Back to Berlin

by John Quiggin on September 5, 2011

So, I finally stumbled across Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows

a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant[1], a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.
Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.

fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.

{ 139 comments }

1

geo 09.05.11 at 2:41 am

our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original

When I first heard of Crooked Timber, but before I had read it, I disliked it for its name. I’d always rejected Berlin’s anti-utopianism, which I assumed was also Kant’s, as expressed in that notorious phrase that Berlin was always quoting. But on pages 232-4 of A Zone of Engagement, Perry Anderson argues persuasively that Berlin got Kant wrong. “Berlin has virtually made of this [i.e., the phrase “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made”] a saw. Here, we are given to understand, is a signal expression of that rejection of all perfectionist utopias which defines a humane pluralism. But what was the actual force of the text from which the sentence is taken?” Kant’s message in The Idea for a Universal History, Anderson counters, “is not the diversity of values, the imperfectibility of institutions, or the contingency of history,” as Berlin’s frequent invocation of the phrase seems to imply. It is, rather, that “social advance has at length reached the point where the task for humanity can be the realization of a civil society under the rule of law, guaranteeing freedom for all. … The collective destiny of humanity, working through the deficiencies of its individual members, reveals what Kant calls ‘the hidden plan of nature to bring into existence an internally and externally perfected political constitution.’ The naturalism and finalism of this vision are at the antipodes of Berlin’s outlook. So far from Kant insisting on the irremediable crookedness of humanity in general, he uses the self-same term — krumm — to describe the kind of timber humanity need not become in a well-ordered civic union, where something straight — gerade — is just what can indeed be made. ‘Only in such an enclosure as civil unification offers can our inclinations achieve their best effects; as trees in a wood which seek to deprive each other of air and sunlight are forced to strive upwards and so achieve a beautiful straight growth; while those that spread their branches at will in isolated freedom grow stunted, tilted and crooked.’ The imagery of the bent and the straight, in other words, tells the opposite story from its proverbialization.”

Kant, it appears, was really a liberal utopian, or a utopian liberal. So now I like him again. And the name “Crooked Timber” too. (I’ve always liked the actual Crooked Timber, of course, at least since I gave in and began to read it.)

2

Sandwichman 09.05.11 at 3:05 am

“A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends…”

It seems to me that “pursuing their own ends” is too ambiguous. What do human beings really need? What do they really want?

The characteristics of a good society (or “feasible utopia”) are typically itemized as abstract nouns such as “justice”, “compassion”, “liberty”, “prosperity” or “security.” But those nominalizations imply a concrete sequence of actions: a narrative. Take, for example, the narrative in Matthew 35-36 from the New Testament:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.


In the biblical passage, the actions (done for “one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”) certify the worthiness of those who perform them for entry into the kingdom of heaven – a metaphor for the good society if ever there was one. The New Testament might thus define a good society as a charitable one in which citizens come to the aid of their needful neighbors, regardless of wealth or status. That society ultimately reflects the moral qualities of its individuals.

Since the Enlightenment, this episodic, individualistic kernel has been supplemented with the idea of secular progress. As a society’s knowledge and productive powers increase, its capacity for doing good also grows. Goodness, then, would translate expanded capacity into action – even to the extent of institutionalizing the prevention of deprivation and distress, rather than relying on personal charity.

So, here we have Christian charity, historicized, secularized and institutionalized into expanding capacity to relieve the suffering of fellow humans. What am I missing?

3

Peter Boothe 09.05.11 at 3:14 am

It seems like the idea of a protopia, where things are imperfect, but getting better bit-by-bit, might be a useful antidote to revolutionary utopianism.

4

dr ngo 09.05.11 at 3:25 am

I grew up in such a protopia. It was called the 1950s. For an American – especially a child, in California – this was exactly the vision. Yes, some things weren’t great, but every year everything got better, and presumably would continue doing so indefinitely. Then along came Sputnik . . .

5

between4walls 09.05.11 at 3:30 am

What makes Berlin think that liberalism can’t be “a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats”? It depends on where you’re starting from- in a system where the machinery isn’t designed to “prevent people from doing each other too much harm,” what Berlin describes might sound utopian.
It seems to me that this anti-utopianism is more Berlin’s personal attitude than an inherent part of the political view he describes.

6

Gene O'Grady 09.05.11 at 4:18 am

I think the citation should be Matt 24, 35-36.

7

Gene O'Grady 09.05.11 at 4:18 am

Proofreading, anyone? That’s Matt. 25, 35-36.

8

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 4:25 am

As the Twentieth Century ought to have taught us, the irrational is not so easily corralled. In fact, equipped with all the latest tools our rational successes have provided for it, it’s become more potent than ever. We hide our disappointment by calling it other, more fashionable names, but in many ways, we more resemble cowled monks crossing themselves as the local lord’s butchers canter by than we do the great optimists of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

Can we still draw our own bestiality into the charmed angelic circle? Ask the guys at Goldman Sachs, or the Pentagon, and they’ll tell you they’re already on it.

9

Sufferin' Succotash 09.05.11 at 4:31 am

@Sandwichman,
“What am I missing?”
A great deal, actually. There was a lot more to the Enlightenment than a mere secularizing of Christian values. In his Enlightenment Contested, Jonathan Israel lists eight major features of what he terms the Radical Enlightenment, the “essence of philosophical modernity”.
–reason “as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true”.
–“rejection of all supernatural agency”.
–“equality of all mankind (racial and sexual”.
–“secular ‘universalism’ in ethics…stressing equity, justice and charity”.
–“comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking”.
–“personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults”.
–“freedom of expression, political criticism,and the press”.
–“democratic republicanism as the only legitimate form of politics”.

It may be belaboring the obvious to restate these values, but frequently the obvious needs to get restated.
BTW, Israel has just brought the third volume of his massive study of the European Enlightenment. I’m currently working my way through all three, in no particular order. It’s already clear that this is a masterpiece of intellectual and cultural history, whether or not one fully accepts his thesis of “moderate” and “radical” Enlightenments. Its relevance to our current concerns is immediate, in fact urgent.

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=jonathan+israel&x=0&y=0

10

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 4:48 am

Geo @ 1

The title of the blog never bother me, but when I first saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of Last Train From Berlin. Wrong Berlin, as it turned out — or was it?

11

Jeff 09.05.11 at 4:56 am

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

This still misses the reason utopian schemes fail. You’re still assuming that it’s merely the implementation that’s always caused these failures. If only the policies were different, it would work. No. The problem is goal itself. An egalitarian society can’t exist.

You can get a reasonable approximation to equality under the law. You will never get equality of resources. Oh, you can achieve it for a while. But then everyone dies. With the pricing system destroyed, no one knows what to produce. Gluts and shortages then overtake the egalitarian dream and it ends in a nightmare. This pattern has repeated itself thousands of times, in statist experiments big and small.

There is no possibility of an egalitarian society. Indeed, egalitarian societies are the nightmare societies of dystopian fiction!

We should scrap the egalitarian fallacy altogether. We should smash the corporatist system. We should institute free markets in their place.

12

john c. halasz 09.05.11 at 5:13 am

“We should institute free markets in their place.”

Er, which is the utopian ideal by which all utopian ideals fail.

13

joel hanes 09.05.11 at 5:38 am

Uh, Jeff ?

Your blazing refutation of the idea that all people should be provided with equal resources has charred only a strawman.

Our suggests that everyone should have “sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends”. Nothing there about equality of resources, only sufficiency.

I suppose if you’re convinced that only great wealth can ever be sufficient, that might seem close to the idea you attacked.

Some people feel capable of pursuing their own ends with quite modest resources.
In my experience, many truly happy people belong to that group.

14

Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.05.11 at 6:08 am

Forgive me if I’ve linked to this before, but I have two posts “introducing” utopian thought and imagination that may be of interest: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/06/utopian-thought-imagination.html
and http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/06/musings-on-utopia-historical-philosophical.html

15

Chris Bertram 09.05.11 at 6:43 am

“Jeff” is obviously posting here in complete ignorance of work in political philosophy over the last 40 years. So, for example, under Ronald Dworkin’s conception of _equality of resources_ , the market and pricing system has a central role to play. Ditto, for that matter in Rawls’s ideal of a property-owning democracy.

(I have critical opinions about both of these approaches, but the idea that egalitarianism and markets are incompatible is really a very idiosyncratic view. Jeff should take the trouble to inform himself better before commenting again.)

16

Chris Bertram 09.05.11 at 6:50 am

To comment on the genealogy of the general idea of a “feasible utopia”, Kant’s immediate inspiration is probably Rousseau, with his project of finding a “rule of administration” that is “legitimate and sure” “taking men as they are and laws as they could be” (Social Contract I.1). This in turn draws on ideas from others including Machiavelli, Vico and Spinoza, who comments at the beginning of the _Political Treatise_ that philosophers often:

bq. . . . conceive of men, not as they are, but as they themselves would like them to be. Whence it has come to pass that, instead of ethics, they have generally written satire, and that they have never conceived of a theory of politics which could be turned to use, but such as might be taken for a chimera, or might have been formed in Utopia, or in that golden age of the poets when, to be sure, there was least need of it.

17

Tim Worstall 09.05.11 at 8:14 am

Putting two points together:

“reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.”

Sorta depends upon what we’re going to define as the boundaries of the society under consideration. My home town? County? Political unit? Nation? Globe?

“The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises,”

At that last level the market liberal model seems to be doing pretty well. The last few decades have seen the biggest reduction in absolute poverty in the history of the species. No, it isn’t just India and China, it’s much more general than that, even in sub-Saharan Africa we’re seeing both poverty reduction and rising Sen welfare.

Of course, it’s possible to say that all of that is nothing to do with market liberal policies….but that sorta implies that we’re not living in an era with market liberal policies really. For there must be some other set of policies being followed which lead to this poverty reduction.

