30 June 2013
Riots in Brazil. Riots in Sweden. Riots in Turkey. A popular revolution in Egypt now turned sour and the new leadership, placed in power by popular protest, facing popular protest of its own. This week began with a fresh round of protests of renewed vigor and greater numbers (cf. Egypt Morsi: Mass political protests grip cities and Brazil protests resume ahead of Confederations Cup final).
What’s going on? Do these protests represent an unprecedented global popular movement, or a mere coincidence, or is there some contingent relationship among the protests that is more than coincidence but less than the principled unity of a political movement? In short, are the protests one or many?
Such events as those in Egypt are not unprecedented, which implies the predictability of such popular unrest. The “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986 ended the decades-long rule of Ferdinand Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino as president of the Philippines. However, it was not long before Malacañang Palace was the focus of popular protests against Corazon Aquino, but an historical parallel like this poses as many or more problems as the comparisons of civil unrest across contemporaneous nation-states, which is in itself problematic.
Of course, a detailed examination of political protests will always reveal unique conditions in each county where the protests occur, with unique historical antecedents to unique events in the present, so that any argument for an underlying unity of globally-distributed protests is prima facie implausible. But while every historical event is unique, individual acts of protest can take on a symbolic value that is not unique, as with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which proved to be the trigger for popular protests that became the Jasmine Revolution and resulted in the fall of the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. What is true across Tunisian society might plausibly also be true across broader swathes of society, potentially even becoming a transnational trigger.
However, there are countervailing historical circumstances that suggest the plausibility if not of a globally unified movement, of a contingently unified manifestation of discontents intrinsic to industrially developing societies. (Several commentators on the protests in Brazil have said that the people of Brazil feel unconnected to the major political parties in the country. In other words, Brazil is a lot like the US, where popular protests on the right agitated by the Tea Party movement and popular protests on the left agitated by the Occupy movement each have a vague ideological content that seems to match up with existing political parties, but no robust party loyalties.) It has become a commonplace that social media has made communication global and instantaneous, and indeed this was foreseen in the earlier idiom predicting a “global village” — though it would have been more accurate to speak in terms of a global conurbation, or what Doxiadis called Ecumenopolis.
In contemporary terms this global immediacy of communication has concrete consequences: except for cases where governments radically restrict social media, as in China and North Korea, people know what is going on elsewhere in the world. However, it would be unwise to read too much into the “know” in the previous sentence. The fact of the matter is that people see emotionally charged images, often accompanied with stirring slogans, and they respond viscerally to this. Such images are sometimes called “memes” and are said to “go viral” when they are passed around through social media networks to the point of saturation — i.e., to the point that everyone who uses the internet is likely to have seen these images at some time or another. this we may call the emotional valorization of protest.
The intellectual or ideological valorization of protest is to be found in the parallel justifications that are made for protest as the need for rationalization is felt. Protest is defended on the basis of its being non-violent resistance, and the work and the lives of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King jr. are invoked in defense of popular protest, no matter how marginal or unjustified the occasion of protest. But to what extent is popular protest non-violent? One of the central dishonesties of our time is our ambiguity about violence, which is on the one hand sometimes minimized, while on the other hand it is sometimes magnified. The perpetrators of violence minimize their violence, and claim to be responding to the provocations of their victims, while the victims of violence magnify the violence they experience and employ their victimization as a political strategy in the furtherance of their ends.
In all honesty we should admit that protest marches often occupy a gray area between peaceableness and violence, and once a protest has begun it often shades over into violence; sometimes the violence of “peaceful” protests takes the form of systematic attempts to bait police and crowd control officers into responding to provocations in a manner that can then be magnified for the maximum political effect (as just noted above). Exemplary protest, like exemplary justice, has a symbolic value, and this symbol is employed as a tool of political action. A symbol can be the trigger for wider spontaneous action, or it can be systematically exploited by a revolutionary cadre seeking to foment wider action. In precipitating an event that can be transformed into a symbol, protesters create their own propaganda — the propaganda of the deed, as it was once called.
A protest, then, is always potentially an instrument of mob violence. Moreover, there is no clear line between protest and revolution; the two are separated by a gray area just as peaceful and violent protest are separated by a gray area. An attempted revolution can fizzle into a mere protest, while a protest can snowball, gathering strength and momentum, until it becomes a kind of revolution. Peaceful protest that escalates into violent protest can, if sustained, escalate in turn into revolution. Short of revolution, social unrest and violence that begins in protest can bear some resemblance to the ritualistic rebellions of medieval peasantry, and repressive regimes may tolerate ritualized protest for its cathartic effects.
Established political institutions may be little affected by the waves of protest that wash over it, and which recede like the tide when the storm is over. One thinks in this connection of the Chinese protests over the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In such cases popular protests putatively in opposition to a given regime play into the hands of state power, which benefits from the release of social tensions.
Clausewitz has been quoted innumerable times to the effect that war is the pursuit of politics by other means. I have also written about Foucault’s corollary to Clausewitz, which is that politics is the pursuit of war by other means. Clausewitz’s principle and Foucault’s corollary constitute explicit and formal recognition of the convertibility of politics and warfare. There is also an implicit and informal parallel to Clausewitz’s principle and Foucault’s corollary, and this is the practical escalation of political protest into violent revolution (the implicit continuity of popular politics with popular revolution) and the use of popular revolution to obtain social concessions (the implicit continuity of popular revolution with popular politics).
The explicit formulations of Clausewitz’s principle and Foucault’s corollary are useful for understanding the explicit, formalized politics of established political entities; the implicit formulations are useful for understanding the implicit, informal politics of mass movements. The two are related to each other as explicit social contract to implicit social contract. This parallelism shows us that the valorization of protest is a parallel to the valorization of the martial virtues in explicit formulations of Clausewitz’s principle. It is easy to ridicule the explicit manifestations of state power such as the praise of military valor and the awarding of medals for such valor, yet all of this is precisely parallel to the implicit manifestations of popular power, such as the lionization of courageous protest and the de facto social recognition of the value of this protest.
I fully realize how what I have written here sounds outrageously reactionary, and that I sound like an apologist for state power, if not an unreconstructed totalitarian. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am no lover of state power, and no apologist for tyranny or totalitarianism. But just as tyrants and demagogues must own their responsibility for their depredations, now more than ever, in an age when popular sovereignty is the unquestioned presupposition of political order, the masses must own their responsibility for their depredations — and depredations are depredations, whether they are committed by a tyrant or by a mob, and regardless of motive. When mobs kill and destroy, it is no comfort to anyone that they kill and destroy in the name of the “the people.”
While tyrants can be made to pay for their crimes by their deaths in paradigm cases of exemplary justice, as with Nicolae Ceaușescu and Muammar Gaddafi (to name a couple of prominent examples from my life time), the diffusion of responsibility found in the collective action of large groups (i.e., a mob) usually means that no individual takes (or can take) responsibility for the death and destruction. This problem needs to be openly acknowledged, if popular sovereignty is not to degenerate into mobocracy.
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4 June 2013
There is a quite well-known poem by Langston Hughes titled “Harlem.” Here it is:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Today I was talking to a friend about the anniversary of the June 4 incident, which we Westerners refer to as the Tienanmen massacre, or some similar title. My friend is Chinese, was living in China at the time, and was part of the movement for democracy. To hear about the hopes that the Chinese people had at the time for a democratic China was quite moving, and it immediately reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem, since my friend said to me that everyone who lived through the June 4 incident had their dream destroyed.
For an entire generation of Chinese, democratic governance was and has been a dream deferred. And perhaps more than a generation: one of the consequences of the Tienanmen massacre was that the military and hard-line factions of the Chinese Communist Party consolidated and extended their control, while those elements of Chinese society who were sympathetic to the democracy protesters had their careers destroyed and lost all influence in the Chinese government — more dreams deferred. In other words, the consequences of the June 4 incident were to shift the whole of Chinese society in the direction of hardliners.
