We’ve Been Here Before

There are many signs that if the lawfully constituted leadership does not soon substitute action for words, a new leadership, perhaps unlawfully constituted, will arise and act.

Those words were spoken at a Senate committee, early in 1933. It was the last months of Hoover’s presidency and the economic problems were getting worse. There was a real threat of fascism, communism, or plain populist revolt. Open resistance to authorities and even violence had already broken out.

Speaking of the year before, William Manchester wrote (from The Glory and the Dream):

“In the desperate summer of 1932, Washington, D.C., resembled the besieged capital of an obscure European state.”

That was when veterans marched on Washington, DC. They demanded the money they were owed. That is how they got their name, the Bonus Army. They camped out around the White House, until they were violently evicted. The later Business Plot, an alleged attempt at fascist takeover, sought the support of a popular leader in the military. The Bonus Army and the Business Plot were unrelated, but they were part of a looming threat. To the president and politicians in the country’s capitol, it would have felt like they were besieged.

This is forever the risk of failed governance, even more so when combined with the betrayal of democratic ideals. If the government can’t govern, the people will take it upon themselves to do what government won’t.

One in four American men were out of work back then. Unemployment data is a bit different today, but the comparable number of real unemployment is one in ten. That is about 30 million Americans right now without a job, about a quarter of the population that existed at the time of the Great Depression. As a total number, there are as many Americans unemployed now as then.

Also, consider this. Those unemployment numbers don’t include the massive prison population, one of the ways we now store our unemployed population (by the way, that equates to more blacks in prison today than were in slavery at its height before the Civil War). And that doesn’t include those who are underemployed or don’t make a living wage, many of which rely on welfare to make ends meet.

Stop and think about that. The Great Depression came close to tearing our country apart, with fears of authoritarianism and revolution. Yet here we are with the same number of unemployed that existed back then. The difference partly is that we have a welfare system that keeps large numbers of people just above the level of absolute desperation. If that welfare system gets overwhelmed or some politician is so stupid as to eliminate it, you will see those old fears return over night.

This is what Trump was tapping into. If you are among the few who have never personally experienced poverty or lived in a poor community, never known unemployment or homelessness, never been on the wrong side of a cruel legal system, consider yourself fortunate. But realize you are living in a bubble disconnected from the reality of so many of your fellow citizens.

So, how much worse does it have to get? What might be the tipping point?

Don’t just fear a demagogue like Trump and the swamp creatures he brings with him. Fear the economic conditions and the political system that made someone like him inevitable. We’ve been warned about this for a century now. Yet so many have acted as if it could never happen here. In fact, the slow creep of dysfunction and failure, of division and frustration has been happening for a long time, even if the public has been slow to respond or else the corporate media reluctant to report.

But it might be some small comfort to note, as did Jon Meacham, that “we have been here before.”

Beyond Our Present Knowledge

When talking about revolutions of the mind, the most well known examples come from the past. The names that get mentioned are those like Galileo and Copernicus or, more recently, Darwin and Einstein. Most often, radical new theories and paradigms aren’t immediately recognized for what they are. It can take generations or even centuries for their contributions to be fully appreciated and for the full impact to be felt.

John Higgs argues that the entire twentieth century has been a period of rupture, when multiple lines of change merged. I agree with him. On a regular basis, I find myself wondering about how little we know and to what extent we are wrong about we think we know. There has never before been an era during which our understanding about the world and about ourselves has changed so dramatically and so quickly. And there is no sign in this trend abating, if anything quickening.

Some futurists see this leading toward a singularity, a tipping point beyond which everything will be transformed. It could happen. I wouldn’t bet against it. Still, I’m more neutral than optimistic about the end results. The future will be known in the future. The present is interesting enough, as it is, no matter where it will lead.

My focus has always been on a particular kind of thinker. I’m interested not just in those minds with a penchant for the alternative but more importantly those with probing insight. I like those who ask hard questions and considered challenging possibilities, throwing open the windows in the attic to let out the musty smell of old ideas.

That is why I spend so much time contemplating the likes of Julian Jaynes. Some consider him an oddball while others look to him as an inspiration or even a visionary. However you describe him, he was first and foremost a scholar of the highest order. Even as he crossed fields of knowledge, he presented his thoughts with firm logic and solid evidence. You can disagree with the case he made, but you have to give him credit for proposing the kind of theory few would even be capable of attempting. Besides that, he inspired and provoked other serious scholars and writers to take up his ideas or to consider other unconventional lines of thought.

For the same reason, I’ve had an even longer interest in Carl Jung. He was a similar wide-ranging thinker who came out of the psychological field, one of the greatest investigators of the human mind. He was likewise highly influential, an inspiration to generations of thinkers both within and outside of psychology. As I’ve mentioned previously, an unusual line of influence was that of his personality theory as it was developed by anthropologists in their own theorizing about and comparison of cultures. By way of Ruth Benedict and E.R. Dodds, that set the stage for Jayne’s focus on ancient cultures.

Let me share two other examples, limited to a single field of study. Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo political theorists. The former made a powerful argument, in The Reactionary Mind, that conservatism isn’t what it seems. And the latter made a powerful argument, in Liberalism: A Counter-History, that liberalism isn’t what it seems. If either or both of them turn out to be even partly right about their theories, then much of the mainstream American discussion about ideology might be skewed at best and useless at worst. It could mean we have based nearly our entire political system on false ideas and confused beliefs.

While I’m at it, here are two more examples. More in line with Jaynes, there is Daniel Everett. And of an entirely different variety, there is Jacques Vallée. One is a linguist who was trained to become a missionary to the natives, specifically the Pirahã. The other was a respected astronomer who wandered into the territory of UFO research (an interest of Jung’s as well, as he saw it as symbolic of a new consciousness emerging). Both became influential thinkers because they came across anomalous information and chose not to ignore it. Everett more than met his match when he tried to convert the Pirahã, instead having found himself losing his religion and learning from them, and in the process he ended up challenging the entire field of linguistics. Vallée, a hard-nosed scientist, was surprised to see his fellow scientists throwing out inconvenient observational data because they feared the public attention it would draw. The particular theories of either Everett or Vallée is not as important as the info they pointed to, info that doesn’t fit accepted theories and yet had to be explained somehow.

That last example, Jacques Vallée, was particularly an out-of-the-box thinker. But all of them were outside mainstream thought, at least when they first proffered forth their views. These are the thinkers who have challenged me and expanded my own thinking. Because of them, I have immense knowledge and multiple perspectives crammed into my tiny brain. I’m reminded of them every time I read a more conventional writer, when all the exceptions and counter-evidence comes pouring out. It goes way beyond mere knowledge, as many conventional writers (including many academic scholars) also possess immense knowledge, but it’s conventional knowledge interpreted with conventional ideas, leading to conventional conclusions, serving conventional purposes, and in defense of a conventional worldview. Reading these conventional writers, you’d have no idea the revolution of the mind that has been occurring this past century or so and the even greater revolution of the mind yet to come.

The effects of this paradigm change will eventually be seen in the world around us, but it might take a while. If you live long enough, it will probably happen in your lifetime. Or if you exit stage left before the closing curtain, the changes will come for the generations following your own. Just don’t doubt a new world is coming. We are like the lords and serfs at the end of feudalism, not having a clue of the Enlightenment and revolutions that would quickly wash away the entire reality they knew. We aren’t just facing catastrophes in the world around us, possibilities of: world war, nuclear apocalypse, bio-terrorism, climate change, refugee crises, mass starvation, global plagues, robotic takeover, or whatever other form of darkness you wish to imagine. More transformative might be the catastrophes of the mind, maybe even at the level Julian Jaynes theorized with the collapse of the bicameral mind.

One way or another, something else will take the place of what exists now. Whatever that might be, it is beyond our present knowledge.

* * *

As a bonus, below is a nice personal view about Julian Jaynes as a man and a scholar. Even revolutionaries of the mind, after all, are humans like the rest of us. About the assessment of consciousness in the latter part of the essay, I have no strong opinion.

What It Feels Like To Hear Voices: Fond Memories of Julian Jaynes
by Stevan Harnad

Revolution and Apocalypse

Let me express a simple thought. It’s about two words that are easily misunderstood: revolution and apocalypse. Both are old terms with specific histories, but I won’t bore you with too many details.

Revolution is a word that originated from astrology. It referred to the movement of heavenly bodies. From that, it became associated with predicting the future. The thing about astrology is it is a cyclical worldview, cycles within cycles. Patterns repeat. That is quite relevant to the modern era of revolutions. The idea of astrology is that the world is predictable because it repeats, even when that repetition might take aeons of time.

Astrology is grounded in ancient mindset and way of life. The societies that developed astrological systems were agricultural. These were people who were watching the patterns all around them in the world. Not just the lights in the sky but also the seasons with their shifting periods of rains and drought, warmth and coldness.

A revolution is a turning. The seasons turn. The soil is turned for planting. The whole world turns. But it always comes back around. We live a revolutionary existence, although we only notice it during certain moments.

To recognize this is to realize revolutions are natural and inevitable. Civilizations, like growing seasons and human lives, come and go. This change can be peaceful or violent, slow or rapid, imperceptible or obvious, resisted or embraced. Yet no matter what humans do or do not do, the world goes on—never quite like it was before.

