Category Archives: Political Thought

An Excellent Analysis of Karl Marx and His System by Leszek Kolakowski

Many Western Marxists used to repeat that socialism such as it existed in the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Marxist theory and that, deplorable as it might be, it was best explained by some specific conditions in Russia. If this is the case, how could it have happened that so many people in the nineteenth century, especially the anarchists, predicted fairly exactly what socialism based on Marxist principles would turn out to be namely, state slavery? Proudhon argued that Marx’s ideal is to make human beings state property. According to Bakunin, Marxian socialism would consist in the rule of the renegades of the ruling class, and it would be based on exploitation and oppression worse than anything previously known. According to the Polish anarcho-syndicalist Edward Abramowski, if communism were by some miracle to win in the moral conditions of contemporary society, it would result in class division and exploitation worse than what existed at the time (because institutional changes do not alter human motivations and moral behavior). Benjamin Tucker said that Marxism knows only one cure for monopolies, and that is a single monopoly.

These predictions were made in the nineteenth century, decades before the Russian Revolution. Were these people clairvoyant? No. Rather, one could make such predictions rationally, and infer from Marxian anticipations the system of socialized serfdom.

Read the whole thing. It’s relatively short and has a lot of good insights. The part about Marx cheating on the wages of European workers, and his views on the non-European world, are alone worth the price of admission. Kolakowski was a Polish philosopher and Cold War dissident.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.

The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.

However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.

The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution.  ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.

The Theban plays are: Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.

The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.

Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.

Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power. 

Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.

Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.

It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.

Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.

Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning  her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.

In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.

There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.

She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity. 

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens and other places where remains of ancient Greek cities can be found. The festivals were dedicated to the god Dionysus, associated with intoxication, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. Actors wore masks with stereotypical expressions so that audiences were looking at a depersonalised performance, not a recognisable  individual actor giving a personal interpretation of a role.

The amphitheatre was large enough to contain the citizens of the city state (women and slaves excluded of course) and were a form of common city life in which a very large part those allowed to participate did participate, as they did in political assemblies and religious festivals. Plays were generally only performed once as part of a competition and the day was divided between groups of plays by one author.  Some tragedians emerged as particularly distinguished, so there plays were performed again and their texts survived. That is the authors discussed in these posts.

So we can see that ancient Greek theatre was very far from how we normally experience theatre,  and performances of Attic tragedies now are inevitably far removed from the ancient experience, even if some original aspects are sometimes emphasised. We cannot now have a completely ‘authentic’ experience of ancient performance, but we can at least keep in mind the ancient context.

It is one of many fascinating aspects of ancient Athens, and other ancient Greek city states, that some kind of aesthetic performance was a regular feature of common life. The idea of art as a very distinct part of life did not really exist in the way it does now, but the idea of a particular sphere of art, ‘poetics’, did grow in the philosophy of the time, as can be seen in Plato and Aristotle.

One reason I find it difficult to place Plato in a liberty canon, even if for a long time he was seen as an exponent of government free of lawless immoral tyranny, is that he had a very negative view of tragedy, though he appears to have respect for the tragedian Sophocles, at least, as a personality. My decision to take Aristotle as the starting point of this series was connected with his appreciation of tragedy, which is at the centre of his work on the arts, the Poetics. 

It is also one reason why despite Aristotle’s own undoubtedly strong aristocratic tendencies, I see some connection with democratic ideas in his thought. He emphasised the value of a literary form  that gathered together all free males, and where they indulged in the most mobbish low life behaviour of excessive drinking and festivity.

Of course there are many things to appreciate about Attic tragedy other than its political concerns, but it is form of literature and performance very tied up with the political debates of ancient Athens. It shows politics to be deep in the lives of human communities and to be part of choices we have to make about laws and justice, providing great dangers where the wrong choices are made and to allow human flourishing where better choices are made.  These choices are given enormous individual and communal resonance.

This post will concentrate on the Oresteia, a trilogy Aeschylus originally wrote for festival performance. When this long historical sequence of posts reaches a conclusion of some sort, it should be possible to come back to some of the other plays. The three plays within the Oresteia are Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides (Kindly Ones).

Like many other tragedies, these plays pick up on stories in the epics attributed to Homer, and which appeared a few centuries before the time of the Attic tragedies. They refer themselves to the Mycenaean-Bronze Age Greek world of the previous century, focused around a story of a league of Greek kings laying siege to a city in western Anatolia, and then the long journey home of the most cunning of those kings.

The Homeric story at the root of the Oresteia is the return home of King Agamemnon, in which he is murdered by his wife and her lover. Such an act was even  more horrifying for the original audience than it is for us, since it was a transgression of sacralised bonds of  obedience and fidelity applied to married women in relation to their husbands. Even the horror of that original audience at Clytemnestra’s act must have been in some way made ambiguous though, by the knowledge that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, ten years earlier, so that a wind would come to take the Greek boats to Troy.

The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,  Orestes takes revenge and kills both murderous wife and lover, as he was bound to do according to the expectations of the time.  There are various versions of the story, but the distinct aspect of the version of Aeschylus is that horror of a cycle of acts of violence in which each act can seek justification in revenge, and the demands of divine justice. Even the patriarchal Athenians must have thought of Clytemnestra’s act or murder as having some measure of justification in Agamemnon’s violence against their daughter, though perhaps seeing her more as an instrument for the anger of divine forces than as an individual justified in her choices.

The focus will now be on Aeschylus’ trilogy rather than the general story behind it appearing in many different texts. In Aeschylus, the divine forces communing a justice of violent retribution outside any legal process, are the furies, monstrous female creatures independent even of the gods, enforcing justice that exists outside any laws created by human institutions. In this case, the furies are more tied to the rights of the mother than to the revenge rights on her of the son.  They wish to destroy Orestes, and he can only avoid this by fleeing from Argos (in the Peloponnesus) northwards towards Athens, where he can seek more measured justice.

In Athens, the court that judges Orestes is balanced between citizens of Athens and the furies. The casting vote belongs to Pallas Athena, the celibate goddess associated with Athens, with wisdom and with war, though she is not the chief deity of war. The citizens take the side of Orestes while the furies continued their demands for his blood. Athena’s casting vote rescues Orestes, whose reasons for killing his mother are deemed adequate, by Athena though she admits to  a bias because she was born from Zeus without a mother. This follows on from the earlier comments of Orestes’ protector, the god Apollo, that a mother is a nurse of a child rather than a parent equal with the father .

However, the trial is not just a defeat for the furies and the rights of women, since Athena turns them into the ‘kindly ones’, protectors and enforcers of the laws of Athens. They present themselves during the trial as protectors of old laws against new, but accept the idea of a new role upholding law and piety in Athens. Orestes swears to never harm Athens, the city of Athena, so in some sense accepts a female authority, even if one who places herself on the side of the father against the mother.

The role given to Athens and Athena is a an expression of the view of Pericles, discussed in the last post, as reported by Thucydides, that Athens was the teacher of Greece, and the relation between Athens and its allies in which they subsidised the building of the Parthenon temple in honour of Athena, and accepted Athens as the final judge of legal disputes.

