James Madison continues to be underrated

d) While ethnic and linguistic fractionalization are associated with negative outcomes in terms of quality of government, religious fractionalization is not; in fact, if anything, this measure displays a positive correlation with measures of good governance. This is because measured religious fractionalization tends to be higher in more tolerant and free societies, like the United States, which in fact displays one the of the highest level of religious fractionalization. This result has no bearing, however, on the question of whether certain religious denominations are correlated with better politico-economic outcomes, an issue recently explored by Barro and McLeary (2002).

Woah. Here’s more:

Whether societal conflict is the result of fractionalization or polarization is largely an unresolved question in theory, calling for empirical work. The discussion of whether a country with many relatively small groups is more or less stable than one with only two equally sized groups is an old one, and goes back at least to Madison in the Federalist Papers of 1788 (nos. 10 and 11 see Hamilton et al., 1911). Without much of a stretch of Madison’s views, one can argue that a polarization measure is, according to him, the appropriate concept to capture heterogeneity.

Read the whole thing here (pdf).

Second to None in the Creation of Extraordinary Wealth

The most important historical question to help understand our rise from the muck to modern civilization is: how did we go from linear to exponential productivity growth? Let’s call that question “who started modernity?” People often look to the industrial revolution, which is certainly an acceleration of growth…but it is hard to say it caused the growth because it came centuries after the initial uptick. Historians also bring up the Renaissance, but this is also a mislead due to the ‘written bias’ of focusing on books, not actions; the Renaissance was more like the window dressing of the Venetian commercial revolution of the 11th and 12th centuries, which is in my opinion the answer to “who started modernity.” However, despite being the progenitors of modern capitalism (which is worth a blog in and of itself), Venice’s growth was localized and did not spread immediately across Europe; instead, Venice was the regional powerhouse who served as the example to copy. The Venetian model was also still proto-banking and proto-capitalism, with no centralized balance sheets, no widespread retail deposits, and a focus on Silk Road trade. Perhaps the next question is, “who spread modernity across Europe?” The answer to this question is far easier, and in fact can be centered to a huge degree around a single man, who was possibly the richest man of all time: Jakob Fugger.

Jakob Fugger was born to a family of textile traders in Augsburg in the 15th century, and after training in Venice, revolutionized banking and trading–the foundations on which investment, comparative advantage, and growth were built–as well as relationships between commoners and aristocrats, the church’s view of usury, and even funded the exploration of the New World. He was the only banker alive who could call in a debt on the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, mostly because Charles owed his power entirely to Fugger. Strangely, he is perhaps best known for his philanthropic innovations (founding the Fuggerei, which were some of the earliest recorded philanthropic housing projects and which are still in operation today); this should be easily outcompeted by:

  1. His introduction of double entry bookkeeping to the continent
  2. His invention of the consolidated balance sheet (bringing together the accounts of all branches of a family business)
  3. His invention of the newspaper as an investment-information tool
  4. His key role in the pope allowing usury (mostly because he was the pope’s banker)
  5. His transformation of Maximilian from a paper emperor with no funding, little land, and no power to a competitor for European domination
  6. His funding of early expeditions to bring spices back from Indonesia around the Cape of Good Hope
  7. His trusted position as the only banker who the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire would trust to fund the election of Charles V
  8. His complicated, mostly adversarial relationship with Martin Luther that shaped the Reformation and culminated in the German Peasant’s War, when Luther dropped his anti-capitalist rhetoric and Fugger-hating to join Fugger’s side in crushing a modern-era messianic figure
  9. His involvement in one of the earliest recorded anti-trust lawsuits (where the central argument was around the etymology of the word “monopoly”)
  10. His dissemination, for the first time, of trustworthy bank deposit services to the upper middle class
  11. His funding of the military revolution that rendered knights unnecessary and bankers and engineers essential
  12. His invention of the international joint venture in his Hungarian copper-mining dual-family investment, where marriages served in the place of stockholder agreements
  13. His 12% annualized return on investment over his entire life (beating index funds for almost 5 decades without the benefit of a public stock market), dying the richest man in history.

The story of Fugger’s family–the story, perhaps, of the rise of modernity–begins with a tax record of his family moving to Augsburg, with an interesting spelling of his name: “Fucker advenit” (Fugger has arrived). His family established a local textile-trading family business, and even managed to get a coat of arms (despite their peasant origins) by making clothes for a nobleman and forgiving his debt.

As the 7th of 7 sons, Jakob Fugger was given the least important trading post in the area by his older brothers; Salzburg, a tiny mountain town that was about to have a change in fortune when miners hit the most productive vein of silver ever found by Europeans until the Spanish found Potosi (the Silver Mountain) in Peru. He then began his commercial empire by taking a risk that no one else would.

Sigismund, the lord of Salzburg, was sitting on top of a silver mine, but still could not run a profit because he was trying to compete with the decadence of his neighbors. He took out loans to fund huge parties, and then to expand his power, made the strategic error of attacking Venice–the most powerful trading power of the era. This was in the era when sovereigns could void debts, or any contracts, within their realm without major consequences, so lending to nobles was a risky endeavor, especially without backing of a powerful noble to force repayment or address contract breach.

Because of this concern, no other merchant or banker would lend to Sigismund for this venture because sovereigns could so easily default on debts, but where others saw only risk, Fugger saw opportunity. He saw that Sigismund was short-sighted and would constantly need funds; he also saw that Sigismund would sign any contract to get the funds to attack Venice. Fugger fronted the money, collateralized by near-total control of Sigismund’s mines–if only he could enforce the contract.

Thus, the Fugger empire’s first major investment was in securing (1) a long-term, iterated credit arrangement with a sovereign who (2) had access to a rapidly-growing industry and was willing to trade its profits for access to credit (to fund cannons and parties, in his case).

What is notable about Fugger’s supposedly crazy risk is that, while it depended on enforcing a contract against a sovereign who could nullify it with a word, he still set himself up for a consistent, long-term benefit that could be squeezed from Sigismund so long as he continued to offer credit. This way, Sigismund could not nullify earlier contracts but instead recognized them in return for ongoing loan services; thus, Fugger solved this urge toward betrayal by iterating the prisoner’s dilemma of defaulting. He did not demand immediate repayment, but rather set up a consistent revenue stream and establishing Fugger as Sigismund’s crucial creditor. Sigismund kept wanting finer things–and kept borrowing from Fugger to get them, meaning he could not default on the original loan that gave Fugger control of the mines’ income. Fugger countered asymmetrical social relationships with asymmetric terms of the contract, and countered the desire for default with becoming essential.

Eventually, Fugger met Maximilian, a disheveled, religion-and-crown-obsessed nobleman who had been elected Holy Roman Emperor specifically because of his lack of power. The Electors wanted a paper emperor to keep freedom for their principalities; Maximilian was so weak that a small town once arrested and beat him for trying to impose a modest tax. Fugger, unlike others, saw opportunity because he recognized when aligning paper trails (contracts or election outcomes) with power relationships could align interests and set him up as the banker to emperors. When Maximilian came into conflict with Sigismund, Fugger refused any further loans to Sigismund, and Maximilian forced Sigismund to step down. Part of Sigismund’s surrender and Maximilian’s new treaty included recognizing Fugger’s ongoing rights over the Salzburg mines, a sure sign that Fugger had found a better patron and solidified his rights over the mine through his political maneuvering–by denying a loan to Sigismund and offering money instead to Maximilian. Once he had secured this cash cow, Fugger was certainly put in risky scenarios, but didn’t seek out risk, and saw consistent yearly returns of 8% for several decades followed by 16% in the last 15 years of his life.

From this point forward, Fugger was effectively the creditor to the Emperor throughout Maximilian’s life, and built a similar relationship: Maximilian paid for parties, military campaigns, and bought off Electors with Fugger funds. As more of Maximilian’s assets were collateralized, Fugger’s commercial empire grew; he gained not only access to silver but also property ownership. He was granted a range of fiefs, including Arnoldstein, a critical trade juncture where Austria, Italy, and Slovenia border each other; his manufacturing and trade led the town to be renamed, for generations, Fuggerau, or Place of Fugger.

These activities that depended on lending to sovereigns brings up a major question: How did Fugger get the money he lent to the Emperor? Early in his career, he noted that bank deposit services where branches were present in different cities was a huge boon to the rising middle-upper class; property owners and merchants did not have access to reliable deposit services, so Fugger created a network of small branches all offering deposits with low interest rates, but where he could grow his services based on the dependability of moving money and holding money for those near, but not among, society’s elites. This gave him a deep well of dispersed depositors, providing him stable and dependable capital for his lending to sovereigns and funding his expanding mining empire.

Unlike modern financial engineers, who seem to focus on creative ways to go deeper in debt, Fugger’s creativity was mostly in ways that he could offer credit; he was most powerful when he was the only reliable source of credit to a political actor. So long as the relationship was ongoing, default risk was mitigated, and through this Fugger could control the purse strings on a wide range of endeavors. For instance, early in their relationship (after Maximilian deposed Sigismund and as part of the arrangement made Fugger’s interest in the Salzburg mines more permanent), Maximilian wanted to march on Rome as Charlemagne reborn and demand that the pope personally crown him; he was rebuffed dozens of times not by his advisors, but by Fugger’s denial of credit to hire the requisite soldiers.

Fugger also innovated in information exchange. Because he had a broad trading and banking business, he stood to lose a great deal if a region had a sudden shock (like a run on his banks) or gain if new opportunities arose (like a shift in silver prices). He took advantage of the printing press–less than 40 years after Gutenberg, and in a period when most writing was religious–to create the first proto-newspaper, which he used to gather and disseminate investment-relevant news. Thus, while he operated a network of small branches, he vastly improved information flow among these nodes and also standardized and centralized their accounting (including making the first centralized/combined balance sheet).

With this broad base of depositors and a network of informants, Fugger proceeded to change how war was fought and redraw the maps of Europe. Military historians have discussed when the “military revolution” that shifted the weapons, organization, and scale of war for decades, often centering in on Swedish armies in the 1550s as the beginning of the revolution. I would counter-argue that the Swedes simply continued a trend that the continent had begun in the late 1400’s, where:

  1. Knights’ training became irrelevant, gunpowder took over
  2. Logistics and resource planning were professionalized
  3. Early mechanization of ship building and arms manufacturing, as well as mining, shifted war from labor-centric to a mix of labor and capital
  4. Multi-year campaigns were possible due to better information flow, funding, professional organization
  5. Armies, especially mercenary groups, ballooned in size
  6. Continental diplomacy became more centralized and legalistic
  7. Wars were fought by access to creditors more than access to trained men, because credit could multiply the recruitment/production for war far beyond tax receipts

Money mattered in war long before Fugger: Roman usurpers always took over the mints first and army Alexander showed how logistics and supply were more important than pure numbers. However, the 15th century saw a change where armies were about guns, mercenaries, technological development, and investment, and above all credit, and Fugger was the single most influential creditor of European wars. After a trade dispute with the aging Hanseatic League over their monopoly of key trading ports, Fugger manipulated the cities into betraying each other–culminating in a war where those funded by Fugger broke the monopolistic power of the League. Later, because he had a joint venture with a Hungarian copper miner, he pushed Charles V into an invasion of Hungary that resulted in the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These are but two of the examples of Fugger destroying political entities; every Habsburg war fought from the rise of Maximilian through Fugger’s death in 1527 was funded in part by Fugger, giving him the power of the purse over such seminal conflicts as the Italian Wars, where Charles V fought on the side of the Pope and Henry VIII against Francis I of France and Venice, culminating in a Habsburg victory.

Like the Rothschilds after him, Fugger gained hugely through a reputation for being ‘good for the money’; while other bankers did their best to take advantage of clients, he provided consistency and dependability. Like the Iron Bank of Braavos in Game of Thrones, Fugger was the dependable source for ambitious rulers–but with the constant threat of denying credit or even war against any defaulter. His central role in manipulating political affairs via his banking is well testified during the election of Charles V in 1519. The powerful kings of Europe– Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Frederick III of Saxony all offered huge bribes to the Electors. Because these sums crossed half a million florins, the competition rapidly became one not for the interest of the Electors–but for the access to capital. The Electors actually stipulated that they would not take payment based on a loan from anyone except Fugger; since Fugger chose Charles, so did they.

