Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Research

In a recent discussion with a colleague, I was asked to articulate my current research interests, and I thought it would be worthwhile to expand and write down what I said.

In the first place, I am motivated by a certain fidelity to particular figures in the history of political philosophy--Marx and Aristotle, primarily--to defend the honor and virtue of their thinking. I believe that most and the most readily accessible interpretations of these thinkers are quite strikingly bad. I find Capital and the Nicomachean Ethics to be incredibly compelling works, but when I turn to the characterizations of these works that are found in much of the secondary literature or that function as shorthand in general discussions of political and ethical philosophy, I find them to be unintelligible or incoherent or banal.

I take this mismatch to be at least in part the consequence of Marx and Aristotle standing not merely outside but in opposition to the main current of modern political philosophy that stretches from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls and Habermas. It is Aristotle and Marx above all others who have served that tradition as enemies the denial of whom defines and cements the community of interlocutors. The refusal of Aristotle's politcal naturalism was just as necessary for early modern theorists of sovereignty, contract, and civil society, as the refusal of Marx has been for 19th and 20th century thinkers of liberalism, proceduralism, and the legal codification of rights.

This refusal comes at a price, since the modern conceptual framework that has grown up around the artifactual state (sovereignty, general will, property, claim rights, mechanisms of enforcement, representation, personality, etc.) functions as a grid of intelligibility, a set of landmarks by which to recognize and respond to theoretical assertions, but it is a grid that is largely alien to the thought of those refused thinkers, Aristotle and Marx.

Therefore, the first aspect of my research is merely to attempt to read Aristotle and Marx on their own terms, and to develop, to the extent that I am capable, a compelling account of their political thought that begins from those points where the modern grid of intelligiblity fails to grasp them. To some extent, this involves a sort of artificial naivite, an approach to their texts that seeks to identify and begin from the phenomena they themselves begin from, instead of taking any contemporary question or recognized problem as a beginning point and then seeking an answer or resolution in Marx or Aristotle. The latter method risks importing precisely the mainstream conceptual framework that I claim makes Marx and Aristotle so difficult to understand. To this extent, then, my method of reading must owe something to a sort of Heideggerian phenomenology that seeks first the pragmata of the text being read, attempting to suspend or bracket the questions and claims of mainstream political theory (basically, contemporary liberalism).

On the other hand, however--and this leads me to the second aspect of my research--the political theories of Marx and Aristotle are not simply outside modern liberalism, they are opposed to it. Therefore, there must be points of critical contact between the mainstream discourse and the discourses produced by Marx and Aristotle. Thus, at some point, the naivite must be put aside and the project of rediscovery must become a project of critique. Once Marx and Aristotle have been rearticulated to a certain level of concreteness, I feel the need to intervene in the contemporary mainstream in order to press on certain perceived weak spots in that discourse: its lingering technocratic flavor, its reduction of politics to the state with its laws and administrative functions, its reduction of all ruling to domination or the right to coerce, its assumption that needs and desires are pre-politically and privately articulated, etc.

As a particularization of this critical project--and this is the third and final aspect of my research--I am especially interested in political violence, both as a phenomenon and as a problem for liberal/modern political theory. You could say that the whole problematic of the modern state has been organized around the hypothesis that violence could be minimized or even eliminated by being concentrated or monopolized. A daring and dubious hypothesis!

Built into the modern political problematic are a host of such daring and dubious hypotheses: that violence is identical with coercion; that violence is therefore fundamentally a problem of the will (rather than of the body, or of life, or of measure, or...); that violence is therefore essentially a problem of the borders between soverign wills; that violence can only be authorized by a prior (necessarily unauthorized) violence; that legitimate (authorized) violence is not really violence at all (so, for example, the criminal wills his or her own punishment); that, therefore, violence as such (the unauthorized--but this is redundant--violation of a will) is always wrong and is to be reduced to an absolute minimum; that the wrongness of violence consists in its injustice (rather than its immoderation, its ugliness, its...). There are surely more.

Even some of the most cogent critics of modern political philosophy--I'm thinking of Arendt here--subscribe to the identificcation of violence with coercion, which seems to me to be entirely without justification (that is, I've never found anyone who even attempts to justify this identification, which is not to say that such a justification could not be given, just that no one seems to feel the need).

I think both Aristotle and Marx (and sundry post-Marx Marxists) approach violence with very different basic assumptions, and that the perspective afforded by these different assumptions might go a long way towards rethinking the place or non-place of violence in politics. I'll try to lay out some of these differnet assumptions in future posts.

Anyway, there we are: my research interests. Any thoughts, questions, pointers, criticisms?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Radical Political Theory

Another draft syllabus for Winter 2009:

POLI 364: Radical Political Thought
The Theory and Practice of Revolution

For the purposes of this course, radical political thought is understood to encompass the three revolutionary and leftist political tendencies of the 19th and 20th Centuries: Marxism, anti-colonialism, and radical feminism. Radical movements are revolutionary in that they seek to break with the liberal and capitalist political order rather than perfect that order. That is, these movements do not want a more inclusive or expansive liberal order, but desire the overturning of that order itself. They are leftist in that they do not seek to recover some pre-liberal, traditional order, but try to create something new: a post-modern politics for a post-modern society.

The particular itinerary of our investigation will follow radical movements as they have attempted to answer three questions: 1) What is revolution, and how is it to be accomplished? 2) What role does violence play in maintaining the present state of society, and what role will it play in the overthrow of that state? 3) What is ideology and how does it function? We will begin with Marx’s discussion of revolution in his mature political writings, then examine a) the revolutionary Marxist tradition, b) its assimilation and critique of Sorel’s theory of mythical violence, c) the anti-colonial appropriations of revolutionary Marxism, d) feminist and post-structuralist rearticulations of the revolutionary project, and e) the strategy of refusal articulated by the Italian Autonomia movement.

Reading Schedule:
January 6-8 Introduction
Marx, Capital, Chapter 6

January 13-15 Marx, Capital, Chapters 26, 31 & 32, and selections from the ‘Grundrisse

January 20-22 Marx, selections from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
and The Civil War in France

January 27-29 Lenin, selections from What Is To Be Done?

February 3-5 Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution

February 10-12 Sorel, selections from Reflections on Violence
Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”

February 17-19 Fanon, “Concerning Violence”

February 24-26 No Class

March 3-5 Mao, On Contradiction

March 10-12 Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

March 17-19 Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, Lectures One and Two

March 24-26 MacKinnon, “Desire and Power”

March 31-April 2 Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto”

April 7-9 Castellano, “Living With Guerilla Warfare”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Keep Your Pants On

This last week saw something of a collective tizzy fit on the liberal/progressive blogosphere over the fact that Obama seems poised to nominate a bunch of not-so-progressive insiders to his cabinet. The Rahm Emanuel pick caused a similar, if smaller, stir. reactions seem to run the gamut from horror through disappointment to "I told you so" and "What else did you expect."

I've touched on this before, but Obama's appeal has always been both that he is a game changer and a competent player. For this reason, I think it's a little early to be reading the tea leaves, whether to find signs of Obama selling out or to find signs that he's always been a Washington insider, centrist type (i.e., not a true progressive).

Does anyone remember the beginning of the Clinton administration? Clinton made all sorts of outsider-y, aesthetically pleasing staffing choices...and was promptly rewarded by Congress bucking him and the beltway media treating him like one of the rude mechanicals. Maybe Obama's always been a centrist technocrat, or maybe he's selling out for the sake of the power, but I really don't think anyone can tell from what has happened so far. Let the man actually do something, and then we'll see.


To clarify a bit, I was not attempting to say that Obama's appointees (or potential appointees) should not be scrutinized and criticized for their past positions and actions. I'm as happy as anyone that John Brennan is out of the running for both CIA Director and DNI. The only thing I was trying to caution against was drawing conclusions about how Obama would govern and which policies he would pursue based solely on news reports about appointees.


