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June 23, 2010

Quotes of the Week

Filed under: Philosophy,who said it? — rmangum @ 2:21 pm

“To discover the unknown is not a prerogative Sinbad, or Eric the Red, or of Copernicus. Each and every man is a discoverer. He begins by discovering bitterness, saltiness, concavity, smoothness, harshness, the seven colors of the rainbow and the twenty-some letters of the alphabet; he goes on to visages, maps, animals and stars. He ends with doubt, or with faith, and the almost total certainty of his own ignorance.”

Jorge-Luis Borges, Atlas

“The person who says, as almost everyone does say, that human life is of infinite value, not to be measured in mere material terms, is talking palpable, if popular, nonsense. If he believed that of his own life, he would never cross the street, save to visit his doctor or to earn money for things necessary to physical survival. He would eat the cheapest, most nutritious food he could find and live in one small room, saving his income for frequent visits to the best possible doctors. He would take no risks, consume no luxuries, and life a long life. If you call it living.”

David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom


June 20, 2010

Postscript on Cultural Keynesianism

Just a couple of days after writing the last post, which referenced Camille Paglia’s comparison of postmodernists to Wall Street financiers, a book I had recently ordered arrived in the mail: David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, from 1991, when the philosophy still had very high cachet in academe. De Man was a Yale professor who had emigrated from Belgium after WWII, and was one of the primary proselytizers for deconstruction. Thought by his cult-like admirers to be a man of the Left (though his actual writing is rather apolitical), he was discovered after his death to have written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for Belgium’s collaborationist newspaper Le Soir in the early 1940’s. De Man turns out in Lehman’s investigation to have been a lifelong liar, bigamist, and petty thief. An opponent of deconstruction could use these facts as an ad hominem attack on such ideas (and in the wake of the scandalous revelations, many did), but Lehman does a great job of avoiding arguments, on the one hand that deconstruction necessarily entails the despicable facts of de Man’s life, and on the other that such facts are irrelevant to it.

I was particularly struck by this passage:

This is not a pipe.

Has deconstruction hit Wall Street? Richard Rand of the University of Alabama, co-translator of Derrida’s Glas, thinks so. In the spring of 1989, when Michael Milken was slapped with a ninety-eight-count indictment on charges of racketeering and securities fraud, Rand- an English professor- sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal defending the misunderstood junk-bond king as a “deconstructive financier.” Rand stated that the two things he had studied with rapt attention over the course of twenty years were Jacques Derrida’s texts and the Journal’s financial pages. To Rand’s mind there was quite a continuity between the two, and particularly between Derrida’s theoretical maneuvers and Milken’s leveraged buyouts. Milken had apparently made a deconstructive move when he turned the junk bond from “a ‘marginal’ (and despised) ‘supplement’ to the overall investment machine” into “a central and dynamic feature.” With his leveraged buyouts he had accomplished a “reversal” and “rewriting”- two more terms from the Derrida lexicon- of the merger-and-acquisition strategies already in place in postwar America.

There is nothing outside the text.

This Rand guy reminds me of a character named Murray in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, an academic who has abandoned arts and letters for the signs and wonders of the supermarket’s cereal isle. Reading Lehman’s account of de Man also brought to mind DeLillo’s main character, Jack Gladney, professor of the trendy new field he has pioneered, Hitler Studies.

But what is the significance of the parallel? Again I would refer to the Paul Cantor essay about hyperinflation in Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” He writes that “Everything threatens to become unreal once money loses its reality.” Severed from its origin as a real commodity valued by real actors in a market economy, money becomes a manipulative game, and so to does language when severed from reality. I don’t think anybody will dispute Saussure’s insight that the relation between sign and signifier is arbitrary, but in no way does this have the nihilistic implications of post-structuralism. The selection of gold, say, as a medium of exchange has a mixture of objective and arbitrary qualities to it. Austrians stress the former, but Keynesian and other neoclassical theories tend to see only the latter, with the result that manipulation of the money is seen as the sole key to prosperity. But it is folly to see society as reducible to linguistic discourse and economy as reducible to finance.

