Saturday, June 25, 2005

indignatio continued

The tumblers were falling into place in 420 B.C. At least, according to Laurence Lampert’s excellent analysis of the dialogue known as Hippias Minor in the Spring 2002 Review of Politics. The Review definitely has a Straussian tinge, but sometimes LI likes the odd faith that close reading of ancient texts will give us political redemption.

In the Lesser Hippias, Socrates’ antagonist is Hippias, an Elian sophist and politician. He has come to Athens to participate in the ninetieth Olympiad, in which the Elians were managers of the game. Lampert emphasizes a Thucydidian aspect of Hippias’ presence in Athens:

“More important, however, than the coming Olympics for the Lesser Hippias is the diplomatic conference for which Elis presumably sent Hippias to Athens. That conference had been arranged by the rising new force in Athenian politics, Alcibiades, the young Athenian to whom Socrates had devoted such close attention more than a decade earlier.(n7) Alcibiades had arranged the congress of 420 to implement his bold new strategy; altering the Periclean strategy Athens had followed since the beginning of the war eleven years earlier. Alcibiades' policy required that maritime Athens win Peloponnesian allies for a decisive hoplite battle against Sparta. Thucydides chose this critical moment as the fitting occasion to introduce to his narrative the flamboyant and fateful figure who would come to dominate it as he came to dominate Athenian politics.(n8) Alcibiades appears for the first time in Thucydides as a young strategist and diplomat of great ambition and talent who achieves a striking victory in the first endeavor Thucydides chose to report about him: Alcibiades won the diplomatic battle in 420 by perpetrating an outrageous trick on the Spartan ambassadors, persuading them to lie to the Athenian assembly about their power to finalize a treaty. Unscrupulous Alcibiades then immediately denounced them to the assembly as unscrupulous liars, inciting the assembly into a frenzy of outrage against the Spartans and turning it toward his own policy of alliance with the Argives, Mantineans, and Elians. An earthquake occurred at that inopportune moment and the assembly lost its chance to approve Alcibiades' policy immediately. They approved it some weeks later, however, after Nicias's attempt to negotiate a treaty with the Spartans failed. Alcibiades's diplomatic success further required that he persuade the ambassadors from Argos, Mantinea, and Elis to sign a treaty of alliance with the Athenians. The diplomacy was successful but the hoplite battle two years later would be lost, partly due to Athenian failure to implement Alcibiades' plan and send a full complement of Athenians in a timely manner to the decisive battle near Mantinea in 418.”

For those who like their nudge nudging to be more explicit – we think there is a striking parallel between Alcibiades trick and some recent deception that has been going down. Maybe our faithful readers can guess?..

As we know from the Symposium, Socrates has been close to Alcibiades. The contest staged in the Lesser Hippias between Hippias and Socrates turns on the question of who is better, Achilles or Odysseus? And in what respect? The later question is, abstractly, about the nature of virtue, and, practically, about Homer’s presentation of the two heros. Hippias takes the position that Achilles is the greater man, and the Iliad is the greater poem. His position is pretty straightforward, turning on the scene in the Iliad in which Odysseus pleads with Achilles to return to the Achaian force. The Andrew Lang translation on Gutenberg gives us this unfortunate Victorian translation of Achilles’ reply:

“And Achilles fleet of foot answered and said unto him: "Heaven-sprungson of Laertes, Odysseus of many wiles, in openness must I now declareunto you my saying, even as I am minded and as the fulfilment thereofshall be, that ye may not sit before me and coax this way and that. Forhateful to me even as the gates of hell is he that hideth one thing inhis heart and uttereth another: but I will speak what meseemeth best.”

