Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with comments, Pt. 10

To what extent is Collingwood's understanding of (liberal) politics and illiberal politics consistent with that offered by Hannah Arendt? I think I discern some distinct similarities. 


In this post, we pick up from the point of Collingwood's question: "If the abandonment of all attempt to live by liberal principles is madness, why has this madness come upon us?




Liberalism, during the time of its growth and greatness, entirely transformed the inner political life of those countries where it took root. But it never applied itself seriously to the task of reforming their international relations. . . . What change there had been [in international relations], was for the worse: weapons more destructive, war more expensive, and national hatred (a thing hardly known in the seventeenth century) smouldering everywhere. The liberal state of the nineteenth century conceived itself as an individual among individuals, in that false essence of individuality which makes it synonymous  with mutual exclusiveness, and denies that between one individual and another there may be organic relations such that the welfare of each is necessary to that of the other. The liberal government which ‘trusted the people’ hated and feared peoples other than its own. It was this unnatural union of internal liberalism and external liberalism that led by way of international anarchy to the militarism of today. 
            If liberalism failed to affect international relations, it failed also in certain ways to affect the inner life of communities. A division was made, both in practice and in theoretical writings, between the public affairs of the community as a whole and the private affairs of its members. It was held that, whereas a man’s political opinions were of interest to the government, whose business it was to elicit them for its own guidance, his private actions, so long as he did nothing illegal, were his own concern. In practice this meant that his life as a ‘business’ man was under no kind of control by the state, so that the economic life of the community was an anarchy as complete as international politics, This was tolerable in theory only because of the extraordinary doctrine, learned from Adam Smith, that free pursuit of individual interest best served the interest of all; in practice it was soon found wholly intolerable, and the misery of the weaker, to which it gave rise, was the course of modern socialism. The militarism and the revolutionary socialism which threaten to destroy civilization today are a just punishment for its crimes in the years of its greatness. They spring, not from weakness or falsity in the principles of liberalism itself, but from the failure of our grandfathers to put those principles consistently into practice. Where these attacks show symptoms of insanity is the fact that they are directed, not against the incomplete application of liberal principles, but against those principles themselves. For three hundred years, civilized man has been working out a liberal system of political method, applying it, bit by bit, to the various parts of his corporate life. Now, because the application has not proved exhaustive, because  there are still some regions unreclaimed by this method, it seems that man has decided no longer to use it, but to throw it away as an ill-tempered child throws away a toy, to give up the attempt at living a political life, and to live in future the life of a gunman, the life of violence and lawlessness, the life which Hobbes, thinking he described the remote past only, and not he future, called solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
My comments: 

  1. To what extent do Collingwood's remarks anticipate the argument of Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that European 'imperialism' in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries contributed to the rise of totalitarianism? 
  2. Is Collingwood too utopian here in complaining about the failure of liberal institutions to develop between nation-states? He'd surely noticed the failure of the League of Nations (and the success of the later United Nations is sketchy at best). Compare Collingwood's analysis to that of his contemporary (and fellow philosopher of history), E.H. Carr writing in The Twenty Years' Crisis: 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (September 1939): Carr writes a manifesto of contemporary realism in the field of international relations that pooh-poohs international  institutions (for the most part) and debunks a good deal of what he argues (persuasively) were utopian projects always on the very of annihilation by power politics. I don't think Collingwood was naive, but I'm not sure how his alternative course of achieving a genuinely liberal regime in international relations would have succeeded. (In some measure, though, current problems notwithstanding, the EU seems to provide a model that Collingwood might endorse.)
  3. I think that Collingwood, like almost everyone else who's addressed the topic, has mistakenly attributed a faith in markets to Adam Smith that he never held. Smith's "invisible hand" was a metaphor he used only in passing in this Wealth of Nations, and his earlier (but underappreciated) Theory of Moral Sentiments says a great deal about the cultural foundations upon which capitalism could be laid. Smith was not a free market ideologue of the type that we find today. 
  4. Certainly, in the U.S. we see Collingwood's prediction coming true: the gunman is taking over. Note the images from Charlottesville. Guns represent violence and coercion, the opposite of politics, reason, and dialectic (dialogue). Collingwood, I argue, tracks Arendt very closely in the analysis of politics as the opposite of violence and coercion--at least politics as understood in a liberal (democratic) polity.