Nate Silver says what I tried to say, but more clearly, and even backs it up with a nifty chart.
There is, to say the least, a lot of jumping to conclusions about just which type of President Barack Obama is liable to be, by which I mean whether he'll govern from the left or the center. This speculation has been principally based on his cabinet appointments, a subject that people may be reading too much into. The initial Bush cabinet contained a number of people who could be described as moderate or center-right, including Colin Powell, Tommy Thompson, Norman Mineta, Christine Todd Whitman, Paul O'Neill and arguably Mitch Daniels and Ann Veneman. Obviously, this was balanced out to some degree by the Rumsfelds and the Ashcrofts, but it is not clear that Bush's 2001 cabinet was any more right-wing than Obama's 2009 cabinet is left-wing. Bush ran a very conservative government -- but the authority came from the top down.

Most of this discussion, moreover, has dwelt in the realm of tactics, presentation and salesmanship rather than grand strategy. One can "govern from the center" and implement a number of liberal policies -- by shifting the Overton Window a couple of panes at a time, and selling classically liberal policies as commonsensical and centrist.
The whole post is excellent.

On This Day In Idiocy...

Via Andrew Sullivan I find this, in which Eric Posner argues that the Iraq War may be a humantarian success story because more people would have died had the sanctions had stayed in place for an additional 10 years.

In other news, Jeffrey Dahmer has been named humanitarian of the year, since what he did to his victims was so much less horrible than what he considered doing to them but didn't.

Also, Napolean has been awarded a posthumus Nobel Peace Prize for not starting all the wars he didn't start, and Stalin has been canonized on the basis that the population of the Soviet Union increased under his rule.

(Is Posner's argument "tongue in cheek," a la a very modest proposal? Brian Leiter thinks so, which is probably evidence of the argument's sincerity. Then again, Andrew Sullivan takes the argument at face value, which might be evidence of ironic intent. Hmmm...)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Medium Is the Message

Nate Silver has an interesting and fairly convincing post at FiveThirtyEight, arguing that modern American conservatism's dependence upon talk radio has, after almost twenty years of paying real dividends, finally begun to fatally undermine their ability to compete against a resurgent liberalism. I would have liked to analyze Silver's argument by putting it into the context of Marshall McLuhan's (another Canadian!) arguments about the material effects of media. (I once taught McLuhan in a journalism ethics class, and the students just stared blankly at me. I admit it was far from my strongest teaching outing, but I also have a pretty low opinion of journalism majors. Worse even than education majors in my humble opinion.)

Anyway, I was going to do that, but then I got sidetracked by this effort to spin out Silver's argument into a whole series of correspondances between political ideologies and communication media. There I found the following (intentionally) provocative claim:
The libertarian medium is the doctrinaire treatise (or treatise pretending to be a novel). There is no liberal or conservative equivalent to The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. There are, of course, Marxist equivalents. This is one reason why sectarian libertarians and Marxists find arguing with each other more congenial than engaging with viewpoints that have real political importance. The two sides agree on what kind of thing political debate should aim to discover: the right Book.
This seems to grasp a kernal of truth only to lose hold of it as quickly as it has grasped it. I agree that real libertarians (as opposed to glibertarians like Glenn Reynolds, et al) share many characteristics with Marxists--including a propensity to give away books for free on the internet. But I don't think it has much of anything to do with the desire of proponents of either ideology to discover "the right Book." I would say instead that libertarians and Marxists are the most rationalistic of contemporary political ideologies, and those most devoted to a robust notion of truth. Hence, both are frequently given to grand exercises of polemics and are naturally disposed to sectarian schism.

Interestingly, the other ideology most congenial to Marxists is, in my opinion, Straussianism. Interestingly, Straussians tend not to feel the same respect for Marxists. Except for Kojeve, but he was barely a Marxist anyway.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Things I didn't know (part of an infinite series)

If the rejection letter I just received is to be taken at face value, Philosophy and Social Criticism is currently experiencing a glut of papers devoted to Marx and Marxism.

UPDATE: For the record, the ratios of the number of articles on Marx and Marxism (NB: based on little more than a perusal of article titles) to the total number of articles published in Philosophy and Social Criticism over the last five years are as follows:
2004: 0/43
2005: 1/45
2006: 1/39
2007: 1/42
2008: 1/44
To be sure, my essay might suck, and P&SC has fulfilled their one article per year quota of Marx and Marxism for 2008.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Call for Papers: Rethinking Marxism

RM09: New Marxian Times

RETHINKING MARXISM: a journal of economics, culture & society is pleased to announce its 7th international conference, to be held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst on 5-8 November 2009.

RM09: New Marxian Times is dedicated to exploring the possibilities and challenges of Marxism for understanding and engaging with the contemporary world. Neoliberal capitalism, long criticized by Marxists and others on the Left, is now going through its own long-term economic and social crises. What new possibilities do these crises create for Marxist and other progressive ideas and visions? How does Marxism, and left-wing thought more generally, need to be rethought to respond to these challenges?

Perhaps coalescing in the financial crisis acknowledged in the autumn of 2008, these dynamics represent both a significant crisis for currently constituted capitalism and modes of governance as well as a set of challenges and possibilities for all of us concerned with working towards a non-exploitative and more equitable world.

In that light, we are seeking intellectual, political, and cultural works that address the possible contributions that Marxist ideas and forms of analysis can make in responding to the challenges of these new times. Human rights, democracy, environmental concerns, new organizing movements in South America and elsewhere throughout the globe, the growth of social activisms represented as anarchist, anti-imperialist, or in response to globalization, workers subjectivities and movements, contradictions within emerging and transitional economies, emergent nationalisms, and debt and the credit crises all represent possible areas for contributions to new thinking about the role of Marxist theories, cultures, and politics in today’s world. We strongly encourage papers that address these topics in relation to the global south.

Of course, we also understand the vital importance of analyzing history in order to help us to understand and respond to contemporary conditions. To understand the new, we must reflect upon and learn from the old. In that light, we are also interested in panels and papers that emphasize historical analysis such as the history of Marxism(s), labor history, historical analysis of academia, histories of social movements and political practices, the historical development of Marxist/Socialist feminism, imperialisms, and the historical relationships between class and race- based movements.

Since Marxism covers a wide variety of fields, from literature to public health and forms of political practice, from environmental organizing to opposing global inequality and envisioning new economic and social practice, anyone engaging with Marxism in any discipline or form of activism is encouraged to submit paper and panel proposals.

Proposals for papers, films, or other formats should include:
* Paper title
* Presenter's name and contact information (mail, email, phone, affiliations)
* Brief abstract (no more than 200 words)
* Technology needs for presentation

Proposals for panels should include:
* Panel title
* Name, contact information, and paper title for each presenter
* Brief abstract (no more than 200 words) explaining the panel's focus
* Brief abstract for each paper (no more than 200 words)
* Names and contact information for any discussant(s) or respondent(s)
* Technology needs of presenters
* Title, contact, and address for any sponsoring organization or journal

The appropriate preregistration fee must accompany all proposal submissions. Unfortunately, any proposal not accompanied by the appropriate preregistration fee cannot be considered. Proposals that are not accepted will have their preregistration fees returned in full. If you are submitting a proposal for an entire panel, please make sure the preregistration fee for all members of the panel is paid.

The deadline for proposal submission is 1 August 2009.

To submit a proposal and to pay the preregistration fee, follow the instructions on the conference website: http://rethinkingmarxism.org/conf

All information pertaining to the conference, including paper and panel submission instructions, preregistration and on-site rates, lodging suggestions, travel directions, possible childcare arrangements, cultural events, the conference program, and much else will be posted on the conference website when details become available. The web address is: http://www.rethinkingmarxism.org/conf

Inquiries concerning the conference can be addressed to:
Vincent Lyon-Callo
Department of Anthropology, Moore Hall Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo MI 49008 Vincent.lyon-callo@wmich.edu

Call for Papers: Is Black and Red Dead?

Is Black and Red Dead?
7th - 8th September, 2009

An academic conference organized and supported by the PSA Anarchist Studies Network, the PSA Marxism Specialist Group, Anarchist Studies, Capital & Class, Critique-Journal of Socialist Theory and Historical Materialism.