The word for wiles, in Greek, is polytropoi. Lampert sees this as a key word. Hippias’ view is that Achilles is rebuking guile from the morally more unassailable position of straightforwardness. Lampert gives a quite adequate summary of the “plot” of the dialogue (which, I should add, is one of Plato’s smaller dialogues):

“Achilles' words initiate the first argument of the dialogue, an argument about lying, for Hippias interprets Achilles' words as a denunciation of lying and an attack on lying Odysseus. This first argument (365c-371e) begins with a view on the liar that Socrates suggests Homer held: "that the truthful man was one sort and the liar another, and that they are not the same" (365c). Hippias's conviction--"It would be terrible (deinon) if it were not so"--governs his reactions to Socrates' reasoning and leads ultimately to the conclusion of Odysseus's superiority (371e). At the end of the first argument, when Hippias hears this conclusion and the conclusion on which it is based (that the voluntary liar is better than the involuntary liar), he expresses his moral outrage and expands the topic dramatically: "And how, Socrates, can those who are voluntarily unjust, who have voluntarily plotted and done evil, be better than those who do so involuntarily?" (372a, emphasis added) This outburst initiates the second argument (372a-375d), an argument about justice and wrong-doing that in its way repeats the reasoning of the first argument. Hippias expresses the same conviction at the end of the second argument: "It would, however, be terrible, Socrates, if those doing injustice voluntarily are to be better than those doing so involuntarily" (375d). This response initiates the third and final argument (375d-376b) at the end of which "terrible" appears one final time, but this time it states Socrates' judgment on what would be terrible (376c), a judgment that ends the dialogue.”

Socrates’ position in this dialogue is rather startling, especially if you come to it presupposing a certain conventional image of Socrates. That conventional image, taken from the Apology, is of a man who will not lie, a man who seeks definitions, a man who believes, as he says in the Gorgias, that the virtuous man is so far from merely the powerful man that the virtuous man would allow himself to be put to death in defense of virtue. These are all, indeed, sides of Socrates. But there is also the friend of Alcibiades, the ironist who initiates the philosophical quest as one that searches for definition only to upend it by making clear the perpetual inadequacy of that quest (or, if you will, the strange space in which that quest is pursued, in which the end of the movement lands one at the beginning again), the man whose daimon is a sort of spirit of negativity. This Socrates contends for a viewpoint that seems paradoxical: the man who does voluntary injustice is better than the man who does involuntary injustice. The reason? Behind the windings of the dialogue, Socrates reason is strangely similar to Gorgias’ viewpoint: the man who does injustice voluntarily has a greater capacity, both for justice and injustice, than the man who does injustice involuntarily. In other words, being polytropic, wily, guileful, is not a mark of weakness – it is the feint of a higher capacity.

“Under Socrates' questioning Hippias seems eager to state that the liar is capable, prudent, knowing, and wise (365d-366a): his eagerness suggests that he is as outraged at the polytropic man as Achilles was at Odysseus. Outrage makes Hippias far less willing to agree with Socrates' argument that it is the true expert in an art who is both the liar and the truth-teller and that the same man is a liar and truthful about the things of that art (367c-d). Socrates selects arts in which Hippias claims special expertise (calculating, geometry; astronomy) and when he generalizes from these arts to all arts and sciences, he again uses Hippias as his example, the Hippias whom Socrates heard boasting in the market place beside the money tables that he is the wisest of all human beings in the greatest number of arts (368b). Socrates' argument shows that the same man is liar and truth-teller but Hippias's response shows that capable Hippias is not that man; something in addition to the capacity of a Hippias seems necessary for the polytropic man.”

This post is the successor of my last post. My complaint in that one is that politics in America is stuck in the rhetorical mode of indignatio – shame-making. Myself, I think opposition to the current regime (and I am not, here, talking simply about the left – I include even conservative opposition to the war and the lack of stewardship) would be better served by the polytropic. The weakness of, say, Kerry as a politician was not that he was all things to all people, but that he was not convincingly anything to anybody.

But is Socrates right? Does the capacity to lie or to tell the truth – does an elevation above shame – make for the better leader?

Friday, June 24, 2005

the politics of apologize

Cato wrote a book entitled Indignatio. Typical of him. I’m with Robert Graves about Cato: he was a complete Roman prick. His nightmarish obsession with exterminating Carthage was quoted for almost two millennia as the model of patriotism, which just shows you that there is a lot of psychosis at the heart of Western civilization. The authoritarian personality was obviously alive and well in the ancient world. Such a mean, limited spirit would naturally be attracted to the rhetorical mode in which resentment is most at home.

