“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ultras


In Engel’s introduction to his The Situation of Labor in England, he gives a brief history of the displacement of the old, ‘detached’ rural farming and artisan system brought about by the new system of industrial production:

“The felt comfortable in their quiet plant life, and would never, save for the Industrial revolution, have been taken out of this clearly very romantic-cosy, but yet, for humans, unworthy existence. They were not humans, but simply working machines in the service of the few aristocrats, which up until now have lead history. The Industrial Revolution has thus only carried through the consequence of this when it made the laborers completely into a mere machines and took away the last remnant of independent activity from under their hands; but in doing so drove them to thinking and to the claims of a human situation. What politics effected in France, in England was effected by industry and the movement of bourgeois society overall; it pulled the last classes to be mired in the apathy against universal human interests into the vortex of history.”

Engels had already explained to his readers in the foreword what he means by the bourgeois:

“…I always used the word Middle Class in the sense of the English middle-class (or as it is almost always said, middle classes) where it means the same as with the French bourgeoisie the possessing class – the class, which in France and England directly, and in Germany as “public opinion” indirectly is in possession of state power.”

That is a pretty fascinating definition of class, linking it both to economic power and the power of the state even if – in backwards Germany – that power is possessed not by representatives, but by ‘public opinion’. The latter – the power of public opinion – is what fascinates me about the conflicts between ‘freedom’ and ‘the emancipation of the working class’. What, after all, does it mean for the workers to be uprooted from shameful apathy and thrown into the ‘vortex of history’ where they could think about the claims of the human situation except that the working class would have, among other things, an opinion?

This is the question that became very real to the generation of 1848 after the revolution failed. Herzen’s whole life has often been seen from the perspective of a before and after 1848 – he himself often wrote in those terms. Isaiah Berlin has noted that Herzen’s skepticism – about the people, and especially about progress – preceded the events of 1848. It is a shame that Berlin never really grappled with Lenin’s essay on Herzen, because Lenin makes an acute historical point:

Herzen's spiritual shipwreck, the profound scepticism and pessimism to which he fell prey after 1848, was the shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen's spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionariness of the bourgeois democracy was already passing away (in Europe), and the revolutionariness of the socialist proletariat had not yet ripened. This is something the Russian liberal knights of verbal incontinence, who are now trying to cover up their own counter-revolutionariness by florid phrases about Herzen's scepticism, have not understood and cannot understand. With these knights, who betrayed the Russian Revolution of 1905, and have even forgotten to think of the great calling of a revolutionary, scepticism is a form of transition from democracy to liberalism to that servile, vile, infamous and brutal liberalism which shot down the workers in 1848, restored shattered thrones, applauded Napoleon III and which Herzen cursed, unable to understand its class nature.

Lenin’s notion was that bourgeois skepticism targeted the supposed incapacity of the working class to enjoy the cultural gains of progress. Ripped from their apathy, as Engels puts it, their minds were concentrated by their conditions on the material facts of life, making them great sniffers out of the web of self interest that underlies the industrial system, but contemptuous of the culture of the rentiers of that system. In Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, this is exactly how Herzen is portrayed:

“Being proved wrong has made them [the revolutionaries] cocky. They’re more certain than ever that the people are natural republicans waiting to be lead out of bondage. But the people are more interested in potatoes than freedom. The people think equality means everyone should be oppressed equally. They love authority. They’re suspicious of talent. They want a government to govern for them and not against them. To govern themselves doesn’t enter their heads. We thought we could educate the people like a horse doctor blowing a pill into a horse. We thought we could set the pace for social change. The emperors did more than keep their thrones, they pushed our faces into the wreck of our belief in the revolutionary instincts of the people.”


The luster and luxury of disillusionment – it has a standing, in the cold war mythology, with the metanoia of Saul in sacred history, except that it is conversion to the God that failed. There is an impulse in Herzen, embodied especially in the middle dialog in From the other shore, between a doctor and his lady companion before the house in which Rousseau wrote... something, which is full of phrases about the precarious civilization of people such as him and her, in the face of the inscrutable masses. But, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Herzen wrote dialog not because he wanted to represent himself in one speaker who cleverly undoes another, but because he felt the clash in himself of views. This, actually, is the liberal intellectual’s highest form of skepticism – the refusal to pretend that the clash has an easy resolution. Like Engels and Marx, Herzen was definitely one of the Ultras in 1848 – and like those two, he wasn’t stupid about it. But he didn’t quite have Marx’s moderation – for Marx was strongly of the opinion that the task at hand was democratic government, at least in Germany and Austria.

Stoppard’s picture of Herzen the sceptic is, as has been mentioned in many reviews, a bit too reliant on Berlin's picture of Herzen as the disenchanted liberal, kin to John Stuart Mill. Herzen doesn't see some elite, some cultured margin, as separate from and higher than the people and their potatoes. In reality, he was shrewder than this. In his letters to an old comrade [Bakunin] which have been used to make the case that Herzen turned to the right at the end - they were written in the late 1860s - he writes this:

“It is this pattern that the past, which we want now to leave behind, has followed. The forms, aspects, and rites have changed but the essence has remained the same. He who bowed his head before a Capuchin friar bearing a cross is no different from the man who bows his head to a court decision no matter how absurd it is.”

The man who bows his head to the court decision is, of course, the establishment liberal par excellence. He is bowing his head to his own system. It is only in seeing Herzen’s criticisms as total, directed not just at the people but at European society in general, that one understands how the sceptic and the revolutionary were joined.

the elementary particles and general society

Those who have read one or two of Houellebecq’s novels will immediately see that Jérôme Kerviel sprang out of the brain of Michel Houellebecq. His problem is that he is fictional. It must have bothered him:

He failed in a bid for town council in his 20s; he never rose higher than a green belt, a midlevel rank, after years of judo training — because of his bad knees; and he attended an average college where he earned respectable but unremarkable grades.
“People who want to be golden boys or clever in the market don’t come here,” said Valérie Buthion, the director of the University of Lyon’s economic and financial engineering department, where Mr. Kerviel earned a master’s degree in market finance. “The showoffs don’t come.”

“. . . his hedonistic worldview and the forces that shaped his consciousness were common to an entire generation. Just as determining the apparatus for an experiment and choosing one or more observables made it possible to assign a specific behavior to an atomic system-now particle, now wave-so could Bruno be seen as an individual or, from another point of view, as passively caught up in the sweep of history. His motives, values, and desires did not distinguish him from his contemporaries in any way.”

“In the French media, former colleagues and even agents in a neighborhood real estate office near his apartment remembered him for his understated sartorial elegance and a boyish resemblance to Tom Cruise.”

“Moments after they climbed down from the Jeep, Bruno realized he had made a mistake. The estate sloped gently toward the south, scattered with shrubs and flowers. A waterfall tumbled into a clear green pool; nearby, a woman lay naked, sunning herself on a flat rock while another soaped herself before diving in. Closer to them, on a rug, a bearded man was meditating or sleeping; against his tanned skin, his long blond hair was striking--he looked a little like Kris Kristofferson. Bruno felt depressed.”

“Mr. Kerviel remained hidden from public view Friday. A handwritten note posted in his apartment building in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine urged swarms of journalists to leave residents alone because the former trader had taken shelter elsewhere.
“Kerviel,” the note read. “Is not known in the building.”

"There remains some humans of the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable. Contrary to the doomsayers, this extinction is taking place peaceably, despite occasional acts of violence, which also continue to decline."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

There will be mud...

Last night, LI went and saw There will be blood. An infrastructure film – what great timing! A shot from the past, when capitalism had its hooks in nature, instead of like it is today, when the real money is made in the supernatural, capital flows marked in nice digits on screens that have as much meaning as messages left on Ouija boards from old Aunt Marge’s avatar in the Beyond. Anyway, I loved the oil derrick. I loved the finding of the oil I loved the gloves on the pipemen, the long johns, the big, thick greasy ropes. I loved the moment the gusher came up. Giant has nothing on this film. Of course, even being a transplant to Texas, certain of the stories of the tribe have penetrated my skull, and I, even I, am stirred primally by an oil strike, vaguely remembering Spindletop and a thousand tents springing up all at once, oil rush towns and gushers that took weeks to cap, wildcatters suddenly rich and then squandering that money and dying on the down in a Houston backalley, of exposure – yeah, we revel in that shit. Hey, at one point in my life I was friends with the chauffeur of one of H.L. Hunt’s mistresses, at that time already long in the tooth, the mistress that is, and now no doubt lying peacefully underground. So I, too, have seen a little bit of the mystery and the glory.

The star of There will be blood is undoubtedly not the blood, but the dirt. Dirt as petroleum residue. Dirt as silt. Dirt as clay. Dirt as sludge. The blood at the end is not half as impressive as the pools of oil in the middle. There’s the scum that dries on the face of the minister who is dragged into a rivulet of oil by Daniel Plainview, and that he wears to the dinner table, a mask of his humiliation. There’s the puddles everywhere, black on that salt barren land – which Plainview promises to irrigate, which, of course, will eventually harvest its own lithic disasters as the mineral salts come to the surface. There’s the dried crust on the boots of the oilfield workers. There’s, picturesquely, oil on Plainview’s face as he watches the flames catch hold of the derrick – his demonic face. And oil on the child’s face. One never forgets that oil is gritty.

As has been remarked, ain’t a lot of women in this flick. In fact, for the first time in my memory, a film about man and primary product extraction goes to the brothel and shows – men! Not a female form to be found, dressed or undressed. A most, an irritating female laughter off camera, in the background.

LI, truth be told, is rather finicky, especially about grease. We do despise grease. But in this film, dirt is heroic. That’s the true sex in the film: man and mud. And just as we liked the grease here, the shine of it, we liked the capitalist at the center of it, the toad with the jewel in his forehead – he is an I.W.W. caricature kapitalist sprung to life, except that we only see him buying land, not chiseling his workers or breaking strikes. Nowadays, of course, those are considered virtues. To create an effect, best cheat people out of the unearned wealth they deserve from the minerals upon which they’ve planted their dwellings – that is a thing we all know is wicked. It is like robbing a man’s winning lottery ticker. But even here, in truth, by the standards of wildcatters in Texas, he pays pretty well for the land – enough to sicken your orthodox Randian.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

brother, can you spare a trillion?

They used to tell me I was building a dream ...

LI had to swallow a little sob of pride, yesterday, as the Bush administration, in the form of the Fed, did what it does best – made sure that our billionaire class is all tucked in and shit. Are they being fed well? Have their diapers been changed? Since last August’s cuts (which, we’ve been assured over and over by financial journalists, were ‘brilliant’), the Fed has shown that it takes its mission (“drinks on the house!”) seriously.

Many might be thinking, gee, if trillions of dollars can be lost in the blink of an eye, perhaps the state should have captured that money and used it for something useful. Such thinking is vicious, criminal, and should be outlawed. As libertarians would point out, such thinking would hamper all our freedom – freedom – freedom. Soon we’d be demanding free health care and who knows what other kinds of shit. It would be the Soviet Union all over again.

But carpers are always a problem. Econospeak has a nice post referencing an article in the dear old New York Times of last July. Remember last July? It was the gilded age, last July. We were all so happy. Things were turnin’ around in Iraq. The towers of Babel were being built in the heart of many a gentrified area – such as in Austin – and everybody was getting rich, mining the potential in their up and up houses by tapping the mortgage money, here and there, for the new kitchen, the boat, and how about a six pack of 25 dollar wines? It was then that we heard the words of one of the captains of our industry and fate as though it were a blast from the Whore of Babylon herself, speaking at the ‘Anti-Christ welcome home’ party:


"Kenneth C. Griffin, who received more than $1 billion last year as chairman of a hedge fund, the Citadel Investment Group, declared: "The money is a byproduct of a passionate endeavor." Mr. Griffin, 38, argued that those who focus on the money -- and there is always a get-rich crowd -- "soon discover that wealth is not a particularly satisfying outcome." His own team at Citadel, he said, "loves the problems they work on and the challenges inherent to their business." Mr. Griffin maintained that he has created wealth not just for himself but for many others. "We have helped to create real social value in the U.S. economy," he said. "We have invested money in countless companies over the years and they have helped countless people"."

"The income distribution has to stand," Mr. Griffin said, adding that by trying to alter it with a more progressive income tax, "you end up in problematic circumstances. In the current world, there will be people who will move from one tax area to another. I am proud to be an American. But if the tax became too high, as a matter of principle I would not be working this hard."

Can you imagine how we would all suffer if Mr. Griffin did not work so hard? I imagine that he would get out of his seat slower. Or, when some suited scumbag came in with another computer simulation showing how to fleece suckers ever more creatively, he’d airily wave them away. He’d be on strike, our maestro. Imagine that creativity taken away from the common good to which he so richly contributes! He’d lie down on his office sofa more. It would be so sad. Similar sentiments were uttered by Russian serfholders in 1850 – take away the ability to own a serf and you simply destroy the incentive structure that had made Russia great!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sganarelle, 1848


O er hat nicht unrecht, jener populäre Philosoph, wenn er sagt, daß das Sein, nur ein Begriffsaggregat mit markierten elektro-magnetisch-psychologisch-galvanoplastischen Momenten ist. – Nestroy, Freiheit in Krähwinkel

It is strange that Nestroy’s Freedom in Kraehwinkel (Martin Swales once suggested that the title should be Englished as ‘Freedom comes to Chickentown’), which combined songs and music with farce, was never transposed into some equivalent of the Magic Flute of 1848. It is a political farce that takes revolution as another route to the improbable junction of two hearts; it makes a light operetta of revolution and reaction. Those with an interest in opera and Marx – ahem, Chabert? - would, I think, love Nestroy’s play – if this ain’t achin’ for a dialectical-materialist-allegorical reading, I don’t know my Benjamites! That someone like myself, not exactly an expert in real music, especially after the lifetime I’ve spent under the dulling influence of pop, that even I can hear the ghost of the opera it could be in the play, must count for something.

Okay, to come clean, people. Yes, there is one Nestroy play all Americans know. Except they don’t know that it came from Nestroy, via Thornton Wilder. I mean, of course, Hello Dolly. This can’t be helped - and hey, I love the Louis Armstrong version of this, so go fuck yourself if you have a problem with that! So there, my full confession has been made. The Nestroy play was also recast by Tom Stoppard as On the Razzle.

Freedom comes to Chickentown was revived in 1980 in Schwechat, a suburb of Vienna that contains the Schloß Rothmühle. This was the castle where Mesmer produced some of his first cures. It is now the center of the international Nestroy society. The history of revivals is pretty bizarre. The play was revived after the Anschluss, and – ah, the abysses that open up! – the word “Führer” was substituted for the word “Freiheit”.

The most interesting character in the play is Eberhardt Ultra, a journalist, and thus by trade a troublemaker. He appears in numerous disguises in the place – now as a Russian general (the Russians were called in by Franz Joseph to help crush the revolution), now as a priest, and once, crucially, as Metternich himself.

This play fits so well with the metaphoric of ghosts that Derrida explores in Specters of Marx that it is … ghostly. Except here the ghost is not communism, but just the opposite:

“Ultra: Also, wie's im großen war, so haben wir's hier im kleinen g'habt, die Reaktion ist ein Gespenst, aber G'spenster gibt es bekanntlich nur für den Furchtsamen; drum sich nicht fürchten davor, dann gibt's gar keine Reaktion!”

(Thus, as in the great world, so in the small, reaction is a ghost, but a ghost, as is well known, only exists for the timorous. thus, stop being afraid and reaction will just cease to exist!)

As we will see when I get to those Herzen posts, the ghost metaphoric is written all over Herzen’s 1848 writings. I think I will postpone, however, making the Derridean connections until then.

The plot of Freedom comes to Chickentown is your usual farcical fare. The established power – reaction – in Krähwinkel is represented by the mayor and his chief official, Klaus. Klaus has a marriageable daughter, Cecilie, who Klaus wants to marry to Jesus Christ – highing the obedient Cecelie to a nunnery, in short. But Cecilie is secretly smitten with Siegmund – who Klaus believes is in love with the Night watchman’s daughter. This belief is essential to the trick that brings Cecilia and Siegmund together, which I won’t reveal – I mean, one day you all might see this play! On the side of ‘freedom’ are the mid level Kraehwinklers – there’s little reference to labor. Thus, the Nightwatchman and his friends, Pemperl and Schabenfeller, among others, represent freedom and revolt. Pemperl is in it mainly for the sensation – as he says, he “just wants to see a little revolution”. The true liberals, here, are members of the ‘new class,’ relatively speaking. There’s Ultra, the journalist. And there is the vaguely upper middle class widow, Frau von Frankenfrey, with whom Ultra is smitten. Ultra’s disguises are not only in the service of the revolution – they are primarily designed to free Frau von Frankenfrey from the manipulations of the Burgermeister, who is manipulating the terms of her late husband’s will to force her to marry him.

Such is the genius of farce that the path of love and the expulsion of the villain create a perfect vehicle for freedom - freedom - freedom. Although by the time the play was performed, on July 1, 1848, reaction was on the verge of coming back. Ultra’s exorcism was uttered just as the specters were changing.

LI is interested in how, exactly, it came about that after 1848, an attitude arose, shared among the intellectuals of the three sites I’ve already referred to – the pessimists, the liberals, the radicals – that “freedom” was a secondary value for the ‘people’ – whereas, pre-1848, freedom was considered to be a subversive shibboleth that bonded together the dangerous class. On the one hand, there was the visible betrayal of the cause of the people by the liberals to the cause of legitimacy. On the other hand, there was the adoption of a narrower political notion of freedom – I would label this, provisionally, as the defeat of existential political freedom, the freedom to disturb the social order, and the rise of liberal freedom, which named a specific order. Ultra represents this split – he is visibly, in his changing costumes and his tricks, a Lord of Misrule, a visitor from the older notion of freedom – but at the end, with the Burgermeister expelled by fake students, Klaus’ rule over Cecilia overturned, and Ultra’s suit accepted by Frau von Frankenfrey, nothing really changes the order in Chickentown. The exorcism of the ghost of reaction at the end point is truly a surface phenomenon, the end of the rule of pigtails, or Zopf, representing the pseudo ancien regime of Metternich. The restricted order of freedom, the compromise with reaction that, in fact, became the norm, had the effect of demystifying freedom – taking away its former, chthonic power, and in essence removing it, in the perspective of the intellectuals, from the interest of the people.

A little note: that Ultra of Ultras, Karl Marx, was in Vienna on August 28, 1848, where he analyzed the struggle for democracy in terms of the struggle between the workers and the bourgeoisie, comparing it to what was happening in France. After he ended his talk, a man arose and said that no, the Viennese workers weren’t conscious, like the French ones were – they simply wanted 5 more Kreuzer a week. (G. Herman, Karl Marx in Wien, in Der Kampf, 268)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Our poor Pres

In some ways, LI feels sorry for Bush. The man’s plan, after 2004, was clearly to set another bubble in motion by clearing out the middle class’ retirement accounts. Plug Social Security into the stock market, watch the shenanigans make his friends rich, and the looting of that retirement wealth would have stretched the bubble well into 2009, when its fall, and the consequent decimation of the middle class ability to retire for the next generation, would fall on somebody else’s head. Oh, ownership society! a swindler’s wet dream, now even farther off! although the thugs in D.C. will still lustily call out for Social Security Reeeform, by which they mean finding that last trillion or two dollars Americans hid in the cabinet. Where’d that bitch hide my drinkin’ money! That is the question good Republicans want answered.

Revolutionary justice in the Mortgage Market.

TKO - watch it on the video!

Via Eschaton, LI went to this astonishing site, the Irving Housing blog. The writer uses public information to profile the use of multiple loans on houses to extract money on the “appreciation” of the house’s value – and, of course, that money was not exactly invested in the organs of production in these here states. More like vacations and private schools and the lot. The rhetoric on the site is reminiscent of the charivaris and jacqueries of the Old Country, when communities would come down upon the those who threatened the social order. At the same time, there is a distinct whiff of real estate porno about the whole thing – the comments about the condition of the houses pictured, down to the year and model of the stove in the kitchen, are … amazing. Rather like YouTube comments about whether some stripper/singer in some video is fat or not.

The resentments definitely are going to be spilling out this year. I was happy to see, on the NYT Opinion page last week, the loathsome opinions of that all around toad, Steven Landsburg – the oh so contrarian economist who contributes to everybody’s favorite white supremicist mag, Slate. (a, but they are contrarian KKK-ers there, as we all know – secretly liberal to the core!). It was a Timon of Athens happy feeling - the feeling of confronting something rotten in its purest aspect. Landsburg starts out dumb and gets dumber, paragraph by paragraph. His point is that free trade is good! mmm good! Welfare is bad! We don’t owe anybody nothing, people unemployed as manufacturing goes down, ha ha sucker. Landsburg, who is supposedly defending a thesis about international trade, defends it by cavalierly identifying it with trade per se:

“I doubt there’s a human being on earth who hasn’t benefited from the opportunity to trade freely with his neighbors. Imagine what your life would be like if you had to grow your own food, make your own clothes and rely on your grandmother’s home remedies for health care. Access to a trained physician might reduce the demand for grandma’s home remedies, but — especially at her age — she’s still got plenty of reason to be thankful for having a doctor.”

How to put one’s brain around this fatuousness? Suppose I defended a law making it illegal not to speak French in the U.S. by writing – I doubt there’s a human being on earth who hasn’t benefited from language.”

Landsburg’s idea is that the destruction of the U.S.’s manufacturing base is made up for by the lower prices on goods we get from abroad:

“All economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners. What we lose through lower wages is more than offset by what we gain through lower prices. In other words, the winners can more than afford to compensate the losers. Does that mean they ought to? Does it create a moral mandate for the taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs proposed by Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney?
Um, no. Even if you’ve just lost your job, there’s something fundamentally churlish about blaming the very phenomenon that’s elevated you above the subsistence level since the day you were born. If the world owes you compensation for enduring the downside of trade, what do you owe the world for enjoying the upside?”

This is a nice argument. It calmly ignores the fact that the era of free trade has coincided with the era of trade deficits. Of course, if you just conceptually abolish the difference between trading in a nation and trading between nations – which is the point of Landsburg’s idiotic paen to trade – then there’s no problemo. The globe itself doesn’t have a trading deficit. But if you actually live on some point in that globe – say, the U.S. – then there is a big problem. If we pay for the lower prices through lower wages and greater and greater amounts of national debt, we are eventually going to be constrained in very nasty ways – or I should say, the bulk of the American population. Landsburg’s notion of we is confined to the five percent of the exploiters who have, through various unscrupulous and predatory means that are unwinding as I write this, engrossed the great benefit from destroying the bargaining power of labor.

These thoughts, I must confess, came to me only after I read a very sharp commentary on Landsburg’s column by my new favorite economics blogger, Peter Dorman. My first reaction to Landsburg is that he is using a measure that excludes intangible goods – in other words, he is tallying up the lower prices of first order consumer goods and ignoring social costs, which are evident whenever you go to Rust belt areas or industrial areas and start poking around. They are multipliers of crime and decreased well being. But, as Dorman points out, Landsburg is also bullshitting on the macro-economic level – like most of the radical free traders.

“Ordinary people in many parts of the world, and not just in the US, worry about trade because they are afraid that jobs lost to imports will not be counterbalanced by jobs gained through exports. They worry that there will be fewer economic opportunities for them and their children. They worry that their wages or working conditions will be pushed downward through competition with even more vulnerable, desperate workers in other countries. They are right to worry about these things. Such miseries are not destined to happen, but they cannot be ruled out either.

Except in standard economic models which begin with the assumption that increases in imports automatically call forth equally valued increases in exports. If trade balances on the margin we live in the happy world of comparative advantage, and it is indeed true, as Landsburg says, that “when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners.” But the assumption that trade balances at the margin is simply a modeling convenience, something that enables Landsburg to regale his students with blackboards full of elegant diagrams and equations. It is not grounded in real experience, and especially not the experience of the US economy since the 1970s.”

LI has some respect for the libertarian view of limiting the state’s right over one’s lifestyle choices. But we have zero respect, in general, for the libertarian view of the state. It is childish nonsense, and its motives are simply to paper over the unhinged system of mass inequality and increased exploitation in which we live with spurious justifications sprung from defective economic models. And, of course, the more spurious it is, the smugger the tone. I think libertarians have captured a certain tonal range of smug that you rarely hear, outside of successful high school debate teams. Ah, the soul in the tone of voice! There's the unctuous "I know best" voice of PC lefties hairsplitting identities and vying for the victim brand; and then there is the adenoidal, bowtied smugness of libertarians. I can take the former, but barely. The latter is the kind of thing that you just want to punch in the face.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Freedom vs. Happiness in the world series of Love

On March 13, 1848, this is how the revolution came to Vienna:

“On this day – recounted an eyewitness – already rather early, I observed in Herrenstrasse, on which there were State office buildings, individual workers were standing around, and a giant man, with a jacket, which was covered with patches, that was obviously neither his size nor made for him, moved in the direction of the buildings, with his dirty cap pressed boldly down over his eyes, with balled up fists, flashing glances and a backwards bent posture, all ready for blows, as if going into battle, with giant steps, whilst keeping suspiciously to the middle of the street. In his rear pockets he must have carried a mass of stones as ammunition, because his jacket was stiff on his back, and visibly he had to force himself not to be pulled backwards by the weight of his pockets. At his side hurriedly humped along, in order to keep up with his steps, a small, weighed down, dirty and rather aged man with a long open coat with long arms. He was loaded, each pocket stood out, and the hind coat pockets almost hit his calves…” (Ernest Victor Zenker, 112).


As the riot commenced in Herrenstrasse, the factories went up in Mariahilf (a linen factory in which a financial agent – presumably an accountant – was tossed into the flames); in Sechshaus, the police station and government building, plus a cotton factory, was stormed; by evening smoke was drifting into Vienna from the suburbs.

And this is how the revolution came to Krähwinkel:

Krähwinkler citizens, among whom are the Night watchman, Pemperl and Schabenfellner sit around a big table and drink)


“Klaus(coming to the middle of the stage). Good evening, my fellow citizens.

Nightwatchman (whispers to Pemperl). And here comes my very point!

Pemperl (to the nightwatchman). He’s a little round to be a point.

Klaus. I want just a little drinky, but you all don’t mind me – drink up!

Night watchman. Well, we are free to do so.

Klaus. Free? You should not use such brutal expressions. I am from the state office, and we don’t like it, that men are free.

Pemperl(to the group), Let’s go out in the garden – it is pleasanter in the free air.

Klaus. If only it wasn’t so free, that air – I’m staying here.

Pemperl. Primo, then we won’t have you breathing down our necks. (To the Night watchman) Come on, Mister!”


Nestroy plays with ‘freedom’ and its galvanic effect on the state officials who compose the respectable strata of Krähwinkel throughout the play. Freedom has the same horrifying sense for the respectable state employees as the invisible power of St. Petersburg has for the respectable strata of Russian officials in Gogol’s The Inspector General.

Which brings me to an issue that I haven’t even mentioned, in all of my posts so far. The liberal opposition – the protest against the hedonistic tendency of bourgeois society made by bourgeois intellectuals – was made, time and time again, in the name of freedom. That opposition informed, say, the cold war liberalism of Isaiah Berlin. Here’s a typical passage from his 1955 essay, Herzen and Bakunin on Liberty:

“It is a singular irony of history that Herzen, who wanted individual liberty more than happiness, or efficiency, or justice, who denounced organized planning, economic centralization, governmental authority, because it might curtail the individual’s capacity for the free play of fantasy, for unlimited depth and variety of personal life within a wide, rich, ‘open’ social milieu, who hated the Germans (and in particular the ‘Russian’ Germans and German Russians0 of St. Petersburg because their slavery was not (as in Russia or Italy) arithmetical, that is, reluctant submission to the numerically superior forces of reaction, but algebraical, that is, part of their ‘inner formula’ – the essence of their being – that Herzen, in virtue of a casual phrase patronizingly dropped by Lenin, should today find himself in the holy of holies of the Soviet pantheon, placed there by a government the genesis of which he understood better and feared more deeply than Dostoevsky, and whose words and acts are a continuous insult to all that he believed and was.” (Russian Thinkers, 104)

This paragraph stands out in Berlin’s essay for its overwhelming flow – the commas, here, that barely organize the sentence, signal that the rush of something – some feeling? some oratorical impulse? – has overwhelmed the analysis of 'Herzen on Liberty'. And that flood of feeling is directed towards a capture, or an envoûtement – one justified by a previous envoûtement, the capture of Herzen by the Soviets, who have put him in an (imaginary) pantheon. Although the motives of the Soviets become a little hazy – is it really because of some ‘casual’ word dropped by Lenin? In any case, the reason this is a kidnapping rather than an alignment of the interests of Herzen’s ghosts with the ghastly Soviets is because Herzen was defending the individual’s liberty. Interestingly, that liberty is connected to a decentralized economy – although Herzen was clearly a socialist throughout his life, and towards the end of it was recommending peasant communes, which, although decentralized in one way, surely bear upon the economic liberty of its members in ways quite other than that one would expect from Berlin’s Hayek-Popper language.

But whether Berlin is right or wrong about Herzen, surely his instinct – that liberty is opposed to schemes for social happiness – picks up on the tradition LI has been examining. Our question is about whether some further kidnapping hasn’t shaped this history – whether it is the socialist leaning working class or the bourgeois intellectual protecting liberty, proclaiming the worth of freedom, in 1848. This is not only a question of what Herzen believed – it is a question of what was being said by, say, the workers in Herrenstrasse. And this is where Nestroy’s play, written in 1848 (astonishingly, I can’t seem to find an English translation. Hard to believe this play hasn’t been translated) becomes really interesting. Nestroy was, like Moliere, an actor, and he did not exactly rank high among his socially snobby Austrian fellow writers of the time – Hebbel compared Nestroy to some poisonous flower whose stink corrupted the smeller.

As always, one must correct for the astonishingly persistent and stupid idea that the Masses were silent, that the writers were all mirrors of the bourgeoisie, and that we had to wait around until a buncha nervous intellectuals, Marxists all, gave ‘voice’ to the working class. One of the sources I am using to understand the 1848 effect is, for instance, a journalist whose writings were highly respected by Karl Kraus and a sentence from whom serves as the epigraph to, I believe, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – Ferdinand Kürnberger. Kürnberger was the son of a lamplighter, and his enthusiasm for freedom, his exile from Austria, his return and his success as a journalist – as, indeed, the greatest journalistic essayist of the later half of the 19th century in Vienna – are all of a piece with being of the people. If one looks around at where the writers come from, the journalists, the pamphleteers, you will soon enough dispel the idea that all the writers came from out of the perfumed pocket of a furlined overcoat in some salon. Nor did their origins predict their predilections – aesthetes came from coal heavers. LI is playing around with the notion that one of the themes that emerges in the investigation of happiness triumphant is the third life – how it was constructed, how it operated, how it collided with the happiness culture in which it recognized something of its own, a sort of child to which it had given birth, but which it could no longer control.