Philip Yaure's Guest post was the last Impression of the year. Once again I want to thank all my readers for their continued interest in these Digressions. I wish you all a wonderful 2017! D&I returns early in January.--ES
Academic observers, exposed to a perspective that rejects any notion of transcendent truth and celebrates diversity, tend to see the phenomenon as a form of ‘postmodernism.’ Most activists who are not themselves academics dislike such terms—if only because it seems silly to attach an ideological label to an anti-ideological attitude. They are more likely to see what they are doing as returning to principles of simple decency and common sense—of returning, if one must use the term, to a world in which much of what we refer to as ‘modernity’ never happened. (Graeber, Direct Action, 329-330)
In his first post on Graeber’s Debt, Schliesser notes that Graeber has “maddeningly” little to say about the sense of justice which he (Graeber) take as fundamentally invariant across communities. This sense of justice seems to ground what Schliesser labels Graeber’s “anti-theoretical situationism” alternative to modern moral philosophy:+ even in the absence of a balance-sheet, our sense of justice can guide us in matters of moral and political urgency as those matters present themselves to us.
A comparison with Graeber’s picture of anarchist (consensus) political practice in Direct Action: An Ethnography might be instructive here.* Indeed, one might think that Graeber’s critique of modern moral philosophy is driven by his commitment to this form of political practice, insofar as the shape of a ‘situationist’ moral philosophy grounded in our (fundamentally invariant) sense of justice replicates the shape of a political practice grounded in, and aimed at the recovery of, moral common sense.
Graeber takes anarchism to be centrally “an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice,” rather than “a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy”—its is “a moral project” (211). Participants in this discourse “did not really see themselves as creating some great new theory. They were more likely to see themselves as giving a name and voice to a certain kind of insurgent common sense, one they assumed to be as old as history” (213). ‘Insurgent common sense,’ like ‘a sense of justice,’ seems to gesture to something that (1) persists across time, communities, and historical conditions, but (2) is something that one can fail to consult in spite of its presence.
That this common sense is insurgent sets up our estranged engagement with it as a matter of recovery, or, as Graeber puts it in the passage above, “of returning principles of simple decency.” Here, I think, the salient contrast with recovery is discovery. What one discovers need not have been previously accessible, and in discovery one acquires “knowledge-about.” Drawing on John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, Graeber contrasts ‘knowledge-about’ acquired through discovery with “knowledge immanent in practice:” whereas the former provides an inquirer with “power-over” the subject of inquiry, the latter yields “power-to” go on in a certain way (say, in ways in which reflect basic principles of decency and reciprocity).
Consensus politics, for Graeber, is a means by which people can recover insurgent common sense through the cultivation of powers of decency and reciprocity. Consensus offers this possibility because it “is an approach that replaces ideology, ‘knowledge-about,’ with forms of knowledge immanent in practice… its practice is its ideology” (328, emphasis his). You needn’t have deep sympathy for the concrete procedures of consensus politics to take this point on. For purposes of comparison with ‘anti-theoretical situationism,’ what is important here is that one acquires the sense of justice/insurgent common sense, on which the alternative to modern moral philosophy depends, through participation in practices which themselves embody fundamental invariances of moral life.** The work that ‘consensus politics’ does for Graeber here is not in reliably getting us to the right resolution (‘Condemn the IMF!’), but in the restoration of relations of decency between participants in a particular political space:
“Large areas are always left moot, i.e., is the main problem capitalism, or lack of democracy?.... If you ask one of the [Direct Action Network] core group what kind of economic institutions they envision for a future society, they are likely to tell you that’s not for them to decide: they’re trying to create the democratic institutions which will allow people to figure out such questions for themselves. Even when it comes to anarchism—while most participants seem to be anarchists, there are a smattering of Marxists, liberal reformists, even NGO types. None of this is considered a problem, as far as I can make out, unless they seem to be speaking not for themselves but for an organization. The slogan might be ‘as long as you’re willing to act like an anarchist in the present, your long-term vision is pretty much up to you.’” (330).
One may think that other forms of political practice can more reliably restore relations of decency—that there isn’t an obvious connection between consensus and decency. But Graeber doesn’t seem to think that consensus politics offers the ‘obvious’ (or necessary) procedure for restoring these relations; Graeber seems to think that this is a procedure that does in fact, at least on occasion, work. Surely the natural response is to ask where consensus politics seem to successfully restore relations of decency (or not) and why. But it might seem suspicious to ask for explanations that take on the cast of ‘theory’ rather than ‘know-how’ of a politics that takes ‘practice’ as its ideology. Manuals for facilitators in assemblies are not of the same genre as tracts of social theory— it is apparent that there are substantial (admittedly, this philosopher is tempted to say ‘theoretical’) commitments in emphasizing the primacy of the former. Or, to return to anthropology’s role in all this, consider Graber’s remarks on ethnography in this connection:i
"If anarchism is not an attempt to put a certain sort of theoretical vision into practice, but is instead a constant mutual exchange between inspirational visions, anti-authoritarian attitudes, and egalitarian practices, it’s easy to see how ethnography could become such an appropriate tool for its analysis. This is precisely what ethnography is supposed to do: tease out the implicit logic in a way of life, along with its related myths and rituals, to grasp the sense of a set of practices." (221-22)
Graeber’s picture of anarchist politics seems to suggest that one way of pursuing the radical break with “incoherent and self-contradictory” standards, while addressing (if not necessarily decisively) worries of falling into something worse than moral incoherence, is through a political & ethical orientation that privileges cultivation of our insurgent sense of justice. While this orientation diverges from the shape of modern moral philosophy, it might be taken as an orientation “to be found within modern moral philosophy,” insofar as our sense of justice has been, to this point, cultivated through practices themselves shaped by modern moral philosophy. (While our sense of justice persists across various dimensions, it doesn’t follow that it is unmalleable.)
It seems to me that this agreement between equals to no longer be equal (at least for a time) is critically important. It is the very essence of what we call "debt."…
Debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of being, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality — but for whom there is some way to set matters straight….
During the time that the debt remains unpaid, the logic of hierarchy takes hold. There is no reciprocity. As anyone who has ever been in jail knows, the first thing the jailors communicate is that nothing that happens in jail has anything to do with justice. Similarly, debtor and creditor confront each other like a peasant before a feudal lord. The law of precedent takes hold. If you bring your creditor tomatoes from the garden, it never occurs to you that he would give something back. He might expect you to do it again, though. But always there is the assumption that the situation is somewhat unnatural, because the debt really ought to be paid….
This is what makes situations of effectively unpayable debt so difficult and so painful. Since creditor and debtor are ultimately equals, if the debtor cannot do what it takes to restore herself to equality, there is obviously something wrong with her; it must be her fault.…
A debt, then, is just an exchange that has not been brought to completion. David Graeber Debt: The First 5000 years, pp. 120-1. [This is the third post on Graeber's Debt; recall here and here.]
According to David Graeber, debt is inter alia a cause of hierarchy. In particular, debt generates (further) hierarchy among those that are (at least tacitly) recognized as equals in some formal sense. For, according to Graeber those that are not even potentially equal cannot be indebted to each other; this is why slaves, animals, and children cannot (legally) be supplied with credit.
Of course, this equality is merely formal. For, in conditions of general equality the very institution of debt -- not unlike the institution of property -- would not arise. Some material difference is required to generate debt in the first place: the would-be-creditor is in some financial sense superior to the would-be-debtor. So, the institution of debt presupposes considerable formal equality alongside some non-trivial material inequality.
According to Graeber debt makes those formerly recognized as equal de facto unequal (at least for the duration of the debt). For the debtor owes the creditor. Here we leave aside the nature of this obligation (is it properly moral, merely legal, or something else altogether?) The de facto superiority of the creditor is also revealed in the fact that she can decide to forgive the debt, or not.
As an aside, in his logic (not in his history, however) Graeber tends to ignore cases where unpaid debts ruin the creditor. There is an old capitalist joke (attributed to J. M. Keynes, but worth reviving in the age of Donald Trump) Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed. [Obviously, the joke needs to be adjusted to inflation.] But that's because on the whole Graeber assumes+ that debts are backed up by the threat of violence that can force repayment.
It is central to Graeber's argument that the very idea of a debt presupposes that it can, in principle, be repaid in some form or another (sometimes in kind, or by a life, a symbol, etc.)--and so equality can be restored. We may say, then, that in Graeber's analysis it is the foreseeable consequence of the institution of debt that it generates further, temporary hierarchy among those that are recognized as equals in some formal sense while aiming at returning to considerable equality.
In fact, given the necessary logic of compound interest, it is a foreseeable consequence of much debt that while debt formally aims at a return to equality, it can be expected that the hierarchy -- which is intended to be merely temporary -- only gets further entrenched and, thereby, eventually undermine even formal equality because the indebted are reduced to real slavery, imprisoned, or deemed the unworthy. This much is all in Graeber.
From a modal (economics) perspective, we can say, then, that [A] debt takes us from worlds in which equality is presupposed and at least thought possible in the future, to worlds in which equality becomes thought impossible. In this new world, relations are not governed by formal reciprocity, but by precedent that is inscribed in some kind of institutional memory (the law, custom, etc.).* So, Graeber's analysis of debt is a kind of foreseeable, unintended consequence explanation. It is unintended in the sense that the the very intelligibility of the institution of debt presupposes aiming at some form of equality (that's the would-be-repayment part).** The outcome is foreseeable because Graeber models his agents -- and this is the main virtue of his theorizing -- as not deceived about this; they understand their own world-all-too-well.
It would be sufficient to stop here (in order to re-think Liberalism). But it is worth noting that for Graeber [A] is inherently unstable in its modern, capitalist form. It is not unstable because hierarchy is intrinsically unstable. (Graeber analyzes hierarchical societies and finds them remarkably stable over very long periods.) Rather, it is unstable because the moment one thinks and acts that [A] is an eternal, stable equilibrium, that is one thinks it "really will be around forever, everything goes haywire." (p. 358) That is, as long as the agents that inhabit [A] consider it fragile, [A]=[A]. But the moment that the agents that inhabit [A] endorse [A] as occurred during, say, 'the great moderation,' it becomes self-undermining (that is, [A]-->[-A]). That is to say, for [A] to work, it may not be perceived to be true, or, a ruling ideology.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
--President Obama, Inaugural Address, 20 Janaury 2009.
President Obama succeeded in two out of three key, instrumental aims of any American President: to win power and to get re-elected. He failed at the non-trivial third aim: to pass on or leave power to a candidate friendly to his policies. (There should be a Machiavelli quote to support the general thought avant la lettre, but I can't remember it.) The proximate cause of this failure is due to his strange willingness to emulate his predecessor, President Bush (43), and run and stick with a Vice-President who, regardless of his other merits, could not for all intents and purposes succeed him. This strategic failure is surprising because President Obama has been interpreted as especially strong on thinking through the long game (see, for example, Andrew Sullivan). While the first law of politics is that nothing lasts, it is also true that some stuff can last longer than others. For, whatever President Obama hoped to achieve in the medium-to-long-run requires institutions, norms, and people to protect and develop his legacy.
My suspicion is that President Obama failed to recognize the challenge, when he was still in the position to do something about it, because of his own commitment to a progressive understanding of history. This commitment is expressed in his 2012 political slogan (forward), his defense of Hillary Clinton ("progress is on the ballot"),* and, especially, in his inaugural address (quoted above). For, while Obama explicitly recognizes that our collective "destiny" is "uncertain," he is committed to the idea that truthful values and duties, which he claims are "the quiet force of progress," have as an expected by-product success.
His mistake here is that these values (honesty, hard work, courage, fair play, tolerance, curiosity, loyalty, and patriotism) only reliably and regularly produce success worth having in the context of reasonably well-functioning institutions, including the institution of justice. In other contexts these may well be foolish or promote, say, fanatical ends.** But if you think that such success is a to-be-expected reward and reliable by-product of the energetic and dutiful exercise of these 'truthful' values, you are likely to fail to recognize that their outcome may also be dependent on, let's say, more hidden forces, less noble values, or even luck.
Perhaps, the previous paragraph is wrong. Perhaps, Obama's failure was just a matter of inexperience. But what is manifest is that the moment Hillary Clinton was nominated it was clear the final destiny of his Presidency was out of his hands. (That's, of course, compatible with the thought that a victory by her would have been better for the survival of his projects.) For all their shared policy-ends, she represents different would-be symbolic achievements and, more importantly, a return to Wall Street's preeminence in politics that voters had rejected in his initial victory. And this gets me to his second failure: Obama understood himself, I think, as the person who could provide "a watchful eye" to Wall Street, and ensure "the market" would not "spin out of control;" that he could protect citizens from Wall Street and ensure that Wall Street would continue to flourish. For all I know this is a winning economic formula and generates both jobs and donations from Wall Street; but it's not a winning political formula among a population that is asked to sacrifice while the bankers are bailed out and left to keep their bonuses.
