Tuesday


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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Tuesday


The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.

I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.

Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.

At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.

The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”

The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”

As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.

However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .

Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?

This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.

The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.

With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.

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Diversity and Pluralism

26 January 2010

Tuesday


This is the public image of diversity, but there is in fact little tolerance for a recognition of truly diverse kinds of individuals.

At the same time that social diversity and political pluralism have become virtually unquestioned ideals and every society is expected to make at least a half-hearted attempt to put them into practice, there is less recognition than ever of what exactly constitutes diverse kinds of people. Moreover, attempts are made to homogenize different kinds of people. Let me try to explain.

'But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.' Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Chap. 5

When I read about classical antiquity I find it fascinating how many different kinds of people that there were. Everyone is familiar with Aristotle’s argument that some men are slaves by nature, and the economy of the ancient world was a slave economy, with slaves often making up half of the population of the great cities of the ancient world. But there were more than slaves. There were freedmen, for example: former slaves who had gained their freedom. They took pride in their newly won freedom and considered themselves to be a degree above the slaves that were once their fellows in bondage. And there were the freeborn, who took at least an equal pride in being born free and considered themselves to be a degree above the freedmen who had been born a slave. Not content with these diverse kinds of people, the ancients created more kinds of people by, for example, making eunuchs.

Eunuchs were common in the ancient world. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is a familiar New Testament story.

During the Middle Ages, kinds of people were multiplied by the elaborate feudal system with its endless degrees of social hierarchy. Moreover, the overarching institutions of the time reinforced differences among men: peasants, nobility, and churchmen were understood to have different lives and different functions in society. And in each division of society, hierarchies were instituted according to the feudal model.

A diagram of feudal hierarchy, a stratified society with different kinds of people occupying each level.

Today we are supposed to believe that in the most advanced societies that honor diversity and practice democratic pluralism that all these social constructs of distinct kinds of individuals are either illusory or have been abolished. There is, it seems, only one kind of person in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. I do not agree with this in fact nor in principle. In fact, social classes persist even when they are explicitly denied, and in principle I do not think that it is a good idea to deny that there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world.

I visited this idea previously in Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism, where I discussed the fatal fallacy implicit in the idea of every man a soldier. With the industrialization of conflict that emerged decisively during the First World War, the nation-states of Europe that had been slowing taking shape since the early modern period had begun to harness the forces of nationalism, and war plans that had been taking shape since the end of the Franco-Prussian war were predicated upon the mobilization of mass man.

Trench warfare during the First World War.

The leaders of these nation-states convinced themselves that one could make a soldier by taking a farmer away from his plow, a factory worker off the assembly line, a student out of a university, or any one from any occupation, give them a gun and drill them for a few weeks or months, and send them to the battlefield. Gone were the days of Enlightenment-era professional armies that won their battles by maneuver; the day of mass war waged by mass man had arrived.

In Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism I went on to say:

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).

One of Sartre’s lesser discussed works, Anti-Semite and Jew, also takes on this issue, though from a different point of view of course. That this book is little noticed today (maybe people think that the “Jewish Question” is an outmoded issue from the past) is unfortunate, because the work is a brilliant elucidation of how prejudice functions in society. It would have been more accurate to title the book A Phenomenology of Prejudice. Sartre takes as his example the Jew in western European society, but his argument is valid, mutatis mutandis, for any minority population embedded in a dominant population. What is brilliant about the work is that it resists the familiar oversimplifications that we hear every day in the popular media.

Sartre delineates both the perspective of the anti-Semite and the Jew, and then he goes on to describe the “defender” of the Jew: the democrat. The democrat defends the civil rights of the Jew, but does so at the expense of denying the Jew his Jewishness. But if one holds that there is only one kind of person in a contemporary nation-state, then there is nothing that it is to be a Jew, nothing distinctive about being a Jew (or being anything else, for that matter), and we can, like Sartre’s “democrat” deny the Jew his Jewishness, and in good conscience that we are doing the “right” thing. Obviously, I can’t do justice to Sartre’s work in a paragraph. You need to read it for yourself. And it is well worth reading.

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Sunday


A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

The First World War is one of the great catastrophes of Western history. This is insufficiently appreciated today. The Second World War appears to be the pivot of the twentieth century, occurring near the center of the century, a war fought on a larger scale and with more advanced technology and over a greater swath of the world. And while all of this is true, and the Second World War was the pivot of the twentieth century, the First World War was the pivot of something even larger than the twentieth century.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

The First World War was contemplated as a brief war, planned as a brief war, and started (or triggered, if you prefer) with the intention of being a brief war. Instead, it lasted years and consumed the lives the millions. Unlike the Second World War, the dead and wounded were overwhelmingly soldiers, and the war was primarily fought in the countryside of Europe, not in its cities. Thus the First World War was, in a particular sense, less destructive than the Second World War. But that particular sense is a material sense; in a moral or social sense, it could be maintained that the Frist World War was the more destructive.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

We all know that with the outbreak of the First World War, weapons and technology had changed while tactics had not yet caught up. And we have all heard that these innovations in warfare favored the defense and thus resulted in the static trench warfare for which the First World War is notorious.

Industrialization came late to war as compared to other aspects of life in Western civilization. It transformed the technology of war with machine guns and barbed wire, and it took several decades for the social technology of war to fully exploit the hardware technologies of war. The exploitation of the social technology of modern war was to be felt with the onset of the Second World War and the use of Blitzkrieg. (I have written briefly of this in The Dialectic of Stalemate.)

In my Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that the Industrial Revolution forced society to change in response, and that the Western world had responded twice with social arrangements attempting to accommodate the changes forced by industrialization and was still groping toward a third paradigm of social organization following the collapse of the earlier attempts. The social technologies of war — what military thinkers call “doctrine,” as in “armor doctrine” — exhibit a similar pattern of groping for an effective way to utilize hardware technologies. The trench warfare and mass assaults on fixed positions of the First World War represents the first attempt to incorporate novel military technologies. Blitzkrieg represents the second attempt. The challenge posed by unconventional, asymmetrical, and guerrilla warfare, and the responses to these threats on the part of conventional military forces, represents yet a third attempt to converge upon a military doctrine adequate to contemporary hardware technology.

One aspect of social technology and organization that made the First World War such a catastrophe was an ethos of industrialized society that found its expression in universal conscription and mobilization. In the pre-modern and early modern world, war was a business for professional soldiers. There was a nearly absolute social division between the mass of the population and professional soldiers. This division was effaced by the emergence of popular sovereignty as the sole form of political legitimacy after the American and French revolutions.

With industrialization, urbanization, and democratization, all men were asserted to be equal, and in some rare cases were actually treated as such. If all men were equal before the law, all men were equally obligated to fight for “their” country, for the masses now had a stake in the political outcome that they had never had in the pre-modern era. Thus emerged the idea of every man a soldier.

There is a sense in which this is truly ludicrous: not every man is suitable to be a soldier; not every man is fit for killing. But the newly industrialized armies were like an enormous machine constructed to consume vast numbers of men, as the newly established factory system drew vast numbers of men from the countryside into the city and consumed them in factories and machine works and workshops.

Mass man emerged in a terribly real sense during the First World War. With urbanization and concentration of vast populations rapidly mobilized by industrialized social infrastructure, the generals had literally millions of men at their disposal. Not knowing any better, they launched mass attacks that achieved little except mass casualties.

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).

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