In the intervening decades Chinese society has changed dramatically, and the Communist party monopoly on power has allowed, if not encouraged, every kind of change except political change. It is the oft-observed social contract of China that you can do almost anything you like, as long as you don’t question one-party rule in the country. But this so-called “social contract” is a one-sided contract enforced by the Chinese communist party’s stranglehold on power, and it is aided and abetted by the “Princelings” who found themselves all the more firmly entrenched in power as the result of the consequences of 4 June 1989.
The segue from political and military power of the generation that accompanied Mao to power to the next generation of their children, who have exploited their connections to become rich and powerful, points to a China that has made the transition directly from communist dictatorship to crony capitalism, bypassing a democratic stage of development. There have been many articles in recent years about the high life of the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, and how the Princelings — children of older, influential communist party members — have taken wealth and power for themselves. An article in Foreign Policy called this “The End of the Chinese Dream” — more dreams deferred.
In my post Crony Capitalism: Macro-Parasitism under Industrialization I speculated that crony capitalism may well be the mature form that capitalism takes in industrial-technological civilization. If, unfortunately, I am right in this, the defeat of the dream of a democratic China on 4 June 1989 may mean that China has assumed the politico-economic structure that it will maintain into the foreseeable future — more dreams deferred.
How long can a dream be deferred and still remain viable, that is to say, still retain its power to inspire? When does a dream pass from deferment to destruction?
There is a political scientist — I can’t remember who it is as I am writing this — who has divided up political movements according to when in the future they locate the ideal society (i.e., utopia). Reformists see the ideal society as in the distant future, so there is no reason to do anything radical or drastic: concentrate on incremental reforms in the present, and in the fullness of time, when we are ready for it, we will have a more just and equitable social order. The radical on the contrary, in pursuit of revolution, thinks that the ideal society is just around the corner, and if we will just do x, y, and z right now we can have the ideal society tomorrow.
Talking to my Chinese friend today, and discussing the almost millenarian expectation of a democratic China, I immediate thought of this revolutionary ideal of a new society right around the corner, since my friend said to me that they felt that a democratic China was not merely a possibility, but was so close to being a reality — almost within their grasp. I also thought of the radicalism of the French Revolution, and Wordworth’s famous evocation of this time:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
The dream of the French Revolution issued in the nightmare of The Terror, and of course many who opposed the protesters for democracy in China did so because this is the path of development they feared: a collapse of civil society followed by years if not decades of chaos and instability. Many former communist officials who participated in the Tienanmen crack down were quite explicit about this (which is something I wrote about in Twenty-one years since Tiananmen).
To invoke yet another western poem to describe the situation in China, Chinese democracy remains the road not taken. We will never know what China and the world would have looked like if democracy had triumphed in China in 1989. We don’t know what kind of lesson China would have given to the world: an example to follow, or a warning of what to avoid. Instead, the leaders of China gave the world a very different lesson, and a very different China.
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13 August 2012
An Addendum on an Addendum
I have already written Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations and Addendum on Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, and I still feel like I haven’t managed to say what I wanted to say. In other words, the definitive formulation has definitively eluded me… at least for the time being. This is frustrating. Obviously, this is something that I need to continue to think about until I can formulate my thoughts with Cartesian clarity and distinctness.
I suppose that I was trying to say something about the individual’s relationship to history — in the US, this is notoriously a tenuous matter — and now as I think about it the image that best fits the individual’s relationship to history is that of a swimmer in the ocean.
We appear in the midst of history, in medias res, as it were. We do not get to choose when we appear or where we appear. Our existence possesses that brute facticity that Sartre was concerned to elaborate in his famous novel Nausea. We have little more control over when and where we disappear. That is to say, we also leave history in medias res, so that we swim in history our entire lives — whether we know it or not, like the doctor in Moliere who was unaware he had been speaking prose his entire life.
Joseph Campbell employed the image of swimming to try to illustrate the function of mythology in human life. The psychotic, Campbell said, is thrashing about, and possibly also drowning, in a sea of mythological images and archetypes; what distinguishes the mystic is that the mystic is able to swim in this sea of mythic images — he masters the currents of the subconscious that buffet the psychotic and leave the latter at the mercy of forces he does not understand. I’ve always liked this image of Campbell’s of the mystic as swimming in waters in which the psychotic is struggling; I think it captures something important.
To return to my idiom of taking responsibility for our interpretations, one could say that the mystic (in Campbell’s sense) has taken responsibility for his interpretation of history. The mystic knowingly employs mythic images; he is the master of the story he weaves, the maker, rather than being mastered by his narrative. Note that the mystic’s taking of responsibility does not necessarily involve any denial or negation of the myth as myth, only its mastery. Plato’s conception of a noble lie as a foundation for civil society might be considered parallel to this, at least for the Guardians of the Republic, who know the lie is a lie, but tell it anyway, presumably for the good of their fellow man.
Mythology might be taken to be the most tendentious of interpretations of history — flagrantly if not unapologetically non-naturalistic — so that myth-making can be understood as the paradigmatic form of taking responsibility for history. But the myth-maker is no positivist out to deny the existence of Santa Claus. The mythic interpretation of history is essentialist and inherentist, and therefore regards the details of the ordinary business of life as of little account. Mythology is cosmological history, and the only thing that counts is if the big picture is paints coincides with the individual’s understanding of the greater world. The individual who is neither mystic nor psychotic also find themselves cast into this vast sea of archetypes and images; some flail around helplessly, some go under, some find a rock to stand on, and some learn to swim.
It is the same with history, and the individual’s experience of history is that of being cast into a tossing sea of meanings and values, attempting to make sense of these even as one attempts to keep one’s head above the waves. History is not abstract or distant; it is all around us, like the air we breathe — or like the last gasp of breath before we slip under the surface. One can understand, from this perspective, why the individual grasps at interpretations, sometimes with near desperation. We are all looking for a life preserver, and an interpretation that makes sense of history is that life preserver in the stormy seas of history.
The individual’s immersion in history has been well put in a passage from Marx that I have quoted repeatedly:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph
What does Marx mean by make history? What is it to make history? The question is more interesting than it may initially seem to be, because “history” is ambiguous — it means both the actual events of the past and the later account of these events. I am going to call these two senses of history, respectively, history1 and history2.
Marx’s point is that the making of history is constrained. Given the two senses of history above, there are four permutations of constraint that hold between these two senses:
● history1 constrains history1, i.e., past events constrain past events
● history1 constrains history2, i.e., past events constrain the interpretation of the past
● history2 constrains history2, the interpretation of the past constrains the interpretation of the past
● history2 constrains history1, the interpretation of the past constrains past events
The simplest way to understand the relationship between these two meanings of history is assert that history2 is an interpretation of history1, but such simplicities cannot long endure in the complexity of human life. Some of these formulations seem too obvious to mention; some seem too counter-intuitive to possibly be true. There is a sense, however, in which each of these permutations can be interpreted sympathetically as being true (or, at least, partly true) and therefore a way in which all four of these conceptions of the relation of past events to their interpretation have been taken as the basis of history (and of the individual’s relationship to history).
How an individual swims in the ocean of history is constrained — events constrain events, interpretations constrain interpretations, events constrain interpretations, and interpretations constrain events. Each us may start out flailing around, but each of us eventually learns some stroke, usually from our parents, that allows us to keep our head above water.
Finding ourselves thrown into history (to invoke a Heideggerian term), we are thrown into the midst of stories not of our own making and not of our own telling. Indeed, one of the primary forms of acculturation is to be told stories as a child. This is the foundation and formation of our historical consciousness, as well as of our identity as a member of a community.
In especially rigid societies the transmission of stories is synonymous with the imposition of what has been called the “primary mask,” while beyond this cultural stasis typical of some hunter-gatherer peoples, a limited degree of social change initiated by each successive generation allows for the gradual evolution of the stories that tell the history of a people, which can then absorb and include later cultural innovations and accretions. As the shaman tells the story of the tribe to a new generation, he changes the wording ever so slightly in each re-telling, and over time this keeps the tribal myth centered on the contemporaneous experiences of the people for whom it is intended.
