Thursday, July 16, 2009 70 Comments

Why Carlyle matters

If there is one writer in English whose name can be uttered with Shakespeare's, it is Carlyle.

If we need a third, we can add Johnson. (Chaucer is too foreign.) Shakespeare, Carlyle, and Johnson: do you notice a pattern? If not, you are probably new to UR. If you're not quite sure who Carlyle and Johnson were, much glorious learning awaits you. Fortunately you get to learn Johnson on your own - I know very little about the 18th century.

But you will find precious few who have read all three and will quarrel with this trinity. And all of them are fools. In my view. Then again, I named my daughter after Carlyle. If you are wiser and reserve your judgment, please allow me to etch away one or two of your reservations.

First, it is no daring literary act to exalt Carlyle as superhuman. Like Johnson, he was exalted as superhuman in his own time. Indeed, the proper way to introduce Carlyle is through the eyes of his peers.

Some of whom are still remembered. For example, one American wrote:
The way to test how much he has left his country were to consider, or try to consider, for a moment, the array of British thought, the resultant ensemble of the last fifty years as existing today, but with Carlyle left out. It would be like an army with no artillery.
That was Walt Whitman, in his 1881 obituary. People still read Whitman, but not Carlyle. There's a reason for this. It's not necessarily a good reason.

Because Whitman's point of view - about as close as it comes to NPR avant la lettre - is so easy for the good citizen of 2009 to masticate, his introduction to Carlyle may be the best available. You see, the basic reason Carlyle is not in your high-school English reader, whereas Whitman is, is that Carlyle was what, here at UR, we call a reactionary. (Whereas Whitman is a progressive, or in 19th-century parlance a radical.)

A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism. True reaction is long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle - whose writings are now and forever available at a click, though they may be illegal in most states and the European Union.

But let Whitman introduce us:
All that is comprehended under the terms republicanism and democracy were distasteful to [Carlyle] from the first, and as he grew older they became hateful and contemptible. For an undoubtedly candid and penetrating faculty such as his, the bearings he persistently ignored were marvellous.

For instance, the promise, nay certainty of the democratic principle, to each and every State of the current world, not so much of helping it to perfect legislators and executives, but as the only effectual method for surely, however slowly, training people on a large scale toward voluntarily ruling and managing themselves (the ultimate aim of political and all other development)—to gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum, and to subject all its staffs and their doings to the telescopes and microscopes of committees and parties—and greatest of all, to afford (not stagnation and obedient content, which went well enough with the feudalism and ecclesiasticism of the antique and medieval world, but) a vast and sane and recurrent ebb and tide action for those floods of the great deep that have henceforth palpably burst forever their old bounds—seem never to have entered Carlyle’s thought.

It was splendid how he refused any compromise to the last. He was curiously antique. In that harsh, picturesque, most potent voice and figure, one seems to be carried back from the present of the British islands more than two thousand years, to the range between Jerusalem and Tarsus. His fullest best biographer justly says of him:
He was a teacher and a prophet, in the Jewish sense of the word. The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah have become a part of the permanent spiritual inheritance of mankind, because events proved that they had interpreted correctly the signs of their own times, and their prophecies were fulfilled. Carlyle, like them, believed that he had a special message to deliver to the present age. Whether he was correct in that belief, and whether his message was a true message, remains to be seen. He has told us that our most cherished ideas of political liberty, with their kindred corollaries, are mere illusions, and that the progress which has seemed to go along with them is a progress towards anarchy and social dissolution. If he was wrong, he has misused his powers. The principles of his teachings are false. He has offered himself as a guide upon a road of which he had no knowledge; and his own desire for himself would be the speediest oblivion both of his person and his works. If, on the other hand, he has been right; if, like his great predecessors, he has read truly the tendencies of this modern age of ours, and his teaching is authenticated by facts, then Carlyle, too, will take his place among the inspired seers.
To which I add an amendment that under no circumstances, and no matter how completely time and events disprove his lurid vaticinations, should the English-speaking world forget this man, nor fail to hold in honor his unsurpassed conscience, his unique method, and his honest fame. Never were convictions more earnest and genuine. Never was there less of a flunkey or temporizer. Never had political progressivism a foe it could more heartily respect.
[...]
Then I find no better text, (it is always important to have a definite, special, even oppositional, living man to start from), for sending out certain speculations and comparisons for home use. Let us see what they amount to—those reactionary doctrines, fears, scornful analyses of democracy—even from the most erudite and sincere mind of Europe.
We slipped some Froude (Carlyle's disciple as well as his biographer) in there with the Whitman. But the quote is Whitman's own. Is it not a measure of Whitman's own greatness - the archpoet of Democracy triumphant - that he gives such props to such a pure opponent? If Whitman can worship Carlyle and quote Froude - what Whitmans are there today?

There are two ways to process Carlyle in 2009. One is to buy in with Whitman: of course Carlyle was wrong as a prophet, though we acknowledge his importance as a writer. (Well, actually, most of us don't. But a few professors will always have no choice.) As another contemporary critic (this one mercifully forgotten) put it:
By common consent, or nearly so, Mr. Carlyle died our greatest English Man of Letters. Of this claim on his behalf (which includes of course a recognition of him as a great intellectual and spiritual force) there can scarce, I should say, be much question. But one might very well admire Mr. Carlyle as a Litterateur (in this higher and larger sense) yet have only a modified belief in him as a Prophet, and question altogether his title to be called—except in a rather loose and inexact way—a great Thinker and Philosopher.
From this perspective, just as Froude describes, Carlyle misused his vatic powers. On behalf of "the cultural evils of nineteenth-century Britain." And has suffered that justified oblivion which all false prophets deserve and receive. Evil having since been eradicated in Britain, of course.

If it can be swallowed in the 21st century with a straight face, a task demanding no small strength of gullet, this is a safe antidote which detoxifies Carlyle, and renders him safe for antiseptic scholarship of the Dryasdust school. Alternatively, one can embrace the dark side and simply study Carlyle, and of course his era, as the adversary: Satan personified. This is even safer, as the dead do not shoot back.

(But Hell has a carrel and a stipend for everyone who studied the past because he despised it, and a big corner office for those in the actual business of actual libel. Kids: if you hate your ancestors, hold your tongues. You will not feel like such fools later.)

The trouble with studying 19th-century Britain from the 20th-century American point of view is that no Victorianist can think seriously of a modern career in the field unless he shoots only through one or both of these two orthodox angles, Dryasdust or Hesperus Fiddlestring. Either camera can churn out any amount of scholarly product, and neither can be handled by anyone with an actual soul. The literary value of both together is about that of Marx-Lenin studies, though the former is useful from a strictly clerical standpoint. (Indeed, the Soviet understanding of the Victorians was exactly the same as ours, modulo a little Marx.)

If you did not have a soul, however, you probably would not have found your way to UR. Likewise, a brain. And this brain cannot fail to have had a certain reaction to Mr. Whitman's argument against Mr. Carlyle. Was that reaction, by any chance, "um?", or "what?", or "okay," or "sure, I guess?"

For example, when Whitman castigates Carlyle for not realizing that democracy will "gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum," or "perfect legislators and executives," or (best of all) train its own voting citizens "on a large scale" to be every year wiser and more well-informed, did your soul leap up and shout: "very true, Mr. Whitman! And we of 2009 know just how true it is!"

I actually did not excerpt Whitman's principal argument against Carlyle. It is two pages of windy Hegelism - plainly free of content. Give it a go and see what you think. Whitman always was a sucker for the mystical, a hippie in the wrong century. (He was not alone in this.) But he was an honest man, not afraid to tell us "what a foetid gasbag much of modern radicalism is." The good old curate's egg - but still, say more, Mr. Whitman! Alas, men have declined, and poets too.

And when Whitman writes:
Carlyle’s grim fate was cast to live and dwell in, and largely embody, the parturition agony and qualms of the old order, amid crowded accumulations of ghastly morbidity, giving birth to the new. But conceive of him (or his parents before him) coming to America, recuperated by the cheering realities and activity of our people and country—growing up and delving face-to-face resolutely among us here, especially at the West—inhaling and exhaling our limitless air and eligibilities—devoting his mind to the theories and developments of this Republic amid its practical facts as exemplified in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, or Louisiana. I say facts, and face-to-face confrontings—so different from books, and all those quiddities and mere reports in the libraries, upon which the man (it was wittily said of him at the age of thirty, that there was no one in Scotland who had gleaned so much and seen so little), almost wholly fed, and which even his sturdy and vital mind but reflected at best.
Carlyle, of course, was a historian. Reconstructing other worlds from books was his trade, actual time tourism not being an option. And his pithy little wisecracks about contemporary America are worth more, a century and a half later, than most present libraries.

But more to the point, I can rather easily imagine Carlyle's response to present-day Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee or (Lord help us) Louisiana. If those states in 1881 might have shaken Carlyle's faith in the downward course of democracy, a point on which we may defer to Whitman, I can't imagine their present successors would achieve any such result.

In fact, if we could organize a joint tour of their ghosts, I rather imagine that Whitman himself would end up siding with Carlyle on many (if not all points). We have seen Whitman's honesty, and we cannot imagine him arguing for the track record of democracy since he wrote, if only because all his arguments are plainly falsified. If Carlyle ignores this arguments, he ignores them because they are (and thus must always have been) worthy of nothing but ignorance.

Our society, of course, has its own mental defences against the Carlylean position. There is certainly no shortage of arguments for "republicanism and democracy." They are just all different from Whitman's arguments. Still, there are enough that most intelligent people consider the case overwhelming - to the point where they have never seriously considered it.

However, if we imagine Whitman dropping his own falsified arguments and picking up the latest and greatest replacements, we imagine a Walt Whitman who is not a poet but a defense lawyer. People have called Whitman many nasty names, but no one to my knowledge ever described him as a reptilian, two-tongued bureaucrat.

This does not tell us that there exist no correct arguments for "republicanism and democracy," against Carlyle and reaction. It merely implies that if Whitman and Carlyle both had a chance to inspect the world of 2009, it is probably Whitman and not Carlyle who would feel chastened, and have to apologize; Whitman who would agree with Carlyle, not vice versa. But Whitman and Carlyle could both be wrong, of course.

Therefore we achieve a strange conclusion in our perspective of Carlyle. We begin to suspect that we should at least consider Froude's second alternative:
If, on the other hand, he has been right; if, like his great predecessors, he has read truly the tendencies of this modern age of ours, and his teaching is authenticated by facts, then Carlyle, too, will take his place among the inspired seers.
But if Froude is right, we have only seen half the prophecy unfold. The teaching has been authenticated. The teacher remains unknown. This, dear reader, is why Carlyle matters.

For is this not what Froude should have expected? If democracy triumph - and it has - why should it bother to recall its enemy, Carlyle? Does it run out of friends, of Whitmans, to celebrate? Is it thus forced to sing the praises of its foes? What winner was ever short of friends? Ah, if only victory implied righteousness, and might made right. But there is no principle of which the democrat is more skeptical.

The case of democracy is a case in which the jury has heard only from the defense. Year after year, generation after generation, democracy's lawyers trot out an ever-changing dog's breakfast of alibis, character witnesses and Harvard scientists, all singing one tune: the ironclad innocence and stellar nobility of the defendant, who is no more and no less than Gotham's finest citizen. As for the prosecutor, his corpse has been rotting in the men's room for years. Sometimes the bailiff, who has a ninth-grade education, a Tennessee accent and a drinking problem, picks up a few pages from his brief and reads them out of order.

But is the trial over? It is all but over. The jury is utterly sold. If they could adjourn and assign the defendant the keys to Gotham for life, they would. They are not even aware that there is a trial. They think they're deciding whether to award a gold medal or a platinum one. But alas: the verdict of history is never, ever in. Once it does find the truth, though, it tends to stay there.

For it is a terrible thing to see a prophecy come true, but more terrible to see just the first half. Time remains for the rest, and always will. It is never too late to read Carlyle; it has certainly never been easier. And when he takes his place, etc, I promise you: other things will change.

But what exactly is (I claim) authenticated? What did Carlyle believe, what did he foresee, and how does history validate it? And what did he get wrong? For he was not actually a god, of course. It is time to say goodbye to our Whitmans, and see the infernal regions for themselves.

Carlyle did not believe in democracy. But he must have believed in something. What, then, was this something? If you stop believing in democracy, quite a difficult mental step for anyone in 2009 - or 1859, in fact, which is much of what made Carlyle unique - what do you believe in instead? Hopefully you will hear a terrible, creaking noise, as your brain stretches to regard the awful answer. It is not my answer, it is Carlyle's, but I take the liberty of translating.

First and foremost, Carlyle is a believer in order. To Carlyle, the old order is not "giving birth to the new." It is rotting slowly into anarchy - or burning fast, as in France or later Russia. The destination is not an order at all, but a blackened waste with clumps of singed ferns. Nor does this observation make the old order good - the ancien regime was termite bait and a firetrap. But in Carlyle's mirror, the pattern that the ordinary Whig historian and his ordinary student know as steady progress punctuated by brilliant revolutions, becomes a pattern of inexorable decay punctuated by explosions of barbarism.

Here is a characteristic passage, often quoted on this blog, from Shooting Niagara - Carlyle's last great reactionary pamphlet. It cannot be quoted too often:
All the Millenniums I ever heard of heretofore were to be preceded by a “chaining of the Devil for a thousand years,” — laying him up, tied neck and heels, and put beyond stirring, as the preliminary. You too have been taking preliminary steps, with more and more ardour, for a thirty years back; but they seem to be all in the opposite direction: a cutting asunder of straps and ties, wherever you might find them; pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter: a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions (restrictions on the Devil originally, I believe, for most part, but now fallen slack and ineffectual), which had become unpleasant to many of you, — with loud shouting from the multitude, as strap after strap was cut, “Glory, glory, another strap is gone!”— this, I think, has mainly been the sublime legislative industry of Parliament since it became “Reform Parliament;” victoriously successful, and thought sublime and beneficent by some. So that now hardly any limb of the Devil has a thrum, or tatter of rope or leather left upon it: — there needs almost superhuman heroism in you to “whip” a Garotter; no Fenian taken with the reddest hand is to be meddled with, under penalties; hardly a murderer, never so detestable and hideous, but you find him “insane,” and board him at the public expense, a very peculiar British Prytaneum of these days! And in fact, THE DEVIL (he, verily, if you will consider the sense of words) is likewise become an Emancipated Gentleman; lithe of limb as in Adam and Eve’s time, and scarcely a toe or finger of him tied any more. And you, my astonishing friends, you are certainly getting into a millennium, such as never was before, — hardly even in the dreams of Bedlam.
We speak of prophecy. Well, what became of Britain, in this century of democracy? This millennium? In which the Devil became an Emancipated Gentleman?