Indignatio has always been particularly dear to American political types. Liberals get goosebumps thinking of Joseph Welch asking Joseph McCarthy if, at long last, he has no shame. Nice shot, but since McCarthy had pretty much succeeded in exterminating the impulse to form labor or socialist parties in the U.S. – parties that were once as much a part of our culture as the Republican or Democratic party – I’d give the points to McCarthy. Indigatio, at best, is the loser’s victory. For instance, look at the last week: Dick Durbin’s speech about torture arouses the Republicans to such thunderclaps of offence that it drives Durbin to make a tearful apology on the Senate floor. Now Democrats are about to mount a campaign of mock anger about the speech Karl Rove made to some GOP carnivore fest. rove implied that liberals and Democrats were the enablers that made 9/11 possible – soft traitors, if you will. Is anybody really surprised that Rove thinks the Democrats are soft traitors? Yet the point is to find the offending moment in order to be offended by it. The most politically aware groups in America, on the web, seem to spend most of their time surfing for offenses, seeking out scandals to their (by this time abraded) sensibilities, like pigs rooting up poison truffles.

LI has done a share of this ourselves.

In saner moments we know, however, that the politics of apologize is not a winner. What is odd is that the left side of the spectrum, with so much to rail against, spends so much of its time demanding that such as Karl Rove say they are sorry. This is a strategy that is discarded even by sullen adolescents, after a certain point. It is so evidently pointless.

This level of counterfeit politics, however, does fit the larger strategies of the D.C. elites. Yesterday, Senator Clinton sternly read out bits of Rove and asked various administration officials whether this was the kind of stuff they approved of. This got the pack behind her, baying up a storm. Let’s write our congressmen! I imagine there was movement on the emails. Maybe the WP will have a story. Meanwhile, Clinton’s own collaboration with the administration in every false, mad, and simply stupid move that generated this war even as it preserved Osama bin Laden as an ontap terrorist; her support for every creepy move that has guided American conduct during the course of this war; it all falls away as gentle as short term amnesia.

It isn’t that I am surprised or offended that the Roves, Limbaughs, O’Reilly’s, and on and on think I am a traitor. I could care less. I happen to think they are cretins, mouthpieces for the vulpine D.C. eggheads who have an unblemished record of failure.

So why has our politics been captured in the dumb show of fake shock, indignatio as hollow drama, the theater of the ridiculous Kabuki? And why has the left been especially vulnerable to it, given the feast of real daily shocks that are provided by the D.C. masters of war?

Well, in typically weasel fashion, I’m going to turn to another, related question in my next post: why did Socrates, in the Lesser Hippias, hold that Odysseus was a better man than Achilles? I think, at least, that it is a related question.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Ah, the smell of the new order in the morning

In 1948 my Daddy came to the city
Told the people that they'd won the war
Maybe they'd heard it, maybe not
Probably they'd heard it and just forgot'
Cause they built him a platform there in Jackson Square
And the people came to hear him from everywhere
They started to party and they partied some more
'Cause New Orleans had won the war
(We knew we'd do it, we done whipped the Yankees)
--Randy Newman

LI has spent a lot of time in apparently silly mooning over American and Iraqi casualties. We are assured, today, by the Secretary of War that the pie is getting bigger in Iraq. Happily, Rumsfeld’s remarks simply amplify those of this year’s winner of the Lincoln Steffens Award. Steffens was the man who went to Stalin’s Russia, I believe in the year of the first terror famine, and came back to the U.S. to proclaim, “I have seen the future and it works.” Karl Zinsmeister, a much less distinguished journalist – indeed, his obscurity is entirely proportionate to his merit, and his little bit of fame only comes from being pointed to by the more rancid warbloggers – has come back from Iraq to tell us, The War is over and we won.”

So, getting down to brass tacks – money, a much more valuable thing than a mere Marine’s life – what does the new age of Bush conservatism (big government is good, state’s rights are bad, the moral monopoly of the state should be extended by a magnitude that would astonish the old Fabians – that kind of new, stand on your head conservatism) tell us about how to spend our tax dollars? Apparently, the sky is the limit for democracy. 400 billion and counting in Iraq. Let’s see. Surely, a mere 200 billion for democracy in Nigeria would be just the ticket. And, because Bush is the environment president, he might want to kick in 200 to 300 billion dollars to save the Amazon. How about a nice 400 billion for democracy in Central Asian “republics” – that would be sweet. Pakistan – so far a paltry 3 billion. Time to put taxpayer’s money in the collection plate – that’s at least worth 200 billion.