May 25, 2010

My two (dialectical) bits on the Rand Paul thing

Filed under: Philosophy,State,U.S.A — rmangum @ 7:48 pm

As you probably know, Rachel Maddow recently grilled Rand Paul on whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights act, and whether a strict enforcement of property rights would lead to a segregated society. You can read a transcript, along with a defense of Paul here. Of course an anarchist cannot agree that only federal legislation can stop racism, but I want to critique the defenses of Rand that have been offered by some libertarians as well. First of all, Paul’s responses were not at all straightforward, but incredibly evasive. Other defenses have taken the following form: “Segregation and discrimination were the fault of Jim Crow laws, which come from government, and not private business, which have a natural economic incentive not to discriminate.” There is some truth to this, but it is limited and fails to see the whole picture. Of course Jim Crow laws made things much worse, but laws do not come from nowhere. Laws which have no broad popular support do not last long, and often cannot be passed at all. And while the profit motive does indeed offer an incentive against discrimination, since black or gay money spends as well as any other kind, we know also that human beings are more than homo economicus, or what Dierdre McCloskey has named “Max U”, a kind of rationally self-interested calculating machine. In other words, culturally-inculcated prejudice is often more than enough to overcome economic self-interest. Anxious to exonerate markets and property, libertarians who make these arguments are also letting the racist culture of the South off the hook. (This is not to say that the North was not also racist in its own way.)

I’ve been reading Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy. I just finished Marx, Hayek and Utopia, and am now a good ways into Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. While I’m not fully convinced by Sciabarra’s arguments, I am finding that taking a dialectical view can often be illuminating, and Rand Paul’s gaffe is a case in point. Sciabarra sees “internal relations” as fundamental to dialectics. In social systems, all parts are related to each other in essential ways. Remove any part, and you effect the whole. In contrast, “external relations” view at least things as being independent of each other. The libertarian defenses I mentioned before view culture and government as being externally related, so that all things bad can be ascribed to government. Here’s the crux of these kind of debates: liberals and libertarians fundamentally agree on this externalist view of the state, only with opposite value-judgments about government intervention. Here’s an excerpt from the Maddow interview:

MADDOW: But it could be brought up at any moment. I mean, if there – – let’s say there’s a town right now and the owner of the town’s swimming club says we’re not going to allow black kids at our pool, and the owner of the bowling alley in town says, we’re not actually going to allow black patrons, and the owner of the skating rink in town says, we’re not going to allow black people to skate here.

And you may think that’s abhorrent and you may think that’s bad business. But unless it’s illegal, there’s nothing to stop that — there’s nothing under your world view to stop the country from re-segregating like we were before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —

PAUL: Right.

Unacknowledged Legislators

Right? Let’s just repeat what Maddow is saying, and Paul is agreeing to: without federal legislation, there is “nothing.” Nothing. So, no boycotts, no marches, no protests? Since the legislators who passed the bill were not black, we can assume that blacks were really helpless. Either white oppressors or white saviors. Now you can see why blacks on the radical left in the 1960’s like Malcom X and the Black Panthers had nothing but contempt for white liberals.

The reality is that the impact of the Civil Rights act was positive, though not quite positive enough to counteract the evil done by Jim Crow. But it was itself the result of a social movement involving heroic actions taken by individuals acting in solidarity to raise consciousness and fight oppression. And the enforcement of Jim Crow was legal oppression, but it too was the result of social forces, enabled by the fact that a majority of southern whites viewed segregation as desirable.

Government is evil, but it is not the root of all evil, merely the apotheosis of evil, the codification of evil. And there is plenty in a worldview that rejects government to fight bigotry, as virtually the whole history of the civil rights movement demonstrates: boycotts, strikes, peaceful demonstration, acts of solidarity in the face of intimidation, and yes, even market forces.

The view that social change springs fully formed out of the head of government legislation, with lawmakers observing and adjusting from some Archimedean point outside society, is ahistorical, undialectical, and condescending to the groups it proposes to help. Furthermore, once this view gains hold, it has an insidiously self-fulfilling effect. Groups who before were able to spontaneously organize to fight for freedom and equality, and become ennobled by the struggle, (“I am somebody” as a young Jesse Jackson once told a crowd in Watts) are now encouraged to seek help only from government, settling into a mediated client-patron relationship which is something like an extremely attenuated form of a master-slave relationship (and dialectics enters the picture once more).

Too many libertarians seem to think that because we view the state as on balance evil, we can never admit that it does any good, as if that would be to admit it is the only way of doing good. That is of course statist nonsense on stilts.

Theory and History

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy — rmangum @ 6:03 pm
Tags: ,

For whatever they’re worth, here are two completely unrelated comments I’ve made  recently. The first is from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History forum:

Amor Patriae

I agree with some of the other comments that Dan failed to define what he meant by “toughness.” Is it callousness? bravery? some combination of the two? I can see how it takes toughness to be a soldier on a battlefield, or to volunteer to be one. I can also see how it takes an amoral psychopath to do the same. But I cannot see how it takes toughness to follow orders and kill people (hundreds of thousands at a time in the case of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings Dan discusses), or to give such orders. On the contrary, in a culture which demands such things, it takes bravery to refuse. The deserter may be a coward, but he may braver in a way, no? Most people do not have the courage to go AWOL or burn their draft card.

And contra the notion that we have not the willingness to do what is necessary the way our “greatest generation” grandfathers did, I find no shortage of Americans who (rather flippantly) would love to bomb the whole middle east (minus Israel, of course) into oblivion.The question is, are they “tough” or psychotic? Or perhaps both? And can technological civilization afford such attitudes?

Finally, while I think Dan’s notion of “toughness” is confused, he discusses the concept in a laudably value-free manner.

Second, a comment on a recent EconTalk podcast about the lamentable state of current econometrics:

I’ve been listening to EconTalk for more than a year now, and I’ve heard you become increasingly skeptical about empirical work in economics, leading you to proclaim that “economics is not a science.” The implicit assumption is that only natural sciences like physics, which work by inducting general laws from empirical data. As far as I know this is a very modern, 20th-century view of science, where social sciences such as economics (formerly “political economy”) suffer from “physics envy.” The older view of science denoted any systematic investigation of phenomena.

Not the way to learn about humans.

Thanks for the great work, and I look forward to more fascinating shows in the future.

February 4, 2010

Belated Terrible Blogging

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Personal,Philosophy,Uncategorized — rmangum @ 6:54 am

It’s been a rough year for me so far: starting school, looking for a new car, ignoring collection notices, battling my post-college football season depression, losing in chess to my brother, not drinking enough (I write best between two and four beers). And not wanting my dear dear opinions to dissipate into the blogospheric aether, I’ve set for myself a goal of two posts per week (one Song for Sunday and at least one other post during the week), but its been hard to stick to even that. So with that self-exculpatory preface noted, my apologies to anyone who cares. Now for a few brief updates:

Way overdue update on my bowl picks: I was just over 50 percent, with 17 right and 16 wrong. Good enough to try it again next year. I should note that some of my most confident picks (TCU, most notoriously) were the most wrong.

On two recent famous deaths: I read The Catcher in the Rye I think three times between ninth and tenth grade, and have not read it since. For some reason I was never impelled to read Salinger’s other published work, but my feeling is that he was really a one-hit wonder, like Ken Kesey, Chuck Palahniuk, and so many other American novelists. I’m not sure whether the book would hold up to a re-reading as an adult, either. A People’s History of the United States has long been on the top of my reading list, and since my live-in girlfriend (terrible phrase- sounds more like a job description rather than a relationship- but what am I going to call it since we have no state-sanctioned certificate?) owns a copy I have little excuse for not having read it. It always seems to happen that I discover an artist’s work right after they die, which has happened to me with John Fahey (2001) and William S. Burroughs (1997).

A few words on a book recently read: Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State has two main flaws as I that I can see. Its subtitle is An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory, which might lead one to think that it contains summaries and analysis of actual historical anarchist ideas, thinkers, schools, and controversies. Syndcalism, egoism, Christian pacifism; individualism versus social anarchism; whether anarcho-capitalism is genuine anarchism; how Proudhon was a sexist and Stirner was crazy- that sort of stuff. Instead Sartwell devotes the bulk of his book to a refutation of philosophic claims for state legitimacy, and a short section in the end giving an adumbration of the kind of anarchism he would like to see in the future (promising development of his ideas in a future book). Now this is a very minor flaw, since there are certainly other books devoted to historical and contemporary anarchism, but few that engage in academic political discourse in the way that this one does. This is a step toward anarchy being taken seriously. This leads to more serious flaw, which is that Sartwell admirably takes on the titans of political philosophy: Locke, Hume, Bentham,  Hegel, Rousseau, Hobbes, Nozick, and Rawls, just for starters. Yet he devotes less than 100 pages to this task. Mystics and idolators of state power Rousseau and Hegel are dismissed as presenting no real argument for legitimacy, and rightly so, but surely as lasting and widespread a theory as Hobbes’ deserves to be refuted in greater detail. Perhaps Sartwell is just that efficient. It’s hard for me to tell, since I happen to agree with every word, but I think a skeptic would want more.

