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The discourses directing our actions

During a discussion at a staff seminar today one of the participants, who teaches public administration, was explaining to the rest of us that in his research on, broadly speaking, the communication between government officials (including ministers) and ordinary citizens comprising various constituencies, he constantly comes across communicational gaps — between the documents released by officials, pertaining to specific constituencies or communities (such as audit reports) and the constituencies concerned, between the officials or ministers themselves and the communities involved when they occasionally meet face to face, and between the members of the constituencies and the officials, when the former try to “get through” to officials or ministers.

Our discussion explored various reasons for this, some of which centred on the concept of discourses or “language games”, which are very different where reports, governed by technical, bureaucratic rules of reporting, and ordinary language attempts to understand these, come up against each other. This points to one reason why communicational gaps exist: terminological exclusion through specialised discourse.

There is no reason why officials or ministers, assisted by someone who is linguistically adept in the language of the constituency concerned, could not approach the latter and use every available avenue to make technical reports or “white papers” accessible to them. (I have alluded to Jacques Ranciére before, who believes (for good reason) that all people are capable of making sense of something when given the opportunity, no matter what class or educational differences separate them, and in cases like this one it can be put to the test, as it were.) One of our members pointed out that this is precisely what many individuals — and not only state officials or ministers — are not willing to do — to go out of their way to make certain information accessible to others, because it would remove a (discursive) barrier behind which they feel protected.

Does this sound familiar? How many of us have been exposed to lecturers and teachers who have hidden behind a palisade of technical jargon to protect themselves from the possibility of being questioned with too much understanding on the part of students, or of members of a community who have a stake in the smooth running of a government department? In other words, the phenomenon of individuals throwing up a smokescreen for protection when they do not feel entirely confident in themselves regarding the field of their accountability, is not at all foreign to us.

Reinforcing this evasive behaviour born of lack of confidence there is the further scourge of hierarchical thinking — the appeal to (often unfounded) “authority” — which functions as an almost insurmountable obstacle to, among other things, productive communication, or research, when senior researchers or people in research development adopt a condescending attitude to junior staff members or — in the case of postgraduate student-supervisors — to students. Prescriptive behaviour usually accompanies this hierarchical approach, which never frees postgraduate students to find their own way in their field. Even the most adequate supervision, understood as guidance of less experienced people, cannot afford to keep the “apprentice” on a string forever.

To be able to “free” students for discovering their own angle of incidence into a discipline, one has to have confidence and the willingness to learn from someone else, albeit a student, that your own approach is not the only possible one. Again, anyone who lacks confidence in their own ability to confront the new, and to assimilate it into one’s own frame of reference — or better, to modify and amplify your own frame of comprehension — would resist such openness and hide behind established edifices of supposed “knowledge”. I say “supposed” because it is not really knowledge unless it is put to the test in the face of something novel, which could easily come from students (something I have experienced on many occasions). Needless to say, one’s approach to student guidance is intimately related to one’s own way of doing research — your own “style” or approach to gaining insight into the disciplines that interest you.

The more fundamental question is, of course, why some people adopt hierarchical positions towards others — in diverse contexts, from business to education to civil service — and others seem entirely at ease with a situation, even a very informal one, where they treat others as equals (regardless of whether such others are as “knowledgeable” as they are in a discipline). The answer has to do, firstly, with confidence (as argued earlier), but secondly also with what the German philosopher Fichte once remarked, namely: “The kind of philosophy one chooses depends on the kind of person you are.”

There are many theories of personality articulated by people such as Freud, Jung, and others, which is not what I want to go into here, given their terminological differences. “What kind of person one is” nevertheless plays a decisive role in one’s approach to virtually everything in life, and not only the situations referred to above. Some time ago I posted a piece on Lacan’s theory of the four discourses: “What Lacan can teach one about capitalism” — I would suggest reading that in conjunction with this, given the space-limitations.

Every one of the four discourses — the discourse of the master, of the university, of the hysteric and of the analyst — denotes a specific subject position. To put it simply: every discourse is a particular way of approaching the world, society, or other individuals. And different people behave under the sway or dominance of a different discourse, mostly, although one can also switch discursive positions (deliberately, or involuntarily) in different situations.

