or corrupt interactions. In such a system the word ‘corruption’ means a ‘corruption’ of a coercive hierarchy rather than a disintegration of horizontal societal bonds – producing a maxim that ‘the only thing worse than a corrupt totalitarian regime is a NON-corrupt totalitarian regime.’ The absence of genuine horizontal collectives not overseen from above – the collectives of equal individuals – IS an absence of ‘society’. As a result, every separate person in such a simulative ‘society’ resides in his own solitary confinement cell and can interact only with prison guards.

When such an atomized individual finally leaves the heavily structured system of control and domination – the system that has stimulated atomization, as opposed to collectivism – he’s being invited to continue behaving in the same way he did under the false collectivism: “Live for yourself.” What does such an invitation mean and where does it lead us given the absence of civil society and its institutions? Did those advocates understand that the emergence and operation of civil society are simply impossible in a world where such an egotistic manifest reaches its goal and plants itself in the mass consciousness of all those separate atoms, unaccustomed to critical thinking?

Naturally, those ‘living for themselves’ never became citizens. As a result, the ‘civil rights’ that they have received turned out to be no more than a simulation, a weak forgery prompting giggles from slave holders and slave traders. The ‘freed’ contingent failed to form a society. Individuals haven’t learned how to be free, as this pseudo-freedom of an egoist offered neither equality nor brotherhood. In this egoistic pseudo-freedom there can be only masters and servants.

Instead of leading towards freedom, the hatred of all things ‘social’ led, instead, towards the ‘new old slavery’. Unable to self-organize, the sheep found themselves not on greener pastures, but inside another corral. Civil society emerges only through free, uncoerced striving towards a common good, which is understood on the basis of a peer-to-peer networking consensus.

This striving towards the common good assumes a decidedly critical analysis of power. Resistance against such power that seeks to suppress and control by decomposing the social whole into atoms represents striving for the common good and not, as a authorities would like us to believe, an ‘anti-social behavior’. Actual resistance is possible only in an atmosphere of mutual help and cooperation; only after this condition has been met can the emergent force – in the form of civic association – work with the ‘administration.

One can argue that even the most selfless and idealistic knights, when they acquire power, could become tyrants. This can happen when there’s a misperception that the structure of oppression can one day become ‘ours’, when people put their trust in it without any levers of control, hoping that, at last the ‘wrongs will be righted.’ They won’t be. Civil society is a constant civic activism, constant peer-to-peer cooperation counteracting the corrupt and parochial social tendencies. Any state lacking such social activism will, in a very short time, become a fascist, totalitarian state.

It is precisely this kind of process that we’re witnessing yet again. And Putin isn’t even an initiator of it. Putinism is, among other things, a result of cynical-egoistical constructs that show contempt towards anything ‘communal’, that scorn any altruism. Constructs that are more fitting for a mob boss in a strictly enforced criminal hierarchy than for a free citizen.

By the way, any talk of “homeland” or, in a broader sense, of common good, is frequently understood as being about the rulers – in the words of Saltykov-ShchedrinMany tend to confuse the two concepts: “Fatherland” and “Your Excellency, or, as an old Soviet adage goes, “In our country everything is for the good of a man, and I have even seen that man.”  The possible aversion (the consequence of the past simulations) towards the idea of common good can be compared to an attempt to cure a headache with a guillotine. Thus, Putinism, with its characteristic assessment of any social activity as ‘everything is paid for’ and ‘everything is PR’ is the logical extension of such egotistic denial of ‘communal.’ As it turns out, the exalted egoistic cynicism of ‘free individuals-wolves’ can effortlessly convert into ‘extreme declaration of forced jubilation’ at the appearance of the master.

Let’s not confuse ‘common good’ with ‘Your Excellency’. Let’s not forget that the word ‘republic’ literally means ‘common affair.’ The existence of this ‘common affair’ and the shared efforts in the name of ‘common good’ is precisely what enables a person to be free, to possess individual freedom, as well as freedom of choice and a claim to privacy. Refusal of the ‘communal’ destroys the ‘private’, producing the atomized lack of individual space. Under slavery both the common and the private cease to be. A slave lacks both individuality and society.