Aeschylus provides a mythical foundation for the main law court in Athens, the Areopagus, since during the trial, Athena proclaims that the court assembled will continue indefinitely as an institution of the city. The court was regarded as aristocratic because judges came from the educated upper class and had previously served in some high public office. One of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and others criticised Athenian democracy was that it was suspicious of Areopagus, transferring some of its functions to the city assembly and large citizen juries .

The most obvious thrust of the Oresteia with regard to ideas of liberty is the deep ‘divine’ significance of legal institutions within the community, in preference to individual execution of archaic codes of revenge. Though the case excuses Orestes for killing his mother, the case along with the founding of a sacralised court, also undermines the basis of his individual act of revenge and Agamemnon’s belief that he could decide to ignore the sanctity of life and his bond to his daughter, because of a wish to assuage divine forces.

Though the trilogy presents a world view which is patriarchal in an extreme way, it does allow female voices with distinct views to speak  and though we should be very careful indeed about importing modern feminist and egalitarian views into the play, it is hard to believe that Aeschylus and his audiences were not at least a little troubled by male violence, and interested in the idea of a an elevated role for women in developing a law governed community, beyond the role of priestesses, which was the obvious first association. Not that they were interested in doing so outside the play, but that the trilogy enabled them to explore, a little bit, ideas at odds with their deeply held customs.

The Oresteia does definitely offer the idea that legal and institution innovation can be necessary at times to satisfy the deepest requirements of justice, while also emphasising respect and reverence for the laws of Athens in Aeschylus’ own time. There is a something of a duality of attitude to law, that is law divided between what is above debate and change and what is a product of debate and change  That is the necessary frame of any liberty oriented debate about law and legal institutions.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aristotle

Apparently  some people have enjoyed the posts on ‘Another Liberty Canon’, so I will keep going on that tack, but with a revision to the heading as I ‘ll be covering some thinkers already accepted into the liberty canon, or at least some of the various canons. I’ll continue to discuss what I think should be brought into the canon, and push the boundaries a bit on those already generally accepted into the canon. I’ll be giving coverage to major figures, with regard to their work as a whole, but at some point I’ll start doing some relatively detailed readings of individual classic works.

I’ll start at the beginning, more of less with Aristotle. I’m sure there are texts and thinkers within the Greek tradition, and certainly in the Near East, southern and eastern Asia, and so on worthy of attention, but for substantial books clearly devoted to the nature of politics, and which have a focus on some idea of liberty, Aristotle seems as a good a place as any to start.

There is maybe a case for starting with Aristotle’s teacher Plato, or even Plato’s teacher. I think Plato should be rescued from the persistent image, never popular with Plato scholars, of forerunner of twentieth century totalitarianism, because just to start off the counter-arguments, Plato’s arguments refer to a reinforcement, albeit radical and selective, of existing customs rather than the imposition of a new state imposed ideology, and certainly do to suggest that arbitrary state power should rise above law.

However,  on the liberty side, Plato’s teacher Socrates was the promoter in his own life style of a kind of individualist strength and critical spirit who fell foul of public hysteria. We know very little about Socrates apart from the ways Plato represents him, but the evidence suggests Socrates was more concerned with a kind of absolutism about correct customs, laws and philosophical claims, in his particular critical individualistic attitude than what we would now recognise as a critical individualistic attitude.

It looks like Socrates was an advocate of the laws and constitutions in Greek states, like Sparta that were less respectful of individuality, liberty and innovation than Athens. Though Aristotle does not look like the ideal advocate of liberty by our standards, he was critical of Plato (often referring to him though Socrates, though it looks like he is reacting to Plato’s texts rather than any acquaintance with Socratic views different to those mentioned by Plato) for subordinating the individual to the state and abandoning private property, presumably referring to the Republic which does seem to suggest that for Plato, ideally the ruling class of philosopher-guardians should not own property, and that the lower classes composed of all those who accumulate money through physical effort, a special craft,  or trade, should be completely guided by those guardians.

It is not clear that Plato ever meant the imaginary ideal state of the Republic to be implemented, but it is clear that it reflects the preference Plato had for what he sees as the changeless pious hierarchies and laws of the Greek states of Crete and Sparta, and the already ancient kingdom of Egypt, in which power goes to those who at least superficially have detached themselves from the world of material gain in some military, political, or religious devotion to some apparently higher common good.

Plato and (maybe) Socrates had some difficulties in accepting the benefits of the liberties and democracy associated with fifth and fourth century BCE Athens that fostered commercial life, great art, great literature, and great philosophy. I will discuss the explanation and promotion of the values of Athens in a future post on the most distinguished leader of democratic Athens, Pericles, so I will not say more about it here.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) came from outside Athens, he was born in monarchist Macedon which lacked the republican institutions of participatory government in the city states of Greece. Aristotle’s family was linked with the monarchy which turned Macedon into the hegemon of Greece, destroying the autonomy of Athens and the other republics. Aristotle even spent time as the tutor of Alexander the Great, who turned the Madedonian-Greek monarchical state into an empire stretching to India and Libya.

Aristotle was however not the advocate of such empires, but had already studied with Plato in Athens, where he acquired a preference for the self-governing city state participatory model of politics . His links with the Macedonian state sometimes made it difficult to spend time in Athens where most resented the domination from the north, so he spend time in Anatolia (apparently marrying the daughter of a west Anatolian king), the Aegean islands and the island of Euboea off Athens, dying in the latter place.

Despite these difficulties, Aristotle was so much in favour of the values of republican Athens that he even endorsed the idea that foreigners, or those born of one foreign parent could not be citizens, in case of a dilution of the solidarity and friendship between citizens. This issue brings us onto the ways in which Aristotle does not appeal to the best modern ideas of liberty. He was attached to the idea of a self-enclosed citizen body, along with slavery, the secondary status of women, the inferior nature of non-Greeks, restrictions on commerce, and the inferiority of those who labour for a living or create new wealth.

Nevertheless, given the times he lived in, his attitudes were no worse than you would expect and often better. Despite his disdain for non-Greeks, he recognised that the north African city of Carthage had institutions of political freedom  worth examining. His teacher Plato was perhaps better on one issue, the education of women, which appeared to have no interest to Aristotle.

Still unlike Plato, he did not imagine a ‘perfect’ city state where everything he found distasteful had been abolished and did not dream of excluding free born males at least from the government of their own community. Aristotle disdained labourer as people close to slavery in their dependence on unskilled work to survive, but assumed that such people would be part of a citizens’ assembly in any state where there was freedom.

His ideal was the law following virtuous  king, and then a law following virtuous aristocracy (that is those who inherited wealth), but even where the government was dominated by king or aristocracy, he thought the people as a whole would play some part in the system, and that state power would still rest on the wishes of the majority.

All Greeks deserved to Iive with freedom, which for Aristotle meant a state  where laws (which he thought of as mainly customary reflecting the realities of ancient Greece) restrained rulers and rulers had the welfare of all free members of the community as the object of government. In this way rulers developed friendship with the ruled, an aspect of virtue, which for Aristotle is the same as the happy life, and justice.

