Philosophies of the far right

image: Joseph de Maistre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carlyle’s critique of modernity

What is wrong with life in the modern world? The complaint that modern society represents a toxic reduction of the importance of community in the lives of individuals is a familiar one. One version of this critique is the idea is that modern society has replaced all personal bonds and relationships with a single “cash nexus”. And the observation that modern market economies function to create cruel and increasing misery and inequality is entirely well founded. It may surprise some readers to learn that this complaint is nearly two centuries old. At the time that Karl Marx was denouncing capitalism for its immiseration of the industrial working class, Thomas Carlyle was bitterly castigating British government for its policies of laissez-faire and its refusal to address the problems of destitution seriously. And Carlyle introduced the idea of the cash nexus in his essay on Chartism in 1840:

O reader, to what shifts is poor Society reduced, struggling to give still some account of herself, in epochs when Cash Payment has become the sole nexus of man to men! On the whole, we will advise Society not to talk at all about what she exists for; but rather with her whole industry to exist, to try how she can keep existing! (Chartism, 61)

Consider the opening paragraphs of Past and Present, which draw attention to the two Englands that existed in the 1830s:

THE condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind, yet England is dying of inanition. With unabated bounty the land of England blooms and grows; waving with yellow harvests; thick-studded with work- shops, industrial implements, with fifteen millions of workers, understood to be the strongest, the cunningest and the willingest our Earth ever had; these men are here; the work they have done, the fruit they have realised is here, abundant, exuberant on every hand of us: and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, “Touch it not, ye workers, ye master-workers, ye master-idlers, none of you can touch it, no man of you shall be the better for it; this is enchanted fruit!” On the poor workers such fiat falls first, in its rudest shape; but on the rich master-workers too it falls; neither can the rich master-idlers, nor any richest or highest man escape, but all are like to be brought low with it, and made ‘poor’ enough, in the money-sense or a far fataller one.

Of these successful skilful workers some two millions, it is now counted, sit in Workhouses, Poor-law Prisons; or have ‘out- door relief’ flung over the wall to them,—the workhouse Bastille being filled to bursting, and the strong Poor-law broken asunder by a stronger.* They sit there, these many months now; their hope of deliverance as yet small. (Past and Present, 1) 

Carlyle was aware of two highly visible “diseases” of English society in the first half of the nineteenth century: the poverty and degradation of working people, and the unfairness of the prevailing social and economic relations between privileged and poor. In passage after passage in Past and Present he denounces the extreme misery of working people:

Descend where you will into the lower class, in Town or Country, by what avenue you will, by Factory Inquiries, Agricultural Inquiries, by Revenue Returns, by Mining-Laborer Committees, by opening your own eyes and looking, the same sorrowful result discloses itself: you have to admit that the working body of this rich English Nation has sunk or is fast sinking into a state, to which, all sides of it considered, there was literally never any parallel. (Past and Present, 3)

And these inequalities of economic wellbeing are grossly unfair:

We have more riches than any Nation ever had before; we have less good of them than any Nation ever had before. Our successful industry is hitherto unsuccessful; a strange success, if we stop here! In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied. Workers, Master Workers, Unworkers, all men come to a pause; stand fixed, and cannot farther. (Past and Present, 5)

It is ‘for justice’ that he struggles; for just wages, — not in money alone! An ever-toiling inferior, he would fain (though as yet he knows it not) find for himself a superior that should lovingly and wisely govern: is not that too the ‘just wages’ of his service done? (Chartism, 22)

This is Carlyle, an intelligent observer of modern economic society in the 1840s. Carlyle’s prescriptions for a better future for England were reactionary: rule by well-intentioned kings, a well-established social hierarchy in which each person knew his or her place, and revitalized religious institutions. His political vision of the future was romantic and backward looking. But his analysis of the current pathologies of England’s social and economic life was profound. And so thought Frederick Engels, who wrote an extensive review of Past and Present almost immediately upon its publication:

This is the condition of England, according to Carlyle. An idle landowning aristocracy which “have not yet learned even to sit still and do no mischief”, a working aristocracy submerged in Mammonism, who, when they ought to be collectively the leaders of labour, “captains of industry”, are just a gang of industrial buccaneers and pirates. A Parliament elected by bribery, a philosophy of simply looking on, of doing nothing, of laissez-faire, a worn-out, crumbling religion, a total disappearance of all general human interests, a universal despair of truth and humanity, and in consequence a universal isolation of men in their own “brute individuality”, a chaotic, savage confusion of all aspects of life, a war of all against all, a general death of the spirit, a dearth of “soul”, that is, of truly human consciousness: a disproportionately strong working class, in intolerable oppression and wretchedness, in furious discontent and rebellion against the old social order, and hence a threatening, irresistibly advancing democracy – everywhere chaos, disorder, anarchy, dissolution of the old ties of society, everywhere intellectual insipidity, frivolity, and debility. – That is the condition of England. Thus far, if we discount a few expressions that have derived from Carlyle’s particular standpoint, we must allow the truth of all he says. He, alone of the “respectable” class, has kept his eyes open at least towards the facts, he has at least correctly apprehended the immediate present, and that is indeed a very great deal for an “educated” Englishman. (Engels, Review of Past and Present)

Now consider the concerns and criticisms offered of our own era by an equally astute observer, Tony Judt. His 2010 book of reflections, Ill Fares the Land, offers a remarkably similar set of criticisms that are both systemic and moral. Consider first the title. This phrase calls us back to Oliver Goldsmith, who used the line in his 1770 poem “The Deserted Village”:

Sunk are thy bowers, in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away, thy children leave the land.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay …” — Goldsmith, Carlyle, and Judt all denounce the same characteristic of a modern wealth-based economy. The single-minded quest for wealth and material advantage leads to social disaster.

Here is how Judt begins his critique, writing in 2010:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. 

