Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.


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Hölderlin is a poet of the lost, and at times, the reader reaches into the same darkness for the same answers. And if the poet doesn’t provide any, well, I don’t have them either.

As with so many of the Romantics, it is tempting to read his life as embodying his poetic vocation, but I think we would do so at our peril. For the reader of good intellectual conscience, it is simply embarrassing to read overheated nineteenth-century claims that his mental collapse tells us that he was “too fine of feeling for the world”. Let us stick with what we know.

In Hölderlin’s case this is made all the more difficult by the increasing obscurity of his poetic matter as he moved toward the breakdown that would leave him a ward of caretakers for the second half of his life. One cannot help but be deeply touched imagining him gazing out of his solitary tower toward the river for these many years.

There is almost too much that can be said about this towering figure and his short career. He was hardly the first German to take the literature and mythology of the ancient Greeks as his primary concern, but he was, I think, the first to take it seriously in its own terms as a religious idiom, and to find himself under the spell of the Greek divinities, especially Dionysus (or Bacchus, as Hölderlin himself always referred to him).

And he was certainly one of the first to see ancient Greek culture as a meeting place of opposed, powerful energies striving toward disorder and release as much as toward harmony and balance – this reading surely caught the attention of the young Nietzsche, who read and admired the poet. And perhaps we should take it as cautionary that these two great writers both took Dionysus for their patron, and both ended their lives in complete psychological disorder.

So there is that to be said for Hölderlin, and on top of it we have his close friendship with Hegel and Schelling, his classmates at a protestant seminary. The thorough research of Manfred Frank has given us an extensive record of their work together in collectively formulating post-Kantian early Romantic idealism. What reader of Hölderlin could fail to be fascinated by this?

But to return to the demands of critical appraisal, I will admit that if any trace of Hölderlin’s intense philosophical exploration are to be found in his poems, they are invisible to me, except perhaps insofar as he struggled to find a new language for his new mythology, and this new language is often exceedingly obscure.

Despite being a poet who took Pindar and Sophocles as models, Hölderlin nevertheless sounds uniquely modern to my ears, as far ahead of his Zeitgeist as Büchner was to his. I was reminded of this recently reading Robert Musil’s novel Die Verwirrungen des Zögling Törleß, which, I think, owes a great debt to Hölderlin’s image of the night of the Gods for its modernist characterization of a breakdown of values.

In addition to Hölderlin the classicist, Hölderlin the philosopher, and Hölderlin the modernist, there is Hölderlin the craftsman, who is perhaps my favorite Hölderlin of all. This is the wordsmith who could periodically convey poetic images of enormous force when he wasn’t too busy groping in the darkness, the Hölderlin of “Die Eichbäume”:

Keiner von euch ist noch in die Schule der Menschen gegangen,
Und ihr drängt euch fröhlich und frei, aus der kräftigen Wurzel,
Unter einander herauf und ergreift, wie der Adler die Beute,
Mit gewaltigem Arme den Raum, und gegen die Wolken
Ist euch heiter und groß die sonnige Krone gerichtet.
Eine Welt ist jeder von euch, wie die Sterne des Himmels
Lebt ihr, jeder ein Gott, in freiem Bunde zusammen.

Or “Heidelberg”:

Wie der Vogel des Walds über die Gipfel fliegt,
Schwingt sich über den Strom, wo er vorbei dir glänzt,
Leicht und kräftig die Brücke,
Die von Wagen und Menschen tönt.

Or “Der Gang aufs Land”:

Aber schön ist der Ort, wenn in Feiertagen des Frühlings
Aufgegangen das Tal, wenn mit dem Neckar herab
Weiden grünend und Wald und all die grünenden Bäume
Zahllos, blühend weiß, wallen in wiegender Luft,
Aber mit Wölkchen bedeckt an Bergen herunter der Weinstock
Dämmert und wächst und erwarmt unter dem sonnigen Duft.

We even see this gift for dazzling concrete imagery in the first verse of “Brot und Wein”, which was initially published as a standalone poem:

Rings um ruhet die Stadt; still wird die erleuchtete Gasse,
Und, mit Fackeln geschmückt, rauschen die Wagen hinweg.
Satt gehn heim von Freuden des Tags zu ruhen die Menschen,
Und Gewinn und Verlust wäget ein sinniges Haupt
Wohlzufrieden zu Haus; leer steht von Trauben und Blumen,
Und von Werken der Hand ruht der geschäftige Markt.

This is perhaps the pivot-point of his development, and following that elegy his spiritual concerns would increasingly eclipse his interest in concrete expression. But great work was still to come, and while I wouldn’t particularly defend Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, I agree with his very high assessment of poems like “Der Ister”. Some of it is shear magic:

Man nennet aber diesen den Ister.
Schön wohnt er. Es brennet der Säulen Laub,
Und reget sich.

Or take his conception of the river, which reflects the light of the sun and the moon, as reconciling these opposing energies within itself:

Ein Zeichen braucht es,
Nichts anderes, schlecht und recht, damit es Sonn
Und Mond trag im Gemüt, untrennbar,
Und fortgeh, Tag und Nacht auch, und
Die Himmlischen warm sich fühlen aneinander.

Hölderlin is one of those towering figures I cannot get away from, as all roads lead back to them. Fortunately for me, I wouldn’t want to, and his beautiful and haunting poems will be my companions for the rest of my life.


Written by Mesocosm

April 11, 2023 at 3:30 am

Posted in Poetry

On Soup Throwing and Other Bad Ideas

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[Note: this piece is cross-posted from my Substack Macrocosm Climate Report. If you’re interested, check it out and think about subscribing! – meso]

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” – Nietzsche

A new front of climate activism has opened up in recent years with frequent, high-profile disruptions by activists seeking to bring attention to the cause. In the last few weeks alone, activists have thrown soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery, thrown potatoes on a Monet in Potsdam, squirted an unidentified liquid onto a Toulouse-Lautrec painting in Berlin, climbed the largest complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex in Europe, and, as I was writing this piece, blocked the A100 in Berlin, preventing an emergency vehicle from reaching a woman bicyclist who had been run over by a cement truck.

Of course, that the climate crisis demands urgent attention is not in dispute. We are not doing enough, and the resulting loss of life and destruction to the ecosystem could be catastrophic. The UN no longer believes that there is a credible pathway to limit our global temperature increase to 1.5° C as stipulated by the Paris Agreement, and our current trajectory of 2-3 degrees may mean disaster.

That being said, these actions deserve engagement on both a moral and practical level, and here I have to say the response within conservation and climatology circles has been disappointing and inadequate, and totally incommensurate with the increasingly-radical nature of these actions. There may be a case to be made for such activism, but to my knowledge, that case has not been made, and the issue has largely remained unexamined.

I follow a large number of activists and conservation groups, and I haven’t seen a single serious critical analysis of these actions. I believe this represents a serious failure, and an abnegation of the responsibility of the climate community to monitor the legitimate parameters of its own engagement.

Every single moral defense I have seen of these actions has been an obvious equivocation, without exception. Typical arguments include: “If you think what they have done is bad, how much worse is it to despoil the ecosystem for profit?” “Do you believe that a couple of paintings are worth more than preserving all life on Earth?” “Nothing else was working, so they had to do something.”

Two wrongs make a right? We are justified in risking irreparable harm to our cultural heritage as long as we hold our cause to be just and urgent? Better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing? These arguments can’t be taken seriously, and offer not so much of a defense as a statement of the speaker’s refusal to engage critically with the activists.

I am reluctant to bring yet more attention to these antics, but given the paucity of serious discussion about the implications of such action, I would like to offer a provisional critique of this approach, focusing especially on demonstrative attacks against art. And because the discussion so far has been entirely inchoate, I’d like to ground my criticism in basic theories of political activism, of art, and of conservation.

But first I want to take a quick detour to consider the objection that these actions shouldn’t be judged to harshly because they are merely performative and do not cause real harm.

“They’re not actually hurting anything”

The substance of my critique does not actually depend on any explicit or implied threat of destruction , but it’s nevertheless worth noting that this defense is neither persuasive nor particularly comforting. Thus far, activists have depended on the ability of panes of glass to defend artworks against whatever stew they throw, and the likelihood of accidental damage grows with every incident.

But the greater threat is that as soon as this news cycle cools and these actions no longer elicit the intended shock, activists will escalate and do actual damage. Do we think this is unlikely? In response to widespread criticism of the road blockade that delayed emergency vehicles from reaching an accident victim, one activist Tweeted “Shit, but don’t be intimidated. This is climate struggle, not climate cuddle, and shit happens.”

There is a further danger that the repetition of such acts establishes the strategy as a general tactic for any political cause that one wants to publicize. As it is, the frequency of these tactics has accelerated significantly since the Van Gogh incident captured global headlines. We could eventually find museums a battleground for activists clamoring for or against the right to choose, for or against racial or economic inequality, or to bring attention to this war or that humanitarian disaster. And every time we object, we will have to be prepared to answer the question “What’s more important, a couple of paintings, or racial justice?”

How does one answer such a question? How do we tease apart for a hostile audience the several layers of misunderstanding embodied by the question itself? How do we explain that the question only exists because this false choice has been arbitrarily forced upon us, by them? Or explain that many things have value, and the world is complex?

The political logic that absolutizes one’s own particular issue directly undermines our ability to have a free and open society, which depends on certain norms to regulate behavior. Open societies are always open to countless avenues of attack by their very nature, and we rely on things like people not knocking down street lights to sell their copper wire, and if we can’t, well, then we won’t have any street lights.

