Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My view on the AFA/Troth feud

Before I start this piece I have to say I know good people in both organizations.  Nothing I say here is a judgement of my friends.  I also have friends who are Heathen, liberal and universalist, while I consider myself Folkish.

Heathens of course have always sought blood feuds to defend their honor.  This time is perhaps no difference.  I will give the Troth the benefit of the doubt and assume that what really bothers them is that statements by the AFA could be taken out of context by a wider society and bring dishonor on all Heathenry. Maybe the organization is deserving of this and maybe it is not (in which case it is reading another group through a lens of a view of how all groups should act).  If the shoe fits wear it, but for the rest of this I will give the Troth every benefit I can including that one.
However, one serious concern I have is with ideological and political litmus tests for membership in any organization, particularly communities where we should be, in my humble opinion, trying to cultivate shared economic and social interests and a joint search for the past.  Ideological and political litmus tests effectively shut down the search and risk libeling the ancestors and the past.  In the end, Heathenry is orthoprax, and while it is clearly political in that to some degree it is a revolt against the modern notion of progress, that degree varies quite a bit both by organization and by member.  The Troth is, as far as I can tell, committed to being non-radical, non-revolutionary, pro-progressive-Protestant values, and modernist while the AFA is committed to an attempt to cultivating a radical alternative to progressive Protestant values in a relationship with the past.  As pioneers, they will make mistakes and it will be up to all of us that believe in that to take it further.

My wife is not European or white.  My kids are of mixed heritage.  But my wife is closer to the women of the Sagas in action than most modern Asatruar are (if I ever fail to defend the family honor, the gods themselves will be unable to lend a hand to help), and I have learned a whole lot about our tradition through my marriage.  I have known many people in the AFA who know this about me.  Not *one* of them has ever issued a harsh or disparaging word or racist comment to me about this or about my Jewish heritage (I cannot say this about a number of other Heathen organizations not in this picture however).  Members of the AFA that I have known have been, without fail, unquestionably supportive of my search for the past and the wisdom I have gained.  None have been the least bit disrespectful of my family for any reason.

While members of the Troth have not explicitly been disrespectful, the fact that politically it is centered on a view of social progress and equality that comes out of early modern Europe and which white countries seek to push on the rest of the world is implicitly quite disrespectful.  Of course that view of equality is usually a cover for centralized governments and corporate economies, which is lost on most Americans today, so they can be pardoned for not grasping the depths of their paternalistic racism on this regard.  Concepts like gender roles, sexuality, and marriage are deeply cultural and any organization which thinks that culture should be abandoned so lightly aids and abets the racist imperialism of the West over the rest of the word.

My view on gender roles

Unlike McNallen I think that gender roles are socially constructed.  It would be impossible for these to be gifts of our ancestors if they were not.  But if we value culture as valuable, then social constructs given by our ancestors are valuable too and we throw them away with great cost.  Gender roles are also constructed due to biological and social imperatives and so, although they form a greater part of the warp and weft of society, they are not merely discretionary.  Men and women are not situated in the same way regarding reproduction and gender roles arise to address that.

Whether this can be said to be divinely ordained depends on what one believes the role of the gods in shaping the body and reproduction is.  I would just as soon leave that up to the practitioner.

My view on the queer statement

I think Flavel's concern about outside agendas being forced on the community is valid, but I think the focus on a specific label is problematic because it closes off things ideologically rather than relationally.  The problem is not how a particular person sees himself or herself, or how he or she sees sexuality, but how the individual might insist that the community change to accommodate him or her.  That, in my view, is the line that should be drawn, not on the basis of a specific identity or way of making sense of things.

In every community there is an ideal of the good life.  In a traditional family-business economy that includes getting married, having kids who can take over your trade or business, and eventually retiring with those children.  That will be the normative (and normal) model.

But not everyone will follow such a model.  And those that don't are in a position to offer critique.  That critique is not just when it is a demand that everyone else, say, sacrifice human contact in retirement so nobody gets ahead.  But what it is made of is up to the community.

This question of how the liminal figures on the margins of the community interact with the rest is an important question.  It implicates guests of a kindred (and by extension views on refugees etc in the political realm), those who for whatever reason do not fit into the community's view of best family models, etc.

In summary

I find myself far more sympathetic to the AFA than their critics in this regard.  I have seen no reason to see the AFA from my experience as a racist organization.  I am sure they have their racists, but I would rather tolerate racists than kick out others just for being outside of a political orthodoxy, and the fact is that every organization (heathen or not) has its racists.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A quick response to McNallen's "No More Mutts"

Steve McNallen at the AFA has put together a piece where he argues that Americans whose ancestors are mostly from Europe should start seeing themselves as ethnic Europeans instead of Mutts.  This view, I think, comes out of his support for a view of metagenetics, the idea that cultural patterns are passed genetically in a similar way to something like hair color.

I disagree with McNallen for a number of reasons, but there are a number of deeper points where we agree.  I agree with him that the national divisions of Europe are somewhat arbitrary.  And I agree that seeing oneself as mixed culture just because of where one's ancestors come from has some problems.  Asatru includes ancestor worship and this means all ancestors.

I am Folkish.  And I think that membership in the Folk requires shared heritage.  But heritage isn't necessarily only biological.  Connections by marriage or adoption surely count as well and there may be others -- in the end being a part of the folk requires adopting the same cultural framework and that doesn't happen by accident (or by pure biology either).  And I disagree with metagenetics as a hypothesis because I haven't seen any real evidence for it.  Cultural patterns shift quite a bit over not too much time.  I do think people naturally form hierarchies.  Genetics might even play a role in that. But I cannot get very far beyond that.

Suppose you are full-blooded French.  That means your ancestors came from three groups:  Roman, Frankish, and Gaulish.  The Gaulish ancestors would have been partly Celtic and partly whoever was there first.  Gaul, Roman Gaul, and the Frankish kingdom all had very different social and cultural orders, and none of them bear much resemblance to France today.

Instead of seeing ourselves as mutts, we should see ourselves as a part of groups to which we currently belong and liminally a part of those we strive to join.  This is distinct from the sum of our ancestors.  We are the sum of our ancestors and we are more than that.

However, I think the source of my disagreement is that I am, in terms of political theory, to the *right* of McNallen.  Over the last few decades there has been an effort to forge a pan-European identity and that hasn't worked so well, nor has it benefited the small businesses and the masses in the ways expected.

Europeans today tend to identify much more with their home towns than with their nations and that's a good thing.  We should, in my view, embrace a local identity, not one even as cosmopolitan as "European."  Europe is not a city state but a thriving and very diverse mix of cultures.  And a just society in my view starts with the local and builds outward until international space is reached and there groups should deal with eachother as equals.

But one thing that still binds most of Europe (not the UK or France though) together is the idea that society really should be local and that national units exist to serve local units.  The Folk is not a continent.  It is not even a modern nation-state.  It is a community and a local one at that.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit

However the vote goes next Friday, it will be historic.  The vote is likely to be narrow and currently too close to predict.  I hope the initiative passes but perhaps not for the most common reasons.  It is true that what is at stake is the future of Europe.  I think the UK has a better role to play negotiating the next phase from outside than it does from inside.

The EU is facing a number of heavy crises, from the Euro public debt crisis to the closely tied immigration crisis.  These crises pit member state obligations to the central EU authorities against the obligations to their own citizens in terms of tax money allocation and much more.

To be sure, the immigrants aren't the problem.  Most are fleeing American-sponsored civil wars and have gone from good lives to squalor in search of some minimal security.  I see families fleeing Syria and my heart goes out to them.  I believe my country, the US, has utterly failed to do what it needs to in order to pay the tab on the human cost of American foreign policy.  US foreign policy is thus grossly irresponsible and one reason I cannot vote for Clinton is that she helped this mess forward.

But what is a problem is that Greece is expected to pay a disproportionate portion of the costs for housing refugees and handling immigration issues (as well as border enforcement) while also living under Troika-imposed austerity.  In other words, the problem is an intra-EU power problem over money.

Faced with these crises, the current EC President (Juncker) has stated (and I believe he is correct here) that the EU, if it survives ten more years, will be very different than it is today.  The question is different in what way.  There are calls to federalize immigration rules in the EU and for the EU central government to then pay for border enforcement.  That would be an unprecedented expansion of EU institutions and nobody but Merkel seems to like that idea.  But the Schengen and Dublin agreements are perhaps mortally weakened and something has to replace them.

