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The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America

19 August 2008

Summary of conclusions to my review of comments on this site about reforming America.  These are provocative speculation,s nothing more, based on a tiny sample.  However, we are in trouble if these are representative of America’s intelligentsia.  These comments show a deep alienation from our Republic, going beyond indifference to antipathy.  This situation has historical analogs, in which a dissatisfied educated class easily defects from a regime to serve the tyrant replacing it.  For example, consider Plato and Aristotle in Athens, and the French “middle class” serving Napoleon.

How can we reform America?  This is the fourth in a series about this, perhaps the most important issue for our generation of Americans.  My opinion is simple (perhaps simplistic)

  1. We are in this together.  Reality/nature/God enforces collectively responsibility.
  2. Individually we are weak.  Collectively we are strong.
  3. Our reluctance to take personal responsibility for the Republic is our greatest problem.  Ingenuity at producing excuses does not substitute for taking action.
  4. What are the odds of success at fixing American?  It does not matter; nobody cares (not our forefathers, not our descendants).

Judging from the comments, this is a minority view.  All of those posting comments disagree, most suggesting that passivity or outright revolt are our only effective options.  The first three chapters provide examples.  Disturbing examples, for anyone who cares about our political regime.

  1. The problems
  2. Our responsibility for both the problems and fixing them
  3. Possible solutions
  4. Conclusions

The intelligentsia and its discontents

What is the role of the class of intelligent and educated people in their political regime?  Unless closely tied in spirit and interest to the political regime, they easily come to regard themselves as having a unique fitness to rule.  We see in Plato’s writings how Socrates attempted to reconcile this belief with their proper role in a democracy.  Subsequent events, esp. the lives of Alcibiades and Plato, show that he was not successful.  Indeed his failures — for which many held him responsible — were a factor in Socrates’ conviction and execution.  Alcaibiades’ treason gave Sparta the key to defeating Athens.  Plato and Aristotle were more fond of tyrants than of Athenian democracy.

France

In The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the state of the middle class before the Revolution (a small fraction of the French population, structurally similar in many ways to America’s intelligentsia (“knowledge workers” or “chattering classes”).  They became alienated from the Monarchy, the nobility and peasantry — but attached to the growing power and centralization of the government. 

“But what you observe especially in all the actions of the middle class is the fear of being confused with the common people and the passionate desire by every means to avoid being controlled by that class.”  (Book 2, chapter 9)

We see this today in a thousand different ways.  From buying a Prius (greener than the masses) to insistence on maintaining tenure in the schools, universities, and civil service (despite it having outlived its original purpose) . 

As for their “passion for offices, this quote could easily come from today’s papers:  “Whenever official positions ran short, the imagination of the applicants set to work and soon invented new ones.” (Book 2, chapter 9). 

This class became the servants of the Revolutionary bureaucracy — and then Napoleon’s.

“The greatest difference in this respect between the era I am quoting and our own is that, at that time, the government sold official positions whereas today it gives them away.  To obtain them a man no longer offers money; he does better than that:  he surrenders himself.”  (Book 2, chapter 9)

21st century America

The comments posted in the 3 previous chapters are symptomatic, I believe, of a similar dynamic at work in America.  On both the left and right, our intellectual elites have become disenchanted (literally) with our political regime.  Should the opportunity arise, not only might they not fight to preserve it from internal foes — they might defect.

For more on this see The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch (1995).  The political aspect of our ills.  A powerful polemic for change.  Its hostile reception by both conservatives and liberals suggests that it struck too close to home for their comfortable self-assurance.  Such a subtle, complex work defies attempts to summarize it, but this excerpt will do as well as any.  Note that he writes about the leftist segment of the intelligentsia, but a similar description could be written about its right wing.

The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it, a nation technologically backwards, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.  Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture.  It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all.  Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues. 

“Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs  can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required.

The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.  Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

Does this seem too extreme?  Read the three previous chapters in this series, then tell us what you think.

Note:  this is a sketch of something deserving more research and exposition than I can provide at this time.  I am on the road, without access to my library and having only a slow internet connection.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  3. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  4. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  5. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  6. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  7. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  8. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  9. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  10. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. drsteph permalink
    19 August 2008 2:42 am

    Rothkopf addresses this issue nicely in ‘Superclass‘ – where not being invited to Davos can ruin your whole season… And the point of having a gulfstream is well, to have one.

    Worth reading on this topic is Richard Florida’s Flight of the Creative Class, the follow-up to rise of the creative class which was celebrated as a social demographer’s view of new urbanism outside of architecture.

    The point is this – in this new world of globalization, where corporatism has weakened nationalism sufficiently to render it partially impotent (particularly for those members of the superclass above), what benefit is one’s nationality? And for those symbologic analysts who are in demand, or for those robber barons who have made their wealth, its tempting simply to leave boring heartland america for the more exciting world of Shanghai, Bangalore, or Dubai. With misinformation the meal of the day, why not simply remove yourself from the dinner table and go dine elsewhere? The elite, intelligensia, and children thereof have a choice, and are simply exercising it.