Fugger also inspired great hatred by populists and religious activists; Martin Luther was a contemporary who called Fugger out by name as part of the problem with the papacy. The reason? Fugger was the personal banker to the Pope, who was pressured into rescinding the church’s previously negative view of usury. He also helped arrange the scheme to fund the construction of the new St. Peter’s basilica; in fact, half of the indulgence money that was putatively for the basilica was in fact to pay off the Pope’s huge existing debts to Fugger. Thus, to Luther, Fugger was greed incarnate, and Fugger’s name became best known to the common man not for his innovations but his connection to papal extravagance and greed. This culminated in the 1525 German Peasant’s War, which saw an even more radical Reformer and modern-day messianic figure lead hordes of hundreds of thousands to Fuggerau and many other fortified towns. Luther himself inveighed against these mobs for their radical demands, and Fugger’s funding brought swift military action that put an end to the war–but not the Reformation or the hatred of bankers, which would explode violently throughout the next 100 years in Germany.

This brings me to my comparison: Fugger against all of the great wealth creators in history. What makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest, to me, is that his contributions cross so many major facets of society: Like Rockefeller, he used accounting and technological innovations to expand the distribution of a commodity (silver or oil), and he was also one of the OG philanthropists. Like the Rothschilds’ development of the government bond market and reputation-driven trust, Fugger’s balance-sheet inventions and trusted name provided infrastructural improvement to the flow of capital, trust in banks, and the literal tracking of transactions. However, no other capitalist had as central of a role in religious change–both as the driving force behind allowing usury and as an anti-Reformation leader. Similarly, few other people had as great a role in the Age of Discovery: Fugger funded Portuguese spice traders in Indonesia, possibly bankrolled Magellan, and funded the expedition that founded Venezuela (named in honor of Venice, where he trained). Lastly, no other banker had as influential of a role in political affairs; from dismantling the Hanseatic League to deciding the election of 1519 to building the Habsburgs from paper emperors to the most powerful monarchs in Europe in two generations, Fugger was the puppeteer of Europe–and such an effective one that you have barely heard of him. Hence, Fugger was not only the greatest wealth creator in history but among the most influential people in the rise of modernity.

Fugger’s legacy can be seen in his balance sheet of 1527; he basically developed the method of using it for central management, its only liabilities were widespread deposits from the upper-middle class (and his asset-to-debt ratio was in the range of 7-to-1, leaving an astonishingly large amount of equity for his family), and every important leader on the continent was literally in his debt. It also showed him to have over 1 million florins in personal wealth, making him one of the world’s first recorded millionaires. The title of this post was adapted from a self-description written by Jakob himself as his epitaph. As my title shows, I think it is fairer to credit his wealth creation than his wealth accumulation, since he revolutionized multiple industries and changed the history of capitalism, trade, European politics, and Christianity, mostly in his contribution to the credit revolution. However, the man himself worked until the day he died and took great pride in being the richest man in history.

All information from The Richest Man Who Ever Lived. I strongly recommend reading it yourself–this is just a taster!

AOC doesn’t understand Christianity

I believe I wasted a lot of time some years ago arguing if Venezuela was a democracy or not under Hugo Chávez. The difficulty with this kind of conversation is that people can have very different views on what constitutes a “democracy”. That is part of the reason why North Korea can call itself a “democratic republic”. However, when somebody claims something about Christianity, and specially about what the Bible says, I feel more comfortable to debate.

I understand that it is like flogging a decomposing horse, but some months ago representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supposedly called out the hypocrisy of religious conservatives using their faith to justify bigotry and discrimination in the United States. Her speech can be watched here. I believe her point is this: conservative Christians only care about religion in order to support their so-called “bigotry”. AOC believes that Christians should support socialism, because after all, that’s what Jesus would do.

AOC says some truths: sadly, the Christian Scriptures have been distorted many times over American history to defend political agendas they were never meant to defend. AOC could go even further on that if she wanted: the Cristian Scriptures were completed almost 2 thousand years ago, and they simply don’t talk specifically to many of the political issues we have today. One can say they offer principles of conduct, but it’s really up to us to figure out how these apply to concrete situations we find today. In this case, using Scripture to support political agendas can be not only morally wrong, but also naive and misguided.

AOC is also right when she says that human life is special (although I would question if “holy” applies) and that we should “fight for the least of us”. All these statements and more are true!

What AOC really doesn’t seem to understand (and frankly, this is quite scary) is that Christianity can’t be forced upon people. Yes, biblically speaking, we are to care for the poor. However, the Bible is addressing we as individuals. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says that we are to provide medical care for those who cannot afford via government fiat. Actually, there is nothing in the Bible that says that I can force people to act as Christians when they are not.

One of the great gifts from modernity is separation between church and state. I would submit that this separation was present in Christianity from the start, but the concept was so radically different from everything people were used to that it took some centuries for it to be put into practice, and we are actually still working on it. One of the things we realized in modern times is that we can’t force people to be Christians via government. And in her speech, AOC is trying to undo that. She wants government to force people to do a charitable work that can only be done if it is their choice.

As a Christian, I would say this: I would like to diminish suffering in this world, and this is exactly why I’m against the socialism AOC supports. One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that the poor are much better off in countries that go further away from what Ms. Ocasio supports. It’s not simply a matter of wanting to help the poor, but of doing it in efficacious way. And also: I want to invite people to look to the example of Jesus, who being rich made himself poor for the sake of many. I do hope that more and more people might have their lives changed by Jesus. But I don’t want to force anybody to do that. I want to invite people to consider what Scripture says, and to make their choice to change their lives. As for now, I believe that capitalism is the most efficient way to help the poor humanity has discovered so far.

What I learned in the Master’s

In my master’s degree, I studied international relations. As far as I can judge, the program was very good. Excellent even. It was a very good two years, in which I was challenged like never before. The master’s degree was very difficult for me. I was very curious about international affairs, but I knew almost nothing about international relations theory. The professors assumed that students were at least familiar with the content. I was not. So, I went through the experience of learning to cook and learning to be a culinary critic at the same time. I had to chase a lot. But it was good. The master’s taught me like no previous experience to study on my own.

Looking back, I understand that the program was strongly influenced by a light form of postmodernism. That was very difficult for me. There was a strong rejection of more traditional theories of international relations, such as realism and liberalism. It was all very new to me, but I knew that being a classic realist was not an option well regarded by the professors. I ended up finding a kind of lifeboat in constructivism. I didn’t want to be ashamed of being a realist, but my intuition told me that there was something wrong with postmodernism. It was only after the master’s degree, teaching the theory of international relations and studying several other things, that I understood that postmodernism is really crazy, something deeply twisted.

Constructivism is largely weird also. The most sensible thing I read in international relations was John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Stephen Walt is an author who also made sense to me in my post-master’s life. In short, I admire my master’s program for its academic excellence, but I find the theories espoused by several of the professors completely flawed.

It was very difficult for me to write my dissertation. I did not have a clear theoretical basis, just the instinct that I did not want to follow a postmodern line and the certainty that a more traditional theory would not be well accepted. I wrote the dissertation without having a very solid theoretical basis. But my research, modesty aside, was still very well done. I researched the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Brazil in the 19th century.

It was a topic of personal interest. I was a recently converted Protestant, and I wanted to know more about my history. As they say in Brazil, I joined hunger with the desire to eat. My question, which I was not able to ask so clearly at the time, was whether the presence of missionaries in Brazil, the majority coming from the USA, had affected Brazil-United States relations in any way. Even today, I find it very difficult to analyze causality in such cases, as someone would do in the hard sciences, but I believe that with the information I gathered I can defend that yes, American Protestant missionaries affected Brazil-US relations in many ways. Brazil and the USA were predominantly disinterested in each other in the early 19th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this situation changed dramatically, especially on the part of Brazil. The USA started to play a central role in Brazilian foreign policy. It does not seem to me to be the case that the missionaries caused this change, but I believe that their presence in Brazil cooperated, along with other factors, to make this happen. Would Brazil change its foreign policy at the end of the 19th century in one way or another? This is a type of question that, honestly, I’m not interested in answering. But I believe it is clear that the missionaries helped the two countries to become a little more aware of each other.

I faced some opposition from colleagues for choosing this topic. One of the things I heard was that, being a Protestant, I would not have the necessary distance to do a good research. I also heard that missionaries would be little more than tourists, and that they would, therefore, have no chance of affecting relations between the two countries. These were harsh criticisms, which still make me sad when I remember them. I see in these criticisms a certain prejudice against evangelicals that is still present in Brazil, inside and outside academia. Ironically, I did not find the same thing on the part of the professors. On the contrary! Every one of them was always very supportive of my research, and in fact, they found the topic interesting and pertinent.

I would very much like to be able to return to the topic of my research with the head I have today, but I don’t have time for that. To some extent, I would also like to go back to those classes knowing the things I know today. But I also believe that I would not have that much patience. I have a better notion of what I consider epistemologically valid or not. I suppose the master’s degree would be more difficult to take today. Anyway, the master’s degree gave me my first job as a professor: I started teaching international relations when I hadn’t even defended the dissertation, and I did it for eight years. It was a very good eight years. Although I am away from this area, I still like what I learned, and I feel benefited by the time I studied and taught international relations.

On growing up in Brazil, political liberty, and religion

Steve Bishop recently interviewed me for his blog and we talked about my personal background, my Christian faith and my interest in Reformational philosophy, a tradition of thought of which Abraham Kuyper was an early proponent and Herman Dooyeweerd, the main exponent.

Here is a personal part of the interview that might be of interest to NOL readers. I answer a question about what influenced my intellectual development:

Another influence I should mention came from people and events that taught me to mistrust the hubris of political authoritarianism. My Italian granddad was a child during World War II and his family never joined the Fascist party. As a result, they had much less access to food and clothes and suffered a lot during the war. This is part of the reason why he later decided to try something new in Brazil. I grew up hearing his stories about the horrors of war. My other grandfather was older and he had been drafted by the Brazilian Army to join the allied forces and fight the axis powers in Italy. But, before shipping to Europe, in the Army base, he decided he shouldn’t go fight the war, so he had to hide for a few years before amnesty was granted for defectors. When I was born, Brazil was still under the rule of a military junta, but later transitioned to a convoluted period of democratic transition. High inflation was destroying people’s livelihoods. I remember running in front of the “price man” at the supermarket to get products for the previous day’s price before the new tags were placed in them. My father got his salary and would have to immediately spend most of it by stocking up groceries for the entire month. This was very early in my childhood, until age nine or so, but I still have vivid memories of the national currency changing name every six months or so. By college time, I was already immune to the idea that politicians are more enlightened than the rest of us.
Then, when I read books such as The Road to Serfdom or, say, Orwell’s 1984, they helped me conceptualize what I had already noticed intuitively. I had already grasped Lord Acton’s maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you have, let’s say, an Augustinian view of the potential damage we can cause to fellow human beings if unhampered by checks and balances, then you can easily identify some of the naivete about human nature both right and left on the political spectrum, and that can lead you to the normative point that civil government should be limited in scope.
Further on, I talk about current projects:
In 2018 I delivered the Calihan Lecture at the Acton Institute and applied the notion of sphere sovereignty to interpret the crisis we are facing in the public square. This lecture has recently been published in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Last year I finished a project on the classical liberal background of the anti-revolutionary movement. An article summarising the main findings will come out in the Journal of Church and State in 2021. I didn’t want it to be too controversial and deliberately toned down the argument after the first peer review, but the main point is that Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper fall under the category of “anti-rationalist liberals”, together, of course, with figures such as Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others who were, together with the anti-revolutionaries, very critical of the “rationalist liberalism” of, say J.S. Mill or the French liberals. As part of this project, I wrote an epilogue to the Portuguese translation of Kuyper’s speech on the social question, a book chapter for a South African publisher on Christian ethics and entrepreneurship in an interventionist economy.