Now, apocalypse is an even more loaded term. But etymologically it has a very basic meaning. It is to uncover or unveil, to disclose or reveal.

An apocalypse is a revelation. It’s only associated with devastation or cataclysm because of our limited perspective. What we knew or thought we knew is shown unworthy, false, or even non-existent. Our worldview is destroyed, whether or not the world itself follows suit

This is similar to Gnostic anamnesis. This means an unforgetting or recollection. Reality is brought forth. It’s a returning.

One might call it a revolution or revelation, but it is of the soul and mind. Even in worldly revolutions, it was noted that—such as with the American Revolution—a revolution of the mind and of the people preceded a revolution of society and government.

Much of the thinking, even during the early modern revolutionary era, was about the idea of return. Revolutionaries had an instinct to look backwards in order to find their way forward. They looked for ancient examples and wisdom. They often spoke of natural rights, as if a just and free society could be built on revealed truths. This is often what was meant by common sense, the truth that could be revealed to any who sought it.

A revolution was an apocalypse for it was anamnesis. It was a returning to a beginning point. And the ultimate beginning point was whatever created our univese and set down its laws, those laws that can be seen in the heavens and in human nature. The world was seen as an orderly place. A revolution was the seeking of a return to order, specifically a moral order. It was an attempt to realign humanity with reality and so to raise up the world to a whole other level.

Even the most radical of revolutionaries, in the end, place their hope in this same vision and aspiration. I would make one thing clear. All revolutions are radical, even when no one sees it coming or understands what happened. Radical means to go to the root, another kind of returning or inward turning, to dig down to foundations and first principles.

The most radical revolutions are those so transformative that we forget what came before. Each new order encloses the mind once again. If you’re not paying close attention, an apocalypse can come and go, barely leaving a wake. A momentary remembering at best, a few prophets crying in the wind, followed by forgetting again. That forgetting then sets the stage for some future revolutionary unforgetting.

This time around might be different, though. The potential apocalypse we face is global in scale. This means the most probable revolution won’t be as self-contained as in the past. Thomas Paine spoke of revolution spreading around the world. We might be living in an age when that prophecy finally comes true, when the truth of what it means is revealed.

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the memory of the old order still being fresh enough in the memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

The World that Inhabits Our Mind

This campaign season hasn’t done a whole lot for me.

Sanders is interesting and all. Trump can be amusing or, for some, outright scary. But I just can’t get excited about the campaigns themselves, even as I like to think about the demographic and public opinion shifts.

It can feel like nothing more than a political game. No matter who wins, most Americans will lose. The system is designed that way. Change won’t happen through elections.

It goes back to the idea that there has to be a revolution of mind (or Mind) before there can be a revolution of politics and society. That is the main reason I care about this campaign season even in the slightest. There are ideas on the table that were formerly verboten from mainstream reporting and discussion. Polls show that the public mind is shifting direction, even if not to a revolutionary degree.

My concern goes far beyond mere ideas and their corresponding rhetoric. I’m interested in what are the conditions, what is the paradigm and reality tunnel that make our social order seem inevitable. And what would shake that social order and cause new possibilities to arise.

Humanity has been grappling with our situation for quite a while now. That became most clear with the Enlightenment and so the thinkers of that era get oversized credit and blame. Part of what happened in the Enlightenment is that ongoing trends finally got pushed to their extremes with the end of the ancien regime and the emergence of colonial imperialism, corporatist capitalism, etc.

A new way of living formed. With it, there was a new frame in which to perceive and think about the world. This was most clear with the enclosure of the Commons and eviction of the serfs from their land. The early modern revolutionary era really was just the coming to terms with a post-feudalism world. This new world required an entirely new way of being in the world. This had been developing for a long time, but it finally hit a tipping point.

We live in the ruins of what came before. It is hard for many of us to comprehend what that old order was. The mindset of pre-modern people is alien to us. Despite the signs of the old order all around us, the entire world has been transformed. The former context of meaning is gone.

This isn’t just something in our minds, but literally in the world. We’ve created social system that has become disconnected from so much of what once was familiar to humans. Let me give an example.

Most people today live in ecosystem deserts. We have created a dead world. It was a slow process and so imperceptible at any given moment. The destruction of biological diversity has been going on for centuries, millennia even. Some of the actual deserts of the world were once thriving ecosystems before agriculture decimated them. Maybe this transition had something to do with the slow demise of animism and the rise of monotheism (and other Axial Age religions). It is hard for us to perceive the world as animate with life because we have surrounded ourselves by that which is non-living. Our loss of faith in animism might not be because we are more rational than ancient people, but because we have simply lost the capacity to think that way. Our minds and experience is accordingly impoverished.

Our world has been shrunk down to a human size. The encounter with the wild has become rare. Even being confronted by the larger cosmos has become uncommon, beyond an occasional NASA photo. Most people today live in highly lit and smoggy urban areas, and so most stars are no longer visible. There was an earthquake on the East Coast back in the 1990s. One of the major cities, maybe Los Angeles, had all of its lights go out. The police had a mass influx of calls asking about the strange lights that occurred after the earthquake and what were they. After conferring with some scientists, they realized that these urban residents had seen the full starry sky for the first time in their lifetimes.

For all of human existence until the past few generations, the stars dominated human experience. It was the basis of so much religion and the bedrock of human inquiry. The stars in their predictable patterns helped promote the earliest mathematical and scientific thinking. It also simply created the sense of being small beings in a vast cosmos. We’ve almost entirely lost that. No wonder that we simultaneously lost the way of being in the world that went along with it.

We moderns are obsessed with our own humanity. Everything about our confined worldview is dominated by human society. Few people, especially in the developed countries, remain in rural areas and fewer still continue in the ancient tradition of farming. We moderns don’t tend to even have much sense of deep roots in a particular place, even cities, as we move around so much. The idea of being connected to the world around us has become foreign.

Karl Marx had the notion of species-being. The basic idea is that what we produce creates a particular kind of society and shapes human nature. We produce the kind of person that is needed for the world we bring into existence. And so the kind of person that is produced is incapable of seeing beyond the social and material world that produced him. We build our own prisons, even as there is hope for us to build new worlds to inhabit and new ways of being.

We now live in a capitalist society. We are all consumer-citizens. It’s the only world we know. Our minds are ruled by the spectacle of mass politics and mass media. We live our lives through the filter of technology. And our minds are held in check by an interlocking chain of ideological rhetoric and propaganda, advertising and corporate branding. We are kept constantly busy, preoccupied, and distracted.

We can’t imagine it being any other way. But that was true of every other society before us. We can only imagine something new when the old is already in decline and losing its power over us. There has to be a shift already taking root in our collective being before we can begin to think and act differently.

Reform as Fear of Revolution

It is easy to focus on the victim while ignoring the victimization.

Let me explain. Narrowing our focus too much on a specific group, as is common with identity politics, can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. A culture of victimization is something that impacts everyone. It is easy forget this simple truth.

White males have relative privilege, but that doesn’t make poor rural white males feel any better about their lot in life. Rich people may amass great wealth in a society of great economic inequality, but research shows that even the wealthy are worse off in such societies because the increased social problems affect everyone. Middle class Westerners live relatively comfortable lives, but if you are a woman or homosexual you will still experience prejudice.

A society of violence and oppression doesn’t make for happiness for anyone involved. Pollution is breathed by all humans, rich and poor, white and minority, male and female, adult and child. We aren’t all impacted equally, that is true. Even so, we are all impacted.

We have difficulty in our society to think about problems from a more systemic perspective. We would like to improve things for those who suffer most, which is a noble endeavor. Yet, at the same time, we are reluctant to question too deeply the entire social order that made that suffering possible or even inevitable. We see problems as isolated issues that require isolated solutions. We are unable or unwilling to see how all the problems connect and magnify. We focus so much on minor reforms for fear of revolution.

This is as true for those on the left as for those on the right.

The line between victim and victimizer can at times be uncomfortably blurred. In our carelessness and unawareness, we are complicit in these ongoing injustices, for we are as responsible for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. No single person, group, or generation can be blamed for all the problems, and still the problems continue. Who is at fault? No one and everyone.

Taking responsibility is different than blame. To blame is to try to make others feel shame, but shame is rarely motivating. We take responsibility or we don’t, simply because that is what we choose. If we make that choice, we do so because we can.

 * * *


Random Views On Anglo-American History, Culture, And Politics

“British researchers Iona and Peter Opie spent their lives documenting the games that children play when they are out of doors and out of the purview of parents and teachers. “If the present-day schoolchild was wafted back to any previous century,” said the Opies, “he would probably find himself more at home with the games being played than with any other social custom.” They found English, Scottish, and Welsh schoolchildren still playing games that date back to Roman times.”

Harris, Judith Rich (2011-10-25). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (p. 188). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

“For better or worse, the heirs of the rationalist rather than the sentimentalist Enlightenment now dominate both philosophy and social science. Enlightenment sentimentalism has long been underappreciated by comparison with Enlightenment rationalism—as the very notion of the eighteenth century as “the age of reason” will attest. Even philosophers today who are well aware of the centrality of moral sentimentalism to eighteenth-century intellectual life tend to define the Enlightenment in purely rationalist terms. John Rawls, for example, defines “Enlightenment liberalism” as a “comprehensive liberal and often secular doctrine founded on reason,” one capable of supporting political morality through a direct appeal to the rational faculties alone.6 Normative theorists and social scientists who are now rediscovering the importance of emotion in our moral and political lives have thus often been led to believe that they are refuting the philosophy of the Enlightenment, rather than lending support to one popular eighteenth-century view of reflective autonomy over another.”

Frazer, Michael L. (2010-07-21). The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Kindle Locations 136-144). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

“Evidently Scotland and France in the eighteenth century were very different from each other, with the former, far more closely than the latter, respecting the ideals of religious and political toleration. But the two countries had this much in common, that they were main players in the European Enlightenment. As this book develops we shall see not only that they shared a host of intellectual interests and concerns, but also that they were in discussion and debate with each other throughout the century of Enlightenment. In preparation for a discussion of the relations between the two countries and cultures, I shall first focus on the fact that these close relations have a long history, and especially on the fact that for many centuries Scots have engaged in several crucial sorts of cultural activity in France. One small indication of the depth of these activities is the fact that by about 1600, at least seventeen Scots were rectors of the University of Paris. There may well have been far more.

“About the time of this David [sc. David I of Scotland] lived Richard of St Victor, a Scot by birth, a religious of the Augustinian order, and he was second to no one of the theologians of his generation; for both in that theology of the schools where distinction is gained as wrestler meets wrestler on the battlefield of letters and in that other where each man lets down his solitary pitcher, he was illustrious.”

“There is rich symbolism in the fact that the earliest known person to have been active in the Scottish philosophical tradition spent a large part of his life in France. He is Richard of St Victor (d. 1173), whose Latin name, which tells us his country of birth, is Ricardus de Sancto Victore Scotus.”

Broadie, Alexander (2012-11-05). Agreeable Connexions: Scottish Enlightenment Links with France (Kindle Locations 189-202). Birlinn. Kindle Edition.

“Scots and Irish left the British Isles in such numbers that three-quarters of that descent now live elsewhere. The effects of this migration within Britain-the voluntary and involuntary exodus of religious dissenters, political radicals, and discontented Celts-bolstered English influence and reinforced the United Kingdom’s internal balance of antirevolutionary sentiment and commercial preoccupation. We can only guess the probable politics of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century parliaments had Britain retained its high Irish and Scottish population ratios. Much less Conservative, certainly. Meanwhile, receiving much of this dispersal made the United States a notably different English-speaking, great world power: more democratic in its politics, more egalitarian in its culture, and more revivalist rather than traditionalist in worship. The new republic became a mecca for discontented populations from Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, a role that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain could never have played. [ . . . ]

“The English pursued a policy of internal colonialism toward Wales, Scotland, and Ireland alike. In each case, London ordered a political union consummated to submerge the Celtic people and culture in question [ . . . ]

“Through all of these devices and circumstances-colonial charters for Protestant dissenters; occasional periods of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish ethnic persecution or flight; gathering of Europe’s Protestant refugees; German recruitment; relentless transportation of felons, debtors, military prisoners, and vagabonds; and a private “emigrant agent” business that ranged from serious recruitment to kidnapping-Britain turned a late entry in New World colonizing into the largest and fastest-growing clump of European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, with remarkably dual success. We have seen how this exodus made the population and culture of the British Isles less Celtic and more English, less revolutionary and antisocial and more deferential. It also positioned the fledgling United States of i82o, with a very different population, and already set on a very different track, to become the preponderant demographic and political force in the new world.”

Kevin Phillips. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America (p. xxiii-586). Kindle Edition.

“Americans. Grateful, joyful, almost delirious were they as a people in 1783-intoxicated with newly won independence, ecstatic that the colonial yoke of Britain had been thrown off, and delirious with hopes for the future. They set out to establish the world’s first land of liberty, where men, women, and children would be governed not by the capricious decrees of governors and justices, but rather by laws. Laws, enacted by assemblies representing all the people, would enforce the principles most beautifully stated in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, governments “are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed” to “secure these rights.”

“High purposes. Lofty aims. Welcome promises. Written into poetry and song were these great principles. Recorded in paintings and books were these sweet ideals. Drama, oratory, sermons bristled with liberty, freedom, and equality for one and all. Merchants, captains, planters, yeomen, artificers, and stevedores shared the spirit, lauded this new land of liberty.

“And yet, by 1800, less than a quarter century from the time Americans declared these exalted ideals to the world, they had almost to a person rejected the very principles and ideals of their Revolution. By 1800 not only did most Americans not seek to perpetuate, expound, and practice the principles of the Revolution, they had entered into a process of attempting to supplant the values of the Revolution either with a political process that sucked all meaning out of those principles or with an alternative social and political philosophy that promised liberty-not through greater doses of freedom, but through a careful and meaningful structuring and ordering of the world. So disillusioned were they with the unfulfilled promises of liberty, they underwent a transformation that affected every segment of American society.

So thorough was this transmutation that fledgling attempts to make every American a citizen, to provide equal rights to all, to abolish slavery, and to incorporate women, African Americans, and new immigrants into American society were abandoned. Not only were these once-sacred goals deserted, the words used to describe these goals were also transformed and given new meanings. Liberty itself, once freedom from oppression, came to mean independence within a prescribed system. Freedom, once the absence of restraint, came to mean choice among defined options. Equality mutated from a philosophical description of a condition of nature to a notion of equal opportunity within one’s class or social condition. The vaunted rights of man devolved from a set of natural rights provided by God to a slate of prescribed rights established by men.

“And so went all of the precious symbols of the American Revolution until every word reflected a new meaning and value. Democracy came to connote a right to vote, not a fair division of property or equality of rights and treatment. Party came to describe an electoral machine, no longer a divisive faction subverting government. The republic itself stopped being a government by the people and became instead a government prescribed by a constitution devised precisely to keep the people from governing. But the most telling revision of all was the special new meaning reserved for revolution itself: chaos.

“By 1798 the deed was done. By 1800 what can only be called the American Counterrevolution had reached full tide. Hardly a step had been missed in the transformation from one set of values to another, from one set of aspirations to another, and from one set of rules for human interaction to quite another. So subtle was the shift that almost no one at the time recognized or understood what had taken place. Americans only knew, if they were among the original friends of liberty, that they were no longer welcome in American society; they knew that if they continued to preach the old gospel of liberty, they might be in danger of life and limb.

“If they happened to be proponents of revolution, they soon met threats, taunts, and challenges to settle scores on the field of honor. If they happened to be African Americans, they came to suffer a fate almost equal to imprisonment or death. If slaves, they saw virtually all systems of emancipation-manumission, purchase of freedom, and legislative emancipation or curtailments of enslavement-dry up. If free blacks, they saw in every state and territory of the nation a steady evaporation of rights and the erection of barriers prohibiting individual movement from state to state, as well as an aggressive expansion of inducements either to migrate back to Africa or to be colonized there. If women, they saw in every state and territory the banishment of invitations to seek independence and the issuance of commands to accept, practice, and teach domestic service as matrons of society.

“The abolition of liberty in America far preceded the abolition of slavery; the eradication of freedom much predated the rise of a new individualism that gave personal sovereignty to pursue adventure and wealth with little restraint to a relatively small class of white American men; the abandonment of the idea of natural equality among humans-intellectual or spiritual-far antedated any discussions of universal male suffrage; and all the glorious notions that there was a basic set of rights that should be enjoyed by all men (and, presumably, women) were canceled except for those few Americans-again, mainly white men, who clung to those rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.”

Larry E. Tise. American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800 (Kindle Locations 426-456). Kindle Edition.

“Amongst others that came with him, there was one Mr. Thomas Morton, who, it should seem, had some small adventure of his own or other men’s amongst them, but had little respect, and was slighted by the meanest servants they kept. They having continued some time in New England, and not finding things to answer their expectation, nor profit to arise as they looked for, the said Captain Wollaston takes a great part of the servants and transports them to Virginia, and disposed of them there, and writes back to one Mr. Rasdale, one of his chief partners, (and accounted then merchant,) to bring another part of them to Virginia, likewise intending to put them off there as he had done the rest; and he, with the consent of the said Rasdale, appointed one whose name was Filcher, to be his Lieutenant, and to govern the remainder of the plantation until he or Rasdale should take further order thereabout.

“But the aforesaid Morton, (having more craft than honesty,) having been a petty-fogger35 at Furnival’s Inn, he, in the other’s absence, watches an opportunity, (commons being put hard among them,) and got some strong drink and other junkets, and made them a feast, and after they were merry, he began to tell them he would give them good counsel. `You see,’ he says, `that many of your fellows are carried to Virginia, and if you stay still until Rasdale’s return, you will also be carried away and sold for slaves with the rest. Therefore I would advise you to thrust out Lieutenant Filcher, and I having a part in the plantation, will receive you as my partners, and consociates, so you may be free from service, and we will converse, plant, trade and live together as equals (or to the like effect).’

