Saturday, March 05, 2022

Different kinds of crazy: the centrist version of history


The center-liberal view of resistance to vaccines in the pandemic has rested on what it thinks is a rational view of history: the government is basically looking out for the people and rarely ever lies or misleads in its larger policies. I found a perfect expression of this in, where else, the NYT, in the “ethicist” column. In that column, some clueless type asks a question and the ethicist answers it. The question this time is one of inheritance – which perks up the ears of the country club set that runs the nyt – with the questioner thinking of disinheriting his daughters who have become rightwing anti-vaxxers. In response, the ethicist fabulates a response beginning like this:

“Back in the late 1960s, when the “generation gap” gained currency, many families were divided over political questions, involving the Vietnam War, women’s rights, racial justice. Facts were relevant to these disputes, but at the heart of the matter were moral questions — e.g., When is a war just? Should social roles be assigned to people on the basis of sex?

This is as fictious a view of the 1960s as anything woven out of thin air by the maddest Trumpite. By “elevating” the notion of “moral questions” over the “relevance” of fact questions, we just wipe away a whole dirty record of lies that actually happened in the sixties, lies told by the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, lies that led to what, at that point in time, was known as the “credibility gap” – a gingerly country club name for lying, which is the shall not be named of the U.S. establishment press – beginning with the faked Gulf of Tonkin incident, including the secret war in Laos and in Cambodia, fed by multitudinous lies about the conduct and prospects of the war that were standard issue of what reporters then called the “five o’clock follies”, and of course ending, domestically (in a domestic scene where the FBI was engaging in a death squadish project called COINTELPRO while the CIA was engaging in systematic illegal activities called, among other things, Operation Chaos) with Watergate.

It is a fact that rightwing politicians are trying to rewrite or forget the racist history of the U.S. by attacking critical race theory in schools – and it is also a fact that centrist-liberals are engaged in rewriting a history of the U.S. government that assigns doubts about the veracity of the government, the press, or the establishment in general to the precincts of the conspiracy theory set. In other words, both sides work very hard to distort U.S. history. The facts, for instance, about CIA links to narco-rich warlords in Laos are wished aside in the nice pink picture the ethicist has of the sixties. The fact that the government, at many levels, poisoned and drugged black men – for instance, in the MKUltra experiments with LSD supervised by Harris Isabel in Lexington, Kentucky – just isn’t in the picture. Nor are the literally hundreds of thousands of cancers caused by fallout from atom bomb tests that were performed by the government in the 1950s and sixties, the effect of which was strenuously denied by the relevant government agency, the AEC, while secretly AEC scientists were sounding the alarm about the effects of the fallout. Etc. While the NYT has cheerfully forgotten this history, popular culture has not. Just watch, say, Stranger Things, a popular show among teens, and you will have a more accurate view of the US government’s view of what one AEC document called the “low use” population than you will get from the collected ten year’s worth of the ethicist.

The struggle between fantasy histories of the U.S. is where we are at. You don’t have to chose one or the other.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

the decline of the laugh


Jean Fourastié was one of the architects, in France, of the thirty glorious years of the postwar economy. He had reformed, or advised on the reformation of the French social insurance system in the thirties, and after the war he wrote optimistic books about the new world opened up by the consumer phase of capitalism. His predictions about the rising level of lifestyle seemed to be on target in the fifties and sixties, but somehow, Fourastié fell off the optimist wagon as he observed what consumerism had wrought – not a leisured and cultured working class in tandem with a leisured and cultured administrative class, but a mad rush towards disposable products and lifestyles that, in his view, had lost sight of, or even jettisoned, the volupté of satisfaction for the addictions to second degree wants that were manufactured by a new class of capitalist. The large mark of that turn was everywhere – in the environment, in the cultural impoverishment of non-urban areas, in the way in which busyness had infected all lives with addictions to perpetual scratching, as it were. The society of consumption turned out to be a society addicted to the itch.  As Regis Bolat puts it in his essay on Fourastié ‘s pre-1968 turn (one similar to Galbraith’s in the late fifties):