18

bad Jim 09.05.11 at 8:58 am

Moore’s Law, anyone? All the transistors you can use, cheaper all the time. This year? The world wide web in the palm of your hand, just another function of your telephone. Something this simple and obvious makes tyrannies ever less tenable.

Free enterprise puts the device in your hands, but what it provides is crowd sourced, anarchic, chaotic, ungovernable to the extent that it’s immediately useful. It’s hard to see this as other than a good thing.

19

Guido Nius 09.05.11 at 9:26 am

Nice neologism in 3 (‘protopia’).

You can’t eat your utopias and have them too. The problem with utopian ideas isn’t their content but the process they imply: that some things are certainly good, & that therefore the only rational thing is to get them to some extent regardless of anything.

The original intent of those quotes surely supports a centrist view on which what is good will emerge (as a matter of progressive insight, the case of gay rights is a good example). The inspiration of this line of thought is cultural optimism, some kind of anti-fatalism. Sure, people need to act to keep the advances going, but in general it won’t be necessary to act aggressively.

As to the reference that somehow after the 70s things took a wrong turn, I think this is at most defensible from a purely Western point of view. Nevertheless, even from such a purely Western point of view this is highly debatable. If we leave aside all things like gay rights and just remain with Reaganomics, yes, maybe but to simplify 4 decades to economy only is rather one-sided. Also, before the 70s not everything was fantastic – in fact a lot of the current problems governments are facing are not essentially created by low tax neo-liberal mumbo-jumbo but by our collective Western inability to find a modernized political model able to spend on the right things (education et al.) and get policies that work over the long term.

The problem with centrism is not that it tries to work by evolving the centre to the left but that increasingly it is associated with finding the middle ground between lobbying and interest groups (particularly the interests of the already powerful and well off).

20

Tony Lynch 09.05.11 at 9:40 am

Berlin’s is a Liberalism of Fear. I think this is all we have.

21

Phil 09.05.11 at 11:08 am

Peter’s “protopia” is a Kantian idea in itself, I think. I’ve lost the reference (maybe one of the real philosophers can help me out), but I seem to remember that he wrote about the impossibility of imagining the transition from time to eternity – taking Revelation‘s account of the end of the world as his text – and concluded that the only eternity we could conceive of is an unending state of continual progress towards the Good, or words to that effect.

It’s also quite a right-Hegelian idea, but left-Hegelianism only came along later. (And never really caught on in the USA, where the idea of a ruthless critique of all that exists has some serious ancestor-worship to contend with.)

22

BenK 09.05.11 at 11:14 am

The Liberal Motto: “We live in hell, have your fair share!”

Really? That’s pretty bald.

23

Guido Nius 09.05.11 at 11:57 am

Phil@21: this is certainly how I would read Kant but google does not get me the reference so I would be surprised the word has its origin with him. But, maybe serious philosophers can outperform google still?

Anyway, I think Hegelianism of any kind is the root of many evils.

24

ajay 09.05.11 at 12:12 pm

Of course, it’s possible to say that all of that is nothing to do with market liberal policies….but that sorta implies that we’re not living in an era with market liberal policies really

We’re not. Or at least not universally. Certainly not, generally, in the bits of the world that have seen all the reduction in poverty that you (rightly) applaud – take Brazil, India and China for examples. “Abandoning insane Maoist economics” is a very good idea for growth and human welfare, but it’s not the same as “become market liberal” and, for obvious reasons, it’s not an option available to most countries.

The bits of the world that do have market liberal policies, on the other hand, have seen sharp reductions in growth, stagnant wages, and growing inequality, compared to their performance in the less market-liberal decades of the 50s and 60s.

25

philofra 09.05.11 at 12:25 pm

I have thought if there is any chief human endeavor it is about trying to straighten the crooked timber of humankind. So, we know that we will always be busy. But, then, life is not really about the attainment. It is about the struggle and the doing.

26

Matt McIrvin 09.05.11 at 12:54 pm

To repeat what I said in earlier threads: From a US perspective, it seems like the “things started to go to hell around 1970” narrative undervalues civil rights.

It seems to me as if what we’ve seen for the past few decades in US politics is a backlash that began when it became clear that the benefits of progressive government were starting to extend to people who were not white. And things really did continue to get better for them for quite a while–but it only made the backlash more intense. The freakout caused by the election of a black President is only the most obvious recent manifestation.

The good news is that there are huge generational effects; older white Americans are much more resentful and fearful than younger ones, and the most retrograde political trends are driven by older voters. A major reason–not the only one, but impossible to ignore–that the 2010 midterm was so starkly dominated by the Tea Party fringe is that midterm elections, being less publicized than presidential ones, are heavily skewed toward retiree voters.

The question is whether the ramping-down of racial resentment will be accompanied by an increase in pro-labor or social-democratic sentiment. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do think that race is the source of much of the most obvious irrationality.

27

ehj2 09.05.11 at 1:23 pm

As an engineer, I’ve seen the data farms and massive number crunchers of large institutional gambers (did I say “investment banks”?) and I know what really runs things and I know how competitive the war to find 1/100th of a cent in the movement of a stock in something nobody evens knows about because buying or selling a million of them makes a difference.

We should really set the prices of things at a national level, acknowledging the market is “smart” except where it’s “stupid,” certainly allowing people to push numbers up or down based on demand, but allowing for the input of externalities. And things that are social goods should be underpriced. Toothpaste is free. Oil for your car is free.

In a “real time” democracy, people would vote online for issue by issue. “Yes” to gay rights, “No” to ripping off the top of that mountain for one day of electricity.

I doubt we would vote electronically for much more war.

I suspect we would vote for more roads and bridges and painted schools and less pollution and fewer tanks and bombers … more honesty on television … and the whole nonsense of the Presidency would vanish. She’s just the Queen we watch for the wonderful spectacle of it to remind us of how silly we once were.

28

Guido Nius 09.05.11 at 1:35 pm

To some extent it seems natural for older people to be somewhat more conservative, and to have some nostalgia for how things were. Nevertheless, across the West it does seem a lot like older people are really becoming more and more conservative with a vengeance. Might it not be because this is the first generation that outlives their social relevance into all kinds of social isolation? It is not just that they don’t feel at home in a changing world, it is maybe that they feel personally offended by it.

29

ehj2 09.05.11 at 1:51 pm

Free Market philosophy — and it is pretty on the surface — presupposes perfect and liquid information that flows to all potential investors instantly and undistorted. Wow. That doesn’t even work in quantum mechanics, let alone heating up the water molecules for a cup of tea.

Said more clearly (and repeating myself), investment banks have acres of data storage and number crunchers looking to find 1/100th of a cent potential movement in a stock in the next instant.

To be one second ahead of others means millions to them. To know that information one second late means you loose your shirt.

The barrier to entry into what we currently call the free market is that data farm.

(a) Don’t pretend we have a free market.

(b) Don’t pretend we don’t already have a centrally managed economy.

(c) Decide if the centrally managed economy should benefit the few or the many.

30

Myles 09.05.11 at 2:11 pm

I’d always rejected Berlin’s anti-utopianism, which I assumed was also Kant’s, as expressed in that notorious phrase that Berlin was always quoting. But on pages 232-4 of A Zone of Engagement, Perry Anderson argues persuasively that Berlin got Kant wrong. “Berlin has virtually made of this [i.e., the phrase “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made”] a saw.

It’s always rather useful to give allowance to the fact that Isaiah Berlin was a Baltic Russian Jew, and few socio-cultural subgroups in the 20th century have suffered as greatly and gravely from utopianism of all kinds. I have always found the utopianism of people with relatively little to lose to be somewhat distasteful. (Part of the reason I’m not a political utopian is that my family lost everything due precisely to utopianism; it is also the reason I’m a techno-utopian.)

31

John Quiggin 09.05.11 at 2:28 pm

@Matt I agree timing is a bit complicated. Still, as regards race in the US there was dramatic progress from 1940 to 1970, most obviously as regards legal protection of civil rights. The momentum of that has carried on in important respects, even without any further legal advances.

Politically, however, backlash has been dominant since the beginnings of the revolt against affirmative action with the Bakke case in 1978. The addition of Muslims to the hate list, and the anti-immigration movement complete the picture.

Europe followed a different history to a similar endpoint. The politics of the right in nearly all developed countries are dominated or heavily influenced by racism/tribalism.

As you say, the age demographics of racism are encouraging in the US and also, on the whole, in Australia. Rather less so in Europe, I think, though this may just reflect the visibility of violent young racists.

32

Davis X. Machina 09.05.11 at 2:51 pm

…but the idea that egalitarianism and markets are incompatible is really a very idiosyncratic view.

Fits on a bumper sticker though, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

33

Davis X. Machina 09.05.11 at 2:55 pm

In a “real time” democracy, people would vote online for issue by issue. “Yes” to gay rights, “No” to ripping off the top of that mountain for one day of electricity.

A relatively trivial expenditure of money could guarantee the opposite result.

34

Random lurker 09.05.11 at 2:55 pm

“Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left.”

While I can clearly see that leftish utopian revolutions had many horrible umanitarian consequences, I fail to see how “right revolutionary utopianism” is any better.
In fact, the concept of right reolutionary utopianism seems apt only for the worst fascist regimes, which didn’t fare better than leftish ones IMHO.

This reminds me that, when I was little (late seventies), in Italy “antifascism” was still the rage, and people with very right leaning opinions were somehow embarassed to express those opinions in public.
It turns out that it was just a fashion, and now you can find, for example, many Mussolini-themed gadgets in various shops (something that didn’t happen when I was little).

So really that “particularly for the left” seems to me both unwarranted and unnecessary self whipping: one should be able to hold even extreme leftish position whithout other people accusing him/her to be a new Stalin.

