Thursday, April 28, 2022

Tolstoy's philosophy of history

Isaiah Berlin's essay The Hedgehog and the Fox is a particularly interesting combination of philosophical analysis and literary criticism. Berlin is a brilliant interpreter of nineteenth-century Russian thought, and Tolstoy's War and Peace is one of the most important novels of that period. In "The Hedgehog and the Fox" Berlin provides a close study of the philosophy of history that is interwoven into War and Peace. Berlin has a deep appreciation of Tolstoy's philosophical insights and rigorous logical thinking; he clearly thinks that there is a substantive and important philosophy of history embedded in this great novel.

And yet there is surely a paradox here. Tolstoy’s interest in history and the problem of historical truth was passionate, almost obsessive, both before and during the writing of War and Peace. No one who reads his journals and letters, or indeed War and Peace itself, can doubt that the author himself, at any rate, regarded this problem as the heart of the entire matter – the central issue round which the novel is built.... No man in his senses, during this century at any rate, would ever dream of denying Tolstoy’s intellectual power, his appalling capacity to penetrate any conventional disguise, that corrosive scepticism in virtue of which Prince Vyazemsky tarred War and Peace with the brush of netovshchina (negativism) – an early version of that nihilism which Vogüé and Albert Sorel later quite naturally attribute to him. (8)

Berlin constructs Tolstoy's philosophy of history around two related themes: first, that large historical events are all but incomprehensible, being the sum of a vast number of separate actions and events that cannot be perceived or synthesized into a simple causal account. So historical "knowledge" must be understood in a very modest way, as an inherently incomplete and partial empirical study of some of the happenings constituting the historical event of interest. Here are a few passages expressing the first point:

History, only history, only the sum of the concrete events in time and space – the sum of the actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment – this alone contained the truth, the material out of which genuine answers – answers needing for their apprehension no special sense or faculties which normal human beings did not possess – might be constructed. (12)

Worst of all, in Tolstoy’s eyes, were those unceasing talkers who accused one another of the kind of thing ‘for which no one could in fact have been responsible’; and this because ‘nowhere is the commandment not to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge so clearly written as in the course of history. Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and the individual who plays a part in historical events never understands their significance. If he attempts to understand them, he is struck with sterility.’ To try to ‘understand’ anything by rational means is to make sure of failure. Pierre Bezukhov wanders about, ‘lost’ on the battlefield of Borodino, and looks for something which he imagines as a kind of set piece: a battle as depicted by the historians or the painters. But he finds only the ordinary confusion of individual human beings haphazardly attending to this or that human want. (17)

Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear, logical and scientific constructions – the well-defined, symmetrical patterns of human reason – seem smooth, thin, empty, ‘abstract’ and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived. (66)

And second, Tolstoy is fundamentally critical and skeptical about claims to understanding the large historical event as the expression of large historical forces or movements. He regarded such attempts as indefensible metaphysical fictions rather than credible historical hypotheses:

With it went an incurable love of the concrete, the empirical, the verifiable, and an instinctive distrust of the abstract, the impalpable, the supernatural – in short an early tendency to a scientific and positivist approach, unfriendly to romanticism, abstract formulations, metaphysics. Always and in every situation he looked for ‘hard’ facts – for what could be grasped and verified by the normal intellect, uncorrupted by intricate theories divorced from tangible realities, or by other-worldly mysteries, theological, poetical and metaphysical alike. (9)

According to Berlin, Tolstoy's antagonism to "metaphysical" explanations in history extended to the idea that there were historical laws to which events in history could be subsumed:

No matter how scrupulous the technique of historical research might be, no dependable laws could be discovered of the kind required even by the most undeveloped natural sciences. (14)

Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in managing human affairs, in this case the Western military theorists, a General Pfuel, or Generals Bennigsen and Paulucci, who are all shown talking equal nonsense at the Council of Drissa, whether they defend a given strategic or tactical theory or oppose it; these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record. Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind. (20)

History is plainly not a science, and sociology, which pretends that it is, is a fraud; no genuine laws of history have been discovered, and the concepts in current use – ‘cause’, ‘accident’, ‘genius’ – explain nothing: they are merely thin disguises for ignorance. (22)

So: history's fabric is granular and heterogeneous, there are no grand historical laws, there is no teleology or direction in history. Does this mean that it is impossible to explain historical outcomes of interest? I don't believe it does; because I believe we can locate our historical research at a meso-level of causal explanation through which it is possible to analyze and explain particular historical events (link, link, link). Through concrete historical research we can identify some of the causal mechanisms and conditions that made certain historical events likely in their contexts -- without imagining that there are general laws and grand theories that could be discovered that allow reduction of history to a formula.

