Remembering MLK

Our democracy is shaken by the extreme right today, and racism lies at the bottom of the fears and antagonisms that have been used to stir up violent actions and threats against our government and our democratic institutions. Republican leaders, Fox News executives and personalities, incendiary conspiracy-theory followers, ordinary Americans everywhere … step back from the precipice, recall for yourselves what our American democracy can be, and step back to embrace the democratic values that we all must share. Dr. King helped us with his vision and his activism. But more than fifty years after his murder, our country has not embraced the vision of equality and multi-racial democracy for which he advocated, and for which he gave his life.

Here is a beautiful contribution to the NPR Story Corps that records Clara Jean Ester’s memory of being present for Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis and his assassination at the Lorraine Motel (link). It is an amazing piece of historical memory and deeply moving. 

And here is a short excerpt from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, in which he speaks of the arc of history (link). It speaks to a fundamental confidence in the eventual triumph of the struggle for freedom and equality. Was Dr. King right?

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. MLK, March 31, 1968

Guest post by Paul Roth on Neil Gross’s Richard Rorty

Paul Roth is distinguished professor of philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Roth has written extensively on the philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and the history of analytic philosophy. His most recent book is The Philosophical Structure of Historical Explanation (Northwestern, 2019). Thank you, Paul, for this substantive contribution. (Interested readers can find further discussion of Neil Gross’s sociological treatment of Rorty and the history of analytic philosophy in these earlier posts; linklink.)

BY PAUL ROTH

Born to Run: Reflections on Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

“I am sometime told, by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts. . . . Perhaps this bit of autobiography will make clear that, even if my views about the relation of philosophy and politics are odd, they were not adopted for frivolous reasons.”

Richard Rorty

“Trotsky and Wild Orchids”

Richard Rorty, consummate ironist that he was, doubtless would have found amusing what Neil Gross offers as an account of the development of his (Rorty’s) thought. “My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosophy to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. . .. [I]n stressing the role play by self-concept in my account, . . . self-concepts themselves are thoroughly social.” (18) But the shift so characterized cannot plausibly be ascribed to Rorty’s intellectual self-concept. For that would require first situating Rorty as a “technically oriented” analytic philosopher. Absent that, there would be literally nothing for Gross to explain. And this turns out to be a central problem with Gross’s book. For even a casual examination of Rorty’s oeuvre gives lie to thought that his self-concept significantly shifts, much less between the points Gross specifies. Rorty never occupies the initial position Gross ascribes to him.

Rorty’s doctoral thesis was hardly the stuff of “technically oriented philosophy.” Gross acknowledges this. Moreover, what little actual evidence does Gross cite to support his “shift” hypotheses disappears under examination. Consider in this regard Gross’s characterization of Rorty’s now-famous 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [hereafter cited as PMN] in relation to Rorty’s previous writings. “In his earlier analytic work Rorty might have been seen as a philosopher of mind. By contrast, the goal [of PMN] . . . was to undermine the notion that mind is something ‘about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view’”. (18) But what “early analytic work” can Gross be referencing? Try squaring Gross’s remark just cited with one by Rorty from the very first essay anthologized in Consequences of Pragmatism, viz. “The World Well Lost.” Original place of publication? The Journal of Philosophy, then as now one of the highest profile and most prestigious publication venues in the discipline. Original date of publication? 1972. What words does Rorty pen there? “Now, to put my cards on the table, I think that the realistic true believer’s notion of the world is an obsession rather than an intuition. I also think that Dewey was right in thinking that the only intuition we have of the world determining truth is just we must make our new beliefs conform to a vast body of platitudes, unquestioned perceptual reports, and the like.” (CP 13-14) [Note 1] The substance here simply does not differ from what PMN develops at great length. Rather, it plays themes that Rorty emphasizes early to late.

In order to enhance the supposed novelty of the views advocated in PMN, Gross asserts just a few pages later that “It was not in [PMN] but in the essays republished in Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty fully identified his intellectual project with pragmatism.” (21) But this makes no sense. The essays published in Consequences of Pragmatism almost all predate the publication PMN, and typically by many years. Indeed, Consequences of Pragmatism has as its subtitle ‘(Essays: 1972-1980)’! No doubt some of these writings were coincident with the writing of PMN. In any case, Gross’s own citations defy his characterization of Rorty as a devotee of “technically oriented philosophy” in the years prior to the publication of PMN. This bears on what I insist to be the critical point: Rorty was never a practitioner or devotee of “technically oriented philosophy.” His interests are metaphilosophical from early to late.

But as they say on numerous infomercials: Wait, there’s more! As noted above, Gross’s thesis rests on establishing Rorty’s “parting of the ways” with his strategically embrace analytic self-conception. Such a shift in intellectual orientation might plausibly be taken to be fruitfully examined “as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the worthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output.” (234) But for this to be other than a vapid truism, much less an understanding of Rorty’s writings in the 60s and the 70s (the period central to Gross’s argument regarding the shift in his intellectual orientation), Gross must establish that “Accounting for Rorty’s intellectual trajectory thus means understanding not only why, in the 1970s, he became a critic of the analytic paradigm but also why he became a champion of it after leaving graduate school.” (308) But yet another key problems looms into view just here: what is this so-called ‘analytic paradigm’? For it hardly seems fitting to argue about who is or is not one, much less who left the fold or who joined it, without having some principled way of ruling people in or out. This is complicated by the fact that people who were self-described pragmatists, e.g., Charles Morris, saw differences but not gulfs between pragmatism (the view towards which Rorty supposedly shifts) and, e.g., logical positivism, certainly one form taken under any description in the evolution of analytic philosophy. Likewise, neither Quine nor Sellars ever stood accused of having abandoned any analytic paradigm, their criticisms of analyticity and givenness notwithstanding. Quine especially has his own casual way of using the term ‘pragmatism’ as descriptive of his own work. In short, lacking any precise characterization of what counts as analytic philosophy, and so what does or does not qualify one for club membership, arguments such as Gross’s that presume a clear working contrast between “analytic philosophy” and “pragmatism” are doomed to be non-starters.

The quote from Rorty’s review of Cornman in endnote 1 provides a fundamental clue regarding what made Rorty a philosophically compelling figure from the outset. If one wishes to trot out someone who fits the Grossian mold of a hard-headed analytic philosopher of that period, James Cornman would be as good a candidate as any. But does Rorty ever write like that? No! What Rorty does, and precisely what makes him so very, very special, is his ability to read people like Cornman and write about them as only he (Rorty) can. Rorty turns Cornman into a pragmatist manqué. I always warn students when I assign Rorty that one reads Rorty to learn about Rorty, not the person about whom Rorty writes. Rorty’s special genius—and I mean that quite sincerely and not ironically—lies in his ability to pluck from the driest prose nuggets that illustrate points near and dear to Rorty’s heart. In other words, what endeared Rorty to those educated or in the process of being educated into analytic philosophy was not about Rorty as an analytic philosopher, but because of his own special way of reading and writing about standard analytic philosophy. He could make it all seem interesting and relevant again. In this difference between what Rorty writes about and Rorty’s own writing that explains what philosophers heard in Rorty’s voice and so accounts for his early success.

A more general example of how wrong Gross gets things can be found in Ch. 7 of his book, at the point Gross imagines Rorty’s intellectual arc to begin to bend. Gross opines that “Rorty went through a significant transition in the early 1960s: from being primarily a metaphilosopher, as he was at Wellesley, to also contributing substantively to analytic debates.” (184) A page later, Gross attempts to fill out this sketch by insisting that Rorty’s work on mind-body identity and related problems “are best read as a distinct piece of his oeuvre. They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s effort to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment.” (185) Gross also asserts that “it is also apparent that with The Linguistic Turn he threw his hat in with the analysts.” (184, emphasis mine) But the articles on mind-body are of a piece with Rorty’s review of Cornman; they dissolve or dismiss the problems. Moreover, the last quoted remark bears special scrutiny, since it speaks telling against Gross’s grip on his working categories.