What is at issue is not “just” “a few paintings,” it is our consensus that certain types of political speech or advocacy are off limits, and that includes holding our open institutions hostage by implied threats.

Finally, there remains a deep question of what exactly its means to say that “no damage has been done.” As Judith Butler points out in her recent illuminating book on nonviolence, the notion of what constitutes “violence” is itself strongly contested. Is it “violent” to destroy a work of art? To threaten a work of art? To destroy a Confederate statue? To force the cancellation of a speech by phoning in a phony bomb threat? Do economically-discriminatory policies rise to the level of “violence”? Censorship? These questions are nontrivial, and they can be applied en masse to the problematize the concept of “damage.”

Simply giving people a pass without considering some of these issues appears to my eyes to be little more than intellectual laziness. Why have I seen no defense of museums among activists? Do they not have the right to operate without being made into battlegrounds for disruptive political actions that have nothing to do with them? Do we care nothing about museums, but museum administrators, donors, ushers, guards, and visitors?

I submit that people, certain institutions, and works of art have their own autonomy that must be respected, and that we have a moral obligation to regard them, as Kant urged, not merely a means to our ends, but as ends in themselves. That means their rights cannot be arbitrarily and unilaterally abridged – this is the basis of our entire concept of rights, and under certain conditions, this concept may be extended to cultural treasures. The International Criminal Court, for example, convicted Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for destroying religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu during an occupation by Al-Qaeda, and many have argued that Russia’s intentional assault on cultural artifacts in Ukraine constitutes a war crime. This is a reflection of how we see and value works of art, and it is not wrong.


The strategic thinking underlying these attacks on art is so poorly conceived that you could literally construct a working theory of political activism by simply taking the negation of all the key principles.

Let me suggest a few general principles for activism that I think are persuasive enough on their face to border on axiomatic. I think the relevance of these principles to our topic should be obvious.

1. Activism should be strategic and should work to advance concrete, achievable goals.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is a great example of this. In the 1960s, it successfully fought against segregation and disenfranchisement in the southern United States by carefully organizing and executing a long-term campaign of strategically-related actions that targeted concrete objectives. These actions collectively raised public awareness and put enormous political pressure on state and local governments to change course.

By contrast, the actions by groups such as Last Generation and Just Stop Oil have no stated objective other than to garner publicity and to provoke. The actions are disturbing by design, but how are we supposed to respond? What are their demands? How do we demonstrate to Just Stop Oil that we’ve learned our lesson and are taking climate seriously, so they will stop throwing soup on paintings?

The EU recently passed a ban on the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2035. But that did not stop Last Generation from blocking the A100 and disrupting emergency vehicles in life-saving work. Why did it not stop them? What more do they wish to achieve? Their nominal goal is to raise awareness of excessive use of car communing, and action has been taken. Was it the wrong action? Not enough? What kind of progress do they demand, on what timeline?

2. Actions should persuade, enroll, and enlist.

Climate change is an issue that affects all of us, and it needs to be a bipartisan, mainstream issue, as much as that is possible. Barricading roads and vandalizing art galleries clearly risks marginalizing the issue by leading a lot of folks on the fence to associate it with disturbing fringe political movements. The actions are intended to disturb.

P. T. Barnum is supposed to have said “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” This may be true for circus magnates, it is not true for political activists trying to drive broad consensus on complex political issues. A clear example of this fact is Greenpeace’s humiliating public apology after their activists trampled on ancient artwork left by the Nazca culture, which rightly caused international outrage. I doubt Greenpeace has done anything in the last 25 years that has garnered an equal amount of publicity, and it was incredibly negative.

Thus far, at least, the actions do not appear to be popular, even among the groups’ own supporters. The New York Times recently reported, for example, that Just Stop Oil, the soup-throwing group, took a poll of its supporters for what actions they should focus on in the future, and targeting art came in second to last.

3. There are two legitimate sites for disruptive actions: the public square, and the site of injustice. Collateral damage against innocent bystanders should be avoided for moral and strategic reasons.

The attack on the Toulouse-Lautrec painting and the shut-down of the A100 have one thing in common – they both took place within a few miles of a municipal coal-fueled power plant. Why not protest the power plant? Why not protest outside a PR firm working for a fossil fuel company? Why not protest outside the FDP office or the CDU office, where party leaders dismiss climate concerns and oppose sensible reform and policies?

The autonomy of art: a painting has rights

We looked briefly above at the fact that works of art enjoy a recognized legal status in the international community. They are afforded a special role in societies because of what they mean to people.

Before you start appropriating artwork into your didactic stage show of political theater, you have a moral obligation to at least consider the meaning of art. And this digression is worthwhile, because it is relevant to the question at hand, and to the related question of what conservation is fundamentally about.

One could easily spend a lifetime trying to answer the question “what is art?” and I won’t try to do that now. Instead, I will sketch a quick theory of how it functions, based mostly on a few milestones in the philosophy of art from the twentieth century.

Before asking what art is, let’s consider how it functions. I’m going to follow Joseph Campbell in this, who liked to explain the effect of art by relating an Chinese Buddhist koan or story called “The Flower Sermon.”

One day, the story goes, the Buddha’s disciples gathered for a teaching. The Buddha took his teaching seat and said no word, but held up a single flower. The assembly was puzzled, but at last his student Mahakashyapa smiled. “You alone have understood the essence of my teachings,” Buddha told him.

How are we to take this? The students were looking for a doctrine, for something they could understand, but what Buddha offered them was the thing itself, an image of life itself, and they were not to understand it, but to respond to it. You do not understand a flower, you enjoy it.

Art functions in a similar way, which helps to understand why it is notoriously difficult to explain. You cannot explain a Van Gogh painting, you can only respond to it, as an image of life.

The literary critic Walter Benjamin said something similar in a celebrated essay on Goethe which includes an important discussion of “criticism.” Benjamin sees proper criticism as itself a kind of art, one which does not explain, but which illuminates the life of the work. He opposes this conception of criticism to what he calls “commentary,” which is a factual or didactic explanation of art, like the footnotes in a Shakespeare play.

What then is criticism? He explains:

If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a burning funeral pyre, then the commentator stands before it like a chemist, the critic like an alchemist. Whereas, for the former, wood and ash remain the sole objects of his analysis, for the latter only the flame itself preserves an enigma: that of what is alive. Thus, the critic inquires into the truth, whose living flame continues to burn over the heavy logs of what is past and the light ashes of what has not been experienced.

The work of art is not the thing but the experience occasioned by the thing – a living experience shared by the artist and the audience. The actual painting or what have you is the occasion for the experience of art, like the log is the material base for the living flame. And the work of an art, in Benjamin’s terms, is an enigma that cannot be reduced to a simple, factual explanation. As a great many artists have insisted, if you try to explain a work of art, you kill it.

We could not find a more perfect example of this idea of art than Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Painted in Arles in the south of France in 1888, the painting is one of a series of natural studies he made with dizzying speed during this period, and they explode with life. Consider his famous “Starry Night,” a veritable “buzzing, booming confusion” which challenges the viewer to see the world as a living system of connected beings, each with its own vitality and purpose.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote two important essays differentiating what he, like Benjamin, took to be two different modes of experiencing the world, the technological and the artistic.

In his “The Question Concerning Technology,” he makes much of the fact that in German, as in English, the word griffen (grasp) means both “to take hold of” and “to understand.” In Heidegger’s view, most of the time our interaction with the world is a kind of mechanical process of interpreting the things we come across in terms of their use. We see a hammer, and we perceive it not as a thing with its own essence and character, but as “something for hammering,” and the actual being of the hammer remains distant.

He opposes this to the mode of experiencing art, which he examines in his essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art.” In this work, he says that the mode of perception of art is one in which we “let beings be.” Through art we recognize things as they are in themselves without the overlay of our utilitarian goals. A key example he provides is Van Gogh’s paintings of peasant shoes. These are commonplace objects, but the way that Van Gogh relays them to the viewer imbues them with a kind of numinous intensity, and this intensity we perceive is, at least in a limited way, the light of their being, or their intrinsic being. We see them as they are instead of putting them on and forgetting about them.

The life of conservation

This brings us back to Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” which, like the Buddha’s flower, offers a luminous image of life itself, asking us and allowing us to see the flowers not as things for us, but things with their own purpose, their own complexity and depth. They are not for us to use and discard like trash.

Having come full circle, I think you can probably understand why I believe throwing soup on these flowers as a political gesture is a rejection of everything that great art offers that borders on obscene.

And by trampling on the autonomy of art, the activist uncritically replicates the very stance toward life that has brought our climate to the brink of disaster – the attitude that the things of the world are here for us, and to serve our ends. It is Heidegger’s “technological” modality.”

Conservation is ultimately rooted in the human heart. We don’t just do the math and decide that destroying the Great Barrier Reef would be too expensive because of the lost tourist revenue. The beating heart of conservation – its enigmatic life – lies in understanding that the coral reefs and everything in them have the right to their own autonomy and their own destiny, and that this is an end in itself. Because we live in the world, sometimes our needs need to come first, but to ignore the intrinsic worth of life is ultimately to undermine the conditions of our own survival, as we have learned to our sorrow.

The political logic that would pave over the life of things and just appropriate them is abhorrent to me, and I despise the facile, totalizing attitude that reduces the world to a collection of tools to be deployed in service of one’s agenda. It is the opposite of respect and reverence for life.