This, of course, alludes to F.A. Hayek’s distinction between two kinds of liberal tradition, one of which he rejected (rationalist liberalism) in order to embrace the other (anti-rationalist liberalism).

On Abraham Kuyper’s Political Liberalism

My article “Abraham Kuyper and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer as Anti-Rationalist Liberals” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Church & State and will hopefully be in print in 2021.

In this article, I explore F. A. Hayek’s division of pre-1848 liberalism into two contrasting worldviews — rationalist and anti-rationalist. I argue that both Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, two important Dutch Anti-Revolutionary writers, were anti-rationalist liberals.

Both of them are on the record denouncing “liberalism”, but both refer mostly to French liberalism of the rationalist kind. And both admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, cited by Hayek as great exponents of anti-rationalist liberalism.

I hope this article will lead to an interesting conversation as to why the contemporary Kuyperian movement seems to be much more left-wing than the original anti-revolutionaries.

A pre-print version of the article can be viewed on the Oxford Academic website.

 

From Class to Identity: The Cultural Turn in the Left Thought Collective (1950s-1980s)

Class to Culture


This is a draft of a book chapter that has been published as Andrei Znamenski, “From Class to Culture: Ideological Landscapes of the Left Thought Collective in the West, 1950s–1980s.” In Bolgov R. et al. (eds) Proceedings of Topical Issues in International Political Geography. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2021, pp. 337-354.

 

Ideologies never die, they metamorphose and are reborn in a new form just when they are thought buried forever.

– Pascal Bruckner, French philosopher and writer (2006)

In 2010, sociology professor Rick Fantasia, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, struggled to explain the results of US Congress elections that were disastrous to democrats and that, at that time, brought a majority to the republicans.  Fantasia was part of a Social Forum, a 15,000-strong army of left activists who gathered in Detroit, Michigan.  Observing this convention, he noted that most people who arrived at this convention mostly represented various minority organizations that were either involved into identity politics or represented immigrant workers.  Fantasia also noted a heavy presence of countercultural and environmentalist elements, including New Age seekers.  At the same time, the activist scholar pointed out that one important element was missing: working-class people, especially white workers.  With frustration, Fantasia noted that there were only a few white working-class people: “The whites were mostly educated members of the middle class, organizers, activists, representatives of philanthropic organizations and academics.” The described gathering and the expressed concern were a microcosm that reflected the shift in the entire ideology and the social base of the current Western left for the past fifty years.

What worried Fantasia was not some aberration or a temporary flaw in the left strategy and tactics. In fact, this was the result of a natural evolution of the left mainstream.  Since the 1960s, it drifted away from concerns about an economic growth and class-based politics, which were associated with the old left.  Instead, the left began shifting toward culture, race, and identity issues as well as environmentalism.  This metamorphosis is sometimes labeled by a loose umbrella expression the “cultural turn.” On the level of ideas, this turn is usually associated with the emergence of the often-mentioned post-modernism and includes several intellectual trends and political practices that developed in the wake of traditional socialism that was heavily informed by Marxism.  The most important among these trends are post-colonial studies, critical theory, feminism, multiculturalism, and political correctness.   Some authors on the right refer to all this by an umbrella term “Cultural Marxism” – a pejorative expression that serves to point to genetic links between the current cultural left and the old Marxism-driven left.

This essay explores the sources of the cultural turn among the left and the development of their passion for identity matters, which resulted in the phenomenon pinpointed by Fantasia.  Although there have been tons of writings about the cultural left and the origin of their woke culture, our intellectual mainstream is still dominated by the following popular notions.  On the right, it is a widespread conviction that evil “Cultural Marxism,” primarily through the malicious activities of the Frankfurt School, set out to erode the Western civilization.  In the meantime, the easily triggered left have been ascribing any critique of PC thought collective and its “sacred cows” of race and gender to the evil forces of fascism and racism. If we “deconstruct” the history of the left’s gradual evolution toward culture and identity, we might problematize both approaches and tone down the heated debates around that issue.  Moreover, the understanding of the gradual evolution of the contemporary left from economic determinism and fixation on the proletariat to the privileging of culture, identity, and lifestyles will help us understand better how and why literally every aspect of human life became politicized in the eyes of the current left.  In other words, the history of the cultural turn will shed more light on the origin of the popular left meme that personal is political. 

The goal of this essay is to paint a bigger picture by showing that, besides the often-mentioned Frankfurt School, there were other essential sources that fomented the cultural or identitarian turn on the left.  Thus, to understand the formation of this turn, on needs to address the significance of the year 1956 and celebrity sociology W. Right Mills’ crusade against “Victorian Marxism.”  We also need to bring up the writings of C.L.R. James, William Dubois, France Fanon who were the first to refurbish popular Marxism’s memes (the proletariat, class domination and oppression, the new man, false consciousness, and center-periphery) and its Eurocentric nature along racial and non-Western lines.  Most important, one needs to examine the activities of British group of communist historians, Birmingham Institute of Cultural Studies, and New Left Review.  Without them, it will be hard to understand the historical role of the 1960s-1970s’ New Left, which acted as an intellectual bridge between old economic- and class-based Marxism and current cultural left that is heavily steeped in identity politics.

How Do We Call It? Critical Cultural Theory, Cultural Marxism, and the Identitarian Left

In existing debates about the cultural turn, the term “Cultural Marxism” has aroused most controversy.  Current identity-oriented progressive writers and scholars do not like this expression. Their favorite term of choice is Critical Theory and the host of expressions derived from it: Critical Cultural Theory, Critical Racial Theory, Critical Legal Studies and so forth.  However, earlier left authors did not see any problems with “Cultural Marxism.”  In fact, between the 1970s and the 1990s, they pointed that this very expression captured well the essence of the socialist ideology that was undergoing an adjustment to the new times. For example, in his “British Cultural Marxism”(1991) Ioan Davis and Dennis Dworkin in his Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (1997) did not see any problems in using that expression.  Moreover, from about 2004 to as late as 2021, progressive social scholar Douglas Kellner did not find it problematic to generalize about “Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies.”

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The most aggressive among current cultural left, especially journalists who did not take time to explore the history of Marxism and neo-Marxism, have been quick to label Cultural Marxism as a hate taboo term that promotes fascist, Nazi, and anti-Semitic ideas.  Using such smear metaphors, they want to intellectually link all critics of the identitarian left on the right to Hitler’s propaganda workers who had talked about “Cultural Bolshevism.”  Moreover, downplaying the historical links between pre-1960s “scientific socialism” and the current cultural left, some identity-oriented left authors have claimed that they in fact moved beyond Marxism and that they are not Marxists anymore.

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In their turn, many among traditional Marxist leftists, who still try to stick to the class-based approach, agree that the cultural left have nothing to do with Marxism.  These “traditionalists” label their wayward cultural comrades as traitors to the cause and dismiss them as “bad Marxists”. Several scholars (historian Paul Gottfried and philosopher Helen Pluckrose), who are critical of both traditional Marxism and the current identitarian left, too have argued against using the expression Cultural Marxism.  Correctly stressing that the post-Marxist left stopped prioritizing economic determinism and class and assimilated ideas from outside of Marxism, Gottfried and Pluckrose have stressed that the current cultural left hardly have any links to Marxism.

Several conservative authors (e. g. Kerry Bolton and Jeffrey D. Breshears), who generalized about Cultural Marxism, have come to view it as a grand conspiracy on the part of the left.  They have portrayed it to as a sinister plan masterminded by the so-called Frankfurt School that allegedly sought to uproot Western civilization and Christianity.  The most grotesque versions of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory link it exclusively to the activities of German-Jewish scholars (who had indeed dominated the Frankfurt School (see Benjamin Ivry, Deconstructing the Jewishness of the Frankfurt School (2015). That theory goes as follows. A group of mostly Jewish intellectuals, who were part of radical socialist and communist forces in the 1920s’ Germany, were upset about the failure of the 1917 Communist revolution in Europe and decided to modify the Marxist-Leninist project of world revolution by mixing Marx and Freud.

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Their goal was to smash capitalism not through the cultivation of the working-class indignation but through undermining Western culture and civilization (traditional family, gender hierarchies, and sexual norms).  In the 1930s, being kicked out by national socialists from Germany, the Frankfurt School cabal moved to the United States, where it became the “Trojan horses” of the radical left, setting out to undermine the culture and values of the United States – the economic and political hub of the Western civilization. One of the major proponents of this view has been writer William Lind (“The Roots of Political Correctness,” 2009), who in fact was instrumental in popularizing the expression “Cultural Marxism.” It is mostly by drawing on his writings that the left journalists came up with the argument that this expression serves as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.

While authors like Lind singled out the Frankfurt School to be demonized as the major intellectual culprit, left authors, who have been peddling so-called neoliberalism, became similarly obsessed with searching for the shadow of the Mont Perelin society in any movement that advocated free market and individual liberty.  The irony of the situation is that both pejorative memes “Cultural Marxism” and “neoliberalism” do describe social trends that have been unfolding in society.  They are not the products of the grand conspiracies but reflect what has been going on in the intellectual culture and on the ground among various segments of society.  Incidentally, several scholars (Keith PrestonAlexander Zubatov, Allen Mendenhall, and Dominic Green) have recently explored the content of Cultural Marxism, trying to separate the conspiracy elements from actual intellectual links between Marxism of old and the current cultural left. Although I believe that this term can be useful especially when we need to stress the continuity between the old Marxian socialism and the present day cultural left, who operate with many ideological pillars inherited from the old creed (e.g. oppression/domination narrative, false consciousness and so forth), it indeed might be too narrow. So, I personally prefer to use such broad definitions as the “cultural left” and “identitarian left.”

Behind the rise of the cultural left, there stood a large thought collective that did reflect genuine concerns of various segments of the left and social movements.  The writings of the Frankfurt scholars, who both analyzed Western society and did issue utopian suggestions about how to transform it, were marginal until the 1960s.  Their scholarship, which helped to shift the left’s priorities from class to identity and culture, would have remained marginal had it not been for wide and vocal audiences that for various reasons picked up and consumed them. To summarize, the “Frankfurters” were not a sinister alien cabal that was preying on Judeo-Christian civilization with the sole purpose to destroy it.  One can describe their effect on society by an old saying: when a student is ready, a teacher comes.  In the 1960s and the 1970s, their ideas, which had earlier been marginal, suddenly began to resonate with thousands of progressives in the West and beyond.  Such “Frankfurters” as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), and Erich Fromm (1900-1980) described the development of mass consumer society, patriarchic family, the effects of propaganda on masses, criticized industrial society, and Western mass culture, frequently issuing sweeping condemnation of the entire “soulless” Western civilization.

The reason these ideas came in vogue was simply because, by the 1960s, the West and the rest of the world experienced profound socio-economic changes: the decline of traditional working class and the rise of intellectual professions, the massive involvement of women into all spheres of life and the end of the male-oriented societal ethic, which until the 1960s had been considered normal, the emergence of new technologies, an industrial pollution, and concerns about how to better handle an economic growth.  Furthermore, the world saw the rise of Third World national liberation movements, the collapse of old colonial empires, and the emergence of minority movements in Western countries. Finally, the Soviet Union, which for a large portion of the left earlier had been the great new hope, lost its image as the ultimate socialist utopia.  Facing those changes, the old left began to crumble. There was a need to refurbish the left ideology and identity. In the 1960s and the 1970s, during student antiwar movements, the rise of Third World national liberation movements, civil rights protests among the people of “color,” the expansion of women and gays rights movements, the ideas disseminated by the above-mentioned intellectual “power centers” of the left resonated well with thousands of protesters. One cannot simply dismiss these collectives and their ideas as something imposed from above on the “innocent populace.” 

