A Neverending Revolution of the Mind

In a recent book, Juliet Barker offers new perspective about an old event (1381: The Year of the Peasant’s Revolt, Kindle Locations 41-48):

“In the summer of 1381 England erupted in a violent popular uprising that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Previous rebellions had always been led by ambitious and discontented noblemen seeking to overthrow the government and seize power for themselves. The so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was led by commoners— most famously Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle— whose origins were obscure and whose moment at the forefront of events was brief. Even more unusually, they did not seek personal advancement but a radical political agenda which, if it had been implemented, would fundamentally have transformed English society: the abolition of serfdom and the dues and services owed by tenants to their lord of the manor; freedom from tolls and customs on buying and selling goods throughout the country; the recognition of a man’s right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose; the state’s seizure of the Church’s wealth and property. Their demands anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.”

Our understanding of the origins of modernity keep being pushed back. It used to be thought that the American Revolution was the first modern revolution. But it was preceded by generations of revolts against colonial elite. And before that was the English Civil War, which increasingly is seen as the first modern revolution. We might have to push it even further back to the Peasant’s Revolt.

It makes sense when you know some of the historical background. England had become a major center of wool production. This unintentionally undermined the feudal order. The reason is that an entire community of feudal peasants isn’t necessary for herding sheep, in the way it had been for traditional agriculture. So, by the time the Peasant’s Revolt came around, there had already been several centuries of increasing irrelevance for much of the peasant population. This would continue on into the Enlightenment Age when the enclosure movement took hold and masses of landless peasants flooded into the cities.

It’s interesting that the pressure on the social order was already being felt that far back, almost jumpstarting the modern revolutionary era four centuries earlier. Those commoners were already beginning to think of themselves as more than mere cogs in the machinery of feudalism. They anticipated the possibility of becoming agents of their own fate. It was the origins of modern class identity and class war, at least for Anglo-American society.

There were other changes happening around then. It was the beginning of the Renaissance. This brought ancient Greek philosophy, science, and politics back into Western thought. The new old ideas were quickly spread through the invention of the movable type printing press and increasing use of vernacular language. And that directly made the Enlightenment possible.

The Italian city-states and colonial empires were becoming greater influences, bringing with them new economic systems of capitalism and corporatism. The Italian city-states, in the High Middle Ages, also initiated advocacy of anti-monarchialism and liberty-oriented republicanism. Related to this, humanism became a major concern, as taught by the ancient Sophists with Protagoras famously stating that “Man is the measure of all things.” And with this came early developments in psychological thought, such as the radical notion that everyone had the same basic human nature. Diverse societies had growing contact and so cultural differences became an issue, provoking difficult questions and adding to a sense of uncertainty and doubt.

Individual identity and social relationships were being transformed, in a way not seen since the Axial Age. Proto-feudalism developed in the Roman empire. Once established, feudalism lasted for more than a millennia. It wasn’t just a social order but an entire worldview, a way of being in and part of a shared world. Every aspect of life was structured by it. The slow unraveling inevitably led to increasing radicalism, as what it meant to be human was redefined and re-envisioned.

My thoughts continuously return to these historical changes. I can’t shake the feeling that we are living through another such period of societal transformation. But as during any major shift in consciousness, the outward results are hard to understand or sometimes hard to even notice, at least in terms of their ultimate consequences. That is until they result in an uprising of the masses and sometimes a complete overthrow of established power. Considering that everpresent possibility and looming threat, it might be wise to question how stable is our present social order and the human identity it is based upon.

These thoughts are inspired by other books I’ve been reading. The ideas I regularly return to is that of Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism and the related speculations of those who were inspired by him, such as Iain McGilchrist. Most recently, I found useful insight from two books whose authors were new to me: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Those authors offer overviews that question and criticize many common views, specifically that of the Enlightenment ideal of individuality, in considering issues of embodiment and affect, extended self and bundled self. These aren’t just new theories that academics preoccupy themselves for reasons of entertainment and job security. They are ideas that have much earlier origins and, dismissed for so long because they didn’t fit into the prevailing paradigm, they are only now being taken seriously. The past century led to an onslaught of research findings that continuously challenged what we thought we knew.