Hosted By: The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, University of Nottingham

What is the political relevance of the ideological labels "anarchist" and "Marxist" in the contemporary geo-political climate? Despite recurrent crisis, the costs typically borne by the people, neoliberal capitalism continues to colonize the globe in a never ending quest for profit and new enclosures. Meanwhile, an effective political response from the left to the wars, ecological destruction, financial collapse and social problems created by capital and state has so far failed to garner the widespread support and influence it needs. Indeed, the sectarianism of the left may well have contributed to this failure.

Still, despite fracture, there have always been borrowings across the left. Most recently, post-'68 radicalisms have contributed to a blurring of the divisions between the anarchist and Marxist traditions. Traditionally regarded as hostile and irreconcilable, many of these ideas find expression in the "newest social movements", taking inspiration from the Situationists, left communists, and social anarchist traditions. The anti-statist, libertarian currents within the socialist movement have repeatedly emerged during periods of acute political and economic crisis, from the council communists to revolutionary anarchism.

Is this one such historical juncture in which dynamic reconciliation is not only welcomed but vital? To rephrase the question, what can we learn from 150 years of anti-statist, anti-capitalist social movements, and how might this history inform the formulation of a new social and political current, consciously combining the insights of plural currents of anarchism and Marxism in novel historical junctures? Indeed, to what extent have these traditional fault lines been constitutive of the political imagination? The modern feminist, queer, ecological, anti-racist and postcolonial struggles have all been inspired by and developed out of critiques of the traditional parameters of the old debates, and many preceded them. So, to what extent do capital and the state remain the key sites of struggle?

We welcome papers that engage critically with both the anarchist and the Marxist traditions in a spirit of reconciliation. We welcome historical papers that deal with themes and concepts, movements or individuals. We also welcome theoretical papers with demonstrable historical or political importance. Our criteria for the acceptance of papers will be mutual respect, the usual critical scholarly standards and demonstrable engagement with both traditions of thought.

Please send 350 word abstracts (as word documents), including full contact details, to:Dr Alex Prichard (ESML, University of Bath): a.prichard@bath.ac.uk. Closing date for receipt of abstracts: 1st May, 2009

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nineteenth Century Political Philosophy

A draft version of the syllabus for my upcoming course:

Philosophy 445: Nineteenth Century Political Philosophy
Government and Society: The Rise of Political Economy

The Nineteenth Century saw the dramatic decline of the classical model of political philosophy that had dominated the previous two centuries, and had consisted largely of defining the natural rights of persons and proposing the sovereign legal framework within which these rights would be best respected. The modern political order had taken hold to such an extent that such encyclopedic articulations of that order were no longer necessary. Instead, the new century was marked by “sociological” and historical investigations into the conditions of modernity (Tocqueville, Burkhardt, etc.), polemical defenses of and attacks upon the ascendant modern order (Constant, Nietzsche, etc.), imaginative utopian schemes (Fourier, Cabet, etc.), and most importantly for the purposes of this class, increasingly elaborate and rigorous efforts to establish a scientific discourse that would amount to a social physics of this modern order. This aspirational physics of society was originally called “political economy” but came to be known simply as “economics.”

In this course, we will consider the rise of economics by observing its effect on two of the great tomes of Nineteenth-Century political thought: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Capital. The former is, in a sense, the last of the classical articulations and large-scale apologies for the new social and political order. Hegel was deeply impressed by Adam Smith early in his life, and was deeply respectful of political economy’s claim to explain the laws of motion of modern society. In the Philosophy of Right, he writes; “Political economy is the science which must go on to explain mass relationships and mass movements in their qualitative and quantitative determinacy and complexity. This is one of the sciences which have originated in the modern age as their element” (§189). Nonetheless, Hegel was also quite critical of the civil society described and advocated by political economy, and emphasizes the necessity that other sources of meaning and community justify civil society.

Marx, on the other hand, is the consummate critic of modern society, and the subtitle to Capital is “A Critique of Political Economy.” Economics is the primary ideology of the modern world, according to Marx, mystifying and sanctifying historically and violently created relations such that they appear as natural and immutable, the destiny of human life. However, Marx’s relationship with political economy is just as complex as Hegel’s, in that he too accepts that the economic relations are very real and very determinative of modern social and political existence. Our investigations of these two works will be illuminated by supplementary readings from political economy itself. We will seek to understand the basic outlines of both classical political economy and the rise of marginal utility theory that overturned the classical model in favor of what would become neo-classical economics. We will look carefully at Hegel’s attempt to synthesize this economic model of society with classical and even ancient understandings of the political republic. Finally we will delve into Marx’s critique of political economy. The readings for this course are extremely difficult, and will therefore require patience and careful attention. Our course meetings will be spent in close, interactive examination of the texts.

Reading and Lecture Schedule:

Weeks 1-7
  • Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
  • Smith, from The Wealth of Nations
  • Ricardo, from On the Principles of Political Economy
  • de Tracy, from “Elements of Ideology”
  • Constant, “The Liberty of Ancients [and] Moderns”
  • Mill, from Principles of Political Economy

Week 8 Mid-winter Break

Weeks 9-14
  • Marx’s Capital
  • Jevons, “General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy”
  • Pareto, “New Theories of Economics”
  • Marshall, from Principles of Economics

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I welcome our new Maoist overlord

Haven't been this happy about a political outcome since...ever. The weather is beautiful here, and the forecaster on the CBC referred to it as "Obama air" coming up from the south.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Workers' Paradise To Come

Of course we all know by now that the US is posed to elect its first Marxist president one week from today. Admittedly, the evidence for Obama's Marxism is, uh, peculiar. For example, he buys large slots of prime-time TV. You know, just like Stalin used to. Also, he and his running mate both "shrug off accusations of liberalism." Honest.

(Actually, my favorite bit of this "essay" is the inset photo of Marx, the caption of which informs us that:
German philosopher Karl Marx, author of "The Communist Manifesto," advocated redistributing wealth in order to achieve a classless society. (AP Photo)
I think it's actually the "(AP Photo)" that gets me. Like there's some AP stringer somewhere who caught Marx on camera.)

Nonetheless, there are slightly less fantastical grounds for thinking that an Obama administration would be better for workers than a McCain administration. One of which is Obama's support of card-check legislation.

Right now, if workers want to organize a union at their workplace, they have to go through two steps: 1) a card campaign, in which they get at least a majority of their fellow workers to sign cards indicating that they want a vote on whether to have a union; and 2) a secret-ballot vote, ordered by the labor relations board, which is an up-or-down vote on whether to accept union organization. Card-check legislation would do away with the second step.

Today the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of pro-worker sentiment, farmed out its editorial page to a scribe from the National Right to Work (for Peanuts) Committee, who decries the more-likely-than-ever card-check era by claiming that unions prolonged the last depression, and if we get card-check, by gum, they'll prolong this next one, too! The argument is that the Wagner Act (that great bugbear of all who want the right--the RIGHT, I say!--to work for peanuts) caused the recession of 1937. Whatever. My favorite paragraph:
Given the reality of unions in the workplace, the law meant that efficiency and profitability were compromised, by forcing employers to equally reward their most productive and least productive employees. Therefore subsequent wage increases for some workers led to widespread job losses.
Yeah, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. I like the notion that in modern large-scale industries, the employers know who their most and least productive workers are, and that weeding out the lazy ones is teh key to profitability and efficiency. The boss, he just like Santa Claus! As Edmond Burke observed a long, long time ago ("Thoughts and Details on Scarcity"):
Unquestionably, there is a good deal of difference between the value of one man’s labour and that of another from strength, dexterity, and honest application. But I am quite sure, from my best observation, that any given five men will, in their total, afford a proportion of labour equal to any other five within the periods of life I have stated; that is, that among such five men there will be one possessing all the qualifications of a good workman, one bad, and the other three middling, and approximating to the first, and the last. So that in so small a platoon as that of even five, you will find the full complement of all that five men can earn.
Anyway, it's unsurprising to find that NRO is riding the same hobby-horse today. They do it with a thought experiment: imagine that Joe the plumber is a hard-working, ill-informed, anti-union, friendless schlub; as such, he might get press-ganged into a union without even knowing it! Why, it's fasco-communist! My favorite bit:
The Union leaders are pretty sophisticated at organizing. After all, it's what they do. Pretty quickly they identify both the employees most receptive to unionization as well as those most opposed. Joe falls into the latter group so the Union never even attempts to get him to sign a card. In fact, since most of the pro-union employees work a different shift, Joe's not even aware a union drive is going on. The Union gets 51 employees to sign cards and gets certified by the NLRB as the collective bargaining representative for all employees — including Joe, who had absolutely no say in whether he wanted a union.
Obviously Peter Kirsanow (one of the B-listers, apparently) has never been in a union, or he never would have written those first two sentences. My question for Peter: Did Joe have a say in whether or not he was such an unbelievable ass?