    Short of total war reversing globalization, I don’t see a way to undo this. But only a few will be able to break free and the rest will be left behind. That’s when introspecion will return and americans will once again desire to focus inwards to reclaim our country from those who offered us false prosperity in return for our own indifference. And I wouldn’t worry about losing those elites on either side of the spectrum. There’s plenty of punditry to go around.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for the great references. As for your last line, I agree — but am more worried about these people actively working against us (for a tyranny to replace the Constitutional regime).

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  2. 19 August 2008 1:44 pm

    Not at all too extreme for Leftists, but much less so for Reps/Conservatives (examples? who?).
    Fab, tiny typo, missing keyword: Ingenuity at producing excuses does not substitute for

    R. Nozick wrote a classic about why (verbal) intelligentsia were so often opposed to capitalism — and opposition to capitalism, and those successful in the market, is a secret envy hate of many elites, as well as fuel for Bush-hate today. (Tax cuts for the rich!)

    They have become Liberal Fascists, with Bush supporters taking the place of Jews in their demonization of ‘the other’.

    On the economy, WaPo has a note on 5 ways to wreck the economy (as contributing to the Great of the Depression): “Five Ways to Wreck a Recovery“, Amity Shlaes, op-ed in the Washington Post, 18 August 2008:

    1. Giving in to protectionism
    2. Blaming the messenger (short sellers)
    3. Increasing taxes in a downturn
    4. Assuming bigger government will bring back growth
    5. Ignoring the cost of inconsistency

    Seems like the Dem econ program, more than the Reps; tho McCain is not great.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for catching the typo. This Internet connection runs at 10 kbps; it feels like using smoke signals.

    Thanks for the references. Here are the details:

    * “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?“, Robert Nozick, Cato Policy Report, January/February 1998. Nozick is a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University and the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia and other books. This article is excerpted from his essay “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” which originally appeared in The Future of Private Enterprise, ed. Craig Aronoff et al. (Georgia State University Business Press, 1986) and is reprinted in Robert Nozick, Socratic Puzzles (Harvard University Press, 1997).

    * Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg — Here is his website about the book.

    As for references to conservatives opposed to our regime, this link is too slow for research (as I noted above). However, look at their lack of opposition to the erosion of civil liberties in the War and Drugs and War on Terror, both conducted with litter regard to actual results — while the erosion of our rights is quite real. Look at the incidence of police shootings of innocents in no=knock raids, for example.

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  3. swissrobinson permalink
    19 August 2008 2:06 pm

    Fab I would like to differentiate between intellectuals – the ‘aristocracy of brains’ (whatever that should mean) – and the elites that converge upon davos and other ‘global bazaars’. I have no time for the superrich and their global romps. They are a product of a particular economic process – globalisation – that has its precedent in the industrialisation of the United States (the Robber Barons), European mercantilism and the advent of Capitalism. Their allegiance is to money and perhaps prefer – in my subjective opinion – to wield power through others (Wall Street’s influence in Capitol Hill is perhaps the most obvious example here).

    For myself – an Australian student of politics living in Switzerland – having learnt political theory and the philosophical underpinnings that led to a popular wrenching of power from elitist control in various revolutions, (the American revolution remaining the archetype) I have come to acknowledge that in the face of the increasing abuses of the democratic process in my birthplace, that I have no allegiance to my nation state.

    In remarking on the American example, one cannot look at the news in the US without being horrified by the policy choices that are ruining American lives and those of its global brethren around the world. I recall the story today of a young aspiring art college graduate locked into $140’000 worth of private debt. It’s an extreme example, but who the hell made tertiary education a privately financed initiative? What happened to the nation state educating its people for a collective good? Even the most ardent supporter of free market economics could acknowledge a dysfunctional higher education system that ruins ordinary Americans financial well being and that increasingly only the wealthy can afford. As an alternative example, the Australian government holds the tab until I earn a pre-determined salary. It’s not free education, but it’s not impoverishing either.

    Ditto on other questions of debt – housing, credit cards etc. No policies in place to protect people from themselves.But this consumption driven behaviour appears to have been a social policy experiment led by business and politicians from the early 20th Century – see below for further discussion.

    http://www.pacificecologist.org/archive/consumerhistory.html

    I recall a differentiation of liberties. Negative liberty is defined as the right of the individual to be left alone – to live the life that he or she chooses, whithin limits. Positive liberty is as discussed above – getting involved in one’s community; progressive politics. It’s clear to me that the forebears of today’s America increasingly focused on the former liberty and has been deeply entrenched by the phenomenon of consumerism. Unfortunately, Australia increasingly eschews the latter liberty as well.

