Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sex, gender and bigotry(1): John Finnis and the rationing of orgasm

This is the first part of a two part consideration of Law, Morality, and "Sexual Orientation" (pdf) by John Finnis (an advocate of the "new natural law theory" of natural law without its Thomist metaphysical underpinnings) arguing for Catholic natural law sexual morality and its (highly selective) legal implementation. The second part will be in my next post.

Reading Martha Nussbaum’s Platonic Love and Colorado Law: The Relevance of Ancient Greek Norms to Modern Sexual Controversies I came across this quote from John Finnis:
In classical Athens, there was amongst the Athenian upper classes an ideology of same-sex "romantic relationships" which were specifically man-boy relationships (inherently lacking the genuine mutuality of equals) and which in a certain number of cases doubtless resulted in sexual conduct (p.1538).
What caught my eye is the phrase:
… inherently lacking the genuine mutuality of equals.
For any support of traditional Catholic doctrine (as Finnis most certainly is) to talk of a sexual relationship “lacking the genuine mutuality of equals” is fairly shameless. First, there is the simple reality that, under Catholic doctrine, only men can make binding decisions about doctrine. The notion that this has not operated to the disadvantage of women is a nonsense—starting with the denial of any legitimacy to any priestly vocation among women.

The issue being not the notion that truth is complete and coherent (so, in some important sense, singular), but that there is a single, definitive, all-encompassing point of view on truth. One that is, moreover, the possession of the notionally celibate males running the Catholic Church who somehow completely transcend human epistemic frailty.

Second, the development in the modern era of something approaching genuine equality between men and women in marriage is a product of the breakdown of social notions of the public space as being a male domain. A domination that Catholic control, and later influence, over marriage law supported.

What this illustrates is how one cannot analyse matters of sex without considering matters of gender. Some conservatives object to gender-talk as an evasion of the biological reality of there being two sexes. This is wrong on several counts. First, even among humans, the biological reality is more complex than that (consider the recent Caster Semanya case). Second, defining gender as perfectly coterminous with the form of one’s genitals is far from a universal human norm. Third, conceptions of what it means to be ‘male’ and ‘female’ (such as their “typical” emotional characteristics) change over time.

Indeed, that the term ‘homosexual’ was coined in the year John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women is a nice historical congruence, as homosexual liberation has marched behind women’s liberation precisely because the shift towards a strong moral norm that sex should be between equals (hence paedophilia becoming the epitome of sexual evil) allows sex between men (sex between women raises less status issues) to become much less problematic. If—as has been the general pattern in many human cultures—sex is only legitimate between unequals (man and woman, man of higher status and man of lower status) then any male-male sex which fails to uphold the required status hierarchy becomes illegitimate. It “un-mans” them: a claim that is certainly not entirely absent from our age. (I remember one commentator in Commentary referring to homosexual activity as “men using men like women” in what was clearly completely unconscious misogyny.)

It is also fairly shameless for any modern Catholic supporter of natural law moral theory to cite comments attributed to Socrates or written by Plato or Aristotle as blanket condemnations of homosexual conduct. First, their sexual ethics were very clearly not the same as that of Catholic natural law theory (for example, on abortion, contraception and even infanticide). Indeed, that natural law theory in their hands had rather different conclusions is one indication of moral natural law’s malleability: the way normative essentialism operates to select its own premises, thus allowing practitioners to draw such conclusions which are congenial by selecting those parts of the relevant phenomena which are convenient and dismissing the rest as “improper”.

Second, because the condemnations of homosexual conduct were typically not blanket condemnations, but applied to particular acts in particular contexts—usually based on contradictions of status roles or concern about the strength of sensual passions—some of which applied equally to heterosexual acts. Moreover, often it was not even a full condemnation, but simply a rating as inferior compared to goals deemed higher. At no point did it actually feed (at least in the Greek case) into law. Given that the first civic statues in Athens not of divine subjects were of a same-sex couple, it was not likely to.

The pertinent classical Roman law seems to have been a law to protect the status of male citizens (that is, to not have young citizen males be the “passive” partner and so perform a sexual role felt incompatible with their status as citizens: they could legally penetrate lower status males all they wanted) for which no prosecutions are recorded.

