Friday, November 21, 2014

Georg Simmel: 18th and 19th century views of freedom

Society want to be an organic whole of which "individuals must be mere members." But the individual rebels against total absorption into the whole, writes Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt. H Wolf.
The individual strives to be rounded out in himself, not merely to help round out society.
This conflict between the whole and the individual is insoluble. The individual's striving for wholeness appears as egoism, compared to the altruism of serving society. But society itself "is an egoism that does violence to the individual". Thus comes freedom, to referee a boundary both for society and for the individual. The 18th century and the 19th century offered different ways in which freedom could be understood and implemented.

In the 18th century the old social forms -- the old aristocratic privileges, the "despotic control of commerce," the "still potent survivals of the guilds, the intolerant coercion by the church, the feudal obligations of the peasantry" -- seemed "an unbearable limitation" on peoples' energies. Thus it invented freedom from obligation and coercion and equality to level the ranks.

But the freedom of the individuals to pursue their energies immediately creates problems.  The 18th century idea of freedom assumed equality between individuals and the abolition of ranks, but individuals are not equal. Freedom allows the powerful to accumulate power, the moneyed to accumulate money, and the clever to outshine the stupid. This is what socialism was invented to cure.
"[S]ocialism" does not refer to the suspension of freedom. Rather, socialism suspends only that which, at any given degree of freedom, becomes the means for suppressing the freedom of some in favor of others. This means private property.
 There is an "antimony between freedom and equality" that only Goethe seems to have seen.
Equality, he said, demands submission to a general norm; freedom "strives toward the unconditional." "Legislators or revolutionaries," he pointed out, "who promise at the same time equality and freedom are fantasts or charlatans."
How then did the 18th century not grasp this problem? It is because of Kant, who posited an abstract and idealistic ego which is really identical in every man. And then there is Kant's categorical imperative:
Act in such a way that the principle governing your will could at the same time be valid as the principle of a general legislation.
The 18th century "based equality upon freedom, and freedom upon equality."

This ideal broke up in the 19th century into two tendencies: "toward equality without freedom, and toward freedom without equality." The first is obviously socialism.

The second tendency is a new individualism. The individual that had broken "the rusty chains of guild, birth right, and church" now wanted "to distinguish himself from other individuals."
The important point no longer was the fact that he was a free individual as such, but that he was this specific, irreplaceable, given individual...

This new individualism might be called qualitative, in contrast with the quantitative individualism of the eighteenth century... At any rate, Romanticism perhaps was the broadest channel through which it reached the consciousness of the nineteenth century.
Simmel summarizes all this in a majestic paragraph that still resonates unabated with us a century later.
[T]he doctrine of freedom and equality is the foundation of free competition; while the doctrine of differentiated personality is the basis of the division of labor. Eighteenth-century liberalism put the individual on his own feet: in the nineteenth, he was allowed to go as far as they would carry him. According to the new theory the natural order of things saw to it that the unlimited competition of all resulted in the harmony of all interests, that the unrestricted striving after individual advantages resulted in the optimum welfare of the whole.
Simmel looks to a higher form in which the two ideas of "personality as such and of unique personality as such, are not the last words of individualism."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Georg Simmel: Social Humans at Play

If we think of humans as social animals, then our social actions can be considered as a deadly serious part of being human.

But Georg Simmel in a chapter on "Sociability" in The Sociology of Georg Simmel looks at social relations without a purpose, occasions when humans gather in social gatherings that have no purpose other than sociability. Simmel analyzes this sort of social interaction as "sociability as the play-form of sociation." You can think of the relation of sociability to sociation as "similar to that of the work of art to reality."

When people are engaged in the serious business of social cooperation with an objective purpose they restrain their personalities in the cause of furthering their interests, and so in business and commerce, rules of amiability, refinement, and cordiality apply.

But where no interest in involved, similar restraint or "tact" is still needed to regulate interpersonal relations. At a social gathering one is expected to leave behind "the purely and deeply personal traits of one's life" and things like "[w]eatlh, position, erudition, fame, exceptional capabilities and merits" are expected to be de-emphasized as a part of good manners.

