Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Is To Be Done?


What is wrong with the Republican Party?  And what is to be done about it?

That seems to be the consensus problem-of-the-week for conservatives.  From Bob Dole to Ben Domenech.  And let's not forget the March Commentary piece by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner.

And a reader of my "Riots and Liberals" piece asked for more than just diagnosis.  How do we deal with liberals and "disincentivize their actions."

Gerson and Wehner call for a five point program for Republican revival.  First the problems:
  1. Fewer white people, so Republicans must reach out.
  2. Foreign policy failure, and Republicans have been losing the argument in the war on terror.
  3. Weak candidates.
  4. Stale ideas
  5. Reputation for judgementalism.
Their solution?
  1. Focus "on the economic concerns of working-and middle-class Americans."  Like "end corporate welfare as we know it."
  2. Welcome immigrants instead of dissing them.
  3. "[E]xpress and demonstrate a commitment to the common good". Defuse the idea that Republicans are hyper-individualistic with appeals to "civil society."
  4. Make GOP approach to social issues "aspirational rather than alienating."  The problem is not gay marriage, it is the collapse of heterosexual marriage.
  5. Don't make war on science.
OK.  so what does Ben Domenech have to say?  He points out that the Republicans have done best when they have been populists.  So is there a way for them to be populist and also "restore the party’s standing as the adult in the room"?

Maybe. He thinks the GOP can be populist and also call for bold reform of, e..g., Social Security and Medicare.

The truth is, however, that politics runs on fear, fear of the enemy.  And if that is not enough, it crosses over into the territory of religion and rails on about good and evil.

So it must take up the problems of the moment and drench them in the language of warfare and the opposition of right and wrong.  

That is what liberals do when they talk about corporate greed and intolerance.  Why can't I get a job?  It's because of greedy corporations.  Why is my house in foreclosure?  It's because of greedy bankers.  Why does health care cost so much?  It's because of those greedy insurance companies.  Why is my life a mess?  It's because of those judgemental conservatives.  And after they have got people riled up then liberals proceed to implement their top-down centralizing ideas.

In a way, the ideas don't matter.  It is the Alinskyizing of the guilty parties that creates the opportunity for political change.  You have to have things going wrong and have the effrontery to blame the ruling class.  Then you get into power and you start to legislate.

So you can expect GOP rhetoric in the next couple of years to return to the "liberals, liberals, liberals" line of the good old days.  Why can't I get a job?  It's because of job-killing liberals.  Why can't I get health insurance?  It's because of corrupt and unjust Obamacare liberals.  Why does it cost me $100 to fill up my truck?  It's because of corrupt liberals and greedy green energy.  Why is food so expensive?  It's because of cruel liberals forcing farmers to grow corn for fuel instead of food.

But even then, conservatives are operating under a disadvantage, because liberals, as the ruling class, get to define reality.  The fact is that liberals get to tell little children what to believe in school, and liberals get to tell young adults what to believe in movies and on TV and the social media sites.

Conservatives have plenty of good ideas, but, we will find that we can only go forward with those ideas after the liberal ruling class has been utterly discredited.  Maybe it can't happen until the current school system breaks down and middle-class parents desert it.

But there is a light in the tunnel.  It is that the Obama way is going to get utterly discredited in the next three years, as scandals multiply and people start to suffer until the administrative monstrosity of Obamacare.

But still, so long as liberals can hand out free stuff to their supporters, so long will they maintain political power.

My point is this.  We know what needs to be done.  But Americans will not agree to change until they see disaster in the face.  They would be fools to do otherwise.  When that day arrives conservatives need to be ready not just with the right politics and a program, but also a moral/cultural system to demolish liberals as a ruling class.

Then we can move into a better world.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Critical Theory: Not Just a Punching Bag

Conservatives like to use the Frankfurt School (of neo-Marxists) and their "critical theory" as punching bags.  Not to mention as the source of all our problems.

Yes, it's true that all the cruel and unjust ideological repression against conservatives through the application of what we call "political correctness" seems to issue from the ideas of the Frankfurt chappies like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and second-stringer Herbert Marcuse.