Friendship is justice according to Aristotle in its more concrete aspects, and ideally would replace the more formal parts of justice. Nevertheless Aristotle did discuss justice in its more formal aspects with regard to recompense for harms and distribution of both political power and wealth.

Like just about every writer  in the   ancient world, Aristotle found the pursuit of unlimited wealth or just wealth beyond the minimum to sustain aristocratic status discomforting, and that applies to writers who were very rich. Given that widespread assumption Aristotle makes as much allowance for exchange and trade as is possible, and recognised the benefits of moving from a life of mere survival in pre-city societies to the material development possible in a larger community where trade was possible under common rules of justice.

As mentioned, Aristotle preferred aristocratic or monarchical government, but as also mentioned he assumed that any government of free individuals would include some form of broad citizen participation . We should therefore be careful about interpreting his criticisms of democracy, which have little to do with modern representative democracy, but are directed at states where he thought citizens assemblies had become so strong, and the very temporary opinions of the majority so powerful that rule of law had broken down. He still found this preferable to rule by one person or a group lacking in virtue, which he called tyranny and oligarchy.

He suggested that the most durable form of government for free people was a something he just called a ‘state’ (politea) so indicating its dominant normality, where the people between the rich and the poor dominated political office, and the democratic element was very strong though with some place for aristocratic influence. It’s a way of thinking about as close as possible to modern ideas of division or separation of powers in a representative political system, given the historical differences, most obviously the assumption of citizens’ assemblies in very small cities  as the central part of political participation rather than elections for national assemblies.

Relevant texts by Aristotle

There is no clear distinction between politics and ethics in Aristotle, so his major text in each area should be studied, that is the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. Other relevant texts include the Poetics (which discussed the role of kings in tragedy), the Constitution of Athens, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Rhetoric (the art of speaking was central to political life in the ancient world).  Aristotle of course wrote numerous other books on various aspects of philosophy and science.

Review of Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag

I recently posted a review at Amazon of Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right. (The paperback edition changed the subtitle to What I Learned Growing Up in America’s Radical Right, How I Escaped, and Why My Story Matters Today.) The review begins below. It unfortunately is buried within a stack of over a hundred favorable reviews at Amazon. But anyone who wants to read the review there can go here. Then if you find it worthy, you can click the button that says the review is helpful and move it up in the queue:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite myself. The author, Claire Conner, entertainingly interweaves a personal story of her growing up with parents who were avid and prominent members of the John Birch Society with a history of the Birch Society itself. I am only four years younger than Conner, and my own story has many intriguing parallels to hers. My parents never joined “the Society,” as its members referred to it, but they (particularly my mother) became what could be called Birch Society “fellow travelers,” involved in right-wing politics after the election of 1960. Many of their friends were Society members. I therefore imbibed much of the same literature as Conner, listened to similar public lectures, and was taken to and participated in similar events. She and I both, for example, were peripherally involved in the 1964 Goldwater campaign.

Our similar backgrounds even influenced both Conner’s and my choices of college. In her case, she was required by her parents to attend the Catholic University of Dallas, at a time when Willmoore Kendall (who had previously been one of Bill Buckley’s mentors at Yale) was teaching there. I chose to attend the Presbyterian Grove City College, studying economics under Hans Sennholz (who wrote for the Society’s magazine, American Opinion, for a span of years) and history under Clarence Carson (a frequent contributor to the Foundation for Economic Education’s Freeman). Finally, she and I eventually grew up to reject the Society’s conspiratorial worldview.

But there the similarities end. I drifted from conservatism to libertarianism, whereas Conner became a leftwing, progressive activist. Her narrative is filled with many fascinating tidbits and anecdotes about Birch Society activities and luminaries. But unlike me, she had parents who were domineering and dogmatic to the point of being abusive. Thus, she is unable to separate fully her wrenching childhood from the ideas and opinions of those she generally identifies as right wing. While there is always a note of tenderness in her writing about her parents, their fanatical harshness becomes the template for her damning of not only all Birchers but also most conservatives and even libertarians.

This makes her utterly oblivious to the extent to which she is still trapped in a conspiratorial worldview, but one of the Left rather than of the Right. She has graduated from her parents’ belief that America was threatened by a giant left-wing conspiracy, in which every liberal was either a Communist or a Communist fellow-traveler to a belief that America is threatened by a giant radical-right conspiracy, stretching from the 1950s to the present. She lumps together with the Birch Society in this gigantic, ongoing, and diffuse conspiracy such disparate individuals and organizations as Bill Buckley and his conservative National Review; politicians such as Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan; Ayn Rand and her Objectivist followers; the libertarian Cato Institute; the modern Tea Party; and white supremacists of the Klan.

To support this portrayal, Conner engages in the same kind of guilt by association that Birchers employed to charge, for instance, that Martin Luther King was a secret Soviet agent. Thus, the fact that Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David, was a founding Council member of the Birch Society (who ultimately left because of opposition to the Vietnam War) implicates every person and organization associated with him and his sons. Although she honestly reports that Buckley eventually denounced the Birch Society, this cuts no ice for her. She recognizes no significant difference between the racist, anti-Semitic Revilo Oliver (kicked out of the Birch Society for those very reasons), who became virulently anti-Christian, and Jerry Falwell’s Christian Moral Majority, which was unabashedly pro-Israel. Indeed, nearly anyone who thinks that government has become too intrusive and extensive is somehow involved, wittingly or unwittingly. Most disgraceful and bizarre of all, the book’s introduction slyly tries to insinuate that the radical right somehow contributed to the Kennedy assassination, yet while fully accepting that Lee Harvey Oswald was actually the assassin as well as a Communist.

An occasional, slight acknowledgment that her parents or others she wishes to expose were correct about a few things slips into Conner’s story. Thus, only in a footnote to her memories about her parents indoctrinating her in the 1960s about how “the ultimate fiend was Mao Zedong” (p. 43), worse than Hitler, does she concede, “My parents were right about Mao” (p. 225). Late in the book she admits “I never would have guessed, not in a hundred years, that the John Birch Society would be as critical of President Bush and the fiasco in Iraq as I was” (p. 212). But none of this can soften her blanket denunciation of everything her parents advocated or embraced. As stated above, there is much fascinating historical detail in this readable book. With a little more nuance, balance, and objectivity, it could have been far more compelling and credible. Conner’s account of how her parents mistreated her, in particular, is in many places heartbreaking. Which makes it all the more sad that her scarred upbringing has turned her political landscape into the exact mirror image of that of her parents.

Secession and international alliances go together

It is important to scrutinize the intellectual strength of libertarian ideas about international relations. Here are a few – admittedly only partly systematic- thoughts about the relation between secession and international relations. Or more precise: some libertarians are positive about secession, yet at the same time negative about international alliances. How does that relate?

Pleas for secession can be found in the works of Von Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe and other luminaries of libertarian thought, broadly defined. In an informative chapter on the issue, Mises-biographer Jörg Guido Hüllsman (at mises.org) defined secession as the ‘one-sided disruption of (hegemonic) bonds with a larger organized whole to which the secessionists have been tied’. Recent examples are the bloody secessions of South Sudan or Eritrea. Yet the issue also remains topical in Western Europe, for example in Scotland. It is not my purpose to emphasize the practical failures and wars associated with secession. From a libertarian perspective the principal benefit of secession is that a group of sovereign individuals decide for themselves how and by whom they are governed, and in which type of regime this shall happen. So far, no problem.