I have no doubt that card-check will change the terrain quite a bit for unions. These changes will not all be in the direction of making unionization easier, either. Tactics on the other side will change to reflect the new regime, and I would guess there will be an increase in militancy on both sides. I for one, will welcome our new soviet overlords!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Neo-Hobbism and Conservative Paranoia

My thinking about the liberal-conservative divide in US political ideology has been immensely clarified by teaching this term. The two major factors: teaching Hobbes and Locke again, and reading Michael Zuckert's Launching Liberalism in preparation for the latter (Zuckert is a sweetheart, and a thoughtful, intelligent fellow, to boot, I happen to know). Anyway, the one-two punch really drove home how well the distinction between Hobbes and Locke maps on to the distinction between conservative and liberal (even though there are also crucial non- and even ounter-correlations).

Right now, conservatism in the US is deeply committed to Hobbes' claim that authority, not truth, makes law. In international relations, conservatism has become the assertion of US global sovereignty and the derisive dismissal of appeals to any international law that would transcend and check rather than emanating from this sovereign. In domestic affairs, conservatives are much more concerned about lawlessness among the common-folk than about lawlessness among the law-enforcers--Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd, and George W. Bush are all conservative icons because they go outside the law in order to uphold the law, stepping in for the sovereign who is so lamentably absent. This goes alll the way back to conservative opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose civil disobedience looked like lawlessness to the Right precisely because King appealed to natural law. Natural law is no law at all ot the Hobbist.

I'm less interested in the liberal side of the comparison for now than in the connection between Hobbist conservatism and the raving-looney act going on on the Right at the moment. Three exemplary posts at National Review Online will suffice for now.

First up, Andy McCarthy defends himself for posting about the Pittsburgh hoax:

Sen. Obama has expressly tied community organizing to "direct action." As he stated in the chapter he contributed in 1988 to a compendium about organizing in the post-Alinsky era, “[G]rass-roots community organizing builds on indigenous leadership and direct action.” (Emphasis added.) Obama's confederates, especially at ACORN, concede (indeed, brag) that "direct action" is sometimes violent lawlessness. One of his ACORN partners and most ardent admirers, Madeleine Talbott, led an attempt to storm the Chicago City Council in 1997. Some Obama supporters, like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, have actually been terrorists who tried to kill people. All that aside, there have been various reports of harrassment against McCain supporters (just as there have also been reports of harrassment against Obama supporters).

Taking all this into account, I don't apologize for thinking it was possible that an Obama supporter could conceivably have attacked the woman who made the false report. I also don't apologize for believing that a "direct action" culture is likely to lead to violent attacks, regardless of whether this particular attack happened. I'm glad it didn't happen and I hope the woman is prosecuted for obstruction of justice. I wish I had waited a few hours longer to do a post on the allegation, for then there would have been no post. But my brain is not ruled by political correctness, and if you are saying that you instantly concluded the story could not possibly have been anything but a hoax, it's you who are kidding yourself.

The real danger to law-and-order is grassroots "direct action," which short-circuits the only possible line of transmission for law itself, from sovereign to subjects.

There is more grist for this mill in my second example, wherein Stanley Kurtz defends himself against Obama's "Fight the Smears" website, which calls him (accurately enough) a "Right-wing hatchet man and conspiracy theorist." Hitting the same nail with his head, Kurtz rails:
Obama has been mightily helped during this campaign by his calm and apparently reasonable demeanor in debate. It’s tough to believe a man this cool could be a supporter or practitioner of Saul Alinsky’s militant intimidation tactics. Yet Alinskyite "direct action" is alive and well at Obama’s "Fight the Smears" website. This site still seems committed to the proposition that I should be barred from radio, television, and media generally–or at the very least barred without direct supervision from an Obama campaign representative. The thugocracy lives at "Fight the Smears."
Same scare-quotes around "direct action," same fear that grassroots organizing amounts to an extra-legal power-grab, that Obama is one step removed from Robert Mugabe.

Final example: Mark Levin's stemwider about the "Obama temptation," being the temptation we all (except Mark and his stalwart band at NRO, that is) feel to give in to this "charismatic demagogue." In what is sure to be a classic, looked back upon for years to come, Levin claims, among other things, that:
There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. [...] Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama's name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.
Obama's entire campaign is built on class warfare and human envy. [...] Obama's appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the "the proletariat," as an infamous philosopher once described it, about which a mythology has been created.
If the individual dares to succeed beyond the limits set by Obama, he is punished for he's now officially "rich." The value of his physical and intellectual labor must be confiscated in greater amounts for the good of the proletariat (the middle class). And so it is that the middle class, the birth-child of capitalism, is both celebrated and enslaved — for its own good and the greater good.
and, finally,
Unlike past Democrat presidential candidates, Obama is a hardened ideologue. He's not interested in playing around the edges. He seeks "fundamental change," i.e., to remake society.
Much of this is, of course, hilariously deranged. But there is a method to the madness. Obama doesn't seem to the Right to be someone who would leave the current configuration of sovereignty intact. The bizzaro-world claims about his Marxism are simply the displacement of this sense into the most deeply seated ideological place-holders available to the conservative soul. As a real threat to the this sovereignty, Obama really does seem revolutionary through the Hobbist lenses of the right.

In an important sense, the conservatives are right. Conservatives could dismiss all the appeals to international law and multilateralism during and after the Cold War as so much misleading but generally harmless blather: everyone knew that the US was in charge of the Western sphere, and the friend/enemy distinction was crystal clear.

Now, not so much. The Bush years really have produced a crisis in American sovereignty, and the economic crisis just adds insult to injury. In this situation Obama really looks to an American Hobbist like a usurper who will topple the very authority from which law flows.

Another Brush With Infamy

Ashley Todd's encounter with the dark phantom menace in her own mind was supposed to have occurred at my old ATM in Pittsburgh. Why, I was just there last Friday closing an old account. The Citizens Bank stands at the corner of Pearl and Liberty, in the heart of Bloomfield, Pittsburgh's Little Italy. just across Pearl Street is my favorite Thai restaurant in the 'burgh, the not so imaginatively named Thai Cuisine. Yummy curries. Cross Liberty on Pearl, go four blocks, and the powder blue house on the left (the one with the yellow door) is where I lived a few years back.

Anyway, anyone with even a passing knowledge of that ATM and that neighborhood must have known right away that Ms. Todd's strange encounter with a militant, knife-wielding Obama supporter was almost certain fiction (not to mention bad fiction). At 9 pm on a Wednesday night in mid-October, she's supposed to be attacked by a large black man wearing only a black undershirt, on a busy street, in front of a bank that literaly bristles with security cameras (check out Google streetview if you don't believe me). Uh-huh.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Politics is NOT war by other means

I have been struck repeatedly of late by the fact that the right-wing in the US is incapable of telling the difference between war and politics. Their attempts to drum up a controversy around Obama's connections with Bill Ayers demonstrate this. The failure of those attempts demonstrates that the populace at large is not so intent on conflating the two.