Britain lost her Empire and most of Ireland, and became a political satellite of America. Her industries declined and largely disappeared. Her crime rate rose by a factor of 50 - not 50%. Her aristocracy was decimated by two Continental wars of unparalleled savagery, and permanently destroyed by punitive taxation. Many areas of London and other cities became unsafe by day, and more by night. Her lower classes, generously augmented by the dregs of the late Empire, achieved levels of squalor, ignorance and degradation perhaps unsurpassed in human history. Meanwhile, the Crown and the Lords disappeared as meaningful political entities, the Commons ceased to be a genuine forum for debate and became a parking lot for party hacks, and political power diffused into a vast, shapeless morass of Whitehall bureaucrats, Berlaymont Eurocrats, mendacious talking heads, and professors of incompetence.

And worst of all, most appalling of all - Britons do not feel they have a problem. Quite the contrary. They have never been better governed. The smarter and more informed they are, the more deeply they thank the 20th century from saving them from the evils of the Victorian age. The educated Englishman of 2009 considers himself the beneficiary of two centuries of steadily improving good government, from Castlereagh to Gordon Brown.

Indeed, if any faint shadow of anything like a Carlylean view persists anywhere as a living tradition, it is in America herself. Evaluated as pure reaction, American conservatism is the most confused, polluted, and diluted sample conceivable, but so long as we exclude elderly Chilean admirals it is far the most reactionary thing on earth. There is nothing remotely like a European equivalent. In Europe, especially the Continent, all is Left.

Yet Whitman wrote:
I have deliberately repeated it all, not only in offset to Carlyle’s ever-lurking pessimism and world-decadence, but as presenting the most thoroughly American points of view I know. In my opinion the above formulas of Hegel are an essential and crowning justification of New World democracy in the creative realms of time and space. There is that about them which only the vastness, the multiplicity and the vitality of America would seem able to comprehend, to give scope and illustration to, or to be fit for, or even originate. It is strange to me that they were born in Germany, or in the old world at all. While a Carlyle, I should say, is quite the legitimate European product to be expected.
In 2009, of course, warmed-over Walt Whitman is all we get from Europe - Britain with a few exceptions, the Continent without. The "legitimate European product" is not reaction, but socialism. Not Carlyle, but Pinter. Not Metternich, but Cohn-Bendit. Ah, if only might proved right! If only! We could all take another blue pill, and sleep with such sweet smiles.

Here we start to see the prophetic powers of Carlyle. 150 years ago it was imaginable that American "republicanism and democracy" would eventually triumph, but certainly not that it would eradicate every independent trace of indigenous Continental or even British thought. Carlyle does not even quite predict this. But if anyone could have imagined it, it was he.

Compare the great reactionary to a mere conservative of his time, if no mean one - Queen Victoria herself. Victoria, if you read her letters (which are well worth reading), emerges as no cipher either political or intellectual, and her view of the disturbances of 1848 is much the same as Carlyle's. And yet in 1851, she writes to Leopold I of Belgium:
The position of Princes is no doubt difficult in these times, but it would be much less so if they would behave honourably and straightforwardly, giving the people gradually those privileges which would satisfy all the reasonable and well-intentioned, and would weaken the power of the Red Republicans; instead of that, reaction and a return to all the tyranny and oppression is the cry and the principle—and all papers and books are being seized and prohibited, as in the days of Metternich!...
In other words: Victoria believes the cure for acute democracy is chronic democracy. Canning and Palmerston have spent the entire post-Napoleonic era going around Europe fighting Metternich and all other defenders of the old European order, promoting British clients (such as Piedmont) under the banner of constitutional monarchy. Which Victoria, and many like her, consider the cure for "Red Republicanism."

(Yes, Virginia, our own dear Republicans originated as the most left-wing party in the most left-wing country on earth. The name is not at all a coincidence. They were basically socialists, they adored ethnic minorities, and if their party had a color, it was red. How things change!)

Now curiously, today, everyone agrees that there is no such thing as constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchy in 2009 is a synonym for symbolic monarchy, which is vestigial monarchy at all - quite indistinguishable in reality from any "Red Republicanism." Queen Victoria was not at all without actual power. Queen Elizabeth is. This outcome would not have surprised Carlyle. Nor might it have surprised Whitman, to whom all queens were dinosaurs. It would certainly have surprised everyone in between.

Thus the exercise of hindsight devastates the entire political center: liberal, moderate and conservative. Validation is available only to the reactionary and the radical (19th century) or progressive (20th), both of whom hold the only consistent position: the true spirit of democracy is anarchy, dissolution of hierarchical authority. To the radical, this flame, if not snuffed out, cannot be withstood. To the reactionary, the cancer will either kill the patient or be eradicated. To both, no stable compromise is possible or desirable.

How will the center of 2009 hold up in the light of 2159? It is a different center, of course - but this is hardly a promise of durability. Consider how you will react if the center of 2009 turns out to be to the right of the center of 2029, following the general pattern of human history. Consider the 20th century's favorite centrist tract, The Vital Center (1949), by its favorite court historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. - a young crony of FDR, an old crony of JFK. Then consider Professor Schlesinger's last work - The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1991). You can read these books, but do you need to?

Escaping this trap of centrism is the first and most difficult task for those tempted to think outside the democratic box. Faced with the endless, mind-boggling whirl of mass political mania, the assumption that there exists some Goldilocks mean, not too hot or too cold, which just happens to correspond to the average public opinion of the current generation (which is absurdly left-wing in the eyes of the previous generation, and will be absurdly right-wing in the eyes of the next), and which therefore should be correct - or at least a starting point... alas. The more we focus our eyes on it, the more this island of seeming sanity melts and disappears.

We find ourselves in the middle of the ocean. We suddenly realize that we know nothing at all about human politics. We are forced not just to consider the set of theories of government which are popular now, but the set which has ever been popular. Most have applied their minds only to two theories of republicanism, the liberal and conservative as practiced today, between which there is almost no distance by historical standards.

And then we abandon our centrism, and we are comforted. We read Carlyle, and we see that there are only two logically consistent choices for our political belief. They can be briefly summarized as Carlyle and Alinsky.

What we see instead, from both the Carlylean and Alinskyist perspectives, is a monotonic slope. This is the slope of order. Order slopes up to the right: true right, which is reactionary, is always the direction of increasing order, and true left the direction of increasing disorder. It is especially valuable to have a clear definition of this polarization, which seems to have evolved independently so many times in history. David Axelrod would surely get along with the Gracchi, and Pinochet with Sulla.

Since most people do not know the Carlylean theory of order, but most do know the Alinskyist theory of disorder (I won't be surprised if my daughter is introduced to "activism" well before kindergarten), there is an obvious temptation here. The temptation is to derive the Carlylean theory by simply reversing its equally-uncompromising Alinskyist dual. Thus, everything bad is good, and so on. For example, the ultimate act of good government is to shoot into a mob.

While this approach can be useful in an absolute emergency, I would encourage readers to at least be very careful with it. The practice of defining the Right by reversing the Left can lead one to idolize persons and practices who, in the true Carlylean cosmos, are quite unworthy. It is definitely not for the apprentice necromancer or candidate Sith Lord.

Indeed the Carlylean theory of order might just as well be stated as truth. Or justice. For Carlyle, truth, justice and order are all inseparable and perfectly desirable. There is no such thing as too much truth, too much justice, or too much order; the ideal society is one in which all these qualities are seen to their maximum extent. In the society that is Cosmos, truth, justice and order all pertain. In its opposite, Chaos, we see lies and injustice and disorder.

Indeed, Carlyle is often described as not just a prophet, but a theologian. And indeed there are 92 references to the word "God" in the keystone of his political work, the Latter-Day Pamphlets. You may not believe in God - I don't - but until you understand Carlyle's theology, you cannot understand his theory of government. Carlyle was raised a true Scottish Calvinist, an obsolete form of Christianity which actually believed in the concept of sin, and if you have some kind of irrational allergy to Christianity you will never be able to read his books. Sorry.

Order in Carlyle is obedience to the law of God in government, and enforcement of the law of God is the test of good government. And what is the law of God? Does it have anything to do with mixed fibers? It does not. It is no more than truth, justice and order - each of which reduces to the other.

While these buzzwords are easy to say, justice is a buzzword of the present regime and truth is not far behind. Order has escaped the owl-droppings, however, unless you live in Brazil. Thus it remains the best word with which to describe Carlylean thought.

Let us work up from order to Carlyle's theory of slavery. If you can understand slavery through Carlyle's eyes - and he is one of the few theoretical defenders of slavery in the last two centuries, the only other I can think of offhand being George Fitzhugh - nothing in Carlyle will shock you, unless you are unaware of current results in human biodiversity.

For once, I will paraphrase, because the Occasional Discourse should not be the first Carlyle you read, but the last. A good political education in Carlyle is: first Chartism, then the Latter-Day Pamphlets, then Shooting Niagara, then the Occasional Discourse. I would hate to spoil this progression. So again, I will not quote Carlyle on slavery.

Order, for Carlyle, is the set of bonds between the humans in society. A bond is any promise of importance. It may be a promise of payment, it may be a promise of work, it may be a promise of marriage. Regardless, a society is orderly if it is a society in which promises of significant human value, explicit or implicit, are made and kept.

Every promise is an obligation. By writing the promise, I compel my future self. If I promise to pay you $1000 in 2011, I am not exercising my human right of liberty if in 2011 I refuse to pay you. I cannot say: no, man, I would rather be free. By not paying you, man, I am exercising my human right to be free.

Consider the difference between the society in which I can get away with this hippie shit, and the society in which I can't. The society in which obligations can be broken is the society in which loans are either risky, expensive and hard to get, or do not exist at all. Thus we see clearly that the society in which promises are made and kept, the society of order, is more civilized and humane. It is a better society. Once again, there is no Goldilocks effect, no golden mean.

We thus see that the enforcement of promises is a critical aspect of human society. Certain promises are self-enforcing: they are fulfilled because the promiser wants to fulfill them. Marriage, in the ideal, is such a promise. In most cases, however, a loan is not. A society that contains an impartial and irresistible enforcer of contracts is thus preferable to one which does not - although no contract with the enforcer itself can be enforced by definition.

So far the enterprising libertarian will go with you, although he will certainly quibble at the last. A society is richer if each individual in it has the right to bind her future actions by agreed obligations, in return for which others may exchange other consideration. Would this bother Ayn Rand? I'm afraid I've never read Ayn Rand. I know - it's terrible - I should. It would certainly bother Rothbard, but sometimes this is a virtue.

Once we get this far, we are almost all the way to Carlyle on slavery. We have not agreed that a man can be born a slave, but we agree that he can sell himself into slavery. That is: he can sign a contract with a master in which the slave agrees unconditionally to obey and work for the master, and the master agrees unconditionally to protect and support the slave.

Moreover, this contract need not be a mere expression of sentiment. It can and should be enforced by the State, just as a loan is. If the slave changes his mind and runs away, the State will capture and return him, billing the master for the expense. Or at least, these are reasonable terms under which two parties might agree on the permanent relationship of master and slave.

Such terms could also be agreed on a non-permanent basis, yielding the relationship of indentured servitude - familiar to all American high-school students. The laws of early America and England were indeed both more flexible, and more orderly, than our own in permitting and enforcing this form of order. (The relationship of flexibility to order, and sclerosis to disorder, is a common one in Carlylean analysis.)

This still does not get us to classic Anglo-American slavery in the Southern or West Indian style, or of course the classic Greek or Roman forms. Most human societies, and in particular most civilized societies, have had some form of slavery or bondage. And typically this is involuntary slavery, not at all the nice libertarian type.

To despise these societies as a class is an anthropological solecism. Those who consider slave societies intrinsically evil, a word the 20th century would be well advised to keep well away from its tongue, would quickly change their tunes if forced, like this man, to function in an actual slave society. We are all Horatios; this world is not in our philosophy. When we judge it without seeing it or knowing anything about it, we only reveal ourselves as fools.

It is only a short step from seeing the State as an enforcer of voluntary and binding obligations, to an enforcer of involuntary and arbitrary obligations. No society can possibly exist without uncontracted obligations.

For example, property and in particular real estate represent a class of obligations behind which there is no principle but historical accident. I am obliged not to trespass on your land. I did not agree not to trespass on your land, but I am obliged nonetheless. And why is it your land, rather than my land? Because it is.

Moreover, everyone is born into a web of involuntary obligations: the family. No one gets to pick their parents. Moreover, every family is part of a human society and thus accepts the obligations of that society. You do not need to go to Carlyle for an explanation of the relationship between slavery, family, and community, for you can find it in Aristotle. Indeed, the definition of family in most times and places has included slaves.

The relationship of master and slave is a natural human relationship: that of patron and client. Like true familial relationships, these essentially feudal structures are bidirectional. The client must obey and serve the patron; the patron must care for and protect the client. On one side of the relationship is always authority; on the other side, always dependency. Either side may violate its obligations, resulting in state intervention.

In the most ordered and flexible feudal societies, the relationship of patron and client becomes a true governance relationship. The patron is personally responsible for all offenses of the client against society - this is a core tenet of Roman law, applying both to slaves and children. In return, the patron holds the power of the magistrate over his clients. In the old days of the Roman Republic, a father could order the execution of his son on his own word alone. This is even a bit extreme for me, but it demonstrates the concept.

We see the most palatable relatives of hereditary slavery in the feudal European societies, where we have not slavery in the antique sense but serfdom, slavery adscripti glebae - peasants bound to the soil. The 20th-century historian will generally describe this system as if it were something like the Gulag, or possibly even Auschwitz, or maybe just the Angola Penitentiary, and everyone was just biding their time and waiting to be free. This is what it is to be an enemy of the past - you are doomed to walk through life, lying. Try to imagine yourself visiting 13th-century France and recommending the liberation of the serfs.

