Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A weary time

December 4, 2014

Two hundred years ago last month, Hegel wrote contemptuously to a friend about the patriotic vaunting of national identity (Deutschdumm, or ‘Germandumb’) that was sure to follow the Congress of Vienna:

[According] to a few rumours, the era after the Congress of Vienna is — apart from the political aspect, which does not concern us — to be assured by an interesting literary-artistic idea: the erection of the great memorial column dedicated to the Nation along with a comprehensive national archive for the conservation of Old German monuments and patriotic relics of all sorts, including the song of the Nibelungen, Imperial treasures, King Roger’s shoes, electoral capitulations, free constitutional charters, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, Norica, and so on.

It will be built on a quiet spot, so that its enjoyment will be more secure from the noise of the rest of reality…

The entire Congress, however, is to be concluded with a great ceremony, a torchlight procession with the ringing of bells and roaring of cannons to the ultimate rule of reason in which the German people [Pippel] will be trampled in the dirt.

Behind Pippel there follow, as valets and attendants, a few tame house cats, such as the Inquisition, the Jesuit Order, and then all the armies with their sundry commissioned, princely, and titled marshals and generals.

Romantic nationalism, tricked out with philosophical respectability by Fichte and Schlegel, was one cause for sarcasm.

Another was the conclave itself, where autocrats plotting Europe’s post-Napoleonic order had decorated their arcana imperii with liberal banners:

It is a new, unforgettable experience for the peoples to see what their Princes are capable of when they convene to devote themselves in mind and heart to discussion of the welfare of both their own peoples and the world  all, to be sure, according to the most noble declared principle of universal justice and the welfare of all.

For centuries we have only seen action taken by cabinets or individual men for themselves against others. The present phenomenon, however, is unique and calls for a brilliant result.

Kissinger Metternich

Of the War of Liberation that had expelled the French, Hegel commented scornfully: ‘if by chance I see any liberated individuals I myself will rise to my feet.’

There were ‘still many things to be asked about this Liberation of ours which is said to have taken place’:

I have already noticed that the public hopes that Imperial freedoms will be won back again, and the rabble is convinced. They hope to have back the good old days.

It will then once more be permitted, as one man puts it, to give a box on the ear for sixteen pennies — for that is what it cost under the Old Regime — while a second man thinks he will be free again to have his ears boxed.


Great events have transpired about us. It is a frightful spectacle to see a great genius destroy himself. There is nothing more tragic. The entire mass of mediocrity, with its irresistible leaden weight of gravity, presses on like lead, without rest or reconciliation, until it has succeeded in bringing down what is high to the same level as itself or even below.

Six years earlier, in October 1808, Hegel had appealed in gossipy tones to the poet Karl Ludwig von Knegel, demanding to learn ‘for my personal edification’ about Napoleon’s audience with Goethe at Erfurt:

What did Napoleon talk about at the ball with Wieland and Goethe?…

Tell me about it when you feel inclined. And tell me whether there was any delight in it for you, and whether even some honour slipped in along with it  I do not want to say for the Germans, but rather for those individuals of such great merit.

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

In October 1806 Hegel had famously observed the Weltgeist trotting through Jena on horseback:

I saw the Emperor  this world-soul  riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.

Hegel’s enthusiastic evocation of the conquering hero is one of the more familiar, quotable, exoteric passages in an otherwise forbidding and obscure output.

So let’s renew our interest by reminding ourselves that, for him, Napoleon’s arrival heralded the onset of military occupation, with all its predictable depredations and rapine.

The latter began just before winter set in, and the philosopher soon complained to friends of French ‘plunder’ of food and timber for fires, along with ‘the inevitable inflation, thievery… Nobody has imagined war such as we have seen it!’

Moreover, the Grande Armée‘s advance had made Hegel’s own financial circumstances suddenly precarious.

In late September 1806 his publisher had imposed a final deadline for delivery of the remaining sections of his Phenomenology of Spirit, which hitherto had allowed Hegel a steady cash flow of 21 florins per page.

Accordingly, two days before the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt began, Hegel had entrusted the manuscript to a mounted courier, instructing him to pass south through French lines to Bamberg.


For the most part, Hegel did not exhibit a giddy Schwärmerei for the person of Napeleon, the military genius.

He warned a student against ‘marvelling speechless at events like brutes  or, with a greater show of cleverness, from attributing them to the accidents of the moment or talents of an individual, thus making the fate of empires depend on the occupation or non-occupation of a hill.’

Rather, Hegel welcomed Napoleon as the ’emanation’, the ‘outward diffusion’ of the French Revolution to the rest of Europe:

Thanks to the bath of her Revolution, the French nation has freed herself of many institutions which the human spirit had outgrown like the shoes of a child. These institutions accordingly once oppressed her, and they now continue to oppress other nations as so many fetters devoid of spirit…

This is what gives this Nation the great power she displays against others. She weighs down upon the impassiveness and dullness of these other nations, which, finally forced to give up their indolence in order to step out into actuality, will perhaps  seeing that inwardness preserves itself in externality — surpass their teachers.

Years later, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel would include Napoleon alongside Caesar and Alexander the Great as ‘World-Historical persons, whose vocation it was to be the agents of the World-Spirit’:

[Thinking] men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time  what was ripe for development.

This was the very Truth for their age, for their world; the species next in order, so to speak, and which was already formed in the womb of time. It was theirs to know this nascent principle; the necessary, directly sequent step in progress, which their world was to take; to make this their aim, and to expend their energy in promoting it.

World-historical men  the Heroes of an epoch  must, therefore, be recognized as its clear-sighted ones; their deeds, their words are the best of that time.

What was Napoleon’s world-historical mission, according to Hegel?

It was to act as a pawn or tool of Reason, spreading abroad by military conquest the achievements of France’s bourgeois revolution.

After its defeat at Jena, the agrarian mainstays of Prussian absolutism had been reinvigorated, rather than overturned, by Stein and Hardenberg’s reforms.

The Bauernlegen (Enclosure movement) seized yet larger manorial estates for the wealthiest members of the Junker class. Consolidation via land sales was especially pronounced east of the Elbe.

Nonetheless, in Vienna Metternich could sniff that the Prussians were ‘German Jacobins’, their military ranks infested with a ‘Jacobin spirit.’

Commons and Smallholder losses under land reforms

Prussian farm structure

Even decades later, writing in the dark European night of the Holy Alliance, having renounced his youthful opinions and reached a philosophical accommodation with the Prussian state, Hegel would recall the great French Revolution as a ‘glorious mental dawn’:

All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the Divine and the Secular was now first accomplished.


Objective or Real Freedom: to this category belong Freedom of Property and Freedom of Person. Those relics of that condition of servitude which the feudal relation had introduced are hereby swept away, and all those fiscal ordinances which were the bequest of the feudal law  its tithes and dues, are abrogated.

Real [practical] Liberty requires moreover freedom in regard to trades and professions  the permission to every one to use his abilities without restriction  and the free admission to all offices of State…

Germany was traversed by the victorious French hosts, but German nationality delivered it from this yoke. One of the leading features in the political condition of Germany is that code of Rights which was certainly occasioned by French oppression, since this was the especial means of bringing to light the deficiencies of the old system. The fiction of an Empire has utterly vanished. It is broken up into sovereign states. Feudal obligations are abolished, for freedom of property and of person have been recognized as fundamental principles. Offices of State are open to every citizen, talent and adaptation being of course the necessary conditions.

In 1807, Hegel had written in tremulous anticipation about the Confederation of the Rhine and introduction of the Code Napoléon:

Everyone here awaits the great reorganization soon to break in upon us. I have reported in my newspaper that the land is to be divided into prefectures. There is, moreover, talk of a great assembly of princes and magistrates of the Empire. The crucial decision will surely come from Paris.

Already the crowd of little princes who have remained in northern Germany makes a stronger tie necessary. The German professors of constitutional law have not stopped spewing forth masses of writing on the concept of sovereignty and the meaning of the Acts of Confederation.

The great professor of constitutional law sits in Paris…

Napoleon will have to organize all this.

Thus Hegel’s effusions did occasionally lapse into a certain awestruck fascination with Napoleon.

Tilsit treaties

Later he counselled tranquility in the face of the Restoration, judging its reversals to be transient and minor, with the Prussian reforms largely intact:

I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders. These orders are being obeyed.