The final failure is Obama's disastrous foreign policy. In his efforts not to repeat the blunders of his predecessor, who had a fondness for grotesque wars of choice, Obama ended up potentially fatally undermining Pax Americana, squandering the Arab Spring (and facilitating a return to dictatorship in Egypt) and being witness to murderous campaigns by our nominal allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia in Yemen) as well as fuelling a brutal civil war (Syria) for no political gain and at great human cost. Meanwhile, NATO is close to imploding and a would-be-ally, Ukraine, was dismembered. After eight years, Obama is party to the remarkable fact that Putin's Russia -- an aging country with an economy the size of the Netherlands, but willing to step into the vacuum Obama permitted -- is seen as a great power able to shape the destiny of the world.
While it is true that military "power alone cannot protect us," and that "security" can emanate "from the justness of our cause," as Obama said in his first Inaugural, he was profoundly mistaken to think that a stance informed by "humility and restraint" would secure America's interest in the world and, thereby, its protection of those in need in its hard-won empire. From the previous sentences it does not follow that America and the world needs selfish, brash and unrestrained arrogant leadership. But that's the theme of a different presidency.
In Athens, the result was extreme moral confusion. The language of money, debt, and finance provided powerful — and ultimately irresistible — ways to think about moral problems. Much as in Vedic India, people started talking about life as a debt to the gods, of obligations as debts, about literal debts of honor, of debt as sin and of vengeance as debt collection. Yet if debt was morality — and certainly at the very least it was in the interest of creditors, who often had little legal recourse to compel debtors to pay up, to insist that it was — what was one to make of the fact that money, that very thing that seemed capable of turning morality into an exact and quantifiable science, also seemed to encourage the very worst sorts of behavior?
It is from such dilemmas that modern ethics and moral philosophy begin. I think this is true quite literally. Consider Plato's Republic, another product of fourth-century Athens. The book begins when Socrates visits an old friend, a wealthy arms manufacturer, at the port of Piraeus. They get into a discussion of justice, which begins when the old man proposes that money cannot be a bad thing, since it allows those who have it to be just, and that justice consists in two things: telling the truth, and always paying one's debts. The proposal is easily demolished. What, Socrates asks, if someone lent you his sword, went violently insane, and then asked for it back (presumably, so he could kill someone)? Clearly it can never be right to arm a lunatic...
As we all know, Socrates eventually gets around to offering some political proposals of his own, involving philosopher kings; the abolition of marriage, the family, and private property; selective human breeding boards. (Clearly, the book was meant to annoy its readers, and for more than two thousand years, it has succeeded brilliantly.) What I want to emphasize, though, is the degree to which what we consider our core tradition of moral and political theory today springs from this question: What does it mean to pay our debts? Plato presents us first with the simple, literal businessman's view. When this proves inadequate, he allows it to be reframed in heroic terms. Perhaps all debts are really debts of honor after all. But heroic honor no longer works in a world where…commerce, class, and profit have so confused everything that peoples' true motives are never clear. How do we even know who our enemies are? Finally, Plato presents us with cynical realpolitik. Maybe nobody really owes anything to anybody. Maybe those who pursue profit for its own sake have it right after all. But even that does not hold up. We are left with a certainty that existing standards are incoherent and self-contradictory, and that some sort of radical break would be required in order to create a world that makes any logical sense. But most of those who seriously consider a radical break along the lines that Plato suggested have come to the conclusion that there might be far worse things than moral incoherence. And there we have stood, ever since, in the midst of an insoluble dilemma.--David Graeber Debt: The First 5000 years, pp. 195-7.
It is much noticed that Graeber's book is a polemic both against what he takes to be the purportedly scientific "discipline of economics" (which he treats as founded by Adam Smith (p. 24)) as well as a polemic within political economy (with Graeber taking sides with various heterodox positions). I have not seen it remarked yet that the polemic extends toward philosophy. Graeber executes the polemic with great panache in the space of a few pages. Before I get to that, I should note that he relies on the striking methodological claim that "anthropologists have the unique advantage of being able to observe human beings who have not previously been part of" philosophical conversation "react to" philosophical "concepts." Thereby, anthropologists are thus given moments of "exceptional clarity" that "reveal the essence of our thought." (p. 243)*
The long passage quoted above (I deleted the remainder of the summary of Book I of the Republic) occurs in the middle of Debt. Graeber treats Plato's Republic as (an instance of) the origin of "modern ethics and moral philosophy." I return to the question of what may count as pre-modern or ancient ethics and moral philosophy before long. (Henceforth, I'll use 'moral philosophy' or 'modern moral philosophy' to refer to what he calls "modern ethics and moral philosophy.") He treats modern moral philosophy as (the) response to conflicts created by the clash between aristocratic norms or honor systems with commercial and utilitarian values. On Graeber's account the response fails to provide a coherent theory that can accommodate let's say the best of the conflicting pulls. Theory suggests that the only coherent alternative is a "radical break"--one such version is sketched by Socrates in the Republic.
Now, throughout Debt, radical is a word with a very positive valence. It does not follow Graeber endorses all radical solutions (he dislikes Platonic hierarchy, for example). But rather, he understands himself as belonging to the minority (as opposed to 'most') among those who seriously reflect on such matters who recognize that Plato got it right in some sense. That is to say, systematic modern moral philosophy (which is, thus, always political philosophy!) is always at odds with the world and can only be made to cohere with the world by nothing short of a thorough revolution. The insight is not disputed by the majority of serious thinkers -- presumably aware that many revolutions have a tendency to worsen the world they are supposed to improve -- decide to muddle on. (There is a sense that Socrates of the Republic belongs to the majority [see also this post on Le Guin.])
That is to say, Graeber essentially understands the whole history of modern moral philosophy as a tension between those with a responsible risk aversion on behalf of themselves and humanity and those few daring souls who are willing to risk all to improve man's estate. Graeber is notable for insisting that this tension plays out in all major philosophical traditions including ones (China, India) not initially influenced by Plato. Graeber's interpretation of the risk averse side is compatible both with a kind of conservative status quo bias and with the thought that the responsible types opt for small, incremental steps toward the more radical ideal knowing full well that the ideal itself is out of reach (because it will bump up against internal contradictions eventually). This is not, in fact, a silly reading of the history of philosophy, although many will dispute the claim that there can't be a reconciliation between the world and our best moral or political theory short of radical rupture. The radical response is, of course, itself to be found within modern moral philosophy.