But there are other serious problems.  The European continent spans three major legal systems and traditions.  You have continental civil law, organized around a civil code interpreted by judges.  You have English Common Law, organized around a civil code mixed with judge-made precedent.  And you have Scandinavian law, where judge-made law is built around skeletal parliamentary acts (Scandinavian law is even more different from Continental civil law than English common law is).   Trying to harmonize commercial law where you have three different structural systems of law (and maybe more!) means basically that the most powerful nations (France and Germany) force everyone else to use their system (Continental civil law) as the basic conceptual system.  In other words, the social and legal diversity of Europe works heavily against the EU.

We shouldn't forget that the EU in its current form is a product of the age of neoliberalism that is now coming to a close.  People who are afraid of base nationalism should take heart that the EU has been valuable enough that it will not go away, nor will the UK retreat into isolation.  Rather people will find ways to keep the relationship alive in the ways that are beneficial.

But which ever way the UK votes, I think it is almost certain that they will be a part of whatever pan-European international treaty organizations exist in a decade.  The question is, to my mind, would leaving help steer that transformation in the right way?

My hope is that a leave vote (or even a close victory for remain) would mean basically that the UK and other peripheral members (like Sweden, Denmark, and Greece) would get more leverage in negotiating what the next generation of the European Community would look like.  If it tips the balance of power in the negotiations towards national governments, then it is a good thing.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Thoughts on the mass murder in Orlando

My reaction to the Orlando shooting is hard to describe.  Many of us understand that American society is deeply ill (the shooter spoke in an earlier interview about problems with people profiting off crises for example) but most of us don't go out and start shooting people.  What can convince a husband and father to go and do such great harm not only to other families but to his own as well?  For a religion?  Out of general frustration with the state of the US?  Something else?

But I have decided I have to write what I can.   Since there is some thought that this was an act of international terrorism, it is worth looking at the larger pictures of the intersection of American culture wars and international media, and how this is perceived throughout the world as well.  But it is hard.  As a husband and father, I cannot imagine what would cause someone to rob his own family not only of his presence but of his memory as well.  There is pity, outrage, and much more within myself directed at the shooter and deep sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, have to carry on without family members.

But there are aspects to this case which need to be discussed and I suppose if I can do so, I have a responsibility to bring them up.  I am not advocating changes to policy.  I am trying to articulate larger political patterns going on.  If this is political violence, then an understanding of other sides is important to preventing further acts in the future.

But I will say one thing clearly so there is no misunderstanding.  Violence like this is one of the worst things a person can do.  It is not only a crime against the general public, but even more importantly the shooter deeply betrayed his wife and child in a way that should never be forgotten.  What is his child going to think, growing up aware that his father was a mass murderer?  In some ways, of those who lost someone important, his young son was the most harmed.

At the same time, I think it is only through the search for common humanity with the worst of us that we can come to understand how to build a more flourishing society.  For in such a search is where we find the worst of the problems.

The largest problem I see is the faith in individualism and the system in the US, which effectively makes people who don't or cannot fit severely disadvantaged and leaves them no way to carve out a place for themselves.  For groups we decide to protect, we push an ideal of equality which somehow is never really equal because of hidden assumptions.  For other groups (in particular immigrants and cultural minorities who do not fit the liberal progressive narrative), there is not even that.

There is a reason why so many heinous crimes in the US are committed by immigrants and children of immigrants, and it is not a condemnation of immigrants as individuals.  When we tell people their cultural framework is inferior and bad, when we deny them a real voice in the culture, and deny them any reflection of themselves in the culture around them, we cannot blame them when they become monsters.  Here you have the child of an immigrant who was probably bullied, and at the same time his whole family was almost certainly existing outside the major central cultural communities.

What of international aspects to this?  Is it possible that international radicals pushed someone who was vulnerable and unstable to commit this horrible crime?

There is a fear in much of the world that the US will use global media to proselytize gay rights to the world, and I think this fear underlies much of the recent changes in Indonesian censorship.  That fear is reasonable and arguably even correct.  But with many of the most populous countries in the world (China, India, Indonesia) lining up to try to put an end to this, it effectively forces film makers to choose between commercial success abroad or currying favor at home.  If Disney wants to be able to show Frozen 2 in some of the most important markets internationally, they cannot give Elsa a girlfriend.  I expect this to become a very large issue in coming years.   But was it an issue here?

What is at stake is the question of whether a rights-based narrative or whether a community-based narrative is the right one for addressing people who do not (whether by choice or circumstance) follow the accepted normative narratives of the community.  The narrative may be that everyone gets married to someone in the community, has kids, and takes over the family business, but for one reason or another not everyone will do all these things.  The American approach is to decide that some things are worthy of rhetorical (but probably not substantive) equality, and therefore to say "well, they aren't like us and cannot help it so they need equal rights." But this never covers everyone.

While "marriage equality" means same-sex couples in the US should have the same legal protections as straight couples, it does not mean, for example, that those who marry non-citizens should be entitled to the same family protection as those who marry citizens.  No concern is given to the fact that families with non-citizen spouses (thanks to Clinton-era and Obama-era legislation, and a few more minor contributions by Bush) have more responsibilities and fewer protections than families where both spouses are citizens.  So it isn't clear to me that "equality" rhetoric and "rights" are a perfect solution.  Surely if there is a right to equality in marriage, then it is a Constitutional violation for the Affordable Care Act to ban my wife from the expanded medicaid for the first 5 years following a possible return to the US and still attach liability for failing to insure.

A very different approach is the devolutionary approach.  In this approach, power and responsibility are highly decentralized and communities are responsible for taking care of their own.  This never worked in the Jim Crow South because it requires a degree of economic equality that we have never had in the US as a whole, but it means that if someone is gay in Indonesia (one reason the narrative might not be met, but surely not the only one), it is possible for him or her to navigate society and carve out a place.  Indonesia is in fact so decentralized that a lot of things we think of as done by lawyers in the West (drawing up contracts, for example) are done by notaries public instead.

A community-based approach (rather than a rights/equality rhetoric approach) means that as uncompromising as a society may appear to be, there is always room for human judgement to make things humane, for people to treat eachother with humanity, and so forth.  A rights-based narrative is a threat to all that.  And so I think it is entirely appropriate that countries protect themselves from what really amounts to foreign propaganda by restricting messages from foreign films and television programs.

But did that have anything to do with this horrific act? If there is an international dimension then there must be.  It may also be that ISIL understands how shocking this would be to Americans and pushed the target for that reason.  Or maybe the instructions were more vague and Mr Mateen selected the target himself?  I doubt we will ever know.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Bullying in Schools

Those who know me particularly well know that for several years in school I was bullied.  For three years, I was beat up after school almost every day.  For another year it was a periodic occurrence.  I don't normally talk about this because we have this narrative in the US that we start out healthy and are damaged by trauma.  Instead, I think we learn from our experiences and the end-state of healing is when we are aware of what we have learned and then the trauma becomes a gift rather than a burden.  We all go through bad experiences in life.  The question is, do we eventually value what they bring us (insight, strength, etc)?

In discussing the current restroom controversies regarding public schools, showers, and transgender students, someone said something to me that lead me to understand something that had genuinely puzzled me before.  This is not about that controversy but the larger issue of bullying.  I now have a much greater understanding of why students who are bullied may either commit acts of mass violence (like Columbine) or commit suicide.  Before, I never understood that but a missing piece was given to me and I think it is worth sharing.

My Story

I was lucky to come from a strong family and attend a school where the administration were more concerned about addressing the issues well than preventing lawsuits.  So what I have to say here needs to be taken in a certain spirit.

Anyway....  Usually I was beat up by one person or another.   There were a few bullies and usually they took me on, one on one.  There were never any demands.  Just beatings.   I never hated the bullies.  There was always something about it that I could never put my finger on that made me pity them.  But that was the usual pattern.  I got very used to physical pain to the point where physical pain has never really bothered me since.

Once in a while groups of kids would join in.  Once or twice even those I had considered friends did.  That hurt in a way that the beatings never did (apologies were given and as far as I am concerned that is water under the bridge, but I mention it for comparison purposes).  The sense of betrayal from that sort of event, however, was still minor compared to the sense of betrayal that came from the school's involvement.  The school administration, as I mentioned above, tried to address the issues but the problem with bullies is they tend to be very good at manipulating image and more times than not the school would unintentionally take the wrong side.