The world spirit, this essential [power], proceeds irresistibly like a closely drawn armoured phalanx advancing with imperceptible movement, much as the sun through thick and thin. Innumerable light troops flank it on all sides, throwing themselves into the balance for or against its progress, though most of them are entirely ignorant of what is at stake and merely take head blows as from an invisible hand.

Yet no lingering lies or make-believe strokes in the air can achieve anything against it. They can perhaps reach the shoelaces of this colossus, and smear on a bit of boot wax or mud, but they cannot untie the laces. Much less can they remove these shoes of gods… once the colossus pulls them on.

Surely the safest thing to do both externally and internally is to keep one’s gaze fixed on the advancing giant. To edify the entire bustling zealous assemblage, one can even stand there and help daub on the cobbler’s wax that is supposed to bring the giant to a standstill. For one’s own amusement, one can even lend a hand to the enterprise that is being taken so seriously.

I have anticipated the Reaction of which we presently hear so much…

The Reaction is still far removed from genuine resistance, for it already stands entirely within the sphere over against which resistance stands as something external. Even if it intends to do the opposite, the will of the Reaction is chiefly restricted to matters of vanity. It wishes to place its own stamp on the events it thinks it most vehemently hates, so as to read upon them: “This have we done!”

The essential content remains unaltered. The addition or subtraction of a few small ribbons or garlands changes matters as little as actual injury that is no sooner suffered than healed. For when such injury pretends to a more significant relation to the whole substance than it is capable of having, it proves ephemeral.

Thus  if we largely ignore all the fuss and paltry paper successes of human ants, fleas, and bugs — has this most fearsome Reaction against Bonaparte in essence changed so much, whether for good or evil?

We shall allow these ant, flea, and bug personalities to appear to us just as the good Creator has destined: that is, chiefly as a subject for jokes, sarcasm, and malicious pleasure. If need be, what we can do, in light of this provident design, is to help these poor vermin along to their destiny.

What then happened, amid the conservative post-Napoleonic scene, to this confident vision of the ‘world-historical individual,’ after the established order of dynastic regimes had been reinstated at Vienna and the ageing Hegel was succeeded by his many squabbling legatees?

The philosopher himself was haunted by ‘confused fantasies’ that his work was ‘mere irrelevancies, mere packaging.’ Upon waking from such torrid dreams, ‘it seemed difficult to me to have to go to class and lecture on law.’

Meanwhile nineteenth-century European capitalism, safe beneath the clerical shield of the Holy Alliance, devoted itself to the tame, tawdry, internally pacific business of enrichissez-vous.

Nobody mistook Gladstone, Guizot or Cavour for the World-Soul.

Europe 1815

There matters stood until the mid-twentieth century.

Then, in 1930s Paris, Alexander Kojève appealed to Hegel’s scriptural authority to anoint Stalin, in place of Robespierre-Napoleon, as leader of a ‘universal and homogeneous state’ (enthusiasm he later transferred to the European Economic Community).

Hegel’s sequence of social forms had culminated in Kremlin tyranny, beyond which, for Kojève, no systemic progress was possible: ‘the vanguard of humanity virtually attained the limit and the aim, that is, the end, of Man’s historical evolution.’

In the person of Stalin, once again ‘politics is a tributary of philosophy’, the Georgian seminarian having learnt at the feet of Marx, himself an inheritor of Hegel:

[The] statesman who actualized the first effective step had been educated by a disciple at the second remove from the theoretical initiator… The tyrant who here inaugurated the real political movement consciously followed the instruction of the intellectual who deliberately transformed the idea of the philosopher so that it might cease to be a “utopian” ideal… and become instead a political theory on the basis of which one could give concrete advice to tyrants, advice which they could follow.

Thus, while recognizing that the tyrant has “falsified” the philosophical idea, we know that he has done so only in order to “transpose it from the realm of abstraction into that of reality.”

In 1989, in turn, Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘End of History’, with liberal capitalism now the ne plus ultra of political-economic arrangements. Following the collapse of European Stalinism, all ‘viable systematic alternatives’ to the status quo were henceforth eliminated from the scene.

Benjamin’s ‘storm blowing from Paradise’ turned out to have been but a passing squall. The Angel of History now idled limply in the doldrums, its job complete.

Fukuyama’s conjecture attracted little open assent, smacking too brassily of State Department hubris, if not misguided complacency.

Yet, whether embraced or not, Fukuyama’s dismissal of alternative futures today haunts our Restoration epoch, its tacit assumption so universal that it needn’t be spoken aloud. All the wisdom of the age shares a resigned certainty that socialism was tried once and failed prohibitively, leaving its chastened, disabused epigones with no possibility of progress beyond our existing world of private ownership and paid employment.

In 1977, as French intellectuals underwent full-blown de-Marxification, Jean-François Lyotard had famously announced the death of ‘le grand récit marxiste. From Hegel’s Phenomenology to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag there ran a clear path.

By 1990, tucked in Fukuyama’s slipstream, Lyotard was registering his own reactions to the Persian Gulf crisis and collapse of European Stalinism:

The fall of the [Berlin] wall… provides evidence that the more open the system, the more efficient it is; while on the other hand it shows that closed and isolated systems are doomed to disappear, either by competition or merely by entropy (Brezhnev should have studied thermodynamics a bit).

‘When the Berlin Wall fell,’ it became clear that all competitors to liberal capitalism had ‘failed definitively’:

The bourgeois discourse of emancipation and the communal organization connected with it, that is, liberal “late” capitalism, now look like the only survivors and winners after two centuries of struggle that sought to impose another way of reading and leading human history. This system has good reasons to claim to be the true supporter of human rights and freedom.

In this ‘present historical situation,’ Lyotard felt entitled to indulge in an imaginative exercise, ‘a postmodern fable… the unavowed dream that the postmodern world dreams about itself:’

[It] happened that systems called liberal democracies came to be recognized as the most appropriate for the task of controlling events in whatever field they might occur. By leaving the programs of control open to debate and by providing free access to the decision-making roles, they maximized the amount of human energy available to the system.

The effectiveness of this realistic flexibility has shown itself to be superior to the exclusively ideological (linguistic) mobilization of forces that rigidly regulated the closed totalitarian systems.

In liberal democratic systems, everybody could believe what they liked, that is, could organize language according to whatever system they liked, provided that they contributed to the system as energetically as they could.

Given the increased self-control of the open system, it was likely that it would be the winner in the competition among the systems all over Earth.

Nothing seemed able to stop the development of this system except the Sun and the unavoidable collapse of the whole star system. In order to meet this predictable challenge, the system was already in the process of developing the prosthesis that would enable it to survive after the solar sources of energy, which had contributed to the genesis and maintenance of the living systems, were wiped out…

The natural sciences were ‘thus preparing for the first exodus of the negentropic system far from Earth with no return.’

Why was this demented cosmic fantasy not a grand narrative, and therefore, on Lyotard’s own terms, suspect?

Because, he explained, it did not describe a ‘promised emancipation.’ It was not a ‘narrative of a promise to be kept… an emergence from an initially alienated condition toward the horizon of the enjoyment of selfhood or freedom.’

Rather, in it ‘the contemporary world’ had been liberated from the ‘horizon of history or historicity in which emancipation was a promise.’

Here, in Lyotard’s ad hoc refinement to his theory, arrived a new intellectual prohibition. Hope for an improved world or better society was now the unacceptable element in any philosophy of history.

Henceforth all that remained was the ‘tangible emancipation’ provided for by capitalism itself: ‘programs that improve what already exists are inscribed in its very mode of functioning.’

Emancipation lay not in an alternative social order, but was ‘an ideal that the system itself endeavors to actualize in most of the areas it covers, such as work, taxes, marketplace, family, sex, race, school, culture, communication.’

Time September 1977 - Nouveaux Philosophes

Thus for contemporary opinion, academic and journalistic, the idea of history as a unique linear ordering has fallen out of favour, convicted of assorted lapses and defects.

The four-stage theory, which grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment, held that:

There are four distinct states which mankind pass thro:—1st, the Age of Hunters; 2dly, the Age of Shepherds; 3dly, the Age of Agriculture; and 4thly, the Age of Commerce.