“This counsel was easily followed; so they took opportunity, and thrust Lieutenant Filcher out of doors, and would not suffer him to come any more amongst them, but forced him to seek bread to eat and other necessaries amongst his neighbors, till he would get passage for England. (See the sad effect of want of good government.)

“After this they fell to great licentiousness of life, in all prophane- ness, and the said Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a school of Atheism, and after they had got some goods into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians, they spent it as vainly, in quaffing and drinking both wine and strong liquors in great excess, (as some have reported,) ten pounds worth in a morning, setting up a May pole, drinking and dancing about like so many fairies, or furies rather, yea and worse practices, as if they had anew revived and celebrated the feast of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians.”

Thomas Jefferson describing Thomas Morton’s having wrongly and unlawfully saved some men from the fate of slavery
Letter to John Adams, Monticello, December 28, 1812
Bruce Braden. “Ye Will Say I Am No Christian”: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values (Kindle Locations 356-371). Kindle Edition.

“There appears to be such a mixture of real sensibility and fondly cherished romance in your composition, that the present crisis carries you out of yourself; and since you could not be one of the grand movers, the next best thing that dazzled your imagination was to be a conspicuous opposer. Full of yourself, you make as much noise to convince the world that you despise the revolution, as Rousseau did to persuade his contemporaries to let him live in obscurity.

“Reading your Reflections warily over, it has continually and forcibly struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist; and deceived, as you now probably are, by the passions that cloud your reason, have termed your romantic enthusiasm an enlightened love of your country, a benevolent respect for the rights of men. Your imagination would have taken fire, and have found arguments, full as ingenious as those you now offer , to prove that the constitution, of which so few pillars remained , that constitution which time had almost obliterated, was not a model sufficiently noble to deserve close adherence. And, for the English constitution, you might not have had such a profound veneration as you have lately acquired; nay, it is not impossible that you might have entertained the same opinion of the English Parliament, that you professed to have during the American war.

“Another observation which, by frequently occurring, has almost grown into a conviction , is simply this, that had the English in general reprobated the French revolution, you would have stood forth alone, and been the avowed Goliath of liberty. But, not liking to see so many brothers near the throne of fame, you have turned the current of your passions , and consequently of your reasoning, an-other way. Had Dr Price’s sermon not lighted some sparks very like envy in your bosom, I shrewdly suspect that he would have been treated with more candour; nor is it charitable to suppose that any thing but personal pique and hurt vanity could have dictated such bitter sarcasms and reiterated expressions of contempt as occur in your Reflections.

“But without fixed principles even goodness of heart is no security from inconsistency, and mild affectionate sensibility only renders a man more ingeniously cruel, when the pangs of hurt vanity are mistaken for virtuous indignation, and the gall of bitterness for the milk of Christian charity.”

Mary Wollstonecraft writing about Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution
Wollstonecraft, Mary; Janet Todd (1999-08-19). A Vindication of the Rights of Men; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution: WITH “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (Oxford World’s Classics) (Kindle Locations 1268-1286). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Liberalism Broadly Defined: Worldview and Paradigm

I’ve been meaning to read Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History, a left-wing historical critique of “liberalism”. It was recommended to me and it looks interesting, but I can’t help questioning what is this “liberalism” that is being explored. In a review of the book (An Attack on Liberal Mythology by Donald A. Planey), I left a simple comment:

Why is Obama referred to as a liberal? Obama doesn’t identify as a liberal. According to Pew data, around half of liberals are Independents, not Democrats. Also, about a two thirds of Democrats aren’t liberals, instead evenly divided between moderates and conservatives.

I always wonder what people mean or think they mean when the speak of political labels. There is a lot of confusion.

In response, Donald A. Planey wrote that, “Losurdo (and myself) do not use the narrow North American definition of “liberal.” “Liberal” here is defined according to Enlightenment philosophy.”

I didn’t intend to get into an involved analysis, but below are the comments I left to elucidate my misgivings.

As I haven’t read the book, I’m forced to respond to reviews of the book (and interviews with the author I’ve read). So, take my commentary on that level. I’m certainly not meaning to dismiss the book as having any value, just pointing out that it is a particular viewpoint constrained by the purposes and biases of the author. Nothing wrong with that. The book interests me for the very reason the author doesn’t share my own purposes and biases.

 * * * *

I would argue there is no Enlightenment definition of “liberal” as a political label. Enlightenment thinkers didn’t identify themselves or their philosophies as “liberal”. That was a later interpretation by some people, but there isn’t even agreement about that interpretation of the Enlightenment. You are, of course, free to read liberalism into the philosophies of past thinkers.

I see this same problem with discussing liberalism today. All the time, politicians, pundits, and activists get labeled as “liberal” even when they don’t identify as such. The case you want to make will determine who you include or exclude, but too often this is seeking evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. If you aren’t a liberal and want to criticize liberals, then you will try to find people who have negative qualities or moral failings and pin the “liberal” label on them and deny that same label to people with positive qualities and moral successes. And if you are a liberal seeking to defend liberalism, you will do the opposite.

The problem we have here is that we entirely lack an objective definition of liberalism. There is no agreement, oftentimes even among liberals. Liberalism can mean almost anything to anyone. To Losurdo, it seems even conservatives are liberals.

* * * *

Ed Rooksby offers one of the better criticisms:


“As Pitts remarks, Losurdo tends to `string together passages from a disparate set of thinkers in order to construct “liberal” positions’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8) in favour of a range of brutal, racist, elitist and otherwise unpleasant practices, prejudices and beliefs. But Losurdo’s choices of passages and quotations often seem highly selective and, thus, not necessarily very representative of liberal thought generally. Losurdo’s modus operandi, quite frequently, is to present a snippet of writing from two or three theorists or essayists on a particular subject and to suggest or imply rather breezily that these are typical of liberal thought as a whole – but we are often given no very good reason to believe that they really are typical. All in all the reader is frequently left with the nagging suspicion that the narrative Losurdo presents is distorted by an over-riding intention to show liberalism in the worst possible light on any given issue. . . The clear implication is that Sieyès’ fantasy is in some way representative of broader liberal thinking at the time – but Losurdo provides no evidence that other liberals (let alone a significant number of them) would ever have countenanced such an idea.”

That is the first problem. A strong cases substantiated with evidence apparently isn’t made. Rooksby, in quoting Pitts, points out that the argument is based on cherrypicking. So, we don’t have any reason to believe that this is a representative portrayal of liberalism, much less a useful definition.

He continues with the problem of conflating liberals with conservatives:

“Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorised as conservative than as liberal – Calhoun, for example.[2] The fact that Losurdo is able to present conservative thinkers and their views as unproblematically and straightforwardly liberal indicates a major problem with Losurdo’s definition of liberalism. The definition is so expansive that conservatism is absorbed almost completely within liberalism. A logic of exclusion is not, after all, very difficult to detect in traditional conservative thought and practice. If a logic of exclusion is the defining property of liberalism then it follows that conservatism, which is deeply structured by this same logic, must be a form of liberalism. In the way that Losurdo presents things, then, conservatism is effectively expunged from the political-ideological landscape as a distinct political tradition. It is surely significant that conservatism is mentioned in the book only once, very briefly and in passing. The cursory treatment of this tradition reflects the fact that there is simply very little conceptual space for conservatism in Losurdo’s schema. Clearly there is a very complex and closely intertwining relationship between the two traditions – there is certainly no absolute distinction. It makes little sense, however, to regard the two traditions as wholly synonymous. Amongst the similarities and the positions held in common between the two there are, surely, significant differences as well.”

This is a liberalism so broad that it subsumes conservatism. This means that conservatives simply become another variety of liberals. And the focus of this book seems to be mostly on this conservative variety of “liberals” while ignoring all other varieties of liberals. This is clarified in Rooksby’s analysis of the relationship between liberals and radicals:

“The problem we encounter in relation to Losurdo’s treatment of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism is inverted when it comes to his presentation of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism – the separateness and distinctiveness of these two traditions is exaggerated. One of the problems with Losurdo’s argument in this respect is that the radical tradition, in his schema, seems to arrive out of nowhere as a more or less fully formed and distinct political outlook at the time of the French Revolution. But where have these radical ideas suddenly come from? What were the historical conditions of their emergence? Why did they emerge precisely at this point? They cannot simply have appeared spontaneously out of nothing. Doesn’t it make more sense, then, to regard radicalism as, precisely, a radicalised form of what already existed – didn’t radicalism involve, in other words, a radicalisation of liberal ideas? One can certainly trace, for example, a clear line of continuity between the `liberal’ beginnings of the revolution in France, driven largely from above by a wealthy social elite seeking to limit the power of the monarch, and the more radical Jacobin phase. We are not dealing with two hermetically sealed revolutionary processes here – an entirely liberal one and an entirely radical one with no relation between the two even though one happened to occur immediately after the other and involved many of the same participants. Clearly the radical phase of the revolution grew directly out of the `liberal’ phase. The clear point of transition between the two phases comes, as Losurdo rightly points out, with the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolutionary process. But this intervention is best explained in terms of the popular masses seeking directly to stake a claim in the new order of liberty and equality that had been declared earlier in the revolution. Essentially, the radical phase sought to realise the universalist principles that had been declared in the earlier period more fully and consistently. The relationship between the two phases of the French Revolution provides us, it seems to me, with a pretty good indication of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism more broadly. The two traditions are not sharply distinct from each other at all – radicalism emerges from within the liberal tradition and involves, furthermore, a radicalisation of liberal ideas and principles.”

