Friday, February 3, 2017

Can sucking up make you free?

Daniel Oppenheimer has a very thoughtful essay on Mark Lilla and Corey Robin in the Washington Monthly. Among his observations is this: "Modern secular liberal society, of the sort Lilla prefers, will survive and flourish only if it’s able to reckon with the insights of those who critique and reject its premises. In fact it’s one of the necessary virtues of liberal society, for Lilla, that it’s capable of reckoning and sometimes even reconciling with its critics and haters. It’s also one of the responsibilities of liberal intellectuals to act as facilitators of this process." I think this really does get at the self-conception of many liberal intellectuals.
But then there is also this: "From this perspective an intellectual like Robin, who conspicuously rejects that conciliatory role, makes sense as a villain. And yet by this standard of villainy, many of the reactionary intellectuals whom Lilla respects and even admires would count as villains. These were people who had no interest in serving modernity, or contributing to its stability, because they saw it as hollow or rotten at its core, not worth serving or shoring up. They were not, in other words, liberal intellectuals, and had no desire to be. I would guess that Robin would say the same of himself, though from a very different ideological vantage point than most of Lilla’s subjects. So why not extend to him, and to the class of left-wing intellectuals of whom he’s fairly representative, the same intellectual courtesy, the same kind of sensitive, nuanced, historically informed and emotionally reserved critical treatment that Lilla is able to give to the subjects of his book, from whom he has more distance, either in time, space or ideology?"
Yes, why not? Why are many liberal intellectuals more understanding and sympathetic -- and astute -- readers of the anti-liberal Right than of the anti-liberal Left?
This has me thinking of an argument Philip Pettit makes in "On the People's Terms." Arguing against Isaiah Berlin's conception of freedom as non-interference, Pettit subjects it to what he thinks is a reductio ad absurdum. He argues that, if we are free so long as we are not being coerced or threatened, then this entails "that ingratiation -- toadying, kowtowing, and cosying up to the powerful -- can give you freedom of choice." It is not a very charitable or sympathetic thought, I admit, but I wonder if what Pettit thinks an absurdity is not actually a sincerely held belief of many liberal intellectuals: that getting cosy with the powerful can make you free.
When Lilla attacks Robin, when Jonathan Chait attacks young leftists, the animating intuition is that if the outsiders, rebels, and radicals of the world would just be nice to those in positions of power, their complaints would, if not evaporate, at least be significantly ameliorated. They can put themselves easily in the shoes of those who rule and govern, and can appreciate that ruling is hard. They also think that large differentials of power and wealth are inescapable, and so we ought to mitigate their dangers by attending to the resentments and complaints of the wealthy and powerful, to keep them in good humour lest they desire to employ their wealth and power more intrusively and despotically. And, from where they stand, why would they think otherwise?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back from the dead?

Facebook killed the casual blogger.

But there is a lot going on that I would sort of like to make note of. And there are a lot of texts that I would like to preserve in a more public way. So...

1. The Quebec "special law" (i.e., dictate) regarding the student strike, now under debate:

More to come?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

CFP: Hegel and Capitalism


Hegel and Capitalism

For the 22nd Biennial Meeting of the Hegel Society of America

To be held at DePaul University, Chicago, IL, Friday afternoon, October 5, to Sunday Mid-day, October 7, 2012

Deadline for submission of papers: January 31, 2012

The conference will cover all aspects of the theme “Hegel and Capitalism,” broadly understood. We invite papers that address this theme historically, systematically, or with reference to current questions and issues. Papers that interpret, engage, or apply Hegel are welcome. Papers that investigate the conference topic in new ways are encouraged.

Submitted papers are limited to 6,000 words, and should be formatted for blind review and accompanied by an abstract of no more than 300 words. Papers must be submitted at this length and later adjustments must remain within this limit. Papers submitted must be complete essays; proposals are not acceptable. All papers should be in English. Although papers presented at meetings of the Hegel Society of America are usually published as a collection of essays, publication cannot be guaranteed. By submitting a paper, however, an author of a paper accepted for the program agrees to reserve publication for the HSA proceedings. Final decision as to publication remains dependent on the results of peer and publisher review.