Fourastié thus painted a portrait of a “new homo economicus” of whom the essential trait is avidity. He saw in the indefinite growth of human needs what gave French society its preponderant characteristics and strongly conditioned the society of tomorrow. All research on consumption that took place in progressive countries seems to confirm this indefinite growth. Needs grow once the level of life is elevated: “no limit, no lassitude of the appetite of consumption, is what is always revealed by the statistics, whatever the amount of revenue expended.” In other words, Fourastié discovered that there was no internal limit within consumption, no horizon of satisfaction that allows the consumer, in a society in which consumables are subject to radical and rapid change and extension, to stop.

This is the background to Fourastié’s essay on the decline of laughter – or the laugh, le rire – in 20th century ordinary life, Reflection sur le rire. Or, to put this in today’s terms, the decline of laughing out loud to LOL – an acronym that usually signals not laughing out loud, but pretend laughing out loud. Fourastié refers to Bergson’s treatise on the laugh as the classic work on the subject, but one that curiously neglects the psychological need to laugh. Being an economist, Fourastié is interested less in the individual’s psychology that the psychology of the collective. Whether or not the decline of the laugh really tracks the decline of “gaiety” in the street or the decline of laughing in the life of a man, Fourastié, who was approaching old age, his larger point about the utility, so to speak, of the laugh is worthy of his title.

Fourastié frames the laugh as a form of thought – or a form of thinking. “In fact, because laughter is a pheminon of joy and pleasure, the mechanism of the laugh engenders participaton in conceptual thought of instinctive forces.” This function is related to a more general notion of what is funny: “Every funny object presunts a “rupture of determinism”, a failure, a mini-conflect of sense and non-sense that the laugher must resolve by himself if he wants to laugh.” Laughter, in this view, or the object of the laugh, is a koan.

Fourastié was not the man to look at the intersectional victimage of the collective laugh – its policing of hierarchies.  But he is, I think, on target that laughter also addresses failure – a break in the logic of hierarchy.

I myself think that the gaiety of the Paris street has not really dimmed, although every account of the countryside and the far suburbs shows that this gaiety has turned sour.

Once, when I was a newfledged graduate student in the philosophy department at U.T., I had an experience of the laugh as omen. I was attending a class on Kant’s ethics. And the professor, a sweet man and one immersed in the atmosphere of anglo American philosophy at that time – analytic – mused one day that surveys didn’t seem to bear Kant out: people seemed less inclined to do things out of duty than to seek being happy. This way of putting things, which made it seem, suddenly, that normal people were outside of our circle, made me laugh. Except I couldn’t, since I was in the class and nobody else was laughing. This built my laugh up. The more I thought about it, the more absurd seemed the whole thing, and the class, and perhaps my being in philosophy itself. Whether I asked to excuse myself or we had a break, I don’t know. I simply remember walking up and down the hall in the building doubled over with laughter. Laughter is a power – it can seize a person. And especially a character such as myself, who have long been undermined in my efforts to be a serious person by a strong sense of absurdity.

I guess that laughter told me all I really needed to know about the unlikelihood, in my case, of an academic life.


Tuesday, March 01, 2022

War and loot

 I wrote this piece under Bad King Bush and his occupation of Iraq. I think it is ever so relevant now.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, William Hazlitt produced a polemic in his highest style that presented the classical liberal way of looking at war in an essay entitled “War and Taxes”. He begins with the distinction between productive and unproductive labor, and proceeds to show that war falls under the latter category. However, even if a project is unproductive, it must be paid for somehow. It has a cost:

“If the sovereign of a country were to employ the whole population in doing nothing but throwing stones into the sea, he would soon become the king of a desert island. If a sovereign exhausts the wealth and strength of a country in war, he will end in being a king of slaves and beggars. The national debt is just the measure, the check-acount of the labour and resources of the country which have been so wasted – of the stones we have been throwing into the sea. This debt is in fact an obligation entered into by the government on the part of the tax-payers, to indemnify the tax-receivers for their sacrifices in enabling the government to carry on the war. It is a power of attorney, extorted from nine-tenths of the community, making over to the remaining tenth an unlimited command over the resources, the comforts, the labour, the happiness and liberty of the great mass of society, by which their resources, their comforts, their labour, their happiness and their liberty, have been lost, and made away with in government knick-knacks, and the kick-shaws of legitimacy.”