This shift is in some ways a return to a different tradition of radical thought. John Locke was radical enough for his day, although his radicalism was hidden behind pieties. Even more radical was a possible influence on Locke, Wim Klever going so far as seeing crypto-quotations of Baruch Spinoza in Locke’s writings. Spinoza was an Enlightenment thinker who focused not just on what it meant to be human but a human in the world. What kind of world is this? Unlike Locke, his writings weren’t as narrowly focused on politics, governments, constitutions, etc. Even so, Matthew Stewart argues that through Locke’s writings Spinozism was a hidden impulse that fueled the fires of the American Revolution, taking form and force through a working class radicalism as described in Nature’s God.

Spinozism has been revived in many areas of study, such as the growing body of work about affect. Never fully appreciated in his lifetime, his radicalism continues to inform and inspire innovative thinking. As Renaissance ideas took centuries to finally displace what came before, Spinoza’s ideas are slowly but powerfully helping to remake the modern mind. I’d like to believe that a remaking of the modern world will follow.

I just started an even more interesting book, Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman. She does briefly discuss Spinoza, but her framing concern is the the relationship “between the humanities and the sciences (particularly the life, neurological and psychological sciences).” She looks at the more recent developments of thought, including that of Jaynes and McGilchrist. Specifically, she unpacks the ideological self-identity we’ve inherited.

To argue for or to simply assume a particular social construct about our humanity is to defend a particular social order and thus to enforce a particular social control. She makes a compelling case for viewing neoliberalism as more than a mere economic and political system. The greatest form of control isn’t only controlling how people are allowed to act and relate but, first and foremost, how they are able to think about themselves and the world around them. In speaking about neoliberalism, she quotes Fernando Vidal (Kindle Locations 3979-3981):

“The individualism characteristic of western and westernized societies, the supreme value given to the individual as autonomous agent of choice and initiative, and the corresponding emphasis on interiority at the expense of social bonds and contexts, are sustained by the brain-hood ideology and reproduced by neurocultural discourses.”

Along with mentioning Spinoza, Blackman does give some historical background, such as in the following. And as a bonus, it is placed in the even larger context of Jaynes’ thought. She writes (Kindle Locations 3712-3724):

“Dennett, along with other scientists interested in the problem of consciousness (see Kuijsten, 2006), has identified Jaynes’s thesis as providing a bridge between matter and inwardness, or what I would prefer to term the material and immaterial. Dennett equates this to the difference between a brick and a bricklayer, where agency and sentience are only accorded to the bricklayer and never to the brick. For Dennett, under certain conditions we might have some sense of what it means to be a bricklayer, but it is doubtful, within the specificities of consciousness as we currently know and understand it, that we could ever know what it might mean to be a brick. This argument might be more usefully extended within the humanities by considering the difference between understanding the body as an entity and as a process. The concept of the body as having a ‘thing-like’ quality, where the body is reconceived as a form of property, is one that has taken on a truth status since at least its incorporation into the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 (see Cohen, 2009). As Cohen (2009: 81) suggests, ‘determining the body as the legal location of the person radically reimagines both the ontological and political basis of person-hood’. This act conceives the body as an object possessed or owned by individuals, what Cohen (2009) terms a form of ‘biopolitical individualization’. Within this normative conception of corporeality bodies are primarily material objects that can be studied in terms of their physicochemical processes, and are objects owned by individuals who can maintain and work upon them in order to increase the individual’s physical and cultural capital.”

In her epilogue, she presents a question by Catherine Malabou (Kindle Locations 4014-4015): “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” The context changes as the social order changes, from feudalism to colonialism and now capitalism. But phrased in various ways, it is the same question that has been asked for centuries.

Another interesting question to ask is, by what right? It is more than a question. It is a demand to prove the authority of an action. And relevant to my thoughts here, it has historical roots in feudalism. It’s like asking someone, who do you think you are to tell me what to do? Inherent in this inquiry is one’s position in the prevailing social order, whether feudal lords challenging the kings authority or peasants challenging those feudal lords. The issue isn’t only who we are and what we are allowed to do based on that but who or what gets to define who we are, our human nature and social identity.

Such questions always have a tinge of the revolutionary, even if only in potential. Once people begin questioning, established attitudes and identities have already become unmoored and are drifting. The act of questioning is itself radical, no matter what the eventual answers. The doubting mind is ever poised on a knife edge.

