Posts Tagged ‘liberalism


European History Pt. 48 — Beginning of the “isms”

Last time I looked at the industrial revolution. After 1830, Britain was the factory for all of Europe. Up  until 1901, the share of GDP grew enormously in trade, transport, and manufacture. It was not until 1870 that Britain even faced any competition from other countries in the area of manufacturing.

This time I want to look at the social changes that accompanied the first half of the 19th century.


It was around the beginning of the 19th century that various political and social doctrine began to to flourish. “Liberalism” first appeared in 1819, “socialism” in 1832, “feminism,” “humanitarianism” and “communism” date from the 1840s. This was indicative of a philosophical revolution that was trying to catch up with the massive changes that took place in the industrial and french revolutions. These concepts were not new. People talked about living together before “socialism” was coined, but the systematization of these doctrines along with their explicit recognition was a powerful change in the intellectual landscape.


The book talks briefly about romanticism around this time. People like Wordsworth and Lord Byron in England and Victor Hugo in France epitomized an artistic movement that reveled in the unknown and the unknowable in addition to rejecting classical forms and systems. Architecture underwent a gothic revival. For instance, the British parliament building that still stands is influenced by gothic architecture.

Feminism, Radicalism, Nationalism

At this point, the book goes through several “isms” in turn, in kind of a disorganized way. I don’t want to just recite them, but these isms were particular important.

Radicalism primarily came about in Britain as the heirs of people like Thomas Paine. The problem with earlier radicals is that the wars with France discredited such positions. People were nationalistic and banded together to war against France. Anyone who stood in the way o that was not listened to.  However, the radicals came back at this time and advocated for democracy (which not all liberals at the time were in favor). Around this were the beginnings of UTOPIAN movements, like Robert Owen (ideal paternalistic capitalism) and Charles Fourier (localism) and Count De St. Simone (socialism, but they called their doctrine, St. Simoneanism). In France, radicalism came from those who thought the French revolution was not complete.

Feminism gained at this time. The feminism on offer was primarily egalitarian feminism, which was influenced by liberalism and argued that men and women were morally equal and so deserving of the same rights. Harriet Taylor was a force for these ideas and she worked with John Stuart Mill over many years developing a defense of feminist principles and applications. Feminism, understood as a quest for voting rights, proceeded more quickly in the U.S. and Britain.

Next time Ill pick up by looking at nationalism.


Grant Hill

A friend posted this — a letter by Grant Hill discussing his career and its relationship to race and education. Specifically, he is responding to comments made by Jalen Rose about his life rising as a basketball star. The crux of the article is that Rose said that Duke recruited black players who were uncle toms, i.e., those black people who like to act “white” or more precisely, those who like to accept white norms of conduct in order to better themselves in society.

Throughout this article, I’m going to discussing some points about race, and I am white, and further, from a very privileged white background. Given that, my perception of these issues is likely to be impoverished (in fact, it certainly is impoverished), but I think Hill’s point, and a more broadly philosophical point, is that everyone is allowed to comment on race and try to learn from others and extract the significance of each other’s struggles.

The whole article was very interesting, and of course, the world of punditry is filled with various small points that deserve to be noted. First, as I understand things, Rose’s comments were in the past, saying how he felt at the time. Second, I could understand why Rose might make this point. Hill is also guilty of a little argument by redefinition. He says what Rose’s point is, and then attacks THAT POINT, but its not clear to me that he characterized Rose’s point in the best light before responding. In fact, he seemed to interpret Rose’s general comment as a very narrow point about people in backgrounds that are very similar to Hill’s.

The big points that I got out of things though are the following, the first one leading, non-too-rigorously, to the second.

The first point is that as many Blacks become more successful, there will become a growing issue concerning the best way to work toward further equality in justice, and a discussion that I foresee fracturing ideas and strategies. Now this is laughable how ivory-tower my experience with this issue is, but listen. I took a class about African American politics, and one of the consistent themes was the clash between liberalism broadly construed and a kind of colored communitarianism.