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. (Introduction)

Judt highlights three aspects of our current economic realities: the ludicrous levels of concentration of wealth that we have reached in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it; the widening inequalities that western economies have witnessed since the 1970s, leading to every-more severe disparities of outcomes between affluent and poor (health, education, employment, mobility); and the absolute immiseration of the poor in many advanced capitalist economies, including the US. These facts lead to appalling outcomes: misery, to be sure; but also, erosion and extinction of social trust, commitment to the public good, and a sense of community that is broader than “involvement in a market economy”. A society based entirely on the “cash nexus” is a bankrupt society — this was Carlyle’s view, and it is Judt’s view as well. And, paradoxically enough, the erosion of trust and community is ultimately toxic for the stability and health of the market-based capitalist society itself.

The collapse of the value of community is marked by the conservative movement towards small government, privatization, elimination of public support, and minimal (negligible) regulation of industry and economy. This collapse signals an important moral fact: the idea that the citizens of a minimal state have no obligations to their fellow citizens through public programs. The affluent are “self-made” and the poor are incompetent and unmotivated — undeserving of compassion and public support. But for Judt this is insane: it reflects a solipsism worthy of Ayn Rand, imagining self-sufficiency of the individual with no dependency on social arrangements. This view of modern society is truly deranged; without public roads, honest co-workers, and peaceful citizens, we are back in the world that Hobbes imagined. Or, as Judt quotes JS Mill: “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought ” (151).

What is genuinely noteworthy is how similar the outlines and concerns are of Judt’s critique in 2010 to Carlyle’s critique in 1841. Judt’s solution for the coming generation is simple: to bring new energy into the moral and social ideal of “social democracy” — a liberal society based on freedom and wellbeing for all its citizens, a system of mutual cooperation and respect. And the mechanics of a just society are reasonably well understood, both in practice and in theory. Most generally, they are the institutions of what John Rawls calls a “property-owning democracy“:

Both a property-owning democracy and a liberal socialist regime set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality, if not by the difference principle.  (Justice as Fairness 138)

Or in other words, a just polity based on the equal dignity and worth of all citizens will involve protections of fundamental liberties; secure and equal democratic institutions; and extensive provision of public benefits such as education, healthcare, adequate nutrition, and a dignified life (link). And these are precisely the premises of social democracy in Europe for over a century.

An extremism index for elected officials

Senator Mike Braun (R-Indiana) made news in the past few days by questioning whether the Supreme Court was right to rule in 1967 that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Here is the exchange (link):

“So you would be OK with the Supreme Court leaving the question of interracial marriage to the states?” a reporter asked.

“Yes,” Braun answered. “I think that that’s something that if you’re not wanting the Supreme Court to weigh in on issues like that, you’re not going to be able to have your cake and eat it too. I think that’s hypocritical.”

Braun now says that he misunderstood the question; but the video makes that hard to believe.

Braun’s statement is just the most recent in a long series of appalling statements, screeds, and complaints by elected officials that place them in the range of what would have been called unacceptable right-wing extremism only a few decades ago. US senators and representatives have made statements with extremely ominous implications on a range of topics:

  • justifying or encouraging political violence
  • condoning racism and white supremacy
  • vilifying their political opponents
  • aligning themselves with openly insurrectionary organizations
  • expressing admiration for authoritarian leaders in other countries
  • calling for extreme voter suppression legislation in their home states
  • defending the January 6 rioters as “peaceful protesters”

Reading the newspapers everyday provides the interested reader with an impression that these kinds of statements are increasing in frequency and boldness, but that is just an impression. Would it be possible to attempt a more systematic study of the extent and depth of anti-democratic rhetoric among our elected officials based on their public speeches and comments?

This sounds like a big-data kind of project, in which the research team would collect speeches, interviews, and quotes through newspaper reports, press releases, social media items, and other sources. Then a systematic content analysis could be performed, identifying recurring themes and phrases for each politician. The work would need to be done according to clear criteria so that it would be possible to provide a profile of the themes advocated by each politician, and a measure of each politician’s score with respect to a few large themes: white supremacy/racism; condoning of political violence; support for voter suppression; support for the rule of law; support for neutral and equal political institutions; affiliation with extremist groups; ….

An ongoing project like this could be conducted by a news organization like Talking Points Memo (link), the Atlantic Monthly, or the Guardian, or it could be conducted by a non-profit organization.Much as the Americans for Democratic Action (link) constructs a “liberalism index” for elected officials based on their voting records on a selected group of pieces of legislation, we might imagine a multi-dimensional index of elected officials measuring their affiliation with right-wing extremism through statements contained in their public utterances. 

It would be very interesting to see a list of current elected officials who have explicitly supported racist or white supremacist ideas; a list of officials who have endorsed or encouraged political violence; a list of officials who cast doubt on the validity of voting and electoral processes; and officials who have publicly associated themselves with hate-based groups. Presumably there would be a good degree of association among the lists, and as citizens we would be in a much better position to understand the depth and breadth of the threat to democracy that we currently face. And it is likely that many of us would be jolted and alarmed at how long those lists are.

The graphic for this kind of research project might look like a weird spike protein for each individual, with spikes for the handful of themes and values used to aggregate the content analysis of their speeches. A politician given to racist utterances, support for political violence, and support for voter suppression would show a preponderance of elongated spikes on these themes, and negligible spikes on the pro-democracy, pro-voting rights, anti-racism themes.

The research team might go further and consider constructing a “rightwing extremism” index, as a weighted combination of several of these factors.

It would be very interesting to see how many members of the Senate and the House would emerge with high scores on the “rightwing extremism” index. In the current environment it seems as though the number would be a large one. And it would also be very interesting to see how the distribution of ratings on this index changes over time. Will these politicians become even more extreme in the near future? Will they begin to moderate their words and actions? Will the impulse towards anti-democratic extremism abate in the United States, or will it continue to intensify? And most importantly, what do these trends suggest for the health and prospects for our democracy?

It is possible that there is research along these lines currently underway. If so, I’d like to hear about it.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a war crime

When Nazi Germany attacked Poland in 1939 it committed a war crime, codified by the standards established in preparation for the Nuremberg Trials in 1945. Here is a very useful summary of the Nuremberg process (“The Influence of the Nuremberg Trial on International Criminal Law”, edited by Tove Rosen) at the Robert H. Jackson Center (link), and here is a summary of the Nuremberg Trial process provided by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (link). Useful discussion and definitions are provided by the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (link). The principles established for the Nuremberg Trials have served as the basis for subsequent war crimes prosecutions since World War II, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in response to crimes against humanity in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda following the genocide in Rwanda.