Of course, this being the new, improved conservative age, we can put this on the credit card. Along with the two trillion borrowed for those private accounts, why don’t we just add a trillion and a half for the Freedom lovin,’ fun lovin’ eggheads in D.C. Whereever they cast their mighty glances at the map, we should certainly spring out with the billions.

Now, before you protest -- this is nothing like the nasty sixties liberals, who spent taxpayer money in this country like water. Imagine the selfishness! Spending money on poor americans -- what a joke! Everybody knows the government can't eliminate poverty. It can only implement American-style democracy in Mesopotamia, change 500 years of culture in unknown places, and make other minor top down changes. Plus, remember -- those billions aren’t really going to the unworthy inhabitants of any of those countries, but can be nicely shuffled into the pockets of the War industry honchos. There is, in the new conservatism, nothing more inspiring entrepreneurial site than a government parasite having a two martini lunch with a congressman. It inspires the kind of awe that also comes from reading The Wealth of Nations on speed.

It is the decent thing to do for retired and totally incompetent generals, and the riffraff that follows Tom Delay around and hoses him down when he gets too sweaty.

Another change in the DNA structure of conservatism which is startling, but fresh, is the new attitude towards communism. The old attitude would view with suspicion all that Chinese buying of T notes. It would take with a grain of salt the idea that China just wants to keep floating the American consumer market. That market would be there whether China supported the Iraq war or not. However, if you are a second rate military power and you want a window of advancement AND your rival is willing to break its army in a pointless ten year war, you might want to advance the money to promote that endeavor. Or at least, such would be the nasty thinking of the old commie conspiracy people. The new Bush conservatism is all about rolling up our sleeves and paying no attention to such ravings. Would such a thing escape the eagle eye of the great Wolfowitz? The man has training. He can tell a Chablis from Bud lite. And his ideals are sterling pure. Oh, and the war is won. We won the war! We knew we'd do it! Now, where is that extra hundred billion…

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Dick Durbin is the Democratic Senator and toy balloon from Illinois. Last week, it was toy balloon day in the Senate. All the Democratic Toy balloons could “squeak up” – as the phrase is on the construction paper placards tacked to the corkboard in the Toy Balloon caucus. They could say that they wanted to stay the course, to reform social security, to support the patriot act, and to make this a more Christian country too – but say it in a moderate way. This way, the toy balloons can show they have new ideas. New ideas are so cool.

Durbin was so filled with the hot air that lifts little toy balloons up that he stumbled onto a truth: that the U.S. is routinely using torture. He compared this to another truth – in big bad countries, the names of which are even known by U.S. citizens who’ve had most of the past cleared out of their minds by taking history classes in high school, they also used torture. Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia.

Toy balloon Durbin certainly should have hushed his valve. The bad boys with the needles came after him. As a Democratic toy balloon, Durbin knows that mostly he is to be seen and not heard. And he has been a good toy balloon, too, but now this happened. So after sorrowfully pondering what a mean thing he’d said about torture – the victims of American torture prefer American torture over other forms of torture 100 percent, and especially the ones who are beat up by CIA thugs and die of heart attacks in interrogation centers – they just love it! – he tearfully repented last night. All the other toy balloons are so happy. As they say, loose squeaks can make people think you aren’t a toy balloon! Because they are the party of toy balloons, damn it. And filled with pride in the courage of people like their former toy balloon candidate, they want the voters to know that they have the amazing ability to be shaped into the form of any animal or vegetable that the balloon blowers choose. Such funny toy balloons! Look, look.

