Posts Tagged ‘revolution


European History pt. 49 — Mid Century Agitation

Last time I started on a short chapter that tried to do a kind of potted intellectual history of the early 19th century. I found it kind of tedious, so I’m basically skipping it. Most of it was about nationalism and how various movements formed secret societies with national identities as well as reviving peasant languages of one type or another (in Russia particularly).

Eastern Question

If you remember, Metternich managed to solve the eastern, Polish question by getting Russia to accept a congressional Poland. As soon as the ink was dry on this proposal though, agitation begun. Poland wanted to be re-unified and did not want Russian control. They longed to be connected with Prussian Poland and Austria Hungary Poland.

Germany Proper

Metternich was watching Germany closely, and he didn’t like what he saw. He saw the creation of Burchenschafts, youth clubs that were in favor of a peasant (read, democratic) Germany. A German writer who was an informant for Russia was assassinated. The assassin was sent gushing letters of gratitude. Metternich could not stand for these agitations and so called various leaders together at Carlsbad. There they issued the Carlsbad decrees which renewed repression in parts of Germany and Austria Hungary. Some German leaders retracted constitutions that they had granted.


In England, parliament passed the corn laws to raise the revenue for landowners. This made grain much more expensive and the lower classes rebelled. There were some uprisings and some peaceful protests, some organized by the powerful new factory class. Most people at the time joined in the call for annual elections of parliament by universal male suffrage along with the repeal of the corn laws. At one such peaceful demonstration, British soldiers fired on the crowd in what was termed the “Peterloo” massacre (1819). It was also at this time that a conspiracy to assassinate all the members of the cabinet was hatched. They were caught on Cato street, hence “cato street conspiracy”


At Home with the Marquis De Sade

I finished At Home with the Marquis De Sade. I started off wanting to read about him because many european philosophers make reference to him and treat him with some reverence in terms of his place in intellectual history.

The book wasn’t an intellectual history though, but a personal biography. That was fine, I was just curious about this man who I had heard inspired the word “sadism.”

In the end, I think I found out why people find him so interesting. He was one of the first true anti-enlightenment writers in the tradition of a marx or a Nietzsche, who rails against everything that is taken for granted and accepted. He thought pain could be good, that humans were by nature bad, that the governments were organized perpetrators calumny and theft. He was voraciously against the death penalty, an egomaniacal aristocrat who pretended to be a revolutionary to stay alive. He was a misogynist and a swindler, but a champion of sexual equality and also just ONE WEIRD DUDE.

Hearing about his sexual exploits was kind of interesting and shocking. He was into weird stuff, smelling people’s farts, anal sex. When he was in his seventies, he tried to have anal sex with a 17 year old girl. He horrified prostitutes with his deranged wishes. He used the mathematical null sign to indicate in his diary when he had had anal sex. He call dildos that he used for masturbation “prestiges.”

I find two progressions particularly revealing abou this life. For one thing, he was almost always in jail. Vincennes, the Bastille, and finally he ended up in a mental hospital, Charenton. He probably visited a total of more than 15 jails, and he survived execution during the Terror by nothing more than a mistaken roll-call (or maybe he bribed someone). His jail sentence I think contributed heavily to his view that life was nothing but a series of wrongs built on a foundation of injustice. What he did to initially land in jail was bad. It was exploitative, traumatizing, and harmful. But he never caused permanent harm to anyone (I don’t believe, it’s hard to keep track of what happened to all the prostitutes he slept with after the fact). But his reputation just grew and grew until he was seen by all sides, royalist and revolutionary as a monster. A fringe maniac who wanted nothing but blood. Of course, his novels didn’t help with that impression as the descriptions that the author of At Home chooses to quote are truly horrifying. Cannibalism, rape, torture, infanticide. All on a large scale. It is kind of frightening, even for a modern reader who has watched Kill Bill and seen horror movies.

The other progression is of Sade’s personal/social life. He is such an irascible person, but it is compensated by his unbelievable charm and charisma. The combination of his insufferability and his magnetism created a pattern through all of his main personal contacts. His wife, Pelagie, loved him ardently, but over a period of decades, his tantrums slowly ground her down, to the point where she could not tolerate him. She utterly and completely cut ties with him. This process repeats in everyone Sade meets. Pelagie’s mother was the same way, but she, the Madame De Montreuil, was smarter, and so her period of infatuation with Sade was shorter. Sooner or later though, everyone grows tired of helping him out. First Madade De Montreuil, then his wife Pelagie, then his best friend from home (forgot her name), then his lawyer and counselor Gaufridy, then his son and finally his best friend Madade De Quisnet all reach their limit with him. He loses all his friends in this way, and it’s quite sad to see how he incapable of properly valuing a relationship.

However, my overarching conclusion about Sade though is that very little of his reputation as a “great” (here just meaning momentous) man is deserved. He’s really what today we would just call a garden variety loser. His dad was deadbeat, and he followed right along. He never made any money in his life, he clung to his aristocratic title like a talisman, and indulged himself in a paralyzing type of egoism, complete with tantrums and delusions. When his lawyer was on the run, trying to stay alive as revolutionary members of the terror were hunting down royalists like himself, Sade complained that he wasn’t finding enough credit to feed the Marquis’ unrepentant gluttony. I don’t know if it has been considered, but there seems to be a strong chance that Sade was bipolar. His kids treated him terribly, but it’s not surprising given that he would hurl abuses at them and their mother when all she did was try to make his incarceration term in the Bastille more comfortable. I mean, if Sade hadn’t decided to write some of the most offensive fiction ever seen until that point in history, he would be a painfully pathetic person.

Last, I can’t resist contrasting and comparing Sade with Robespierre. Robespierre was the ultimate prig. The ultimate prude. A famous quote about him was that he would pay someone to offer him gold just so that he could refuse it. The ultimate in self-righteousness. Sade was the opposite and obese man of desires, he lived only to satisfy whatever desire crossed his mind. Sade was an aristocrat, Robespierre was a petty bourgeoise. The contrasts are extensive, but what they shared was an ability to hold others captive with their words, written (Sade) and spoken (Robespierre). It’s amazing that either of them became anything at all, given how socially flawed they were (Robespierre had his best friends put to death, Sade drove them to misery), and how untalented they were at most things.

To me, there is some kind of wider trend going on, because during the French revolution, it seems like there were so many lunatics running around who were endowed with power and respect. How did that happen? Another example: Jean Paul Marat, a pamphleteer in the French revolution who indiscriminately called for death and massacre in the name of revolution. Du Plessix Gray rightly calls him “one of the revolution’s most bloodthirsty vampires.”



Masters of the Universe

I started classes today, and so things might get more philosophical around here.

Today I didn’t think I had time to post anything, but then I got in the shower and thought about some ideas that I thought would be worth putting down, if I could do it quickly and then get back to work.

This is another post about academia, but more generally about society and respect (warning: these are generalizations of course, but I mean for this post to be a kind of social/psychological diagnosis, and so I can work with statistical regularity or cultural salience). Most people in academia, and in fact professionals happen to be a pretty arrogant group, and the reason comes partly from their smartness, which allows people to take a very wide view of the type of work they do, and so inflate their value. Take philosophers, who have almost no obvious value to society. We don’t make things or help people, but sometimes we come up with some interesting ideas. And in fact, philosophers do make a difference, slowly and surely, and oftentimes very indirectly. But since philosophers are smart, they can follow these attenuated and indirect connections to their conclusion, and so end up seeing themselves in an undeserved heroic light. The philosopher sees himself as the arbiter of thought; he decides which thoughts are worth thinking or are acceptable to be thought. This becomes very annoying, and the worthlessness of this stance becomes especially clear when the philosopher comes up against a person of “action.” Revolutionaries, military heroes, and humanitarians might fall into this category. When the philosophers sneers that there is “no justification” for the course someone is pursuing, they are trying to limit and control conduct by deciding what should count as true thought. (get a philosopher started on what they think is “rational” and you’ll see what I mean real quick).

Nietzsche makes this point well when he labels some philosophers as operating from ressentiment. These philosophers are afraid of action and choice and so retreat to an ideology of thought. For example, Hannah Arendt talks about the VITA CONTEMPLATIVA or the “contemplative life” as the ideal of some early Greek philosophers. She contrasts this with the VITA ACTIVA, which is the life of action.

Ok, so now I’ve skewered philosophers, but see how this same sort of ideological perversion is endemic to academia, and some professional careers. Think of the English major who carries the burden of being stereotyped as a snob. This type of person (not all, or probably even English Ph.D.s are like this, but the stereotype is culturally salient) sees themselves not as the enforcer of what counts as good thought, but what counts as culture. They are the guardian of high culture as against the masses who watch movies like Beverly Hills Cop I, II, and III (not pointing any fingers). Scientists are the guardians of technical knowledge, and the know-it-all attitude follows closely behind. The endless corrections about this and that constant.

But just as the philosopher can try to enforce the life of contemplation even when the life of activity is staring us in the face, so can other disciplines make the same mistake. The scientist makes the a-bomb because he wants to KNOW “if it can be done,” while everyone else wonders why we don’t just say “who cares if we never know.” The doctor says “you’re being unhealthy” and the soldier says “I’m not concerned with health.” He leaves the realm of health behind. The economist says “you’re wasting money” and the poet says “I’m in love.”

What I’m trying to say is that ideologies of dominance grow up around a profession and people begin to believe that they are somehow the embodiment of the most special value available to humans, life (doctors), death (soldiers), rationality (philosophers), knowledge (scientists), justice (lawyers).

Rather than close with a boring platitude about how we should all just get along (which we should), I want to move in a different direction, and say why I greatly admire the common man, for example, the carpenter who is always renovating the house next to mine. These people either don’t entertain, or have the basis for, such grandiose thoughts. The person who paves the roads I drive or fixes my shower, is contributing to society in pervasive and influential way, but the ideology of the working person is, as many have deridingly noted, humble and “down to earth.” There is no greater purpose or animating value that has to be puffed up with rhetoric or ideology. There is only a task and the will to achieve it.

Now of course, there is a real risk of romanticizing the working class, and I am particularly prone to that tendency having not been exposed to that life. And course, its a hard life, and it might be coercive and oppressive in a variety of ways. It also might suffer from a lack of intellectual exposure. There’s no need to sanitize the effects of pervasive ignorance on many issues. Still though, there is coercion in all forms of life, and while we work to alleviate it, we can understand why two workers carrying cement in the hot sun are nonetheless talking excitedly to each other and smiling to boot.

Marx tried to provide the worker with his transcendental purpose, so that he could be like the lawyer, doctor and philosopher. So that he could be an equal. On Marx’s theory, only the simple working man could bring a revaluation of society that would release the true spirit of human beings and repair our fractured souls. But here again we see the old tendency of IDEOLOGY; to invent a way to be better than everyone else secretly. Marx was tired of all the values that the upper classes kept babbling about and flipped everything so that in fact, those values were just masks for oppression: only the worker held the key to salvation.

But if I’m right in this post, we can see that this is just the same old trick; that of inflating the values of one sphere of life at the expense of others. Marx didn’t hide this: there wasn’t much for professional to do after the takeover; they might even have to be killed (as they were in many places). I would like to say to the marxist, perhaps even the unrepentant capitalist is engaged in a certain type of valuable pursuit? Would that be so hard to admit?

Anyway, I’m not sure if what I’m saying is that values are “incommensurable” so much as I’m saying that they are finite. No value can be stretched to cover the whole of human life, and so my going philosophy is that of the traveler who tries to experience every foreign land to learn its charm, and then, maybe, return happily to his homeland, where he lives out his days in peace.


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.