I would begin by noting that when first published The Linguistic Turn was not widely reviewed. The Philosopher’s Index as well as a web page maintained on Rorty’s writing reveal only two or three reviews in Anglo-American philosophy journals. While generally favorable, no reviewer reads the volume as some endorsement of linguistic philosophy. Nor should they have. The book bears the subtitle, “Recent Essays in Philosophical Method.” This signals how it connects with Rorty’s lifelong metaphilosophical concerns. Indeed, Rorty entitles his introductory essay “Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy.” NB: ‘Difficulties.’ One might think that Gross would take this to heart, especially with the advantage of knowing how Rorty’s later writings emphasize just these themes, and in light of the professional reception of and hostility to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

What evidence does Gross provide that Rorty at the time of writing the introduction to The Linguistic Turn had “threw his hat in with the analysts”? It consists of a sole quote from Rorty’s introduction to the effect that “linguistic philosophy . . . has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition . . . on the defensive. . . . This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.” (quoted by Gross 184). Gross apparently finds this a wholesale endorsement of linguistic philosophy. This despite Rorty stating at the opening of his “Preface” that “This anthology provides materials which show various ways in which linguistic philosophers have viewed philosophy and philosophical method over the last thirty-five years. I have attempted to exhibit the reasons which originally led philosophers . . . to adopt linguistic methods, the problems they faced in defending their conception of philosophical inquiry, alternative solutions to these problems, and the situation in which linguistic philosophers now find themselves.” (emphasis mine) Rorty references those classified as “linguistic philosophers” (the volume includes a rather heterodox collection by any standard) in no way that suggests that he identifies with this group. And how could even a causal reader of the introductory essay that follows immediately upon the “Preface” just quoted not fail to note the lead sentence: “The history of philosophy is punctuated by revolts against the practices of previous philosophers and by attempts to transform philosophy into a science”? In the second paragraph, Rorty then writes: “Every philosophical rebel has tried to be ‘presuppositionless,’ but none has succeeded.” About a page later, he observes “It is more interesting to see, in detail, why philosophers think they have made progress, what criteria of progress they employ.” This sets the philosophical stage for the group of thinkers he has collected. In short, Rorty makes no secret of how he positions the people in the volume. “The purpose of the present volume is to provide materials for reflection on the most recent philosophical revolution, that of linguistic philosophy.” Nowhere does Rorty suggest that this revolution has succeeded where the others have failed. Nowhere does Rorty endorse it. Indeed, in his penultimate paragraph, Rorty tenders the following characteristic judgment: “Ever since Plato invented the subject, philosophers have been in a state of tension produced by the pull of the arts on one side and the pull of the sciences on the other. The linguistic turn has not lessened this tension, although it has enabled us to be considerably more self-conscious about it. The chief value of the metaphilosophical discussions included in this volume is that they serve to heighten this self-consciousness.” (The Linguistic Turn, 38) This counts as Rorty effort to foster his standing as a hard-headed analytic philosopher? Rorty’s writings from early to late wear their metaphilosophical concerns on their sleeve.

In short, the shift on which Gross predicates his entire analysis simply does not exist. It is not there in the words or the topics on which Rorty writes. Rorty from early to late worries the metaphilosophical questions canvassed in the introduction to that volume. What can philosophy hope to accomplish? Does there exist some special class of philosophical facts, such that philosophical theories can be judged by their relative success in accounting for these? Moreover and with equal consistency, the philosophers who most attracted Rorty—later Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars—are precisely those who cast the most powerful aspersions on the view that there were such philosophical facts or special philosophical methods. Rorty’s nascent doubts and skepticism in this regard did not spring full flower from his head, however present they were from early on. His introduction to The Linguistic Turn as well as the essay collected in The Consequences of Pragmatism powerfully testify to how these questions develop and mature. But he has these characteristic doubts on full display from at least the mid-60s.

How then to understand the place of Rorty in his time? As I have argued elsewhere (“Undisciplined and Punished,” History and Theory (2018) 57:121-136), the interesting and important person with whom to compare Rorty in this specific regard is Hayden White. Why? Both managed to effectively write themselves out of their respective disciplines and to make themselves world-famous, in effect, in the process of becoming pariahs to their fellow professionals. Both sinned against their disciplines by denying disciplinary pretension to timeless norms or some royal road to truth and knowledge. White never held an appointment in a conventional history department once he moved to the History of Consciousness program at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Indeed, the History Department there refused to provide him with a joint appointment. Likewise, once Rorty left Princeton, he never again held a position in a philosophy department. Ironically, Rorty and White finish their academic careers teaching in Comparative Literature at Stanford. Metaphilosophy and metahistory can, it seems, be tolerated nowhere else but in literary studies.

Rorty’s writings do shift, but that change reflects his stated desire to become more of a public intellectual as well as to demonstrate “philosophy by other means.” In this regard, had Gross paid attention to, e.g., how Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity differs in substance and style from PMN and yet represents an important continuation of Rorty’s argument with and against philosophy as currently practiced, he might have learned something interesting about Rorty and his place in the academic constellation.

In his great essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Sellars writes “It is therefore, the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise. . . . To the extent that a specialist is more concerned to reflect on how his work as a specialist joins up with other intellectual pursuits, than in asking and answering questions within his specialty, he is said, properly, to be philosophically-minded.” Rorty remains from beginning to end “philosophically-minded” in just this sense: he kept his “eye on the whole.” And yet none of the foregoing remarks deny a sociologically important dimension to Rorty’s academic fate. But the arc to be followed and that calls for explanation is not the one Gross imagines transcribed in the record. Rather, the issue posed concerns first and foremost just why Rorty and White come to be so shunned by their fellow professionals. Their fates—disciplinary exile–sends a powerful message regarding what questions can or, more importantly, seemingly cannot be broached in polite academic company. Accounting for this remains the key unanswered question, for it stands as a chilling lesson to lesser lights who might ponder raising such issues.

A further and related question concerns just why what Rorty wrote and said resonated so strongly within and without the profession. Almost 50 years on, I still recall being in the audience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago when I heard Rorty remark that he regarded philosophy as just a form of kibbitzing. I do not know if this appears anywhere in his writings, but I quote it to this day. I remember too the outrage and disdain his remark incited.

What made Rorty a heroic figure for many of us thus involves the polar opposite of the position that Gross maintains. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that philosophy is just a form of conversation, Rorty raised questions about what philosophy could hope to do that went to the heart of what many of us worried then and now.

Rorty possessed a unique voice—especially eloquent, enviably learned, and remarkably witty. In a sentence or two he could articulate fundamental issues that cut at the very heart of what academic philosophy pretends to. [Note 2] The sociological tale to be told about Rorty concerns how he had the wherewithal to write himself out of a place of privilege. Imagining his career as moving from “hard-headed analytic philosopher” to “leftist patriot” fails even as the crudest caricature of this person and his work. (For more on Rorty’s politics, see my “Politics and epistemology: Rorty, MacIntyre, and the ends of philosophy,” History of the Human Sciences (1989) 2:171-191.) What makes Rorty the person and Rorty’s career so fascinating concerns not how he got to Princeton but his choice to leave.

I both witnessed and read the abuse he suffered for the positions that he maintained. Rorty’s significance lies in no small part in how he remained true to his interests from early to late despite the powerful constraints imposed by conventional academic discourse and the comforts bestowed by a high prestige appointment. He defined himself by walking away from that to which many aspire but very few obtain. To not see the determination and courage that takes constitutes a type of cognitive dissonance, a peculiar tone deafness to a powerful and unmistakable cri de cœur. With regard to the issues that concerned him, Rorty only ever spoke in one way and always in his in own distinctive voice. His passing marks the day the music died.

Notes

1. Lest readers worry that I am “cherry-picking” quotes, consider the following from even earlier piece: “we [can] abandon some of Cornman’s terminology and restate what I take to be the essence of his view more informally. . . . Therefore (iv) the pragmatic test Cornman proposes is all that we can have, and all that we need. More specifically, since neither ‘meaning analysis’ nor ‘replacement analysis’ works, we must either adopt ‘use analysis,’ properly supplemented by such a pragmatically justified theory of reference, or admit that there is no rational method of dealing with ‘ontological’ problems. . . . I heartily agree with almost all of this”. (Richard Rorty, “Review of Metaphysics, Reference, and Language, James W. Cornman”, The Journal of Philosophy (1967) 64:770-774, 772.) Rorty a technical analytic philosopher of mind? Seriously?

2. A favorite, from his 1979 APA Presidential Address republished in Consequences of Pragmatism: “Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (CP 166)

Even worse than we thought …

We have understood for quite a while that there are dangerous anti-democratic forces in America today — hate-based organizations, right-wing militias, anti-government extremists, white suprematists, Proud Boys and Boogaloo provocateurs, and Republican politicians who care only about maintaining their political positions and power. And of course, we have a president who has complete contempt and disdain for the values and institutions of a functioning democracy. But up until now we’ve had a certain degree of confidence in the “guard rails” of our democracy — right up until January 6. 

On January 6 it became clear that our democracy is even more at risk than all of this suggests. These risks are of course with us every day, and have worsened steadily since 2016. But on January 6 it became clear that there is a much larger army of shock troops ready for the call by the Leader to attack every aspect of our democracy they can reach. There are the extremist groups monitored by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center — the Three Percenters, the militia groups, the Oath Keepers, the white supremacists. They have not changed their attitudes or purposes, though they have become more bold and visible about their intentions. The insane conspiracy to kidnap and harm the Governor of Michigan seemed vicious but safely on the fringe. Now it seems that these few extremists were just the tip of the iceberg. What has apparently changed is the political world of very large numbers of “ordinary” voters in almost all parts of America. 

This seems almost like a form of collective psychosis — like a witch craze on a massive scale, immune from normal reality checks. People interviewed at the Capitol after the insurrection — even people who did not enter the building and probably would not have done so — continue to defend the “revolution” they see underway in the hands of these white supremacists and violent extremists. The sight of many thousands of angry, shouting Trump-ites in their MAGA caps demanding the annulment of an entirely honest election, and seeing the power of this mob to breach and desecrate the US Capitol — and to see the sinister men in the Capitol chambers in military gear and zip ties evidently hunting for high-value hostages — this is to see the threat to our democracy in a wholly different light. This transforms the violent rhetoric of right-wing social media from theatre to script. And there seem to be tens of millions of Americans who are sympathetic to and supportive of these actions. 

We know who is responsible for this vast catastrophe: the president’s lies and repetition of unfounded conspiracies, the members of the GOP who have supported and confirmed these lies, the social media platforms that have turned right wing conspiracies into an infectious disease, and media personalities who have built their careers on this kind of conspiracy mongering. And the result is a very sizable part of our citizenry who are entirely disaffected from the values of our democracy and the legitimacy of our government. 

It is clear that the role of the police in maintaining order will be critical in the near future. To say that a democracy depends on the security of a system of law is a truism, and when individuals and groups resort to violence in pursuit of their political goals, it is crucial that there should be effective, controlled, and properly managed police to restrain them. It is a fundamental government responsibility to preserve the safety of the public, including in particular the safety of likely targets of terrorist violence. This means that government buildings — state houses, the Capitol, government office buildings —must be protected. It is therefore astounding that legislators in states like Michigan have so far been incapable of summoning the political will to ban weapons from the Michigan state house — creating the possibility that the next invasion of the state house in Lansing will lead to bloodshed by men armed with semi-automatic rifles. When armed groups threaten to use violence against other citizens, against the representatives of the state, and against our political institutions, it is inescapable that a democracy requires the ability to use police force to defeat that violence. And it goes without saying — a democracy requires a properly regulated system of policing that assures lawful exercise of force, neutral and unbiased enforcement of the law, and an effective and vigilant commitment throughout the policing hierarchy to controlling the misuse of force by police officers. 

This also means appropriate use of intelligence gathering about violent groups and their intentions: when groups announce their intention to attack officials, citizens, or locations, it is a responsibility of law enforcement agencies to gather and assess information about these indications of plans for future action. Here too a democracy requires legal constraints — which we have in the US system of constitution and law — but it is frankly incomprehensible that Federal and local police authorities were unaware of threats of violence in the weeks preceding January 6 that were fully visible to a number of domestic terrorism research centers around the country.

Effective policing is a necessary condition for social stability; but it is only a beginning. It is crucial for our country — leaders, organizations, parties, and citizens — to regain our footing in a commitment to truth rather than lies, evidence-based assessments rather than conspiracy theories, and a level of toleration and trust that should be the starting point for the great majority of our population. At the moment neither condition is satisfied: the Trump movement is driven by conspiracy theories and lies, and its followers have essentially zero levels of toleration and trust for the other members of our society — both political leaders and ordinary citizens — who do not share their worldview. It is crucial to reverse this reality — and yet it is very hard to see how that is going to happen, when the far right continues to maintain the same lies about corruption, election theft, and betrayal that produced this level of disaffection in the first place.

A very good start would be a breakup of the Republican Party between those Republicans who believe in the conservative values of the GOP and those who wish to continue to espouse far-right, white supremacist and extremist political views. There are clearly a good number of elected Republican officials who would be ready to follow such an initiative towards a re-establishment of a sane conservative political party. Let them stand for their political and social values, and let them speak honestly about the values of our constitutional democracy and the crucial priority of truth in political speech. Conservativism should not be the same as hate, it should not endorse racism, and it should support rather than undermine the values of our constitutional democracy.

A second valuable step would be election reforms that increase voter access and participation, decrease gerrymandering, and institute voting systems that work to decrease the importance of party affiliation and the primary process. Alaska’s newly implemented rank-choice voting system is a good example. It is well recognized that our current system of primaries — within the setting of gerrymandered districts — favors extreme candidates over more moderate candidates. 

There is the deeper question still to be answered: what are the circumstances in the United States over the past several decades that have led to such a dissolution of support and adherence to democratic norms and values within much of our population? Any observer is likely to identify many of the same factors: the facts of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society; growing economic insecurity and inequality for large numbers of people; and the rise of unprincipled politicians on the right who have been willing to use hate-based appeals to generate support for their own political fortunes. It is crucial to rebuild mass support for our multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy, and increasing economic opportunity and justice is one important pathway for doing so.

Vienna Circle in Emerson Hall

I am enjoying reading David Edmonds’ The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, which is interesting in equal measures in its treatment of the rise of fascism in Austria and Germany, the development of the Vienna Circle, and — of course — the murder of Schlick. Edmonds’ presentation of the philosophical issues that drove the Vienna Circle is especially good. (Here is a link to an earlier discussion of Schlick’s murder; link.) 

In addition to the narrative, the book contains some very interesting photographs of most of the participants in the Vienna Circle. One of those is this image, captioned “Otto Neurath chatting to Alfred Tarski”. The caption does not include information about date or location.

1939

The photo immediately struck me as familiar. It seemed to be the side entrance to Emerson Hall, home of the philosophy department at Harvard. So I did some searching on the web and found that there was a meeting of the International Congress for the Unity of Science (the descendent of the Vienna Circle), which took place at Harvard September 3-9, 1939. This was the fifth and final congress. And both Neurath and Tarski were in attendance. It seems likely enough, then, that this photo is from the 1939 gathering at Harvard. Here is Gerald Holton’s list of the attendees and presenters at the Congress (Science and Anti-Science):

I located a photo taken of that entrance to Emerson Hall just a few years ago:

2017

Here is a version of that image, cropped to roughly the proportions of the 1939 photo. 

2017

I’m convinced — this certainly looks like the same location to me. Harvard has made some improvements on the entrance since 1939 — the door is modernized, the lamps have been added, the vines have been pruned, and the handrails have been provided. The shape of the brick columns to the sides of the entrance is visible through the vines in the 1939 photo. I seem to remember luxuriant vines from the 1970s on that face of the building. And indeed, that is true. Here is a segment of a photo of the same entrance from 1973, and it shows the vines are more extensive. (Also there are no handrails.)

1973

But one challenge remains: is it possible to identify other people in the 1939 photo? Here is a possibility: I think Quine is one of the people in the photo. Here is Quine as I remember him from 1973:

But his looks changed dramatically from his 30s to his sixties and seventies. Here is Quine as photographed in the Edmonds book from the 1930s:

Finally here is Quine in a book cover photo, evidently taken in the 1940s:

 This looks a lot like the man standing directly behind Tarski in the first photo (above Tarski’s head). The giveaway is the pattern baldness visible in the 1939 photo and the book jacket photo. It is hard to be sure, of course, but the similarity is striking.

Are there any other familiar faces in the photo? Carnap was present at the Congress and was close to Quine, but none of the faces I see in the photo look much like Carnap. I am especially curious about the man standing behind Neurath and talking with the person I take to be Quine.

This is all very interesting to me, for a number of reasons. I was a graduate assistant to Quine in his undergraduate course on “Methods of Logic,” and I took his course on Word and Object in 1973 or so. It is striking today to realize that Quine in 1973 was closer in time to the Vienna Circle in the 1930s (35-40 years) than we are today to Quine and Goodman in the 1970s in Emerson Hall (45-50 years). In a small way this illustrates a meaningful point that Marc Bloch makes about the philosophy of history: we are connected to events in the past through meaningful chains of relationships with other human beings. 

Orwell’s study of mentality and culture

George Orwell wrote a great deal of literary criticism, book reviews, and intellectual commentary, almost always with a down-to-earth plain speaking that entirely rejected the lofty English conventions of academic writing. (Here is a fairly comprehensive Kindle collection of his essays, A Collection of Essays.) What I find interesting about Orwell’s literary commentaries is their honesty, seriousness, and nuance. They are completely fascinating to read. Orwell really wants to get to the bottom of this point or that, whether it concerns Tolstoy, Dickens, Kipling, or Henry Miller. Orwell was extremely broadly read, both in English literature and European literature more generally. And he has specific, thoughtful reactions to all of it. Moreover, his opinions are non-doctrinaire. Although Orwell brings his own orientation about the social realities of England and Europe and he is always aware of the social conditions of workers and farmers that are often unnoticed in literature, he rejects entirely the cant of English Marxist theory and vocabulary. 