Now we can get back to torturing those people in Guantanamo from a centrist perspective.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Why have I never read T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars before?
This is obviously the summer to read it. It isn’t written in cinemascope, and Peter O’Toole doesn’t star in it. Actually, it is more like the English equivalent of the advice from the guerilla war experts to come – Giap or Mao. Lawrence thinks through the way to fight an organized state enemy in the desert on behalf of a non-organized entity, vaguely given the title of the “Arab Revolt.” I am sure his thought processes have gone through the minds of the insurgents in Iraq, unconscious as they no doubt are of the precedent. Lawrence figures out how to make a strength out of weakness – out of the inability to give battle. ‘We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of the vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff; so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material.” For Lawrence, railroads. In Iraq, oil pipelines. And this: “Battles in Arabia were a mistake, since we profited from them only by the ammunition the enemy shot off.”
But setting aside the excellence of the remarks on the landscape of struggle, there are also amazing passages of pure writing. I think that Lawrence’s account of the consequences of the murder of one of his men should be much better known – although perhaps I simply mean that I should have known it earlier. I was talking with my friend A.C. about this last week. He definitely knew the book, and he glommed onto the part about the murder in such a way that I thought, well, this must be a locus classicus.
Anyway – for those of you who haven’t read the book, what happens is this. Lawrence is suffering from a fever. He is out on an expedition with a pared down force. One of the men, Hamed, gets into an argument with another man and shoots him dead. There is a bustle in the camp as the victims relatives rush about, trying to find the killer:
“As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon Hamed's back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just beyond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put down his rifle to lift the gear; and was at my mercy till the others came. We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder a wanton crime.
Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.
I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and gave him a few moments' delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.

Monday, June 20, 2005

bolivia and the dirty dream

There is the American dream and there is the dirty American dream. The latter has been generally maintained by subaltern torturers and Fort Benning alumni in Central and Latin America. So we find it entirely appropriate that Rumsfeld is considering moving General Ricardo Sanchez to the command of the American army’s Latin division. Sanchez’s wonderfully innovative practices in the fields of German Shepherd unleashing, heart attack induction, and forced orgies has, after all, made Abu Ghraib a byword of America’s solidarity with the freedom lovin people of Iraq. And the Bush administration’s management strategy of promoting those who’ve done the most damage to America’s interests and prestige to ever higher posts made it Sanchez’s promotion almost inevitable.

Latin America has been stirring beneath the American dirty dream. This must worry the Bush people – this is a white house staffed, after all, with men and women who, in the eighties, rubbed epaulets with Ollie North and various contra drug dealers in the crusade against New World Communism. Others from that crusade – the editorial writers at the Washington Post, for example – have been openly fretting about Bolivia. The blood-in- our-mouth editorial in the WP today, with its distinct threat that the U.S. should support the separation of the Eastern province in Bolivia (where the gas is) if the Indians there get too uppity, and its casting of Evo Morales as the next Latin American matinee terrorist, after Chavez, is evidence that the old and vile boys on the Potomac are wondering what is up with Bush’s hardliners – too distracted by Iraq to manipulate a few Bolivian generals into whipping up a corrective massacre or two, it looks like.

Isaac Biggio’s analysis of the current events in Bolivia is well worth reading. He is particularly interested in the autonomy movement in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department – a department that is much wealthier than the Indian cities, like El Alto. After exploiting the Indians for four centuries and using the U.S. to siphon massive amounts from Latin America into the international financial market, Bolivia’s elite sees the possibility of failure looming – and is responding by making separatist noises that Biggio thinks could echo throughout Latin America, where more and more countries are deviating from the Dirty Dream.

‘The separatism of the rich regions could also have consequences well beyond Bolivia’s borders. In Ecuador, for example, the idea that the territories most inclined to free enterprise could separate themselves from the mountainous, hostile Indian zones could induce a piecemeal nationalism.”

So -- after the Bush failure to put a little trojan horse in the OAS to justify some further coup attempt in Venezuala, the talk about General Sanchez should send a signal to the Dirty Dream's benifiaries in Latin America -- don't worry, help is coming. If it requires tactics a little more extreme than Abu Ghraib -- the dirty war in Argentina, prompted in part by Kissinger, comes to mind -- so be it. Freedom lovin' is hard work.

PS – Some Bolivian blogs:

MAPP’s Bolivian blog leans towards the moderate. It is a good source of Bolivian news:

A more lefty view is presented on this blog.

The Narconews, as always, provides gringos with the best periscope to peer into the region. The story of the Gas War so far is presented here.