An egoistic cynic will, inevitably, conclude that a ‘bad master’ can be rid of by means of a ‘good master.’ Such cynic is ready to accept a mediocre master if that means protection from social chaos. This dynamic will continue until social cynicism is overcome. True freedom is only possible within an amiable, friendly framework, in the openness towards an equally free and respected Other. Such openness yields real, as opposed to simulative, society. And this openness transforms an atom into a person.

 

[1] A popular quote from a Soviet satire ‘Twelve Chairs’ by I.Ilf and E. Petrov

 

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The Grand Inquisitor, the Strong, and the Weak.

The dilemma raised in the Grand Inquisitor passage of Brothers Karamazov can be summed up as such: Can people come to ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ on their own, without being prodded either by whip or by carrot, or, in Dostoyevsky’s words, by authority or by bread? Can they be good without witnessing miracles or submitting to an authority?

This is a monumental ask. An average working man can barely take care of himself. We see weak, scared people around us everywhere. How can we ask of them to reject their simple, undemanding comforts to take care of a stranger or mind some higher ideals? Such a demand, Grand Inquisitor argues, should be made only of a strong person, the one who understands and can handle that understanding both physically and mentally. It’s not easy to do, even for the strong. Grand Inquisitor is a strong person but not in a sense that he can bend the weaker people to his will (although he can certainly do it through the authority vested in him). His strength rests in recognition that such weakness exists in most people (rather than pretending, like libertarians, that it doesn’t), reconciling with it and availing himself to do the dirty, ungrateful job himself: being a guide to the weak, depraved and scared of freedom masses, to provide them security and happiness in exchange for freedom.

Happiness in this context is different from the way we view happiness. In Grand Inquisitor’s world human happiness is an abdication of responsibility, of having to make tough decisions. It is a faculty that is better relegated to the figure of authority. And really, we know many people who have handed over that capacity (to be happy) to others.

In his own way, Grand Inquisitor is right: he views his job as a burden that he has to carry in order to relieve the unwashed masses from having to think and take responsibilities – attributes (or side effects) that come with freedom. He saves the weak from having to live in freedom, which they, as he demonstrated to Jesus, can’t handle on their own. But Jesus is also right: What good is ‘goodness’ if it is mandated or ordered by an authority? What if people only love their brother out of fear of a vengeful deity in the afterlife or a state/church authority in this life? Can people be good on their own free will? Jesus, by refusing to show miracles or wield authority, deliberately erred on the side of a free choice or free will of anyone to come to the conclusion that we’re all brothers and we have to love each other.

Is Jesus then the voice of the strong few and Grand Inquisitor – the voice of the weak many? This conclusion would flatter those who think of themselves as strong. Not only do they find themselves on top of the worldly hierarchy, they are also invited to think of themselves as doing God’s work.

But if you’re also a thinking person, the implications of the Grand Inquisitor/Jesus metaphor are so horrendous, so bone-chilling and so threatening to your daily way of life that, upon understanding the core of this argument (that if you choose to be free you essentially become an outcast), the only sensible course of action is to forget you ever read this and retreat back into the world of busyiness and daily errands. And that’s what billions of us do. Career, family, sports, TV shows, travel, weekend BBQ. Proving Dostoyevsky right yet again: that we’re the feeble-minded creatures of routine, that we’re indeed the weak who, when given a choice, prefer Grand Inquisitor’s world order to Jesus’s.

This sticky psychological residue, this constant cosmic and public directive to be ‘doing something’ haunts me from time to time to this day. It’s impossible to shed it completely, as I’m a product of my time and our contemporary values, which I’ve diligently internalized and excelled at for decades.

I remember how disdainful I was towards the what I considered ‘rabble’ during my subway commute to and from work. I understand now that my short tolerance for the riff-raff was borne out of my own misery, although I would deride anyone who would’ve pointed that out to me at the time. Of course, I considered myself strong, because of the shit I had to deal with on the trading desk, the kind of shit the unwashed couldn’t even come close to comprehending. My definition of ‘strength’ was itself faulty. I equated it with my social position and the efforts I undertook to get there.