Some ideas for upcoming posts: Since I’m taking all English classes, I have more literature than politics on the brain right now. But I have some notions of exploring the overlap, including Argentinian writer Jorge-Luis Borges as a conservative anarchist, and Jonathan Swift as both a proto-anarchist and a proto-totalitarian (so he was accused by George Orwell, referring specifically to book IV of Gulliver’s Travels). Expect possibly also some thoughts on Beowulf, William Blake, the Enlightenment and/versus Romanticism, Jane Austen, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Thomas More’s Utopia, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Coetzee, and so on.

Or maybe you won’t hear from me again until after finals.

January 11, 2010

Trust the Tale, Pt. 2

Filed under: Literature,Philosophy — rmangum @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , ,

Following up on what I said previously about The Wire, I found this post by Zunguzungu from early last year. While he takes a quite different (quasi-marxist critical theory) approach to the material than I do, he similarly concludes that there is a disconnect between what David Simon says to interviewers about the show he created, and the way the show actually presents itself. Some artists may have more insight into their own creations than others, but the old truism is the same nevertheless. There may be two reasons why, in the case of The Wire, the show presents itself in a more complex and articulate way than its creators can convey on their own. First, much as Simon fits the mold of television auteur, this is a highly collaborative work involving the comparatively taciturn co-creator Ed Burns, as well as several novelists, including George P. Pelacanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane. Second, while the Simon/Burns team do have a singular vision and a political mission of sorts with The Wire, they are conscientious enough artists to draw from their long experience with the professions they depict (cops, journalists, teachers), life in the city of Baltimore more generally, and their instincts as storytellers. But once the artist is finished with the creation and is asked to play the role of critic and interpreter, they are in no better position than the rest of us, and possibly a worse one sense they have an obvious conflict of interest.

Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a great deal of insight into her own work, was quite insistent on the fact that fiction is not made out of abstract ideas, the stuff of political reform (and political criticism). From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are most loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make the actual mystery of our position on earth. . . .

But the amazing thing about The Wire is how aware it is of problems and people, of questions and issues that are embedded in the “texture of existence”. O’Connor too, had certain aims which could have been expressed in abstract terms ( a devout Catholic, hers were theological rather than political). But in both cases verisimilitude came first and foremost.

I began writing this post wanting to show that critics are necessary, and not simply parasitic upon artists and their creations (and probably bitter, spiteful failed artists themselves to boot), that where the artist starts with his or her own unique perception of life, the critic starts with his or her own unique perception of art, and therefore must deal in more abstraction than the artist (if they want to do quality work) is allowed. But O’Connor has me wondering if  ideas as such have any meaningful place in the world of fiction. Why do we ask a television critic or David Simon about the meaning of The Wire? O’Connor again, from “Writing Short Stories” (both excerpts are from Mystery and Manners):

The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what the story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not about abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

Here I think O’Connor takes her polemic against abstraction a bit too far. Much value may be lost in summarization just as in translation, but she comes dangerously close to insisting that a story is only about itself. Why not go further and insist that if stories are made out of the same materials as existence , why go in for even that level of imitation and just live life rather than read stories about it? On similar grounds Plato and followers such as Plotinus rejected art wholesale as a nearly worthless copy of a copy. (Also because poets were politically disruptive, which is not irrelevant to this case either.) But she does point to what is worthwhile about making critical statements. A critic helps “experience that meaning [of the work of art] more fully” just as art helps you experience life more fully.

With that though in mind, you should also read Zunguzungu’s essay, “In Withdrawal from Modernity: The Western and the West Side in The Wire”.

November 1, 2009

The Sleep of Reason Produces Heidegger

Filed under: Philosophy — rmangum @ 5:31 pm

Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.
-Lord Acton

“Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar. . .”
-Monty Python’s Flying Circus

A couple of years ago, when I read Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History, I wrote:

One of the great untold stories of 20th-century intellectual history is how a set of beliefs and obsessions originating with radical right-wing intellectuals in the late nineteenth-century and culminating in the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, migrated en masse to radical left-wing intellectuals after World War Two. The list includes pessimism, extreme relativism and nihilism, race as an idée fixe, contempt for liberal bourgeois values, the championing of irrational vitalism over civilized manners, the redemptive and creative power of violence, even environmentalist and New Age ideas. But the overarching ideas, the key attitudes, of this worldview would have to be hatred of laissez-faire capitalism, obsession with race as a determining factor in history, and the conviction that western civilization is doomed. This transmission is signaled by Theodor Adorno, of so-called “Frankfurt School”, who said, “Not the least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” . . .  Arthur Herman calls this belief-system “Cultural Pessimism”, and this book is the first attempt at systematically examining its genealogy and anatomy. . . . . Cultural pessimism on the right produced the National Socialists, World War II, and the Holocaust. What might cultural pessimism on the left produce?

A good starting point in tracing the intellectual history of cultural pessimism and its transmission from right to left would be to anlyze the ideas of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. Nazi philosopher? Yes, the point must be asserted. Heidegger was a Nazi. And a new book by Emmanuel Faye, reviewed here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, not only attacks the notion held by Heidegger’s (mostly left-wing) modern acolytes that his Nazi membership was unrelated to the philosophy, it also goes beyond the claim of Heidegger’s critics that his Nazism was the natural consequence of his philosophy,and asserts that

his philosophy grew out of his Nazism, forcing us to see it as a kind of philosophical propaganda for Nazism in a different key.

Now, having not read the book, I am in no position to concur with this thesis, but it’s really not hard to see how Nazism and Heideggerian philosophy are natural corollaries. And at this point no one can defend Heidegger’s actions as a Nazi, which came out of genuine conviction and were virulent.

The many indignant comments posted under Carlin Romano’s Chronicle article reveal that this is no irrelevant issue, no minor and arcane debate of philosophical history. One commenter writes:

Hmm. Wouldn’t disagree about Heidegger’s support for Nazism. However, getting rid of Heidegger in twentieth century intellectual life would not be easy. You would have to eliminate half of the courses one finds in college catalogue in the humanities and social sciences. I would say good riddance but very impractical. For example, Richard Rorty’s thought is based on Heidegger as well as Nietzsche and Dewey. Get rid of him as well as all postmodern thinkers? Good luck.

Many of the major left-wing figures of late-20th century philosophy- notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida- are ardent Heideggerians. But his influence has not waned on a certain segment of the Right, either. Here is an interesting speech by British New Right figure Jonathan Bowden. Bowden also believes that Heidegger’s Nazi party membership was not particularly important, though as I mentioned earlier the historical record says otherwise.

Romano thinks that the correct attitude toward Heidegger is to regard him as silly.

It would seem that Heidegger, likewise, will continue to flourish until even “Continental” philosophers mock him to the hilt. His influence will end only when they, and the broader world of intellectuals, recognize that scholarly evidence fingers the scowling proprietor of Heidegger’s hut as a buffoon produced by German philosophy’s mystical tradition. He should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations.

I think this is correct. Humor is the proper antidote to pompous mysticism, and Heideggerians are some of the most humorless people in the world. What we need is a Voltaire. Unfortunately, in the 20th century we had only the morose Wittgenstein (or the cantankerous Karl Popper) to counteract Heidegger. But this does remind me of good quote from Wittgenstein that is relevant:

Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany ,that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.

October 2, 2009

Leiter on Nietzsche Myths

Filed under: Philosophy — rmangum @ 12:22 am


Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter was on Philosophy Bites debunking the major myths about Nietzsche: 1.He was an anti-semite (does anyone who has actually read him need to have this myth busted?) 2. The Ubermensch was central to his philosophy 3. The Will to Power was central to his philosophy, and 4. He was a Postmodernist.

Leiter also has a Nietzsche blog.

September 25, 2009

Zerzan on Anarcho-Syndicalism and Liberalism

Filed under: Anarchy,Philosophy — rmangum @ 6:05 pm

goya_sleep_of_reasonSometimes I get my best insights from people I don’t agree with. For instance, I’ve always found the anarcho-primitivist writer John Zerzan fascinating, even though I disagree with nearly 100% of what he writes. For those in the dark about primitivism, it rejects not only modern industrial capitalism, but all technology and division of labor in even the most basic form, in an attempt to recover a primal wildness and harmony with nature without such mediating systems as language and culture.