I infer from Graeber's treatment that pre-modern moral philosophy is not theoretical or systematic. For, as we have seen, he does not deny that reality of moral evaluation. Recall that he is committed to three claims that,
What Graeber, thus, claims is that it is impossible to systematize these three commitments in a way that does not end promoting revolution. (As an aside, one may understand Plato's true city more derisively known as the city of Pigs as a way at approximating these three commitments.) But that's compatible with finding instantiations of these commitments throughout human history. So, the alternative to modern moral philosophy is by Graeber's lights a kind of anti-theoretical situationism eternally immanent in local mores and practices (he sometimes dubs this 'baseline communism') if they are not corrupted by significant violence. I call this rustic wisdom (recall). It does not always remain immanent, and it is partially expressed in many religions.
Now, Graeber tells another genealogy of (Greek) philosophy. For, he recognizes that modern moral philosophy was preceded by "speculations on nature." In his broader story, Thales of Miletus is the founder of philosophy. As I noted a few days ago in a post on James Ladyman, this is a recurring trope in the history of philosophy (see Hume), and the way to understand Thales' philosophy was even a matter of dispute between Hume and Smith (recall). He suggests that it is no coincidence that the founding of Greek philosophy coincides in time with the introduction of coinage (p. 245, and the rise of Greek mercenaries). In different contexts I have suggested that the debate over the meaning of Thales also recurs throughout the history of economics and political economy (see also this paper; and this one). As an aside, one thing missing from Graeber's interpretation (as distinct from the tradition) is Thales's (mythical) significance as an astronomer.
The key to this broader genealogy is that the "peculiar way" in which "pre-Socratic philosophers began to frame their questions" is (indirectly) a meditation on the nature and paradoxes of coinage (p. 247); this results in (i) making forms of materialism the "starting point" of speculative philosophy and (ii) the creation of (historically more popular) systems in opposition to materialism, but all these oppositional systems introduce (iii) conceptual dualities around some enduring form vs content or mind vs body distinction (or both; there are shades of Nietzsche here--Graeber never confronts more monist systems). (Again, this is also said to be true of non-Greek traditions.)
The underlying thought of -- and the bite of -- Graeber's genealogy is that our inherited traditions of philosophy fail to recognize that the manner of theorizing is itself conditioned by particular and peculiar circumstances. In particular, these circumstances presuppose the violent eradication of forms of life that may be amenable to baseline communism and rustic wisdom (see also this post on Justin Smith). This is, I think, what Graeber means elsewhere in Debt, "the logic of identity is, always and everywhere, entangled in the logic of hierarchy." That is to say, the Graeber critique of philosophy amounts to our unwillingness to recognize the reliance of our way of (philosophical) life on this violence.
Anthropology has shown just how different and numerous are the ways in which humans have been known to organize themselves. But it also reveals some remarkable commonalities - fundamental moral principles that appear to exist everywhere, and that will always tend to be invoked, wherever people transfer objects back and forth or argue about what other people owe them.--David Graeber (2011, 2014), Debt: The first 5000 Years, p. 90.
Outside of bits of philosophy of biology (a big field) and philosophy of archaeology (a small sub-set of philosophy of the special sciences), philosophers do not generally pay a lot of attention to anthropologists. At first sight this is surprising because there are clear overlaps between areas of anthropology and work done in philosophy of mind and ethics/political philosophy. It's less surprising if one recognizes that (i) anthropological methods often don't fit the image of science within philosophy. An image of science contain (recall) is (a) a list of characteristics that function as short-hand for representing science when (b) these characteristics are used in debates where one side (or more) appeals to the (epistemic) authority of science to settle debate, and (c) such an image is often accompanied by privileged list of scientific virtues. While field work as such is not at odds with philosophy's image of science, anthropologists have (in the perception of philosophers) increasingly tended toward narrative (and post-modernist versions of it), toward political activism, and moral relativism, which are often not treated as scientific at all in this image of science. In particular, this has coincided with (ii) that during the last few generations, professional philosophers have increasingly come to deny moral relativism the status as a respectable position in ethics (we now associate relativism with many of the silly things said by our worst undergraduates). This is not deny that with John MacFarlane's recent technical work on assessment sensitivity, it should be easier to articulate versions of moral relativism that will get a less dismissive response in the future (see here for an intro).
So, when I was prompted to read Debt by Crooked Timber's memorable symposium on it, I was puzzled by the philosophers's interest in it. To be sure, I was not really puzzled because since the aftermath of the fall of Lehman, debt is very high on the political agenda in lots of ways; in addition, a non-trivial number of philosophers have become skeptical of the status of economics as a science, and Graeber presents his own work in opposition to mainstream economics since Adam Smith. But guided, in part, by Chris Bertram's helpful introduction to the Crooked Timber symposium, I had kind of interpreted Graeber as an ordinary anthropological relativist. For, as Bertram correctly notes, according to Graeber, "human societies are always structured (despite appearances) around three competing moral principles: communism, exchange, and hierarchy." In addition, Graeber writes things like "radical equality and radical inequality do exist in the world, that each carries within its own kind of morality, its own ways of thinking and arguing about the rights and wrongs of any given situation, and these moralities are entirely different than that of tit-for-tat-exchange," (p. 94). During the symposium I did not really sit down with Debt at the time, but read it superficially, and so Bertram's became my own understanding of Debt. As it happens, I am teaching the book, and (in light of the passage quoted at the top of this post), I wish to revisit Graeber's relationship to relativism.
“Communism” is the principle familiar from Marx: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Each contributes what they can and we are sensitive to the vulnerability of other members of our family or community [...or friendship]....Graeber argues (101) that this “baseline communism” is the “ground of all human social life”. “Exchange”, by contrast, is governed by an ideal of strict reciprocity among free and equal persons. I give you something and you give me something in return. It is, among other things, the ideal principle of market exchange. “Hierarchy” is a principle of authority and status: we are not equal, I have the right to command and you to the duty obey, in virtue of who we are. These principles aren’t mutually exclusive, and they have peculiar ways of morphing into one another. And it can be a matter of controversy and judgement which principle (or combination of principles) is at work at any particular moment.