There is a continuum between liberalism and radicalism. In fact, there are radical liberals and liberal radicals. Only the conservative variety of so-called “liberals” would likely lack radicalism to an absolute degree. And only the most right-wing of radicals would entirely lack liberal-mindedness and liberal values, principles, goals, etc. As Rooksby points out:

“This brings us to the central part of Losurdo’s argument – his view that liberalism is defined by its implicit logic of exclusion. If radicalism did emerge from liberalism then it must follow that there is something much more substantial to liberalism than a core logic of exclusion – there must be some coherent ideological and normative content over and above its tendency to exclude, to be radicalised.”

Returning to the cherrypicking, the opposite problem is what is conveniently left out:

“Another set of shortcomings in Losurdo’s book relates to absences and omissions. For one thing, several major figures in the history of liberal thought receive only minor walk on roles in the narrative or do not appear at all. Kant for example is surely a major figure in liberal philosophy. Yet he receives scant attention in this book. Perhaps the cursory attention he gets is related to the fact that Losurdo has to admit that (because of his condemnation of slavery and colonialism and his enthusiasm for the revolution in France), Kant `came close to radicalism’ (p. 178), which, given Kant’s indisputable importance within the liberal tradition, seems to throw Losurdo’s rather arbitrary distinction between radicals and liberals into confusion and also threatens to undermine the argument about the centrality within liberalism of commitment to exclusion. It is also rather strange that liberal economics is hardly mentioned at all. The history of liberal economic theory is a hugely important aspect of the history of the liberal tradition as a whole – it is surprising that it is largely ignored.

“In addition relatively recent developments within liberal political philosophy are left out of the picture altogether. There is a very brief discussion of 20th Century liberalism but Losurdo’s narrative does not extend beyond 1914 in any detail and does not extend beyond 1945 at all. This, needless to say, means that a great deal of liberal thought is ignored altogether.”

There is no correlation made to contemporary liberalism and definitions of liberalism, either in the US or Europe (or anywhere else). So, the contemporary relevance of the book is far from clear. Is it just an academic exercise and a historical analysis using an archaic and/or idiosyncratic definition? It appears Losurdo wants to imply something about liberalism today, but apparently he never makes the connection.

Jonathan Dresner, in a comment to the second part of this review, made a good point:


“The discussion of the radical vs. liberal enlightenment here suggests to me the possibility that the enlightenment’s multitudes may well include all three of the major strains of 19th century thought: radicalism, liberalism, and conservativism. Conservativism is usually portrayed as a reaction against the Enlightenment, but there’s a line through Hobbes and Rousseau to Burke….

“Anyway, the recent work on Spinoza, and the distinction between the radical and mainstream enlightenment seems to point in this direction: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13250”

* * * *

Here is another equally good criticism:


The reviewer makes the same point about the continuity between radicals and liberals:

“The second difficulty concerned the distinction that Losurdo wished to draw between radicals and liberals, which is not always a stable boundary – for example, William Lloyd Garrison took liberalism to its most radical conclusions in opposition to racial slavery, the colonization of Indian land, and the oppression of women, but he by no means departed from liberalism (indeed, he refused the term ‘wage slavery’, supported capitalist ‘free labour’ and tended to be suspicious of unionism).”

This goes back to the close relationship, during the early modern revolutions, between what today we’d call liberals and radicals: Jefferson, Franklin, Priestley, Godwin, Wallstonecraft, etc. Thomas Paine is one clear example of someone who bridged “liberalism” and “radicalism”. I would argue that Paine is the strongest ancestor of both the liberal and radical traditions in US politics. Those intertwining traditions go back to the Enlightenment era, and so I don’t know what this Englightenment definition of “liberalism” you speak of.

The other criticism made connects the issue of radicalism with the issue of conservatism:

“The third, related issue arose over the question of what, or who, counts as a liberal. Losurdo argues the case in his opening chapter for seeing the pro-slavery statesman John Calhoun as a liberal. Robin Blackburn disputed this, arguing that it involved far too expansive a definition of liberalism – Calhoun, he said, is a conservative. Blackburn’s concern was that Losurdo was risking a sectarian position, failing to acknowledge and that this wasn’t resolved by cordoning off some liberals as ‘radicals’. . . . Part of the problem here is that conservatism in its modern sense takes its cue from liberalism. Burke drew from Smith, almost all US conservatives draw from Locke, and modern conservatives are almost all influenced by classical liberalism. So, if Calhoun himself based his arguments on liberal precepts, which he certainly did, does this mean he is a liberal? There is also a deeper theoretical issue when discussing people like Calhoun. Antebellum slavery, some would argue, was a non-capitalist formation. That’s a core part of Charles Post’s argument in The American Road to Capitalism, written from a ‘political marxist’ perspective: that the US before the civil war was based on a combination of different modes of production – slavery, petty commodity production, mercantile capital, etc. The interaction between these different productive forms drove the expansionism of both north and south, eventually leading to Civil War.”

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese make a very detailed argument for a pre-capitalist South:


These authors were both radicals, she a feminist and he a Marxist. I gained a similar insight about the South from Joe Bageant who also comes from a Marxist background.

In Rainbow Pie, Bageant wrote about his childhood town in Appalachia, pointing out how it was a moneyless society based on subsistence farming, bartering and store tabs. Bageant was born long after the Civil War. That shows that the pre-capitalist economy survived in the rural South well into the 20th century.

The fact that capitalism took so long to take hold in the South is evidence for liberalism also not taking hold quickly there. It’s not to say there weren’t elements of capitalism and liberalism that had been planted in the South, but the point is that it would take centuries for them to more fully grow. Also, consider the fact that liberalism never was a single ideology or movement at any point in history. It has many origins and took many separate paths. This is most clearly seen in the diversity of American society going back to the Enlightenment era:


The above reviewer continues with his argument about a pre-capitalist South and further argues that it was precisely anti-capitalist, a point also made by the Genovese book:

“John Ashworth’s classic two-volume marxist history, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, makes the argument that southern political thought was largely pre-capitalist, drawing on classical republican ideologies because they happened to be conducive to the preservation of slave relations. Indeed, he maintains, the Democratic Party when it first emerged was anticapitalist – ‘Jacksonian Democracy’, based centrally on the valorisation of the white, freeholding farmer, could challenge the power of the banks and commerce in the name of agrarian interests while also being profoundly opposed to strong state intervention in the economy. So, was John Calhoun a liberal, because of his strong individualism and hostility to the over-concentration of central authority, or did liberalism merely provide part of the vocabulary for the defence of conservative interests?”

It’s obviously complex. American culture and politics is a mishmash.

He then brings up Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, specifically Robin’s view that Calhoun is a conservative. By the way, that book is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years and presents a very unique argument with a lot of explanatory power. As the reviewer says of Robin’s analysis:

“But what does being a conservative entail, then? The image of conservatism as anti-modern, traditionalist, evincing a preference for the familiar and for gradual evolution, is one that he, like Ted Honderich, C B Macpherson and others before him, disputes. The original conservatives – Hobbes, Burke, Maistre – are contemptuous of tradition, largely because of its inability to meet the challenge of revolution. What they are conserving is not a traditional order (as mentioned, Burke was already a free market capitalist), but hierarchy, dominance, unfreedom: they are reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries. To be effective counter-revolutionaries, conservatives must incorporate the ideas and tactics of the enemy. They must speak in the language of the people, “make privilege popular”, “transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses”.”

I have found this argument compelling in many ways. Otherwise, it is impossible to make sense of conservatism. Robin has the insight to look past the rhetoric of conservatives, sometimes sounding traditionalist and sometimes sounding classically liberal, and instead look to their behavior and policies. He summarizes Robin’s explanation of conservatism:

“Conservatism is thus not distinguished by its ideas which, with the enormous exception of race, it largely borrows from elsewhere, nor by its tactics, but by its praxis.”

And gives the details for why Calhoun was a conservative:

“It would follow that it is not Calhoun’s republican, pre-capitalist ‘states rights’ ideology that makes him a conservative, any more than his defence of private property makes him a liberal. It is his attempt to arouse the South in response to the abolitionist danger, his attempt to conserve hierarchy against mass democracy, that makes him a conservative.”

He then concludes with why liberalism is different than this:

“Liberals, you may say, have also been known to defend hierarchy and racial supremacy. This is true, but liberalism does not pivot on the defence of hierarchies and domination; that is precisely why it devises ‘exclusion clauses’. Indeed, it is because of liberalism’s much vaunted commitment to humanitarian and egalitarian values that ‘the liberal defence of murder’ is a hypocritical ideology, riven with tensions that aren’t usually present in the rightist equivalent.”

I’m not entirely sure if I agree with all of Robin’s theory. I could be persuaded toward the view that conservatives are just another variety of liberals in that we all live in a liberal society. I’ve pointed out that there are indeed conservative(-minded) liberals. Liberals are prone to conservatism which creates a lot of confusion,



Distinct ideologies (and the distinct labels that go with them) only clearly exist in theory, not in human psychology and behavior.