The key charges to be considered in the Nuremberg Trials included these:

Principle VI

The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

1. Crimes Against Peace:

a. Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

2. War Crimes:

Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave- labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

3. Crimes Against Humanity:

Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.

The first charge is “initiating or waging of a war of aggression”. It is perfectly evident that this phrase describes Russia’s fullscale invasion and assault on Ukraine perfectly. War crime #1, planning and waging a war of aggression, should be immediately pursued against the Russian state, its leaders, and its military commanders, by the appropriate international tribunal.

The category of misconduct referred to in clause 2 is more complex. But evidence from numerous cities in Ukraine supports application of this article to Russia’s military conduct as well. The fact of “murder, ill-treatment, or deportation to slave labor … of civilian population” appears to be occurring through the use of bombs, rockets, and artillery against city centers, targeting civilians, and the apparent deliberate killings of refugees and news reporters by Russian soldiers and aircraft appear to be documented as well. “Wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity” is clearly taking place as well. The videos currently available of apartment buildings ablaze after rocket, shell, and bomb attacks seem to provide prima facie evidence of “wanton destruction of cities” as mentioned in article 2. The kidnapping of mayors of several Ukraine cities possibly fall under this article as crimes as well.

Clause 3 involves “genocide” and mass crimes against human beings, when based on “political, racial or religious grounds”. The fact that Russian attacks on almost all of Ukraine’s largest cities have led to massive refugee movements (currently more than four million displaced persons and refugees) suggests “ethnic cleansing” — an effort to push out of Ukraine’s territory the segment of Ukraine’s population that is most unwilling to accept Russia’s hegemony and domination.

Two important principles were codified in 1950 to reflect the legal practice of the Nuremberg Trials: the principle of the legal responsibility of heads of state and the invalidity of the defense of “following orders”.

Principle III

The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.

Principle IV

The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

These principles imply that the individual leaders of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine are personally vulnerable to charges of war crimes. Principle III explicitly declares that the head of state (Vladimir Putin) is appropriately subject to charges of war crimes under international law. Perhaps more importantly, Principle IV implies that military commanders themselves are liable to charges based on the crime of waging aggressive war. This strongly suggests that military commanders need to be considering their own liability for their actions in Ukraine.

How to think about deliberate social change

What is involved in trying to create a better world? That is: what is involved in being an activist, a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary, or – for that matter – a reactionary? And how do the various forms of knowledge provided by areas of research in the social sciences play into this question? Is reforming the social world more like dreaming or more like building a cabinet?

This is an interesting set of questions for several reasons. One has to do with a very basic and crucial human feature – our capacity for rational-intentional manipulation of our various environments. Marx (and Hegel) put this feature of human capacity at the center of a rich conception of human “species being” – homo faber, the human tool-user, the creator through intelligent labor. The essence of “labor” is the use of one’s skills and knowledge to transform materials into objects that satisfy our needs, wants, and aesthetic values. And we would like to suppose that we can use our intelligence, our abilities to cooperate, and our practical skills at building social institutions, to construct a better world.

When we put this question in terms of transformation of the material world, we are talking about technology. We are led into a reflection on the knowledge provided by the natural sciences and the ways in which these forms of knowledge permit human beings to transform and build the natural environment; we are led to the disciplines of craftsmanship and technology. We are led to a consideration of practical intelligence and the artful transformation of nature. But what about purposive social change? How should we use knowledge and intelligence to bring about a better social world?

An important preliminary question is the scope of the possible: to what extent can we remake either the natural world or the social world? On the side of the natural world, the answer is fairly clear; humanity has thoroughly transformed the surface of the earth through its use of technology and scientific knowledge. (What is less clear is whether we have done so in ways that serve our collective interests, and whether unanticipated consequences have often derailed the benefits we sought.) An aircraft is the result of an integrated design process; a city is the result of a combination of plans, designs, accidents, and uncoordinated choices. So an aircraft is a much more intentional artifact than a city.

In the realm of the social world, the evidence is less clear when it comes to intentional transformation. There is ample evidence of social change, of course; but to what extent is that purposive or intentional social change? To what extent, perhaps, is largescale social change more like an ecological system than a building designed by an architect; more the result of many small and often unintended interventions rather than the result of a blueprint?

We can also ask the question: what sorts of things are we thinking to change, when we yearn for change? Here are several important possibilities: basic social structures; intermediate institutions; patterns of human behavior; mentalities and forms of social consciousness; social practices; and patterns of exploitation and domination.

So where do the social sciences come in when we consider the project of social reform? There are at least three locations within this story:

  • in the theory of the present (why does contemporary America embody racial inequalities? What are the current social mechanisms?);
  • in the theory of an ideal future (description of feasible institutions that produce equality); and
  • in the theory of a strategy of change (description of feasible actions that can be taken over time leading to the establishment of new social arrangements).

What this comes down to is three rather different applications of the empirical and theoretical findings of the social sciences. First, the social sciences can provide the basis for a causal-institutional analysis of the way that the current system works. Second, the social sciences can allow us to “test” the viability of an institutional change and a new set of institutions, to try to estimate the way that these new institutions will function. This is a bit like simulating the behavior of a new device under a set of test conditions. Third, the social sciences can provide an inventory of a large number of mechanisms and processes of change – protest, demonstrations, armed struggle, lobbying, public relations campaigns, … This application permits us to attempt to evaluate the credibility of a proposed strategy of change.

So how should we think about purposive social change – especially change in the direction of novelty, systemic change, and large change of behavior and mentality? Careful reflection on the nature of the social suggests that social arrangements and processes are always conditioned by contingency, heterogeneity, and plasticity; so there are no “iron laws of history,” no general theories that tell us how social processes work. Instead, good social science theories shed light on specific, mid-level social mechanisms and processes – very ably described by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. So we can forget about the social sciences providing a general “physics” or “mechanics” that might provide a blueprint for social design – as our understanding of the natural sciences does in fact permit in the design of material technologies. Instead, we can derive from the various areas of the social sciences some pragmatic rules of thumb about how mid-level social processes work.