35

Lee A. Arnold 09.05.11 at 3:13 pm

No single individual has the attention-span required to consider all things, yet we have to take care of things which are complicated and in danger. This argues for the use of non-market institutions which are tightly targeted on maintaining specific policies. Wildlife ecosystems will not be preserved by the market system, for example. That falsehood was averred by Milton Friedman, but it was never challenged by the left. The total answer is to have a market system while having strong nonmarket institutions that are each targeted on a specific policy, such as ecosystem preservation or retirement security. Then print the money. Some of the current defenses of the market system are ridiculous. One of the worst debilities it causes is in basic scientific research. We like to think we’re doing well but we could be doing a lot better if young minds weren’t diverted into careers that the market deems more “useful” because they pay a little better than basic R&D. This is another subject that Uncle Miltie waffled on. Shoot yourself in the foot why don’t you.

36

J. Otto Pohl 09.05.11 at 3:32 pm

Muslims were not added after 1978. Anti-Arab hatred and the accompanying false assumption that all Arabs are Muslims was well established in the US before 1978. In fact Arab Americans are the one group of people that have gone from being White to non-White in the US since 1948. I would add that in the early years of this process it was the left including self-identified socialists, leftists, and above all liberal NY Democrats who were most active in dehumanizing Arabs. Conservatives such as D. Eisenhower opposed Israeli aggression in 1956. Liberal Democrats in the US Congress in contrast have given Israel unconditional support and adopted its racist and bigoted world views. An outlook which the liberal media and Hollywood have been happy to spread.

37

mw 09.05.11 at 3:53 pm

It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights).

What IS it with the 70’s nostalgia? I guess I should be susceptible, too, because I was in high school then, but man, I’d love to be able to win this argument by sending people back to live in the early 70’s until they begged for mercy (and I don’t think it would take long). It makes me shudder to think of it — the food, the clothes, the cars, the entertainment options. Hey, everybody, Gone With The Wind is going to be on TV! Drop everything! I mean seriously, we were so starved for amusement that almost half the households in the ‘effing country tuned in. Times Square was a porn-filled dump and the city itself teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Mao was in power and the Cultural Revolution was still winding down) Nixon, Kent State, Watergate, the Manson family, the fall of Saigon, the oil embargo, stagflation…oh, yes it was a fine time.

The cultural, social, and technological progress since then has been monumental, and it is remarkable how almost none of it is reserved for ‘the top 1 percent’ — or 10, 25% or even 50%. All of the modern technological marvels are affordable to all but the poorest. Would you really be surprised to find a family living in a blue-collar neighborhood in the U.S. now has air-conditioning, a washer and dryer, and a dishwasher? Mobile phones, a flat-screen TV, cable, a computer with internet, a car or two, digital cameras, GPS, etc? Would you be surprised to hear they had flown to Mexico for vacation? Does any of that sound like blue-collar life circa 1973?

And it’s not just gay rights, but increases in social tolerance of various kinds (interracial marriage and dating, for example, and the end to out-of-wedlock pregnancies being a source of terrible shame). And how would you like to go back to the early 70s for a heart bypass or knee surgery? If I got sent back in a time machine, I’d quick go take in a few concerts and then get the hell out as fast as possible. As somebody who is old enough to remember the early and mid 70s pretty well, the idea that it represented some kind of high-point and that it’s been mostly downhill ever since is just…nuts.

38

geo 09.05.11 at 4:04 pm

Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left

I know it’s tiresome, but maybe we should insist on reminding everyone every time the words come up that “left” or “socialist” means “democratic plus egalitarian.” By that criterion, Stalin and Mao were not leftists, even if they and all their right-wing opponents agreed to call them leftists. And of course, there’s a good reason they agreed to do that: it suited Leninists and Maoists to borrow the prestige of the socialist ideal, to which many honorable people throughout the world subscribed; and it suited their right-wing opponents to identify those hideous regimes with socialism, in order to discredit the socialist ideal, which they abhorred.

The question is whether there can be a radical democratic utopia. Stalinism and Maoism simply do not bear on that question.

39

philofra 09.05.11 at 4:12 pm

The free market offers the best mechanisms for trying to straighten the crooked timber of humanity. The free market encourages a dual, collective approach to it through competition and cooperation, where you have a free flow of ideas and the best bubble to the top.

With the utopian approach competition is discouraged and cooperation is highlighted. In the long run no good comes without competition. Competition is a more natural instinct. Cooperation is more a cultivated one. Competition first, then cooperation.

That’s what has made capitalist, free market societies more successful, because they have cleverly drawn on the two instincts. The combination of the two instincts has created our systems and networks of survival and continuance.

This is what the ‘Arab Spring’ movement is all about, finally coming to point of creating these networks and systems for themselves. Talk about crooked timber. That world has been far too crooked for far too long.

40

Anarcissie 09.05.11 at 4:13 pm

Liberal capitalism, whether or not adorned by social welfare programs, is a species of revolutionary utopianism, and it has done very, very well for some people.

41

J. Otto Pohl 09.05.11 at 4:19 pm

How was the Soviet Union not socialist? Socialism means state control of the means of production, not democratic rule. At any rate I do not like democracy much more than I like Stalinism or Maoism. All these ideologies tend to completely ignore human rights, individual freedom and tolerance of unpopular minorities. I noticed that Human Rights Watch just reported that the new democratic government of Libya is busy arbitrarily arresting and maltreating Black people in that country on a massive scale. A utopian democracy would be I imagine where a 51% ethnic majority of a country made itself very wealthy in an egalitarian manner by expropriating all the wealth from the remaining 49%. Israel comes close to this democratic utopia. But, I would hate to see the US become a state where only the White Christian majority had any civil rights. Because ultimately that is what democracy taken to logical conclusion leads to. Far better to have a limited republic or even constitutional monarchy.

42

Yarrow 09.05.11 at 4:40 pm

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

Or, more briefly, “Real freedom for all.” Of course, to be convincing about the and resources part, that slogan has to incorporate by reference Jerry Cohen’s “Freedom and Money” (available in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy), which is dedicated to Berlin and argues (against him) that lack of money is (one kind of) lack of freedom, even in the sense of freedom as freedom from interference.

43

geo 09.05.11 at 4:44 pm

Otto: Socialism means state control of the means of production, not democratic rule

Well, not to Marx, Mill, Morris, Bellamy, Russell, Cole, Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Debs, Bourne, Orwell, Silone, Macdonald, Harrington, Howe, the Guild Socialists, the council communists, the Democratic Socialists of America, or me.

44

J. Otto Pohl 09.05.11 at 4:53 pm

I am pretty sure that despite criticizing Lenin that Luxembourg did not deny that the Bolsheviks had led a socialist revolution. So I do not think we can count her as claiming that the USSR was not socialist. Marx died before 1917, but his dictatorship of the proletariat and collective ownership of the means of production are not usually what people point to when they refer to Leninist innovations. Rather having a dictatorship of the proletariat in a country without a proletariat was Lenin’s novel idea. As for the rest I would like to see the quotations where they say the USSR was not socialist because it was not democratic. Socialism is an economic system. It might be possible to have democratic socialism. But, the actually existing socialist states were dictatorships. Just as many capitalist states such as Chile, South Korea, and others were. If some nut ball libertarian claimed that they were not really capitalist because they were not democratic he would be laughed off of Crooked Timber. But, the word socialist seems to have magic rather than just descriptive powers for people here.

45

Lee A. Arnold 09.05.11 at 4:54 pm

Philofra #39: “Competition is a more natural instinct. Cooperation is more a cultivated one.”

I would guess that it is exactly the reverse. In almost all preliterate societies studied by ethnologists, competition was confined to highly artificial circumstances such as ritual games, like the potlatch. In all small-scale systems, cooperation is the order. Elinor Ostrom is a good starting point.

46

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 4:55 pm

J Otto Pohl @ 41

Yes, there’s no doubt that a democracy, especially one in which demagogues of one kind or another are successfully at work, can be intimidating, even dangerous, to any sort of minority — ethnic, religious, intellectual…. De Tocqueville, the most appealing to me of the early 19th century political observers, worried about this; so somewhat later in the century, when the chickens were finally beginning to come home to roost in significant numbers, did J.S. Mill.

The problem I see in the counterproposal you’ve advanced is unfortunately still with us, is with us with a particular vengeance, I would say. If, for the sake of control over our baser passions, you structure society as a pyramid, you have to periodically invert it and turn it into a funnel — otherwise it ossifies, and it does so whether there’s a parliament, a king, a pope, or a politburo and general secretary at the top.

We’ve yet to come up with an idea of society that is stable, respectful of minority rights, yet remains truly permeable at the top. Fears of chaos and issues of control always win the existential argument. What we know now, of course, is that the control is as likely as not to be illusory, and the hoi polloi will be served in the end — one way or another.

47

Chris Bertram 09.05.11 at 4:56 pm

Without wishing to be pedantic, J. Otto Pohl, neither Lenin nor Luxemburg believed that the USSR in their lifetimes was socialist. Hence (among other things) the subsequent dispute between Trotsky and Stalin about whether it was going to be possible to build socialism in one country, which wouldn’t have been an argument it was possible to have if socialism already existed.

48

JP Stormcrow 09.05.11 at 5:00 pm

mw@37: Thanks for giving voice to something that has been irking me here (and other places on the ‘net) in the discussions about how bad everything is these days. Or for instance when ozone levels in LA would routinely exceed 300 or 400 ppb.

However, to the point about protopia (and dr ngo’s invocation of ’50 California), the “arrow” had certainly been pointing “up” for several decades prior (and for almost any significant class of people you could name). That is the most salient point in my personal experience that distinguishes my youth/early adulthood from that of my kids–the sense of opportunity and that “things” were improving*.

49

LFC 09.05.11 at 5:16 pm

J. Otto Pohl:
As for the rest I would like to see the quotations where they say the USSR was not socialist

One of many possible exs:
Michael Harrington, Socialism (Saturday Review Press, 1972), p.152:
In the Russian Revolution, “Russia jumped from feudalism to anti-socialist ‘socialism’.”

50

jSheb 09.05.11 at 5:18 pm

Simple solution really, every so often, simply cull the herd, take the top 1% and off with their heads! ;)

That said, as one of those worthless top 2% (US only), I suggest that my fellow overpaid should band together and redistribute some down to the bottom 98, and quick-like, before they do it for us. 98:2 are bad odds. Otherwise, and sooner, rather than later, they will realize there’s just a few of us and then it really will be, “Off with their heads!!!”

