Political Eschatology

Advisory: Coarse language.  I’m tired of mincing words. Sometimes “excrement” just lacks a certain rhetorical punch.

Midnight Sunday night.  I just got home from a late dessert with a friend out on the “payment,” as they call it here in Philadelphia.  (That’s a sidewalk in standard parlance.)  This is a relative luxury, something there may not be much more of when the politicians in Washington get done with us, a subject that came up over carrot cake tonight.

Before I started this rant, I checked to see if any deal had been reached in the debt crisis.  Alas, none.  I feel quite strange about all this.  You know the world is screwed up when a philosophical anarchist is thinking in more practical terms than the politicians. Blame ought to be shared all around, but most infuriating to me is the smug self-righteousness of the Republican Party.  Cut, Cap and Balance should be renamed Sit Down and Shut Up.  This piece of hypocritical legislation is, alas, off the table.

The details of this particular story and of the past several generations are many and hard to keep track of.  I speak under correction, but indignantly nonetheless; we all know that this situation didn’t need to come to pass.  Here goes nothin’.

The Republican Party wants you to believe that it is now and has for a long time been the party of fiscal responsibility, “conservatism,” family values, and all that horse crap.  This is the party whose leadership, namely Richard M. Nixon, cut all ties between the dollar and gold on August 15, 1971, touching off one of the worst inflationary periods this country has seen.  “We’re all Keynesians now,” quipped Tricky Dick, describing a most unfortunate turn of events that set the game clock on the middle class in America.

In the late 1970’s, Jimmy Carter, in a now infamous speech, warned the country that it needed to start living within its means, or there would be trouble.  Ronald Reagan, Boobus Americanus Secundus, came along, using what a late friend of mine called “verbal jujitsu” and said that Jimmy Carter didn’t want America to be great.  Reagan seemed to think that the laws of economics didn’t apply to us, that our Miltonesque shining city on a dunghill covered with snow had a birthright to greatness, and that we knew this was true, because, well, damnit, we say so.  And our military budget was the largest in the world.  And we spent God knows how much money on a stupid war against drugs. Etc.

But Reagan is hailed as a “conservative,” even a “libertarian,” which I find to be horrific, though to his credit, he does deserve polite applause for keeping his illegal wars of foreign aggression under a week in duration. The conservative movement of the 1970’s, a reaction against Lyndon Johnson’s soft socialism, culminated in one of the most financially disastrous presidencies up to that time.  I have to wonder if it was even necessary to outspend the Soviets in the arms race, as the conventional wisdom had it.  A sharp statesman would have found a way to make the Soviets think we were spending more than we were.  But you know damn well that some defense contractors were happier than pigs in shit with the way things were going.

Even when it came to monetary policy, the Reagan administration was a band of thieves.  Keep the interest rates low—that’s all they cared about.  The story is told—I believe it’s in Bob Woodward’s book on Alan Greenspan, called Maestro—about Fed chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, being pressed by the president and a close aide to keep rates low, i.e. pump more money into the system.  Volcker, in a testament to his character, resisted.  He was quickly replaced at the end of his term with Captain Printing Press.  Low rates stimulate the economy, said the administration.  Here’s the dirty little secret: the higher supply of money can also be used to pay for pet projects that no sane citizen would tolerate paying for with his taxes.  Inflation is an insidious, silent tax, levied on every dollar earned, spent, and saved in this country—and it is a regressive tax at that, because it affects the lower income levels the most.  But most people simply treat it as a fact of life rather than a factor of policy.

Skip ahead a generation, and we’ve got W. in the White House, the biggest megalomaniac since FDR. He made the Reagan and Johnson presidencies look like exercises in restraint, singing loud Te Deums of Why don’t we just bomb the sunsabitches?  Self-described fiscal conservatives credit him with cutting taxes, but again, the unpopular projects were paid for through monetary inflation.  And how much has that Medicare reform cost us? And the Every Child Left in the Dust Act? Bush II was a naive Wilsonian ideologue who rode the coat tails of the evangelists, the conservative Catholics, and the xenophobes (I use this last term in an unconventional, all-encompassing sort of way) into the White House. Or at least his close advisors were.  One wonders how we got from “No nation building” in the 2000 campaign to making the Middle East safe for dumbocracy.  These are expensive propositions, paid for by your retirement fund.  The tribal leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq thank you very much.

