Thursday, August 31, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 6

Collingwood in the 1930s
The plainest political fact of our times is the widespread collapse of what I shall call, using the word in its Continental sense, liberalism. [1]The essence of this conception is, or was, the idea of a community as governing itself by fostering the free expression of all political opinions that take shape within it, and finding some means of reducing this multiplicity of opinions to a unity. How this is the to be effected, is a secondary matter. [2] [The bracketed numbers refer to the comments numbered at the end of the Collingwood quotes.]
. . . . 

The one essential of liberalism is the dialectical solution of all political problems: that is their solution through the statement of opposing views and their free discussion until, beneath this opposition, their supporters have discovered some common ground on which to act. [3]            The outward characteristic of all liberalism is the fact that it permits the free expression of opinion, no matter what the opinion may be, on all political questions. This attitude is not toleration; it is not the acquiescence in an evil whose suppression would be a greater evil; it is not a mere permission but an active fostering of free speech, as the basis of all healthy political life. 
. . . . 

            There are certain conditions under which alone liberalism can flourish. It is not the best method of government for a people at war or in a state of emergency: for then silence and discipline are demanded of the subject, bold and resolute command of the ruler. It is not the best method for a people internally rotten with crime and violence: there, a strong executive is the first thing needed; force must be met by force. Therese restrictions, however, do not amount to criticisms of liberalism on its own ground. It professes to be a political method, that is, a method by which a community desiring a solution for its own political problems can find one. War is not a part of politics, but the negation of politics, a parasitic growth upon political life. [4]

. . . . 

Liberalism, then, requires for its success only one condition: namely that the civilization which adopts it shall as a whole and on the whole be resolved to live in peace and not at war, by honest labour and not by crime. [For, when it invites the free expression of all political views, it assumes that those who accept the invitation will use it as an opportunity for expressing political views, not as an opportunity for acts of violence.] [5]It might seem, therefore, that liberalism is a mere utopianism, based on a blindly optimistic view of human nature. But this is not the case. A liberal government is still a government, and like every government must enforce law and suppress crime. Because it set out of hear every political opinion, it is not committed to the dogma that every human being under its rule has such opinions. [318-320]


  1. This "continental" liberalism may also be called "classical liberalism." It is the liberalism that American political scientist Louis Hartz (The Liberal Tradition in America) believed underlay the entire American political landscape. Until recently, the Republican and Democrat parties were essentially two different branches of this one stream. Both were committed to the essential institutions of liberal democracy. Of course, the take-over (how hostile and unwanted I'm not so sure) of the Republican Party by Trumpism, this no longer is true. We now have a fundamentally anti-liberal party in power, although it can be very liberal with the plutocratic interests who fund its congressional wing. 
  2. Note the use of the term "community" here. One of the great conundrums of the Founders addressed in The Federalist Papers, and by Madison, in particular, is the extent to which a far-flung nation of great diversity can foster a sufficient community to make a republic work for the new nation. To what extent can we as a nation, when "bowling alone," maintain the necessary coherence of perspectives, interests, and aspirations to keep a functional political community. I'd argue (I think Collingwood might follow me here) is that without a sense of community, you cannot maintain a democracy. By the very nature of the growth of our nation: in geography, population, economics, size of government, and so on, we lose some measure of community. But even with all of these centrifugal forces, Americans have still found periods of intense political community, even at the national level. (Community is more easily visible at the local level, as we see with any trauma to a community.) 
  3. This implies that "common ground" can always be found, but this is not always so. But even in cases of disagreement, a losing party may still share common ground by recognizing the legitimacy of the procedures and abiding by the decision; i.e., by "playing by the rules." When this stops--and it's become increasingly problematic at the Congressional level. Congressional and legislative Republicans have moved the goalposts by gerrymandering, refusing the act on presidential appointments, and even by ending the filibuster.  (Ending the filibuster isn't such a bad thing in my book, but it's a change in the rule motivated by temporary partisan advantage, not an aim to make the process more democratic.)
  4. The flip side of this observation might be included in the dictator's handbook about how to end democracy. As Madison observed long ago, and as I've been preaching for a long time now, war and democracy don't mix. War will strangle democracy. The concluding sentence of this paragraph (in italics) foreshadows the arguments of Collingwood's younger contemporary, Hannah Arendt. Arendt argues that the essence of politics is speech (Collingwood's "discussion"?), and that contra Mao, political power doesn't emanate from the barrel of a gun; only force comes from there. War, then, is the antithesis of democracy. Instead, political power comes from the use of speech to persuade citizens to pursue a common course of action: 
"Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is "in power" we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name." 
Arendt, On Violence (1970, p. 44), quoted in Habermas, "Hannah Arendt's Communications Concept of Power, Social Research (1977).
5.  This bracketed sentence was deleted from Collingwood's manuscript, and the editors don't know why. But I decided to insert it because I agree with what he says in that sentence, and in light of the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, we need to consider what limits upon free speech and expression--if any--we should impose. I'm of the classical liberal bent such that I'd let go anything short of violence, even though I find a sentiment abhorrent. But I'm not sure that this is the best course, and we'd all better consider what alternatives we want to pursue.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 5