Barrio Flores is a thoughtful Bolivian American who asks good questions about the nationalization issue. Tourists of the revolution -- and this includes LI - would do well to ask some questions, too. It needs to be said: no LDC has yet discovered how to leverage a dominant primary product export into the foundation of growth economy and a just society. If nationalisation arrives in Bolivia as an instrument of justice, instead of as the best thought out plan for getting the best deal in the marketplace, it will fail to deliver.

the metaphysical roots of the Bush culture part 2

To take up the threads from our last post – Simmel writes about the benefits that arise from an apparent weakness of the tertium figure. The weakness is the inability to preserve the aura of sentiment around a idea. Nietzsche might well call this the leveling effect of the mediating figure – the ignobility that comes from the economic moment, the transformation of an idea into a unit of exchange, rather than an indescribable moment of power. The power, the “mana”, the Ur-generosity, is systematically sapped from the inspiration. It is disgraced – that is, it no longer is in the order of grace, but of reason; and by and by gives rise to a system of substitutes that refers, always, to some primitive leader or utterance. The inspiration is delegated, but not completely lost. Such delegative structures often generate myths of return – the return of Jesus Christ, the return of the literal Constitution, the return of pure socialism, the return of family values.

The third party becomes the image of objectivity through the paradoxical force of the indifference that undermines him as a partisan, a potential part of a dyad. Tertiary prestige depends on breaking the prisonhouse of the couple, the emotional bonds of contending parties, not by an act of violence but by an incapacity for the sentiment of violence. There is, of course, something very inhuman about that, insofar as humans consist of those fuzzy sets of the individuals and aggregated couples described within Simmel’s taxonomy. And when objectivity finds its spokesmen in human beings – as must necessarily be the case in this sublunar world – the latent feeling of repulsion accumulates until it gives birth to another feeling: suspicion that an agenda is being advanced under a mask; that the third party is a manipulator tracing a secret path to power. Such is Iago, such is Shylock.

Such, too, were the excisemen of England, or at least as Tom Paine saw them. In last spring’s Social Epistemology, William J. Ashworth poses a question: what cultural motives would lead to valuing objectivity? His partial answer is in his essay, “Practical Objectivity: The Excise, State, and Production in Eighteenth Century England.” It is a nice stab at giving us an unnoticed locus for the rise of objectivity as a value: the tax system. This is the kind of thing to give you Randians out there the fantods.

As Ashworth points out, the success of the English tax system was the primary condition for the success of English imperialism. Other systems in other empires – Spain, France – by privatizing the extractive institution of taxing, while retaining state prerogative over allocutive institutions, made themselves vulnerable in competition with a state that could successfully monopolize taxation (which is not quite Ashworth’s point, I should point out, but LI’s addendum.) And a state that could do the latter would have an incentive for tolerating or encouraging private enterprise.

So, how did taxing encourage objectivity?

“To assist in its attempt to define and levy the production of home produced goods, theexcise, in particular, turned to quantification, and a particular notion of accuracy thattried to advertise claims to objectivity and equity in its gauging activities.3 The constitution and stages of a taxed manufacture had to be defined and made clearly accessible to the excise method. As well as defining what ingredients manufactures could use, it also dictated what times they could begin production and what shape the site of manufacture should be.

As well as needing technical ability a prospective excise officer required patronage from someone of recognised social authority. Thereafter his career was, at least in theory, subject to merit. Training and a degree of worth rather than mere connection were novel features in eighteenth-century England. So too was the tool of anonymity. The excise officer was deliberately plucked from areas suitably distant from his round to ensure his face was unknown in his place of business. In other words, his relationship with the local community, at least to begin with, was not based on familiarity but on anonymity. To ensure this process was sustained, after a specified period the officer was duly removed to serve in another district. This is in contrast, for instance, to the collection of the land tax, which was collected by local respected figures. Thus, if, as Steve Shapin maintains, ‘Premodern society looked truth in the face’, it was the case at the excise that so-called truth was coming face to face with strict bookkeeping, internal checking, instrumentation and anonymity.”

Indeed, Ashworth’s account of the difficulties shaping the administration of the excise, and the incentives that drove it to greater accuracy and objectivity, display the logic Simmel discerned in the creation of the third party.