And here we are now, with a debt crisis, a Democrat sitting in the White House, and the GOP running the House of Representatives. This crop of elephants promised us in 2010 that they really meant it this time—they really were conservatives.  Small government this, fiscal responsibility that.  But even in the midst of this debt crisis, there are programs, sacred cows, that they refuse to touch.  Sure, Barack Obama, though he has compromised more than many thought he would, might be playing the same game, and we all know how expensive Obamacare will be, but he didn’t yammer on about small government in his campaign—quite the opposite, as we know.  What I wish to point out here is less the policy and more the hypocrisy of the Republican Party.  The GOP favors small government.  Ok, cut every non-essential, outdated portion of the defense budget.  Fat chance.  Stop chasing down drug users who are not committing violent crimes.  Ohhh but there might be something against that somewhere in the Bible.  Maybe it’s in Matthew 24. Et cetera, ad nauseam.

This is all a dog-and-pony show, my friends.  The Republicans don’t want a small government any more than I want to go country line dancing.  Their libertarian-flavored stance is a self-contradiction: If they believed government to be evil, they wouldn’t be so eager to exercise power when they can get it, and they wouldn’t so gladly be generous to fat cat contractors with the tax money of us mere proles.  I am reminded of the two-part question that Satan, as narrator, asks repeatedly in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (a fantastic book not so beloved by certain governments): 1) What kind of idea are you, one that compromises or holds firm when you lose? and, more importantly, 2) How do you act when you win?

Well, we have seen how the Republicans act when they win, and it can hardly be described as fiscally conservative.  If we could say otherwise, the present behavior of the Republicans might be defensible, even heroic.  But after years of pleading that politics is the art of compromise—and therefore we can’t be as conservative as we’d like—they have chosen the worst possible moment to pose as principled people.  I’m not convinced that John Boehner is the problem here; he may well have unenviable realities within his caucus to deal with.  But some people somewhere in the Republican party have chosen to thump their chests instead of beat their breasts, which is what they, along with the Democrats, should be doing.  They have both screwed us over, and—shame on us—most of us are dumb enough to believe it’s all one side or the other. The politicians feed on this Super Bowl mentality and use dire situations like this to score points with their base.

Compromise is a dirty word.  I myself hate it.  But someone needs to face up to the fact that this moment was arrived at through decisions that were made years ago.  If you dance with the devil, you have to pay the fiddler.  Well, dear reader, the violin case has been opened.  The real options here are limited, and all of them involve the implication that the political leadership of this country has been an abysmal failure. Wanna take bets on that happening?

To create electoral theatre, the leaders in Washington are playing with the future of this country. A default would send the dollar tumbling.  How far?  I doubt anyone knows, but in the inflationary days of the Weimar Republic, wheelbarrows full of Marks were required to buy a loaf of bread. Do you think the workers’ salaries rose at the same rate?  Hardly.  That spells destitution.  I’m no fan of social security, but why should old folks who have nothing left pay for this bumbling around?  I’m convinced that, from a practical perspective, it is an injustice. Starving welfare recipients with stubbornness is not the way back to Thomas Paine and John Locke.

Am I saying, “Raise, the debt limit?” Well, yes, if it’s what it takes to buy the time necessary to crash land rather than plunge directly into the ocean. We shouldn’t be in this mess, but we are.  The time for principle was eighty years ago, but every self-described fiscal conservative since Hoover has failed in this regard.  That milk has been spilled, the fat lady has sung, and it’s time to own up to it all. If the libertarian right insists on being brittle now, it will be broken forever. (Bulls of Excommunication from fellow libertarians can be sent to me via email. The tendency to orthodoxy is an affliction of the entire human race, even of the most freedom-loving.)

I get the impression that many on the libertarian right think that this is the dawning of a new age.  Good luck with that.  As much as I have advocated a stateless society, I have always felt that such an order would have to come from a foundation of ideas—a gargantuan task (laughably so, some smaller minds would argue), but all successful revolutions have been ones of thought and not of arms.  Violence and catastrophe only breed chaos, and more states. The dollar collapses and people live happily ever after in their little Agorist paradises? Uh huh.  I got some bridges for sale.  This week’s special: The Walt Whitman for two Diet Pepsis and cheesesteak.

