Some good historical analysis here, but I’m not so sure about the conclusion. I certainly support a right for regions to secede, but not all EU member states recognise such a right. Spain is the obvious example, since while it gives a high degree of autonomy to regions, including enhanced autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque country, it does not recognise any right to secede except through a law passed by the Cortes (parliament of Spain), which is extremely adverse to allowing any procedure for secession.
Greece has been extremely adverse to secession by Kosovo from Serbia, and does not recognise Kosovo, on the basis that a majority vote within a region-aspirant nation is not enough to justify secession under international law, if opposed by the nation from which the secession is taking place. I suspect there are some other countries with similar barriers to secession.
They’d do well to recognise that right, but the EU can’t force this kind of change on existing member states since unanimous consent would be required for the necessary treaty changes, and even without that barrier, the idea of the EU forcing countries to accept a right to secede and then define when and how that right to secede, which could create conflict with counties like the UK which do recognise the possibility of secession by referendum within the relevant region-aspirant nation, as in the current Scottish vote.
The time might come in the future when all EU countries might recognise a right to secede and then recognising that right could be a requirement for membership. However, it is not Putin’s Russia that would be concerned. Recent events in Ukraine show Putin’s agents fomenting violent secessionism in Crimea etc and a rigged referendum in Crimea. Of course Putin’s meddling is not the same a secessionism exercised peacefully and through fair voting, but such differences are likely to be overlooked by many in light of the still unfinished Ukraine crisis.
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.
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 King, Oedipus 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.
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.
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
History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)
Discipline and Punish
History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of Pleasure, The Care of the Self)
(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).
The Government of Self and Others
The Birth of Biopolitics
Security, Territory, Population
Hermeneutics of the Subject
Society Must be Defended
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.
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.
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.”
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.]
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:
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).
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.
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 Meditations, Dawn, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the Idols, The 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.
It is not clear what the policy consequences are regarding those who lose out due to competition. If we are free to choose our friends, there will be losers who lose someone’s friendship. Should we be forced to stay friends with those we no longer like? If not, then such a loss has no policy implication. Such incidental injuries have less damaging consequences than a law that prohibits ending a friendship. Thus the deontological and consequential effects are complements: Likewise, the consequences of prohibiting economic competition are worse than the losses due to competition. And entrepreneurs should know that the system is a profit and loss system, and anyone in business is vulnerable to losses. The losses due to competition are not torts and they are not coercive harms. They are injuries not deliberately inflicted but incidental to individuals and firms pursuing their happiness.
This is in response to my short post on the ethical divide within libertarianism between deontologists and consequentialists. I don’t think there is too much that we disagree on here; Indeed, it seems as if we are complimenting each other quite nicely (if I do say so myself!).
My one quibble is more of a question than a quibble: Although we cannot predict who will lose out to competition in markets, shouldn’t we be able to make some solid inferences? For example, if the US and Europe were to abolish subsidies to farmers and open up their markets to foreign competition, it stands safe to reason that Western farmers will lose out, at least in the short-run.
The logic behind Dr Foldvary’s comment is relatively clear: abolish protectionist subsidies (which are aggressive legislative acts perpetrated against Western consumers and foreign farmers) and this paves the way for non-aggression. Not only is this logic clear, it is irrefutable. It also shows how deontology and consequentialism are complimentary. However, logic and facts are not very useful when it comes to persuading the public. Philosophically this argument makes perfect sense, and politically and rhetorically Dr Foldvary makes it work, but in the general public sphere (especially the internet) the appeal to deontology has earmarked liberalization for disaster.
I suppose, if we follow Jacob Huebert’s line of reasoning, that the politics and the rhetoric of our ideas should not matter, but on the other hand we live in a world where even in the West libertarians have become a minority. The world will continue to liberalize as long as libertarians continue to be as lucid as Dr Foldvary, but I fear that men of his caliber are in very short supply today.
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 Ages, followed up by the three masterpieces of 1843 that established his importance. The most immediately readable is Repetition. Fear 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.
I am in frequent correspondence with a French retired businessman in his sixties. He is a thoughtful man with minimum formal education but who reads two newspapers a day and watches French news on television several times a day. My informal judgment (as a retired teacher) is that he possesses intelligence well above average. His interest in political matters is through the roof. My French friend is also strictly monolingual. That is, he gets all his information in French.