Sociable man is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand he presents himself "only with the capacities, attractions, and interests with which is pure human-ness provides him. On the other hand, however, sociability also shies away from the entirely subjective and purely inwardly spheres of his personality." Displays of extremes of character are not appropriate. So pure sociability enacts "sociability thresholds," the one where individuals start to interact from objective motives and the other where "their entirely personal and subjective aspects make themselves felt."

There is, thus, an aspect of sociability that makes it a democracy of equals, and something that is played in a game where "the pleasure of the individual is closely tied up with the pleasure of others." It is a game where people act as if all were equal, and each honored in particular.

Simmel reviews specific examples of pure sociability, starting with "coquetry... the play form of eroticism", in which people play at eroticism without ever quite reaching an erotic acceptance or refusal. There is "conversation" where people "talk for the sake of talking" but without an object in view. There is the rehearsal of ethical questions, experiencing the friction between the individual and the collective and also the formation and splitting up of groupings, which can all be done in pure sociability without consequence.

Many social groupings start out with objective purposes and then relax into pure sociability, such as the brotherhoods of knights in the early German Middle Ages, that eventually relaxed into  "purely sociable aristocratic associations." And there was the courtly society of the French ancien régime where the once-powerful French aristocracy was reduced at the court of Versailles to enacting a work of art: "imitating the reality of the models, of things outside of art itself."

Pure sociability, or "society," has a reputation of superficiality. 
Yet it is precisely the more serious person who derives from sociability a feeling of liberation and relief. He can do so because he enjoys here, as if in an art play, a concentration and exchange of effects that present all the tasks and all the seriousness of life in a sublimation[.]
No doubt that is why women have in recent centuries organized salons where serious people can go to enjoy sociable interactions without risking the dread consequence of real life. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Georg Simmel: Individual and Mass

When we talk about human individuals, it is easy to think that we are talking about isolated humans in their non-social activities. We think that, of course, because a century and a half of left-wing thought is founded on that assumption, that individuals acting as individuals are not really social.

But Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, discussing "The Social and the Individual Level," is quick to puncture that idea. If we are to think of an individual just doing the bare minimum, such as obeying the law and "obeying the norms adequate to secure the continuation of the group... he would be an ethical abnormality, an utterly impossible being." In other words, when we talk about humans we may talk of humans as individuals or as members of a group. But we are always talking about humans as social beings.

But there is an important difference between a human in the mass and a human considered as individuals.
The first part of his nature can evidently consist only in more primitive elements... [that exist] in all individuals.
Individual qualities, on the other hand, are those "which constitute his private property, as it were, and which lift him out of everything that he may have in common with others." The point is that both these qualities are human and social. The only reason we don't think of them that way is that the left has diligently worked to make individual qualities and actions scandalous.

Simmel then goes on for pages about the consequence of the mass interaction being "more primitive". The "necessity to oblige the masses... easily corrupts the character. It pulls the individual away from his individuality and down to a level with all and sundry." So humanity in the mass tends towards the lowest common level of its members.

Thus Simmel rounds his arguments with quotes from Schiller and Heine.
[I]n Schiller: "Seen singly, everybody is passably intelligent and reasonable; but united into a body, they are blockheads." The fact that individuals, in all their divergencies, leave only the lowest parts of their personalities to form a common denominator, is stressed by Heine: "You have rarely understood me, and rarely did I understand you. Only when we met in the mire did we understand each other at once."
You can immediately see why Simmel hasn't become the go-to sociologist for all and sundry. His analysis of the social consequences of individual social action and mass social action just do not square with the needs of the modern ruling class.

The modern ruling class, in its revolutionary or its rational expert model, wants to sequester all higher and evolved individuality into its own care. And it wants the masses to be obedient and dependent. The model of universal freedom and individual equality dispersed throughout the population, with individuals using their unique qualities that lift them out of the mass, cannot advance their power project.