All of these doctrines [which argue, following Hegel, that because conflict between states is inevitable, the ‘moral health’ of the state requires war], taken in their practical sense as exhortations to the pursuit of war as something intrinsically valuable, are sophistical. All alike are based on confusing the general notion of conflict or struggle with that special kind of conflict or struggle which is property called by the name of war. It is certainly true that there can be no life or spiritual life (moral or economic or political), without a constant overcoming of obstacles; and that these obstacle very often exist through the actions of other living beings, pursing in their own way ends similar to one’ own. In that case the overcoming of difficulties becomes a victory over opponents. But there are many kinds of victory, beside that wince is won by means of bullets and bayonets and poison gas; and a philosophical demonstration of the necessity of conflict for life itself has no bearing on the necessity of conflict waged by those peculiar means. 
            Confusions like this do not happen without a cause. The underlying motive of this confusion is the recognition of a hard fact, whose reality cannot be cancelled by removing the confusion of thought: the fact that war has got out of hand and, from being an instrument of policy, has become what psychologists call a compulsion, something that we do blindly and madly. Why has this happened? Not merely because science has put into our hands engines of destruction, which we cannot prevent ourselves from using, though that is true; but, at bottom, as Hegel saw, because of our political system, with its double insistence on the individuality and sovereignty of the state. Militarism is sovereignty conceived in terms of individuality: the absolute and unlimited power of the state in all that affects its own concerns, combined with its merely external relation to all other states. 
            This conception of the state is not new. What is new is the power which modern science has given to us of working out its implications in practice.  . . . [W]e have brought ourselves to the position I have tried to describe: the position of a civilization able scientifically to destroy itself, and unable to hold its hand from doing so. [316-317] 
. . . . 
            The only remedy is to revise our conception of the state. Any proposal for such revision will at once encounter the objection that the root of war is a combative instinct inherent in human nature. This, once more, is sophistry. Conflict, I repeat, is a condition of all life: but conflict and war are not the same thing, and the combative instinct, if there is such an instinct, no more entails the national use of battleships and bombing aeroplanes than it entails the private use of rapiers and daggers on the street. We must turn, then, from the consideration 0f modern war to the consideration of modern politics. [[316-317]

Comments: 

  1. The glorification of the State was one of Hegel's more unfortunate legacies. This train of thought becomes quite apparent in twentieth-century fascism. It is exacerbated by the increased potency of warfare, and therefore the increased threat to one state by another (and now non-state actors pose an increasing threat). We enter into a perpetual arms race to keep the state intact to pursue the arms race, and so on ad infinitum. Arms control treaties put some break on this tendency, but they been band-aid solutions an endemic problem. 
  2. Collingwood is correct that life entails conflict and struggle. Life, including that of any individual or state (or any other organization), is one long pas de deux between conformity with--and control of--the environment, and the environment includes powers intentional (such as the Other) and impersonal (such as hurricanes). But unlike a ballet, the dancers are often at odds, not cooperating. (Cooperation is all too rare, yet it's the secret ingredient of every successful human endeavor.) 
  3. We observe the militarist attitude more often on the Right than on the Left, although both ends of the political spectrum can manifest this trait. Indeed, one may argue that militarism is native to the Right. The Right (and I mean the reactionary right, or what is now the 'alt-right') we may label the bastard child of the Enlightenment, while Left (which by this measure includes some self-labeled conservatives or traditional liberals) may be seen as the rightful heirs of the Enlightenment who can become infected with the taint of violence. (For instance, the Terror of the French Revolution: child of the Right or the Left, of Enlightenment or Reaction? (A great essay question for another time.) 
  4. In wide swaths of the U.S., we have now legalized weaponry on the street, to what practical end I know not, but perhaps this represents to the militarization of U.S. society. I'd rather we go with swords and daggers; nasty enough, but with more of a challenge and certainly less of a kill rate. But then the NRA wouldn't approve of such a scheme, and they call the tune in Congress. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 4

An image of the First World War


[A] suspicion arises that the holocaust of modern war is the safety-valve of an economic system where production, pursued as an end in itself and getting out of touch with consumption, has loaded the world with unwanted goods. But this cannot be the explanation [for modern war], for if these goods were unwanted, their destruction, like that of a target in gunnery practice, would not be an act of war. The militarist must value his children and his property, or the Moloch to whom he sacrifices them would not be appeased. The sacrifice is the self-torture of an insane civilization. [311] 
             Alike economically and politically, therefore, the militarism which is so deeply rooted in our modern political system is a form of insanity. To represent war as the ultimate and highest end of the state is to misconceive both the relation between war and wealth, and the relation between war and policy. [311-312] 
             Warfare, the organized warfare of states as distinct from mere personal violence, is not a primitive human institution. It was invented at relatively high stage of civilization, and was invented as a cheap and easy way of acquiring riches. [312] 
 To economic ends, political ends may be added: domination may be desired for its own sake, and wars of conquest, as distinct from wars of exploitation, may be fought. Or a war may be wages for religious motives, the glory of God, not the glory of man, being the prize. The destructiveness of economic or acquisitive warfare is limited by the need to make a profit out of it; hence, the conqueror is not willing to spend more than he is likely to get, nor is likely to bleed his victims to the point of exhaustion. . . Political warfare is crueler and more destructive: but even here a limit is set to its destructiveness by the fact that a conqueror would, in general, rather rule over a tolerably prosperous people than over a wilderness. [312-313] Religious warfare is the cruelest of all, because the issues at stake being purely spiritual there is no care for material welfare, or even for the life of the body: the very existence of infidels is unpleasing to God and their complete destruction is meritorious. Since the seventeenth century, all wars between civilized peoples have tended to be at bottom wars of religion, the cultural ideals for which people nowadays mostly profess to fight being in te nature of religious principles, however little they may associate themselves with deities and temples. Not only do they resemble religious wars in being fought for sprititual ideals, they resemble them in their absolute ruthlessness and in the fact that they recognize no limit to their destructiveness of life or property. Thus in their general character they resemble religious wars: but they differ from religious wars in that they set before themselves no definite aim, and therefore have no definite criterion of victory or defeat. [313] 
 
[I]n spite of the of the vaguely religious or quasi-religious character of modern warfare, it is not truly religious, for, so far from having a religious motive, it has no motive at all. It is notorious that in modern war there are no victors. The reason for this is now clear. In order that someone may win a war, the war must be about something: there must be aims on both sides, and a question to be settled by fighting. In modern war, there are no such conditions. There are, therefore, no victors and no vanquished: only combatants seared alike in the furnace they have conspired to light, all exhausted, though exhausted in varying degrees. [313-314]

Some points to ponder: 