How does this help to answer our question? Because we can use the open-ended totality of the learning that research in the social sciences has made possible about how the social world actually works, to help guide our thinking as we think about social reform and social change. We can attempt to mentally model the way that new institutions would work. We can attempt to foresee some of the glitches that will arise as we undertake a process of extended social reform. We are forced to be humble: prediction is very limited, there are always confounding factors that we haven’t incorporated into our mental models, and contingency runs deep. But we can make a start at evaluating a change strategy – the likely features of functioning that a given institutional design will display; the failures that may arise as a process of communication or coordination is undertaken; and the forms of corruption, weakness of the will, freeriding, and gaming that we can expect in any large process of social change.

A good example worth considering is the inadequate efforts that were undertaken towards reform of the financial industry following the 2008 financial crisis. These efforts were not highly successful, for several identifiable reasons: industry capture of the process, inadequate understanding of complex interactions among rules and regulatory institutions, and failure to anticipate innovative strategies to circumvent the rules. But equally difficult questions arise every kind of social reform – the design of a new set of tenure procedures in a university, the design of a system of regulation to end disparate use of force by US police departments against racial minorities, or the design of single-payer health insurance system.

Several ideas seem to come to the top out of these reflections.

(1) Designing social change is difficult, in part, because it requires us to imagine and create social arrangements that don’t yet exist. So we have to exert our analytical and empirical intelligence to try to estimate the way these arrangements might work – and how ordinary people might live within them. Are they feasible? And do they produce the intended social effects?

(2) The social sciences set some loose limits on our reasoning as we think about both systems and pathways; but social science will never permit precise calculations about the future. There is a very broad range of possible outcomes for almost any social intervention.

(3) The kinds of atrociously bad outcomes that twentieth-century “modernizing projects” have led to have occurred as a result of aggressive and misplaced confidence in social theories and models. This is a deeply important lesson. There is a very wide gap between theory and reality. Marxism and neoliberal purism alike have created enormous human suffering in the past century.

(4) This being recognized, social innovators ought to be risk-aware: take small steps, evaluate, examine; and proceed further. Just as designers of nuclear power plants need to design for worst-case scenarios and soft landings, so social innovators should be cautious as they push forward their reforms.

(5) All these cautions properly acknowledged, we have no choice but to attempt to create a better social future for humanity. And this means respecting the constraints of democracy even as we struggle for substantively better social arrangements.

(Here are several earlier discussions relevant to this topic; linklinklinklink.)

A topology of political theories?

We sometimes think of political philosophies as falling on a spectrum from left to right. Bernie Sanders is on the left and Greg Abbott is on the right. Our mental map might perhaps look something like this:

However, a moment’s reflection shows that this scheme doesn’t really work. There isn’t a single dimension along which these various political philosophies can be arranged. Anarchism isn’t just further out on the same dimension as liberal constitutionalism; rather, it highlights a different set of moral concerns altogether. Communitarianism is a complex of values that appeals, in different ways, to both progressives and conservatives. Is communitarianism a left-leaning or a right-leaning philosophical position?

We might say as a form of shorthand that classical liberalism gives highest priority to the rights and freedoms of individual citizens; classical conservatism gives highest priority to the continuity of traditional social and political values and relationships; socialism gives priority to bringing about the end of economic domination of one group by another (equality); and fascism gives priority to ideological purity and state control of society. This shorthand gives a sense of the multi-polar nature of political philosophy. 

Consider a handful of fundamental values or themes that have motivated important schools of political philosophy — for example, the values of liberty, equality, community, state supremacy, and ideological unity. How do the eleven political philosophies mentioned on the left-right spectrum above relate to those values? Here is an impressionistic graphic that perhaps sheds some light on the “space” of political philosophy. The core values of liberty and equality do a reasonably good job of differentiating between the “left” end of the spectrum from the right end. The values of ideological supremacy and state supremacy capture theories at both extremes: communism in the Stalinist mode and fascism. The value of community seems to be invoked in theories on both the left and right halves of the spectrum.

Can we do even better? We might consider placing political philosophies on a more notional graph that flags each political theory with a tag for the values it incorporates. This might look something like this:

This graph gives a greater sense of the nuances and divisions that distinguish the various political philosophies mentioned here; some are more similar to others because they share more of the “tags” that characterize them, and yet they differ in incommensurable ways. Here again, the left-right spectrum doesn’t work well; rather, there is a multi-dimensional scattering of political philosophies across the values of equality, liberty, tradition, state domination, etc. Communism and fascism wind up looking like cousins, not extremes at opposite ends of the spectrum.

It should be possible to incorporate the relationships indicated in the preceding graph into a network graph among the eleven political theories mentioned here. The graph might look something like this:

This graph is still impressionistic, but it has a credible logic to it. It seems to capture real affinities among a range of political philosophies. And, most interestingly, it seems to give rise to a very different arrangement of views across conceptual space. The centrist views on this scheme are social democracy and civic humanism, whereas the extreme views are totalitarianism and populism, as well as libertarianism and anarchism.

Having spent several hours exploring different ways of “graphing” the space of political philosophies, I’m inclined to think that this is a useful tool for exploring the underlying commitments of various political theories. The multiple values and fundamental questions posed by Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Hayek, or Nietzsche do not reduce to a simple set of propositions. But by examining the cross-connections that exist among these various theories we can see both areas of consensus and difference among the theories. And we can see why the theories associated with totalitarianism, fascism, and communism, are so fundamentally unacceptable to a broad range of political thinkers. They are incompatible with the values of individual rights and liberties, the value of human equality, and the aspiration to human progress.

Factions, insurrections, and the Federalist Papers

Sometimes political philosophers think of the The Federalist Papers as fairly minor contributions to the history of political theory — time-bound, parochial, and written by colonial bumpkins who couldn’t really hold a candle to Locke or Hobbes. When addressed at all, they are often used simply as evidence about the “original intent” of various constitutional provisions in the US Constitution (link). Now that I’ve included several of the papers in a course I’m currently teaching on modern political thought, however, I’ve come to a new appreciation of what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were attempting to accomplish — in contrast to Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. And I have gained a new appreciation of their sophistication as political philosophers and theorists. Most strikingly, I’ve seen today something that was invisible in the 1960s: how some of the work is enormously relevant on the assault to democracy we are currently experiencing from the far right in the United States.

