Tuesday


Mario Monti said of the Euro that, “the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there.” Today, perhaps yes, but what will the will be tomorrow?

Each time the Eurozone puts together another bailout package the markets follow with a brief (sometimes very brief) rally, which collapses pretty much as soon as reality reasserts itself and it becomes obvious that most of the measures constitute creative ways of kicking the can down the road, while those more ambitious measures that are more than kicking the can down the road are probably overly ambitious and not likely to be practical policies in the midst of a financial crisis.

Simply from a practical point of view, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can believe that a more comprehensive fiscal and political union can be brought about in the midst of the crisis, although formulated with the best intentions of saving the Eurozone, since the original (and much more limited) Eurozone was negotiated, planned, and implemented over a period of many years, not over a period of few days as inter-bank loan rates are climbing by the hour. Apart from this practical problem, there are several issues of principle at stake in the Eurozone crisis and the attempts to rescue the European Monetary Union.

Mario Monti was quoted in a Reuter’s article, Monti says EU hinges on summit talks outcome: report, in defense of strengthening financial and political ties within the Eurozone as a way to save that Euro that:

“Europeans know where they’re going… the markets are convinced that having given birth to the euro, the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there and will be strengthened by other steps towards integration.”

Can the Euro be made “indissoluble and irrevocable”? Can anything be made indissoluble and irrevocable? I think not, and this is a matter of principle to which I attach great importance.

I have several times quoted Edward Gibbon on the impossibility of present legislators binding the acts of future legislators:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.

Since I have quoted this several times (in The Imperative of Regime Survival, The Institution of Language, and The Chilean Model, e.g.), implicitly maintaining that it states an important principle, I am now going give this principle a name: Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle.

As I have tried to make explicit, Gibbon’s Principle holds for political entities, but I have also quoted a passage from Sartre that presents essentially the same idea for individuals rather than for political entities:

“I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational. I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be. Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be. Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” Nor does this mean that I should not belong to a party, but only that I should be without illusion and that I should do what I can. For instance, if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (lecture from 1946, translated by Philip Mairet)

This I will now also name with a principle: Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle.

If that weren’t already enough principles for today, I going to formulate another principle, and although this is my own I’m not going to name it after myself after the fashion of the names I’ve given to Gibbon’s Principle or Sartre’s Principle. This additional principle is The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual (admittedly awkward — I will try to think of a better name for this): political autonomy is predicated upon individual autonomy. In other words, Gibbon’s Principle carries the force that it does because of Sartre’s Principle, and this makes Sartre’s Principle the more fundamental.

At present I am not going to argue for The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual, but I will simply assume that Gibbon’s Principle supervenes upon Sartre’s Principle, but I wanted to make clear that I understand that there are those who would reject this principle, and that there are arguments on both sides of the question. There is no establish literature on this principle so far as I know, as I am not aware that anyone has previously formulated it in an explicit form, but I can easily imagine arguments taken from classic sources that bear on both sides of the principle (i.e., its affirmation or its denial).

Because, as Sartre said, “men are free agents and will freely decide,” the Euro cannot be made “indissoluble and irrevocable” and the attempt to try to make it seem so is pure folly. For in order to maintain this appearance, we must be dishonest with ourselves; we must make claims and assertions that we know to be false. This cannot be a robust foundation for any political effort. If, tomorrow, a deeper economic and political union of the Eurozone becomes of the truth of Europe, this does not mean that the day after tomorrow that this will remain the truth of Europe.

And this brings us to yet another principle, and this principle is a negative formulation of a principle that I have formulated in the past, the principle of historical viability. According to the principle of historical viability, an existent must change as the world changes or it will be eliminated from history. This means that entities that remain in existence must be so malleable that they can change in their essence, for if they fail to change, they experience adverse selection.

A negative formulation of the principle of historical viability might be called the principle of historical calamity: any existent so constituted that it cannot change is doomed to extinction, and sooner rather than later. In other words, any effort that is made to make the Euro “indissoluble and irrevocable” not only will fail to make the Euro indissoluble and irrevocable, but will in fact make the Euro all the more vulnerable to historical forces that would destroy it.

When I previously discussed Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle (before I had named these principles as such) in The Imperative of Regime Survival, I cited an effort in Cuba to incorporate Castro’s vision of Cuba’s socio-economic system into the constitution as a permanent feature of the government of Cuba that would presumably hold until the end of time. This would be laughable were it not the source of so much human suffering and misery.

Well, the Europeans aren’t imposing any misery on themselves on the level of that which has been imposed upon the Cuban people by their elites, but the folly in each class of elites is essentially the same: the belief that those in power today, at the present moment, are in a privileged position to dictate the only correct institutional model for all time and eternity. In other words, the End of History has arrived.

Why not make the Euro an open, flexible, and malleable institution that can respond to political, social, economic, and demographic changes? Sir Karl Popper famously wrote about The Open Society and its Enemies — ought not an open society to have open institutions? And would not open institutions be those that are formulated with an eye toward the continuous evolution in the light of further and future experience?

