Tag Archives: political philosophy

On Arguing Economics

Just to get the main point across allow me to start this post by simply stating, there exists no such thing as the economic model from which we can impartially derive any sort of self-evident conclusions, policies, or values.  By which I mean that there is no purity test to determine which economic model is somehow more objectively “valid” than another.

For example, take two modern economic models that stand on completely opposite sides of the spectrum:  Marxist communism and laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.  [I’m aware that different people have over the decades attempted to give varying definitions within both these models, thereby making an overreaching analysis on my part impossible; hence, I will primarily be addressing elements that are agreed upon components by almost all professional voices in the aforementioned fields.]  Putting aside what Marxism has come to mean to the layperson through the various revolutionary forces that carried its banner in the 20th Century, at the core of the economic model is the proposition that societal development is best understood as the process by which humans–as a collective–produce the necessities of life (often referred to as historical materialism among Marxist scholars).  While the nuances of the whole thing can get very convoluted from here on out, the basic framework Marx was working off of, within this scope of historical materialism, is that human society is better served if the workers who physically produce the products necessary for the life of all of society retained economic control over said products.  From this he further postulated the emergence of a commune like market of commerce, in which production is owned and distributed equally among all sectors of society (i.e. communism), as a historical inevitability that human development is progressively heading towards in the modern era.

The theoretical problem of course in the Marxist economic model is that the validity of historical materialism is dependent on the notion that we accept the validity of historical materialism; this is otherwise known as a tautology (or circular argument), and is fallacious by definition.  The practical part being ignored in this model is that the perception of human progress as developing towards one specific sociocultural norm or another is only evident in hindsight, and any economic/social course that ends up developing can in retrospect be rationalized in terms of its preceding events; this is true even for identical situations that yield contrasting outcomes.  Not to mention, if we are to approach economics from a historical perspective (as Marxism claims) a decent case could be made that human nature (even in modern, industrial time) seems to be more conducive on creating hierarchical social structures, rather than collective communes.

Before any freemarket advocates who might be reading this start handing out congratulatory “Likes” to my dismantling of Marxism (I’m looking your way libertarians and self-styled classical liberals), it needs to be said that the reasoning underlying laissez-faire freemarket capitalism fares no better than its socialist antipodes.  The premise that economic sectors perform at their best when market forces are allowed to compete unmolested by non-market factors (like the government), rests on the idea that little to no regulation will in itself create an environment in which all the various forces that make up the marketplace will have to compete against one another; theoretically leaving the final word on what products/serves are to succeed in the freemarket to the consumers (i.e. all of us).  In theory, this sounds great; in practice, just like when it comes to Marxist economics, historical data casts a few doubts on the extent to which laissez-faire capitalism holds up.

First, the proposition that the freemarket is something akin to a self-sustaining, self-correcting organism ignores the fact that the freemarket is–above all else–entirely man-made.  The freemarket, as an economic plane in which human beings exchange commerce, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, anymore than a locomotive is a naturally occurring phenomenon; we purposefully invented it to serve our economic needs.  Thus, to argue a “hands-off” approach to an entity whose very existence is owed to primarily “hands-on” interests, can be argued to be more than a bit narrow-sighted.

More than that, when we look at the era in which laissez-faire freemarket capitalism thrived unmitigated in the U.S.–the late 19th and early 20th Centuries–instead of seeing a marketplace of robust competition, driven by the needs of the consumer, we see a gradual concentration of market power in the hands of a handful of conglomerates.  The reason being that, economically speaking, the initial surge in competition experienced in a newly emerging market, left to its own devices, can in time have a minority of businesses surpass their competition to the point that they are virtually the only option on the market left for the consumer.  In this historical scenario, the presence of a laissez-faire freemarket did not create a healthy competitive environment, nor did it have any means to correct the centralization of commerce powers in the hands of the few over the many.  (In fact, in this case the government actually did have to step in and implement anti-monopoly laws to try and introduce competition back into the market.)  Therefore, the unanswered (or unanswerable) question concerning laissez-faire capitalism is the issue of–given the proposition that faceless, easily corrupted government agencies cannot be trusted enough to interfere with the business operations of the freemarket–why faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates ought to, for some reason, be seen as more trustworthy in this regard?

Although this much should be obvious by now, the point of this post isn’t to convince anyone to accept the superiority of one economic theory over another.  Even as far as the two (admittedly more extreme) examples cited above, I’m sure that given more time and interest we all could go back and forth listing all the sincere benefits and advantages of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism.  Acknowledging this, my greater point about economics remains the same, which is that while the historical study of economics can produce viable, scientifically tangible, insights about some aspect of human societies (primarily developments in the commercial and fiscal sectors), proposed economic theories themselves lack this level of scientific rigor.  All economic theories (be it Marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, or anything in between) by necessity begin with an assumed conclusion (“human society is naturally moving towards a collective communal state”, “the freemarket operates best when left unregulated”, etc. etc. etc.) and then go on to selectively interpret all socioeconomic developments through the lens of whatever situation is more conducive to the promotion of the favored economic conditions already accepted by the economic theory in question.