What people such as John Finnis and Ed Feser are attempting to establish are rational, non-Christian grounds to support a very Judaeo-Christian natural law blanket moral condemnation of homosexual conduct and the barring of any legal support for homosexuals to live as openly in legally acknowledged ways as “practising” homosexuals. Because, of course, if it is merely a religious antipathy, then it is has no justifiable role in the public law of any state without an established church (or one with an established church but whose theology does not have any determinative status in law).

So citing Greek thought that was very concerned about a structure of status which definitely does not apply in modern societies, and incorporating a concern for excess of passion which certainly is not appropriate for modern law (and was not deemed at matter for actual law even then), is hardly much support. It is a case of “look, these people condemned some homosexual acts for completely different reasons in support of a very different sexual morality so there are non-religious grounds to engage in a blanket condemnation of homosexual conduct”. No, all the Greek cases do at most is support the sexual condemnations and rankings that they actually engaged in.

But there is much worse than that going on. Let us consider the issues of “homosexual conduct” and the notion of “practising homosexual”, particularly in the context of this published article (pdf) by John Finnis arguing for Catholic natural law sexual morality and its (highly selective) legal implementation.
The unfortunate reality of sexual diversity
In the paper, Finnis holds that:
… states do have the authority to discourage, say, homosexual conduct and “orientation” (i.e. overtly manifested willingness to engage in homosexual conduct).
He is concerned to defend:
The concern of the standard modern position itself is not with inclinations but entirely with decisions to express or manifest deliberate promotion of, or readiness to engage in, homosexual activity/conduct, including promotion of forms of life (e.g. purportedly marital cohabitation) which both encourage such activity and present it as a valid or acceptable alternative to the committed heterosexual union which the state recognises as marriage. Subject only to the written or unwritten constitutional requirement of freedom of discussion of ideas, the state law and state polices which I have outlined are intended to discourage decisions which are thus deliberately oriented towards homosexual conduct and are manifested in public ways.
So, without being concerned with inclination or entirely private acts, nevertheless Finnis believes the state should continue to make it clear to the same-sex attracted that they should not exist as persons with such sexual natures, as such attraction is inherently wrong. (Because if they are fully entitled to exist, with such erotic orientations and all, so are those erotic orientations entitled to equal protection of the law: subject to standard constraints about protection of others.)

Given the reality of human sexual diversity, societies have a range of possible responses. At one end is to acknowledge that reality and incorporate it into their social forms and mores. At the other is to treat it as something that just should not be the case and so repress it as much as possible. Finnis is not advocating the death penalty for same-sex acts or same-sex marriage, so is not upholding the traditional Catholic position. But he is certainly operating on the premise that same-sex attraction should not exist, has no legitimate expression and should be repressed (both by those who experience it and by the state, at least in the public realm). To Finnis, a heterosexual is inherently a preferable sexual citizen than anyone who is same-sex attracted: particularly if they act on that attraction.

So, Finnis’ position on the ranking of sexual conduct has an obvious selling point. It asks heterosexuals to give up nothing (since they are not attracted to members of the same sex) and the same-sex attracted to give up a great deal (any acting upon that attraction), particularly in any public way. Providing a large majority with a sense of effortless virtue against a small minority has historically often been a very easy sell. The Catholic Church engaged in it for centuries against the Jews, for example. The remarkable thing is not that the sort of position that Finnis advocates does not have significant popular support: it is that its popular support has declined so much.

Consistent with the position Finnis wants to uphold, he supports not listing sexual orientation among the anti-discrimination categories. Indeed, ‘sexual orientation’ is a concept he is firmly against:
For the phrase “sexual orientation” is radically equivocal. Particularly as used by promoters of “gay rights”, it ambiguously assimilates two things which the standard modern position carefully distinguishes: (I) a psychological or psychosomatic disposition orienting one towards homosexual activity; (II) the deliberate decision so to orient one's public behavior as to express or manifest one's active interest in and endorsement of homosexual conduct and/or forms of life which presumptively involve such conduct.
Yes, “gay activists” want to be treated as fully legitimate manifestations of the human, the bastards.