    I don’t need to say any more on US military engagements in the Middle East, except to suggest that it undermines the moral high ground US foreign diplomacy could have taken following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, and with some parallels to the Roman Empire, the United States has over-reached itself attempting to define and control its interests at a global level. I recall reading that the demise of the Roman Empire was a gradual event. Rome increasingly required foreign forces to maintain its borders. Foreigners eventually dominated the population at its outer boundaries and they invariably turned inwards in a sort of ‘gold rush’ type migratory behaviour looting their way down to Rome. No parallels are made here with minority groups in the United States although it will be interesting to see how the United States sees itself in 50 years time. However the United States is clearly unable to maintain what it perceives as its interests by military force alone – and politically does not hold the high ground threatening other powers like Russia when they define their interests militarily. How does it react to this loss of influence? I, like many other thoughtful people around the world, hope that the US gracefully accepts a role as one of five or six major global powers in the 21st century and does not decide to go out with a ‘bang’. The present signs from Washington – trade-wise, economically, militarily, socially – are not good.

    I won’t be drawn into defending aethism against the religious heartland of the United States, except to suggest that the seperation of church and state, as a theoretical underpinning of democracy, is sorely strained in the US. Unfortunately for Australian politics, religious voters are gaining traction as a (perhaps too) crucial voting block as well.

    Consumption or religion as worldview, no desire to engage with the political process in a positive and continuous manner, the continued resort to violence (both domestically and globally) to maintain one’s political interests. I think intellectuals can question their allegiances to the present political status quo. As for the wealthy elite, I reckon they’ll party regardless of who is in control until someone stops their music.

    Perhaps what concerns me more is the utopic idea that global governance is the answer, as some are increasingly inclined to suggest. A Hitler for us all, anyone?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a perfect example of what I describe in this post.

    “I think intellectuals can question their allegiances to the present political status quo.” “I have come to acknowledge that in the face of the increasing abuses of the democratic process in my birthplace, that I have no allegiance to my nation state.”

    The only question that remains is what this class will do when our regime totters. My guess is that they will defect, supporting tyranny. A tyranny that offers good things: equality of all races and genders, treats the earth well, etc. One that offers them ample and well-paid jobs regulating the rest of us.

    The following is grossly in error.

    “except to suggest that the seperation of church and state, as a theoretical underpinning of democracy, is sorely strained in the US.”

    At no time in our history has religion had less effect on public policy, domestic or foreign. The policy recommendations of the “religious right” have been largely ignored by the Bush Administration, other than a small number of minor issues (e.g., limiting foreign funding of family planning programs, domestic funding of abstinence PR campaigns).

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  4. DBake permalink
    19 August 2008 2:53 pm

    Where are you getting the idea that Socrates was pro-democracy?

    It’s also worth saying that the presence of alienated intelligentsia in a country is kind of like a failed marriage: usually both sides are to blame. In the case of Athens, the democracy was probably at least a little dysfunctional if a number of intellectual heavyweights were either actively hostile, like Plato, or at least seemed to have serious misgivings, like Thucydides.

    Likewise with Lasch’s book, his skewering of East Coast elites and intellectuals is on point, but what he doesn’t bother to do is look at those simple people in the heartland. Are they equally worthy of skewering? Is the stereotype of “a nation technologically backwards, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy” completely inaccurate?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The majority are who and what they are. It’s not their responsibility to change themselves, but the political regime’s role to meet their needs. They need not change their political views, sexual morality, or tastes in the arts to become worth of the US Constitutional regime. Nor do I see any basis for intellectuals to consider their views on these things superior to those of the “masses.”

    By defecting from the regime, abandoning any attempt at its reform, they become part of the problem. If my guess is right about their love of tyranny, they might become an actual threat to the rest of us.

    As for Socrates. We have no writings by him, but Plato’s writings portray Socrates’ attempt to reconcile his students to the existing political regime (democracy at that time in Athens). The need to do this is a frequent theme in ancient world philosophy. I agree Plato does not portray Socrates saying that democracy is the best regime.

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  5. plato's cave permalink
    19 August 2008 3:25 pm

    The “intelligentsia” on this site is a very small, heterogenous and unrepresentative sample. The great majority of intellectuals in this country (the scientists, academics, policy experts, and pundits) are already inside the system, happily going along with it and supporting its culture. What you have on this site are the outsiders, the discontented, the ones who are in a vulnernable economic position perhaps, or whose sense of values and intellect prevents them from going along with the transparent fictions of current political culture. We are a minority, for sure, and it is highly appropriate for us to complain, argue, watch and wait, experiment, work on the margins, until we recognize a material moment where direct action might be effective. Socrates isn’t considered less noble because he failed to have a material impact on his society.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We can only guess at the views of these people. I suspect the physical scientists are “happily going along with it and supporting its culture.” The academics in the social sciences and humanities, much less so. Ditto journalists, those in the social service buracracies, etc.

    “until we recognize a material moment where direct action might be effective.”

    No doubt, but on which side will you take action?

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  6. Jim permalink
    19 August 2008 6:03 pm

    The role of intellectuals in American society is a key issue in assigning responsibility for the mess we are in. Here is another hypothessis which runs counter to much of the above discussion. There is a managerial new class operating in both the public and private sectors which uses cultural capital(knowledge) to secure a privleged position for itself while simultaneously arguing on a policy level for a greater centralization of political power through an expansion of the instutional reach of the public and private entities they increasing control. This relatively new power position is based not so much on ownership as on the invention and manipulation of concepts and symbols. There is good supporting empirical data for this hypothesis.