Thus we see the root of democracy's antipathy to slavery: its antipathy to feudalism. These structures are clearly in the same class. Is there a difference between being born bound to a person, and born bound to the land? There is, but not much of one. In both cases, you are born to obligations. You did not agree to these obligations, yet they are your inescapable burden. Had the luck of your fresh-minted soul been different, you might have been born to privilege instead. And good luck, Carlyle will tell you grimly, in abolishing luck.

But wait: when one is born a serf, bound to the land with obligations, one is bound not to a person but to a political entity. In the case of serfdom, assuming the extremity of personal restriction, this is a small political entity. This may be a problem if you are a restless fellow and like to get around, but seeing Europe was not the primary concern of most pre-industrial agricultural workers. Moreover, regardless of the size or nature of the entity to which you are born bound, allowing you to stretch your legs is no risk at all so long as that entity has the power to catch you and bring you back. Again, this is true for both serfs and slaves.

Suddenly we see the relationship between slavery and government. Serfdom and slavery can be described as microgovernment and nanogovernment respectively. In government proper, the normal human role of patron is filled by a giant, impersonal, and often accidentally sadistic bureaucracy, which is sovereign and self-securing. In serfdom, this role is filled by a noble house or other large family business, which in turn is a client of the State, and just as fixed to the land as its serfs. In slavery, mastership is exercised by a mobile individual whose slaves go with him.

(Democracy here appears as simply a mechanism for controlling subjects by deluding them into believing that they control the entire enterprise, a pretense which cannot be maintained in the context of serfdom or slavery. In this role it is certainly unnecessary, as physical enforcement technologies are quite sufficient. The mind-control state is obsolete.)

In all these relationships, the structure of obligation is the same. The subject, serf, or slave is obliged to obey the government, lord, or master, and work for the benefit of same. In return, the government, lord or master must care for and guide the subject, serf, or slave. We see these same relationship parameters emerging whether the relationship of domination originates as a hereditary obligation, or as a voluntary obligation, or in a state outside law such as the state of the newly captured prisoner (the traditional origin of slave status in most eras). This is a pretty good clue that this structure is one to which humans are biologically adapted.

Not all humans are born the same, of course, and the innate character and intelligence of some is more suited to mastery than slavery. For others, it is more suited to slavery. And others still are badly suited to either. These characteristics can be expected to group differently in human populations of different origins. Thus, Spaniards and Englishmen in the Americas in the 17th and earlier centuries, whose sense of political correctness was negligible, found that Africans tended to make good slaves and Indians did not. This broad pattern of observation is most parsimoniously explained by genetic differences.

A person makes a good slave if he is loyal, patient, and not exceptionally bright or stubborn. But even great intelligence is not necessarily a bar to a good experience in slavery, as the experience of many Greek slave philosophers, such as Epictetus, shows. A slave must carry the unique burden of personal dependency and obedience, which we are all used to expressing only toward impersonal government agencies.

One typically does not experience emotional bonds with, say, the IRS. Unless they are bonds of hate. There is nonetheless an emotional bond with Washington as a whole, a sense of being part of the team that is your owner and its other subjects. All psychologically normal subjects, serfs, or slaves feel this, so long as their government, lord or master is both sane and competent. Otherwise, any derangement may occur. Of course, the smaller the group, the more intense the feelings - for better or for worse. But in general, the normal case is real affection on both sides.

Moreover, just because the relationship of slavery or serfdom is personal by default, does not imply that it cannot be made impersonal, like the relationship of subject to government. If the client is not one of Aristotle's natural slaves, has an IQ over 90, is an adult, and can provide his or her own personal guidance, the subject-government relationship may be a better fit. The master may maximize his economic benefit by simply allowing the slave to negotiate his own employment and living arrangements, and taxing him. Thus the parallel reemerges.

Conversely, the subject-government relationship easily becomes dysfunctional for clients who are natural slaves, ie, are not capable of guiding themselves to live in a human and humane manner. It is beyond question that such individuals exist, if only as a result of brain damage. And it is easily seen that they thrive under personal guidance, and wilt and grow foul in the arms of bureaucrats. If all long-term welfare cases were transferred from Washington to the authority of genuine, truly charitable nonprofits, for example, their new human supervisors could intervene on a personal, discretionary basis to compel them to get their acts together. This would be a step toward humanity in our society - and also a step toward slavery.

Probably the closest most Americans have come to idealizing slavery, without of course knowing it, is in the good press that large Japanese corporations once got for maintaining a policy of lifetime employment. Lifetime employment and slavery are, of course, practically synonyms, and indeed the same phenomena of reciprocal loyalty and dependency were said - repeatedly, in my memory, in the '90s on NPR - to emerge. Right down to the company uniform and song. This, too, is a Carlylean bond, although a rather weird one to the Western eye.

We thus observe slavery not as a perversion, but as a natural relationship, like gay marriage. (Gay marriage is unquestionably a natural relationship, although history - for whatever reason - seldom has a good outcome for societies in which large numbers of males are born gay. Whitman and Carlyle both have points to score on this issue.)

Of course, like gay marriage (or ordinary marriage), slavery is not without its abuses. When we think of the word "slavery," we think of these abuses. Thus, by defining the word as intrinsically abusive, like marriages in which one party beats the other, we can conveniently define away all the instances of slavery (or, for that matter, marriage) in which the relationship is functional.

Carlyle is in fact ready to be as indignant as anyone over these abuses. He reasons: since slavery is a natural human relationship, this bond will exist regardless of whether you abolish the word. And it does - if only in broken and surreptitious forms. However, if you are a genuine humanitarian and your interest is in abolishing the abuses, the best way to do so is to - abolish the abuses. So, for example, he proposes reforms such as stronger supervision of slaveowners, a standard price by which slaves can buy their freedom, etc, etc.

In this extreme example, we see the general pattern of Carlylean order. Again, order is about the bonds between members of society, which consist of obligations voluntary and involuntary, which are promises made and kept, and enforced by law where law is needed to enforce them. Especially critical to Carlyle is the hierarchical bond, the relationship of command, which is one critical form of social glue without which large organizations cannot function. Carlyle, who is not perfect, slightly neglects another important class of obligation, the financial. Financial obligations are more likely to be voluntary, but also more dependent on enforcement.

One of my own personal great moments of Carlylean enlightenment came not from Carlyle himself, but from his disciple Froude, also a great historian. (To add to the fun, "Froude" is pronounced just the way Keanu Reeves says "Freud" in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.) Someday I will read all of Froude's twelve-volume history of England from Henry VIII through Elizabeth I, but I have only read a bit of the first volume. That bit was so impressive and stunning that I thought I might want to wait a year or two before taking in any more.

Froude describes a Tudor society which is completely ordered - which consists, from top to bottom, king to knave, of these relationships of mutual obligation. They are relationships of family, of feudalism, of guild traditions such as apprenticeship, of the Church, of political patronage, of commercial patronage and monopoly, and of course of law and government. It was impossible to live a normal human life outside this tapestry, and nor is it at all clear why anyone would have wanted to.

Misfits, screwups and parasites constantly fell out of the fabric, the era being after all primitive, and every arm of government was charged with eradicating this human bilge. If Tudor England, or any European sovereign of the era, had tolerated vagrants, beggars and the idle, it would have been inundated with a mountain of them in a second. As it was, it seems there were quite a few. The difficulty of operating in these primitive conditions demanded a social fabric at which the 21st century can only stare in amazement, like a general contractor contemplating a cathedral. And these people, indeed, built cathedrals. They were not libertarian cathedrals.

Thus order turns out to equal both truth and justice, because all three equate to promises made and kept. We have seen the reactionary end of the slope of order: Henry VIII. We then look at the radical end of the slope, for which we will accept three symbols: Haiti, Afghanistan, and San Francisco.

In Haiti, we see one aspect of life without promises made and kept: poverty, corruption, violence and filth. In a word: anarchy. Haiti is the product of the persistence of human anarchy, and an excellent symbol because it symbolized exactly the same thing to Carlyle and Froude. The latter visited; his observations are here. Haiti is far more anarchic than it was in 1888, of course, whose Port-au-Prince is a paradise next to today's. Froude gets all enraged because he sees a ditch full of garbage. The 19th century's Haiti is the 21st's whole Third World.

If you are interested in the general subject of anarchy in the Third World, perhaps you have read Robert Kaplan's famous 1994 essay in the Atlantic, The Coming Anarchy. Kaplan spends most of it berating the reader with a completely fictitious set of causes of this anarchy. The real cause, of course, is decolonialization. The cause of that was progressivism, ie, Carlyle deficiency. Of course Kaplan's little anarchies would not surprise Carlyle for a moment.

Moreover, as Kaplan does not tell you but Carlyle would, the anarchy is indeed coming - to you. Because every year, the border between the Third World and the First is a little more porous. Here indeed are the seeds of true Ate, though this thorough and Biblical ruin (already taking place in South Africa) may well run another century. No one has yet shown me a magic pill that turns a Third Worlder into a First Worlder.

But at least most of the Third World is not an active physical danger to the lives of Americans. This cannot be said of Afghanistan, where Americans (and other Europeans, and yes, Afghans too) are dying every day for lack of Carlyle. More precisely, they are dying because America, the democratic nation, is and will always be completely incapable of doing the one thing it must do to succeed in Afghanistan, which is to rule the country.

Oh, no, you see. Americans are in Afghanistan to advise the self-governing Afghan people. Ruling is the last thing they could think of doing. America is just helping the independent government of Afghanistan, which of course it created lock, stock and barrel, to stand on its own two feet. But why should it? Do you think these people want America to go away, and all America's dollars with it?

You can watch a video of how this works out, here. James Mill once wrote:
The two important discoveries for conquering India were, 1st: the weakness of the native armies against European discipline; 2dly, the facility of imparting that discipline to natives in the European service.
But America has no Afghans in its service. Except for a few interpreters, for whom necessity finds a way, the bond of command between American and Afghan is strictly forbidden. It is too Carlylean. Nothing like the Philippine Scouts, for instance, could be tolerated. As a result, Americans are running around screaming, quite ineffectually to the sight of any experienced parent or manager, at "their" Afghan soldiers, that they shouldn't smoke hash before going on patrol. It doesn't appear to be working.

Thus, Afghans are privileged to receive the full Orwellian force of the 21st century. They suffer the pains of not only anarchy but also civil war, for an indefinite time period in the future, for the sake of their own human rights. Is this a noble martyrdom, or what? If there is any justice in the world, the Afghans may very well inherit it. I'm not sure they will be too nice if they do.

The Afghan experience hits a couple of huge Carlylean hot buttons. Not only is it a clear case of anarchy, but it is also a sham. The civil war in Afghanistan continues because of the fraud, clearly palpable to all and defended by none, that the Karzai government is in some sense "independent." It could only be more dependent if it was attached to Capitol Hill by an actual, physical umbilical cord. And yet, because Washington cannot summon the strength of reality needed to couple authority with dependency - the classic dynamic of mastery - anarchy persists, and so does war. Thus disorder, mendacity and injustice again go hand in hand, as Satan walks to and fro in the earth. Satan is a pretty busy guy these days.

And finally, we come down to San Francisco. This is not Afghanistan, and nor is it Haiti - although the city fathers of fifty years ago might be excused for imagining some relationship. But no, actually. San Francisco is not well-governed by any reasonable standard, but I live there and I can tell you that it's a pretty nice place to live.

Still, however, the tapestry of promises looks like a moth attack at a dental-floss convention. About the only strong human bonds in San Francisco today are familial bonds, and there are precious few of those. (Although the birth rate is up about 50% in the last 10 years, in my zip code - a thing which makes one think there may be some turning of the tide.) Extended families are a rarity. Clans and tribes are found only among the primitive. There are no guilds, there are no real churches, there are no genuine, multigenerational neighborhood communal organizations. There are plenty of sexual bonds, friendships, affinity groups, and employment relationships, of course. But everything is casual.

Whereas fifty years ago, this city was an American Catholic city, full of Irish and Italians. It had community in spades. So did the entire country. America was in fact famous for her social cohesion. If you read Tocqueville's actual American journals, he goes around America marvelling at the social fabric, marvelling at the strict discipline in the prisons, and being amazed that both can coexist with democracy - whose destructive side, being French, he knows well. It was a tough fabric, and took more than another century to totally decay.

But now, of course, it has - as another famous pundit has pointed out. (The same professor has, much against his will, even observed one of the causes.) American society is atomized and structureless. All decisions are as procedural and collective as can be made. The only exception is in the corporate, military and law-enforcement worlds, each its own little bitter holdouts of rationalized reaction. These are stubborn. But when they go, commerce and security go - and here is the true slide over the great falls.

Oh, and Shakespeare and Johnson? They were reactionaries too, of course. Johnson, of course, was a notorious Jacobite. But Shakespeare? Alas. Aside from notorious passages such as Ulysses' speech on degree (which you are now fully equipped to understand), not to mention notorious plays, such as Coriolanus - let me simply note that if Shakespeare was a democrat, you'd of heard it.

If you must look further: Brownist. Note that Brownism begat Congregationalism and Congregationalism begat Universalism - so we are all Brownists now. By memetic genealogy, at least. Remember that next time NPR chews your ear off about the Bard.

And again, don't let this be your only introduction to Carlyle. To repeat the course: Chartism, then the Latter-Day Pamphlets, then Shooting Niagara, then the Occasional Discourse. If this doesn't stretch your skull, nothing will.

70 Comments:

Anonymous Pan Cogito said...

"In the society that is Cosmos, truth, justice and order all pertain."


I've read a deal of your posts, and like some of the but I have to say:

Sorry dude, but where do you get of even uttering the word Cosmos? How can any positivist, reductionist, have the guts to mouth such a metaphysical concept? Order is a barren sociological (socialite) nothing if not supported by this. This kind of order - utilitarian order: always fails (or has to be protected with murder - soviet style). The masses figure it out (that you actually don't believe this shit) and either go berserk or find themselves a new religion. Probably both.