51

Simon 09.05.11 at 5:21 pm

@TonyLynch

I think a liberalism of fear is not such a bad thing. Some of the most recent work elucidating the neural substrates of political affiliations indicates that those on the left are much more sensitive to fairness and cooperation as a result of more active empathy modules (mirror neurons etc), while those on the right value order much more highly due to hypertrophied amygdalas (responsible for fear). Social scientist Jonathan Haidt’s work echoes these findings as well. I gather, from this, that people of all political affiliations would be wise to see that the way they see the world is ultimately dependent in many ways upon emotional, non-rational sentiments, and to try and consciously moderate these passionate sentiments in order to achieve balance. Thus, those on the left could benefit from being more cautious, in order to gain a more realistic view of what is achievable.

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Simon 09.05.11 at 5:28 pm

I will add that revolutionary utopianism seems to fail because human mortality will always place a limit on how free we can become and how far we can escape from the apparently absurdity (in the existential sense) of human existence. The ability to live quiet lives with material well being (food, healthcare etc) seems to be the most we can possibly hope for, and some form of social democratic capitalism the only end.

53

Hidari 09.05.11 at 5:33 pm

‘ Would you really be surprised to find a family living in a blue-collar neighborhood in the U.S. (that) now has air-conditioning, a washer and dryer, and a dishwasher? Mobile phones, a flat-screen TV, cable, a computer with internet, a car or two, digital cameras, GPS, etc? Would you be surprised to hear they had flown to Mexico for vacation? ‘

Yes.

54

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.05.11 at 5:38 pm

In the Soviet Russia you don’t see the quotations; in the Soviet Russia quotations see you.

55

ovaut 09.05.11 at 5:43 pm

as i said on twitter, once, every utopia is a vision of exclusion

56

geo 09.05.11 at 5:44 pm

Otto, Luxemburg died in 1919, before very much was clear about the Bolshevik Revolution. I don’t know whether she ever pronounced the words: “The Russian Revolution is not a socialist revolution”; but she did make it very clear that she thought a one-party state of the kind Lenin seemed to be building was a travesty of socialism as she understood it.

Let’s not get overly exercised about words rather than things. To those who first conceived it, “socialism” meant the extension of democratic control or popular sovereignty over all of social life, including the economy. It did not mean the control of the economy by an unaccountable state bureaucracy. It came to mean that in most political discourse, because it suited both the large antagonists, Communists and anti-Communists, to identify “socialism” with the Soviet Union. But there has always been a minority who have tried to keep the original ideal alive and criticized both capitalism and party dictatorship.

57

Bruce Wilder 09.05.11 at 5:47 pm

@37

One thing about the 1970s: you could trust your phone bill and your bank statement to be accurate. And, while it is true we didn’t have knee replacements back then, medical bankruptcy wasn’t commonplace, either. And, policymakers in Washington feared the political consequences of an unemployment rate about 7%.

58

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.05.11 at 6:12 pm

…easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today…

They are moving forward, moving backwards, moving sideways. In the long run always in the right direction. Of course in the long run we are all dead.

59

Phil 09.05.11 at 6:33 pm

I wasn’t suggesting that ‘protopia’ was Kant’s coinage, just that the idea of replacing a static utopia with a vision of endless continual improvement was Kantian – although not because a static utopia is undesirable or even impossible, but on the more interesting grounds that it’s unthinkable. (Come to think of it, is it in “Perpetual Peace”?)

60

John Quiggin 09.05.11 at 6:38 pm

To restate a point that’s been made tiresomely often, but seems to need endless repetition, you need to look at relative price changes before using possession of consumer durables as a measure of how well people are doing.

Everything you mention has got cheaper, relative to the CPI, while health care, college education and other items have got dearer. So, it’s access to these items that needs to be looked at, and the outcomes are mixed at best, especially for those in the bottom half of the income distribution. It’s certainly harder for a working class kid to make it into an Ivy League or even flagship state school now than it was then (they haven’t expanded in line with population growth and the class bias of the intake has increased).

By contrast, during the postwar boom, there were steady improvements in all these dimensions, along with declining hours of work.

61

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 7:01 pm

geo @ 56

Bravo! Deny it as often as we like, there is a moral dimension to all of this scuffling. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need is one way of putting it, the greatest good for the greatest number is another. As friends of socialism, if not necessarily allies in its particular, concrete, historical manifestations, what we want is clear enough. How we get it is much less clear. Even if the vanguard of the revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the moral arc of the universe have all failed us, in no way do such historical non-sequiturs mean that we should slink away with our tail between our legs.

62

SamChevre 09.05.11 at 7:16 pm

you need to look at relative price changes before using possession of consumer durables as a measure of how well people are doing.

I really do not believe this. If you want to look at poverty, yes, certainly. But to look at quality of life, I don’t think so. Having air conditioning makes me more comfortable; even if it cost a penny a year, I would be better off with A/C than without.

63

Simon 09.05.11 at 7:25 pm

@ 61

I think the “from each according…” phrase is precisely what needs to be discarded. For the plurality of needs, desires, and capabilities makes coming to this point dependent upon knowledge that it would be impossible for any government system to consolidate. I would approach left politics now from a pragmatic perspective, with “programs before philosophy” as Rorty has put it. Good healthcare, adequate nutrition, housing, shelter etc. Vague sentiments are precisely what led to many horrors of leftist politics in the 20th century.

64

Simon 09.05.11 at 7:33 pm

My criticism could perhaps be seen as a derivative of Hayek’s for social justice, although I certainly do not share his scorn for the concept as a communicative device.

65

M 09.05.11 at 7:54 pm

“Ironically” – by lights of the current rubric, anyway, not by their own self-conception, which was of course anti-utopian – state socialist regimes, while not in any way immanetizing the eschaton or Establishing Utopia, had very significant incrementalist accomplishments. This has been thoroughly excised from the public consciousness because We All Know That Communism Doesn’t Work.

Of course George is entirely right when he notes that whatever they were, these weren’t instances of workers controlling the means of production (though they were certainly democratizing in other ways – gender relations, for instance, or that egalitarianism even conservatives love, “equality of opportunity.”) But I don’t see what we could possibly gain from resolving what words such as “socialism” or “left” really, aside from what particular people mean when they say them.

Or for the bumper sticker version: surely Pannekoek is the utopian and Lenin the anti-utopian, regardless of whether you want to signal your allegiance with utopias or against them.

66

M 09.05.11 at 7:56 pm

The italicized “really” above ought have preceded a “mean,” if that wasn’t already obvious; mea culpa.

67

geo 09.05.11 at 8:00 pm

WT: the vanguard of the revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the moral arc of the universe have all failed us

Especially the moral arc of the universe, which has distinctly fallen down on the job in recent millennia, if you ask me.

68

mw 09.05.11 at 8:10 pm

@60

Everything you mention has got cheaper, relative to the CPI, while health care, college education and other items have got dearer.

Yes — but healthcare, at least, has gotten much better — higher-education has just gotten a lot more expensive without any apparent improvement in quality (which is odd — wouldn’t you think the big increase in administrative staff would have produced all sorts of wonderful things?)

It’s certainly harder for a working class kid to make it into an Ivy League or even flagship state school now than it was then.

But why focus on the elite institutions? The percentage of students attending either Ivies or elite state schools compared to all of higher-ed was never very large (nor, by definition, could it be–otherwise they wouldn’t be elite). But if you look at the big picture, access to higher education has expanded significantly in the U.S. — for example, according to this in 1970, only 10% of U.S. adults had college degrees, whereas now it’s 27% — that’s a pretty dramatic change.

@57

And, policymakers in Washington feared the political consequences of an unemployment rate about 7%.

They don’t now? I think Obama is a little afraid of what the current unemployment rate is going to mean next year. But the 1970s weren’t notable for low unemployment. Remember the ‘misery index’ (it was kind of a big deal back in the day)? High unemployment AND high inflation — it was pretty ugly during the 70s:

http://www.miseryindex.us/customindexbyyear.asp

69

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.05.11 at 8:15 pm

For the plurality of needs, desires, and capabilities makes coming to this point dependent upon knowledge that it would be impossible for any government system to consolidate.

But most of the needs, desires, and (arguably) abilities are shaped by the social environment. Who in their right mind would need something like a pet rock? Why have the ability to sell? So, perhaps this ‘government system’ (if we call it that) wouldn’t need to know, but rather to form.

70

Simon 09.05.11 at 8:30 pm

@ 67 While I agree with the pet rock, I’d suggest that your statement sounds disturbingly totalitarian.

71

john c. halasz 09.05.11 at 8:31 pm

@61:

“I think the “from each according…” phrase is precisely what needs to be discarded”

Why? It indicates precisely the a self-determined and pluralistic relation between needs and capacities that you apparently decry it for ignoring.

72

Simon 09.05.11 at 8:33 pm

Well, maybe not totalitarian. But…the government does indeed play a role in shaping needs, as you suggest, yet trying to shape and fulfill those needs actively is a whole ‘nother matter
.

73

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.05.11 at 8:44 pm

Okay, another example: ancient Romans had needs and desires to watch gladiator fights, and people being eaten by lions. We don’t. Is that a loss?

74

william u. 09.05.11 at 8:47 pm

Otto is giving the textbook definition of “socialism.” I think this definition issued from slippage between socialist means and end.

For the socialist end I rather like what John wrote in the OP: “‘giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.” Although perhaps you prefer a more communistic end: “from each according to his ability..”

Collective appropriate of the means of production and planning was proposed as the means to the socialist end. Linking these was the critique of the ills of capitalism (alienation, the anarchy of market exchange, commodity fetishism, and the rest of the package.)