According to the right, the failure of Obama to denounce Ayers is proof that Obama is at least unprincipled, if not a terrorist-sympathizing crypto-Maoist. The same goes for Obama's willingness to hold talks with Iran. The implicit premise is that one ought to denounce and refuse to interact with anyone with whom one has fundamental disagreements. But if politics is to be something separate from warfare--and absolute warfare, even--then there must be space to talk to and work with one's "enemies." And to criticize one's friends and loved ones--and this indicates that the persistent right-wing claim that Obama "threw his grandma under the bus" in his speech about race is just the flip side of their conflation of war and politics.

It's nothing novel to say that the right-wing is obsessed with purity and bothered by complexity, so I guess I'm saying nothing novel. Still, it's interesting to see them come completely unhinged over Obama's most prominent trait: his political skill. Politics has become a dirty word on the right, a developmen that doesn't bode well for their immediate future success in electoral contests in the US.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More on Locke, that sneaky SOB

Ah, Locke on property!

McGill was once the home of James Tully, eminent scholar of Locke. As much as I hate to criticize one with whom, but for the arrow of time, I would have been a colleague, I have profound reservations about his A Discourse on Property. Some of these stem from my general apathy towards Skinner-esque historical work. And some stem from my partisan desire to defend C. B. Macpherson (Another Canadian! Canada rules!!!), who comes in for some rough treatment, some of which is probably fair enough, but some of which is certainly way off base (I'm happy to share, if anyone's curious).

Setting aside these two issues, however, I am mostly annpoyed by the lengths and depths of Tully's credulousness. He gets so caught up in Locke's "obvious" distaste for money, for instance, that he actually seems to be convinced that Locke was some sort of Rousseauian romantic, longing for the good old days before money corrupted us all.

But the case I really want to talk about is this: Tully denies that Locke is a defender of private property, arguing that, in fact, Locke is arguing for a system of private use rights within common claim rights (mumbo jumbo for: Locke is SO NOT a tool of incipient capitailism, man!).

Why is this a sign of credulousness, you ask?

Because in order to make this argument, Tully has to take at face value all that stuff Locke says about 1) the earth being given to us by God for our common ejoyment, and 2) this end of enjoyment also limiting our natural right to property--we can't let anything spoil, and we have to leave as much and as good for others.

Not to get all Straussian, but Locke obviously thinks this is a bunch of bunkum, deployed only to sucker the rubes into thinking he's way more conservative than he is. Well, I'm not suckered.

First of all, the claim that the earth is meant for our use means only that nothing non-human has any rights. There is no teleology immanent in nature such that it is fitted for our use. That is why labor makes property; it distinguishes the thing upon which it expended from the commons by giving it a purpose it did not have by nature. Locke says this pretty explicitly (Sec.28).

Second, the natural limits of property are no limits at all, on Locke's own terms. Since nature is of no use to us withou labor, there is no objective grouds for determining spoilage: one man's spoilage is another man's scienc project, or art project, or whatever. Moreover, for the same reason, the person who apprpriates nature always necessarily leaves as much and as good for others. Without being apprpriated, nature is no good whatsoever. Therefore, Locke says that "he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind," averring only that he has here drastically underestimated the productivity of labor (Sec. 37).

It's merely the icing on the cake that money comes along and, by our tacit consent, overthows all barriers to prperty accumulation and inequality. They were barriers with no real existence to begin with.

Therefore, I say unto James Tully, "You've been had, sir; taken in and swindled."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Locke on the Duty to Resist and Legitimate Slavery

One of my favorite things about teaching is the discovery of new insights and connections that takes place, unbidden, when I'm standing up in front of the class, responding to questions and quizzical looks. In precisely this way, I think that I had my first real thought of the new term today.

I'm teaching Locke's Second Treatise, and wrestling with the sheer, unadulterated normativity of it. Warren Montag has claimed that Locke vacillates between a juridical and a physical concept of power throughout the Treatises, and that may be, but what impressed me immediately was the consistently juridical usage in the opening chapters of the Second Treatise. That is, whenever Locke uses "power" in these pages, what he means is "jurisdiction." Power is always shot through with right, such that humans in the state of nature have the power to do only what they also have the right to do (see, for example, Sec. 8, where "one man comes by a power over another" when that other violates the law of nature).

The difficulty, for me, came in understanding the various things Locke says about slavery in light of this normative concept of power.

On the one hand, Locke defines "the perfect state of slavery" as "the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive." The conqueror is lawful because the captive violated the law of nature, and the conqueror is acting according to his or her natural right to execute that law, seizing by force the body of that "degenerate" and "noxious" "beast of prey" who has "forfeited his own life." Here is slavery that accords with right.

On the other hand, the people of England saved themselves from "the very brink of slavery" by consenting to William of Orange's conquest, and the very criminal who initiates war in the state of nature does so by attempting "to get another man into his absolute power," i.e., to "make him a slave." Here is--threatened--slavery that is a breach of right.

The thought that occurred to me in class is that submitting to slavery is itself a breach of natural right, and therefore justifies--slavery. In other words, the only slavery that is wrong, according to Locke's theory, is slavery that threatens but never arrives, or slavery that has been thrown off through resistance. Actual slavery, by the slave's submission to it, is completely compatible with natural right. In Hegel's terms, the one who chooses life over freedom loses the right to both, debasing his or her humanity. That the slave submits to another who also breaks the law of nature doesn't matter.

In other words, I think that Locke advocates not merely a right of resistance but a duty of resistance. The flip side of this duty to resist, however, is a justification of all actually existing slavery. The real is rational, and the rational is real.

PS: This was meant to be an hypothesis, offered by one who is certainly far short of an expert in Locke. I'd be curious to hear from people who really know their way around Locke as to the merits and deficiencies of my argument. Especially that bit about how it doesn't matter whether the master is just as much in violation of the law of nature.

UPDATE: Edited slightly.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Things I didn't know (part of an infinite series)

Should I sustain an injury from an act of war or terrorism while traveling abroad on academic business, my medical care and repatriation are insured by AIG, now a partially owned subsidiary of the US Government.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Accelerating Contradictions: When and How

This post over at MyDD seems a bit wrong-headed to me. Obama, speaking in Nevada, said:
Because of the housing crisis, we are now in a very dangerous situation where financial institutions across this country are afraid to lend money. If all that meant was the failure of a few big banks on Wall Street, it would be one thing. But that's not what it means. What it means is that if we do not act, it will be harder for you to get a mortgage for your home or the loans you need to buy a car or send your children to college. What it means is that businesses won't be able to get the loans they need to open new factories, or hire more workers, or make payroll for the workers they have. What it means is that thousands of businesses could close. Millions of jobs could be lost. A long and painful recession could follow.

To which Jerome Armstrong responds:
But I thought the reason why this happened was because credit was too easy to get for those who could not afford it? But... nevermind.
Which in no way contradicts anything Obama said. The causes of the trouble and the effects of the trouble don't have to be identical. This is how crises work: overproduction leads to a glut leads to a decapitalization leads to underproduction. It's called a business cycle. Same principle applies here.

Armstrong's point in all this is:
Yea, I am mocking of Obama. The underlying attitude I have is: why he is abandoning his self-proclaimed skepticism of Bush here, why? Can anyone say with a straight face that his argument for why Democrats should go along with Bush and back this bill that he's presented is sound? I don't even see an argument. All that he's offered is a bit of fear mixed in with post-partisan and some language changes to go along with a few platitudes.
Presumably, Armstrong would rather see the sort of thing Digby (via a reader and Rick Perlstein) is calling "a progressive Shock Doctrine." That is, letting the crisis deepen to the point where people will welcome a new New Deal. Back in the olden days, this was called accelerating the contradictions (although this phrase has a more activist sense than the rather passive formulation given by Digby, doing things to make the crisis worse instead of simply waiting for it to deepen on its own).

All well and good. But does Armstrong really beleive that a Democratic presidential candidate is not only going to embrace such a strategy but going to declare in a public address that he is embracing such a strategy? Really?

Obama's statement seems to sit right in the middle of the concerned prognostications given by a pretty wide range of commentators. That's not an argument for the Paulson plan. But I don't take Obama to have been offering an argumant for the Paulson plan. In fact, he seems to be playing his cards pretty close to his chest when it comes to specific proposals. That's probably smart. If Obama's a Marxist, it's best to remain a crypto-Marxist for now.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good Times!

