Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Idealism By Other Means

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason.” — John Kenneth Galbraith
It is a well-known proverb that history is written by the victors and one that has been thoroughly disproved by the survival of the accounts of Native Americans, the narratives of slaves, and the archives bursting with the atrocities of colonialism. Nevertheless, at the moment the crime was becoming merely a record, the victors were righteous and their actions justified and sanctified for the masses. And although today the victims have been vindicated, they still remain cold and dead. To cite another proverb: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Although progressives have jettisoned many of the values of the past, including a primitive authoritarian form of religion, they still retain that religion’s residue of pity. And, out of pity of the suffering violence can inflict, have in light of the bloodshed of the French and Russian revolutions, cast all thought of armed revolt to the winds. Such hesitation is rarely a virtue and, as we may see, could potentially cause even greater suffering to come through inaction.
And yet, such action is unlikely to spring from the Left. If the revolutions of France under the Bourbons and Russia under the Romanovs had any great advantages, there were at least two: Populations with nothing left to lose and, well-defined ideologies that made sense to their public’s as much as to their pundits.
In America, these conditions are reversed. Although the Left has an ideology, it is a fractured one. Liberalism in our nation is founded upon a pluralism that, in its constant desire for inclusiveness, must always second-guess its self and question the justice of its action’s. Such a state of self-doubt is inimical to action. The Bolsheviks and the Jacobin’s had a unifying faith, a clearly defined path, the American Left has no such certainties. With this lack of direction the Left are doubly prey to the effects of one of Liberalism’s most crippling characteristics — -idealism. For the left, idealism has many of the qualities of religion in that the rosy optimism of the idealist is always in constant expectation of a better tomorrow. Just as many liberals ignored the possibility of a Trump presidency because it was too terrible to believe possible, so the liberal idealist, like the early Christians, tacitly ignore the hard realities of this world for the kingdom of Heaven to come.
However, perhaps the most important reason revolutionary change is unlikely to arrive in any form from the Left, at least in its current state of disunity, is due to class. It is no secret that in The United States the majority of the population who count themselves as Left-leaning also tend to be the most well educated, and in turn, more affluent relatively than most on the Right. This economic reality may be a hurdle too high to overcome, as this Bourgeois Left has too much to lose, in terms of both middle-class comforts and professional advancement to risk blood and treasure to defend abstract ideals in the face of harsh reality. All of which paints a gloomy picture for the preservation of Liberal values and the continuation of hard-won social victories.
The election of Trump, the threat of Global Warming, the invasion of Iraq, all demonstrate that objectivity and facts are no longer possible. You cannot reason with people who have dispensed with reason.
It is too often forgotten, in what Gore Vidal called The United States of Amnesia that, despite years of struggle by abolitionists, it required a bloody civil war to end the institution of slavery. If the institution of our corporate oligarchy is to be removed, why do we expect it will take anything less?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Political Reality and Useful Lies