Most of us would agree that economic planning failed (pace a few dissenters, e.g. Cockshott and Cottrell.) Keynesianism brought us out of the “tunnel of scarcity,” but never tamed class struggle. Its closest approach to capitalist euthanasia, Sweden’s Meidner Plan, failed for political reasons:

http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/1999/1999-January/001160.html

75

geo 09.05.11 at 8:47 pm

Simon, who are you calling a pet rock?

76

Simon 09.05.11 at 8:59 pm

@ Geo: lol

Henri, a good point indeed.

@ John H. The problem I have with “to each according…” is that it is insufficiently normative. What kind of institutions will get us there while respecting the plurality inherent in what we are striving for.

77

philofra 09.05.11 at 9:20 pm

Isaiah Berlin interpreted Kant’s crooked timber of humanity as an admonition against dogmatism and perfection. No doubt he was thinking about totalitarian regimes like communism when he thought of that.

78

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 9:29 pm

Supplying pet rocks to all who desire them sounds to me like a perfect example of Brecht’s gerechte Verteilung der überirdischen Güter. We must be more careful what we wish for.

79

Simon 09.05.11 at 9:57 pm

I would also add that from a PR perspective left thought would be best to get as far away from Marx as possible (whether this is justified or not is a whole different matter). Thus another reason to discard the phrase.

80

JP Stormcrow 09.05.11 at 10:06 pm

I would also add that from a PR perspective left thought would be best to get as far away from Marx as possible

Actually, pet rocks are unconditional in their love.

81

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 10:09 pm

And we all know, do we, that the PR perspective should govern? We imbibe this wisdom with our mother’s milk, therefore it must be so? Seriously, you can’t have an argument if you don’t have a genuine antithesis to set in motion against the ruling ideology’s thesis. Must we leave all the definitions to Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, and let go any attempt of our own to frame things as we see them? Or are you saying that we’ll get where we want to go a lot faster if we lie about frame more effectively what we really think?

82

William Timberman 09.05.11 at 10:16 pm

Sorry, Simon, that last was a bit unfair. I’m just feeling a bit beset by marketing experts these days, not to mention politicians who think saying nothing at all is the short route to Valhalla. Not your fault at all.

83

john c. halasz 09.05.11 at 10:21 pm

Simon @76:

I have no idea what you mean by “insufficiently normative”, unless you’re demanding a Rawls-type prescriptive theory. The general normative guide-line here is basically Aristotelian: productive or fruitful self-activity which exercises and develops one’s capacities is the hallmark of the good life. (Marx was fluent in English, so he obviously chose the translation, but “Arbeitsvermoegen” means “power” in the now slightly old-fashioned sense of an ability to do something, “capacity” being a more current translation, not “power” as “Macht” or “Herrschaft”, which echoes Aristotle’s conception of virtue as a “hexis”, a disposition or potential). It’s that idea of developed capacity that gets alienated with the commodification of labor, which is to be eventually undone. Hence Marx’ basic conception of freedom has an inherently normative content and is self-limiting in its “nature”, even if that norm is expressed in the negative form of “alienation”, though it’s neither a “negative” nor a “positive” conception of “liberty”. It rather amounts to a basic human drive that is constant regardless of the varying forms of “second nature” that societies might generate or impose and regardless of how it might be suppressed or miscarried.

As to the basic institutional forms that would take hold, that is an open and “experimental” question, depending in part on the levels of resource constraints (and their operative distributions) at any given time, rather than something to be prescribed based on currently societal arrangements. (Though obviously it is a basic impossibility with severe resource constraints and material scarcities). But public deliberative processes would surely be part of the institutional set-up to decide the particulars at any given stage, which, to the extent that resource constraints are still a key factor, would attempt to assure the maximal say at local levels where individuals are most directly affected and organize more aggregated and hierarchical decision-making processes through delegation. But the free development of each and all is not somehow an unbounded process and some individual claims would be curtailed in the “interests” of the majority and the public good. And, of course, such a process could never be instituted merely through an enumeration of “rights” without the exercise of power in the other sense.

All human action is directly or indirectly interaction, with the effects of acts imposing on others and vice versa, which cross-implication generates constraining social structures. But then human agency itself is an “effect” of the structuring of implicit rules, just as natural language is, and the constraints imposed by the operation of those implicit rules is not just limiting, but constitutive as well. I.e. the limiting conditions and the conditions of possibility are flip-sides of the same coin. Hence it’s not really a matter of “maximizing” individual freedom, as the liberals would have it, without any specific content to the notion of “freedom” other than the more-or-less arbitrary sense of first-person facticity, but rather of optimizing socialized human agency.

84

Simon 09.05.11 at 11:01 pm

I get what your saying, I think. But if you are intending to build up a grassroots movement to achieve the institutions you mention, I would suggest less obfuscatory writing :).

Aristotelian virtue ethics is appealing to me for many reasons, but, perhaps just because I have a pessimistic (and in many ways thus a conservative temperament) , I’ve always felt that the existential absurdity of the human condition, especially in light of Darwin, puts a great limit on what can be considered “productive /fruitful” activity. Productive to what end? Fruitful to what end? It seems that a purely secular view, and I certainly take one, it will be very hard (I say impossible) for humans to really ever achieve the satisfaction you speak of, regardless of the political or economic system. Given that religious ideologies seem to be something hindering the brining about of the more virtuous system you speak of, this puts us, I think, in quite a bind.

85

Simon 09.05.11 at 11:14 pm

I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that my Aristotelian optimism/pessimism scale is off and I need to bring it back to the mean. Or do you think what I’m saying has any credence? Cheers, Simon

86

Daniel De Groot 09.06.11 at 12:57 am

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

Alan Wolfe has a definition of liberalism I really like: “”As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” He highlights the importance of the concept of “autonomy” which is more than merely the absence of external constraints (ie “liberty”), but includes the positive means to make use of that freedom. A homeless person is as “free” as a millionaire, but only the latter has the autonomy to pursue goals (at least goals richer than “sleep somewhere dry”).

More here.

87

Simon 09.06.11 at 1:22 am

I think that makes a lot of sense. Some libertarians tend to place a priority on negative liberty, but that is free available in a wilderness, so it’s obviously something else at play. I’m still curious what John has to say about my last post though!

Simon

88

Sev 09.06.11 at 1:29 am

“Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left.”

Well, awright, but next time we gonna do it gooder!

http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/first-we-take-manhattan-lyrics-leonard-cohen/926ccb64249f308848256af00028cb85

89

Joshua Cullick 09.06.11 at 2:03 am

Simon:

[…] puts a great limit on what can be considered productive/ fruitful activity. Productive to what end? Fruitful to what end? It seems that a purely secular view, and I certainly take one, it will be very hard (I say impossible) for humans to really ever achieve the satisfaction you speak of, regardless of the political or economic system.

That’s trying to take the rational utilitarianism all the way down to the heart of it. Ends are justified aesthetically (moral judgement being a subset of aesthetic judgement) ,though they may– and for practical purposes must– be described and tabulated operationally/scientifically, as means generally are.

(corresponding somewhat to the immanence/concept vs reference/fuction relationship in Deleuze&Guattari, through which they differentiate philosophy (and art, in a triad) from science, very precisely defined.)

Any satisfaction gleaned would be that of a creator: self-actualisation etc.

It might be helpful during such exercises to replace the Utopia with a Utopia. In the first case we have some metaphysically immutable optimum to which humanity must strive; such conceptions often highly flawed intrinsically: eg the frictionless painless world. In the second case there is generated a field of existential possibilities, (containing multiple possible ‘Utopias’): realistically obtainable possible worlds, from which a selection takes place. Thus replacing a metaphysical ethical compulsion with desire and atomic function of choice. The Utopia as master and god, vs a utopia, freely generated, chosen, and desired. The selection itself is (at heart) arbitrary, whimsical, purely aesthetic, a-rational. It couldn’t be anything else. (Unless you are Kant or Hegel, then maybe you would try to demonstrate otherwise. I’m more with Spinoza on that angle.)

Digressively, I’ve often thought Liberals tend to lose because we’ve had a tendency (compulsion) to take our precious rationality all the way down, to some metaphysical ethically a priori ethical right at the heart of the universe (Kant and Hegel). Correspondingly tending to reject taking responsibility for (and having pride in) that essentially creative will-to-power (soft and cuddly Deleuzian sense), which recognises often irremediable differences with opponents. At the heart, beneath the operational tabulations of rational political economy and ethics lies something which can’t itself be justified operationally/rationally. From a rational perspective it’s arbitrary, but from a conceptual or aesthetic perspective it’s consistent and sensible. At any rate, it implies and indicates not dispassionate reasoning and mediation, but strife, which for Heraclitus was justice itself, (but he was crazy so ymmv). The dispassionate reasoning and mediation comes at a later –operationalising– stage (“The rest is details.”).

90

Guido Nius 09.06.11 at 7:04 am

59: FWIW, I think you’re right.

91

Tim Worstall 09.06.11 at 8:05 am

“Everything you mention has got cheaper, relative to the CPI, while health care, college education and other items have got dearer. So, it’s access to these items that needs to be looked at, and the outcomes are mixed at best, especially for those in the bottom half of the income distribution.”

Well, yes John, but as you yourself are wont to point out, this is Baumol’s Cost Disease in action. Services will become more expensive relative to manufactures as real wages rise. It’s nothing at all to do with whether we’re in a neo-liberal dystopia or a social democratic paradise, it’s a simple result of the fact that labour productivity is easier to improve in manufacturing than it is in services provision.

We could even go so far as to say that precisely the evidence that services have become more expensive than manufactures is proof perfect that real wages have risen (wouldn’t want to have to prove it mind, but that certainly is the implication).