The whole concept of the modern authoritarian welfare state is based on brilliant experts devising one-size-fits-all universal programs in which humans are reduced into the mass, mechanical cogs in the machinery of government, designed and implemented by the better sort. As we have seen in the rollout of Obamacare, the ruling class knows what's best and must do what it takes, in deceit and misdirection, to advance its goals in the teeth of opposition from the "stupid" voters.

On the other hand you can see that the conservative-libertarian model of responsible individualism really focuses on encouraging individuals to develop and utilize their better qualities, and they can only do that, as social beings, by contributing to society. Good ideas, good products, good services developed by superior minds are encouraged. Yet they are in fact mass products for mass consumption by the masses.

Imagine that. Modern organic developed society can blend individual and mass to benefit everyone: the superior individual with the idea that nobody else has thought of, and the ordinary mass man that just goes with the flow and gladly enjoys the achievements of the exceptional individual.

The point is that the achievements of individuals are not selfish; they almost always have a social component. For humans are social animals; almost everything that humans do is social.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Georg Simmel, the Unknown Sociologist

I first encountered the name Georg Simmel in Jerry Muller's The Mind and the Market. I wrote about him in 2008 here. Simmel recognized that 19th century technologies "made for less labor in the household." This caused unease among middle-class women, who now sought activity outside the home.

Obviously, Simmel wrote, the public sphere, the world outside the home, in the short term would still be defined by men for men, but in the long term women would transform the public square to suit "a more feminine sensibility." So, feminists like Simone de Beauvoir that talked about the "independent woman" were talking nonsense. What really developed is what we see about us today, with conservative women trying to create a public square that celebrates love and marriage and children and men and work, and liberal women acting as high-school Mean Girls in a death spiral between their feminine natures and the ideological mandate to break glass ceilings, and enforcing their own feminization of the public square by naming and shaming.

Now, finally, I have actually got to read Simmel's sociology in a translation of his work. The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated by Kurt H. Wolff is actually a compendium of material from three sources: Grundfragen der Soziologie (Individuum und Gesellschaft), written by Simmel in 1917, Soziologie, Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellshartung, written in 1908, and a lecture delivered in 1902-03.

I'm about half way through Sociology right now, and I admit to being blown away. My notion of Sociology has always been that it amounts to an apology for left-wing politics, that it tells its students what they need to know to operate as a ruling class in a social welfare state, or what they need to  understand as social welfare state dependents. You get class theory, domination, and an institutional view of modern society.

Sociology starts with Comte, who with his Positivisim was trying to create a "religion of humanity." And let's not forget Marx and Herbert Spencer. Then there was Max Weber and his brilliant insights; but Weber died with much of his work in draft form. There's Emile Durkheim, but I find him only fair. And then there are folks like Sombart and Tönnies. Then we come down to the moderns like Sumner, Mead, Dewey, Parsons. Everybody knows those names, but lost in the shuffle, for me, is the name of Georg Simmel.

I'll be discussing the details of Simmel's sociology in upcoming posts. They will include the following:

  1. The individual and the mass
  2. Social humans at play
  3. 18th and 19th century views of freedom
  4. Numbers and social life
  5. The individual and the "dyad" (i.e. two people)
  6. Expansion of the dyad (three's a crowd)
  7. Domination
  8. and more...
Before I start with the individual topics, let's look at Simmel on the individual and the mass. The point about the mass, he writes, is that people connect on a level that they can all relate. That inevitably means that on a mass level they relate on "lower and primitively more sensuous levels."

You can see right away that Simmel causes problems for the folks that practice what we might call the "religion of collectivism." When people associate primarily as individuals they can contribute their highest and best qualities. But when they are mixed into a crowd or a mass or an organization as rank and file then only the more primitive qualities apply.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What About the White Working Class?

The liberals first turned against the white working class in the 1970s with Noman Lear's All in the Family. It featured, if you remember, a racist, bigoted, patriarchal white working class man who worked on a loading dock in the New York borough of Queens. His name was Archie Bunker.

Interesting thing about Archie. You'd think that he ought to have been an ethnic, Italian or Irish, given the time and place. But he wasn't. He was Anglo.