And finally, I hate that this approach to promoting conservation is stupid and ugly. Its methods are coercive and brutal, and its goals are incoherent. These actions could not be more perfectly engineered to provoke ten thousand Tweets but little nuanced discussion, to get people shouting but not listening. And I hate the fact that so many in conservationist circles have tacitly or explicitly endorsed these actions without giving any real thought to any of this.

Written by Mesocosm

November 2, 2022 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

“A Brief History of Inequality” by Thomas Piketty

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Rodin's Burghers of Calais
Burghers of Calais, Rodin

In A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty reviews the distribution of wealth over the last few centuries and draws practical lessons that we can use to shape an agenda for moving toward a more just and equitable world. 

Piketty called his Capital in the Twenty-First Century “as much a work of history as of economics,” and this shorter volume is also deeply informed by historical research. This focus helps explain the author’s surprising popularity – unlike many economists who trade in esoteric equations, he keeps both feet firmly on the ground. 

One danger of ignoring history, he argues, lies in taking our particular forms of economic and political life as timeless and unchangeable. This can lead to the feeling that we’re trapped in a situation of spiraling inequality from which there is no escape. But in his survey of the last few centuries, he shows just how much progress has already been made. 

This is not to deny there is more work to do – far from it. As shown in his Capital, current levels of wealth and income inequality are bad and are getting worse, largely because the historical returns from investment always outpace the growth of an economy. This sets up a feedback loop where the people who have money to invest earn more money more quickly than those who don’t. In the absence of counter-balancing forces like effective progressive taxation and inheritance taxes, wealth tends to accumulate into larger and larger fortunes. 

This may be a natural tendency of growth, but we have more options for dealing with problems like this than we may think, and this is where Piketty kicks into high gear.

The nature of property ownership is not delivered from on high as a kind of natural law, even if that’s how it’s sometimes characterized in legal codes. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is the basis for the French legal understanding of property, states: 

The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.

The French definition naturalizes its conception of property, declaring ownership to be a universal right that is beyond the reach of political deliberation. Following this definition, French legislatures and courts have tended to favor a strong, expansive reading of property rights, which has limited the reach of redistributive policies.

But not all societies see it this way. For example, Article 14 of the German constitution declares: 

Property and the right of inheritance shall be guaranteed. Their content and limits shall be defined by the laws. Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good.

This formulation explicitly sets a context and limits for property ownership – it is not an intrinsic, inalienable right, but is legitimate only insofar as it serves the public good. This has shaped the German conception of ownership, sometimes in profound ways. For example, it forms the constitutional basis for laws requiring medium- and large-sized companies to set up a Betriebsrat, or worker’s council, which shares governance rights with shareholders. Imagine how Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would have been dealt with in a world where that company had such a council that looked after the interest of the company and the workers, and not just the shareholders.

As a matter of history, it is plainly true that “property” is not absolute. Ideas of ownership do not exist in the abstract, but consist in the historically-determined and changing frameworks of laws, norms, and power relationships without which the term has no meaning. How could we otherwise account for the fact that soon after the the Declaration was written and then for many decades, women did not have the right to inheritance or to open a bank account in France?

He doesn’t use the term, but I believe his thinking here is informed by the Marxist critical concept of reification, which refers to the distortions that occur when we view social relations or manufactured objects as though they have no history. It generally serves the interest of the status quo to naturalize certain fundamental conceptions – that is, to treat them as timeless truths, like the law of gravity. That is, of course, why people whose interests are served by the status quo tend to describe property rights as sacrosanct. But a study of history opens up a range of actual possibilities for reshaping these principles when it’s in the greatest common good to do so.

When Piketty looks at the last few centuries of inequality, a lot of the news he finds is good. This is why he called this book a history of “equality.” As he said in a recent New York Times interview, “I’ve always viewed my work and conclusion as relatively optimistic. And I was a bit sad to see that some people had a different reading.” 

I think relatively optimistic is a good way to put it – you could perhaps say, based on his findings, that the global story of equality has gone from “terrible” to “pretty bad.” If we go back to the period beginning with the earliest useful financial records that we have, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we find that the vast majority of people all over the world owned almost nothing. In Europe during this time, for example, the majority of the population did nearly all of the productive work, had no real political power, and paid most of the taxes. 

But progress has been made. Today, a far greater share of the world’s wealth is owned by a middle class, though the bottom half of the world’s property owners still collectively own virtually nothing, and wealth is still largely owned based on gender and national origin. But the key lesson of the past is that real change is possible. Sometimes even policies that were considered impossible for a long time can be achieved, like the progressive federal income tax in the United States.

A useful illustration that Piketty examines is Sweden, which showed extremely high political and economic inequality for all of the nineteenth century. But in the early twentieth century, the situation reversed, and Sweden built a successful welfare state. It in fact became one of the most egalitarian countries in Europe for the next century, and a number of related positive outcomes followed. If you had lived in Europe in 1900, you might well have believed that inequality in Sweden was simply a historical fact that would probably never change. But things did change, and they can change now. 

Piketty is under no illusions that a policy will save us. The major changes that have brought real progress have rarely come about by the smooth operation of the system. Progress is largely associated with the major shocks that create windows of opportunity. Some of the key shocks in our recent past have included the Great Depression and the World Wars. Ultimately, the role of the kind of policies he proposes is to inform public debate and to help shape the strategy of political actors. This is the focus of the second half of his book. 

The two primary problems he wants us to take on are economic inequality and sustainable development, both products of our newly-global economy. Under the current regime, both problems are extremely difficult to get a handle on, because our economic tools are not set up to address them.

With respect to inequality, the chief culprit Piketty focus on in this book is the lack of monitoring and controls on money moving across borders, which has dramatically increased since the triumph of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 90s. Similarly, our ability to handle climate change effectively is limited by the fact that our economic systems are not set up to capture or reflect the social and economic costs of climate damage in any meaningful way. For example, climate-polluting industries like steel and cement manufacturing, which create more greenhouse gases per year than any other sector, themselves pay no direct costs for any adaptation or mitigation efforts that societies make.

Dealing with these issues will take novel solutions which may very well require that we fundamentally rethink our current economic framework, but we have good reason to do so. Unlocking our borders to capital flight has led to a situation in which many developed countries are wealthy but their governments are poor. Many of the largest fortunes evade representative taxation by shady dodges such as incorporating offshore. Companies like Apple or Facebook are able to benefit profoundly from the technical and human infrastructure of the United States, such as its major investments in education, while giving little or nothing back by way of taxes, preferring the favorable tax rates of havens like Ireland.

At the same time, individual fortunes are amassed and cached overseas in offshore accounts, allowing the wealthiest individuals and families to put enormous fortunes beyond the reach of taxation. As he discussed in his Capital, the economist Gabriel Zucman conservatively estimated that 10% of the global GDP is currently stashed away in such havens – this amount is greater than the total official foreign debt of all wealthy countries. 

In order to address such abuses, countries must be able to to effectively monitor and control money flowing out of its borders. This would allow for measures like the exit tax recently proposed by Bernie Sanders, which would assess a tax on assets moved out of the country.

In Capital, Piketty suggested creating an international framework for implementing a nominal global tax on wealth, which would require that we set up a standardized international accounting scheme to monitor such flows. A step like this would go a long way toward cutting down on flagrant abuse.

In this book, he develops a similar idea, but from a national, rather than an international, perspective. He recommends that each country insist on its sovereign rights to manage money as it comes and goes, and to create their own systems for dealing with the problem.  

PIketty suggests a number of additional strategies for dealing with these issues, but his goal is not to provide a manifesto, but to consider a variety of options and to offer them up to feed the conversation. It is ultimately a matter for for democratic deliberation to determine which options to try. He broadly characterizes his framework as democratic socialism, with a strong redistributive welfare system, but without the state ownership and controls found in communist countries, which led directly to terrible authoritarian abuses. 

There is a lot more in this book than I can meaningfully cover in a short review, but this at least suggests some of the major arguments. I found it extremely useful and persuasive, and, like his other works, very well written.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Piketty but were daunted by the subject matter or length of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this might be a better way to check out his thinking. It is written with the layperson in mind in articulate, accessible prose. And if you’re daunted by the scope of challenges facing the world, it is refreshing to get a sense of how far we’ve already come, and to take stock of what we’ve already managed to do. 

As a final personal note, I’ll say that the challenges posed by inequality and sustainability are severe, but they’re the right problems for our historical moment, because ultimately they are problems about how we exist together, for the first time, as a global community. In a very real way, these problems amount to how we are going to treat each other and the world we live in. There is an opportunity here for us to collectively create an unprecedented framework for co-existence with an emphasis on fairness and stewardship. And if that sounds impossible, well, the progressive income tax was once thought impossible, too. 

Written by Mesocosm

July 13, 2022 at 5:44 am

Posted in History, Politics

Tagged with ,

Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”

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Before I begin on Hegel, I want to note that Terry Pinkard’s recent translation of this work is a vast improvement over the previous standard translation by A. V. Miller. It is better, more readable, closer to the original, and more consistent, and should be heavily preferred. I do not agree with every choice Pinkard makes – for example, rendering “die Sache selbst” as “the crux of the matter,” his dubious rendering of “Bildung” as “cultural formation,” or his somewhat distracting rendering of “überhaupt” as “full stop” – but when his translation makes a contestable choice, he nearly always calls it out in footnotes, and includes a valuable translation glossary.