92

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.06.11 at 8:30 am

You need to watch this famous Elizabeth Warren’s presentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A

93

J. Otto Pohl 09.06.11 at 9:06 am

Okay if most people here do not think the USSR was a socialist state of some type then I can only conclude that they are totally divorced from reality. If it was not socialist what was it? It was not capitalist, not even state capitalist. Nor was it feudalist. It represented the most successful experiment in large scale centrally planned economy and collective ownership of the means of production ever. Granted this success had a massive cost in human lives. A cost I would argue that was not justified by the positive results brought about in improved standards of living, almost complete elimination of illiteracy, establishment of near universal basic health care, and other benefits. But, realistically the USSR under Brezhnev is about as good as it gets or can get under socialism. Most other attempts in China under Mao, Cambodia under Pol Pot, or Ethiopia under Mengistu were a lot more miserable. Cuba did a fairly good job in improving things like education and health care, but the material standard of living always remained substantially lower than in the USSR.

94

John Quiggin 09.06.11 at 10:17 am

Tim, I’m not saying it’s bad that relative prices have changed. I’m saying that you can’t refute evidence of stagnant or declining real incomes by pointing to the fact that people now have more of things that have become cheaper.

95

The Raven 09.06.11 at 11:11 am

“If [the USSR] was not socialist what was it?”

A failure. We corvids fed well.

It seems to me that the insights of Keynesian economics, which imply that “a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment” is necessary to “giving all human beings […] sufficient room and resources to pursue their own […] ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends,” (in a society in which industrialism is the primary method of production) suggest that a moderate socialism is part of a solution to John’s problem.

There is a caution: hominids are not going to be able to maintain their current form of production in the face of its externalities and their own growing population. As the anarchists of the 1960s tried to achieve, a system of production that is both more humane and kinder to the earth is needed.

Historically, industrial capitalism has defeated agrarian socialism everywhere in the world, in both war and peace: it was both more capable of winning wars and better at satisfying human needs in peace. This hypothetical new system will, if it can exist and is allowed to come into being, will likewise be more successful than industrial capitalism. Hominids face a huge challenge: a sustainable society cannot last on the same planet with an unsustainable one. It is not going to be sufficient to defeat industrial capitalism: it must be transformed, and quickly.

I think I might set a name to this new system. Information socialism, maybe?

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The Raven 09.06.11 at 11:16 am

John, forget health care and college education: look at food, clothing, and housing.

One needs to look at income distribution to see the effects of current wages and prices: looking at averages alone leaves one prey to the “Bill Gates in a bar” (on average everyone in a bar that includes Bill Gates is a millionaire) fallacy. A great many people in the USA now cannot afford food and housing and many more have had to reduce their consumption of both.

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Simon 09.06.11 at 1:34 pm

@ J. Cullick,

Although I understand what you’re saying , I must say that from a disinterested perspective you’re passage would fully justify the perspective that liberals have their heads totally in the clouds. What is the concrete relation between what you speak of and actually existing problems in the world today? We must take action not in a seminar room but in reality, where the work of the writers you name doesn’t help us.

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Tim Worstall 09.06.11 at 1:35 pm

“A great many people in the USA now cannot afford food and housing and many more have had to reduce their consumption of both.”

Eh? A great many cannot afford the housing they bought in a leveraged deal a few years back, true, but the implication of what you’re saying there is that falling house prices are a just great idea as more Americans will be able to afford more housing.

Is that what you want to say?

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Simon 09.06.11 at 1:49 pm

Another thing guys: what about the rest of the world? Things are surely getting worse for America, as John has noted. But the successes of the market (and its not, as many have pointed out) a free market, have brought billions out of poverty. What about them? Now surely their working conditions are sub-optimal, and from the liberal perspective mentioned above (“having a say in their life”) the system is found wanting. Yet if our aim is to give choices to the world’s poor, ought we not milk our current system a bit further (provided adequate controls are put in place to control for environmental externalities?)

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Simon 09.06.11 at 2:17 pm

@J Cullick.

Sorry if I came off as snarky btw. Not intended. Your point about moral judgments being a type of aesthetic judgments was particularly interesting!

101

The Raven 09.06.11 at 3:18 pm

Tim, are you arguing for re-inflating the housing bubble? That is hardly a libertarian, or even neo-liberal, position. (If you argue there was no housing bubble, I will treat you with the same respect I treat climate change denialists.)

Beyond that, many people have become simply homeless. The fall in wages has made many more unable to afford pre-bubble housing prices.

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John Quiggin 09.06.11 at 4:00 pm

As I’ve argued in the past, I don’t see the successes of development, most notably in East Asia, as telling us anything of relevance to disputes between social democrats and market liberals. These successes have taken place with a range of interventions (from near zero in the case of Hong Kong to very extensive in cases like China) substantially broader than the range observed in the Western developed countries over their entire history.

You can certainly use these examples, and the contrast with the overall performance of central planning, to conclude that comprehensive central planning should not be part of any feasible utopia. That’s important, but doesn’t impose much of a constraint.

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geo 09.06.11 at 4:50 pm

Come on, Otto (@93), you sound like you haven’t even read my attempt at an explanation @56. Yes, most people in the 20th century called the USSR “socialist”; and yes, as M points out @65, the meaning of a word is not a metaphysical essence distinct from how people actually use it. Fine. Understood. All I’ve been saying is that the word originally meant something quite different from what the USSR turned out (or even started out) to be. It meant, to quote #56, “the extension of democratic control or popular sovereignty over all of social life, including the economy. It did not mean the control of the economy by an unaccountable state bureaucracy.” The USSR was, as you say, a centrally planned economy, but it was most certainly not, as you also say, an example of “collective ownership of the means of production.” The means of production were owned by the Communist Party, which was entirely unaccountable to the citizens. If you want a name for what the Soviet Union was, “one-party dictatorship” or “pseudo-socialism” would be accurate. Or you can call it “socialism with an asterisk,” as long as you explain that it was a blatant travesty of the original socialist ideal, which remains a live and untested political option. What you shouldn’t do is, like most people in the twentieth century (generally for the reasons I mentioned @56), call it “socialism” tout court, thus implying that the original ideal has been tried and found wanting.

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OCS 09.06.11 at 4:56 pm

#37
What IS it with the 70’s nostalgia? I guess I should be susceptible, too, because I was in high school then, but man, I’d love to be able to win this argument by sending people back to live in the early 70’s until they begged for mercy (and I don’t think it would take long). It makes me shudder to think of it—the food, the clothes, the cars, the entertainment options. Hey, everybody, Gone With The Wind is going to be on TV!

And don’t forget the hair!

But honestly, it’s not about nostalgia for TV or lifestyle or Pong or phones wired permanently into the wall (or racism or sexism, for that matter). Instead, in hindsight we can see that there were some very basic things still going right, or maybe just starting to go wrong. Middle class incomes were rising, not stagnant. Unions were still relatively strong. Despite cynicism, I think the default assumption was that government was a useful institution that we could use to improve our lives and society, rather than some sort of alien interloper that had to be dismantled so that markets could run free.

I grew up in the 70s as well, and it didn’t seem like a paradise. Looking back at the 50s, they seemed even worse — worse hair, worse clothes (that’s what I thought then, anyway), worse TV.

But as a disappointed progressive I now look back at those years as a high water mark, when people like me assumed that despite problems, things would just get better and better. Instead we have a stagnant middle class, worsening poverty, a weakening safety net, and greater insecurity. My smart phone just doesn’t make up for that.

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Hidari 09.06.11 at 8:38 pm

‘But the successes of the market….have brought billions out of poverty. ‘

Of course, this begs the question of why so many people in China, India etc.were in poverty in the first place.

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Simon 09.06.11 at 8:52 pm

Nonetheless.

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Hidari 09.06.11 at 9:16 pm

So you think that your case is still as strong, Simon, once you implicitly admit that the ‘free market’ capitalism that has ‘brought’ ‘billions’ ‘out of poverty’ was pretty much the same ‘free market’ system that put them in poverty in the first place?

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skidmarx 09.06.11 at 9:38 pm

giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others
Didn’t give Isaac Deutscher too much room to realise his ends when he put paid to Deutscher’s chances of getting a post at Sussex University.

I might consider Berlin a little more worthy of consideration, but I did read his book on Marx once, and the obvious and simple misrepresentations were not impressive.

J. Otto Pohl – others might find this an obvious choice, but this convinces a lot of people that the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist.

109

Elias 09.06.11 at 9:38 pm

“A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving”

“It’s hard to spell out what that means”

I agree. It doesn’t make much sense.

A huge fan of this blog. I don’t appreciate everything I read here and don’t agree with more, but it’s been a great source of insight for me.

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Simon 09.06.11 at 9:39 pm

One, I’m admittedly not familiar enough with world history to make a definitive judgment one way or another. Colonization, imperialism, aggression etc. of course played a huge role, but we can’t go back in time. Left alone, would India, China and Africa been rich? Maybe, but what does that counterfactual even mean in a deterministic world? The question is what do we do now, when they are poor.

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Simon 09.06.11 at 9:47 pm

But even knowing what I do know, in what sense was free market capitalism, whatever that is, responsible for poverty in China before the 20th century, for example. The opium wars kicked things off, but the inherent conservatism of the empire seem to put in place the seeds for Mao et al, and what immediately followed (great famine) was a terrible outcome that had nothing to do with markets.

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geo 09.06.11 at 9:59 pm

Simon: Left alone, would India, China and Africa been rich?

India, at least, was quite rich when the British arrived and regressed massively thanks to British mercantile policy.

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Simon 09.06.11 at 10:07 pm

The meaningless of the counterfactual still applies in telling us what to do NOW. I hear what youre saying.

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john c. halasz 09.07.11 at 1:22 am

Simon @ 84& 85:

Well. the other account to factor in along side productive self-activity is the Hegelian account of (the struggle for) inter-personal recognition, (such that activity and social relationships are intricated with each other, not entirely separate matters). I would put the matter this way: even though complete satisfaction of desire, like complete recognition, is an existential impossibility, that doesn’t set some a priori necessary limit to their realization, let alone authorize some sort of spurious metaphysical pessimism. These are matters of practical reason, which Aristotle, at least, sharply delimited from theoretical reason, (though modern thought has lost hold of and obliterated that old distinction, attempting to convert such matters into a priori theorizations), so the proof is in the pudding. Shifting structural constraints would produce shifting conditions of “satisfaction”.