This position seems compatible with the framework that Berlin attributes to Tolstoy on the question of historical knowledge. However, it would appear that Berlin sides in the end with the "incomprehensibility of history" interpretation as the best reading of Tolstoy's view. Only the most local facts can be known, and the effort to knit together a coherent narrative of a complex event -- as a result of deliberate actions, causal mechanisms, and conjunctural conditions -- is purely illusory and subjective. Our minds force a kind of order on the past; but this order is a fiction, not a fact.

Berlin seems to insist on something like this feature of framework-dependence in discussing Tolstoy's view of "understanding an individual's actions":

Sometimes Tolstoy comes near to saying what it is: the more we know, he tells us, about a given human action, the more inevitable, determined it seems to us to be. Why? Because the more we know about all the relevant conditions and antecedents, the more difficult we find it to think away various circumstances, and conjecture what might have occurred without them; and as we go on removing in our imagination what we know to be true, fact by fact, this becomes not merely difficult but impossible. Tolstoy’s meaning is not obscure. We are what we are, and live in a given situation which has the characteristics – physical, psychological, social – that it has; what we think, feel, do is conditioned by it, including our capacity for conceiving possible alternatives, whether in the present or future or past. Our imagination and ability to calculate, our power of conceiving, let us say, what might have been, if the past had, in this or that particular, been otherwise, soon reaches its natural limits, limits created both by the weakness of our capacity for calculating alternatives – ‘might have beens’ – and (we may add by a logical extension of Tolstoy’s argument) even more by the fact that our thoughts, the terms in which they occur, the symbols themselves, are what they are, are themselves determined by the actual structure of our world. Our images and powers of conception are limited by the fact that our world possesses certain characteristics and not others: a world too different is (empirically) not conceivable at all; some minds are more imaginative than others, but all stop somewhere. (80)

Or, as Berlin summarizes Tolstoy's treatment of the battle of Austerlitz:

Nikolay Rostov at the battle of Austerlitz sees the great soldier Prince Bagration riding up with his suite towards the village of Schöngrabern, whence the enemy is advancing; neither he nor his staff, nor the officers who gallop up to him with messages, nor anyone else, is, or can be, aware of what exactly is happening, nor where, nor why; nor is the chaos of the battle in any way made clearer either in fact or in the minds of the Russian officers by the appearance of Bagration. Nevertheless his arrival puts heart into his subordinates; his courage, his calm, his mere presence create the illusion of which he is himself the first victim, namely, that what is happening is somehow connected with his skill, his plans, that it is his authority that is in some way directing the course of the battle; and this, in its turn, has a marked effect on the general morale around him. The dispatches which will duly be written later will inevitably ascribe every act and event on the Russian side to him and his dispositions; the credit or discredit, the victory or the defeat, will belong to him, although it is clear to everyone that he will have had less to do with the conduct and outcome of the battle than the humble, unknown soldiers who do at least perform whatever actual fighting is done, that is, shoot at each other, wound, kill, advance, retreat and so on. (17)

The battle is fundamentally chaotic; and yet the historians have created a narrative around the causal influence of the arrival of Bagration. But for Tolstoy "it is clear to everyone that he will have had less to do with the conduct and outcome of the battle than the humble, unknown soldiers who do at least perform whatever actual fighting is done".

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Can Nietzsche support a decent political philosophy?

Nietzsche's anti-moralism is a key theme in his philosophy and civilizational criticism. He regarded traditional European morality as "herd morality", the deplorable consequence of Christian values of subordination and ressentiment. It is hard enough to find in Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals a basis for criticizing even the most grotesque examples of interpersonal brutality and violence, and Nietzsche is contemptuous of the values of kindness and compassion. And it is virtually impossible to find an explicit consideration of the question, are there moral limitations on the behavior of states? To put the point simply: does Nietzsche have the philosophical stuff to condemn the Holocaust or the Holodomor?

How would Nietzsche respond if he were time-transported to the MSNBC studio and interviewed by Rachel Maddow? The session might begin along these lines: "Mr. Nietzsche, welcome to the program. I'd like to ask you the most pressing question today: The armed forces of the Russian Federation are torturing, raping, and murdering civilians in Ukraine today in an effort to defeat Ukraine in its war of aggression. Can you condemn these acts as war crimes and atrocities against the innocent, given your statements about "morality" and the "will to power" in your celebrated work, Beyond Good and Evil?"

It would of course be very interesting to have this conversation with Nietzsche. But today all we have are his texts and letters, and they are unpromising in this context. Given his pervasive anti-moralism, any contemporary reader of Nietzsche is forced to ask: can Nietzsche have a political philosophy?

Two discussions of this question have been noteworthy in the past decade or so. Tamsin Shaw's 2007 monograph Nietzsche's Political Skepticism provides an extended argument about why it is philosophically difficult for Nietzsche to offer a political philosophy. And the essays in Barry Stocker and Manuel Knoll's edited volume Nietzsche as Political Philosopher are insightful as well.

The painful pill presented by Nietzsche's writings to anyone who loves liberal democracy is that Nietzsche's attack on humanistic morality suggests ugly possibilities: the acceptance of totalitarianism and dictatorship, the unfettered use of state power to oppress the citizens of the state, and moral indifference to aggressive war by a powerful state against a weak state. If citizens do not have morally defensible rights against each other and the state; if there are not morally compelling reasons for believing in and entrenching the equality of all citizens; and if there are no morally compelling principles regulating the use of the instruments of war by a state against another state or people -- then there is no basis for criticizing the Gulag, genocide, and brutal aggressive war. So we seem to step directly from Nietzsche to Putinism.

Rolf Zimmermann's essay "The 'Will to Power'", included in the Stocker and Knoll volume, addresses this issue directly, with a conclusion that may surprise the reader. Zimmermann argues that Nietzsche's framework is compatible with both a liberal state and an authoritarian state. It all depends on what we want (that is, what set of primary values about ourselves and our interactions with others we have adopted, as a nation).

Political implications, on the collective level, can be discussed with regard to two conceptions that may be explicated in the sense of a liberal and an authoritarian ideal type. At the same time, we must face the problem as to whether Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism could be consistently integrated into a constitutional democracy of whatever kind. (Zimmerman in Stocker and Knoll 39)

Zimmermann offers a very interesting Nietzschean interpretation of the atrocious regimes of the twentieth century. His basic view is that Nietzsche insists on historicizing "civilizational" systems of values (and takes satisfaction in finding disagreeable features of their genealogies). So Zimmermann's view is not that the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler or Stalin were inspired by Nietzsche's philosophy or his moral nihilism, but rather they are comprehensible as the emergence of new moral-value frameworks following the demise of traditional Christian morality.

My own perspective, however, is quite different. I propose, first of all, to read the radical movements of the 20th century, especially Bolshevism and National Socialism (NS), in terms of their own new moralities that gained force in actual history in order to build socio-political formations. In doing so, these movements verified in a systematically relevant way Nietzsche’s paradigm of moral philosophy that is defined by insight into the appearance of divergent moralities in history conflicting with each other – divergent “wills to power”. This very insight of Nietzsche can be vindicated quite independently of critical objections to his moral-political philosophy in detail. In systematic terms, therefore, it is much more relevant to interpret developments of actual history within a conceptual frame set forth by Nietzsche in an arguable general sense, instead of searching for “influences” of Nietzsche on actual history dozens of years after his lifetime. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 48-49)

Zimmermann makes a very interesting point here: that the horrific regimes of the twentieth century can be interpreted within a Nietzschean "civilizational" framework, but not as an expression of Nietzschean values or anti-values.

Now, given the comparative descriptions of egalitarian universalism, Nazi-morality and Bolshevist-morality, we come to see the moral history of the 20th century clearly in Nietzschean terms, namely as a history of divergent moralities in conflict with each other, a history of divergent “wills to power” realizing themselves in socio-political forms without precedence, and thereby showing the value-forming capacity of man in disastrous results. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 55)

Most critically, Zimmermann believes it is consistent with Nietzsche's philosophical ideas to defend a liberal-egalitarian-constitutional theory of the state, along the lines described by JS Mill in On Liberty. But, crucially, "we would have to speak of egalitarian universalism equally as a historical phenomenon, in short as 'historical universalism', specifically related to the history of human rights since the 18th century" (55). Or in other words: real human beings and groups would have to struggle to secure and establish these values as the foundation of their polities.

This conclusion brings us to the central argument offered by Tamsin Shaw. Shaw believes that Nietzsche is profoundly doubtful of the ability of a nation to coalesce around a liberal-democratic consensus. Shaw too has a contribution in the Stocker and Knoll volume, comparing Nietzsche and Weber. But her central ideas on a possible political morality in Nietzsche's thought are conveyed in Nietzsche's Political Skepticism.