Let’s assume a world where secessions take place freely, peacefully and more frequent than in the past twenty-five years, where the number of sovereign states just went up by approximately twenty recognized independent countries. The logical result will be the fragmentation of the world in numerous smaller states, or state-like entities, of different sizes, composed of different groups of people. Perhaps some of these states will comply to an anarcho-capitalist libertarian ideal, so with a strict respect for property rights and the use of military defense only for clear-cut violations of these rights by others. However, it is unlikely that all states will be characterized in this way. Consequently, there remain a lot of causes for international conflict and war. For example, as there are more borders, there are also potentially more border disputes, about natural resources, water, stretches of land, et cetera. Of course humans are not angels, and no libertarian ever claims they will be. It simply means none of the other causes of war are perpetually eradicated in a world of free secession either.

So how to defend oneself in such situation, particularly when your state is much smaller than one or more other states in the vicinity? In such a situation you are unable to defend yourself against the most viable threats. Even if you declare yourself a neutral state it is unlikely this will always be respected. After all, it takes at least two to tango in international politics. Of the many possibilities to defend your property rights and sovereignty, the negotiation of agreements with other countries, or joining an international alliance seems logical and potentially beneficial (of course depending on the precise terms). It would amount to a system of multiple balances of power around the globe, very much like for example former Cato Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter favored for the current world. Surely, this would not be ideal, and would not be able to eradicate war either. Yet it will prevent many wars and safeguard the liberties and property rights of the participants.

This differs significantly from the pleas by people who simultaneously favor secession while calling for a non-interventionist foreign policy without alliances, such as Rothbard, Ron Paul (see for example in a column), or many contributors on www.lewrockwell.com.

Admittedly, most of these anti-alliance commentaries are directed against particular parts of current US foreign policy. However, it is still fair to demand theoretical consistency. Either these writers overlook there might be an problem, or they choose to ignore it. Still it is important to acknowledge there is an issue here. It is too simple to reject international alliances while embracing secession at the same time.

Riding Coach through Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 2 – Whistling In the People’s Key.

Part One

50th Anniversary edition pages 20-32

Chapter Summary – We are introduced to Dagny Taggart, brother of James, who reflects on neo-classical music, throws her family name around a bit, cuckolds her brother’s business, and smokes, also Kellogg turns down an offer he can’t refuse.

Dagny is one of the characters who I am somewhat familiar with due to cultural osmosis. Her strong willed antagonism, her intelligence and stubbornness, her anger, her misery, and her smoking. All things that I expected that were confirmed in her first chapter in Atlas Shrugged.

What I didn’t expect however was the amazing paragraphs about Richard Halley’s symphony.

“It was a symphony of triumph…”

the notes of the symphony

“spoke of rising and were the rising itself.

Emphasis mine. The way Dagny is enveloped by the symphony, it consumes her, and just for a moment she can do nothing but feel when she hasn’t in so long.

Then it is revealed that she is merely hearing it being whistled from across the train car by some blond brakeman. If one man whistling one part of that symphony can fill Dagny with such joy then what effect would a full orchestra have on her, on the people, on society?

That feeling is the very thing I hope to gain from this project. The sense of wonder that Dagny is overwhelmed with and a reminder that

“[T]his is why the wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going.”

The brakeman is interesting as well. Rand’s description of him as a worker with no loose muscles was very telling to me. This blue-collar laborer is the one carrying the tune that is Dagny’s hope. This is in stark contrast to the train conductor for example who doesn’t seem to care about the problems he faces and simply hopes everything will work out.

He jerked his head up at the red light. “I don’t think the signal is going to change. I think it is busted.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“Waiting for it to change.”

I almost wonder if this theme of hard working but uneducated versus apathetic educated middle class will continue. I always felt that Rand was somewhat anti-laborer, that those who were not entrepreneurs were merely leaches on the productive members of society but I am beginning to think that impression may have been unfounded.

Speaking of entrepreneurs there were two major economic principles stated in this chapter. First was Dagny exemplifying the attributes of an entrepreneur when she makes the call to use Rearden Metal for the new railroad tracks. When James protests the use of the new metal she tells him that she is making the call using her own judgment, knowledge, and personal experience. She is willing to assume the risk for this venture based on a gut feeling and her own personal belief that it will work. It is important to notice that she doesn’t deflect responsibility or assume some other person or entity will absorb any losses if she is wrong.

The second economic point was in regards to monopolies. A great exchange takes place between Dagny and James that goes as follows:

“It isn’t fair,” said James Taggart.

“What isn’t?”

“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”

“Don’t talk tripe, Jim,”

“Why do we always have to get things from Rearden?”

“Because we always get them.”

“I don’t like Henry Rearden.”

“I do. But what does that matter, one way or the other? We need rails and he’s the only one who can give them to us.”

“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”

“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”

“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”

“No. I haven’t.”

This exchange exemplifies the free market vs anti-property positions on monopolies but misses one crucial point. This anti-monopoly activity is driven solely by the free choice of the individual. Taggart is perfectly able to restrict his business from any source he chooses for any reason he chooses and this is the pure libertarian position on the matter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, he is making a poor entrepreneurial choice since Associated Steel has repeatedly failed to deliver on the contract and from a purely economic standpoint Dagny is correct. From a libertarian standpoint however, both are correct.

James is totally justified running his business into the ground for any reason he chooses and Dagny has every right to seek out new opportunities. Assuming of course she owns part of the company or has been granted the authority to act in the company’s name. The latter is the case here as far as I can tell.

I would also like to point out that other non-humanistic arguments against monopolies are almost universally false. Predatory pricing for example has essentially never happened successfully even in the case that made it illegal.

Now for the negatives.

Primarily I feel like James is a bit too obvious as a villain, he is almost too petulant and whiny. I just don’t buy that anyone would follow him and that the board of directors would have kicked him off years ago. I suppose Rand is pushing the whole feudalism thing. How many nations have fallen because of a weak King or Queen?

Also, I just don’t know how to feel about Dagny yet. The quirkiness is what bothers me the most. Sitting on the arm of the chair, her snarkyness and her general self-importance. I am not sure how much I am going to like her character yet but there is plenty of book to go so we shall see.

Finally I have to give the last story beat in this chapter credit. The final conversation Dagny has with Kellogg was an amazing piece of the mystery that literally gave me chills of anticipation. Where are these people going? Why are the best and brightest suddenly missing but still creating? And most importantly…

Who is John Galt?

Another Liberty Canon: Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.

However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the  authority of isolated great thinkers.

He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.

It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of  self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.

The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.

Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.

Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.

The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.

Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.

The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.

The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation ) and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.

We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual  willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).

Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life.  As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.

At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods , and so on.

The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.

The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.

Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).

Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.

Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.

This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.

Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty

Monographs 

History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)

Discipline and Punish

History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of PleasureThe Care of the Self)

Collected lectures

(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).

