Saturday, February 25, 2017

304.  Romanticism, religion and populism

Instead of the word ‘religion’ I would here prefer to use the word ‘godservice’ but while in literal translation that word exists in Dutch (‘godsdienst’) and German (‘Gottesdienst’), it does not, alas, exist in English. I have defined religion as offering transcendence, a connection to something bigger than  oneself, but that need not be God, in vertical transcendence. Transcendence can be horizontal, in feeling connected to something in this world, such as nature, or posterity, or an ideology.

In this blog, I have adopted, as is customary, three forms of romanticism. First, putting feelings above reason. Second, feeling connected to something bigger than oneself. Third, the romantic hero transgressing boundaries, being a discoverer, genius artist or scientist, or a master criminal.

Godservice, in contrast with religion, offers all three. God is beyond reason, you belong to the whole of divine creation, and you expect to cross, in death, the boundary between existence on earth and that in heaven. Religion offers the transcendence, but not necessarily the discounting of reason, nor the transgression of boundaries.  

The three forms of romanticism do not all apply equally to all forms of godservice. In the Islam, the Shia can live with reason next to God, for the Sunni that is blasphemy. Thus the Sunni is purer, more ‘pristine’ as someone said, and therefore more attractive to those reaching out for the absolute in vertical transcendence. Better fodder for fanaticism.

Seen in this way, godservice is the mother of all romanticism. Perhaps people are now lured by other manifestations of romanticism because they have lost godservice.

The Nazi’s also did well in combining in one package all three forms of romanticism. Putting feelings of racial supremacy above reason. Belonging to the whole of the nation (‘Das Volk’, the people), united under its leader. Transgressing boundaries of humanity in the lustful aggression of the fascist.

The communists did not do quite so well. They did offer a belonging to the great, international, inevitable, inexorable, march of history towards a communist utopia. They did offer the transgression of the violent purging of capitalists and revisionists. But they made the mistake of not putting feelings above reason but, on the contrary, putting up their march as the march of reason. In that it was closer to the Enlightenment than to Romanticism. However, along the way, revolutionary zeal and fanatic ideology managed to make up for that.

The Cultural  Revolution in China, between 1966 and 1976, offered the complete package, in being taken up in a transcendent revolutionary movement, transcending boundaries, uprooting the relics of old , carried along by rhetoric and zealotry, yielding ‘a world of enchantment, mesmerisation, and danger, one that combined a sense of infinite possibilities and hopes with a sense of danger and threat … that gave urgency and potency.’[ii]

President Trump isn’t quite there yet. He is making headway in putting feelings above truth and reason. He offers the emotion of belonging to the nation of a privileged people to be made great again, united under his leadership. He is doing an excellent performance in transgressing a number of  boundaries, of coherence, truthtelling, receptiveness to criticism, separation of private interests from politics, and acceptance of judicial verdicts in the rule of law.

One cannot accuse him of fascism. But who knows what will happen when he mobilizes his constituency, in defence against movements to depose him that are now gathering force. Or when some attack or crisis is taken to warrant martial law and purges. That is what Hitler did, with the fire of the Reichstag building. Please note that I am not now comparing Trump with Hitler but imagining what might happen.

ii Ian Johnson, ‘China: The virtues of the awful convulsion’, New York Review of Books, October 27, 2016, p. 70.

Monday, February 20, 2017

303. Populism and the political right

The notion of the political right is confused. There are at least two forms. They have been called old versus new or alt(ernative) right, and economic versus cultural right. In the preceding item in this blog I distinguished two forms of liberalism, and the question now also is how the two rights are related to the two liberalisms.

One right is the old, libertarian, economic right. It is focused on the identity of the individual, who is seen as autonomous, and responsible for its own future. It is based on laissez faire, maximally untrammelled markets, with next to no government intervention, apart from liberal-democratic constitutional safeguards. It does uphold those. Thus, the old right is a combination of libertarian and democratic liberalism discussed in the preceding item in this blog.

The new right, or alt-right, is cultural, in a re-emergence of nationalism. This is appropriated by rightist populism. The focus is on cultural, not individual identity. As I argued in the preceding item, while it challenges free market liberalism it also carries threats to democratic liberalism. It appears to be becoming illiberal in two ways. 