Individuals who tend to be hierarchical in their approach are invariably in thrall to the master’s discourse in one of its embodiments, of which there are many. (Every one of the four discourses is a TYPE of discourse.) Patriarchy is a widespread master’s discourse — the discourse of the “rule of the father” — which functions in government, in education, in business and in the churches (the Roman Catholic Church being an exemplar of a patriarchal, hierarchical organisation, although not the only one). Needless to say, individuals interpellated by this discourse, would find evidence of it in the readiness with which they submit to “authority” in their own lives, including in research.

The discourse of the university is the discourse of knowledge — ironically not of a critical, questioning conception of knowledge, but the kind that supports the status quo, for example standard theories of economics that maintain present economic power relations. The true representative of critical, questioning science is the discourse of the hysteric, and one can recognise oneself as acting under its aegis when one’s style of communicating (including teaching) or of research is a questioning one. The discourse of the analyst is recognisable in the actions of those who are not satisfied with incessant questioning (of the master’s and the university discourses), but find that a questioning alternation between different master’s discourses (which are therefore relativised) yields the best communicational or research results and the most beneficial human or social relations.

Self-knowledge as far as one’s own “discursive dominant” is concerned can therefore be very productive. Whatever the case may be, knowing the weakness and the strengths of a discursive position can assist towards modifying one’s communicational behaviour as well as one’s teaching and research in the case of academics.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 1 March 2013

    You do realise that you cannot be an hysteric by quoting Marx.

  2. Maria Maria 1 March 2013

    Pity you seem to be misunderstanding Bert, Chris. You can quote whomever you like (if it is to substantiate or clarify a point), as long as it is not the only “authority” that you lean on in a particular domain. Look again carefully at what Bert says about the analyst’s discourse: no one can be a hysteric uninterruptedly; you have to have some temporary (non-)foundation, albeit one that provides “ground” in an alternating process together with others. The trouble starts when one adopts only ONE authority, whatever that may be – the Church, the Party, the Chicago School of Economics, and so on further. You may have noticed that this is not the case with Bert – sure, he questions, but also offers non-final answers, that may be supplemented with and by others. Read more carefully.

  3. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 1 March 2013

    Maria, I can only respond to what Bert writes. Firstly he misrepresents the actual scientific branch of economics as a “knowledge discourse”. This is a science that produces 1000’s of new articles every year that questions and refines our understanding of this very important subject. Bert presents his interpretation as fact, not as an opinion.

    Also from his articles he rarely questions the efficacy of alternatives to neo liberal capitalism. What are they? How will it be implemented? I have never seen Bert critique the writings of Karl Marx, but I have often seen him quote him as if his ramblings represent the gospel truth, almost with religious fervor? Surely this is the opposite of scientific inquistiven

  4. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 1 March 2013

    I recall a saying something along the lines that good teacher is able to convey a complex idea simply and a bad teacher complicates a simple idea! Knowledge need not be defended, it should stand or fall on it’s own merits.

    @ Chris, I’d be interested to understand why you believe quoting Marx is not suited to a hysteric’s position? Surely a discourse must examine different perspectives? That doesn’t necessitate agreeing with the author’s position.

  5. HD HD 2 March 2013


    Bert never has to engage you on economics, his discourse necessitates that he waves it away and instead engage in rhetoric which positions the concepts and evidence in a way that fits his political beliefs – anti-capitalism/ everything is capitalism’s fault. If you cannot communicate in this language you are simply out/ “don’t understand” – it is a great form of intellectual terrorism and academic cottage industry. A few of us have tried before, but I no longer bother…

    (Ironic how for all of the talk about dominant discourses and hegemony, few post-modernist ever bother the question their own discourses and its impact…)

    I would also like to see Bert apply some of the same critique to alternative systems, as opposed to merely suggesting such systems. There are examples around…

    Economics I am afraid is also in deep trouble – it has forgotten its roots. I recommend Peter Boettke’s excellent “Living Economics”.