With the passing of every new election season, there are likewise renewed pledges from members of the electorate to flee to Canada’s (Ahem) warm embrace. Why conservatives would make the move to a nation proud of its socialized health care is not explained. Yet, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wake of the opponent’s victory, rarely have any been seen to follow through.
For the ancient Romans however, an oath was not something to take lightly, and when the moment for action arrived they did not backpedal, at least, if the historian Livy is to be believed. Known as the Conflict of the Orders, throughout the early days of the republic, periodically the plebeian poor would down tools and walk out, leaving the patrician rich to make do for themselves, threatening to found their own town on an adjoining hill. The calls of patriotism and duty could not bring them back, even while in the midst of a war, while the people felt cheated by their government.
To take such action was simple at this early date, in large part because the city was young and its population still small. But more importantly, the institution of slavery was still at a nascent stage, not having grown to the industrial proportions that it would under the empire and thus, left plenty of room for the services of a large working class, to use a modern term. As we will see, the institution of slavery will also explain much for the present as well.
The United States has long viewed itself in terms borrowed from classical antiquity. The founders took inspiration, as is well known, from the republic of Rome, and kept the lessons of the past in mind when drafting the laws which would outline our government. The resemblance is striking in many ways. Rome, founded by a king, broke free of its sovereign to form a republic. After several centuries, and increasing success as a military power, that republic became an empire which the struggle to control would lead to a return of absolutist one-man rule. The United States has echoed this course of evolution at a far more rapid pace in every particular — but the last. It seems clear then that, between the founding of Rome and the founding of The United States, there had been a few developments to complicate political discourse.
Above all the most important development was the concept of race. A modern invention unknown in the ancient world, it was conceived by the burgeoning sciences to legitimize the use of slave labor. While today the institution of slavery has been abolished, the concept of race and the economic realities of class, remain. Once again the same tripartite hierarchy has served as a powerful tool of the oligarchs to diffuse the blame and redirect the people’s ire.
In the period before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass remarked:
“The slaveholders…by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black himself…Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.” Elsewhere he adds to this by stating: “They divided both to conquer each.”
Today it is a tool even more useful now than it was under the protests of the moral opposition because African-Americans have the appearance of liberty and thus give the appearance of ingratitude when they attempt to protest the conditions of their everyday treatment, while their oppressor’s lack the stigma of enforced servitude to shame them.
It may help here to compare and contrast the situation of the late Roman Republic. It is important to remember that the series of civil wars that brought about the rise of Augustus and one-man rule had little to do with the complaints of the people. The average citizen had no qualms with an empire as such, nor with its endless wars, so long as they were successful. The complaint of the average citizen was in regard to political corruption. Since the founding of the republic the ruling class looked disdainfully upon the plebs, and this did not change when the little city-state of Romulus began to collect other nations like some people collect refrigerator magnets.
As the Conflict of the Orders revealed, the people suffered no difficulty in taking action to air their grievances. Enter Caesar. Despised by his own class as an overly ambitious and dangerous demagogue, Caesar was a member of the Populari faction of the Senate, that is, the faction which favored plebeian causes. And he was loved by the people, not only for this but for the vast sums he lavished upon the populace in games and other entertainments. Here, at last, was a man not afraid to share the wealth.
But again, this only helps to bring the present into clearer focus by contrasting it with the past. The succession of civil wars over the hundred years or so before Caesar and those after his assassination were not wars between rich and poor, but conflicts between members of the wealthy elite competing for control. With the concentration of so much wealth and power in one nation, the rise of an oligarch was an inevitability and one that the people were little concerned about so long as they benefited too. A lesson subsequent emperors learned well in the form of free bread and circuses paid for out of the imperial purse ever afterward.
Trump is certainly no Caesar (though he has promised to share the wealth or, oil, that many expected of the Iraq invasion) but America is an empire, and one following the same established path that other empires have taken before. The principal difference I have sought to highlight is that, ironically enough, if the republic has not yet transitioned into an autocracy of old it is perhaps largely due to the modern issues of class and race. With a convenient third party to blame in American life, politicians have skillfully been able to obscure political reality. The Roman plebeians, our ancient counterparts, had no such divisive hierarchy to cloud the issue. Everyone knew how the game was played, there were no illusions as to absolute rights or just where power lay and who wielded it.
The reality is that there is no such thing anymore in American politics as Left or Right, at least not at the level where it matters. Instead, there are only factions seeking power. However, while our forebears may have lacked illusions, America is the land of wishful thinking. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to accept that their nation is an empire. “Peacekeeper” or “World Policeman” are preferable to a term that strikes at the heart of what both parties wish to believe, or at least project. As with race and class, they are now only facts if we wish them so, but facts they remain nonetheless.
In his early history of Rome, Livy recounts another story. In the old days of the mythic republic, the barbarian Gauls made an attempt to enter surreptitiously the Roman Capital by night and take its occupants by surprise. Unnoticed by men or dogs, they roused the honking of the geese sacred to the goddess Juno and kept in her sacred enclosure there. The guards, hearing this call to action, looked to the walls and repulsed the creeping interlopers before they could win the day. Today a new barbarism has laid siege to the citadel of liberty, one that sees conviction as more true than fact, and facts less important than feelings. However, to rewrite an old adage, if it looks like a goose and it sounds like a goose then, ladies and gentlemen, it is a goose, and today the sound of Juno’s gaggle is deafening. Are we listening?

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Risks of Authenticity

“He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.”
---Martin Heidegger

Since the publication of the Black Notebooks in 2014, the question of Martin Heidegger’s
anti-Semitism, his association with National Socialism and the influence of both upon his thought
have been given renewed impetus. From unpublished papers and other sources, we have a better
understanding today of how Heidegger viewed the Nazis and what he expected of them. But the
reasons for his post-war silence, or near silence, on his involvement, have been harder to discern.
If the man himself would not speak perhaps his philosophy might be more forthcoming.