Rightist and leftist populism, such as that of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, have a number of things in common. They both aim to ‘do  right’ to the ‘ordinary’, or ‘real’ people, claiming that those have been betrayed, neglected and damaged by ‘the elite’. Both are against free markets and excesses of the financial sector. The free flow of labour is seen as threatening to employment, at least for rightist populism.

However, I do not see populism on the left as gravitating towards a destruction of liberal democracy, rather the contrary, in trying to practice it more fully. It seems to be more radically reformist concerning markets than rightist populism. This may be utopian, but that is a different matter. Later in this blog I will discuss possible ways of preserving markets while preventing their perversities. I suppose that left populism can be classified as anti-libertarian, economically illiberal, and democratically liberal. 

Rightist populism, at least in the form of president Trumps plans, does aim to limit trade to protect low-wage jobs, but on the other hand maintains free markets, in renewed deregulation of the financial industries that he criticised heavily during the election, lower taxes for the rich, lifting environmental regulation, in a denial of human-made climate change, and stopping a rise of the minimum wage. Could one say that it is libertarian domestically and anti-libertarian internationally? That would fit with its nationalist pre-occupation.

‘Right’ is generally associated with conservatism, and left with progressiveness. How does that fit, if at all? These categories are also mixed-up and ambiguous. Is defending the constitution of liberal democracy conservative? Then the old right, the old left and the new left are conservative. Is an attack on libertarianism progressive? Then both the new left and the new right (more or less) are progressive.   

The old right is very much nested, in one country more than the another, in the elites of politics and business. So is the old left. They both seem conservative in trying to preserve the elite. But that applies equally to leftist elites (take communist regimes). The elite is the revolution grasping power, and then entrenching and maintaining itself. Clearly, both right and left populism are anti-conservative in attacking the incumbent elite, to craft a new one. Is that progressive? 

 There are also different forms of romanticism involved. Libertarians have the romanticism of the Homeric, Nietzschean, lone, transgressive hero from the work of Ayn Rand, who thrashes out his own future, with determination, strength of purpose, against the lethargy and moral blackmail of the masses.

The new, nationalist, populist alt-right, reverts to the romanticism of transcendent, superior cultural or ethnic roots, blood and soil, exemplified in a largely illusory, mythical past.  

How about leftist populism? The romanticism of utopia, if that is romantic? How romantic was More’s utopia? Arcadia? As the classical saying goes (‘et ego in Arcadia’) mortality is there as well. Imperfection on the move.    

Saturday, February 11, 2017

302. How illiberal is nationalistic populism?[i]

In item 287 of this blog I discussed what I called ‘The crisis of liberalism’, but there I considered only one face of liberalism: the libertarian, neo-liberal form, which I criticized. I neglected what I would call liberal democracy, which I want to uphold. Liberal democracy entails constitutional constraints on government, in the rule of law, equality under the law, being innocent until proven guilty, freedom of speech, of association, and of religion, openness, tolerance, and separation of powers (legislative, executive, judicial).  

The latter does not necessarily include the autonomy of the individual, free trade and laissez faire, with minimal government intervention. In my understanding, those are features added in libertarian liberalism. Neo-liberalism develops this further into a striving for deregulation and liberalization of markets. Libertarians claim that you cannot have the one without the other: no democratic liberalism without free markets. I contest that. I propose that underlying all this are a utility ethics and a preoccupation with only negative freedom, only absence of interference, as discussed previously in this blog.

The distinction between the two liberalisms is important for an adequate understanding of the present populist revolt, on the right and on the left, and an adequate response to it. I think that populism (left and right) has legitimate grievances against libertarianism, whose free market ideology has caused injustice to large segments of the middle and lower classes. The injustice was economic, in the loss of jobs, in globalization, but also ethical, in derision of lower class values and their craving for security and social identity in communities, which were seen as backward, misplaced in present cosmopolitan society. Those people felt loss of recognition, which has been seen, by Hegel, for example, as an existential abyss.   