  1. Collingwood wrote this having lived during the First World War, albeit working in the Admiralty and not serving at the front.  The First World War, of a century ago, was a cataclysmic event for Europe. It shattered a century of relative (Great Power) peace that has existed since the Napoleonic Wars. And in 1936, all aspirations not to the contrary, the prospect of war was again looming on the horizon. 
  2. Note that the U.S. is engaged in a "War on Terror," although we no longer use that nonsensical nomenclature. We are locked in a battle with a 'jihad' that makes no sense from an economic or political perspective. Thus, neither side can define victory (see Afghanistan) or place a limit on the nature and extent of the warfare. The U.S. resorted to torture, assassination, and indefinite incarceration in defiance of established Western norms, rationalizing these practices as necessary to succeed in the this (un)holy war. 
  3.  A point of curiosity for intellectual historians: Keynes published his General Theory in February 1936. Had Collingwood read it? Collingwood's reference to the problem of over-production certainly notes the problem a problem that the addressed. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 3

Some shared perspectives
War is the ultimate end of the modern state. All the forces that go to make up the modern state combine to drive its activity in the direction of warfare. On the other hand, war is readily becoming more and more destructive, and has now reached a point in its development where it cannot be waged at all, on any considerable scale, without involving the destruction of civilization over the entire field of conflict. . . .  [T]he traditional politics which in England is called democracy, and on the Continent liberalism, is here out of date. It thinks of war as an instrument which statesman are free to use or not to use in pursuit of their ends, whereas it is in reality a monster which, having invoked it, they not cannot exorcise. What began as a means to an end beyond itself has lost that character: it has become a thing that must be used, whatever comes of it. . . . Much of what has happened in militarist countries within the last few years suggests that in those countries what we call civilization is no longer valued. Freedom of thought and speech, personal liberty, and many other features of what we should call civilized life, have been deliberately repudiated with the avowed aim of rendering the nation a more docile and responsive fighting-machine. For the militarist, the incompatibility of civilization and war is only a nail in the coffin of civilization. The only corporate activity which he recognizes as desirable in a nation is warfare itself. [310]

"War is the ultimate end of the modern state." My first reaction is to consider this an overstatement. The modern state, in addition to its more traditional functions (law enforcement, provision of public goods) has added economic and social welfare to its portfolio. And, of course, the state has always been involved in defense of territory (and often it seeks the addition of territory). But in my life time (from near the beginning of the Cold War), the military function has grown remarkably in the U.S., whereas before WWII, the military had been surprisingly limited in its role. We Americans began to refer to the president as our "commander-in-chief," which he isn't unless we're members of the active duty military. All of this demonstrates the indisputable fact that war and democracy are inimical to one another. War will inevitably seek to strangle democracy as a threat to its powers. Democracy as an expression of the will of most people will seek to avoid war. (N.B. This last contention needs qualification. I believe that avoidance of war is a popular default position among non-elites; however, this default position of the demos is easily transposed into supporting war by propaganda appealing to nationalist or retaliatory sentiment.) 

In reviewing the latter part of the quote, I noted how Collingwood anticipates Orwell, who published 1984 in 1949, seven years after Collingwood's death and 13 years after Collingwood penned this essay. Recall Oceania's perpetual state of war with Eurasia and Eastasia, each mega-state controlled by an ideology that extols and supports war. 

Think also of Stephen Bannon and some of the thinkers whom he has favorably cited, such as the Italian fascist Julius Evola. These and other thinkers, for instance, Georges Sorel in fin de siecle France, argue that violence and war are a necessary tonic for peoples and nations. Indeed, WWI began with many on both sides of the fight believing that a war would alleviate the malaise felt in many parts of European society during the period leading up to the war. One would think such notions would have perished in the ashes and graveyards that the war created, and while this was true of many, a committed few concluded that an increase of dosage was required. Mussolini and Hitler are only the two most well known of that latter sort. I have not doubt that Collingwood was thinking of these two as he wrote this about the "militarists." And it's not difficult today to identify those who hold this militarist attitude. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Manifesto of a Moderate

Introductory note: I started this piece to make some comments on David Brooks's column "What Moderates Believe." (Link at the end, as well.) However, in the course of putting down my thoughts, this effort burgeoned into a (somewhat) independent piece that I now recognize as a manifesto of sorts. Also, as I indicate through my personal history, it allows me to reclaim a long-lost (or more accurately--discarded) mantle. I have for some time described myself as 'a conservative by temperament, a liberal by education, a pragmatist by experience, a radical in perspective, a realist in assessments, a believer in action, and an idealist in values' (and whatever else might strike me at the moment, although any interlocutor has long since lost interest). Perhaps I can now just say 'I'm a moderate.' 

I was a teenage moderate.
In fact, because my political apprenticeship began even before my teen years, I can say that I was a pre-teen moderate. You see, my parents were "moderate Republicans," a now extinct species now found only in history books. I began my political education early, following around my dad, who got mixed up in the great battle for the soul of the Republican Party that broke into the open in 1964. In that year, the radicals (ironically labeled "conservatives") began their takeover of the party in the person of Barry Goldwater. My dad worked on behalf of the moderate Republican, Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania, as a paid employee as well as a supporter. Of course, as you know, even though Goldwater failed miserably in the election, the radicals eventual took control of the party, and the moderates died out or left. I left.

I say all of this because in reading Dave Brooks's column, I realize that I'm still a moderate at heart (and in the head, too). Like Brooks, I initially recoiled at the term because 'moderate' can be seen as a synonym for indifferent or as one who will settle for simply splitting the difference. And anyone who knows me or comes across what I write about politics I hope will not conclude that I'm indifferent or merely want to split the difference about political issues. Despite his reticence about the term moderate, Brooks argues that the term still fits, and he goes on to describe what he sees as its attributes. He convinces me, and below I reflect further on his insights.