But, in Jesus’s terms, strength is a mental preparedness for a life of obscurity and nothingness. This preparedness is what frees you from the toxic treadmill. It’s the ability to say ‘fuck it’ and disappear into the woods or into the desert. It’s very hard to do. Smart, driven but weak people, like for example hedge funders and tech bros, understand it, if only subconsciously, when they accumulate real estate in Vermont or in New Zealand, hoping to, one day, enjoy the serene beauty and solitude after years on the battlefield. Of course that day never comes because, according to our modern day ethos, abandonment of the game is an admission of defeat, an anathema. Fear to appear weak is a driving force behind ambition and is a definition of weakness. The entire Trump administration reeks of that fear.

The strong among us are those who are not afraid to be labeled losers. It’s those few who either abandoned the conventional rat race or were never part of it to begin with. It takes either balls or total insanity to do it. Jon Stewart, who left his successful and beloved show to tend a rescue animals farm. Crazy cat ladies. Priests – genuine kind, not the pedophiles and the pseudo pious (Pharisees). The social workers. The hermits. Artists who create art for art’s sake. Everyone who’s involved in an activity that would get a condescending giggle from a run-of-the-mill New York cocktail party crowd.

Is it possible to be strong and stay in the game? Yes, if you do it for others. This way you become a Grand Inquisitor.

 

My 2008 Trading Journal.

Trading journal 2008

I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since Lehman collapse. The one thing that is usually lost in the conversation about 2008 is that it was all over before 2008. The time to be short was 2007, before the term ‘subprime’ made it into the mainstream conversation.

Looking back it’s easy to say we saw what was coming. Our desk was mainly short throughout the entire 2007 and parts of 2008, and even though we were overall bearish, none of us could have estimated the scale of what’s to come. No bear, no matter how prescient, could have foreseen the magnitude of the carnage. We thought that no matter how bad it is, it was going to be contained within our market. What lack of imagination! One can have the wrong trade on; one can have the right trade on; and then one can have the right trade on without even knowing why he’s right. I thought I was right because I saw shitty collateral and overleverage. Turns out I was right because I underestimated the indolence and infantilism and cynicism of people at the top. I thought they were buying residual pieces for yield. Turns out they were buying those pieces to squeeze a few remaining points from the already dying beast, to keep the game rolling on fumes just for a few more months.

To build the logical chain of events that could unfold, the upcoming avalanche from layers upon layers of leverage and stupidity and short-term self-interest, that would require more than a Math PhD or an MBA. In fact, the logic itself was a flawed tool of assessment under those circumstances. A student of human frailty and irrationality, a philosopher was needed then. But philosophy was in short supply on the trading floors.

But back then I, and everybody else were immersed in the minutia of hourly quotes and moves on Bloomberg screen. That was my world and nothing existed outside of it. Check out a few pages of my  journal. You’ll see daily, hourly oscillations between feeling important and useless. You’ll find glee interchanged with despair; exhilaration followed by frustration and self-hatred. I was killed and resurrected several times over the course of the day. Surviving the vicious vagaries of market mistakenly lead you to award yourself some super powers, some kind of Heart of Darkness-style battle weariness – a mental compensation for a pathetic indoor life of spreadsheets and numbers and fluorescent air-conditioned offices.

The irony is that we thought we knew everything about the world. The idea was that those who can’t define what a CDS is should not render their opinion, simply because they don’t know what’s going on. That feeling of omniscience and superiority was borne out of proximity to and usage of obscure tools and familiarity with indecipherable terms that could have enormous impact on any aspect of a layman’s life. Stepping out from the office onto the busy New York street, I always looked at those unsuspecting pedestrians with pity and wondered how can they go about their business without knowing what was coming? If only they knew that bid-offers that were ticks apart yesterday were points apart today! Do you even know what that means?! We thought that in our exclusive corners, with mechanisms that set the whole world in motion we were modern day bond vigilantes. Bond vigilantes! We were weeks away from coming hat in hand to politicians who couldn’t even understand what the fuck we were talking about.

And in the end, we fucked it all up. And the little guy, as always, was left to foot the bill.

On Beauty, the Good, and the Value of Abstract Thought.

Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?

While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.

We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.

Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition.  We know it when we see it.

The_Creation_of_Adam

Apollo

I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.

DHS76_771_0

Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?

This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.

The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.

One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.

This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.

Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.

We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’

A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?

Impunity As a Result of 80s and 90s Pop Culture.

“The wicked flee when no one pursueth.”

Being an adult in the room has not been cool for several decades, since about 1970s, I’d estimate. The last movie about an adult in the room – a sober, responsible government official who defeats the bad guy was probably ‘Jaws’. Since then it’s all been downhill.

The 1980s were the worst offender. “Why do you have to wreck the company?” Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglass in ‘Wall Street’. “Because it’s wreckable!” he snaps back. And with this, he embodied the spirit that has been haunting us ever since.

In the beloved 1980s teenage comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ we’re asked to sympathize with Ferris – a rebellious but smooth teenager whose quest to skip school is impeded by numerous antagonists: school principal and his nagging sister. It’s a cool, funny movie that I used to enjoy watching. But the more I think about it now (thinking is really a fun killer – you’ve been warned) the more I sympathize with a worry-wart Cameron and Ferris’s older sister, rather than a free-wheeling, fuck-the-rules Ferris. Cameron is actually a much more complex character because he had some semblance of a development arc. Ferris ends up his day in the same way he started it: a spoiled brat never to be held accountable by anyone. This movie, along with a bunch of other classics like Animal House and Caddyshack are 1980s version of ‘move fast and break things’ mindset of a modern day.

Then came the 90s with Goodfellas (still watch it every time it’s on), Glengarry Glenross (Alec Baldwin kills it!), and again, we were asked to relate to and even hold as paragons of a certain postmodernist virtue, characters who break the rules and/or assert power by sheer force or insult. But it is written so well, by such talented writers, and played so brilliantly, that it’s hard to look away. It’s just fun, it’s over-the-top for dramatic effect, why even bother overanalyzing it?

Even more recently, in The Hangover, one of the villains was a character’s nagging wife, bent on spoiling the guys’ fun. The existence of such a caricature makes it easy for a male character to abandon responsibility when there’s a ‘big bad mommy’-type out there whose sole purpose is to stifle guys’ (and they’re almost always guys) freedom and fun. ‘Big bad mommy’ represents not necessarily a female force, but is a stand in for an overweening government, a ‘big brother’. If you want to write a buddy comedy, but have to adhere to basic screenwriting rules that require you to have an antagonist, such a trope villain (a nagging wife, an obsessive school principal) is the lowest hanging fruit, but it always works. It’s easy to write, easy for an audience to understand, and easy for many to relate to, as in their daily grind they, too, fight their own version of a ‘big bad mommy.’

But who and what’s there to rebel against now? Who is the ‘nagging wife’ in our lives today? A ‘Big bad mommy’ doesn’t run things anymore. Evil clowns from ‘It’, like Stephen Miller, do. But the appeal of rebelliousness didn’t go anywhere. A man has been told that he has to rebel against someone or something, otherwise his life will lack meaning. If, instead of being a feckless high school student, you’re finding yourself to be an adult in the room, to hold all the reigns of power, the game stops being fun because then you are asked for accountability. But, as we learned over the decades of pop-culture message, guys can not be held accountable and should, instead, be praised and even mimicked for their unorthodox way of skirting responsibility.

The late Christopher Hitchens was obsessed with women’s ability to kill a man’s fun. Oh, I used to love Hitch, I thought he was, like, the smartest guy I ever read. (Made me think that if I was 25 today, I’d probably be reading up Jordan Peterson and marveling at his brilliance). Hitch was incredibly skillful with words and precision, and gave his thick sentences double, triple meaning. Now, since I’m in the middle of deconstructing our treasured pop culture icons, I find him to be an example of incredible talent and rare wordsmanship wasted on the service of excusing one’s anti-social behavior by manufacturing an artificial villain.