Shaw puts the weight of her argument on two points that she believes Nietzsche would accept: that a modern state requires a fairly high degree of "moral" consensus among its citizens about the actions and requirements of the state, and that modern society is largely incapable of arriving at such a consensus. Instead, the coercive power of the state is used to create a moral and normative consensus, through indoctrination, propaganda, education, and public festivals. This amounts to two core premises:

One concerns the nature of modern states and in particular the fact that their ability to rule a society requires convergence, in that society, on some shared normative beliefs. The other concerns the inability of secular societies to generate the required convergence through noncoercive means. (kl 131)

When religious institutions and beliefs had a powerful grip on the people of a nation, the values inculcated by those institutions provided an independent source of consensus which put some constraints on the nature and actions of the state. But with the collapse of religious identities (the death of God), there was no longer a point of convergence that could provide a basis for consensus. This leaves an open field for the coercive state to establish its own ideological institutions -- whether those of Hitler, Stalin, or Orbán. And, according to Shaw, this makes the normative foundations of a liberal democracy all but impossible:

So legitimacy in this sense requires that political institutions conform to the accepted norms of those over whom they rule, and that acceptance of these norms be uncoerced, at least by the political institutions that they purport to legitimate. But although this weak notion seems helpfully unambitious in demanding conformity to the professed normative beliefs of a population, rather than to the right norms, it presupposes precisely the kind of uncoerced convergence that Nietzsche thinks secularism is making increasingly unlikely. (kl 209)

She refers to this as "political skepticism", and she believes it is ineliminable from Nietzsche's thought.

Nietzsche’s political skepticism, then, consists in the view that we simply cannot reconcile our need for normative authority with our need for political authority. Given [Nietzsche's] own historical situation, as we shall see, he was vividly aware of the fragility of any apparent compromise between these demands. He does, in the later writings, occasionally seem inclined to give up on one or the other. But the real challenge that his skepticism presents to modern politics is somehow to find a way of not giving up on either. (kl 284)

This point is philosophically interesting. But more importantly, it is highly relevant to the politics of liberal democracies today. Anti-liberal, hate-based populists are gaining the narrative upper-hand, and there appears to be a steep decline in support for the traditional civic values of liberal democracy: rule of law, constitutional protections of rights, equality of all citizens. Further, this decline seems to coincide with rising support for authoritarian parties and candidates. There are numerous mechanisms that help to explain the rise of authoritarian and racist political values -- the solid hold that right-wing cable networks have on the "base", the targeted messaging of messages of hatred and distrust by social media platforms, and the increasing boldness of fascist-sounding elected officials. But maintaining strong and nearly universal support for the values of a liberal democracy is increasingly challenging.

Perhaps we need a modern-day Nietzsche to de-mystify the rantings of the far-right, and to help western democracies regain their sane and decent commitment to peace, equality, and freedom.

Here are several prior posts that address the threats to maintaining a democratic consensus (link, link, link, link).

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Realism about social entities

Critical realism depends on the key notion that sociologists are justified in construing their statements about social entities as real, objective features of the social world — “intransitive” objects, in Bhaskar’s somewhat idiosyncratic vocabulary. But does a realist ontology actually require this assumption? Or are there realist interpretations of sociological theory that do not “reify” entities like social structures, ideologies, or normative systems? Could we be realist about the social analogues of atoms and forces but nominalistic about larger ensembles like proteins? In chemistry there would be no reason to ask this question; but in the composition of the social world, it is possible that the linkages between "micro" and "macro" are sufficiently loose as to make it plausible that the ensembles have less permanence and fixity than their components. It is possible that the social world is more akin to a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are square and can be fitted together in countless different ways; so there is no reason to attribute "existence" to the various combinations that occur.

This probably sounds needlessly paradoxical. But I think there are problems in asserting the independent, objective reality of a social structure like “the US system of academic tenure” that do not arise with respect to the building blocks of social structures and institutions like incentives, group priorities, property relations, and so on.

The ontological problem about large social entities arises from the open boundaries, multiple dimensions, and heterogeneity characteristic of the great preponderance of social “structures”. Take “tenure”: there are some important features commonly associated with tenure, like “protection of academic freedom,” “peer review,” and “self-governance”. But there is a great range of institutional arrangements, institutional priorities, and processes that make multiple instances substantially different from each other. Harvard’s tenure process looks very different from that practiced at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. And this is not a statement about elitism and status, but rather a reflection of different institutional priorities, needs, and the path-dependency relating to the historical composition of the respective arrangements.

We might be more confident in “realist” reference to a sociological entity when we refer to the particular instances of structures and ideologies, in a time and place, rather than the class of entities. So we might say that both Harvard and Lowell have particular tenure arrangements that are stable and well-defined and that can be selected as social entities. The class of all tenure systems, on the other hand, should be understood nominalistically as referring to a group of substantially different individual systems.

A more fundamental approach a realist might take is to abandon realist interpretations of large social things altogether and choose instead to refer realistically to the mechanisms, modular organizations, and interests and actions that make up the large macro structures and systems. This would represent a social realism about underlying processes, forces, and constraints, while adopting a nominalistic view of the higher-level entities. This orientation seems to point back to the view that I call "methodological localism": the view that "the 'molecule' of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules" (link, link). And it suggests that sociological realism is most clearly justified when applied to social circumstances at the micro- and meso-levels -- not the grand macro level.

This modest version of social realism preserves the key ideas of the objectivity, independence from the observer, and persistence and recurrence in the social world of the object of investigation. And this sustains the primary features of a realist understanding of social research and theorizing. On this more limited interpretation of realism, the social world exists independently from the researcher; causes, actions, incentives, and constraints exist, and social actors interact with each other in a variety of ways. Large structures, however, are too indefinite to count as "real" social entities. They have the shape-shifting status of the forest rather than the trees.

And what about the large structures that many of the critical realists care about the most -- capitalism, mode of production, economic structure, forces of production, bourgeois ideology, ...? It seems reasonable to construe these social things as conceptual constructs or ideal types rather than ontological entities. The "capitalist mode of production" is an intellectual construct, not an independent social reality. It is composed of real social actions, institutions, arrangements, and practices, all of which can be empirically investigated and which are independent from the observer. But when we think of the CMP along the lines of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Althusser, Deng Xiaoping, or Hayek, we are thinking of substantially different ways of conceptualizing the social and economic world. Further, the capitalisms in Britain, Germany, Japan, and post-Communist Poland all have important differences when it comes to their fundamental institutions and dynamics. The CMP is not a single abiding and theory-independent social reality.

Does the "economic structure of the United States" exist? It does, in that there are specific and empirically accessible institutions, relations, actions, and organizations that hang together and persist, and which we intellectually organize as the "economic structure". And yet it does not exist, if by "exist" we mean something solid, unchanging, and specific. As Marx once wrote, "all that is solid melts into air" (link).

(An earlier post considers a different kind of retreat from ambitious realism in the natural sciences, structural realism (link).)

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Machiavelli and the totalitarian state

Isaiah Berlin's essay on Machiavelli in Against the Current is penetrating and detailed, valuable both for the specialist and the general philosophical reader. Berlin demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of the range of interpretations and criticisms that have been offered for the ideas presented in The Prince and the many wildly contradictory interpretations that have arisen. Was Machiavelli an amoral political realist? Is The Prince intended to be a value-free "science of politics"? Did he write The Prince simply as a user's manual for the rulers of states in his own time and the future? Was he indifferent to the appeal to bloody violence and deception by the ruler for the sake of maintaining power? What was his attitude towards Christian morality? Was Machiavelli's position "humanist"? Berlin dissects the competing answers that have been given to these questions for several hundred years, and his account makes for fascinating reading. More impressive, though, is Berlin's effort to provide a coherent interpretation of the "originality of Machiavelli" that makes sense of the texts and also shows the weaknesses of historic claims about Machiavelli's intentions. Berlin provides an intellectual-moral location for Machiavelli's short essay that provides answers to these questions. And his answers are profoundly disturbing. Berlin believes that Machiavelli's text contains the makings of a fundamental "impossibility" theorem for political philosophy, as radical as the wave-particle dichotomy in fundamental physics.

Key to Berlin's interpretation is his view that Machiavelli has a particular political ideal in mind in writing The Prince. It is the ideal of a republic or polis, well regulated by a strong government, and consisting of citizens embodying courage, virtue, and intelligence. Periclean Athens, the Roman Republic, and certain periods of the Roman Empire provide the key exemplars. "The only freedom [Machiavelli] recognises is political freedom, freedom from arbitrary despotic rule, that is, republicanism, and the freedom of one State from control by other States, or rather of the city or patria ... The need for absolute centralised power (if not for sovereignty) is taken for granted" (47).

And the need for ruthless exercise of power follows from the need to maintain the effective centralized state:

In order to cure degenerate populations of their diseases, these founders of new States or Churches may be compelled to have recourse to ruthless measures, force and fraud, guile, cruelty, treachery, the slaughter of the innocent, surgical measures that are needed to restore a decayed body to a condition of health. (55)

But according to Berlin, this does not mean that Machiavelli dismisses moral values when he analyzes political necessity. Instead, his reasoning is justified by a conception of the kind of politics the ruler is seeking to create for the citizens of the state. According to Berlin, Machiavelli's central discovery was that "pagan" (Roman) values and "Christian" values were fundamentally incompatible, and this incompatibility is irresolvable.