Brooks describes the opposite of moderates as "warriors." Back in the 60s, we referred to them as "extremists." Brooks also (rightly) labels them as "authoritarians." The concept is the same. Whether at the extremes of the political spectrum--right or left--or as they're displayed in adjoining locations on a circular diagram of political attitudes (my preference), these extremists are the ones who are spoiling for a fight. They may be radical populists (which demonstrates how right and left can meet at the extremes), fascists, or radical leftists. But under any configuration, they promote division, violence, disruption, and seek raw power (as in control). Along with Brooks, I say a pox on all their houses.

"Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world." And this is a key point--the world, including the socio-economic-political world, is complex. And 'complex' is not easy to define (hey, it's complex!). But a quick stab at a definition might be that it's a system in which there are few direct connections between the parts of a vast system. In other words, what we do 'here' has consequences that we may feel (unexpectedly) 'there.' Sometimes a hard push yields little or no immediate result and yet in another circumstance, the softest push can send the system spinning out of control. What this means in practice is that we humans will have a hard time predicting all of the consequences of our innumerable actions. We often discover emergent properties--the 'I never expected that' surprises, or in Donald Rumsfield's nomenclature, 'the unknown unknowns.' Brooks argues that this fundamental attribute of our political reality should lead us to the following values and principles.

"The truth is plural." In life, no one's right all of the time and no one is wrong all of the time (although some--like you know who--certainly push the edge of the envelope). Add to this the dynamics of changing circumstances--how we solved a problem yesterday may not work in the conditions of today--means we have to keep our options open. We have to be humble.

"Politics is a limited activity." In short, the world's problems will not be solved by politics; personal happiness will not come from politics alone. Politics, like life, can have its uplifting moments that raise our consciousness and provide us experiences of personal growth. But most of the time, it's like daily life, a matter of performing household chores and earning a buck. Not romantic or uplifting but necessary. Politics, in other words, is a humbling activity that may, if we're lucky, provide us with some glimpses of the promised land.

Likewise, government is neither a panacea nor a curse. It partakes of both humankind's fallen nature--our finitude--and it can express our highest aspirations, but neither attribute is realized perfectly or finally. Government, argues Brooks--and I agree--is best seen as a useful tool, not an end in itself, but a means that may be more or less effective in different situations. For instance, government may compete with the market as means of addressing a collective problem. The relative merits of each will vary according to circumstances.

"Creativity is syncretistic." Good ideas come from diverse sources. If you keep an open, inquiring mind, you might discover that the over side has some useful ideas.

"In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high." This is true, and it's why those in government have to exhibit the highest levels of discretion, modesty, and insight. Government, misused, can lead to death and destruction. A healthy skepticism--but not cynicism--should be the watchword. Also, a high degree of realism is required. The recognition of constraints on choices of action and the reality and uncertainty of consequences is a hallmark of political wisdom. Ideologues (closely related to extremists) lose their suppleness of response and create expectations based on beliefs that lack the requisite humility to prove successful in changing circumstances.

"Truth before justice." Or I might say the converse, 'no justice without truth.' But of course, 'truth' doesn't come leaping into our arms like a long lost lover. It must be stalked. It is an elusive entity that often proves ephemeral and fleeting. The quest for truth is never completed, but if we can't at least report of its outlines--even as seen through a glass darkly--then we lose the means of finding our bearings. We have to learn to live in the twilight zone between despairing ignorance and unwarranted certainty.

"Beware the danger of a single identity." I would expand this to say that we should beware any mono-myth, any story that attributes a single cause or single identity to any person or phenomenon. Each of us is a complex, the product of innumerable streams of influence, and to adopt any identity or causal explanation to the exclusion of all others is folly. (These various tributaries also make us interesting--and often vexing--to ourselves as well as to others.)

"Partisanship is necessary but blinding." "Necessary"? I'm not sure, but certainly inevitable. Three ingredients guide all political decision-making: interests, passions, and reason. Our 'interests' are defined--in the simplest terms--by money. 'Whose ox gets gored?' as my medieval history prof used to put it. 'Passions' are characteristics such as seeking after fame or glory, power, control--Plato's thymos. The passions motivate all political actors in some measure. And 'reason.' I see reason as the crucial third that allows parties to mediate the differences that arise from the interests and the passions. In other words, 'reason' is not merely a matter of logic but a means of justifying and reconciling positions prompted by the passions and the interests. Thus, I doubt the existence of 'pure reason' in politics. (In this, I think that I'm going back as far as Hume--if not Aristotle--and as contemporary as the work of Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, authors of The Enigma of Reason.) Moderates seek for reason to prevail, although it can never vanquish the passions and interests. This is why, as Brooks notes, moderates are never comfortable members of a party (and are often distrusted by the believers). I find this entirely accurate. I was once a committed Republican, but I was too moderate. Now I've been a Democrat for a long time, but I always find myself a bit uncomfortable at meetings of Democrats because I can't help thinking that one tenant or another is a bunch of hooey that's a pretext for some interest, passion, or outdated ideology. It's always a struggle to balance the common interest (to the extent one exists, as it always does, but in varying degrees) with private ('party') interests. This is why politics is the art of the possible, the arena of compromise (to the extent it functions, unlike, for instance, the current Congress), and why legislation is often compared to sausage. It's also why political decisions are never entirely rational. (A counter-example, anyone?)

"Humility is the fundamental virtue." See all of the above, and as Brooks goes on to say, "Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding."

"Moderation requires courage." So true. Here it is over 50 years after my first (naive) self-identification as a 'moderate' that I feel like coming back to claim the term. But, fortunately, I've learned that popularity and acceptance are fleeting; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." And because moderates are by nature dissenters, internally and as well as externally, they do obtain a certain pariah status that requires some courage to maintain; it is not easy to cross currents.

And, finally, I agree with Brooks's peroration:
If you have elected a man who is not awed by the complexity of the world, but who filters the world to suit his own narcissism, then woe to you, because such a man is the opposite of the moderate voyager type. He will reap a whirlwind.


