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.