In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls presented several highly influential doctrines that have come to be widely discussed. Rawls says that justice is fairness, and his method for arriving at fairness in social structures is that these structures should be formulated from behind a “veil of ignorance,” with that ignorance being the ignorance of the individual as to their place in the society in which they would live. The method that Rawls formulated is a thought experiment called the “original position.” Here’s how he stated it:

“In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 11

As noted in the above quote, this stands in the tradition of “state of nature” thought experiments familiar from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Pufendorf. State of nature or original position thought experiments posit a time before human societies existed — a blank slate upon which human beings were free to write as they pleased — so as to try to imagine how the existing societies with which we are familiar came into existence.

Many formulations of visions of the human future (including spacefaring futures) implicitly incorporate something like Rawls’ thought experiment without even realizing that this is what they are doing. Outer space as a place for human activity and achievement gives us the same opportunity as state of nature thought experiments to reflect on counterfactual human societies against a backdrop that has been putatively purged of contemporary social presuppositions, though, with outer space, applied symmetrically to the future instead of the past. In so far as we perceive outer space as a blank slate, and in so far as we attempt to project a future upon outer space as though it were a blank slate for future human spacefaring societies, then outer space takes on the properties (or, rather, the lack of properties) of a blank slate.

In the case of outer space, we try to imagine how existing societies with which we are now familiar will pass out of existence and be replaced by some future society. Since the advent of spacefaring futurism (probably traceable to the Golden Age of Science Fiction) outer space became a place where human beings could project what was best in themselves in order to cultivate a hopeful future. Early science fiction such as Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells was markedly dystopian, but the genre rapidly transformed into an optimistic and expansive vision of the future. With this minimal framework of sapcefaring and optimism and progress toward a better future, outer space became a blank slate for human hopes and dreams. For a time, utopianism reigned, but when the simple utopianism faded, it was replaced sometimes by dystopianism, but, more interestingly to me, by the idea of outer space as the kind of blank slate for a better tomorrow in spite of the problems we have today.

This latter conception is something I have personally encountered many times. The idea seems to be that human beings have made many mistakes on Earth so that outer space is a “second chance” for humanity and we consequently have a moral obligation to only establish human societies away from Earth when we are fully prepared to do a better job than we have done on Earth — hence the waiting gambit. Sometimes this position is presented such that humanity does not deserve to establish a presence beyond Earth, because we have made such a mess of things here.

Here the “original position” has been transposed with a “final position” for human society — the ultimate form that human society is to take, projected onto a spacefaring future in which outer space is the setting for a perfect society that has not been realized on Earth, and which cannot be realized on Earth because of our history. Thus the “final position” takes the form that it does because the “original position” was corrupt. This is very much in the spirit of Rousseau, who saw the original foundations of human society to be corrupt, and this inherited corruption (not of the individual, who, according to Rousseau, is naturally good, but of social institutions) has been passed down to all subsequent human societies. Thus outer space presents itself as a domain free from this inherited corruption where a “final position” can be brought into being, and humanity can, for the first time in its history, realize a righteous society.

It is interesting to note that this is in no sense a revolutionary view, as it imagines human beings confined to the purgatory that is Earth for an indefinite period of time until the sins of the youth of our species have been burned and purged away. Only when we have fully completed our penance — a gradual and excruciatingly incremental process — and become perfect, do we deserve to take the next step and inhabit the blank slate of outer space as newly innocent beings, a humanity that has made itself innocent, and thus worthy of the final position, through great moral effort.

A revolutionary view, in contradistinction to this moral incrementalism, would be that the final position is there before us, suspended in the air like Macbeth’s dagger, which we can reach out and grasp at any time. We can, in this view, attain the final position simply by taking a sequence of revolutionary steps that will transform us and our world because we have the boldness to take these steps. This revolutionary moralism vis-à-vis the final position would fit well with what I have called an early spacefaring breakout in The Spacefaring Inflection Point (and further elaborated in Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift).

An early and sudden inflection point in the development of spacefaring civilization could be both the revolutionary step required to put in place the final position as well as the advent of a new kind of civilization. This view seems more historiographically justified that the more prevalent incrementalist view, but I have only ever heard the incrementalist view — though, I ought to say, I know of no one who has formulated the incrementalist view in the full sweep of the vision. One usually gets only bits and pieces of the vision, which leaves its advocates with a certain plausible deniability in regard to the future final position implicit in their conception of human destiny in outer space.