    For example, take a careful look at the origins of derivative financial instruments. The creators of these instrument were young intellectuals at JP Morgan Chase. The financial debt instruments created by by these private-sector intellectuals are now in the process of being socialized (making sure losses go to the American taxpayer) by public sector intellectuals like Bernanke and Paulson.

    This New class transcends traditional right/left political boundaries. An important point to keep in mind is that this cultural capital is a new means of oppression–creating a particularly privileged social formation that uses knowledge and expertise to dominate most of the rest of the population.

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  7. plato's cave permalink
    19 August 2008 6:30 pm

    (PC) ““until we recognize a material moment where direct action might be effective.”

    (FM) No doubt, but on which side will you take action?

    Finally, we get to the nub of the argument. Luckily, as I was dozing in my armchair reading Flaubert (herein identifying myself as an effete Euro-centric liberal), it suddenly became clear to me. You don’t begin a political process without a political program — that is, a detailed plan of action with a specific goal and steps toward that goal. This plan also has to include a specific “market” or constituency which is capable of having its consciousness raised to the point that it will take collective action.

    The question is not what side we are on, but what specific changes do we want, and how do we think we can accomplish them. I have been reading you for quite awhile because we have similar opinions on important areas (our self-destructive imperial policy, and on the dismal state of our democratic institutions), and those similar opinions make our differences the more intriguing.

    My “political program” must be obvious by now: better and fairer healthcare; revived environmental and labor protection; re-definition of the rights and ogligations of corporations; limits on the influence of money on elections; sharp curtailment of the military budget; global reduction of nuclear weapons; serious investment in education, and development of alternate energy, transportation and employment models. Basically, Nader’s program, without the righteousness.

    So, Fabius, what is your political program? What specific changes do you want? What liberty, and whose, do you mean when you decry our loss of it? And can we accomplish these changes through the electoral process, by petition, protest, letters to the editor, boycotts?

    I have a sense that our disagreement comes down to small government versus big government, private property versus public good. If so, let’s debate it in the open.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I am more interested in processes than programs, in keeping with the founders of the great experiment in liberal self-government since Machivelli. Hobbs, Locke, and the successors did not propose policies so much as the “rules” of the ideal regime. That’s the point of self-government.

    Contrast our Consitution with the proposed (and fortunately for Europe, defeated) EU constitution. Ours specifies responsibilities and processes; theirs describes outcomes (results of government programs).

    Hence my question is what are you willing to trade for the benefits you seek? A government that promises to institute the programs you like — with power for good people to do good things — in exchange for our liberty?

    To make a general observation from the comments I posted, despising the American people is perhaps the first step to a desire to rule them (in their own best interests, of course).

    I find our current set of rules adequate. But Michael Kammen was wrong in his book “A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture”. It requires the people to run it; nothing can compensate for their failure to do so. Hence the program must be to reawaken our thirst for liberty and desire to manage our own affairs — and understand that responsibility is the other side of the coin of liberty.

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  8. Jim permalink
    19 August 2008 7:14 pm

    Plato’s Cave:

    Good questions? Your comments raised a few issues in my head. What is consciousness raising? Your conception seems to imply that it is primarily a conceptual experience (i.e. that people eventually may choose to act because they have been persuaded intellectually). Is this true? My sense is that collective action finally has to do with intelligence closely linked to concrete social experience as distinct from conceptual experience alone.

    Is the well-placed intellectual (lawyer, judge,investment banker, rating agency model builder, Governments sponsered enterprise executive, Federal Reserve staffer etc.) as guilty as the traditional large capitalist owner in fostering a mass society of disempowered individuals?

    Is it now the case that the intellectuals (the thinkers) are primarily the doers with the rest of the population more or less intimidated into silence?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Are you kidding with “the rest of the population more or less intimidated into silence”. If not, please give some examples. I am not asking for anything so grand as proof; just a few instances.

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  9. plato's cave permalink
    20 August 2008 12:25 am

    Jim: thanks for replying. Of course the mandarin intellectuals are not as responsible as the real capitalists, but as you said earlier, the intellectuals who slip inside the elite and become favored agents develop a “capital” of their own, leaving others, less gifted, on the outside.
    Your last sentence raises the question of whether there is any meaningful “work” left other than symbolic manipulation, which is related to the question of whether Americans can still produce anything other than services. I dont know the answer. I’ve always been a symbols person myself, even in the military!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: An odd comment to make at this time.

    “which is related to the question of whether Americans can still produce anything other than services”

    One of the small mysteries is why people ignore the importance of relative currency valuations. Our lack of competitiveness resulted from an overvalued currency, much like the UK after WWI. As the US dollar has depreciated vs. the rest of the world, our exports have surged. The rate of growth might slow if there is a global recession (global real GDP < 2%), but it will resume during the next boom.

    I describe this process in “Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn” (24 January 2008) – How will this recession end? With re-balancing of the global economy — and a decline of hthe US dollar so that the US goods and services are again competitive. No more trade deficit, and we can pay our debts.

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  10. DBake permalink
    20 August 2008 12:36 am

    Fabius,

    I thought I understood your criticism, but now I’m totally confused as to what you’re getting at. Granted the regime should try to meet the needs of the majority. It should also try to meet the needs of the minorities– intellegentsia and otherwise. It should try to meet the needs, as much as possible, of its citizenry generally.

    As for whether the views of intellectuals are superior to those of the majority, I presume it depends on the particular intellectual. Some have better views, I’d guess, and some worse. Why would any intellectual believe his views superior? The same reason every human being believes their views superior– believing something means believing it’s true, which means believing that people who disagree with you have a false belief. Presumably the majority believe their views superior to those of malcontents.

    You write, “It’s not their [the masses'] responsibility to change themselves”. I thought it was every single human being’s responsibility to change his or herself. Whether the state should get involved is another matter, and in most cases probably shouldn’t. But the idea that certain people don’t have what seems like the basic human responsibility of coming to think true things and improving one’s conduct and capacities, because they’re the authentic folk of the heartland, is silly.

    Finally, it’s not as though Napoleon was able to tyrannize the virtuous, liberty-loving people of France because those evil intellectuals betrayed them. The ordinary people liked Napoleon quite a bit too. Intellectuals will support tyranny, sure, just like the masses. In fact, intellectuals usually support tyranny at the exact same time that the masses do. (I’m agnostic as to which is chicken, and which egg.)

    What’s your evidence that the majority in this country do care about their liberty? It seems to me that they don’t — that we have these ridiculous wars on terror and drugs and other abstractions, that we see increasing surveillance, huge numbers of people in jail, a blind eye turned to torture, indefinite detention, and military trials, because that’s what people vote for.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You raise many good points. Let’s see if I can explain more clearly.

    “As for whether the views of intellectuals are superior to those of the majority, I presume it depends on the particular intellectual.”

    The original discussion was about a class defecting from our regime. You justified this by pointing to the defective nature of the masse: ” Is the stereotype of “a nation technologically backwards, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy” completely inaccurate?” I said I see no “basis for intellectuals to consider their views superior” on these matters. It is the “fact-value” distinction. It does matter of how smart the intellectual is, but rather that none are God.

    “You write, “It’s not their [the masses'] responsibility to change themselves”. I thought it was every single human being’s responsibility to change his or herself.”

    On what basis do you say this? It reads like a statement of religious belief, which you want to impose on others. Life is short, and people dedicate their few years of adulthood as they wish.

    “What’s your evidence that the majority in this country do care about their liberty? It seems to me that they don’t”

    On this I thought I was very clear! I worry that enough people in this nation do not care about their liberty (and self-government, which is the other side of this coin). I suspect this is our core problem. I have written about this at some length.

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  11. OldSkeptic permalink
    20 August 2008 10:32 am

    Where we are at (the US may be leading but this applies to the UK, Australia, even Canada – the UK even leads the US in State monitoring) is the culmination of more than 20 years of very hard work. A system built on a very flawed ideology. The names have changed names many times but is currently a (sort of) neo-liberal economic agenda combined with a neo-con view of the World.

    Great labels but can be summarised quite easily:
    (1) Production is irrelevant, trading, especially money, is the only way to make money.
    (2) Inflation of assets is great, because it makes the wealthy wealthier, but inflation of wages is terrible .. send them to jail.
    (3) Trickle down. Wealth is ‘appropriated’, this started by a small elite grabbing the lions share of the growth after the recessions in the 80’s and 90’s. A lot of people, such as the average US worker, never got any share in the country’s growth at all. This has morphed into outright near annexation, not just of the working classes, but the middle classes as well (a very dangerous move as history demonstrates). As the economies slow and even shrink, this annexation will become more evident and brutal.

    Govt’s were corrupted, suborned or were leaders in the process: such as smashing unions (do you know that it is virtually totally illegal in Australia to go on strike), changing tax laws to allow the already rich to avoid paying their share, increasing immigration to keep wages down, and so on.

    The trouble with this is that in a consumerist capitalist society this is self destructive (note that there are alternative capitalist models), as Henry Ford noted long ago: if the average person cannot afford to buy then consumerism collapses. The final play has been to ‘square the circle’ by debt being freely available to just about everyone.

    Along the way, as a nasty side affect, corruption has soared. The US, UK and Australian State and Federal Govt’s are basically systemically corrupt now. They CANNOT make rational decisions, no matter the qualities of individuals. The ‘vested interests’ continually compete to advance their (very short term and narrow) causes and interests, effectively paralysing Govt’s from doing anything useful. An example of this is in http://antiwar.com/radio/2008/08/16/joe-lauria-2/ with an interview of Joe Lauria who talks about McCain’s Foreign Policy advisor .. who takes commissions from Georgia to act as a lobbyist for them! We had a State Premier recently, who made all these decisions that benefited some companies .. lo and behold when he retired he became an instant millionaire.

    As for the ‘intellectuals’, what has happened is that those who have opposed, or even just warned about, the consequences of the directions we have been heading in have been ignored, marginalised or even downright oppressed. The ones you hear on the MSM (main stream media) are the ones who have stuck to the party line. The others never appear. An academic here just got the boot recently by correctly pointing out that the current transport ‘plan’ was either put together by fools or was mired in corruption. The Govt pressured the University to get rid of him. Have read of this by an Australian economist http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/ who has been warning for decades about what could, and now has, happened.

    Another example, look I did a paper years ago (2002 in fact) that categorically proved that the standard models used by the ‘financial engineers’ were completely wrong, many in private agreed, but that was what the industry followed so they used them because it made them lots of money. I so enjoyed my year of unemployment.

    The intellectuals with real ideas to fix things are out there, many are still trying to fix things .. time to bring them back in ‘from the cold’. As an example: look at this for a workable idea to fix US railways, improve the national grid, generate lots of jobs, make a lot of money and save huge amounts of oil: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4301.

    Look, in WW2 the UK spent 3 years completely failing. It was thumped at every turn by the Germans and later the Japanese, the one success it had was the Battle of Britain .. and the people responsible were fired or demoted straight after. The system protected the acceptable people .. who also were incompetent (chin chin old chap). Finally they started to put the unacceptable competent people in and never looked back. Unfortunately for the UK, straight after WW2 they immediately put back in the idiots again .. and never looked forward again.

    But it took 3 years of war and near total defeat before they did it, so unfortunately we have quite a bit more time to suffer under these self serving fools (unless they completely stuff it up and the nukes go flying .. will we have to rely on another ‘man who saved the world’, google it, under a McCain Govt?).

    Like

  12. 20 August 2008 12:23 pm

    desire to manage our own affairs — and understand that responsibility
    Everybody wants “adult freedom” to take action, and manage our own affairs.
    While no problems develop.
    But everybody also wants “child freedom” from responsibility, the need to pay for risky decisions when the bad outcomes happen.
    “Free Market” advocates generally want honest freedom, and full responsibility.
    Successful entrepreneurs and especially their hired millionaire CEO non-owner top managers pay lip service to the free market, to allow maximizing profit … until their business model fails. At which time they suddenly ask for gov’t protection, and all too often are successful.

    “Owning the means of production” was tried in Slovakia with voucher privatization, but the masses preferred $400 cash for sure rather than stock shares worth possibly $50 – $200 / year.
    US homeowners freely chose to borrow their house equity, and spend it, rather than save it/ keep it invested. But now the poor big-spenders want the gov’t to pay for their own bad choice.

    Who will pay? who will be responsible?

    “Consume Mass Quantities” — is a socially destructive desire.
    There has been perhaps too little on religion in Fab’s fine posts, because Christianity and tolerance of others, while pushing individual responsibility (pay for yourself), are signficant factors in US success.
    (But maybe it’s best not to go off too much there, here)

    DBake:
    What’s your evidence that the majority in this country do care about their liberty? It seems to me that they don’t– that we have these ridiculous wars on terror and drugs and other abstractions, that we see increasing surveillance, huge numbers of people in jail, a blind eye turned to torture, indefinite detention, and military trials, because that’s what people vote for.
    Most Americans want to be security “free” from terrorists trying to kill them. It is FOR FREEDOM that we support the war against terrorists who want to kill the West. My wife disagrees with my desire for legalization of drugs, but that is because she wants to minimize drug addiction — where addicts have chosen to lose freedom.
    What blind eye to torture? Oh, do you mean Saddam’s torture before 2003? Or Russian or Burmese or Zimbabwean or Sudanese torture? There’s sure a blind eye to most evil regime’s widespread use of torture, while there are huge discussions on whether waterboarding is or is not torture in the US.
    Do you know of any US citizens in indefinite detention in America? I don’t — but I do know there’s a huge problem of prison-rape pretty much not talked about.

    The Terror issue is certainly being used by one set of Rep elites to increase elite and gov’t power, but the Dems want even more gov’t power and elite control, with a different emphasis, and proven failed foreign policy strategy (unless you think Killing Fields, mullahs instead of a Shah, Rwanda genocide and Somalia shown US impotence are less than proven failures).

    Like

  13. swissrobinson permalink
    20 August 2008 1:41 pm

    “The only question that remains is what this class will do when our regime totters. My guess is that they will defect, supporting tyranny. A tyranny that offers good things: equality of all races and genders, treats the earth well, etc. One that offers them ample and well-paid jobs regulating the rest of us.”

    Excellent Fab, you see the process, now what are you going to do about it? And what gives liberal-democracy any god given right to be the sole – or even the right – political system to meet changing social, economic and environmental conditions?

    “At no time in our history has religion had less effect on public policy, domestic or foreign. The policy recommendations of the “religious right” have been largely ignored by the Bush Administration, other than a small number of minor issues (e.g., limiting foreign funding of family planning programs, domestic funding of abstinence PR campaigns).”

    You’d have to look a little closer at the issue than simply rattle off policy recommendations from the present Bush government. What are the statistics related to the belief in the US that God exists? Which Western Liberal democracy created the first ‘museum’ devoted to creationism. Which country has judicial battles determing school content related to Darwinism? Why does the US so ardently support Israel? Not only is Israel a beacon of democracy it also shares cultural and religious ties that – like it or not – continue to influence Washington to a degree that is detrimental to the Middle East.

    “Fabius Maximus replies: The majority are who and what they are. It’s not their responsibility to change themselves, but the political regime’s role to meet their needs”

    Well that’s probably why we’re in this mess Fab. I’ve learnt that the didactic worldviews of Marxism et al. (the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong argument’ that you’re pushing here) cannot account for the complexities of people’s lives and their perceptions of reality (there is, after all, no such thing as reality). A hermeneutical approach is where our constructions are interpreted, compared and contrasted togethor. Contrast this with the shit fed to us through mainstream communication channels so often that – as you say – we vote for torture, indefinate detention and other dehumanising practices (remember the great social experiment called consumerism I hyperlinked elsewhere? – same story). The aim of a hermeneutical approach is to distill a consensus construction that is more informed and sophisticated than the worldviews we hold at present – blogs can be great for that.

    But I don’t see a great deal of enthusiasm for listening to the thoughts of others here. So I wish you good luck with your blog.

    “Fabius Maximus replies: I am more interested in processes than programs, in keeping with the founders of the great experiment in liberal self-government since Machivelli. Hobbs, Locke, and the successors did not propose policies so much as the “rules” of the ideal regime. That’s the point of self-government.”

    P.S. Don’t conflate Hobbs and Machiavelli, two different power theorists. The former told us how we should recognise power, the latter how to use power – with very different moral implications.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Many points here!

    “What are the statistics related to the belief in the US that God exists?…”

    This is not a relevant reply to my statement “At no time in our history has religion had less effect on public policy.” You are looking at this point in time; I referred to the change over time. Religion has always been strong in America (although varying in influence). Most metrics show its influence today at a historic low.

    “you see the process, now what are you going to do about it?”

    As an active Republican for 25 years, I will continue working the political process. I have zero to show for my efforts so far, so I am attempting to move into the analysis and discussion realm. It worked for the founders (e.g., The Federalist Papers), so this lessor descendent will follow in their footsteps.

    “And what gives liberal-democracy any god given right to be the sole – or even the right – political system to meet changing social, economic and environmental conditions?”

    Nothing at all. It is merely in my opinion the best we have at this time. As an alien from a more advanced race once said, “Democracy is a good system, for beginners.” (From “Have Spacesuit, will travel” by Robert Heinlein).

    “the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong argument’ that you’re pushing here”

    A quotation, please, to support this. I state my opinions, and usually they are heavily qualified. I state my beliefs, which I do not qualify and see no reason to do so.

    “But I don’t see a great deal of enthusiasm for listening to the thoughts of others here.”

    Please refer us to better sites, that show more enthusiasm for listening to the thoughts of others. This site is, so far as I know, rare in two respects. First, the comments more often than not disagree with the author (a good thing, critics are our best friends). Second, the discussion threads are often longer (sometimes far longer: this post is 870 words long, the discussion thread so far is 6700 words). Not only do I listen to comments, I reply to most — often at length.

    Perhaps what disturbs you is my disagreement. If so, too bad. Everyone gets to state their views here, so long as they follow the comment policy (brief, topical, civil, legal). Including me.

    “Don’t conflate Hobbs and Machiavelli, two different power theorists.”

    I did not conflate them. I said that “Machivelli, Hobbs, Locke, and the successors” formed a line or school of thought. Do you disagree with this?

    Like

  14. plato's cave permalink
    20 August 2008 1:53 pm

    “Fabius Maximus replies: I am more interested in processes than programs, in keeping with the founders of the great experiment in liberal self-government since Machivelli. Hobbs, Locke, and the successors did not propose policies so much as the “rules” of the ideal regime. That’s the point of self-government.”

    So do I! I like the process of people freely being able to choose their own life and work. Since Hobbes and Locke, however, the power to choose such things has been largely aggregated into the hands of a few, who have in turn used the state (its Constitution and laws) as a means of enhancing that power. Representative government, elections, the balance of powers, an educated citizenry – the original “processes” of a democratic society — have become warped to serve as tools of maintaining an unequal distribution of power and wealth.

    “Processes” is an abstraction without talking about the actual conditions we live in.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: While I agree that power has become concentrated, I am unsure of the causes. I suspect apathy and indifference — to liberty, to self-government — as a major cause. That folks are opporessed seems a proposition without empirical support. Noting the concentration of wealth and income is not sufficient in the absense of actual evidence of opporession. Correct diagnosis must preceed an effective cure. Otherwise your programs might be ineffective or even counter-productive.

    “I like the process of people freely being able to choose their own life and work. Since Hobbes and Locke, however, the power to choose such things has been largely aggregated into the hands of a few” {bold emphasis added}

    That seems grossly overstated, IMO. Certainly true for the bottom quintile — perhaps two quintiles — of income. But not for the other 60% – 80%. Evidence?

    Like

  15. Jim permalink
    20 August 2008 5:21 pm

    Power has become more concentrated and I hope in the future your blog continues to examine the possible causes. Here are a few generalizations which might be of help:

    The structual components of all existing political regimes have their origins in the internal social relations and theories of politics at work in the insurgent movement that originally installed the system of government.

    Politcal movements once in power, whether for 10 years or 200 years fashion modes of governance that become more hierarchical and less internally democratic. Only the appearance of another insurgent movement seems to offer the prospect of altering this historical tendency.

    The centralization of decison making in ever fewer hands is described in terms of efficiency, not in terms of heightened centralization.

    The present political challenge is how to build a structure of popular assertion that is strong enough to contest the existing power of the received culture while at the same time creating within that structure forms of social relations that are democratic. If the second cannot be done, the first is meaningless.

    How is a structure of democratic accountability achieved?
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree in general with your analysis, but suspect that it overstates the case. All societies have some degree of a power/wealth hierarchy. The US system has allowed that power structure to evolve as our society changes. The founders, centered around the “Virginia squirearchy”, had to share power with — and eventually were displaced by — other and newer groups. And organized groups of the general population were players in this process, not passive serfs.

    Also, we have had a large degree of democratic accountability — replacing elements of the power structure when they grew disfunctional. The rise of the Republican Party (and the resulting civil war) was one instance; the “new deal” and rise to near-dominance of the Democratic Party is another.

    Like

  16. Jim permalink
    20 August 2008 7:09 pm

    The initial degree of democratic accoutability in the origins and evolutions of our political system, at least until the Civil War, is what makes me hopeful that our culture still resonates with the possibility of democratic change (i.e. this process is somehow in our genes).

    Fabius, is your sense of the apathy and passivity of the average American accurate?

    When I set around various “kitchen tables” and grouse with others–passions are often quite electric. However taking theses conversations out of the kitchen and into the public square is another issue entirely. We do not know what to do? And this is where social fear enters the picture.

    It is much easier to visualize an appealing political goal than to recruit a large number of people to perform the public acts necessary to breath life into the possiblilty of achieving that goal. Most ideas don’t translate into action because people are afraid to act on them. If you don’t act you are considered apathetic–yet it is probably the psychological impact of the organizing achievement that pushes people through such fear.

    It is also probably the case that social fear diminishes in the presence of tangible evidence that power relations are shifting or offer the prospect of shifting. Then suddenly a political movement might expand for 200 to 2 million.

    Anyway, caution, perhaps even apparent passivity is reasonable in the absence of a compelling recruitment message and a coherent structue to recieve and hold recruits–collective action seems to be a response to an organizaing achievement that is in the process of happening in our presence.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I will grant everything you say is true. But irrelevant in my opinion. We love liberty and will fight for it. Or we don’t. At some level it comes down to that. I suspect just basic political activism would suffice. Hence my analogy with late Republic Rome, where the Roman people had tired of the burden of self-government.

    This is, of course, just a theory. Proof of such high level abstractions is almost impossible.

    Like

  17. DBake permalink
    20 August 2008 10:29 pm

    Ahhh… the old fact-value distinction. Okay, I suspect the fact-value distinction is a philosophical mistake. But that’s a bigger issue than can be resolved in an online debate. (For those interested, a very good argument against the fact-value distinction come from Philippa Foot’s two papers, “Moral Beliefs” and “Goodness and Choice”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippa_Foot)
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, it leads us into very dark places. But we’re stuck with it, as it has become embedded into our collective worldview. Allen Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” discusses this in great detail.

    Like

  18. Jim permalink
    24 August 2008 6:20 pm

    Fabius: Your comment “We love liberty and will fight for it. Or we don’t” encapsules most thinking about political movements. I don’t think political activism takes place through a telepathic burst. For example, Richard Hofstadter’s discussion of American populism in “The Age of Reform” fails to look at the internal structure of the agrarian movement itself. In fact, hardly an actual American farmer is visible in his elaborate discussion. In other words his lens of analysis describes populism as some type of irrational romantic yearning, when in reality it was an unusually well-organized group of production and marketing cooperatives that eventually extended over 40 states and involved over 2 million participants.

    When analyzing political movements, high level abstractions, must be set aside.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, somewhat. In my opinion the love of liberty comes first, the fertile soil in which organizers plant seeds. The finest organization will not work without this necessary precondition. I agree this love is not sufficient. The Founders success came through careful and long-term organizing, which (as you note) is too-often ignored in modern analysis in favor of emphasis on their writing (more dramatic).

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