Wednesday


Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

Financial crisis or political crisis?

Democracy does not come naturally to the governments of Europe. Europe may have the institutions of democracy, and have them in a stronger form than elsewhere in the world, but democracy has shallow roots in the Old World, and in extremis we are not surprised to see Europe move in the direction of statism or populism. The problem of elite opinion, which I began to examine in The Technocratic Elite, is especially strong in Europe, and it repeatedly encounters the limits of engineering consent.

Because of the strong democratic traditions of the nation-states of the western hemisphere, governments are eventually aligned more-or-less with public opinion, but in Europe the attempt to maintain a facade according to which elite opinion is presented as mass opinion leads to periodic instability in which the distance between elite and mass opinion opens up like a fault line during an earthquake, at time swallowing whole the political order entire. The European press, which is itself split between elite opinion and mass opinion, documents this divide. If you visit a European nation-state you will find highbrow media of a quality far superior to that of the US, but you will also find popular newspapers and magazines pandering to the lowest common denominator (the “yellow press”). The individual who reads the Financial Times (as I do) is likely to never read The Sun, and vice versa.

I do not read the mass opinion press of Europe, so I do not know what it says, but I read quite a bit of the elite opinion media from Europe, and this tells us that Syriza, just elected to power in Greece, is a “radical party” of the left; the press also tells us that the National Front in France is a “radical party” of the right. There is a real concern, rooted in the painful lessons of European history, that Europe might once again turn to radicalism and extremism. How radical are these parties? Is Syriza a front for Stalinism or the National Front a front for fascism? Is Europe truly on a verge of an ugly populism that must be suppressed in order to assure the continuity of democratic institutions in Europe? This, as I read it, is the sotto voce position of elite opinion in Europe.

There are, of course, limits to European radicalism. One of the best explications of these limits that I have heard was to be found in a series of lectures by Jeremy Shearmur, an Australian philosopher and political scientist, who recorded a series for The Great Courses titled “Ideas in Politics.” Like many of my favorite lectures from The Great Courses, these have been discontinued and are no longer available (other discontinued favorites include An Introduction to Archaaeology by Susan Foster McCarter and The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophy, Theories and Interpretations by Darren Staloff). Shearmur noted in one of his lectures that if a truly radical government were elected, as soon as it came to power there would serious financial consequences: the currency would be bid down on international markets, foreign investors would seek to take their money elsewhere, and the country would become an international pariah. The leaders of a radical regime would then be forced from financial necessity to try to step in and calm the markets by making moderate-sounding statements. The lesson is that all the advanced industrialized nation-states are tightly integrated into the international financial system, and it would be quite painful for anyone of them–even a smallish economy like that of Greece–to separate themselves from this system.

What I have just described is a mechanism of moderation within elite opinion that guides the international system. It is assumed that political leaders will say radical things to get elected, but as soon as they get elected they will begin to moderate their stance. In fact, we have already seen this with Syriza in Greece, and the deal that Greece struck with the EU was not quite the renunciation of its bail out that Syriza had campaigned on. In fact, this pattern is so predictable that truly radical leaders with little or no concern for pragmatism have been elected on the assumption that, once they came to power, they would moderate their tone and their demands. This was one of the mechanisms that made it possible for Hitler and the Nazi party to come to power.

But this is not Germany in 1933. Conditions have changed. Indeed, we could with greater justification call these changes “radical” that to call contemporary European political parties or their leaders “radical.” The rule of Syriza is not going to initiate a new communist crackdown on Greek society, in which artists and poets will be jailed and Lysenkoism is imposed upon agriculture. Syriza may well effect an economic leveling that makes everyone except the nomenklatura and apparatchiks equally poor (this is, after all, what communist regimes typically do), but making everyone equally poor through economic policies known to be disastrous might be stupid, and it might mean the loss of an enormous amount of human potential, but it is unlikely to be criminal in the way that twentieth century communist regimes were criminal. Moreover, these are the policies that the people have voted for, and apparently it is necessary every single generation that people be taught a lesson on the unworkable nature of socialist economic policies.

If Syriza is communist (and Yanis Varoufakis, e.g., has been very upfront about the influence of Marx on his own views), it is a kinder and gentler form of communism (to borrow a phrase from George H. W. Bush). And if the National Front is fascist, it is kinder and gentler form of fascism. No more than Syriza is going to jail opposition intellectuals is Marine Le Pen and the National Front going to preside over a Kristallnacht aimed at Muslims living in France, though if you read the records of elite opinion in Europe you very clearly get the idea that there is a profound undercurrent of anxiety that extremists will come to power in Europe who will repeat the most brutal episodes in European history. However, this anxiety seems to be almost entirely focused on a right-of-center populist reaction against Muslim influence in Europe, as elite opinion journals seem to have little interest in the rise of an extremist left.