It may sound like I am here advocating one conception of the final position over another, but I find both to be as profoundly mistaken as original position or state of nature thought experiments. While I think there is something to be learned from both thought experiments — the original position and the final position — I regard them as being as Rawls has characterized them, “…a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.” Hypotheticals have a value, but that value is not absolute. Moreover, we know that hypotheticals, whether past or future, are not actual depictions of the past or accurate predictions of the future; they are scenarios that allow us to rehearse certain ideas as they might play out in practice.

In practice, there are no blank slates. Human societies don’t arise from nothing; they arise from prior societies, and these societies can be traced backward in time to long before human beings existed. The same is true of our brain and our intelligence, that we use to shape our social order: both have a deep history in the biosphere, but both bear the lowly imprint of their origins. We can’t even say, as Nietzsche said, that all this is human, all-too-human, because it all precedes humanity. It is terrestrial, all-too-terrestrial.

There was no paradisaical state of nature to which we might dream that we can return (if only we could deconstruct the injustices of human social institutions, which seems to have been Rousseau’s position), and there will be no final position of a perfectly just human society in the future, whether on Earth or in space. Both ideas are painfully naïve, and if we are ever to make real progress, and not the imaginary progress of utopias safely compartmentalized in the distant past or the distant future, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that humanity is ever going to be anything other than human, all-too-human. Justice and morality did not reign in the past, and they are not going to reign in the future, whether on Earth or in space, world without end. Amen.

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Note added Friday 28 February 2020: A perfect example of the blank slate of outer space can be found in the recently announced contest for a design for a city of a million persons on Mars, Mars City State Design Competition Announced. The text of the announcement includes this: “How, given a fresh start, can life on Mars be made better than life on Earth?”

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I have previously written a number of blog posts on the idea of the blank slate, including:

The Metaphysical Blank Slate: Positivism and Metaphysical Neutrality

Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Further Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Blank Slate Cosmology

Of Vacuity and Blankness

Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes

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In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Nobel prize

In a series of posts I have been outlining a theory of the particular variety of civilization that we find today, which I call industrial-technological civilization. These posts, inter alia, include:

The Industrial-Technological Thesis

Medieval and Industrial Civilization: Developmental Parallels

Science, Knowledge, and Civilization

The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization

Chronometry and the STEM Cycle

What are the distinctive features of civilization as we know it today? Different socioeconomic structures and institutions can be found among different peoples and in different regions of the world. In one sense there is, then, no one, single civilization; in another sense, civilization has become a planetary endeavor, as every people and every region of the world falls under some socioeconomic organization of large-scale cooperation, and each of these peoples and regions abut other such peoples and regions, involving relationships that can only be addressed at the level of the institutions of large-scale socioeconomic cooperation. Thus a planetary civilization has emerged “in a fit of absence of mind,” as John Robert Seeley said of the British Empire. In a very different terminology, we might call this the spontaneous emergence of higher level order in a complex system.

We can think of civilization as the highest taxon (so far) of socioeconomic organization, the summum genus of which the individual human being is the inferior species, to use the Aristotelian language of classification. In between civilization and the individual come family, band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, though I should note that this taxonomic hierarchy seems to imply that a civilization of nation-states is the ultimate destiny of human history — not a point I would ever argue. In the future, civilization will undoubtedly continue to develop, but there is also the possibility of higher taxa emerging beyond civilization, especially with the expansion of civilization in space and time, and possibly also to other worlds, other beings, and other institutions.

For the time being, however, I will set aside my prognostications for the future of civilization to focus on civilization in the present, as we know it. Like any large and complex socioeconomic structure, contemporary industrial-technological civilization consists of a range of interrelated institutions, with the institutions differing in their character and structure.

The chartering of formal social institutions is part of the explicit social contract. Briefly, in The Origins of Institutions, I said, “An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution.” (In this post I also discussed how incipient institutions precede both formal and informal institutions.) In Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I made a distinction between the implicit social contract and the explicit social contact in this way:

“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.”

The early portion of the industrial revolution may be characterized as a time of incipient institutions of industrial-technological civilization, in which the central structure of that civilization — the STEM cycle in its tightly-coupled form, in which science drives technology employed in engineering that produces better scientific instruments — has not yet fully emerged. Formal institutionalization of the socioeconomic structures usually long follows the employment of these structures in the ordinary business of life, but in industrial-technological civilization many of the developmental processes of civilization have been accelerated, and we can also identify the acceleration of institutionalization as a feature of that civilization. The twentieth century was a period of the consolidation of industrial-technological civilization, in which incipient institutions began to diverge into formal and informal institutions. How are formal and informal institutions manifested and distinguished in industrial-technological civilization?