There is, firstly, weakness:

“To ease the volatile relationship between the producer and the excise required the development of new techniques of collection. The general unpopularity of the excise made it vulnerable, and this was perhaps one factor in its drive towards its particular bureaucratic structure and practices—in the words of Theodore Porter, ‘the drive to supplant personal judgement by quantitative rules reflects weakness and vulnerability’”

There is, then, the benefit that accrues from this vulnerability. The uniformity of a standard leads to “regularisation across the country,” leading to that odd seemingly contradictory social fact: a society that is both more strongly identified with the state and more individualistic. Ashworth gives some instances of accuracy in various manufactures – of paper, glass, and beer – that are expressed, in the exciseman’s regulating gaze, oddly like the description of manufactures in the Encyclopedie, Taxes give us an “objective” textbook of technology, and become an unwitting vehicle of technological selection.

Ashworth points out that the excise taxes were placed upon the masses, representing the “first time the masses had been seriously taxed, and, secondly, [demanding] a great deal of contact time at the source or target of the tax.” So accuracy and objectivity spread among the population who had, previously, associated the tertiary power with the ascetic.

The delusion inherent in the thought that civilization progresses is to think that different, early stages in the civilizing process are overcome. This is the Whig’s neurosis, or the liberal’s. Disciplining a population to accept and even value objectivity is hard work, and there is always a current of resentment that can break either to the right or to the left. What we see, in Bush culture meritocracy, is a compromise formation – expertise is guaranteed by position, not accuracy, or various modes of separating knowledge from performance, like the testing in the school system. And within different modules, success becomes a matter purely of persuasion – so that the unpersuaded are marked down not as people with, perhaps, a different take on facts, but people who impede the whole flow of the organization. Wreckers, in short. This penetrates even into the source of information, which becomes contentious. To get a certain piece of information from an unsanctioned source – to operate as though the third had its own will – is to defy the rules of the meritocracy, which then proceeds to either ignore or ridicule the bearer of that information.

LI has been thinking that the third figure, the third who is always with you, the resented tertium quid, has a myth. Remember Bellerophon? Bellerophon was a nice, handsome Greek noble who repelled the advances of the wife of the king. The wife went to the king and told him that Bellerophon had tried to rape her. [First instance of Simmel's third, the couple and the child]. The king, believing her but afraid of Belleropon, sent him on to the King of Lydia as an emissary, with a sealed letter. [Second instance -- the letter as the third's emotional disengagement] The letter read: kill the bearer of this letter. The king, reading the letter, decided to do away with Bellerophon by having him kill a monster ravishing the district, the Chimera. [Third instance -- the resentment of the couple, visited on the third, by way of a substitute for the couple]

Bellerophon is the image of the tertium quid. His indifference is his menace, and he carries his death sentence in a sealed envelope. But that sentence is infinitely differed, as his supposed weakness shows itself, in the end, to be latent power. After all, he did slay the Chimera.

In the Bush culture, the figures of objectivity are all being given secret death sentences -- except the death they are supposed to receive is a purely social death. A death of inattention, of never making it into the mainstream, of being extremists, of being labeled by the labelers as "not serious." We'll see who survives this struggle.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Metaphysical Roots of the Bush culture

An article by Joseph Nocera in the NYT profiles the very deserved fall of Morgan Stanley’s CEO, Philip Purcell, as a case study in the image deflation of the tough CEO. The first graf of the thing caught LI’s eye:

“BACK in the 1980's, Fortune published a feature called "America's Toughest Bosses." Donald H. Rumsfeld made the list one year (he was running G. D. Searle). So did legendarily crusty executives like Robert Crandall of American Airlines ("has a towering temper and swears a lot"), Frank Lorenzo of Texas Air ("not trusted inside or outside the organization") and Harry E. Figgie Jr., chairman of the manufacturer Figgie International ("really abusive - the Steinbrenner of industry").”

This mention of Rumsfeld got us thinking about the divorce between competence and success that is an often noted aspect of the Bush administration and can be extended to the whole Bush culture. By this, we mean the media, the official opposition, Wall Street, etc., -- the pseudo-meritocracy that has descended on this country like the star Wormwood falling upon the freshwater of the world.