This schema was carried over wholesale by a certain kind of Marxism (though the latter’s view of history was, for the most part, traduced by Cold War enemies like Popper).

Popper, for his part, promoted the explanatory power of unintended consequences and spontaneous order over what he mistakenly saw as Marxism’s belief in ‘inexorable laws of social development’.

This preference for fortuitous cosmos over purposive taxis upheld, thought Popper, his favoured political programme of ‘piecemeal’ tinkering and meliorist reform. It gainsaid, on the other hand, any Promethean, ‘totalitarian’ ambitions to social planning, which relied on accurate prophecy of the future.

Yet  however apt these strictures against historicism and the latter’s presumptuous claims to forecast the future from past evidence  Popper’s arraignment misfired wildly, letting its intended target off the hook. The ‘fundamental idea that it should be possible to predict revolutions just as it is possible to predict solar eclipses’ was no maxim of Marxism, but largely a figment of the Viennese philosopher.

And, as is well known, Hegel’s ‘ruse of Reason’ was itself drawn from the unintended outcome or ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith and the Scots.

To be sure, Hegel’s pre-scientific world of German idealism is separated from our own by a Big Ditch of cognitive style. If ‘every philosophical baby that is born alive is either a little positivist or a little Hegelian’, then sex ratios are increasingly skewed. Hegel’s account of Spirit evolving through successive transitions in the ‘ethical life of a nation’ was indeed, as Popper declared, ‘sheer historicist superstition.’

Yet its commonsense rejection today is, whatever the theoretical rights and wrongs, a symptom of blocked historical imagination, of lowered horizons and world-weary renunciation, an inability to imagine a society fundamentally different from our own perpetual present.

Does such despondency rest  as today is claimed from Paris-Nanterre and the LSE to the US State Department  on a more realistic, hard-headed appraisal of historical possibilities?

Historical reversals are plainly possible: restorations have followed regicide, and chastened ‘post-capitalist’ societies have trudged back to capitalism. Thus disproved is any view of history as a consecutive, strictly ascending sequence, ‘from rudeness to civilization.’ Societies need not progress from the Age of Hunting to the Age of Commerce.

That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t secular evolution, or a preferential path of development, which imparts a bias to history, appearing retrospectively as ‘progress’.

For there to be a secular evolution of modes of production such that mode of production B tends to supersede A (say B = capitalism and A = feudalism), it must merely be the case that the transition probability Pr (A → B) exceeds the reverse transition probability Pr (B → A), and that the latter tends to falls over time.

In the table below, the rows and columns measure the probability per unit of time of a transition from each initial state to each end state. Each state is accessible from any other, but the transition probabilities are asymmetric (i.e. reversions from capitalism to feudalism are unlikely) and non-constant over time, as a system consolidates or undermines itself (e.g. by moulding technology, political or juridical arrangements to fit its purposes).

Transition matrix - modes of production

An eerie stability (juste équilibre européen) prevailed throughout Hegel’s Concert of Powers during the age of Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh, granted ‘perfect security against the revolutionary embers more or less existing in every State of Europe.’ The stultifying continental peace was broken only by the independence of Greece and Belgium, and later the stillborn revolutions of 1848. Outside Europe, imperial bellicosity proceeded unchecked.

Today, following Gorbachev’s Mediterranean conversion to ‘democratic values’, we are similarly stuck without apparent breath or motion on a flat sea, stupefied as capital blares, noisily and garishly, its hour of triumph. A bellum Americanum contra omnes rampages unchallenged. Respectable opinion agrees that development of social institutions and mutations in property rights is forever over.

Political events and social skirmishes would continue to occur, said Fukuyama. But in the advanced capitalist countries there would be no more structural ruptures or capsizals of the sort that transformed society’s basic institutions.

Such illusions in the status quo’s stability are certain to be punctured.

When the July Revolution broke out one year before his death from cholera, Hegel met it as ‘a crisis in which everything that was formerly valid appears to be made problematic… [These are] anxious times in which everything that previously was taken to be solid and secure appears to totter.’


Roemer’s retour à property rights; or, Justice as squareness

February 12, 2014

The Hayekians Tyler Cowen and Peter Boettke have alerted econobloggers to a recent article by John Roemer: ‘Thoughts on arrangements of property rights in productive assets’.

Roemer has kept quiet on this topic for the past 20 years, having proposed a coupon/mutual-fund model of market socialism back in the early 1990s.

Two decades on, what does he have to say about these issues? On the whole, very little.

Roemer market socialism

Roemer’s impatience and waning interest in the subject had been evident back in A Future for Socialism (1994).

In that book, property relations were candidly described as mere means rather than ends in their own right. They were not intrinsically worthy of attention, whether political or theoretical:

[In] Eastern Eu­rope, many different proposals for what to do about the formerly state-owned firms are currently under debate…

My view is that socialists have made a fetish of public ownership… What socialists want are the three equalities [of welfare and self-realization, political influence and social status]; they should be open-minded about what kind of property relations in productive assets would bring about those equalities… The link between state ownership… and the three equalities is tenuous, and I think one does much better to drop the concept from the socialist construction….

Another instance of the fetishism of public ownership is the position common among socialists that the public should decide, presumably through some kind of representative democracy, how to use the economic surplus (or, as economists say, how to determine the rate and sectoral distribution of investment)…

[But if] there were a full set of futures markets, if externalities associated with investment were small, and if people’s preferences were formed under conditions of equal opportunity, I would have little objection to determination of investment by the market…

In sum, I view the choice of property rights over firms and other resources to be an entirely instrumental matter; possibilities for organizing such rights should be evaluated by socialists according to the likelihood that they will induce the three equalities with which socialists are concerned.

Such pragmatic insouciance, while long a feature of Roemer’s work, had not hitherto applied on this fundamental question.

Previously, as late as 1989, he had seemed to think such doctrinal matters were essentially settled and non-negotiable. Revision or amputation of these basic socialist principles, unlike many others, was deemed unnecessary.

Roemer himself still retained the classical enthusiasm for socialized industry, to judge by his article from that year, ‘Public ownership and private property externalities’. There, exhibiting little of the later diffidence, he lined up dutifully behind public ownership, calling for the ‘abolition of capitalist private property… not simply the particular distribution of it that exists in capitalist societies.’

‘Market socialism’, in its 1989 definition, and even later, meant: ‘(a) public ownership of the means of production and (b) private ownership of skills and labour.’

As Mill had once pleaded that the ‘principle of private property has never yet had a fair trial in any country’, and should be judged ‘at its best… not as it is, but as it might be,’ Roemer likewise declared that Stalinism could not constitute the final verdict on socialized property, for the latter had been warped and perverted by its bureaucratic rule.

Yet, as with many other left-wing intellectuals, Roemer’s political beliefs and professional networks were transformed abruptly during five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Thus, amid the collapse of European Stalinism, Roemer would present his 1994 book as a blueprint for a more ‘feasible socialism’, shorn of outmoded features. With restoration now underway in eastern Europe, might not that region provide a testing-ground for novel projects?

The countries where the opportunity costs of adopting market socialism are the least are, I believe, those that have formed in Eastern/Central Europe and out of the Soviet Union since 1989. These countries face a momentous task of institution building, no matter what kind of market system they will have, and one could argue that the costs of designing a coupon stock market, a bank-centric monitoring system, and constitutions that adequately shelter economic institutions (banks, firms) from state interference would be no greater than the costs of building a capitalist system along Anglo-American lines…

[I]ntroducing the kind of market socialism advocated here in some of these states will perhaps be politically possible in a few years… I think, as well, that this kind of transformation is not out of the question in China or Viet­nam, or perhaps in Cuba.

This was recognizably wishful thinking, and unsurprisingly events did not turn out as Roemer had hoped.

An unkind reader (Jon Elster?) might suggest that Roemer could not candidly admit to himself or his readers how irresistibly the political and ideological wind was blowing in the direction of capitalist restoration, for to do so would have exposed his own work as just one more unexceptional instance in the general market-embracing process.

Roemer’s market-socialist vision did not provide any group with political inspiration, left behind no adherents, and is long forgotten. (It proved itself of momentary use to some. When in 1995 the British Labour Party abandoned its own ‘fetish’ for nationalized industry, two of its house intellectuals, writing in New Left Review, acknowledged Roemer’s coupon model as kin, if not direct inspiration, for Tony Blair’s ‘new politics of ownership’).