Fearless Speech

The Government of Self and Others

The Birth of Biopolitics 

Security, Territory, Population 

Hermeneutics of the Subject 

Society Must be Defended 

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged. Chapter 1: The Calendar Hung Itself.

50th Anniversary Edition pages 11-20*

*Note: The actual chapter ends on page 33 but I am splitting these up based on POV changes for easier digestibility.

Chapter Summary: White-collar worker Eddie Willars runs into a peculiar homeless man, reflects on a decaying city, and attempts to convince his boss of an urgent matter in Colorado.

My initial impressions are all pretty positive. The opening line: “Who is John Galt?” accomplishes everything an opening should and most importantly sets up a mystery to pique the reader’s interest.

Even with my limited knowledge of small parts of this book I was still immediately hooked by the questions presented on the first page: “Who is John Galt?”, “Why does it [the above question] bother you?”, and without missing a beat (or answering those questions) Rand describes the world that frames these questions quite beautifully with several potent, if a bit obvious, metaphors.

The bum as the faceless masses, intelligent but wearied and cynical without the energy to change their station but able to if inspired. “The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent.”

It also seems to be relevant that the bum is our introduction to the character of John Galt. The nameless, faceless masses knowing about the coming change almost instinctively and long before the more comfortable and well off middle class.

The city, in my estimation, represents society as a whole. Once beautiful but now decaying and, like the old tree on the Taggart estate, hollow and rotting from within. “…the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece.” The seed of beauty and triumph is there but it has rotted from within.

Eddie is who really intrigued me though; he reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. A middle man in society who knows something is wrong but doesn’t have the skills to do anything about it. While he cannot identify the sinking feeling that permeates every fiber of his being he does have a stable foundation to latch onto.

“When he was asked what he wanted to do [in life], he answered at once, “whatever is right”…”twenty two years ago. He had kept that statement unchallenged ever since; the other questions had faded in his mind…[B]ut he still thought it self evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise.”

As a natural-rights libertarian I believe that there are absolute moral and ethical truths and Eddie’s commitment to a similar personal philosophy deepened my ability to relate to the character. It also stands in stark contrast to more modern interpretations of ethics such as “rule utilitarianism” which will always decay to subjective act-utilitarianism.

“David Lyons argued that collapse occurs because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the ‘rules’ will have as many ‘sub-rules’ as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes an agent seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.”

In short, any attempt to prevent the “ends justify the means” outcome of utilitarian ethics, without some sort of higher moral authority, inevitably fails and the system is reduced to one of pure utilitarianism. I was actually under the impression that Rand was a bit of a utilitarian herself so I will be interested to see if this commitment to the universal “right” turns out to be a character flaw in Eddie or whether it remains an ideal to be upheld.

Eddie’s confrontation with James Taggart was also quite inspiring. A man who knows he is stepping out of line but is willing to do so for the sake of his personal convictions is an ideal that many of us could due to imitate. I will save my examination of James until the next installment but the important thing I took from this interaction between James and Eddie was how uncomfortable James grew when Eddie looked into his eyes.

“What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willars was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes. Eddie’s eyes were blue, wide and questioning; he had blond hair and a square face, unremarkable except for that look of scrupulous attentiveness and open, puzzled wonder.”

If, as I suspect, Eddie is the everyman (or reader avatar) in this story and James is an (the?) antagonist then what I am supposed to take from this is that the villains in this world, and in ours, cannot stand up to scrutiny. They are filled with uneasiness when we examine their actions and question their motivations. If Eddie is an ideal, then his attentiveness is an ideal as well.

Eddie’s relationship with the Taggarts as a whole is something I hope is explored more. It is obvious he admires and respects Dagny since they grew up together and the fact that he still has some sort of respect for James leads me to believe that the latter wasn’t always so insufferable. What made Eddie so devoted to this family? Was it simply their entrepreneurial spirit or was there something more?

I had a few small criticisms but I am going to have to wait to see how they play out. As I mentioned briefly at the start of this entry Rand’s metaphors were really straight forward which isn’t bad in and of itself but simply something I am taking note of and will look for as the chapters go by.

I cringed a bit when Eddie admitted that he was simply a serf pledged to the Taggart lands. The whole feudalism angle is one that I am going to keep an eye on since one of the most common attacks on libertarianism is that it would descend into a neo-feudal corporatist society.

Of course I may be taking the line a bit too seriously since Eddie was simply trying to get James to agree to his requests to support the Rio Norte line. In fact it could very well turn out to be a rebuke of that attack once all is said and done.

Finally I have no idea what the giant calendar is supposed to represent or foreshadow. Perhaps it is simply a literal translation of the city’s days being numbered which would both be very clever and kind of groan-worthy at the same time. Hopefully Eddie shows up again soon to let us know but I have a sneaking suspicion that our protagonist isn’t Mr. Willars despite my initial preoccupation with his character.

Check in next time for first impressions of Dagny, a word of support for monopolies, and our first real look at James Taggart. I wish this was a George R.R. Martin novel so maybe he would be dead before the book was over. Hey, I never said I would be impartial.

Part 2

Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn’t dream…

We must sing, We must sing,We must sing…

 

 

There is no libertarian art.

Well, that is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. Art is a vital part to any social movement and it is one area where libertarians suffer immensely. Sure there are libertarian leaning authors such as Robert Heinlein and modern Austrian economic art like the guys over at www.econstories.tv but for the most part there are few non-academic ways to inspire potential libertarians.

This is a problem I lament when I am feeling negative about the prospects for a free society which, to be fair, is usually the case. Sometimes reading an article about Intellectual Property just isn’t enough to get the passion flowing.

“But Wait!” You say, “you failed to mention the author who brought tens of thousands of people into the libertarian fold. The late, the great, the Ayn Rand!”

 

….yea about that.

 

I don’t like Ayn Rand. There, I said it. Bring out the pitchforks and tie me to a Rearden Steel railroad track if you must but I stand by my statement. Now I know what you are all thinking: “But her works exemplify the individual freedoms that a libertarian society should strive for!” or “Dagny is a strong independent woman who don’t need no government!”

Yes, I am aware, but it isn’t Ayn Rand the author I dislike. Actually it isn’t even Ayn Rand the person that I dislike. I don’t like the idea of Ayn Rand. The metaphysical zeitgeist that surrounds and worships her throughout every circle of the libertarian movement from Walter Block to Milton Friedman to every other subscriber on www.reddit.com/r/libertarian.

All too often I have had to argue about libertarianism through the lens of someone whose only exposure to the philosophy is Ayn Rand and the objectivist selfishness that nearly everyone associates with capitalism. In short, I think she is bad for libertarianism and provides no end of ammunition that can be used against those of us with a more nuanced moral/ethical position.

Here is the kicker though. I have not read a single Ayn Rand novel. Not Anthem, not the Fountainhead, and especially not her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. My knowledge of her works (outside of objectivist philosophy) comes mostly through a bit of osmosis during many diatribes in my conversion to libertarian thought and the first few chapters of Anthem I read in high school before being bored to tears.

I feel that my lack of personal experience with the work of Ayn Rand is a great injustice to someone so influential to many (but certainly not all) of the ideals that I hold so dear and maybe, just maybe, I can siphon off some of the passion that so many others feel when reading her novels.