It could be argued that Europe would benefit from some political diversity (not to mention controversy), since monolithic elite opinion since the end of the Second World War has had the practical effect of denying the bully pulpit to alternative views. The election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the rallies of Pegida in Germany, and the improving poll numbers of the National Front in France are in this sense welcome. In so far as they give the bully pulpit to politicians who do not automatically mouth the euphemisms of elite European opinion, they actually give greater credibility to the EU and its programs.

In so far as the EU and the PR spin doctors of Europe’s elite opinion seek to deny even a voice to radical and marginal parties, they are making the same mistake in relation to politics today that they made with religion in earlier centuries. Instead of a free market of ideas, the attempt to shape a top-down definition of acceptable views has the opposite effect of making the “official” view laughable while piquing curiosity about the other views. In so far as some view is universally condemned in official sources, intellectually alert individuals will take notice and will suppose that there is something of interest and possible even something that is a clear and present danger to the established order in these marginal views.

Of course, the Europeans are not so stupid or as vulgar as to ban minority views outright (although there are a number of laws that make it illegal to make certain claims), but kinder and gentler elite opinion (like kinder and gentler communism and fascism) can be almost as effective in mere disapproval as it can be in outright legal sanction. Again, one need only pay attention to the monolithic on-message character of European politics. If you’re a careerist, you cannot possibly afford to neglect this.

With Round Two of the Eurozone crisis being played out across Europe, and headlines looking a lot like they looked a few years ago, although this time with Syriza in power in Greece, European elite opinion is faced once again with kicking the can down the road or dealing with the problems on the merits. Given the record of European elite opinion being so tightly focused on message, in contradistinction to meaningful action, the likely result seems to be further muddling through while hoping all turns out OK in the end. How many times can Europe lurch to the brink of crisis only to lurch backward from the brink at the last possible moment? European elite opinion worries about the brinkmanship of Europe’s radicals, but it is elite opinion itself that is pushing Europe toward the brink.

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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, including the following posts:

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

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Sunday


John_Edward_Christopher_Hill

A few weeks back I wrote a post in which I mentioned the influence of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down had had on my thought (this was The Agricultural Paradigm). A few days later R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, Wrote “The Canon: The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill” and Christopher Thompson responded to this on this Early Modern History blog (now apparently closed to the public, but his comment on Richardson appears on the THE website). I wrote about Hill again in Unintended Timeliness, and Nick Poyntz of Mercurius Politicus also wrote an appreciation of Hill. I was interested to note that these diverse contributions from diverse individuals were then all linked at the History News Network under the title A Christopher Hill Symposium.

I have continued to think about Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, especially this paragraph from Christopher Thompson:

The World Turned Upside Down graphically illustrates the problems inherent in Hill’s analysis of the events of the 1640s and 1650s. The groups that excited his interest — the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, etc — were and are important for their ideas but had minuscule support. Their activities and views were anathema, so far as we can tell, to the bulk of the populations of England, Wales and the rest of the British Isles. There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims. Indeed, the regimes of the post-1646 period depended on military force to remain in place because they lacked the consent of the bulk of the populations whose religious and political views were fundamentally conservative. For this reason, the English Revolution could not be consolidated at any stage.

This struck a nerve with me, but at first I didn’t really know why, except for the obvious (and probably correct) claim that the ideas of Hill’s early modern radicals were marginal at best and had no broadly-based social support. I just realized yesterday, however, that this stands in negative correlation to some claims that I made some time ago in The Nation-State: A Sketch of its Origins. In that post I wrote concerning early modern political philosophy:

The emergent practices of the early modern nation-state were felt to require a theoretical justification. Early modern political theory was, at least in part, a reaction against the feudal fragmentation of Europe… One political philosopher after another extolled the virtues of absolutism, and the difference between their doctrines was a matter of detail in the formulation of absolutism. Later modern political theory in the Enlightenment was, in turn, a reaction against the absolutism celebrated by their predecessors. With the rise of absolutist nation-states came a degree of order that the middle ages did not possess, but it also inaugurated an epoch of state repression — repression of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural minorities, repression of individuals, repression of dissent — novel forms of repression not conceived before the birth of the absolutist nation-state.

Of course, there were philosophers of the stature of Hobbes who were absolutists, but radical in another sense than the radicalism of the egalitarian doctrines celebrated by Hill. Hobbes’ materialism scandalized many in his day, although reading Hobbes today he doesn’t come across as any kind of radical, but that is only because the intervening lapse of centuries has produced unprecedented radicalisms and scandals. Hobbes only seems to lack radicalism in hindsight.