Instead of ideology, moderation is a way of coping with the complexity of the world.
NYTIMES.COM


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 2

Mild-looking man, challenging words
This resolution of the nation into a fighting machine and of national life into warfare, with the resulting disappearance of that peaceful life for whose protection the instruments of warfare were once thought to exist, has hitherto hardly dawned upon the English consciousness. . .. [W]e too are being drawn into the whirlpool of militarization, and complelled to serve indeed a deity whom in words we repudiate, the deity whose religion is that war, from being a means to peace, should become an end in itself.
            We conceal this fact from ourselves by pretending that our instruments of war are intended not to be used, but to be held as a threat against aggressors: pretending that we mean to preserve peace not by fighting, and through warfare securing the kind of peace we want, but by being able and ready to fight. That is a as much to say that we rely on threats which we do not mean to carry out. If so, our policy is at the mercy of the first nation that calls our bluff. But if we really mean to fight in certain contingencies—if our threats are more than bluff—our instruments of war are meant for use, and not for show, and we deceive ourselves and possibly our neighbors pretending otherwise. 
. . . . 
[W]e can no longer take seriously the conception of armaments as keepers of the peace: it becomes clear that such a conception is grossly self-contradictory. To keep the peace, armaments must be effective: to be effective, they must be designed on the basis of searching experiments, and only war can provide those experiments. War, actual war, is thus the presupposition of there being armaments. Frequent, destructive, and hotly contested war is the presupposition of there being highly efficient armaments. If there were a long period in which armed nations were at peace with one another, the first nation that felt uneasy at the obsolescence of its weapons must provoke a war in order to get the needful experience for bringing them up to date.
Id. 307-309

This quote is intended to provide further grounds for reflection on current interactions between North Korea and the Trump administration and the American public. But the long-term point is also worth considering. The U.S. has spent untold wealth on armaments since the beginning of the Cold War. Thank goodness, we’re not used nuclear weapons. American presidents from Truman (after his initial use of the Bomb) through Obama have all placed the highest value on keeping that evil jinn corked within the silo. And one can only hope, his bluster and impulsiveness notwithstanding, Trump believes the same thing. One can take from this that deterrence in the face of a nuclear threat has worked—so far. But as we are again considering Afghanistan—our forever war—one should note that having built an enormous, powerful military, we some feel compelled to use it, candidate Trump’s sound intuition notwithstanding.


In the paragraph of the quote, is Collingwood correct? I’m thinking, of course, about nuclear weapons. They’ve only been “tested” in warfare twice, and even test explosions by the U.S. and the major powers (North Korea the notable exception) have long ceased. Perhaps, at least to date, nuclear weapons have remained sui generis and therefore provide an exception to Collingwood’s admonition, which otherwise seems undoubtedly to have a sound basis. Perhaps, however, because nuclear weapons threaten the very existence of nation-states (and civilization itself), they prove the exception to Collingwood's observation. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 1

'Man Goes Mad' is included in this collection


The following quotes are taken from an essay written by R. G. Collingwood in 1936 entitled “Man Goes Mad.” This manuscript was not published during Collingwood’s lifetime and only came to light by the good offices of the editors and Collingwood’s daughter some decades later (as with other selections in the book). Collingwood’s thoughts, as always, are cogent and insightful. It’s a pity that they remained hidden so long, but a joy that they have come to light. The pithy political analysis contained in “Man Goes Mad” shows a profound understanding of the increasingly perilous political and cultural situation at the time Collingwood wrote, a time that our own time in some ways mirrors. I recommend the essay as a whole, of course, but to my knowledge, it’s only available in this book and perhaps one other (i.e., it's not available online). This entry will be the first of several blog posts that will share parts of Collingwood’s essay with some commentary by me.

            Since then [a generation ago] we have lived through a revolution in human thought: a revolution not so much caused, as precipitated and symbolized, by the war of 1914-1918. To the generation that has passed through that experience, those old forecasts of man’s future, and the whole system of ideas on which they rested, seem strangely perverse. For they all assumed that the road which nineteenth-century man was treading led uphill to infinity: whereas we now have seen that it led to the brink of a precipice. Over that brink millions of highly civilized men marched, in the course of a few years, to destruction; and now the whole civilized world trembles upon its edge, doubtful whether to continue the mass-suicide, to retrace its steps, or to find means of staying where it is. [305]

I include this quote because I don’t believe that we can appreciate any social and political critique from Collingwood’s era without appreciating the scars left by the Great War (WWI). But of course, it was not only a matter of looking back upon that catastrophic event (the centenary of which we are now in the midst of) but also a matter of looking at the world around him. Hitler and Mussolini were both ensconced in power, as was Stalin, who was already well into his course of genocide and personal paranoia. Japan had already initiated its wars of expansion into China. America had returned to isolationism as it dealt with the Great Depression, while Britain and France were not prepared to enter into a fight against hostile powers. Fascism and Communisim, not Liberal Democracy, were ascendent in the eyes of many, if not most.  But in addition to this political analysis, we have a cultural shift that continued to reflect a growing unease, a sea-change that began before the Great War, going back even to the late nineteenth-century, and that the War accelerated. Collingwood was not alone in perceiving this as a most unhappy time.