Even well-intentioned administrators are particularly bad at connecting the dots here because they are often used by bullies and cannot, by nature, see the whole picture.  This, I have come to understand is a fundamental problem of authority and information, and school administrators are simply unable to prevent bullying because of these problems.

The teachers who could see what was going on also tried, but they had no power and consequently resorted to methods that (when I saw them) greatly offended my sense of justice -- at least one of the bullies (who did back off) was bribed to do so.

How things have changed since I was in school

In the discussion over current bathroom/locker room controversies someone pointed out to me something that struck me as extremely important in understanding the current problems.  It was pointed out to me that under zero-tolerance policies, the normal approach is to suspend or expel both the accuser and the accused depending on the severity of the accusations unless one side is independently confirmed.  But that is no measure of who is right, and so this confirms to my mind the fact that schools, when they try to address the issue will more often than not unintentionally take the side of bullies.  With zero tolerance, this increases the stakes and ensures that when schools are in the wrong, the victims of bullying are even more victimized.  I am genuinely thankful that I went through what I did before zero tolerance became a "best" practice.

Give a bullied kid social support and he or she can live and even thrive despite the bullying.  Turn the organs of authority against him or her and that is a recipe for very bad things.  Look at how many heinous crimes are committed by people who come from broken homes, who then are bullied in school, and are effectively denied all sorts of support.  Such people are pushed outside the system and relentlessly attacked by it without any real support from anyone.  Columbine can be understood as an act of rage against a school which not only failed to protect but probably also contributed to the bullying.  The suicides that sometimes make headlines are also from people who have insufficient support.

What We Need to do Differently

I am writing this because I think we need a fundamental shift in how we address school bullying in the US today.  Currently we expect the schools to shield students, but that puts the school in an impossible situation and ensures that the school's main interest is in avoiding lawsuits rather than helping students thrive.  That concern means that schools will err, and when they do, bullied kids will pay a very heavy price.  The first priority I think needs to be a commitment to stop the worst of the harm -- the harm done by school authorities when they re wrong, and that means a commitment to erring on the side of doing nothing.

A second thing is that we need to shift from seeing bullying primarily as a disciplinary issue to one which is primarily a support issue.  Bullies themselves may come from bad home environments, and victimizing them again in school doesn't make a lot of sense either.  What the school can do is offer counselling and moral support early and often, and then move to disciplinary action only when more serious problems emerge.

A third thing that schools can do is they can bring the parents and the administration together and insist on joint solutions involving both sides of a conflict.

But suspending or expelling kids for seeking help regarding bullying?  Absolutely not.  I don't even think we should expel bullies.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism part 2 post 3: Partition, Allotment, and Domain in Greek and Norse Myth

In Part 2, we discussed efforts at a theory of autonomy built on Aristotelian and ecological sources.  In this part, I will tie these together with Norse and Greek myth to flesh them out and develop a fuller theory of freedom.

The main thesis here is that both mythological systems provide for a view of freedom which is domain rather than rights-based.  We are given a lot in life bounded by length and law.  Within that lot we have freedom, but if we step outside, we die.

At one point, I thought that the similarities here were evidence of a common Indo-European framework and while there are some commonalities in the Indo-European world (spinning and fate being closely connected), the overall cosmology is different enough in Indian, Irish, Greek, and Norse systems that these seem not to be genetically related culturally speaking.[1]

Fate in Greek Myth:  Partition, Allotment, and Domain

In his important book, "From Religion to Philosophy," F. M. Cornford embarked on an ambitious project to show the extent to which early Greek philosophers drew from Greek religious models in their basic cosmology.  In order to do so, he embarked on an ambitious analysis of Homer and Hesiod in relation to concepts of fate.

The Greek word for fate, Cornford points out, simply means partition and it exists in relation to a term lachesis, which besides being the name of one of the Fates, is also referred to as a process by which partitions are distributed in Homeric poetry.  Lachesis thus acts as a distributor of pieces of a whole (an example he gives is the use of the term in connection with the domains of the elder gods -- Zeus having domain over the heavens, Poseidon over the seas, and Hades over the underworld). Lachesis is how the gods' kingdoms were distributed.

When one steps out of the allotted domain, one reaches nemesis (which Cornford suggests may be related to nomos or law, and nemeton).  Nemesis thus is the enforcement of the borders of the lot.  Cornford also points out that in some regards, the lot is treated as a debt repaid on death.

The image we get for fate then among the Greeks is not one of predestination but one of a lot in life, loaned by the Fates, and taken back when it is exceeded either in length or limits of action.  Freedom of action and fate are thus nicely woven together in a way we have usually tried to separate them in the West.

Fate in Norse Myth:  Allotment, Primal Debt, and the Spoken Word

The Norse view of fate is often seen as similar enough to the Greek model that people suggest that the Germanic peoples borrowed the idea from the Greeks.  In both cases there are strong formal similarities: three mythological women dispensing fate.  There are also connections to spinning and weaving via etymology.

The Coming of the Norns is worth repeating here in its entirely from Voluspa (with my translation below):

Þaðan koma meyjar,
margs vitandi,
þrjár ór þeim sæ
er und þolli stendr.
Urð hétu eina,
aðra Verðandi,
- skáru á skíði -
Skuld ina þriðju.
Þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
alda börnum,
ørlög seggja. (Eysteinn Björnsson's edition)

Then came maidens
Greatly knowing (i.e. knowing magic)
Three from the well
That under the tree stands
Urdh (Fate) is the name of the first
The next, Verdhandi (Turning/Transforming)

- They carved the staves -
Skuld ('debt') is the third.
They lots alloted
They lives chose
For the sons o men
They uttered primal law. (my translation)

It is worth remembering that the Norns are sometimes portrayed as sorcerers in Scandinavian folklore, and that this interpretation is backed both by fate (ørlög) as spoken, and by the notion that they have great knowledge (also tied to terms for magic in sources like Hrof Kraki's Saga, which also features a sorceress named Skuld for the moral debt of her father).

But the magic/fate connections don't really concern us here.  What does concern us is the etymology of ørlög and related terms in this stanza (Þær lög lögðu).  The word ørlög is a simple compound, ør- meaning primal or primordial and lög meaning lot, law, or layer.  In essence here we have gain an allotment process where the primordial lot has an almost legal aspect to it.  As in the Greek view, the lot is bounded by length and law, and that stepping outside either of these boundaries results in death, as the debt (Skuld) of this lot is returned to the Norns.

Subsidiarity, Domain, and Partition

One key notion in both Greek and Norse notions of life and fate is the concept that one obtains a sort of partition, a lot in which one has domain in one's life.  This lot is not one's body.  It is not one's choices.  Rather it constrains both and it exists in a context of social and primordial law.  But this primordial law is not the same for everyone.  This is somewhat similar to Plato's discussion of the individual in Timaeus (discussed in a previous post in this series) where we have one band of sameness (the fixed stars) and seven bands of difference (the planets).

But partition implies something is partitioned, that we take a whole and split it into ever smaller pieces until we get our individual allotments.

This leads to an alternative to liberalism where freedom emphasizes the -dom suffix, meaning domain or holding.  Social roles, functions, jobs, and the like are domains that we should hold and own, having to a large extent autonomy within them (and yet governed by social and primordial law, duty, and debt).  We are free within our personal domains, and less than free elsewhere.  Moreover in this sense, liberalism, in eroding a place in society for everyone, has eroded real depth of freedom.  We have more breadth but less depth.

End notes:
[1]  When we speak of genetic relations between cultural groups we mean that traits were inherited from a common ancestral culture.  So for example, Spanish and French are genetically related languages, both being daughters of Latin.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The way we talk about abortion in the US

So lets talk about abortion for a moment. This is an area where the more people I talk to with different perspectives from different places, the more challenging perspectives have to be accommodated.

The US is becoming increasingly polarized between two groups. A significant number of my friends on both sides of this issue don't fall into either group but I am noticing more and more people espousing one of these two extreme, individualist positions and that is a bit scary. Those of you who read below and think one or the other is a straw man don't get the fact that I am discussing how I have seen other discussions I have had, and you are welcome to comment on why the extreme viewpoint portrayed below doesn't apply to you.