The distinction Finnis wishes to defend only makes sense if same-sex attraction is not a legitimate manifestation of the human. Which is, of course, what the entire argument is over. As many people, implicitly or explicitly, have come to realize: hence the decline in popular support for the position Finnis wishes to defend, with majorities tending to support recognition of same-sex relationships (recognition of same-sex marriage tends to have a lower level of support but the trend is upwards).

Beware of classicists bearing misogyny
On what basis does Finnis uphold what he calls the standard modern position? On the grounds that homosexual acts are immoral. Why are they immoral? After defining homosexual acts as:
… bodily acts, on the body of a person of the same sex, which are engaged in with a view to securing orgasmic sexual satisfaction for one or more of the parties.
Finnis detours to attempt to recruit Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon for blanket condemnation of all homosexual conduct so defined, including the remarkable statement:
Although the ideology of homosexual love (with its accompanying devaluation of women) continued to have philosophical defenders down to the end of classical Greek civilisation, there equally continued to be influential philosophical writers, wholly untouched by Judeao-Christian tradition, who taught that homosexual conduct is not only intrinsically shameful but also inconsistent with a proper recognition of the equality of women with men in intrinsic worth.
First, the implication that it was general position in classical philosophy to defend female equality is risible. Second, the connection between attitudes to women and attitudes to same-sex activity were much more complex than that, even in the ancient world. Sparta, for example, was notorious both for formalizing same-sex relations and giving women what many other Greeks felt was a positively “unnatural” status and freedom of action. Finnis’ later reference to:
… Aristotle's representation of marriage as an intrinsically desirable friendship between quasi-equals, and as a state of life even more natural to human beings than political life …
indicates that some difficulties are being glided over here. Finnis also refers to:
Plutarch's severe critiques of homosexual conduct (and of the disparagement of women implicit in homosexual ideology).
Let us pause and consider the breezy misogyny of that statement. Apparently, Sappho does not count. In fact, at no stage does Finnis ever stop to consider same-sex attracted women directly in his text. One could think of many possible reasons for this. I suggest a simple one: he finds what male homosexuals do to each other repellent, he does not find what female homosexuals do repellent, so he fixates on the former and ignores the latter. He is, of course, following in a long (Biblical) tradition here, St Paul providing the only reference to female-to-female sex in Scripture. What males do really, really matters (particularly if it has implications for their status as males): what females do, not so much. But this sits very badly with his breast-beating over male-female equality.

Some (though not all) Stoics did feel that procreation was the only justifiable point of sex: this was typically about restraining the passions. But, whatever your reasons, it is true that if procreation is the only justifiable point of sex, then same-sex activity is ruled out.

Finnis puts his position what makes sex legitimate or not very succinctly:
Genital intercourse between spouses enables them to actualise and experience (and in that sense express) their marriage itself, as a single reality with two blessings (children and mutual affection). Non-marital intercourse, especially but not only homosexual, has no such point and therefore is unacceptable.
In other words, no one is entitled to a deliberately induced orgasm unless they are engaged in unobstructed penile-vaginal sex within marriage. Clearly, a wide range of heterosexual sex (including masturbation) is barred by this: so what distinguishes the same-sex attracted is not that they break this sexual morality (huge numbers of people do, including millions of happily married opposite sex couples). What distinguishes the same-sex attracted is that, if they have a public persona as “actively” homosexual, as a “practising” homosexual, then they must be breaking this sexual morality. With heterosexuals, one can largely pretend that they are keeping to it. This is absolutely not so with the openly erotically same-sex active.

Hence the wish to have the law, at the very least, not concede any status or legitimacy to the same-sex attracted as erotically same-sex active. Indeed, they can perform a very useful scapegoating role: denouncing “practising homosexuals” provides public proof of one’s own commitment to moral rectitude, cathartic release of concern about one’s own foibles and a public statement of where the moral boundaries “ought” to be. Particularly given following the sexual rule Finnis is proposing would require a massive restriction of sex compared to what actually occurs: which makes the openly same-sex active an extremely useful set of scapegoats.