The approach taken by the writers of the Federalist Papers is one of psychological realism. They want to design political institutions that work for citizens as they actually behave, not as we would wish them to behave. Here is a fine statement of their approach in FP 51, offered in their analysis of the institutional idea of “separation of powers” in government:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (FP 51: 268-269)

One of the key problems that Madison and Hamilton confront, in a very serious way, is that of “faction”. We might think of this problem in a fairly trivial way: “I say potato, you say potahto”. We’re different. But what they have in mind is much more critical to the health and stability of a democracy than that. It has to do with groups that potentially endanger the survival of the republic itself, and the liberties of the citizens who make it up. Madison opens No. 10 with these words:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed, than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. (FP 10: 42)

Madison and Hamilton hope that they and their colleagues in institution-building in 1787 will be able to design governance arrangements that reduce the dangers of “faction” to the viability of the emerging American democracy.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (FP 10: 43)

It is worth observing that a faction is not simply a group united by a shared set of preferences — citizens who advocate for a new public park in a city, say — but rather a group that advocates for actions that are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. Ku Klux Klan activists in Alabama in the 1950s who sought to intimidate African-American men and women from exercising their rights to vote would be a faction; so would a group that seeks to undermine a community’s ability to prevent the spread of polio among its children.

Why do factions and inter-group conflict arise? Madison (and Hamilton) approach the problem of politics realistically; and that means that they take human beings as they find them, not as we would wish them to be. Moreover, this is true both for citizens and leaders. Here is an extended passage:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders, ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions, whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (FP 10: 43)

Madison notes that it is impossible to prevent the occurrence of factions and the conflicts they create; individuals are not fully rational, just, or self-controlled.

If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know, that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together; that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.(FP 10: 46)

And likewise, rulers are not angels either:

It is in vain to say, that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm: nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all, without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another, or the good of the whole. (FP 10: 45)

But Madison believes that appropriate institutional arrangements can minimize the bad effects of ordinary citizens exercising their passions and their interests. One such arrangement that serves as a buffer to the hazards of factions is representative government, or what he refers to as a republic. Political decisions no longer depend on the direct votes of citizens, but instead emerge from a decision-making process involving their elected representatives. He believes that the elected representatives will be more moderate than the factions of the public and “more consonant to the public good” (46). But, realist that he is, he also realizes that there may be a process of faction formation within the government itself:

Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people. (FP 10: 47)

We seem to have examples of both hazards to democracy in contemporary US politics: a substantial minority of citizens who come together with the goal of attacking legitimate public institutions (public health departments and school boards, for example) and legislators “of sinister design” who gain the votes of their districts and then act out of ideological and personal self-interest. Madison confirmed that this was a possibility in 1787, but he thought it unlikely as the electorate grew larger.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters. (FP 10: 47)

Finally, Madison believed that the plurality of states within the Federal republic would be a buffer against extremism in the legislature:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire state. (FP 10: 48)

Both of these replies suggests a confidence in something like the “wisdom of the crowd”; but both are refuted by the politics of the recent past. “Factious leaders” have gained national followings, with adherents in multiple states. And multitudes of voters and citizens have been swept up into populist fantasies leading them to support policies and candidates who advocate those fantasies. Right-wing populism, fueled by conspiracy theories and social media, seems to have swamped democratic republicanism.

Madison and Hamilton were asking the right questions: How can we design democratic political institutions that are resilient in the face of ordinary men and women, extremist factions, and unscrupulous leaders? Perhaps there are good answers to these questions that haven’t yet been explored. But unhappily, Madison and Hamilton did not themselves arrive at a convincing solution.

Alexander Herzen’s radical liberalism

image: Meissonier, Massacre during June Days, 1848, Paris

Alexander Herzen’s From the Other Shore (1850) is an exceptionally important example of an intelligent observer trying to make sense of the social, economic, and political changes of the nineteenth century. And Isaiah Berlin’s introduction is profound. (Here is an online version of the book; link.)

Herzen’s writings represented an almost unique combination of political perspectives. He was sympathetic to revolutionary activism by anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin, as well as revolutionary socialists in London and Paris and the radical workers of Paris in 1848. He was fervently opposed to the old oppressive order of Europe, whether the rule of the Czar and landed aristocracy in Russia or the dominant bourgeois order of wealth and poverty in France and Germany. And he was passionately committed to the principle of individual liberty. We might say that he was a revolutionary anti-Czarist liberal republican — which sounds like a very contradictory bundle of political ideas. But the contradiction may be only apparent; it is the contradiction between revolution and liberty. As the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have unfolded, they have generally sacrificed liberty for the collectivist goals of revolution. But is a post-authoritarian, post-bourgeois regime in Europe necessarily indifferent to individual liberties? Or is it possible to imagine a genuinely egalitarian liberal social democracy, with strong constitutional protections of individual rights and liberties? If so, that seems to be the political idea that fits best with Herzen’s political writings.

Here is Herzen’s liberal principle:

The liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all, it is on this and on this alone that the true will of the people can develop. Man must respect liberty in himself, and he must esteem it in himself no less than in his neighbour, than in the entire nation. (From the Other Shore, author’s introduction, 12)

Here is his revolutionary anti-authoritarian commitment:

The state forms of France and other European countries are in their essence compatible with neither liberty, equality nor fraternity. If any of these ideas were realized, it would be the repudiation of contemporary European life; it would be its death. No constitution, no government is in a position to give feudal and monarchical countries true freedom and equality without annihilating everything feudal and monarchical in them. European life, Christian and aristocratic, has moulded our civilization, our notions, our ways of life. It cannot exist without a Christian and aristocratic environment. (From the Other Shore, Year LVII of the Republic, 62)

Here is a passage on the June days of Paris 1848 that captures his sympathy for the workers:

