Tag Archives: friends

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

It’s Lonely at the Top – Nietzsche, Mother Teresa and Non-Coercive Leadership

I returned to my old paperback copy of Zarathustra recently, this time in connection with some work I’ve been doing on the topic of non-coercive power, or what I have been calling the power of asking. I’ve been developing some thoughts around this mantra: The power of asking will always be greater than the power of command. So it seemed to me I ought to come to terms with or at least try to deepen my understanding of what Nietzsche says in this book about command, or coercive power.

I was specifically interested in the pronouncement made in “The Stillest Hour” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, chapter 44):

‘…You are one who has unlearned obeying: now shall you command!’
‘Do you not know who is most needed by all? The one who commands great things.
‘To accomplish great things is difficult: but more difficult is to command great things.
‘That is what is most unpardonable in you: You have the power and you do not want to rule.’

It’s a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that has attracted a lot of important commentary, from Jung’s seminars on Zarathustra in the 1930s to Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign seminars in 2001-2. It’s a crux, a point of departure, and it’s also a spot where I might have to take my leave of Nietzsche. How are we to read the injunction here to “command” anew, or to “rule” according to one’s “power”, after one has “unlearned obeying”?

It’s an easy rhetorical move to make, from obeying to commanding, but it seemed to me it also might involve a serious misstep — to unlearn obedience, only to take up, or institute, command.

Put aside for the moment the questionable judgment of “what is most needed by all,” and the ethical as well as the political consequences that judgment, or others like it, could have and historically have had. I am equally wary of the emphasis here on doing and commanding “great” things, or at least wary of misreading it. The pursuit of “great things” (Großes) tends to invite and encourage, or at least excuse, all sorts of abuses.

To wield coercive power, to direct or to command great things may indeed be difficult, even more difficult than doing great things; but it is harder still, I think, and it is really the more urgent project, to unlearn obedience and command and to learn, instead, the practice of non-coercive power.

If that means scaling down from great to small, then I’m happy to start small and, if need be, stay small. I’m not suggesting we stop dreaming and doing great things, taking on big challenges, imagining great enterprises, but in most cases I am inclined to urge and apply something like the rule of Mother Teresa: “don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…. The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.” (That much misquoted line, by the way, is from her “Instructions to the M.C. Sisters,” October 30th, 1981, as cited by Brian Kolodiejchuk in Come Be My Light.)

Here, I imagine, Nietzsche might wish take his leave of me, or at least Nietzscheans and devout Catholics alike will cry out in exasperation or horror at the unholy coupling I’ve just imagined. But I suspect that when all is said and done, these two points of view can be reconciled, or at least they are not so far apart as they may at first seem. Consider, just for starters, the answer Zarathustra receives when he objects that he lacks the lion’s voice for command: “Thoughts that come on dove’s feet guide the world.’”

More on that another day. Here I want only to point out the thing that was on my mind this morning: that is Zarathustra’s sadness as he takes leave of his friends at the close of the second book. My Stillest Hour, Zarathustra’s “terrible mistress” — “or something,” which speaks to him “voicelessly” — has “ordered” him to to leave. He obeys. Yes, obeys; he announces at the start of the chapter that he is “unwillingly obedient,” unwillig-folgsam. He comes to his friends deeply troubled and unhappy; and after he has recounted the conversation with his mistress he is overwhelmed:

when Zarathustra had spoken these words, the force of his pain and the nearness of the parting from his friends overwhelmed him, such that he wept loudly; and no one knew how to console him. That night, however, he went away alone and left his friends.

Zarathustra will “go as a shadow of that which must come: thus will you command, and thus lead the way.” But to command and to lead he must “mellow.” As his mistress tells him, his fruits are ripe, but he is not ripe for his fruits: “so,” she continues, “you must go back to your solitude.” To deprive himself of all human society may, in fact, prepare Zarathustra to command great things; but it’s painful to leave his friends. So painful that he weeps — loudly.

Exile may be the price Zarathustra must pay to overcome himself and lead the way. It’s lonely at the top, and Zarathustra’s mountain is no exception. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves of less romantic and heroic ideas of what it means to lead.

Unlearn obeying and then, the most difficult thing of all: unlearn command. If we practice non-coercive leadership, we can learn to create and share power with others, without reverting to command or obedience, and without taking our leave of those we love.

‘Mr. Rajaratnam seemed in good spirits’

That was the report from a “friend” on October 20th. Whether Mr. Rajaratnam’s good spirits have held up despite recent events — which have ranged from the collapse of his firm, the Galleon Group, to accusations that he was funding the Tamil Tigers — is less clear; but perhaps Mr. Rajaratnam knew all along that that he had friends out there, and that his friends would rise to his defense. No need to be glum.

Friends of Raj have included, so far, a number of prominent newspaper columnists and professors of law and finance, as well as, it would appear, the entire editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal.

Most are not defending Mr. Rajaratnam himself: nobody, not even his closest friends, have stepped up to declare him innocent or incapable of any wrongdoing. Instead, we are asked to consider that what the Feds call insider trading is really another form of market transparency, or alternatively, that it is, or ought to be, perfectly legal for outsiders to trade on information provided by insiders, even if those insiders betray their fiduciary duties in providing that information.

The latter of these arguments could amount to little more than this: if you tell me a secret, and I act on that information, you may have violated a trust, but I have not. I have only acted in my own self-interest, and what else can you expect me to do? Of course this conveniently overlooks the question how I induced you to tell me the secret, or how I colluded with you in violation of a trust. Any investigation of wrongdoing at Galleon will likely focus on whether there were inducements in Mr. Rajaratnam’s network of informants and contacts, or what form collusion took. After all, we’re not really being asked to believe that these were just friendly exchanges.

Or are we? Mr. Rajaratnam cultivated friends in high places and friends with access to proprietary information, to be sure. And as L. Gordon Crovitz noted in a piece that tries to blur the line between insider and outsider trading:

Information flows these days are increasingly about networks, including information about markets shared by members of various communities. Traders use Web sites to compare notes on companies and use social media like Facebook to share information, looking for an edge. Sophisticated traders such as hedge funds draw on more selected networks such as their investors.

The word “community” is doing a lot of work here it shouldn’t do. And it’s a little hard to imagine an entire hedge fund entrusted to the fortunes of six-degree, social media friendships. The role these informal exchanges played in giving Galleon the “edge” that Mr. Rajaratnam insisted upon is most likely negligible. Instead, it seems fair to assume, Mr. Rajaratnam and his associates depended on what Crovitz calls “more sophisticated” social information networks. (If you like acronyms, call them SINs). How sophisticated, and how social, remains to be seen.

The other argument, the argument about market transparency, is usually attributed to Milton Friedman (but originates, according to Stephen Bainbridge, with Henry Manne). Friedman summed it up when he quipped: “you should want more insider trading, not less. You want to give the people most likely to have knowledge about deficiencies of the company an incentive to make the public aware of that.” The merits of this view aside — and Bainbridge has argued persuasively that its merits are slim — it paints a deliberately naive picture of the markets, with knowledgeable insiders merely lacking some incentive to inform “the public” of a company’s deficiencies.

The public? It’s difficult to say why Friedman should choose this word. No doubt about it, inside information about a company’s shortcomings, or failures, or misdeeds can serve the public, or be a public good; and in a perfect world, or even a better world, there might be real incentives and protections for those who come forward with information about companies that serves the public interest. But in our world, in the real world, who among the public, broadly construed, the publicus, would benefit from this kind of information, or even know how to benefit from it?

It’s a very small percentage of the public, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. It’s a “community,” to use Crovitz’s word. But the trouble is this: this particular community is like a gated enclave, restricted, shut off from the traffic and noise of the public world. Just Mr. Rajaratnam and friends — nobody else; a very small, very closed circle, a social information network, to which only a select few are privy.

There are, no doubt, many such networks of friends and boon companions where the line between inside and outside is blurred: after all, friends don’t let friends stay out in the cold. But these social information networks are still a long way from true transparency and public disclosure, or information that is a public good, even though we have all the technology we need to make information public. What we lack is the political intelligence to do it right, or maybe just the political will to do it at all.