Indeed, Finnis is clearly himself using the same-sex attracted as scapegoats. He does not require that the state impose his rule about sex on heterosexuals whether or not they are married. He also does not propose for the state to impose the burden of that rule on the private lives of the same-sex attracted. The rule only comes into to legal play to bar same-sex couples any standing in law as couples: making them scapegoats for the offense their existence as same-sex attracted people causes his theory of sex.

One might note that this sexual theory requires human agents to agree to a massive restriction of their human agency: a small problem. In fact, a large problem given all the benefits they are expected to forgo, the control over their own lives and pleasures to be denied, in the service of a metaphysical claim: hence the Catholic Church’s notable failure to get people to adhere to it.

One might wonder why such a set-up-for-failure morality might be preached in the first place. Part of it could be a group of celibate males may well not be in the best position to see how it is set up to fail. A more cynical view (particularly given how erratic such celibacy can be) is that, within certain limits, such failure is useful. It gives priests the power of guilt. It certainly establishes their role as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, saying who is “in” and who is “out”. But it also makes scapegoats so much more useful—the “fallen woman”, the “abominable sodomite”. Which is why it has so much more power when it sells “effortless virtue”, as it does against the whore and the queer.

What the adoption of natural law sexual morality did is make priests commissars of natural law. (Just as commissars were priests of Leninism.) They get to decide who is “in” and who is “out” and why. The implications of that, and of the position John Finnis defends, is examined in my next post.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I am always sceptical of critiques of “the” Enlightenment since, following Gress, I divide the Enlightenment into two streams. One is the sceptical Enlightenment—human nature is consistent throughout history, which is why history is such a source of useful understanding: the issue is to apply reason to the facts of the matter, which include the enduring characteristics of human nature.

The other stream is the radical Enlightenment—human nature is malleable/has been deformed by the burden of the past and the path to the glorious future is to transform/release “true” human nature. [Or, the very least, that human society is somehow perfectible.] The radical Enlightenment has been the path to tyranny, mass murder and failure with its utopian wars against people-as-they-are in the name of people-as-they-are-allegedly-supposed-to-be.

These are rather different beasts, even if both are impressed by the claims and possibilities of human reason.

Then there is the Counter-Enlightenment: the rejection of those claims on behalf of human reason, a wish to go back to an imagined “authentic” and “organic” past which is, in fact, irrevocable because the Enlightenment cannot be entirely undone: however much one may wish to reject it, its perspectives and insights are irrevocably part of the cognitive landscape. We cannot go back to the cognitive world before Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and (especially) Darwin nor, for that matter, before Adam Smith. The paradox of the Counter-Enlightenment is that it rejects, but has to react to, the Enlightenment. Emotion, faith, identity and nature are the touchstones of the Counter-Enlightenment: the things that put limits on, or trump, human reason.

The C20th’s great three-way Western Civil War (1917-1991) between the two wings of the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment each had its champion ideology-states. In the sceptical Enlightenment corner was the Anglosphere: the alliance between that great creation of the sceptical Enlightenment, the US, and the birthplace and disseminator of so much of the sceptical Enlightenment, the United Kingdom and its Empire. In the radical Enlightenment corner was the Soviet Union and Leninism. In the Counter-Enlightenment corner was Nazi Germany.

The champions of the radical and sceptical Enlightenment’s ended up in alliance against the Counter-Enlightenment. Having won, they then struggled for mastery of the human future: a struggle that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, whose ruin brought down the radical Enlightenment as a serious contender.

With the triumph of the Western alliance, we in the developed world live largely in a world created by the sceptical Enlightenment. Which means, if oppositional critique to the existing, surrounding society is the path to virtue—a grand path to virtue, since the imagined future can be so much more morally “pure” than any grubby existing reality, and the more oppositional, the grander the virtue—then such critique needs to be based on quite different premises from those of the sceptical Enlightenment: hence on the radical Enlightenment or the Counter-Enlightenment, the historical streams of thought on offer.