July 16, 2009 at 9:09 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

I found this essay much more comprehensible than your others. I believe I finally understand what you want.

Ideally (for you, not me, let's be clear):

A world where the better* always rules the lesser, where discipline is paramount. There is a supreme power which rules the Earth (or perhaps several, the Earth divided among them.) Let's call this power "Power."

No nations exist except as colonies of Power. As Power is naturally fit to be in power and the colonies are naturally fit to be colonies, this works out best for all involved.

The same pattern is repeated throughout Earth from top to bottom. Regional rulers have absolute power over their subjects (but of course are total subjects of a higher power, leading to Power itself.) Fathers have absolute rule over their families (although you object to fathers executing their sons -- I can't see how this fits in.)

Some races are suited to be closer to Power, others to be slaves, and slave-master relationships will follow along those lines. Again, because this is natural, it's best for all parties.

Power is enforced absolutely and the desire of a colony to be independent is of no more importance than the desire of a slave to be free, which is of no more importance than the desire of a 3-year-old to run naked into traffic. Power knows best, so Power makes the rules.

It's so simple when you put it like that. Did I get it right? Is that your ideal world?

(Note: I'm not trying to be cute or to caricaturize. This is my honest assessment of what I think you're getting at. I'm just spelling it out precisely because I find it easier to reason that way. I majored in computer science, not in political philosophy.)

July 16, 2009 at 10:22 AM  
Blogger Thrasymachus said...

Mr. Moldbug, you are inclined to accuse those you don't like of chimpanzee politics, while insisting on the sweet reason of those you like. But what is Carlyle but a golden example of chimpanzee politics? I won't say much about his hatred of blacks, because I'm not inclined to stick my neck out for them, but he regarded the Irish as pretty much the same sort of subhuman. If it comes down to you or me, I'd prefer it be you, and I won't be too squeamish about making it come out that way.

July 16, 2009 at 12:28 PM  
Anonymous John the Lesser said...

I'm not too familiar with ancient Chinese philosophy, but know a little bit about it. Enough to notice some patterns between it and Mencius Moldbug's thought.

Isn't Mencius Moldbug very partial to his namesake, the founder of Legalism? MM's strict legal realism was what the old Chinese guy Mencius and his Legalism philosophy promoted, I believe. But even this was a bit too authoritarian for the ancient Chinese, who are of course extremely authoritarian by our Western standards. The Confucians criticized Legalism as being too inhumane, cruel, etc., and were successful in eliminating Legalism as an influential state philosophy. Confucianism then took over.

But then again, this latest post echoes much of the paternalism and emphasis on human relationships found in Confucianism.

Now it's important to note that all of this Chinese political philosophy (both Confucianism & Legalism), and MM's apparent endorsement in part/variation of, would be denounced as "Oriental despotism." But if I'm not mistaken part of the whole "Oriental despotism" idea, while having some history in being an attitude held by the ancient Greeks toward the Persians, was expressed in its modern form by Hegel, who argued a kind of proto progressivism with freedom/truth/all good things progressively getting better from the most despotic Far East to increasing freedom as one goes Westward towards Classical Greece & Rome, towards greater finality and perfection and freedom in the Prussian state. Or something like that. Since progressives, like we seen in Whitman above, seem to be indelibly imbued with this sort of Hegelianism, it's not a big leap to say that they would paint everything to the right of the current center as "Oriental despotism" even though as MM argues a generation earlier it would have been the next step in progress.

July 16, 2009 at 12:29 PM  
Anonymous josh said...

JA,

I think MM believes in the existance of a natural power equilibirium based on some kind of natural laws of human nature. I think, he believes this is the key to a maximally peaceful world, which would also, in his opinion, be something like a maximally prosperous, and would have maximum liberty in the hobbesian sense.

July 16, 2009 at 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Irish aren't subhuman?

July 16, 2009 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger James said...

You folks really don't get it. The worm runs deep.

July 16, 2009 at 1:19 PM  
Anonymous eduardo said...

a little bit off topic perhaps: i´ve always wondered why jorge luis borges entertained systematicaly reactionary opinions even though being a great american admirer, he for once said he supported the military coup in Argentina because the military generals were certainly very honoured men (cause that´s what army people are, are´nt they?), now can you imagine such beautiful reactionary utterance even having a non zero probability in the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to the possible thoughts wave function of a 21st century planet three inhabitant?
by the way apart from meddling into all things gnostic and bookish and mighty cool Borges was a dedicated and stern admirer of Carlyle.

July 16, 2009 at 1:38 PM  
Anonymous order_and_progress said...

MM, the true explanation of the colors of the Brazilian flag is one more to your liking: Green is the color of the House of Braganza, and yellow the color of the Habsburgs. The first Brazilian Emperor, Pedro I., the heir to the throne of Portugal, was a Braganza, married to the Maria Leopoldine, daughter of Francis II. of Austria.

The "natural abundance and mineral wealth" explanation was invented by the Republicans when they decided against changing the flag too much. Their original design eventually became the flag of the state of São Paulo, and is a slavish adaptation of the American flag. You can see it here: http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/Flags/br-sp.html.

A minor point, I know, but it might be of interest to the reactionary readers of your site.

July 16, 2009 at 2:05 PM  
Anonymous order_and_progress said...

To John the Lesser:

In actual fact, the original Mencius had nothing to do with Legalism. He was the second most important Confuncian philosopher (next comes Xunzi).

You're thinking of Han Feizi.

July 16, 2009 at 2:30 PM  
Anonymous John the Lesser said...

I see. Thanks for the heads up.

July 16, 2009 at 2:48 PM  
Anonymous epala said...

does Mencius Moldbug actually read all those old books online on Google Books, or does he read hard copies?

cuz it's pretty damn hard to read all that long material online.

July 16, 2009 at 2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'll have to forgive me if I still adhere to the Lockean ideal that all men should be free, and one's position in life should be determined by merit, not luck. It may be idealistic, but it's done more good for mankind than Carlyle.

While one may readily acknowledge all revolutions were started by criminals and were criminal in nature, one cannot deny certain positive benefits flowing from the same.

-Victor

July 16, 2009 at 5:17 PM  
Blogger G. M. Palmer said...

It may be idealistic, but it's done more good for mankind than Carlyle.

[citation needed]

July 16, 2009 at 6:57 PM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Jewish Atheist,

I have a counter-question for you: how exactly would you summarize the differences between your above description based on your understanding of MM's views and the actual state of the world or the U.S. today? (I'll call the former "the JA-MM vision," just as a convention to avoid confusion.)

One obvious difference is that in the JA-MM vision, there are multiple levels of strong authority, down to the lowest level where the master-slave and patriarch-family member relationships reign. In contrast, the modern liberal state aims to flatten all structures of authority underneath itself and operate with a mass of atomized individuals whose only relationships and associations are those specifically approved (or, even better, designed) by the state. (Achieving such a state of affairs is its almost explicitly stated ideal.) Do you believe that this reduction to a single level of authority is a good thing in itself? Also, do you believe that this authority is exercised in a significantly more gentle, just, or otherwise superior way in the present order than in the hypothetical JA-MM vision? Finally, do you believe that the present liberal system has a better justification on which it bases its authority?

I'm not asking these questions with any particular aim in mind. I'm honestly curious to see your answers.

July 16, 2009 at 8:50 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

"By common consent, or nearly so, Mr. Carlyle died our greatest English Man of Letters".

That's palpable nonsense; he wasn't English.

'Now curiously, today, everyone agrees that there is no such thing as constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchy in 2009 is a synonym for symbolic monarchy, which is vestigial monarchy at all - quite indistinguishable in reality from any "Red Republicanism." Queen Victoria was not at all without actual power. Queen Elizabeth is.'

That's wrong. The power is there, waiting, and could be used safely if occasion arose (as it did here in Australia, in Gough Whitlam's day). To use it otherwise would almost certainly destroy the wielder - but it is there.

"The relationship of master and slave is a natural human relationship: that of patron and client. Like true familial relationships, these essentially feudal structures are bidirectional. The client must obey and serve the patron; the patron must care for and protect the client. On one side of the relationship is always authority; on the other side, always dependency. Either side may violate its obligations, resulting in state intervention."

There is a profound misunderstanding here of what the essence of feudalism was. The exchange of promises incurring obligation was free, but thereafter the ultimate backing was honour - the stake people had in keeping their credibility, that Hamlet soliloquised about. Unlike contract law, each side's promise remained binding even if the other side did not keep its promises (although, of course, the wise only made promises that themselves were contingent on that). This was even so when force was applied to the recalcitrant, for that force was called forth by calling on just such promises from others. There is nothing essentially feudal about structures that are ultimately backed by state intervention. The rest of what is described is the usual actual outworking, not unilateral and imposed obligation; any serf could release himself from his condition, just by walking away and staying away from his obligations for a period (originally a year and a day, but much longer in places like Russia). And all had privileges - just different ones, and not all of equal value in all circumstances. "In serfdom, this role is filled by a noble house or other large family business, which in turn is a client of the State" [emphasis added] is wrong, because there was no State (besides which, they weren't always clients of others - for instance, the Barons of the Land in the Crusader Kingdoms weren't).

"Froude describes a Tudor society... of feudalism...". It wasn't, of course, any more than the shell of a hermit crab holds the original creature. It had developed via Livery and Maintenance ("Bastard Feudalism") into something of similar appearance that was backed by embryonic state mechanisms.

July 16, 2009 at 9:20 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Such an erudite column. And then you go and trample it with "you'd of heard it." Tsk, tsk.

It is like chasing sturgeon with a Butterfinger.

July 16, 2009 at 11:56 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

This article is also up for annotation at Thiblo.com.

July 17, 2009 at 4:42 AM  
Anonymous Lugo said...

You'll have to forgive me if I still adhere to the Lockean ideal that all men should be free, and one's position in life should be determined by merit, not luck. It may be idealistic, but it's done more good for mankind than Carlyle.

Judging by results rather than intentions, that's manifestly wrong. The "idealistic" approach has resulted in hundreds of years of slaughter. But perhaps you believe it's OK for millions and millions to be killed for the "good of mankind". You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, and all that.

While one may readily acknowledge all revolutions were started by criminals and were criminal in nature, one cannot deny certain positive benefits flowing from the same.

MM already addressed this: "Since the simplest form of power is the power to destroy, leftist forces tend to come to power in a flurry of institutional destruction. But since some things do need destroying, it is easy to identify positive side effects of the process. This must not be mistaken for evidence that leftism is a good idea."

July 17, 2009 at 5:51 AM  
Blogger bgc said...

Carlyle was a transitional genius; raised a devout Christian but who abandoned a belief in personal God while retaining a belief in the reality and importance of transcendental values such as truth and order.

These transitional characters (RW Emerson and Nietzsche are others) are a bad guide to philosophy, since their greatness is incoherent, untransmissable and unsustainable.

In the final analysis, their philosophies are _merely_ a transitional state (albeit alluring) on the road from theism to atheism.

Sadly, a secular society, like Western democracies, cannot sustain the Carlylean morality of truthfulness; since (lacking belief in the Christian God) these transcendental values can now be recommended by nothing stronger than unsupported personal conviction.

July 17, 2009 at 6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jewish Atheist said '(Note: I'm not trying to be cute or to caricaturize.)'

That's exactly what you're trying to do.

July 17, 2009 at 6:43 AM  
Blogger G. M. Palmer said...

brian -- holy shit!
shame on MM.

July 17, 2009 at 7:53 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

Still, we're saying nothing. If all men were perfect you could have a democracy or a monarchy or even a system of governance requiring messages delivered by penguin - what is needed is for men to be good, and they won't. Carlyle can't solve that problem by making us all bondsmen.

It is worth noting that the scriptures themselves do not *outlaw* slavery, since firstly to do that would be to set up a battle of 'flesh and blood' which was entirely contrary to the whole Apostolic preaching.

Slavery was eventually outlawed in the west in reaction to the extreme inhumanity which had accrued around the practice - something no Christian could conscience. Note that now we are outlawed from selling our bodies - which in some sense implies that they don't belong to us. The Hebrews were permitted to sell their bodies - in the sense of work - but they had to be released from this obligation at the Jubilee. (Whether this happened in practice much I don't know.)

However, arguments that slavery is purely an evil are usually bunkum, since while no longer enslaved by means of pain (as in the master's whip or at very least at pains of being forcibly required to meet my end of the contract) we are often enslaved by means of pleasure. This is of course the whole framework underlying a book like 'Liberal Fascism' - take any kind of addiction. The bond is not formed by pain, but by pleasure. In fact in a spiritual sense, the life of the bondsman is better for the soul than the life of the addict.

Most arguments about slavery being evil think about a *particular* form of bondage that had, as I had said, run its course into a kind of mindless brutalism. Tom Sowell has talked about how strange the Southern 'racism' was - and others have shown that the South's tying itself to slave labor was of course stunting its growth and providing a disadvantage against its soon-to-be foe, the North.

It is also worth noting that working in a factory is slavery; but it is far more efficient to be able to pick slaves at any age, from a large variety of races, and not be responsible for housing or feeding them other than to provide the means for them to do so themselves. Some companies of course judged it better to provide housing on their own, based on land availability and other factors.

However, I will agree with the transitional comment. Carlyle's society of order was yet another - earlier phase in the gradual decay.

The highest form of order is of course - Byzantium.

It is telling that Carlyle was a Calvinist, anyway - I'd opine he went atheist because the Calvinist God isn't worth believing in. The dregs of this reaction crystallized variously into ideologies.

It was enjoyable crazy, though, MM. I think there are some important insights here that ought to be removed from gay matrimony with your ideology and written about. The notion of 'bondage' - 'slavery' as you have spoken of it is one. Few if any today can make heads or tails of the name "Christodoulos."

July 17, 2009 at 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Lugo

I take it you aren't in bondage. If so, you probably enjoy the simple freedom of not being a slave. As Locke, that detestable Puritan responsible for Robespierre, Marx, Stalin, Mao and Barack Obama wrote:"Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it."

Yet you accept Carlyle's, and by extension, Moldbug's, argument about slavery being an enviable institution. Do you not realize the hypocrisy of such a proposition? Were it not the nefarious British liberals who abolished the slave trade? Was that not an act of virtue? Or can we casually dismiss it?