I listened to the thunder and the tocsin and gazed avidly at this panorama of Paris; it was as though I was taking my leave of it. At that moment I loved Paris passionately. It was my last tribute to the great town; after the June days it grew hateful to me. On the other side of the river barricades were being raised in all the streets and alleys. I can still see the gloomy faces of the men dragging stones; women and children were helping them. A young student from the Polytechnic climbed up on to an apparently completed barricade, planted the banner and started singing the Marseillaise in a soft, sad, solemn voice; all the workers joined in and the chorus of this great song, resounding from behind the stones of the barricades, gripped one’s soul. . . . The tocsin was still tolling. Meanwhile, the artillery clattered across the bridge and General Bedeau standing there raised his field-glasses to inspect the enemy positions. . . . (From the Other Shore, After the Storm, 46)

And here is an alternative vision of work without wage labor — cooperatives — based on his understanding of the peasant commune in Russia:

There are a number of such artels—builders, carpenters and other sorts of artisans—each consisting of several hundred people drawn from different communes, who come together for a given period of time, for a year for instance, and so form a group. When the year is up, the workers share out the produce on the basis of the work they have done, in each case abiding by the general decision. The police have not so far had the satisfaction of being able to interfere in these arrangements. The association, I must emphasize, generally holds itself responsible for all the workers who comprise it. (From the Other Shore, The Russian People and Socialism, 184)

Finally, Herzen has a healthy distrust of “ideology”, or purely philosophical theories of an ideal future for which all present human wellbeing must be sacrificed. Against Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao, Herzen mistrusted grand ideological goals and favored a process of social change that permitted ordinary human beings to exercise their freedoms as society changed. Berlin emphasizes this point in his introduction.

It is, in the main, a frontal attack upon the doctrine at that time preached by almost every left-wing orator in Europe (with the notable exception of Proudhon and a handful of anarchists to whom no one listened), about the sacred human duty of offering up oneself—or others—upon the altar of some great moral or political cause—some absolute principle or ‘collective noun’ capable of stirring strong emotion, like Nationality, or Democracy, or Equality, or Humanity, or Progress. For Herzen these are merely modern versions of ancient religions which demanded human sacrifice, faiths which spring from some irrational belief (rooted in theology or metaphysics) in the existence of vast and menacing powers, once the objects of blind religious worship, then, with the decay of primitive faith, degraded to becoming terms of political rhetoric. The dogmas of such religions declare that mere invocation of certain formulae, certain symbols, render what would normally be regarded as crimes or lunacies—murder, torture, the humiliation of defenceless human bodies—not only permissible, but often laudable. (From the Other Shore, Berlin introduction, xv)

Here is Herzen on “progress” in “Before the Storm”:

‘You are quite right when you speak of nature, but it seems to me that you have forgotten that throughout all the changes and confusions of history there runs a single red thread binding it into one aim. This thread—is progress, or perhaps you do not acknowledge progress?’

‘Progress is the inalienable quality of uninterrupted conscious development: it consists in a retentive memory and the physiological perfection of man through social life.’

‘Is it possible that in all this you do not see a goal?’

‘Quite the opposite, I see here only a consequence. If progress is the end, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, only recedes, and as a consolation to the exhausted, doomed multitudes crying “morituri te salutant”, can give back only the mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth. Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive to-day to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on. . . or of wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows? Those who are exhausted fall in their tracks; others, with fresh forces take up the ropes; but there remains, as you said yourself, as much ahead as there was at the beginning, because progress is infinite. This alone should serve as a warning to people: an end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer—it ought to be, at the very least, the labourer’s wage, or pleasure in the work done. (From the Other Shore, Before the Storm, 36-37)

The new society, if it is to conform to these disparate values, must accomplish several different social goods:

  • respect liberty and equal dignity of all individuals; 
  • secure the human needs of everyone — workers, engineers, poets, and owners of property; 
  • be democratic, not autocratic. 

Was there any place on the planet in 1850 that satisfied these different structural features? There certainly was not — not Britain, not Switzerland, not the United States. Is there a society on the planet today that satisfies them? Perhaps there is; it is called Finland.

Thomas Carlyle on government and England’s poor

Thomas Carlyle was an acerbic conservative social thinker, given to assuming the fundamental legitimacy of social and political hierarchies and hostile to democracy. A re-reading of Chartism (1839) shows that he also possessed a white-hot anger at England’s indifference to the conditions of the poor, and he raged against Parliament, which whistled while catastrophe loomed. In its own way there is as much anger at England’s injustice and cruelty to its working people here as is found in Engels’s more or less contemporary The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) (link). In Chartism Carlyle takes on the 1834 Poor Law Act and the draconian version of laissez-faire that these policies imposed (link), and he interprets the Charter movement as a natural and predictable response to social and political indifference to the conditions of working people. In some passages he sounds a bit like E.P. Thompson himself, in The Making of the English Working Class, when he writes about the need for dignity and justice for working people.

What is the underlying view that Carlyle seems to have in mind? It is not a call for more charity to the poor, more noblesse oblige. Rather, it is a call for a system of government that effectively confronts the pressing problem in the first decade of the nineteenth century, of the conditions of the English poor. He is scathing at the inability of Parliament to adequately formulate and assess the problem, and he is contemptuous of the solution offered in the form of new Poor Laws.

Carlyle’s conservatism emerges fully when he advances his own views of governing, which is the primary thrust of the pamphlet. Carlyle is full of ironic disdain and contempt for the irrelevance of Parliament in the first part of the nineteenth century; whereas he admires the rule of the strong man with a unified will. Carlyle’s prescription to the task of addressing the hopeless condition of the poor in England is a return to wise but absolute government.

What are all popular commotions and maddest bellowings, from Peterloo to the Place-de-Greve itself? Bellowings, inarticulate cries as of dumb creatures in rage and pain; to the ear of wisdom they are inarticulate prayers: ” Guide me, govern me! I am mad, and miserable, and cannot guide myself!” Surely of all ‘rights of man,’ this right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser, to be, gently or forcibly, held in the true course by him, the indisputablest. (52)

In effect Carlyle sides with Hobbes against Locke or Jefferson: the sovereign will find it in his or her interest to rule strongly but wisely, and with laws that protect the important interests of the people.