In a completely static society, in which stories are transmitted unchanged from one generation to the next, neither the society nor the individual takes responsibility for society as a whole or for individual roles within society. This is an ideal limit that has probably been approximated by some paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, but as an ideal hypostasis it was probably rarely realized in unconditional form.
It has often been the function of art in society to introduce revolutionary change through the presentation of a new idea in a mythological garb that can be understood as continuous in a certain sense with the mythological character of the dominant social narrative up to the present. The artist takes personal responsibility for the public narrative by changing a traditional narrative or creating a new narrative. This effort to intervene in history comes with risks.
Personal intervention in history must often be masked in the interest of self-preservation, since the individual who challenges the “sacred canopy” that covers society may become a target for defenders of the status quo. Thus the artist develops systematic methods of ambiguity — something that we have seen even up through the twentieth century. During the heavy-handed repression of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, artists throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe sought to conceal their agendas through systematically ambiguous interpretations, as in Hays Code Hollywood filmmakers sought creative ways to express their ideas without explicitly violating the standards laid down by the code. It could be argued that both of these aesthetic movements contributed to change in their respective societies.
In so far as change in predominantly static societies comes with existential risk, even the most purposefully deceptive interpretation of history has a role to play. The fundamental distinction to be made, then, is that between those who know that they are making an interpretation and those who do not know, those who accept an interpretation without thinking. Implicit in my above remarks is that most people are not suited to innovate; the most that they can do is to keep their head above water. This is a profoundly elitist sentiment, entirely in line with Plato’s conception of a noble lie. I am uncomfortable with this, because, frankly, I know that in any Platonic division of society my position would be at least as marginal, if not more marginal, as it is at present. As I don’t like being marginal, and would not want to be even more marginal than I am, I would resist any Platonic transformation of society (not that this is going to happen, anyway).
No less than a politician telling his constituents a noble lie, the mystic teaching the psychotic to swim in the seas of mythology is not about to reveal everything at first, or even ultimately. relationships of these kinds emerge seamlessly from human nature — one could say that they are naturally occurring social contracts — and one sees pretty clearly how they would function in small societies based on an agricultural model, but when transplanted into the masses of industrial-technological civilization, the distance between the parties to the social contact opens so wide that it needs to be formalized in a formal social contract like a political constitution. What is to be done? I have no answer at present, but I can promise that I will continue to ponder this difficult impasse.
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27 April 2011
One of the most striking features of most pre-modern, pre-industrialized societies was the rapacity of the ruling class. Anyone with their hands upon the levers of power would manipulate whatever institutional apparatus was available in order to enrich themselves at the expense of those less unfortunate — a practice that reached such obscene extremes that the vast mass of the populace was impoverished while a privileged few enjoyed unimaginable luxury. Since that time, modern industrialization has raised all boats, flooding many societies with unprecedented consumer goods and therefore giving the impression that there has been a leveling of the human condition. Unfortunately, it has been only a relative leveling, and the agents of rapacity have been exchanged. What has changed is that rapacity has been displaced from splendid individuals onto the nation-state.
The basic principle at stake is that those with enough should be satisfied with enough, and therefore render to the government anything beyond what is enough in order that this should be re-distributed to those who are judged not to have enough. The rhetoric of “needs” is common in this context, and we often encounter formulations like, “needs being met,” though this ought to give pause to anyone who notices that one of the basic confusions of consumer societies is that between wants and needs. Whereas rights are counterbalanced by duties, there is no political concept to counterbalance that of needs, except perhaps superfluity. Needs become associated with a minimal condition of bare survival that no one has the moral right to question, whereas the countervailing conception of superfluity is associated with luxury and conspicuous consumption.
Again, in contradistinction to pre-modern, pre-industrialized society, we have it good. Sufficiency under the agricultural paradigm was subsistence farming, and this often meant the barest of bare survival. Given that rudimentary baseline, anything over and above bare subsistence can be seen as superfluous. But we all know that in a social climate of rising wealth, allowing too great a gap to open up between haves and have nots can be disastrous, possibly even leading to catastrophic state failure, also known as revolution. Thus the have nots must be raised above mere subsistence, but the level of increase in standards of living will always be relative to the socio-political context. Being poor in Sweden implies a different standard of living than being poor in Gabon.
Notwithstanding the fact that “sufficiency” in this context is a term of art, the welfare state will take anything that it judges to surpass mere sufficiency, will count itself righteous for doing so, and will judge as deviant anyone who resists the expropriation of their property. Expropriation, even for the highest and noblest of motives, is still expropriation. Moreover, it remains expropriation even when expropriated according to the most meticulous machinations of due process. As noted above, anyone with their hands upon the levers of power will manipulate whatever institutional apparatus is available in order to enrich themselves at the expense of those less unfortunate — though now rather than anyone it is anything, and in particular it is the nation-state in the form of the welfare state.
The contemporary welfare state is the result of a pragmatic political compromise intended to forestall the spread of communism in Western Europe. In this it was successful. The German Historical School of economists, in other respects not particularly well respected, was instrumental in this compromise. From the perspective of later communists, this compromise constituted the capitalists “buying off” their workers (cf. the above referenced flood of consumer goods). From the perspective of the privileged, it was a remarkable act of enlightened self-interest scarcely equaled in history. Look to the reluctance of dictators today unwilling to relinquish power even as their fellows are being removed one after another, and it is easy to see the extent to which the privileged and powerful will go to retain their privilege and power.
The logic behind the rapacity of the welfare state, like the logic of rapacity of the kings, emperors, popes, and cardinals that preceded the nation-state in privilege, and like the logic of dictators ruling today, reveals its relentless, implacable extension to other areas of life — ultimately, to all areas of life — in the current healthcare debate in the US. I have written several times about the individual mandate (i.e., the requirement that would force individuals to buy health insurance) and its presumption to know the best interests of consumers better than consumers themselves know it. This is but one facet of the rapacity of the welfare state, but it is both an important and a telling facet.
If individuals believed contemporary individual health insurance policies to be a good deal, these individuals would be clamoring to buy them. That is the way that capitalism works: you offer something for sale; if consumers want what you have for the price you offer it, you sell your product; if consumers do not want what you have for sale, or don’t want to pay your price, you will not sell your product. It is pretty obvious that individuals not covered by employer-sponsored health care coverage (which latter are therefore insulated from the true cost of health care) are not clamoring to buy individual health insurance policies. These policies are not a good deal, and they are becoming a worse deal with the passage of time. These policies cannot compete in the market. In fact, they choose not to compete. Rather than compete, they choose to legislate and litigate.
Health insurance providers have the heavy hand of the welfare state to intervene on their behalf and to force consumers to buy products that consumers will not and would not buy on the open market when free of compulsion. Instead, these policies will be sold upon threat of legal prosecution.
The welfare state intends to provide welfare for all. This is a noble aspiration. No one can rationally argue with the desire to improve the lives of all and to reduce the glaring inequities of our society. (Some on the contemporary left like to say, “When everyone does better, everyone does better” — and this tautology certainly is true.) One can, however, rationally argue with the means intended to accomplish this end. For we all know, in the overwhelming complexity of the world, that unintended consequences often swamp intended consequences, so that means are uncertain in the extreme: particular means may contribute more to the defeat of the intended aim than to eventually securing the intended aim. How, then, should we go about supporting the general welfare in a manner consistent with democracy and liberty?
And there is a tension between democracy and liberty, as embodied in a now well-known quote frequently mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” (I have also seen versions of this substituting “rabbit” for “lamb.”) The simplest form of democracy — majoritarianism — is especially vulnerable to this tension. More sophisticated incarnations of democratic ideals have made provisions for individual rights that are not to be infringed even if social consensus supports infringement. This is the enlightened tradition that the Founders extended to the US Constitution, and it is the model that we should continue to follow: the democratic ideal pursued in so far as it is possible, and in such a way that its infringements upon individual liberty are minimized. It is in this spirit that I return to the health care debate.