Is it just me, or have things gotten positively surreal? Rhetorical question. I know it's not just me. Everyone's talking about the sudden left turn taken by reality. Connecting two points from below, Glenn Greenwald writes:
What the David Brookses of the World fear most -- the reason they're so desperate to convince people to put their faith in omnipotent, benevolent rulers -- is this.
Chris Bowers is having visions of pitchforks and torches.

I swear that at no time in my life have I witnessed so much interest in violent public action so openly expressed by such prominent public voices. (I know, blogs ain't exactly prime time network television, but my point stands.)

Interesting times. Interesting times.

UPDATE: Jacob Levy has a useful run-down of the craziness of the last fortnight:
Biggest bank failure in history

Biggest nationalization in history follows failure of world's largest insurer

Biggest non-defense budget authorization in history sought

Bailout talks explode in chaos and recriminations

North Korea reactivates atomic program

Russia lends Venezuala $1 billion to buy Russian armaments

Somali pirates seize ship carrying dozens of tanks

Presidential candidate 'suspends' campaign; hours before first scheduled presidential debate, unclear whether it will actually take place

Largest one-day increase in the price of oil in history

Former Vice-President of the United States advocates extralegal measures in fight against global warming

Russia begins nuclear rearmament

Armed conflict breaks out between U.S. and Pakistan along the Afghan-Pakistani border
He, too, cannot remember a time quite so wacked out as our own. And he's older than me, so that means at least a little bit more than it does coming from me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Latest in Popular Justice

The Times of London reports:

Corporate India is in shock after a mob of sacked workers bludgeoned to death the chief executive who had dismissed them from a factory in a suburb of Delhi.

Lalit Kishore Choudhary, 47, the head of the Indian operations of Graziano Transmissioni, an Italian-headquartered manufacturer of car parts, died of severe head wounds on Monday afternoon after being attacked by scores of laid-off employees, police said.

The incident, in Greater Noida, just outside the Indian capital, followed a long-running dispute between the factory's management and workers who had demanded better pay and permanent contracts.

No idea if the report is accurate or fair. Think it will start happening on Wall Street anytime soon?

Great Moments in Ideology

I'm just taking this whole-cloth from Matthew Yglesias:

Yesterday I read: “Oil prices posted their biggest one-day gain on Monday, jumping more than $25 a barrel as investors dashed into commodities on concerns about the government’s plan to bail out the financial system.”

Then I wrote:

But of course if crude oil prices had gone down, we’d be “explaining” this as “concerns about the government’s plan to bail out the financial system” driving pessimism about growth. The truth is, none of the people writing this stuff have any real idea of why things are happening.

And now today:

Crude oil futures prices fell Tuesday as declining stock prices and the soft dollar signaled some investor concern over the United States government bailout of Wall Street and the market moved on after technical factors provoked a surge on Monday.

I find it amazing that this stuff gets published.

'Tis a wonder to behold, indeed.

UPDATE: One of Ygelsias' readers sends in this follow-up:


Recent headlines include:

MARKET SNAPSHOT: US Stocks Rise After Lawmakers Pick Over Bank Bailout (34 minutes ago)

MARKET SNAPSHOT: US Stocks Sink As Lawmakers Pick Over Bank Bailout (1 hour ago)

MARKET SNAPSHOT: US Stock Indexes Up As Lawmakers Mull $700 Billion…(5 hours ago)

MARKET SNAPSHOT: US Stocks Fall As Traders Await Bail-out Details (Sep 22, 2008)


For the Record

David Brooks, NYT, September 22, 2008:
We're entering an era of the educated establishment, in which government acts to create a stable -- and often oligarchic -- framework for capitalist endeavor.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Get On Board

There's likely to be 700 billion dollars worth of free money flying around once Hank Paulson's spending spree gets underway, and the number and type of entities from whom Hank can buy crappy assets is ever-expanding. So why not try to hop on the gravy train? If you've got some "undervalued" assets on your hands, head over to BuyMyShitPile.com and sign up for a taxpayer-funded bailout. If you're a US taxpayer, of course, you'll be paying ridiculous prices for your own shit, but hey, that's better than paying ridiculous prices for someone elses' shit. If you're Canadian, it's all good, since it seems likely that Hank will be buying up shit from the likes of Deutschebank and Fortis. Frankly, I'd rather have my taxes going to buy dilapidated Ikea furniture from low-on-cash McGill students than have my taxes going to buy the financial Potemkin village created by the "innovations" in finace capital over the last decade. If Congress is going to make Hank dictator, they could at least pay for some bread to go with the circus.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

SSPP Calls for Papers


1. For the Society's meeting in conjunction with the Eastern APA (American Philosophical Association) in 2009 the SSPP invites papers for two conference panels. We are seeking papers that address issues pertaining to: Environmental Philosophy as Political Philosophy
Given our current global situation, the rising importance of environmental philosophy is increasingly beyond question, but insofar as philosophy has turned its attention to matters of the environment it has typically done so from the perspective of ethics. This panel invites papers that address the broad range of environmental concerns from a somewhat different perspective, namely, from the perspective of political philosophy. How, for instance, might matters of environmental sustainability transform our understanding of political solidarity and/or state sovereignty? How do increasing concerns about the ecological resources alter our conception of property rights as well as the relationship between capital and labor? What would it mean to extend rights to nonhuman animals, or to ecosystems? How does the imperative to be “sustainable” influence the way we conceptualize employment, citizenship and community? And how does an expanded view of ecology challenge traditional, humanistic notions of identity and the politics that have traditionally followed from them?
2. For the Society's meeting in conjunction with SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) in 2009, the SSPP invites papers for two conference panels. We are seeking papers that address issues pertaining to: Anarchism and Philosophy
Anarchism remains underrepresented in academic debates and discussions, a trend that continues despite its increasing importance in the anti-globalization movements. As a political philosophy, anarchism maintains a tense relation with the academy. Unlike Marxism, anarchism was not founded by a philosopher, and its major thinkers—Goldman, Kropotkin, and Bakunin—were by and large self-educated. Likewise, its areas of focus have been anti-authoritarianism, cooperation, and self-organization, rather than foundational texts or figures, thus making it a difficult fit with the dominant academic practices of interpretation and exegesis. Despite this, however, philosophers such as Todd May, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Lewis Call have suggested that there is a fundamental link between the ideals of anarchism and philosophers such as Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Foucault and Rancière. Moreover, within anarchist circles there has been a longstanding interest in the work of situationists such as Debord and Autonomists such as Negri, which is not to suggest that these thinkers be identified as anarchist, but that their analyses of power and desire, and an ideal of equality, reflect certain anarchist commitments. We are looking for papers that address possible relations between anarchism and philosophy, from examinations of “canonical” anarchist thinkers to explorations of what philosophers offer to anarchism. Most importantly we are looking for papers that recognize the challenge that anarchism poses to the conventional notions of authority and hierarchy that dominate the university; that the conjunction "anarchism and philosophy" must interrogate and question the latter, as much as it supplements and defines the former.
Complete papers of 3000-5000 words (that can be summarized and presented in 20-30 minutes) should be submitted for consideration for the 2009 meeting (deadline: March 1, 2009). The APA Conference is scheduled for December 27-30, 2009, New York City, NY. The SPEP Conference is scheduled for October 28-30, 2009 Arlington, VA.

Authors should include their name(s) and contact information on the cover page ONLY. Papers should be emailed as attachments in Word or RTF format to papers@sspp.us

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Limbo of the Infants

Reports that the Pope Benedict nullified the hypothesis of limbo are greatly exaggerated, it seems. But regardless of questions of theological doctrine, there is a limbo of the infants, and we are in it. Since time does not really have any meaning in limbo, I can't say when further dispatches will be forthcoming.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Loser Kings

Via Sadly, No! (for the second time in as many days), The Nation has what starts off as a great piece on conservative resentment. I don't know if it ends well, as I haven't read the whole thing, but I just had to put these two paragraphs up.
A sense of exclusion has haunted conservatism from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss--of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun--conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. From Burke's lament that "the gallery is in the place of the house" to William F. Buckley Jr.'s claim that he and his brethren were "out of place," the comfortable and connected have fashioned a philosophy of self-styled truancy. One might say this fusion of pariah and power has been the key to their success. As Buckley went on to write, the conservative's badge of exclusion has made him "just about the hottest thing in town."