The former says that all along Blacks were working so that individual Black people could become autonomous and choose their life paths without the constraints of bigotry, low access to social and economic opportunities, etc. In other words, victory for a utopian civil rights movement would mean that someone who was black could go about their life without their race playing a role. What the hell does “playing a role” mean? Well, its controversial, but you might think of it like this. Take two people are exactly alike in personality and dispositions and interests, and economic circumstances. One is white and one is Black (see, notice how i capitalize Black but not white? I’m just playing it safe because I don’t know the conventions, but just the fact that I don’t feel comfortable not capitalizing both of them shows how uneducated well-meaning whites are about the appropriate ATTITUDE one should have toward race). Equality would be reached if the two people could lead the exact same lives.

The latter — colored communitarianism — has roots in the “black power” and “back to Africa” movements, which emphasize brotherhood and black solidarity. I won’t say too much about this because I don’t know enough to characterize it properly. But there is an idea that Blacks have formed a unique type of social harmony due to enduring oppression and that it would be best to foster this type of social organization and to INJECT IT into society at large. On this model, rather than Blacks assimilating or being accepted to white culture, blacks would adjust social conventions so that we are all, “a little bit black,” and feel that solidarity.

These two modes of racial struggle come into conflict, and this Rose/Grant story demonstrates this fact. As some Blacks become increasingly comfortable in respectful and valued positions, there will be questions about how much solidarity they will be able to show to others who have not yet made it. Are these people “uncle-tomming?” There is a risk of that — in other words, a risk that the white world too-eagerly embraces those it has damaged and in a welcoming embrace, crushes Black identity.

All this brings me to my second point, which is that I think white people love to hear MLK’s message about love and getting along. After all, who wouldn’t want to hear that we should all be friends after doing something really bad to someone else for a long period of time? And in Hill’s comments, I imagined many hang-wringing liberals and others applauding vigorously “can’t we all just get along.”

But what this misses, and this is my crude historical point, is that black power and love go hand in hand. Would people have latched on to MLK’s message of peace without Malcolm X’s aggressive challenges to white power. AND VICE VERSA. Thank god I was taught about the Black Panthers and Black Power, and the OTHER SIDE of the civil rights struggle, because otherwise, I would have bought into what Cornell West has called the SANTA-CLAUSIFICATION of the civil rights movement.

Anyway, the big wrap up point is that forgiveness and love always, as a historical matter, work side by side with solidarity and aggression, and that while people are applauding Hill for giving an admittedly, ADMIRABLE, and WONDERFUL expression to racial healing, we should not forget that there is another side (and perhaps Rose’s comments don’t even capture it) to racial justice that by nature requires banding together, expressing solidarity, and in contrast to liberal ideals — putting one’s autonomy and freedom to pursue a life path, BEHIND one’s racial duties.



Islam in America

This week (the show), had a town hall style program in which a live studio audience watched several pundits discuss the perception of Islam in America. There were some really ridiculous comments made, but overall, this was a good attempt to advance the dialogue about these issues.

First, as a small side note, the woman who lost her daughter in 9/11 stole the show with some really powerful rhetoric. I thought she was just a really credible ordinary American with fairly sophisticated view of these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised if she shows up elsewhere. She was impressive.

The point I want to make though is that there was a lot of discussion about Islam as it is practiced globally in some repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Christian commentators on this segment pointed toward Sharia law and honor murders, and other things that Muslims do. As many on the show pointed out, what people do in Iran is not a rationale for treating American Muslims with suspicion, but the error of this point is much more profound.

First, why IS IT that Christians don’t really do barbarous things anymore? The Christian representative on this show wanted to create the belief that Christianity was somehow a trustworthy religion that could live in peace with its neighbors while Islam could not. This could not be more wrong, and it’s very deceptive to boot. Last time I checked, Christianity cooled its jets due to political and philosophical developments during the enlightenment. Basically, governments got tired of Christians killing each other all the time and so invented the idea of tolerance. This idea filtered down to religious people who became easier to deal with. Christians were NEVER on board with this idea and they have accepted it only INSOFAR as society continues to trend in that direction (evangelicals in our country are just the latest incarnation of people who refuse to accept toleration as a cornerstone of modern society).