But the lustre of the radical Enlightenment is besmirched by too much grotesque failure. There is a certain intellectual cabaret Marxism still around, but—however emotionally satisfying for its adherents—it is nowhere near the serious basis for critique and oppositional virtue it used to be. Internationally, we live, apart from a few pathetic holdouts, in a post-Leninist world. The transform-society-by-controlling-language ambitions of political correctness represent the radical Enlightenment’s last sputterings: albeit noxious sputterings, as the trial of Geert Wilders is demonstrating and previous contretemps, such as the campaign against the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, illustrated.

Which means those wishing for premises to support maximally virtuous oppositional politics are driven to the Counter-Enlightenment: particularly to the romantic stream of thinking. So, we see among “progressives” retreat from cultural politics that Lenin and his disciples (Stalin, Mao, the Kim family dynasty, etc) are the ultimate exemplars of and advance towards cultural politics more like those of Hitler’s—cultural politics very concerned with identity, authenticity and nature.

Not that they are the same cultural politics as Hitler’s. They cannot be, because they are from people whose stream of thinking has passed through the radical Enlightenment first. Hence, for example, they make a fetish of equality. (A fetish because equality is exalted as a nominal virtue while all sorts of deep inequalities—of ascribed causal agency, of cognitive understanding, of moral status, of substantive power—are happily tolerated, exemplified or advocated.)

The area of debate that well exemplifies this shift in the balance of oppositional politics against the sceptical Enlightenment from the radical Enlightenment to the Counter-Enlightenment is the change from conservationism to environmentalism. The conservation movement dates back to the C19th and included such luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt. It was largely a product of the sceptical Enlightenment (though there were tinges of Counter-Enlightenment romanticism of nature). The conservation movement saw things in terms of practical stewardship. It was about what was worthy to care about, understood as being a concern for what works.

Environmentalism is, by contrast, very Counter-Enlightenment. Not only do concern for things such as “organic food” and “food miles” come straight out of blood-and-soil mysticism of about 1900, but it sees a trumping moral value in its conception of the “natural order” that is, at deep level, anti-reason, using science only when convenient and, even when it does, engaging in a quasi-religious fervour which is fundamentally anti-science in it is hostility to open-ended scepticism.

And, indeed, anti-human. Environmentalism has been a serial policy disaster because effects for people are so massively discounted, because it is a substitute religion (with all the intolerance, arrogance and self-righteousness that goes with that), because it has all that mystical anti-reason concern for “authenticity”, “naturalness” and allied to the politics of noble intention—intentions its discounting of concern for reasoned consequences make trumping.

This is not what the radical Enlightenment, for all its manifest flaws, was about. Hence the antipathy to environmentalism of radical Enlightenment folk such as Alexander Cockburn (who has compared the recent Copenhagen Climate Summit to the Council of Nicea) or Martin Durkin the director of The Great Global Warming Swindle.

A piece by Ian Abley of Audacity about the effect of environmentalism on housing policy in the UK in particular attacks the Counter-Enlightenment thinking of environmentalism in the name of more Enlightenment concerns (such as affordable, decent housing for ordinary folk: modern environmentalists indignantly insist they “care” about such matters and then demonstrate, by the policies they advocate, that they do not—the fetish of equality operating, not the reality).

The Counter-Enlightenment surge of the later C19th and early C20th appealed to those whose status was threatened, or otherwise made uncertain, by the mass society of industrialization. Particularly aristocracies, established Churches and fearful middle classes: people who looked at the changes all around them and either saw their traditional position threatened or simply were very unclear about where they would fit. The notion of being “grounded” in the past, and that there were things greater than the threatening offshoots of human reason and human ingenuity which adherents were part of, was very comforting. The jihadi movement in Islam represents another go around for this response to modernity.

Back in the West, with the collapse of the radical Enlightenment, a lot of its former scions were left homeless. Stephen Hicks has splendidly detailed the impact of that in philosophy with his very historically grounded and philosophical acute dissection of post-modernism. Their problem was straightforward: to just accept the triumph of the sceptical Enlightenment left them too ordinary. There was no summit of moral and cognitive superiority from which to look down on their fellow citizens. There was also a certain free-floating moral concern. An environmentalism grounded in the Counter-Enlightenment solved all those problems. It is splendidly oppositional to the sceptical Enlightenment, having quite different premises, and systematically discounts both the “vulgar material” concerns of their fellow citizens (particularly working class citizens, such as affordable houses-with-garden and liberating cars: it is a perennial middle class concern to differentiate themselves in status from the working class) and casts “vulgar commerce” as destructive (while giving a way for denizens of “vulgar commerce” to buy moral indulgences by going green).