Toward “Socialist Humanism” and Away from Traditional Marxism (1956 and beyond)

1956 was a pivotal year for the socialist thought collective.  This was the year when the Soviet nomenklatura elite partially exposed Stalinism, trying to polish the tainted image of socialism.  The communist bureaucracy was tired of living in a constant fear, and, after the death of Stalin, it sought to secure its privileges and to somehow reform communism to make it more appealing.  During the same year, taking advantage of the limited destalinization, people of Hungary openly rose in an anti-communist revolt against the Soviets.  The suppression of the Budapest rebels by the Soviet tanks was a devastating blow at the moral of the millions of left idealists around the world who still believed that the Soviet Union was acting on the side of the forces of light.  There was a growing frustration with the Soviet model of socialism that was tied to a total nationalization and centralized planning. Moscow was rapidly losing its status as the utopian place.  It was natural that the year of 1956 signaled the emergence of the so-called New Left who sought to disentangle themselves from the Soviet experience.

In the meantime, the working-class people in the West dramatically improved their living conditions and did nor express any desire to go to barricades to battle capitalism.  Social democrats were shedding the last vestiges of Marxism, and communist parties were increasingly losing their membership.  For example, the French Communist Party, one of the largest pro-Soviet left movements in the West, which had 320,000 members in 1956, by 1962 shrank down to 225,000.  Similarly, pro-Soviet Communist Party USA, which had between 75,000 to 80,000 members in 1945, declined to fewer than 3,000 in 1958. It was not the expected immiseration of working-class masses but an increased prosperity, bourgeois culture, and boredom that became a great challenge.  The left, especially their radical wing, were poised to turn into rebels without a cause.  The major character from John Osborn play (1956) expressed it best when he uttered a phrase that became classic: “There aren’t any good, brave causes left.” In 1960, Raymond Williams (1921-1988), an influential UK socialist novelist and theoretician,  admitted that not only the Marxist prophecy about the immanent collapse of capitalism failed but also the entire hubris of traditional Marxism was under threat: “The Marxist claim to special insight into these matters of life and death of an economic system makes concessions of error less easy.”

There was not much to gain for the left by sticking to the economic playing field, where “rotten” capitalism was improving people’s living standards and securing an economic growth. Those who wanted to keep radical left agenda alive had to rekindle the traditional left subculture. The Trotskyites, cosmopolitan Marxist-Leninist heretics, who were the victims of vicious political assaults from their Stalinist rivals, did arouse a sympathy among dissident communists who were seeking a socialist alternative beyond the Soviet experience.  After all, the Trotskyites were the first to struggle to preserve the radical elan of the Marxist creed, while simultaneously attacking both capitalism and Stalinism.  Yet, with their old and worn out mantra about the primacy of an economic basis, vanguard party, and false claims about an increasing misery of the industrial working class, they were out of touch with reality.  The Trotskyites simply appeared as reenactors of the bygone era and could not generate any visible support among workers, quickly degenerating into an esoteric intellectual sect.

Cornelius Castoriadis, a prominent left theoretician, captured well the whole dilemma faced by the left who were frustrated about the proletariat that failed to fulfill its prophetic mission: “The proof of the truth of the Scriptures is Revelation; and the proof that there has been Revelation is that the Scriptures say so.  This is a self-confirming system. In fact, it is true that Marx’s work, in its spirit and its very intention, stands and falls along with the following assertion: The proletariat, as it manifests itself as the revolutionary class that is on the point of changing the world. If such is not the case – as it is not – Marx’s work becomes again what in reality it always was, a (difficult, obscure, and deeply ambiguous) attempt to think society and history from the perspective of their revolutionary transformation – and we have to resume everything starting from our own situation, which certainly includes both Marx himself and the history of the proletariat as a component.”  Issues that became more relevant by the 1960s were the US war in Vietnam, the rise of Third World anticolonial movements, civil rights struggle, and women liberation.  Traditional working-class issues became less irrelevant, whereas the issues of race, gender, and culture that earlier had occupied a marginal place on the left’s agenda, now were coming to the forefront.  The mainstream radical left had to rethink their creed and agenda and customize it to the changes.

In contrast, by the 1960s, Moscow, which had billed itself as Red Jerusalem and the vital center of left radicals appeared as conservative, oppressive and ideologically suffocating.  In the 1930s and the 1940s, the sympathetic left somehow could excuse Stalin’s socialism along with its police state, terror, and labor concentration camps as a temporary mobilization scheme that was needed to successfully fight fascism and railroad backward Russia into the radiant world of modernity.  Yet, after 1956, it became harder to justify the continuation of that politically correct line.  For example, in response to Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1946, European communists and their fellow travelers still felt no shame in dismissing the existence of  GULAG concentration camps as fake news, and large segments of public swallowed it. Yet, ten years later, when Stalin’s heir Nikita Khrushchev himself indirectly revealed the brutal reality of Soviet communism, the cannibalistic nature of the Bolshevik-made regime was impossible to deny.  Without wishing this, the Soviets, who themselves denounced Stalin, the “red pope” of communism, made a huge crack in the entire building of the socialist faith. 1956 produced thousands of apostates.  Several of them released a volume of their testimonies with a revealing title God That Failed.

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Since 1956, to dissociate themselves from the Soviet brand of socialism, the Western left sought to humanize Marxism. Hence, a natural shift away from economic determinism and economic efficiency toward the issues of culture and identity. Later, this trend manifested itself in the emergence of such contemporary memes as “socialism with a human face,” “democratic socialism,” “socialist humanism,” and “Marxism-Humanism.”   A Jamaican-born UK Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall, one of the fountainheads of the cultural turn on the left, remembered that he and his comrades wanted to find a new political space through the rejection of both Western social democracy and Stalinism. The expression “Stalinism” became an important euphemism for those among the radical left, who wished to exorcise Stalin from communism and socialism, but who simultaneously wanted to preserve the reputation of these two sacred words untarnished.

“Sense of Classlessness” and British Cultural Studies, 1950s-1970s

One of the major trailblazers of the drift toward humanized Marxism and culture and away from economic determinism was a dissident group of British Marxist intellectuals who were later labelled as the New Left. Several of them came from so-called Communist Party Historians Group that was set up within the British Communist Party in 1946. Others were communist fellow travelers or independent Marxists.  At the end of the 1950s, when the Moscow commanding heights began to question Stalin’s infallibility, these historians, sociologists, and literary scholars either quit on the party or drifted away from traditional Marxism-Leninism, challenging its Stalinist theory and practice.  These dissident intellectuals included such prominent figures as E. P. Thompson (1924-1993), Herbert Hoggart (1918-2014), Christopher Hill (1912-1996), Raymond Williams (1921-1988), Christopher Hill (1912-2003) Stuart Hall (1932-2014), Raphael Samuel, (1934-1996), John Saville (1916-2009), Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), George Rudé (1910-1993) Rodney Hilton (1916-2002).  Several of them (Hall, Hobsbawm, Hoggart, Thompson, and Williams) had a profound impact on Western social scholarship, especially in English-speaking countries. For example, Hall and Williams literally laid the foundations of current cultural studies. In their turn, Thompson and Hobsbawm had a huge impact on history scholarship, helping to shift its mainstream direction toward writing about the past “from below.”

These New Left dissidents began to question the old Marxist notion that the end of capitalism was linked to the increasing immiseration and economic degradation of the proletariat.  Instead, they started arguing that the need for socialism was arising from the bourgeois affluence and consumerism. Furthermore, these ex-communists cracked the traditional Marxist conviction that economic class interests conditioned politics, social life, people mindsets, and culture.  Gradually shedding off economic determinism, these left scholars who had invested their whole careers into “scientific socialism,” found a new outlet to continue their intellectual pursuits – retrieval of the popular culture of working-class people.

Their intellectual quest eventually gave rise to New Left Review.  Launched in 1960, it became the major periodical of the Western New Left.  In fact, the very expression “the New Left” originated from a collective that congregated around this journal and that was hanging in and around the Partisan Coffee House in Soho, a bohemian area of London, and the Birmingham Institute of Cultural Studies. Searching for a new identity, the New Left changed the very concept of political, moving away from the traditional left “sacred sites” such a factory and a trade union to the realm of labor culture, folklore, lifestyles, and individual behavior.  Hall, who was part of this ideological collective, noted that he and his comrades were looking for a better place to ground their radical socialism. Incidentally, one of his speculative essays carried a characteristic title “A Sense of Classlessness.” Hall specified that the major way for him and his comrades to anchor themselves was politicizing various issues surrounding college life, high schools, movie theaters, art and other walks of life and institutions.  Jumping ahead, I want to stress that for the current cultural left politicizing the issues of lifestyle is one of the major ways of sustaining their identity.  Hall defined the New Left ideological search as “the proliferation of potential sites of social conflict and constituencies for change.” The famous slogan of radical feminism “the personal is political” captured well the essence of that quest.  Overall, as Hall stressed, all kinds of issues, including personal troubles and complaints could be amplified and opened to politicization.

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Trying to downplay the old mantra about how economy conditioned the minds of proletarians, these anti-Stalinist dissidents shifted attention to learning about the wisdom of working class by exploring its culture and folklore.  One of the first timid steps was made by Thompson, a professional historian and one of those communist dissidents.  Although Thompson continued to romanticize the labor as the ultimate savior of humankind from capitalism, the scholar nevertheless admitted that the cause of the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism was its economic determinism.  Drawing on Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)one of a few foundational texts in classical Marxism that did recognize a relative autonomy of political culture, Thompson invited to pay more attention to the spontaneous agency of people over the working of invisible natural laws.  Simultaneously, he criticized contemporary Marxism for downplaying moral and ethical issues. Thompson is mostly known for multiple editions of his The Making of the English Working Class (1963) that became a staple reading in history and humanities courses throughout English-speaking world.  In this book, he drew attention to the radical culture of English labor.

Williams, political scientist and literary scholar who belonged to the same collective, moved far further toward embracing a cultural approach to the proletarian “chosen people.”  Formally remaining a member of the British Communist Party, in the 1950s, Williams gradually drifted away from it toward the Labour (social democratic) platform.  Unlike Thompson, who was still trapped within the old Marxist bubble, Williams went full ahead in fomenting the cultural shift in Western Marxism and one of the most influential thinkers for the entire Anglo-American left social scholarship community. Moreover, to dramatize his opposition to the economic materialism and determinism of traditional Marxism, Williams labelled his method as “cultural materialism”; because of Williams’ aggressive media presence, his ideas about the working-class culture and group identity trickled down into Western humanities, where later they were used as a methodological blueprint for feminist, racial, gay, and queer theories.

To legitimize the cultural shift, the dissidents had to appeal to the authority of foundational Marxist texts and use relevant quotes from its founders.   Just as their Soviet counterparts who, when partially cleansing the house of Stalinism, turned to Marx and Lenin, the Western New Left had their intellectual “Reformation” by invoking the early writings of Marx.  Besides such writings as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, they particularly became interested in so-called Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), vague and abstract notes made by young Marx about humanism and alienation.  Excavated and published by Bolshevik scholars in Moscow in the 1920s, those notes appeared to contemporary radical socialists as irrelevant: they did not yet contain the famous pillars of Marxist “science” such as surplus value, the primacy of economic basis, socio-economic formations, and the salvational role of working class.  In the wake of the 1917 revolution, being busy with class battles and ready to harness the “laws of history” in order to usher in the radiant communist future, Bolsheviks and their radical left allies in other countries did not pay much attention to those manuscripts, considering them raw speculations of the great mind in its infancy.  Yet, during the unfolding New Left revisionism, which aimed to mute economic determinism and the Stalinist totalitarianism, amplifying instead the significance of the human being, culture, and identity, those vague notes suddenly became relevant and “mature.” What especially resonated with the British dissident Marxists and the New Left in general was Marx’s generalizations about alienation of human beings in modern Western society.

The ultimate task was to revise the traditional Marxist canon, which preached that economic basis conditioned political and cultural “superstructure,” and to place instead an emphasis on the “superstructure.” In his Culture and Society (1960), Williams furnished relevant quotations from the writings of Marx and Engels to make a case that the cultural superstructure should not be reduced to the economic basis.  Instead of old speculations about the economic conditions of the working class in England, the historian was on the quest for the traditional working-class culture, which he romanticized as organic, wholesome, and authentic.  Moreover, Williams sought to separate it from “artificial” bourgeois mass culture.  A sympathetic contemporary aptly remarked that the intellectual quest of Williams and his New Left colleagues who sought to pinpoint an “authentic” proletarian culture was an attempt to merge “imaginative literature and socialist humanism.”