Please send papers to: Andrew Buchwalter, Program Chair (

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Marx News

The Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) project has gone on-line:

Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen,
Zum neuen Jahr ist die digitale Ausgabe der MEGA in einer neuen  Version online gegangen. Man findet sie, wie die bisherige Ausgabe  auch schon, unter folgender Adresse:
There are only a small handful of volumes available as of yet -- Grundrisse, economic notebooks from 1863-67, and volume II of Capital -- but this is the material condition for a wave of new, high-quality Marx scholarship.  The bound volumes of the MEGA are insanely expensive, and full collections (not that MEGA is yet complete by any measure) are only available at a very few libraries in the world.  Most people who want to do serious work on Marx are forced to rely upon the old and inadequate Marx-Engels-Werke or the English-language Complete Works.

I was able to use the MEGA for my dissertation work, luckily, and it made a huge difference.  The mass of Marx's lifework was left in manuscript or notebook form when he died, and the editions of this material that eventually emerged did not do a very good job of carrying over the actual form and history of the manuscripts.

Even the published works suffer from this editorial erasure of history.  The most egregious example I know of is this: if you are working on Capital I, and, in due diligence, look at the German Werke version, you find a book divided into 7 Abschnitten and 25 Kapiteln.  But all of the English translations are divided into 8 Parts and 33 Chapters.  You might be led thereby to think that this difference is some artifact of the translation, or of Engels' postmortem editorial tampering.  You'd be wrong.  For completely mysterious reasons, the MEW folks took the text of the 4th German edition of the book (1890), but divided it according to the 2nd German edition (1873).  The 8 Parts/33 Chapters arrangement came on the scene with the French edition of the book (1875, the last edition overseen to completion by Marx himself), and was incorporated, on Marx's instructions, into the 3rd German edition (1883), and then into the English edition (1886).  Why the editors of the Werke decided to undo this authorial decision is beyond me.  Only by looking at MEGA, which published each of these editions of the book as separate volumes, can you see what happened.

I have no reason to doubt that there are many, many, many other examples of this sort of thing.  The more widely available the MEGA becomes, the easier it will be for students of Marx to discover and correct these sorts of errors.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's Left of Liberalism?

Oy, does this thing still work?

So, Matt Yglesias thinks he has no enemies to the left.  I haven't waded through all of the post he is responding to, but...

Issue numero uno: de Boer says of Yglesias that he is "one of the most vocal of the neoliberal scolds, forever ready to define the 'neoliberal consensus' as the truth of man and to ignore left-wing criticism."  To this, Yglesias responds: 
I don’t really know what it means to criticize a writer for holding that his own views are “the truth of man.” Obviously, I agree with my political opinions and disagree with those who disagree with me. If I didn’t agree I’d change my mind.
But you're not being criticized for believing what you say -- you're being criticized for believing what you believe!  The problem is content, not sincerity. 

Issue numero dos: Yglesias avers, "while I’ll cop to being a 'neoliberal' I don’t acknowledge that I have critics to the 'left' of me."  He then rattles off a list of his primary policy concerns (to which I'll return), before saying:
I recognize that many people disagree with this agenda, and that many of those who disagree with it think of themselves as "to the left" of my view. But I simply deny that there are positions that are more genuinely egalitarian than my own. I really and sincerely believe that liberalism is the best way to advance the interests of the underprivileged and to make the world a better place.
The unspoken assumption throughout is that Left = egalitarianism.  No one is more egalitarian than Yglesias, hence no one is further to the Left than he.  Now this assumption has a long history.  In academic circles it certainly runs back to the 80s, when the Marxists stopped calling themselves Marxists and started calling themselves egalitarians, when historical materialism went out the window, to be replaced by neo-Kantian moral theory.  