Anyone who immerses themselves in a discipline soon learns that in addition to the explicit knowledge imparted by textbooks, there is also the “lore” of the discipline, which is usually communicated by professors in their lectures and learned through informal conversations or even overheard conversations. Moreover, there is the intuitively grasped sense of what lines of research are likely to prove fruitful and which are dead ends (what Claude Lévi-Strauss called scientific flair). This intuitive sense cannot be taught directly, but a wise mentor or an effective professor can direct the best students — not those merely present to learn the explicit knowledge contained in books, but those likely to go on to careers of original research — in the best Socratic fashion, acting as mid-wives to intuitive mastery. Within science, these are the formal and the informal institutions of scientific knowledge.

Similarly, anyone who acquires a technical skill, whether that skill is carpentry or designing skyscrapers, has, on the one hand, the explicit knowledge communicated through formal institutions, while, on the other hand, also “know now” and practical experience in the discipline communicated through informal institutions. Both technology and engineering involve these technical skills, and we usually find clusters of expertise and technical mastery — like the famous Swiss talent for watches — that correspond to geographical centers where know how and practical experience can be passed along. One gains once’s scientific knowledge at a university, but one acquires one’s practical acumen only once on the job and learning how things get done in the “real world.” These are the formal and informal institutions of technology and engineering.

Industrial-technological civilization has brought great wealth, even unprecedented wealth, and in a human, all-too-human desire to leave a legacy (a desire that is in no wise specific to industrial-technological civilization, but which is intrinsic to the human condition), significant endowments of this wealth have been invested in the creation of institutions that play fairly clearly defined roles within the STEM cycle.

In terms of both prestige and financial reward, perhaps the most distinguished institution that recognizes scientific achievement is the Nobel Prize, awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, and later a memorial Nobel prize in economics was established. Mathematics is recognized by the Fields Medal. Apart from these most prestigious of awards, there are a great many private think thanks perpetuating an intellectual legacy, and the modern research university, especially institutions particularly dedicated to technology and engineering, is a locus of prestige and financial incentives clustered around both education and research.

Perhaps the best example of a formal institution integrated into the STEM cycle is the Stanford Research Institute. Their website states, “SRI International is a nonprofit, independent research and innovation center serving government and industry. We provide basic and applied research, laboratory and advisory services, technology development and licenses, deployable systems, products, and venture opportunities.” And that, “SRI bridges the critical gap between research universities or national laboratories and industry. We move R&D from the laboratory to the marketplace.” In a similar vein, Lockheed’s Skunkworks is known for its advanced military technology and the secretiveness of its operations, but Lockheed has recently announced that their Skunkworks is working on a compact fusion reactor.

Lockheed’s Skunkworks is an example of research and development within a private business enterprise (albeit a private enterprise with close ties to government), and it is in research and development units that we find the most tightly-coupled STEM cycles, in which focused scientific research is conducted exclusively with an eye to developing technologies that can be engineered into marketable products. The qualifier “marketable products” demonstrates how the STEM cycle is implicated in the total economy. From the perspective of the economist, mass market products are the primary driver of the economy, and better instruments for science are epiphenomenal, but as I have argued elsewhere, it is the technology and engineering that directly feeds into more advanced science that characterizes the STEM cycle, and everything else produced, whether mass market widgets or prestige for wealthy captains of industry, is merely epiphenomenal.

The economics of the STEM cycle that transforms its products into mass market widgets also points to the role of political and economic regulation of industries, which involves social consensus in the shaping of research agendas. Science, technology, and engineering are all regulated, and regulations shape the investment climate no less than regulations influence what researchers see as science that will be welcomed by the wider society and science that will be greeted with suspicion and disapproval. Controversial technologies, especially in biotechnology — reproductive technologies, cloning, radical life extension — make the public uneasy, investors skittish, and scientists wary. Few researchers can afford to plunge ahead heedless of the climate of public opinion.

In this way, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, driven by the STEM cycle set in its economic and political context, can be seen as an enormous social contract, with both implicit and explicit elements, formal and information institutions, and the different sectors of society each contributing something toward the balance of forces that competing in the sometimes fraught tension of the contemporary world. There could, of course, be other social contracts, different ways of maintaining a balance of competing forces. We can see a glimpse of these alternatives in non-western industrialized powers, as in China’s social contract. Whether or not any alternative social contract could prove as robust or as vital as that pioneered by the first nation-states to industrialize is an inquiry for another time.

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blind justice 1

Exemplary Justice and Show Trials

Exemplary justice is a very old idea, and it has its origins in the inability of a political entity to effectively enforce its writ. Thus the idea of exemplary justice grows out of an intrinsic limitation of early political societies. In brief, exemplary justice is to make an example of a individual. The horrific punishments that we read about in history are largely a function of exemplary justice: it was so unusual to capture an individual guilty of a crime, that particularly brutal punishments were meted out as a deterrence. Thus the potential criminal would know that his risk of being caught was low, but that, if caught, the punishment would be so horrible that the low risk of being caught is balanced by the disproportionate consequences in the unlikely event of being caught.

It is surprisingly difficult to find contemporary sources discussing exemplary justice; contemporary philosophers of law and politics have had little or nothing to say on the topic. You will not find an entry on “exemplary justice” in any of the major dictionaries of philosophy (such works as I have cited in many previous posts), yet I found an exemplary characterization of exemplary justice from almost a hundred years ago:

“…exemplary justice, as it well known, aims to establish in the social mind a permanent association between the criminal deed and some painful consequence, in order to prevent the repetition of a similar deed in the future. This form of justice pays no regard to the offender; its attention is fixed only on the needs and welfare of society.”

Gustave A. Feingold, “The Association Reflex and Moral Development” in The Journal of Genetic Psychology, Volume 23, 1916, p. 473

Although the contemporary silence on exemplary justice might lead one to suppose that it no longer plays a role in contemporary society, in which the proportionality of retributive justice is carefully calibrated to the nature of the crime, there is one form, however, of exemplary justice that came of age in the twentieth century, and that is the show trial. The use of mass media — newspapers, magazines, radio, and television — to inflame public opinion was central to the mobilization mass sentiment against an offender whose crime subverted principles upon which a given regime was founded.

The most notorious show trials of the twentieth century were stage-managed by the most notorious political regimes of the twentieth century — Soviet communism, Nazi Germany, and communist China under Mao. However, there is a sense in which we can consider the Scopes Trial as a show trial, so such events are not unique to dysfunctional regimes. This recent innovation in exemplary justice demonstrates that, despite its antiquity, the idea of exemplary justice continues to be relevant in our time and cannot be dismissed as a defunct idea.

Civil Disobedience and Popular Ideology

Even as the idea of exemplary justice has largely fallen out of public consciousness, another idea has taken its place, which is closely related to exemplary justice, but which resemblance has not been widely recognized. I am speaking of civil disobedience. Unlike exemplary justice, the idea of civil disobedience is relatively recent, having its origins in the nineteenth century, and, quite specifically, in Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”

Unlike the idea of exemplary justice, civil disobedience is widely treated in contemporary literature. Here is a concise definition from a relatively recent source:

civil disobedience, a deliberate violation of the law, committed in order to draw attention to or rectify perceived injustices in the law or policies of a state.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Editor: Robert Audi, Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 144-145

Civil disobedience, although a recent idea, proved to be one of the ideas that shaped the second half of the twentieth century. Mohandas Gandhi was influenced by Thoreau, and put Thoreau’s idea into practice as a mass movement in a country where the colonized masses so greatly outnumbered the colonizing forces that civil disobedience changed the direction of India’s modern history. After Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr. employed civil disobedience in the civil rights struggle in the United States, successfully turning public opinion against segregation laws in the US, which might also be said to have changed the direction of US history.

There are few ideologies that have shaped the fate of nation-states in the twentieth century, as I have pointed on in several posts, especially in relation to environmentalism, which is one of those few ideologies (cf. Ideology in our Time). While civil disobedience is not precisely an ideology, it is not entirely independent of ideology. Civil disobedience can only be effective when the campaign against formal legal institutions has the sympathy of a sufficient number of individuals that social change can be effected by the direct action of these individuals. Thus the content of civil disobedience reflects populist sentiment.

Exemplary Justice and Civil Disobedience

There is a sense in which exemplary justice and civil disobedience are each the mirror image of the other. Civil disobedience could be called exemplary defiance of the law, in order to more explicitly contrast it with the exemplary enforcement of the law. One might say that civil disobedience aims to establish in the social mind a permanent association between injustice and some socially painful consequence.