1.       Marks of Madness 
If a man of great intelligence, great bodily strength, and great mental energy, were found working out elaborate schemes for the betterment of his own condition, and throwing all his powers into their realization; and if it were seen, even by himself, that these schemes when realized involved his own impoverishment, misery, and ultimate destruction, and yet he was unable to stop inventing them and carrying them out, psychological medicine would call him the prey of a neurosis, and ordinary people would call him mad. 
That is the condition of civilized man today.
 From this point, Collingwood begins to specify his indictment. He begins with war and how war has changed over the course of time into its (then) current state of totality and destruction. (Of course, with the advent of nuclear weapons and the nearly continual state of war in which the U.S. places itself, imagine what Collingwood would say today.) Collingwood notes that war was once primarily a matter of greed: conquer and take. But now it’s changed:
The modern nation is in the condition of a man who spends every penny that his safe containes in making it burglar-prooof. Modern war is the mutual attempt to burgle these formidable but empty safes. And so obvious has their emptiness become, that a new motive for war has to be invented and fostered by the modern national spriit: no longer greed but fear. In a modern war, no one stands to gain; but every combatant loses, and the defeated nation loses most: it loses the very thing that makes it a nation, namely its power to make war; and therefore any nation, to avoid this ultimate impoverishment, has the right to attack any other of which it is afraid, before it is itself attacked at a time favourable to its enemy. [307]

For instance, in the U.S., Garry Wills demonstrated in his book Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (2010) how atomic weapons, theirs and ours, have warped many of our government institutions and our political discourse. In other words, what Collingwood identifies has not abated, but increased. And what would be more futile and self-destructive than nuclear war? Consider this as the U.S. (at least in the guise of its president) and North Korea continue to rattle nuclear sabers at one another. 

To be continued . . . . 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Don't Play the Fool, My Friends. 'No' to Violence

Don't play the fool, my friends, don't play the fool.

I was going to write a freestanding essay on the issues similar to those raised by Peter Beinart's Atlantic post, I realized that Beinart's essay provides an excellent (and brief) text upon which I can riff.

How might people opposed to violent white supremacists and their ilk become fools? By taking the bait of violence.

Of course, persons who value freedom and equality--fundamental American values--are shocked and appalled at the events in Charlottesville and the dismaying response of 45. And of course, those who cherish the American heritage of human rights don't want to cede the public space to violent thugs and bullies. But neither should we play their game, the game of violence. In the game of violence, the most violent, the most radical, win, whether they be on the right or the left.

Yes, while as Beinart points out, violent actors on the left have not come anywhere near to matching the violence and intimidation of the violent right, they still exist and pose a threat. Students of history will note that street fights marked much of the turmoil in post-WWI Germany, with communists and Nazis battling in the streets. When such battles erupt, who wins? In the parade of 20th-century horrors, whom can we say perpetrated the worst evils? The right of Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler, or the left of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others? Political divisions aren't accurately captured on a line running from left to right (or vice versa if you prefer), but seemingly opposed movements intersect in a circular configuration--in some cases, they meet in the sector marked by violence. (Others meet in the sector of order, law, and reason, which can include American liberals and conservatives, Democrats and traditional Republicans.) The comparative body count of the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right leaves little basis to prefer one to the other. The same can be said lesser, contemporary movements that adhere to one set of extremes or the other. Many have given the benefit of the doubt to the left based on the messianic and utopian elements of Marxist thought that draw upon those elements of Judaism and Christianity. But Marx had no political theory (despite some keen political insights), and the vacuum was filled by Lenin, Stalin, and others in ways that created states no less odious than those of Nazi Germany. The left is not pristine, and it must guard against those who would happily push progressives toward violence.

So what is to be done? This is a question of the highest moral, practical, and political significance (one problem viewed through three overlapping perspectives). The American Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King and the SCLC was able to pursue its successful campaign based on an extraordinary commitment to principles of non-violent resistance. But that was against the unconstitutional actions of state and local governments and was undertaken by a tight-knit community. I doubt such a community can be replicated today. But serious consideration must be given about how to combat the violent right without resorting to counter violence, which is pure oxygen to fuel the hatred of those who marched as 21st-century successors to Nazis and secessionists defending slavery. Anarchy is not the answer. Left-wing thuggery is not the answer. Right now there is no clear picture about how to respond with something more than words. We need to appear in the public space in support of American values. While I don't have a definitive answer about how to do this, I do know that we should eliminate one option: violence.


If Trump is concerned about violence on the left, he can start by fighting the racist movements whose growth has fueled its rise. 
THEATLANTIC.COM

Collingwood on Magic, Tools, and Power

R.G. Collingwood 
In the following quote, Collingwood furthers his discussion about how tools are more than something of utilitarian value. Tools provide status and protection, whether it’s a housewife’s [sic] Hoover or a man’s new, fast motorcar. Here he goes into the employment of others as “tools” and its relation to power. By the way, I put one sentence in italics for emphasis. I trust you’ll know whom I had in mind when I read that. 


The use of human labor, hired or servile, gives the same kind of feeling as the use of tools; for, as Aristotle puts it, the slave is a kind of living tool. And this feeling underlies our conviction that having servants to do your work is grand, doing it for yourself undignified. It underlies the fascination of ‘business’, which his not (as the utilitarian rationalization pretends) a mean to getting rich, but a way of achieving power over other men. It underlies the desire for political power and victory in war. Where power over men is inordinately desired, one may be sure that those who desire it are driven by fear of their own weakness, and ready to go to any length in the search for a delusive reassurance. But men are harder to control than machines, having wills of their own,; so, whereas the feebler souls amoung ourselves forget their self-dissatisfaction in the cult of machinery, the stronger do it by becoming kinds of business, political bosses, or dictators. But here again, as in the desire for clothes and tools, the impulse in itself is universal and healthy. It is only when it is disowned by a world of obsessed utilitarianism that it becomes a madness.’ [Emphasis added.]


R.G. Collingwood, The Philosophy of Enchantment: Studies in Folktale, Cultural Criticism, and Anthropology (ed. David Boucher, Wendy James, & Phillip Smallwood) (2005), 215-216. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Collingwood on Magic, Art, Emotion & Utilitarian Civilization

Another quote today from Collingwood. Reading Collingwood reminds me of when I first read Hannah Arendt over 40 years ago--the feeling of reading by lightning--being struck with flashes of deep insight. Insights that alter the way that I perceive the world leap-up from the page. Having read a great deal more and pondered about how the world works over that period since first encountering Arendt, it shocks me a bit to have a such an experience again. But Collingwood, whom I've only begun to explore in the last few years, has provided a deeper, richer vein of insight than I had anticipated. The quote below comes from his essay "Magic." I have some sense of Collingwood's take on the subject from having read his Principles of Art (1938), but this particular essay digs deeply into the relation of magic and emotion and how our utilitarian civilization has attempted to suppress emotion and magic. To read and appreciate this, you must--at least temporarily--set aside your belief that magic is simply crude or distorted science. (Read Collingwood's full treatment of the topic in this book, and I suspect he'll permanently dissuade you from that misconception.) Also, for the curious, compare Collingwood's insights and argument with the work of Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary). I believe that they arrive at very similar conclusions. 