Roemer subsequently shifted intellectual territory, devoting himself to innovative work in political science. As a kind of minor post-Rawlsian, he also did some less groundbreaking work on distributive justice

The latter field now provides occasion for him to revisit matters long neglected.

He has contributed to a special journal issue devoted to John Rawls’s idea of ‘property-owning democracy’.

This latter term, vague and short on institutional specifics, was introduced by Rawls as a possible ‘alternative to capitalism.’ It is flexible enough to have been adopted by Margaret Thatcher (indeed, its roots lay in British anti-Labourism). On anyone’s reading, whatever substance the term might have lay in the compound adjective rather than the noun it modified. Lately it has been rediscovered as fertile material for political philosophers, generating much learned commentary.

Roemer starts his new article on familiar old ground. If exploitation arises from asset inequality (differential ownership of productive resources allows the wealthy to appropriate the labour effort of employees) he imagines what would happen if everyone owned his or her per capita share of capital goods:

In thinking about alternatives for the arrangement of property rights in the United States, it is useful to begin with some facts.

In 2007, before the financial crash, the total market capitalization of US stocks was $51 trillion. There are approximately 114 million households, and so if those corporate assets were to be owned in equal shares by households, each would own about $449 000 in corporate equities. The share of capital income (profits, rent, interest and proprietors’ income) in national income is around 25%, but this oscillates over time.

Thus, under an egalitarian distribution of capital assets, and assuming profitability and labour supply remained about the same as now, each household would earn about one-fourth of its income from capital. If we take the average real rate of return on capital to be 4%, then each household would earn about $18 000 per annum from returns on its equity portfolio.

This would, in particular, have a substantial impact on poverty.

In the 1980s Roemer had presented this scenario as ‘people’s capitalism’, in which there was no abolition of private property per se, but only a correction of its unequal distribution.

It is recognizable as Rawls’s model of property-owning democracy, and less so as Roemer’s own blueprint for market socialism.

In the latter scheme, public ownership was, though mutilated beyond recognition, nominally preserved. Roemer had defined his market socialism as ‘a politico-economic mechanism embodying competitive politics, market allocation of most goods, and public ownership.’

(In the conclusion to A Future for Socialism, he repeatedly spoke of ‘nationalization of private assets’ as a step ushering a society towards his market socialism. Elsewhere he emphasized the ‘reorganization of property rights’, rather than simply their redistribution. With Pranab Bardhan he declared: ‘We take public ownership, in a wider sense, to mean that the distribution of the profits of firms is decided by the political democratic process—yet the control of firms might well be in the hands of agents who do not represent the state.’)

It is true that a distinction between the two schemes, Roemer’s market socialism and Rawls’s property-owning democracy, is hard to maintain. In the early 1990s Roemer exerted little effort to deny their practical equivalence. In any case, his own stated views obliged him to carry on as though the precise arrangement of property relations was irrelevant: what mattered were the downstream consequences for egalitarianism.

Thus he declared early in A Future for Socialism: ‘This work was not initiated by the socialist movement but by the publication of John Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice, in 1971.’

But Rawls, for one, insisted that ‘property-owning democracy’ was something distinct from the market-using economic arrangement he called ‘liberal socialism’.

And Roemer, in 1994, found it both meaningful and congenial to use the appellation ‘market socialism’, and to assert, with some adamance, that ‘socialism remains an ideal worth pursuing’, and moreover worth preserving as a distinct kind of egalitarianism not otherwise provided for.

He continued to refer to himself as a Marxist, not a liberal egalitarian, and did not publicly resile from previous statements like: ‘[The] Marxist negation of “unequal ownership of the means of production” is not “equal but private ownership of the means of production.”‘

Twenty years later, however, the political setting warrants less compunction than before. Roemer thus goes further, saying his vision had, like Rawls’s, simply ‘intended to maintain approximately equal corporate ownership by households.’ In A Future for Socialism he had merely proposed a system of property relations that was ‘what we currently have, except… egalitarian.’

Roemer model - Per capita profit income

Having retrospectively given his scheme the name ‘property-owning democracy’, Roemer now declares himself ‘skeptical of further pursuing the approach I proposed in 1994.’

Tyler Cowen is not quite correct to describe this as Roemer’s recantation. It is instead a peculiar mix of revisionism, confession and apostasy: What I said was not what I claimed to be saying at the time, and anyway I don’t believe it (“Which part?” “None of it!”) any more.

Roemer proceeds thereafter in rambling and discursive fashion, making breezily gnomic assertions about what is feasible and what is desirable, and rarely slowing to provide evidence for his claims:

[There] appear to be three alternatives for the way in which firms can be owned, which might deliver a more egalitarian distribution of income: state ownership, worker ownership, and household ownership.


The efficiency of state ownership continues to be debated. A number of industries, in a number of countries, have done well under state ownership: steel in Korea, insurance in Germany, oil and railroads in a number of countries, retail liquor in Canada, many sectors in China, and banking in Taiwan and some other countries. The key seems to be to give a good deal of autonomy to the industry, that is to shield it from political interference. As a template for the economy as a whole, it is probably not workable.


One of the very important developments of the late twentieth century was that the composition of the richest tranche of the US population changed. A very significant portion of the income of the very rich now comes from salaries, not from capital. It is earned income, in IRS terminology.

These people are the upper management of corporations, both financial and industrial, movie stars, some athletes, some highly paid professionals, and I conjecture that, for the most part, the salaries of these individuals are competitively determined. No one would challenge this claim with respect to movie stars or athletes, but many would challenge it for corporate management. I think it may well be true of their salaries as well.

It’s that sort of article. More formal or technical argument may well have been out of place, but it is remarkable that after his long hiatus Roemer did not feel obliged to be more seriously minded about the topic.

Were there no criticisms from the left he might have addressed? Was A Future for Socialism marred only by its author’s excessive political optimism and radical fervour? Do the only ‘problems that one must face if one wants to design a property-owning democracy in which the distribution of ownership of firms remains quite egalitarian’ arise from a ‘culture of greed’ existing in the contemporary United States?

Roemer today is ‘not eager to defend’ A Future for Socialism. Has he outgrown it, or have events rendered its proposals outdated? There are good reasons to imagined him satisfied with its consequences, though the book failed in its explicit aim of ‘designing the next wave of socialist experiments’.

In the late 1980s many left-wing academics found themselves in a professional bind. They had made large Marx-specific investments (the sunk costs incurred in acquiring specialized knowledge about property relations, classes, modes of production, etc.).

The time, effort and money put into this training were designed not for general scholarly purposes. The skills learnt were suited for a particular world in which socialism and social democracy were serious prospects and could be discussed, with people much like themselves, in polite collegial conversation, while also providing opportunities for deployment outside the university.

With the collapse of Stalinism and social democracy/labourism, these dedicated skills were suddenly much less valuable. Such specialized expertise could not easily be redeployed, especially in economics and political science departments. Specific investments could either be written off at a loss, or put to alternative use, if the latter could be found.

Engaging in speculation about market socialism and ‘transitology’ thus served a purpose for people like Roemer. It allowed them to deploy their available skills in an academically respectable manner, smoothing out the switching costs while gradually converting to mainstream social science.

Once this transition was achieved, it became apparent that their preoccupations now lay permanently elsewhere. The topics of the past became the past, no longer meriting sustained concern. What had been a hasty and undignified rush for the exit would henceforth discourage any return to collect belongings or settle arrears.

Credit where it’s due

September 8, 2013

Let’s recognize the bashful philosophers and coy Just War theorists at this, their hour of professional triumph. Pay no heed to their mortified glares and expressions of humility.

To be sure, Michael Walzer had already announced victory back in 2002:

The triumph of just war theory is clear enough: it is amazing how readily military spokesman during the Kosovo and Afghanistan wars used its categories, telling a causal story that justified the war and providing accounts of the battles that emphasized the restraints with which they were being fought.

‘Moral theory, said Walzer, ‘has been incorporated into war-making as a real constraint on when and how wars are fought.’ It was no longer merely a concern for clerics, jurists and professors, but of generals too. Just as the careful and delicate missile strikes of the first Gulf War had been an improvement on earlier bombardments of Korea and Vietnam, so NATO’s pummelling of the Balkans and Central Asia had granted ‘just war theory a place and standing that it never had before.’