This is a vivid and captivating idea. LI has often plugged into the notion that war is paid for by the loss of liberty.

The question is: is it a true idea? Does it really describe modern war?

Hazlitt wrote this in 1816. This is what had happened over the past two decades: France, after overthrowing the monarchy, had borrowed money to pursue its wars by liquidating the estates of the church and the nobility and divvying them up as paper. These assignats have a complicated history – in fact, the spider web of loans consolidated into mandats, which were divided between those to which the nation pledged its sacred purpose to redeem and those that were, in fact, left unredeemed – in other words, a form of bankruptcy – plunged European markets into chaos and has plunged every succeeding generation of economic historians, seeking to understand the system, into chaos too. Suffice it to say that the interest on the loans to the French created pressure on the English, so that Pitt was forced to suspend the gold standard, and designed a great system for floating loans to conduct the war – conduct which involved, among other things, financially supporting the opponents of France, Austria and Prussia. By 1815, the National Debt seemed overwhelming.

To the average textile worker or artisan, the English economy must have looked hopeless in 1816. Add to that, in Hazlitt's case, the extinction of his hopes for liberty. Hazlitt supposedly wandered around in a daze after Waterloo. He could not get over the return of the Bourbons, the repression of liberty, and the seeming return of the revolutionary energies unlocked by 1793 to the dungeon of history. On all of these counts, he was... well, not utterly wrong, but definitely not right in foreseeing the apocalypse. Britain was about to expand as never before. To see why, one has to put the British system of financing the great wars against France in an even larger context – that of the British system that had brought England not only back into European history since 1688, but that made England – a relative non-entity in terms of world power in 1688 – the greatest world power a mere century later. The rise of Britain is a mystery shrouded in the complacent assumptions we bring to the idea that the British empire was some kind of eternal thing, or that the British were a well respected European power. They were respected mainly for their pirates until the Stuarts, a subsidy of Louis XIV, were chased out. How did they become such an event?

Lawrence Stone, in “An Imperial State at War; Britain from 1689 to 1815” puts the issues into a liberal political form that Hazlitt would have appreciated:

“It is only very recently that historians have begun to study this paradox of, on the one hand, the use of massive external military empire to block a rival hegemonic power and to create a maritime trading power and, on the other, the preservation of internal liberty and the rights of private property – a rare combination only paralleled by Periclean Athens and America from 1941 to the present day. Judith Sklar described 18th century Britain as ‘a commercial, extensive, non-military, democracy disguised as a monarchy.” This is largely, but not entirely, correct.” Stone points out that the non-military part disguised the use of mercenaries – he doesn’t correct the democracy part, which is obviously insane. And he writes: It is also true, however, that British politics and society were bound to be deeply affected by a prolonged war with France. In order to win, the ruling elite were prepared to spend immense amounts of treasure and also torun up the national debt on a scale comparable only to the activities of the Reagan-Bush administrations in the United States.” The comparison in that last sentence is severely understated. The U.S. during the Reagan-Bush years contained a manufacturing stock undreamt of in the 18th century, as well as a wholly transformed sector of human capital that is hard to compare to a society in which bare literacy was the norm.