There is nothing wrong with Bertram's summary, and he usefully calls attention to the fact Graeber treats a certain form of communism as the ground of all human social life (p. 101), and, thereby (see also p. 267), has a certain conceptual, historical, and even normative priority over the other 'moral-political system of norms.' (Here I ignore the ways conceptual, historical, moral questions are blended by Graeber.) As Graeber writes, "once we start thinking of communism as a principle of morality rather than just a question of property ownership, it becomes clear that this sort of morality is almost always at play to some degree in any transaction--even commerce," (102, emphasis added). He goes on to describe how this explains "shopkeepers in poor neighborhoods are almost never of the same ethnic group as their customers" (p. 102--a topic also quite salient to reflection on the nature of violence in riots and uprisings). I don't think Graeber's any is a slip of the pen, but that's because I have come to recognize that Graeber thinks of anthropology as having discovered some invariances about human nature even if these invariant properties are expressed differently everywhere, too.*
In particular, I read Graeber as identifying two such fundamental invariances (1-2), which in turn lead to a third empirical claim (3):
That is, (1) is an invariant about the way some parts of morality are discussed and (presumably) understood, while (2) is a kind of biological-psychological fact about us, and (3) an empirical generalization. I take it that for philosophers suspicious of anthropological relativism Debt's insistence that 1-3 are teachings of almost two centuries worth of anthropological inquiry is very welcome. Now (1) is as stated formal; it lacks content. It says that humans have a shared framework for equity, but what this framework is is left silent. Some other time I return to (1) because it requires a kind of synthetic understanding of the whole of Debt.
By a 'sense of justice,' Graeber means, in part, the capacity to track and expect reciprocity, which, in turn, relies on cognitive capacities to track proportionality and symmetry in various context. Now, to be sure, Graeber very clearly rejects inflated versions of (2), which he associates with work inspired by Homans and Levi-Strauss, which claim that reciprocity governs all human interactions. But that is compatible with a more modest version of (2) that allows that we do not always act on the sense of justice. In particular, Graeber is quite explicit that violence can prevent our so acting and that transactions among strangers need not be informed by it. (This matters to his critique of markets and some images of commercial society because market exchange is conceptualized by Graeber as presupposing state violence and as occurring among separated strangers.) By 'modest' I do not mean unimportant because according to Graeber it grounds all peaceful social relations (3), but, of course, not all social relations are peaceful.
Somewhat surprisingly and also maddeningly, Graeber says very little about the grounds of sociality or even the sense of justice, which echoes Rawls's claim that sense of justice “would appear to be a condition for human sociability.” In particular, to the best of my knowledge Debt never mentions sympathy or the sympathetic mechanism in his original book. But in his 2014 afterword, when he takes a "bow to Adam Smith," (p. 398; some other time I return to Graeber's largely polemical and hostile treatment of Smith), Graeber allows that he has not really challenged or addressed Smith's "theory of human motivation that assumed that people, in general, were motivated above all to be the object of others's sympathetic attentions." (p. 399) Part of me wonders if, Graeber also came to recognize that for his stress on sociality to work he requires something like Smith's theory of human motivation to complement what he calls 'a sense of justice.' (In part, because he allows in very Smithian fashion that the spirit of solidarity is itself is directed more to "some people than others" (p. 99).)
I don't mean to suggest that Graeber says nothing about what enters into sociality. He claims, for example, that what he calls 'baseline communism' might be "considered the raw material of sociality." (p. 99) I have to admit that Graeber here edges close to a circle because it seems pretty clear that sociality is, in turn, needed for his account of baseline communism to get off the ground. But rather than harping on this tension in his thought, I close with some observations of what follows from Graeber's inferences from 1-3. One nice feature of Graeber's treatment of communism is that it is really oriented toward a pleasing conviviality. (p. 99)) This is true of "most human beings" (p. 99; on is reminded of the significance of Smith's treatment of the pleasure in mutual sympathy). And presumably this is also what the anthropologist have uncovered. (Because it is only true of most of us, I hesitate to list it as a fourth invariance.)
He then adds a further claim, recognition of our ultimate interdependence...is the ultimate substance of social peace (p. 99). It's not entirely clear if Graeber is here relying on what anthropologists have shown or is innovating here. This allows Graeber to distinguish between the absence of violence (itself a rare occurrence--Debt drills into the reader the pervasiveness of violence) and social peace. For social peace is the absence of violence accompanied by this mutual recognition.+ (To be sure, social peace may rely on all kinds of sanctions and threats.) Of course, who enters into this 'our' is very contested and contextually variant (as Graeber vividly illustrates with various discussions of slavery), but one can discern in this messenger from the anthropologists a Cosmopolitan tendency.
Now, of course, nothing I say is meant to downplay the threat at all; it’s all designed to get us to see it more clearly (clearly, of course, by my lights), and while I don’t see my posts or tweets primarily or even secondarily as organizing tools, I’d like to think they give us some potential sense of leverage over the situation....
In any event, among the many reasons the election of Trump has so depressed me, and why I’ve not commented much since the election and have mostly stayed off social media, is that it has given license to the politics of fear on the left. Particularly on social media. Once again, we have that sense that we are face-to-face with some deep, dark truth of the republic. Once again, we have that sense that those of us who insist the horribles of the world should not and cannot have the last word, are somehow naifs, with our silly faith in the Enlightenment, in politics, in the possibility that we can change these things, that politics can be about something else, something better. I find that sensibility deeply conservative (not in my sense of the word but in the more conventional sense), and I resist it with every fiber of my being....
So while I won’t ever look away from what Trump is, I insist on looking upon him through the categories that I would look upon any other political formation. I insist on focusing on things like policy, law, institutions, coalitions, ideology, elites, and so on. (Matt Yglesias is quite good on this issue.) I insist on seeing in him the normal rules of politics and the established institutions of politics: it wasn’t the beating heart of darkness that sent him to the White House, after all; it was, in the most immediate and proximate sense of a cause, the fucking Electoral College.--Corey Robin Against the Politics of Fear @Jacobin.
If you think that President-Elect Donald Trump will be a ruthless dictator (think, say Putin, Castro, or, more recently Erdogan--somebody that jails or assassinates political opponents, confiscates their wealth, etc. ), then, unless you are eager to become a dead or mutilated hero, the wise thing to do is to lay low if you can and hope you, your loved ones and children to ride out the awful days ahead, while praying for a coup d'état that will restore a Republican order (while knowing that civil war is the likely consequence of such a coup).* Since a President-for-life Trump will not live forever one can hope for regime change sooner rather than later.
A slightly more courageous strategy is to lay low, but quietly develop allies in the armed forces and the decentralized court system to slow down and obstruct any grab for power. Ensuring that the media stays partially outside the new government's control means that it cannot impose its narrative on events. Given that support and opposition to Trump are geographically unequally distributed, this could slow down totalizing government considerably. After all, a would-be-dictator Trump also has to recognize limits to his power because some of the the wealthiest and most populous parts of the nation are not exactly strong areas of support (although we should not underestimate the ability of totalizing governments to bribe and seduce would be opponents).
Because I like to think that my friends are wise (lots of them are philosophers, after all), but have no reason to suspect that they have above average likelihood to be courageous, I suspect that lots of them, who have been outspokenly opposed to and extremely fearful about Trump on social media (which we know leaves traces for the national security state) recently, do not really believe right now that President Trump will really be a dictator of the sort that assassinates, jails, confiscates, prevents fair elections, etc. (Putin, Castro, increasingly Erdogan, etc.) To believe he will not be a dictator is compatible with the thought that Trump will be bad for civil liberties, the environment, the rule of law, illegal immigrants, and international peace--all reasons for genuine concern sometimes even existential concern.
Correy Robin managed to put words to my bafflement about my friends' reactions, which manifest what he calls 'the politics of fear.' This is a politics that is grounded on fear, that takes inspiration and meaning from fear, that sees in fear a wealth of experience and a layer of profundity that cannot be found in other experiences (experiences that are more humdrum, that are more indebted to Enlightenment principles of reason and progress, that put more emphasis on the amenability of politics and culture to intervention and change), a politics that sees in Trump the revelation of some deep truth about who we are, as political agents, as people, as a people.
As it happens, I agree with Robin's analysis that many of our political friends exhibit the politics of fear. Even so, I don't share Robin's particular Manichean opposition between the politics of fear vs Enlightenment reason and progress. In part, that's because I have always been attracted to the more skeptical party of the Enlightenment -- the one that thinks reason often undermines itself or is deployed by overconfident experts; the one that recognize that progress tends to rely on a teleological conception of history which so much Enlightenment thought allows us to question --, especially because so much Enlightenment thought itself has been implicated in awful political enterprises (of imperial domination and racialized colonization, of the embrace of humanitarian war to bring the 'fruits' of 'progress' to others, etc.) and because of the many ways in which Enlightenment thought becomes a fig leaf for ideology. (So, one can like the Enlightenment but be clear about its warts and worse.) But also, because fear can be healthy when it recognizes reality for what it is, and is properly redirected to prudent and far-sighted action, especially when hope is not extinguished. As Descartes wrote (omitting his theory of spirits):
Hope is a disposition of the soul to persuade itself that what it desires will come to pass.... And fear is another disposition of the soul, which persuades it that the thing will not come to pass. And it is to be noted that, although these two passions are contrary, one may nonetheless have them both together, that is, when one considers different reasons at the same time, some of which cause one to judge that the fulfillment of one’s desires is a straightforward matter, while others make it seem difficult. And neither of these passions ever accompanies desire without leaving some room for the other.--The Passions of the Soul, 165.
That is to say, my own view (recall) is not far removed from the politics of fear, but one that always leaves room for some hope. In particular, my politics recognizes the imperfection of all political agents and that recent political history provides ample room for creative (and simultaneously true) narratives of progress and decline along many dimensions. It is to recognize that (always other people's) naivete is often a crucial ingredient in generating political improvements, while allowing that it can also cause moral disasters; to recognize that bad things happen to good people, and that bad people can have good fortune. It is to recognize that the bullet can silence the pen, but that ideas can be more powerful than a squadron of drones, sometimes.
To be honest, I think most philosophers are pretty limited in their intelligences. They may be amazing along a certain dimension of intelligence, but in many cases the other dimensions are atrophied. And moreover, they don't even recognize the multiplicity of intelligences and think the kind they have is either the only one or the most important. That, to my mind, is a serious limitation that negatively affects our discipline.--Sally Haslanger
Haslanger's remarks about merit have received quite a bit of attention (see here at Dailynous, [recall also my post]), but I have seen no attention focused on the remarks I have quoted. Haslanger is not making the familiar point -- well it's one that I stress and that Ruth Chang has made with forceful clarity-- that philosophical training creates intellectual dispositions or reflexes that undercut the proper functioning of, say, our reactive attitudes or sympathy and, thereby, the possibility of a virtuous life or acting ethically (recall and here). Rather, she is making the more subtle point that we do not recognize different ways of (for lack of better words) being smart. Let's stipulate Haslanger is right about this.*
I want to reflect a bit on what follows from this fact for philosophy. (So, let's allow and ignore that it may also generate all kinds of interpersonal and moral challenges for philosophers and their fellow human beings.) Now, it's possible that this oversight is only harmful when we theorize about the capacities of other agents (in philosophy of mind, epistemology, political philosophy, normative theory, philosophy of action, applied ethics, etc.). That is, we theorize smarty-ness in other human beings along too few or impoverished dimensions. Our conception of agency would then be unidimensional in the way that the economist's homo economicus is. This need not be a problem as long as we would recognize this unidimensionality as a disciplinary tick, that allows us to have a lot of efficient conversations and to theorize cleanly (but partially) about the world. It is, however, foreseeable that, in practice, we would come to mistake the model for reality. Thinking like a philosopher would be to assume unidimensional-smartyness-man (or woman).
As an aside, I do think unidimensional-smartyness-man is packaged into a lot of standard forms of analysis and the ways intuitions work in epistemology and philosophy of language. But that's for another time.
But there is another kind of harm, a methodological one for philosophy. A lot of methodologies that are advocated basically say, do something difficult and rigorous and good things will follow for the discipline. As it happens, I am very good at this difficult and rigorous method. Example: Timothy Williamson ("Must do Better.") [I only mention it because I have harped on the example before--lately I am a big fan of Williamson.] If intelligence is uni-dimensional then the only question is,' is that the right method for the discipline (or the optimal one given our present knowledge and resources, etc.)?' and, if it is, how do we make sure that a lot of us get on with the program.
But if intelligence is not uni-dimensional, then even if one grants that the difficult and rigorous method proposed by the important person works well to make progress (yeah, okay, let's ignore my qualms) in philosophy, it is by no means obvious that all would-be philosophers can contribute by way of that method. It is, after all, equally possible that there is a second-best (let's stipulate not so rigorous not so terrific method) method that allows some fruitful steps on the path to true philosophy by folk who are smarty in ways distinct from the important person who advocates the difficult and rigorous method. Perhaps, the alternative smarties can contribute quite a lot by following methods more suitable to their intelligence(s). (I think Amia Srinivasian first pointed this out to me as an implication of some of my own views.) That is to say, I am unfamiliar of writings in philosophical methodology that soundly establish that theirs is the unique, only possible method to make progress.
The claim in the previous paragraph is familiar enough from the epistemic advantages of diversity as discussed in epistemology and philosophy of science. But it's also a moral point (again Srinivasian taught me this) that is a way to interpret the second norm of the methodological analytical egalitarianism that I adopt and advocate: experts/philosophers should not promote policies where the down-side risks of implementation are (primarily) shifted onto less fortunate others. That is, many of us often advocate methods that are good for us -- we can flourish by using them -- and the way we conceive the discipline, but that are not evidently good for others (even if, and often this is a big if, they also conceive the discipline in the same way). So, if unidimensional-smartyness is false (as I stipulated), then it follows 'we' make others miserable (qua philosophers) by insisting that they adopt the method privileged by 'us' (and suitable for 'us').
To be sure, the previous paragraph is not an argument for anything goes. Some methods and strategies may well be self-defeating or not conducive to any path to wisdom, or philosophical progress, given our atrophied natures. But one may then explore what could be done to develop human potentiality.
But what these two responses to CIIT really drove home to me is just how powerless we are in this regard. The content of our paper, the specifics of the arguments we gave, seem to me just not the kind of thing that will make a difference as to whether the world goes in either of those directions. If the optimistic scenario comes about, I really doubt it will be even a little bit because people were convinced by our arguments. Whereas if the pessimistic scenario comes about, I don't think anything we have done or said in the paper will prevent our work being used in a way that renders the intersectional theorising a mere ornament. Now the paper is out there, how it is received, which (if either) of these futures shall be realised, is to some very significant extent beyond our control. Perhaps to more experienced scholars this is old hat, and in any case if I reflect on the fact-value distinction, or inductive risk, or the difference between the context of discovery and the context of justification then I can probably make this salient to myself by such a priori means. But I am a junior scholar, and this was striking to me. The alienation of labour under capitalism extends even into the rarified world of academic intellectual production.--Liam Kofi Bright "Intersectional Alienation"@The Sooty Empiric.
Philosophers of science study some phenomena -- e.g., citation practices, scientific credit, the transition from immature fields to normal science, etc. -- as cats looking into a fishbowl. But sometimes we may recognize that we are like the fish in the bowl and can, reflexively, apply our questions and concepts to ourselves either because we ourselves are part of phenomena or metrics akin to 'normal science' or because we participate in science (or both). For example, Liam Kofi Bright published a fine, co-authored paper, "Causally Interpreting Intersectionality Theory," in a prestigious philosophy journal, Philosophy of Science. To be sure, philosophy of science does not just observe science (empirically), but it may also sometimes aim (normatively) to improve science; for example, the Bright, Malinsky, and Thompson papers offers a method of possible "use to both social scientists and intersectional theorists elsewhere in the academy.")
In the blog post I have quoted from, Bright reports on the citations to his paper and the roles the paper plays in subsequent discussions in the field to which it (or the authors of it) hope(s) to contribute. The quoted paragraph is the conclusion to this discussion. Now, before I make some critical comments, it is rather striking that Bright draws conclusions from N=2 (without also noting that two citations within the same academic year is quite good for a philosophy paper). Okay, let me turn to my criticism of Bright's analysis.
First, the implicit model of the scientific credit economy he is working with (and this is somewhat remarkable for somebody who invokes a Marxist conceptual vocabulary) is a price-taking one. That is, you put the paper out there and then what happens to it in the credit economy is outside one's control. It is a completely respectable model, and I have no doubt that lots of folk really think that they should give a paper their intellectual best and that, after publication, it is out of their hands.
But, of course, that's not the only model of scientific credit. For, before publication you can do quite a bit to influence the publication and uptake of a paper by (i) presenting it at the right workshops and conferences; (ii) having influential people read and disseminate your views; (iii) blogging about your work (as Liam's post reminds us, this is also an option post-publication); (iv) archiving pre-prints/drafts; (v) the venue of publication, etc.. None of these (i-v) is fully in one's control (and some less so than others), but they are not entirely out of one's control either. The first, acknowledgment footnote to any paper gives a sense of how much of (i-iii), especially, has taken place. Now, we're already half-way toward a price-setting model of science.
Moreover, as (v) notes, not all journals are created equally. Some may generate good visibility for one's views; some may have referees that improve the final product. Some journals may well be captured by intellectual friends, who facilitate the publication and, perhaps, future citation. While some of this may be obscure at first to junior scholars, one can develop heuristics for it (e.g., checking out who cites who where; what work gets published where, etc.) Supervisors often have rules of thumb about 'journals that publish quality work' (where quality often stands for buddies I admire).
In addition, post-publication you can do quite a bit of extra work to facilitate the nature and scope of uptake of a paper. One route -- it is not available to all of us -- is to become a supervisor yourself and make your students read your work, and if they make their students read your your, etc. (To be sure not all supervisors do this and not all students do the actual reading.)
You can also become a gate-keeper: that is, you become a referee or editor who makes sure that in addition to all the other fantastic suggestions, you ensure your paper is (read and) acknowledged. One way to kill two birds with one stone is to write a handbook/reference article on a topic closely related to your paper. The handbook article may well be cited more than your underlying super hip research - you can even give it a canonical interpretation -- and because the handbook article increases your visibility to editors they are more likely to give over part of the gate-keeping role to you. There is, of course, no requirement that you promote your own work as a referee (and editors can tell the author to ignore that part of your report); I personally enjoy writing referee reports (which I often find-numbing work--a true duty/service to the profession) that suggest engagement with other people's work other, that is, than my own (although I certainly have also called attention to my own work at times when relevant).
Finally, what if you or your intellectual friends (supervisors, buddies, etc.) really think your paper deserves a wider hearing? Why not bring together folk in workshops and conferences that somehow connect to the paper. You need not even present your own work at the conference. But you could use the occasion to write a follow up paper, which may cite your own paper and even give it a canonical interpretation that just so happens to be published in a special issue devoted to themes to your work. (This stuff really happens; some of my favorite people are awesome at making this happen.) Or, you can write a grant proposal inspired by your paper (say, if you are in Europe or in a NSF environment, which values improvement or development of normal science) and produce a whole bunch of PhDs that work on the topic connected to your paper--that is, you become a kind of capital intermediary (exploiter?) in the rarefied world of academic intellectual production. Now you can start taking control of the ecological niche in which your paper is a central node and let the Matthew effect do its magical work, even allowing your work to become used by folk outside your nice (doing pro-seminars for them, say, in China paid for by the publishing house that has taken an interest in your editorial qualities), and then, oh rich irony, once you have become fully vested (recall) to decry the crony-capitalist system of exploitation which offends your egalitarian or scholarly sensibilities, if you have any left.
So, yes, perhaps, it's better to publish and let the paper find its own way in a see of cit-able material.
Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.
From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.--Jason Stanley "On the Question of the Stability of Democracy."
Unlike most responses to the Trump victory, Jason Stanley's essay confronts the uncomfortable fact that a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, which was supposed to inaugurate a liberal era, liberal values (rule of law, open society, free trade, free movement of peoples, mutual tolerance, etc.) are rejected by large portions of the population in the liberal heartland (Stateside and in various bits of Europe). Unlike most commentators, Stanley does not treat the rejectionists as fools or as irrational nor as fundamentally immoral. He recognizes, that the forms of illiberalism that are, as it were, homegrown, are the product of liberal society. Indeed, Liberalism disrupts and undermines many sources of value -- I would just add to his list: a sense of place, community, and social order --, and this loss generates rejection of liberalism.
Stanley, thus, opens up discussion of the central tension within liberalism: the rule of law reduces all kinds of uncertainty and it is morally grounded, in part, in the reasonable expectations this stability generates. (It is also grounded in norms of equality and impartiality.) But these expectations, in turn, are undermined by the permanent flux found in liberal society (due to trade, technological disruption, and eased transportation); liberal society undermines all kinds of expectations. Liberalism is, in fact, especially noxious to expectations that take forms of hierarchy for granted. The problem is, thus, not the "lack of obvious benefit, materially or spiritually," -- for many of the enemies of liberalism benefit materially from it -- but the permanent (and justified) fear of violation of expectations (about, say, one's place in social hierarchy or one's judgment of other people's worth).
After all, it is not those that do not benefit at all from the status quo that turn to authoritarianism. But rather those that fear further disruptions to their privileges and advantages. It is pretty clear that on the whole, Trump's supporters were not the poorest or most vulnerable in society, for example, but those that have reasons to fear further change. Liberalism finds it difficult to address such fears -- because to do so it would have to be different than it is -- and resorts to high minded moralism instead.
Of course, in practice, whatever the merits of liberal ideals, these are regularly compromised by the intervention of politics which advances some interests over others. In practice, of course, the liberal political order favors one interest or another: bailouts, subsidies, affirmative action, hand-outs, tax-breaks, social security, etc. With a few exceptions, every government program favors one group or another. The problem is not that the political process is messy and favors the well organized (and wealthy). Rather, the problem is that the liberal responses to the reality of the wheeling and dealing of ordinary politics tend to sound like especially noxious species of hypocrisy, which is, alas, the ruling sin of modern life. Obamacare is (whatever its merits) complicity in crony capitalism, but to reject it is immoral.* It is, thus, no surprise that (as Stanley notes, starting with Carl Schmitt) critics of liberalism constantly return to examples of liberal hypocrisy alongside liberal high minded rhetoric, which often de-legitimizes opponents ("deplorables").
So, for those that think that crony capitalism and group politics just are the way the world works, and fear further change, authoritarian closure of ordinary politics is (recall) an attractive option. As Stanley notes (and as I remarked during the campaign), constantly pointing out the illiberal features of Trump and his supporters just reinforces the attachment to these illiberal values and the authoritarians that defend them of their supporters.
I want to give a fresh example of how the purported defense of liberal values can back-fire. I will do so by criticizing an essay by somebody I admire greatly, Jacob T. Levy; this essay is popular among my friends and it is apparently published in the spirit of revitalizing liberalism (a theme that runs through my own reflections on these matters). I quote at length before I comment:
Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”
Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. One child makes a second abuse a third. The second then can’t think he’s any better than the first, the bully, and can’t inform. In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.
But in totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public. Every Sunday he provided fresh absurdities that Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Kellyanne Conway repeated on the talk shows. They didn’t persuade anyone who were strategically important to persuade; the audience for Meet the Press isn’t low-information, undecided, working-class voters, and the kinds of people who did watch those shows knew the claims were false. But making his surrogates repeat the lies compromised them; that tied them to him. And it degraded them, and made clear where power lay.--Jacob Levy "Authoritarianism and Post-Truth Politics" @Niskanencenter.org
By using the phrase 'totalitarian and authoritarian politics,' Levy distracts from the cardinal feature about the facts he presents: the submission to Trump is given willingly without resort to force or even the threat of force. Rather, it is the lure of power and favor that is, as it were, the lever which President-elect Trump exploits here. To criticize Levy here, is not to deny that I agree with much of the the final paragraph. Trump is degrading and compromising his subordinates by letting them repeat the outlandish and absurd. This binds them to him, makes them complicit in his future rule, and exhibits his would-be-powers for friends and foes alike. Presumably, Trump thinks doing so will allow him to rule with their loyalty and obedience and, thus, sets up the conditions for would-be-totalitarian-and-authoritarian politics, if he so wishes.
By invoking outrage over the lie, Levy ignores the fact that when others degrade and subordinate themselves willingly to a bully the proper response to their predicament is something akin to pity or concern. To do so would be to recognize in their servility the roots of our shared humanity. To put my polemical point tersely: a liberalism worth reviving is not, in the first instance, founded on truth (recall), but, primarily, on mutual recognition of shared humanity, even vulnerability which is the starting point for an alternative vision of society.
Levy closes his piece with the claim that "insisting on the difference between truth and lies is itself a part of the defense of freedom." This may well be so under totalitarianism--with him, I trust the moral compass of Orwell, Havel and Arendt. (Recall also my piece on Koyré written before Trump's victory.) But it is worth reminding ourselves, before we are swept away altogether, that we are not yet under totalitarian rule and that the defense of freedom requires a different rhetoric.
For, in a a liberal society, you have every right to utter and believe falsehoods except in the court of law (and in universities). (Some other falsehoods are also prohibited: e.g. slander, etc.) To say this is not to advocate public lying or to advocate deception. It is not to condone other people's lies (but it is to suggest that doubling down on fact-checking is a mistake). Rather, it is to recognize one of the essential differences between a totalitarian and free society: a free society does not require, does not even aspire to the rule of truth. If anything, if truth could rule then politics would not be necessary,+ which is precisely the dangerous fantasy peddled by some totalitarians.