So it is my objective to spend the next several weeks (months perhaps) reading Atlas Shrugged along with you, the faithful readers here at www.notesonliberty.com, and recording chapter based summaries of my thoughts, opinions, and analysis from a literary, ethical, and philosophical standpoint. These will be full of personal anecdotes and armchair analysis so be prepared for a tumultuous ride through one of the “great?” works of the 20th century.

Part one of many comes tomorrow morning.

The Origin of Expression “Nazi” and How it was Introduced into English Usage

My hearty greetings to the Notes on Liberty “tribe” and special thanks to Brandon for inviting me to become part of this forum. I would like to share with you my side project that recently mutated into an article submitted to Independent Review. Last June, I was doing research in Vienna, Austria, working on a totally different topic (Mongol-Tibetan religious prophecies (Shambhala and the like) and their perceptions by Westerners). Taking advantage of my stay in that gorgeous city, in my spare time, I visited local museums and various prominent landmarks.

Thus, I strolled into so-called Jewish Plaza in downtown Vienna. The place has a monument that commemorates the memory of 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered by Hitler’s regime during World War II. In fact, I briefly visited this place earlier during one of my previous trips to Vienna. Yet, now looking at three identical inscriptions in three languages at the foundation of the monument I noticed something that earlier had not caught my attention. The inscription on the left is in German, the one on the right is in English, and the one in the middle is in Hebrew. The German one says, “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the National Socialists between 1938 and 1945.” So does the Hebrew one in the middle. Yet, the English version reads: “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945.”

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The same day I happened to go to Thalia, the biggest bookstore in Vienna. There, browsing shelves with social science and humanities literature that I stumbled upon a German translation of Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, a 2009 book by the noted American historian Mark Mazower. The German edition of that book, which has the same cover picture, reads Hitlers Imperium: Europa unter der Herrschaft des Nationalsozialismus [Hitler’s Empire: Europe under the National Socialism Rule.]

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So I became curious about this linguistic discrepancy. Eventually, my curiosity took me further and further. The first thing one notices is that when English-speaking people write and talk about the 1930s-1940s’ Germany, more often than not they routinely use the word “Nazi.” Thus, in English we have books and articles about Nazi economy, Nazi labor policy, Nazi geopolitics, Nazi genetics, and so forth. In contrast, when Germans refer to the same turbulent years, they usually say “National Socialism” (Nazionalsozialismus).

So here is the result of my quest – an attempt to answer why in English we use “Nazi” and also who and why introduced this expression in English. The article has not been published yet. At first, I decided to prepare a brief digest of that paper and post it on this forum. Then I changed my mind. To make things more interesting, I decided to prepare a small multimedia audio presentation about why, how, and when the expression “Nazi” emerged in the first place and how it was introduced in English language and post it as a 20-minute video clip on my YouTube channel maguswest. Here it is:

National Socialists into Nazi: Politics and the English Language

A good friend of mine, who is an excellent narrator, assisted me in this. Click this link to see/listen to this talk and, if you wish, give me your critical feedback: Do not skip the ending of the clip, for it features a music tune (so-called Aviation march) that was shared by both Soviet Stalinist and National Socialist marching bands in the 1930s (words are different but music is the same).

Another Liberty Canon: Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the more influential writers on political thought during the twentieth century. Born in Germany, her political views and Jewish origins (she was also Jewish in identity though not in religion) meant not only that she had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, but that she had to escape from Gestapo interrogation. A period in Paris was ended by the 1940 German invasion, which led to another escape from detention, and her final destination of the United States. She was able draw on this direct experience of totalitarianism and antisemitism to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the classic works on this topic, which also considers the role of political anti-Semitism, as distinct from older religious prejudice, in the formation of the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism.

Arendt reached beyond an academic and scholarly audience in her most widely ready book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on her journalistic reporting on the trial of one of the major administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Though the book did much to draw attention to the extreme horror of  Holocaust, and and its history, which strange as it might seem now was not the object of a great deal of public or scholarly discussion in the immediate postwar period, also led Arendt into a morass of angry criticism and even hatred, in part for supposedly trivialising Eichmann’s criminality. However, the point of referring to the ‘banality of evil’ was not to say that the Holocaust was trivial, or to deny Eichmann’s criminality, but to suggest that as a person he was more of a small minded conformist than a grandiose anti-hero of apocalyptic evil.

From the point of view of Arendt’s work in political theory, her writing on the Holocaust and totalitarianism, contributed to her understanding of modern politics in its darkest possibilities, which were distinct from older forms of tyranny. That understanding itself drew on the breadth of her historical approach, including literary and cultural interest, which went back to the Ancient Greek beginnings of western political thought. Her understanding also included the ethical and religious thought of late antiquity, as can be seen in her doctoral dissertation, Love and Saint Augustine. She had a general appreciation of the whole of human life, with regard to consciousness and action, which is behind The Life of the Mind and can be found in some of her political theory, most obviously The Human Condition.

Arendt’s interest and appreciation of ancient politics, particularly the democracy of city state Athens,  sometimes leads to her being labelled a nostalgic and a believer in anti-individiualistic integrated communities. This can only be a parody though, Arendt thought that there might be some things to learn about modern politics through comparison with antiquity, but she did not advocate a return, and her interest in antiquity was in those communities like Athens and the Roman Republic, where we can see individualism growing and a decline in community based on adherence to tradition and to communal assumptions.

Arendt thought that the Athenians had achieved liberty of a significant kind for the aristocracy, and to some degree for the lower classes, on a real but limited basis in which some had the leisure to think and argue about the rules and laws of the city state. That form of library rested on ‘heroic’ and patriarchal values according to which the home and family are the place of economic production and therefore the place of necessity.

Liberty was understood with reference to the tradition of  heroes going to war or to a more recently evolved habit of widespread public free speech about public affairs. Arendt did not argue for this as the all time ideal, but as a moment with some ideal aspects, which was bound to fail. Partly it failed because law was understood as custom and communal obligation, rather than as concerned with contracts between free individuals.  In her historical analysis, the Romans made progress on the legal front, because they saw  that law can and should evolve with regard to the best ways of grounding freely chosen contracts,  while also failing to maintain political liberty as the republic gave way to Imperial autocracy

Arendt emphasised that the Roman model inspired modern movements for liberty, particularly the French and American Revolutions (the comparison is made in On Revolution). Though she wrote about the motives and early actions of French revolutionaries with great sympathy, she pointed out that it had all ended in revolutionary terror and then country-revolutionary autocracy, so that the American Revolution had created a better model, as shown in the long lasting nature of the Constitution. She both respected that achievement and pointed out that it rested on assumptions about the dominance of a land owning class, so that it could not in itself provide all the answers for modern liberty, even it established an enduring framework, which survived major shifts in the location of economic wealth and the sources of political power.