But another key influence on Marx’ early conception of realization through labor and its fated alienation, (which echoes the conditions of craft labor, far more than the coming predominance of industrial labor), was Schiller’s “Letters on The Aesthetic Education of Man”, in which works not only serve a formative role for citizens, but open up the public world which they share. So when you ask what is to constitute a criterion for productive or fruitful activity, since it occurs in the context of inextricable social relations, community standards and the sense of participation and contribution to a public world are what count in general, however affected by sectoral structural-functional differentiation. Obviously more skilled and integrated forms of labor-activity are more satisfying, which heavy and routinized forms, to the extent that they are still required, are not, but a more suitable distribution and compensation for the remaining requirements of such “necessary” forms of labor is possible. It’s not the case that, under varying conditions, such criteria of what is “productive” or “fruitful” can’t be generated and contested.

So I find your “pessimistic” thesis akin to an account of “surplus repression”. Obviously, a drive toward self-realization or self-development, especially since it is bound up in relations to others and the conditions in which they occur, can be thwarted or miscarry, and be recycled into further repressiveness. That is partly what Marx’ critique of ideology was about, attempting to break through, even if it relied on overly simple or optimistic assumptions about how ideology was embedded in systems of social action. But I think the struggle through such self-imposed barriers is more indicative than extolling their reification.

(I haven’t read any Deleuze, but I think that there are embedded components of “rationality” involved in human agency, which, while not simply “universal” and don’t involve any a priori “necessity”, nonetheless are not reducible to mere “aesthetic” preferences, though also not “moralistic” ones).

The “liberalism of fear” that has been embraced by some commenters above strikes me as sadly mistaken. It’s basically Hobbesian in origin, and involves the paradox that the state is at once greatly to be feared as a source of oppression and to be embraced as the source of protection of private rights. It amounts to a weirdly involuted and regressive mirror image of “totalitarianism”. It’s anti-political in Arendt’s sense, since the “rights” are configured as the protection of private interests and “values”, rather than in the republican terms of the participation in the public sphere, as realizing collective “freedom” and constraining state-power. The robustness, for lack of a better word, of any drive toward self-realization is discounted in favor of the self-preservation of inegalitarian privilege as “freedom”.

But then why should basic human equality be treated as a norm, supposedly in need of “justification”, rather than a sheer fact, as corrosive as that might be?

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garymar 09.07.11 at 6:14 am

Given that religious ideologies seem to be something hindering the brining about of the more virtuous system…

Only on Crooked Timber would I spend a whole ten seconds trying to deconstruct the supposedly intentional metaphor of “brining about a system”.

What kind of mot juste is escaping us here? Filling it with salt water? Pickling it?

Oh. Bringing about.

116

Watson Ladd 09.07.11 at 2:12 pm

@john c. halasaz: But social relations produced the individual. I feel that your account risks treating Marx as another Romantic discontent: the shepherd at home with his flock is replaced by the dispossessed worker, and this has to be reversed. Instead Marx argues that the individual has to be redeemed. Certainly the descriptions of communism in Capital seem akin to the liberal vision.

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john c. halasz 09.08.11 at 2:25 am

@116:

I find your comment relative to mine incomprehensible. And just where are “the descriptions of communism in ‘Capital'”?

118

Tony Lynch 09.08.11 at 3:22 am

“The “liberalism of fear” that has been embraced by some commenters above strikes me as sadly mistaken. It’s basically Hobbesian in origin, and involves the paradox that the state is at once greatly to be feared as a source of oppression and to be embraced as the source of protection of private rights. “

Not sure I see the paradox. The state surely can both we welcomed and feared. It is welcome insofar as it provides the kind of secure environment that makes it possible to lvie a life with some kind of “plan” to it. It is to be feared for it demonstrated capacity to in some circumstances to actually destroy that security itself.

119

William Timberman 09.08.11 at 3:51 am

JCH @ 114, 117

This may be relevant, or it may not be, but having just come from reading a section in Alfred Kazin’s Journals in which he bemoans the isolation/alienation he feels at Amherst (in 1955), I find your 114 particularly poignant. Kazin’s lament went something like this: I know that being in the world is the way to be fulfilled, but how can you be in the world when it refuses to acknowledge your actions in it.

He was talking about working among the post-Marxist dead souls of his acquaintance in the literary/academic world, but he also made passing reference to Melville, who by his lights made that kind of intellectual loneliness respectable precisely because he went out into the natural world with it, and neither asked nor gave quarter to what he found there. He simply did what it seemed necessary to him to do, while finding the wherewithal, somehow, to retain his awe of the environment in which he was doing it.

Returning to Marx, his whole moral point about the commodification of labor, and by extension, the laborer himself, is precisely that it debases his participation in the human community, or severs him from it altogether. If you found an entire culture on this principle, which we seem to have done, you wind up forgetting what it is that you’re missing, and even if you do have an inkling of what it must have been, you wind up trivializing the memory — the shepherd at home with his flock, for example.

Your summary of this dilemma in 114 is as succinct — and as accurate — as any I’ve read, but I also have more sympathy for Watson Ladd’s misreading of it than you do. He got the main point, but having filtered it through the latter-day God that failed perspective of so many who read less of Marx himself than they do about Marx, I think he misses the sheer force of what Marx, alone among his contemporaries, understood about the human condition. If we aren’t permitted to be both actors and the acted-upon, we run the risk of being nothing at all.

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john c. halasz 09.08.11 at 3:58 am

118:

I suppose it all depends on whether the state and its power are generated by and dependent upon the participation of its citizens, which requires a “robust” rather than fearful attitude, or whether it exercises its power through the exclusion of some or all of its citizens, in which case its power depends on the generation of fear. The former case is a republican account, the latter a liberal one.

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Tony Lynch 09.08.11 at 9:24 am

Dear John,

I don’t want Republican participation, I want to do philosophy. So I am a liberal of fear. Its like anti-Socrates. I don’t want philosophy to run the world, I want a world with a place for philosophy. That means the good things a republican wants, but it doesn’t mean I think this means that I must be “political”; at present my major concern is with the state as Glenn Greenwald describes it. (Another Liberal of Fear).

122

Simon 09.08.11 at 3:22 pm

Indeed Tony.

123

john c. halasz 09.08.11 at 10:10 pm

@121:

Small “r”. The “liberalism of fear” tag was AFAIK invented by Judith Sklar, herself of East European immigrant origin. As for Greenwald, well, he’s offering precisely a mirror image of the national security state and the GWOT. (Maybe “paradox” was to strong a word; replace it with “contradiction”). The trade-off , the “contract”, is the same though: obedience is traded-off for “security”, protection by the sovereign, which is exactly the premise that terrorists strike at, at its weakest point, by giving the lie to the efficacy of such “protection”, in order to provoke an over-reaction. (Hey, up to a certain point it “worked”, however horrifically). To appeal, then, to that self-same sovereign “authority” for the restoration/protection of the rights it endows and revokes, is more than a bit twisted. (“Rights” are legal-political institutions, such that they require some source in the coercive violence of the state, actual or potential, to be promulgated and enforced. There’s a real sense in which “they take away your freedom and give you your rights”. ) The thing is, though, that if such protective “rights” were the entire content of political life, the latter is severely impoverished, is rendered effectively apolitical. Nor is there any analysis or account of the source of the “power” involved. I doubt that Greenwald has much of an account of these matters, since he’s just a lawyer.

It doesn’t matter what you want, but rather what others want. Since politics concerns living together in community with others who are not just like yourself, who are not just alter-egos, and resolving the conflicts that inevitably result, without simply presupposing any “universal” consensus. And it concerns public matters and the attempt to ascertain the “public interest” and the common good. It’s not a matter of just pursuing or securing private interests and “values”. (Are you really unfamiliar with the criticism of liberalism as being bifurcated between economism and moralism, without any genuinely political dimension, because it is so pre-occupied with individualistic securement of private rights?) The sovereign state is necessary to the whole set up, because a) without it there can be no “rights”, b) it is a factor of balance between competing conceptions/factions, short of civil war, c) it is just about the only check on concentrations of private power and unregulated force, and d) without it, a public sphere can not spring up, with and against the state, which might subject such power to regulation by its citizens. (You might check out Arendt, on how even the most benign tyranny is impotent, because it is unable to provide for the public-political generation of power, in her peculiar sense). In my view, “rights” are justified precisely because they provide a means of raising endemic political conflict to a “higher” level, which, even if they can’t be resolved, a more “productive” or “fruitful” pursuit of such conflicts is rendered possible. But that means that they can’t be construed as rooted in dispositions of fear, with the sovereign imaged as intrinsically tyrannical, but rather must be approached in a spirit of risk-bearing “confidence” and a willingness to struggle against the deprivations and exclusions imposed by organized power, even if they are also invested necessarily by such power.

But then why would you just want to do philosophy? To endlessly theorize? Such philosophy is only for thinking reeds, and there is no reason it should be a prime reason to seek public protection. (Isn’t that conception of the bios theoretikos just a retrograde Straussian fantasy?). Rather, (at least according to my reading of NE 10), practical reason is entirely separate from theoretical reason and possesses an equal and separate “dignity” to the latter. And it doesn’t concern making the world over in terms of theoretical “philosophy” (or technocratic “social science”), but rather deals with the exigencies of this world and the projects that can be formed within it.

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Simon 09.08.11 at 10:42 pm

The question I have for you John is how you can relate your conception of politics to those who are not political philosophers intimately familiar with all the works of Aristotle, Arendt and Strauss. Forgive me for thinking that the other 99.9% of humanity doesn’t view rights as “justified precisely because they provide a means of raising endemic political conflict to a “higher” level… means that they can’t be construed as rooted in dispositions of fear, with the sovereign imaged as intrinsically tyrannical, but rather must be approached in a spirit of risk-bearing “confidence” …etc.” Ask the guy fixing your toilet why universal health care should exist and he’ll probably say because it will be less expensive and other countries have been able to afford it.