The increasing pressure put on peasants, especially once they became landless, let loose individuals and identities. This incited radical new thought and action. As a yet another underclass forms, that of the imprisoned and permanently unemployed that even now forms a tenth of the population, what will this lead to? Throwing people into desperation with few opportunities and lots of time on their hands tends to lead to disruptive outcomes, sometimes even revolution.

Radicalism means to go to the root and there is nothing more radical than going to the root of our shared humanity. In questions being asked, those in power won’t be happy with the answers found. But at this point, it is already too late to stop what will follow. We are on our way.

As our options dwindle down…

Some want to argue that we have a functioning democracy because we have the outward forms of democracy. We can protest in the street, vote, etc. But then why does it rarely lead to democratic results, specifically at the Federal level? And why is there so little ability for the public to force transparency and accountability?

It’s because those forms are separate from the actual seat of power. The two party system and corporate media is controlled by oligarchs. They use public perception management (AKA propaganda), backroom deals, cronyism, revolving door politics (e.g., politicians becoming lobbyists), regulatory takeover, and a thousand other kinds of anti-democratic tactics. They use these to determine who we are allowed to vote for and what those people can do while in office.

This system is so well entrenched that is protected from the voting public. But it isn’t just the government. Polls show that union leadership advocate for positions and support politicians that union membership often doesn’t support. The same thing is seen with organizations like the NRA, a divide between those who control those organizations and the members.

Of course, the leadership of these organizations have close ties to the two party system that controls the government. So, these organizations can’t be used by the public to exert influence on politicians. They are part of the social control. No amount of petitions or protests can change this. Present strategies of activism and attempts of reform have been failing for longer than I’ve been alive.

If what you are doing has been proven not to accomplish what you claim to want, then what do you do? You either lower your expectations by making excuses or you try something new.

We have two options left to us. The first is a constitutional convention. But the first constitutional convention more than a couple of centuries ago was taken over by powerful (pseudo-)Federalists who, unconstitutionally according to the first constitution (The Articles of Confederation), forced through an anti-democratic document to ensure their rule. Powerful forces would attempt to do the same thing with another constitutional convention. So, if that fails, that leaves only one option left. That is revolution, whether peaceful or not.

As our options dwindle down, our choice of action becomes simplified. The only question remaining is do we have the moral vision and moral courage to take action. It is up to the oligarchs about whether or not they want to push us to the edge, seeing how far we can be pushed before we simply go over. But as we find ourselves teetering on the edge, what do the rest of us do, We the People?

As citizens of the United States, here is something to keep in mind. Fool the American public once, shame on the oligarchs. Fool the American public a thousand times, that is the shame of our entire society. We’ve been played for fools and we’ve acted accordingly. Let’s take this as a lesson learned the hard way. So, what do we do now? The first step might be learning to make important distinctions.

Pseudo-democracy is to democracy as truthiness is to truth. The spectacle of pseudo-democracy gives us the appearance of democracy to absolve the public’s sense of failure and guilt. The public can say that, well, at least I voted, joined the union, protested, signed a petition, volunteered for a campaign, etc. It allows small impotent acts in order to avoid the possibility of actions that would make a difference.

If we want actual functioning democracy, it is our collective responsibility. We have to act outside of the anti-democratic system. That would require creating a new parallel system that acts independently. We need to create our own separate government, not unlike what the American colonists did when they turned revolutionary, and then put so much public support and power behind it that it can’t be denied. We’ve waited long enough for the oligarchs to do the right thing. It’s now in our hands.

All of that is easier said than done. But it is either that or we continue our decline. As always, it’s a choice to be made.

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 old order still being fresh enough in public 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 West 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:

http://edrooksby.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/review-of-domenico-losurdos-liberalism-a-counter-history/

“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:

http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/liberalism_an_ideology_of_exclusion_part_2

“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:

http://www.leninology.com/2011/10/liberals-and-reactionaries.html

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:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/southern-pre-capitalism/

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:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/deep-south-american-hypocrisy-liberal-traditions/

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,

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/conservative-minded-liberals-reactionary-xenophobic/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/liberalism-weaknesses-failures/

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.