But in my view it is better for conservatives to study and understand the ideas of the Frankfurt School than to stigmatize and reject them as, for instance, the excellent Bill Whittle does here.

That's because if conservatives want to win the culture war we need to be able to understand and transcend the ideas of the left.  We need to grasp the kernels of truth in their critiques of bourgeois society, and then go on to show how they completely miss the point.

Let's take Max Horkheimer's definition of critical theory as an example.  He wrote that a theory is
critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them."
Now, of course, lefties use critical theory in the limited scope that assumes that it is traditionally marginalized groups that need to be liberated and bourgeois culture that they need to be liberated from.

But what about liberals?  Think of the awful liberal bubble of The New York Times and NPR.  Think how they enslave liberal minds.  Think of a glorious future in which liberals could free themselves from their ideological devotion to "good" government and comprehensive and mandatory universal administrative programs designed and implemented by "large-minded" people.

Why not use critical theory to liberate liberals from the ideas that enslave them?  Who else could do the job but conservatives.  Actually, Jonah Goldberg already did it with his Liberal Fascism.

 The Frankfurt School originated after World War I when German intellectuals realized that Marxism as defined by Marx and implemented by the Bolsheviks was a mess.  So they went to work to understand where Marx had gone wrong and to try to rescue their millennial Marxian hopes from despair.

By the time that Horkheimer and Adorno wrote The Dialectic of Enlightenment in the US during World War II they had despaired of the Enlightenment project.  Because they saw that fascism was already encoded in the notion of enlightenment and reason.  What man wants from nature is to dominate it and other men, they wrote.

When Herbert Marcuse came up with One-dimensional Man in the 1960s his grand contribution amounted to a lame notion that, now that the working class had made its peace with capitalism, narcotically immunized by big media and and advertising and consumer goods, the would-be revolutionaries would have to look elsewhere for the cannon fodder for their revolution.

But real thinkers like Jürgen Habermas began on a solution to the problem of enlightenment and its identification with domination.  He revived the idea that we are not just mechanical wind-up toys, cogs in a rational machine, but communicators.  So his Theory of Communicative Action proposes that the systems world of Enlightenment and instrumental reason should be balanced by a life-world of communication and negotiation.  In German, the "Action" in his book's title is "Handeln."  It means not just action but exchange, negotiation.  It also had a use in German as a pejorative when applied to Jews as hagglers and peddlers.

Now, of course, the silly lefty liberals in our US universities have made a complete dog's breakfast of "critical theory."  They have fashioned it into a club with which to beat conservatives and stigmatize us as racists, sexists, anti-choice fascists and homophobes.  Not to mention that their Gramscian "march through the institutions" turned the academy into a sterile monoculture.

Be of good cheer.  All is not lost.  We can see, finally, as we get into the scandal zone of the Obama administration that critical theory is leading liberals off the cliff.  It's encouraged them to think that they, the lame critical theorists, are the good guys, and the defenders of freedom and tradition are pond scum.

The thing is that critical theory and postmodernism can be applied to anything.  Used judiciously, they can be used to do a penetrating critique of any cultural tradition and expose its assumptions and hypocrisies.

Like Obama and the Obamanauts.

So I say: forget about trashing the Frankfurt School and critical theory.  Read up on it.  Then apply its tools against fin de siècle liberalism.  Because everything that liberals say about the patriarchy or dead white males or capitalism applies in spades against the monstrous self-serving ruling-class ideology we call liberalism or progressivism or multiculturalism or whatever.

And this is just the moment to do it, as the Obama years-the-locust-ate collapse in a welter of scandals that all issue from the self-inflicted wounds of liberalism and its foolish attempt to keep the Marxist dream alive.

Let's face it: the original Marxism did nothing but harm to the working class.  Finally, through a maelstrom of purges and death camps the working class emerged and made a separate peace with capitalism.  So what did the Marxists propose as an encore?  To apply the same ideas to what Herbert Marcuse called "a new substratum of outcasts and outsiders."  It's the same thing.  Trust in us, the noble overclass, and we will protect you, the minority and the marginalized, from the evil white man and his cunning plan to oppress and exploit you.  And by the way, whaddya think of this free stuff?