After a long and hideous experiment in suppressing [magic] by force, by burning witches, we came to see that burning witches means believing in them, and that their victims’ belief in them, what I have called emotional vulnerability, was the source of their power. So we changed our own attitude towards them: replaced persecution by ridicule, and gradually developed a whole system of education and social life based on the principle that magic was not a crime but a folly, whose success depended on a like folly in its victims.

            The hard-headed or thick-skinned or rationalistic attitude towards life, which our civilization invented in the seventeenth century, worked out in the eighteenth, and applied to all aspects of human affairs in the nineteenth, is the dominant factor in modern civilization. The best single-word name for it is utilitarianism. Our civilization prides itself in being sensible, rational, businesslike; and all these are the name for the same characteristic, namely the habit of justifying every act, every custom, every institution, by showing its utility. The doctrine that utility is the only kind of value that a thing can have is called utilitarianism; and it is obvious to anyone who reflects on the general character of our civilization that it is, characteristically, a utilitarian civilization. . . .

            This utilitarianism is more than a principle; it is an obsession. Whatever cannot be justified in this way our civilization tends on the whole to suppress. In general, it discountenances emotion and the expression of emotion; in particular it distrusts art and religion as things not altogether respectable. To live within the scheme of modern European-American civilization involves doing a certain violence to one’s emotional nature, treating emotion as a thing that must be repressed, a hostile force within us whose outbreaks are feared as destructive of civilized life. We have already had occasion to observe that our horror of savages is really a horror of something within ourselves which ‘the savage’ (that is, any civilization other than our own) symbolizes. We are now finding reason to think that this thing is emotion: for magic, which sums up all that we dislike in savage life, is beginning to reveal itself as the systematic and organized expression of emotion.


R.G. Collingwood, The Philosophy of Enchantment: Studies in Folktale, Cultural Criticism, and Anthropology (ed. David Boucher, Wendy James, & Phillip Smallwood), (2005; note, however, that the book is based on manuscripts written by Collingwood in the 1930s but not published—and largely forgotten—until long after his death).

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life by Mitch Horowitz

I can’t imagine any contemporary American who hasn’t been exposed to—and probably adhered to—some form of “positive thinking.” It’s a part of our cultural gene pool, reinforced through decades of repetition and refinement. Whether it’s “the power of positive thinking,” “a can-do attitude,” “think and grow rich,” or the “law of attraction,” I suspect all Americans, like me, have considered, tried, and wondered about this train of thought. Are these movements the legitimate heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James or the bastard children of P.T. Barnum? I’ve long suspected a bit of both, and having now read Mitch Horowitz’s One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (2014), and believe the “a little bit of both” conclusion is a fair characterization and one that doesn’t bother me.

As someone who’s changed his mind about a lot of serious issues and practices, and who’s sampled a variety of schools of thought and action, a mixed intellectual heritage doesn’t bother me. I’ve concluded that no one has a monopoly on the truth; that with perhaps a very few exceptions, no one is entirely wrong; that we don’t understand everything—perhaps most events and processes that govern our world; and that a certain pragmatism (so American) is required. Add to this a personality that is conservative in the sense of skeptical about change and thus slow to change. I also harbor an outlook that anticipates problems and doesn’t trust the future to necessarily prove benign, even though I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my life. I think that the Buddha (life necessarily involves dissatisfaction) and his western cousins, the Stoics, are correct in many of their fundamental insights. And yet, the positive attitudes and mental energies promoted by the American tradition attract me as well. Thus, when I started Horowitz’s book, I hoped that it would help untangle these ambiguities and apparent contractions. And it turns out, while I didn’t resolve these contractions, I do have a better grasp of what’s going on in the American tradition of positive thinking and my relation to it.
Horowitz addresses the issues by providing a thorough history of the positive thinking movement from its early days. Starting with the import of Mesmerism from France (an early form of hypnosis) in the early 19th century, to early efforts to use the mind and prayer to heal, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a series of streams converged to bring about a new way of dealing with the world. Especially noteworthy was Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. For a woman to found a new church that continued to be run by women (primarily) was no small feat. As Horowitz explains, part of the impetus toward spiritual healing was the abysmal state of the medical arts in 19th century America, with its “heroic” efforts that used bleeding, leeches, and poisons to treat patients, and this woeful practice was applied even more to women than to men. If fact, one was more likely to be harmed by a physician than helped. And, at least in some cases, prayer seemed to work. Others followed or came to similar ways of thinking as Eddy, at least in part, about the beneficial uses of “prayer” and “mind” to cure disease. As the U.S. continued to grow and prosper, this “New Thought” movement, or mind metaphysics, grew with it. And in addition to curing illness, it turned its attention to the generation of wealth and the business world.

As we proceed in Horowitz’s account into mid-20th century America, we move from names now largely forgotten to those whom—at least for person my age—will recognize: Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Earl Nightingale, Oral Roberts, and Alcoholics Anonymous to name some those who remained active into the 1970s and after. Horowitz conveys their insights and weaknesses, including the fact that practitioners could sometimes be glib, Pollyannaish, or ethically obtuse. Horowitz also discusses figures who have escaped our attention from earlier years and who were more fringe in some ways but helped shape their times and the movement.