The first position holds that abortion is really no different from murder, that human life begins at conception and therefore a zygote, embryo, or fetus has a right to life that may not be infringed on. But being individualistic, sees abortion as a personal failing, not a social one, and therefore sees no culpability by employer, boyfriend, school administrator, or the like. Thus one can ponder sending abortion providers to jail, or even the women seeking abortions, but one would not ponder changes to make it easier for women to participate in the economy fully after having children. This position ends up being pro-birth into a heartless world and calling it pro-life.

The second extreme I have seen on the rise is the idea that abortion during any portion of pregnancy is acceptable, and that the government should not put restrict abortion at all In this view, the only question that matters is a woman's right to control her own body, but in many circumstances infants do not stop being dependent on their mother's bodies after birth, so why not allow women to kill breastfeeding infants? Why not trust fathers too and bring back the powers of pater familias under the Twelve Tables? The answer here again is total individualism, and that personhood doesn't apply really until birth.

Those two positions are the extremes of a narrow argument that is waged by people who accept Locke's theories of natural rights and his hierarchy of life over liberty, and liberty over property. Any argument on abortion which assumes personhood is the test effectively falls into that trap, and worse it assumes a universal answer to all questions on the topic.

I often ask pro-choice people in the US to comment on Scandinavian abortion restrictions (Denmark, having the fewest restrictions, limits elective abortion to 20 weeks gestation, while Iceland requires major health or social justification for all abortions, and Noway limits elective abortion to 12 weeks). One thing I almost never see is a discussion local issues. What I either see are discussions of the fact that they are industrialized so we will give them a pass unlike, say, African nations, or else I see an unyielding adherence to position over an ability to listen to any other perspectives. Ask anti-abortion activists about Singapore (an island country with no room to build new houses) and again, one almost never sees discussion of local issues there either. The local issues don't matter to Americans.

The problem is made significantly worse by how we look at the question of social progress in the US. The US is the most liberal country in the world and what we have, really, is a choice between left liberalism (liberal democracy governing business and liberalism governing family law) and right liberalism (liberalism governing business, and liberal devotion to religious liberties governing the family). As de Benoist has put it that is the choice (though he was talking about France), and there is no diversity possible in either side.

So what if we ask about abortion in a functional way instead? That the need for abortion rights in the US comes from the way we effectively foist on women alone the opportunity costs of having and raising children? That for those opposed to abortion the most important thing is to build a more just economic order, and for those who see choice in life path as the more important direction, there is a need to recognize that some trade-offs in this area may be worth it? In other words, with more support for families with children, more restrictions on abortion can be acceptable? The individualistic view on this issue means among other things that we cannot ask questions of duty. What is the duty society to new parents? How should parenthood fit into the economic order? These are the questions which have to be asked and answered.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism, Part 2, Post 2: An Alternative View of Autonomy

In the previous post, I discussed the rise of autonomy theory in liberal social philosophy in the early Enlightenment.  This era also gives us the beginnings of modernism also as we saw.  But the Modernist view has proven to have less staaying power than the Aristotelian view before it, or the oral-formulaic view before that.

One basic concept that has been very universal is what anthropologists call an isomorphism, or a basic homological similarity in how we see different things, between the individual, the society, and the world.  This isomorphism is deeply pervasive to the point where it survives, basically, today.  If we think of the individual as basically a complicated machine, we can think about governments and bureaucracies as products of high engineering, and the universe as the greatest machine of all.  This idea, which rose to prominence also during the Enlightenment, displaced an earlier, more organic view of the individual (the zoodiacal man and other Renaissance ideas).

The earlier views tended to be similar in some ways to Plato's model in Timaeus.  Modern astrologers and skeptics of astrology usually misunderstand the logic that astrology had in such a system.  If, as Plato suggested, we are basically the same as the stars, then through this isomorphism we can divine patterns in our own lives by looking at the stars.    This same basic view underlies all traditional methods of divination as well.  The same model applies to all and the state of one model can infer the state of another model.

The problem with the machine metaphor is that while it is useful for scientific inquiry, it doesn't actually match our scientific knowledge very well once one gets to systems more complex than organic chemistry.  Even in molecular biology, "always" means "most of the time" and "laws" are peppered with exceptions.  By the time you get to general biology or ecology things are downright non-mechanistic.

Anthropology outgrew the mechanistic views in the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism but this is also a shift towards a sort of individualism, recognizing that individuals represent a fluid center and creative force that structuralism cannot well address.

In this essay I will suggest a shift in view from seeing these things as as machines to seeing them as ecological communities and the implications from a communications theory/computer science perspective on such a shift.

The Rise of Permacuture and an Ecological Archetype

Permaculture is a growing movement towards reinventinng food productions by leveraging ecological models in place of our farms and gardens.  The basic idea of permaculture is that instead of fighting against ecology when it comes to weeds, insects, and soil nutrition, we can leverage how mature ecosystems work and thus produce a lot more food with a lot fewer chemical and energy inputs.  The animals and plans become productive, mutually supporting pieces of the whole.  Rather than leveraging machinery, we can leverage even pests to produce more and better food more easily.

Permaculture takes a fundamental cultural shift to make work.  traditionally most of our crops are annuals but permaculture leverages perennials to a much greater extent.  Large fields of wheat or tomatoes have to give way to something else (perhaps food forests of fruit and nut trees).  Plants are layered in space and time.  One must think both diachronically (across time) and in terms of mutually supporting roles.

As permiculturalists are keen to remind us, all problems can be solved in a garden.  The ecology becomes the basic archetype, replacing the great machine, and consequently there is a push for a return to a more organic, less energy-intensive, less socially isolating society.

But beyond this, an ecological archetype (i.e. seeing the human, the universe, the society as being basically ecological in shape) is applicable in a variety of fields.  Instead of seeing bacterial infections as mechanical in nature (the mere introduction of a pathogen) we can see them as ecological in nature (a pathogen population blooming because of other ecological factors).  A shift to use of probiotics preventatively is also part of such a shift.

Similarly, while liberal philosophers tended to reduce society to a machine, an ecological model provides a richer ability to arrange the pieces into mutually supporting roles.  Family and organs of local community (religious groups, guilds, and other structures) become fundamental and larger governmental structures become subordinate to these.

The CAP Theorem, Distributed Computing, and Consistency in society

One of the major developments in computer science has been the CAP Theorem in the face of the rise of distributed computing (first in scientific computing and later in other disciplines as well).

The CAP Theorem takes its name from the initials which provide three desirable characteristics of distributed computer networks:  Consistency (all network nodes having access to the same information at the same time), Availability (the system responding to all requests), and Partition Tolerance (the ability to successfully respond to requests in the event of some information not being available).  The CAP Theorem demonstrates that assuring all three is impossible, and that any two are incompatible with the third.

While it has its roots in computing, the CAP Theorem is really about communication and information and thus is applicable to human society as well.  There are naturally differences, also, that must be taken into account -- the CAP Theorem assumes a sort of communication that is impossible for humans to achieve.  While computers communicate precisely and losslessly, humans communicate imprecisely and in a lossy way.  We don't encode and decode information.  We try to reconstruct what the other will think and then communicate in this way, and then when receive communications we try to reconstruct what the other meant.

This is largely because human language is bootstrapped on environmental learning.  All of our native language is learned through inferring what other people probably mean and this means that no two people speak quite the same language.  This process is also responsible for linguistic drift and some other linguistic phenomena.

The lossy nature of human communications has a number of significant implications for the application of the CAP Theorem to human society.  Consistency is fundamentally mechanical and not fundamentally human.  We can approach consistency, or the illusion of it, but the only hard consistency controls possible involve centralizing power in the hands of a single individual (because in CAP terms, an individual cannot be inconsistent with him or herself).

A second point is that human language is a life-long learning process.  We learn how to effectively communicate with people we work with over time and therefore consistency is more readily possible on a small scale than a large scale.

Human civilization thus depends on tolerating inconsistency in CAP terms and this tolerance must increase as the scope of society increases.

The CAP Theorem, in context with a solid understanding of linguistics, thus provides a solid mathematical proof that individual and local autonomy are necessary for productive ventures in human society.  In areas where human society cannot do without (economic production, reproduction, etc) individual and community autonomy are fundamentally needed.

Of course this autonomy must be balanced with other social concerns, such as the need for mutual support (which we would not survive infancy or into old age without).  But we can prove both a need for autonomy and duty and this piece is about the former, which the CAP Theorem gives us.  But viewed from this perspective, autonomy is a functional requirement that human society simply cannot exist without.

Subsidiarity and Autonomy

The final point to add to the mix is the idea of subsidiarity.  Subsidiarity (as Justice Breyer reminds us in many of his interviews) is a European concept, not an American one.  It holds that the best level of society to tackle a problem is the smallest one capable of tackling it..  Subsidiarity is in theory a basic part of the European Union (added after Denmark voted not to join to appease their fears), but in practice more a part of Scandinavian society, where it is called the Nearness Principle, than in Continental Europe.  While the idea was first formulated in a papal encyclical (Rerum Novarum) in the 19th century, the idea expresses something of a general experience of agrarian, rural countries and even the functional efforts at dual sovereignty in the early US.  The idea is more tightly tied to classical philosophy than it is specifically Catholic and this is probably a reason for its general success.

It's worth noting that even Chairman Mao at one point said that China should see the United States as a model for why decentralization of political power is necessary and should not try to emulate a single strongly centralized government.  So the idea of decentralization as good  has ranged from early America to Communist China, to Scandinavia, to the Catholic Church.   I think this reflects a sense by which the CAP Theorem's limits in fact really do come into play.

The rationale in Rerum Novarum is probably the place to start in understanding the idea of decentralization as a moral matter however.  The basic idea is that theft needs not be material to be damaging.  One can rob someone of dignity just as surely as one can rob someone of money.   A key aspect of dignity is an ability to accomplish good things for one's family, community, and society.  Robbing someone of that ability to accomplish things is thus a very deep and serious form of theft.  As anyone who has been told to do a job and then micromanaged in doing it knows, this is a serious problem.  Of course the CAP Theorem shows us that micromanagement not only feels insulting but is actually harmful so it is no exaggeration to call it evil, but this is a more recent development.

The idea then is that it is a serious matter of theft to take a task out of the hands of an individual who is doing the work capably and put it in the hands of another.  This is what I call work ownership, the idea that a task and the accomplishment that comes with it, should be treated as property (how fruits of the labor should be divided is separate however, since one never really accomplishes anything entirely alone).

What applies to an individual also applies to a group.  For a larger group to take over a task a smaller group is capable of accomplishing is itself also a theft.  Therefore there is a moral necessity in keeping this accomplishment as personal as possible and therefore larger levels of social organization (including government) should work to coordinate and harmonize rather than accomplish on their own what the lower levels are capable of doing.

This echoes Aristotle's views on the roots of the polis.  According to Aristotle, individuals get married and have children thus forming households, and households come together to tackle joint problems and thus form the polis or community.  Larger levels of the state exist because smaller levels come together to address joint problems, which is an inversion of the engineered order (where you start with the large and subdivide).

These all form parts of a more organic, comprehensive view of autonomy which affects both individuals and groups.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism part 2 post 1: Liberalism and Antisocial Autonomy

Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains.  -- JJ Roussau "On Social Contract"

One of the key selling points of Liberalism is the ideology of autonomy, and the view that other ideologies don't share a concept of autonomy.  The latter is false (though few others phrase autonomy as specific to the individual), and the former deserves careful understanding before we can see both the problems and opportunities for a replacement.  In this post we will take a short journey through the early liberal philosophers, Hobbes, Locke, Roussau, Hume, and Kant and look at the evolving views of autonomy, society, and government that came out of them.

Hobbes and the Need for the State

The beginnings of progressive social theory come from Thomas Hobbes and his book "The Leviathan."  Hobbes introduces a couple of ideas which become the basis of Western liberalism since.  In particular he argues there is no greatest good, that man's behavior can be explained materialistically.  This becomes the basis of what we might call psychological and political materialism.  Hobbes largely denies the idea that man is by nature a social creature and therefore sees man as at his natural state where there is no society.

In such a state, Hobbes reasons, people need protection from people engaging in violent theft, and therefore the state arises for joint protection of this sort.  In this regard he echoes Cicero's claim that there are certain things, such as private property rights, that must be respected for humans to live together in cities.  However where he differs from Cicero, Aristotle, etc is that he saw humanity as by nature isolated, alone, autonomous.

Hobbes thus lays the framework for progressive views of history.  For primitive man, life is nasty, brutish, and short, but with social developments, prosperity is possible.  There is no need to look to religion or to a philosophical notion of the greatest good.  All we need to do is look to avoiding a violent death.

From Hobbes then emerges a concept of right to life and a general right to autonomy.  These get fleshed out in greater form by later thinkers (Locke, Rousseau, and others).

Locke and Universal Rights

The next major thinker in this regard was John Locke, whose works built on Hobbes view of natural rights.  While Locke followed Hobbes in a right to be generally free from violence and to follow one's own desires, he added to this a right to property, largely following Cicero.   He also formulated a hierarchy of rights, with life above liberty, and liberty above property.

One of the most enduring aspects of Lockean thought in the US is the abortion debate.  Both sides of the debate effectively accept a Lockean outlook, where life is greater than liberty, and therefore the only question to discuss is whether a fetus is a person, worthy of a right to life.  This leads to a very narrow abortion debate.  We don't get to discuss the questions of the role in an economy which treats men as normal and women as only normal to the extent they are like men.  We don't get to discuss the way that the social need to recognize shared humanity between mother and fetus.  We don't get to discuss the effects on society or the family.  The only question is personhood.

In my view, this leads to a very impoverished debate.  But it is worth noting two things in defense of Locke.  First, he notes the importance of property, something Hobbes doesn't formulate as well and secondly he treats property rights as not even close to absolute, being limited by their impact on the liberty of others.

Rousseau and the Liberation of the Individual

Rousseau can be seen in "On Social Contract" to be reacting largely to Hobbes.  Rousseau effectively follows Hobbes in the natural rights approach but sought to soften Hobbes assertion that humans are not social creatures.  Rousseau on one hand acknowledges a social nature to humanity, but on the other hand sees society as deeply corrupting.  It is through the influence of society, Rousseau held, that people though by nature good become either evil or enslaved.  Rousseau then accepts both a social nature of humanity, but also treats society as fundamentally suspect and damaging.

Some respects of Rousseau's theories are clearly accurate.  Monarchs can be more authoritarian than democracies and, as Rousseau pointed out, democracies become more oppressive as they cover larger numbers of people.  Rousseau's theories then seem to suggest that the only guaranteed nonoppressive form of government is the local, participatory democracy, but it isnt clear that Rousseau would have liked these much since they are basic manifestations of the society that chains the individual.

Rousseau is universally hated by conservatives and for good reason.  He follows Locke and Hobbes down an antisocial hole and favors liberating individuals from the fundamental units of society, the family and community.  However, he the first of the liberal philosophers to really grapple with humanity as social by nature, and for this reason he cannot be ignored entirely.

Hume and the Nature of Reason

Hume noted that reason is not by nature directed and is therefore amoral in nature.  Of course he was not the first  Aesop's fable of the wolf and the lamb carries with it a similar lesson.  But Hume attempted a solution here based solely on individual experience.  Where Aristotle, Cicero, and others would look to social duties and function Hume looks to the experience of emotion for guidance.   Argument from emotion may be a fallacy, but emotion alone can give reason direction, so reason is always, according to Hume, a slave of the passions, and this is as it should be.

With this view of reason and emotion comes the basic view of human rights being things which one feels strongly about.  Individual emotions thus become seen as the guiding light for society.

The problem of course is that prejudices steer our reasoning and when we cloak these in universality, we turn them into things which go from being functionally protective of community into things which are oppressive of other communities, and even oppressive of our own.


The picture of liberal autonomy that develops is one where society is a corrupting influence on the individual, where the goal is to erode family and community so that chosen relationships are more important than unchosen ones.  Parenthood thus is a one-way duty and children need not have duties towards their elders.  Communities have duties to their members but the members have no duties to communities they did not choose, and so forth.

 But beyond these are a trust in the combination of reason and emotion leading to the visible cult of the personality.  However these are only enabled by worshipping ever more powerful social machines.  We factory farm our food and we factory farm our kids.  We produce our work in factories.  The home becomes nothing more than a place for isolated individuals to hide at night from the inhumanity of the world.