"Judging by results rather than intentions, that's manifestly wrong. The "idealistic" approach has resulted in hundreds of years of slaughter. But perhaps you believe it's OK for millions and millions to be killed for the 'good of mankind'."

I wrote earlier that one's station in life should be determined by merit, not privilege. I stand by this. It is an idealistic, Lockean argument. Yet, according to you, it has resulted in the deaths of millions. And by supporting the argument, I endorse these deaths. I think you realize how fatuous you sound saying something like that.

Considering the Ricci case was about 18 firefighters earning their jobs on merit, rather than on (racial) privilege, I'd say Lockean "idealism" is more useful to mankind than Carlyle or his few moldy supporters.

I don't find myself disagreeing with Moldbug often. I find his arguments very compelling. And I certainly agree that much evil has been committed in the name of this type of idealism. But that doesn't invalidate the ideal itself. Defending slavery is foolhardy. Moldbug, and yourself I presume, are arguing for slavery but would be unwilling to tolerate it on yourselves.

-Victor

July 17, 2009 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Vladamir:

In contrast, the modern liberal state aims to flatten all structures of authority underneath itself and operate with a mass of atomized individuals whose only relationships and associations are those specifically approved (or, even better, designed) by the state...

Do you believe that this reduction to a single level of authority is a good thing in itself?


I think you misunderstand the crucial element of liberalism. Yes, all structures of (absolute) authority are flattened, but they are not underneath the state. The state exists largely to prevent structures of (absolute) authority from forming.

I say (absolute) authority to exclude role-based limited authorities like the authority of the police to prevent citizens from harming each other or the authority of a parent over a small child.

Also, do you believe that this authority is exercised in a significantly more gentle, just, or otherwise superior way in the present order than in the hypothetical JA-MM vision?

That is an interesting question, but ultimately an ends-justifies-the-means question. I believe (as commenter Victor does) that all people should be free and that this is generally more important than "what's best" for them, if those two should ever differ.

But to answer your question, I think the current way is more gentle, to be sure. Keeping people from killing and enslaving each other is invariably more gentle than keeping people enslaved and subservient.

As for "just," well that's a matter of opinion I suppose, but yes, I think so. Income inequality remains enormous and probably will until technology makes income irrelevant, but people in (e.g.) America are free, limited more by their abilities than by their birth.

Mencius and others would have us believe that birth is an exceptional indicator of ability, but it doesn't come close to actual ability as an indicator of ability.

Finally, do you believe that the present liberal system has a better justification on which it bases its authority?

Absolutely. MM's authority has no justification -- he even says so when he says of private property that "there is no principle but historical accident." America's authority comes from the people who vote for it. It's not a perfect representative of the people, of course, but it's a lot closer than whatever authority happens to rule MM's hypothetical society.

There's a reason that the divine right of kings was such an important part of many societies. Without some supernatural justification, there seems no justification at all.


Anonymous:

I assure you I'm not. If you think I've misrepresented MM's position, please clarify it. I merely tried to say plainly and concisely what he said expansively and a little opaquely. Any alterations are my mistakes (or his) but are not intentional.

If you think you can do it better, please do so.

July 17, 2009 at 10:45 AM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Jewish Atheist:
I think you misunderstand the crucial element of liberalism. Yes, all structures of (absolute) authority are flattened, but they are not underneath the state. The state exists largely to prevent structures of (absolute) authority from forming.

But I honestly don't see how the authority of the liberal state itself is not absolute. Its authority is not limited by anything except the ideological constraints of the intellectual and bureaucratic classes that run it, and to some extent by the popular vote. (Of course, it's also limited by the practical resources of the law enforcement, but I have in mind primarily the authority to regulate and criminalize things, not the practical effectiveness of the enforcement.) There is nothing anywhere that is allowed to happen without its approval and minute regulation, and no authority whatsoever is allowed to exist that isn't merely a delegated power of the state, or at most a grandfathered previously existing social relation (e.g. parents or employers), which will however be strictly regulated, delimited, and constantly supervised by the state, which reserves the right to step in at any moment.

I honestly think that this is a realistic description of the present state of affairs, even though its supporters would be reluctant to word it so bluntly. It's true that the state prevents structures of absolute authority from forming underneath it, but this is achieved only by subordinating everything to the state authority. It would be like abolishing feudalism by making everyone a serf of the king. (Which could hypothetically be justified by claiming that the king is more humane than the local feudal lords.)


That is an interesting question, but ultimately an ends-justifies-the-means question. I believe (as commenter Victor does) that all people should be free and that this is generally more important than "what's best" for them, if those two should ever differ.

Many people would theoretically subscribe to something like this, but very few would act consistently on such a principle in practice. (Hell, in most places it's no longer even legal for adults to have a place where they can gather to have a beer and smoke.)


Income inequality remains enormous and probably will until technology makes income irrelevant, but people in (e.g.) America are free, limited more by their abilities than by their birth.

They are free within the limits set by the American state and its subordinate institutions. Depending on what your preferences are, you can perceive the present state of affairs anywhere from wonderfully free to oppressively unfree. Even the assumption that the lack of inborn social status is an unalloyed good is questionable. In the modern Anglo-Saxon world, this principle has been carried out to such an extreme that the resulting social atomisation is making a significant number of people deeply unhappy.

(By the way, technology will never make income irrelevant. The modern society is already rich enough that you can freeload all your life without starving to death. However, some of the most important things will always be zero-sum -- prestige, power, sexual relationships, and land ownership being the most important ones.)

MM's authority has no justification -- he even says so when he says of private property that "there is no principle but historical accident." America's authority comes from the people who vote for it. It's not a perfect representative of the people, of course, but it's a lot closer than whatever authority happens to rule MM's hypothetical society.

But do you believe that the democratic justification is somehow fundamentally more rational (or otherwise more valid) than the divine right of kings? Or do you think only that it produces better outcomes in practice? Do you believe that the chain of reasoning from the basic democratic theory to the outcomes exemplified in, say, the contents of the Federal Register is plausible?

July 17, 2009 at 1:13 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Vladamir:

But I honestly don't see how the authority of the liberal state itself is not absolute.
Its authority is not limited by anything except the ideological constraints of the intellectual and bureaucratic classes that run it, and to some extent by the popular vote.


"To some extent?" It's wholly limited by the vote, to the extent that a government can be limited, at least. It's certainly more limited than MM's version of government! ;-)

...It would be like abolishing feudalism by making everyone a serf of the king.

Heh, yeah, it is kind of like that... except the serfs get to vote on the king every 4 years... and the king is checked and balanced by a senate and house and judiciary, which are all either voted for by the serfs or are appointed by those voted for by the serfs.

Many people would theoretically subscribe to something like this, but very few would act consistently on such a principle in practice.

Yes, it's a big problem, the kind of thing the Constitution and Bill of Rights were designed to prevent. If we were to do it all over again, there is certainly room for improvement. I would either enumerate a lot more rights (freedom to do whatever you want to your own body, get rid of the first class of the 2nd Amendment, etc.) or come up with some better way to prevent creeping social authoritarianism.

(Hell, in most places it's no longer even legal for adults to have a place where they can gather to have a beer and smoke.)

Ridiculous. Believe me, I'm not *that* kind of liberal.

They are free within the limits set by the American state and its subordinate institutions. Depending on what your preferences are, you can perceive the present state of affairs anywhere from wonderfully free to oppressively unfree.

Compared to what? It's not perfect, but it's better than most.

Even the assumption that the lack of inborn social status is an unalloyed good is questionable. In the modern Anglo-Saxon world, this principle has been carried out to such an extreme that the resulting social atomisation is making a significant number of people deeply unhappy.

Well there is an interesting paradox, but that just gets back to the ends justifying the means. If people's choices make them unhappy, it's still their right to make them.

(By the way, technology will never make income irrelevant. The modern society is already rich enough that you can freeload all your life without starving to death. However, some of the most important things will always be zero-sum -- prestige, power, sexual relationships, and land ownership being the most important ones.)

Good point.

But do you believe that the democratic justification is somehow fundamentally more rational (or otherwise more valid) than the divine right of kings?

I think it's more fair.

Or do you think only that it produces better outcomes in practice?

I think it does this too. Conservatives/reactionaries like to focus on all the bad, but I know I personally would rather live here and now than in any monarchy or feudal society anywhere and anywhen else.

Do you believe that the chain of reasoning from the basic democratic theory to the outcomes exemplified in, say, the contents of the Federal Register is plausible?

I tend to distrust all of these systems and philosophies built from first principles. It seems you can come up with anything if you want to and are smart enough. I'm more of a pragmatist with a couple of core beliefs (peoples' rights to be free, etc.)

July 17, 2009 at 2:03 PM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Jewish Atheist:
[The authority of the liberal state itself is] wholly limited by the vote, to the extent that a government can be limited, at least. It's certainly more limited than MM's version of government! ;-)

I think we're not distinguishing clearly between two things: (1) the domain over which the state institutions have absolute authority, and (2) what they do with this authority in practice. Democratic control via voting can limit (2) to some extent (although in practice, the modern bureaucratic structures are insulated from the popular opinion to an unbelievable degree). However, voting doesn't limit (1) in any way in practice. Political issues in democracies are always framed in terms of how exactly a particular human activity should be regulated, never in terms of whether the state should perhaps renounce its power to do anything about it at all. (The only possible exception are a few near-absolute principles like the free speech doctrine, but even these are specific to the U.S. and very narrow in scope.)

In fact, there is no doubt that democracy tends to increase the scope of state authority. It's hard to imagine any aspect of human life that won't, sooner or later, arouse the interest of some activists or special interests. And once the issue has been publicly mentioned together with that magical phrase "we as a society," it has become a matter of state concern and the ratchet goes one notch further. Needless to say, those who get the opportunities to raise concerns in the media aren't exactly representative of the common folk.

Of course, you can argue that the authority of the liberal state has had, on the whole, highly beneficial consequences, and you'll probably have a point on certain issues. However, I really don't see how anyone could deny that it's all-encompassing to a historically unprecedented degree.


Compared to what? It's not perfect, but it's better than most.

Better than most on the whole, certainly. Still, the imporant point is that how free you'll actually feel in practice depends on what you want to do in the first place. For people coming from more disorganized and anarchic cultures, the everyday life of typical Americans can look frightfully regimented. (Such places tend to be much poorer, less civilized, and governed in a corrupt, heavy-handed, and ineffective way, of course -- to the point where most of their inhabitants would still prefer to move to the U.S., which many of them do. It's a complex question to what extent this is an unavoidable trade-off.)


Well there is an interesting paradox, but that just gets back to the ends justifying the means. If people's choices make them unhappy, it's still their right to make them.

However, being thrown into an atomized society is no more an individual choice than being restrained by the ties of traditional institutions. I don't think it can be seriously disputed that the liberal state is actively causing (or at least catalyzing) such atomization by undermining and eventually obliterating or taking over all structures of authority except its own. This is especially true for the modern multicultural liberal state, which aims to delegitmize and dissolve literally all the informal customs and cultural ties between people that don't bear the seal of explicit state approval. (The social effects of this have been recognized even by liberal academics in their more honest moments.)

July 17, 2009 at 4:12 PM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Jewish Atheist:
Conservatives/reactionaries like to focus on all the bad, but I know I personally would rather live here and now than in any monarchy or feudal society anywhere and anywhen else.

Well, Liechtenstein doesn't look that bad to me. Would the Holy Roman Empire with 21st century technology look like a nasty totalitarian state or more like a bunch of cozy Liechtensteins? It's just speculation, of course, but it seems to me like Liechtenstein is what it is exactly because it had the fortune to avoid most of the political developments that have swept the Western world in the last 200 years.

Or, to take another example, in ex-Yugoslavia, where I come from, the demise of the communist regime was followed by free and fair democratic elections in 1990. You probably know what happened afterwards under the leadership of the people who won these elections; I don't think anyone sane could argue that democracy was a good idea at that particular place and time. Now, one could argue that even in places where democracy hasn't led to such a disaster, and the situation doesn't seem too bad overall, we should ask ourselves whether democracy has maybe still screwed up things so that they're much worse than they would have been under a more reactionary system. Would you accept this as a legitimate inquiry?

July 17, 2009 at 4:24 PM  
Anonymous niasessl said...

Mencius speaks:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXFAiWuObXE

July 17, 2009 at 10:16 PM  
Blogger Prakash said...

MM hopes for a pyramidal society and rightly says that this society is more stable than the present democratic one.

But there is absolutely no reason that a pyramidal society has to be the most ideal society. The most ideal society would satisfy human urges to such a great extent that there would be no reason to rebel, at all. There would be no temptation to eat the apple, because eating the apple would have been a regular matter of course. The traditional societies all had rebellion, because of their dissatisfaction with their rulers.

The caste system of india began as an attempt to specialise and increase this specialisation to such an extent that 4 human races would literally be bred to do different stuff. You want to know your status in the world? Man, you should have been in ancient india, not only this birth, you would know your status over multiple births, past and future.

It was great going, until they got whacked by tribes united stronger than they were. Apparently their great breed of warriors weren't the greatest warriors in the world, who could've known?
Sudras had aspirations, hoocoodanode? vaisyas and brahmanas sought power, hoocoodanode?

Well, it turns out that sentient human beings are poor raw material for such reconfiguration. Or the means chosen were poor.

The way i look at it, either reconfigure humans to suit the need of power (the caste/oriental solution with some genetic engineering thrown in) or create a power to make sure every human need is met (Friendly AI). Every other attempt is probably only halfway useful.

I cannot see why moldbug opposes seasteading as a solution. It is wonderfully reconfiguring. Everyone just hangs around with people they are comfortable with. Among the halfway solutions presented, it seems the most stable.

July 18, 2009 at 12:35 AM  
Blogger newt0311 said...

@Prakash

Where do you get your history from?

The caste system was alive and well until the British came along and what would have happened without their intervention is anybody's guess.

July 18, 2009 at 5:49 AM  
Blogger Prakash said...

Newt,

The caste system is alive and well, even today. Atleast, the endogamy still is. The occupational classification which was the basis is long gone, mainly because the world has changed much since then.

I was born in a priest caste and work as a software consultant, a job description not even available when the caste system was visualised.