Hazlitt and in some way Stone speak of war, then, purely in terms of a cost – a waste. The accursed portion, the sacrifice, to use the more elevated rhetoric of Bataille. In this way of thinking, the older notion of war – war as looting – is left behind. The looting system is divorced from the new system of paying for war – which was the genius of the British system. From 1688 – the year that James II was deposed – onward, the British instituted a two tier system for paying for war – short term loans that would be repaid by long term loans. In this way, the British were able to get past the limits traditionally imposed by direct payment for war. Instead, the British steadily cultivated a national debt that was composed almost entirely of old loans, consolidated into long term ones, for an endless series of wars. But loans aren’t merely negative things – if they were, nobody would loan, and there would be no bond market. Rather, by producing a lively bond market, the English spread the debt for their wars around. To do this, the state had to perform a one/two step – on the one hand, centralizing organization enough to manage wars, and on the other hand, decentralizing finance to the extent of divvying its debts up among the upper bourgeoisie. Thus, when France, with its autocratic model of government and its dysfunctional parliamentary system, suffered untold misery trying to pay for its part in this series of wars, the British, whose debt to GDP ration was on some accounts worse than France, flourished.

Loot had not been forsaken as a motive to war. On the contrary, by 1794, the British were in possession of India and bleeding it for all it was worth. But the art of looting had gone up to another level.

The system wasn't, of course, flawless. Even the most beautiful system of finance does face the fact that payment must be made on debt. Here is another area in which war can have an unexpectedly blessed result. One of the takers on the British bonds was the Dutch, which had the most developed financial infrastructure on the Continent. What it did not have was a large army. When, in the 1790s, the French threatened Holland, the Dutch naturally turned to the British. Eventually the French occupied Holland, with the Dutch banks fleeing before them and relocating in London. By 1815 London had displaced Amsterdam as the world center of banking.

All of which is a way of saying that the distinction Hazlitt makes, the distinction that is still made, between productive and unproductive labour, is a much softer distinction – and is sometimes no distinction at all – than Hazlitt, and after him a whole liberal tradition, would like to be the case. As the Cambridge Economic History of Europe puts it, nicely: “Already in the eighteenth, more strongly in the nineteenth century, there existed among the British population a wealthy section capable and willing to invest part of its income in state bonds. Between 1761 and 1820, about 305 per cent of British public expenditure was financed from this source; between 1689 and 1820 the proportion did not fall as low as 29.5 per cent. This section of the population derived from these loans an income in the form of annual interest which grew to a substantial independent source of incomes within the total economy. Interest due to the wealthier section of the population was defrayed via the budget mainly from revenues derived from indirect taxes, paid overwhelmingly by sections of the population in receipt of lower incomes.”

The new system of financing war produced a whole new system of looting. The wealthy, in the anglosphere, have never forgotten this lesson. Those in “receipt of lower incomes” have never, ever learned it. And the liberals pretend, by and large, that it never happened.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

From Herzen to Lenin and beyond: national self-determination (or how to think about Ukraine)


In 1914, there was a dispute between Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin about the proper revolutionary view of the right to self-determination. Luxemburg dismissed the aspiration for independent statehood as a mask or strategy for maintaining bourgeois domination against the working class. She deduced from this that nothing was gained if, for instance, Poland became independent of Russia and regained its autonomy. Nationalism, for Luxemburg, was a trap and a bauble.

Looking back, Luxemburg’s position must have arisen not just because of her theoretical take on internationalism as the necessary precedent of a communist revolution, but also because of her experience in a Germany that had only recently unified and that was filled with an excessive nationalism, an emotional attachment to German power (as embodied in the military) that was dangerous and antithetical to the Socialist Democracy ideal.