If liberalism is to be broadened in the sense of the Enlightenment to include conservatism, then it should also include much of the radicalism that was mixed up with and/or allied with liberalism. In a sense, all post-Enlightenment ideologies are “liberal” in that they use and define themselves according to the liberal worldview that became dominant then. But obviously this “liberalism” that spans from conservatism to radicalism has little to do with what most people, most especially most liberals, mean by liberalism.

Also, I keep wondering about proletariat liberals. The American Revolution wasn’t just pushed by the elite. It actually originated among the lower classes, and these lower classes were often more interested in liberal values than were the elites. Many of these lower class revolutionaries were fighting for democracy and more freedom in the market, two things the elites tended to be wary about. If not for this push from below, the American Revolution probably never would have happened. So, liberalism is obviously something more than a bourgeois phenomenon.

If liberalism spans from conservative to liberal and from bourgeois to proletariat, then we have a truly broad definition going on here. Basically, we are simply saying liberalism can include almost anything. According to the dictionary definition, to be liberal means to be generous; but this is an extremely generous definition. It’s interesting to think about. Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

The Master’s Tools

In speaking about violence, injustice and utopias, Ursula K. Le Guin offers an interesting metaphor. She writes that, “Audre Lord said you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think about this powerful metaphor, trying to understand it” (“War Without End”, The Wave in the Mind). It is an interesting, albeit troubling, metaphor. It frames a particular way to think about our society.

This metaphor implies a number of things.

First, it portrays society as something intentionally created and actively formed. It is built by someone and for some purpose. A social order doesn’t just happen anymore than a building just happens.

Second, it claims that what has been built isn’t just any building, but the “master’s house”. It is built with the master’s tools and one assumes according to the master’s specifications. We can throw out the master’s blueprint. We can surreptitiously build something else while the master isn’t looking. Or we can try to tear it down. The master might punish us or we might get the upperhand. We could become our own builders for our own purposes. We could become masters in our own right. Even so, the tools we have are still the master’s tools with the limitations that those tools present.

This metaphor represents the view of the outsider, the person already standing back from the work being done and those attempting to undo it. It doesn’t automatically imply a particular ideological standpoint. But, in our society, this view is most often presented by the leftist and often directed at liberals most of all. I’ve increasingly been persuaded by the criticisms originating from the leftist perspective. I wonder what we have built and what or whose purpose it really serves.

Liberals attempted to dismantle the house of, in our case, the slave master for that is what our society was built upon. We dismantled slavery and other overt forms of oppression, but we weren’t able to fully dismantle the cultural structures that made oppression possible. This is, according to the metaphor, because we have continued to use the same tools.

 * * * *

Whose Welfare?

I’ve come to this understanding most directly from my thoughts on welfare. I’ve speculated that, if all welfare were to end instantly, revolution would happen over night. Our entire society, both the social and economic orders, is being propped up by the welfare state. Capitalism (as we know it) most of all couldn’t operate without the welfare state, without the direct and indirect subsidies of the government supporting companies and their employees in a thousand different ways.

I gained some insight when trying to make heads or tails out of Edmund Burke’s politics. Why would a supposed conservative or reactionary have been so adamant and consistent in his pushing progressive reform? An insight gelled in mind when I read a comparison of Burke and Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Burke in America by Drew Maciag). In their own words, it became clear that they promoted reform within the system in order to defend the status quo of the system. Small changes prevent big changes (i.e., revolutions).

This is why Burke took a reactionary stance when actual revolution threatened, when progressive reform became less relevant and brute oppression deemed necessary. This is also why Burke only cared about the complaints of Americans until their independence was won, and afterward it was no concern of his as they were no longer part of the British Empire which is the only social order he cared about. Burke’s concern was about the British Empire, not so much about the people who might be oppressed or otherwise affected by the British Empire. He only concerned himself about the problems of people when ignoring such problems might threaten the social order he was part of.

(My complaint against Burke here isn’t ideological. I would make the same complaint against a mainstream liberal in modern America, which is my entire point. Also, my inner libertarian wants to know where Irish Burke’s social identity and moral concern would have fallen when the British Empire violently suppressed the Irish bid for independence, a clash that caused more deaths than the French Reign of Terror he so harshly criticized.)

We focus so much on the calls for reform that we rarely stop to consider what is being reformed. And we defend what we identify with without really understanding why. We need to look beyond individual issues and parochial concerns toward a broader understanding. We need to consider what we are building as we consider how we go about that activity. We need to consider the foundation upon which our house is built.

* * * *

Tools and Blueprints

Progressive reform is one of the master’s tools, to be used or not as necessary for the master’s plans. But it’s just one of many tools, not the blueprint for what is being built.

I say this as someone whose natural impulse is to support progressive reform, slow and steady changes from within the system. I’m not a radical. It just isn’t in me to be a radical. And yet I find it impossible to deny the radical’s critique. Like it or not, I suspect leftists are at least partly correct in what they say about liberals.

The welfare state doesn’t simply or even primarily serve the interests of the poor. Rather, it serves the master(s), the ruling elite and their status quo. It is the bread part of the bread and circus equation. Does anyone genuinely think the leaders of the Roman Empire ordered bread to be thrown to the poor because of some liberal agenda to steal from the rich and spread the wealth? No, they wanted to keep the hungry masses under control by any means necessary, which sometimes meant bread and other times violence, but more often some combination of both (the carrot and the stick).

As a lifelong liberal, I feel pulled in two directions. To seek to reform the system may just continue the suffering. To seek to end the system, though, will also likely lead to more suffering. In terms of immediate options, it can feel like suffering is unavoidable. Is the only way to force change by forcing suffering to its extreme? Then what? We have no guarantee that anything good will result. Suffering isn’t a magical elixir.

A desperate people are as likely to turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism as to face up to the problems that are the cause of their desperation. The liberal’s complaint is that we might end up worse than we already are. Small steps of progress toward the public good is, as the liberal believes, much safer than risking it all on a gamble.

The vision of suffering, no matter what form it takes, too easily play into the hands of the powerful. A state of despair isn’t inspiring. It makes us feel impotent and apathetic. Isn’t there a third option, one that would offer genuine hope?

* * * *

The Problems We Create

The welfare state is just a single example among others. We could also include the minimum wage, which in a sense is another aspect of the welfare state.

If we had a society where economic (and political) inequality was less extreme and where social mobility (along with the attendant opportunities) was higher, then a minimum wage might be unnecessary. A minimum wage deals with the symptoms, rather than the disease. When you are sick, it is natural to want the doctor to make you feel better, even if it is just symptom management. You also hope, though, that the doctor is meanwhile seeking to cure the disease and will bring you back to health.

In our society, the metaphorical doctors are technocrats who have little concern, much less understanding, about fundamental causes. Their purpose is the purpose of the master, which is the building and maintaining of the master’s house: the status quo of the established social order. It would be as if doctors were more concerned about the hospital and their place within it than they were for their own patients’ care; the patients being seen as serving the purpose of the hospital, instead of the other way around. Such dystopian doctors would be mainly concerned about symptom management in the way technocrats are mainly concerned about human resource management and population control (along with economic manipulations and military coercion).

We look for solutions to the problems we create. But, as Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

* * * *

Building Something New?

The system precedes any individual person, and so the individual person by intention or default serves the system. But whose system is it?

It is first and foremost a system for the minority, a system of wealth and power. It is the master’s house. As always, the majority are the builders who build what the master(s) tell them to build. We are born into this society without choice, the house already under construction, the foundation and walls already in place. We reach adulthood and someone places the master’s tools into our hands. What can and should we do? Throw away these tools and starve? Throw the monkey wrench into the works and see what happens? Or use these tools to try to build something new? If so, how? One could argue that many have tried and failed.

We have seen the near continuous implementation of progressive reforms since the revolutionary era. Have our social problems been solved? Of course not. Even with the ending of slavery in the Western world, there are still more slaves in the world today than there were in the past and there are more African-Americans in US prisons now than there ever were in slavery. It is hard to see this as evidence of progress. Some have benefited while many have suffered.

Progressive reform, sadly, doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It can feel like a band-aid on a gaping wound. And a band-aid won’t stop the blood gushing out. Even if the wound stops gushing on its own, the band-aid won’t prevent infections and gangrene, won’t prevent scar tissue from forming. The wound needs to be opened and cleansed. It needs stitches and salves. It needs regular care until it is healed. And, if the injuries turn out to be deeper still, bones may need to be set or invasive surgery may be necessary.

* * * *

An Arsenal of Metaphors

We need to use every metaphor in our arsenal. Metaphors are how we make the abstract concrete, make the unconsidered real.

I particularly like the bodily metaphors of disease, of wounds and trauma, and of health and healing. We often use these metaphors to describe the experiences and behaviors of individuals. We speak of otherwise healthy veterans and rape victims as having been traumatized. No physical trauma may literally be detected, but it is as if there is an unhealed injury and a process of healing that can be assisted or thwarted. One of the greatest leaps of insight comes from seeing how this applies on the larger scales of entire communities and societies.