From this it certainly does not logically follow that all economic theories are equal in their outcome (whether for good or bad).  Or that any one economic theory couldn’t be claimed as more preferable for any specific society (I think most reading this can agree that feudalism would generally be a horrible model for modern society).  What it does mean is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing, omniscient economic system deduced through unfiltered objective reality, as opposed to individual, subjective human preferences.  In light of that, I think perhaps talks of economics from opposing viewpoints is due a bit more humility and reservation about one’s own pet theories, than what is currently on display in public discourse.

Just some food for thought, savor it as you wish.

Advertisements

The Birth of Kratocracy

Some words die in the course of their usage; others before they ever really get a chance to experience life.  It can be presumed how at least a small fraction of these aborted etyma possess within them the potential to contribute to the greater understanding and advancement of human expression.

Of course, this sentiment certainly does not possess universal application across all fields of study.  As, for instance, when it comes to fields like politics; where words are very much meaningless to begin with.  Add an -ism; concoct a series of phonetic abbreviations; maybe combine some neutral sounding words to disguise egregious breaches of national and international law as passable acts of justice (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques“, “Due process and judicial process are not one and the same“).  The notion of allowing concrete definitions of terms or phrases into their diction would be toxic to political agents, as it would force them to speak and obey the same language as the rest of society.  A move counterproductive to their career interests, since it might serve to give the impression of accountability for one’s words, and the subsequent actions they bring about; a cruel demand on a group of people whose professional existence consists of purposefully rendering words unintelligible.  Among such personnel the only Gospel is “Babel”; the walls of which shan’t ever cometh tumblin’ down, for they stand too high for those from-out to look in, and for those from-in to look out.  In this context, it’s foolish to expect people who don’t occupy the same stratosphere to hear one another’s voice, yet we still insist on debating endlessly why there exists this loss in understanding between man and statesman?

And what is there to understand, really?  Why must there always be either some deeper meaning to a system, or an ominous conspiracy?  Why isn’t it enough to simply acknowledge that people who reside in the same atmosphere will have their perspective shaped by similar interests?  And in such a situation, what need is there for anyone to conspire about anything when everyone who reaches the same elevation already understands the nature of things just by virtue of having climbed the path?

In a kratocracy, where governance (both political and its financed-proxy) rests with those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning, the primary order of business that is expected of every person is to understand who it is you stand under, and follow rank accordingly.  In a kratocratic system, words must remain elastic in their meaning, so that–whenever convenient–the word of law can serve as a mere compilation of semantic loopholes (at least, when applied to the kratocratic lawmakers and financiers themselves).  Anyone who actually makes it up the ranks in this system will understand all of this by fiat; conspiracies and secretive motives are pointlessly redundant in a political order where sabotage and manipulation are not corruptions of the system (hence calls for reform carry little pressure), but inherent attributes of it that get openly rewarded with wealth and power.

Consider the following:  Everyone says they hate the smear ads put out by politicians against their opponents, just like everyone says they “hate” the obscene tabloids that litter the magazine racks of every store.  In other words, the majority of the people who say they detest gossip and mudslinging are obvious liars, on account that if such underhanded antics were truly as universally despised as people claim them to be, this sort of behavior would have fallen into disuse long ago.  But it hasn’t, and it won’t.  Because sabotage and manipulation, as long as they are not pointed out as such, are perfectly decent kratocratic virtues.  Virtues that only become indecent at a lower atmosphere, where the oxygen is too dense to support them.  Up on higher elevation, however, where the gravity of things like ethics and moral conduct don’t appear to weigh a person down as heavily, a different mode of reasoning applies.  None of this is devious or deceptive, as we all passively sanction this disparity for those who occupy seats of authority (both political and by its financed-proxy).  Partly because (as mentioned) we know our rank and don’t really bother to inquire too deeply into the matter, and partly because Babel is much too high up for any of us to strain our necks far enough to really care about what’s going on up there anyway.

The true cunning that sustains a kratocracy is the relatively little effort it takes to sustain it.  Simply draw a few lines in the sand, throw out a few provocative token issues around and behind said lines, and–voila!–watch people preoccupy themselves with these “life or death” topics, and whatever narrative is needed to keep the engine running smoothly will pretty much assemble itself (with the occasional minor tuneup here and there).  Again, no conspiracy needed, since even the people who get caught up in the small-scale politics of the whole thing notice that there is something more important operating around them.  But they don’t care, because as long as they focus on the pet-issues they have adopted as their personal identity, they can say how they’ve done something.  Whether or not its something relevant to challenging and eradicating the source of their cause’s woes is anybody’s guess, because what really matters is the comforting feeling of taking action it gives them.  Thereby, the beauty about a kratocracy is that it allows a person to feel both powerless and powerful at the same time–creating inner dichotomies is the mainstay of cunning authorities.