For Arendt, the modern capitalist world undermined the idea of a strict separation between a private realm of economic production, based on family ownership and use of land, as economic activity became what happened in factories and other enterprises, with regard to national and world markets. The social-cultural result was an undermining of the antique assumption that intellectual life is superior to, and dominant over, physical activity and economic life. It also  resulted in states that seemed more remote from traditional forms of allegiance and everyday customs, because the state became increasingly something concerned with legislative and administrative activity that aimed to enable production and trade, so for the first time establishing the state as something that aims to constantly elevate material wealth and ‘national welfare’. Arendt, in this way, argues that commercial society tends to create its own statist reaction.

Arendt equivocated to some degree about whether capitalism was to be preferred to socialism, but in political writing emphasised enhancing individuality and a spirit of competition and that can only be seen as directed against the expanding administrative state, particularly as she argued for more separation between political questions and social welfare questions. She looked for ways in which modern political participation could focus on the best parts of the antique legacy: public speech focused on the conditions of liberty rather than on expanding state activity, contests for esteem in the public sphere rather than levelling down egalitarianism.  Perhaps her equivocation about socialism can be seen as leaving the way open for ‘socialism’ as defined by left libertarians, markets without a state that promotes politically inspired concentrations of wealth and power. She was certainly a prominent critic of Soviet style state socialism.

Arendt had a grasp based in rather classically oriented political theory, of how capitalism tends to produce statist reactions to itself, which parallels the more political economy and economics oriented work of Austrian economics and Virginia Public Choice theory on  the rise of the administrative state and rent seeking.  Together with her interests in how to avoid antique tyranny and modern totalitarianism, this makes her a great twentieth century pro-liberty voice, particularly for those interested in the historical, psychological, moral, and literary aspects of political thinking.

All of Arendt’s major contributions to political thought are mentioned above. A good starting point for those new to Arendt might be the essays collected in Between Past and Future or The Promise of Politics

Another Liberty Canon: Nietzsche

The political interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a constantly fraught issue . Amongst other things he has been taken as an anti- or non-political thinker and as responsible for the worst aspects of German politics in the twentieth century. However, that latter view is  not taken supported by any Nietzsche scholars.

The reasons for that include his opposition to the anti-Semites of his time (after a youthful leaning in that direction with regard culture rather than race) and his opposition to the militarist-statist-nationalist  aspects of Prussian and German politics in his time, again after early leanings towards culturally oriented nationalism. The tendency to put culture above the state and and take it as something of a replacement for politics was constant.

The anti-politics is itself not incompatible with some kinds of libertarian and classical liberal thinking, though in Nietzsche’s case it goes along with a constant inclination to talk about power, the state, and other politically charged issues. He was stateless for most of adult life, as he had to renounce Prussian citizenship to  take up a Professorship in Basel, Switzerland in 1869, not long before the King of Prussia became the Emperor of a newly unified Germany, dominated by Prussia. Nietzsche himself was in any case from a part of Saxony, annexed by Prussia early in the nineteenth century.

In any case, Nietzsche did not present himself as a Saxon or a Prussian after leaving Germany and only lived in Germany after after 1889, when he was incapacitated by paralysis, now generally believed to the the result of a brain tumour, and was looked after by his mother and sister.  Nietzsche did not have any citizenship after moving to Basel and though it was easier to travel round Europe in those days  without a state issued passport, it is still a remarkable position.

Nietzsche was not completely free of racist assumptions, but hardly to a degree at all unusual for his time, and he did not see race as a suitable basis for analysing the Europe of his time, since he though races had become completely mingled in antiquity. He was inclined towards various forms of elitism, sometimes in a quite extreme way as when he claimed admiration for the Indian caste system, though in a very brief provocative  way.

On the whole his elitism was devoted towards the self-creation of an individuality of great strength, great plural possibilities and the capacity to unify those possibilities in creation and in a creatively lived life. He had anxieties about mass culture and the rise of democracy, but there is not much to separate his substantive concerns from the general concerns of liberals of the nineteenth century, as in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and democratic mediocrity in culture in Democracy in America.

Nietzsche is sometimes referred to as the definitive anti-liberal, but a lot of this rests on associating liberalism with egalitarian (i.e. left, progressivist) liberalism. If we look at the classical liberals from Locke to Mill (who is a bit transitional between the two broad liberal approaches), we of course see that egalitarianism at least with regard to distribution of income and property, is not a central goal. There is growing interest in expanding legal and political equality beyond an aristocratic elite to the population as a whole, and criticism of aristocratic, monarchical, guild, and merchant-financial wealth where linked to political-monopolistic-protectionist privileges.

Nietzsche regards threats to personal, intellectual and cultural excellence as a possible outcome of democracy, but is also critical of the traditional state, referring to it sometimes as monstrous, and allows for the possibility of it becoming much reduced through transferring functions to the private economy. He was concerned what liberalism might betray liberty by building institutions which constrain the original liberal ideas. So he was not a complete critic of liberalism, but rather sets out ideals of  self-development and individual flouring which are likely to be constrained by the state.

Though he mentions the possibility of replacing state functions with private economic activity, he was critical of commercial spirit. He feared that  commercial orientation tends to reduce individual capacities, because of the ways in which it leads to individuals concerning themselves with the wants of other individuals. For most pro-liberty people, this is Nietzsche accurately identifying something good about capitalism and then rejecting it, which does at least leave Nietzsche as a good analyst.

Beyond this  though, Nietzsche who never advocates a socialist economy or a return to pre-capitalist economics, is doing something similar to his criticism of liberal political institutions. He is showing that liberal commercial society both sets up an ideal of strong individuality, which it needs and then undermines it through the constraints of economic life. So the reason for a critical attitude towards capitalism is recognition of the tension between the kind of individuality produced by earlier societies which revolves around struggling with nature for survival and often wars with other states, and the kind of individuality produced by working to provide more than the mere means of survival for others in societies based round rising economic prosperity.

This tension was recognised by classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Nietzsche takes further the concern that individualism requires an individual self-directed struggle for increased physical and psychological capacities, and that the culture of commercial society produces an economic elite that seems hardly distinguished from the mass in its personal style and culture, so fails to provide any example of greatness and excellence in these respects.

A classical style liberal of the twentieth century Joseph Schumpeter (most famous as author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942) argued that individualistic capitalism tends to undermine itself through the creation of corporate bureaucracies, where commercial constraints may become separate from much decision making, and where individual creativity is stifled. Many liberty oriented thinkers have noted the tendency of capitalists to undermine capitalism by seeking a privileged relation with the state, so accepting the mediocrity of state imposed uniformity.

Nietzsche was hyperbolic and expression and little informed about economics, but the hyperbole has a precise aim in drawing our attention to problems, and Nietzsche’s cultural capacities (including a strong interest in natural sciences) made him sensitive to some features of capitalist and democratic societies, which need to be counteracted if excellence is to flourish.

If one thinks that liberty merely, only, and purely means lack of state constraint, Nietzsche’s thoughts may not seem so meaningful. However, if we see liberty as including not only restraints on state power, but the value of individual pursuit of excellence for its own sake and to produce individuals who are not conformist and state centred, then Nietzsche must be one of the great thinkers about liberty.