  6. Sophia Sophia 3 March 2013

    Bert, sadly (and I suppose inevitably), it seems that the central point of your article has been missed by the preoccupations of your readers. I think this act of ‘missing the point’ provides a perfect example of the discursive gaps and traps we so easily fall into – and that you worry about in your article. Notice the familiar ‘assuming of positions’ (political, economic, theoretical, gender, race, class etc.). We so readily seek a categorisation of what is said that we do not ‘hear’ anything more than the preconceptions of that category.
    As an antidote to these gaps and traps you seem to be recommending humility, openness and importantly a willingness and a deliberate desire to blast a few holes in the walls of technocracy. This dangerous and easily misunderstood attitude is indeed the hardest path, because not having the ‘security’ of a given position leaves one ‘homeless’, reminiscent of Luce Irigaray’s treatment of the character of Antigone (cf. ‘Thinking the Difference’). This attitude (alluded to in your reference to Fichte), indeed pertains to an ethos of the kind of person one chooses to be.
    Plato was as anxious about these discursive vagrants, as the technocrats of today – most poignantly, in his Phaedrus. The latter dialogue on love is of course the allegorical epitome of the discursive gap and trap. The Hysteric and the Master talking past one another. Much is ineffectual and misguided in the hysteric’s words, but in a desert we’ll take…

  7. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 4 March 2013

    Consider the terms ideology, discourse, post-modernism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. Isn’t this the same kind of smokescreen?

  8. Maria Maria 4 March 2013

    I should have added, for your benefit (HD and Chris): Not that this has anything directly to do with what this post is about – you always seem to deflect whatever Bert says back to a defense of the indefensible: capitalism. Have you seen the latest news on corporations spending millions on efforts to pull the wool over the public’s eyes in the shape of climate-change denialist publications? That’s capitalism trying to dodge its responsibility for destroying the conditions of life on the planet. Let alone the direct destruction of species, like killing millions of sharks for their fins; just cutting off the fins (wanted for shark-fin soup, especially in China) and dumping them back into the sea to die there, horribly. And it is done for profit, the driving dynamo of capitalism. And they don’t even “own” these sharks as means of production; they just claim them, as if it is legitimate.

  9. Tofolux Tofolux 4 March 2013

    @Bert, there is a huge difference between public administration and public participation and herein lies yr contradiction. Public reps on all spheres have various forums where the up-down communication takes place. Iro Ministers, you have constituency reps/offices and also in terms of the rules by the ruling party to its Ministers, they must show that they have had a certain no of public meetings with thr constituencies. Hence once again I am left wondering who or what is at question here. I say this becos even if Ministers are not communicating, the opposition party’s also have a duty to communicate with the constituents they represent. Once again tho, there is something rather familiar in this debate.You use words ”evasive bahviour,lack of confidence,productive,ability” and then you moot”to be able to free,discipline, have confidence,willingness”. Other than the familiarity, my niggly thort iro of this communication theory that you moot is the question of propaganda. It has become quite obvious that the current social discourse is dominated by a certain message of disrepute. I say this becos since 1994 there has been a sustained campaign by the minority to paint a picture of a country that is close to a failed state. This message carries with it an ANC govt with ministers and voters who are running amok. We have seen this with the crime(b4 world 2010) and corruption campaigns.This type of discrediting is not done anywhr else in the world but then again apartheid…..

  10. Tofolux Tofolux 4 March 2013

    cont…..apartheid was not practised anywhere else in the world. The question therefore has to be asked if the minority groups have any committment or patriotism towards the country we are seeking to rebuild. It has become quite evident that it is only the majority, together with the ruling party and Govt who has rebuilt our state from ruin to what it is today. It is also no secret that the greatest beneficiaries under this has been the minority groups. Their repayment to this country, our state, its people is one of disloyalty and unpatriotic behaviour. The communication theory that you moot is nothing but propaganda. Instead of researching this subject especially in terms of rules and regulations of public representatives you relied on a theory from a friend who is uninformed and quite clueless as to how our public participation takes place by law. Instead you have used an ill conceived theory and placed that on record, fallaciously. What question must therefore be asked of you and others who use public forums to put debates that are untrue? Should we conclude that you are still engaged in a pre 1994 concept of ”gevaars” and propaganda which not greatly damaged the psyche of those who believed in and practised a barbaric system that any normal person would find totally inconceivable but furthers seeks to rely on this damage to promote your fears?