My friend sent me recently the following email I had trouble understanding, at first. (My own careful translation. My first language is French. I have published in that language.)
“The European Financial Markets Authority (EFMA) has downgraded the three main international credit agencies that, themselves, upgrade or downgrade European and other countries. It’s a just reward*… and a good defense against these agencies which possess no legitimacy at all except from the fact of their existence; agencies that seek to estimate the worth of those countries (and, perhaps, to play the stock market [on the basis of their own assessment]). No an easy issue. Perhaps this is going to calm down the yo-yo effect financial speculators have on the stock exchange…..I even thought a few years ago of sending a personal note to those credit agencies.”
Two salient points in this communication: First, the EFMA is a European Union “authority,” a government agency emanating from the individual EU countries’ national authorities. It’s a complete government body.
The second comment is related to the first, I believe. My friend states categorically that US-based credit agencies (Moody’s, S&P and Fitch Ratings ) have “no legitimacy” because they are not government agencies, precisely. This expresses a mental world whereas all legitimacy flows, can only flow, however indirectly, in however contorted a fashion, from the electoral process. He really thinks that the IFMA’s puerile tantrum is going to change the credit game decisively.
Within an American intellectual context, this sounds almost like the thinking of a madman. Yet, my friend is not mad. I have known him for dozens of year. He acts rationally in every aspect of his life. He is also decisively and loudly critical of French political life in general. The problem is simply that he is French, that he receives all his information from French sources, that his mind has been shaped by French economic thought (or un-thought).
His rage against the credit agencies is not based on a factual analysis of their performance either, which would certainly be a useful exercise after the 2008 world-wide financial crisis. His rage is based entirely on the violation of sovereignty by these non-legitimate bodies.
I often ask myself the rhetorical question, ” How much would I have to be paid to….?” In this case, I can’t come to a figure. I don’t know how I would begin to explain to my French friend the idea that credit agencies get most or all of their legitimacy the from the fact that they are precisely not government agencies. I could not tell him the obvious without being interrupted, I am sure: When economic actors begin doubting the credit ratings these agencies assign to organizations emitting bonds and to governments, they will swiftly collapse on their own. That is, this abstraction, the market grants them all of their legitimacy.**
The concept of markets, counter-intuitive in the best of times, has almost completely disappeared from the French consciousness. In 2012 I watched on French language television in horrified fascination the lively debates preceding the presidential election. That was after an ambitious New York District Attorney had disqualified the most likely winner who was both a qualified economist and a sex maniac. (I mean Strauss Khan, the then-current head of the International Monetary Fund and a very moderate nominal “Socialist.”)
French pre-election debates are both more lively and better staged than their US equivalents. In the first round of a two-round system, the candidates are grilled longer, more directly, more pitilessly than anything I have seen on American television. In this case, these animated and sometimes vicious discussions went on for weeks without the most serious economic questions obviously (to me) facing the country being addressed at all. I mean, of course, a large and fast-rising debt burden and the failure to grow the economy. The attendant permanent high unemployment often came up but I think that no candidate bothered to mention that strong economic growth melts unemployment .
There were ten candidates in the first rounds, including one each from: the New Anticapitalist Party and Workers’ Struggle (Wikipedia’s translation). There was not a single seat at the feast occupied by a conventional conservative party, a Tory party. There was no “liberal” chair at the dinner in the English sense of the word that would prevail in France if the term were used at all. (See below.). If the role of the market in both producing innovation and correcting wrong turns was ever mentioned during the whole campaign (first and second round,) it left no impression on anyone. There were plenty of arguments and proposals concerning taxes. They were all couched in terms of “fairness.” None was about the fundamental fact that taxes, even low taxes limit the virtuous work of the market and therefore shackle economic growth (which has practically ceased to exist in France).
The French candidates also kept their eyes averted from, or dismissed summarily the example of Germany next door which successfully reformed its welfare state in a more market direction ten years earlier.