It is a rather pale reflection of the surge that led to the Nazi ascension in Weimar Germany, largely because life in the West is very comfortable, and those taken by these cultural politics are particularly comfortable. It is a status-moral indulgence of the comfortable class, rather than of fearful classes. It also eschews ethnic narcissism: partly because patriotism is vulgarly working class, but also because Nazism itself so discredited overt ethnic narcissism. Having passed through the radical Enlightenment, an ostentatious internationalism is much more congenial. Particularly to those who career paths are cosmopolitan rather than limited to a particular country.

This is why multiculturalism works so well for them. It appeals to a sense of cosmopolitan chic, differentiates them from the vulgar masses, identifies them as being loftily aware of the flaws of their own society and allows to engage in a romantic exaltation of (other people’s) ethnic identities. In ways that typically deny the marginal in those cultures (particularly, women) the Enlightenment benefits multiculturalist sentimentalists so happily grab for themselves. All tied together in an arrogant (though largely unthinking) assumption that the patterns of history apply neither to them nor what they believe (something that is very radical Enlightenment, with its belief that transforming humanity frees one of the legacies of the past).

The radical Enlightenment failed because its belief in its capacity to transform humanity turned to be brutal and hollow nonsense. A vile war against people as they are in the name of people as they were deemed to ought to be. The Counter-Enlightenment failed because its claims to trump human reason also turned out to be destructive nonsense that exalted some humans brutally over others. The modern progressivist melding of the two may be much less brutal and oppressive than either, but it is a melding of vices rather than of virtues. The radical Enlightenment and the Counter Enlightenment both had the virtues of their vices: that is what made them so attractive and destructive. Modern progressivism has the attraction of easy virtue, of an easy sense of superiority, it wants its moral toys. But it is less threatening in itself than either of its precursors. Where it is more of a problem is in getting in the way of dealing realistically with those problems that genuinely confront us, rather than those which are overblown creations of frustrated, status-driven cultural oppositionism.

The latter have rarely been better dissected than in this splendid comment:

The whole of Australia was aware of the burgeoning multi-ethnic melting point Australia had become. … So when all these white middle class people who read The Age like The Bible start jumping up and down about how racist Australians are, the rest of the country looks around their suburb, their shopping centre, their place of work, their customers, their clients, their deli workers, their buses, their trains, their spouses, their in-laws, their school playgrounds, their university lecture halls, their doctors, and says “WTF are you talking about”.
(Note that over a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas about twice the proportion of Americans who were born overseas.) But, since these cultural politics are driven by status-convenience more than anything else, a certain pervasive unreality is to be expected.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Power of Ideas

This book review puts two positions about the power of ideas up against each other.

One is:
Rahe believes that "ideas have consequences," that they have the power to guide and even make events, and therefore that they are not mainly caused by the conditions of their time or context but are, on the contrary, mainly the cause of these conditions.
The contrasting position is:
In [Skinner and Pocock’s] view, often called "historicism," ideas can be traced to prior conditions that are not ideas, such as economic forces or, more particularly for them, political interests. Ideas are essentially defensive; they justify, defend, and protect the established interests of various regimes and of their opponents, for example the defense of the American colonists in the Declaration of Independence.
Ideas cannot cause events because they themselves are caused; so the colonists were not moved to act by the ideas in the Declaration, but those ideas merely expressed what they thought to say after the fact. Ideas are no different from ideology in which you say what you are forced to say in your situation, or your "context," like a defendant speaking through a clever lawyer.
Both these positions strike me as wrong: the former because it gives ideas too much causal importance, the latter because it gives them too little.

Ideas have consequences
Against the second view, consider the question of why do people propound ideas? If it is all just a causal epiphenomenon on more basic structures, why bother? Why not appeal to those more basic structures?

And, if you were going to appeal to those more basic structures, how would you go about it without using ideas?