Philosophical reputation is an inscrutable and unpredictable thing, and not unlike poetic reputation. A philosopher can be famous in his day, his works widely circulated and the topic of much topical debate, and then, not long after his death, he falls out of favor and becomes the exclusive concern of antiquarians, his name only heard in lectures and seminars. On the other hand, a philosopher like David Hume, who gained wealth and fame as an historian but who was virtually unknown as a philosopher in his own time, now dominates philosophical discussion and stand among the names of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant as one of the great philosophical figures of his time.

Hobbes was well-enough known in his time that he was among the six who received advance copies of Descartes’ Meditations and drafted a set of objections. Hobbes is also remembered as a classic political philosopher today, so Hobbes bridges the gap between being known in his own time and being known to posterity. In this, he is an unusual figure. There are many more unknown and obscure philosophers than there are well-known philosophers, and fewer still who are known to both their fellows and to posterity.

Because of Hobbes’ materialism the established powers of his time kept their distance for him, ideologically speaking, but other writers — even relatively abstract philosophers — who said things that flattered powerful and wealthy patrons (or their presumptive ideological commitments) found their careers advanced. I wrote about this in my Variations on the Theme of Life (section 753):

Official philosophy.—There was a time when the refutation of skepticism was seen as a service to the state. Thus James Beattie was given a royal pension of two hundred pounds sterling per year for having written against Hume.

To which I appended the following footnote:

Such support has not disappeared, but has changed its appearance; today, this kind of largess comes instead in the form of research grants given to respectable academics by respectable institutions.

As we noted above, Hume was scarcely even recognized as a philosopher in his day, but writing against his corrosive skepticism was sufficiently interesting to the established powers that it won Beattie a generous pension. Philosophical theories, and the writers of philosophical theories, prosper or suffer in the degree to which they support or criticize those who hold political, military, or economic power. This is nothing other than the old Marxist distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure.

In this forum I have had many occasions to invoke the Marxist distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, which I prefer to call economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure. I took the trouble today to look up the text that is usually cited as the source of this distinction, and here it is:

In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12

So, there you have the locus classicus of the distinction, and it remains a useful idea today, however much Marx’s other doctrines have suffered in the intervening years. There is much more that can be said on this head, and in fact many subsequent philosophers have developed this theme in extenso (Antonio Gramsci, for example). Needless to say, as a Marxist, Christopher Hill would have been well familiar with this distinction.

Christopher Thompson, as quoted above, wrote about the radicals celebrated by Hill, “There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims.” With this claim I explicitly disagree. There was a possibility, but it was a possibility that remained unactualized due to contingent circumstances. It is not that people don’t have ideas that conflict with the economic infrastructure, but that patronage is distributed accordingly as one flatters that infrastructure, while punishment is meted out to those who defy it. Christopher Thompson presented radical thought as essentially repugnant to an essentially conservative outlook of the greater part of the population, and I do not dispute this, but I do not think that it is the whole story.

Peasant populations are notoriously conservative; they distrust foreign ideas at least as intensely as they distrust people from foreign villages, and the greater the distance, generally speaking, the greater the distrust. But peasant peoples are also generally uneducated and exposed to very little of the world. When they become educated, and achieve some exposure to the wider world, they are quite likely to identify with doctrines that express the content of their lives, and the content of their lives was largely one of one-sided and often onerous oppression by lords and landlords.

When radical ideas have been free to circulate among oppressed people, and no systematic measures are taken by elites to extirpate or punish these views, they often spread widely and rapidly. There are a few cases (admittedly, not many) when full scale revolutions have emerged from such influences.

England was not the only place in the early modern period to experience of great ferment of ideas and ideologies. The Protestant Reformation on the continent involved widespread proselytizing of a spectrum of religious doctrines of varying degrees of radicalism. In the case of the Peasant’s War, largely led by Thomas Munzter and denounced by Luther (the recipient of protection by German princes), these radical doctrines led to an uprising of peasants that had to be put down militarily. Radical doctrines among German peasants, then, had plenty of intrinsic traction, and only failed in the long run because no peasant force could stand against trained and armed elites: the peasants knew farming, while their aristocratic landlords knew fighting, so it wasn’t much of a contest.

For us it can only be a thought experiment to imagine what doctrines might have had a wide appeal among pre-industrialized agricultural laborers if ideas had enjoyed free and unrestricted distribution, if the peasantry had some rudimentary education, and if alternatives to the doctrines sanctioned by elites had not be violently suppressed through military force. Yet are enough traces and exceptions in the historical record to suggest that, even if radical doctrines might not have universally appealed, they would have had some appeal, and indeed I think that we can safely speculate that radical doctrines, under other circumstances than those that did hold in fact, would have enjoyed a representation among peoples at that time roughly proportional to that which they enjoy today.

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