This has become clear to me in studying history. There is a reason we collectively are obsessed with past wars and conflicts. It is because they aren’t merely in the past. We keep reliving them as someone suffering post-traumatic stress disorder keeps reliving the original trauma. Some describe this as a victimization cycle, but that doesn’t do justice to the lived reality. It’s not just a cycle, a pattern repeating. It’s as if the suffering of the dead still haunt us. Borders aren’t mere lines on a map. They are still tender wounds, not just in the minds of individuals, but in the societies on both sides.

Like the welfare state, borders aren’t there for the good of the common people. They exist for the purposes of power, of enforcing social order. But the powerful are as afflicted as the rest of us. It is a psychological complex of fear, around which all sorts of rationalizations accrue. The desire for power and control is most often driven by fear. This isn’t to say that fear is never warranted, but it is to say we too often perpetuate the conditions of fear like a battered woman returning to her abusive spouse or else marrying another man who is just as abusive.

Once we realize the metaphors we are living, we are in a position to consider different metaphors and with them new understandings, new possibilities, new choices.

* * * *

Unnatural Boundaries

International aid relates as well. It is a globalized welfare system. It serves to numb the worst pain caused by the wounds of borders.

Modern nation-states are largely the result of colonialism. The borders in many parts of the world were created by the former colonizers who had very little concern for the native populations. They divied up land based on geographical conveniences, natural resources, and historical claims of power. It didn’t matter if such imagined boundaries divided tribes and ethnic groups or if they mixed together tribes and ethnic groups that were in conflict. These boundaries weren’t natural, are never natural.

The former colonizers have supported oppressive regimes for their own purposes. It is still the master’s house, even when the master isn’t living there for the time being. Local tyrants may sleep in the master’s bed while he is away, but such tyrants only maintain their position as long as they serve the master, as long as they act as caretakers in his absence.

Before modern nation-states with their borders, people traveled and migrated rather freely compared today. It is hard for us to understand that. Borders used to be much more vague and malleable human realities. They had more to do with cultural differences than political power and military force. In the past, before modern militaries, a border that was anything besides cultural didn’t tend to last very long.

A border isn’t a physical thing, permanently etched upon the landscape. It is at best a temporary truce among people who often don’t even remember what created it in the first place. It is simply where two violent forces stopped fighting, until eventually conflict breaks out once again. This is why borders throughout history have constantly shifted, each new designated border being a new wounding, scar tissue upon scar tissue forming in the shared soul of a people.

* * * *

The House of the Nation; Or a Mansion of Many Rooms

Welfare, minimum wage, international aid, borders, etc. All these are forms of social control. This what is found in the master’s toolbox.

These are various ways of mollifying the masses and dividing them into manageable chunks. When transnational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than many small countries, how can local workers even begin to unite across these boundaries that instead pit workers against one another. Foreigners and immigrants get scapegoated for taking ‘our’ jobs. Meanwhile, people in other countries scapegoat us in return for the problems they also face.

These problems aren’t national problems. They are international problems, shared problems. But the systems of control don’t let us see that. And our language doesn’t allow us to understand it.

If these systems of control were ended, it would suddenly force us all to deal with our shared problems. No longer could costs be externalized onto particular groups of people while not affecting those who do the externalizing. If people weren’t limited and oppressed by borders and governments, if people could freely choose to live where and associate with whom they wanted, we could no longer ignore the glaring problems and injustices we face. Besides, whether we like it or not, externalized costs and and projected problems always blow back, whether as illegal immigration or terrorism or worse.

The process of uniting people has happened within nations. What historically were seen as regional populations with regional problems have come to be correctly understood in a larger understanding of cross-regional challenges. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and many Irish are now all Britains (along with many British citizens from present and former British colonies). The First Nations tribes, French Accadians, and British are now all Canadians. The same process has happened in Mexico and the US. To extend this past pattern into the future, it is more than likely that one day there will be a single socio-political identify of “North Americans”.

This is what we now face with national borders all over the world. Borders, as they relate to geography, are one type of metaphor used for social identity and one of the most powerful metaphors at that for they are so easily conflated with concrete reality. That metaphor is what inspired early Americans to imperial aspirations. They saw themselves as a people of a continent, not a mere island as was the case with the English. They identified themselves with all of North America. And if they had had the power to do it, they might have gladly taken over all of Canada and Mexico. But their metaphorical imagination outran their military force. We the citizens of the US still call ourselves Americans despite our political boundaries only occupying a small part of the Americas, our imagined continental aspirations remaining unfulfilled, a minor detail that makes nervous other people in the Americas.

The problems within and between the US and Mexico have never been and never will be merely national problems. Most of the US once was part of the Spanish Empire and after that part of Mexico. There are populations of Hispanics who descend from families that have been in the US longer than when English colonizers first set foot here. There are parts of the US that have always been Hispanic majority with a majority of Spanish speakers. These people have family members living on both sides of the border. The border cuts through a historical population like a knife, divides a people and their communities, creates a culture of fear and conflict.

Yet still the borders aren’t secure and never will be. Metaphors, although powerful, remain as fictions and so can only be enforced imperfectly. They aren’t real and can’t be made real, however real they are treated. Only the violence that enforces them is real and it is only real as long as it continues, but even the most violent of societies eventually tire of pointless bloodshed and oppression or else runs out of money to support it. As human lives bleed, so does the wealth of a people. Lives are destroyed, communities are crippled, and social capital is lost.

The drug problem in the US is partly caused by the drug problem in Mexico; and, in turn, the drug problem in Mexico has grown because of the US War on Drugs which simply made it an even more profitable business by driving it into the black market. Likewise, the gun problem in Mexico is almost entirely caused by the gun problem in the US. Americans complain about the violence coming from Mexico or the ‘illegal’ immigrants. But why do so few ask what caused these problems in the first place?

NAFTA hasn’t helped small farmers in Mexico. The long history of the US government and business leaders undermining democracy in Mexico hasn’t helped the average Mexican.

After all that, do we really want to scapegoat the terrified Mexicans fleeing the horror we have helped inflict upon them, upon their families and communities, upon their entire society? We should be better than that and we could better than that, if we only were able to comprehend our own failings, the harm we mindlessly cause onto others, the endless cycle of violence and victimization. Empathy requires awareness and understanding.

* * * *

Change, the Only Inevitability

Like it or not, as Le Guin points out, “Societies change with and without violence.” Change can be beneficial for all or not so much, but change will happen. Progress, whether through reform or revolution, will likely continue to happen, however imperfectly and unequally, that is until society collapses. With a sense of hope, she reminds us that, “Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws—education, learning to think, learning skills?”

Le Guin then poses a set of questions, “Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”

In speaking of the master’s house and the master’s tools, she acknowledges that, “The metaphor is rich and dangerous. I can’t answer the questions it raises.” As with many other metaphors, this one is dangerous because it is powerful in how it forces us to think differently. It’s power isn’t in offering simple solutions, but in opening the mind to new ways of thinking, new possibilities. Societies are built. Nations are built. Governments are built. Borders are built. Once we become aware that we are building, we can begin to ask what we are building and why. And we can look more carefully at the tools we are using.

Is it enough that the master let’s us live in his house? Should we grovel out of fear that we might be evicted out among the masses who live in shacks and on the streets? Should we build more walls and reinforce them in order to keep people out? Or should we build a larger house to hold all people? What tools would be required? Do we have those tools? How would go about building better tools in order to build a better society?

Anything we build for the master to keep others out and to control the masses can and will just as easily be used against us. When a border is built and enforced, it doesn’t just keep foreigners out, but also keeps us in (something that may concern us one day). The worst borders, though, are those built in our own minds. These internal divisions create dissociation between different parts of our experience. It is because of dissociation that we go on building oppressive systems and why individuals can do horrible things in the service of those systems. Trauma lives within each of us and within our every relationship. We live through the trauma and then relive it endlessly.

We can go on doing the same thing over and over, continually rebuilding the walls of fear and oppression, continually picking at the scabs of our collective suffering and trauma. Or we can build shelters for those afflicted, places of healing and restoration. We can rebuild our communities as we rebuild society.

But first, as the metaphor suggests, we must consider the tools we are building with.

* * * *

Imagination: Storytelling and Truthtelling

Le Guin does make a suggestion. “To me,” she writes, “the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

The tool she offers here is that of imagination, the mother lode of all metaphors. To wield imagination is to wield the power to create and destroy entire systems of thought, entire ways of understanding. And we are only as free to the extent our minds are liberated.

“The exercise of imagination,” she states a few paragraphs on, “is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.”

It isn’t just metaphors that matter, but metaphors given life through story, through fully imagined possibilities. It is the act of imagining that matters, the freedom to imagine. It is the tool of imagination that matters. That is the one tool that can help us build something genuinely new.

We should be careful of the stories we tell. Continuing in this vein, Le Guin laments that, “It is sad that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic or religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth. The fashionably noir dystopia merely reverses the platitudes and uses acid instead of saccharine, while still evading engagement with human suffering and with genuine possibility. The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo which not only question the ubiquity and necessity of extant institutions, but enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding. . . —the impulse to make change imaginable.”