  11. Bert Bert 4 March 2013

    Maria, Gary and Sophia – Thank you for stepping into the breach, in this way demonstrating that, although the discursive differend is confirmed, as you rightly point out, by the selective responses of some commentators, you show that what I am trying to get across is not lost on everyone. Lacan puts this possibility – indeed, inevitability – of misunderstanding on the part of (at least) some readers so well in the Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis when he reminds one that perception and interpretation are always accompanied by desire (or in a different idiom, ‘interest’), so that what one sees is invariably a function of where one’s desire is. The only way to counteract this, of course, is to be savvy about it, and constantly be wary of one’s own ‘blind spots’ as symptoms of one’s desire. Or, in other words, one constantly has to cultivate humility, not only ethically, but epistemically, too. Thank you for reminding me of Irigaray and Plato’s Phaedrus, Sophia. Isn’t it wonderful that Irigaray speaks there of Antigone, just as Lacan talks about her (Antigone’s) ‘desire’ in the Ethics of Psychoanalysis-seminar!

  12. Bert Bert 4 March 2013

    Tofolux, what I said in this post about the communication between government and communities was an interpretive summary of what a lecturer in Public Administration told me, and takes into account the distinction you mention. As for your attempt to taint me with pro-apartheid thinking – it is well-known that I opposed apartheid in what I wrote and lectured on during its days of hegemony, so don’t try to draw me into a discussion that is not directly relevant to what I have written here. Read Sophia’s comment – it applies perfectly to your remarks. Try to think in a different register.

  13. Sophia Sophia 4 March 2013

    Tofolux, thnx for your contribution – I hear your complaint & I think it’s an important & largely valid one. You’re correct to note the contra-propaganda of the ‘crumbling state under ANC rule’. Your analysis has cogency & may well represent an insight into the views of a portion of the anti-ANC bloc. There’s an insight in this thoughtleader piece you’re missing though – relating directly to the critical points you make. Your characterisation of some non-ANC supporters as being unpatriotic or lacking commitment overlooks a key aspect regarding how democracy works. In a democracy citizens foster open & continuous dialogue about what a good state should look like & how it ought to behave. In societies where divisions prevent or curtail such a dialogue, we easily turn to stereotyping, simplification & general misunderstanding – & then conflict. We forget that its hard to understand how those on the other side of the divide ‘participate’ in the state (as you correctly point out). The goal is not for everyone to agree on everything, rather it’s that we come to agree on some general principles (e.g. rights, justice, tolerance, rule of law) as the ‘best worst’ guiding principles for us all to get along. The big surprise is the realisation that we all really want very similar things. Unfortunately fear, anger, greed & resentment get in the way & so the discursive gaps remain. Some of us, (like you I suspect), can see this & that is real patriotism, a commitment to the…

  14. Sophia Sophia 4 March 2013

    …the rights of all.

    Thanks again.

  15. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 5 March 2013

    We love labels. They make us feel comfortable. They are great defense mechanisms. Once we place the label, it’s game over for dialogue, the labelled is kept beyond the moat, they cannot threaten our castles of belief, our carefully guarded world-views that tower above the world beyond us. It takes some courage to lower the drawbridge and venture out beyond the comfortable. To examine another’s ideas on their merit, to engage in constructive dialogue. It’s a scary place, the woods are dark and noisy, the paths are not well lit. But knowledge lies in the forest, not in the warm castle, it belongs to no-one, but is available to all.
    So to Bert’s critics, to the defenders of Capitalism, how about engaging on the merits? Is Capitalism broken, how do you explain sharks being killed for their fins, rhino’s being killed for their horns, if not for profit, if not for simple material gain? To me it certainly seems that we have lost control of the beast, that we serve Capitalism, not that Capitalism serves us?

  16. Tofolux Tofolux 5 March 2013

    @Sofia, thank you for your thoughts and allow me to clarify. My premise rests on the idea that ALL of US share the same responsibilities wherein we seek rebuild our country disregarding on which side of the fence you are. Our social contract especially in terms of our particular democracy ie participative democracy calls upon ALL of US to understand our role and relevance not only iro of the Constitution but Country, its vision etc etc. What concerns me however (let me admit that the characterisation is what it is noting the characterisation of the campaign) is that some amongst us have chosen to abandon not only a particular responsibility but something which is so fundamental eg an allegiance to your country. It is no secret that the concerted campaign against the State and its people has been ongoing since 1994. My question however is to what end, to which outcome and at what cost not ony to our State but also to its citizens? (ps but this is clearly another debate)
    @Bert, the point about participative democracy ties in with your anaysis and conclusion. I am suggesting that there should be a further consideration of all the facts when isolating the reason (terminological through specialised discourse) for the communication gap. (Ps there is a lady in the WCape who also claims to have struggle credentials who sees no problem in calling citizens of this country refugees)

  17. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 5 March 2013

    Gary, I defend Freedom, Capitalism does not need defending as it is a scientific concept like gravity. You can reject or accept gravity, it is your choice, it will make no difference to how painful it is when you fall.