What this means is that Christianity is likely a liberal religion today because it was FORCED to inhabit liberal European states as they grew during the past 300 odd years (yay liberalism). Many Muslims and ESPECIALLY the ones that do crazy things live in non-liberal and even non-industrial societies. Given that Christianity did crazy things when it flourished within non-liberal regimes, perhaps we should stop trying to theorize an intrinsic hierarchy of religions and think about the governments that various religions inhabit. When religious people live in dictatorships, they do stupid stuff (history is my witness) but when they live in liberal states, they learn to be liberal, thank god (no pun intended). So, we can surmise that as Muslims live in liberal states, they will become more and more liberal. Muslims in Saudi Arabia may remain reactionary for years, but that’s because their government is extremely illiberal and leans on absurd religious practices for the purpose of social control.

This was borne out by the fact that some Imam was yelling at one of the women on the show to put on her traditional attire and she (being Daisy Khan, a liberal, modern, moderate Muslim) just kind of laughed at him. You see, she’s a firm part our secular and permissive society, if we can keep her there.


Cognitive Surplus

My blog isn’t very advanced, so I log into the spidery-website of to get to my editing page, and I have to usually go through a page with a sampling of different posts from different blogs affiliated with wordpress. These posts, because they were so popular, are put on this homepage. I have read about a hundred of these posts out of idle curiosity…Let’s just say, I haven’t really found anything that interested me. But for the first time, I was pretty pulled in by a post on this main site. Here it is.

The main thesis has some plausible points to it and some more questionable components. One point is that people gain enormous happiness from doing things and participating in institutions that they believe are successful and worth affiliating with. The internet, as many people have noted, has the capability of increasing such participation. The article also rightly notes that in our late liberal era, we are realizing that there are diminishing marginal returns to income (something economists have known for a while). But we are realizing this now WITH A VENGEANCE, and what I mean is that now that our society is pretty prosperous, we’re finding out that money can’t make us much happier and in fact might be limiting our ability to find new sources of happiness that are really untapped. This is all intelligent and interesting.

Next though, the author of this post makes a claim that I find harder to understand and harder to believe is true. The point, I think, is that our economic system based on consumption will be replaced by an economy of participation social and institutional arenas made possible by the communication revolution. Hmm. Really? I mean, economics as a theory takes into account the idea that free time has value, and so I don’t really see how consumption (the consumption of time to participate in these things) wouldn’t straightforwardly enter into the economics of the situation, and be easily modeled by current theories to boot. I mean, the labor supply curve is backward bending so that people will generally work more if you pay them more, but only up to a point. Ex. If you pay me $25 an hour, I’ll work. If you pay me $50 an hour, I’ll probably work more (actually I might work less because I value time so highly). But think of the limit case. If you pay me a million dollars an hour, would I work more hours than I did when I was getting 50 an hour, or would I work one hour and be done for the rest of my life. At some point, the money we earn from another hour of work won’t make us very happy (cause we’re doing fine) and the value of an hour of “my time” becomes very large. So people stop working.

In this future economy this person is talking about, it might be true that the value of free time goes way up, but all this means is that our consumption will shift from things to time so that we will make less money and so have less things but we’ll participate in more things.

But there is also a tie-in in this article to this TED video (TED is so awesome, watch this if you can). The guy in this video is, like most people, saying some insightful things, and some things that I disagree with. In this video, Clary Shirky (the aforementioned “guy”) talks about how social media/communication advances help found Ushahidi, a great conflict tracking software that is now used all over the world to help people deal with political violence and unrest (I think someone at Tufts was important for promulgating this software). He calls the growth of free time that can be used for social good “cognitive surplus” and he has all sorts of bright-eyed pronouncements for what this will do for us. And he’s right.

The flip side though, as Clay recognizes, is that we create a lot of LOLCats, which is just Clay’s idiosyncratic way of saying that communication creates a lot of crap too. He doesn’t worry about this though, because he says that even with the printing press, erotic novels preceded academic journals by a hundred years. He even says at one point that though communication produces a lot of LOLCats, its good because at least these people are doing SOMETHING with their time as opposed to nothing. But here is where I think Clay really gets in trouble because he says some BIZARRE things about the twentieth century, like: we had a lot of time to do things because we had high material prosperity, but without the internet to link us rapidly to other people, there wasn’t much to do. And because there wasn’t much to do, LOLCats by frivolous people are better than those people sitting at home. HUH?! People had nothing to do in the twentieth century? That seems like a very strange thing to say. People participated in webs of sociality that were smaller certainly (and I don’t think smaller necessarily means better by any means), but they barbequed with their neighbors in the suburbs, or got high and rocked out, or protested, or played hide and go seek with other kids on the block, like I did.

Once we see that sociality existed in a very face-to-face way, we can see what I want offer as a deep critique of internet optimism or “cognitive surplus” nirvana, which is that just as we found out money can only make us happy up to a point, we are also going to find out that manipulating data (even with the best of intentions) can only make us so happy. Right now the internet is young and everything seems so great, and it is, but as we mature and interface more tightly and closely with our devices and electronic worlds, we might find out that we need to walk next door and speak to a human being after all. Humans want to participate of course, but they also want to have friends and be loved, and maybe for me the most sacred, have a conversation with all its richness: shifting your weight, crossing your arms, reading facial expressions, changing the subject, responding to criticisms, touching the other person, making them mad, making them laugh. Conversations in real time with real people have a depth that simply isn’t possible in any other way, and if we’re shut away in our house checking our status or making LOLCats (or writing this blog..uh oh) then we’re not doing something rather than nothing, we’re doing something quasi-social rather than something robustly social.


Capitalism, Radical Change, and Charity

I haven’t though carefully about the revolution against capitalism in a long time, but some very inquisitive friends of mine have provoked me to reconsider the issue again by sending me this video with Slavoj Zizek discussing the impulse to corporate charity or social responsibility. I think there’s a ton to say.

There are a lot of subtle points in this video, including a very timely observation about the commodification of helping people. We can buy coffee, tvs, and now, we can buy a feeling of good-will after we purchase fair trade coffee or shop at charitable boutiques. We buy our altruism pre-packaged as it were, and this worries people who think capitalism has a generally degenerative effect on human life.

There are more specific arguments, and one which is a constant theme in Zizek’s work, is that some things buy off resistance to capitalism as a system. If we can give charitably within capitalism, then we don’t feel so guilty about capitalism and we won’t have cause to sweep it away. Another example is environmental regulations. If we keep putting piecemeal reforms in place, we will never have to confront the fundamentally exploitative relationship we have with nature.

The problem I think with these types of arguments is that they are very nebulous. For example, Zizek says all these comments that sound pretty negative about charity but then says some words to the effect of “but of course I’m not opposed to charity, its terrible for people to suffer when it could be alleviated, I just think it’s important to keep in mind that when we engage in socially responsible consumerism, we are using the system that excluded these people in the first place to help them.” But what does “keep in mind” mean. Should we just be aware of it? Or should those thoughts effect our actions, and if yes, then what should the actions be? An answer will turn on the specifics of capitalism.

Anyway, I get kind of rankled by the vague utopianism proposed by many far left thinkers, especially Zizek.

First, Zizek talks about how commodified charity makes us less resistant to capitalism, because it makes capitalistic exploitation look friendlier. But the reverse can be said as well: opposition to capitalism as a system makes us more resistant to reforms of capitalism that benefit average people (even though Zizek says he’s of course “not opposed to charity.”) Many utopian leftists continually poo poo marginal changes because they quote “entrench the system.” Then it is supposed to be a contradiction or somehow illegitimate to believe that socially responsible capitalism can be the antidote to brutal industrial capitalism (or whatever), since they are both forms of capitalism.

But this is just a straight logical fallacy. There are many situations where adding more of the same factor that created a problem, actually removes the problem. Here’s a classic example. Adding a few UN peacekeepers to an unstable country may (in fact usually does) cause more instability because there is now a new faction and both sides can hide behind peacekeepers or blame them to increase outrage in their own faction. However, the fact that some UN troops caused problems does not show that adding A LOT MORE troops would be even worse. Sometimes all that’s needed is enough troops. The surge might be an example of this. Some troops = insurgent militias. Even more troops = largely calm Iraq (I hate using mathematical symbols in posts, sorry about that). So, because industrial capitalism is bad doesn’t mean that adding more capitalism in the form of commodifying more things (like altruism) will make things worse. In fact, it seems that as capitalism has expanded, the world has become calmer and more prosperous.

Also, I want to make two more broad points. First, we can make capitalism look better by merely making it LOOK better or by actually making it better (which in turn makes it look better) just like we can make a crappy car look better by just changing the paint or by adding better tires (which actually makes it better). Zizek seems to think that socially responsible consumerism is MERELY a cosmetic change to capitalism, but I think that’s just false. It’s true, charity makes capitalism looks better, but only because it actually DOES make capitalism better (as new tires make a beat-up car look better), and so we should favor it. Zizek may be right that we buy fair trade starbucks out of guilt, but what’s wrong with that? It seems that this guilt is what has been driving a fairer, wealthier society for many decades now.

Now my last point is one about the “essence” of capitalism. Is capitalism itself, no matter what form it takes, bad? Or are only some types of capitalism bad? Zizek seems to think that since capitalism itself is bad, no amount of reforms (such as free trade starbucks) can redeem it. But I find this to be a pretty incredible claim. What is the essence of capitalism? I think the answer is free exchange, and in this boiled down form, what could be the problem? Pretend in the utopian future, where there is no property, you want help learning to sail, and I say I’ll help you if you teach me to fly a plane. Here a bargain is struck that makes both of us better off. Ta da, capitalism! And what if we make this a standing agreement every friday and then what if i make this bargain with even more people so that all I do is help people learn to sail (fair disclosure: I’m actually terrible at sailing) in return for things I want.  Now Zizek might be right that some types of capitalism are bad (say, crony capitalism, or wall street capitalism, or gilded age capitalism, or industrial capitalism, or whatever), but if the essence of capitalism is unobjectionable (free trade) then some number of reforms (to sand out the rough edges) + capitalism will be unobjectionable as well.

And what I mean is this: given that capitalism in its essence, is so common sensibly good (trade increases net benefits for all people) any desirable social or political arrangement will be, to some degree, capitalistic. Now, there is a BIG question about how capitalistic things should be, and me, being a boringly moderate liberal, think that the role of capitalism should be fairly circumscribed by democratic institutions, but that’s much different than saying capitalism PER SE must go.

Anyway, on net, I think Zizek uses somewhat elusive language to make things like socially responsible consumerism seem much more sinister than they are. If some people buy lattes to think they are doing good, then fine: after all, they are doing some good, though they are fooling themselves if they think all their moral responsibilities are taken care of. Psychologically, such smugness might mean that these people don’t give to famine relief or vote for redistributive policies, which would be bad, but I don’t think that it works that way. I think most people buy fair trade because they, like most other people, are being more and more struck by the need to help others and work for the benefit of all people.


The Karate Kid, Sequels, and America

Karate Kid, the remake, is coming out today, and like a million other movies these days, it’s a remake. Since one of America’s principle export these days is its culture, the comparison between art, particularly movies and music, and America’s place in the world is irresistible to me.

In recent times, America has had some real chart toppers and blockbusters. For example, “WWI: new world saving old,” was pretty good. The sequel, “WWII: back to Europe,” was even better. After that, there was another string of successes for the US of A including “The Berlin Airlift” and an under-appreciated thriller, “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” Still though, after that the U.S. has had some trouble creating hits. The Vietnam war? Iraq 2? Not really in keeping with some of its earlier work.

And so now I’ll just go ahead and make explicit this somewhat tepid metaphor I’ve been playing with: is America past its prime? Is it just a dried up old film franchise trying to resuscitate its glory days? Is it any coincidence that the United States’ waning success and lack of progressive achievements corresponds with remakes of the A-team and Karate Kid? Is the U.S. just one big Beverly Hills Cop 4, Lethal Weapon 5, Terminator 5, or Rocky 8 (or whatever number that franchise is on)?

It seems that there is a real convergence between art and politics so that a nation’s best political times fall in line with its best art (but then again Hitchcock made great films before the Civil Rights Act, so there goes that simplistic comparison). But my main concern still stands. The problem with America is that it really did live up to the hype. It was founded for doing great things and it did some really great things, but are we stagnating and just running on the fumes of our past albums and films (figuratively and literally, since as I said, our pop culture industry recycles its tired old themes to keep our foreign exchange up).

But if this pessimistic comparison is natural, then perhaps there is a natural hope too, which I clarified for myself most explicitly by reading a book on film sequels (which I wrote about here). The sequel is an opportunity for a director to question a tradition and to make the film’s very history or existence a problem to be addressed in art. Because a sequel is not freestanding and must answer to themes that came before it, it must, to succeed as art, engage with its history and lineage. But if that’s true of film, then it can be true of America. America has a chance to create some sequels to its past achievements, and this is an opportunity and not just a burden. The opportunity is there to create real political art by reflecting on the past, both good and bad, and to create a new politics that responds to the conditions of our very preeminence in the world. Without this reflection, we will continue to create bad art and in turn, bad politics.


self defeat

I was having a talk/argument with my roommate, and we were discussing human history. This is a broad topic, and there’s not too much to say that’s really true about it since its so varied. There are, however, different lenses to view human history, and all of them provide insights. Hegelians and Marxists believe that the world is moving in a single direction toward some ultimate goal. Other ideologies believe the world is working toward Armageddon, collapse, or chaos. Some think that the fortunes of human human life oscillate or drift and that there is no real direction, only aimlessness.

As I said, all of these views hold some truth to them, and another way, which I think is interesting, is to think of human life as an exercise in self defeat. Not total or outright self defeat, but subtly sabotage. On a small scale, we see how human beings can be self defeating in a variety of ways. We want what we can’t have, or we give up on wanting something when we find out we can’t have it, or we want something and then once we get it, we want the opposite (the grass is always greener…somewhere else). We pursue one goal only to find out that it didn’t lead where we thought and in fact sealed off other possibilities. On a grander scale, we see human innovation and the wonder of creativity containing the seeds of its antithesis or opposite (now I sound kind of Hegelian huh?). Some examples: the peace of WWI guaranteed the advent of WWII. The fall of the roman empire, and the consistent tendency I see in modern political life to take a good idea and run with it until it dies or runs out of its magic.

Take liberalism. Originally, it seemed like a great idea. It helped to topple monarchies and to usher in democracies, rights, a private sphere for the individual and a vast array of improvements. But it might be time to wonder if liberalism is dying. Democracy has morphed into the mass society, and rather than a spirited antagonist to monarchy, it is now a half-ignored process that runs our country on auto-pilot. Liberalism has won its ultimate triumph in the form of a corrupted culture and the deification of arbitrary choice. We choose our friends and choose our news, and in the process lose out on both, which require a resistant world for us to engage with all our powers.

Now I don’t want to join the alarmist rhetoric of some political camps. There has been real progress, and I don’t think liberalism has exhausted its ability to provide insights, but the day is coming when it, like the Roman Empire, and yes, even the American empire, will pass away. What will replace it? What new idea will bring fire to the eyes of people and inspire the next round of revolution and change? Whatever the idea turns out to be, its revolutionary power will reign supreme for a time, and then, slowly, like all ideas, its presuppositions and self-defeating assumptions will catch up to it, and decay will set in again. We will have defeated ourselves again. Two steps forward, one step back.