Already, back in the land of Israel, Esau found out that it is not a good idea to exchange your birthright for a mess of pottage.  It didn't do the working class much good to exchange their benefit clubs and friendly societies for the administrative benefits and "free stuff" of the welfare state.  It isn't doing much good for today's "women and minorities."  Because, relying on government, they are always "hardest hit" when something goes wrong.  That's because when you get your stuff from government you let your ties of family and solidarity weaken and shrivel.  When you need them, when all of a sudden government isn't there like liberals promised, your social ties aren't strong enough to take the strain.

As the Obama administration spirals into scandal and failure conservatives have a once in a generation opportunity to lead America back to the ideas that made it great: freedom and civil society.

It would really help if, in between teaching the American people about truth, justice, and the American Way, we could eat the liberals' lunch, and apply critical theory to the hypocrisies of their rotting pile of multiculturalist diversity.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Separation of Secular Church and State

Sometimes I have to agree with liberals.  The writers of the US Constitution were living in another age. They just could not foresee how things would change and make the constitution obsolete.

Take the First Amendment and the Jefferson corollary.  The whole idea of preventing an "establishment of religion" and enforcing a separation between church and state is just so 18th century, darling.

Because now the problem is the establishment of secular religion.

There's a British chappie who has penned a conventional-wisdom book about the decline of religion.  In God is Dead: secularization in the West, Steve Bruce argues that people are just less interested in religion.  He writes:
I expect the proportion of people who are largely indifferent to religious ideas to increase and the seriously religious to become a small minority.
Of course, if you define religion narrowly as "believing in a transcendent God" Bruce's attitude might be partly right, although the Islamists would disagree.  But if we are talking broadly about ideas and communities and rituals in which people construct a faith about the meaning of life and what to do about it, then Steve Bruce is bound to be completely wrong.

And the proof of it is that as soon as the philosophers and the philologists drove a stake through the heart of God in the early 19th century the world became flooded with secular religions.  There was Fourierism, Saint-Simonism, Comte's Religion of Humanity, Marxism, Socialism.  And that was just in the 19th century.  Now we have feminism, environmentalism, identity studies.

If we take the universal Catholic Church as our model, we can see the replication of its forms and structures in all the secular religions.  They have the sacred founder that is in the process of divinization.  They have their holy scriptures.  They have their orthodoxy, the systematic doctrine of the faithful.  And they have ways of enforcing the orthodoxy.  In our mild modern case we have "political correctness" that shames and marginalizes people with incorrect opinions.  Other secular religions refined the prototypical Spanish Inquisition into the KGB.  Then there is the church of the faithful.  Every left-wing group organizes its little community of the faithful just like the local enthusiastic Christian church.

And then there is ritual.  The preferred ritual of the modern secular religion seems to be the "peaceful protest."  While Christians gather weekly in church or attend evening Bible study the secular religious attend organization meetings and gather in frequent peaceful protests where they wave placards and chant secular-religious slogans.  In the old days, and recently in Wisconsin, they sang hymns like "Solidarity Forever."

The Founding Fathers determined that it was not a good thing for a single Christian sect to get its hands on political power through establishment as a state church and support through taxation.

But tell your liberal friend that her liberalism, as expressed through the liberal teachers at the local government school or at the local government university, amounts to an establishment of secular religion and she will object.  No, no.  We are not talking about religion, but ideas.

Quite so.  But as soon as you organize ideas about the meaning of life into some sort of system you have already a proto-religion.  And if you add to that proto-religion the power of the state then you are all ready to start legislating your morality.  So when liberals start regulating the food laws and regulating sugary soft drinks, when liberals mandate recycling and composting, we are talking about an established church legislating its morality.

Remember?  Rules about diet were big in the Old Testament.

Of course, as a conservative, I'm particularly irritated about liberal secular-religionists imposing their morality on me.  Hey, they are goring my ox.

But I think there's a bigger issue.  The whole idea of proscribing an establishment of religion was precisely to avoid any one sect or world-view from getting too much power.  The Founding Fathers realized that a successful society needed to keep an open conversation in the public square.  Society needed to prevent power mongers from monopolizing the public square with their own brand of religion, whether a God religion or a secular religion.

And that hasn't changed at all.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Capitalism is Not a System

A great irony of our modern era is that at exactly the same time that the Cartesian-Newtonian world-view was emerging the anti-systemic capitalist culture was emerging as well.

On the one hand you had the billiard ball determinism of Newtonian mechanics.  On the other hand you had the infinite complexity of the market process.

So why do we talk about the free-market "system", the price "system", the credit "system" when they aren't systems at all.  System is mechanical, system is an equal and opposite contest of rational Newtonian forces.  But the free market, prices and credit are the realization of human cooperation and competition between adaptable flexible people.  They are not systems at all.

Socialism and communism, on the other hand, are attempts to reduce human interaction to rigid systems.  They are attempts to universalize the taxing bureaucracies of the absolute monarchs and the articulated military machines those monarchs developed out of the undifferentiated feudal host.

When you wanted to fight an early modern battle, the undifferentiated feudal host didn't do the job.  You needed to articulate it into a uniform hierarchical system with interchangeable parts.  That's why the generals of the absolute monarchs developed the regiment, the battalion, the division, and why Napoleon developed the Army Corps.  The army commander needed a way to communicate his will down to the smallest subordinate unit and the individual soldier.  It takes a system to force everyone to obey the supreme commander.

After a century or two the Germans started to take a critical view of all this.  Chaps like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment concluded that applying reason to society resulted in system and domination, for what men want from reason is to dominate nature and other men, so domination is encoded in the very meaning of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  System is domination, I like to say.  And the reverse is true: domination implies a system to keep everyone in place.

Then we get to Jürgen Habermas and his effort in the Theory of Communicative Action to divide the world into two parts, the world of system and domination on the one hand and the world of communicative action on the other.  So Habermas sets up an opposition of System and Lifeworld (Lebenswelt).  Notice that the book's title in German, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, suggests that "Action" is a limiting translation that does not communicate the full meaning of Habermas' project.  "Handeln" in German means "action" but it also means to trade, deal, negotiate or haggle.  Itinerant Jewish peddlers are associated in German with "Handeln."

So the real meaning of Habermas title is "Theory of Communicative Negotiation."  And actually, that's what the book is all about.  How do we negotiate truth values and understanding and agreement about what the world looks like and what to do about it?

Now it is clear that the market, the process of buying and selling and pricing and borrowing and lending, is implied in the full meaning of "kommunikativen Handelns."  Every capitalist act is a communicative trade, deal, negotiation or haggling.  Every human act is a communicative trade, deal, or negotiation.

But government administration is a process of rule setting and enforcement, of system building and adjustment, of intimidation and coercion.

No doubt that's why Habermas picked up the word Lifeworld from Edmund Husserl.  It is a useful way of opposing the mechanical assumptions of "system" and foregrounding the idea that all human action in the world is connected with "life".

So perhaps we should talk about  the "price lifeworld," instead of price system, the "credit lifeworld" instead of credit system,  and maybe the "civil lifeworld" instead of civil society, because we want to emphasize the two-way communication, the essential "intersubjectivity" of human action in the world.

Alternatively, given the replacement of Newtonian physics by Einsteinian and quantum physics, perhaps we should pick up the language of the physicists.  The basic physics of sub-atomic "particles" is quantum field theory, and the basic mathematical formulation is called the probability function.

One of the basic methods of analysis in this new physics is through analysis of conserved qualities.  Mass, for example, is not conserved; that's what E = mc2 is all about. But energy is conserved, angular momentum is conserved (so-called "spin"), electric charge is conserved, and so on.

It is clear that the interactions between humans could use the notions of "field" or "probability function" that were developed for the new physics.  Any particle exists in a probability function until it actually participates in an event.  Just as prices are just methods of communication until an actual exchange act at an agreed price takes place.

I don't know where all this should end up.  I just think we should lose the old Newtonian, Enlightenment words like "system."  Because they are not communicating the right message.

We humans live and work in a lifeworld, not a system or a matrix.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Theory of Willful Blindness

A while back I took a look at "Marx's Five Big Mistakes," five big things that Karl Marx got wrong.  I mean things like the immiseration of the working class, the alienation of workers by the division of labor, the labor theory of value, the idea that bureaucracy would wither away under socialism, and that people would abandon the division of labor under socialism.

But then I got to wondering about the willful blindness that keeps people even today believing in these discredited notions.  I mean this.  You have to be really determined not to see if you believe still in the immiseration of the working class.  Yet tons of people fall for it every time that some new technology wipes out some industry of neo-buggy-makers.  It's the end of the world, they say, and soon nobody will have jobs.  

Or the division of labor.  Even the career coach mavens, people like the crazed Penelope Trunk, tell us to forget being a generalist.  Specialize on something, something you will find by trial and error.  Deadly serious sociologists like Emile Durkheim write that the division of labor is a manifestation of the nature of humans as social animals.  In social setting some individuals specialize on one task and others specialize on another task.  That's why it makes sense for them to cooperate.  So how could this be alienating?

I've suggested, following Anthony Giddens, that Marx came up with his stuff because the generation of Germans in the 1840s was beside itself about the backwardness of Germany.  Here were France and Britain with modern governments and there was Germany stuck in the feudal past with its little states and its disunity.

It wasn't just Marx.  Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her 1984 book The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, suggests that the feeling of existential panic was widespread.  Things were changing so fast that people were convinced that disaster was just around the corner.

Obviously this sense of existential panic is a very human thing.  In our own time we have the panic over global warming.  Experience a trend in increasing temperature over a couple of decades and you'll get a ton of people panicking.  End of the world!

Now, the situation in England around 1800 is epitomized by the Rev. Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population first published in 1798, in which Malthus predicted that population would always outrun the resources available to sustain it.  Food increases arithmetically; population increases geometrically.  The poor were doomed.  At the time that Malthus published his first edition many people thought that Britain was losing population.  Then the Census of 1801 showed that population was increasing.  Who'd have thought it?

Actually it has turned out that Adam Smith was probably the best forecaster of those troubled times, according to Himmelfarb.
He made poverty remediable, not by interfering with the operation of natural laws but by the natural expansion of the economy that was the inevitable result of those laws.  Instead of pitting man against nature, labor against machine, class against class, worker against worker, he presumed an essential harmony of interests, in which everyone would benefit from the "natural progress of opulence."
That's what actually happened.  In 1800 the modern progress of opulence was just getting started, and still, it may be that you ain't seen nothing yet.

To Himmelfarb, it appears that a concern for the poor is a consequence of prosperity.  Alexis de Tocqueville went to England in the 1830s and was astonished both at the prosperity he encountered and also the numbers of the poor.  Himmelfarb writes of his opinion:
While "the English poor appear almost rich to the French poor; and the latter are so regarded by the Spanish poor," the number of paupers in each of these countries was in inverse relationship to the actual condition of the poor.
It's as though we experience things as worse the better they get.  And why not "do something" about the poor once you have the level of opulence to do it?

This is the real existential challenge for conservatives.  Elites are always going to panic over something or other.  It's what a ruling class does to justify its importance.  It panicked over the poor in 1800.  Over the working class in the 1840s.  Over the deserted farm in the 1930s.  Over global cooling in the 1970s.  Over "peak oil" in the 1990s.  Over global warming in the 2000s.

It's the job of conservatives to dampen these wild pendulum swings.  Because whatever the panic around the next corner, what in the world is going to improve things better than the natural human adaptability implemented in the price system and the credit system?  Certainly, it cannot possibly be another bureaucratic program run by the ruling class.

There's probably a deep reason why people are always so willfully blind.  It may be because every living thing must ignore most of the stimulus it receives through its five senses and only respond to things that are genuinely life-threatening.  So we are blind to most of the things in the world.

But the trick is to make sure that we aren't turning away from the one important stimulus that really is going to kill us.

And that's not easy to deal with.  It's probably why we humans are so diverse.  Some people respond one way to a crisis and some respond another way.  Chances are that one of us will be right, and the human experiment will continue.