As with Kierkegaard, it is difficult to recommend a single major Nietzsche text on political thought. On the Genealogy of Morality tends to be the starting point for discussion of his political ideas, but covers many other topics, and Human, All Too Human contains his thoughts on the possibility of a reduced state in a commercial society. Untimely MeditationsDawnThus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the IdolsThe Anti-Christ, Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, and The Gay Science are the other books of Nietzsche, and all contain passages discussed  by commentators on Nietzsche and politics.

Another Liberty Canon: Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is well known for his contributions to philosophical and religious thought, and for the literary qualities of his work in these areas. He has not been so well known as a contributor to political thought, though there is now a growing amount of scholarly commentary in this area.

Generally his politics has been seen as directed by an extreme kind of conservative reaction against changes, and particularity movements of  democratic and constitutional change in Denmark in his own time. The sense that he was conformable with the most absolute and conservative kind of monarchism possible has been accompanied by the sense that he was anti-political, that he just did not like politics, which connected with the supposed conservatism, because if there is no need for change in political structures, there is no need for political discussion and thought.

These positions might have some appeal to some libertarian-conservative fusionists, and do have some basis in some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. However, his thought cannot be properly characterised overall in this way, which would connect Kierkegaard at a relatively popular level with the political thinking of J.R.R. Tolkein, or at the more historical scholarly level with Robert Filmer, the English ultra-monarchist criticised at length by John Locke, or the Savoyard (French-Italian) ultra-monarchist critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.

More justified connections can be made with David Hume, for example. Hume was cautious about both political change and claims that the authority of existing political institutions rests on either reverence for the past, or very deliberate conscious popular consent. Hume thought that though societies with political and legal institutions probably did originate with a contract of sorts between government and governed, such contracts cannot bind future generations, and the ‘contract’, or set of relations, between individuals and the state, are open to reform and renegotiation.

Kierkegaard’s comments on the politic currents of his time, suggest that he had a strong understanding both of the belief in the absolute authority of existing institutions, and of the wish to create a new absolute, in a spirit of revolution. His own view is that negotiation and renewal are desirable, and are certainly inevitable, which he saw as the need to revise historical contractual agreements.

Kierkegaard certainly did not wish for individuals to make politics the highest aspect of their lives, as this would detract from the individual relation with God, which was the central interest of this passionately religious man. However, that is not to say that Kierkegaard thought Christianity gives the answer to everything in worldly life, or that Kierkegaard had nothing else driving him. A passion for writing, which has a strong element of self-exploration even if though the medium of fiction and the pseudonyms, which are used in his books, or as fictional authors for many of his widely read books.

The writing and self-exploration converge, for Kierkegaard, in the understanding and communication of the deepest relation of the self with itself as necessarily a relation with God. The recognition of something more than momentary about the existence of the self, leads to a recognition of an absolute aspect of the self, and a struggle with any dissolution of the self into a series of moments. This was Kierkegaard’s way of exploring the value of the individual, and the word ‘individual’ is frequently and frequently orientates his writing. In this, he provided a great way of thinking about the value of the individual for any political thought concerned about the liberty of the individual, and why that should be at the centre of politics.

Kierkegaard saw in the more absolute kinds of political thought a desire for a version of God, and in doing so provided the basis for distinguishing between a politics that recognises limits to what it hopes for from the state and collective action, and a politics that tries to impose itself on society by turning the state into a substitute for God.

Kierkegaard was very critical of the state church, even though his brother had made a career in it, and suggest that dependent on the state weakened religion, as other forms of dependence create other forms of weakness. He did not argue for a pure nightwatchman state, or individualist-anarchism, but he did argue for caution about how much the state does, and for taking individual responsibility for assisting those who have met with misfortune.

In his emphasis on the individual in his understanding of Christianity, Kierkegaard also understood that Christianity places an enormous burden on the individual compared with earlier forms of thinking, in which the individual is primarily thought of as part of a family or state. Kierkegaard was particularly concerned with the ancient Greek and Roman city states in this context, including the literature they produced. He placed value on his own small city of Copenhagen for preserving some of the value of ancient city-state, where the individual can draw strength from connection with others in a very concrete community, without wanting to see the individual subsumed into any kind of communal or collective identity.

For Kierkegaard, the more worldly part of our lives rests on more than living under a state defined  by law or a society defined  by universal rights, necessary though these are. We need engagement with our social world, including its political debates. Though Kierkegaard was a great loner in some respects, he did walk regularly though crowded parts of the city, live near the centre, accept that he would be recognised,  contributed to magazines, and existed as a public figure, which was sometimes uncomfortable for him, but was never a role he excluded.  He was attacked as an eccentric in the press and condemned as a diabolical figure by some of the church establishment, but like his hero Socrates reacted with humour, intelligence and the assumption that the independent, even self-contained, individual deals with difficult public controversies. In his ways of bringing together an antique commitment to public life and a more modern sense of strong individuality, Kierkegaard made a remarkable contribution to themes which preoccupied the major classical liberal thinkers, like David, Hume, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and many others.

It is not possible to recommend specific political theory texts by Kierkegaard, and just about everything he wrote can be read with great reward in association with the issues discussed above. A good starting point for a focus on the more political Kierkegaard though is the literary reflections in Two Agesfollowed up by the three masterpieces of 1843 that established his importance. The most immediately readable is RepetitionFear and Trembling is also relatively short. Either/Or is long and complex, but very rewarding and can itself be followed up by reading its sequel Stages on Life’s Way.

A few further remarks on foreign policy and libertarianism

Brandon’s and Fred’s blogs make me want to write a few further remarks on the relation between foreign policy and libertarianism.

1. One should be aware that ‘the libertarian argument’ does not equal ‘comments about US foreign policy’. Libertarianism should be a theory for all people everywhere. Much of the debate on foreign policy among libertarians is about American foreign policy. The US however is the exception, in terms of capacity, defense budget, possible reach of its military operations, the number of military alliances, et cetera. One cannot just say ‘smaller defence’ is better for all countries, as this would entail that many small countries would not be able to defend themselves, and indeed many are not. Even most (rich) West European countries are unable to defend themselves without NATO.

This is not to say one should not criticize US foreign policy decisions, or argue against particular military interventions abroad. It does call for further thinking among libertarians about the position of a great power in world politics. I think, particular in a globalized world, it is too simple to say such a power should retreat as much as possible from international affairs. A power vacuum will be filled, and there is no guarantee this will be beneficial to the US or the West. Indeed, I suspect it will not be.

2. Also, there is not one ‘libertarian idea about international relations’, here it is useful and needed to distinguish a separate classical liberal position, as I have argued in my book on classical liberalism and international relations theory (see the covers to the right) and will further elaborate in Degrees of Freedom, my next book that will be published next year with Transaction Publishers. There are many differences, but a main one in this context is that libertarians argue for defense as self-defense, while classical liberals accept that countries are part of international society of states, which demands a more active role in some areas. Not least a role in maintaining a regional or global balance of power. I think that is completely in line with Hayekian ideas about sponataneous order (pdf).

3. Libertarians lack meaningful thoughts about the dynamics of a world which would (partly) be characterized by libertarian ideas. Most will accept that a peaceful paradise is unlikely to unfold, yet do not think much about the alternative situations. This gap must be filled to make the basic argument more convincing (or not of course).