    By defending freedom, I certainly do not defend everything done by free people, far from it. Free people kill, rape, steal and do a million bad things every single day, yet we do not consider removing freedom from everyone now, do we?

  18. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 5 March 2013

    You are merely begging the question. Do we live in a capitalist society? No, we do not. We live in a mixed economy. Consider that shark fin trading and rhino horn trading are both illegal in many countries. The puzzling part is how you blame capitalism (or even our current neo-mercantilist mixed economy system) for people who do things that are already not allowed in our current system, regardless of what you want to call it?

    The discourse that directs the actions of most rhino and shark fin traders is a cultural one. People who use these products sincerely believe that they are reaping benefits of some sort by some magic, just like the cargo cult scientism performed by most humanities departments. The problem behind the sophistry curtain remains an epistemological crisis and seems like a lack whereby the radical chic can only be positioned as radical chic insofar as they are seen to have The Discourse. Just don’t ask for justifications or clarifications because then you lack The Discourse.

  19. Yaj Yaj 5 March 2013

    Economics is a pseudo science in the true sense and a dismal one at that.

    my discourse may be described as hysteric if I rant and rage about peak oil and the end of economic growth.
    when everything is stripped of the technical jargon, the problems we face are simple.

    We have a debt-based money system of fractional reserve banking and compound interest wherby 97% of our money supply is created from nothing by private banks when they issue loans. This system needs endless exponential growth for it to continue working but this becomes impossible and unsustainable for we live on a finite planet with finite resources.

    Hence we need change . We need monetary and banking reform to full reserve banking and transition to a steady-state economy as proposed by Prof Herman Daly, Prof Richard Werner of Somerset University (UK) and Prof Laurent Kotlikoff of Boston University to name a few academic luminaries.

    We have to contemplate sharing and redistributing a shrinking economic pie in the most humane, egalitarian, just and compassionate way possible in the near future as the alternative is descent into a barbarous economic collapse and chaos. Our current monetary and economic system can only lead to disaster and we are witnessing the beginnings in Greece and other European countries already.

    Hysterical , isn’t it ?

  20. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 6 March 2013

    @ Chris I call the concept of gravity into question every time I board an airplane, every time I paraglide, every time I see an eagle soaring, and am glad that the Wright brothers and a bunch of others didn’t pay too much attention to it either. Which branch of science are you using to ground Capitalism in? If it’s physics, then you’ll know that in the post Einstein, string theory, dark matter, multiple dimensions, Higgs Boson science of physics today, it’s a little chaotic out there, it’s not the calm the school textbooks may claim it to be. Pretty much describes my view of the state of capitalism!
    @ Garg I agree that there is a significant cultural element to the rhino trade, but the cultural aspect has been there for many years, the rhino horn trade has grown from something like 12 killed 5 years ago, to 400 killed in SA alone last year. The theory being suggested by most is that the receiving countries have significantly increased their middle class, thus the demand has increased, so supply has increased. Free market/ Chicago school capitalism would say that is the science of capitalism, it would simply say supply is meeting demand. Free market capitalism works when everyone is nice and when there is an ongoing supply, but when people care only for themselves and the resource is limited, the free market in that instance reaches its limit when the source is depleted. For whales, for dolphins, for rhinos, for tigers, for elephants, for polar bears, it’s not free at…

  21. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 6 March 2013

    … all

    @ Garg interesting wikepedia references to circular arguments and “false science”, reading your latter reference it makes this point:
    “Feynman cautioned that to avoid becoming cargo cult scientists, researchers must avoid fooling themselves, be willing to question and doubt their own theories and their own results, and investigate possible flaws in a theory or an experiment. He recommended that researchers adopt an unusually high level of honesty which is rarely encountered in everyday life, and gives examples from advertising, politics, and behavioral psychology to illustrate the everyday dishonesty which should be unacceptable in science. Feynman cautions,
    “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in Cargo Cult Science.”
    So between you and I who is fooling themselves? Or are we both fools?