His analysis of Tolstoy’s surprising polemic against the literary value of Shakespeare as a playwright (“Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool”) is a good example of Orwell’s literary imagination. He takes Tolstoy’s claims seriously, tries to give a credible interpretation of them, and refutes Tolstoy’s central biases against Shakespeare. Likewise, his extensive treatment of Charles Dickens is enthralling — Orwell finds that Dickens has almost no acquaintance with ordinary laborers in spite of his sympathy for the poor, and that his desire to improve society turns almost entirely upon an exhortation to the rich to be more kind rather than a demand for structural change in society. And his treatment of Kipling — an author usually dismissed as a pure jingoistic cheerleader for British colonialism — is quite nuanced.

[Kipling] identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not ‘daring’, has no wish to ÉPATER LES BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’ utterances of the same period, such as Wilde’s epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Literary criticism is one thing; but Orwell has another goal in discussing the published word that has nothing to do with literary values. Rather, in his treatment of popular literature — penny novels, boys’ magazines, murder mysteries, even poetry — Orwell is interested in discovering something important about the mental worldview of a particular generation. In particular, he is especially interested in the generation of young English men of his own age, born in 1900 or so, living through the Great War, and plunged into World War II, fascism, and totalitarianism. He tries to form a connection between the content, style, and social assumptions of a body of “boy’s stories”, for example, and the effects these assumptions and styles are likely to have had on the mental frameworks of the boys of a specific generation. He provides a fairly detailed content analysis of these stories and their presentation in the pulp magazines of the period.

Orwell is quite explicit in believing that the earliest influences on the development of a child — books, stories, comics, postcards — have a profound effect on their adult sensibilities and imagination. In “Why I Write” he puts it this way:

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in–at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own–but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.

Take the interesting example of A. E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the SHROPSHIRE LAD by heart. I wonder how much impression the SHROPSHIRE LAD makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever–probably that would be about all. Yet these are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley’, Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ etc., etc. 

It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst? To answer that question one has to take account of the EXTERNAL conditions that make certain writers popular at certain times. Housman’s poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900? (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Or in other words, what can we learn about the mentality of boys and adolescents around the time of the Great War from the resonance and importance of the poetry of Housman for them? Here are the makings of a theory:

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Now consider an even more interesting influence of words on boys: the adventure stories published for decades in pulp magazines in England (“Boys’ Weeklies”, 1940). Orwell writes of the news shops where these magazines were sold:

Probably the contents of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks. Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form. Best-seller novels, for instance, tell one a great deal, but the novel is aimed almost exclusively at people above the £4-a-week level. (Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Kindle Edition)

This is Orwell’s distinctive insight: the popular literature for boys implicitly records the features of a mentality at a time and place. More exactly, these publications (pulp magazines) both reflect the mental worlds of young boys and shape those mental frameworks; and, in Orwell’s view, the shaping of values and social assumptions is quite purposeful on the part of the bourgeois publishers who stand behind these magazines. In order to uncover that mental worldview, Orwell provides an analysis of the whole group of magazines that fill this niche:

Falling strictly within this class there are at present ten papers, the GEM, MAGNET, MODERN BOY, TRIUMPH and CHAMPION, all owned by the Amalgamated Press, and the WIZARD, ROVER, SKIPPER, HOTSPUR and ADVENTURE, all owned by D. C. Thomson & Co. … 

Each of them carries every week a fifteen–or twenty-thousand-word school story, complete in itself, but usually more or less connected with the story of the week before. The Gem in addition to its school story carries one or more adventure serial. Otherwise the two papers are so much alike that they can be treated as one, though the MAGNET has always been the better known of the two, probably because it possesses a really first-rate character in the fat boy. Billy Bunter. 

The stories are stories of what purports to be public-school life, and the schools (Greyfriars in the MAGNET and St Jim’s in the GEM) are represented as ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester. All the leading characters are fourth-form boys aged fourteen or fifteen, older or younger boys only appearing in very minor parts. Like Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee, these boys continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older. Very occasionally a new boy arrives or a minor character drops out, but in at any rate the last twenty-five years the personnel has barely altered. All the principal characters in both papers–Bob Cherry, Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Billy Bunter and the rest of them–were at Greyfriars or St Jim’s long before the Great War, exactly the same age as at present, having much the same kind of adventures and talking almost exactly the same dialect. And not only the characters but the whole atmosphere of both Gem and Magnet has been preserved unchanged, partly by means of very elaborate stylization.

Here are the main conclusions that Orwell reaches:

Of course no one in his senses would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a Socialist tract. An adventure story must of its nature be more or less remote from real life. But, as I have tried to make clear, the unreality of the WIZARD and the GEM is not so artless as it looks. These papers exist because of a specialized demand, because boys at certain ages find it necessary to read about Martians, death-rays, grizzly bears and gangsters. They get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them. To what extent people draw their ideas from fiction is disputable. Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood from (for instance) Sapper and Ian Hay. …

If that is so, the boys’ twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism, that foreigners are un-important comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last for ever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is un-intentional.

Orwell finds that there is a specific social worldview, an ideology, permeating these stories, and that this worldview serves to frame the social and political perceptions of boys as they enter adulthood. Further, he believes that the ideological content is deliberate: 

ALL fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys’ fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind. Lord Camrose and his colleagues evidently believe nothing of the kind, and, after all, Lord Camrose ought to know.

The worldview that is embedded in these stories is one grounded in snobbism, the natural superiority of the wealthy, the inevitability of rich and poor (and winners and losers in society), and the permanence of the current social order. What is unlikely to emerge from such stories is — rebelliousness, resistance, and rejection of oppression.

And yet — all of those mental characteristics of rebelliousness and resistance did emerge among some children, soon to be adults, in the 1930s in England — including in Orwell himself. So at the most, we must regard this “worldview-shaping” power of children’s books and stories as being a partial thing, just one of many influences that eventually shape and constrain the imagination and perception of the adult. How would Orwell explain his own escape from the mental constraints of this ideological framework, into the independent-minded socialism that guided his actions for the rest of his life? From the autobiographical essay (“Such, such were the joys”, 1947),  published posthumously, the thread of an explanation is visible: “I was always an outsider, I conformed externally but never within myself.” He describes his own development in these words in “Why I Write”:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

Isolated, undervalued, lonely; independent, critical, socialist, committed to acting as I think best. The clue seems to be that independence of mind is nurtured by a certain degree of “outsiderness”. 

Here is something akin to a manifesto from the same essay:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.

It is striking to reflect that the United States in the 1930s does not seem to have produced its own version of George Orwell — leftist, independent, honest, anti-totalitarian, and non-ideological. There were Communist intellectuals; but I cannot think of the kind of independent-minded social critic in the United States whose work might be thought to be as original and penetrating as that of Orwell. Why is that? Was there a particular niche for non-conformist intellectuals like Orwell in England that was lacking in the United States in the 1930s? And did that culture persist into the 1950s and beyond? How close to the Orwell example of social criticism does Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath come (both the novel (1939) and  the film (1940))? Are Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Murray Levin, or Noam Chomsky analogous intellectuals on the left?

Trumpism and Hannah Arendt’s reflections on totalitarianism

In a recent post I considered Hannah Arendt’s reflections on what she termed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Her observations in The Origins of Totalitarianism amount to less than a developed theory of a political system, and more of a case study of two unusual political regimes that did their ugliest work at roughly the same time in history. Are there any themes in Arendt’s observations that seem relevant to the current day, and the political experience of the last four years of the presidency of Donald Trump?

Plainly the United States did not become a dictatorship during the Trump years; it did not witness mass violence against “potential enemies of the state”; it did not result in the wholesale transformation of Federal police agencies into the private secret police of the Leader. The term “totalitarian” cannot be applied to the United States in 2020. The rule of law was repeatedly flouted by Trump and his administration, but in the end Trump did not prevail in his most authoritarian impulses.

And yet there are a number of worrisome parallels between Arendt’s diagnosis of the workings of the National Socialist and Soviet regimes and the political developments we have witnessed in the United States since 2017. Here are several that seem salient.

Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or world-view, often involving racism and social division. It is Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is defined by ideology, whether left or right, secular or religious, coherent or incoherent. Hitler’s commitment to world hegemony and his profound program of anti-Semitism constituted an ideological system which governed virtually all actions of the Nazi regime, according to Arendt. Likewise, the Soviet Union was guided by a mish-mash theory of communism that it pursued at all costs. It is plain that Trumpism possesses an ideology and a worldview, and that this ideology has substantial components of racism, division, and hate. Moreover, Trump’s coterie has included ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who actively worked within the administration to turn the details of that ideology into policies and actions. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the premises of this worldview are odious to the majority of Americans, or that the policies that emanate from this worldview are objectively harmful to US economic and international interests; the ideology drives the actions of this administration. And it is quite clear that Trump’s base of supporters — perhaps 40% of voters — have bought into the ideology, thanks to the persistent propaganda offered by right-wing social media, YouTube conspiracy videos, Fox News, and Trump’s own Twitter feed. 

Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions. Arendt documents the consistent strategies used by Hitler and Stalin to destroy institutional and legal obstacles to their will. Trump’s obvious and continuing contempt for the institutions of law, the processes of elections, and the judiciary makes plain his desire to cripple or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that interfere with his exercise of personal will. His willingness to assault the judiciary when it fails to support him and his relentless attacks on the press illustrate the same impulse.

Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives. Arendt documents the crucial role that violent paramilitary organizations played in the rise of Hitler to power, and to his continuing exercise of power. This appeal to illegal violent actions was subsequently incorporated into the workings of elite secret police groups like the SS. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the violent behavior of white supremacist groups who use violence and the threat of violence to press for Trump-ideology policies is well known. It seems evident that he welcomes threatening demonstrations by armed groups like the Proud Boys in support of his groundless claims of “election fraud”. And his administration’s appalling use of armed and anonymous Federal officers in unmarked vans to quell protests during the months of Black Lives Matter protests is very reminiscent of both Germany and the USSR during the worst times.

Fundamental deference to the Leader. Arendt argues that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR differed from other dictatorships in the extreme power and voice they created for the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. In Arendt’s view, both Hitler and Stalin were highly adept at preventing the emergence of possible coalitions of policy-makers, generals, or bureaucrats who could oppose their will; instead, the ultimate authority was in the hands of the Leader, and subordinates were subject to constant suspicion and threat of dismissal, arrest, or death. Trump hasn’t locked up his subordinates for perceived disloyalty; but he has taken consistent steps to take away the power of agencies (EPA, CDC, State Department, Interior, Voice of America), to appoint loyalists in every possible position, and to remove subordinates who failed to show the required level of deference to his Twitter preferences. His plain view is that he is “the decider” and that every office of government needs to follow his will.

Persistent use of lies and fabrications. Arendt refers to the worldview of the Nazis or the Stalinists as a false reality, a fake world, and the whole force of the propaganda tools of the party and state is devoted to making people believe the false narrative rather than the obvious truth. This is highly resonant with the experience of politics under Trump’s direction over the past four years. How many lies have Trump and his many spokespersons and advocates told since January 2017, beginning with lies about the size of the Inauguration crowd? The number is astounding. Some of the lies are laughable — crowd size, for example; and others are seriously dangerous to our democracy — lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Lying and fabrication are regarded as perfectly legitimate political tools by the Trumpist party, and the lies are believed by “true-believer” followers.

Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders. What about the other powerful actors in society — in the Weimar Republic during Hitler’s rise, or within the Communist Party before Stalin’s absolute hegemony was established? These independent sources of political power could not be tolerated by the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. They needed to be coopted, or they needed to be eliminated. Hitler and Stalin used both strategies. Trump has only needed the strategy of cooptation and intimidation; he has succeeded in threatening, intimidating, and coopting the members of his party to provide almost unconditional support for his most outrageous demands. This has been most evident during the period since November 3, when any honest observer will recognize that a fair election took place and Trump lost; whereas the vast majority of GOP legislators and other leaders have fallen in step behind Trump’s groundless claims about election fraud. (Here is an earlier discussion of the phenomenon of “collective abdication” in times of political crisis; link.)

Fellow-traveler organizations. Arendt maintains that Nazi and Soviet dictatorships differed from other forms of authoritarian states in their efforts to cultivate and convey power through “fellow traveler” organizations — social and political organizations that were not part of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, that were not visibly committed to the most extreme ideological positions of the party, and yet that were supportive of its ideological goals and positions. Arendt believes that this was a key mechanism through which these parties gained mass following — even when their actions were contrary to the interests of many of the men and women who supported the “fellow-traveler” organizations. This feature seems relevant to our current circumstances when one considers the common view, “I don’t support all of the President’s wildest views, but I like his style.”

So it turns out that Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s highlights a number of important features that are familiar from the political strategies of Trumpism. Trump’s presidency has involved a mass-based movement mobilized around a unified ideology that isprofoundly contemptuous of existing political institutions and that embraces the symbols and reality of political violence. Further, this movement is organized around a provocative and boundary-smashing Leader who promotes lies and fabrications as basic tools of political advancement, and who makes racist antagonism against a part of the population a central theme of mobilization. And we have the phenomenon of moral abdication by other leaders and political power-holders in the face of the Leader’s will — perverse and anti-democratic as it may be. Thus Arendt’s inventory of totalitarian methods shines a bright light on the perils Donald Trump has created for our democratic institutions, practices, and values. Donald Trump did not create a totalitarian state in America. But he and his collaborators embodied many of the techniques and practices that resulted in anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes in other countries in the last century, and they have created genuine risks for the future of our own institutions of liberal democracy. 

Hannah Arendt was writing about other countries, and she wrote over fifty years ago about events that took place as long as eighty years ago. So maybe her observations are historically irrelevant to the politics of the present day. But recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contemporary fears for the trajectory and fate of American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Here is Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism in his very good book on the origin and dynamics of twentieth-century fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)

Paxton’s analysis is drawn from the history of Italian and German dictatorships; but the terms of this definition are disturbingly contemporary. Only the goal of “external expansion” finds no real counterpart in Trumpism; it is replaced by an aggressive doctrine of “America First!” as the keystone of international policy.

Now is a good time to re-read Tim Snyder’s observations and advice in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Here are five observations from On Tyranny that seem especially pertinent.

1 Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

2 Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

3 Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

6 Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

20 Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Hobbes, Thucydides, and conflict

Anyone interested in the development of modern political philosophy is unavoidably interested in Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and one of the earliest proponents of what came to be known as the “social contract tradition” of thinking about the moral legitimacy of state power. (Here is a post on Hobbes’s intellectual development; link. And here is a post on Hobbes’s framework for thinking about human society; link.) Hobbes’s political philosophy depends on a theory of human nature — how do human beings behave when they’re at home? — and a theory of the consequences of bringing a group of individuals with that kind of nature together. But it is worth asking the question: where did Hobbes’s ideas about human nature as fearful, calculating, and self-interested originate? And it is very interesting to note that Hobbes’s experiences as a young man involved quite a bit of practical experience and international exposure. (For example, it is likely that he met Galileo in Florence in 1630 while accompanying Sir Gervase Clifton on a trip to Italy.) So the potential influences on Hobbes’s foundational ideas are quite broad.

In this light it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that Hobbes translated Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as a young scholar in 1629, at the age of 41. And some aspects of Thucydides’ treatment of the war between Athens and Sparta have suggestive features in common with some of Hobbes’s later ideas. For example, the position taken by the Athenian delegates in the Melian Dialogue — a crucial moment in the history of the war between Athens and Sparta — is similar to the rule of the strong over the weak in Hobbes’s description of the state of nature in Leviathan (1651). Was Hobbes influenced by this dialogue — and the underlying Hellenistic conception of “international justice” — in the formation of his own theory of the modern state? And did this view of the logic of expediency and the absence of moral limitation produce his most basic intuitions about the war of all against all?

Here is the relevant passage from the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides in Richard Crawley’s translation:

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. (Book V, chapter XVII)

Here is Hobbes’s translation of the same passage (link):

Ath. As we therefore will not, for our parts, with fair pretences; as, that having defeated the Medes, our reign is therefore lawful, or, that we come against you for injury done; make a long discourse without being believed: so would we have you also not expect to prevail by saying, either that you therefore took not our parts because you were a colony of the Lacedæmonians, or that you have done us no injury. But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Book V, sect. 89)

Now compare a few sentences about the individuals in the state of nature from Leviathan:

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him. (Leviathan, Chapter XIII)

In each case the position is formulated in terms of the rational calculations of individuals involved in conflict, and the sole basis of reasoning is self-interest. Moral constraints have no purchase in these circumstances. The question arises, then: did Hobbes have the. moral worldview of Thucydides in mind as he formulated the chief arguments in Leviathan?

This question has been considered before. In a very interesting 1945 article Richard Schlatter noted the parallels between Thucydides and Hobbes (link). The year of publication of Schlatter’s article is significant; the horrors of the twentieth century were surely still fresh in the minds of European and American intellectuals.

The idea of an unchanging human nature, the constant element in history, the common denominator which enables the historian to compare one event with another and construct a formula or pattern which is intelligible and useful, was a basic assumption of the science of history as Thucydides expounded it. Hobbes devotes the first third of the Leviathan to a detailed description of human nature which served as the foundation for his political philosophy. (357)

In the preface “Of the Life and History of Thucydides” Hobbes expresses his approval of the Athenian generals at Melos who refused to discuss the justice of their invasion–as soldiers their proper function was to carry out the will of the Athenian State by fair means or foul. As to whether the action of the state was just in this case, Hobbes puts aside the question with the observation that it “was not unlike to divers other actions that the people of Athens openly took upon them.” (358)

Thus it appears that Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides confirmed for him, or perhaps crystallized for him, the broad outlines and many of the details of his own thought. As an individual, he was said to have read little but to have digested thoroughly what he did read. As a translator, he was working in a great tradition which assumed that classical history was to be read as a preparation for political action. When he turned to Thucydides–perhaps at the suggestion of Francis Bacon–he had been meditating on political affairs for some time. (362)

So Hobbes generally agrees with the moral position taken by Thucydides on the actions of the Athenians. However, Schlatter believes that this represents evidence of agreement rather than influence. 

At a slightly more general level, it is clear that Hobbes was a creative and imaginative thinker. It is reasonable enough to expect that his philosophical framework was to some extent influenced by his immersion in Thucydides; but it is also well established that he conceived of his philosophical methods in analogy with the scientific ideas of Galileo as expressed in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World. There were many influences on the development of Hobbes’s theories. So perhaps the most we can say, along with Sir Isaac Newton, is that great thinkers “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Nonetheless, the parallel between Hobbes and Thucydides is striking and interesting.

*     *     *

Also interesting is a recent article by Robert Howse, “Thucydides and Just War: How to Begin to Read Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars”link. Here is his abstract:

Thucydides is usually considered a realist thinker who denies a meaningful place to right or justice in international relations. In Just and Unjust Wars, however, Michael Walzer develops a powerful critique of realism through an engagement with Thucydides. This article compares Walzer’s treatment with Leo Strauss’s anti-realist interpretation of Thucydides, suggesting many similarities between Walzer’s approach and Strauss’s. Both Walzer and Strauss hold that, even in war, necessity does not eliminate meaningful margins of moral choice. Strauss’s  much more expansive treatment of Thucydides helps us appreciate the subtleties of Walzer’s terse argument against realists.

Is “totalitarianism” a thing?

Hannah Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory was her book on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her models were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union; in fact, she writes that “up to now we know only two authentic forms of totalitarian domination: the dictatorship of National Socialism after 1938, and the dictatorship of Bolshevism since 1930” (420). She wanted to understand how these regimes came to be, whether there were large historical forces that favored their emergence in the twentieth century, and the role that ideology, leadership, and power played in their execution. Her central idea was that totalitarianism is fundamentally an ideological system of thought adopted by a Leader and a network of “elite totalitarian organizations” who work single-mindedly to carry out the prescriptions of the ideology. In Nazi Germany the ideology was spelled out in Mein Kampf; in the Soviet Union it was Stalin’s version of Bolshevism — “socialism in one country” and the idea that every sacrifice is justified for the sake of future communist utopia. But Arendt remains surprisingly indefinite about how she conceptualizes totalitarianism. Here is the most succinct description that she offers of totalitarianism, and it occurs in the final chapter:

In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. (460)

The features mentioned here are total domination, distinctness from other forms of despotism, entirely new political institutions, destruction of social, legal, and political traditions of the country, mass movement, power in the hands of the secret police, and a foreign policy aimed at world domination. The Nazi and Soviet regimes are the central cases, so the reader is invited to understand that “totalitarianism is what regimes like these twentieth-century disasters share in common”. Racism, terror, propaganda, mass-politics, and ambitions of global conquest are mentioned by Arendt in the course of her narrative, but this falls short of a definition, and gives no idea about the political structure and mechanisms of the political systems she intends to study. Arendt doesn’t provide a clear, diagrammatic definition or discussion of totalitarianism as a functional political system. 

So what does “total domination” come down to? It involves the idea of erasing all individual differences and creating a new form of human nature — SS man, Communist man — in which the individual’s creativity and spontaneity — freedom — are erased, and the individual becomes the embodiment of the ideology. It involves the idea of fully implementing the details of a worldview, perhaps mythological, that can be impressed upon every human being. What is maximal about totalitarian regimes is their complete effort to quench human freedom and independence of mind and action.

How does this domination take place? Through regulation, indoctrination, surveillance, terror, coercion, and extermination. Arendt gives extended treatments of three features of Nazi and Soviet regimes: the prominence of party and “front” organizations; the prominence and ubiquity of the organs of the secret police; and the extermination and concentration camps which serve, beyond their function of extermination, to extinguish the humanity of their inmates. 

Is this enough to constitute a theory of totalitarianism as a form of government? It is not. Absolutist monarchy in France in the sixteenth century too asserted unfettered power and authority over its subjects, but of course this was a charade. The French crown lacked the tools of control and repression that would permit it to exercise unlimited dominion, and French society embodied social groups that possessed enough social and political power to insulate themselves from the unwelcome demands of the king. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and landed classes, the merchants, even the emerging urban population and their cousins in the countryside possessed meaningful mechanisms for securing themselves against capricious or ruinous demands from the monarch. This isn’t to say that the French monarchs had little power, but it is to say they lacked the ability to completely dominate the rest of society. 

The aspirations of the National Socialist state in Germany and the Soviet state went vastly beyond these limits. Each state built the apparatus of surveillance and coercion that was needed in order to exercise total control over society. And each state likewise built powerful and effective mechanisms of propaganda and thought control of their populations that made the challenges of social control easier to surmount. The cult of the leader and the ideologies of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Communist utopianism were designed to secure some measure of willing acceptance from their populations, just as the marches, music, and images of fascist Italy were designed to elicit support for the fascist government and Mussolini. The elaboration of the apparatus of the bureaucracies of the secret police, the gathering of secret files, and the terrifying knock in the night rounded out the picture of the bureaucracy of total control. Orwell captured some aspects of this emerging system and Koestler articulated others (link).

There is another perspective along which these questions might be posed that focuses not on “totalitarianism” but considers the wider range of authoritarian states that were involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century, including fascism, military dictatorship, and authoritarian rule. Mussolini, Franco, and Tōjō Hideki all created authoritarian state apparatuses, each of which had both similarities with the Nazi German state and important differences. And, significantly, Spanish Fascism under Franco maintained a shaky neutrality in World War II. Arendt is quite definite that totalitarianism is different from authoritarian single-party rule, and it is distinct from fascism. Totalitarianism involves a radical upturning of society and politics that goes vastly beyond anything imagined by other tyrannies. 

After the first World War, a deeply antidemocratic, pro-dictatorial wave of semi-totalitarian and totalitarian movements swept Europe; Fascist movements spread from Italy to nearly all Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was one of the notable exceptions); yet even Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule. Similar non-totalitarian dictatorships sprang up in prewar Rumania, Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal and Franco Spain. (310)

How are these political forms distinct from totalitarianism? Here is Arendt’s way of distinguishing them: 

Once a party dictatorship has come to power, it leaves the original power relationship between state and party intact; the government and the army exercise the same power as before, and the “revolution” consists only in the fact that all government positions are now occupied by party members. (420) 

A totalitarian regime, by contrast, refuses to merge with the apparatus of the state; instead, all real power is retained within the organizations of the movement (Nazi Party or Communist Party in the USSR). 

All real power is vested in the institutions of the movement, and outside the state and military apparatuses. It is inside the movement, which remains the center of action of the country, that all decisions are made; the official civil services are often not even informed of what is going on, and party members with the ambition to rise to the rank of ministers have in all cases paid for such “bourgeois” wishes with the loss of their influence on the movement and of the confidence of its leaders. (420)

An important expert on totalitarianism in the past half century is Juan Linz, author of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (1974; republished with a new introduction 2000). An earlier paper, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain” (1964) is a highly interesting and informative presentation of Linz’s analytical framework (link). Referring to C. J. Friedrich’s analysis of totalitarianism, Linz defines the concept of totalitarianism in terms of five key features:

an official ideology … , a single mass party unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology, near complete control of mass media, complete political control of the armed forces, and a system of terroristic police control not directed against demonstrable enemies only. In another version central control and direction of the economy is added. (296-297)

In a review of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Ronald Francesco (link) suggests an additional set of questions to be posed about how authoritarian (or totalitarian) regimes actually work: 

What would we want to know about non-democratic regimes if we were completely ignorant of past research? One would argue that we would like to know how these regime sustain themselves, particularly in the presence of dissent. How much repression is enough to stifle dissent? Where is the point at which members and supporters of the state defect from it? What are the vulnerabilities of these regimes? How do they collapse? (186)

These are the right questions to ask, and Arendt’s book does not pose them at all. (Here is a prior post from 2008 that attempts to pose these kinds of questions about authoritarian power today.)