Since then liberals have, as we say nowadays, thrown the white working class under the bus, for the same reasons as Lear threw Archie under the bus. For their racism. For their bigotry. For their cultural traditionalism.

So I read a Slate piece "Why Democrats Can't Win Over White Working-Class Voters" by Jamelle Bouie with interest. Well why can't they do it? The reason, says the sub-head, is "The party's economic populism doesn't reach that far."

In 2010 and 2014 Democrat lost white working class voters by 30 points, and in 2012 by 20 points. So what should they do about it? Chaps like Ruy Texeira think that a dose of populism would do it, but Bouie isn't so sure.

He harks back to the 1970s when the white working class first discovered Democrats spending money on "them", the rioters of the 1960s:
Why was the government spending our tax dollars on them, working-class whites asked, when they destroy their neighborhoods and refuse to work, and we’re losing our jobs and our homes?
Racism, you see.

But couldn't the Democrats come up with "a commitment to universal policies that working-class whites like and support" as people like Kevin Drum propose? Can't they develop policies that spend money on working class whites and make them feel wanted again? Not really, says Bouie, because the Democratic Party is "a collection of disparate interests which—at its best—is nervous about economic liberalism and hesitant to push anything outside the mainstream." Anyway, the government is already spending a ton of money on programs the white working class does like: Social Security and Medicare.

In other words, the Dems won't reach out to the working class whites, because Archie Bunker.

So what is Slate write Jamelle Bouie telling us between the lines? I think he is telling us that between the urban gentry liberalism and identity politics there just isn't any room for the white working class. The problem is, as Bouie states, that the white working class is huge:
"Close to half of white men and 35–40 percent of white women in the labor force are still essentially 'working class,'" finds liberal commentator Andrew Levison in his book The White Working Class Today
You realize what it would cost, both in money and issues, to attract a chunk of the white working class back into the Democratic coalition?

You'd have to back off on the urban policy of high density and transit, the social liberal gospel of feminism and gay rights. You'd have to share the spoils of affirmative action.

And don't forget that up to yesterday, Democrats thought that they had an emerging Democratic Majority with the votes of women, minorities, youth, and the educated locked up for years.

This brings us back to Charles Murray and Coming Apart: White America 1960-2010. His argument, remember is that white America is coming apart into three pieces: the top 25% that's doing fine, marrying each other and prospering personally and economically; the middle 30% that's not doing so great, with significant divorce and income problems. And then there is the bottom 30%, where the women don't marry and the men don't work.

I don't know about the men and women in the bottom 30%, but the children of those folks hate it. They want to become part of working, respectable, decent America, and all the clever political positioning in the world isn't going to lead them astray forever.

The point is that government, any government, only has a limited amount of loot to hand out to its supporters. The rest of the people just have to go out and get a job. And the bigger the government the harder it is for ordinary folks to prosper, because all government spending and subsidy is waste; it is money that could have been doing something productive.

Eventually ordinary folks cotton on to the fact that they will never get to feast at the lord's table, no matter what the lord promises.

That's the headwind the Democrats are experiencing, and it will get worse before it gets better for them.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ron Fournier is the Problem, not Jonathan Gruber

OK, now that Rush Limbaugh has turned on the national radar, everyone is shocked, shocked that MIT professor and health-care expert Jonathan Gruber boasted about the Obama administration's Obamacare lies. Not least of the shocked is former AP superstar Ron Fournier. He writes in the National Journal more in sorrow than in anger:
If there is one thing that unites clear-headed Americans, it's a belief that our leaders must be transparent and honest.
Instead, it can now be told, the administration and its acolytes deliberately lied about Obamacare:
Its officials lied to all of us—Republicans, Democrats, and independents; rich and poor; white and brown; men and women.
You see, Ron Fournier wants everything that is good:
I strongly support bipartisan efforts to expand the availability of health coverage to the working poor, and bending the cost curve that threatens federal budgets for years to come.
But then Ron excoriates "knee-jerk opposition from the GOP." Do you see how that tells us everything we need to know about you, Ron Fournier? When you say "knee-jerk" you are telling us that you support a big-government solution to the health-care problem and that anyone opposing it is a small-time political opportunist, playing to the base.