The current contretemps around the Downing Street Memo(s) gives us a nice little snapshot of this historic moment. Here we have the great panjandrums of the print press – the Washington Post, the New York Times – who crafted the shoddiest of fictions leading up to and into the war (think, for instance, of the headline story about a captured Iraqi scientist significantly pointing to spots of sand – proof positive of a fiendish WMD program in the best tradition of Spiderman villains) – stirring in their dinosaur juices to denounce the very idea that there is anything newsworthy about the memos, or John Conyers attempt to get Congress to address them. The Michael Kinsley op ed piece in the Post last week was perhaps the nadir of this meme: a man who works for a newspaper that headlined the Michael Jackson acquittal as though Jesus had once again cast aside the cerements, in the midst of a news frenzy about a blonde kidnapped on the island of Aruba, in the season of the Runaway Bride, is suddenly making the distinction between the “popularity” of a story and the news proper. Just because people are interested in the Downing Street memo(s) – he mentions receiving hundreds of emails per day about them – is no reason that the LA Times should stoop to reporting about them. Heavens! The news media has standards way too elevated to pick news stories on the basis of popularity alone. And now, this just in about Tom Cruise...

And so the NYT retains Judith Miller. And the Bush administration retains every official who predicted that the war would be a cakewalk, that the oil would pay for it, that the number of troops occupying the country was immaterial, etc. It punishes every official who made correct predictions – from the Generals who told the truth about the manpower cost of the occupation to the poor putz who tried to tell Congress that Bush’s drug pill industry welfare bill would cost one hundred billion more than the Administration said it would. And so the internal standard that would make certain failures punishable is broken. But at the same time, the exterior face of the administration is of maximal toughness. These are the elite. These are the ones who’ve passed the tests of the meritocracy.

Looking at the description of Morgan Stanley under Purcell, these are the features that stare out at one:

1.The insistence on loyalty.
2.The unscrupulous dealing with any perceived enemy.
3.The gradual corruption of all monitoring functions.
4.The gradual reduction of co-ordination to conspiracy.
5.The outstanding and persistent failure of the tough guy leadership to meet the minimal metrics of objective success, as measured by the market place.

Thinking about this, we turned to Georg Simmel’s notion of the triad.

Simmel was fascinated by secrets, by the slippage between coordinating activity and conspiracy, by the positive alienation effected by money. He divides the investigation of socialization into three areas: the individual, the aggregation of individuals (the group), and the conflict that may occur on both levels – individual against individual, group against group.

To our eyes, this may look like an imitation of Boltzmann’s statistical mechanics (the pop science ideas of thermodynamics were in circulation in Simmel’s day, and turn up diversely in Freud and in Henry Adams, as well – and I could no doubt extend that list). However, Simmel’s notion of the dyad and the triad has been undergoing something of a rediscovery in social network theory for the past ten years or so. We are going to translate a bit about the triad, and then, in our next post, delve a bit into the roots of the social resentment of objectivity, or the notion of the Judge-enemy.

The passage from Simmel comes after he gives examples of triads and their sometimes unexpected effects – for instance, the triad formed by the child and the parents. He then points to the disputes between laborers and capital in England are often settled before a non-partisan board:

“When the non-partisan holds up the claims and the reason of the one party before the other, they lose the tone of subjective passion that they usually draw out from the other side.

Here we see something function in a healthy way that is so often considered to be suspect: that a mental content [seelischen Inhalt]’s air of feeling within its primary bearer, usually weakens significantly within a second bearer to whom this content is transferred.
Thus sensations and arguments, that must first transit through many mediating person, are so often without effect, even if their objective content arrives wholly undistorted in the decisive instance; for there is, in the transference, a loss of emotional imponderabilia, which not only fill out insufficient material reasons, but even endow sufficient ones with the drive to practical realization.

This highly significant fact, at least for the development of purely mental influences, brings it about, in the simple case of a socially mediating third element, that the feeling-intonations that accompany some demand fall away from the content, suddenly, and just because it is being formulated by a third party and represented to another; and so the vicious circle can be avoided as the affair becomes intelligible to all: that circle which occurs when the emotional emphasis of the one calls out emotional emphasis in the other, which then reacts again on the first one, and so on, until there is no more limit.”

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...