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Marxist sociologist Hoggart, who founded the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964, too portrayed the idealized working-class culture as organic and natural, contrasting it to the “non-authentic” bourgeois culture.  According to Hoggart, mass bourgeois culture was undermining and phasing traditional and wholesome working-class ways.  It was natural that Williams and Hoggart, who celebrated the bygone traditional labor culture, became drawn to Romantic poets and writers who celebrated Merry Ole England.  In fact, their intellectual speculations surprisingly resembled dismissive rants of conservative critics regarding modern British culture.  Irving How, a walk away American Trotskyite and socialist sceptic who was observing these cultural speculations of his English  comrades, could not resist making a comment: “I suspect that in their stress upon the working-class neighborhood and its indigenous culture men like Williams and Hoggart are turning to something that is fast slipping away.”

Another prominent member the same group of dissident Marxists historian Hobsbawm, whose books became must read in many history and anthropology courses, gives us an example of a true-believer who was literally tormented by the idea of how and where to find a “class-savior” at that age of “classlessness.” Unlike his wayward comrades such as Thompson, Hobsbawm, chose to remain in the British Communist party.  Moreover, at the turn of the 1950s, still infested with the idealism about the proletariat as the ultimate victim-savior, the historian put his two cents in the famous debate about the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the living conditions of the working class in England.  In the spirit of classical Marxism, Hobsbawm was trying to argue that by 1800 the life of the factory laborer had become miserable if compared with the preindustrial Britain.  By the way, it was the very same debate that also produced collective volume Capitalism and Historians (1954), in which F. A. Hayek and his colleagues challenged arguments of Hobsbawm, Thompson and the like, arguing that the living condition of workers had significantly improved.  In the end of the 1950s, being unable to operate on the familiar economic playground of classical Marxism, Hobsbawm slowly began to drift toward new “pastures” in the Third World.  At the turn of the 1960s, he took several trips to Latin America, exploring revolutionary movements in that part of the world, falling for Cuba and engaging Peruvian peasants into talks about the level of their oppression.  At some point, Hobsbawm became so excited about the revolutionary potential of Latin America that he defined it as the engine of the future socialist revolution.

In 1959, he published Primitive Rebels.  This book that became a runaway bestseller in the English-speaking world was also translated in all major European and Asian languages.  In fact, the enthusiastic reception of the text demonstrated that he did tap in the popular longing among the left to find new “chosen ones” to letch on.  Although the current identitarian left will find that title too patronizing and Eurocentric, Primitive Rebels did clear the ground for the cultural turn in the general shift away from the proletariat.  The book represented a history account that romanticized people whom Hobsbawm defined as social and noble bandits, from English Robin Hood types and Sicilian mafia to peasant communism in Italy and Ukraine and Spanish anarchists of the 1910s-1930s.  The indirect message of the book was that all those segments fomented a spontaneous social justice by undermining oppressive systems.  In fact, the most recent American paperback edition of the book has been advertised as a timeless text that would be relevant to Black Lives Matter activists who sought to protect black ghettos from alleged police brutality.

Those independent New Left, who were not constrained by ties to the communist movement like Hobsbawm, went further and began to completely debunk the role of workers as the “chosen people” destined to save the world from capitalism. In 1960, American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), an emerging intellectual guru of the New Left, openly challenged the “labor metaphysic” of the old comrades.  He scorned the romancing of the proletariat as “Victorian Marxism” and a survival of the past. Trying to fill the old Marxist clichés with a new content, the sociologist insisted that in the new “post-industrial” conditions, the true catalyst of revolutionary changes would be the intellectuals in the West, Soviet bloc countries, and the Third World.  People like Thompson, who continued to believe in the proletarian class struggle, were confused and upset about such flamboyant attack on the sacred pillar of Marxism.  On the one hand, they wanted to exorcise Stalinism and economic determinism from “scientific socialism.” Yet, on the other hand, they were too attached to the old ideological meme of proletarians as the “chosen people” to simply cast aside this foundational stone of the Marxist theology. Still, blended with “racialized Marxism” of Dubois, James, and Fanon, Mills’ heretical ideas, Thompson, Hoggart, and Williams and Hobsbawm scholarship opened doors to the emergence of the identitarian left.

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C.L.R. James, William Dubois, Frantz Fanon, and the “Curse” of the Western Civilization

Moving further away from the sacred pillars and sites of traditional Marxism (a factory, economic growth, the working class, and the Soviet Union), such activist intellectuals as Hall became known as the New Left.  From the economic critique of capitalism, which did not make sense at the time when this very capitalism improved workers’ living standards, the New Left gradually began to take on the Western civilization in general, bourgeois life-styles and culture, embracing the Third World and non-Western cultures.  The slowdown of class battles and sluggish radical socialist activism in the West contrasted with the great awakening in the Third World, where emerging national liberation movements challenged European colonialism. Cast against the “dormant” and “corrupted” Western working-class, the Third World appeared to the New Left as the potential hub revolutionary activism.

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It was increasingly clear that the Europe-centered old left hardly had anything to offer in the new socio-political circumstances. Hall remembered, “I was troubled by the failure of Orthodox Marxism to deal adequately with either ‘Third World’ issues of race and ethnicity, and questions of racism, or with literature and culture.” Another Caribbean expat and his French counterpart Aime Cesaire, a budding New Left intellectual from Martinique, declared his resignation from the French Communist Party, rebuking Eurocentric paternalism of the communists.

To be exact, there were already several major writers on the left who had inaugurated this drift away from the West toward the Third World, culture, and identity matters.  In fact, Vladimir Lenin, one of the giants of the radical left, had opened a space for the cultural rereading of Marxism by endorsing the anti-colonial resistance as the European proletariat’s ally and pointing to the commonality of interests between the European “wretched of the earth” and the colonized people.  Moreover, feeling the need to placate various local nationalisms in the emerging Soviet Union and to win allies in the non-Western colonial periphery, Lenin drew a distinction between “bad” regressive nationalism of the bourgeois West and “good” progressive nationalism of the colonial periphery. Without wishing it, Lenin made a crack in classical Marxism that had taught that colonialism had been progressive because it had brought industry to the undeveloped parts of the world.  Earlier, it was assumed that boosting the expansion of capitalism sped up the formation of the proletariat – capitalism’s gravedigger – and the movement toward the radiant communist future.

Among the influential early voices that triggered the identitarian revision of Marxism was W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963), an African American social scholar, nationalist, Soviet fellow-traveler, and a convert to communism at the end of his life.  The other one was C.L. R. James (1901-1989), an independent Marxist novelist and theoretician from a British Caribbean colony of Trinidad. The third was Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), yet another Caribbean-born black intellectual from the French-owned island of Martinique, who was instrumental in merging Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and Third World nationalism.  Since the 1960s, the New Left and their successors among the cultural left have been holding all three in a high esteem.  In fact, in academia there grew entire publication industry around those personalities.

Early in his career, along with socialism, Dubois absorbed then popular race and “folk soul” ideas when he was studying in Germany between 1892-1894, applying them to his budding Black nationalism.  In his 1897 “The Conservation of Races,” Dubois called for the cultural unity of the “Black race” to replicate the efforts of the Teutons, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, Latins, Semites, Hindu, and Mongolians who were busy, as he explained, consolidating their own civilizations.  Dubois viewed the American blacks as the enlightened vanguard of the black race that was to perform that job of consolidation.  He envisioned such racial solidarity as a counterweight to the contemporary domination of the “whiteness of the Teutonic” and their soulless civilization that was fixated on individualism and economic enterprise. Very much like his racially-conscious Germanic contemporaries, who lamented the degradation of the Aryan soul by corrupt forces of modern industry and commerce, Dubois generalized about the bourgeois civilization of the West corrupting Africa – the primal and vital center of the black race.

In his Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Negro (1915), he spoke in favor of segregating “black culture” from “white civilization” and speculated about an abstract black soul, race, and culture devoid of any local and linguistic differences.  In fact, later in 1934, Dubois severed his connections with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that was working to eliminate racial segregation in the United States because the organization’s activities contradicted the racial utopia he contemplated. Interestingly, in his novel Dark Princess (1928), Dubois portrayed the Atlas Shrugged-type society of non-white expatriates who formed the Great Council of the Darker Peoples.  Represented by “dark” superheroes, that society was planning to take over and engineer a happy future on the planet after white institutions collapsed.

Dubois relied on European romantic memes of the noble savage (collectivist, generous, wholesome, happy, simple), which he applied to all blacks as a race.  Also, drawing on his parochial experience as a black American, the writer singled out race as the central factor in the world history, and slavery as the experience that defined not only the past history but also conditioned future behavior of his “tribe.”  Dubois assumed that the sheer presence of “black blood” in an American automatically made such a person a carrier of the “soul experience” of being a slave; incidentally, none of Dubois ancestors had been in bondage.  Dubois welcomed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that he considered as a scorching wind that was to cleanse the modern world, washing away bourgeois civilization.  Since the Soviet Union crusaded against the West, he automatically viewed that country as an ally: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  By 1935, Dubois came to conclusion that the Soviets would destroy the “rotten” Western civilization and help to construct a new non-Western cultural order.  The writer praised Stalin as a great liberator, and the 1956 revelations of the Soviet crimes did not shatter this conviction.   Reflecting contemporary political preferences of Third World anti-colonial leaders and spokespeople, he called the Soviet Union and China the shining models of the future.  His conversion to communism and subsequent move to Ghana in 1961, where he became a senior advisor to Kwame Nkrumah, the head of the country who claimed building socialism, was symbolic. Here on the African soil, his black nationalism, which was saturated with romantic memes of European primitivism, met Marxian socialism. There is no need to stress that Dubois writings has been a must read in many humanities and social science courses across Western academia since at least the 1970s.

The evolution of C.L.R James, who became another must reference for Western social scholarship, moved in a reverse direction, although the result was essentially the same.  From early on, in the 1930s and the 1940s, he prophesized his loyalty to Marxism. Yet, gradually, James began to play down class exploitation, amplifying the significance of racial and colonial oppression.  It was natural because these issues were personally more relevant to him than far-away class battles in distant and alien Europe.  James at first embraced anti-Stalinist Trotskyite version of communism and its prophecy of the world revolution.  Yet, later, driven by anti-colonial concerns and by a desire to identify a new reliable revolutionary force to act as a surrogate proletariat, he shifted his attention to the Third World.

clrjames

Essentially, both Dubois and James were refurbishing the classic Eurocentric prophecy of Marxism along the Third World lines. Marx had welcomed colonialism as a progressive system that was sucking underdeveloped areas into the global commodity economy, pushing the world closer to capitalism and creating an economic basis for a leap into the radiant communist future.  For him, slavery was an archaic mode of production that, at the dawn of human history, had boosted economic development and then perished, giving rise to more progressive stages of human evolution such as feudalism and then capitalism. According to the founder, slavery survived in some backward areas of the globe (US South, Latin America, Africa) that did not catch up yet with the industrial West.  In contrast, James and Dubois argued that slavery was not a vestige of the bygone socio-economic formation, but, more than the exploitation of European proletariat, was an essential part of modern capitalism.

They insisted that slavery and exploitation of colonies were the vital resource that made possible the rise of capitalism.  Moreover, they became convinced that the entire Western prosperity was accomplished at the expense of non-Western people.  Again, in contrast to Marx who viewed capitalism as a progressive stage on the way to communism, James and Dubois began to argue that capitalism was not a progressive but a regressive system – a European cultural institution imposed on the rest of the world for the purposes of exploitation.  It is notable that, when singling out two pivotal books that had affected his worldview, besides Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1932) James mentioned The Decline of the West (1918) by Oswald Spengler. The latter text, which was saturated with a deep pessimism, prophesized the decline of the Western civilization.  Incidentally, Spengler too greatly affected Dubois who began taking for granted that the West was in perpetual decline.  Both found in the German philosopher’s text what they were looking for: a radical criticism of the entire Western civilization.

