“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. “I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?” – Sterling Hayden (General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Stranglove).
I was first introduced to this term when I took a course in psychological research methods a few months ago. Essentially, it means defining a concept in such a way that it can be manipulated in objective space as opposed to subjective space. More simply, a a concept is defined in terms of measurable qualities rather than qualities for which no objective measure exists. Dealing with the objective and things defined operationally is key to scientific method in general and certainly not limited to psychology. Indeed, limiting rationality to the objective space has provided a framework under which great strides in discovery have been and are made feasible.
However, we must take care not to overextend the application of objective reasoning. Today, objectivity is applied almost without question to politics, social sciences and even the meaning of existance. It has been my personal experience that this far reaching application tends to be self-limiting at best and destructive at worst. On the limiting side of the spectrum, we can invoke the Marcusian notion of the operationalization of concepts lke “freedom,” where the objectification of freedom inherently limits what freedom ‘could’ be or mean. On the destructive end of the spectrum, we may postulate that the total absence of subjectivity leads to nihilism in that the limiting factors of objective definition become so pervasive that no room exists for personal discovery or growth.
In the strictest sense, an abstract operational definition would need to be a combination of other operational definitions eventually reducing to a set that are directly measurable. Therefore, a positivist may assert, “even very abstract concepts such as freedom and existence will eventually be explainable through operational definition via reduction of these concepts down to physical or computational laws.” However, the complexity of this model may not be graspable. That is, understanding the model may prove as difficult as understanding the physical manifestation the model was intended to represent. In other words, one would need to apply the same empirical methods to understand the model as they would to understand reality.
Furthermore, in the discourse of social and political sciences definitions are routinely established and used operationally that are not “pure” operational definitions. That is, they don’t reduce to directly measurable elements. This is an almost humorous constraint in these domains because they’re limited by a sense of objectivity which fails to truly be objective.
For better of for worse, objective thinking is so incredibly embedded in our thought processes at this point that it is overextended in attempts to tackle problems for which it is ill prepared. This over dependence opens the door to manipulation and limitations upon thought.
As a somewhat radical leftist I often argue with associates, typically in a friendly context, regarding the semantics of “freedom” within the domain of archetypal political/economic systems such as capitalism versus socialism. An argument often delivered by proponents of capitalism is that a person should have the freedom to own resources and modify them into consumables for a net profit if that is what satisfies them in life. I argue to the contrary on the grounds that this process is inherently exploitative and therefore eventually oppressive with respect to others. Ultimately, it is detrimental to the exploiters themselves. The point expressed here is not purely my own but a product of my own ideas and others via casual conversation.
To begin I’ll borrow a model put forth by a friend that simply states, “one key failure of the current incarnation of the market economy is the failure to integrate all the factors contributing to the ‘cost’ of a product intended for consumption.” For instance, a simple supply vs demand model does not include the cost of resources from private property such as timber. The cost of extraction my be included but perhaps not the cost of the water used to replant the trees. This in of itself is not a criticism of capitalism per say but rather appeals to one to acknowledge that we have not developed models sophisticated enough to properly price consumables. As a result, the system is entropic or “leaky.”
I propose that if a realistic value was applied to all variables within the consumption chain the system would prove to be unsustainable given the current rate of consumption. That is, the current incarnation of capitalism depends on unchecked exploitation of resources or the inequitable exchange of resources at some point in the chain. A system that included the cost for items not currently valued or undervalued would cease to yield a net profit for the capitalist and then capitalism crumbles.
On this train of thought there are two destinations. First, capitalism can continue along the current course and over the long term, if you buy my argument, the system will collapse either exhausting a key undervalued resource(s), or decay into something resembling an oligarchy where only an elite class have access to a comfortable lifestyle by today’s standards. The lack of scientific valuation of key resources has consequences visible in the speculative oil price run-up of late. Additionally, the largest corporations already represent something of an oligarchy in terms of their influence over the lives of large populations.
The alternative is striving for a more accurate valuation of resources and scaling back lifestyles accordingly. If a net profit is still possible in areas of this new model then capitalism may still survive. This view is held by many who favor further privatization, believing that approach will lend itself to more accurate valuation. However, at least by appealing to my own intuition and knowledge of closed systems, I fail to see how that could be possible. Using the first law of thermodynamics as a rough analogy, resources(energy) can change hands(form) indefinitely but there’s no net increase(profit) in the system. This, along with some humanist reasoning, is why I favor systems based on cooperation as opposed to exploitation.