In the next in this series I will look at an alternative way to look at human autonomy from a social function perspective and how computer science of all fields can provide a far more conservative alternative to this sort of autonomy theory.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Immigration and Europe, Thoughts inspired by Zizek

I have been in Sweden now for a year.  I have watched the immigration crisis unfold.  I have read different viewpoints.  I have seen the crisis steal an hour from my day several times a week.  Like the election in the US which may spell the end of neoliberalism for better or worse, this is an amazing crisis, and I feel privileged to watch history in the making.

So Zizek has written an interesting piece about the social and political dynamics of the refugee crisis.  It is a piece which reaffirms the need of culture and identity, and a piece which confronts obliquely the nature of modernism.  It is worth a read.  Myself, I am both the first to defend refugees as people, and also to defend the fact that there are real concerns about the demographics of this crisis, and that it is unjust to expect Europe to pick up the tab of the human cost the US has been busy accruing.

This being said, as a lover of history, there are some things that are left out of the dimensions of his analysis, dimensions which add answers and more questions to the reason Europe tends to be so fixated on the crisis.  These problems demand solutions and the questions demand further searches for answers.  But Europe's very survival, I think, rests on recognizing two truths, that Europe must embrace far more the refugees Europe does accept, but also that Europe must accept fewer refugees.  My grim assessment is that unless Europe does both these things -- seeking to recover from the refugees what Europe has lost and also limit the flow, that the only future Europe can look forward to is one where the refugees have by force of number dramatically reshaped the political and social order.  We can decide to learn or we can be schooled.  It is our choice.

The story of the rise of Europe is the story of the rise of poverty.  In England, in France, in Germany, as in the US, early industrialization was dependent on the rise of destitution sufficient to get people to give up on anything better than subsistence wages in the factory. The less industrialized portion of Europe, for example in the Balkans and in Scandinavia, tried to industrialize in less unequal ways with only modest success (usually with appropriately proportional rises in poverty and industrialization -- see Scandinavia's efforts to industrialize the fishing industry which caused many small fishermen to lose their businesses in the face of crushing debt).

The way out of poverty becomes a social safety net, a way of ensuring that people do not fear for security for being out of work, but this too becomes something that one has to work beforehand to qualify for, and often (particularly in Scandinavia) banking policies favor the employed to the self-employed.  In this way the chains that bind people to corporate employment in the name of liberating them from family are forged strong.  With this employment-centric economy, the family is no longer productive, and so children are no longer the future of one's own economic endeavors.  Women have fewer children and the population declines.  Capitalism (like state socialism for the same reasons) is cultural suicide.  This is something people intrinsically understand which is the answer to why so many Europeans cling to their sense of identity through hostility to the immigrants.  They know something is wrong.  They know their culture is declining.  They know immigration is connected.  They know the elites are calling the shots.  The hatred and fear they feel regarding immigrants is therefore a proxy for the hatred and fear they feel regarding the bankers, the politicians, the bureaucrats, who claim to do good but instead enslave them.  But this is counterproductive.

When I walk down the street in Landskrona, I see restaurant after restaurant.  I see small corner store after small corner store.  These all fall into one of two categories:  They are either businesses  with a few employees (maybe 5-10) or they are very small family businesses run by first-generation immigrants.  Those who are self-employed are very usually immigrants.  They are not used to the chains that are there to bind them to corporate employment and so they blithely walk around as if those are not there.  They are the free smallholders who have more or less vanished elsewhere.  So the immigrants come to do the jobs that Swedes won't do:  running very small businesses.  And yet it is considered a great success that their children will join the corporate work force.  That fact alone gives me more reason to  be pessimistic about Europe's future than everything else.  It is a "victory" for the engines of assimilation to liberate the children of the smallholding class into the corporate workforce.

I think that the European elites believe that this system can be sustained indefinitely through immigration, that there is nothing inevitably damaging about outsourcing the process of having and raising children.  Why not let Africa and the Middle East bear the costs and Europe reap the benefits?  Moreover if the masses are divided between nativists and immigrationists, then nobody will challenge the power structures at the top.  It is a nearly perfect strategy and one which seems likely to win at least for the short term.  But it is becoming more clear that the system cannot sustain itself on immigration, that falling birth rates present a problem for the whole structure and that trying to bring in refugees can be dangerously unpredictable.  Sweden promised to welcome all refugees that wanted to come, and quickly found out that there were a lot of refugees in line....  That mistake has lead to the reintroduction of border measures that have cascaded across Europe.

The problem is not just that immigration is a problem.  The problem is that immigration is the solution to an economic problem.  If cultural nationalists want to win, they have to help a just economic and social order arise, one which supports families, and leads to a sustainable birth rate.  What we have now is not.  That means starting with those immigrants who have not yet been assimilated and learning from them.  It means learning what economic realities need to change from their point of view.  It means making room at least in the short-run for parallel cultural societies.  And it means working on building an economic order where family and community once again matter.

This is the promise of multiculturalism but multiculturalism never lives up to this promise because it is peddled by people openly hostile to culture, who see culture as an obstacle to rights..  Multiculturalism has great promise but it cannot be fulfilled unless culture is seen as innately valuable, as a matter of function and humanity not mere self-esteem in a commodity marketplace.  The most multicultural places I have lived have also been the most conservative.

Of course the right will have trouble doing this.  The political right is funded by the same elites that are causing the problem on the left.  You won't get careful introspection from any political side because they are not in the business of making policies but selling policies.  And that is the real problem.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

We Need an Agrarian Party, or Why Not Trump

Watching Trump's election campaign I cannot shake the thought that the Republican party base has as much respect for the GOP elites as the Democratic Party base does.  It seems everyone knows the GOP is hopelessly corrupt and the only reason Hillary is doing as well as she is, is because Democratic Party voters aren't quite as convinced that the Democratic Party is hopelessly corrupt as Republican Party voters are regarding the GOP.

So the GOP has to go and it needs to be replaced by a real alternative to the Democratic Party, ideally based on a real alternative to liberalism (right now they represent a version of liberalism).  The Democrats want the GOP as it exists to go.  The Republican base wants the same and while the Democrats may want another liberal party, I think the time is long overdue to have a non-liberal party in the mix.

I hear some people say "At least Trump is not a Liberal" but the problem is that Trump is a Liberal.  He is for liberal capitalism.  He is for liberal democracy.  He is for the myth of the self-made man, for the myth of self-authorship and self-ownership.  If Trump seems illiberal, it is only because we have forgotten what liberalism used to mean.

The alternative to liberalism through the last few centuries has not come from Capitalism -- Capitalism was invented and justified by Liberals long before so-called Conservatives took up that cause.  In essence the problem with the Republican Party is that they are liberals when it comes to business, in the same way that Democrats are liberals when it comes to sexuality.  The same rhetoric, the same view of humanity basically applies to both.  The only difference is that what Protestant social conservatives actually try to conserve is the combination of Liberalism and Calvinism (it is worth noting that Liberalism arose from Calvinism).

The alternative to liberalism and the most conservative tradition in the US has long been agrarianism.  Agrarians tend to vote Republican not because they agree with the party but because the Republicans tend to, on the surface, leave just a little more room for agrarianism in American society than the Democrats do.  The Democratic Party prides itself on intellectualism, but it is one which systematically devalues rural America as poorly educated.  In this regard Trump's comments following his win in Nevada were brilliant -- a way to bait Democrats and at the same time mobilize his base.

But Trump is no agrarian.  Trump is a capitalist of the worst kind and no different, really, than Hillary. While he has proven quite politically adept, it is clear his heart isn't in the right place.  Sanders is perhaps a little closer but he too is basically a conservative liberal.

Major (illiberal) premises of agrarianism would be:

  1. Growing food should no be an industrial-scale endeavor but the activity of small family farms
  2. The family is the basis of society and the rest of the levels exist to serve the family.  The family should be restored to its rightful place as the seat of economic production, not relegated to consumption alone.
  3. Laws should favor small businesses over large ones.
  4. Free trade is bad, and self-employment is good.
  5. Employers have an obligation to ensure that capital is widely spread.  The emphasis on a living wage is misguided.
  6. Culture and community matter and are not things to liberate people from.
  7. Marriage exists to protect and cultivate the next generation, not for the mere temporary fulfillment of the spouses.  Decisions such as what forms of marriage are acceptable need to be subservient to that question.
  8. Participatory democracy is better than representative democracy
  9. Economic commons are more important than welfare payments.
Now this is by and large a platform that cuts across boundaries of right and left in this country, but it operates from a point of view that rejects liberalism.  Many left-wingers in California, right wingers in Utah, and "liberals" in the NE may in fact be able to get behind much more than they do either main political party today.  The only problem is funding....

Our political conversation in the US today is warped by our choices being limited to a party which believes liberalism is for business and religion is for the family, and the party that believes that liberalism is for the family and the state is for business.  If we get a real alternative, we can better discuss and tackle our problems.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Liberalism Considered Harmful

I decided to open this new chapter in this blog's history with two provocative points:

  1. Our country is governed by a general "liberal consensus" even, and perhaps especially, on the right, and
  2. I do not accept that consensus.

 Defining "Liberal"

Contrary to most political voices today, I do not see the distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" to be that useful.  The distinction is a narrow one, what sort of liberalism to push, and not one that involves actually questioning the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism itself.

The tradition of liberal thought arises out of the so-called "enlightenment" which was a reaction to the perception that the European Renaissance was on one hand two Catholic and on the other hand too cozy with Islamic thinkers.  However, the Renaissance was at its roots a Classicist movement, filtered merging Catholic and Islamic developments largely on Greek thought.  Liberalism, as found in thinkers like Locke and Hume posits that the primary relationship in politics is between the individual and the state.

From this approach arise the ideas of individual rights and social contracts as we know them.  The old order, which still exists in atrophied form, and which I will discuss more below, is to be subsumed within this framework, where individual investors and capitalists morally deserve to be rewarded off the backs of the workers, and that jobs and employment, in the good Protestant Industrial Revolution work ethic, combined with appropriate government machinery, will solve all our social problems.

From this perspective, the difference between the parties is that the Democrats would like the State to be the Mother writ large, and business to be the father, while Republicans would like to reverse these gender roles.  Our choices are thus between what Dorothy Day called "The Holy Mother State" and what I would call "The Holy Mother, Inc."

The basic consensus is that the modern state consists of individuals and a government, where the government's goal is to insist on ordered liberty for individuals, and the individuals who must respect the social contract.  Individuals band together into corporations which are given a sort of artificial personhood, and the rights of an individual, as a passthrough vehicle to protect the rights of the investors.

Liberalism itself, as Hilaire Belloc pointed out, depends for its success on the poor and disadvantaged, and the forces of the reformation were necessary to create the displaced workforce that would allow the industrial revolution to succeed.  Belloc was not the only one to make this assessment.  Many of the early Capitalist theorists including Adam Smith's contemporaries, believed that the poor must be kept both poor and disadvantaged so that they would be willing to work.  Thus both classical liberalism and neoliberalism require poor people to be disempowered so that corporations can work as efficient social machines.  In future posts I will critique the role of social welfare in modern American society, and other aspects by which the upper classes continue to ensure that the poor must be kept poor.

This consensus also borrows the ideological internationalism of Christian thought.  The idea is that there is one social truth, one set of human rights, etc. that is applicable to all people in all cultures, even when that is obviously false.  A right to private property cannot apply to the hunter-gatherer in the same way it applies to the city dweller.  It is a great irony that our discussions and frameworks of human rights are built on a system dependent upon injustice in order to function.

Liberal Cosmology

The basis of liberal cosmology is the analogy of everything to machinery.  Workers are but cogs in the corporate machine.  The body is but a machine, capable of being altered, fixed, and improved.  Our homes are machines.  The universe is a great machine (see the previous two books as references).  Today we take this even further, with many believing that neuroscience can explain all of human behavior despite of course the obvious evidence to the contrary: chemistry cannot be reduced to applied quantum physics (pdf alert).

The cosmology of liberalism then is fundamentally reductionist, and based on the idea that as we gain experience, we can build ever more complex social machinery in the name of social progress.  The only real disagreements left are what sort of social machinery to build and which direction we want to progress.  Do we put our faith in government or private industry?  Do we want the government to be a moral authority, or a system of social nourishment (Day's "Holy Mother State")?  Nobody dares challenge the basic framework though.  Even the socialists and communists largely accept it.

Towards Alternatives

First, we must recognize that a lot of deep thought regarding society was wrongly discarded in the enlightenment, and also that liberalism is not as scientific as it appears.  In particular liberal social thinkers tend to be quick to dismiss anthropological assessments if they are opposed to the favored policies.    Science itself on both sides is a tool for furthering a priori political agendas, not for measuring success or failure.  This is human nature.  When science challenges us and counsels us against arrogance, we (as arrogant humans) ignore it, having faith that any limits now present will be overcome.
If you look at the current race, the argument is about job creation and who got us into this mess, and both sides blame the wrong Presidents.  The Presidents both sides idolize (Reagan and Clinton) are the very ones whose policies set up this mess through financial deregulation and encouragement of lax lending policies, see Hyman Minsky's theories of economic instability.  But both sides ignore models that work and predict the current crisis and finger point at the other in order to protect the image that the policies that got us here are what we need to do to get out of this hole.

So what is the alternative?  It is to look to twin sources of anthropology and more traditional models.  One model, suggested by Aristotle in Politics, consists not of individuals and states but rather of individuals coming together into households, and those households forming communities.  The state can be seen as a layer on top of this.   Corporations can be seen as another form of community, one dedicated to producing and distributing goods and services.  Profit then becomes important but only one goal, subservient to the greater mission (which arguably is the case for most successful businesses at least in their initial stage).

This model is fundamentally pluralistic.  The structure of the household may vary from society to society, and the collective interests of the community may be different as well.  There may be commonalities that we can explore but we can agree that control should be at the most local level possible.  It is not internationalist like liberalism is.  We don't have to push the "economic development" religion on foreign cultures.    They can join us or not if they want.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

An alternative to Liberalism, Part 1, Post 2: A Conflict of Moralities

After a long hiatus, I have decided to begin this anew.

In this piece I want to discuss universalism and relativism in so-called "conservative" and "liberal" views, and I want to offer a significantly different alternative to either of these universalist systems (relativism is a sort of universalism which is even more authoritarian than the conservative counterpart in part because it pretends to be anti-authoritarian).  The alternative I will offer is structuralism, which holds that actions are only moral or immoral in the context of cultural constructs and social imperatives.  Structuralism is not moral relativism because it provides an avenue for moral critique, which relativism attempts actively to forestall, but it is not universalism either because it admits that for any social problem there may be many valid solutions.  The solutions are, however, constrained by other factors, including other solutions.  I will look specifically at the issue of murder below.

Summing up the three basic positions:
  • Universalism says, "What is True for Me is True for Thee"
  • Relativism says, "What is true for me need not be true for thee"
  • Structuralism says, "What is true for me is true for thee, to the extent thee is in a social place comparable to me."
Post-structuralism will be discussed a little bit below.  Post-structuralism for the most part looks less at questions of truth and more about how structures affect people and how they navigate those.  When we get to discussing the role of stigma in a just society, the analysis offered will be very post-structuralist.

Like it or not, most of the actual judgements that both liberals and conservatives make are at least latently structuralist in nature.  Very rarely do people say "we criminalize theft because stealing is wrong."  Instead we look at specific harms caused by theft and conclude that we must punish thieves.  What is not structuralist, however is the way that these judgements are applied to others, particularly in other places and times.   This is true on the left and the right, but particularly on the left.  The left tends to be more universalist than the right which is rather amusing given that the common accusation is that the right is out to "impose their beliefs" on the left.

Universalism and Relativism in Liberalism

Liberalism, as Oz Conservative points out, is a social philosophy which holds that autonomy is the greatest good, that we should all be full authors of our lives, unbound by ties we do not choose, and that the ideal of the state is to ensure "ordered liberty" (as if we wouldn't have to choose between order and liberty).

In pursuit of this goal, three seemingly incompatible tools are used, moral relativism regarding personal choices, universalism regarding cultural constructs, in the form of discourse on human rights, and an isomorphism between technological progress and social progress.  People are not seen as having a right to culture, but rather as being victims of culture.   Just as throughout history technology has been advancing, the argument goes, so too has society been advancing towards greater true knowledge and towards greater freedom.

All history mythologizes the past to some degree (history being an argument using the past as a basis), and liberal history sees the past as a progressive march towards greater knowledge and freedom.    In doing so they must skip over important details, like how much informal autonomy women in ancient Athens could actually get away with, and treat internationalism in history with so much convoluted justifications as to make it hard to understand what the perspective on internationalism actually is.  It's hard, for example, to justify the idea that we should see a single global authority and at the same time argue that the Reformation was good because it broke the stranglehold of the Roman Catholic Church on European continent.  Catholicism was the main internationalist movement regarding authority at the time (and unlike Islam there actually is a central authority) and so it is hard to square the reality of the reformation with the liberal aspect as it is taught in history.

In the area of human rights, such rights are not seen to include a right to culture.  Human rights are also believed to be self-evident, and they provide a framework for universalist imposition of culture across barriers of space and language.  It is in essence a form of cultural imperialism.

But human rights cannot be readily defined in such a way.  We may think to ourselves that private property rights are human rights, but there are cultures, particularly foraging cultures whose view of property rights is both functionally viable within the scope of such a culture and at the same time entirely incompatible with any human right we could define for a modern society.

Similarly there are many who believe there is a right not to have culturally mandated ritual surgeries generally, such as circumcision among the Jews.  The idea here is that such surgeries are only appropriate for consenting adults, and since children have not consented to be a part of their culture, it is inappropriate to permanently engrave culture on the body.   This is, in essence, the basis of the outrage against female genital cutting as well.  To be sure, such practices may be critiqued on other grounds, namely health impacts of the practices but to be sure, human rights to the liberal mindset is simply the right to be free from coercive constraints imposed by culture.  A right to culture is thus impossible to see as a human right in the liberal mindset.  Liberalism thus both undermines and denies a "right to culture."  It is therefore entirely incompatible with indigenous rights and autonomy, just as it is incompatible with household rights and autonomy.

At the same time, the emphasis on individual autonomy suggests that we can't judge others for their choices.  This is a reaction to stigmatizing people for certain poor choices, but it leads to relativism in the sense that we can't judge others.  Judgement is, however, not just about right or wrong, but about insight, understanding, compassion, and empathy.  One cannot determine whether something is right or wrong without insight, understanding, and (I believe) context, and one cannot arrive at these in a just way without compassion and empathy.  Relativism thus leads paradoxically to a world without compassion or empathy, without insight into the nature of the problems of the present and hence without an ability to differentiate right from wrong in context.  One need not hold that all morals are objective to see that the idea that we cannot judge to be a dangerous one.  For if we cannot judge for others, we cannot judge for ourselves.  Worse, if we cannot judge for others, we cannot learn from their mistakes.

I see this approach of relativism and human rights to be illnesses of the modern world, an effort to corrode the very cultural aspects of ourselves that make us human.  Culture makes us human, and by denying a right to culture, liberalism reduces us to machines or pieces of social machines (nations, corporations) while denying us basic humanity.

Universalism and relativism in Christian Social Conservatism

On the surface, Christian Social Conservatism offers an alternative to liberalism, and I would suggest it is a step in the right direction.  However, this movement has been heavily liberalized to the point where it isn't really an alternative at all.  I see this movement as grasping for some way out of the modern world's great illnesses, but not quite getting there.  Christian Social Conservatives are thus, in essence, conservative liberals (as opposed to the liberal liberals of the Democratic Party and the radical liberals of the Tea Party).

Christian Social Conservatism is based on the idea that Christian tradition offers the best way out of the problems of the present.  It is backwards-looking, conservative, and holds important aspects of liberalism to be wrong, but in the end, many of the thinkers in this movement are torn between theocracy and technocracy, and this shows in public health statistics.

Additionally foundational values of Christian Social Conservatism include the same values as Liberalism.  This movement merely tacks on additional ones.  Radical individualism is still there.  Innovationism and technocracy are still there.  In fact in some areas these are heightened.

One major difference is that Christian Social Conservatives tend to see Christianity as faith and tradition replacing the "human rights" discourse of the liberals.  Additionally the basic liberal narrative of self-authored lives is used to justify plutocracy in some corners of the movement.

Relativism is a bit harder to pin down in Christian Social Conservatism

However if you look at Protestants, one tends to see a view that belief is more important than action.  You will be forgiven.  Just believe and ask for forgiveness.  This allows a certain degree of relativism in through the back door.

More functionally, the Catholic social conservative traditions have placed a great deal of emphasis on subsidiarity, the idea that it is spiritual or moral theft to userp the role of a piece of society and hand it to a larger one.  This encourages experimentation and a degree of relativism as well (though with boundaries).  Catholic thought, being primarily Aristotelian, tends to be much more functionalist and structuralist than Protestant thinking.

The Structuralist Alternative for Heathen Conservatives:  Background

Modern Heathenry has been based to a large extent on the idea that structuralism can bring back (in a modern form perhaps) the ways of our ancestors.  Structuralism is the predominant way we tend to look at the historical and modern world as heathens (in this way we are about half a century out of date regarding anthropology).

Part of the lure of structuralism is that it provides powerful tools of looking at social patterns.  We can look at hos social patterns interact with other social patterns, how they functioned, what the results were, and so forth.

Structuralism itself came into the fore in the early years of the 20th century, with the linguistic discovery that "primitive" languages uses imitation less than modern languages (before it had been hypothesized that languages evolved from imitation).  The result of this discovery lead linguists to posit that there were no innate words for things, that meaning emerged not from the atoms of language (words and grammar) but from the interactions between different words.  Language was seen as a system of difference and meaning arising from that system as a whole (briefly paraphrasing De Saussure).

Structuralism was later applied to literary critique, sociology, anthropology, comparative religion, and many other fields.  It developed into a complex set of tools for addressing questions of social systems generally, well beyond language.

Post-structuralism emerged with thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and anthropologists such as Victor Turner who noted that structuralism could never, really, capture the individual human angle.  As Derrida pointed out, structuralism could not accommodate a fluid center.  Moreover Turner's field research (along with that of Albert Lord) showed that previous efforts had tended to discount the role of human creativity in ritual, epic poetry recitals, and the like.  Post-structuralism tends to add back to structuralism the perspective of the individual navigating the structures.

The Structuralist/Post-Structuralist Alternative for Heathen Conservatives:  Morality as Contextual and Socially Constructed but Necessary and "Real"

A structuralist perspective on morality would start (largely following Claude Levy-Strauss) that morality is a functional part of society, that things which are bad to think are bad to do, and cause harm.  Therefore one would look at modern and historical stigmas, crimes, and other things socially condemned and see what functions those judgments have.

A key caution here is that evolved systems (and this includes culture) tend to have multiple functions on any part, and have many parts for one function.  Thus a stigma against premarital sex may help preserve the parents' interests in choice of marriage for their children, but it may also ensure that children can threaten the family honor in order to challenge parents who may be too strict in such a matter.  These concerns may cut opposite directions but they work together for social justice and harmony.

This brings me to an important point about stigma in an honor-bound society.  In our, largely honorless society, we tend to think about stigma as largely a bad thing.  But in an honor-bound society, stigma works in part by giving many people an incentive to make sure that shameful acts are forgotten or hidden.  In an honor-bound society, shame is public and contagious, while we are used to thinking of it being individual and isolating.

This view of morality is that morality arises from social realities and is shaped by how we use the structures.  Morality is a tool for an effective society, but it is socially constructed based on context.  Nonetheless it is real and necessary.

Structuralism and the Problem of Murder

Usually at some point people ask "what about murder?"  Murder is, everywhere  immoral and illegal.  Therefore it must be universally such.

However when one digs deeper one finds that different societies have very different views of what is murder.  In medieval Iceland it was not so bad to kill a person but it was really bad to pretend you didn't do it.  Some other societies have blood feuds today.  And so it turns out that the definition of murder is, well, socially condemned killing.

Societies have to, in order to function, curtail some degree of violence.  People need some assurance that they will not be killed in their sleep by rivals, ambushed on the trail, etc.    Murder definitions themselves tend to provide two functions, first to protect people from at least some forms of violence, and secondly to demarcate behavior so dangerous to society that it can justify a fight to the death.  Thus the issue is not that murder is wrong (that is assuming the conclusion at best and a tautology at worst), but rather that the lines drawn regarding where and when killing becomes murder are drawn in a way to generally protect people.