The crucial role in shifting Marxism toward race and identity issues belonged to Fanon, a popular anticolonial writer whose landmark text The Wretched of the Earth (1961) became a book of choice for the whole generation of the Third World national liberation activists in the 1960s-1970s.  Fanon’s bashing of the West also won him numerous disciples in the countercultural circles and among the New Left in Europe and the United States.  As Kalter reminds to us, since the 1980s, assimilated by the academic left (post-colonial studies and critical race theory) into educational system and media, his writings later became an important intellectual fountainhead for identity studies and identity politics.

A psychotherapist by profession, Fanon was a French-speaking intellectual who took part in the Second World War and then in the Algerian War of independence (1954-1962).  In his writings, he focused not on economic liberation but on the cultural and psychological decolonization of the Third World.  Drawing on Marxist class clichés, Fanon revised them along racial lines: “You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” Fanon insisted that the colonial periphery became the mentally  imperiled by Western values, which natives needed to shed off because these were “white values”: “Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else. Let is not imitate Europe. Let us endeavor to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.” In his view, Europe was deadly sick and the keys to the  liberation of humanity were in the hands of the Third World that was destined to shape the New Man; incidentally, the latter meme also originated from Marxism.  Fanon’s friend Jean-Paul Sartre, a famous French philosopher and Soviet apologist, felt happy that “the most ardent poets of negritude are at the same time militant Marxists.” Yet, repeating the mantra of the old left, Sartre said that the mingling race with that class was “not a conclusion” but a transitional stop on the way to a greater color-blind commonwealth.  When Fanon read these Sartre’s words, he felt utterly offended as if he was robbed of his identity.  Contrary to what his philosopher friend believed, for Fanon, “racialized Marxism” was the conclusion.

declne of the west

Traumatized by the brutalities of the French he witnessed during the Algerian liberation war, Fanon insisted that nothing connected the colonizers and the colonized except racist violence. Ignoring the multitude of social, economic, and cultural relations in the contemporary colonial and post-colonial periphery, he argued that “the colonial world is a Manichean world.”  In his irreconcilable “black and white” world, oppressed victims held the ultimate truth because of their sheer status of being colonized people.  To Fanon, morality and truth were relative.  They depended on how well these two things served a liberation cause.  This included lying and committing violence, provided these vices served a good cause.  Stressing that truth was a matter of political expediency, he wrote, “Truth is that which hurries on the break-up of the colonialist regime; it is that which promotes the emergence of the nation; it is all that protects natives, and ruins foreigners.  In this colonialist context there is not truthful behavior: and the good is quite simply that which is evil to ‘them’.”

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To overcome their oppressive state, the colonized had to take the place of their masters by resorting to a redemptive violence.  The natives, who wasted their energy in mutual tribal conflicts and indulged into ecstatic tribal dances, were to channel their energy into the anti-colonial violence against whites. In fact, violence occupied an important place in the entire Fanon’s liberation philosophy.  In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), he romanticized violence and attributed to it pedagogical value: “Violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.””  Fanon viewed violence not only as a tool of liberation and education but also as a powerful vehicle of a nation-building and racial consolidation.  In the process of their struggle, oppressed natives were expected to nourish the sense of a unified collective: “Individualism is the first to disappear,” and “the community triumphs.”

Using Marxist class categories and simultaneously filling them with a new content, Fanon argued that in undeveloped colonial countries the only revolutionary class was peasants. These rural masses carried armed struggle from the countryside into cities.  This meant that the class that was to liberate the colonial periphery and the rest of humankind from capitalism was not industrial workers (proletarians) but the Third World peasantry.  With such a view, Fanon naturally came to idealize Third World peasant collectives as the cradle of the ideal human commonwealth.  Invoking the romantic meme of European primitivism, he contrasted “evil” Western individualism with the “noble” African culture of collectivism represented by village councils, people’s committees.  According to Fanon, the anti-colonial struggle was to rekindle and strengthen those collectives.  Moreover, a solidarity nourished during an anti-colonial war was to heal a corrupt indigenous bourgeoise – the creature of the West. Through its involvement into the common anti-colonial movement, this bourgeoise would reunite itself with its indigenous soil, merging with common into a united Gemeinschaft-type people’s community.

noble savage

Out of anti-colonial sentiments of such Third World intellectuals as Fanon and their colleagues from Western countries, there grew natural animosity to the West, which was responsible for colonialism, and the idealization of non-Western societies as the holders of a revolutionary potential and better forms of life. The fact that in the 1950s and the 1960s, the West was involved into two bloody colonial wars (France in Algeria, and the United States in Vietnam) amplified those sentiments.  As a result, since the 1960s, for the left, the major existential enemy was shifting from capitalism as an economic system to Western civilization that was associated with colonialism, consumerism, and moral decay.  In 1966, writer Susan Sontag conveyed well that negative attitude, which was becoming part of the intellectual mainstream, by saying that the white West was the “cancer of human history.”

cancer

 

There was now much talk on the left about humans being enslaved and alienated by the technology-driven individualistic civilization of the West and less talk about an economic growth, progress, and capitalism robbing workers of a surplus value.  In fact, economic progress became a curse phrase.  The idealization of the non-Western, tribal, and the primitive became a natural intellectual offshoot of such ideological pursuits.  Reflecting on the cultural turn that was launched in the 1960s, Marxist sociologist Harold Bershady stressed that this trend carried obvious reactionary notions: “It was a kind of left-wing conservatism.” Gradually ditching the failed argument of the old left, who had insisted that capitalism had been profoundly inefficient and could not provide material affluence, the New Left were switching to the moral and cultural critique of that very affluence that now was declared a major vice.  Sontag again spelled out this message in her flamboyant style: “America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity which inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities”; in an ironic twist, such utterances turned out to be Freudian slips: the writer died from cancer.

Ayn Rand, a rising countercultural icon on the right who, in contrast to the Marxist ultimate proletarian “savior,” invented her own version of a “noble savage” in a form of heroic capitalist “savior” entrepreneur, responded to those sentiments with a loaded sarcasm: “The old-line Marxists used to claim that a single modern factory could produce enough shoes to provide for the whole population of the world and that nothing but capitalism prevented it. When they discovered the facts of reality involved, they declared that going barefoot is superior to wearing shoes.” Among others, unnecessary commodities included TV sets, comics magazines, soap operas, the variety of household items. Incidentally, in the 1970s and the 1980s, such romantic neo-primitivist attitudes helped the left to find a common ground with environmentalists who began to preach an apocalyptic vision of the global collapse of natural habitat if not arrested by massive government regulations.

Conclusions

The frustration with the economic growth and the incorporation of the non-Western ones and radical environmentalism into the socialist agenda was a natural offshoot of the “going primitive” trend that looked beyond Europe and North America for major revolutionary hubs.  Exorcising the proletarian messiah class from the popular Marxian socialism and moving toward identity and the idealization of non-Western “others” was not a straight-forward process. In the 1960s-1970s, among the New Left, communist dissidents, and Trotskyite fossils, there was still a desire lingering on to somehow continue the revolutionary elan of the proletariat.  At the same time, among those elements one could detect the growing trend toward romancing the working-class culture and its “organic” anti-bourgeois ways.   The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies and dissenting communist historians such as E. P. Thompson, who aspired to cleanse Marxist theory from economic determinism and who elevated the proletarian culture and consciousness, prepared a fertile intellectual ground for the later cultural turn in the left thought collective. 

Before the current left completely ditched the working class from the pedestal and developed a an “acute identity syndrome,” the New Left segment acted as an intellectual bridge between classical Marxian socialists and the current identitarian left.  In the 1960s and the 1970s, the New Left gradually transferred the metaphysical characteristics ascribed to the proletariat to the non-Western “others,” domestic people of “color,” chronically unemployed, social deviants, women, and gays. Communist bohemian historian Hobsbawm with his bookish “social bandits” and his attempts to probe Latin American peasants for their revolutionary potential is an excellent snapshot of how that process was unfolding.

Just like the proletariat of the old, the new victim groups were thought to become the oppressed redeemers – the new “noble savages” of the left.  On the one hand, such revision of traditional Marxism gave an opportunity to the New Left to disentangle themselves from the Old Left.  Yet, on the other hand, this very revisionism allowed them to continue the familiar Marxist tradition in the new intellectual garb. The new groups designated to the role of the oppressed ones were lumped together in an abstract category of the poor and disadvantaged.  In the same manner, old Marxism generalized about the proletariat as a homogenous impoverished class, downplaying ethnic, religious, and economic differences within this group.

In the 1960s, the most passionate New Left revisionists who became hooked on the Mills’ message of bashing the “Victorian Marxism” cast the newly found surrogates into authentic, uncorrupt and holistic people, the caretakers of the egalitarian ethics and natural goodness. Thus, in a religious-like manner, New Left activist Casey Hayden, the spouse of famous Tom Hayden, described her feelings about the new “chosen ones”: “We believed that the last should be the first, and not only should be the first, but in fact were first in our value system. They were first because they were redeemed already, purified by their suffering, and they could therefore take the lead in the redemption of us all.” Another New Left writer characteristically titled his book about “unspoiled” and “authentic” rural blacks in Mississippi A Prophetic Minority (1966).

Those conservative and libertarian authors who are fixated on the Frankfurt School have failed to pinpoint the variety of intellectual fountainheads that contributed to the cultural turn.  So have those in the current left mainstream who downplay their genetic links with Marxian socialism. Besides the Frankfurt School, there were other essential intellectual sources on which the left heavily drew when refurbishing their political religion in the 1960s and the 1970s.  This essay has highlighted the role of the British “cultural Marxists” as well as their intellectual predecessors and contemporaries who “racialized” Marxism.  Moreover, because of the worldwide hegemony of English language, the writings of C.L.R. James and William Dubois, popular translations of Frantz Fanon, and British Cultural Studies along with New Left Review played more important role in fomenting the cultural turn than the often-spoken Frankfurt School.  In fact, it was NLR that popularized “frankfurters’” writings that regular educated readers had a hard time to digest. 

The names and schools profiled in this essay do not exhaust other potent sources of the cultural left, which still await their comprehensive study.  For example, a future researcher cannot bypass secularized Protestantism of northern Europe and North America and its links with the current woke culture.  It is impossible to reduce the virulent and aggressive moralism of the current secular social justice warriors, the Unitarian Universalist movement, and several other progressive Protestant denominations in the United States to the intellectual evolution of Marxian socialism in the direction of identity matters.  Although many of the above-mentioned elements have been feeding on the New Left neo-Marxist writings, they obviously drew too on the secularized Puritan tradition that, according to famous H. L. Mencken, had been always haunted by the “fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  In Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy (1992), Paul Gottfried briefly outlined how via the social gospel tradition, radical Puritanism of some Protestant denominations gradually mutated into virulent cultural moralism and how in the current “theology” of the left, the old Christian concept of sin and salvation became replaced with sensitivity training and social therapy sessions. Most important, we need to keep in mind that British Cultural Studies, dissenting Marxist intellectuals who idealized working class anti-bourgeois culture, Mills and the American New Left, the Frankfurt School, and the latter-day social justice “evangelicals” cross-fertilized each other, spearheading what later produced the identitarian woke tradition, which currently represents the progressive mainstream.

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Supreme Court hears vital freedom-of-religion case

Today, the Supreme Court heard  the most important case on the intersection of religion and education to arise in decades–Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. A few years back, Montana had passed its first school-choice program, a tax-credit scheme that allowed a small tax credit for donations to scholarship programs that helped kids afford private school.

As in any state, many of Montana’s private schools are religious. Right after the state legislature passed the tax-credit statute, the Montana Department of Revenue promulgated a rule that immediately gutted the program by forbidding students attending religious schools from receiving scholarship money.

The Department based its rule on Montana’s Constitution, which says the legislature can’t “make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies . . . for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school,” etc. Plenty of states have very similar “no-aid” clauses. Revenue claimed that scholarships for religious students under the tax-credit scheme violated the “no-aid” clause.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how bizarre this argument is. These scholarships are funded by private donations–the money never enters a public coffer. Yet Revenue thinks such donations would constitute state aid to religion because the donor gets a tiny tax credit (up to $150) for the donation. Underlying this argument is the strange notion that any money the government declines to collect from you is still the government’s money.  This would mean, for instance, that every charitable donation eligible for a tax deduction would likewise constitute a government appropriation. Revenue’s argument has always looked to me like an extremely weak pretext for blatant discrimination against religious students.