Walzer – speaking at a New School conference alongside Richard Holbrooke, Michael Ignatieff, Samantha Power, David Rieff and Marty Peretz – denounced a ‘doctrine of radical suspicion’ that would ‘condemn and oppose’ any and all ‘American military actions.’ The role of the philosopher was not to carp and criticize from the sidelines, but was ‘internal to the business of war.’

Walzer therefore looked forward to Just War theory developing ‘a description of legitimate occupations, regime changes, and protectorates’.

Of course, the father of a scholarly sub-field is rarely a reliable guide to its future direction and preoccupations. But in 2002 little clairvoyance was needed to see that the war-legitimation business was about to expand.

Larry May Aggression and Crimes against Peace

Thus it has been a busy decade in the professional lives of Larry May, the guys and gals at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, and all the under-appreciated thinkers tucked away in international relations departments at Anglophone universities, military academies, NGOs and policy think tanks around the globe.

These are the ‘little screws and bolts’ of Washington’s war drive.

These folks – they know who they are, even if you don’t – have helped to make it all possible, jurisprudentially and ideologically speaking. Preemptive strikes, ‘limited punitive actions’, the lot.

John Kerry’s big reveal, his statement laying out a casus belli for Syria, was strikingly desultory and underwhelming, even by recent standards. (‘I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available.’)

Essential for the State Department’s ‘credibility’, therefore, were the prior efforts of policy intellectuals straddling academia, journalism and the security state. Despite the implausibility of Kerry’s claims and the listlessness of his performance, respectable public opinion has long since adopted the view that power projection and military expeditions in the name of human rights and ‘international norms’ are, after all, a rather airy and vaporous business, in terms of actual legal constraints or even normative prohibitions.

For this we can thank the scholars of ‘global governance’. With official imprimatur and government funding, they have spent the past two decades undermining the prohibition on aggressive war that was codified in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Nuremberg judgements and UN Charter.

Territorial sovereignty, these intellectuals have insisted – post-Desert Storm, post-Walzer – does not necessarily bind or impede the activity of other states. It is instead a conditional licence granted to lesser states by powerful ones – that is, by the ‘international community’.

Its transgression does not per se make a crime: its revocation may be warranted, at some moments, if Washington so desires.

Larry May (2008):

My view is that crimes of aggression are deserving of international prosecution when one State undermines the ability of another State to protect human rights [i.e. only under this particular condition].

This thesis runs against the grain of how aggression has been traditionally understood in international law.

Previously, it was common to say that aggression involved a State’s first strike against another State, where often what that meant was simply that one sovereign State had crossed the borders of another sovereign State. In this book I argue that the mere crossing of borders is not a sufficient normative rationale for prosecuting State leaders for the international crime of aggression.

At Nuremberg, charges of crimes against humanity were pursued only if the defendant also engaged in the crime of aggression. I now argue for a reversal of this position, contending that aggression charges should be pursued only if the defendant’s acts involved serious human rights violations. Indeed, I argue that aggression, as a crime, should be defined as not merely a first strike against another State but a first wrong that violates or undermines human rights.

If there are to be prosecutions for crimes against peace (or the crime of aggression) that are similar to prosecutions for crimes against humanity and war crimes, then there must be a similarly very serious violation that aggression constitutes. Mere assaulting of sovereignty does not have the same level of seriousness and is not as universally condemned as are the other crimes. For this reason, among others, I argue that aggression, as a crime, needs to be linked to serious human rights violations, not merely to violations of territorial integrity.


If a given State is not generally protecting human rights, it will be less clear that war waged against such a State is indeed best labeled aggressive and unjustified war. Indeed, if States systematically violate the basic human rights of their citizens, then those States have no right to insist that other States respect their sovereignty


Of course, there are States that have been massive violators of human rights, and wars waged to stop such States are not generally aggressive in my view.


What made the Nazi case stand out was the scale and viciousness with which it was fought, not that it was a case of aggression. So, the value of Nuremberg as a “precedent” for future trials of leaders for aggressive wars is here also unclear.


It is odd indeed to call the humanitarian actions of a State by the name “aggression” since that implies that there is some hostility behind the intervention. If the intervention is truly motivated by humanitarian concerns, then calling it aggression and therefore also hostile seems out of place.

It is also hard to see that humanitarian interventions constitute wrongs at all, let alone the most important of wrongs in the international arena, and hence we have reason to think that crossing State borders is not always wrong. Humanitarian intervention may indeed often be ill advised since anything that contributes to the horrors of war is to be avoided at nearly all costs. But if the motivation for the humanitarian intervention is to stop genocide, then the war may not be ill advised even though there is a serious risk of the major loss of civilian life that occurs in most wars. Here we might do some rudimentary utilitarian calculation to see that stopping genocide by means of a war could be justified.

Humanitarian wars can at least be prima facie defended in such circumstances as the genocide in Darfur. Such wars might be technically aggressive – at least, according to traditional doctrine – in that they involve invasion by one State against another State that is resisting rather than consenting to the invasion. Yet, since no “hostility” motivates the invading State and the international community in effect consents to allow the invasion, it seems as if the designation of aggression is the kind of technical characterization that doesn’t bear much normative weight. Aggression, as traditionally understood, is not itself a trigger of normative disapproval; some aggression, such as that form that stops worse aggression, could be a very good thing indeed, as theorists from the Just War tradition and contemporary international law have claimed. This is one reason I urged that we abandon the traditional way of understanding aggression.

Take that, Putin! Suck it, Pravda! Take a seat, Benjamin Ferencz and Sundus Shaker Saleh!

We might also take this moment to mention the Responsibility to Protect people, such as Power, except that they’ve already had their moment in the Saharan sun.

A good line

August 23, 2013

The writing in Fredric Jameson’s cinema books is notoriously bad.

The chief problem isn’t that it’s unclarifiably obscure or difficult to construe, in the way of much academic bullshit. (G.A. Cohen: ‘For the record, I do not believe that Hegel was a bullshitter, and I am too ignorant of the work of Heidegger to say whether or not he was a bullshitter. But I agree with my late supervisor Gilbert Ryle that Heidegger was a shit.’) It’s that too; but above all it’s just syntactically wacky.

But this line Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic is rather good, I think:

[It] would be comical to wish the social burden of bourgeois respectability and elaborate moral taboo back into existence merely to re-endow the sex drive with the value of a political act.

Doesn’t such comedy describe the (spuriously ‘subversive’) activities of countless ‘radical’ activists and identity politicians?

A poser

May 17, 2011

Having been asked to comment on the Bin Laden assassination, Benjamin Ferencz (a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) ends his interview with CBC radio by describing the US state elite’s turn towards strategic criminality (see last two decades, passim).

This, he makes clear, consists not merely (or mostly) of using roaming extra-territorial hit squads, a bit of the old non-judicial detention, attempted assassination of political leaders (e.g. Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein), and a sensitive new (post-speech-in-Cairo?) commitment to the traditional Islamic burial rite of Ståplats i Nybroviken.

Ho hum.

The assessment rests, rather, on culpability for crimes against peace, i.e. belligerence to advance policy objectives, viz. yer actual hanging offence c. 1945:

I’m afraid most of the lessons of Nuremberg have passed. Unfortunately, the world has accepted them but the United States seems reluctant to do so.

The principal lesson we learned from Nuremberg is that a war of aggression  that means, a war in violation of international law, in violation of the UN charter, and not in self-defense  is the supreme international crime, because all the other crimes happen in war. And every leader who is responsible for planning and perpetrating that crime should be held to account in a court of law, and the law applies equally to everyone.

These lessons were hailed throughout the world  I hailed them, I was involved in them  and it saddens me no end when Americans are asked: why don’t you support the Nuremberg principles on aggression? 

And the response is: Nuremberg? That was then; this is now. Forget it.

As previously discussed on this blog, various court philosophers have been complicit in the diminishing of aggressive war’s status as ‘the supreme international crime’ (the phrase dates from the Nuremberg judgements themselves), e.g. by re-casting it as an auxiliary offence (i.e. one with no distinct independent existence) conditional on the prior or concurrent commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity, or by shrugging it off as hopelessly indefinable.

Among these are numbered not just straightforward regime stooges like Bernard-Henri Lévy, but more ‘serious’ scholarly figures like Jürgen Habermas and Larry May.

To this list of the culpable may be added a mainstream media that has, with no great subtlety, deliberately cultivated a war-loving Sammlungspolitik amongst the broader US population, with ‘reporters’ from Entertainment Tonight unaccountably visiting training facilities at Fort Irwin for fawning photo ops, and professional sportsmen such as LeBron James and Lance Armstrong conscripted into the post-OBL-death celebrations.

How is one to understand this situation, in which rules set up over centuries to govern lawful international conduct have been trumped by some perceived imperative or strategic emergency (which ’emergency’, on any fact-sensitive assessment, plainly does not resemble the official line about terrorist threats or humanitarian crises)?

Liberal analysts like Glenn Greenwald, whose column in Salon has valiantly tracked the bipartisan criminalization of the US political class (it’s where I found the Ferencz interview), offer no adequate way of interpreting it, outside of vague mutterings about the Mil-Ind Complex, the National-Security-&-Surveillance State, etc.

I know I do harp on about this, and frankly it’s all a little downbeat and something one attends to only grudgingly.

But it’s a reasonably pertinent question: just what do non-radical folks think the boys in Washington, and their allies, are up to with this routine (i.e. overthrowing governments in various energy-rich regions and disposing of their leaders in more-or-less mobsterish fashion, establishing and retaining military garrisons close to key infrastructure, ensuring that successor regimes have various desirable characteristics, wiping out and mutilating people in huge numbers, not to mention the whole arbitrary-detention-and-torture business)?

It’s happening, right?

So what are they so-to-speak getting at?

History Wars and property

January 9, 2011

The Australian History Wars seem for the moment to have lapsed into a kind of drôle de guerre or long twilight struggle. So now seems a good time to revisit an earlier exchange, the ferocity of which may have distracted from the combatants’ subtler argumentative manoeuvres.

I’ll proceed with the aid of a comparison. It was mentioned several weeks ago that, despite obvious differences, social conflict in 1830s-era Van Diemen’s Land shared certain features with that in present-day China.

This was because, I suggested, the two societies faced a shared stress: private acquisition of land and resources that weren’t previously the exclusive possessions of anyone, and which “non-owners” hadn’t hitherto been prevented from using or accessing.

Examination of this claim will, I think, help us better understand the polemic between historian Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle.

Local governments, with the backing of central authority in Beijing and relevant provincial administrations, have been the primary actors in contemporary China’s breakneck transfer of communal and state-owned assets to private ownership. Accordingly, much of the rural popular opposition to displacement, home demolitions, engrossment of agricultural tracts, etc. has been directed against governmental authority.

This is turn has led some foreign observers to present such events as a case of heroic peasants and smallholders uniting ‘across villages and even provincial borders to fight for private land rights.’ The peasants are imagined to be ‘reclaiming and privatising the stolen lands…stolen by officials in their city government.’

Now, it’s obviously true that government personnel are guilty of corruption, patronage, asset-stripping, repression and brute theft. But the notion that Chinese peasants and employees are fighting, either consciously or unwittingly, to defend private ownership has little to uphold it. No credible voice supports such claims, which sound like a Heritage Foundation fantasy.

Even a mainstream journalist, in the linked article, acknowledges that the rebellious farmers merely seek to retain direct, non-market access to their means of subsistence and shelter. Withdrawal of such access will otherwise compel them, on pain of extinction, to seek income from paid employment, or to rely on “charity.”

But, more often that not throughout history, simple social-property conflicts of this type have been overlaid by ethnic and religious divisions, and their fundamental nature has therefore remained obscure both to contemporary actors and historical analysts.

Frontier conflict in colonial Tasmania, for example, is frequently portrayed as a matter of rival groups (“black” and “white” people, or European and Indigenous people), each with an incompatible claim to exclusive possession of some land resource. One group is then supposed to have infringed the property rights of another.

Just as this is a misunderstanding of contemporary China, I want to insist that this is also the wrong way – philosophically, empirically and politically – of looking at frontier conflict in colonial Tasmania.

Members of a population may defend their right to use certain resources without thereby making a claim of property in them.

This is not a popular argument. The assertion that Aboriginal Tasmanians did not hold proprietary rights to land is often associated with racists and reactionaries.

Nearly a decade ago, the right-wing ideologue Keith Windscuttle published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, aiming to show that whatever violence did occur in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s and 1830s was unrelated to territorial disputes, being instead a simple matter of incentives. The ‘timeless stimulus’ of greed, the ‘spirit of mammon’, and the lure of luxuries like flour, sugar, tea, tobacco and blankets, led Aboriginal Tasmanians to steal from the colonists. As the indigenous people ‘had no sanctions against the murder of anyone outside their immediate clan’, they indulged in this too. Where settlers retaliated, on the other hand, this was within ‘the restraints of their culture and religion’.

Here was a conscious application of the criminological work of Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist. Because hunter-gatherer society possessed and could produce little material wealth, the potential return to non-criminal activities (‘legal forms of acquisition’) was meagre. This – together with the ‘leniency’ of colonial authorities – meant that theft, murder and crime had a low opportunity cost. Thus Aboriginal Tasmanians attacked shepherds and killed livestock not because settlers occupied hunting grounds, shot at intruders, trampled vegetation and disrupted patterns of subsistence and kinship. Rather, the motivation was a desire for trinkets and baubles.

This absurd argument was attacked by historian Henry Reynolds in “Terra Nullius Reborn”, part of Robert Manne’s edited collection, Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

Reynolds’s essay is excerpted here:

[Windschuttle] tells us that the notions of the exclusive possession of territory and the defence of it either by law or force “were not part of the Aborigines’ mental universe”. In short, the Tasmanians “did not own the land”. The concept of property was “not part of their culture”.

Much follows from this assertion. The incoming Europeans were not taking land belonging to someone else. They introduced tenure to a place where none had previously existed. Aboriginal attacks on the settlers had nothing to do with resisting encroachments on their land because they had no sense of trespass. In the absence of such motivation they must have been spurred to violence by baser, more personal motives – by the desire for vengeance and for plunder. Therefore the Tasmanians were not at war with the settlers. They were criminals – burglars and cut-throats, not warriors or patriots.

Let’s examine what Reynolds is saying. One must, he suggests, hold either that (1) Tasmanian society believed in ‘exclusive possession of territory’ (i.e. property in land) and its members fought to protect their territory or that (2) acquisition of land by European settlers was just, and the population submitted to it. If not (1), then inevitably (2).

In other words, Reynolds would have it that one must agree with either Windschuttle or Reynolds. This is logically confused.

To refute Windschuttle’s claims that ‘Aboriginal attacks on the settlers had nothing to do with resisting encroachments’ and were based on the ‘desire for plunder’, it is not necessary to prove the existence of property or land ownership. Defence of one’s right to use land, remain attached to a place, or ‘live on country’ without interference, does not require or entail a claim to title or tenure.

Ownership confers a bundle of rights over spaces and things – prerogatives of the possessor include the right to use, right to transfer etc. But it is not the case that all rights of use are ownership rights, or that the right to persist with an activity implies property rights in the material which that activity uses and the space in which it takes place.

Reynolds is thus guilty of making a faulty inference from the premise that (1) some people believe they have some right to use some external resource – in this case land – to perform some activity – subsistence, shelter, religion – that they believe rightfully protected against interference to (2) these people believe they own that spatial realm, and all its contents, within which the activity takes place.

This is an unfortunate lapse. Unless all fundamental rights are ownership rights, the right to do doesn’t require the right to own that which enters into the doing.

Reynolds writes as though he believes, as Aboriginal Tasmanians surely did not, that non-owners have no right to an external resource X, and may not block the greedy acquirer from the un-owned thing X, which may rightfully be seized. On this logic, every un-owned watering hole and hunting ground available may justly be appropriated by whoever requires them for his private drinking, swimming, stock raising and wool growing, so long as the acquisitor is ‘not taking land belonging to someone else’. (But, for even the most forceful advocates for private property, acquisition must meet the Lockean proviso that private appropriation be without ‘prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use.’)