125

john c. halasz 09.09.11 at 3:24 am

Simon:

Why are you so eager to condescend to the “common man”? (Is that what they teach you young medicos? It’s definitely not a good idea). But my last comment wasn’t addressed to “99.9% of humanity”. It was addressed to TL and others above who think that “the liberalism of fear” is somehow a good idea, when, in fact, it’s contradictory and relies on what its ostensibly opposes, (which “logic” is called denegation), and it short-circuits the very need for social struggles that might actually, though not likely, bring about the sorts of rough conditions they might profess to desire, but that they insulates themselves from. And, in general, it doesn’t “pay” for liberals to regard the premises of the reasonings and palaverings as “self-evident” and “universal”, when they so clearly are not. That tends to render their positionings lame.

But to take the example you offer, it doesn’t do any good to declare that “health care is a universal right”, since in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, rights get cashed out as particular “liberties” and thus the statement might get cashed out by your proverbial plumber as a government attempt to quash one’s liberty. (The guy who actually fixes my toilet, if need be, is my nephew-in-law, and he makes more money than I do). Rather the much better, because truer and more accurate, explanation is that health care simply is not a market good, which can be improved via competitive mechanisms, because the severe informational asymmetries involved render it rife for rent-seeking interests in a patch-work, ad hoc, non-universal system of payments,- doctors are paid too much and are too incentivized to specialize, insurance companies cherry-pick and devote their resources to denying payments, for-profit hospitals concentrate on high value and high volume procedures at the expense of public health and the poor, equipment manufacturers and Big Pharma manipulate differential pricing schemes to maximize their profits, etc., – such that the problem of high costs rests on the production system/supply-side of health care delivery rather than on the side of excess demand which “markets” would ostensibly discipline. Hence only a “universal” system would serve to discipline and rationalize the system to achieve effective cost control while improving aggregate health outcomes. Which might seem to defy “common sense”, since more people would need to be covered and receive adequate treatment, but actually would reduce costs, by eliminating excess administrative overhead and squeezing out rents. And, of course, economic rents amount to a tax by private interests on the general economy, just as much as governmental taxes draw on private incomes, so why would anyone want to pay more for private insurance with ever rising costs rather than just paying a flat tax rate?

So the more “correct”, accurate explanation is more complicated, but it’s also one that “common” people, who often are far more functionally intelligent than they are expected to be, can actually grasp, if given the time and attention. And, I would bet, yes, that they understand the “concept” of struggle and the notion of when they are being “had” far more readily than the notion of being read their rights.

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Simon 09.09.11 at 3:34 am

Oy. I think I created quite a misunderstanding. I think “common” or “folk” morality and intuition is incredibly valuable, and in fact was jesting at your explanation of rights at being overly complicated. I do agree with everything you said regarding healthcare though-you don’t need to read that Arrow paper to see its not a market good. Cheers!

-Simon

127

Simon 09.09.11 at 3:38 am

The key being that I myself am one of those people not familiar with Aristotle, Arendt, and Strauss…

128

Tony Lynch 09.09.11 at 7:15 am

“It doesn’t matter what you want, but rather what others want.”

Here – I think – may be the point of difference between a liberal of fear and a republican.

If this is the republican formulation then, surely, it embodies a version of the paradox of altruism. How can it be that everyone thinks : “It doesn’t matter what I want, but rather what all you others want.”?

129

Watson Ladd 09.09.11 at 2:46 pm

See, I’m going to oppose the idea of commodity as one-sidled destructive. The medieval serf was in no way the master of his social condition, neither is the worker. But the worker could potentially go further to being the master of his social condition, while the serf would first have to become a worker to do so.

130

john c. halasz 09.09.11 at 3:49 pm

@128:

Sorry if that was unclear, but you’re misreading the point. It’s not a matter of altruism, but of the generation of and struggle for power. Because one’s fate is always bound up with the fates of others,- (still more basically, a self only exists in relation to the other, exteriority is “prior’ to interiority). So it’s just that there is no escaping from such exposure: politics isn’t everything, but it’s unavoidable. But the “liberalism of fear” reduces politics to the matter of protecting the rights of individuals from the power of the very state that endows them with those rights, which, aside from it’s low or minimal aspirational or expectational content, (which, as I said above, is latently anti-political), amounts to empowering the state to protect individuals from their own basic sociality, which is absurd.

131

geo 09.09.11 at 4:32 pm

Watson @129: Are you intentionally paraphrasing Marx, or unintentionally?

132

Tony Lynch 09.10.11 at 7:49 am

“politics isn’t everything, but it’s unavoidable. But the “liberalism of fear” reduces politics to the matter of protecting the rights of individuals from the power of the very state that endows them with those rights … is absurd.”

It is, I think, this absurdity which is at the heart of politics. Which is why I am a Liberal of Fear.

Sociality as politics – “It doesn’t matter what you want, but rather what others want” – seems to me to be the politics of traditional hunter-gatherer societies. Civilisations are not like this.

133

google 09.10.11 at 9:24 am

It is, I think, this absurdity which is at the heart of politics. Which is why I am a Liberal of Fear.

134

Watson Ladd 09.10.11 at 11:54 am

@geo: Intentionally. I’m a Marxist!

135

john c. halasz 09.10.11 at 12:59 pm

@132:

What? Kant’s unsociable sociability with the noumenal categorical imperative as the “solution”?

At any rate, your position is more a tautology than an argument. And it makes basic social change politically unattainable, simply endlessly rationalizing the status quo, which is a state of civilized barbarism, not soi-disant civilization. No wonder why liberalism has been progressively failing for oh so many years!

136

Norwegian Guy 09.10.11 at 9:51 pm

I’d say it was/is usual to call the Soviet Union etc. communist states, not least among people on the political centre-left. Supporters of these regimes and the states themselves, on the other hand, considered them real existing socialism. After all, they hardly resembled the Marxist ‘communist stage’, with the withering away of state being far away. There was probably a few right wingers who would use the word ‘socialist’ as well, with the intention of tarring the entire labour movement with Eastern European Communism. But generally, communist states have been called exactly that, while socialism is associated with democratic left-of-centre parties, most notably the social democratic ones.

137

Tony Lynch 09.11.11 at 8:22 am

John, I don’t understand.

You say: , “your position is more a tautology than an argument. And it makes basic social change politically unattainable, simply endlessly rationalizing the status quo, which is a state of civilized barbarism, not soi-disant civilization. No wonder why liberalism has been progressively failing for oh so many years!”

My “tautology””: [quoting you]: “politics isn’t everything, but it’s unavoidable. But the “liberalism of fear” reduces politics to the matter of protecting the rights of individuals from the power of the very state that endows them with those rights … is absurd.”

To which I say: “It is, I think, this absurdity which is at the heart of politics. Which is why I am a Liberal of Fear

To which you say: .”it makes basic social change politically unattainable, simply endlessly rationalizing the status quo, which is a state of civilized barbarism, not soi-disant civilization. No wonder why liberalism has been progressively failing for oh so many years!”

To which I say: The “status quo” is always changing. There is – unless you define it away – “basic social change”.

Forgive me if I am now worrying most about comes to me from my fears.

138

Tony Lynch 09.11.11 at 8:23 am

Forgive me if [WHAT] I am now worrying most about comes to me from my fears.

139

john c. halasz 09.12.11 at 3:08 am

@137:

Substitute “the politics of fear” for the alleged “liberalism”. That’s George W. Bush’s schtick. How’d that work out? All too many “liberals” were willingly stampeded into “supporting” his aggressions, despite the fact that they made not the slightest strategic, geo-political sense, – (in fact, they validated Bin Laden’s atrocity, by falling into the putatively intended trap). So why should a mirror image of such a politics of fear, labeled “liberal”, really counter such a politics of fear, when it relies on the very same emotion/premise, the desire for private “security”, and relies on the very same source, the sovereign state as protector of “rights”, that it ostensibly opposes in its actuality. (I think objections to Bushevik “policies” are actually far more other-regarding than a “liberalism of fear” could conceptually allow). If what you worry comes from your fears, well, aside from being tautological, maybe you should examine the etiology of those fears.

The status quo is always changing? Well, maybe it is less an established order than organized chaos, but toe-dipping in the Heraclitean river and succumbing to drift, while tinkering around the edges, hardly amounts to “basic social change”, which might induce a more truly civilized estate. Are you advocating blind adaptionism?

To repeat, “Man is the political animal”, which means that it belongs to “his” very “nature” to live in community with others, and, under modern, structural-functionally differentiated conditions, (which don’t involve a regressive fantasy of de-differentiating into “hunter-gatherer” conditions), involves living in community with others who aren’t just like oneself, who don’t share the same identifications, who might be enemies or opponents, just as well as friends or allies, but who equally occupy the “space” of the political. And resolving those conflicts is the task at hand. In which case, it is bootless to claim that the state is the sole source of violence, oppression, or exploitation, whereas the private “rights” of individuals should be the sole concern. Individualistic solipsism is no basis for politics or the political, since it is always a matter of acknowledging the existence of others, sine qua non. That is why “their wants” rather than “my wants” attain saliency in the generation and struggle of power, as the collective property of the political community, “the republic”.

To say that politics deals with the acknowledgement of otherness amounts to saying that politics is pre-eminently an alienated realm. Which is why it is so much prey to resentment and fear and their manipulations. Because that is the unacknowledged “nature” of human beings, to be alienated by the very relation to the other that is the condition of human existence. If there is anything left of a “categorical imperative” in today’s day and age it is this: DON’T BE PARANOID! Despite the myriad reasons that might validate such a perspective, since the privileging of the “purity” of one’s “good” intentions, regardless of the actual contexts from which they emerge, amounts to a splitting-off of their consequential realities, and a projection of them upon the evil other. That is the basic mechanism of paranoia, and that is what any viable politics, liberal or otherwise, should be dedicated toward resisting.

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