It is easy for moldbug to cite tudor england as a society where everyone knew their place. But to continue to work in an industry like software, which had no place in that society, sparks of hypocrisy or playfulness.

Moldbug frequently asks us to visualise what great monarchies could have done with today's technology. The question really is, in the presence of slavery, what incentive would be there to develop that technology?
Japan's lead in robotics is partly because of their xenophobia. If they had merely accepted cheap chinese labour, out goes any possibility for Asimo.

Have Saudi Arabia, Lichtenstein or Monaco produced any world changing innovations/ any lifesaving innovations/ anything for human betterment at all?

What about the change in the social contract that technological change would inevitably bring?

We all know what MM thinks about the french revolution, the question is where do the industrial or information revolutions fit in his worldview?

July 18, 2009 at 6:19 AM  
Blogger newt0311 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 18, 2009 at 6:46 AM  
Blogger newt0311 said...

@Prakash

At this point, I would like to point out that those monarchies did not restrict their citizens much and were shockingly libertarian by today's standards. The closest we can get to Tudor England today is probably Lichtenstein and people have plenty of incentive there. When you ask if anything has come out of there, do you seriously mean it? Lichtenstein has over 3 million corporations registered there. It is a major place of commerce despite the fact that it is barely the size of a large city. Furthermore, arguing that maintaining an ordered society which maintains its obligations (voluntary and not) is obviously not the same as arguing that all systems of obligations are good. This is made obvious by the fact that many possible systems of ordered society conflict in their basic principles. What is argued is that a society which does not maintain its obligations (voluntary or not) is bad.

July 18, 2009 at 6:50 AM  
Blogger Prakash said...

newt,

I was just curious about the supposedly great productive potential of monarchies, when compared to democracies.

Most of lichtenstein's corporations would be registered there to avoid tax, that is to avoid obligations to the nations where they actually sell their goods, produce goods and employ people. How is that helping create a web of obligations, when corporations avoid theirs?

Now, one may say that corpoations are not betraying the letter of the law anywhere. They would be prosecuted if they did. But atleast this essay of MM sounded like it was more about the spirit of law and order, than the letter.

July 18, 2009 at 8:29 AM  
Blogger newt0311 said...

@Prakash

Perhaps, spirit of the law applies for historical obligations. However, you would note that MM (and by the way, me) are legal formalist. I.e., we are all about the written law.

If countries have tax codes which allow corporations to incorporate elsewhere for reduced tax liabilities, that is fine by me. The solution to this problem (if it is a problem) is to have tighter tax codes or lower taxes.

Also, if you wish to look at the productive possibilities of a monarchy, you would likely be well served if you expanded your search slightly to include authoritarian governments in general. Quite a few more productive countries like Singapore, China, HK, etc.. get included. OTOH, we also have North Korea which is not exactly a paragon of efficiency or innovation. They make for an interesting comparison.

July 18, 2009 at 8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Piccone(in a discussion of Carl Schmitt) on the managerial state (aka the Cathedral and the other name Mencius uses):
http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/piccone_ulmen.htm
(...)
Although defined by the Cold War, the postwar years were also characterized by an American administration attempting to fine-tune the New Deal--a collectivist project of socio-economic reconstruction that had been strengthened considerably by war mobilization, but remained unable to legitimate itself fully on the basis of those deep-rooted Protestant values of decentralized governance and local self-determination embedded in the US Constitution. Consequently, with the gradual shift from isolationism to imperialism and from classical to managerial liberalism, which had begun toward the end of the 19th century, but had stalled temporarily in the 1920s (in reaction to WWI), American historiography broke with its traditional exceptionalism. What took its place was a slight variation of the unilinear theory of history espoused by its managerial-liberal and, even more, its former communist opponents. The "pursuit of happiness," previously left to the discretion of particular communities, was redefined in terms of full and equal participation in a well-administered, professionalized society (a euphemism for socialism and social homogenization), projected as the inevitable outcome of all historical developments. As with all secularized versions of the Christian theory of history, deviations from such a path came to be seen as pathologies or breaks, rather than as legitimate alternatives.
(...)
The objective of this inflation of Schmitt's ideas as the possible juridical justification for an ever-present fascist/Nazi threat is to provide increasingly conformist Left academics with the kind of legitimation and content their "emancipatory" socialist ideology needs after bureaucratic centralism became discredited with the collapse of the USSR. Thus, anti-fascism has become the eschatological core of an otherwise vacuous Left ideology now reconfigured as the legitimating arm of the managerial state. (38) No longer able to present themselves as the vanguard of progressive forces paving the way for a bright socialist future, they have now regrouped as part of an academic rear-guard entrusted with protecting "civil society" and liberal values against the market and other forces of darkness--a kind of quixotic kathekon seeking to prevent a recurrence of the fascist experience in a context where there has never been any such threat.
(...)
Universalized out of their cultural and historical context, these traditional liberal values are no longer seen as the particular achievement of a particular people. Rather, they are viewed as absolute norms and inviolable principles derived from the kind of rationality accessible only by New Class intellectuals, experts and professionals, whose objectification in "the role of law" can override any allegedly "fascist" choice, no matter how much democratic legitimacy they may have. As in the theological critique of idolatry, the idol displaces the spirit, and precipitates the kind of reification identified so forcefully by Western Marxists and other critics as the fundamental problem of modern society. Along with any fundamentalism that refuses to regard itself as binding only for those willingly adhering to its norms, a "role of law" deduced from allegedly apodictic rational principles chokes democratic prerogatives and, because of its inescapable in determinacy, paves the way for arbitrary interpretations, instrumentalizations, and the worst possible excesses.
(...)

July 18, 2009 at 8:52 AM  
Anonymous HinduLibertarian said...

Kaplan's Atlantic article from 1994 was interesting reading. I remember some of the same trends that he points out in Africa in India, but in 2009, I am far more optimistic than I would have been in 1994. Some random observations, in no particular order:

1.Family remains strong in India, and is the one bullwark of order against the chaos of progressive government.

2. Indian State has lost power, but private institutions have grown in power. In particular, education has become effectively privatized. Private education is basically synonymous with "discipline" in India, and discipline is what most parents seem willing to pay for most. It is really a quest for Mencian Order.

3. "Middle class values" (order again) have started to take hold. Petty corruption at airports (for example) is deemed unacceptable for the middle-class so it is mostly gone. I haven't given a bribe for anything in about 10 years, and I do travel pretty extensively by air in India.

4. The progressive state of ineffective, venal bureaucracy and effective anarchy produces squalor and filth but a middle-class "reaction" is starting to happen, particularly in the urban areas of South India, with which I am most familiar.

On squalor and filth: there is the squalor and filth of Dickens (a byproduct of ultimately good urbanization) and then there is that of African anarchy. Urban South India is (mostly) in the first category. And as middle-classes spread, this Dickensian squalor should go down. Major cities are planning substantial infrastructure projects, for example.

Recent impression: I was walking through my old neighborhood of tidy homes, overflowing garbage in the street and open sewers (a common sight in India and the middle-east, these are not poor neighborhoods). On the wall there were posters advertising a private coaching center, which had high achieving kids' photos to advertise their service. These kids will go on to have high income (some may even be in your company in the West), and serve as role models to many many more. I should know: I was one such kid, my photo was on the walls in front of open sewers and overflowing garbage not too long ago.

India is such stark contrasts.

July 18, 2009 at 10:19 AM  
Anonymous Comprende said...

Any readers of UR here actually read any of the books linked to and recommended by Mencius?

I haven't been able to read any of the historical works on Google Books Mencius links to, largely because of time and because it's a pain in the ass to read long works on the internet. I don't know about Mencius but personally I need a hard copy to get through old and lengthy long winded material.

One book I did get a hard copy of and start reading due to MM's recommendation is Rothbard's "Man, Economy, and State" and so far I must say that it's an excellent work. And lest you jump to any conclusions, I don't come from an Austrian or "libertard" background, but am an econ graduate from an Ivy League university -so thoroughly drenched in empiricism, positivism, neo-Classical & Keynesian econ.

It's certainly helped me understand MM's writings better, and not just on econ matters but on political and social topics as well. You can definitely see the influence of Rothbard's work on MM, and not simply on the actual content of the writings, but on the logic and methodology as well.

Strongly recommended.

July 18, 2009 at 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Comprende:
Any readers of UR here actually read any of the books linked to and recommended by Mencius?

I strongly recommend the works of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. For a brief sample of his thought, read his essay Monarchy and War, which you can find online as a high-quality PDF (just google it). You can also find his books Liberty or Equality and The Menace of the Herd online at the Mises Institute pages (or just follow the links from his Wikipedia page). Unfortunately, these scans are of pretty low quality.

However, his most magnificent work is Leftism Revisited: From De Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot. Unfortunately, it's out of print, so you'll have to find it in a library or cash out a significant sum for a second-hand copy from Amazon. But if you manage to find it, it will be worth any amount of money and effort; I simply can't recommend this book high enough.

July 18, 2009 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

I also find it very unpleasant to read the google scanned books on a crt screen. Anything more than a few pages and it has to be an actual book.

On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel is well worth buying.

July 18, 2009 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

I still think this right-left dichotomy is largely a crock The "right wing" dicatators Chiang, Batista, and of course Mussoli all started out as "left wingers", and I think they "switched sides" not because anything about their ideology changed but because they began to regard as rivals those they had previously regarded as allies.

People like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, weren't proponents of disorder or democracy, they were the sort of absolute rulers that Mencius claims to believe should bring prosperity. "Right wingers" like Pinochet weren't nearly as authoriatrian as, say, Castro.

I think the key question of political philosophy is, where does law ultimately come from? Popular answers include God, tradition, human nature, reason, arbitrary human will, and combinations of the preceding. But I don't think your answer to that question will determine where you are classified on a right-left scale.

July 18, 2009 at 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any readers of UR here actually read any of the books linked to and recommended by Mencius?

I read the book he recommended on the American Revolutionary War. It was excellent. I tend to save it as a pdf and print it out to read it, since I hate reading long things on a screen (which is why I'll never buy a Kindle).

July 18, 2009 at 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Devin Finbarr said...

George-

MM's definitions of Left and Right are a bit non-standard, but actually make a lot of sense.

The Left is a movement. It is an intergenerational network of people and ideas that originated out of the dissenter protestants of East Anglia. Basically, the Left is the social network that emanates from Harvard.

The Right consists of all who oppose the Left. Socialists like Hitler and Huey Long are part of the right because they opposed the left. So is the Mises institute, even though it propounds many of the same policies as the lefty J.S. Mill.

In MM's definition, Left and Right do not correspond directly to policy or ideology.

I think MM's definition makes sense, because you can use that definition and consistently and correctly categorize any group from 1600 on as being part of the left or right. Thus his definition best matches the actual use of the words.

A reactionary does believe in order. A reactionary is a specific type of opponent of the left, that does have a particular ideology.

July 18, 2009 at 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Comprende said...

To follow up on Devin's point, for me MM's definitions of political terms like "Left" and "Right", or at least his methodological approach to understanding/defining these terms became much more clear as I read Rothbard's MES.

I think MM is seeking the most logically consistent definitions for these kinds of political terms as they've been used for hundreds of years. If you don't adhere to anything like this, you inevitably end up with logically inconsistent and contradictory results and political arguments.

This methodological style seems patterned on, or at least influenced by Rothbard, and I think just a few chapters of MES will make this pretty evident. Rothbard's discussion of "praxeology" is especially useful for this.

Praxeology deemphasizes the content or substance of a particular individual/group/political movement's beliefs, goals, means, tactics, demands, etc., and focuses rather on the formal implications of the particular individual/group political movement' beliefs, goals, means, etc.

The parallels between this and MM's method and style is pretty clear.

July 18, 2009 at 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Comprende said...

Of course, since praxeology was developed by Mises it may be more technically accurate to say that MM was influenced by Mises rather than Rothbard as far as this method or approach is concerned.

July 18, 2009 at 8:26 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Vladimir:

Political issues in democracies are always framed in terms of how exactly a particular human activity should be regulated, never in terms of whether the state should perhaps renounce its power to do anything about it at all.

Well, sure. But isn't that true of all governments? What government willingly gives up power? At least democracies are answerable to the people. When the people get fed up enough, they can do something that doesn't involve an actual revolution. (For example, repealing prohibition, ending the draft, etc.)

(The only possible exception are a few near-absolute principles like the free speech doctrine, but even these are specific to the U.S. and very narrow in scope.)

I don't think they're that narrow at all, and besides, there's no reason they have to be limited as much as they are. One could easily have a Bill of a Few More Rights.

In fact, there is no doubt that democracy tends to increase the scope of state authority.

Authority tends to increase the scope of authority.

It's hard to imagine any aspect of human life that won't, sooner or later, arouse the interest of some activists or special interests.

As opposed to a monarch who may suddenly decide that everybody shall wear only green? What short of anarchy could prevent this?

And once the issue has been publicly mentioned together with that magical phrase "we as a society," it has become a matter of state concern and the ratchet goes one notch further. Needless to say, those who get the opportunities to raise concerns in the media aren't exactly representative of the common folk.

I agree this is a problem, but I think it's less of a problem in democracies than in alternatives.

Of course, you can argue that the authority of the liberal state has had, on the whole, highly beneficial consequences, and you'll probably have a point on certain issues. However, I really don't see how anyone could deny that it's all-encompassing to a historically unprecedented degree.

I can't agree at all. Just take the freedom of religion, for example. That's a much more "all-encompassing" matter for most people, and in democracies the people are much more free in that arena.

July 19, 2009 at 12:01 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Better than most on the whole, certainly. Still, the imporant point is that how free you'll actually feel in practice depends on what you want to do in the first place. For people coming from more disorganized and anarchic cultures, the everyday life of typical Americans can look frightfully regimented. (Such places tend to be much poorer, less civilized, and governed in a corrupt, heavy-handed, and ineffective way, of course -- to the point where most of their inhabitants would still prefer to move to the U.S., which many of them do. It's a complex question to what extent this is an unavoidable trade-off.)

What non-anarchic places are less regimented? Certainly nothing along the lines of MM's ideal society where birth is destiny!