Exemplary justice is the response of formal, legal institutions to their inability to enforce their writ; civil disobedience is the response of those subject to formal, legal institutions of the inability of those institutions to enforce their writ. Both, thus, are predicated upon the intrinsic limitations of political societies, though the first approaches this from the perspective of the state while the second approaches this from the perspective of the population of the state.

Both of these ideas implicitly recognize Weber’s definition of the state as the legal monopoly on violence; exemplary justice celebrates this legal monopoly on violence, using it to social ends beyond the limits of the use of this violence, while civil disobedience exploits the legal monopoly on violence by not even seeking to employ violence but rather to employ non-violence. If the state as a legal monopoly of violence, it does not retain a legal monopoly on non-violence, leaving non-violence civil disobedience open as an avenue of protest against the state.

When one sovereign nation-state seeks to force another sovereign nation-state to do its will (a close approximation of Clausewitz’s definition of war, “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will”), it goes to war, or otherwise inflicts damage on the other nation-state. Each sovereign nation-state, reserving to itself a legal monopoly of violence, is free to use violence on other sovereign nation-states, and this is what we call war. The anarchic international system allows for the possibility of war though the de facto legitimization of redundant monopolies on violence.

Civil disobedience is parallel to war in its use of mass mobilization, and might be defined as, “an act of non-violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”

The shift from state power to popular will is revelatory of the growth of popular sovereignty, which has been definitive of the modern era since the series of revolutions that shook the Western world from the American Revolution of 1776 to the French Revolution of 1789 and then the series of revolutions throughout Latin America that resulted in the decolonization process and the formation of independent nation-states in Latin America.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Riots in Brazil...

Riots in Brazil…

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?

Riots in Sweden...

Riots in Sweden…

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.

Riots in Turkey...

Riots in Turkey…

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.

Riots in Egypt...

Riots in Egypt…

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.

The woman in a red dress being sprayed with pepper spray by Turkish police was among the viral images that rapidly gained global prominence in social media.

The woman in a red dress being sprayed with pepper spray by Turkish police was among the viral images that rapidly gained global prominence in social media.

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.

The Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta has become a globally recognized symbol of protest.

The Guy Fawlkes mask from the film V for Vendetta has become a globally recognized symbol of protest.

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.

Before social media in its electronic form, the Korda image of Che Guevara became a globally recognized icon merchandised on T-shirts, posters, and every imaginable kind of paraphernalia.

Before social media in its electronic form, the Korda image of Che Guevara became a globally recognized icon merchandised on T-shirts, posters, and every imaginable kind of paraphernalia.

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Dream Deferred

4 June 2013


Tiananmen square

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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alexis de toqueville

The rapacity of the ruling class

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 fortunate — 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 principle of redistribution

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 (i.e., subsistence) that no one has the moral right to question, whereas the countervailing conception of superfluity is associated with luxury and conspicuous consumption, which everyone has the moral duty to censure.

Again, in contradistinction to pre-modern, pre-industrialized society, we have it good. Sufficiency under the agricultural paradigm (that is to say, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) 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 and procedural rationality. 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.

Origins 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 (and often killed) 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 state knows best

The logic behind the rapacity of the welfare state, like the logic of the 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.

Promote the general welfare

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.

Living “off the grid”

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.

Heath care in extremis

This 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 in attitude and incremental changes in material circumstances, which between the two of them create a coevolutionary spiral that 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.

Implicit consent to welfare state rapacity

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 their 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 (the kind of choices that result from a flood of consumer goods), 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.

Acceptable and unacceptable choices

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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The clash of civilizations, literate and pre-literate: a ‘long and tiresome ceremony’ (according to the diary of James King) in which Captain Cook was honored during the festival of Makahiki. The significance of the ritual and Cook's role in it is still debated, not least because the ritual was not formalized at the time. (

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 has no relevance, except that it suggests some kind of similar distinction might be made, mutatis mutandis, among earlier institutions.

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 that 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 could 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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A Dance in Otaheite, John Keyes Sherwin, engraver (1751–1790) after John Webber (1752–1793) London: 1784 engraving; plate mark 26.5 x 41 cm, Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK10975/4, Pictorial Collection U1244

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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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 (which I subsequently christened The Truncation Principle), 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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Grand Strategy Annex

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