There is a solution to government coercion in purchasing health care services, but this solution, while simple, is radical in its simplicity and would call into question some of the deepest presuppositions of the welfare state. That makes this alternative politically impossible, no matter how much sense it makes. What is this solution? Simply this: offer the option to “opt out” of health care, i.e., to voluntarily live without health insurance, and to accept the consequences of living without health insurance, essentially opting out and living off the health care grid.
I would opt out, and I would do so with my eyes wide open, and with the knowledge that I would be subject to different protocols in the eventually of illness of injury. And I would be willing to make this official, and to certify my decision to the satisfaction of legal standards of evidence, whatever they might be in the this case. For example, I would be willing to carry a card in my wallet, next to my driver’s license, that in the eventuality of my injury, that I am not to be treated, or taken to a hospital or emergency room, or that only a certain specified amount of money should be spent on my treatment, with this amount of money supported by some oath or affirmation that I possess the amount in question in cash.
Prior to writing this, I have not suggested this to anyone, so I don’t know how others would react. However, it is easy to guess the outrage that would greet my proposal in some quarters. For instance, I can imagine it being said that, while a person feels healthy and fully able, they would say that they would like to opt out, but when it came time to pay the piper, no one would be left who would really and truly accept the consequences of their decision, especially if it meant death or living with disfigurement.
The objection is the same as the old canard that there are no atheists in foxholes: the presumption that, in our hour of need, everyone will fold, without exception, and want the aid and comfort to which scientific medicine entitles us. We know this to be false, because we know principled individuals who accept the consequences of their actions without any attempt to save themselves. Interestingly, however, this argument shows how far we have come in real terms — in terms of the actual ideology by which we live, rather than the ideology that is honored more the breach than in the observance — because the “heath care in extremis” objection is the perfect mirror image of the no-atheists-in-foxholes objection. The no-atheists-in-foxholes claim assumes that in our hour of greatest need that we will all, despite any previous profession made under circumstances of security, seek supernatural aid and comfort. The “heath care in extremis” assumes that we will all, despite any profession made under circumstances of security, seek material aid and comfort. So which is it going to be? Supernatural aid and comfort, or materialistic aid and comfort?
What is it in the welfare state’s conception of human nature that it must embrace the totality of our being, and extract from us our forced consent for our total expropriation by the state, body and soul, such that no exceptions are to be allowed? It is simply this: for the welfare state, man is simply homo economicus. The welfare state is an economic institution; each individual instance of homo economicus is a functioning part of our economic institution; therefore, homo economicus is a functioning part of the welfare state. It is an elegant syllogism that reduces the individual to his role within the state as part to whole.
We must see this development in the context of the evolution and maturation of the institutions of advanced industrialized society. That is to say, we would be misunderstanding the situation if we attributed all of this development to wild-eyed ideologically motivated radicals who have an agenda for a utopian society which would be a dystopia for the rest of us. This is not how most social change comes about. Most social change comes about from incremental changes and attitude and incremental changes in material circumstances, which between the two of them create a coevolutionary spiral and issues in unintended consequences that were no part of anyone’s design. Homo economicus and his role within the economy of the welfare state has not been imposed from above; all of this has emerged organically from historically continuous circumstances.
As always, the wealthy will be left untouched by the law. They will have health care regardless. The individual mandate will fall most heavily on those who have a limited quantity of disposable income and have made a conscious decision to spend that income in a certain way. As the tentacles of the welfare state find there way into the regulation of every aspect of life, like some kind of secular Hadith, every penny of an individual’s income is more and more spoken for by the state before it is earned and spent. One has the “choice” from what company one will purchase health insurance, just as one has a “choice” between buying Crest or Ultrabright toothpaste, but the supposed greater number of choices made available to the individual in modern society are choices not worthy of the name. The real choice has already been made, and it has been made by the welfare state before the individual is even born.
We find here a particularly radical embodiment of the doctrine of implicit consent to a social contract: if you are born into a society, and if you choose to stay, you choose to accept the social contract of that society. In other words, you relinquish all of your rights, in a Hobbesian moment of absolute submission to the Leviathan, in order to receive a few compensatory rights later, as the Leviathan chooses to grant at its discretion. Thus the welfare state arrogates to itself the right to organize your life before you are even born, and once you emerge as an individual within society you are obligated to arrange your affairs, down to the budgeting of your income, according to the dictates of the state. And if your income is limited, and that limited income has already been spoken for by the state and its epigones? That is your tough luck. Next time, come back rich. For this life, cough up your money. All of it, if need be.
Are we going to tell people that it is not a legitimate choice to live fast, die young, and make a beautiful corpse, because this is socially unacceptable? Is it beyond the pale that, if an individual prefers danger to safety, that they should willingly place themselves in danger? And is it unacceptable that an individual should allow himself to take risks? Are we going to tell people that it is unacceptable that they buy a sports car because they need to spend this money instead on health insurance? The welfare state bureaucrat has no problem telling individuals that their choices are not allowed because they do not conform to the economic planning of the welfare state, of which the individual is a part, and the state is the whole.
Thus the welfare state sets itself up like Periander, the despot of Corinth, who, not being satisfied by the example of his father, the despot Kypselos, sent to the famous (or notorious) Thrasybulos of Miletus to learn more effective means of depredations upon his people:
“Now Periander at first was milder than his father; but after he had had dealings through messengers with Thrasybulos the despot of Miletos, he became far more murderous even than Kypselos. For he sent a messenger to Thrasybulos and asked what settlement of affairs was the safest for him to make, in order that he might best govern his State: and Thrasybulos led forth the messenger who had come from Periander out of the city, and entered into a field of growing corn; and as he passed through the crop of corn, while inquiring and asking questions repeatedly of the messenger about the occasion of his coming from Corinth, he kept cutting off the heads of those ears of corn which he saw higher than the rest; and as he cut off their heads he cast them away, until he had destroyed in this manner the finest and richest part of the crop. So having passed through the place and having suggested no word of counsel, he dismissed the messenger. When the messenger returned to Corinth, Periander was anxious to hear the counsel which had been given; but he said that Thrasybulos had given him no counsel, and added that he wondered at the deed of Periander in sending him to such a man, for the man was out of his senses and a waster of his own goods,–relating at the same time that which he had seen Thrasybulos do. So Periander, understanding that which had been done and perceiving that Thrasybulos counselled him to put to death those who were eminent among his subjects, began then to display all manner of evil treatment to the citizens of the State; for whatsoever Kypselos had left undone in killing and driving into exile, this Periander completed.”
Herodotus, Histories, Book V, section 92
It remains to give the theoretical justification of opting out of compulsory spending mandated by the welfare state. It will be objected that, in something so fundamental as health care, opting out would create a two tier system, and ultimately a two tier society, and that this is invidious to democracy. I will, for the moment, leave aside the fact that we already have a stratified society in which many individuals receive preferment and privileges because of their income, social status, or family background. It is fundamentally a question of one’s conception of the law. I have many times remarked that the nation-state system is predicated upon a radical and uncompromising application of the territorial principle in law — that is to say, the principle that one law holds for all individuals within a given geographical region. The historical alternative to the territorial principle of law is the personal principle in law, which is the principle that an individual will be subject to the law of their community, regardless of their geographical location.
The possibility of opting out of government programs appeals to the personal principle in law, and we can see on this basis why representatives of the nation-state — and all of the advanced industrialized nation-states are welfare states — would be opposed in principle to anyone opting out of a territorial principle. The advocate of the exclusive legitimacy of the territorial principle in law must hold that the personal principle in law is illegitimate everywhere and always, and that no legitimate political entity can be erected upon the personal principle in law. If any exceptions are allowed, we would be forced to recognize that our society is shot through with instances in which individuals are held to the standards of their community rather than to universal standards enforced throughout a geographical territory.
As I pointed out above, we do in fact have a stratified society, and whether or not we formally recognize it in our legal codes, we have de facto instances of the personal principle in law that hold throughout our supposedly universal territorial law. To point this out, however, would be to contradict the powers that be. And to allow a separate community that has opted out of the health care mandate, and indeed out of the health care system altogether, would be too glaring an exception to the territorial principle in law to be tolerated.
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13 January 2011
A few days ago in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I developed some ideas about implicit versus explicit institutions. An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution. While I find this to be a helpful distinction in terms of clarifying our ideas about institutions as we find them today, in medias res, the distinction cannot be extrapolated backward in time beyond a certain threshold of social organization. Prior to the existence of social institutions in societies possessing historical consciousness and some system of recording this historical consciousness, the distinction does not make sense.
I will posit another distinct species of institutions that exist prior to the fully developed distinction between formal and informal institutions. These pre-formal institutions — institutions emergent prior to the possibility of formalization in a social context — I will call incipient institutions.
I previously discussed some of the conceptual issues surrounding the origin of institutions in The Institution of Language, where I wrote the following:
The social rituals of proto-civilizations lack the intellectual and conceptual infrastructure to emerge as fully formal institutions; however — and this is important — these institutions were formalized in the only way that it was possible to formalize an institution prior to the emergence of written language and explicit legal codes. One could argue the horror of pre-literate ritual culture was given its horrendous form precisely because it had to make an unforgettable impression at a time when there was no other way to preserve tradition.
I want to continue to explore this line of thought in relation to incipient institutions. Rituals of the kind I refer to above are institutions. In literate, historical cultures, rituals too are literate and historical, often prescribed in nearly neurotic detail. In pre-literate, pre-historical cultures, rituals are incipient institutions. Some of these incipient institutions will fall away as the culture matures, some will be retained, some will evolve into secular institutions, and some will evolve into sacred institutions, i.e., religious institutions. Just as in ancient Greece there was no clear line between science and philosophy, since these two traditions cold only be sedulously distinguished after human thought had matured to a given threshold, so too in pre-literate, pre-historical cultures there would have been little or no distinction between secular and sacred rituals. There was only the ritual itself, deeply embedded in the life of the people, and no means to preserve the ritual intact but for the impact that it could be given by the form that it took.
Incipient institutions resemble implicit social contracts, i.e., informal institutions, except that they are formalized to the extent that anything can be formalized in a pre-literate, pre-historical milieu. Incipient institutions can be neither formal or informal, because they are pre-formal. No infrastructure yet exists by which they could be formalized. If anything at all could be said to be a formal institution in this social context, then certainly incipient institutions are formalized in this sense — except that nothing at all, in fact, is formalized in this social context, which context is an absence of all formalized institutions.
Incipient institutions may be present in a state of nature on the verge of transition into a state of non-nature, that is to say, an unnatural state, which is the state of organized social institutions, formal institutions. These conditions are most likely to be found among semi-sedentary peoples of the late Paleolithic, still engaged in hunting and gathering, but also experimenting with agriculturalism and pastoralism.
If we use the term incipient institution not only to refer to pre-formal institutions, but also to institutions that are in the process of development, presently informal but moving toward formalization, then incipient institutions would be a characteristic of any period of historical transition. In times of rapid social change, decadent and incipient institutions would overlap and intersect (as Wittgenstein said of family resemblances), the former failing, in terminal decline, and slowly disappearing, the latter vital and slowly emerging.
This formulation of incipient institutions suggests a further distinction between incipient institutions that are not in a process of maturation into formal institutions (which might characterize many pre-literate, pre-historical rituals) and incipient institutions that are in a process of maturation. Within incipient institutions one might be able to recognize those elements that are stable and which will experience little or no development, and those which suggest much more than they make explicit, and therefore are ripe for development.
Also of interest in the above formulation is the use I have made of Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, that family resemblances “overlap and intersect.” As soon as I wrote that I realized that Wittgenstein’s conception of family resemblances is a static concept and could benefit from being set in a temporal context. Family resemblances over time will be distinct from family resemblances at an instant, as it were; to overlap and to intersect in time is distinct from what it is to overlap and intersect in space. Admittedly, the metaphor is primarily spatial, but there is no reason we cannot engage in some conceptual exaptation and use it for temporal and historical purposes. Incipient institutions in a process of develop into formal institutions, as well as decadent institutions in the process of decomposition, will exhibit temporal forms of family resemblance.
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In the above I have used the hyphenated term pre-historical to indicate cultures prior to the emergence of historical consciousness. I retain the non-hyphenated form, prehistorical, to indicate the period of history prior to the emergence of history in the narrow sense. This is admittedly a subtle distinction — some might say overly subtle — but I find it a distinction worth making.
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3 January 2011
A few days ago I was posting some brief thoughts on Twitter (necessarily brief, given the 140 character limit) about social contract theory, and as the ideas developed I realized that I had something more to say about the exercise of power within institutions. What follows is something of an elaboration of my previously tweeted ideas, which were, in turn, an elaboration of the use of “institutionalized power” as I used that term in Web 2.0: An Alternative Vision.
1. It is not so much power alone that corrupts, as it is institutionalized power that corrupts.
Perhaps in the familiar line, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” it is to be implicitly understood that the power in question is institutionalized power and not merely the power of an individual, but we would do well to be specific that it is an institution that transforms the ordinary vitality of life, which is power, into something sinister.
2. Power channeled through institutions raises the arbitrariness of the power of an individual to a higher order of magnitude.
The power of an individual, while potentially dangerous, is limited to the scope of the individual, and the scope of the individual does not extend to a significant reach in either time or space. Thus the arbitrariness of power of an individual is merely the arbitrariness of a bully, but the arbitrariness of a bully allowed the powers of an institution, to be omnipresent and all but omnipotent, is power not subject to the natural limitations inherent in the individual person.
3. Once an individual experiences the aggrandizement of institutionalized power, the scope of merely individual arbitrary power feels paltry.
To be the representative of institutionalized power (which today means holding political office and basking in the power of that office), is to exercise a power that no individual could cultivate himself in isolation, and which no individual could implement without an institutionalized apparatus of power. To hold institutional power is to have more than the reach of an ordinary man, but it is also to be dependent upon others: in other words, it is to be institutionalized.
Herman Melville has made the definitive comment on this condition:
“It cannot have escaped the discernment of any observer of mankind, that, in the presence of its conventional inferiors, conscious imbecility in power often seeks to carry off that imbecility by assumptions of lordly severity. The amount of flogging on board an American man-of-war is, in many cases, in exact proportion to the professional and intellectual incapacity of her officers to command. Thus, in these cases, the law that authorises flogging does but put a scourge into the hand of a fool.”
Herman Melville, White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War, Chapter 36: “Flogging not Necessary”
While the scourge no longer takes the form of a cat-o’-nine-tails, the principle remains the same, and, similarly, although the fools who wield the scourge are not the same, the arrogance of office is unchanged.
4. In the state of nature there is arbitrary individual power; it is only in the context of social organization that institutionalized arbitrary power emerges.
Arbitrary individual power in a state of nature, without social organization, can at most result in a duel, which will usually be a contest of equals if not rivals, since a non-equal match will result in the disadvantaged party fleeing. Arbitrary institutional power, made possible by social organization, turns every contest into an unequal confrontation of an individual against an institution, with the individual’s ability to flee the confrontation compromised by the same social organization.
5. The state of nature is a condition of absolute impunity and of absolute absence of impunity.
There is a dialectic of impunity when raised to its absolute form, in which an identity between the absolute possession of impunity and the absolute lack of impunity are seen to amount to the same state of affairs. For further elaboration of this thesis cf. the explication of Theses 10 and 11 below.
6. Impunity of power is an institution that emerges in parallel with the institutions of power, but it is an informal institution.
There can only be impunity is a formal sense when there is a law from which one is immune. However, as we shall see below, there is an informal sense of impunity that is realized in the state of nature. But where the formal institutions of power are present, impunity is an exception to the rules that constitute an informal social contract. It should be pointed out, though, that impunity as an informal institution is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, since in pre-modern states legal authorities were almost always exempt from the rule of law, or, if subject to laws, authorities were subject to separate laws — an instance of the personal principle in law not tied to ethnicity or confessional community — as when English Peers of the Realm were tried in the House of Lords or churchmen were tried in ecclesiastical courts according to Canon Law. This, in turn, is another development of formal institutional power, and impunity is an informal exception to formal institutional power. Thus the historical trend is toward the constitution of formal institutions that acknowledge informal exceptions.
7. An informal institution is an implicit social contract. A formal institution is an explicit social contract.
There is always a degree of exchange between the conventions of implicit social contracts and explicit social contracts, so that formal institutions borrow from informal institutions and vice versa. in other words, the distinction between the two is not absolute. But the distinction is nevertheless valid as far as it goes. This must be taken in the spirit of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy, namely that for any distinction that is made, there will be cases in which the distinction is problematic, but there will also be cases when the distinction is not problematic.
8. The state of nature can be defined as the absence of any social contract, formal or informal, explicit or implicit.
The possibility of an absolute state of nature, lacking either implicit or explicit social contracts immediately suggests the possibility of a relative state of nature in which there may be an explicit social contract but no implicit social contract, or an implicit social contract without an implicit social contract. We can identify the former with corruption and the latter with proto-civilizations. And, again, as above, the distinction between absolute and relative states of nature is not absolute, but remains valid as far as it goes (and subject to the same principle and fallacy noted above).
9. Despite the absence of a social contact in a state of nature, the substance of what we understand by impunity is realized in this condition.
Because in a state of nature, individuals possess the Freudian freedom in which, “their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him,” there is no action whatsoever that is forbidden us in a state of nature. We possess absolute impunity to do as we will — and also to suffer as we will.
10. Impunity in a state of nature is something very different from impunity within a social structure.
Although in a state of nature we possess absolute impunity to do as we will, everyone else possesses exactly the same absolute impunity, and nothing in a state of nature puts me beyond the reach of any individual who seeks to behave with impunity toward me any more than such an one is beyond my reach to behave with impunity. In a state of nature, no one is accountable to anyone, and everyone is accountable to everyone.
11. In a state of nature, no one is untouchable, even while everyone is, by definition, beyond the reach of the law.
As there is, by definition, no law in a state of nature, everyone is beyond the reach of an institution that cannot reach out because it does not exist; in other words, everyone is untouchable. But there is also no law to protect the individual, and so no one is untouchable. The two are merely alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.
12. Formal and informal institutions, explicit and implicit social contracts, exist side-by-side, in parallel in a social system.
Institutions feed off each other. The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.
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22 November 2010
In the early stages of the Computer Age there were punched paper cards that held data, and in order for the data to be correctly read by the machine the punched cards needed to be kept flat and in good shape. It came to be the custom to print on these punched cards “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” In an early protest against the growing anonymity, depersonalization, and dehumanization of the Machine Age, a slogan began making the rounds — rapidly co-opted for commercial purposes and printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers — that played upon this: “I am a Human Being: Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” One must be of a certain age to remember this.
All of us are folded, spindled, and mutilated to a greater or lesser degree. Some of us do it to ourselves through self-destructive behavior, and some of us have it visited upon us by the unwanted attentions of a hostile world. It is natural to look for someone to blame so that we have on object — a scapegoat — upon which we can unleash our anger and indignation. It is natural, but it is also dishonest. Most of the forces that fold, spindle, and mutilate our lives are embodied not in an individual but in what Braudel called the structures of everyday life. That is to say, our lives are mutilated by forces that are much larger than any individual, and which cannot be changed by even the most heroic efforts of an individual.
Steven Lubar of the Smithsonian Institution has an interesting essay available online on the topic of early punch cards: “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate: A cultural history of the punch card.” In this essay Lubar writes:
“In the 1930s the University of Iowa used cards for student registration; on each card was printed “Do not fold or bend this card.” Cards reproduced in an IBM sales brochure of the 1930s read “Do not fold, tear, or mutilate this card” and “Do not fold tear or destroy.” I’m not sure when the canonical “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” first appeared; it’s one of those traditions whose author and origin is lost in the mists of time.”
There are also apparently at least a couple of books devoted to the topic.
In her famous essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf discusses how the life of the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is stunted and deformed because of the social circumstances of the time in which the novel was written. That is to say, the structures of everyday life were, for Charlotte Brontë, oppressive. Woolf made a comparison between Tolstoy and Brontë (as well as George Eliot):
“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoi lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world,’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”
Of Brontë herself Woolf wrote:
“…one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”
And who is not at war with their lot? How many of us are satisfied with our lot, or accept it peacefully? Who can accept with equanimity the outrages and injustices of the world? And if someone could simply accept this without rebelling, would we suppose that this was for the better, or that such an one lacked some essential human spark? The condition of which Woolf writes is not only the condition of female novelists of the nineteenth century; it is also the human condition.
Few if any of us express our genius (if we possess any) whole and entire. T. S. Eliot wrote in his repudiated book, After Strange Gods, “…the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born in an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” (I quoted this previously in Microcosm/Macrocosm.)
As the life of Brontë was “deformed and twisted,” “cramped and thwarted,” so are many if not most lives. The theme has inspired some of the greatest poetry in the English language. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” is a meditation upon thwarted lives:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Gray even conscientiously recognizes both the possibilities of fame and ignominy:
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.
Gray tells the story of those lives that were folded, spindled, and mutilated long before there were such things as computer punch cards. Indeed, the lives that Gray celebrates in his poetry were lived under the agricultural paradigm, so we see that deformed and thwarted lives are not unique to industrialized civilization. Industrialization may accelerate and exacerbate the deformation of lives, but the problem does not originate with industrialization.
It is relatively easy to think of examples of lives thwarted by spectacular episodes in history, like war or terrorism, but by far the most pervasive forces that thwart lives are those rooted in the Braudelian formulation I used above, the structures of everyday life. As implied by Gray’s Elegy, poverty and rural isolation once thwarted a great many lives. Rural isolation is less of a concern now, and is diminishing over time, but poverty, and the fear of poverty, continues to mark lives the world over.
Most of all, fear in its many forms deforms, twists, and cramps our lives. Economic fear is for the industrial paradigm the equivalent to the pervasive fear of hunger under the agricultural paradigm. When almost everyone worked on the land, and the land was only marginally productive, a bad harvest meant hunger or starvation in the coming winter. This was true from the advent of the neolithic agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. Now almost everyone works at a job instead of working on the land, and a bad economic harvest — a recession or other economic dislocation — means hardship and possibly also financial ruin and penury.
One thing that European observers of the US often get wrong is in not understanding the role of fear in the US economy. The social safety net in Europe is relatively generous. Go to a large European city, even a large city of the former Eastern Bloc, and you will see almost no street people. I know whereof I speak; I have been to almost every major city in Europe. As fellow industrialized peoples, the Europeans ought to understand the Americans if anyone does (perhaps also the Japanese), but in fact they do not — and Americans similarly misunderstand the Europeans.
In the US, fear of loss of one’s job, fear of poverty, fear of homelessness, is real and palpable. Talk to people and you will hear it in their voices and see it in their faces. It is one of the things that makes life in the US a little bit weird at times, as when you see people spiraling out of control over little things (like the current tempest in a teapot over TSA screeners) and it becomes all-too-apparent from a studied distance that this is misplaced anxiety that, according to a classic psychodynamic model, is being expressed in a safe way, because one cannot express one’s fear directly because that would call into question the foundations upon which one has constructed one’s life.
There are also many more subtle forces that thwart lives, and the more subtle they become, the more pervasively they are inter-woven into our lives, the more difficult it is to be objective and honest about what is thwarting us. Let me put myself out on a limb and give a specific example: a great many people (especially those of the working class) marry young and have children very young, without thinking about it. Some are impelled by biology, and some by cultural context, but whatever the motivation (or, more likely, lack of motivation, so that it is mere inertia that creates one’s situation), the result is the same, and that result, more often than not, is feeling trapped by circumstances. In middle age I have come to see how many people are tolerating rather than enjoying their lives, often resentful of their situation, feeling trapped in their marriages and trapped by their obligations to children. Sometimes these obligations are spelled out in legal proceedings, but most of the time it is a moral obligation that is felt, staying together “for the children” and not wanting to “rock the boat.”
Ultimately we fold, spindle, and mutilate ourselves. There is no other to blame (and no anonymous, faceless machine to blame), though we may grasp at straws and blame scapegoats for our situation. In our honest moments, we know this. Much of the time if not most of the time, our unhappiness follows almost inevitably from the choices we have made. But we should not be too hard on ourselves for having disappointed ourselves, as we are all of us working from imperfect information (to borrow a term from economics).
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18 October 2010
A few days ago in Fairness and the Social Contract I wrote regarding Joseph de Maistre’s Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines (“Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions,” 1809) that its formulations, “invite alternatives if not refutation.” I offered a formulation parallel to Comte de Maistre in terms of fairness or justice being the approximation of the explicit social contract to the implicit social contract.
Another way to formulate this would be to say that it is Nietzsche’s “morality of mores.” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom,” which I discussed in The Totemic Paradigm) allowed to grow, to mature, and to evolve into a formal legal system. That is to say, beyond the morality of custom lies legal precedent and the legislation of custom. One could argue that the English common law tradition embodies precisely this gradual accumulation of custom, which, by being rendered in formal legal judgments, is then transformed into a legal norm. This common law tradition is law outside the constitutional paradigm, though a similar process can occur in the context of the constitutional paradigm.
In an earlier discussion of the law, Exaptation of the Law, I argued that, “…the law is intrinsically conservative, or, perhaps better (as that ideological word invites misunderstanding), law has an intrinsic bias in favor of the past.” I made this claim primarily based upon the role of precedent in law: “A ruling in the past establishes a convention that is followed in later rulings and preserves the past into the present.” And when a traditional system of law is overthrown in a revolution, “Laws and constitutions are not written in a vacuum,” so that the past remains a consistent point of reference.
Even the absence of law can establish a precedent. In the cases of tyranny, in which political authority is exercised without legal precedent, tyranny often becomes the rule rather than the exception in a society once conditioned to tyranny. I believe that the record of history demonstrates that tyrannies cannot long endure, but I will admit without hesitation that when a tyranny is deposed the power vacuum is often filled by a regime that is in no sense better and is often worse.
Tyranny is the illegal exercise of political authority. The idea of political tyranny is a familiar one, but there are also intellectual forms of tyranny that are no less invidious. Either through socio-political repression of alternatives or through social inertia or through lack of imagination, some ideas come to dominate societies to the exclusion of other ideas. Some of these ideas can be remarkably one-sided and unbalanced. In so far as an insitution is an embodiment of an idea, if it is the embodiment of a one-sided idea it is a form of intellectual tyranny and it will not long endure.
In the above-mentioned post Fairness and the Social Contract I claimed that a formulation of political society that was obviously extreme (like Comte de Maistre’s) invites a critique precisely because alternatives are schematically suggested by the structure of the ideas in the initial formulation. I also maintain that an idea that invites a critique in this way will eventually be faced with its other. If socio-political factors prevent the timely reckoning of an institutionalized idea with its other, that institution will grow corrupt and decadent. What happens with a corrupt and decadent institution? It is eventually overthrown, even if it is not confronted by its other.
One socio-political force that militates against a timely reckoning of an institutionalized idea with its other is what I have called acculturation to absence of change. I introduced this idea in my Political Economy of Globalization, where I wrote:
Proto-economic activity on the cusp of transformation into commercial economic activity has been the common condition of the bulk of human history. It constitutes the whole of our much longer pre-history, and is a powerful acculturation to absence of change. One engages in the same activities that engaged one’s ancestors since time immemorial, and the very idea of change, competition, or adaptation is foreign. The world is what it is, has always been so, and always will be so, world without end, Amen Thesis 28
When an entrenched, established, and institutionalized idea grows corrupt and decadent, but continues to cling to power through socio-political inertia and acculturation to absence of change, revolution becomes the only possible mechanism of change.
In several earlier posts I discussed the possibility of formulating intelligent institutions. An intelligent institution would be capable of adapting itself to changed circumstances. The kind of ideas embodied in institutions that I have described above have not fostered intelligent institutions. Among its other adaptive behaviors, an intelligent institution would be open to the revision of the idea upon which it is based. An idea open to revision does not become a form of intellectual tyranny. If change is possible — that is to say, if reform is possible — revolution is no longer the only expedient of change.
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16 October 2010
The French are protesting again — out on strike and marching in the streets. So what’s new? Nothing, in so far as the protest goes; this is standard fare for French society, and has been so since 1789. But the particular trigger for the protests, while not exactly new, is one of those “tip of the iceberg” things that bodes ill for the future.
The French protests of the moment are over pensions. The French government wants to make pensions slightly less generous. Compared to the benefits available in the US, even the scaled back French benefits sound rather generous. The plan in France was to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67. For the French, this was a sufficient outrage to hit the streets protesting. There is a sense in which we can view such a protest as nearly comical, but there is another sense in which even a quibble over two years is deadly serious.
A few days ago in Fairness and the Social Contract I discussed implicit social contracts by which societies function. I suggested that the recent protests in Ecuador were due to the violation of an implicit social contract. The government of Ecuador was trying to cut the benefits of civil servants, and civil servants are a potent political force in small and poor countries. France is neither a small nor a poor country, but its civil service is also a politically potent force. Ever since Richilieu’s consolidation of absolute monarchy under Louis XIV, France has had a highly bureaucratic society, and this tradition of bureaucratic and centralized authority survived the transition of the French Revolution and remains intact to this day.
Bureaucratic states, like constitutionally chartered states, attempt to formalize the implicit social contract in explicit social institutions. As economic development and technological progress has continually improved standards of living in the industrialized democracies of Western Europe, another implicit social contract begins to emerge in the form of a sense of entitlement. When life continues to get better over several generations, many people believe that they are entitled to a better (and less onerous) life than that enjoyed by the parents, and they expect in turn that their children will have yet better (and yet less onerous) lives than they have had. Thus to change the retirement age is seen to be a violation of this social contract.
A pension is a serious promise; people count upon it for their livelihood in their old age, when they are perhaps more vulnerable than any other time in their life, with the exception of their childhood. To change what has been promised to an entire society is going to cause anger, frustration, and protest. I certainly understand this. But I also understand that industrialized societies have dramatically over-promised, and they simply are not in a position to pay out the benefits that are scheduled to be paid out.
This is true in the US as well. The Social Security system will go bankrupt and be unable to make good on its promises at some point in the not too distant future unless retirement ages are raised, benefits are reduced, or taxes are increased. People like myself who have paid into the Social Security system for our entire working lives may well see little or nothing from it. This is an economic reality that cannot be wished away. We may not want to renege on an implicit social contract, but economic necessity will force us to do so. Because if we don’t renege on Social Security’s over-promised benefits, we will be forced to renege on other implicit social contracts, like the rate at which workers are taxed. To dramatically raise taxes simply to pay Social Security benefits would be to violate an implicit social contract between tax payers and the government. So one way or another, an implicit social contract is going to be violated, and when that happens a lot of people are going to be made very unhappy.
One cannot blame those who crafted the pension systems of contemporary nation-states. When the first state pension systems were created in Western Europe, industrialization had begun but families still reflected the only recently abandoned agricultural paradigm. In other words, families had large numbers of children. And one can no more blame them for this than one can in good conscience blame those set up the pension systems on the basis of assumptions that no longer hold good. The assumptions were valid at the time the programs were initiated, but the law of unintended consequences has caught up with the social safety net.
For as industrialization matured in those nation-states in which it first took root, dramatic social changes followed that were unprecedented and which could not have been predicted by anyone. I previously discussed this in Industrialization and Low Birth Rates. The small family sizes of today would never have been imagined in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
And this was not the only unprecedented change. Technological progress included progress in medical science, and as a result death rates plunged and life expectancy dramatically increased in industrialized nation-states. When pension systems were created, almost everyone died even before they had a chance to draw a single pension check. The systems were intended to prevent the extreme poverty of the few who survived into old age. This was not a large burden at the time such social programs were conceived and begun. In has, in the interim, become a rather substantial burden. Now people expect to survive their retirement age by ten or twenty or even thirty years.
The bottom line is that no society can afford to support a large proportion of its population not working for a quarter or a third of its life expectancy. It is unfortunate that promises were made when economies were booming and growing during the early stages of industrialization and the population to be support through such measures was small, but societies have in fact over-promised, and if they do not scale back on their promises they will be ruined. People don’t like to hear it, but if they are going to be healthy into their 70s and 80s and 90s, they are going to have to work. The social support network can only function if people work nearly until they die. It may not be “fair,” and a typical working-class job held into one’s dotage might not be any better fate to look forward to than the lot of a medieval peasant laboring on the land until he dies at 40 or 50, but it is the way things are, like it or not.
It is interesting to see how industrialization has more or less created this problem which is perhaps the greatest threat to industrialized society. In the pre-industrialized past, the care of the elderly and infirm was limited in so far as few elderly or infirm survived. But those that did survive could count on an extended household of multiple generations as a social safety net. And this extended household of multiple generations was itself situated in the context of a manorial economy which was itself a greatly extended household of many generations. The end of the manorial system of subsistence agriculture broke up the noble estates, and with dissolution also came the dissolution of the sense of noblesse oblige that often went with the institution of the manor. The mobility of the labor force both encouraged and demanded by contemporary capitalism further eventually resulted in the dissolution of multi-generational households. Thus these is no place for the elderly and infirm to go in an society transformed by the institutions of industrialism. In a rapidly changing world in which change is the only constant, how could there be a place for the old to rest until they die?
Every social system carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. A civilization is the balancing act that a society manages between its burgeoning possibilities and its self-imposed limitations. This was true of the civilization of classical antiquity, which spectacularly collapsed in the West, it was true of medieval civilization, which was transformed into modernity gradually, and it is true of our own civilization. I suspect that the sophistication of our methods and technologies will allow us to maintain the balancing act imposed upon us by the intrinsic limitations of our social system for a longer period of time than managed by classical antiquity or the Middle Ages, so we have some time to go yet. But maintaining our balance will come at a certain cost as we teeter dangerously on the edge of what is possible for industrialized society.
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12 October 2010
Recently in A coup in Ecuador? I made the claim that, “The protest in Ecuador was that benefits were to be cut for civil servants. This constitutes a breach of an implicit social contract.” Further developing the theme of distinct social contracts in distinct socio-political systems I wrote:
It is an accepted practice that, in advanced industrialized and democratized economies, members of the political class become rich after they leave office, not while they are in office… In poorer countries, it is accepted practice that members of the political class (or members of the civil service) become rich while they are in office, because there will be few opportunities to make money after that.
“There is an implicit bargain in modern Chinese society between the leaders and the led. Beijing tells its people ‘we will give you opportunities’ — to earn more, to enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did. But you, in return, will behave yourself.”
And then I continued:
This has been a consistent theme of commentary on the Chinese political situation over the past decade or so. The Chinese ruling elites of the communist party and the Chinese people are abiding by an informal social contract, such that the government will continue to deliver economic growth and opportunities to its people, and the people will not challenge the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC). I have encountered this in many different contexts, enough so that it may be considered part of the standard repertoire of talking points for talking heads.
Constitutional government, which has become the norm throughout the world (though often honored more in the breach than the observance), is an attempt to formalize a social contract in explicit terms. However, an examination of history since the emergence of the constitutional paradigm reveals that, despite formal arrangements of governmentality, implicit social contracts persist. Sometimes these implicit social contracts represent a curtailment of doctrines formalized in a constitution, and sometime these implicit social contracts represent promises made above and beyond the doctrines formalized in a constitution.
In any case, an explicitly formulated constitution is only part of how a society functions, and sometimes it is only a small part. The most common cases of this that come to mind are those egregious examples of nation-states that have constitutions replete with glittering generalities about democracy, opportunity, and freedom of expression — explicit promises that are not fulfilled in fact. The various constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics all had constitutions that guaranteed all manner of edifying freedoms, while almost none of these were observed in practice.
Perhaps most if not all constitutionally chartered nation-states begin in this way. In Becoming What We Are I noted that Martin Luther King jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech appeals to the unfulfilled promise of the American dream that all men are created equal. Indeed, it was only in the twentieth century that many of the constitutional protections that we take for granted in the US began to be taken seriously and were enforced by courts and the law.
The survival of implicit social contracts within nation-states administered according to the constitutional paradigm suggests the possibilities of a widening gap or a narrowing gap between implicit and explicit social contracts. The example I cite above of the US only coming lately to a respect of its explicitly stated constitutional paradigm is an example of a narrowing gap between implicit and explicit social contracts. One of the remarkable things about the US (and perhaps a source of “American exceptionalism”) is that the current implicit social contract (reaching back to perhaps some time near the beginning of the twentieth century) is that the explicit social contract will be respected and put into practice as far as practically possible. This is not entirely unique to the US. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, there is a widespread social consensus of narrowing the gap between political appearance and political reality.
It has become a commonplace of contemporary political commentary that US, NATO, and western military and peace-keeping operations constitute the attempt to impose a social system upon non-western peoples who live according to different social systems. Certainly many of us in the US have come to view the coincidence of implicit and explicit social contracts as a social virtue and even as a mark of fairness. But “fairness” is a slippery term. I know people who refer to the word “fair” as “the four-letter F-word” because of its overuse, misuse, and abuse.
With the above considerations in mind, I came to the realization today that in most societies “fairness” may be defined as that state of affairs in which the social contract is respected and put into practice, while it is a breach of fairness when the social contract is not respected and not put into practice. This picture, however, is complicated by the divide between implicit and explicit social contracts. One way to view the situation would be to hold that a people understands fairness (or, better perhaps, “justice”) as the approximation of the explicit social contract to the implicit social contract. In other words, in so far as the explicit social contract explicitly formulates and formalizes the implicit social contract by which a people is already living, then this is fairness or justice.
This is a deeply conservative formulation. It is closely parallel not only to what we find in Edmund Burke, but even the point of view to be found in Joseph de Maistre. The latter wrote a wonderfully concise essay, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines (“Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions,” 1809), that more or less pursues this line of thought. In section IX of this essay, de Maistre formulates the following four propositions:
1. The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.
2. Constititional law is and can only be the development or sanction of a pre-existing and unwritten law.
3. What is most essential, most inherently constitutional and truly fundamental law is never written, and could not be, without endangering the State.
4. The weakness and fragility of a constitution are actually in direct proportion to the number of written constitutional articles.
Once we understand the theoretical foundations of a highly conservative formulation of political society, we can schematically formulate liberal and radical conceptions of political society in contradistinction to the theoretical basis of conservativism. Certainly the first of de Maistre’s principles stated above — “The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law” — invites alternatives if not refutation. For starters, it stands in stark contradiction to the whole tradition of legal positivism that has been the foundation of Western legal thinking for at least the past hundred years. Indeed, one could argue that legal positivism emerged in Western history as a reaction to Old World doctrines such as those of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.
This is something that I will be thinking about in the coming days.
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Note added 13 October 2010: Today the BBC carried a story, Chinese veteran politicians call for reform, with this observation: “A group of 23 Communist Party elders in China has written a letter calling for an end to the country’s restrictions on freedom of speech. The letter says freedom of expression is promised in the Chinese constitution but not allowed in practice.” A translation of the actual text of the letter can be read at the Chinese Media Project.
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