Chaos breeds tyranny.  Always.  The nationalists will be whipping up fascist plans, and the Left Wing will be dreaming up socialist plans, and certain religious types will be chanting their epistles of theocracy from beyond the moat.  Who wins is anyone’s guess. Reason, surely, will not prevail; bread will decide the victor.  I forget who said that a hungry man has no principles.  “We hold these truths to be….”  And the mob yells, Oh, shut up!

You think I’m over-reacting; I know you do.  When we read history books about the decline of civilizations, it’s easy to see the unhappy ending from afar.  Hindsight is a great benefit, and it also affects the imagination.  Look around.  The utilities still work. There are no ruins (except for the inner cities…).  Everything seems so normal.  I suspect that on the precipice of collapse many former societies thought everything was okay, too.  But ruin, like many fallings-out, comes both gradually and all at once.  Its approach becomes apparent, but the exact moment of its arrival is never certain, until it’s too late.

An important implication: This means that no one is in as much control over this as anyone might think.  More reason for the pols to stop fiddling. This, of course, assumes that they give a damn about us.

Knowing and Unknowing: Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy

“Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That’s the way the mind of man operates.”—H.L. Mencken

For all of history, mankind has been grappling with the great questions that life poses.  Some are answerable, some unanswerable.  Through the millennia many seemingly insoluble problems have been dealt with, thanks, for example, to science.  Other puzzles, like the best means to organize society, seem hopelessly complicated.  But philosophers continue boldly to tackle the conundrums of human existence, betting on impossible idealism rather than settling for meaningless materialism.

Bertrand Russell’s summary of these human endeavors is a priceless tool in understanding the history, the meaning, and the possibilities of philosophy.  He was himself a philosopher, though I suspect he would never have presumed to take on that title himself.  Intrepid and yet humble, Russell knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know, as well as what can be known and by what means it can be known.  This is the mark of both intellect and maturity, not to mention that grayest of English vices: common sense.  You will not find any reductio ad absurdum in his work.

The writer makes no secret about what he thinks of any given school of thought, but he treats all arguments fairly, even those of the Medievals, with whom, one imagines, he would have the greatest differences.  He saves his delicious scorn and mockery for those who truly deserve it. Punctuated by his dry wit, all 800 pages of this book come to life, and one gets the feeling that philosophy is not mummified, that it really does matter.  This impression is helped along by Russell’s thorough treatment of world events alongside the philosophies that developed contemporaneously with them.  Sentiment, as Richard Weaver said, is anterior to logic, and sentiment often comes from circumstances.

One wonders if this book didn’t at least partially inspire Monty Python’s movie The Meaning of Life.  A Leibnizian moment occurs in the introduction, for instance, when God picks up a global earth and a cubic one, hefting one in each hand, trying to decide which one is best.  God chose the best of all possible worlds, Leibniz tells us, “and everything is a necessary evil,” one commentator added.  In the movie, the best world is the cubic one, of course, Cleese and Chapman, et al., being the delightful imps that they are, who bring us Panglossian delight.

Russell’s treatment of the philosophers is chronological, systematic, concise, and lucid—unlike this sentence.  It seems probable that all ideas were thought of by the pre-Socratic thinkers, and we have simply been arguing about them ever since.  In this company are atomists, relativists, socialists, and even a guy named Anaxagoras who theorized about a heliocentric solar system eons before Copernicus.  The major innovations of modernity have been scientific.  Our ability to create technology and understand nature has led to unprecedented health and wealth in our time.  The one purely abstract novelty in modern philosophy might belong to John Locke, who’s idea of tolerance was the basis of liberalism, though everyone these days, including liberals, seems to be faltering on this point.

After the empiricists and rationalists, I’ve found, much philosophy can be dense and downright indiscernible for the amateur reader like myself.  With these writers Russell does a marvelous job of crystallizing their work into a recognizable language.  With him even Hegel is not insurmountable.