We can see immediately that ideas are absolutely necessary for communicating. But why are they so necessary? Because we cannot have any sort of even mildly abstract communication without them.

So, ideas are needed for communicating. Which immediately gives them some independent power, because obviously communication which is more resonant with the audience is far more successful than communication which is not.

That would appear to lead back to more basic structures. And, to some extent, it does. But consider what it is you are appealing to. Yes, people have interests, and those interests can be motivating, indeed, powerfully so. But are people only motivated by material and social interests? And do those interests manifest according to set priorities and set conceptions?

If people can and do have motives other than their material and social interests, and if even those interests can be construed in different ways and according to different priorities, then clearly ideas will have consequences. Clearly people do, clearly interests can be, so clearly ideas have consequences. So the second view is wrong because it is too simple.

Ideas have to resonate
But the first view is wrong because it is too simple as well. Even if we cannot match interests and ideas on a one-to-one basis, clearly there is some connection between the two. Ideas do not manifest randomly across time and across societies. They clump together in patterns of belief that are clearly somewhat connected to material and social interests.
Such as support for free trade or protection, for example. As the Stolper-Samuelson theorem would predict, relatively scarce factors of production tend to support protection (because it protects their scarcity against foreign competition), relatively plentiful factors tend to support free trade (since it raises their incomes by lowering the prices of goods they purchase). So C19th Britain was free trade because that advantaged labour and capital in a situation where land was scarce and labour and capital was plentiful, Britain being an exporter of both. (Hence the fights over the Corn Laws.) C19th US and C20th Oz were protectionist because that advantaged labour and capital in a situation where land was plentiful and labour and capital were scarce, both countries being importers of both. Later C19th and early C20th continental Europe tended to be protectionist, since that advantaged land and capital over labour in a situation where labour was plentiful (and being exported) but capital and land were scarce.*

Similarly, anti-Semitism occurs among gentiles, hatred of homosexuals among heterosexuals and contempt for getting income from commerce among intellectuals (particularly tenured academics, and would-be tenured, academics)—to take three sets of ideas which have be used to murder thousands or millions. Note that all three cases were based on notions of “false form”—Jews were adherents of a "false form" of religion or were a “false form” of the human (or both), same-sex activity a “false form” of sex and same-sex orientation a "false form" of the human, business ownership a “false form” of economic activity and being an owner a "false form" of social being. So, extermination was justified because, as “false forms”, they needed to be eliminated: a patent example of ideas, of the logic of belief, having consequences.

To suggest ideas trump social context is belied by experience. Ideas have to resonate in order to have power, and social context, including social and material interests, are powerful sources of such resonance.

But not the only ones: after all, not all gentiles are anti-Semitic, not all heterosexuals hate homosexuals and not all tenured or would-be tenured academics have contempt for getting income from commerce, while all the laws which improved the status of women, blacks and Jews were originally passed by white male gentiles. Hence both the above positions are wrong because they are too simple.

* Note, all this still leaves open the possibility that the net effects of protection were still negative overall: particularly in terms of long-term and intangible effects.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Alternative history

Given my love of speculative fiction and of history, the genre of alternative history should be something that really appeals to me. Sometimes it does (anything by S. M. Stirling for example).

But often it does not. Apart from The Two Georges and The Toxic Spell Dump I generally find Harry Turtledove a bore. Characters I am not interested in and stories which I cannot bother with. At least his history is coherent, however. Sometimes, I find I just cannot get past some historical implausibility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt for example, just does not create reasons I find plausible for an Islamic Scientific Revolution in central Asia. The competitive jurisdictions, institutional stability and relatively easy access to a wide range of places and peoples that the mountainous peninsula-of-peninsulas of Europe possessed (and made them very idea-adaptive long before they became idea-inventive) are not likely to be replicated in an inland region subject to erratic waves off pastoralist conquest. Not to mention the small difficulty of al-Ghazali’s successful intellectual counter-revolution against Aristotelianism.

But, as an intellectual tool, I agree with Geoffrey Blainey. One needs to have a sense of the possible alternatives to have a real sense for history.