  22. HD HD 6 March 2013

    My comments seem to again got lost in cyber space…

    Epstein’s distinction between thick and thin postmodernism (umbrella terms for postmodernist / post structuralists influenced by the French thinkers of the 60s) is still very relevant.

    More so the warning that thick postmodernism in certain instances have become a philosophical guise for political rhetoric. I tend to agree that despite important contributions, it has unfortunately evolved into a cottage industry for some activists from the anti-capitalist left and provides cover for all sorts of ideological rants.

    Alan Kirby makes the argument that the movements relevance is disappearing as it is becoming out of touch with technology and the times…

    I tend to agree more with Stephen Hicks (see especially Chpt 6 in “Explaining Postmodernism) that it is difficult to argue that modern pomo serves as a pure epistemological challenge and that it is increasingly not the politics that matter more…After all, if it is all just language, it matter less about the argument and more about rhetorical persuasiveness. In fact you can find numerous choice quotes from postmodernist that suggest this as a suitable tactic to follow. (See Hicks chpt 6 – its in pdf). That in fact an important part of the strategy is not to engage – but create a new narrative at all costs…

  23. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 6 March 2013

    The Chicago School is not the mainstream school of economics and it’s not exactly a free market school either, believe it or not. Even so, the rhino trade is similar to the Prohibition, of which the Chicago School proponents were extremely critical. More on that here:

    The Cargo Cult science quip was not aimed at you, you seem critical and doubtful. It was aimed at those who would hide behind one discourse when countering another, instead of following Feynman’s advice.

  24. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 6 March 2013

    This is an explanation of why the Chicago School was not as free market as they would have us believe. Good thing we’re starting to see (hopefully) that this capitalism is a fractured beast and not exactly the boogey man we were hoping for.

    Concerns for scare resources? That’s another topic but surely the idea is to use resources as effectively and efficiently as possible? Something like ephemeralisation?

  25. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 6 March 2013

    Gary, stop smoking the good stuff when you are alone in the dark scary forest. What does calling the concept of gravity into question mean? You use Capitalist technology to fly man, that is it, nothing more, nothing less. If anything you have added to the analogy, as you will fall just as hard when the Capitalist technology stops working for you.

    You forgot dark energy and we most certainly are not post Einstein, what is chaotic about the state of Capitalism? When you answer, can you please outline exactly what your own ideal economic system will be and how it will work.

  26. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 6 March 2013

    @ Chris Ok game on, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, my ideal economic system is not an ideal, it’s a “mengelmoes”, pretty much like SA, it consists of the idea that on the whole people should be allowed to sell what they produce, to whom they wish at a price they wish, that people should be allowed to buy what they need, when they want at a price they want. That people are free but take responsibility for their actions. But, people are people, sometimes they play fair, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they look out for the other guy, sometimes they care only for themselves. Then there are the system’s issues of blind spots, unintended consequences, critical mass and positive and negative feedback. So you need a forum in which the small guy can counter the big guys influence, you need a referee to step in between parties and call time out on the bullies, cheats and thieves, and we need a way to refocus on needs rather than desire. To me capitalism as an economic mechanism has morphed into a beast that is out of control. The poverty gap is escalating, the planet is suffering, our fellow planet dwellers (non human) are being killed off, our limited resources are not being managed, we think short-term not long-term. To me, capitalism in its current form is UNSUSTAINABLE, what would I replace it with, not a neat system, but a negotiated system that allows for the equitable exchange of value and seeks to sustain life not destroy it.
    So here’s one for you, is…

  27. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 6 March 2013

    @ Chris … is Capitalism in its current form ok? By which I mean are you ok with it, and is it a healthy system?