So — is totalitarianism a thing? It seems fairly clear that Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism does not really serve as a theory of the political and governmental realities of authoritarianism in the twentieth century. It is more akin to an extended case study of two horrific examples. Linz is right in the article mentioned above, that we need to have a more developed treatment of authoritarianism as a regime type. So we might answer the guiding question here by stating that “totalitarianism is not a social kind”, a recurring political regime type. But it is also evident that Arendt’s book serves well to capture what was distinctive and singular about both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the single-minded prominence of the political ideology of the party in power, and the efforts by that party and its leader to impose the prescriptions of the ideology on the population and the world through the most murderous means imaginable. One might hope to incorporate Arendt’s insights into a more general theory of authoritarian politics by paying attention to her insights into some of the specifics of the regimes she studies — the ambition of promulgating a totalizing ideology throughout the whole population, the techniques of ideological propaganda, the use of mass terror, the creation of vast systems of secret-police surveillance and repression, and the creation of parallel systems of power between party and state apparatus. 

(Readers who want a more extensive discussion will find Peter Baehr’s entry on “Totalitarianism” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas to be a detailed and highly useful resource (link).)

Evil in the Peloponnesian War?

Recent posts have focused attention on the topic of the evils that occurred in the twentieth century: genocide, deliberate mass starvation, mass enslavement, and totalitarian dictatorships. I have been inclined to argue that these evils are sui generis — that the bad events and actions of the past were indeed bad, but they were qualitatively and morally distinct from the horrors of the twentieth century. So I argue that the evils of the twentieth century require special treatment by the philosophy of history.

In presenting these ideas recently to a seminar of philosophers and historians I was challenged to consider whether actions and events of past centuries were indeed different in kind, or whether the difference is simply one of magnitude and remoteness in time. So here is a test case to consider: were the actions in war by Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War instances of evil, or were they rather just bad deeds?

One definition we might try out for “evil” in human affairs is this: Evil actions by states are actions that deliberately lead to wanton human suffering and death on a large scale with no regard for the human value of the innocent human beings who are harmed. The key moral ideas here are the intrinsic value of each human life, and the general human obligation to refrain from harming the innocent. And “wanton” is also a morally-laden term; it might be paraphrased as “unmotivated, motivated only by self-interest, or undertaken without regard for moral limitations”. This attempt at definition of evil in human affairs corresponds roughly to the Christian theory of just war: the deliberate violence of war must be justified on the basis of a “just cause”; violence should be directed intentionally only against combatants; violent harm inflicted on the innocent (non-combatants) should be minimized and unintentional (the principle of double effect); and unavoidable violent harm inflicted on the innocent should be “proportionate” to military necessity. And these ideas, in turn, underlie much of the current international law of war, including the provisions of the Geneva conventions (link). How might these ideas about evil apply to other epochs of human affairs?

Consider, for example, the Athenian siege of Melos and its horrific aftermath. In 416 BCE during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, an Athenian naval force attacked the city-state on the island of Melos. Melos was neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta, but was perceived by the Athenians to be friendly to Sparta. In 416 the Athenian force demanded the unconditional surrender of the city-state or face complete destruction. Melos refused to surrender immediately, but eventually surrendered following a crippling siege by the Athenian forces. Following the surrender all the men were killed and the women and children were sold into slavery. Thucydides represents the reasoning of the Athenians in a passage referred to as the “Melian dialogue” in History of the Peloponnesian War (tr. Richard Crawley; link):

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. (Book V, chapter XVII)

Here is Hobbes’s translation (link):

Ath. As we therefore will not, for our parts, with fair pretences; as, that having defeated the Medes, our reign is therefore lawful, or, that we come against you for injury done; make a long discourse without being believed: so would we have you also not expect to prevail by saying, either that you therefore took not our parts because you were a colony of the Lacedæmonians, or that you have done us no injury. But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Book V, sect. 89)

The Athenian negotiators stick to their line: the weak must defer to the strong, the Lacedaemonians will not come to your aid for the same reason that we press upon you — their own self-interest. The Melian negotiators confer among themselves and decide to stick to their principles and to defend their freedom:

Melians. Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both. (Book V, chapter XVII)

So the war continues. After some additional weeks of siege the outcome is decided:

The siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves. (Book V, chapter XVII)

The outcome is described calmly by Thucydides, but it is atrocious. It was cruel in the extreme — the execution of all male residents of Melos after the Athenians prevailed, and sale of the women and children into slavery. Moreover, this was a deliberate and purposeful act, a deliberate policy of state — not an instance of troops running amok, a regrettable instance of atrocities in the heat of war. 

And yet the Melian dialogue, as conveyed by Thucydides, has the measured and philosophical tone of a Platonic dialogue; in fact, I could imagine teaching this text in a course in the introduction to philosophy. The Athenians have a moral position which they are pleased to present, explicate, and advocate: Their position is that it is perfectly moral for the strong to dictate terms upon the weak; the gods have no objection, since this is their own principle of conduct; and it is morally acceptable that the penalty of refusal is complete annihilation. The Athenians make no apology for their position, nor show any embarrassment at the moral stance they are taking. The Athenians even have a reason why moderation and accommodation cannot be considered: “our other adversaries will think us weak and will no longer consent to our rule”.

So was the Melian massacre … evil?

Several points seem evident in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. First, massacre and enslavement were “acceptable” means of waging war within the prevailing Hellenistic theory of war. And they were woven into statecraft through the role that these kinds of actions had in establishing the “reliability” of an adversary: if Melos does not comply, it will be annihilated, and other adversaries are thereby warned. Further, Hellenic conceptions of state action and the conduct of war reconciled massacre, enslavement, and the threat of these horrific punishments with their conception of piety (respect for the gods): the gods wage war in just this way. But this is now a question for us to pursue: Does the fact that massacre and enslavement were morally comprehensible within the fifth-century BCE Greek mental framework of the morality of war and the actions that fell within the range of the imaginable mean that these strategies were less than evil? Should the moral and normative ideas of Hellenic thinkers, rulers, and citizens make a difference in our evaluation of this event?

Moreover, the Melian dialogue makes it clear that massacre and enslavement were not “wanton” in the sense of “unmotivated” or “unjustified”. Rather, the Athenians take pains to explain the utility that these strategies have within their calculus of cost and benefit in running an empire. 

Second, it is also clear that “we” no longer accept massacre of the innocent or enslavement of the survivors as morally acceptable strategies in war. “Our” moral ideas about the conduct of war give great moral weight to the value of each human life, and we morally condemn those who massacre the innocent — whether from expediency or hatred. (I place the pronouns in quote marks because the experience of Bosnia (1995), Rwanda (1994), or Turkey (1915) demonstrates that modern leaders and citizens are still ready to countenance massacre as a legitimate action for the state.) But this poses a second major question for us: Is it legitimate or appropriate for us to apply our own moral principles across most of human history to that period of time 2,500 years ago when the city states of Athens and Sparta were at war? Or must we defer instead to the moral frameworks of the historical period — the Platos, Aristotles, and Thucydides of the Hellenic world? Can we adopt a universalistic conception of “just war” and apply it to Athenian behavior, or is this rather a “presentist” error of moral reasoning?

Third, we are compelled to ask a question of pity and empathy: how could a great people like the Athenians — or the individual soldiers of the Athenian forces — impose slaughter and death on their fellow human beings in these circumstances and for these flimsy reasons? How could they fail to recognize the human tragedy that this action represented, repeated over and over through the multiple acts of murder? This was a slaughter of the innocent — many hundreds of innocent male citizens of Melos — and enslavement of many hundreds more innocent women and children — how could these horrific actions be sanctioned and carried out?

Here is one more complication raised by the Melian dialogue: is it possible that the scheme of argument offered by the Athenians is an antecedent to yet another horror of the twentieth century — fascism and the doctrine that a state with the military power to subdue its neighbors should do so? We might take the moral framework of the Athenians (as presented by Thucydides) as fundamentally an anti-moral framework: an endorsement of the idea that there are no moral principles whatsoever that can, or should, constrain the statesman in the conduct of affairs of state. Seen in this way, the conduct of Athens over Melos is atrocious for its deliberate, explicit rejection of any moral constraints whatsoever on its conduct as much as for the specific actions it undertook — massacre and enslavement. And perhaps this is precisely the moral position taken by the Nazi state, or that taken by Slobodan Milošević in Serbia in the 1990s.  So perhaps the evil described in the Melian dialogue, and found in the behavior of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, was the evil of amorality itself, and with it, the germ of fascism.