How can-do, if we will well interpret it, unites itself with shall-do among mortals; how strength acts ever as the right-arm of justice; how might and right, so frightfully discrepant at first, are ever in the long-run one and the same, — is a cheering consideration, which always in the black tempestuous vortices of this world’s history, will shine out on us, like an everlasting polar star. (39)

This view may be thought to serve as a rejoinder to the critics of Hobbes who hold that the sovereign will do no more than exploit and oppress his or her “sheep”; Carlyle argues that it is not in the interest of the sovereign to do so, and rule based solely on coercion is doomed to end in short order.

Of conquest we may say that it never yet went by brute force and compulsion; conquest of that kind does not endure. Conquest, along with power of compulsion, an essential universally in human society, must bring benefit along with it or men, of the ordinary strength of men, will fling it out. The strong man, what is he if we will consider? The wise man; the man with the gift of method, of faithfulness and valour, all of which are of the basis of wisdom; who has insight into what is what, into what will follow out of what, the eye to see and the hand to do; who is fit to administer, to direct, and guidingly command : he is the strong man. His muscles and bones are no stronger than ours but his soul stronger, his soul is wiser, clearer,— is better and nobler, for that is, has been, and ever will be the root of all clearness worthy of such name. (39)

Over the fullness of time, then, Carlyle seems to assert that might and right converge; the “strong man” who survives will be the wise man. “His soul is wiser, clearer — is better and nobler”. And Carlyle appears to believe that this is part of the “natural” order.

But what assures Carlyle that in the long run, the rulers will respect and support the dignity and wellbeing of the “lower classes”? It is the rage and violence that is produced by a widespread feeling of injustice and unfair treatment that he believes is apparent in the violence of the Chartist movement or the French Revolution. Oppressive or negligent rule leads to its own overthrow by enraged masses. For Carlyle the French Revolution was mindless terror — and a stark historical lesson to rulers. The lesson is simple: they must rule wisely, or the terror awaits them.

He also takes it as an axiom that the poor — that is, the great majority of the English population — cannot govern themselves; the demand for universal suffrage is hooted off the stage. Democracy is a ludicrous ideal for Carlyle. The inarticulate, suffering poor can demand only to be governed well by their superiors. Even more explicitly:

Democracy, we are well aware, what is called ‘ self-government’ of the multitude by the multitude, is in words the thing everywhere passionately clamoured for at present. Democracy makes rapid progress in these latter times, and ever more rapid, in a perilous accelerative ratio ; towards democracy, and that only, the progress of things is everywhere tending as to the final goal and winning-post. So think, so clamour the multitudes everywhere. (53)

But: “Democracy never yet, that we heard of, was able to accomplish much work, beyond that same cancelling of itself” (59). “Napoleon was not president of a republic Cromwell tried hard to rule in that way, but found that he could not. These, ‘the armed soldiers of democracy,’ had to chain democracy under their feet, and become despots over it before they could work out the earnest obscure purpose of democracy itself!” (54).

In particular, Carlyle writes again and again that the underclass cannot rationally articulate its needs or make a rational plan for progress. For Carlyle, the underclasses are incapable of subtle or nuanced analysis of the causes of their condition, or of possible reforms that realistically could address their condition.

Dingy dumb millions, grimed with dust and sweat, with darkness, rage and sorrow, stood round these men, saying, or struggling as they could to say : ” Behold, our lot is unfair ; our life is not whole but sick; we cannot live under injustice; go ye and get us justice !” For whether the poor operative clamoured for Time-bill, Factory-bill, Corn-bill, for or against whatever bill, this was what he meant. (91-92)

Moreover, they live in a world that is naturally stratified between superior and inferior:

Recognised or not recognised, a man has his superiors, a regular hierarchy above him; extending up, degree above degree; to Heaven itself and God the Maker, who made His world not for anarchy but for rule and order ! (94)

His view of the radical leaders who claim to speak for the underclasses is equally severe: they are cynical opportunists.

There is a class of revolutionists named Girondins, whose fate in history is remarkable enough ! Men who rebel, and urge the Lower Classes to rebel, ought to have other than Formulas to go upon. Men who discern in the misery of the toiling complaining millions not misery, but only a raw-material which can be wrought upon, and traded in, for one’s own poor hidebound theories and egoisms ; to whom millions of living fellow-creatures, with beating hearts in their bosoms, beating, suffering, hoping, are ‘ masses,’ mere ‘explosive masses for blowing down Bastilles with,’ for voting at hustings for us: such men are of the questionable species ! (93)

And as for the issue of the day, the Charter — the Charter is nonsense, simply an enraged bellow of pain and a demand for relief. The Chartist movement is one of violence, burning, and murder. Carlyle rejects entirely the idea that the underclasses might formulate their own diagnosis of the ills of their society, or a plan for addressing those ills.

Neither is the history of Chartism mysterious in these times ; especially if that of Radicalism be looked at. All along, for the last five-and-twenty years, it was curious to note how the internal discontent of England struggled to find vent for itself through any orifice : the poor patient, all sick from centre to surface, complains now of this member, now of that ;— corn-laws, currency-laws, free-trade, protection, want of free-trade : the poor patient tossing from side to side, seeking a sound side to lie on, finds none. This Doctor says, it is the liver ; that other, it is the lungs, the head, the heart, defective transpiration in the skin. A thoroughgoing Doctor of eminence said, it was rotten boroughs; the want of extended suffrage to destroy rotten boroughs. From of old, the English patient himself had a continually recurring notion that this was it. The English people are used to suffrage ; it is their panacea for all that goes wrong with them ; they have a fixed-idea of suffrage. (90)

Moreover, rebellion is always wrong, because:

No man is justified in resisting by word or deed the Authority he lives under, for a light cause, be such Authority what it may. Obedience, little as many may consider that side of the matter, is the primary duty of man. No man but is bound indefeasibly, with all force of obligation, to obey. (93-94)

With an intriguing sleight of hand, Carlyle maintains that democracy and laissez-faire are one and the same; both amount to a “do-nothing” approach to government. Democracy cannot rule wisely, as the principle of “laissez-faire” cannot guide social and economic life.

So who should rule in England? Carlyle makes his preferences clear; and it is a preference for the feudal past, where feudal lords governed their bonded workers and farmers. It is the aristocracy that must take up the responsibility of governing — the aristocracy must lead and govern.