Reynolds – and we – may costlessly concede Windschuttle’s proposition about the absence of already-existing property claims, without thereby accepting the legitimacy of land acquisition.

Then there arises the question of historical accuracy. Reynolds’s empirical claim rests largely on the argumentative error debunked above: by resisting encroachment, the Tasmanians thereby evinced a belief in exclusive property. We have just seen why this need not be the case. But the matter deserves further examination, so I will address it, along with the contemporary political implications of this historiographical debate, in a future post.

The grass is always greener on this side of the fence

January 5, 2011

In his book Sour Grapes, Jon Elster used the following story (Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes) to illustrate a kind of irrationality he called ‘adaptive preference formation’, in which people cease to desire what they can’t get:

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he.

Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success.

Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

It occurs when a person lets the probability they assign to the various states of the world influence their evaluation of (i.e. the utility, desirability or rank order they attach to) each of those states.

With sour grapes, what is desirable depends on what is deemed possible: A is preferred to B because A is available and B is not.

The proverbial fox adjusts its preferences over the set of possible outcomes (have grapes, don’t have grapes) to the apparent attainability or feasibility of each outcome. He can’t reach the grapes so decides he doesn’t want them because they must be sour anyway.

More generally an irrational agent, finding that in deprived circumstances its desires can’t be satisfied, treats the best state it’s capable of attaining as the best that can be conceived.

This is a variety of cynicism which makes a virtue of necessity, as a way of avoiding (futile) frustation.

It can be expected to be more prevalent in times of reaction and political demoralization, like our own.

Thus Albert Hirschman, in his Rhetoric of Reaction, identified the ‘futility thesis’ as that which suggested attempts at social change were destined for failure, and therefore should be avoided. This argument typically carried, Hirschman said, a certain ‘refined sophistication’.

Polite opinion (official and media) thus no longer finds it necessary to proclaim that capitalism is superior to socialism, for today there is only one conceivable social system. As the saying goes, there is no alternative: no choice to be made.

What is to be said about this outlook?

Many people seem to understand cynicism as chronic nay-saying: an excessive, querulous devotion to scorn, criticism and debunking. (I’m sometimes accused of this fault myself.)

But cynicism (I prefer to think!) actually involves the opposite practice: a kind of rationalization or dissonance reduction.

The cynical agent reconciles a conflict between ideal and reality either by (a) forswearing beliefs or repudiating principles; or (b) adjusting perceptions of reality so that the latter becomes consistent with ideals.

The ancient Cynic is an ethical figure, dedicated to ruthless criticism of all that exists. The cynical person, on the other hand, seeks accommodation with the existing state of affairs, and is without moral or intellectual integrity.

Peter Sloterdijk is not a name to conjure with, either politically or philosophically, but his Critique of Cynical Reason contains a good description of this phenomenon:

The ancient world knows the cynic (better: kynic) as a lone owl and as a provocative, stubborn moralist. Diogenes in the tub is the archetype of this figure. In the picture book of social characters he has always appeared as a distance-creating mocker, as a biting and malicious individualist who acts as though he needs nobody and who is loved by nobody because nobody escapes his crude unmasking gaze uninjured.


[Modern] cynics…are no longer outsiders…

[This] is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work – in spite of anything that might happen, and especially, after anything that might happen. The key social positions in boards, parliaments, commissions, executive councils, publishing companies, practices, faculties, and lawyers’ and editors’ offices have long since become a part of this diffuse cynicism. A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to its activity. For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. Others would do it anyway, perhaps worse. Thus, the new, integrated cynicism even has the understandable feeling about itself of being a victim and of making sacrifices…

It is afflicted with the compulsion to put up with pre-established relations that it finds dubious, to accommodate itself to them, and finally even to carry out their business. In order to survive, one must be schooled in reality. Of course. Those who mean well call it growing up, and there is a grain of truth to that.


If you’re so smart, why ain’cha rich?

September 22, 2010

If we take a random individual from the population of Australian taxpayers, what’s the probability that her personal income will fall somewhere within the range $20 000-$30 000, or between $120 000-$130 000?

Consider this an inversion of the previous post, in which we used published ATO statistics to examine the income share of various fractiles.

The columns below show the percentage of people whose annual incomes fall within each interval. The probabilities of course sum to unity (100%).

As we can see, individuals cluster within the interval $20 000-$40 000, with the number of taxpayers in each interval declining sharply thereafter as we move upwards along the income scale.  A small number of people receive a huge income.

Income distributions in the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy closely approximate this Australian pattern.

This is an interesting result. For all their similarities, these five countries differ greatly in labour-market regulation, industry composition, policy settings, degree of ‘social capital’ and spread of ‘human capital.’

Perhaps such details are not, after all, decisive factors in the determination of a country’s income spread.

Indeed there’s good reason to think that this broad pattern of inequality  in which many individuals end up with little income, and very few individuals wind up with a huge income  is a universal feature of market economies, and emerges wherever there is monetary trade by a large number of private agents (and a fortiori whenever a small class of property owners can hire the capacity to labour of those without productive assets).

Ian Wright’s simulation of a market economy involves an agent-based model in which zero-intelligence actors are initially given an equal endowment of resources, then partitioned into classes (employer, employee and unemployed) and led to interact in product and labour markets according to a few basic decision rules.

Just like a real market economy, there are local, micro-level interactions of agents, in which goods and services are exchanged for money. And, just like real market economies, the invisible hand produces macro-level regularities: patterns of income distribution etc.

As in the Australian data shown above, the simulation sees many agents end up with little income, and a small number wind up with a huge income.

Of course, the rich don’t owe their wealth to intelligence or effort (recall that these are zero-intelligence agents, without “strategies” or choice functions, who select a course of action by choosing randomly from a probability distribution).

Merely by the working of chance, a lot of money is bound to end up in the hands of a few.

What’s the upshot of this?

  1. Wherever a large body of private agents (individuals, firms) engages in monetary trade, a highly unequal income distribution is likely to result. This distribution may take a variety of forms (lognormal, power-law, exponential etc.), but its basic shape holds for all reasonable parameter values.
  2. The properties of this income distribution do not arise from individuals possessing unequal endowments of internal talents and capacities (intelligence, responsibility, propensity for hard work). Even with a uniform distribution of initial resources, random interactions and zero-intelligence agents, we end up with a few rich people and large number of low-income people.
  3. So long as market exchange is maintained, inequality of outcome will survive those measures imposing “equality of opportunity”, or “benevolent” welfare and tax policies.
  4. Quotas for disadvantaged groups  e.g. women or ethnic minorities  may increase the “diversity” of the upper strata (through, for example, preferential admission to elite collegiate programmes). But given the essential fixity of the income distribution, the shuffling of social positions is a zero-sum game. The granting of salvation to a special few of the reprobate does not increase the total number of elect; and merely consigns others to damnation in their place.

For left-wing radicals, the implications of this are obvious.

But centrist liberals, too, have cause for thought. Most of them, taking their lead from Ronald Dworkin, incline sympathetically towards a kind of luck egalitarianism. This position holds that inequality arising from unchosen circumstances  as opposed to that inequality which is deserved or for which agents are responsible  is unjust.

Thus Dworkin says:

[Unfair] differences are those traceable to genetic luck, to talents that make some people prosperous but are denied to others… [A just society aims to] neutralize the effects of differential talents… individuals should be relieved of responsibility for those unfortunate features of their situation that are brute bad luck, but not from those that should be seen as flowing from their choices.

John Rawls says that ‘those with similar abilities and skills should have similar life chances.’

But, as we have seen, market societies allocate stupendous wealth, not merely to the innately talented (like Wilt Chamberlain), but also to lucky morons.

Can liberal centrists rise to the challenge of justifying such a distributional order? The example of Dworkin suggests that they can.

In doing so, however, he and his acolytes commit a fallacy of composition. For the vagaries of market exchange and private property, as we have seen, entail the emergence of macro-social inequality even in the presence of identical agents with the same initial endowment of talents and capabilities.

‘Unfortunate features’ of capitalist society must therefore flow not from individual ‘choices’, but from a kind of ‘brute bad luck’: the basic institutions of society.

The young Marx, following the Classical economists, was on solider ground in suggesting that, on a social level, personal merit does not give rise to wealth ex ante. Rather, virtuous attributes intelligence, good taste, attractiveness are retrospectively ascribed to the wealthy because of their wealth.