  28. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 6 March 2013

    @ HD checked your reference for Kirby, now forgive me if I get the labels wrong, still not quite sure the difference between post-modern and post-structuralist, but if I have the idea right the post-modern argument is that there is no such thing as an independent reality, that reality is a social construct, negotiated by the recipient as they interpret their experience through the medium of language, which itself carries meaning/ is biased. Kirby makes the point that post-m is about the author and that the new era is about the recipient who interacts with the medium thus changing it’s meaning? I would have assumed that’s the same in essence as the central argument of post-m, that – whilst thought out before reality TV phone in’s – every recipient will interact with the medium through his/ her language/ world-view, thus each persons interpretation would be unique? Every person on seeing something, thinking about it, immediately interacts with it and thus changes its shape/ meaning?

  29. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 7 March 2013

    The system you describe there initially is exactly what capitalism is. Then you describe a mixed economy, which is what we currently have in place of capitalism. The catch 22 is that the forum whereby the small guy can counter the big guy’s influence is also the forum that the big guys can use to keep competitors out and maintain their monopolies. It also presents problems of agency, or moral hazard, whereby not all the players have a skin in the game.

    This is a big reason why people are not always held responsible for their actions. Think of the repercussions for collective actions like mining strikes. Who should be held responsible? Or of repercussions for the collusion of our banks and the price fixing of our food suppliers, like Tiger Brands? Have there been any?

    Needs and desires are both subjective things, which is why rhino horn has a market and why the American government is spending close to their military budget on health care.

    Back on topic, I agree wholeheartedly that knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a discourse is advantageous. I enjoy these blog posts insofar as they teach me something about the pomo discourses, while I hope to set the record straight where they fall short of other discourses.

  30. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 8 March 2013

    @ Garg so is there anywhere whereby “capitalism” in it’s pure form, not a mixed economy is practiced today? If not, I would suggest that what you call a “mixed economy” is actually the discourse of “capitalism” as it has evolved from the early Marx/ Smith ideas?
    It is my criticism, of the capitalist notions that I refer to initially, that free marketeers see them as needing to operate in isolation, as stand alone, without regulation/ control/ adaptation. In my view it ignores the dynamics and variables of what we know about systems, the influence of power relations, to the benefit of the wealthy, the “big guys”, to the disadvantage of the majority of inhabitants of the planet and the planet itself. Capitalism has valid ideas to contribute, but it can never operate in isolation!

  31. HD HD 8 March 2013


    In short – kinda, but there is a difference…The point I think Kirby is trying to make is technology in the modern age gives people more tools to create their own narratives and therefore a lot of the old concerns in pomo about discourse / alternative radical tools to break the dominant discourse(s) etc. is now freely available (and being used). The type of problems the originally grandfathers of pomo was writing about are no longer as relevant if you like (I don’t entirely agree with this)…Any way, I merely linked it to illustrate my previous point that increasingly even in the humanities pomo is viewed as a passing fad that has served its purpose…you can decided for yourself how strong Kirby’s argument is…

    I tend to agree with the “pure form” argument you are making…it applies to capitalism, anarchism, socialism etc…That is why I tend to always put social theory first as opposed to ethics – like the classic liberal in the tradition of Hume, Smith and Hayek. (none which placed a lot of faith in rationalism, social constructivism and abstract moralising…)

  32. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 9 March 2013

    No, the mixed economy we currently have is a direct extension of the mercantilism that Adam Smith criticised. It is also directly in tune with the way that communism (or ‘state capitalism’) as based on Marx’s ideas were practised in the USSR and is currently practised in China and the USA. The difference is one of degree and not of nature. These systems tend to benefit the big guys, because they don’t allow market mechanisms to oust them. You don’t have an alternative to Eskom and Telkom, for example.

    I’m not sure what you mean with free marketeers. The idea is however that there is a feedback loop whereby the system is self-regulating. This is not the same thing as self-regulation as our press practices it, it rather refers to a monopoly being faced with competition that can’t be kept out by legislation or collusion (called regulatory capture). It’s more in line with what Sweden did to break up their banks in the 90s when they had a similar property bubble than the Americans experienced.

    Where the mixed economy could touch on Smith’s ideas is with regards to natural monopolies like public roads. It’s more efficient to have one entity take care of the infrastructure, with the danger that they could abuse this power, like SANRAL has.