One is the morality of the pagan world: its values are courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity, public achievement, order, discipline, happiness, strength, justice, above all assertion of one’s proper claims and the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction; that which for a Renaissance reader Pericles had seen embodied in his ideal Athens, Livy had found in the old Roman Republic, that of which Tacitus and Juvenal lamented the decay and death in their own time. These seem to Machiavelli the best hours of mankind and, Renaissance humanist that he is, he wishes to restore them. (56)

The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value – higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration. (57)

And, Berlin argues, the second set of values makes the republic constituted by the first set of values impossible to achieve:

But if history, and the insights of wise statesmen, especially in the ancient world, verified as they have been in practice (verità effettuale), are to guide us, it will be seen that it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose. (58)

The general effect of Christian teaching has been to crush men’s civic spirit, and make them endure humiliations uncomplainingly, so that destroyers and despots encounter too little resistance. Hence Christianity is in this respect compared unfavourably with Roman religion, which made men stronger and more ‘ferocious’. (59)

Christians as he knew them in history and his own experience, that is, men who in their practice actually follow Christian precepts, are good men, but if they govern States in the light of such principles they lead them to destruction. Like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, like the well-meaning Gonfalonieri of the Florentine Republic, like Savonarola, they are bound to be defeated by the realists (the Medici or the Pope or King Ferdinand of Spain), who understand how to create lasting institutions; build them, if need be, on the bones of innocent victims. (62)

But now let us draw out the implications of the view. What does this line of thought lead to? It leads to totalitarianism; it provides a justification for Stalinism.

But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during the pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall. Whoever has chosen to make an omelette cannot do so without breaking eggs.... Once you embark on a plan for the transformation of a society you must carry it through no matter at what cost: to fumble, to retreat, to be overcome by scruples – this is to betray your chosen cause. (74)

Anything is permitted for the eventual achievement of socialism in one country.

From the vantage-point of the great social objectives in the name of which these (prima facie wicked) acts are to be performed, they will be seen (so the argument goes) as no longer wicked, but as rational – demanded by the very nature of things – by the common good, or man’s true ends, or the dialectic of history – condemned only by those who cannot or will not see a large enough segment of the logical, or theological, or metaphysical, or historical pattern; misjudged, denounced only by the spiritually blind or short-sighted. At worst, these ‘crimes’ are discords demanded by the larger harmony, and therefore, to those who hear this harmony, no longer discordant. (79-80)

And Berlin explicitly draws this conclusion on Machiavelli's behalf:

To Dostoevsky’s famous question ‘Is everything permitted?’1 Machiavelli (who for Dostoevsky would surely have been an atheist) answers ‘Yes, if the end – that is, the pursuit of a society’s basic interests in a specific situation – cannot be realised in any other way.’ (81)

What is surprising to me is that Berlin fails to comment directly on the seeds of totalitarianism and fascism in the Machiavelli he decodes -- even though his own life spanned the rise and fall of both Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, the Soviet Terror and the purges, and the Gulag. If the fundamental line of thought in The Prince is that the state can use whatever means it chooses to pursue its goals and the transformation of society, then it is a founding document of totalitarianism, not of republican humanism. Even the metaphor of "breaking eggs" mentioned in the quote above from p. 74 is specific to the vile defenses that were offered of Soviet violence against its own citizens in the 1930s. 

It is also worth noting that the dichotomy between pagan boldness and Christian passivity -- the central value-system dichotomy that Berlin attributes to Machiavelli -- does not capture the full normative space for political morality. Is a binding constitutional protection against arbitrary arrest and execution a "Christian" requirement, reflecting timidity and passivity? It is not, because there is a third option: civic constitutionalism, a robust commitment by both rulers and citizens to the rule of law and the protection of rights and liberties, and a commitment to social progress through constitutional means only. Both John Stuart Mill and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provide examples of activists for liberty and equality that reject passivity while also rejecting the violent and illegal actions of the state.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The open texture of the social world

What is involved in arriving at scientific knowledge about the social world? The position I have consistently taken emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity of the social: the social world is a mixture of diverse processes and structures; it is constituted by socially constituted and socially situated actors, leading to ineliminable features of contingency and heterogeneity; and there are no unified "grand theories" that permit us to capture "the way the social world works". Social phenomena are multi-threaded, multi-causal, and multi-semiotic. So the most we can hope for in the social sciences is to identify some of the threads of change and stability, some of the distinct causes at work, and some of the systems of meaning through which actors frame the world in which they live and act.

So the social sciences can only consist of a large number of separate and largely independent lines of investigation into different strands of social life. And these diverse lines of investigation also correspond to a plurality of methodologies for research. These limited forms of knowledge are enormously valuable, both intellectually and practically -- even though they do not add up to a unified and comprehensive representation of the social world as a whole. Social knowledge is inherently incomplete and incompletable. Weber points to this idea in his essay, "'Objectivity' in Social Science and Social Policy" in The Methodology of The Social Sciences (link):

There is no absolutely "objective" scientific analysis of culture -- or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes -- of "social phenomena" independent of special and "one-sided" viewpoints according to which -- expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously -- they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes. (72)

I do not construe this passage as an early version of "post-modernist relativism", but rather Weber's recognition of the inherently open texture of social phenomena. There is no limit to the empirical, theoretical, causal, cultural, and historical research questions that can be formulated with regard to almost any ensemble of social phenomena over time.

Consider a particular sociological topic: the nature and dynamics of the 20th-century urban place -- the city. Acquaintance with a range of cities allows us to note that there are aspects of similarity and difference across "cities". This suggests a range of kinds of investigation of urban life. We can study the particulars of specific cities (Mumbai, Bonn, Mexico City, Chicago) through careful case studies. Second, it is promising to engage in comparative studies of aspects of a range of cities that seem to work out differently. How do the public transit systems of Mexico City, Mumbai, and Chicago compare to each other? How does corruption affect the municipal governments of several cities differently? And finally, it is intriguing to consider whether there are some processes and mechanisms that are recur across cities in the modern world, leading to limited but genuine generalizations that can be discovered through quantitative comparisons. Epidemiological findings about the transmission of infectious diseases might be one such area where generalizations across many or all cities can be discovered.

But consider the enormous range of questions that can be asked about cities:
  • Why is Chicago located where it is?
  • Why are cities located where they are?
  • What are the patterns of residence in cities, and what factors explain these patterns?
  • How are features of health status distributed across place and population in cities?
  • What kinds of transportation exist in the urban environment, and why?
  • How are the necessities of life -- food, water, clothing, ... -- provided in adequate quantities to the population of a city?
  • How do people in the city make their livings?
  • How are urban services provided, funded, and managed?
  • How is the urban population governed?
  • How is civil peace maintained in the urban population?
  • Why did Detroit, Newark, and Cleveland experience uprisings/race riots in 1967 and 1968?
  • What meanings are associated with the design and architecture of a given city by its residents?
  • What kinds and frequencies of crimes occur in the city?
  • What factors enhance or inhibit crime in cities?
  • ...
It is evident that this list can be extended indefinitely. There are always new and interesting questions that can be posed and investigated about an individual city or a group of cities. And any one of these questions can be the basis of an entire research program in the social and human sciences, involving theory, observation, archival research, discovery of institutional arrangements, cultural interpretation, historical research, and so on, for a densely developed set of research ideas and initiatives. So, QED: there can never be a "finished and comprehensive sociology of the city".

This discussion supports the conclusion that the open-endedness of the social world is quite different from the natural world. Once scientific attention turned to the question of the behavior and properties of gases, there were a number of different avenues that could be pursued; but ultimately, we can understand the behavior of gases in terms of a few simple laws and mechanisms: molecules, elastic collisions, intermolecular forces, kinetic energy, entropy, laws of thermodynamics, and perhaps a bit of the mathematics of complex systems to explain local patterns of turbulence. But there is no hidden mystery in the behavior of a gas. The behavior of a population in a city over the stretch of a century is entirely different from this simple story about gases. The mechanisms, meanings, and dynamics of a social population can be investigated along countless different dimensions, and there are no fixed and final "laws of social interaction" that ultimately allow the explanation of the social ensemble -- the city. And this open texture of sociological investigation of the city seems to be true for virtually every aspect of social life.

(Here are some additional posts on cities illustrating the range of social-science studies of urban life that is possible; link, link, link, link, link.)

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Philosophies of the far right

image: Joseph de Maistre

The ideologies of the far right have a particularly strong grip on a segment of democratic society in the current epoch. This is evident in the extremism of the current leadership of the GOP, and it is evident as well in the growth of hate-based groups in the United States (link). What are the ideas, values, and emotions that possess these anti-liberal, anti-democratic persons and parties?

There is a fairly simple set of answers that resonate with journalistic coverage of the far right in the US and other countries: nativism, anti-immigrant activism, white supremacy, anti-government activism, class resentment, and willingness to appeal to violence against one’s political or cultural “enemies”. These are the items mentioned in the hypothetical “far-right index” proposed in a recent post (link). Many of these attitudes and values can be bundled together into “right-wing populism” (link).

Do these attitudes amount to a political philosophy? Or are they more akin to a smorgasbord of separate attitudes of intolerance, mostly unified by hatred and mistrust of other groups, resentment of one’s own governing classes, and a crass willfulness that refuses any sense of collective democratic obligation? 

One way of thinking about this question is provided by Mark Sedgwick’s very interesting 2019 volume, Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy. The contributors are drawn from a range of European and North American research institutes, and their essays reflect some of the diversity that exists across right-wing extremist thought in western democracies today.

In his informative introduction Sedgwick highlights a number of political ideas in these waves of far-right thinkers: from Spengler, a theme of “apocalypticism”; from Schmitt, a “suspicion of the global universal elite”, emphasis on “friend and enemy” in politics, and legitimation of authoritarian rule; from Evola, the elevation of tradition, hierarchy, and the transcendent; from de Benoist, a rejection of egalitarianism in favor of “ethnopluralism”; from Buchanan the “white European” roots of US history and heritage, as well as a deep suspicion of “global liberal elites” and antagonism towards Mexican immigration into the United States; from Taylor and Dugin a race-specific ideal of US culture; and from Bat Ye’or a fundamental antagonism towards Muslim states and immigration. There is a broad family resemblance across these conservative visions of civilization, but they by no means add up to a coherent philosophical system.

The volume also treats “emerging” thinkers on the far right: Mencius Moldbug, Greg Johnson, Richard Spencer, Jack Donovan, and Daniel Friberg. The political and cultural radicalism of this most recent group are the most extreme and alarming -- and the most influential on current hate-based organizations:

Moldbug and Johnson are both former libertarians. Moldbug draws on Gramsci’s analysis of hegemonic intellectual elites, and Johnson draws directly on the French New Right and on the idea of metapolitics (as well as on Heidegger and Traditionalism). Moldbug, like many other key thinkers, warns against progressive elites and their universalism, the egalitarian rhetoric that conceals their rule, and the “feedback loop” of which they are part, which he labels “the Cathedral.” He goes farther than most on the radical Right in directly and explicitly condemning democracy as a mask for the Cathedral, preferring hierarchy (like Evola) to democracy. Johnson, who runs the important website Counter-Currents, is perhaps the most radical of the contemporary thinkers of the radical Right, certainly in ethnic and racial terms. He is unusual in being distinctly anti-Semitic, a position held otherwise only by Schmitt, and then really only during the Third Reich. As well as subscribing to the Traditionalist narrative of inevitable decline, Johnson sees an apocalyptic risk of “demographic Armageddon,” and calls explicitly for forced population transfer and the nonlethal ethnic cleansing of both Jewish and black Americans to allow a white “ethnostate,” with blacks getting their own ethnostate in the American South, and Jews moving to Israel. It is Johnson who, alone among modern and contemporary key thinkers of the radical right, expresses sympathy for Nazism. In a typical month in 2017, his Counter-Currents website attracted two hundred thousand visitors who viewed 1.5 million pages of content. (kl 337)

Significantly, Sedgwick observes that the most politically potent of these far-right themes in the US are the themes of racial and cultural antagonism. “Race, Islam, and elites are especially important issues today because, more than the other themes common to the key thinkers of the radical Right, they have easy resonance at the street level, and in electoral politics” (introduction, kl 405).

The non-profit organization Counter Extremism Project monitors the activities of extremist and white-supremacist groups in numerous countries. Here is an extensive report on the current activities of white supremacist groups in the US; link. The report provides extensive evidence of the themes of racism, anti-semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and nativist political identities that are highlighted in the current wave of "Alt-Right" writers. Many of the groups documented in this report are neo-Nazi groups with explicit messages of anti-Semitism, racism, and violence.

So here is the hard question. Does the tradition of radical-right philosophy drive modern far-right extremism? Or are the philosophies expressed by this tradition just an epiphenomenon, with the real drivers of extremism coming from currents of racism, hatred, and antagonism that are present in segments of the populations of various countries of Europe and North America? Does a Patrick Buchanan or a Richard Spencer wield political influence because of his apocalyptic ideas, or rather simply because his ideas serve as a basis for potent mobilization speeches on Youtube and TikTok for individuals and groups already inclined towards hate and violence?

The answer seems evident. The extremist right as an activist movement is not driven by a coherent political philosophy. Rather, it is propelled by demagoguery, another ancient Greek invention; the use of simple tropes to win the emotions of masses of followers and energize them to action. And the tropes that have driven extremism in the US are painfully evident: white supremacy, nativism, resentment, and fear of the black helicopters.