I had been reading up on anarcho-syndicalism when I came across this short essay by Zerzan on “The Bourgeois Roots of Anarcho-Syndicalism“. He writes:

The values upheld by anarcho-syndicalists do not significantly differ from those of the more radical of the bourgeois liberal theorists, and their project, upon examination, proves to be merely the extension of the liberal project.

Like the bourgeoisie – and maybe even more than the bourgeoisie – the anarcho-syndicalists embrace the values essential to capitalism.

What are these values. First of all, technological and economic progress, obviously a no-no for primitivists as it constitutes man’s continuing “mastery” and “domination” over nature. And the values which support this end include the work ethic, conformity, “social peace”, and “a rational, ethical society”.

Both bourgeois liberal theorists and anarcho-syndicalists want a rational, ethical society based on freedom, equality and justice, guaranteeing human rights. Both want a smoothly running economy with high levels of production guaranteeing scientific and technological progress. Both require social peace and conformity to realize their projects. It is difficult not to think that their projects are the same. I see only two significant differences. The bourgeoisie sees the economy as an apolitical force that can progress efficiently and ethically in the form of private enterprise. The anarcho-syndicalists recognize the economy as a political force which must, therefor, be run democratically. The bourgeois liberals believe that representational democracy can create their ideal. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that democracy must be direct – though they never seem to ask us if we want to spend time directly voting on every social issue that comes up. The project of the anarcho-syndicalists is really just an extension of the project of the project of bourgeois liberalism – an attempt to push that project toward its logical conclusion.

On the values Zerzan lists, I find that some (peace and rationality) are entirely good while others (conformity and work) rather mixed blessings. None can have any value for the primitivist. Zerzan’s critique leads me to two conclusions. The first is that the disparate economic ideas of anarchists aren’t entirely incommensurable. As Mises wrote in Human Action:

What divides those parties one calls today world view parties, i.e., parties committed to basic philosophical decisions about ultimate ends, is only seeming disagreement with regard to ultimate ends. Their antagonisms refer either to religious creeds or to problems of international relations or to the problem of the ownership of the means of production or to problems of political organization. It can be shown that all these controversies concern means and not ultimate ends.

. . . for all parties committed to pursuit of the people’s earthly welfare and thus approving social cooperation, questions of social organization and the conduct of social action are not problems of ultimate principles and of world views, but are ideological issues. They are technical problems with regard to which some arrangement is always possible.

Note that Mises distinguishes between “world views”, which interpret all phenomena, including physics, metaphysics, ethics, and so on, and narrower “ideologies”, which “have in view only human action and social cooperation”. Anarcho-syndicalism and liberalism, according to Zerzan, share a bourgeois world view while differing in ideology. Primitivism, on the other hand, is another world view entirely (actually, according to Mises’ full definition, it might even fail at that). The world view shared by liberalism and anarchism, as well as most schools of socialism, has a name never mentioned by Zerzan: Enlightenment.

This is my second conclusion: If syndicalism as Zerzan describes it is the logical conclusion of bourgeois liberalism, i.e. the Enlightenment, then primitivism is the logical conclusion of the reaction against the Enlightenment, i.e. Romanticism or Counter-Enlightenment. This is a strain of thought which is an undercurrent in socialism as well as many varieties of conservative and right-wing thought. It’s most famous figure is Rousseau, but also includes such tempestuous reactionaries as Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, William Blake, the writers associated with the Frankfurt School, and postmodernists too numerous to mention.

I am not completely opposed to Romanticism. Indeed, I love romantic art and find many Romantic critiques of reason and modernity to have some validity. But reading the primitivists such as Zerzan (and even more ridiculous figures like Hakim Bey) as they reject culture and scoff at the notions of “social peace” and “ethical society” even as they praise such people as Ted Kaczynski, is enough to give one pause, to say the least.

I think an excellent book could be written on this subject, interpreting modern political history not in terms of Left vs. Right, or Capitalism vs. Socialism, but Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, and tracing the threads of counter-enlightenment though on the left and right.

For a critique of primitivism and related subcultural movements from a perspective that is anarchist, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist, see Murray Bookchin’s classic essay Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. His essay means to implicate liberal individualism along with what he calls “lifestyle anarchism”, but I think fails, for the main reason that the first is an Enlightenment individualism stressing social harmony, and the latter a Romantic individualism stressing rebellion for its own sake. But that’s a subject for another time.