While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement's leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato's guardians were wise; Aquinas's king was good; Hobbes's sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the "terrible school of misfortune" and suffered in the "hard school of adversity."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Oh Joy! Zombie History Is on the March!

I know diddle about the conflict between Georgia and Russia, but via Balloon Juice I find that, lo and behold, it marks the return of History! Robert Kagen says so:
Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even—though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities—the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial.
Some people--who didn't have their heads up their asses gazing at the beauty of the moral law within--actually noticed that "the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives" was always part and parcel of globalization and economic interdependence.

It is also worth noting that "the return of history" would have a little TM after it if Kagen could copyright titles.

PS: The print at the top is "The March of History," by James W. Mah, an artist living in Vancouver. His work can be viewed and purchased here.

More Politics of Resentment

Apparently visiting your grandmother in Hawaii is the latest sign of being out of touch and fancy-pants. Anyway, this expresses my thoughts exactly:
You see, “elitism” in this country isn’t defined by how much money you have, but whether you ever enjoy your life. For instance, you can make a lot of money and not be an elitist if your work is joyless and purposeless. This is why the Waltons are considered salt-of-the-Earth types, even though they’re the richest family in the world: because the only joy they get out of life is exploiting cheap labor both here and abroad to produce and sell cheap plastic crap. And since the Waltons are such miserable people, it’s hard for the average spite voter to feel much resentment toward them, since they’re basically richer versions of themselves.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Power Over Life, Power Over Death

I thought this discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was interesting, in part because of the various knots utilitarians tie themselves in, and in part because of the observation that not all violence counts as violence in the same way--violence at a distance, for example, is "less violent" than face-to-face violence.

Having taught some Mao last term, I a genuinely curious how a utilitarian would judge his leadership of China. On the one hand, some estimate that 30 million died of famine during the Great Leap Forward. On the other hand, life expectancy went from 40 years in 1950 to 70 years by the time Mao stepped down--even the Cultural revolution didn't make a dent in decreasing mortality rates--and the population of China increased from a relatively stable 400-500 million between 1851-1949 to 1.2 billion by 2000. In other words, Mao's leadership seems to have made much more life than death. If you're going to blame him for one, shouldn't you credit him for the other?

My own position on the question of criminality is probably closest to that expressed in JSG's comment:
One thing I need to add- if a military leader DOES think a war crime is necessary, then shouldn't they have the strength of convictions to stand by that decision?

In situations like this one always hears the saying "no jury would convict them". But it's amazing how few juries are ever given the opportunity to not convict people. IMO, that's a true shame, and one of the many reasons our legal system seems to be breaking down. The little people are told to trust the system and let it work... but it seems the big fish do everything possible to avoid explaining themselves in court.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

From the Mouths of Babes

Jonah Goldberg admits that capitalism is a form of statism:
I agree that capitalism is flawed and that it doesn’t provide us with a sense of meaning. However, I don’t think that is it’s flaw. I don’t want the government to provide me with meaning. I don’t want to live in a society where politics is the chief provider of “meaning” either.
I don't know how to read that as anything but a claim that capitalism is a form of government.

Oddly, he also avers to his friendly readers' complaint "that capitalism is a Marxist term we shouldn’t concede." Capitalism is a Marxist term? OK, from now on, anyone who uses the word "capitalism" shall thereby betray their Marxist tendencies.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Too Good for Us

Obama is too fit to be President.
Obama is too popular to be President.
Obama is too smart to be President.
Obama is too handsome to be President.
Obama is too good to be President.
Obama is too cool to be President.

Just shoot me.

UPDATE: Apparently, other people are on the same wavelength.

UPDATE 2: I can't possibly be expected to dissect this bit of self-parody. Turns out capitalism is our sugar-daddy, and if we don't show him some love and gratitude, he might kick us to the curb where he found us. Or something.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Billmon's Back...

...posting at Daily Kos. There is much excitement among the masses. The Whiskey Bar was a bit of a revelation when I first found it, and I was very sad to see it go. This first Kos diary is . . . alright. Hopefully this won't be like the Star Wars prequels...

UPDATE: OK, this second post is more like it, right down to the Marx quote in the title.

What Libertarians Are Good For

The Cato Institute has an interactive map of paramilitary police raids in the US, an accompaniment to Radley Balko's work on this issue.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Comprehensive Goods, Comprehensive Evils, and the Problem of Resentment

I'm reading Zizek's new "book," Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. It is, as is to be expected, a hodge-podge of funny anecdotes, revealing examples, vague half-arguments, and prickly insights.

One of the vague half-arguments that I find most promising goes something like this: it is a mistake to call terrorists--Muslim or Christian or whatever--"fundamentalists" because "all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish," are essentially indifferent towards non-believers (p. 85). True believers find only self-confirmation in the lives and sins of heathens and apostates. They therefore have a sovereign disregard for non-believers. To become a terrorist, to declare war on unbelievers, is to admit that you are not motivated by faith at all, but by temptation and resentment. It demonstrates that you can only confirm your own goodness and faith by destroying or humiliating those who live otherwise, that is, by destroying those upon whom you have projected your own doubt and self-hatred.

What this suggests to me is something I already thought, but something for which I now have new and improved arguments: that the familiar liberal wariness regarding "comprehensive doctrines of the good" is utterly misplaced. Comprehensive doctrines of the good, according to the wary liberal, must remain private because whenever their believers get there hands on the coercive apparatus of the state we end up embroiled in religious wars. For this reason, liberalism eschews any summum bonum and leaves all metaphysics to the purveyors of commoditized wisdom and the hucksters of the spirit.

But what if the real danger is not coercive belief (and the attendant disagreements about the finer points of doctrine), but self-destructive resentment? If Zizek is right, liberals need to take Nietzsche much more seriously than they do, and as a brutally honest friend rather than a vicious enemy. The real threat to liberal society is not the fundamentalists who would impose their own good on everyone else, but the bad consciences who would renounce their own good just for the sake of depriving other of their goods also. The resentful subject would rather destroy itself or foreclose its own enjoyment than permit another (resented) subject's enjoyment.

I think it is for this reason that I am especially suspicious of the "liberalism of fear" proposed by Judith Shklar. Shklar claimed that liberalism had no summum bonum but only a summum malum, cruelty and the fear born thereby. This seems to me to make the resentful subjectivity coextensive with liberalism--liberals renounce all pursuit of the good, and seek only to police everyone else's pursuit thereof. Obviously, this liberal resentment is, in one sense, the polar opposite of the terroristic resentment with which I began, and I'm sure that many of the "friends of Shklar" I know will protest my characterization, but that's why I'm writing this on my blog and not in Political Theory. But the allergy to unabashed and public discussion and pursuit of a positive good is too similar to Zizek's diagnosis to go unnoted.

UPDATE: Edited to repair egregious misspelling.

UPDATE 2: Ripped from today's headlines... Fanaticism is not the problem, my friends. This sad-sack didn't believe passionately in anything at all, from all accounts. He was certainly not "cruel" in Shklar's sense of the word: driven by the pursuit of "some end, tangible or intangible," to "the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group." And despite the greater pretense to some sort of "political strategy," I would say the same about Tim McVeigh or al-Zarqawi or the like.

I have this label for some posts: "Conservatives want you to be unhappy." It started out a bit tongue in cheek, but I'm going to double-down on it: the fact that this chump in Tennessee read O'Reilly, Savage, and Hannity is unsurprising, for modern American conservatism has become the opposite of fanaticism, a political movement under the banner of resentment, intent upon standing athwart the pursuit of happiness by others, yelling 'Stop!'