If this assumption is taken on board, then those who thinks of themselves as being to the Left of liberalism are actually just sentimentalists and wishful thinkers -- they will the end of equality without willing the means of liberal government, which is the only mechanism for achieving equality.  Genuine egalitarianism is liberal egalitarianism.

As someone who thinks of himself as to the Left of liberalism, and who has never hoisted the banner of Equality!,  I'd like to register an objection.

Equality always has to be specified.  Equality unmodified means nothing; we must answer the question: Equality of what?  For Yglesias, it is equality of economic freedom, greater equality of economic outcome (wealth), and equality of respect and recognition -- pretty much the standard Rawlsian package.  Thus, look at the specific issues that concern him:
  1. More redistribution of money from the top to the bottom.
  2. A less paternalistic welfare state that puts more money directly in the hands of the recipients of social services.
  3. Macroeconomic stabilization policy that seriously aims for full employment.
  4. Curb the regulatory privileges of incumbent landowners.
  5. Roll back subsidies implicit in our current automobile/housing-oriented industrial policy.
  6. Break the licensing cartels that deny opportunity to the unskilled.
  7. Much greater equalization of opportunities in K-12 education.
  8. Reduction of the rents assembled by privileged intellectual property owners.
  9. Throughout the public sector, concerted reform aimed at ensuring public services are public services and not jobs programs.
  10. Taxation of polluters (and resource-extractors more generally) rather than current de facto subsidization of resource extraction.
Most of these -- 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 -- are nothing more than efforts to extend and perfect the market.  They internalize externalities, eliminate rents, etc.  Now I don't necessarily disagree with all of these things, but every one of them implies that we need more and better markets.  The remaining concerns -- 1, 3, and 7 -- aim to establish the non-market prerequisites of these more and better markets.  

Nowhere is there even a hint of the thought that an increase in market freedom might lead to a decrease in other sorts of freedom, or to less happiness, or to any other bad outcome.  Nowhere is there any mention of something like a guaranteed basic income, or of any other policy that would reduce the need for people to rely upon wage labor to live.  Nowhere is there any attention to global macroeconomic dynamics like the swelling of the global surplus population -- the hundreds of millions of people who do not participate in any meaningful economic activity whatsoever.  Nowhere is there any reference to tax competition.  Nowhere is there any hint that all these wonderful markets might depend upon the existence of a labor market, including a market for bare subsistence wage-labor, with all the poverty and desperation that market implies.

In short, nowhere does Yglesias hint that more and better markets might themselves be problematic.  That's not to say that the Left is or ought to be in favor of fewer and worse markets, but to say that the Left, since Marx, has been centrally opposed to the notions of freedom and equality that find their ground in "the market" -- the surface appearance of capitalism.

So, I say to Yglesias: sorry dude -- there's definitely plenty of room on your Left, and it's populated with enemies -- like me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Moralism vs. Meliorism

Sandy Levinson, at Balkinization, asks how libertarians might respond to the recent rescue of miners in Chile, which was largely funded by the Chilean state. Levinson thinks the Chilean state was right to step in and ensure that the rescue effort was made, but thinks this stepping in by the state does not sit well with libertarian notions about legitimate state action, since the state was not protecting anyone against a violation of their rights. That is, the Chilean state was acting as an insurer, not as a police force. If one admits that the Chilean state was right to act as an insurer in this case, then Levinson thinks one will be hard pressed not to endorse a welfare state, which acts as insurer in lots of cases. So, libertarians are supposedly caught between a) admitting that the state rightfully serves a welfare function, and b) looking like hard-hearted bastards who think it was wrong for the miners to be rescued.

Jacob Levy responds by saying -- these are my terms, not his -- that there's a difference between legitimacy and justification. The Chilean state, like all states, has way more power than is legitimate. This is, in large part, because actual states are never the outcome of social contracts: