Saturday, December 21, 2002



LI averted our eyes from the news during the past week in this space -- at least officially. Like a robotically connected citizen, outside of this space we did keep a beady-eyed watch over the march of history in the newspapers. One story that hasn't stirred us is the general strike in Venezuala.

Why haven't we been stirred? After all, what word, to a romantic leftist, conjures up more vivid images of liberty, equality and fraternity than the general strike? The favored tool of the working class -- and yes, Virginia, there is a working class -- usually engages our sympathies. This one, however, has engaged our ambiguities.

On the one hand, the picture is this: Hugo Chavez has all the appearances of that scourge of Latin American history, the military populist, of whom Peron is the great, dark exemplar. They arouse the contempt and fury of the propertied class, but one shouldn't infer, from that, that these military energumen are leftists. More often, they offer a corporatist answer to the civil and economic problems of the nation. It is a short range solution that, at the price of stifling liberty, pledges the nation to dependence on an elevated spoils system, usually centering around some exported raw material, or agricultural product. In the meantime, the despotic distribution of power creates a grass-roots motive for social violence. In Venezuala, where everything floats on oil and Chavez is enamored of his own charisma, all these elements are in place.

On the other hand, there's a certain rancid odor wafting above some of the groups opposing Chavez. An odor of the coup, the death-squad, and the sour snobbery of the elite. This snobbery is not a matter of who joins the club -- it is a matter of taking violent coercion as the chosen instrument of governance. It is a matter of freezing class divisions. It is a matter of under-educating, under-investing in, and actively repressing, the lower classes. We've seen this machinery in motion before.

The LA Times has been particularly hip to the turmoil in Venezuala, with a better archive of Venezuala news stories than are on offer at the NYT. The ambiguities of opposition are explored in yesterday's story, entitled Marxists, Management Unite to Oppose Chavez, with the explainatory graf:

"For more than two weeks of a national strike, the opposition has presented a solid front against Chavez, whom it accuses of conspiring to turn the United States' third-largest oil supplier into a communist redoubt like Cuba."

Today, they publish a profile of Raul Baduel, who "commands a fifth of Venezual's 45,000 troops." Baduel is Chavez' friend, and a mystic dabbler:

"The commander of Venezuela's most powerful military force sits behind a large dark wood desk surrounded by Virgin Mary statues and Buddhist prayer strips. The smell of patchouli fills the air. Gregorian chant music floats ethereally."

Gregorian chants, eh? Latin American military men do seem fatally inclined to mystagogic eccentricities. The Autumn of the Patriarch is the strict truth about this type of man.

The opposition, to judge by the rhetoric of one of its websites, seems, in part, mired in the ultra reactionary views that encouraged the death squads in El Salvador and the torture units in Argentina. Here's a graf from Vcrisis:

"Brazil's president Lula Da Silva, after giving the ministry of Economy and Finance to a pro capitalist-US educated businessman, has sent his top foreign policy adviser -- Marco Aurelio Garcia -- to Caracas to offer Brazil's help in solving the political crisis in Venezuela. However, Garcia said he will not meet with any opposition leaders because they are demanding that President Hugo Chavez resign. Da Silva is a co-founder with Cuban leader Fidel Castro of the Sao Paulo Forum, a hemispheric umbrella group for Latin American Marxist and socialist parties, former guerrilla organizations and active rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Peru's Shining Path. Chavez has been a member of the Sao Paulo Forum since the mid-1990s."

The Houston Chronicle published an uncharacteristically thoughtful commentary on the Chavez situation Thursday.  Although the writer, Michael Marx McCarthy [a name that reeks of cognitive dissonance] counts Chavez out a little pre-maturely, his analysis of the post-Chavez landscape seems about right:

"Indeed, while the Chavez-led "Bolivarian revolution" might soon be dead, the president's impact on Venezuela has transcended the visceral association many lower-class supporters feel because of his mestizo skin color and anti-establishment rhetoric. It's important to recognize that the proverbial genie is out the bottle, and Venezuela's poor majority will demand that fundamental social issues be addressed.

During the two-day April coup, which was tacitly supported by the United States, the interim administration of business leader Pedro Carmona looked and acted like a 1950s Latin American civil-military junta, dissolving the National Assembly, throwing out the Supreme Court and unabashedly representing the elite. The opposition still wants the whole system revamped, from the name of the country -- "Bolivarian State of Venezuela" -- to the assembly and constitution. If the opposition again sacks the president, Chavez's supporters -- at least a third of the population, which in April took to the streets and brought their leader back to office -- will not hesitate to bear arms for the first president to offer them a legitimate stake in national politics."

Finally, for a left tilt to the news, Counter-Punch publishes Greg Wilpert's pro-Chavez journalism. However, do we detect a note of hesitancy in his writing? Instead of the usual cocktail of tabloid invective and lefty support, he seems to hesitate about characterizing Chavez' opposition as wholly reactionary. He does view the strike as ultimately a ploy of the management, but who is the managment of a state owned firm?

Friday, December 20, 2002


What would Pilate do?

We've been losing readers by the handfuls as we've pursued the argument in James Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity this week. Or rather, as we have gnawed around the edges of it, like a man on a diet with a salt cracker. Our friend L.S. in NYC has recommended less lentamento -- our slow-motion conceptual strip-tease, he tells us, is gradually putting the patrons to sleep, who have come for some hot action and a little ideational pudenda.

Hey, what can we say? We are using this space to put together a possible essay. And so you will have to excuse, reader-patron, a certain air of sawdust, and fragments, and sketches.

To continue, then -- we are, we promise, going to get to the central paradox in Stephen's conservative imperialism -- that, in the name of the Christendom, Stephen is forced to advocate the government of a bunch of Pilates. And we see this same paradox in Stephen's conservative American heirs, transposed into the American idiom: for the proconsular dreams of such as Paul Wolfowitz, in which the American imperium irresistably spreads democracy, demands, as well, methods that are anything but democratic, and alliances that are anything but libertarian.

Well, that is getting peremptorily to the heart of the matter.
LI doesn't do that.

Rather, this post will be devoted to a brief note on a philosophical-literary genre.

Don't groan. Let's start with the relevance of this note to our Stephen problem. The figure of Pilate occurs, in Stephen's book, in response to John Stuart Mill's example of free thinking being put down -- viz, the condemnation of Christ. But what is an example in a philosophical argument? That is what we are concerned with tonight, comrades. This will be painless. Refreshments will be served at the end.

Okay. The philosophic situation is our name for a story that is adapted to a theory. Descarte's evil demon is one example. Socrates' death is another example, even though it is based on a real event. Like the stories in the Bible, philosophic situations have a peculiar persuasive status. In the Bible, according to Christian theology, every story instances some aspect of the divine presence -- and leads us to the more abstract question of the nature and purposes of the divine will. The philosophic situation, similarly, crystallizes the abstract conceptual issues posited by theory, but the movement in the philosophical situation is torn between the allegorical and the juridical impulse -- between the simple, concentrated display of conceptual forces, and the testing of hypotheses. This tension in the philosophical situation distinguishes it from its cousin, the counterfactual, which is solely defined by the exigencies of argument. The philosophical situation was still half under the rules of art, and could serve as satire, or even, ultimately, as pure fiction. The Enlightenment was the great age of the philosophic situation, from Molyneux's problem to Montesquieu's Persion Letters.

So, enough lit-crit maundering. Let's get to Pilate.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002


What would Pilate do?

LI was happy to receive a little email from our friend Alan this morning. He is resurrecting his own blog, Gadfly's Buzz. He also liked, actually liked, our continuing series of posts about James Fitzjames Stephen -- which seem, otherwise, to have decreased our readership significantly, at least according to that little inaccurate site meter thing we keep on this site.

Odd. We find Fitzjames Stephen to be a more and more fascinating figure. After reading his entry in the National Biography (a series started and edited by his brother, Leslie Stephen, who was -- as our readers already know -- Virginia Woolf's Dad, as well as the model for the polymathic dynamo in George Meredith's The Egoist), we realized that, by accident, we are ending the year by tying together many of the themes we've pursued on this site. We've written about Lord Macaulay (5/4/02) and Lord Bacon, wandering into Macaulay's essay about the Trial of Warren Hastings; we've written about Mike Davis' scarifying and much ignored book about the "Victorian holocaust" -- a book that gains its power by simply describing the famines of 1876 and 1877 in India. The description indicts the Raj, by the common consent of today's historians a beneficent entity, for its gross inhumanity(2/16/02) -- and to put a parenthesis in a parenthesis, as is our usual, maddening way of going about things, Davis' work reminds us, again, in this time of imperialist nostalgia, that the British empire is judged on a moral standard that makes heavy use of such omissions as would, transposed to 20th century Russia, clear Stalin of wrongdoing. Take the popular history of the Raj recently published by Lawrence James (Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India). Not only is there no entry in the index for famine (although it does sport a couple of photos of famine victims), but James devotes more space to Lord Curzon's management of state pageantry than to the famines that might have killed as many as two million people in the 1870s. Here is almost the entire substance of James' report on the latter, troubling affair:

"In 1876 and 1877 there had been two successive seasons of inadequate rainfall which had affected a swathe of country stretching from Mysore to Punjab, in which 58 million people faced chronic food shortages [editor's note -- this is euphemism as high art]. The government's efforts to cope with this disaster had failed, partly because of underfunding, partly because of the current laissez faire dogma which forbade interference with market mechanisms, and partly because there was not enough railroads to convey foodstuffs..." This is what is known as understated prose. The reader of James' 670 page tome might be forgiven for never exactly gathering that famine killed a couple of million Indians during the heyday of the British Raj. And, if the reader pauses during James brief, awkward walk through the years of rain shortfalls, he will be reassured that, after all, the faulty response can be laid to a doctrine, laissez faire -- an impalpable thing, to be found in economics dictionaries -- rather than in the human, all too inhuman, policies of the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, that were firmly supported by the Conservative government in England -- although not by the liberals under Gladstone, it should be said. James himself provides an image for the kind of history he is creating -- and the kind that is still created about this period. In the early1800s, James claims, colored prints of the Indian countryside started to appear in England, and became popular. But, as he notes, the prints customarily "omitted" the Indian multitudes that thronged in those landscapes. Well, so it was, and so it has been ever since. If, of course, James had emphasized such chronic food shortages -- the fault, of course, entirely of nature, and not at all of a pernicious and rapacious tax system, combined with a systemic neglect of the agricultural structure of the countryside that had been built up over two centuries, and that, by some miracle of nature James doesn't contemplate, had prevented chronic food shortages in the eighteenth century -- if James had emphasized famine, it might be harder to 'adjust the balance,"as James puts it, against the "Marxists" and left wingers who have slandered the Raj.
End of parenthesis...
We've also written about Governor Eyre of Jamaica and his brutal suppression of a black and mulatto uprising (9/09/020. The uprising has become the centerpiece of a revisionist history of the socialist impulse in 19th century England, undertaken by an economics professor at George Mason University, David Levy, in collaboration with Sandra Peart. All of these themes converge in the figure of James Fitzjames Stephen, strange as that might seem. When Stephen went to India in order to reform the law of evidence in the colony, he built on the regulatory structure created by Macaulay. Stephen was a particular friend of Lord Lytton, who went home in some disgrace -- a disgrace compounded of his response to the famine and his failures on the frontier. And, finally, Stephen was officially a part of the prosecutor's entourage in the Eyre affair.
We'll have more to say about the latter in the next post. And then, we promise, we will get to the much delayed Pilate problem.

Monday, December 16, 2002


Pilate (continued)

Niall Ferguson, the conservative historian, pens an article in the NYT Magazine this Sunday that nicely sums up the conventions of the moment among the trans-Atlantic belligerants. He goes back and forth with the parallel between the British Empire and the U.S -- too much of a historian to find analogies unembarrassing, but too much of a belligerant to fresist it:

"Let's look again at that parallel between the U.S. and the British Empire. Terrorism is a global phenomenon and so, necessarily, is the war against it. One consequence of 9/11 was to shatter forever the illusion that Americans could retreat to enjoy the fruits of their productivity behind a missile defense shield. For terrorism breeds in precisely the rogue states and strife-torn war zones that some Republicans before 9/11 thought we could walk away from. Intervention to impose the rule of law on such seedbeds of terror is far from an unrealistic project. That was precisely what the Victorians excelled at."

The rule of law (which was not, of course, any kind of motive for the expansion of the British Empire -- it is the kind of phrase much favored by those who have put a suitable generation or two between themselves and the pirates who seized the properties they now complacently fold into the law of contracts) was the kind of thing Fitzjames Stephen brooded on, no doubt in a Mr. Rochester way. Law, of course, gives you a rather grimmer idea of human action than economics or logic does -- the latter two being more Mill's specialties. The tone of Stephen's dissent from Mill in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is shot through with a sense that human beings are essentially difficult. Especially if you meet them out there, doing the rounds in some godforsaken part of Southern India, rather than confine your encounters to the pleasanter purlieus of Chelsea.

Being a religious man -- or, rather, a man attached to the guarding of the Christian religion, and the preservation of all its old ferocities, regardless of his personal appraisal of the plausibility of Christian evidences -- Stephen attacks Mill's libertarianism on two fronts: one is that, frankly, Mill undervalues the role of coercion in human society, and hence would impose limits on the State's coercive power that would countermine the State's great role -- that of disciplining the mass. The other is that Mill's libertarianism is, ultimately, a hedonism contrary in all its parts to Christian doctrine. Even if one feels, reading Stephen's tract, that Stephen, post Cambridge, was that Victorian thing, an agnostic with Calvinist leanings, one also feels that Stephen believes -- as did Nietzsche, at times -- that the disbelief of the rulers in the established creed is no reason not to enforce belief in that creed, by all means necessary. This belief also shows up in one of the great nineteenth century texts -- the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov. Stephen's intro graf certainly intones Dostoevskian themes:

"The object of this work is to examine the doctrines which are rather hinted at than expressed by the phrase "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." This phrase has been the motto of more than one Republic. It is indeed something more than a motto. It is the creed of a religion, less definite than any one of the forms of Christianity, which are in part its rivals, in part its antagonists, and in part its associates, but not on that account the less powerful. It is, on the contrary, one of the most penetrating influences of the day. It shows itself now and then in definite forms, of which Positivism is the one best known to our generation, but its special manifestations give no adequate measure of its depth or width. It penetrates other creeds. It has often transformed Christianity into a system of optimism, which has in some cases retained and in others rejected Christian phraseology."

You can feel the black leather gloves being put on with that phrase, "transformed Christianity into a system of optimism..." As if a creed with a tortured man/god spilling his blood at the center of it promised us a lifetime of teacups and edifiying lectures! Stephen wasn't having any of that nonsense: religion is about the last things, and in that bleak and all consuming light, happiness shrivels up like a dead cockroach.

We mention the Grand Inquisitor with intent -- for part of Stephen's work does, indeed, touch on the same territory treated, much differently, by Dostoevsky. Remember the way Ivan Karamazov's "poem" starts. Jesus comes back to Earth. It is in the time of the great heresy hunts in Spain. Jesus has just raised a dead child when the Grand Inquisitor comes into sight:

"There are cries, sobs, confusion among the people, and at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal's robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church -- at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk's cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the 'holy guard.' He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick grey brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on' The guards lead their prisoner to the close, gloomy vaulted prison- in the ancient palace of the Holy, inquisition and shut him in it. The day passes and is followed by the dark, burning, 'breathless' night of Seville. The air is 'fragrant with laurel and lemon.' In the pitch darkness the iron door of the prison is suddenly opened and the Grand Inquisitor himself comes in with a light in his hand. He is alone; the door is closed at once behind him. He stands in the doorway and for a minute or two gazes into His face. At last he goes up slowly, sets the light on the table and speaks."'Is it Thou? Thou?' but receiving no answer, he adds at once. 'Don't answer."

Well, Stephen does not intend to reach these depths -- he would no doubt find them rather repulsive. Yet his book does contain a disquisition on Pilate that is certainly worthy of the Grand Inquisitor -- transposing some of the elements.


Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...