The flip-side is that liberalism is not guiltless here, either. Despite at least one promised rebuttal, no friend of Shklar has yet stepped forward to defend the liberalism of fear against the vague guilt by homology charge in my main post. As it stands, the charge probably doesn't even merit a defense--it's pretty imprecise and seems like a conclusion without premises. Nonetheless, I think there is more to my doubts about Shklar than my sense that she has mis-identified her real enemy. The liberalism of fear is a liberalism that fears "a society of fearful people," and, by extension, the systematic cruelty that fosters such a society. But maybe, just maybe, systematic cruelty isn't the worst thing for human beings to face. Maybe we're actually better equipped to live our lives and be reasonably happy under the rule of fairly severe coercion than under the constant threat of explosive resentment. And maybe the principled avoidance of the former condition as the summum malum actually fosters the latter condition.

Maybe we need a bit more cruelty in our lives if we are to be happy at all.

Time suck

A word cloud of my recent Aristotle paper. Wheeeeee!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Salesmanship of Fear

Impending fatherhood has rendered me emotionally sensitive to a host of new triggers. Babies, mostly. And pregnant women. And the birthing of babies by pregnant women. All of these things are, without warning, liable to shatter my steely shell and leave me a blubbery trembling mess. This can be dangerous for myself and others if I happen to be driving down the highway at 7o mph.

Therefore, I would kindly ask GM to deep-six their current radio campaign for On-Star.

The ad portrays an On-Star operator responding to a car crash involving a pregnant woman. The ad opens with the operator talking to the woman immediately after the crash. The woman is alright, but she is worried because she is pregnant. The operator contacts 911, and then connects the woman with her husband, and the add closes with his panicked concern for her and her tearful assurances that she's alright.

I had to scream at the radio--transmute all my fear and sadness and relief into anger--in order to keep some semblance of my wits about me.

Look, I know that advertising always plays on the passions. And usually the sad passions, at that. Getting people to feel a need for your product frequently involves activating anxieties and then offering the product as a balm for those anxieties. (Even thought this appeal to fear and anxiety is usually, and most effectively, subtle and mediated; the insurance commercial that directly says "You will die and then your family will be poor and helpless" is the exception, and recognized as such.) But this experience brought this home in a particularly forceful way. Rather than enabling us to confront our hopes and fears and live with them, advertising encourages our fear by offering up a savior. You should be afraid of losing your spouse or child in a car crash. You should buy a GM car with On-Star to allay that fear. The fear doesn't actually go anywhere when it is allayed in this way. Rather, it is preserved as a dark background behind your new attachment to your GM car. Should something happen now, should the On-Star fail to save your loved ones, you are left completely unprepared. This isn't what was supposed to happen.

Aristotle distinguishes optimism and courage. Optimism is the expectation that you will prevail, that things will turn out as you hope. Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to act beyond any hope of things turning out well. I know that I am congenitally prone to optimism, but, as the birth of my child nears, I am more and more aware that optimism is not what is called for. It is grossly insufficient to the moment. I'm no less ruled by fear just because I always tell myself everything will turn out alright.

But this just points up the falseness of any attempt to bring about "freedom from fear" by means of such optimism. Hope and optimism do not free you from fear. They silently preserve its dominion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Conference Announcement

World History and Historical Materialism
An International Conference at the University of Manitoba(Winnipeg, Canada)
March 12-14, 2009

The field of World History has been a growing area of scholarship and education over the last three decades. In focusing on the global impact and implications of colonialism, imperialism, the mercantile and industrial revolutions, as well as revolutionary resistance from the early-modern period to the present, World History provides a framework for understanding international capitalism, contemporary politics, and the relationship between economic systems and the dynamics of diverse societies.

This conference will examine the relationship between the historical roots of World History and its contemporary social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions. We invite paper submissions on a range of topics related to World History and Historical Materialism and encourage papers on the following themes:

• Class and Global Developments
• Authoritarian Capitalism and Human Rights
• Empire, Imperialism, and Neocolonialism
• Political Economy of Gender and Sexuality in Global Contexts
• Revolution and World History
• History of Communism and the International Left
• Postcolonialism, Eurocentrism and the Politics of World History
• Global Finance and Neo-Imperialism
• Race and Racism in World History
• Labor, Work, and the History of Migration
• Democratic and Popular Resistance to Global Capitalism

Confirmed Plenary Speakers: Bruce Cumings (University of Chicago), Karen Dubinsky (Queen’s University), Rosemary Hennessy (Rice University), Rebecca Karl (New York University), Hyun Ok Park (York University), Mary Poovey (New York University).

We welcome individual submissions as well as panel proposals. For individual papers, please send a 250-word abstract and a one-page CV (maximum); for panel proposals please send a 250-word panel abstract along with a 250-word paper abstract and one-page CV for each presenter.

Proposals can be submitted by email, fax, or mail to:
Tina Chen (chentm@ms.umanitoba.ca) / David Churchill (d_churchill@umanitoba.ca)
Department of History
Universityof Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3T 2M8

Fax: 204-474-7914

Travel subsidies may be available for graduate students who present papers at the conference.

Deadline for submission of proposals: October 1, 2008

Hosted by the Interdisciplinary Research Circle on Globalization and Cosmopolitanism and the Department of History at the University of Manitoba.

Friday, July 4, 2008

What's to Love?

People on the nets seem to like this Peter Beinart essay on American patriotism. Not sure why, exactly, except that it has that middle-of-the-road quality that makes everyone feel like they got their props. "Liberals think patriotism is x, and conservatives think it is y, but isn't it really a bit of x and a bit of y?" This is the bad dialectics that believes it has mediated two concepts when it has imagined itself to have kept what is good about each and discarded what is bad.

Anyway, the essay ends with this bon mot:
So is wearing the flag pin good or bad? It is both; it all depends on where and why. If you're going to a Young Americans for Freedom meeting, where people think patriotism means "my country right or wrong," leave it at home and tell them about Frederick Douglass, who wouldn't celebrate the Fourth of July while his fellow Americans were in bondage. And if you're going to a meeting of the cultural-studies department at Left-Wing U., where patriotism often means "my country wrong and wronger," slap it on, and tell them about Mike Christian, who lay half-dead in a North Vietnamese jail, stitching an American flag.
What immediately jumps out at me is that when Beinart needs an case of pathological right-wing patriotism, he can appeal to an actual organization, but when he needs a balancing case on the left, he goes straight into the ether of Platonic forms. No actual institution is needed, for he can appeal to that august "Left-Wing U."

This seems to me to be a symptom of the underlying schema by which patriotism is usually discussed. Conservativism is rooted in the actual institutions and traditions of the nation, and therefore loves the past of the country. Liberalism aspires to the regulative ideals of the nation, and therefore loves the future. Its the contest between Right and Left Hegelians, between those who emphasize the constitutive reality of the idea and those who emphasize its critical, regulative reality. The right loves what is, the left loves what ought to be.

But the world just doesn't divide up that way.

Liberals love the past just as much as conservatives, they just love a different past--the past of labor organizing, abolitionist struggles, civil rights movements, etc. Liberals love the liberal past, which seems to them to be embodied more in struggles and movements than in official institutions. Conservatives love the conservative past, which tends to be the officially recognized and sanctioned institutions of the military-industrial complex and the nuclear family.

And the pasts loved by both liberals and conservatives are not actual, but imaginary. They are at least as regulative and ideal as they are constitutive. Beinart claims at one point: "To some degree, patriotism must mean loving your country for the same reason you love your family: simply because it is yours." But this never happens. We may say this from time to time, when we are unable to give an account of why we love something, but our inability to give voice to something ought not be mistaken for a positive sign of that something's non-existence. On this question, I am convinced by Plato and Aristotle: we recognize something as ours only because we think it good. The bad parts get excised.

For patriotic folks, conservative and liberal alike, the parts of America they don't like don't count. The bad parts are the inessential, the accidental dross, the mere appearance that is overcome by the inner reality. The disagreement is not about America's past versus its future, or the real versus the ideal America, but about what is good and lovable.


Atrios: "Amazingly, on every single issue there is, both political parties get it wrong but Peter Beinart gets it just right."