September 9, 2009

Chartier on Left Libertarianism and Socialism

Filed under: Anarchy,Philosophy — rmangum @ 9:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Law professor Gary Chartier, who writes the LiberaLaw blog, recently had a pamphlet posted on Center for a Stateless Society entitled “Socialist Ends, Market Means”. Written for Left Libertarians, it addresses the issue of how to frame an ideology that is seen as combining a radical left-wing social agenda with a radical right-wing economic program, as well as a concise statement of what Chartier sees as the particular values that justify the “Left” in Left Libertarianism. He attacks the suspicion of LL as “an exercise in spin” by showing how it is authentically libertarian and left-wing.

“LL is authentically libertarian because it is anti-statist . . . and because it affirms the values of markets and property rights. At the same time LL is authentically leftist because it seeks to challenge privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination– both ideologically and practically- and because it can exhibit a genuine commitment to inclusion, empowerment, and mutual respect.”

I do want to give one critique, however. Chartier offers up the possibility of libertarians claiming, or rather re-claiming, the word “socialism”. At a time when our slightly-to-the-left president is being denounced as a socialist, this would be decidedly audacious announcement of sympathy with the left over the right. Chartier argues that “there’s a meaningful opportunity for education- to highlight existence of a credible tradition advancing a different meaning of ‘socialism’.” There have been those in the past who have argued for a free market and yet embraced the label “socialist”. (In fact, I would argue that anyone who is consistently anarchist is de facto positing some form of free market.) Chartier wants to challenge those who wear the label today “to confront the reality that there is an inconsistency between the state-socialist’s goals and the authoritarian means she or he professes to prefer.” I would recommend a particularly useful essay on this point, Professor Long’s “Immanent Liberalism: the Politics of Mutual Consent”, where he borrows terminology from Marx to distinguish between “Vicarious Liberalism”, where relations of mutual consent is mediated through a state apparatus, and “Immanent Liberalism”, in which mutual consent is immediately realized in day-to-day life. Chartier wants LL to spur socialists to decide whether their socialism is of an immanent or vicarious variety. At the same time that LL makes socialists rethink their means, it ought to make libertarians rethink their ends*. What are the ends of socialism? For this I turn to another essay, “The Soviet Union vs. Socialism” by Noam Chomsky:

[T]he socialist ideal [is] to convert the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom.

We shouldn’t think that the ends/means contradiction of state socialism was thought of by us first- it’s an old debate on the left. (Ironically, Chomsky in practice is something of a vicarious anarchist, or a sort of left-wing minarchist like Bertrand Russell.) But so far, so good. What’s my problem with his suggestion? It’s that insofar as we revision socialism as one branch of the libertarian tree we gain a better understanding of our own intellectual and cultural heritage, but insofar as we say to the world “we are socialists, of a sort” we make a confusion of the most unprofitable kind. The reason is that at this point in the modern history of ideas, the word “socialism”, as well as the word “capitalism”, carries too much baggage to be useful to an up-to-date analysis of our political economy, much less an unorthodox view as Left Libertarianism. Each term is tainted by its association with its “vicarious” as opposed to its “immanent” variety. I prefer terms which create confusion of a positive kind, which seem paradoxical enough to generate curiosity without preconceived attitudes, yet admit of concise definitions and do not deceive. I prefer “liberal anarchist” for myself. But, since at this point “libertarian” is somewhat tainted as well, “left libertarian” fits the bill quite well, and LLs have every reason to be content with it. (I don’t mean to indicate that Chartier wants to abandon that label, or even fully embrace the socialist one.) But perhaps, since even after being an ever-present view over the last 200 or so years, at least as and probably more coherent over time than liberalism or conservatism, it still generates shock and confusion, the simple term “anarchist” works best.

*This latter strikes me as the basic project pursued by Kevin Carson, as he attempts to drive a wedge between the free market and “actually existing capitalism”. He challenges libertarians to decide whether they are defending the former or the latter. His writings have led at least one anarcho-capitalist, myself, in a leftward direction. If I have the right-libertarian’s learned aversion to the word “socialism”, I have certainly also reevaluated my stance toward historical “capitalism”, and generally no longer prefer to self-apply the latter term.

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