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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Friday


The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

When I attempt to look back on my personal history in a spirit of dispassionate scientific inquiry, I find that I readily abandon entire regions of my past in my perhaps unseemly hurry to develop the next idea that I have, and which I am excited to see where it leads me. Moreover, contemplating one’s personal history can be a painful and discomfiting experience, so that, in addition to the headlong rush into the future, there is the desire to dissociate oneself from past mistakes, even when these past mistakes were provisional positions, known at the time to be provisional, but which were nevertheless necessary steps in order to begin (as well as to continue) the journey of self-discovery, which is at the same time a journey of discovering the world and of one’s place in the world.

In my limited attempts to grasp my personal history as an essential constituent of my present identity, among all the abandoned positions of my past I find that I understood two important truths about myself early in life (i.e., in my teenage years), even if I did not formulate them explicitly, but only acted intuitively upon things that I immediately understood in my heart-of-hearts. One of these things is that I have never been, am not now, and never will be either of the left or of the right. The other thing is, despite having been told many times that I should have pursued higher education, and despite the fact that most individuals who have the interests that I have are in academia, that I am not cut out for academia, whether temperamentally, psychologically, or socially — notwithstanding the fact that, of necessity, I have had to engage in alienated labor in order to support myself, whereas if I had pursued in a career in academia, I might have earned a living by dint of my intellectual efforts.

The autodidact is a man with few if any friends (I could tell you a few stories about this, but I will desist at present). The non-partisan, much less the anti-partisan, is a man with even fewer friends. Adults (unlike childhood friends) tend to segregate along sectional lines, as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we once segregated ourselves even more rigorously along sectarian lines. If you do not declare yourself, you will find yourself outside every ideologically defined circle of friends. And I am not claiming to be in the middle; I am not claiming to strike a compromise between left and right; I am not claiming that I have transcended left and right; I am not claiming that I am a moderate. I claim only that I belong to no doctrinaire ideology.

It has been my experience that, even if you explicitly and carefully preface your remarks with a disavowal of any political party or established ideological position, if you give voice to a view that one side takes to be representative of the other side, they will immediately take your disavowal of ideology to be a mere ruse, and perhaps a tactic in order to gain a hearing for an unacknowledged ideology. The partisans will say, with a knowing smugness, that anyone who claims not to be partisan is really a partisan on the other side — and both sides, left and right alike, will say this. One then finds oneself in overlapping fields of fire. This experience has only served to strengthen my non-political view of the world; I have not reacted against my isolation by seeking to fall into the arms of one side or the other.

This non-political perspective — which I am well aware would be characterized as ideological by others — that eschews any party membership or doctrinaire ideology, now coincides with my sense of great retrospective relief that I did not attempt an academic career path. I have watched with horrified fascination as academia has eviscerated itself in recent years. I have thanked my lucky stars, but most of all I have thanked my younger self for having understood that academia was not for me and for not having taken this path. If I had taken this path, I would be myself subject to the politicization of the academy that in some schools means compulsory political education, increasingly rigid policing of language, and an institution more and more making itself over into the antithesis of the ideal pursuit of knowledge and truth.

But the university is a central institution of western civilization; it is the intellectual infrastructure of western civilization. I can affirm this even as an autodidact who has never matriculated in the university system. I have come to understand, especially in recent years, how it is the western way to grasp the world by way of an analytical frame of mind. The most alien, the most foreign, the most inscrutable otherness can be objectively and dispassionately approached by the methods of scientific inquiry that originated in western civilization. This character of western thought is far older than the scientific revolution, and almost certainly has its origins in the distinctive contribution of the ancient Greeks. As soon as medieval European civilization began to stabilize, the institution of the university emerged as a distinctive form of social organization that continues to this day. Since I value western civilization and its scientific tradition, I must also value the universities that have been the custodians of this tradition. It could even be said that the autodidact is parasitic upon the universities that he spurns: I read the books of academics; I benefit from the scientific research carried on at universities; my life and my thought would not have been possible except for the work that goes on in universities.

It is often said of the Abrahamic religions that they all pray to the same God. So too all who devote their lives to the pursuit of truth pay their respects to the same ancestors: academicians and their institutions look back to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, just as do I. We have the same intellectual ancestors, read the same books, and look to the same ideals, even if we approach those ideals differently. In the same way that I am a part of Christian civilization without being a Christian, in an expansive sense I am a part of the intellectual tradition of western civilization represented by its universities, even though I am not of the university system.

As an autodidact, I could easily abandon the western world, move to any place in the world where I was able to support myself, and immerse myself in another tradition, but western civilization means something to me, and that includes the universities of which I have never been a part, just as much as it includes the political institutions of which I have never been a part. I want to know that these sectors of society are functioning in a manner that is consistent with the ideals and aspirations of western civilization, even if I am not part of these institutions.

There are as many autodidacticisms as there are autodidacts; the undertaking is an essentially individual and indeed solitary one, even an individualistic one, hence also essentially an isolated undertaking. Up until recently, in the isolation of my middle age, I had questioned my avoidance of academia. Now I no longer question this decision of my younger self, but am, rather, grateful that this is something I understood early in my life. But that does not exempt me from an interest in the fate of academia.

All of this is preface to a conflict that is unfolding in Canada that may call the fate of the academy into question. Elements at the The University of Toronto have found themselves in conflict with a professor at the school, Jordan B. Peterson. Prior to this conflict I was not familiar with Peterson’s work, but I have been watching his lectures available on Youtube, and I have become an unabashed admirer of Professor Peterson. He has transcended the disciplinary silos of the contemporary university and brings together an integrated approach to the western intellectual tradition.

Both Professor Peterson and his most vociferous critics are products of the contemporary university. The best that the university system can produce now finds itself in open conflict with the worst that the university system can produce. Moreover, the institutional university — by which I mean those who control the institutions and who make its policy decisions — has chosen to side with the worst rather than with the best. Professor Peterson noted in a recent update of his situation that the University of Toronto could have chosen to defend his free speech rights, and could have taken this battle to the Canadian supreme court if necessary, but instead the university chose to back those who would silence him. Thus even if the University of Toronto relents in its attempts to reign in the freedom of expression of its staff, it has already revealed what side it is on.

There are others fighting the good fight from within the institutions that have, in effect, abandoned them and have turned against them. For example, Heterodox Academy seeks to raise awareness of the lack of the diversity of viewpoints in contemporary academia. Ranged against those defending the tradition of western scholarship are those who have set themselves up as revolutionaries engaged in the long march through the institutions, and every department that takes a particular pride in training activists rather than scholars, placing indoctrination before education and inquiry.

If freedom of inquiry is driven out of the universities, it will not survive in the rest of western society. When Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD (cf. Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens) the western intellectual tradition was already on life support, and Justinian merely pulled the plug. It was almost a thousand years before the scientific spirit revived in western civilization. I would not want to see this happen again. And, make no mistake, it can happen again. Every effort to shout down, intimidate, and marginalize scholarship that is deemed to be dangerous, politically unacceptable, or offensive to some interest group, is a step in this direction.

To employ a contemporary idiom, I have no skin in the game when it comes to universities. It may be, then, that it is presumptuous for me to say anything. Mostly I have kept my silence, because it is not my fight. I am not of academia. I do not enjoy its benefits and opportunities, and I am not subject to its disruptions and disappointments. But I must be explicit in calling out the threat to freedom of inquiry. Mine is but a lone voice in the wilderness. I possess no wealth, fame, or influence that I can exercise on behalf of freedom of inquiry within academia. Nevertheless, I add my powerless voice to those who have already spoken out against the attempt to silence Professor Peterson.

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