Horowitz spends some pages addressing the man who most publicly and famously manifested this culture in late 20th century America: Ronald Reagan. Reagan, whether you’re an admirer or a critic, was not an easy man to gain the measure of. But no doubt a significant part of his success as a politician and leader came from his unabashed optimism and (for lack of a better term) positive thinking. This was not an accident, as Reagan was bathed in this culture from his youth to his years in Hollywood and beyond. Part of what drove people like me crazy about Reagan was his firm grasp of unreality, and yet he was amazingly successful in molding reality to his liking, which included changing his mind in ways that seemed at times almost flippant, but that also contributed to his success. The imagination and the mental agility (to put it kindly) that Reagan deployed arose in some measure from these New Thought beliefs (and his acting career). Note that Reagan was not a religious man in the way, for instance, his predecessor, Jimmy Carter was (born-again Baptist), yet Reagan was in tune with most of middle-America and its belief system.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Horowitz takes measure of New Thought and its positive thinking descendants. His assessment is sober, thorough, and convincing, a kind of “what’s living and what’s dead” in the New Thought and positive thinking movement. He concludes that there is a bit of both. He criticizes the “law of attraction,” a major tenet of New Though well before Rhonda Byrnes wrote and produced The Secret (2006); in fact, she gained her insights from New Thought writer Wallace Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich. The law of attraction posits an all-controlling universal law without any second. Horowitz points out the obvious: our lives are governed by a myriad of forces beyond our control. Thus, a na├»ve and partial reading of Emerson must be rejected; however, that we get what we give in some measure seems more likely than not. Horowitz also points out that the advice to focus the mind on what you really want—and not just what society or culture imposes upon you—will prove liberating, clarifying, and motivating. It makes a lot of sense. One title, It Works! captures the simplicity and common-sense aspect of the movement. Horowitz also marshals scientific evidence and arguments that point to the fact that mind or thoughts can affect the (physical) brain. It may not be true that if we think we can, we can, but it certainly seems to help.
Mitch Horowitz

There are persons and topics that Horowitz doesn’t address that I wish he could have. For instance, how the thought of Abraham Maslow and his work about peak experiences might fit into this line of thinking. Also, Robert Anton Wilson explored the topic of belief systems and their interaction with the brain and mind in his wild ride of a book, Prometheus Rising (1983). This book owes its intellectual legacy more to traditional psychology, especially Freud and Jung, as well as general semantics and the psychedelic movement (it’s dedicated to Dr. Timothy Leary). I don’t recall any explicit reference to the New Thought movement, but Robert Anton Wilson’s take certainly shares some attributes and attitudes. Finally, while I know of no direct references between New Thought and Colin Wilson, the two trains of thought provide for an interesting comparison. Across the Atlantic, Colin Wilson developed his own very provocative and convincing theory of the mind and how it worked, but he developed most of his insights from reading in phenomenology and existentialism, as well as the European literary tradition (later supplemented with explorations of the occult). If nothing else, Colin Wilson shared an exuberance and eagerness with New Thought to explore the human mind to realize its full potential.

But like most good books (or at least that those who find willing publishers and readers), Horowitz had to stop somewhere, and in doing so, he provided us with a very satisfying work. And so, while I will likely remain a bit skeptical, I’ll also remember to focus on my intentions, vet my thoughts kick out the stinkers, keep a positive attitude, and acknowledge that thoughts have causative powers. I believe it just might help.


Words of R.G. Collingwood to Contemplate (and Practice)

R.G. Collingwood (undated photo)
Words of R.G. Collingwood to contemplate & practice:

'The maxim of Spinoza is neither to condemn nor to deride the feelings and actions of men, but to understand them. It might seem a truism that this rule must be obeyed by all students of human custom and belief; but that is not so. many people who claim to be students of human nature think that by condemning others they are proving their own superior virtue, and in deriding them their own superior wisdom; or rather, they do not think about it at all, but act as if they thought thus, because of a devil inside them that can only be appeased by this self-glorification at the expense of others. Here the professed study of human nature is simply a pretense for gratifying odium humani generis [hatred of the human race]. . . . These rules, so far as they are rules of scientific method, are not mere rules of manners or morals; they are indispensable means to arriving at the truth. . . . [T]he adoption of Spinoza's maxim is not only a point of scientific method, it is a moral discipline for the whole man, for the whole of our civilization. We must learn to face the savage* within us if we are to understand the savage outside us. The savage within us must be not be stamped down out of sight. He too, by the same Spinozistic rule, must be neither be condemned nor derided, but understood. Just as the savages around us, when thus understand, cease to appear as savages and become human beings, courteous and friendly and honourable and worthy of admiration for their virtues and of love for their humanity, so the savage within us, on the same terms, will become no longer a thing of horror but a friend and helper: no savage, but the heart and root of our own civilization."
Spinoza: 
'I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.' TRACTATUS THEOLOGICO-POLITICUS (1670).

R. G. Collingwood, THE PHILOSOPHY OF ENCHANTMENT: STUDIES IN FOLKTALES, CULTURAL CRITICISM, & ANTHROPOLOGY, (ed. by Boucher, James, & Smallwood), pp. 184, 185, 186.

I fear that I've all too often ignored Spinoza's & Collingwood's advice. Especially viz those with whom I have strong disagreements currently. However, Collingwood spoke out strongly and forcefully against those opinions that he found wanting, as well as those wrong & even threatening (such as fascism). I think the key to acting viz. the present is to understand as well as possible even those whose actions we must condemn. But sometimes understanding doesn't bring reconciliation, but greater loathing. (You know of whom I speak of in the current context, I trust.) While we need reconciliation and understanding, sometimes we need resistance, too. I'm not sure of how or where to draw the line. "Love the sinner but hate the sin"? Were it so clean a distinction!

*Earlier in his text, Collingwood had derided the use of terms such as "savages,", "primitives," and the like by social scientists as condescending and misleading. Thus, in the current context, Collingwood's use of the term "savage" should be read as an ironic turn that disarms its malignant use by applying it to himself, his contemporaries, and to those whom he would ascribe its misuse.