It’s not that there are no “conservatives ” in France. So-called “cultural conservatives” abound. Large segments of the population become exercised about the right of homosexual couples to adopt and even about host womb fertilization. The puerile excesses of the post-1968 strange, make-believe revolution alone would ensure the existence of such conservatism if it did not have deep roots in the country (see below). Sex hounds like Strauss-Khan have always existed in France but 1968 gave them permission to act openly and more or less brazenly, thereby exciting the Catholic minority’s ire and disgust.
The absence of liberal economic though in France is the result of a historical accident, a major one to be sure. At the end of World War II, the segments of French political society who had taken an active part in the resistance again the Nazi occupation took over. Soon, they constituted nearly the whole of the political class. The two main segments were the Communist Party and a shifting alliance of “Gaullist” parties, with the Socialist Party playing the role of permanent opposition until 1981. The Communists – nominally Marxist though few of their leaders had read any Marx – were obviously not believers either in the efficacy or in the morality of market mechanisms. The fairly large Socialist Party was kept in a permanent state of primitive vulgar Marxism by the necessity in which it found itself to compete with the Communists for its electorate.
The political right was occupied by Gaullists with serious ties to the progressive wing of the Catholic Church. General De Gaulle himself – a venerated figure and a mediocre politician – was thoroughly influenced by the social doctrine of the Church. To summarize it – but not abusively, I believe – the social doctrine views the state in the guise of absolute Ancien Regime kings. Good kings are both fair and powerful. They use the state apparatus unhesitatingly to distribute both justice and charity as needed.
In the post-World War II re-distribution of power, there was thus no room left for non-statist, or for “little- statist” organized opinion. The socialist victory of Mitterand in 1981, followed by a Socialist majority in parliament swept away any remaining free-market voices. It was not done through persecution in violation of democratic rule but largely through a natural swamping motion. Soon, the effect of this Socialist victory were seen in both the major mass media and, especially in French schools at all levels. All arguments about the economy heard were statist arguments: How much government action, where, for how long, whom and what to tax more, by how much, how can the government create more jobs? (The latter is taken literally: The government actually “creates ” jobs, within itself, inside the government bureaucracy.)
After thirty years, statist schooling has done the expectable: There is almost never any mention in public discourse or in private conversation of this simple idea:
Things that need to get done get done mostly well, mostly efficiently if government does not interfere.
This basic idea was never debated and beaten back; it was simply buried. It does not exist in the French consciousness. The fact that the French public is rather inferior in its ability to read other languages – notably English – helps maintain its insularity in this respect as it does in others. (Incidentally, the insularity runs so deep that the French political elite is incapable of seeing the success of the relatively liberal policies of the UK next door even as educated French youth flocks there by its tens of thousands in search of employment.)
If the French had any notion of the sentence above, they would use the word “liberal” in its English meaning. In fact, the word is practically never used in public discourse or in private discourse. When it is, it’s always accompanied by the qualifier “ultra.” The French live in a strange mental world where there are some “ultra-liberals” but no liberals. “Ultra liberal” is clearly an insulting term. It means “heartless, selfish and extremist.” No decent person is an ” ultra-liberal.” I don’t believe I know three French people who would not interrupt me in the middle of the sentence above in casual conversation. “But you are not an ultra-liberal,” they would break in with worry written all over their faces. If I retorted, “Yes, I am” not one of them would believe me.
Failing to possess conceptual language has concrete consequences. Two stand out.
In the absence of adequate terms, it is difficult to legislate regulations for normal economic activities. Many are swept under the rug. The result is that legitimate economic activities may no be performed above board, lobbying, for one. Les lobbys (in French) are illegitimate by definition. Much of what they do is borderline illegal because there is no relevant legislation or because the relevant legislation prevents them from doing their work. Since economic interests have to manifest themselves in connection with the state anyway, there follows a systematic criminalization of political life. With many of their ranking politicians pronounced criminals, ordinary French people have become deeply disaffected with normal politics. The recent (exaggerated) success of the rightist Front National in European elections is one manifestation of this distaste.
More seriously, it’s difficult to reform a polity if there is no word to designate the new direction it should take. (You need a North to navigate.) There is widespread informal agreement in France that the French welfare state is not sustainable: In 2013, half of French households received government cash for a mean of $600 plus/ month. Thus, in a country with a GDP per capita of $37,000 maximum (World Bank, for 2013), half the households receive $7,200 to $7500 annually in the form of government re-distribution (Le Figaro on-line 6/6/14) . In a society where the sentence above may not be used, or used intelligibly, it’s very difficult to state the obvious:
“We need to allow the market to spawn economic growth. We need to do it, if for no other reason, to continue to afford our munificent social (welfare) coverage.”
Instead, the political class disparages itself and destroys its own legitimacy in futile proposals and counter-proposals to cut this rather than that social program, to raise or lower such and such least favorite tax.
In my opinion, the French welfare state will not slowly grind to a halt or fall slowly apart. Rather, I think, it will come to a sudden full-stop, sink into bankruptcy because no one who counts in France is able to mouth the liberal alternative.
*This is a weak translation. The French phrase: “juste retour des choses” implies a morally valid return to some sort of previous equilibrium.
** None of this means that I think credit rating agencies perfect. I am sorry there are only three big ones of them. I regret that they exercise what I call the “tyranny of the written and of the counted.” I mean that their summary judgments tends – in the nature of things – to become substitutes for more sophisticated evaluations. They encourage laziness on the part of bond buyers, including me. Also, they have not lost enough credibility from their bad judgments on the eve of the 2008 crisis.
Jacques Delacroix: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography
is live in the Kindle Store at:
It will be available on reading devices other than Kindle in about fifty days.
The print copy will be available soon from me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Both [Marx and Piketty] protest economic disparities, but move in opposite directions. Piketty advances into the domain of salaries, income and wealth; he wants to temper these extremes and give us—to alter the slogan of the ill-fated Prague Spring of 1968—capitalism with a human face. Marx advances into the domain of commodities, work, and alienation; he wants to undo these relations and give us a transformed society.
This is from UCLA historian Russell Jacoby in the New Republic. The rest of the article is not that great, to be honest (I’ll bet you ten bucks that Jacoby – whom I never took during my time in Westwood – is an old man; I can safely assume this because of the praise he lavishes upon Karl Marx at the expense of Piketty and other economists), but I thought this excerpt was a good opportunity to enhance my argument that Murray Rothbard was a great Cold War scholar and a terrible role model for the world we live in today.
Rothbard’s argument – exemplified by this excerpt that Adam provided in the ‘comments’ threads a while back – devastated the Marxist notions of the world held in the 1960s and 1970s, but Rothbard’s argument simply does not grapple with Piketty’s. It’s a whole new ball game, and one that newer scholars who have built upon Rothbard’s foundations are now grappling with. It does us no good to continue parroting a line of reasoning that has long since outlived its usefulness.
97 % of scientists, blah, blah…. Ridiculous, pathetic.
Thus challenged, some people I actually like throw reading assignments at me. Some are assignment in scholarly journals; some, sort of. Apparently, I have to keep my mouth shut until I reach a high degree of technical competence in climate science (or something). I don’t need to do these absurd assignments. I am not blind and I am not deaf. I see what I see; I hear what I hear; it all sounds familiar. Been there, done it!
A long time ago, I accepted a good job in France in urban planning after receiving my little BA in sociology from Stanford. I was a slightly older graduate and I had no illusions that I knew much of anything then. I had some clear concepts in my mind and I had learned the basic of the logic of scientific inquiry from old Prof. Joseph Berger and from Prof. Bernard Cohen. I had also done some reading in the “excerpts” department including the trilogy of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. Only a couple of weeks after I took my job, my boss sent me to a conference of urban sociologists in Paris. Having been intellectually spoiled by several years in the US and conscious of my limited knowledge of urban planning, I asked many questions, of course.
In the weeks following the meeting, I became aware of a rumor circulating that presented me as an impostor. This guy coming out of nowhere – the USA – cannot possibly have studied sociology because he does not know anything, French sociologists thought. I had to ask how the rumor started. I was aware that I knew little but, but, I did not think it was exactly “nothing.” Besides, most of my questions at the conference had not been answered in an intelligible manner so, I was not convinced that my comparison set – French sociologists working in city planning – knew much more than I did.
Soon afterward, I wrote a “white paper.” It was about the eastern region where I had been tasked to plan for the future until 2005 (the year was 1967) as part as a multidisciplinary team. The white paper gave a list of social issues city planners had to face at this point, the starting point of the planning endeavor. As young men will do, I had allowed myself short flights of speculation in the white paper, flights I would not have indulged in a few years later. My direct supervisor, an older French woman who was supposed to be sociologist, read the whole ambitious product, or said she had, and made no comments except one. She took exception to one of my speculative flights in which I made reference to the idea that much societal culture rises up from the street. It was almost an off-hand remark. Had that part been left out, the white paper would have been pretty much the same. The supervisor insisted I had to remove that comment because, she said exactly, ”Marx asserts clearly that culture comes from the ruling class.” She told me she would not allow my the white paper to be presented until I extirpated the offending statement.
In summary: The woman had nothing to say about the many parts of the report that were instrumental to the endeavor that our team was supposed to complete, about that for which she and I were explicitly being paid. She had nothing to say about the likely mistakes I exhibited in the report because of my short experience. Her self-defined role was strictly to protect what she took to be Marxist orthodoxy even if it was irrelevant. There was a double irony there. First, the government that employed us was explicitly not in sympathy with any form of Marxism. The woman was engaging in petty sedition. Second, Karl Marx himself was no lover of orthodoxies. He would have abhorred here role. (Marx is said to have declared before his death, “I am not a Marxist”!)
I any even, I was soon rid of the ideological harridan and I was able to do my job after a fashion. For those who like closure: I went back to the US to attend graduate school, at Stanford again. Two years later, my old boss called me back. He had come up in the world. He was in charge of a big Paris metropolitan area urban research institute. He begged me, begged on the phone to go back to France, and take charge of the institute’s sociology cell. He said that he understood not a word of what the “sociologists” there said to him. He added that I was the only sociologist he had ever understood. I yielded to his entreaties and I promised him a single year of my life. I interrupted my graduate studies and flew to Paris. In the event, I gave the sociologists at the institute one month warning. Then, I summoned each one of them to explain to me orally how his work contributed to Paris city and regional planning. (“What will it change to the way this is currently being done?” I asked.) They did not respond to my satisfaction and I fired all six of them. I replaced them with people who could keep their Marxism under control. My boss was grateful. I could have had a great career in France. I chose to return to my studies instead.
Three years later, having completed my doctorate, I found my self at critical juncture common to all those who go that course. You have to turn your doctoral thesis into papers published in double-blind refereed journals. (Here is what this means: “What’s Peer Review and Why It Matters“)
That’s a lot like leaving kindergarten: no more cozy relationships, no more friends assuring you that your work is just wonderful; the real world hits you in the face. The review process in good journals is often downright brutal. Anyone who does not feel a little vulnerable at that point is probably also a little silly. To make matters worse, the more respected the journal, the harder it is to get in and the better your academic career. As a rule, if you have not achieved publication in a first-rate journal in the first three or four years after completing your doctorate, you will be consigned forever to second-tier universities or worse.
Be patient, I am just setting the stage for what’s coming.
Much of my early scholarly work happened to take place within a school of research dominated by “neo-Marxists.” It was not my choice. I was interested in problems of economic development that happened to be largely in the hands of those people. My choice was between abandoning my interests or buckling up and taking my chances. I buckled up, of course. My first article to be published was innovative but a little esoteric. (Delacroix, Jacques. “The permeability of information boundaries and economic growth: a cross-national study.” Studies in Comparative International Development. 12-1:3-28. 1977.) I presented to a specialized journal and therefore not one that could be called “first tier.” It happened to contain nothing that would offend the neo-Marxists. It took less than six months to have it accepted for publication.
The second published paper out of my dissertation struck at the heart of neo-Marxists convictions. It demonstrated – using their methods – that the parlous condition of the Third World – allegedly caused by capitalist exploitation – could be remedied through one aspect of ordinary good governance. I submitted it to one of the two most respected journals (the American Sociological Review). All the reviewers who had the technical skills to review my submission were also neo-Marxists or sympathetic to their doctrine. The paper reported on a study conducted according to methods that were by now common. Having the paper accepted for publication took more than three years. It also took a rare personal intervention by the journal’s editor whom I somehow managed to convince that the reviewers he had chosen were acting unreasonably. (The paper: Delacroix, Jacques. “The export of raw materials and economic growth: a cross-national study.” American Sociological Review 42:795-808. 1977.) No need to read either paper.
Am I telling you here a story of conspiracy or a story of academic corruption? Yes, I faced a conspiracy but it was not a conspiracy against me personally and it was mostly not conscious. The only people – but me- who had the skills to pass judgment on my paper were not numerous. They were a small group that shared a common understanding of the reality of the world. It was not a cold, cerebral understanding. Those people formed a community of sentiment. They believed their work would contribute to the righting of a worldwide injustice, a “global” injustice committed against the defenseless people of underdeveloped countries. Is it possible that their ethical faith influenced their judgment? To ask the question is to answer it, I think. Did their faith induce them to close their eyes when others from their own camp cut some research corners here and there? On the contrary, were their eyes wide open when they were reviewing for a journal a submission whose conclusion impaired their representation of the world? In that situation, did they overreact to an uncrossed “t” or a dotted “i,” in a paper that undermined their beliefs? Might be. Could be. Probably was. Other things being equal, they may have just thought, it would be better if these annoying Delacroix findings were not publicized in a prime journal. Delacroix could always try elsewhere anyway.
So, yes, I faced corruption. It was not conscious, above-board corruption. It was not cynical. It was a corruption of blindness, much of it deliberate blindness. The blindness was all the more sturdy because it was seldom called into question. Those who would have cared did not understand the relevant techniques. Those who knew them shared in the blindness. This is a long way from cynical, deliberate lying. It’s a just as destructive though. And it’s not only destructive for the lives of the likes of me who don’t belong to the relevant tribe. It’s destructive of what ordinary people think of as the truth. That is so because – however unlikely that sounds – the productions of elite and abstruse journals usually find their way into textbooks, even if it take twenty years.
Are the all-powerful editors of important journals part of the conspiracy? Mine were not but they tended to adhere to imperfect rules of behavior that made them objective accomplices of conspiracies. Here is the proof that the editor of the particular journal tried to be impartial. Only a month after he accepted my dissenting paper, the editor assigned me to review a submission from the same neo-Marxist school of thought that trumpeted another empirical finding proving that, blah, blah…. After one reading of the paper, my intuition smelled a rat. I spent days in the basement of the university library, literally days, taking apart the empirical foundation of the paper. I found the rat deep in its bowel. To put it briefly, if you switched a little thing from one category to another, all the conclusions were reversed. There was no imperative argument to put that one thing in one category rather than in the other. The author had chosen that which put his labor of love in line with the love of his neo-Marxist cozy-buddies. If he had not done it, his pluses would have become minuses, his professional success anathema. In the event, the editor agreed with my critique and dinged the paper for good. Nothing worse happened to the author. No one could tell whether he was a cheat. Or, no one would. No one was eager to. The editor was not in appetite for a fight. He let the whole matter go.
Myself, I came out of this experience convinced that it was likely that no one else in the whole wide world had both the skills and the motivation to dive into the depth of the paper to find that rat. It’s likely that no one else would have smelled a rat. It’s possible that if I had not still be smarting from three years of rejection of my own work, I would not have smelled the rat myself. The editor had the smarts, the intuition fed by experience, I would say, that he could put to work my unique positioning, my combination of competence and contrariness. He put it to work in defense of the truth. That fact is enough to exonerate him from complicity in the conspiracy I described. To answer my own question: Do I think that powerful scientific journal editors are often part of a conspiracy of the right thinking, of an orthodox cabala? I think not. Do they sometimes or often fall for one? Yes.
For those who like closure: My interests switched later to other topics (See vita, linked to this blog’s “About me.”) I think the neo-Marxist school of thought to which I refer above gradually sank into irrelevance.
After that experience, and several others of the same kind, do I have something better to propose? I don’t but I think the current system of scholarship publication does not deserve anything close to religious reverence. Even, if there were anything close to a “consensus” of scientists on anything, that should not mean that the book is closed. Individual rationalism also matters. It matters more, in my book.
What does this story of reminiscences this have to do with global warming, climate change, climate disruption , you might ask? Everything, I would say. More on the connection in part Two.