Conservative and progressive forms of democracy

An earlier post suggested that we cannot really address the issue of the stability of liberal democracy without considering issues of economic justice as well. 

It is worth separating the features of a modern society into the “liberal democratic” cluster and the “social democratic” cluster for a reason that is familiar from Rawls (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement). Rawls argues that the stability of a just society depends on finding an “overlapping consensus” of values that converge to provide support for the existing system. Different groups have different “comprehensive conceptions of the good” which disagree with each other and give rise to different goals for legislation. But agreement about rights and democratic process may provide a basis for an overlapping consensus across these differences. In the United States and Britain it seems that agreement about individual rights and liberties and the institutions of majoritarian democracy are likely to fall within the overlapping consensus in those countries, whereas the social and economic assumptions of the “social democracy” cluster are likely to remain controversial and to fall outside the overlapping consensus. This seems to imply that the social-welfare and redistributive provisions of the social-democracy cluster are appropriate content for majoritarian legislation, not constitutional stipulation.

So let’s consider the issue in a broader canvas. Suppose that we are thinking of a just liberal democracy as including these elements, as outlined in the prior post: (1) a set of constitutional guarantees of equality and key individual rights, and (2) a set of social and economic guarantees establishing a reasonable level of human wellbeing for all members of society. Together these clusters of features establish the nature of a social democracy. These ideas capture the idea of equal freedom and rights within an overarching system of law, in which each individual is free to pursue his/her purposes as desired, limited only by the constitutional and legal protections of the rights of others, and the rights of the minority. Further they capture the value of the equal worth of liberty — the material requirements necessary for the exercise of freedom. And they conform well to Rawls’s principles of justice; the “constitutional guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the liberty principle, and the “social-economic guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the difference principle.

But here is the complication. “Liberal democracy” is best defined as a system that embodies a constitutional system that establishes inviolable rights and liberties for all individuals along with majoritarian principles in the establishment of legislation. The constitutional protections are prior to majoritarian legislation in the sense that ordinary legislation does not have the authority to create laws that violate the rights guaranteed in the constitution. (The constitution can be amended, of course, through a clearly defined process, and a process that generally involves a super-majority for completion.) But the “social democracy” provisions fall outside the overlapping consensus, and they would need enactment through normal majoritarian processes of legislation.

So the two groups of items do not play the same role within a given liberal democracy. The items mentioned under the list of liberal guarantees of equal rights are constitutional provisions, not subject to ordinary majoritarian legislation. But the items listed under the “social democracy” clauses are not constitutional provisions; rather, they would be established through ordinary political processes of legislation and majoritarian politics. This is because legitimate disagreement over these provisions persists among reasonable people, and therefore these provisions do not fall within the “overlapping consensus”. (This distinction parallels the structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in that the first batch of rights are “negative” rights, while the second batch are “positive” rights.)

And we are forced to ask the question: in a modern society much like our own, governed by constitutional protections like those listed in (1), would the provisions described in (2) ever be enacted through a democratic majoritarian process of legislation? It is clear that in most advanced democracies the statements under (2) fall at the heart of profound political and ideological disagreements: the idea of using the coercive power of the state to limit inequalities of wealth, the idea of using taxation (redistribution) to provide for basic amenities for poor people, the idea of establishing strong regulatory systems designed to protect the health and safety of the public — these are all policies that are strongly opposed by conservatives. These are precisely the kinds of issues over which parties of the left and the right disagree in many democracies; in Britain the Conservatives reject the redistributive policies advocated by Labour Party, in the US the Republicans reject “welfarist” or “socialist” policies advocated by the Democratic Party, and so on. The ensemble of assumptions listed here describes “liberal social democracy”, which is a substantively stronger assumption about a just society than simply a “liberal democracy”.

Crucial parts of a progressive agenda for a just society are encompassed by the constitutional assumptions listed here. Liberal democrats are anti-racist, anti-discrimination, political-egalitarian, and insistent on equal and neutral application of the system of law. And historically, many conservative leaders and parties have shared these commitments. But progressives and conservatives are likely to disagree strongly about the second batch of assumptions about a good society. And since we are committed to democracy, we are committed to the idea that a functioning democracy that respects the provisions of (1) but rejects one or more provisions of (2) is no less democratic for that difference.

So the question comes down to this: would the system that combines (1) and (2) — a liberal social democracy — find majority support in some or many existing democracies?

It would seem that there is nothing in the social-democracy list of conditions (2) that would be limiting or unpalatable for most ordinary people; on the contrary, these circumstances of an effective liberal social democracy would seem to be ideal for ordinary people to fulfill themselves and to live satisfying lives. And these arrangements seem to give a basis for confidence in the wellbeing of future generations as well.

But not everyone would reach the same judgment about these arrangements. Here are some likely exceptions.

  1. People who expect to be super-rich. Their wealth and their political influence are likely to be limited and constrained by these arrangements.
  2. People who want to exercise authority and privilege over others — based on race, ethnicity, sex, or other human categories. The arrangements described here are specifically designed to prohibit and deny practices that embody domination and control — racial, ethnic, or gender superiority.
  3. People who feel that their own value system, or their religious system, is inherently correct and privileged, and would not want important social decisions to be left to the rule of law and the will of the majority.
  4. People who are ideologically committed to the principle of a minimal state: no use of the coercive power of the state beyond the maintenance of order, defense, and the bare minimum of regulation for health and safety. 

These are the kinds of exceptions that Rawls attempts to head off using the idea of the veil of ignorance: if people don’t know that they are rich, male, white, Christian, or powerful, then they are well advised to protect their future selves by favoring principles of equal liberties, minimal inequalities, and strong guarantees of basic wellbeing. Rawls believes we get unanimous rational support for a just society if participants do not know their eventual position in that society. Behind the veil of ignorance everyone would support the arrangements of a liberal social democracy.

But real political disagreements do not take place behind a veil of ignorance. In realistic arenas of political disputes we have to accept the fact that individuals have full knowledge of their positions, including wealth, power, race, religion, ideology, and sex. Under those conditions we can expect that individuals will form their political beliefs and affinities in consideration of their interests, values, ideologies, and predilections (including possibly “social dominance orientations” or beliefs of racial and ethnic superiority). They will give their support to candidates and parties that best conform to those beliefs and affinities. And there are some configurations of interest and affinities that would lead individuals to support an authoritarian party or leader whom they expect to favor their interests (and whom they believe they can collectively influence and control). Given that the majority of voters are likely to support the institutions and values of a liberal social democracy, this means that these anti-liberal voters are inclined to favor the fortunes of political parties committed to minority rule over the majority. Here is the authoritarian impulse from the populist voter’s point of view: “This particular authoritarian populist politician shares my values and will act in such a way as to impose them on society; I can trust this politician to serve my interests and values.” 

Here is what the populist anti-liberal strategy looks like: identify groups of potential supporters, based on mistrust of other racial groups, antagonism towards elites and urban populations, as well as support motivated by fervent religious and ideological activism; identify potential sources of large-scale funding for political mobilization among the super-rich who will benefit from anti-liberal economic and tax policies (e.g. Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson); identify powerful communicators in media, social media, and other venues to craft and disseminate effective mobilization messages (Fox, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson); pressure and subvert traditional conservative political organizations in support of the radical populist agenda; and — as Steve Bannon said — “wage war on liberals”. This strategy isn’t likely to produce an electoral majority, but it doesn’t need to, if it is possible to suppress the votes of the other side and to achieve power through other means.

In fact, we seem to be in such a circumstance at the present moment in the United States. The presidential election took place more than four weeks ago, and Joe Biden has beaten Donald Trump by more than seven million votes, and has won a sizable majority in the Electoral College. And yet there appear to be many millions of citizens who continue to support Trump during his undisguised attempt to overturn this democratically completed election. Millions of voters are apparently untroubled by this authoritarian “strongman” effort to remain in office following decisive electoral defeat. For these voters the stability and persistence of our constitutional democracy is not of primary concern; rather, they believe the strongman will serve them well. And his willingness to subvert and destroy our democratic institutions does not discredit him in their eyes.

This line of thought leads to a nightmare possibility: neither “laissez-faire” democracy nor social democracy is politically stable. Neither traditional conservative Republican economic policy nor reform-minded Labour or Democratic policies can retain a majority. Laissez-faire democracy loses support because it creates increasingly intolerable conditions for a growing proportion of the working population; social democracy loses support because right-wing populist political movements are able to use their mobilization strategies to gain support from the less-well-off segments of the ordinary working class population. The winner? Right-wing populist illiberal democracy, with strongman populist authoritarianism in the driver’s seat. And we have precisely such examples in the world today, in the form of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.