Lenin, on the other hand, had a strong sense of Russia’s imperialist role in subordinating the regions by violence. When we read, say, Tolstoy’s Hajid Murad now, we don’t think of the ethnic cleansing of the Caucasus that was the basis of the wars and raids Tolstoy was writing about. But that ethnic cleansing was the preferred strategy of the Czarist state. Lenin was not shy about following a progressive line that had gotten Herzen in trouble: opposition to Great Russian nationalism, and support for a commonwealth of nations in the Russian sphere. The Polish rebellion of 1863 had sparked an ultranationalist reaction in Russia and a closing down not only of progressive dissent, but – surprisingly – dissent even from Dostoevsky’s journals, Vremia, which was closed down by the Czar. Herzen wrote:

“The situation of poor Poland is painful, but it will not perish. Europe is too divided in this moment and it is on this disaccord in general that Petersburg grounds all its hopes. However, the Polish question is already pushed so far that for the European powers is it as dangerous to do nothing for it as it is difficult to come to Poland’s aid. I think that after the second refusal [to desist] by the Saint-Petersburg chancellory, France, England and Austria will recognize Poland as a “belligerent party”. I hope Poland can last out this winter with the aid of arms and other aid which will openly arrive to them from Galicia.”

This is the background for Lenin’s great defence of a justified nationalism in the context of a militant worker’s internationalism.  You can read all about it in the thicket of Lenin’s collected works, volume 20 – which can be found in any well stocked used book store in Europe, where the fall of the Berlin Wall caused a great wave of book trades from former leftists: the collected works of Mao, of Enver Hoxa, of Stalin, of Lenin, of even our heroes Marx and Engels, all in dull colors, coffins of past revolutions.

The heart of Lenin’s notion of the nation-state is found in the polemic with Rosenburg entitled “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, written in 1914 before the fatal August.


In the leaps which all nations have made in the period

of bourgeois revolutions, clashes and struggles over the

right to a national state are possible and probable. We

proletarians declare in advance that we are opposed to Great-

Russian privileges, and this is what guides our entire propaganda

and agitation.

In her quest for “practicality” Rosa Luxemburg has lost

sight of the principal practical task both of the Great-Russian

proletariat and of the proletariat of other nationalities:

that of day-by-day agitation and propaganda against all

state and national privileges, and for the right, the equal

right of all nations, to their national state. This (at present)

is our principal task in the national question, for only in

this way can we defend the interests of democracy and

the alliance of all proletarians of all nations on an equal


Lenin is no philosopher, but here his notion of dialectic serves him well, helping him avoid the idea that internationalism and the national question are on opposite sides. In the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the emergence of Great-Russian nationalism – first under Yeltsin in Chechnya, then under Putin in all the guises of aggression he has promoted – is solidly anti-Leninist. In fact, it seems that Putin’s aggrieved sense of Great Russian history puts Lenin in the devil’s role, once again – a version of history that should be familiar to the American intelligence services and State Department, since they hired beaucoup anti-communists to broadcast just that message via Radio Free Europe for about forty years.

Lenin consistently supported the principle of secession. And he did so particularly for regions like Ukraine:

The position of the “bureaucracy” (we beg pardon for

this inaccurate term) and of the feudal landlords of our

united-nobility type is well known. They definitely reject

both the equality of nationalities and the right to selfdetermination.

Theirs is the old motto of the days of serfdom:

autocracy, orthodoxy, and the national essence—the

last term applying only to the Great-Russian nation. Even

the Ukrainians are declared to be an “alien” people and

their very language is being suppressed.

For “bureaucracy” here one can substitute secret police or simply police. Putin is, above all else, the product of a subculture of policing. His version of history is the narrow Russian  cops version of history – and, given the variables, an almost universal cop view of history. From the president of Russia to the mayor of New York City, the variables are filled in by different objects, but the system is the same. In 1919, fighting for the principle of self-determination against Bolshevist cirtics, Lenin put this cop view more pithily: “Scratch any communist…and you find a Great Russian Chauvinist. He sits in many of us and we must fight him.”

The Cold War slant on Lenin’s dialectical position was that it was all a trick. Underneath that groovyness about self-determination was the ruthless Machievellian accruing Soviet, ie Great Russian power. And indeed, Lenin’s successors did manage their program in that way. Still, the strain from Herzen to Lenin never died on the Left. Until, of course, the Left itself died and was buried in the Universities of the world.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...