Of course, a ‘big bad mommy’ prototype does not have to be a literal mother or a wife. It is a gray-suited government official, an SEC bureaucrat, a DMV worker, even a Nurse Ratchet – anyone who makes the proverbial trains run on time, keeps order in an institution. I added Nurse Ratchet on the list because the villain of an iconic Milos Forman’s movie (my favorite movie for a period of time) was a metaphor for totalitarianism, but today we suffer from a different ailment: chaos. We do not live in a world where our dreams of freedom are being stifled by sadistic nurses; we live in a world where the lunatics have overtaken the asylum. Again, I invite you to think of Jack Nicholson’s character – a rebellious man totally devoid of any responsibility. And again, this is the kind of role models we grew up with and internalized. Is there any wonder then that people ‘running’ things (I intentionally put ‘running’ in quotes) prefer to think of themselves as victims yearning to break free? Break free from what? From liberals calling them names?

Hillary was an ultimate stand in for a ‘nagging wife’ type. She was that school principal that could, should she have won, hold at least some of the ‘Ferris Buellers’ accountable. She presented not just political but existential threat to our schoolyard order (or rather lack of it). And this could not be allowed to happen.

So, who should be the villain then, you might ask. Good scripts and good stories are those that, in addition to or rather instead of, external villain, focus on the internal demons of the character. Someone’s fear manifesting as aggression. Someone’s insecurity manifesting as bravado. Someone’s ‘unresolved childhood trauma’ manifesting as cruelty. The dark forces we fight are within us. The bottom line is, no one is really trying to ‘get’ us. “Wicked flee where no one pursueth.” But how do you have fun then, when no one ‘pursueth’ you?

Eagles Win

It was heart, not brains that fueled massive celebrations last night in Philly after Eagles win. It was the same kind of heart that makes people go to Times Square on NYE at freezing temperatures.  Perhaps it was the same kind of irrationality that made people pull the lever for Trump. It defies rational analysis. People climbed poles that have been greased and turned over cars. Why? If you asked them they would holler ecstatically and incoherently in your face but would not give you an answer. Any verbal means of expression would feel awfully inadequate under that unique circumstance.

Eric Hoffer in his book ‘The True Believer’ dissects the above sentiment to its basic elements. Human irrationality and passions are a phenomenon with a much bigger political and social implications than we, especially on the left, are willing to assign to it. He points out many culprits, but central of them all is the desire to belong to a cause, often combined with the lack of other channels of expression for one’s personal passions.

To express oneself with words, the kind of words that will telegraph one’s personal sentiments with 100% precision is a skill that takes time to learn and practice. It would be a big ask of a rough-and-tumble, starved for victory blue collar Philly crowd. It is this inability to express oneself that manifests itself in physical form during significant political or social events.

I saw the amount of pent up energy being released yesterday that would put to shame any other march or celebration that I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen a lot. Obama victory in 2008 comes close, and I still remember and relish that magic and camaraderie in the air, but it does not come nowhere near to a high-octane, visceral, shambolic riot (“a Russian riot – senseless and ruthless”) of a first ever Super Bowl win.

If I had to pick one defining characteristic to describe a sports fan whose drought has been broken? A lack of irony. A lack of irony expressed in the irrational. I like that. It’s pure art. A good piece of art lacks irony. To be ironic is to be unsure about the resulting effect on the audience, thus deploying irony as a shield against a possible misunderstanding. Why should I then take such an artist or an author or a person at his word?

Those riff-raff on the streets last night, climbing greased poles, turning cars and eating horse manure? Oh, there was zero irony there. It was beautiful. It was like winning WWII. It was beautiful because it was driven by heart and defied any classification and any explanation. I watched the spectacle from my apartment trying to find appropriate words. It was a tall order, even though I spent years perfecting my writing skills – a pastime that teaches you descriptive rigor, which in turn teaches you things about yourself. (One of the side effects of this process was the realization that I dislike Russian rock music. Because, you guessed it, it’s ironic.) But I digress. To ask that euphoric mob ‘how do you feel’ would be to insult them. That would be asking them to use a medium of expression that lacks adequate conducive qualities.

Mining that irrationality of the crowd is a skill currently perfected by hucksters. It is used to sell us stuff and make us vote for conmen. Can Democrats relearn to harness those forces for the common good next November?

A Trader Learns About the Universe

If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.

Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.

Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.

IMG_1967

Beauty after the rain on a random drive.

Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.

Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.

That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.

Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.

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Atlantic City, inviting to contemplation.

So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?

The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.

In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)

But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.

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Abandoned Railway in Philly

If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.

But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?

I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.

Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.

So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.

I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?