So Kendra Espinoza and a few other parents with kids at religious schools sued the Department of Revenue, claiming, among other things, that Revenue’s rule violated their free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Kendra won at trial, and then lost spectacularly at the Montana Supreme Court. In fact, the Montana Supreme Court did something even worse than the Department of Revenue–it invalidated the entire tax-credit program, such that even students at secular private schools could no longer receive scholarship assistance.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court took up the case, and they heard oral argument today. (My colleagues and I filed an amicus brief with the Court in support of Kendra).

The oral argument transcript shows a Court divided along the typical ideological lines. The liberal justices seemed preoccupied with standing–whether the petitioners had the right to sue. One justice implied that only taxpayers (who have a financial interest because of the tax credit) and schools (who receive the scholarship money) should have the right to sue. This is a weird take, given that families and students are obviously the intended beneficiaries of the scholarship program.

A number of the justices discussed a odd quirk about the Montana Supreme Court’s decision. The basic question they raised is this: since the Montana Supreme Court took the scholarship program away from everyone, are petitioners now being treated equally? But the sole reason the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program was to prevent religious students from receiving scholarship. A government action taken for a discriminatory reason is, well, discriminatory. If the legislature had excluded religious students when it enacted the program, the program would still stand. And if the legislature tried to enact the same program, providing equal treatment to religious and secular students alike, the Court would strike it down. That’s discrimination based on religious status–pretty straightforward.

One justice cited to James Madison’s famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, arguing that the founders wouldn’t have wanted public funds flowing to religious schools like this (again no public funds were flowing to Montana religious schools under this program, but why let accuracy get in the way of a good narrative). That’s a terrible misreading of Madison. The Memorial and Remonstrance was an attack on preferential aid to religion, not to a program that provided public benefits to all groups, including religious ones. The difference is vital. Can the government deny churches police protection, fire protection, sewer connections, electrical service, or any other public benefit on the grounds that the government would be providing indirect public funding to religious institutions? Surely not. In fact, that’s exactly what the Supreme Court said in a recent case called Trinity Lutheran, where Missouri denied a church daycare access to a government program that helped renovate playgrounds.

There is a difference between Trinity Lutheran and this case, arguably, which is that here the money goes more directly to religious indoctrination, not something secular like playground materials. But at bottom, public funding is fungible. Providing police protection and other general public benefits obviously makes it easier for a religious institution to fulfill its religious mission.

This case should be an easy one. The government offered a benefit to all private schools. To include religious schools doesn’t “establish” religion. It just treats religious groups equally, as the Constitution requires.

Politics according to the Bible

Yeah, let’s go for a topic that is generally polemic. What I’m going to present here will not be exhaustive, but at least I believe it’s a fair and honest (although very breathy) treatment on the topic.

First things first, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I believe it was written by people (very likely all men) who were inspired by God. This means that the Bible is not their book. It’s God’s book. Also, although it was written in contexts and cultures very different from ours today, it is still true because it speaks of things that are eternal. So, with that in mind, here are some things I believe the Bible teaches on politics.

The whole Bible is a story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. God created the World “very good”. However, man fell from this status when he sinned. Sin is to disobey God’s law or to fail to conform to it.  When the first man, Adam, sinned, we all sinned, because Adam was our federal representative. It may sound unfair that we are all punished for something that someone else did, but students of politics shouldn’t be surprised. We suffer (or benefit) from things we didn’t do all the time. In this particular case, God chose Adam as humanity’s representative. God is just. It was a just choice. After Adam fell, Jesus became the federal representative of a part of humanity that God decided to save. This is the “redemption”. The restoration is God reversing the effects of the fall through the church.

The whole Bible story can be summarized as “kingdom through covenant”. A covenant is a solemn agreement between at least two (not necessarily equal) parties, involving promises and sanctions. God made a covenant with Adam. Adam broke that covenant. God made a covenant with Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the covenant. By fulfilling it, Jesus became the king of a people, the church.

Jesus’ covenant was anticipated by some covenants in what we call the Old Testament. Although the theories vary, the point is that God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David somehow anticipate Jesus. This means that in the Old Testament God’s people was mostly one nation, Israel, organized as a nation-state. This nation-state had civil laws. One great mistake is to try to apply these civil laws to any state today. Israel was an anticipation of the real people of God, the church. The church is not a nation-state. It doesn’t have civil laws. Actually, Jesus repeatedly said that his kingdom was not of this world, meaning that it would not be brought by political force.

The fact that Israel was an anticipation of the true church doesn’t mean that all the laws given to Israel are irrelevant today. The moral law given in the 10 commandments is still biding. even the civil laws, although no longer bidding, can be informative. The point is that these laws cannot be enforced by any state. They have to be preached. People must be left free to join. Or not.

What the church can expect from the state? It would certainly be great to live in a country that fully conforms to God’s moral law, but this is not a realistic expectation. The best we can expect is a state that keeps people free to decide whether they want to join the church or not. Other than that, there is a moral law that we all can benefit from: don’t hurt others and don’t pick their stuff without permission.

Trying to enforce God’s kingdom was one of the greatest mistakes Christians committed through the centuries, and I believe many Christians are still doing it today. We want people to be Christians not out of their free choice, but by coercion. Or we want people to externally behave as Christians when they are not. Again: the best we can do is to let people free to decide. And meanwhile, demand that we are also free to practice our religion, no matter what other people think about it.

Intellectuals You Should Know About

I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.

As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.

When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”

Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.

My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.

It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.

What, then, should you read?

In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.

Jared Diamond

Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
  • I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!

Paul Collier

Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:

  • Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
  • The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.

I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.

Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.

The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett

to which we should add the “one Horse-woman“, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I’m ashamed to only know as “the wife of Niall Ferguson” (yes, my background is money and history, OK, not politics or religion…).

Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:

Speaking of Ferguson, as I’m a big financial history guy, I am shamelessly squeezing in this prolific writer, professor (well, Senior Fellow at Hoover institution nowadays) and public intellectual:

I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.

Steven Pinker

Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:

  • The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced
  • Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
  • The Language Instinct
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Stuff of Thought

Matt Ridley

Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.

At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”

They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.

Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.

In sum: just bloody read more

Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.

As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.

Above are some amazing thinkers. Drop me a line or tweet me with readings you would add to a list like this.

School choice at the Supreme Court

Another school funding case is knocking at the U.S. Supreme Court’s door. This case, Espinoza v. Walborn, hales from Montana, where the state’s fledgling school-choice program was killed moments after it left the crib. The Court now has a chance to revive it and land a major victory for educational choice across the country.

Montana’s first school-choice law, passed in 2015, took the form of a tax-credit scholarship program. If a taxpayer donated to an approved scholarship organization, she could claim up to $150 of the donation as a tax credit. The scholarship organizations then dished out scholarships to help parents afford to put their kids through private school.

Then the Montana Department of Revenue gutted it. The Department promulgated a rule that none of that scholarship money could go to religious private schools. This basically killed the program, since the vast majority of private schools in Montana–and in most states–are religious schools.

The Department claimed that the state constitution prohibited the scholarship dollars from going to religious schools because of the state ban on indirect public aid to religious schools. This is an absurd argument. The scholarship funds are privately donated dollars–they never touch a public coffer. The fact that someone can claim a tax credit hardly means that the donation becomes “public funds” because of diverted revenue. Such an argument, extended to its logical conclusion, would mean that all money is the government’s, and when it graciously declines to tax us, that extra money of ours is in fact part of the public fisc.

Nonetheless, the government prevailed at the Montana Supreme Court. In fact, the Court did the state one better–they just invalidated the whole tax-credit program, even for the few parents who might use a scholarship to send their kids to a secular school.

It’s a terrible blow to parents in Montana trying to find some genuine variety in education. But it also gives the Supreme Court a chance to right a wrong that has been festering in education policy for well over a century. The Supreme Court should hold that barring religious schools from accessing a neutral and generally available funding program violates the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The portion of Montana’s state constitution that laid the tax-credit program in an early grave is known as a Blaine Amendment, named after 19th-century Congressman James Blaine. In 1875, Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment that would, among other things, prohibit states from funding “sectarian” schools with public money. Blaine’s federal amendment failed, but many states passed state-level amendments to the same effect, and Congress managed to make inclusion of such amendments a condition of statehood for new states entering the union.

The history is clear that these amendments are rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry. As the United States transitioned to a public school system, public schools had a distinctly Protestant flavor (often state-endorsed or even state-forced). Catholic migrants therefore began forming and attending private religious schools of their own. The backlash was fierce, and anti-Catholic sentiment often expressed itself in hostility to Catholic schools. James Blaine’s proposed amendment was a key manifestation of this bigotry.

And the bigotry lives on today. Ironically, however, now opponents of genuine choice in education have retrofitted Blaine Amendments as a partisan weapon to combat vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts. Montana’s law is only the most recent victim. If the Supreme Court doesn’t grant this case and strike down these state laws rooted in religious bigotry, it won’t be the last.

Why Persecute?

Why was religious persecution common in the premodern world? This is the question Noel Johnson and I address in Persecution and Toleration.

Answers that rely on the alleged barbarism of the times or the brutality or narrowed-mindedness of individual churchmen or rulers are unsatisfying. We need to understand why religious dissent was so alarming that political and religious authorities resorted to violent repression.

In Persecution and Toleration, we outline why states often had an incentive to enforce religious conformity.

Suppose the ruler wants to pass a law. The religious authority can choose to legitimate this law or to oppose it. If the religious authority opposes it, the law will be seen as illegitimate, and the ruler will face unrest or opposition in attempting to enforce it. If the religious authority legitimates the law, then compliance with the law will be greater and the law will be enforced at a much lower cost for the ruler. Rulers therefore have a good reason to want legitimacy. Because religious authorities were the most powerful source of legitimacy in the premodern period, it was natural for rulers to rely on religious legitimacy.

Rulers can bargain with religious authorities to obtain legitimacy. One way to do this is to enforce religious conformity. This provides a natural framework for studying religious persecutions.

One insight is that persecutions are necessarily political. The justification for persecution can vary. Secular authorities will persecution in terms of secular arguments. Religious authorities may persecute on religious or doctrinal grounds. But structurally these persecutions will resemble one another.

A second key argument is that some form of religious repression was the default in the premodern world but outright persecution was, in fact, quite rare. The default level of religious repression we characterize as a state of conditional toleration. Religious differences were usually tolerated, but only conditionally. Outright persecution was quite rare. But the threat of persecution played an important role in enforcing religious conformity, restricting dissent and providing states with legitimacy.

How general is our account? Is this story only applicable to Western Europe? Or to monotheistic societies? Can it explain the persecution of Christians in pagan Rome or the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan? And what distinguishes religious persecutions from other persecutions?


To address these concerns, consider the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Historians such as Candida Moss downplay these persecutions (here). Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age — reviewed positively in the New York Times —for example, writes:

“The idea, therefore, of a line of satanically inspired emperors, panting for the blood of the faithful is another Christian myth. As the modern historian Keith Hopkins wrote, ‘the traditional question: “Why were the Christians persecuted?” with all its implications of unjust repression and eventual triumph, should be re-phrased: “Why were the Christians persecuted so little and so late?”

Nixey correctly cautions the reader not to view Christian accounts of the death of martyrs as historical accounts. But her argument is a larger one. To her mind, the persecution of Christians was not a religious persecution. Commenting on the Roman governor Pliny’s decision to persecute some Christians, she writes:

“Pliny’s problem with all of this is not religious. He is not upset because Jupiter has been neglected, or Hera has been slighted: he is upset because the citizens of his province are becoming disgruntled by the Christians’ behaviour . . .”

“. . . Even the locals who were forcing Pliny’s hand might not have been complaining about Christians for religious reasons either: it has been speculated that what was really upsetting them was not theology but butchery. Local tradesmen were angry because this surge of Christian sentiment had led to a drop in the sales of sacrificial meat and their profits were suffering: anti-Christian sentiment caused less by Satan than by a slow trade in sausage-meat.”