The Dichotomy of the Martyr and the Satyr:

It’s easy to be oppressed.  In fact, to a growing number of people, this appears to be their primary goal in life.  Observe a group of individuals some time, and watch how–sooner than later–the conversation will descend into a pity-fest of grief and sorrow.  It starts with one person retelling a great trauma in her/his life, and how s/he overcame it.  Which, of course, will cause another person to quickly improvise her/his own tale of painful woe.  Then a third will jump in to match both of the previous life stories with her/his own dose of personal despair.  And around, and around, the self-deprecation goes [where it stops nobody knows–if it ever stops at all, that is].

The assumed purpose in conveying one’s trauma to an audience of equally pitiful (in the sense of being full of pity) onlookers, is to humble oneself by demonstrating the extent of one’s suffering before the cruelty of life, and voice one’s opposition against the systemic source of one’s miseries.  The actual purpose is to elevate one’s sense of self-importance not through any positive accomplishments achieved, but through the sympathies and pities of one’s failures and setbacks.  And if that is not the intent, why go out of your way to rehash matters that are causing you so much apparent pain?  Why would you wish to publicly place yourself (even if just mentally) back in such a situation, unless you gain some–perhaps subconscious–satisfaction out of doing so?  Why would you want to aggrieve others through your anguish, when they cannot feasibly remove your distress for you?  Then again, is removing the trauma really the goal in this mindset?

I may be out of the loop here, but as a general rule oppressed people don’t have the luxury to freely voice grievances about their oppression.  (If they did, how oppressed could they possibly claim to be?)  If they speak of it at all, they do so with the intent to reform, or revolt against, their oppressors, and possibly replace its authority with something more desirable.  People who merely speak (freely and without any evident restraints) about their supposed oppression as a means of gaining acknowledgement for it, are not in the business of either challenging or changing any wrongs in society; what they seek is to attain recognition through metaphorical martyrdom.

Naturally, this martyr complex cannot go wholly unchallenged among the greater public.  And the most biting reaction it will bring about is–what I would call–the Satyr effect.  People who use their past grievances as a means to promote a self-righteous indignation about their person will emit two leading responses: 1. Pity (the desired reaction by the would-be martyr), and 2. Ridicule (i.e. the Satyr effect).  The Satyr sees her/himself as a counterbalance against the overblown austere tone of the martyr.  So, s/he mocks, and ridicules, and uses sharp wit to get the message across that the martyr’s concerns are due little more than a jolly laugh or two.  For her/his part, the Satyr sees her/himself as a hero who speaks the hard truth to the world, and puts a humorous check on the antics of both the authorities and the martyrs of society.

In reality, the Satyr serves the greater purpose of empowering both, by giving them a tangible source to validate their dubious claims of oppression (in the case of the martyr) and benignity (in the case of the authority; who else but a benevolent power allows itself to be mocked mercilessly?–is the popular adage here).  The Satyr can’t admit this, as it would be an acknowledgement of the fact that s/he is simply a byproduct, who exists strictly in reactive form.  And reactions by definition only respond to the products that create them, they do not operate independent of them.  Thus, the Satyr’s image as a hero for truth, and voice for real change or reform, is as unfounded the the martyr’s claim of oppression; and just as self-aggrandizing.

The dichotomy of the martyr and the Satyr are linked together by default.  Where the first appears, the second will follow, and with the advent of the internet age, the rate at which these mindsets spread increases tenfold.  In recent time, they have also become the desired responses by which the modern generation has decided to combat the ills and injustices of the world; unaware of just how helpful this is to the very authorities they claim to be challenging.  This is why, together, the martyr complex and the Satyr effect will ensure that the 21st Century goes down in history as one serious joke.

Reenter kratocracy:

In a kratocracy, you are not oppressed–not really.  If you are among those who fit the personality type, you will be made to feel the wholly illusory role of the oppressed martyr.  Not for the purpose of inflicting any unnecessary pain (or any real pain, for that matter), but to keep you content and docile by giving you the exact dose of self-righteous persecution you crave in order to make your person feel important enough to be faux-oppressed by a “greater” power.  Having tied your self-worth to the “oppressive” system you whinge about, removing this system will be unthinkable as your martyr identity (which is your whole identity) is dependent on its continued existence.  Additionally, you will be too preoccupied with your own unresolvable issues to bother caring too deeply about anything else going on around you.

In a kratocracy, the Satyr–the cynic, the comedian, the witty social commentator–is neither combating nor undermining the governing system by ridiculing its unjust, hierarchical structure.  As the Satyr, you’re actually having the (unbeknownst to you) effect of desensitizing people to the wrongs of the power structure you’re working so hard to mock.  Humor breeds comfort, and comfort breeds content.  It is true that, in feudal days of yonder, it was the Jester who could only speak the brutal truth to the ruler.  Yet, can anyone name a single jester who has ever overthrown a single ruler by virtue of possessing this great privilege of critical commentary?  No, and no jester ever will, because–no matter how much the Satyrs of the world wish it to be otherwise–jokes, even intricately insightful ones, do not have an iota of influence on an authority structure’s hold on power.  (Disagree?–Name one Bush joke in the previous decade that actually had the effect of countering the man’s unwise policies.  Or, for that matter, a single insightful jab at Trump’s lack of qualifications for high office in slowing down his presidential election.  Can’t think of one?  Exactly.)