I already mentioned the author’s common sense.  Good taste in thought often puts one at odds with the mobocracy, and I do think that pretty much anyone could find a reason to dislike Bertrand Russell.  This is why I like him, even though I also have some quibbles to add, all of which may well spring from my own shortcomings rather than the author’s.

Most crucially, Russell trusts too much in mathematical analogies to make points in which math has no business.  Arguments about infinite regress cannot be solved by pointing out that certain series of numbers have a beginning point.  It’s simply irrelevant.  I find, however, that most scientists are more satisfied by hard scientific facts than I am.  This is a mental disorder I’ve had all my life.  Ask my parents.  I was the brat who always asked why.  I was a walking infinite regress.  So be it.

Russell is very skeptical of private property rights, which might be why he can hail John Dewey almost without reservation.  God knows there have been monsters on this earth who have used their property rights to commit all kinds of unspeakable acts, but has anyone come up with a better way? It seems to me that we either have property rights, or a gang leader who beats anyone who doesn’t get in line.  All political philosophies, it seems to me, have a tendency to one way or the other, though one could argue that both succumb to the dark side of human nature.  We’re left to ask, I suppose, which approach succumbs the fastest.

A further thought about Russell’s views on private property rights:  John Locke developed the homesteading theory, which says that a man makes, for instance, an undeveloped plot of land his own property by mixing his labor with it, by fixing it up.  Russell says that this theory is no longer useful in modern society.  I disagree. I rather see the modern methods of trade and wage-earning as extensions rather than contradictions of the homesteading theory.  This is important: If we perceive the intimate relation of man’s work to his person, his rights to his acquisitions become more concrete. The homesteading theory helps us to envision this, and it is in any case true even if it isn’t useful.

Of all the figures considered in this tome, Nietzsche may well be treated the worst.  This is understandable, as Russell was writing in 1943 while the world was wrestling with the ghastly consequences of this philosophy.  But Russell, being something of a social democrat, goes too far, in my opinion.  No lie gains a foothold without some truth in it, and there is an element of truth in Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian stance.  There is, as Jefferson said, a natural aristocracy in humanity, and our refusal to recognize this, while it has not been as disastrous as other ideas, has been detrimental to our societal health.  The practical effect of egalitarianism in many places is that excellence is banned.  Saying this will get you branded an elitist these days, but that’s just sentiment driving logic—along with the assumption that elitism, as such, is necessarily bad.  All this is a small point in the vast landscape of the Nietzschean scorched earth, but I think it’s one worth mentioning.  Qui distinguit, bene docet.

I also think there’s more to Henri Bergson than Russell seems to believe.  We are running into the limits of logic. Just consider the developments in particle physics that have left everyone baffled.  The age of the syllogism is over, and Bergson’s picturesque language may offer a way out of this jam.  Bergon’s work seems to rely heavily on Hegel’s Absolute Idea.  He is a monist; he insists that all matter is one, that pieces are really a part of the whole, and that we use our intellect to cut them down into pieces.  Reality is like a chicken, and matter is like little bits of chicken that we cut with the knife of the intellect. (Do we then cook the bits in little pots? Sorry. Monty Python gets the best of me sometimes.) I think I have this right.  Corrections are welcome.

My sympathy for Bergson may be related to his language about time, which is put more in psychological than mathematical terms. (No wonder Russell, the mathematician, disliked him.)  “This reminds me of the music of Olivier Messiaen,” I thought to myself as I read up on this.  Sure enough, a subsequent Google searched yielded up discussion of Bergson’s theory of time as it relates to Messiaen.  Bergson’s ideas would do a lot of good for our contemporary tick-tock, watch the clock society.

Bertrand Russell’s anti-war sentiments are made clear throughout the book.  Maybe it is his belief in the power of reason that drives this conviction. Those who think often feel less compelled to succumb to the barbaric urge to destroy one’s neighbor rather than to figure him out and negotiate with him.  There are still plenty of seemingly insoluble problems in our world, and the temptation to succeed by force is great when one is faced with a Gordian knot.  But if the history of philosophy is any indication, many of these issues can be solved peacefully if man can learn to think with his brain instead of his testicles.  Whether or not society can produce people capable of reading books like this one may decide the ultimate destiny of man.