Here Marx described the ‘power of money’, which Adam Smith had said conferred on its owners the ‘power to command’ labour and the products of labour:

That which is for me through the medium of money  that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy)  that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my  the possessor’s  properties and essential powers.

Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.

am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness — its deterrent power  is nullified by money.

I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame.

I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?


August 3, 2010

Let no one say that academics are ineffectual.

Take the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), a joint project of Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne. While one branch of contemporary philosophy sniffs that il n’y a pas de hors-texte, its more practical cousin wants to “connect rigorous philosophical thinking with policy input, community discussion, and professional aims.”

In return for one million dollars of annual government funding, CAPPE offers “advice and guidance” that will “assist members of the community to make more ethically informed choices”.

Its advice for today’s decision-makers? Repudiation of hundreds of years of international law: Grotius, Kant, the Treaty of Westphalia; and, specifically, disavowal of the prohibition of aggression and crimes against peace.

And what a triumph of knowledge transfer this has been!

The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, signed by all the major powers, renounced “war as an instrument of national policy”, and forbade “recourse to war for the solution of international controversies…disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin”.

This meant that “any signatory Power which [sought thereafter] to promote its national interests by resort to war” was acting outside established principles.

The crime of aggression was subsequently included in the Nuremberg Principles, which named three basic offences:

  1. CRIMES AGAINST PEACE: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;
  2. WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be 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 or 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: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

Indeed, the Nuremberg judgement emphasised that to “initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

But what do our philosophers at CAPPE say? According to Larry May, in his book Aggression and Crimes Against Peace:

the mere crossing of borders is not a sufficient normative rationale for prosecuting State leaders for the international crime of aggression. At Nuremberg, charges of crimes against humanity were pursued only if the defendant also engaged in the crime of aggression. I now argue for a reversal of this position, contending that aggression charges should only be pursued if the defendant’s acts involved serious human rights violations… [Crimes] against peace do not harm humanity the way that crimes against humanity, such as ethnic cleansing campaigns, do. Crimes against peace also are not like war crimes in assaulting humaneness, since all wars, not merely aggressive wars, are inhumane, and aggressive wars are not necessarily more inhumane than defensive wars.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the legal and moral regression involved in this flippant, light-minded dismissal. The idea of state sovereignty as territorial jurisdiction goes back to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia, and is codified in Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter. It’s one thing for a state to falsely portray its military aggression as self-defence, which for example Israel, Britain and France did during the Suez crisis of 1956.

It’s quite another thing, and historically original, to say that aggression doesn’t matter, or matters only under certain conditions, and that crimes against peace – “the supreme international crime” – are not crimes at all, except where other crimes occur.

May’s trite argument nonetheless stands on the shoulders of giants, heaved up and borne along by the US state leadership.

From core executives (Anthony Lake in “From Containment to Enlargement” and Zbigniew Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard) to policy intellectuals (e.g. Robert Kagan in “The Benevolent Empire”), corporate-endowed thinktanks and “sound” journalists, the US ruling elite is as one. Decline must be arrested by imperial expansion and power projection throughout the Eurasian heartland, from the eastern Mediterranean, through West and Central Asia, up to China’s western borders.

As part of this project, national sovereignty has been re-defined as a revocable licence, granted by the “international community” and enjoyed only at the latter’s pleasure.

Thus, in 1994, Bill Clinton introduced the concept of “rogue states”: outlaws that deserved none of the traditional privileges of international law. “Humanitarian intervention”, a European notion by birth, was soon hitched to this ideological wagon, and employed for NATO’s illegal 1999 war on Yugoslavia. (Coincidentally one of the great promoters of “the responsibility to protect”, Australian Gareth Evans – co-founder of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – is now ANU chancellor and an advisor to CAPPE.)

The G.W. Bush Administration, and its favoured policy intellectuals, extended this to include “regime change” of “hostile states”, in order to “secure and expand zones of democratic peace”, “deter the rise of a new great-power competitors” and “preserve American preeminence”. The 2002 National Security Strategy spoke of pre-emptive self-defence and “anticipatory actions”, in open defiance of established legal norms:

“Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat…We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.”

The emergence of blatant illegality at the heart of US state leadership wasn’t fortuitous, historically accidental, or contingent upon either Republican party allegiance or the personality of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or the neocons. The bid for strategic “primacy”, come what may, was instead the natural response of US state managers to gradual economic decline.

Thus the Obama presidency hasn’t produced the reversal of these arguments in favour of aggressive war, but their extension.

Obama’s Nobel Prize lecture, delivered in November 2009 in Oslo, argued deliberately against the terms of Kellogg-Briand, the Nuremberg principles, and for the right to wage war as a tool of national policy:

[The] instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace…[Contemporary challenges] require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace…There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified…To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…

[Sometimes] the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region. I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace…Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy – but there must be consequences when those things fail.

So forget the stereotype of practiced irrelevance: our philosophers are right in the thick of things, slipping the velvet glove of “ethical guidance” over the mailed fist of the US elite’s open gangsterism. CAPPE already “addresses” the “morality of torture”; perhaps soon it will “engage” with Obama’s hit list allowing assassination of US citizens without due process.

Which ancient right will these brave thinkers seek next to conquer? Into what thickets of debasement and apologetics will their intrepid scholarly inquiries now lead?

Two mid-C20 theories of knowledge

June 15, 2010

Friedrich Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, American Economic Review, September 1945:

[One] kind of knowledge, namely, scientific knowledge, occupies now so prominent a place in public imagination that we tend to forget that it is not the only kind that is relevant. It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts. What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem.

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances…

It is a curious fact that this sort of knowledge should today be generally regarded with a kind of contempt and that anyone who by such knowledge gains an advantage over somebody better equipped with theoretical or technical knowledge is thought to have acted almost disreputably…

This is, perhaps, also the point where I should briefly mention the fact that the sort of knowledge with which I have been concerned is knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form….It follows from this that central planning based on statistical information by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances of time and place and that the central planner will have to find some way or other in which the decisions depending on them can be left to the “man on the spot.”

If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization…We need decentralization because only thus can we insure that the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place will be promptly used.

Michel Foucault, ‘Two Lectures’, 7 January 1976, in Power/Knowledge:

I believe that by subjugated knowledges one should understand… a whole set of knowledges which have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required levels of knowledge and scientificity. I also believe that it is through the re-emergence of these low-ranking knowledges, these unqualified, sometimes directly disqualified knowledges… parallel and marginal as they are… and which involve what I would call a popular knowledge though it is far from being a general commonsense knowledge, but is on the contrary a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity… that it is through the re-appearance of this knowledge, of these local popular knowledges, that criticism performs its work.


Let us give the term genealogy to the union of erudite knowledge and local memories…What it really does is is to entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against that unitary body of theory that would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects…They are precisely anti-sciences…We are concerned, rather, with the insurrection of knowledges which are opposed…to the effects of the centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours…

What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘Is it a science?’ Which speaking, discoursing subjects – which subjects of experience and knowledge – do you then want to ‘diminish’ when you say: ‘I who conduct this discourse am conducting a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist’? Which theoretical-political avant garde do you want to enthrone in order to isolate it from all the discontinuous forms of knowledge that circulate about it? When I see you straining to establish the scientificity of Marxism I do not really think that you are demonstrating once and for all that Marxism has a rational structure and that therefore its propositions are the outcome of verifiable procedures; for me you are doing something different, you are investing Marxist discourses and those who uphold them with the effects of a power which the West since Medieval times has attributed to science and has reserved to those engaged in scientific discourse.

By comparison, then, and in contrast to the various projects which aim to inscribe knowledges in the hierarchical order of power associated with science, a genealogy should be seen as a kind of attempt to emancipate historical knowledges from that subjection, to render them, that is, capable of opposition and of struggle against the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse. It is based on a reactivation of local knowledges – of minor knowedges, as Deleuze might call them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledges and the effects intrinsic to their power: that is, then, the purpose of these disordered and fragmentary genealogies.

Somehow the propagandists of neoliberal counter-revolution never adopted as their rallying cry a slogan that practically wrote itself: the insurrection of subjugated knowledges by means of prices.