Tuesday


It has long been my impression that one of the unacknowledged problems of industrialized civilization is that the individuals who ascend to the highest positions of influence and political power are the worst kind of people — the kind of people who, if you met them on a personal basis, you would hereafter seek to avoid them. I have not heretofore attempted an exposition of this impression because I could not express it concisely nor offer a causal mechanism to explain it. Moreover, my impression is merely anecdotal, and might be better explained as the sour grapes of someone not successful in the context of contemporary social institutions. Nevertheless, I cannot shake the feeling that most politicians and celebrities (the people with power in our society) are unpleasant, self-serving social climbers whose only redeeming quality is that, usually, they are not openly malevolent.

Having recently learned the meaning of the term “the managerial state” (also known as anarcho-tyranny, but I will use the aforementioned term) I find that I can use this concept to give an exposition of the idea that industrialized civilization promotes the worst kind of person into positions of influence and authority. Intuitively we can understand that the managerial state is a bureaucratic institution characterized by technocratic management; the anarcho-tyranny part comes into the equation because the managerial state, through selective enforcement of the laws, aids and abets criminality while coming down hardest on the law abiding citizens. If this sounds strange and improbable to you, I ask you to search your memory, and I would be surprised if you cannot think of someone whose life was destroyed, or nearly destroyed, due to some some infraction that was enforced as though it were to be an instance of exemplary justice, even while obvious criminals were allowed to go unmolested because of their wealth, their influence, or some other “mitigating” factor. If you have never heard of any such episode, then you are fortunate. I suspect that most people have experienced these injustices, if only obliquely.

What kind of person — what kind of bureaucratic manager — would thrive in the managerial state? Here we have a ready answer, familiar to us since classical antiquity: Plato’s perfectly unjust man. In an earlier post, Experimenting with Thought Experiments, I discussed the section of Plato’s Republic in which he contrasts the perfectly just man — who has the reality of justice but the appearance of injustice — and the perfectly unjust man — who has the reality of injustice but the appearance of justice. Thus the Platonic metaphysics of appearance and reality, which has shaped all subsequent western metaphysics, is invoked in order to provide an exposition of moral virtue and vice in a social context.

The perfectly unjust man would thrive in the role of apparently virtuous manager of the state while in reality exclusively serving the interests of the managerial class, who retain their authority by doing the bare minimum in terms of maintaining the institutions of society while turning the full force of their talents and interest to the greater glory of the technocratic elite.

The existence of the managerial state, then, engenders the conditions in which the perfectly unjust man can thrive, as though a petri dish were specially prepared to cultivate this species. The managerial state, in turn, appears in industrialized civilization partly due to the technocratic demands placed upon the leadership (charismatic and dynastic authority are likely to no longer be sufficient to the management of the industrialized state) and the increasingly scientific character of society encourages the rationalization of institutions, which in turn selects for an early maturation of the institutions of industrialized society.

I have here painted a very unflattering portrait of contemporary political power, but that I would do so starting from the premise that industrialized civilization raises the worst people to the top should come as no surprise. For a countervailing view we might take the many recent pronouncements of Jordan Peterson. I wrote a post about Peterson when he was first coming into wide public recognition, Why Freedom of Inquiry in Academia Matters to an Autodidact. Since that time Peterson has rocketed to notoriety, and has had many opportunities to present his views.

One of the themes that Peterson returns to time and again (I’ve listened to a lot of his lectures, though by no means all of them) is that the hierarchies that characterize western civilization are hierarchies of competence and not hierarchies of tyranny established through the naked exercise of power. The proof of this is that our society functions rather well: water comes out of the tap, electricity is there when we turn on the switch, and our institutions are probably less corrupt than the analogous institutions of other societies. I more-or-less agree with Peterson on this, except that I regard our hierarchies as more of a mixed bag. We have some hierarchies of competence, and some hierarchies that have more to do with birth, wealth, family, and, worst of all, dishonesty and cunning.

In traditional western civilization — by which I mean western civilization prior to the three revolutions of science, popular sovereignty, and industrialization — power was secured either through the naked exercise of force, or through dynastic pan-generational inheritance. In a dynastic political system (like that of contemporary North Korea), you get a mixed bag: some generations get good kings and some generations get lousy kings. Given the knowledge that the heir to the throne was not always the best leader, feudal systems developed a wide distribution of power and a battery of alternative institutions through which power could be exercised in their event of a weak, stupid, insane, or feckless king.

The feudal system called itself “aristocracy,” which literally means “rule by the best,” and this is precisely what is meant by hierarchies of competence: rule by the best. But the people who actually lived in feudal systems knew that the best were not necessarily or inevitably at the apex of the political system, and so they prepared themselves with institutions that could survive poor kingship. Each generation had the luck of the draw in terms of the king they got, but since this was a known weakness of the system, it could be mitigated to some degree, and it was.

One of the problems of industrialized civilization has been the simultaneous and uncritical embrace of popular sovereignty, which is at least as easily manipulable as feudal institutions, and arguably is more manipulable than feudalism. By throwing ourselves headlong into popular sovereignty, and, at least in the case of the US, slowly dismantling those institutions that once insulated us from the brunt of popular politics (thus accelerating the progress of popular sovereignty), we have few of the protections that feudalism had built into its institutions to limit the reach of incompetent leadership.

The perfectly unjust man is no analogue of an incompetent king: he is good at what he does. Plato called the perfectly unjust man, “great in his injustice.” Just so, the perfectly unjust man is a competent manager of the managerial state, but being a competent manager of a managerial state is not the ideal of democracy. And yet democracy, the more it seeks an illusory perfect egalitarianism, and deconstructs the last of the institutions that limit and balance power (for even the unlimited exercise of popular sovereignty is a dystopian tyranny), the more the managerial state comes into the possession of those temperamentally constituted to thrive within its institutions: the perfectly unjust men. This is my response to hierarchies of competence: yes, perfectly unjust men are competent, but they are not the ideal of leadership for civilization. They may even be the antithesis of the leadership that civilization needs. And now they have the stranglehold on power and will not be forced out without a struggle.

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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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