If you were a true "un-biased" reporter, Ron, you would say: "Look, as much as I want to solve the health crisis with a big-government one-size-fits-all program in the teeth of economics and experience, I gotta say, the Obama guys didn't sew up a bipartisan deal on their PPACA legislation."

"According to the science," you'd say, "partisan wrangling is normal and healthy until the proponents of the bill buy the support of the opponents to get passage. Political Science 101, baby."

But you may remember, Ron Fournier, that the votes the Obamis bought to pass the bill were Democrat votes. Remember the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback?

And remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said that to pass a big bill like Medicare you need a 70-30 vote in the Senate?

Given all that, a wise observer of politics would have said back in January of 2010: this PPACA is a mess. Take it back to the drawing board, Mr. President, Madam Speaker, and Leader Reid, and don't come back until you've got some Republican votes. Just to make a bipartisan consensus. Just to propitiate the ghost of Moynihan.

But let's get back to the question of political lying in general.

In my view the partisan mainstream media has done Republicans a favor. Chaps like you, Ron, never give Republicans the benefit of the doubt on political rhetoric. When Republican administrations are trying to put one over on the voters here's always the "but critics say" graf to give the Democrat talking point. And there are always liberal activist groups crying "Bush lied, people died" or some similar catchphrase to push back against the administration talking points.

But the mainstream media doesn't call Democrats on their lies. Partly, I suspect, it's because you are all liberals and all believe that the American people are stupid, like Gruber does, and that wise educated rulers are needed to tell the American people where to go and what to do. Partly, I suspect, it's because you are all afraid for your jobs. You well know what a call from the White House or a powerful senator can do to you and your career. So you keep your diaper clean.

Let's rehearse the lies the Democrats got away with over the last 20 years.

  1. Bill Clinton and "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." If you had gone after President Clinton like you did with President Nixon...
  2. Bush stole the 2000 election. No he didn't. But the Democrats spent eight years whipping up their base about Bush the "selected not elected" president, and you chaps were pretty spare with the "but critics say" that the recount in Florida clearly showed that Bush won.
  3. "Bush lied, people died" on Iraq. No doubt the Bushies over-promised on the weapons of mass destruction, but this was intelligence; nobody can be sure what is going on. You have to go on the best intelligence, and the intelligence said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
  4. "Greedy bankers" caused the Crash of 2008. No doubt they helped, but the real culprit was Fannie and Freddie lending money to sub-prime borrowers on low down payments. And sub-prime lending was liberal policy. What did we hear from the media on that?
  5. "If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor." If you guys had done due diligence you would have known that the claim was a flat lie. But you said nothing.
  6. Climate change. The science is pretty clear on this. The current global temperature is nothing special. The rate of increase in temperature is nothing special. We don't know what a doubling of the trace gas carbon dioxide will do to the climate, and our computer models have failed to predict the current "pause." Anyway, it seems pretty clear that we can't afford the cost of changing the climate; we can only adapt to climate change.
Here's the problem, Ron Fournier, from the point of view of establishment journalists like you. Because you chaps have failed to call your guys on their lies in recent years your guys have upped the ante. And now the lies are really hitting home with ordinary Americans, particularly as they lose their jobs and their health plans to Obamacare.

And now President Obama is pushing executive amnesty, which forces ordinary Americans to compete will low-wage illegal immigrants not just in the underground economy but the formal economy.

The point is that in the next two years it will be easy for Republicans, even really stupid ones, to run against Democrats and win. Americans think that things are going the wrong way, and that the president has lied to them. Remember the recent midterms? It was hardly mentioned on the nightly news. So even with the mainstream media pushing against Republicans, the American people still knew what to do if they were angry about jobs and health care.