Photo of Hegel's grave, Berlin
Hegel’s grave in Berlin, a two-minute walk from my first office in the city

Now on to Hegel.

I have tried to read this book many times before, and have always been blocked by Hegel’s prose, which is atrocious, at times because of the nature of the subject matter, but most often because of his penchant for impenetrable jargon, and most especially, because he very rarely tells you what he’s doing, or what he’s even talking about. For example, when he tells you that the spirit has projected itself back into indeterminacy driven by its newly-adopted ironic stance, it is left entirely to you to figure out that he’s talking about the society of manners that prevailed at the Valois court of France, and never once uses the words “Valois” or “France.” And that is how the book is written.

It is wearisome, and it is my belief that this book is literally incomprehensible without the assistance of commentary – either that, or spend 10 years on it. I myself relied heavily on four commentaries, by Terry Pinkard, J. M. Bernstein, Walter Kaufmann, and Charles Taylor, and availed myself of many additional articles, essays, and references, and I believe that is about what is minimally necessary to have a sense of it. I would warn against using a single commentary, because the more sources you use, the more you understand the various ways that Hegel has been understood, and especially the degree to which every key term and idea in this book has been contested.

I would add that before beginning I had read Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant’s three Critiques, Goethe and Schiller, Fichte and Schelling, Heidegger and Derrida. If, armed with that background, I was incapable of understanding Hegel without considerable assistance, it raises real questions about who exactly he thought he was writing for.

The narrator of Proust’s Remembrance observed that people tend to think that geniuses are like everybody else, only with some additional power or faculty grafted on to their otherwise-normal person, sort of like they have a third arm or eye. In fact, he reflects, people are generally misshapen or even deranged by genius in ways that make them intolerable to other people. I thought of this several times reading Hegel, wondering if it is possible he could have found a better language for his ideas, while remaining who he was.

I dwell on this aspect of the book for two reasons. First, it is a fact of the book that will continually confront any reader who dares to attempt to plumb its depths, and they must be prepared. Second, it is unfortunately part of the book’s negative legacy. Hegel helped inaugurate certain obscure tendencies of style in Germany and France that have haunted philosophy to this day.

So why read it at all, then? For myself, the answer is, I found after long years of trying to avoid it that Hegel remains at the center of many corners of the Great Conversation that I want to be in on, and it increasingly occurred to me as a great hole in my education. And I was not wrong – now that I have read it, I have recognized just how colossal his influence is, and it has turned up in places where I didn’t expect to find it. For example, it seems to me that Nietzsche owes a great debt to Hegel in his historical treatment of philosophy, and readers of Nietzsche may be surprised to find the phrase “God is dead” in the Phenomenology. And Jürgen Habermas, whom I have long thought of as largely a Kantian-type cosmopolitan, I now see as equally influenced by Hegel’s work in his theory of communicative action.

And so I set out to cross the sunless sea of this book, armed with commentaries, about which a word is essential.

As far as I can make out, Hegel interpretation in the last 40 years in the English-speaking world has been primarily divided into two camps, based largely, I would argue, on how they understand the idea of “spirit.” The older camp is dominated by Charles Taylor, and its primary commitment is the belief that the spirit is something “real”, a kind of self-positing collective consciousness that knows itself by virtue of individuals, who are its instruments or means of knowing. Essentially, spirit is a kind of semi-secularized stand-in for deity in a neo-pantheistic or neo-romantic interpretation of culture and the world.

The second camp is often referred to as Neo-Kantian in the literature, though I’m not sure which figures would actually claim that term. It seems to include Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, Paul Redding, and J. M. Bernstein, the latter of whom has referred to his own reading of Hegel as “deflationary.” This approach regards spirit not as a kind of super-being, but more like the totality of what human beings do with respect to the intersubjective character of their lives and experience, and particularly how they collectively deliberate about the basis of their own consciousness, intersubjectivity, and sense of meaning through art, philosophy, and religion.

I was surprised to come down rather strongly on the Neo-Kantian side of this issue, although I was initially skeptical. Certainly one advantage that the Neo-Kantians have is that their commentary is much clearer and more useful than that of the Taylor camp. I found Taylor’s classic study of Hegel, for example, to not be very useful or well-written, though one thing I did really admire was Taylor’s insistence on the importance of Herder for situating Hegel’s thought. I think this is quite correct, and that a serious reappraisal of Herder’s value and influence is past-due.

Detail from "Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers" by Johan Christian Dahl
Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers (detail), Johan Christian Dahl

Based on my own careful reading of Phenomenology, I believe spirit is in fact something like a faculty – specifically, the faculty that enables and requires human cognition to function intersubjectively. As to the question of its ontological status, in my view, spirit is analogous to a language, which, on one level, it is nothing more than the sum total of practices and capabilities of its actual speakers, but we nonetheless have a strong concept of language as if it had its own autonomous being. It would be hard to conceive of language without that conceit – we want to say, for example, that German verb tenses are easier to learn than English verb tenses, as if German is a “thing,” even if we don’t believe that German is somehow floating around “out there”.

Indeed, as J. M. Bernstein correctly insists, one of the whole points of Hegel’s thought is that we have to jettison any concept of the transcendent, which Hegel continually refers to as a contentless “other-worldly beyond,” and identifies as one of the most destructive bad ideas that has haunted the history of philosophy. Hegel wants to drive us out of the cloud-cuckoo land of the thing-in-itself and back into historical actuality, because the very idea of the transcendent keeps us locked in what he calls the “inverted world,” in which we insanely insist that what is least real is in fact what is most real, and vice versa.

What does this mean? A key example may be found in Kant, who argues that the unknowable thing-in-itself ultimately serves as the basis for all experience. He thereby keeps us forever locked out of any satisfying possibility of getting at the truth, or of knowing the world as it is, because the thing-in-itself is forever unavailable. That is to say, what is most real, or the concrete actuality of our lived experience, is for Kant what is least real, and the most contentless of all possible concepts, the thing-in-itself, is what is actual.

This is the general structure that inevitably falls out of subject-object dualism, and the first half of Hegel’s book is largely focused on criticizing the structure of that dualism, which casts us back again and again into the inverted world and keeps us locked out of the possibility of truth. Hegel defines this problem as the situation of modern philosophy, ever since Descartes argued that epistemology is first philosophy, and that the foundation of philosophy is to understand how we reconstruct a mental image of the world and determine if those reconstructions are correct.

Hegel has two ways of dealing with this problem, and his solution constitutes one of his main contributions to philosophy. The first is to jettison the idea of the self as fundamentally a knower of objects out there in the world, and to replace it with an idea of human beings as actors, who live in a world that is given to them, and who know it not through consciousness of an external world, but through self-consciousness of their own lives. The second is to jettison the idea of subjective atomism and to argue – quite persuasively, I think – that human experience is fundamentally intersubjective; specifically, that all forms of experience are always already permeated by concepts, and that concepts are fundamentally intersubjective in their character.

In my reading, it is this intersubjective faculty that Hegel refers to as spirit, and this book, as we well know, is the phenomenology of spirit. Hegel uses the term “phenomenology” in a rather different way than later phenomenologists like Bergson and Husserl – he uses it to refer to the understanding of knowing as self-consciousness.

This conceptual analysis of self-consciousness is part of Hegel’s program for making philosophy “scientific,” by which he means that spirit will give a full account of itself to itself using concepts. It will turn out in his fascinating chapter on religion that Hegel believes spirit has always attempted to work out an understanding of itself through religion, using images and representations, and that this is in fact what religion is. Religion, however, cannot recognize that this is what it is actually doing. It serves the spirit as a procedure for collectively deliberating about itself – that is, on the very ways that we collectively define our own ultimate sources of authority and value and then take them as binding – but it thinks it is actually discovering a truly-existent transcendent basis for its value and existence, which it calls God or the gods, or what have you.

It is only by preserving the concept that spirit can reflect on the ways in which ultimate values are collectively posited without losing hold of what it is actually doing and becoming confused, and taking the representations for the thing itself, thereby getting lost in the inverted world. Hegel argues, and I agree, that this requires conceptual analysis, and that this very process itself has only recently become possible for human beings. Prior to, say, the 18th century, it was possible to deliberate in sophisticated ways on the nature of the ultimate, but it is only after the Enlightenment that we have been able to deliberate on these matters self-reflectively, instead of doing so from within the closed framework of a particular value system.

The two tasks of Hegel’s book, then, are to explicate the way that spirit comes to know itself, and to trace the evolution of its various historical forms or moments – to consider the various historically-bound shapes of spirit’s self-understanding – in order to see how it is that we have now arrived at the point where we are at last able to do this work self-reflectively for the first time, not only grasping the spirit, but grasping it through concepts, philosophically – or, in Hegel’s language, scientifically – so that the richness of its manifold content can be preserved and known, and not dissolved into some kind of generalalized fuzzy idea of an absolute that contains everything but explains nothing.

Viewed from one perspective, what Hegel is doing is philosophically anticipating what was about to happen in the nineteenth century, and providing an account of it in advance. I think even he would have been surprised by the degree to which the European tradition’s understanding of itself would, in the next 200 years, be taken over by psychology, anthropology, modern historiography, economics, sociology, and so forth – by all of the conceptual disciplines which have taken up the problems historically dealt with by narrative history and religion.

As to its uniqueness – if you believe, as I do, that Hegel is right in saying that Kant towers over Descartes, but nonetheless could be considered a kind of modification of Descartes, Hegel replaces the entire core structure of the problematic in a fundamental way, and in so doing gives us conceptual tools to bring to light various social, historical, and existential phenomena that would be extremely difficult to explicate using a prior framework. When Hegel begins his chapter on spirit half way through the book, we suddenly see the payoff – how easy it is for him to talk about phenomena like social movements, politics, world views, religion, and the history of ideas, which you could address from a strictly Kantian framework only with great difficulty. I think this can be seen by a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where he begins pushing in that direction, and you can feel the whole fabric of his approach straining with the difficulty of managing to provide an account for complex phenomena.

I have seen countless versions of what I would call a perennial philosophy, which says we’re all islands of structured consciousness on a sea of the inchoate absolute. Hegel decidedly does not provide yet another version of that account, because consciousness, for him, is intersubjective, and because the impossibility of fully grasping the ultimate is not because it is transcendent, but because it unfolds historically, over time, and it must be comprehended in its totality of forms, as the sum of its history. This argument is, to my knowledge, wholly new, and an astonishingly creative approach.

This is the shortest account I can give of what Hegel is up to in this book, and I think it suggests something of its novelty. It has been called a Bildungsroman of consciousness-as-such, and not without good reason – it does in fact comprise an attempt to retrace the evolution of consciousness from within, as it were, and to apply a consistent phenomenological frame for explicating its various moments in terms of the larger project.

As much as I loathe Hegel’s style, this is a towering work of creative and philosophical genius, and one of the very greatest works of philosophy I have ever seen. His project and execution are staggeringly original, and terrifically exciting, and he gives an account that is wholly new and extremely productive. It has already deeply shaped my thinking, and I expect it will be one of my primary intellectual reference points for the rest of my life.

Written by Mesocosm

July 10, 2022 at 4:19 am

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews

“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates

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Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates knows a lot about climate change. He ought to, after investing more than a billion dollars over the last twenty year to help us get to the zero-emissions goal he believes we must reach. During that time, he’s met with top researchers, scientists, and policy makers, and has focused his own intellectual resources on understanding the problem and analyzing possible solutions. I was excited to read this book to see what I could learn from someone who has been in this fight for such a long time, and what I came away with was both useful and problematic.

Rebrandt engraving: Three Trees.
Three Trees, Rembrandt

First and foremost, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a primer that gives us a helpful conceptual framework for thinking about climate change.

Here’s an example: 51 billion tons. That’s the amount of greenhouse gases we need to stop adding to the atmosphere each year in order to reach zero emissions. And this is a really useful number to know. Now when you read about a new carbon capture technology that can remove 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere a year, you’re in a position to answer the question “Is that a lot?” A thousand tons of anything is a lot, but compared to what we’re pumping into the atmosphere every year, it’s a tiny fraction. With our handy reference figure, we know that this new capture technology could be a useful, but it’s probably not a game changer.

Of course it’s not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we produce – that’s an estimate from recent years, I think. Gates doesn’t tell us where he got this number, just that it’s based on the “latest available data.” (Our emissions go up almost every year, with 2021 being the largest emissions year in history.) I’d kind of like to know, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a pretty good number.

It’s also not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we’re producing – it’s carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). That’s a way of lumping together greenhouse gases of different strengths so they can be expressed as a single value. Take methane – it’s about 120 times more effective at capturing heat than carbon dioxide, so one ton of it is 120 tons of CO2e.

In short, the 51 billion tons figure is a useful approximation that masks the underlying variability and complexity. It is one of many such reference values we’re given to better understand the climate change conversation. This is something the book does really, really well. Some of the credit for this probably goes to Gates’s writing partner Josh Daniel (uncredited on the cover but given a shout-out in the acknowledgements). This is a very well-crafted book.

What else do we come away with? Well, the book breaks down what creates greenhouse gases:

  • Electricity (27%)
  • Manufacturing and construction (31%)
  • Agriculture and land use (19%)
  • Transportation (16%)
  • Cooling and heating (7%)

You may be surprised to learn that more greenhouse gases are produced by manufacturing than by electricity production or transport – producing steel and concrete are the main culprits here. Making one ton of steel means creating about two tons of CO2, and we produce a lot of steel – in the US, tons of it per person, every year.

Each sector gets its own chapter, in which Gates walks us through the landscape, looking at where the greenhouse gases come from and what, if anything, can be done about it.

So what’s his plan? In short, his answer is to innovate, invest, and develop on a huge scale. What we need is new technologies that can not only meet our existing needs, but address the markets for energy, manufacturing, and the rest that are projected to keep growing for the next several decades. Gates argues we have to meet those needs even as we move toward our goal of zero emissions.

One thing I liked about this book is that he gives a good sense of just how complicated any solution will have to be, at least in terms of the technology. For example, I was convinced by his argument that no single solution can provide enough renewable energy to meet our power needs. Instead of focusing on a silver bullet, we need to look for comprehensive sets of solutions, including intermediate solutions to meet our needs as we go.

The book provides a useful survey of the state of the technology in all of the major sectors he has identified, along with an assessment of the likely prospects and the gambles that could pay off but will probably come to nothing. His main point is we need to be investing in all of it, a lot more than we do now, and he has a lot of opinions on which options we should be pursuing, and why.

Now, this is a good place to segue into my criticisms of the book.

In focusing overwhelmingly on technology and investment, Gates has a lot of faith in market-based solutions to the climate crisis. In effect, he argues that we don’t have to fundamentally change the industrial, economic, or political conditions of the world – we just need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in high-tech ventures over many years to solve these problems. And not only do we not need to change our current habits, he argues, but it would be unethical to address climate change by radically rethinking our current model of growth and consumption. Everyone in the world should have the same basic rights to the kinds of security and comfort such development allows.

For example, in his chapter on electricity, we read:

[E]ven more people should be getting and using electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the population has reliable power at home. And if you don’t have access to any electricity at all, even a simple task like recharging your mobile phone is difficult and expensive. You have to walk to a store and pay 25 cents or more to plug your phone into an outlet, hundreds of times more than people pay in developed countries.

Now, wait just a minute. Of course we don’t want to lock the poorest people in the world into material deprivation. But some quick internet research tells me that in 2010, residents of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) used an average of 514 kilowatt-hours of energy per year, compared to 6,264 kilowatt-hours in the EU, and 13,395 in the US. You could quadruple energy consumption in the poorest parts of Africa and still use a fraction of what is being used in the United States today, per capita.

And this is an important point – agreeing that the developing world should have greater access to electricity and resources is not the same as agreeing that consumption patterns in the developed world do not need to change. But every time the question of reducing consumption comes up, Gates argues that it wouldn’t be right to do so because it would be unfair to the developing world. He treats those two claims as equivalent throughout the book, and this is a serious problem – at best, it’s deeply misleading.

Glossing over this distinction particularly raises questions when the author has personally invested a fortune in these speculative technologies. Rather than adjusting use patterns that have led us to a global crisis, he consistently favors investment in the precisely the kind of enterprise that equipped him with one of the world’s largest fortunes. The words “reduce” or “recycle” scarcely appear in this book, except in a passing comment in which Gates notes that he used to think trying to reduce consumption at all was pointless, but now has come to think there may be some benefit to it.

For what it’s worth, the IPCC, the gold-standard body for climate research, stated in their most recent Synthesis Report (AR5):

Efficiency enhancements and behavioural changes, in order to reduce energy demand compared to baseline scenarios without compromising development, are a key mitigation strategy in scenarios reaching atmospheric CO2-eq concentrations of about 450 to about 500 ppm by 2100 (robust evidence, high agreement). … Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns (e.g., mobility demand and mode, energy use in households, choice of longer-lasting products) and dietary change and reduction in food wastes.

One could argue that this criticism is unfair, since Gates has personally invested so much time, energy, and money in addressing global poverty. But it is precisely because of his public role as a philanthropist that some of these dissonances resonate in such a sour key.

Given that he is clearly genuinely concerned with global poverty, for example, why does he never meaningfully address the question of who should pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars of investments he ask for? The plan sounds plainly regressive to me, to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds to back public-private partnerships and R&D, a lot of which will go on to enrich private companies. It could easily lead to a situation in which some of the companies that have profited the most from carbon emissions in the first place would shoulder a relatively small burden in paying for the solution, which would be distributed across tax payers.

Gates mostly prefers to set aside questions of politics, policy, and financing, to focus on technical solutions. I can certainly understand why. Why shouldn’t he, when the status quo has served him so well? It’s also an ugly, complex topic, and he presumably doesn’t want to add fuel to the partisan fire, or to alienate the same future administrations he’ll be asking for money to do this work in years ahead.

But it’s not obvious to me that a serious stakeholder in the climate debate has the right to opt out of the relevant economic and political questions, not least because they have immediate, concrete relevance. During an administration that bans discussion of climate change, most of his proposals would be non-starters.

Gates is concerned about climate change, but I’m not convinced that he’s concerned enough. The IPCC Synthesis Report also states:

Stabilizing temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels will require an urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual [emphasis added]. Moreover, the longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost and the greater the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges we will face.

This is consistent with the tone I see among scientists and journalists who specialize in the problem – major changes are needed now, including rethinking the way we think about consumption and growth.

So it concerns me to see Gates write things like this:

Science tells us that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, rich countries should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. You’ve probably heard people say we should decarbonize deeply even sooner – by 2030.

Unfortunately, for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this book, 2030 is not realistic. Considering how fundamental fossil fuels are in our lives, there’s simply no way we’ll stop using them widely within a decade.

It’s true, I have heard people say we should decarbonize deeply by 2030 – namely, the IPCC scientists who warned that if we want to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C , our emissions will have to peak before 2025, and to be reduced by 43% by 2030.

Do we care about keeping the increase under 1.5°C? How much worse would it be to get to 2°C? Well, according to Scientific American, 2.0°C instead of 1.5 “could spell the difference between the Arctic being ice-free once a decade and once a century; between coral reefs being almost entirely wiped out and up to 30 percent hanging on; and between a third of the world’s population being exposed to extreme heat waves and a tenth.”

Whether or not our reduction targets are achievable is a fair question, but I think Gates is soft-selling the urgency of the problem. I don’t believe he mentions plants or animals in this book at all, except in the context of farming, but coral reefs are home to 25% of ocean wildlife species. There are urgent questions about our moral responsibility to life on this planet, as well as practical questions about the viability of human civilization as we know it if the major ecosystems around us collapse.

How much are we willing to change in order to avoid these kinds of outcomes? So far, looking at what goes on the in world, the collective answer appears to be “not very much.” As David Wallace-Wells noted, in 2020 there was not a single country that was on track to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. In the last two weeks, Germany blocked EU plans to eliminate internal-combustion car engines in the Union by 2035, the EU moved to classify nuclear power and natural gas as a “green,” and the US Supreme Court ruled on West Virginia et al. vs. the EPA.

At the end of the day, Bill Gates is who he is – he’s a philanthropic tech billionaire who has done a lot of good, and in my opinion that includes writing this book. I believe there are real problems with it, but they are mostly sins of omission, and if we need a range of technological solutions to help us fight climate change, surely we also need a diversity of opinions and emphases in the coalition of those who take the fight seriously. We have to critically engage with ourselves and with one another, but at the end of the day, Gates is on the side of taking climate change seriously and taking it on, and he puts his money where his mouth is. This is a useful book, and it could change some minds in the right way.

Written by Mesocosm

July 8, 2022 at 6:19 am

Posted in Climate, Reviews

January 6 and Mythological Rupture

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Joseph Campbell defined ritual as the collective reenactment of a myth. The myth that the mob that stormed the Capitol was collectively reenacting is the inaugural myth of the United States, which they construe to be its consecrating moment – a collective rejection of the old oppressive powers, and a high-minded and principled seizure of the reins of destiny.

Rituals reach into the very deepest centers of human motivation and belief. The ritual we saw performed on January 6 is as profound to those who participated as the breaking of the Host during the Eucharist. It is a recapitulation of a fundamental and meaning-giving mystery.

All the years people have been gathering in public squares dressed in tricorner hats with signs proclaiming “WE are the people” have been preparatory to what we’ve recently seen. They are inscribing themselves inside a myth.

If there is one thing the 20th century taught us, it’s that the confusion of myth with history is one of the defining characteristics of fascism. (For one of the countless instructive examples available, see the late works of Ezra Pound, who slowly moved from “Died some, pro patria, non dulce et non decor” to “The Federal Reserve is a Jewish plot.”)

The gulf between how I see the world and how this fellow sees the world is literally unbridgeable.

Written by Mesocosm

January 11, 2021 at 12:38 am

Posted in Politics, Psychology

Wendy Brown’s ‘In the Ruins of Neoliberalism’

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After decades of conflict, democracy had emerged by 1992 as the undisputed winner of the Cold War, holding a position of dominance so universal that the term “democracy” became synonymous with political legitimacy. Even authoritarian states often imitate its discourse to justify rule, using sham elections and fraudulent polls to shore up their legitimacy. 

Theo Balden's sculpture "Newspaper Reader"
Newspaper Reader, Theo Balden

Yet a few decades later, despite the complete absence of any serious external challenge or internal crisis, democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and France are awash with anti-democratic popular movements. Some of them openly flirt with abandoning democracy altogether, others have already done so. 

In the United States, the Republican party has openly embraced an anti-democratic platform on the national level. To take one of countless examples, in October 2020, GOP Senator Mike Lee from Utah tweeted “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

“Rank democracy”? 

Yet this statement from a US senator, which would have recently been regarded as inflammatory and shocking, provoked no controversy whatsoever. The question a lot of us are asking with increasing urgency is: “How the hell did this happen?” 

In seeking to provide a social-theoretical account of the historical process that led us to our current situation, Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism; The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West offers an indispensable contribution to the growing body of literature on the subject. I believe this important book deserves careful consideration and discussion, and I recommend it very highly. 

Brown’s argument is complex and wide-ranging, so in this review I will restrict myself to highlighting some of its principle features. 

Brown begins by sketching a typical account of the process leading to the 2016 election, highlighting factors like racial resentment, the government’s failure to redress inequality and misconduct following 2008 economic crisis, and the growing gulf dividing a globalized, urban, highly-literate majority from a displaced rural minority. She* argues that while such an account is useful, it has important omissions that fail to account for the novel characteristics of what we are seeing now.

The current wave of reactionary politics does not always accord with familiar political categories. Indeed, many of its features are difficult to account for with any coherent ideology, and as such, they have defied analysis and frustrated opposition: 

Failure to predict, understand, or effectively contest these developments is due partly to blinding assumptions about perduring Western values and institutions, especially progress and Enlightenment and liberal democracy, and partly to the unfamiliar agglomeration of elements in the rising Right – its curious combination of libertarianism, moralism, authoritarianism, nationalism, hatred of the state, Christian conservativism, and racism. These new forces conjoin familiar elements of neoliberalism (licensing capital, leashing labor, demonizing the social state and the political, attacking equality, promulgating freedom) with their seeming opposites (nationalism, enforcement of traditional morality, populist antielitism, and demands for state solutions to economic and social problems). They conjoin moral righteousness with nearly celebratory amoral and uncivil conduct. They endorse authority while featuring unprecedented public disinhibition and aggression. They rage against relativism, but also against science and reason, and spur evidence-based claims, rational argumentation, credibility, and accountability. They disdain politicians and politics while evincing a ferocious will to power and political ambition. Where are we?

Where, indeed? 

Cold-War-era tools of political analysis are insufficient to account for this nihilistic witch’s brew of characteristics, and understanding why that is so is an urgent task of theory, for the conventional responses that the left has reflexively relied upon have been ineffective. The rhetorical appeal to a putative sense of shared values of a kind exemplified by the editorial missives of Dan Rather have fallen on deaf ears, as have charges of hypocrisy leveled against the evangelists who enthusiastically support a man who has illegally misused campaign funds to silence a porn star with whom he had an affair. Countless attempts to replicate the moment of Joseph Welch’s “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” have failed, and we need to understand why. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which such appeals no longer connect with their audience, psychologically or ideologically. 

It is this gap in understanding that Brown endeavors to fill, so that we can, at last, identify the real ideological battleground, and shift our focus there. Otherwise we will be left to ask Senator Lee in disbelief, “Surely you can’t be saying that democracy is secondary!” But he can, and he did, and we need to understand why. 

Democracy is the foundation of Brown’s analysis. Her initial salvo on this point neatly suggests the conceptual clarity and rhetorical precision that typifies her book: 

Political equality is democracy’s foundation. Everything else is optional – from constitutions to personal liberty, from specific economic forms to specific political institutions. Political equality alone ensures that the composition and exercise of political power is authorized by the whole and accountable to the whole. When political equality is absent, whether from explicit political exclusions or privileges, from extreme social or economic disparities, or from the manipulation of the electoral system, political power will inevitably be exercised by and for a part, rather than the whole. The demos ceases to rule.

The importance of political equality to democracy is why Rousseau insisted that differences in power among a democratic people must “not be so great that they can be wielded as violence” and also that none may “be so rich that he can buy another and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself.” Rousseau’s point was that more than a matter of injustice or suffering, systematization of group violence or destitution puts an end to democracy. 

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade. 

In Brown’s analysis, two distinct features of Hayek’s neoliberal theory pave the way to today’s populist authoritarianism: his attack on the concept of the social as such; and his desire to drastically curtail the reach of the state as much as possible. Through aggressively promoting these viewpoints, neoliberalism has substantially helped to foster a social and economic climate that Hayek himself would have despised, in which the government is largely captured by economic titans, rather than markets and government functioning independently and autonomously. 

Hayek directly opposes his conception of freedom to the very idea of the social. Any situation in which individuals are “compelled” by the state to act against their will (or “against their interests” as he put it) is eo ipso a curtailment of their liberty. The concept of the social gives rise to a kind of tyranny of the majority. In his view, the only free society is one in which individuals are bound only by the traditional moral codes to which they voluntarily adhere. 

Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice. 

Like libertarian economic theory, an account of freedom that focuses exclusively on the individual right to chose completely disregards the problem of externalities. That is to say, my freedom to dump toxic chemicals into the river curtails your freedom to grow crops and to live cancer-free. When people share resources or a physical environment, it is not so easy to disentangle where one peron’s zone of autonomy ends and another person’s begins. 

This obvious fact can only become obscured by a willful act of ideological repression, which, in the case of neoliberalism, occurs largely by automatically resisting any act of mediated social compromise as transgressive against liberty as such. In the light of a neoliberal theory, the need to mediate competing rights and claims in the spirit of compromise is simply excluded, and, as a consequence, the realm of the social is abandoned. Attempts to appeal to the interests of society appear to be nothing more than content-free complaints by “social justice warriors.” As Brown put it: 

If there is no such thing as society, but only individuals and families oriented by markets and morals, then there is no such thing as social power generating hierarchies, exclusion, and violence, let alone subjectivity at the site of class, gender, or race. Outside of a neoliberal frame, of course, the language of the social is what makes inequalities manifest; the domain of the social is where subjugations, abjections, and exclusions are lived, identified, protested, and potentially rectified.… As every serious student of inequality knows, the social is a vital domain of justice because it is where the potted histories and hierarchies of a particular region, nation, or civilization are reproduced. Appreciation of social powers is the only way to understand ‘taking a knee’ or the claim that black lives matter, the high suicide rates among queer teens, or women working more for less. Moreover, the social is what binds us in ways that exceed personal ties, market exchange, or abstract citizenship. It is where we, as individuals or a nation, practice or fail to practice justice, decency, civility, and care beyond the codes of market instrumentalism and familialism. And it is where political equality, essential to democracy, is made or unmade. 

If we want the social to exist as a meaningful framework for understanding and evaluating experience and action, we are now in a position in which we have to explicitly defend it as such. Welcome to our wonderful future. 

As with the social, Hayek repudiated the concept of the political as such. Grounding political legitimacy exclusively in a concept of individual freedom constrained solely by voluntarily-accepted traditional moral codes and free markets, Hayek distinguishes between “liberal democracy” and “social or totalitarian democracy” and regards the concept of popular sovereignty as a “ nonsense notion.” To “protect democracy against itself,” the powers of “so-called legislators” must be restrained, and the coercion of individuals by the state must be absolutely minimized. Indeed, Hayek identifies an inherent paradox in the notion of a liberal democracy, as liberalism is concerned with “‘limiting the coercive powers of all government’ while democracy limits government only according to majority opinion.” 

It may be hard to believe that the near-equation of any legislative act with totalitarian coercion has much traction in society at large, but Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom sold more than two million copies, and both Hayek and Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their theories. 

Now we are at a point where we can begin to understand how an anti-regulatory and anti-government political theory such as neoliberalism can help explain the seemingly-contradictory co-occurrence of anti-government and authoritarian ideologies in contemporary right-wing movements. 

Above all, Hayek argues, democracy and liberalism have radically different opposites. Democracy’s opposite is authoritarianism, concentrated but not necessarily unlimited political power. Liberalism’s opposite is totalitarianism, complete control over every aspect of life. This makes authoritarianism compatible with a liberal society – freedom, traditional morals, a protected private sphere. And totalitarianism can be brought into being and administered by democratic majorities. 

Senator Lee’s opposition of “rank democracy” to “liberty” now makes more sense. We can also understand why so many appeals to shared values falls on deaf ears. The terms “freedom” and “liberty” mean substantially different things to different people, and the consensus on the essential nature of the American political system has fractured between the left and the right to a degree never seen since World War II. 

With a critique of the social and the political in hand, the neoliberal is in a position to argue that the sole legitimate spheres for deliberating and adjudicating values are the domains of the family and of the individual, and not in any kind of larger interpersonal domain, which has been rejected as such. This conception of values and their proper domain has increasingly become the basis for attacking laws or policies intended to redress inequalities or protect minorities. Such attempts are framed as an encroachment by the tyrannical majority into the private conscience of individuals, and are treated as an intolerable violation of the sanctity of moral, and, especially, of religious freedoms.

In one of the most disturbing sections of the book, Brown analyzes how this theory has been developed into a novel legal strategy which has been designed to advance a dangerous new legal framework, as seen in two cases that recently appeared before the Supreme Court: Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and National Institute of Family Life Advocates, DBA NIFLA, et al. v. Becerra, Attorney General of California

In the former case, a baker in Colorado claimed that a combination of his rights to free speech and his right to free exercise of religion excuse him from being compelled to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. 

In the latter case, a network of so-called Pregnancy Crisis Centers sued the state of California, which passed a law requiring such institutions to post notices stating that they are not medical centers, and to refer people to nearby free and low-cost reproductive medicine facilities. This law was passed in response to the fact that Pregnancy Crisis Centers, according to their own unambiguous claims, attempt to confuse pregnant woman into thinking they are neutral providers of health services, when they are in fact conservative Christian organizations that exist for the sole purpose of persuading women not to have abortions. 

Brown’s full analysis is essential reading, but the upshot is this – both cases were carefully designed by the claimants to provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to affirm a novel reading of free speech and free exercise which would dramatically curtail the government’s ability to enforce a wide range of laws and regulations intended to protect vulnerable populations. As with Citizens United, the very concept of speech has been expansively redefined not just to include corporate political contributions, but the baking of cakes and the freedom not to post legally-mandated disclaimers. 

The cases are carefully formulated to invite this interpretation, and the conservative majority has shown itself more than willing to go along with this approach: 

Indeed, only through the artful conjoining of free speech and free exercise can one make sense of this otherwise bewildering summary of [Masterpiece Cake claimant] Phillips’s claim by the court: ‘requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion.’ 

In this sentence, the sheer number of prepositions and verbs and lack of subordinate clauses makes it nearly impossible to specify the site of the violation. Where, precisely, is the action? Requiring the creation of a cake does not violate a right to free speech. Compelling exercise of artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees does not violate one’s First Amendment rights. (Commercial artists presumably do this all the time at the behest of their bosses or managers.) And creating a cake for a  wedding does not violate one’s free exercise of religion any more than being required, commercially, to exercise one’s artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees. However, all of these phenomena pressed tougher – required creation of art expressing a message contrary to one’s religious beliefs – bolstered by the unmentioned right of commercial ownership, sets free exercise loose in the public and commercial sphere and generates the scene of its entitlement to discriminate, indeed, to abridge laws of equality. This is more than constitutional constructivism. This is the U. S. Supreme Court empowering a revolutionary antidemocratic force through a novel joining together of ownership, religion, and speech. 

In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court opted to rule narrowly, finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not weigh the facts in a neutral and fashion. But in National Institute they took the bait, striking down a clearly-warranted public health and safety law on the grounds that requiring any disclaimer of any anti-abortion group whatsoever was tantamount to coercing compliance with one side of a matter of public controversy, as though a woman’s right to choose were not settled law and a guaranteed right, but merely a matter of disagreement. This is a terrifically ominous sign of things to come, and I think it’s likely the conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court is likely to reshape the American legal landscape to a degree that is currently difficult to imagine. 

In her final chapter, Brown leverages Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment from his Toward a Genealogy of Morals and Macruse’s theory of repressive sublimation from his One-Dimensional Man to analyze the psychology of anger, resentment, and naked hatred motivating so much political discourse on the right. As this review has already gone long, I’ll mention only two key movements of this argument. In the first, Brown unpacks the relationship between resentment and a nihilistic crisis of values: 

It is significant that Trump himself identifies revenge as his sole philosophy of life: revenge and nothing else, revenge without end, because there is nothing else. Beyond efforts to destroy anyone who questions or opposes him, revenge saturates his so-called agenda and is also what satisfies the basest part of his base. It animates the drive to overturn every Obama-era achievement, of course, from climate accords to the Iran deal, but also to destroy what those policies aimed at protecting or preserving: the earth and its many species, the rights and protections of the vulnerable (LGBT, women, minorities), and the health of Americans secured through Obamacare. 

It is also significant that many Trump supporters, when interviewed about his lies, affairs, and flouting of truth or law, say ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of the disrespect his opponents have for him and for me.’ What kind of defense of your man is this? … In confessing that Trump embodies a retort to their pain, it explains why it does not matter what policies he pursues, only that he opposes those they hold responsible for their suffering. 

In describing the unique character of contemporary nihilism, Brown argues that the crisis of values that motivated so many philosophers and theorists in nineteenth-century Europe pales in comparison to the nihilism that haunts us today: 

Today … nihilism intensifies in a world that reflects humanity as having brought the species to the bring of destruction. ‘Man’ has not merely lost values or stable meaning, but is indicted by myriad powers generated, but not controlled by humans, powers that diminish, mock, reproach, and endanger us, not only devalue us. We appear not only without nobility and greatness, but without even the ability to provide for ourselves or clean up after ourselves. A species of giant toddlers, appetitive for power, pleasure, and play, we have yet to become responsible for our own creations, our history. 

There are no solutions suggested in this book, only an invitation to think and respond creatively and aggressively to the novel constellation of ideas that we oppose. 

As a final note, Brown does not do any of the hard work that would be required to extend this analysis beyond the borders of the United States. Despite her early assertion that her engagement with neoliberal theory is applicable to authoritarian movements around the world, she doesn’t spare a word for how it applies, say, to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or to Modi’s BJP. 

The closest she comes is a half-hearted attempts to generalize her arguments to ordoliberal theory in Germany, which, she argues, is analogous to neoliberal theory insofar as it mandates a political administration of technocratic experts who are not directly accountable to the public. Having lived in both in Germany and the United States, I found those arguments half-baked. I have little patience for her characterization of ordoliberalism as “a type of neoliberalism,” and the degree to which the actual operation of the government and the formation of policy must be directly representative is a question that she has not taken up on in this work. Certainly when it comes to democratic representation, the electoral system in Germany is far more representative than that of the United States. 

That said, as I have repeatedly urged, this short book contains many powerful ideas and is written with great clarity and force. I highly recommend it. 

* Brown has publicly invited the use of “she” or “they”. 

Written by Mesocosm

October 30, 2020 at 6:29 am

Georg Heym’s “The Thief”

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Jacob Wrestles with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659-60

Not long after arriving in Berlin for the first time in 2011, I ran into the haunting poem “Ophelia” by the Expressionist poet Georg Heym (1887-1912), which captivated me with the dark power of its imagery.

Intrigued, I soon discovered his overwhelming short story “The Thief,” which is, I think, not well known to English-speaking audiences. This short excerpt from early in the story gives a sense of its feverish, vivid imagery:

And now he lived in a large guesthouse, buried in his small attic room, alone, known by no one, one of the many solitaries of this great city. 

He spent the evenings in the depths of his armchair, tracking the dwindling light and the cloud ships that sailed with their red keels on their voyage to new, mysterious lands. Or in late summer when the days of the north winds began with large, strange shapes in the heavens, he watched huge whales, giant camels, and the fleet of innumerable small fish that vanished over the ocean of the sky into the endless blue. 

He kept a record for himself of all the strange apparitions. Once he saw the devil before a wine-red ground above a pile of worshipful black bodies. Another time he saw a monstrous bat with outstretched wings that appeared to be struck to the heavens like farmers nail them to barn doors. Or a gigantic barque, or trees on mountains, or powerful lions, monstrous serpents laid on the shoulders of the sky, or a giant monk dragging his cassock, or men with strange, long profiles. One time he saw a fiery angel that rose with a great blaze above the steps of the aether. 

At times, everything was filled with a strange, nearly inaudible music, like the roar of the ocean in the darkness of endless grottos and subterranean cathedrals. 

I am pleased to share with you my full translation – you can read it in its entirety here: The Thief, by Georg Heym.

Translation © Barnaby Thieme, 2019. All rights reserved.

Written by Mesocosm

November 9, 2019 at 6:58 am

Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”

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Die Passion Christi – Hieronymus Bosch

Goethe’s final novel is often described as “experimental;” a description which, I think, primarily reflects its puzzling character. Like Beethoven’s late quartets or Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, it’s hard to know how to take it, or how it wants to be taken. Its readers have long struggled to articulate a coherent response to this book, and I daresay my own response – a mix of admiration, frustration, and confusion – puts me in good company.

Most of the action occurs beneath the level of story and must be extrapolated from the events. The plot, such as it is, is relatively simple. Eduard and Charlotte are a happily-married couple who live on an estate in the country. As part the leisure class, they have the luxury of pursuing their personal interests, which primarily consist of directing a series of continual and ever-incomplete improvements and modifications to the buildings and the grounds.

Like a Japanese gardener, they attempt to collaborate with nature, and to coax the world around them toward their ideals. The wanderer on their lands should have the experience of chancing upon inspiring, meditative vistas in a series of perfectly-timed disclosures as they move through a landscape of controlled epiphany. To this end, paths are modified or closed off, views are opened up through the pruning of trees or the removal of rocks, and buildings are reworked to provide rest at just the right point on a steep path.

Before long, Eduard and Charlotte are joined in their endeavors by an old friend of Eduard’s called “the Captain”, and later by Charlotte’s charming foster-daughter Ottilie. The newcomers take to the estate work with inspired passion, and quickly join the rhythm of the house.

One night in the drawing room, where they come together to read and to play music, Charlotte comes across the esoteric topic of “elective affinities.” She and the reader subsequently learn that this term refers to a theory in chemistry that accounts for the tendency of certain pairs of compound substances to break their stable bonds and “trade dance partners,” as it were. That is, stable compound AB is introduced to stable compound CD, and, after a sudden, destructive reaction, you end up with AC and BD, which are united by even stronger bonds.

The characters and the reader quickly pick up on the amusing possibility that such reactions could also affect human couples, and the author thereby sets the stage for the complicated emotional entanglements which play out for the remainder of the book. As Eduard and the young Ottilie become closer, so too do the Captain and Charlotte, which leads headlong into a conflict between two competing views of marriage – as a socially-recognized and regulated bond, and as the epitome of passion, intimacy, and choice.


One of the core concerns of this book is the irreconcilable conflicts that result from regarding the same situation from competing systems of values. Take, for example, the theory of landscaping which preoccupies the protagonists. On a superficial level, their work celebrates the Romantic ideals of free wandering and the unadulterated experience of nature. Someone walking through their grounds is meant to feel the wonder of vistas encountered by chance.

Ironically, we know that the landscape is highly controlled, with the heavily-planned paths subtly directing the wanderer to the illusion of happenstance. Choice only plays out within an invisibly-regulated landscape.

On one level, this is presumably a critique of the Romantics, who may conceal their own elaborate techniques for producing the controlled aesthetic effects which are celebrated as the experience of natural spontaneity.

On another level, this is an arresting image of how people shape their lives, acting not just on the level of conscious choice, but working in dialog with their inner selves, and with their societies, to affect the context in which they live. It is probably worth noting that this, in the language of the book, is the prerogative of the leisure class.

The book is fundamentally concerned with the hidden rules that shape choice. Through altering the landscape, as in altering their relationships, the characters shape their own context for action, and thereby experiment with the possibilities of life.

The book functions as a kind of scientific experiment or laboratory in which the mechanics of human choice become more visible. Here, the fact that the landscaping is always a work-in-progress becomes significant. We follow as the characters experiment with the very framework for their own action and experience, just as people build their lives: gradually, playing out different possibilities, and then course-correcting, in a never-ending process of trial and error.

The link between this work as an examination of human nature and as a kind of laboratory experiment is called out by the title. This laboratory provides indirect access to the characters’ inner lives, which can only be extrapolated, just like the bonds that unite various compounds. The governing patterns that regulate the dynamics lie under the surface.

In another sense, the book functions as a laboratory by presenting life on a remote estate as a microcosm of their society as a whole. The use of a mini-society as a device for depicting core dynamics of human interaction has a long tradition. It has been pointed out, for example, that nearly every comedy of Shakespeare’s involves some version of characters going outside the city walls and creating an alternative social order.

The link between the language of chemistry and the language of the unconscious tells us this is a sort of alchemical laboratory. We have known since Carl Jung that when the alchemist speaks in a hybrid language of chemistry and metaphysics – describing, for example, the mystical marriage of chemical substances that unites and reconciles opposites – they present an image of their own unconscious process of psychic integration, using the vocabulary of the natural sciences, which is noticeably hijacked by the twilight language of dream and myth.

The question posed by the motif of elective affinities, then, is to what degree our choices are free, and how do we gain insight into the invisible rules. I see this as a kind of naturalistic antetype to the modernist use of myth, such as we find in Wagner, Joyce, Eliot, or Thomas Mann. For these great artists, myth sheds light on the hidden patterns that shape conscious action and intention.

Thomas Mann described “Elective Affinities” as “a perfect book,” and its profound influence on his own work is readily apparent. In “The Magic Mountain”, for example, we also find characters trapped together in a miniature world, which functions as a microcosm of society and nature, and as a macrocosm of the individual psyche. The ordering patterns of life are examined as if in a Petri dish or alembic, where they are reduced, extracted, and sublimated to an archetypal plane.


Green Man, Bode Museum

It must be noted that the character Ottilie is the chief catalyst for the action that drives the plot forward. Eduard is the principle agent of action, but he is motivated by his passion for Ottilie, which she elicits through the unique qualities of her character. It is no surprise, then, that we find her at the heart of the book’s pivotal events.

Ottilie embodies on the level of character the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the co-occurrence of orders of value. She drives the action, but indirectly; she is both conscious and unconscious of the economy of passion she is inscribed within; she is both guilty and innocent of transgression. She guarantees the contradictions that come forth from the collision of passion and social regulation, but by her being, not through her action or choice.

One can say much about this special status, but what most illuminates her function in the novel is knowing that Goethe had a daughter-in-law named Ottilie, with whom he was much enamored. As Rüdiger Safranski notes in his recent Goethe; Kunstwerk des Lebens: “It should here be remembered, without making too much of a fuss over it, that in 1816, Goethe pushed hard in support of the liaison between his son [August von Goethe] and Ottilie von Pogwisch, so that he should have this fetching and clever young woman in his vicinity” (pg. 579, my translation). Ottilie and August would marry a year later.

In my opinion, in the context of “Elective Affinities”, it would actually be difficult to make too much fuss over this fact, which is the single most important key we have to understanding what happens in the novel and why. I have been genuinely surprised by how gingerly this is held by many interpreters, who sometimes give the impression that it would be in poor taste to recognize it. But Goethe could hardly have called more attention to this point than by naming this key character after his daughter-in-law.

It would be a mistake to reduce the entirety of this complex book to an autobiographical study of the author’s obvious infatuation with his son’s wife, but it would also be obtuse to fail to recognize that the book reproduces the same logic of ambivalence that Goethe presumably felt. By this reading, Goethe blames her for his own attraction, yet cannot find fault with her, because he is the agent of his own passions, even if she is the catalyst. He wants her and cannot have her, and he feels trapped between the irreconcilable dictates of the logic of passion and the social code of marriage and fidelity. Ottilie von Goethe, like Ottilie in the novel, embodies the conflicts that governs this novel.

Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2019 at 2:45 am

Posted in Literature, Reviews

Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  

Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am