  33. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 10 March 2013

    @ Garg I am wary that we have strayed from the point Bert was making, namely how personal insecurity may hinder open communication, but I think it is relevant to the “capitalism” discourse. I cannot claim any knowledge of Smiths original ideas, but to me what you describe works well for the Village market, where community has a moderating effect! But in the global economy, the small guys barrier to entry is large, he cannot compete on economies of scale, nor on brand presence, nor on research, etc. On a global basis community is excluded, individual motivations can thus operate unfettered, and I think this is what “capitalism” in its pure/ Adam Smith form misses, it is not the most efficient producer who makes it, but the producer who wields the most power!!

  34. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 10 March 2013

    Yes, the point has more to do with how certain discourses abuse their jargon to maintain a position of power with wilful obscurantism. This should ring a few bells to anyone who’s tried to read Deleuze, Guatarri, Derrida and others. If we are to believe Ranciére (which I don’t), then someone who has read and understood these authors would be able to make them understood in plain language – provided of course that there is some substance lurking behind the style.

    I would argue it’s exactly the opposite way around. In a village scenario, many ideas work well which do not scale. Some of these include the gift economy and even communism. This does not work in a global village, whereas a more laissez faire approach does work (think of the World Wide Web and how Wild West its regulation is – any attempts to regulate it and to bring it in line have been futile so far). It is exactly in this scenario where any producer wields more power. Silly examples include Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead after parting ways with their corporate record company bureaucracies. You don’t get much more free market than that, plus there are fewer plastic discs littering the world thanks to digital music.

    Speaking of efficiency, you may be interested in pre-capitalists systems like the potlatch and the kula ring.

  35. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 11 March 2013

    Are you saying that Post-M thinkers are deliberately obscure in their writing to maintain a position of power? If so that is the central point of Bert’s article, no-one is immune from insecurity, no-one is immune to obfuscating to secure their tidy ideas. The French included!!

    As to the local vs global village, at a local level the community provides a moderating effect and thus probably any style of economy could work. At a global level, in industries that require investment in raw materials and production facilities, in distribution networks, the capital required, the access to resources, the scale all favor the big guy. But there is no community to moderate, in this instance, governments with vested interests seek to balance things out, but again scale counts, e.g. the Euro zone. It is in this environment that “capitalism” without a community to moderate, in the sole service of maximum profit at minimum cost, will ignore long-term priorities in the interest of short-term gain. What has been “capitalism’s” response to the melting Arctic ice-cap? A rush to drill for oil and a rush to new trade routes across the pole. See any companies arguing that we are in deep climatic trouble?

    In the case of internet based economies, which negates geographic distance, along with distribution and production size advantages, a small producer has in theory the same opportunity as the big guy? That being said, why is Google the only search engine left?

  36. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 12 March 2013

    [Are you saying that Post-M thinkers are deliberately obscure in their writing to maintain a position of power?]


    [If so that is the central point of Bert’s article,..]

    Yes, with pomo or post-structuralist thinkers somehow immune.

    In a global scenario, the specialisation of labour and comparative advantage actually work out more effectively than a scaled-up version of the local village would work. This is judging by efficiency in resource allocation and extraction. There are communities to moderate, particularly in the Eurozone, and they don’t allocate resources with a market. They usually have full employment and social welfare as their main goals.

    Maximum profit at minimal cost is a minimax problem, which is the trademark of rational agents (one of the real flaws of the Chicago School). You do want to run a minimax algorithm on resources to ensure efficient use of them, but not only on their prices, as the casino in Wall Street tries to do.

    Google is not the only search engine left. About half of China uses Baidu instead, and Facebook runs on Bing. I can write a search engine if I like. I can’t start my own telecoms company (at least not in South Africa). I can’t even start my own online casino.

  37. Alon Serper Alon Serper 9 April 2013

    I am interested in the moral, value-laden and cultural assumptions and their contradiction.

    The morality and embodied values that dictate our actions

    I am developing an applied dialectical method for studying and conceptualisation of human beings through ontological transformation. It could be easily manipulated by individuals of completely different moral and values input to my own – the theorist.

    Participants fuse the contradiction between their perception of a meaningful and fulfilling life and their failure to implement this perception and then work out action plans to rectify and straighten out this contradiction.

    What do I do if participants see ontological transformation in terms of bringing back apartheid or other things that contradict my own morality? They follow the principles of applied dialectics but completely contradict my sense of morality and decency.

  38. Maddison Maddison 25 September 2013

    interesting :)

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