To deny Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle is to count oneself among the enemies of open societies and open institutions.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Saturday


Yesterday in Marxist Eschatology I wrote:

Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas.

While on my other blog in Marx and Fukuyama I wrote:

With Marx, we can identify a “bend in the road” of history at which point Marx might be proved right or wrong. For some people — wrongly to my mind — this point was identified as the end of the Cold War. To my mind, it is the full industrialization of the world’s economy. Thus Marx’s thesis has the virtue of falsification.

This calls for a little clarification, since if interpreted uncharitably it might be found contradictory for Marxism to be a perennial idea and to be falsifiable, since what distinguishes a perennial idea is that it is not falsifiable — at least, not in a robust sense of falsification.

Karl Popper was the philosopher who formulated falsifiability as a criterion of scientificity (I’m not certain he was the first, be he has definitely been the most influential in advancing the idea of falsifiability, especially in contradistinction to the logical positivist emphasis on the verifiability criterion), and he discussed Marx at some length. Here’s nice summary from one of Popper’s later works:

“As I pointed out in my Open Society, one may regard Marx’s theory as refuted by events that occurred during the Russian Revolution. According to Marx the revolutionary changes start at the bottom, as it were: means of production change first, then social conditions of production, then political power, and ultimately ideological beliefs, which change last. But in the Russian Revolution the political power changed first, and then the ideology (Dictatorship plus Electrification) began to change the social conditions and the means of production from the top. The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution to evade this falsification immunized it against further attacks, transforming it into the vulgar-Marxist (or socioanalytic) theory which tells us that the ‘economic motive’ and the class struggle pervade social life.”

Karl Popper, Unended Quest, “Early Studies,” p. 45

I should point out that I agree with Popper’s arguments, and that Marxism construed in the narrow sense that Popper construed it was falsified by the events of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s “weakest link of capitalism” theory was instrumental in the reinterpretation of Marxism that Popper mentioned. Beyond Lenin, Mao made even more radical changes by shifting the focus from the industrial proletariat to the agricultural peasant. It is a testament to the extent to which the twentieth century was not fully industrialized that it was Maoism rather than Marxism or Leninism that was the form of communism that reached the masses during the last century.

However, I think that there is a species of Marxism that lies between Popper’s narrowly conceived Marxism and the vulgar Marxism reinterpreted in the light of apparent falsification, and this is a Marxism that has been generalized beyond the historically specific conditions of the Russian Revolution, and even beyond the Cold War, which had almost nothing to do with democracy or communism and almost everything to do with national rivalry and the great game of power politics.

I have called a generalized Marxism a species of Marxism, and herein lies to clue to the distinction between Marxism and a perennial idea in the strict sense. Marxism (of one variety or another) is a species that falls under the genera of collectivist political thought. The latter — collectivist political thought — is a perennial idea, and lies beyond falsification. It is neither true nor false, but an ongoing influence, just like its implied contrary, which is individualist political thought. Individualism also lies beyond falsification, and is neither true nor false but remains an ongoing influence in human affairs.

Most forms of capitalism are individualist in orientation, though not all: oligarchical capitalist societies (like medieval Venice) had little to do with individualism. Thus a generalization of capitalism does not always lead to individualism. A generalization of capitalism, depending on its subtle differences in tone of market activity from one society to another, may lead to individualism, but it may also lead to a profoundly hierarchical crony capitalism, or to some other socio-economic formation.

Speaking generally for ideas, and not just communism and capitalism, and indeed not just political and economic ideas but all ideas, the generalization of an historically situated and therefore specific idea usually leads to a perennial idea if the generalization is sufficiently radical. The generalization of capitalism may or may not lead to individualism, but it will eventually lead to some perennial idea which lies beyond falsification, whether that idea is patriarchalism or something else. The generalization of Marxism, I think, leads more directly to a perennial form of collectivist thought, which at its greatest reach of generality is scarcely distinguishable from a vague sentimental connection to others.

The species of Marxism that I have posited — midway between Marxism narrowly conceived and Marxism generalized to the point of a vague feeling of cooperative common cause — is falsifiable, but it is not falsifiable by experiment. It is only falsifiable by history. It shares this property with other theses in the philosophy of history. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between the natural sciences and at least some of the historical sciences: theses in some of the historical sciences are falsifiable, but they are not falsifiable on demand. One can only wait and see if they are eventually falsified. With the passage of time the inductive evidence of an unfalsifiable thesis in the philosophy of history increases, but is never confirmed. Thus the philosophy of history, contrary to most expectations, is the most science-like of the branches of philosophy.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Challenge and Response

22 November 2008


Hegel or Popper? Dialectic or falsifiability? Pick your formulation.

Hegel or Popper? Dialectic or falsifiability? Pick your formulation for theory revision.

In Today’s Thought on Civilization I proposed a principle for the historical viability of civilizations (A civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes”), and in More on Republican Disarray I formulated a schema from this principle that was at once more general and generally applicable to particular circumstances (An x fails when it fails to change when the world changes”) and then applied it to the current woes of the Republican Party.