Kratocracy:  governance by those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning.  What could be more cunning than a system where even a presumed defiance can be utilized and converted back into the service of the authority being defied?  Now, at least, it has an identifiable name; a most acidic move against an entity that depends on the elasticity of words and definitions to survive and operate.

2016 Election Ennui

Post-election ennui is a foregone conclusion for most sane people (like junk food is for the intestine, there’s a limit to how many bumper-sticker slogans and dimwitted soundbites our collective psyche can handle before the floodgates open).  But the results are finally in:  Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the next US President come January, and the Republicans will hold a majority of the seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.  To say that some segment of the American public is caught off-guard is an understatement.

A year ago I wrote a post on Trump that summarized my views on him, vis-a-vis the average American voter:

Simply put, the man is an asshole, and people can better relate to assholes than straight-arrows.  They forget about the fact that nothing about Donald Trump is actually relatable to them personally.  You weren’t born rich.  You don’t get to walk away happily from one bankruptcy after another, after another, after another, and still be called “financially savvy”.  You don’t get to insult people on a deeply personal level, and still be seen as anything other than a sour old crank.  You are, in every way imaginable, living in a different reality than Donald Trump.  And, no, by associating with his name–his brand–you will not be granted access to it, either

To some members of the public Trump is a vicarious personification of how they wish that they, too, could behave (as they please, without fears of consequences).  To this segment of the population no deeper reason really needs to exist to convince them that Trump is the man to lead the nation.  There are a multitude of other reasons people voted for Trump, of course (worries over immigration trends, worries over big government, distrust or dissatisfaction with Democratic policies, etc.), but a too-thorough analysis really isn’t necessary since–whatever the underlying reasons are–Trump managed to actually appeal to enough members of this society to sell himself as the worthy candidate.

This brings me then to the losing side.  With the many confusing factors that made up the 2016 election, explaining why Hillary Clinton never enjoyed mass appeal is the easiest thing to pinpoint.  Again, allow me to re-post what I wrote last year:

In the past decade and a half, [Clinton] has been foolishly hawkish when she backed the Iraq war for as long as public opinion could stomach it; she currently speaks out against corporate greed, yet seems to forget that she sat in government, not proposing or supporting a single piece of legislation that might have curbed the coming market crash in 2008, or reformed the financial sector in this country in any way whatsoever; she has never given more than passive support for the rights of gays, low-income families, the labor class, or anybody else for that matter, until she was absolutely sure that such stances polled favorably with the electoral public.

In short, the conundrum that faces the Left in this country when it comes to electing Hillary Clinton is similar to the one that faced them in the 90s with the first Clinton.  Namely, the Clintons have no ideology, political or otherwise, to propose, stand, or even fall on: the sole purpose on which any Clinton campaign is fueled by is strictly the unyielding need to get elected.  All other concerns are secondary, if nonexistent to this guiding purpose.

The gamble the Democratic Party played was the hope that the American public would look past these obvious flaws in Hillary Clinton’s character, and instead galvanize around the fact that Donald Trump is an incompetent, thin-skinned, pompous, insulting, crybaby, bloated simpleton, wrapped up in a narcissistic package of a special kind of clueless buffoonery.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it blatantly illustrated a disregard for their own potential political allies (i.e. moderate and liberal Americans), as if they hoped for the average Democratic voter to be too stupid to realize when a candidate (and her entire Party leadership) were unwilling to afford them the due respect to at least acknowledge the gaping flaws surrounding their candidate’s record, and just rely on the flaws of the opposing candidate to carry them through to the finish.  While there may have been a time not long ago when this was true of political campaigns, it simply isn’t any longer.  Technology has afforded us too much access behind the veil, too much data at our fingertips, for any perceived lack of sincerity to be brushed aside as irrelevant (Trump may very well have lied about everything he said during his campaign, but the Clinton campaign’s history of trying to downplay any blemish in her political record is what disenfranchised people who may otherwise have been inclined to vote Democratic).

The core lesson that should be gained from this election is the fact that Americans no longer just believe that the political system is corrupt, but that corruption is an innate part of the system.  And when these same people say they demand change, rather than settle for hogwash establishment rhetoric, they will go out and choose whatever real change they can find–given the option, they will even choose bad change over the same old “business-as-usual” candidates.  Whether this is a lesson that the Democrats learn remains to be seen, however.  Lest we forget that the shallow brilliance of political minds lies in the infinite depth of their stupidity when it comes to deducing the reality around them.  And if you disagree with that, consult the accuracy of the political experts and pollsters leading up to this election, then revisit how my previous sentence hardly went far enough in explaining their ineptitude.

Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

In 1784, German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared the motto of enlightenment as, “Have courage to use your own reason!”  He goes further to indict laziness and cowardice as the reasons why much of mankind repeatedly fails to uphold this motto, and instead prefers to remain under lifelong tutelage of external influences:

If I have a book which understands me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself.  I need not think, if I can only pay–others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The theme of self-determination (both politically and as a matter of personal principle) runs deep in the writings that came to define the Enlightenment tradition.  However, emerging within a culture of authoritarianism, to promote the values of individual reason and expression as the primary moral principles in life were inseparable from outright heresy.  But it is exactly this so-called heretical mindset that Kant urges the masses to embrace, precisely because it will free them from those who have appointed themselves as guardians of their thoughts:

After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are confined, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.

Naturally, Kant considers the implied danger to be a farce concocted by these self-appointed guardians to preserve their own authority, and the deception largely persists because the ordinary man “has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.”  And that is the primary intent of Kant’s appeal on behalf of reason; simply for the public to be given the opportunity to be guardians of their own mental faculties–i.e. their own enlightenment.  Kant believes that an enlightened public is not only a desirable goal, but an obviously possible one, because “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”

However, Kant still remains realistic in his own idealism for an enlightened public.  He understands that many prejudices have been ingrained in the public’s psyche that are outright counter to enlightenment thinking, and that therefore “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.”  He reasons that while tyrannical regimes can be toppled by speedy revolutions, they do not remove said prejudices and predispositions that prevent the public from embracing enlightenment, and that different measures are necessary to reform the ways by which people think (or, rather, refuse to think).

Freedom, of course, is the primary component needed in Kant’s view for an enlightened society.  Namely the freedom to think, and  “make public use of one’s reason at every point.”  Unfortunately, though a simple proposition, there exists much standing in the way of achieving this level of public awareness:

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!”  The officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

The prince Kant is talking about is Frederick II of Prussia, whose civil reforms the philosopher sees as necessary preconditions for creating an enlightened society.  (Reaffirming this point later on in the essay, when he declares, “Do we now live an enlightened age? The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment / or the century of Frederick.”)

Despite his call for complete freedom for a citizen to use his reason, Kant does differentiate between a person’s right to espouse his opinion freely, and the right of a state to place certain mandate’s on a person’s freedoms when it comes to exercising its right to govern over said person as a subject to its laws.  For instance:

The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as scandal.  But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of these levies.

The hallmark of modern democracy is the right we as a citizenry have to petition our government, either directly or through our elected representatives, to change and shape the laws we abide by in accordance with out collective understand of what is moral and what is just.  Hence, what Kant is proposing above seems rather uncontroversial to us in the 21st century; however, in 1784, a proposition such as this was quite radical indeed.  For to suggest to an absolutist authority, be it monarchical or clerical, that the public ought to be free to openly reason, question, and argue all matters of thinking, including the very function of the authorities that preside over them, is to a hitherto unchallenged power the first an open call for anarchy and heresy.  Kant remains unfazed by such objections, as he clearly lines out how his proposal is neither destabilizing for the state, nor damning for the public’s salvation, because enlightenment–as a product of allowing the pubic its freedom of reason–is the fundamental component in nurturing a society that, even while it remains free to voice its dissatisfaction with the authorities presiding over it, the very freedom of being granted a voice at all endears the public to the system that has set up the parameters that grant such freedoms that treat them “in accordance with their dignity.”

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is Enlightenment?” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and the Will of the People

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract may very well be the most fervently democratic work of all the early political treatises.  Rousseau follows in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and postulated a variant of the social contract theory; including a unique version of man’s early origin that sets out to negate Hobbes’s savage state of nature, and redefine the whole of political theory to align with his belief in populist governance—where true legislative power resides solely with the masses.

The Genevese philosopher opens his famous discourse with the words, “Men was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”[1]  The diction used in this opening sentence is very important to understanding Rousseau’s entire philosophical position.  “Man was born free,” specifically stated in the past tense to indicate a contrast from mankind’s present state of existence.  This is then followed by the second part of the sentence, “and everywhere he is in chains.”  Notice now the switch to the present tense, is meant to describe our current condition.  To thoroughly explain the motivation behind Rousseau’s word choice here, one must dwell a little deeper into the man’s personal philosophy.  Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed that prior to the advent of social communities, man had resided on a plane that can be called the state of nature.  However, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau envisioned this state to have been one of harmony and peace, rather than cruelty and war, where each individual led a solitary life, with no infringement on his will by any other person [this is discussed in greater detail in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754]; hence the reference to man having been born free in the past.  Furthermore, he believes that it was mankind’s removal from this tranquil existence, through the forming of cities and nations, that has caused humanity to spiral into a perpetual mode of degradation, a trend that can only worsen as civilization progresses (since all progressions will only take humanity farther away from his ideal state of being); this degradation serve as our chains.

Yet, despite these claims of mankind having had once enjoyed a serene peace in his solitary state, Rousseau does acknowledge that at some point in the development of the human species the obstacles to men’s self-preservation became too great for the single individual to overcome.  Therefore, “the original state can then subsist no longer, and the human race would perish if it did not change its mode of existence.”[2]  The result was the implementation of the social contract, in which originally each individual puts his power in the common good under the supreme direction of the general will, but no single individual is put into a situation in which their person is subjugated by the will of another.[3]  Rousseau’s reasoning here is to establish the basis that any form of executive that seems to undermine the will of the public is by definition unlawful, because “those to whom the executive power is committed are not the masters of the people, but its officers.”[4]  Thus, the objective of all government ought to be to yield power to the people, whose collective will serves as the true sovereign of the state.

It’s not difficult to see problems with Rousseau’s logic, even if one agrees with his reasoning and conclusion.  Firstly, if mankind started out solitary, and this was his ideal state of existence, is it not more reasonable to propose that humanity ought to abandon communities altogether, rather than argue for a populist democratic rule?  The answer one can imagine Rousseau giving to such an objection is to maintain that man has been removed from the state of nature for too long to return, thus establishing popular democratic rule is a means to bring modern man as close to his perfect form as possible.  In fact, the sort of state that Rousseau is proposing seems to not be much of a formal state at all.  Instead, it can more aptly be understood as a social gathering, “The state which is thus governed needs very few laws; and when it becomes necessary to promulgate new ones, the necessity for them is universally understood.”[5]  Rousseau is convinced that as long as the general will of man is not stifled by authority, his naturally peaceful nature will create a symbiotic unity with the will of his fellow man:  “There is never any question of vote-catching or speech-making in order to make it a law to do what everyone has already resolved that he will do himself, once he is sure that others will do the same.”[6]  But again, the question can be raised why a people ought to bother having a state at all, if they can so readily reach a consensus simply by the merit of having everyone’s general will consulted, and made clear?[7]  Why bother with having a government at all?

Once again it is important to try and understanding the program Rousseau is presenting from the philosopher’s point of view.  Earlier he mentioned that conditions of life are so that man could not subsist in his state of nature forever, thus his consenting to the social pact to ensure preservation.  It is the nature of this contract that must be explored to understand Rousseau’s reasoning.  He states that, “there is one sole law that by its nature demands unanimous consent:  it is the social pact.”[8]  Therefore, the social contract (or “pact”) is the only obligation that any individual is sworn to, but is never subjugated by:  “If therefore when the social pact is agreed there are those who oppose it, their opposition does not invalidate the contract, but merely prevents it from being applied to them:  they are foreigners among citizens.”[9]  This is in stark contrast to Hobbes’s covenants, whose obligations are to be enforced authoritatively, if necessary; any person in Rousseau’s society can simply opt out of the community, if he so determines.

Now, one major point still remains to be addressed by Rousseau, what happens if someone who freely reside within the community, and has consented to the social contract, finds himself in the minority opinion of a particular issue?  Rousseau approaches the question by first stating, “a majority vote is always binding on all the others; that is a direct consequence of the contract.”[10]  However, this statement seems to be irreconcilable with Rousseau’s stance on the inability to subvert someone’s general will to that of another.  The philosopher tries to rationalize this objection away by replying, “The citizen consents to every law, even those that are passed against his opposition,”[11] because, “the constant will of all the citizens of the state is the general will:  it is through the general will that they are citizens and have freedom.”[12]  But this is now starting to sound an awful lot like Hobbes’ position that the sovereign, acting as the proprietor of the social contract, gets to enforce the rules of the covenants on the citizenry, except that in Rousseau’s system the masses collectively occupy the role of the sovereign, instead of just one ruler.  Moreover, the outcome will still involve the undermining of an individual’s will by another (in this case the majority).  Rousseau is not ignorant of this disparity, and attempts to sooth it by clarifying, “When an opinion contrary to mine prevails, therefore, it proves only that I had been mistaken, and that the general will was not what I had believed it to be.”[13]  And in what way is this not an example of one individual having to subvert their will to the will of others?  Saying that because you find yourself in opposition to the general will of the majority the only conclusion is that you’re mistaken on the issue, does not negate the fact that you are then being forced to undermine your solitary will to that of the community (lest you be deemed to have forfeited your citizenship [see footnote 9]).

The main problem Rousseau fails to consider in The Social Contract, is that in such an environment, there is no reason to believe that it will be the solidarity of the people’s general will that will govern the community, rather than the fear induced conformity.  And in an environment like that, the difference between a system governed by a unified majority, and a system corrupted by the whim of an influential minority, is not as readily noticeable as one might think.  In fact, in cunning hands, the will of the people, can easily be swayed to serve the will of the few; and the people might never even be the wiser.

[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. “Book I: Chapter 1,” Oxford University Press (New York: 1994), p. 45.

[2] Rousseau, p. 54.

[3] Rousseau, p. 55.

[4] Rousseau, p. 132.

[5] Rousseau, p. 134.

[6] Rousseau, p. 134.

[7] Rousseau, p. 135.

[8] Rousseau, p. 137.

[9] Rousseau, p. 137.

[10] Rousseau, p. 137.

[11] Rousseau, p. 137.

[12] Rousseau, p. 137-138.

[13] Rousseau, p. 138.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: Justice, and the Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is arguably one the most influential works of political philosophy since Plato’s Republic.  In the book, Hobbes sets out to demonstrate how, and why, man has come to create social and political structures, in concurrence with other men, and thereby buildup the pillars of civilization and modes of governance.

Hobbes’ central premise is that absent of social structures, humans occupy a realm called the state of nature.  Such a state is a lawless, cruel, savage plain of existence, in which the primary instinct of all living creatures (including man) is solely to survive.  However, man—being a rational animal—realizes that the greatest method to satisfy the survival instinct is to try to avoid the brutal pangs of the state of nature altogether, and the only natural means by which he can do so is by seeking security and protection in greater numbers; since the strength of a group will always be immensely more powerful than the strength of the individual.  Furthermore, to ensure stability and efficiency of such a system, the members of the forged society must agree to a certain set of covenants, the social contract that is to be followed by all individuals within the group, that are to be followed by all persons who wish to remain within the protection of the greater community, or risk being exiled back into the savagery of the state of nature.

A reasonable challenge to Hobbes’ program is to inquire about the exact means by which a society (or, commonwealth, as he calls it) is to enforce the covenants of the community; namely, how is justice to be established and ensured.  Hobbes, himself, acknowledges the importance, “that man perform their covenants made:  without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words.”[1]  For Hobbes, the issue of justice is rather simple, if there exists no covenant between individuals, then, “no right has been transferred, and every man has right to every thing [i.e. the state of nature]; and consequently no action can be unjust.”[2]  On the other hand, “when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust:  and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant.”[3]  The agreed upon social contract is the foundation upon which Hobbes rests his political theory.  In absents of such covenants, lawlessness reigns supreme, and justice is an incoherent premise.  But, once covenants are made amongst individuals, and a commonwealth is formed, the perimeters of what is to be just, and what is to be unjust, are established, and a failure to follow the decree of the covenant, renders one’s actions unjust by definition.  However, that also leaves open the question of how, exactly, the consequences of the individual’s actions are to be determined by the commonwealth.  Hobbes’s answer is unapologetically authoritarian:

Therefore before the names of just, and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their consent.[4]

A proprietor is needed to maintain the covenant, without which justice cannot exist in a commonwealth.  As far as Hobbes is concerned, all these components are dependent entities, and inseparable of the existence of a functioning commonwealth (i.e. a society).  For, it is by agreement of their covenants (the entering into the social contract) that the individuals grant the establishment of the commonwealth, and from there, also consents to the power of a proprietor, to employ social cohesion on the members of the community and give legitimacy to the rules of the covenant.  “So that the nature of justice, consisteth in keeping of valid covenants:  but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them:  and then it is also that propriety begins.”[5]  Thus, the establishment of a powerful sovereign, of a centralized governing body, is the natural extension of social covenants, and communal living in general.

Although Hobbes’ reasoning is not difficult to follow, one more issue still remains: what about those who reject the seriousness of the covenants?  Is it not imaginable that certain individuals, acting in their self-interest, will enter and break covenants as the mood strikes them; undermining the basis of justice?  And if enough individuals in the commonwealth follow this example, will not the entire social structure become flimsy, and the administration of justice become unmanageable for the proprietor (i.e. the sovereign) to perform?  Hobbes has a harsh reply to this mode of questioning, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no such thing as justice.”[6]  For those who do not take the covenants of the commonwealth seriously, Hobbes does not take seriously.  He argues that such individuals—the fools—have no difficulty seeing the benefit of covenants when it serves their immediate interest, but only refuse to oblige by them when it seems that the rules will refuse them a particular instance of gratification.  Yet, it is by this very admission of the need for covenants to give legitimacy to issues of justice, “He [the fool] does not therein deny, that there be covenants; and that such breach of them may be called injustice, and the observation of the justice.”[7]  Seeing as how Hobbes maintains that absent covenants, men stands alone in the realm of nature, where just and unjust do not exist, the conclusion he derives for those who break covenants is that they forfeit any reference to justice itself.  Therefore, this individual, who steps out of the covenant has lost the protection of the commonwealth, which is still governed by the merits of the social contract they have agreed to uphold, “therefore he which declares he thinks it reason to deceive those that help him, can in reason expect no other means of safety, then what can be had from his own single power.”[8]  And, since no man can truly know the depth of the dangers that may lie ahead of his solitary existence, Hobbes would ask the fool, is it not more reasonable to follow the decrees of the covenant in favor of momentary self-interest, because the greater strength and security of the commonwealth in comparison to the individual is guaranteed to offer a higher rate of survivability for all its subjects?  Because, given the savagery of the state of nature, the fool, “if he be left, or cast out of society, he perisheth.”[9]

Having settled the issue of how to define justice, Hobbes turns to the question of morality.  Namely, even if the stipulations of the covenants a commonwealth is governed under are legitimately just, how does one determine whether they are moral?  Hobbes approaches the matter by first defining what is meant by moral, “moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind.  Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites, and aversions.”[10]  In other words, morality does not exist independent of human desires and inclinations.  In this sense, Hobbes is rejecting the notion of an absolute morality as unfounded in human nature.  Whatever public consciousness might persuade man to think of his morals, the historic reality shows that convergences on moral issues are not self-evident across customs, or across times, “Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himself; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth evil.”[11]  Hobbes argues that since one individual’s opinion on what is moral rests equally against another individual’s opinion of what is moral, the state of nature, being devoid of justice (as argued above), will never allow for a peace on the matter, hence war will be the natural consequence.  However, man does not want war, as it runs counter to his instinct for security and preservation; thus, man can agree that the opposite of war, peace (even if not absolute), is objectively good; as are the means of achieving peace.[12]  To Hobbes, performing covenants is the best means to escape the state of nature, the consequence of war, and establish a coherent concept of justice.  Therefore, the question of what is to be deemed moral, is inherently correlated with what is considered just:  obliging to the covenants of one’s commonwealth is the greatest good that can be done for oneself, hence (granting Hobbes’ premises) it is morally sound.