It is, of course, no secret that Heidegger’s politics were deeply conservative. In large part, this
was almost certainly inspired by his view of the essential autochthony of the German people, that
identity is something grounded in a homeland. Autochthony means literally “ people sprung from
Earth itself”, and Heidegger placed great importance on this concept as he argued that a proper
home was necessary, in which Being could fulfill its potential. With this in mind, it is much
easier to grasp what attracted Heidegger to National Socialism at its inception. And indeed,
Heidegger was there on the ground floor, becoming a party member as early as 1933, well before
the ultimate direction party policy would take could be known. But what Heidegger did know at
the time was that this was a political party and a leader which supported a strong image of the
fatherland and national unity, qualities, as I said, of no small importance in his thinking.

Perhaps of even greater importance for gaining insight into the psychology of his motivation,
however, is Heidegger’s concept of authenticity. Although authenticity is the common
translation used, and the one adopted by Sartre and others, the actual German Eigentlickheit is
more literally “ownedness”, implying that we own what we are and what we do. On the road to
becoming our authentic selves, there is always the risk along the way of surrendering to the
“dictatorship of the They”. The “They”, of course, are the majority of individuals who have
yielded their task of fulfilling their potential to live inauthentic lives. Why would one wish to
remain inauthentic and unfulfilled? For Heidegger, a principal reason is comfort, and it is here
he echoes Nietzsche and the Last Man when he writes of Dasein, or the context of the self,
becoming absorbed “into the being of ‘The Others’”. We most often surrender our own true self
to meet the expectations of others. In return, we can relax from the struggles of living
authentically and flow with the warm predictable current of the conformity of the “Them.”

The They, in setting the standards for how we live, determining for us what we wear, what we
find funny what sad, etc., proscribe the limits of our being, our possibilities. University culture
could be characterized then as much as now as largely politically liberal in outlook and
sympathy, especially after the rise of the Weimar Republic. Heidegger, it was assumed, would
follow his colleagues in dissent of Hitler’s rise. This taken for granted attitude perhaps helps
explain in part the utter shock his declared support for the new regime elicited in fellow faculty
and associates. But, in terms of Heidegger’s thought described above, many should have been
less surprised. This is not to say that Heidegger’s philosophy was somehow “Nazistic” to its
core, as some have suggested, but rather it is that that very assumption he would naturally
acquiesce to what he may have interpreted as the forced opinion of the dictatorship of the They,
perhaps helped influence his decisions. Certainly, it is in alignment with his conception of
authenticity.

Seeing possibilities and taking decisive action, are also characteristics Heidegger associates with
the authentic self. His support of the National Socialists so early in their rise is certainly a
decisive act. And his avoidance too of a clear and direct apology after the war is also consistent,
it is what the They demanded and thus, he could not give and at the same time not surrender
something of himself, however cold this might appear to others. For ultimately, for Heidegger,
there can never be an escape from the social world, a world that is forever attempting to drag us
away from ourselves. Because of this constant assault of the They we are repeatedly taking a
stand, Verstehen, on who we are against the questioning of our identity, our very being. This, of
course, does not excuse his behavior but then, what we think would have mattered little to
Heidegger, an indifference that perhaps the release of the Black Notebooks was meant to reflect.
All of us have at some time been guilty of something, or at least felt guilty. And when that guilt
is discovered or acknowledged it can be used as a weapon against us. Perhaps it was the desire
to soften the blows of that weapon against his Dasein that led to Heidegger’s deflated and
depersonalized apology. It was a means of saving face, and saving himself.

If we remember the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger makes plain that he did not accept
Humanism’s metaphysics of a shared essence. People are subjective but Being itself is objective,
above the merely human which is forever tied to history and custom. The world and its value’s
change, but Being does not. Is it possible that, in waiting so long to publish these final thoughts,
Heidegger was taking a gamble that the world to which they would be introduced would be one
more receptive to its message? If the furor after their release is any indication, it is a gamble that
he clearly miscalculated. But, in gambling, as in every other choice we make, there is always a
risk. And, whatever you may think of the man and the choice of his political allegiances, Heidegger was clearly a thinker not afraid to risk it all.