A philosophical principle always marks both a beginning and an ending. To arrive at a principle is already to have performed a significant act of abstraction that allows one to cut to the chase, conceptually speaking, and get to the meat of the matter. However, as soon as a principle is formulated, and one begins to work on applications of that principle, one immediately perceives its inadequacy, and the process of revision begins. We can describe this revision in terms of Hegel or in terms of Popper, as you prefer, though I don’t think Popper would have been pleased by his fungibility vis-à-vis Hegel (1).

In Hegelian terms, the process of revision is a dialectic: the initial insight, with its illuminating simplicity, finds itself confronted with the messiness of the actual world, its complex contradictory, as a result of that confrontation of the simple thesis with the complex antithesis, one arrives at a synthesis that is a more comprehensive conception than the initial insight. In Popperian terms, the process of revision has a structure like the logic of scientific research, in which a theory is formulated, tested, falsified by the test, and then revised in light of the results of the test so that it can be tested again. (I suppose I could also formulate a version of theory revision based on Quine’s “web of belief”, but I will leave it to the reader as a philosophical exercise.)

So I ought now to point out that my above enunciated principle ought to be amended to read, “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes” (instead of “…when the world changes”). In other words, the kind of change an historical entity must undergo in order to remain historically viable must be in consonance with the change occurring in the world. This is, obviously, or rather would be, a very difficult matter to nail down in quantitative terms. My schema remains highly abstract and general, and thus glides over any number of difficulties vis-à-vis the real world. But the point here is that it is not so much a matter of merely changing in parallel with the changing world, but changing how the world changes, changing in the way that the world changes.

It becomes awkward to always write “my principle mentioned above”, so now I come to the point where I will give my aforementioned principle a name in order to identify it in the future and distinguish it from other principles: the principle of historical viability, or PHV. Not only can we apply my principle of historical viability to historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations, we could do the same with Toynbee’s schema of “challenge and response” (2) as the mechanism by which historical entities actually do conform themselves to the changes of the world. Indeed, the mechanism of challenge and response could be taken as one instance of the logic of time working itself out in history. (I say “one instance” because I can think of other ways in which the logic of time works itself out in history, but I will save this for later exposition.)

The title page of the unabridged first volume of Toynbee's A Study of History.

The title page of the unabridged first volume of Toynbee

Challenge and response is one of the central themes of Toynbee’s A Study of History. It might also be called the “Goldilocks Principle” (3), as the idea behind it is that a challenge to a civilization shouldn’t be “too hard” or “too soft”. Too much of a challenge can arrest the development of a people, or render them extinct, while too little of a challenge leaves a people soft and without ambition to improve their lot. A challenge that is just right, however, elicits a response from a people that advances their development, perhaps pushing them to develop a civilization if they do not yet have one, or raising their civilization to greater heights if they do have one.

I will abbreviate Toynbee’s “challenge and response mechanism” as “CRM” (not to be confused with “customer relationship management”). If this is a valid way of approaching the problem of history, Toynbee’s CRM then becomes a mechanism whereby the PHV functions, so that the former is subsumed under the latter more comprehensive principle.

In any case, all of the foregoing is to make the point that Toynbee’s CRM could be profitably applied to historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations, just as with the case of the PHV. If, then, we wished to continue the line of thought I began to develop in More on Republican Disarray, we could observe that a major electoral defeat tied to fundamental demographic changes constitutes a challenge to the Republican Party. Venerable political institutions like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have all faced challenges. The fact that they are still in existence demonstrates that their responses to past challenges have been effective. But a faltering institution, if faced with a significant challenge, may not possess the strength and vigor to effectively respond to a challenge, and that challenge then becomes not a spur to greater things, but a death knell.

. . . . .

Note 1) Popper included a severe criticism of Hegel in his The Open Society and it Enemies. This was later criticized in turn in a devastating (to my mind) paper by Walter Kaufmann titled “The Hegel Myth and its Method” (collected in The Hegel Myths and Legends, edited by Jon Stewart).

Note 2) I have discovered through some Google searches that “challenge-response” is also a phrase used in computer systems for authentication, so if the reader is interested in researching this topic online, you will get more meaningful responses if you exclude terms like “spam”, “authentication”, and “password”, etc.

Note 3) The term “Goldilocks Principle” is I believe already used in SETI research to indicate the habitable zone around a star.

Note 4) Given my recent interest in Toynbee, I checked out from the library Toynbee’s Philosophy of World History and Politics, by Kenneth W. Thompson, and was reading this book this morning (Chapter VI) when the above recorded thoughts occured to me. It was my plan to compare Toynbee’s overall predictions for the West, made in the middle of the twentieth century, with the newly released Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, with its projections, simply as an intellectual exercise. I didn’t get far with this project, but I may return to it. I suspect that Toynbee, for all his faults, will be noticeably superior to this sort of speculation-by-committee.

. . . . .

A Transformed World

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: