Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Call of the Weird

We commonly use "Left" and "Right" to describe people's political views. This usage stems from the time of the French Revolution, where it actually described where the delegates actually sat when the National Constituent Assembly was in session. As a valid descriptor of political philosophy, that was when it was most current and most valid. It's still an adequate description for most people. Most of us can identify as either liberal/progressive, conservative, or somewhere in between. But not all. Not every political philosophy maps uniquely onto the left-right curve.

There are a couple of different ways to represent this. The one I like best was devised by Jerry Pournelle while he was writing his Ph.D. dissertation in political science:

The first thing I'd like to stress about this is that "irrational" isn't necessarily an insult in this context, it simply means that the person in question doesn't believe that the problems of society can be solved by reason. "Rational" means that the person in question does believe that reason can be applied to the problems of society. And it's not a true/false distinction, everyone is on a continuum from one to the other. Likewise, "Statism" isn't an insult, it simply means that he or she believes that government is, itself, a positive good.

The nice thing about this representation is that you can uniquely place just about every political philosophy you ever heard of. The odd thing is that people looking across an axis, say, Democrats and Republicans, tend to think that the guy on the other side is crazy. Equally strange is that looking across a diagonal you don't necessarily get that same sense, even though they're just as far away from you as the guy across the axis. I'm not sure why that is. It's a very interesting insight, though.

The Nolan Chart is rather less useful, because it doesn't quite map every philosophy uniquely. However, it does come with an on-line test. It's useful for a first approximation of where you stand. Not that most of us need a quiz to figure that out ... Anyway, I took it again today, and here's the result:

I tend to wander, depending on exactly how I'm feeling that day, but I'm usually within a tick of that spot. I could be either Democrat or Libertarian with little heartburn. I was a Democrat precinct chair in '02, and voted that way in the last two elections. I may yet go back.

Now, the question is, why Libertarian?

My basic view on government is that of Jefferson: that government governs best which governs least. Minimalism describes my creed probably better than any other term. People will always misuse and abuse authority, so they should be given as little of it as possible. This is the point where my views are most congruent with the Libertarian Party. As I've said before, I love my country and I support my government, but that doesn't mean I trust them much. That said, minimalism isn't necessarily all that practical in a country that is, after all, the third most populous nation on Earth. It was doable when we were a smallish agrarian nation. But it's a recipe for anarchy when we're standing shoulder-to-shoulder, all 300 million of us. Now, I'm looking for a balance point between the freedom of the individual and the health of the society. I'm not sure where that is, but I'm fairly sure that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a complete lock on it either.

But I'm not a hard-core Libertarian. There are a lot of areas where I don't especially agree with them. The thing that kept me away from them for a long time was, well, a basic stinginess I sense from them. Their economic policies are at best strange, and at worst, stone barking mad. Their basic approach towards adversity is that you should man up and get over it. While that's a nice idea in principle, sometimes it just can't be done in practice. Not everyone is that resilient or resourceful.

However, they're fairly harmless. It's not like they're ever going to get enough of a majority to do anything. If we were to group people on a Nolan chart, they'd probably look something like this:

Most people, I'd venture to say 90% or so, would spread along the middle, roughly according to the Law of Thirds. (That's 1/3 Right, 1/3 Center, 1/3 Left.) Of the other ten percent ... well, I can't imagine too many people down at the bottom corner of the chart. Kim Jong-Il, maybe. Or Doctor Doom. Or just about any of James Bond's villains. But no one that actually works for a living. No, the truly weird have one and only one true home: the top corner. Never mind that they'll have about as much luck selling their platform to the electorate as they'd have selling ice to Eskimos. They're made of sterner stuff. In the abstract, I admire that kind of stubborn resolve ... but I'd rather spend mine on something I can actually accomplish.

And just right now, that "something" is helping my daughter with some homework. It's a great life if you don't weaken...


Anonymous said...

Hi again Tim,

I kinda like this quote from old Jerry:

"Liberalism is a philosophy of consolation for western civilization as it commits suicide."

..but I rather doubt I like it for the same reasons he said it.

I'd not seen that chart before although I am familiar with some of the other two-axis political charts. Mostly they are, IMO, end to end baloney.

I'm not sure I'll conclude much differently on his either. To say communists are "state worshipers" betrays something that is one of two things, either a striking ignorance of the subject or an agenda driven desire to project subterfuge.

Of course most people wouldn't see it that way. But then most people haven't made any effort to think for themselves about topics so far outside the American catechism.

Politics is about economics. And despite the liberal v. conservative CRAP about "issues" (as though politics were like grocery shopping...just pick your favorite :issues"), that IS the root of politics.

The modern nation state as a construct is only a couple of hundred years old. Indeed the modern nation state did not cover the whole of the globe until just before your lifetime commenced. So, IMO, to place this construct as one of the key axes seems rather pedestrian.

If we look back to the very earliest notions of what it means (meant) to be a state, we can see that, like democracy itself, it was never meant to be anything positive for the people.

Democracy's history dates back to the Greeks and its founding principles were to create elite and quite controlled social and political arrangements.

The understanding of the "State" as growing directly out of the "Police" and the army, and intended for no other purpose than to enforce property dates back much, much farther. The original organization of Athens is based on military districts which not only yield a fixed quota of troops but also revenues to fund mounted archers who are slaves - the first police force. The rule of the demos, i.e. "democracy", grows directly from this. The innovation here, is not the "fairness" of the Athenian democracy. In fact it is a huge step backward from the Greek Tribes which were based on consensus and one vote for each adult. In place of that, the "Democracy" recognizes only one out of every 32 people as citizens. It's key is not its incorporation of the people (except for those formally so defined), but in its organization of the state, and through it, the guarantee of personal property, most importantly in slaves.

This is yet another example of a thing we see through a thick fog, whereas those who came before us had a much clearer view.

Meanwhile, here in - as Che put it - The Belly of the Beast (AKA teevee land), we somehow think that the history has been written and that we understand it.

"Communism is dead."

That's a common refrain that is profoundly ahistorical and even more profoundly shortsighted. 150 years is not history, it is a teevee show.

And for old Jerry to point to the statist axis, even though it made more sense in the time when he was working on his dissertation, is pure folly.

Communism, in its early exertions which we have witnessed since Marx (and actually all through history prior, albeit in its primitive or Utopian forms), has not been able to escape the state any more that it has been able to avoid capitalist predation. To claim it has come in gone is to deny witnessing a birth rather than to be reflecting on a "death."

The state, as far as Marxists are concerned, will go the way of private property. So long as one exists, so shall the other.

Of course here, the discussion is almost never about economics because virtually no one knows anything about the subject. And those who do know and do run things economically are too much in agreement for economics to be very useful as fodder for the theatrics that comprise the discourse in our time and place.

Anonymous said...


You're a very smart man. And it has always been that way. Well, at least since you were a very smart boy, heh.

I recommend you take a break from reindoctrinating yourself with the stuff you read in skool to slog through the first 90 pages or so of capital (and a slog it is). I suspect that if you give it a fair suspension of disbelief and enough of your copious synaptic power, you will come to see those pages as you do the bright sunshine through parting clouds.

And why do I say this? I say this because Capital is the work which takes the atomic unit of economics, value, and descibes it with the same precision and logical clarity that has made all the other forms of science so appealing to you. Marx is to economics what Darwin is to biology and what Lowell is to geology. And what is interesting beyond that is that these contemporaries were, in this time of foment, largely applying the same basic ideas to revolutionize their respective fields: a new and comprehensive view of the dynamics of historical progression.

In Capital, Marx does not write a historical narrative though. Rather, he has earlier taken apart the then existing social relations until he has discerns this atomic unit, value. And then, commencing his opus, he reconstructs everything from that atomic unit showing how it all works.

And once you have some grasp of this, you are in a much better situation to make sense of politics. Of the importance and impact Capital has had, one cannot not speak in too grand of terms.

To wit, the very intellectual foundations of the libertarianism you fancy come from a desperate effort to refute the analysis in Capital lest it, taken to its logical conclusion, undermine the notion of private property entirely.

The closest thing to a bourgeois critique of Marx is by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and it dates back to over 100 years ago. While others have criticized small slivers of Marx's work, Böhm-Bawerk's is considered to be "comprehensive". It is astonishing how many footnotes on the "total debunking of Marx" end up leading exclusively to him. In fact, Böhm-Bawerk's work is structured to look exactly like an anti-matter version of Marx, i.e. a three volume Capital and Interest. The actual theory is thin stuff indeed, focusing on the term or period of capital. In some ways, it is the exact opposite of Gesell (*another guy who is as inordinately popular among code toads as libertarianism) but equally wrong. I forget who said it but somehow Böhm-Bawerk stepped on Adam Smith somewhere in his writings against Marx and one of the neo-Smithians referred to him as "that bombastic flea, Böhm-Bawerk".

Do you know what else the bombastic flea "contributed?"

He is one of the "founders" of "Libertarian Economics" (the so-called Austrian School)...

Modern Libertarian political philosophy was born in exactly the same way as Eugene. It was "discovered" and funded by capitalism as a bought-and-paid-for ideological "criticism" of Marxism. The first important "Libertarian" institutions in America (in the early 1930's - imagine that! during the Great Depression... what a coincidence?) started out by popularizing the bombastic flea's work and distributing his books, free, to libraries and schools.

It is one hell of a story but the whole "Libertarian" racket was more crooked than a Ponzi scheme, absolutely manufactured out of whole cloth to oppose socialist ideology and nothing more. It is a designer theory that was designed to fulfill the needs of a free market. The demand was there for an oppositional theory to Marxism, but no supply. You can imagine how high the price was... although it fell right back down to its value when the Universities solved the crisis of production.

But then none of this last part is news any longer, if you read the things linked earlier...

Cheers -

Anonymous said...

Oops my bad. Make that Lyell. What Lyell is to geology.

Can't always bat a 1000.

Or rather, can't ever...

You could also toss in August Schleicher and linguistics to further the analogy I made and to demonstrate the veritable explosion of the theory of historical development affection many, many fields of inquiry in the mid-nineteenth century.

Anonymous said...

affecting, not affection. I gotta start proofin' before submittin'

This is getting ridicule-ous :)

Jack Jodell said...

Thank you for presenting this. It is illuminating and intelligent. Our corporatist, anti-intellectual mainstream media always tries to oversimplify ("dummy down") everything it reports on into scenarios of conflict, spectacle, entertainment, and/or "either-or." And so it has done with politics. As we all know, life isn't always an "either-or" situation. Few situations we experience are black or white; most are some shade of gray. I think the media's fixation on only 2 sides to every question has done a great deal of harm and has fostered the terrible polarization we experience today. What you have presented here is dar more accurate and thought-provoking than anything we constantly get from our mainstream media.