[1] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ch. 15, “Of the Laws of Nature,” Touchstone (New York: 1997), p.113.

[2] Hobbes, p. 113.

[3] Hobbes, p. 113.

[4] Hobbes, p. 113.

[5] Hobbes, p. 114.

[6] Hobbes, p. 114.

[7] Hobbes, p. 114.

[8] Hobbes, p. 115.

[9] Hobbes, p. 115.

[10] Hobbes, p. 123.

[11] Hobbes, p. 123.

[12]Hobbes, p. 124.

The Unspoken Flaw of Populist Rhetoric, or F–k “the People”

It doesn’t matter where you stand on the right-center-left spectrum of American politics, the fact is that, if you’re running for political office and you want to stand any chance of winning, you will laud and promote your candidacy as being aligned with the spirit of the people.  What exactly is this spirit, and who specifically constitutes being a member of such a vague and loaded category like “the people”?  None of that matters, because the phrase is meant to be a blank sheet, onto which voters can project whatever specific attributes they favor, left over from the sociopolitical legacy of the populist struggle of the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Populism is a broad term within political philosophy, but its basic ideological tenet is one of supporting the interests of the common worker and general public (frequently stylized simply as “the people” in popular speech), against the domination of the affluent elites of society.  In the United States, the populist movement began in the late 19th Century as a mostly rural (farmers, laborers, and small-businessmen) backlash against the growing monopolization of their resources into the control of a group of industrialists and venture capitalists.  Because the latter group had most (if not all) of the political and financial backing from the government, populism (even after its namesake’s fall as a major political player in the early 20th Century) became associated in the public mind with the common good of the lowly citizenry; essentially presented under the image of giving a voice to the hitherto politically voiceless.

As I already mentioned, nowadays the appeal to populist rhetoric transcends political affiliation.  Barack Obama can fail to call for the legal investigation of the individuals and enterprises (indeed, openly refuse any suggestion of it) who contributed to the high risk gambling of public and private funds that helped bring about the financial crisis of 2008 (the economic effect of which we are still feeling on a global level), and he will still promote his policies as prime examples of serving “the people” above the interests of the upper classes (well, I don’t know about you, but when I commit marketing fraud and declare bankruptcy, I don’t see the judicial system putting up its hands and saying, “Meh, shit happens, let’s just move forward.  Oh, by the way, here’s your old job back, too”).  During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney could openly say that his vision for America’s economic system is one in which the richest will be directly favored above the rest (while also privately implying that nearly half the country is made up of social parasites), and he still continued to claim how the goal of his policies is structured to actually work for the common good of “the people” (because somehow making sure that your boss is financial secure, will–without any legal imperative pressuring him to do so–guarantee that he’ll be generous enough to graciously trickle a descent sum of that money down your way, instead of the more likely scenario of him hording it away in his own private funds).  And both sides will get away with this vacuous rhetoric among their voting base, partly because most people are convinced that this is as good as it can get, and partly because they figure that (at the very least) their candidate is still making reference to them–which has got to count for something, right?

The reason people think it counts for something is the notion that somehow, by virtue of some noble force or another, the party, the candidate, the ideology that seems to most support the spirit of the people, is the less corruptible faction in the game.  It rests on the unspoken premise that “the people” are this incorruptible fortress that stands above the decadency of the power-hungry rulers, and therein lies the central flaw of populist rhetoric.  “The People” who make up the Democratic Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespass of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the Republican Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespasses of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the ranks of all political, social, ideological movements are corrupt enough to ignore the various faults in their reasoning for the sake of the greater good or the lesser evil they are convinced will benefit society more.  In other words:  I am corrupt enough to care more about my petty, pedantic disagreements with political thought, than to truly consider the possibility that a great deal of people could potentially benefit from my support of one political model over another.

This idea of the immaculate virtue of “the people” is a myth.  It was a myth when it was being promoted by my Southern farmer’s great-great-grandparents on behalf of the populist cause, and it’s a myth in its current incarnation as a bipartisan talking point during every election cycle.  After all, all corrupt individuals, in all identifiable fields of work and thought, are still people, and I’d wager that none of them consider their misdeeds as acts of corruption, as much as circumstantial/vocational necessities.  And everyone is liable to be led astray into morally questionable deeds, if s/he can convince her/himself of the virtue of the “bigger picture” involved.  You and I, no matter how humble and modest of a life we lead, are no exception.