Yet we do say that the old Aristocracy were the governors of the Lower Classes, the guides of the Lower Classes ; and even, at bottom, that they existed as an Aristocracy because they were found adequate for that. Not by Charity-Balls and Soup-Kitchens; not so; far otherwise! But it was their happiness that, in struggling for their own objects, they had to govern the Lower Classes, even in this sense of governing. For, in one word. Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man ; it was something other than money that the high then expected from the low, and could not live without getting from the low. (58)

This is the passage where the “cash nexus” phrase originates. And the passage appears to express one of Carlyle’s fundamental beliefs — that a harmonious society depends upon strands of loyalty, trust, and commitment between unequals — not simply impersonal economic relationships.

We might say that the political theory expressed in Chartism amounts to only a handful of assertions:

  1. The poor are suffering enormously under current conditions in England. They are both severely impoverished and treated unfairly.
  2. The poor are naturally inferior to the aristocracy and are incapable of rational political thought.
  3. The current system of government (Parliament) is incapable of perceiving the crisis, let alone addressing it with intelligent policies.
  4. England is in crisis because of these facts.
  5. Only authoritarian, unified government by a natural aristocracy will have the insight and wisdom to remedy England’s crisis.

It is interesting to recall that Engels, and later Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, would agree with premises 1, 3, and 4, but disagree fundamentally with 2 and 5. It is also interesting to observe that Carlyle’s conservatism (authoritarianism, really) became a branch-line in the coming century of conflict over “the social question”, with social democrats and revolutionary socialists defining the main contenders for a program of progress. And Carlyle’s political views do not line up with other forms of conservatism in the twentieth century very closely either — whether fascist ideology or the persistence of English laissez-faire conservatism grounded in pre-Keynesian political economy. Carlyle was sui generis.

Decline of democracy in India

The entrenched rule of the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, has led to a truly alarming degradation in India’s democratic institutions (link). Hindu nationalism and the degradation of citizenship rights for Muslims and other non-Hindus; the rise of paramilitary violence in cities; the repression of non-compliant students and academics through violence and the threat of violence; the systematic undermining of judicial institutions — India is fast becoming an “illiberal democracy” (link) in which single-party rule and an autocratic leader systematically erode the principles of equal citizenship, freedom of speech and association, and the integrity and independence of other constitutional mechanisms. 

The well-respected Freedom House index of freedom documents the decline of democratic freedoms in India (link). Here is a summary of the 2021 Freedom House assessment:

India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.

Overview

While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized. (link)

Here is a sober account of Hindu nationalist violence, organized by RSS groups, against students and faculty in February 2020 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi (link). 

The group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), is the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded 94 years ago by men who were besotted with Mussolini’s fascists, the RSS is the holding company of Hindu supremacism: of Hindutva, as it’s called. Given its role and its size, it is difficult to find an analogue for the RSS anywhere in the world. In nearly every faith, the source of conservative theology is its hierarchical, centrally organised clergy; that theology is recast into a project of religious statecraft elsewhere, by other parties. Hinduism, though, has no principal church, no single pontiff, nobody to ordain or rule. The RSS has appointed itself as both the arbiter of theological meaning and the architect of a Hindu nation-state. It has at least 4 million volunteers, who swear oaths of allegiance and take part in quasi-military drills. (link)

The violence was organized and brutal, and eye witness reports assert that the police stood by without intervening.

The police were called, but they didn’t move to stop the violence. Instead, a posse of policemen installed itself at JNU’s gate, allowing no one in. Yogendra Yadav, a political activist, arrived at the gate at 9pm. Ninety minutes later, the attackers emerged, still masked and armed. Even then, the police detained no one. Instead, they were permitted to walk away as if nothing had happened. When Yadav’s colleague took photos, Yadav was set upon by a knot of men, knocked down and kicked in the face. The police did nothing. Later, from a video, Yadav identified a local ABVP official among those who had hit him. In a statement, the ABVP blamed the attacks on “leftist goons,” but on television members admitted that the masked, armed men and women on campus were part of the ABVP. Still, the Delhi police pressed no charges. “The police gave the goons cover, gave them free rein on campus,” Yadav said. A JNU professor went further, claiming that: “The police are complicit.”

This is fascism — and the history of the RSS goes back directly to its admiration for Mussolini’s fascist movement in the 1920s. Paramilitary violence is a horrific step forward in the decline of democracy.

The attack on intellectuals and the attack on the independence of the judiciary come together in the increasingly aggressive efforts made by the BJP and Modi to silence their critics. Consider for example the legal assault on Anand Teltumbde (link). “Teltumbde, an advocate for India’s most disadvantaged communities, including Dalits, once called ‘untouchables,’ has been swept up in a broad crackdown against lawyers, activists and dissent in general.” And he has been treated in a very prejudicial manner by the courts in India: “Teltumbde’s unfair treatment by our judiciary underscores the loss of independence by India’s institutions. The refusal by the Supreme Court to grant him bail came soon before a former chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, joined Parliament after being nominated by Modi government…. It’s clear India’s Supreme Court has been politicized and has become pliant toward the current administration. Recently, Justice Arun Mishra, who has also ruled in favor of Modi, hailed the prime minister as a versatile genius, an internationally acclaimed visionary who thought globally and acted locally” (link).

A third dimension of the decline of democracy under Hindu nationalist rule is the effort to redefine citizenship to disadvantage Muslim immigrants. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed in 2019 was plainly designed for the purpose of reducing the rights of citizenship of immigrant Muslims in comparison to other religious minorities:

Now there will be an exception for members of six religious minority communities — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian — if they can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. They will only have to live or work in India for six years to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation, the process by which a non-citizen acquires the citizenship or nationality of that country. (link)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill has provoked extensive protest because of its plain purpose of placing burdens and disadvantages on Muslim residents of India. It should be recalled that Prime Minister Modi was partially responsible for anti-Muslim violence in 2002 in Gujarat while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat (link), and was denied a visa by the US State Department on the basis of evidence in support of this finding (link). Narendra Modi is now the apparently unshakeable chief executive of India’s democracy of 1.4 billion people.

%d bloggers like this: