Monday, September 1, 2008

(What Lies Behind) The Descent of Man

I had planned to write about this story earlier but got distracted by the events in the financial markets.

On August 6 this year, 11 climbers died on the “K2”, the world’s second tallest mountain.

Maurcie Isserman wrote an insightful Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in which he faulted the every-man-for-himself attitude of the climbers and contrasted it with the more chivalrous conduct of bygone years. I am quoting select passages here, but you should read the piece in its entirety.
WILCO VAN ROOIJEN, a Dutch mountain climber, managed to survive the debacle this week that took the lives of 11 others in Pakistan on K2, the world’s second-highest peak. Describing the chaotic events that ensued when a pinnacle of ice collapsed and swept away fixed ropes that climbers from several expeditions high on the mountain had counted on to aid their descent from the summit, Mr. van Rooijen lamented: “Everybody was fighting for himself, and I still do not understand why everybody were leaving each other.”

Fifty-five years ago this month, Dr. Charles S. Houston, America’s premier Himalayan mountaineer, led a team of seven Americans and one British climber attempting a first ascent on K2. They made steady progress up the mountain, and by Aug. 1 all eight climbers had reached a campsite at 25,300 feet. From there, given good weather, they expected to reach the 28,251 foot summit in two days.

Instead, they were pinned down by a blizzard in their high camp for the next week. And one member of the team, Art Gilkey, who was on his first Himalayan venture, was struck down by a case of thrombophlebitis, a clotting in the veins, in his left leg. It left him unable to walk and in danger of death if a blood clot were to reach his lungs. Houston and the others knew that there was little chance that they could carry an incapacitated man 9,000 feet down treacherous slopes to the safety of base camp. But they did not for a minute consider leaving their teammate behind.
Isserman ended the essay by comparing the conduct of climbers then and now:
Houston himself summed up the highest ideals of expeditionary culture when he wrote of his K2 comrades: “We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.” Today in contrast, as was evident last week on K2, climbers enter the mountains as strangers and tend to leave the same way.
This ending suffers from a triple fault. It is didactic. It is nostalgic. And it stops where it must begin.

Why did the spirit of cooperation decline so drastically in the past 55 years to the point of nonexistence? What explains this descent of man?

The answer is the ascent of “economic man”.

Economic man is the driver of the Western economic theories. He is a constantly calculating machine ruled solely by the considerations of personal profit and loss, pleasure and pain avoidance, risk and reward. By virtue of this characteristic, he is labeled “rational”. This rationality is not in the Kantian, but the Shylockian, sense; the economic man is “rational” because he strives to maximize his profits without regard to others.

After WWII, with the influence of the US reaching beyond economics and into the cultural and social landscape, the “ethics” of economic man gradually worked their way into the psyche of the Western public. Still, the “progress” was slow and the economic man mostly remained confined to college textbooks and academic settings. The watershed event was the collapse of the Bretton Woods system that, in giving rise to speculative capital, created the perfect milieu for the coming-out of the economic man. He came out all right, in-your-face and even belligerent, not only in academic theories but also in the media, movies and books. Milton Friedman was his most fanatic advocate; he strove to create a social-moral system to always put the economic man on the right.

Here is this “father of monetarism” in a June 5, 2005 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. The subject of the interview was Friedman’s “bold” idea of privatizing the Social Security that, the paper claimed, was becoming “mainstream”:
“I have always been opposed to social security,” Milton Friedman said in a recent interview at his home in San Francisco. “I think it is a very unethical program” … What about the fact that Social Security has reduced poverty among the elderly? “Well,” he replied, “what it has done is transfer a lot of income from the young to the old. It is certainly true it has made the old people of the United States the best treated old people in the world”. But why is that a bad thing? “Oh,” he replied. “It is not a bad thing for them, but what about the young?”
I quoted this interview in Vol. 3 of Speculative Capital and commented:
The “bold” economist reverses the meaning of ethical by changing its reference from others to the self: every man for himself and may the devil take the hindmost. To the intellectual architects of the particular brand of economics practiced in the U.S., every man is on a desert island.
The climbers who died or abandoned their friends on the K2 were the climbers of our time. They were taught – conditioned, really – to maximize their own self interest. In the chaos of an accident on the mountaintop, immediately running for cover must have seemed as the most rational course of action. It was in keeping with the ethics of the time.

Maximizing one’s interest, however, is not always the “optimum” course of action. You do not need to be a follower of Rumi to understand that. The chaos in the financial markets which I described in the 10-part Credit Woes series offers ample evidence of that universal truth.