She brings this line of thought to conclusion with a clear assertion of what is at stake: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

The first radical act is to imagine, and that requires we create the conditions that make this possible. Imagination isn’t just a tool for building anew, but also a tool for creating entirely new blueprints. Even an imperfect imagined alternative has the power to open us up to possibilities yet unimagined. Imagination isn’t a destination, but a doorway.

* * * *

Revolution of the Mind

“What is a manifesto? A manifesto is a galaxy. What is man? Man is a star.”
~ Jude Edze Davids

It is hard for us to grasp the fundamental issue at hand. It goes to the heart of our sense of reality. To imagine something completely new isn’t just radical. It has the potential and power to incite revolution. Not just ideologies, but entire worlds are being contested.

This touches upon the theological. Our beliefs about reality form a hidden dogma, the bedrock of our identity and perception. The metaphorical house we reside in is our, to use a modern phrase, reality tunnel. A tunnel is yet another metaphorical structure of the mind, reminding us of the ancient metaphor of Plato’s cave and quite similar to Gnostic writings, neoplatonism having influenced (via the Alexandrian Jews) early Gnostics and Christians alike.

Religion and mythology forms the earliest reservoir of imagination, of metaphor and storytelling. It was natural for a Deist like Thomas Paine to turn to Christian language in order to express his message. He wasn’t, in doing so, promoting a Christian nation. He was simply drawing upon a shared lexicon of metaphors, stories, symbols, and imagery.

The religious language resonated with Paine’s audience. And today a metaphor such as the master’s house retains its former religious significance.

The “master” theologically refers to who rules over us or what dominates our world. The demiurge is the false god who is the “god of this world”. He is the builder of our world. He doesn’t create anything ex nihilo, but builds out of what is already present. In political terms, the demiurgic forces of power represent the human archons, the rulers of our society. They simply rearrange the pieces on the board, reform the system as they find it. They have their positions in the hierarchy and so their agenda is to maintain the status quo… or, in reaction to changing times, to build a better and stronger status quo.

The metaphor of the master’s house refers to a master. But which master? An important question. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “No man can serve two masters.” The master builder, the the greatest of masons, is still just a tinkerer, a manipulator. Jesus, on the other hand, threatened to “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was using metaphor with charismatic force.

To understand Jesus’ metaphorical temple, you must put it into context of his preaching about the “Kingdom”. This Kingdom, as both Christians and Gnostics agreed, is near you and all around you. But, the Gnostics pushed it one step further, when it was written in The Gospel of Thomas that,

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the heavens!” Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather, the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you . . . is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

To clarify this, it is declared in Acts 7:48, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” It does not dwell in the house of the master builder.

So, where does it dwell? What is both within and outside? I would suggest, in line with Le Guin’s view, that what is being spoken of here is imagination in its purest and most extreme form, not just imagination but visionary imagination, the territory of radical possibility. The source of real power doesn’t reside within distant heavens or governments. Rather, it resides within us, around us, among us.

* * * *

Metaphors Unleashed

How do the teachings of Jesus apply today? He was distinguishing between various kingdoms and those who rule them. The lesser kingdoms are built on brute force and false beliefs, rather than on wisdom and vision. What presently are the lesser kingdoms that attempt to rule our lives and minds?

Philip K. Dick (PKD), a friend of Le Guin, gave a speech that offered a typically unique perspective, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. He said that, “Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.” The artificial worlds created for us are more intrusive and pervasive than ever. They dominate in a way no lesser kingdom could have in the past. “And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.”

Taking a slightly cynical turn, PKD then argues, “So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.” Modern American society is Disneyland, an imagined world enforced onto reality, but hardly a radical vision to offer hope, just mindless entertainment and bright colorful facades. And, as globalization proceeds, Disneyland not democracy conquers the world. It is a fake kingdom of fake things, of fake experiences.

As always, PKD pushes this notion as far as it will go:

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God’s power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.

What if the master’s house were transformed, renovated into something unexpected, made use for something not in the original plan? What if we reimagined the space we find ourselves in?

“Disneyland are never going to be the same again. . . [T]he birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

If we were to love democracy enough, could the simulations of democracy’s rhetoric be made real like the love-worn Velveteen Rabbit hopping in the grass?

* * * *

Normally, the envisioning of radical possibility is described as thinking outside the box. But what if we were to radically think within the box? The shape of a box, like that of a square, is an ancient sacred symbol. This symbol represents the world. It contains. It can be filled, but it also can be emptied. We need to seek that state of emptiness so as, like the Zen tea cup, to receive new visions and understandings.

It’s not just what is within us, the power of mind, of imagination, of vision. It is the possibility that is within all things — to return to The Gospel of Thomas: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Imagination isn’t an abstraction. We exist in the world and our imagination takes shape through the world.

Imagination is the one tool we can all claim. It isn’t a special talent reserved for the few. It is our natural right, our normal way of being in the world… if we have eyes to see, if we have the courage to take this tool in hand.

Revolutions: American and French, Part 2

I’ve been reading many books and listening to some lectures on the revolutionary era. It is fair to say that these sources are educating me in a way my schooling didn’t prepare me for. I’m constantly amazed how, like most Americans, I’ve been so ignorant throughout my life. Not just ignorant, but ignorant of how ignorant I was.

I really had no clue about the French Revolution, that is for sure. Anything you think you know about the French Revolution is probably wrong or severely limited. As always, context is freaking everything.

I wrote a bit about what I had learned a while back, but I have since learned so much more.

One interesting fact is the part the Basque played during the revolutionary era. The Basque region is located in the border region of Spain and France. The Basque are a separate people from the Celts and they have lived in that region for a very long time. The Irish descend from the Basque which is interesting as the English used their policies toward the Irish as a blueprint for their later colonizing efforts. The Basque and the Irish are both a proud people that had long struggles against imperialism.

The Basque were a highly respected people since for most of their history they remained unconquered. Neither the Romans nor the Moors could put them down, partly because they had a good defensible location in the mountains. This is what formed their republican tradition which inspired John Adams thinking about republicanism in America. (As a side note, many Basque immigrated to the Americas and later on helped shape the cowboy culture of open range cattle ranching; so they were the original cowboys.)

The Basque supported the French Revolution early on, like most people (like most Americans and most British). It was only later on that they experienced oppression as well and lost their independence (and only later that the French Revolution got a bad reputation during the era of anti-revolutionary backlash).

The early years of the French Revolution were more about political reform than the revolution we know from the Reign of Terror (the revolution began in 1789 and the use of the guillotine didn’t begin until 1793). Even so, keep in mind that more people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. Also, keep in mind that more people suffered oppression and died because of the results of the American failure to abolish slavery than did with the entire French Revolution.

Originally, the revolutionaries were pushing for a constitutional monarchy and that would have worked out just fine except King Louis XVI didn’t want to have his power constrained, as neither did King Charles I when facing the English Civil War, and so likewise regicide followed. The revolutionaries also weren’t trying to get rid of the aristocracy, take their land or take their wealth. They simply wanted the aristocracy to be treated like everyone else with no special privileges. Also, the revolutionaries had no desire to get rid of the church. The clergy were among the strongest supporters of the early revolution.

This early period of reform lasted for several years.

So, what went wrong? I’m not sure if anything went wrong exactly. Revolutions are always a gamble. There was nothing that guaranteed the American Revolution wouldn’t have had  a similar fate. Revolutions happen because all other recourses have failed, and that was even more true for the French than for the Americans.

The French people were truly desperate in a way Americans at that time couldn’t have imagined. They were living in a severely oppressive society and the people were starving. Americans before the Revolution were among the most free people in the world. It was because Americans were so used to being free that they felt affronted by having that freedom even slightly lessened. The French, on the other hand, were dealing with problems that literally were life and death for many of them. The French government wasn’t a far off institution as was the British government. It was an everpresent reality. American colonists knew no equivalent to the Bastille.

Also, consider how much more the French revolutionaries had going against them.

Besides the constant threat of starvation, they had more enemies than allies. The French are the only reason American revolutionaries won their war. Thousands of French citizens fought and died in the American Revolution. There is no equal number of American citizens who returned the favor by fighting and dying in the French Revolution. Nor did the French Revolutionaries have a major empire on its side as the American revolutionaries had with France. Instead, the French were facing enemies from without as they were facing enemies from within. Many of the European Empires sought to attack France during its moment of weakness and so the French were forced to fight wars as a nation even as they were attempting to rebuild their nation.

It was a nearly impossible situation for a revolution. It is a miracle that it didn’t turn out worse.

Early Americans had it easy in comparison. If the American Revolution had been similar to the French Revolution, American revolutionaries would not only had to fight the British government on its own territory but simultaneously fight the Native Americans and the Spanish Empire while being abandoned by the French Empire. On top of that, American revolutionaries would have had to deal with a larger population that was facing starvation as well.

How well would the American Revolution have turned out under those conditions? Probably not so well.

When a clueless asshole like Edmund Burke complained about the French Revolution, what would he have preferred? Should the French just accepted their fate by starving to death and allowing themselves to be continually killed and imprisoned by an oppressive government? The British Empire later on killed more Irish than the number of people killed in the Reign of Terror. As an Irishman and defender of the British Empire, what answer would Burke have for that? Would he have suggested the Irish to have just taken it and not to have fought back? Of course not.

Context is everything. And to understand the context one needs to know the facts.