Because Christians were punished as pests and social deviants, rather than for reasons conventionally identified as religious, Dixey suggests this was a simple matter of“law and order”. If anything her sympathies appear to be with the Roman governor responsible for prosecuting Christians:

“What should Pliny do with these odd people? Trajan’s reply is brief and to the point. He doesn’t get into theological or legal debates about the legal status of Christianity (to the disappointment of later scholars); nor does he (thus confounding the martyrdom tropes) fulminate against the Christians. He does agree with Pliny that those who are proved to be Christian ‘must be punished’ — though for precisely what charge is unclear. He also adds that ‘in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be’. Roman emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs. They had absolutely no wish to open windows into men’s souls or to control what went on there. That would be a Christian innovation.”

This hardly not exculpates the Romans or implies the persecution of Christians was a myth. Nixey is correct that the Roman authorities were unconcerned with what Christians believed. But she is wrong to suppose that this is the defining characteristic of religious persecution. And the urge to downplay the persecution of Christians suggests other anachronistic instincts are at work. After all, no-one denies that Christians were killed, often horrifically, in the Roman persecutions (for a critical review of Moss’s book, on which Nixey relies, see here).

Theologians were, of course, concerned with wrong beliefs. But the reason why religious dissent became a major concern to both secular and religious authorities in medieval Europe was precisely due to the threat heresy posed to the established social and political order.


Consider another example from medieval Europe. Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium explains the threat heretical movements posed to political order. Focusing on the most revolutionary millennium sects — movements that envisioned the last days as at hand, and took action to herald their coming — Cohn’s text vividly captures both the appeal as well as the radicalism and violence of these movements. Describing the manifesto of the “Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine”, Cohn writes:

“the route to the Millennium leads through massacre and terror. God’s aim is a world free from sin. If sin continues to flourish, divine punishment will surely be visited upon the world; whereas if sin is once abolished, then the world will be ready for the Kingdom of the Saints. The most urgent task of the Brethren of the Yellow Cross is therefore to eliminate sin, which in effect means to eliminate sinners . . . To achieve that end assassination is wholly legitimate: ‘Whoever strikes a wicked man for his evildoing, for instance for blasphemy — if he beats him to death he shall be called a servant of God; for everyone is in duty bound to punish wickedness.’ In particular the Revolutionary calls for the assassination of the reigning Emperor, Maximilian, for whom he had an overwhelming hatred.”

Such beliefs were a threat to all established authority. Church authorities were naturally concerned with monitoring belief and practice. But heresy also posed a potent threat to secular authority.

Of course, many people in medieval society had incorrect and unorthodox religious beliefs. What principally concerned the Church was not ignorance but heresy: obstinately holding beliefs that directly contradicted Church teachings.

Heresy was feared because it was a source of disorder. Religious dissent had the potential to unleash revolutionary violence and social chaos. This was one reason why Martin Luther recanted his earlier support for religious liberty during the Peasant Revolt.

Arguments for enforcing religious conformity went deeper than the fear of revolutionary violence. Such was the importance of the Church to the social and political order that all challenges to Church authority were perceived as threats to society.


Consider the doctrine of apostolic poverty — which emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries as the Commercial Revolution was transforming the European economy increasing urbanization, trade, wealth, inequality and also poverty. Shocked by the growing gap between the rich and the poor, adherents to this doctrine aspired to the simple poverty of Christ’s followers. They lived without property or money and they were critical of the wealth accumulated by the Church.

The fact that the Church was wealthy did not, of course, imply that Churchmen were not devout or dedicated. The problem was, however, that the Church was also a political institution. Many bishoprics were the preserve of the nobility who would jostle to ensure that their younger sons became influential churchmen. These prelates were expected to be the equal of the secular nobles, to entertain lavishly, and to dress splendidly. Taken too far, therefore, apostolic poverty threatened the legitimacy of the Church and its relationship with secular authority.

Through mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Church could accommodate these demands and concerns. But groups who directly attacked the legitimacy of the Papacy itself, such as the Waldensians and the Spiritual Franciscans could not be tolerated. The leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, Angelo da Clareno denied that Pope John XXII was pope, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Church. Precisely because of the threat they posed to the church and state alliance — and not because of their theological beliefs, which were unremarkable — the Spiritual Franciscans had to be repressed.

Were the concerns of the Roman Emperors so different from those of medieval rulers and churchmen? Religion was not a private affair in antiquity. It had political consequences; it mattered for the fate of the Empire. The first Empire-wide persecution of Christians occurred under Decius (r. 249–251). Decius’s response to the political crisis facing the Empire — invasions from both Persia and the Goths — was a revival of the state religion and the imperial cult.

Claiming that Roman persecutions of Christianity were not religious but political, as Moss and Nixey do, is misleading; all persecutions are political. Because it began as a persecuted cult, Christianity as a religion contained many potent arguments against religious persecution. For these reasons, it was probably less predisposed to persecution than many other religions. Nevertheless, the fact that the medieval Church eventually came to persecute dissent points to deep, structural, political economy factors that made religious freedom impossible. It this these factors that are the subject matter of Persecution & Toleration.

Persecution & Toleration

I’m glad to announce that my new book, Persecution & Toleration (with my colleague Noel Johnson) is now available in the UK.  I’m hoping to receive copies next week. The book is available at CUP, although Amazon still has a US release date of April (you can preorder it).

The blurb is below:

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood. Tracing the history of religious persecution from the Fall of Rome to the present-day, Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama provide a novel explanation of the birth of religious liberty. This book treats the subject in an integrative way by combining economic reasoning with historical evidence from medieval and early modern Europe. The authors elucidate the economic and political incentives that shaped the actions of political leaders during periods of state building and economic growth.

‘A profound new argument about the relationship between political power and religion in the making of the modern world. If you want to know where the liberty you currently enjoy, for now, came from, this is the book to read.’ James Robinson, Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict, University of Chicago

‘Johnson and Koyama investigate the fascinating intersection of the state and religion in late medieval and early modern Europe. Rather than enduring patterns of religious toleration or persecution, of liberty or tyranny, they tell a rich history of change and variation in rules, institutions, and societies. This is an important and persuasive book.’ John Joseph Wallis, Mancur Olson Professor of Economics, University of Maryland, College Park

‘Lucidly written, incisively argued, this book shows how religious toleration emerged not only from ideas, but also from institutions which motivated people – especially the powerful – to accept and act on those ideas. A brilliant account of early modern Europe’s transition from identity-based privileges to open markets and impartial governance.’ Sheilagh Ogilvie, University of Cambridge

‘This analysis of the historical process underlying the modern state formation is a fantastic scholarly accomplishment. The implications for the present, in terms of the risks associated to the loss of the core liberal values of modern western states, will not be lost to the careful reader.’ Alberto Bisin, New York University

 

Bad Religion

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of my all-time favorite Christian documents. Written in 1563, mostly by Zacharias Ursinus, the Heidelberg (as it is sometimes called) is composed by 129 questions and answers (the classical format of a catechism), supposed to be studied in 52 Sundays (that is, one year). I believe it is very telling that, being a catechism, the Heidelberg was written thinking mostly about younger people, even children. Ursinus himself was only about 29 years old when he wrote it. Maybe it is a sign of the times we live in that the Heidelberg sounds extremely deep for most readers today.

Throughout its questions and answers, the Heidelberg covers mostly three Christian documents: The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father who art in Heaven…”) and the Apostle’s Creed. The catechism is also divided into three main parts: Our sin and misery (questions 3-11), our redemption and freedom (questions 12-85), our gratitude and obedience (86-129). Probably an easier way to remember this is to say that the Heidelberg is divided into Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. That is also, according to many interpreters, the basic division of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, historically one of the most important books in the Bible.

I mention all these characteristics about the Heidelberg Catechism because I think they are worth commenting on. As I learned from a friend, that is the Gospel: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, Christians are divided on how exactly this works, but all agree that our relationship with God is strained. That is the guilt. However, in Jesus Christ, we can restart a peaceful relationship with God. That is the grace. This should be followed by a life of gratitude. That is the way the Gospel is good news. If you don’t emphasize these three points you are not really presenting the Biblical gospel. To talk about grace without talking about guilt is nonsense. To talk about guilt and not grace is not good news at all. To talk about guilt and grace but not of gratitude is antinomianism. To talk about gratitude (or obedience) without talking about guilt and especially grace is legalism. But also, notice how unbalanced the three main parts are: Ursinus dedicated way more space for grace and gratitude that he did for guilt.

That’s not accidental. Also, it is very interesting that he talks about the Ten Commandments when he is dealing with gratitude. It didn’t have to be this way. Ursinus could have included the Law when talking about guilt. He could use the law to show how miserable we are for not fulfilling it. But instead, he wanted to show that obeying God is a sign of gratitude. You are free already. Obeying will not make you any more saved. But it is certainly the behavior of a truly restored person.

If you read so far, I should first thank you for your attention, but also say that I am completely unapologetic for speaking so openly on Christian themes. At some point in history, Christians decided to adapt to the modern culture. That was the birth of Christian Liberalism. Modern man, some of them assumed, could no longer believe in stories of gods and miracles. Modern science was able to explain things that societies in the past thought to be supernatural occurrences. The Bible was at worst pure nonsense or at beast a praiseful reflection of the piety of people in the past, but certainly not a supernatural revelation from God. But if you take away the supernatural elements of the Bible, what do you have left? Good morals, some thought. I believe they were wrong.

The social gospel is one consequence of Christian liberalism. The central miracle in the Bible is that Jesus, a mortal man, was dead for three days and resurrected. That is indeed a miracle. Make no mistake: people in the first century knew as well as we do that people don’t come back to life after three days. Maybe they knew it better than we do, for in the 21st century, for many of us, death is not a part of everyday life. For them, it certainly was. Christians have believed through almost two thousand years that Jesus’ death and resurrection have something to do with us being reconciled to God. But if Jesus didn’t resurrect, and no one really heard from God that he is angry, what do we have left? The answer, according to Christian liberals, is social justice. Reform society. I believe that for this, they own society at large an apology, and I will explain why.

I heard from too many people that the reason they don’t go to church is that Christians are hypocrites. “Do as I say, but not as I do”. Maybe they are right. The balance between guilt, grace, and gratitude if fundamental for Christianism to work. Salvation (reestablishing a rightful relationship with God) is by grace, not by works. Say that salvation is by works and you set the board in a way that you are sure to lose. As I already mentioned, I think it is just wonderful that the Heidelberg Catechism talks about the Law of God (The Ten Commandments) when it is discussing gratitude, not guilt, and I believe this is a great lesson for us today.

I say all this today because I believe that political correctness is (at least to a great degree) the bastard son (or daughter) of the social gospel. See the recent Gillette commercial that caused so much controversy, for example. Are they really saying anything wrong? Don’t men behave sometimes in ways that are less than commendable? I believe we do. Especially coming from a Latino culture as I do, I am more than willing to say that men all too often are disrespectful towards women and also towards other men. However, how the people at Gillette know this? If there is no God, or if he didn’t speak, how can you tell what is ethically commendable behavior and what is not?

I am no specialist, but as far as I know, more than enough atheist philosophers are willing to admit that in a sole materialist worldview there are no universal grounds for morality. As the poet said, “if there is no God, then all things are permissible”. It is always important in a conversation like this to explain that I am not saying that atheists cannot be ethical people. That is absolutely not what I am saying. Some of the best people I ever met were atheists. Some of the worst were Christians who were at church every single Sunday. With that explained, what I am saying is that there is no universal guide for human behavior if there is no God and everything just happened by chance. There are particular guides, but not a universal one, and to adhere to them is really a matter of choice.

The way that I see it, people at Gillette want men to feel bad and to change their behavior. They want men to feel guilty and to have gratitude. But where is the grace? I believe that is why this commercial irritated so many people. It makes people at Gillette look self-righteous or legalistic. Or both! But it definitely doesn’t help men to change their ways, supposing that there is something to change. I believe there is. There is a lot to change! But political correctness is not the way to do it.