The problem, however, is that the nationalistic populism on the right, in contrast with populism on the left, threatens to become illiberal also in the sense of eroding democratic liberalism, with authoritarian rule, leading to erosion of equality under the law (for women, immigrants, foreigners, transgenders, muslims, and non-white races), freedom and independence of the press and the judiciary, and rights of people who are excluded from ‘the people’ by the mere act of opposing the populist leader. That leader represents the people, so if you do not agree with him you do not belong to the people. We see this happening in Russia, Turkey, with beginnings of it in Hungary, Poland, and forebodings of it in the US, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, among others 

What now? I am seeking a way, in this blog and elsewhere, to replace libertarian politics and ‘old economics’ with a new politics and economics that still uphold democratic liberalism. An important element in this is to see the individual not as fully autonomous but as socially constituted. Also, I have pleaded, in this blog, for a shift from utility ethics to a form of virtue ethics, with attention to positive next to negative freedom: not just absence of interference with people striving for the good life, but also enabling them to engage in that striving. A puzzle then is how to include virtues that sustain ‘the good life’ without falling back into old paternalism, maintaining the freedom of choice of what that good life is. I note that liberal democracy, which I want to maintain, already includes virtues such as justice, reasonableness, moderation, tolerance and openness.

I do not have the space here to show what the new economics might be. I will dedicate a number of later items in this blog to that. One of the challenges for a new politics is to ‘bring democracy closer to the people’. I explored that in item 283, proposing to employ new opportunities from internet and social media, dodging their pitfalls and perversities, to go from democracy as a periodic positioning, choosing sides in an election or referendum, to democracy as a process, locally, in communities, with direct involvement of citizens, in the preparation and execution of public policies, in forms of ‘commons’ (such as internet-based communities, joint public-private projects, and citizens forums).

My hope is that with a combination of such new economics and politics we can address the legitimate grievances of populism, and save the basic principles of democratic liberalism.

[i] I thank Teije de Jong for his comments on an earlier version.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

301. How to proceed with this blog

As I did after 100 and after 200 items on this blog, here, at 300, I want to give a preview of  what I intend to write.

A priority is to analyse the populist upheaval, on the political right and on the political left, and look for answers. For that, I will focus on economics and politics. Populist grievances concerning injustice done to lower classes by globalisation are legitimate and cry out for a response. I do not, however want to abolish free trade and markets, but rather to re-direct them. Populist complaints about politics being too far removed from ‘the people’ are also legitimate, I think, and I want to see how politics could be brought closer to the people.

However, philosophical reflection on other issues will continue to crop up.

For this endeavour, I summarize my credentials below.    

I will employ what was developed previously in this blog. I want to explore the possibilities for a ‘new economics’ and a ‘new politics’. The latter I started to attempt in item 287 in this blog. For the former I will use a recent book of mine: How markets work and fail, and what to make of them (2014).

An important element in economics and politics will be a virtue ethics, to replace the utility ethics of the liberalism that over many years has dominated economics and politics. I accept its values of (negative) liberty, utility and efficiency, but there are also other values, of positive liberty, justice, excellence, moderation, friendship, and creativity, among others. Here, I will engage in the debate on ‘the moral limits of markets’.   

A second key element is the view of the individual not as fully rational and autonomous but as having limited rationality and being socially constituted. As argued in this blog, the individual needs the other to develop itself and have some chance of being freed from its prejudices. Next to individual motivation and action, I will look at network effects and system effects, including the ‘system tragedy’ that I discussed in this blog.

While I do not believe objective truth is attainable, because thought, including facts, are shaped by perspective, I will not go along with the rejection of truth altogether (in ‘post truth’), and I uphold the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, as argued in this blog.

I accept universals, in concepts, truth and ethics, as needed but also temporary, trumped by individuality and local specifics, and subject to revision.

Unlike most economists, I will accept that in economies and human relations more widely there is pervasive ‘radical uncertainty’ that precludes the assignment of probabilities for calculating optimal choice.    

I will oppose the libertarian side of liberalism, while upholding liberal democracy, with its constitutional constraints on government, such as the rule of law, equality under the law, being innocent until proven guilty, freedom of speech, association, and religion, separation of powers (legislative, executive, judicial), etc.

A challenge to a new economics is how to combine competition with collaboration, and self interest with altruism, prudence with trust. I will discuss market failures as well as government failures.

I will look at virtues as needed to achieve ‘the good life’, and at the task of government to provide a basis for them. However, I want to maintain freedom of choice of what one takes to be the good life. Next to maximum negative freedom, freedom of interference, in striving for the good life, I will consider minimal positive freedom, in giving access to what is needed for it. While accepting the need for minimal negative power, in constraining choice, I want to maximise positive power, in widening choice.

In much of this, trust plays an important role, but trust should not be blind, and at its boundaries there needs to be control.

All this is Aristotelian, in adopting a virtue ethics and seeking the middle between extremes, in search of practical wisdom, phronesis, as I have done throughout this blog.