However, being thrown into an atomized society is no more an individual choice than being restrained by the ties of traditional institutions. I don't think it can be seriously disputed that the liberal state is actively causing (or at least catalyzing) such atomization by undermining and eventually obliterating or taking over all structures of authority except its own. This is especially true for the modern multicultural liberal state, which aims to delegitmize and dissolve literally all the informal customs and cultural ties between people that don't bear the seal of explicit state approval. (The social effects of this have been recognized even by liberal academics in their more honest moments.)

This is an issue but I don't think it's unsolvable. You seem to be assuming that authority is the "active ingredient" in cultural structures and ties. But I don't think it is.

I grew up in a very tight-knit, old-school community within America -- it was Orthodox Judaism that kept us together. There was nothing atomized about it. I had dozens of close friends that I was close to from age 3 to age 18 or later. My parents have even more friends, virtually all living within walking distance. All of that is perfectly possible within a democracy -- it just so happens that most people don't choose to live like that. I, for example, chose more (intellectual/religious/etc) freedom over more community. It's a tradeoff available to individuals, not just societies.

July 19, 2009 at 12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welmer has some relevant comments:
http://www.welmer.org/2009/07/14/watch-what-you-say/#comments
(...)
Having lived in the PRC, a supposedly totalitarian country, I am constantly amazed by how restricted the behavior of citizens is in our so-called land of the free. We have to shut up at work, at school, at home and in court. Speak out of line and you could get fired, jailed for contempt, arrested, etc.

He seems to be going slightly overboard here; people don't speak out (at least in the US)mainly due to fear of social disapproval/ostracism. Or in some cases loss of employment or other economic repercussions. The latter is pretty significant considering THAT was what the whole left-liberal ruckus was about during the fifties Red Scare. The US has now had the same kind of blacklist and purge against alleged racists, sexists, and-more recently-homophobes for at least a generation.

When I lived in Beijing, I saw ordinary Chinese citizens arguing with policemen, raising their voices, shouting and gesticulating. Can you imagine what would happen here if one did the same? Of course you can: a face-plant into the sidewalk, a knee in the back accompanied by a very tight shackling, and then a ride to jail.
(...)

I'm thinking that engaging in that kind of behavior when confronting the police might not be too advisable in Diverse areas of the PRC like Sinkiang. Especially if you're non-Han.

July 19, 2009 at 4:10 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

If I may make a request, in future posts, could you to unpack your assertion that there can never be too much order, security, or strength in a state (or, perhaps more simply, say an operating system or corporation)? I generally accept your point here that anything less would seem to defy the definitional meanings of the terms. And yet, it seems there is still a sleight of hand in your formulation. While perhaps one cannot have too much security, in an abstract sense (or at least would be foolish to desire less than perfect security); in reality, security can often only be imposed by security institutions. Now, the question of whether one can have too many security institutions seems less likely to be answered with a resounding no. At the very least, one should think long and hard about the nature and behavior of the security institutions one advocates for, since it's easy to screw them up - just look at Windows Vista for an example (caveat: my knowledge of Windows Vista's annoying security institutions is imperfect, coming only from Apple television advertising). How would do you respond to this?

July 19, 2009 at 8:03 PM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Jewish Atheist,

I think we've lost track of the main argument in these point-by-point replies, so let me summarize instead of providing another one. (I'm itching to write another point-by-point reply to your last comment, but I think we'd get hopelessly lost in details then.)

It seems like we have fundamentally different impressions of the modern liberal state. Compared to me, you seem to view it as much more limited and much more influenced by the popular opinion (the latter presumedly defined in a way that seems generally fair to you). On the other hand, I see it as all-pervasive, all-controlling, and following a rigid and mostly predictable ideological course; certainly, I see the depth of detail in which it controlls all aspects of life and its intolerance of any source of authority that doesn't emanate from itself as greater than for almost any other government system in history.

It would be interesting to compare the evolution of our views to see how exactly they've diverged, but I think the basic difference is that I observe more controls and limitations imposed by the present system, whereas you take them for granted so that they don't even count. This is effectively the same reason why I find it natural to compare it with non-democratic and illiberal systems, whereas you probably find the comparison instantly off-putting because you find the fundamentally different mechanisms of authority imposed by the latter immediately striking. In any case, I enjoyed this exchange, and we can agree to disagree for now.


I'll also comment on this paragraph of yours:

I grew up in a very tight-knit, old-school community within America -- it was Orthodox Judaism that kept us together. There was nothing atomized about it. I had dozens of close friends that I was close to from age 3 to age 18 or later. My parents have even more friends, virtually all living within walking distance. All of that is perfectly possible within a democracy -- it just so happens that most people don't choose to live like that. I, for example, chose more (intellectual/religious/etc) freedom over more community. It's a tradeoff available to individuals, not just societies.

I'd say that you were unusually lucky that you had the opportunity for this choice, since you were born into one of the last traditional tightly-knit communities that are still functioning. Because of this, I don't know if you are even aware to what extent nearly all other traditional communities have been obliterated in the modern society (witness MM's comments about San Francisco, and America in general, in the above post -- I think he is broadly correct in this regard). The overwhelming majority of people nowadays have little opportunity for anything but isolated and atomized lives, and the policies of the liberal state have certainly contributed greatly (if not decisively) to the development of this state of affairs.

Even the existence of these remaining few true communities is merely an unprincipled exception from the point of view of the modern liberal state, an aberration that is merely allowed to exist under its radar. After all, every true community, especially a religious one, must be exclusionary and discriminatory in some way, and any firm and unchanging beliefs and principles will sooner or later become unacceptable as the bounds of the acceptable political discourse drift further left.

July 19, 2009 at 10:48 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Vladimir:

On the other hand, I see it as all-pervasive, all-controlling, and following a rigid and mostly predictable ideological course; certainly, I see the depth of detail in which it controlls all aspects of life and its intolerance of any source of authority that doesn't emanate from itself as greater than for almost any other government system in history.

Yes, I think that is the source of our difference. If I saw the existing state the way you do, I'd probably agree with you. And if you saw it the way I do, you might agree with me.

but I think the basic difference is that I observe more controls and limitations imposed by the present system, whereas you take them for granted so that they don't even count.

I don't think I take them for granted. Drug legalization/decriminalization is one of my pet issues, as well as gay marriage. Both currently represent "controls and limitations" by the state. In my ideal democratic state, I would have a much broader (and more explicit) Bill of Rights.

In any case, I enjoyed this exchange, and we can agree to disagree for now.

Me too! Thanks for the civil and interesting discussion.

I'd say that you were unusually lucky that you had the opportunity for this choice, since you were born into one of the last traditional tightly-knit communities that are still functioning.

That is sad but believable.

Because of this, I don't know if you are even aware to what extent nearly all other traditional communities have been obliterated in the modern society

No, I think I am aware of it... because when I left my home community, it was devastating to be without, and I have not only not replaced it yet but I see no possibility for a completely satisfactory replacement.

and the policies of the liberal state have certainly contributed greatly (if not decisively) to the development of this state of affairs.

Well this is probably another point of disagreement. Sort of. I agree that many policies of the liberal state (desegregation, anti-discrimination laws, women's rights) probably have some negative impact on communities themselves. But I think modernity itself is a much more important factor.

The car may in fact be the largest factor. It by and large made local communities obsolete. One never has to see their neighbors these days... just drive by them with the windows up and the radio playing. In the old days, who you lived near was who you worked with and who you interacted with every day. Most people spent their whole lives within a five to ten mile radius.

In fact, I think the great success of the Orthodox Jewish community (and, e.g., the Amish) is due to the negation of this effect. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to use cars on the sabbath AND they have to go to synagogue on the sabbath. What that means is that large communities form where everybody lives within walking distance of each other... and for at least 25 hours every week, you're basically forced to interact with nobody but them. (The Amish, of course, defeated the deleterious effects of the car another way.)

Other factors include urban/suburban/exurban design all based on cars which tend to discourage walking and knowing your neighbors; the replacement of local mom-and-pops with megacorporations; the practical necessity of two parents working full time or more; the availability of birth control; the telephone; the rise of television and other essentially solitary entertainment sources; and simply the opportunities for moving and working in anywhere in the enormous country we live in.

I'd say all of those factors are more important than any policies that come from the state being liberal or democratic. Note that they are mostly made up of economic and technical "advances" that themselves come with huge upsides most people are unwilling to do without.

July 20, 2009 at 7:11 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

In reading the comments of Jewish Atheist, it seems to me that he hasn't taken adequate recognition of the phenomenon of illiberal democracy.

Although MM puts it in another way, a good part of his objection to democracy is that it tends (he thinks inevitably) in an illiberal direction, and ultimately towards an administrative state that observes the forms of democracy while being no more, and in many cases, much less respectful of individual liberties than any autocracy. Thus, the common equation in the oratory of American politicians from Wilson onward of democracy with freedom is false; and the purported opposition of democracy to tyranny is fraudulent. In the late phase of democracy, indeed, the two may be very close to the same thing (a view that would have seemed quite sensible to Aristotle, among others).

If American democracy has drifted in a steadily illiberal direction, many other democracies have bypassed the drift and set course relatively quickly toward illiberality. The examples of Hugo Chavez and his imitators in Latin America are illustrative. One may recall, a few years ago, when apparently liberal democracies appeared to be blooming in country after country in Latin America after the demise of old military dictatorships. Now not only Venezuela but Bolivia and to some extent Ecuador have fallen under the sway of plebiscitary illiberalism, with Honduras on the brink. This should not be surprising; indeed, it was predictable.

Eduardo's mention of Borges and his preference for the Argentine generals might well be considered in light of what the alternative to them was - Péron, and Péronism, which was a sort of antecedent to the illberal democracy of Chavez and Morales. Putting aside Péron's fondness for elaborate military uniforms and other traditional trappings of the Latin caudillo, what he did when in power - and what his Péronist successors have continued to do - has been a similar sort of illiberal democratism. He cultivated the favor of the masses by promising them economic benefits - I believe in some cases by summarily ordering businesses to give pay raises to their employees. Then he'd instruct his central bank to inflate the currency so that employers and the state could pay for his policies without becoming formally insolvent.

Such shenanigans could go on only so long before the Argentine economy was thoroughly deranged. Then the generals would step in to try to bring an end to civic and economic disorder (the traditional rôle of the military coup since at least the time of Sulla). Usually it didn't work very well, and sooner or later Péronism would again be in the ascendancy. This has happened several times in recent Argentine history - the result is that Argentina, a country that was among the more prosperous in the world eighty years ago, has been reduced to an economic basket-case.

Borges chose what was in his opinion the lesser of evils. Can he be blamed? Even as there are illiberal democracies, there have been many liberal (or at least relatively liberal) non-democratic states. Certainly Austria-Hungary was; while Victorian Britain (though it had an elected house of Commons) was far from democratic in the one-man-one-vote sense of today, and far less illiberal than Britain is today, or the United States.

July 20, 2009 at 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

A further thought, on the references to feudalism:

Feudalism is a system of land tenure in which the sovereign is invested with the allodial (original and absolute) possession of land. He grants some of it to his tenants-in-chief (barons) who hold it 'in feu' from him, i.e., as his vassals. These tenants-in-chief may make subordinate grants to persons who become their vassals, and these vassals in turn to other vassals, the chain of subinfeudation extending ad libitum and in theory ad infinitum.

An unfree agricultural tenantry is properly called villeinage. While some countries governed under feudal law had villeins or serfs at the bottom end of the chain of subinfeudation, villeinage is not a necessary characteristic of feudalism.

Scotland's was an example of a feudal system in which villeinage did not exist. Although Scotland adopted feudal law in the early middle ages, under French and Flemish influence, it never introduced villeinage, which would have been incompatible with the older customs of clanship.

On the other hand, Poland had no feudal system, yet had villeinage. Polish landowners held their properties allodially, in effect each one being a little king on his own land. This is why the ancient Polish parliament elected its kings, and required unanimity in any vote it took. No mere majority could force a noble Pole, who was absolute master of his own property, to accept its jurisdiction - hence the famous 'liberum veto.' It could indeed be argued that it was precisely because they were not feudal tenants themselves, Polish landowners had unfree tenants. They were his direct subjects, as truly as the subjects of any absolute ruler.

Carlyle was not the first Scot to see a benefit in slavery. That distinction probably belongs to Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1653-1716). In his "Two Discourses concerning the Affairs of Scotland," he proposed that the problem of vagrancy be addressed by delivering the vagrants into an hereditary servitude. I am not sure whether Carlyle was aware of Saltoun's work, but it would not surprise me if he had been.

July 21, 2009 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger Alrenous said...

Spiffy.

So, two questions. Do you know in what ways the Polish landowners exercised their power over their subjects? I'm going for the uses and abuses angle, preferably at the individual level.

Were Scottish agricultural villages free, then?

July 21, 2009 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

A question for MM: After reading this post, it appears that the ideal of order you present seems to be rather better achieved in the more sclerotic communist dictatorships than in any other recently extant system. Brezhnev's Soviet Union, or Castro's Cuba, both seem like places where every person has a place in society, within an established heirarchy, assigned to them, sometimes at birth, but always by social forces not entirely within their control, and where the state actively enforces those assignments of place to the best of its ability. How do these societies fail to meet your ideals?

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Anonymous Michael said...

I am not intimately familiar with Polish history other than to know that villeinage- i.e., unfree tenancy, in which peasants were bound to the land - existed in Poland in tandem with allodial ownership. Presumably the allodial landholders had judicial powers, e.g., infangthief and outfangthief, pit and gallows, like those of feudal barons and lords of regality. Such powers inhered in the allodium and in a feudal society were granted by the sovereign to his tenants-in-chief. The distinction between feudalism and the Polish allodial system lies in the origin of title to political property. The point I sought to make is that villeinage is not necessarily feudal in character, nor does feudalism necessarily involve villeinage.

Scottish tenants typically held of their superiors in feu ferme, their feu duties either being paid in a share of their crops or in money, and latterly feu duties could be compounded for, so that tenants who did so effectively had freehold and were vassals only in form. All these tenancies were free in the sense that they could be terminated, relieving the tenant of the obligation to pay feu duties and returning the dominium utile of the land to his superior. The tenant in practice had very little reason to want to do this, as it would leave him without a home or a means to make his living. Such tenants were much more likely to be forced off their lands by a superior who thought he could make a better return on it by using it otherwise than they were to leave of their own accord.

The clan system provided that members of a clan held from the chief, often with intermediaries such as the chieftains of septs, and this served to keep the cultivators of the land on their plots as effectively as unfree tenancy might have done, since (for example) a Macdonald would not be very likely to find a place on Campbell lands, or vice-versa. The worst thing that could possibly happen to a Scottish peasant was that his clan should lose its lands, either by political dispossession (as in the case of the Macgregors) or by the clan chief's sale of them, typically to satisfy debt. The fate of such a 'broken clan' was unenviable, and instances of this kind are often found in Scottish history.

Under the Scottish feudal system large areas of the country were under the partial or total jurisdiction of feudal superiors rather than directly under that of the crown, but it is hard to know whether feudal barons and lords of regality were more or less oppressive in their exercise of authority than was the crown. The criminal law was equally severe whomever administered it, and it hardly made a difference to the thief whether he was hanged by order of a baron or by that of a crown official. Furthermore, clan chiefs as often used their feudal jurisdictions to protect as to punish their criminal tenants, so long as the crimes they committed were against unfriendly neighbors rather than against kinsmen. Hence the popular use of the word 'feud.'

Whether formally free or unfree, the point to be made about mediaeval and early modern tenancies under systems of private political property is that they involved mutual duties and obligations on the part of the superior and his feudatory.

Even a chattel slave in antebellum America received from his master, as a matter of course, his food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, from cradle to grave. Lincoln was once asked what the slaves should expect to do after he freed them, and he famously answered, "Root, hog, or die." Such was the case with the free laborers of the North, who had to find their sustenance out of whatever wages they earned, and who were subject to peremptory dismissal by employers whenever they ceased to be needed or wanted. As MM has observed, this might be a preferable system for persons who have sufficient intelligence, drive, and transferrable skill, but (as the history of our lumpenproletarian population shows) leaves many who lack them in distress.

July 22, 2009 at 2:19 PM  
Blogger Alrenous said...

I see, thank you.

July 22, 2009 at 5:29 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Michael S. wrote "A further thought, on the references to feudalism: Feudalism is a system of land tenure in which the sovereign is invested with the allodial (original and absolute) possession of land. He grants some of it to his tenants-in-chief (barons) who hold it 'in feu' from him, i.e., as his vassals. These tenants-in-chief may make subordinate grants to persons who become their vassals, and these vassals in turn to other vassals, the chain of subinfeudation extending ad libitum and in theory ad infinitum... The distinction between feudalism and the Polish allodial system lies in the origin of title to political property."

No. One, it isn't a system of land tenure, though it largely dealt with that, because it is in fact more general. The usual features were service and protection. Two, it was not in fact the case that "the sovereign is invested with the allodial (original and absolute) possession of land", though sovereigns naturally tried to achieve that, and often eventually succeeded (usually soon followed by the end of feudalism proper). Any number of others could and did own land allodially - I mentioned the Barons of the Land in the Crusader Kingdoms. I wouldn't be surprised if the Sire de Coucy was another. So the distinction between feudalism and the Polish allodial system does not lie in the origin of title to political property. It in fact consists in whether or not the structure rested on personal (or quasi-personal, in the case of the Church and similar) exchanges of promises, backed by nothing other than honour and the power to call on other promises (e.g. crying Haro to get the Duke of Normandy's assistance).

July 23, 2009 at 1:26 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

P.M. Lawrence - If you believe the feudalism was not a system of land tenure then you are at odds with the definition of it accepted in Scots law.

The Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act (Scotland) of 2000 is summarised in the official records of UK legislation as "An act of the Scottish Parliament to abolish the feudal system of land tenure..." Part I, section 1 of the act provides that "The feudal system of land tenure, that is to say the entire system whereby land is held by a vassal on perpetual tenure from a superior is, on the appointed day, abolished."

Section 2 outlines the consequences of abolition in three parts: "(1) An estate of dominium utile of land shall, on the appointed day, cease to exist as a feudal estate but shall forthwith become the ownership of the land an, in so far as is consistent with the provisions of this act, the land shall be subject to the same subordinate real rights and other encumbrances as was the estate of dominium utile. (2) Every other feudal estate in land shall, on that day, cease to exist. (3) It shall, on that day, cease to be possible to create a feudal estate in land."

It is quite clear from the usage of Scots law that feudalism was in fact a system of land tenure and that it was characterised by the holding of land on perpetual tenure from a superior. Not only did its abolition on the appointed day eliminate feuduties and convert existing feu ferme and other subordinate tenures into something approximating the "fee simple" of English law after the statute Quia emptores, but also it prevented, as noted in subsection 3, section 2, part I as quoted above, any owner of land (including the sovereign) from making any new grant as a feudal superior, thus creating a new feudal estate.

New land tenures in Scotland are now neither feudal nor allodial. There has been considerable agitation in Shetland and Orkney because of the uncertain status there of udal (allodial) tenures under the old Norse law that survived in those places following their impignoration by Norway to Scotland. The abolition of the feudal system did not address these ancient udal tenures and they appear to be applicable in at least some cases.

The relation of personal political jurisdiction to land tenure is shown by the etymological kinship of the words udal and odal (synonyms for allodial) in reference to land tenure, with adel and edel (noble). Nobility and land tenure, either allodial or by a noble feudal tenure (in liberum baroniam or by knight-service) are intimately connected.

In earlier feudalism, one had to be of noble birth, or ennobled, to hold a noble feu; under later feudalism, one became noble by acquiring a noble feu. Thus, for example, the watchmaker Pierre Caron became a noble by the purchase of office under the ancien régime, and took the name of lands belonging to his first wife, under which we know him as the author of "The Marriage of Figaro" - de Beaumarchais.

July 23, 2009 at 12:23 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Michael S. wrote "If you believe the feudalism was not a system of land tenure then you are at odds with the definition of it accepted in Scots law", citing, e.g., "The feudal system of land tenure, that is to say the entire system whereby land is held by a vassal on perpetual tenure from a superior is, on the appointed day, abolished."

This is a complete misreading. Certainly, there was indeed a system of land tenure that was feudal, just as there were justice systems that were tribal, but it is no more true that the feudal system was a land tenure system than that tribal systems were merely justice systems; each did other things as well. The law cited is not about the feudal system but about the "feudal system of land tenure, that is to say the entire system whereby land is held by a vassal on perpetual tenure from a superior" - which is also to say, the system of land tenure that was feudal. That is not the feudal system, it is the land tenure system under the feudal system.

July 23, 2009 at 6:29 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

P.M. Lawrence - I hate to quote such an obvious source as the Encylopaedia Britannica, but perhaps I may be forgiven for resorting to the first edition - published in Edinburgh less than two decades after the last great military force raised under the feudal system (by magnates loyal to Charles Edward Stuart) very nearly drove the house of Hanover from the British throne:

"FEUDAL, or FEODAL, denotes anything belonging to a fee. See FEE.

"FEE, in Scots law, signifies a complete feudal property. Hence, where the bare liferent of any feudal subject is meant to be conveyed to A, and the absolute property to B; that meaning is expressed thus, to A in liferent, to B in fee."

If the feudal system is not in essence a system of land tenure, what other defining characteristic did it everywhere and always have in the places where it obtained?

As we have previously noted, villeinage was not an essential part of the feudal system, as feudal law prevailed in places where it did not exist (Scotland) and villeinage prevailed where feudal tenures did not exist (Poland).

Features of criminal law such as hue and cry (the 'clameur de haro'), as you brought up, were purely local to Normandy and Norman England. They did not exist elsewhere in France, much less in Germany or other parts of Europe in which feudal tenures did. In Westphalia, for example, a person who was the victim of a crime sought justice not from his feudal superior but from the Vehmgericht. Nonetheless land tenure was feudal throughout the empire. So, the clameur de haro is not an indispensable element of the feudal system.

Similarly, civil law on such matters as inheritance varied widely throughout feudal Europe. The Salic law governed succession to noble feus (and monarchies) in much of continental Europe, but did not apply in England (where land tenure was undoubtedly feudal before the statute Quia emptores of 1290) or in Scotland (where feudal tenures persisted until the appointed day under the abovenoted act of 2000, viz., St. Andrew's Day 2004).

When all the local institutions, such as hue and cry, or tribal laws (such as the law of the Salian Franks, which antedated feudalism), that were casually and incidentally associated with it during the mediæval or early modern period, are set to one side, the essential and omnipresent characteristic of the feudal system was, indeed, the law of land tenure, as practised since the time of the Longobards, and first set down by two lawyers of Milan in about 1150 under the title of "Consuetudines Feudorum."

July 24, 2009 at 5:59 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Michael S. wrote "If the feudal system is not in essence a system of land tenure, what other defining characteristic did it everywhere and always have in the places where it obtained?", after citing "FEUDAL, or FEODAL, denotes anything belonging to a fee... FEE, in Scots law [emphasis added], signifies a complete feudal property."

But that no more tells us that the feudal system is "in essence a system of land tenure" than the fact that Australian usage of "Premier" to refer to state heads of government and "Prime Minister" to refer to federal heads of government tells us that the two are essentially different terms; in fact, in Britain where they originated, they are used interchangeably. These citations just tell us about Scots law. What the essence of the feudal system is, is what I described earlier, the exchange of binding promises backed by honour (honour in its technical sense): "The exchange of promises incurring obligation was free, but thereafter the ultimate backing was honour - the stake people had in keeping their credibility, that Hamlet soliloquised about. Unlike contract law, each side's promise remained binding even if the other side did not keep its promises (although, of course, the wise only made promises that themselves were contingent on that). This was even so when force was applied to the recalcitrant, for that force was called forth by calling on just such promises from others. There is nothing essentially feudal about structures that are ultimately backed by state intervention."

"Features of criminal law such as hue and cry (the 'clameur de haro'), as you brought up, were purely local to Normandy and Norman England".

One, I did not bring up that more general thing, but the specific use of Haro to get the Duke's aid ("Haro, mon Duc! On me fait tort!"). Two, I was not suggesting that it was a feature of all feudalism but that it served to illustrate how even the use of force against the recalcitrant was not backed by the state but by calling on the promises of others. The particular illustration only applies in certain cases, but what it illustrates is a general feature - no ultimate backing by a state but rather by a personal connection.

"[T]he essential and omnipresent characteristic of the feudal system was, indeed, the law of land tenure".

Bluntly, no. Read Ganshof on Feudalism. It is neither essential - the thing that makes it what it is - nor is it actually quite omnipresent, though with manorial economies it was certainly very widespread; but this just makes it an accidental feature. One might as well argue that death is an essential characteristic of life, but to do so is to misunderstand "essential" (some organisms are immortal, which disproves it). The thing that is essential to feudalism, is what I described. Land and its ownership etc. is a very common subject matter, but you only have to look at the feudal bonds holding crusaders together to see that many bonds were not land based - although many crusaders did make vows that gave them land rights in conquests, many aimed to return home, and did not.

July 25, 2009 at 9:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

P.M. - First, "fee" means the same thing in English law that it does in Scots law or any other kindred system of feudal law. Scots law does not assign it an unusual or distinct meaning. I refer to Scots law only because it persisted in its feudal character until 2004, and having had some personal experience of it, I am more familiar with it than with (say) mediæval French or Flemish law.

The word "feudal" is indeed etymologically derived from feu or fee. Anglo-Saxon "feh" (money), Old Norse "fé, fa" (goods) derive from Gothic '"faihu" or "fehu"; Anglo-Saxon "æthel" (inheritance) from Gothic "othal," and has reference to land, nobility (cf. adel, edel), and rule. The othal-rune (approximating the phonological value of Gr. omega) is symbolically associated with land and kingship. See for an elaborate and fanciful exegesis Johan Bureus's "Adulsruna."

Putting the two words together yields fehu-othal or fe-odal, hence feudal, which came to mean the constitution of heritable rights to property (including political property) by charter and sasine, as conveyed for money or goods.

I think what we are contending with here is the strict legal understanding of the "feudal system" as set forth first in the Consuetudines feudorum, and expounded by later legal authorities such as Cujacius, Borcholten, Stair, and Erskine, in contradistinction to "feudalism," which is an anachronistic interpretation of it.

The word "feudalism" refers to a sociological or economic concept and did not even exist before 1793, when the Jacobins coined the term, or rather its French cognate "féodalisme," to refer to what they sought by their revolution to abolish; not only feudal tenures, but also the residues of villeinage, the unequal tax status of nobles and roturiers, the use of coat-armour (many heraldic monuments were destroyed by order of the First Republic), etc. Of course none of these latter things was, strictly speaking, part of the system of feudal law. Subsequent sociological and economic commentators have adopted wholesale this definition of feudalism (most notably Marx, with his theory of historical progression from feudalism to capitalism to communism).

The notion of "feudalism" is foreign to any legal commentator who actually lived and wrote during the time when the feudal law actually was in force. Indeed, in German the distinction is made between "Landrecht," viz., the common civil and criminal law, and "Lehnrecht," feudal law ("Lehn-" being derived from the verb "to lend," and akin to the English "lien"; a feudal tenure being in a sense a portion or competence of the allodium, "lent" to the tenant-in-chief by his sovereign, and thence held in a chain of vassalage by subinfeudation, extending down to the ultimate possessor of dominium utile).

In any event, this discussion has digressed considerably from my comment on MM's essay - namely that villeinage is not a necessary characteristic of feudal law, and that it existed under non-feudal systems. Do you seriously contest these points?

July 29, 2009 at 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Hugo said...

"Try to imagine yourself visiting 13th-century France and recommending the liberation of the serfs."

Or 14th-century England. OH WAIT, PEASANTS' REVOLT. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_revolts_in_late_medieval_Europe

August 12, 2009 at 1:30 AM  
Anonymous Hugo said...

Even if the "Causes" section of the current Wikipedia article is crap.

August 12, 2009 at 5:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"you'd of heard it"?
Surely "you'd have heard it", or "you'd've heard it."


P.S.
Daniel A. Nagy, what is your motivation for posting comments somewhere were no one reads them?

August 12, 2009 at 5:24 AM  

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