Just imagine if top establishment journalists had run a "Truth-o-list" list server that was devoted to keeping their own side honest. Imagine that journalists had written "but critics say that the real culprit in the Crash of 2008 was federally subsidized loans to sub-prime borrowers." Imagine that journalists had written that "administration insiders admit that many people will lose their health plans as insurers adapt plans to meet the front-end benefits like contraception mandated by Obamacare."

Imagine that you chaps had actually been doing your jobs.

But that's "if only" now.

Now the Democrats are reaping the whirlwind. Now we have chaps like Ted Cruz coming up to bat. Now we have a Republican Congress. Now we have tired, extreme Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren leading the polls for Democratic nominee in 2016 while the Republicans have a full bench of successful governors and aggressive senators ready to bat.

Now we have African Americans spun around by Trayvon and Ferguson, demoralized by the First Black President that made their lives worse. How we have Hispanics that want jobs more than they want immigration reform. Now we have Asians that got to see the gentle giant of Ferguson strong-arming an Asian shop-assistant and wondering what they are doing in the party of affirmative action. Now we have young people wondering if they will ever pay off their student debt or ever get a decent job that leads to a good career.

And you establishment journalists could have helped prevent it. If you had done your jobs.

Yep, Jonathan Gruber isn't the problem. There will always be ambitious henchmen to do the bidding of their powerful patrons. But journalists, we were told, were different.

Except that they aren't. Journalists are just ordinary humans. They go with the flow and are easily intimidated by powerful politicians.

What a shame.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Net Neutrality: Liberals Want More Power

Liberals think of themselves as selfless educated servants of the people. But what they do is seek more power.

Take net neutrality. The government might do nothing about the internet, and just let it evolve on its own. But that throw away a great opportunity to wield political power. So why let sleeping dogs lie? Why not get in the middle of internet pricing and mandate net neutrality, and make sure that everything is fair?

President Obama is all in favor of net neutrality, and he told the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, on November 10 how he wanted the internet to be classified as a public utility. The FCC, of course, is an agency supposedly independent of politics, one of the products of the Progressive Era that believed in government by disinterested experts, and is not answerable to the president.

Why would the president want to stick his political oar into the internet?  Well, it's all about politics and power. Liberals say they care about you, but what they really do is care about power for themselves. It's nothing peculiar to liberals. People that are attracted to power -- people that want to control other people -- are attracted to politics and government. The proof is that successful politicians hang around in their elected positions forever, while successful businessmen, from John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates, tend to quit business and go into philanthropy.

Notice the interesting difference between the politician and the philanthropic businessman. One gives away other peoples' money and one gives away his own money.

Holman Jenkins at the Wall Street Journal uses President Obama's directive to the FCC chairman to create a functional diagram of the liberal power machine. Let's pull some quotes and look at the parts diagram.
So why is Mr. Obama promoting strict regulation? Because liberal mau-mau groups like regulation. It’s that simple: If government controls business and they control government—well, you get the idea.
Remember what I said about power and control? The point about all political regulation is that it forces the private sector to pay court to politicians and activists.
Congressmen can’t extract donations from the auto industry or telecom industry or health insurers if costly, consequential rules affecting those industries aren’t being drafted.
And really, if the government isn't drafting regulations and special interests aren't paying tribute it's a fate worse than death. The horror!
Bureaucracies can’t expand. “Public interest” groups that align themselves with Democrats can’t collect scalps and orchestrate episodes in which businesses and politicians are taught to fear their power.
Would you please read that quote again, pausing for a moment on the word "scalps" and the phrase "fear their power"? Thank you.

Imagine a world in which budding social justice warriors didn't have a chance to name and shame.

Jenkins observes that probably nothing will happen on net neutrality anyway.
But even this outcome suits the machine, since the machine is really interested in process—endless, high-stakes process that swells Washington’s ranks of lawyers and lobbyists.
Now the punch line:
Whatever “liberal” used to mean, it now means a self-interested machine of influence peddling and rent extraction. 
What this country needs is a national politician that can teach the American people to hate the "self-interested [liberal] machine of influence peddling and rent extraction." And hate the hypocrisy.