Having recently finished Claudia Koonz’s excellent The Nazi Conscience and Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide (which I reviewed here and here), has led me to think about what would have happened if the Whites had won the Russian Civil War.
Part of the question is “which Whites?”—White disunity was one reason the Reds won. But Lenin’s regime did come close to defeat more than once so it is a perfectly reasonable historical question.

Part of the value of Cohn’s book is that it reminds one of what a noxious autocracy late Romanov Russia was. The horrors of the Soviet Union make the previous horrors of Romanov rule pale, but there were good reasons why Tsarism was something of a moral pariah. Reading through Koonz’s careful dissection of the process by which mass murder became entirely thinkable, and able to be at least acquiesced in, in Nazi Germany, it struck me that they applied if anything more strongly in Tsarist Russia.

And not just as a theoretical possibility. Tsarist Russia was notorious for its violent pogroms, after all. During the Civil War, things got worse: perhaps as many as 100,000 Jews were massacred by Whites during the Civil War.

So, the possibility of a triumphant White regime engaging in its own “mini” Holocaust against the Jews is not to be dismissed.

The wider knock-on effects of the overthrow of Lenin’s regime would have been enormous. Leninism would not have been established as a successful mechanism for seizing and maintaining power. Mussolini may well have less inclined to continue with his adaptation of Lenin’s political methods to his national project. The spectre of Leninist revolution would have been a less fearful one, lessening Mussolini’s support. The “March on Rome” might well not have been attempted. If attempted, it might well have not been successful.

Without the Leninist and Fascist models, Hitler would have been less inclined to adopt Lenin’s model of political action to his racial project. Without the Bolshevik spectre, Hitler could well have garnered less support. Fascism and Nazism needed their Leninist enemy, as both spectre to oppose and model of politics to emulate. If Leninism had been “throttled at birth” in Russia, revolutionary socialism would not have had the aura of success to inspire adherents or frighten opponents. The likely consequences of Leninism losing the Russian Civil War are enormous.

But that does not mean that Russia might not have ended up with a quite noxious, even megacidal, regime. That, of course, might have had the same effects for forms of counter-revolutionary politics (likely grounded in religious traditionalism) that the success of the Soviet Union had for revolutionary socialist politics. By its noxious example, and its wider effects, it might well have driven liberal opinion leftwards in reaction.

Thinking through the possibilities rapidly spirals off in all sorts of imponderable counterfactuals. The Russian Civil War was an enormous tragedy. A tragedy made all the more terrible by the possibility that there were no good outcomes on offer.

The Call of the Entrepreneur

Monday, saw another film put on by the film society I recently joined. The film, The Call of the Entrepreneur was produced by the Acton Institute and based on a book by its director, Father Robert Sirico, who was one of several “talking head” commentators during the film.

The narration put the framing question early: are entrepreneurs virtuous or vicious? Is being an entrepreneur a virtuous activity or just selfishness?

The film is organised looking a three different entrepreneurs. As someone commented in the discussion after the film, one of the virtues of the film was being able to watch an entrepreneur’s mind at work.

We start with Brad Morgan, who talks about turning a losing-proposition dairy farm into one of the most productive herds in Michigan. Then milk prices plummeted.

So he went into composting in a big way: he can now turn manure into compost in 50 days. He produces a range of different compost products. Manure that was costing him about $25,000 a year to get rid of was now producing turnover over about$1.5m a year (including manure from other farmers).

Interspersed with this (and continuing with the other entrepreneurs), we get comments from Father Sirico (Acton Institute) on virtues of what entrepreneurs do and what it requires. Including the comment that regulation was a restriction on creativity. We also get comments from writer Samuel Gregg and Michael Novak.

They articulate a vision of the entrepreneur as patient, displaying perseverance, having faith and vision, being other-directed, creative and risk taking. Including that the risks involved are real, given most new businesses fail.

A point that is not made directly, is that if we take away risk we also take away achievement—one of the more subtle dangers of government intervention.

The film presents as a counterpoint for what the commentators have to say various excerpts of religious leaders denouncing the business class. The film is very much aimed at an audience that is used to religious terms framing public debates. In particular, it is a conversation within Catholic debates over social justice.

One of the points made in the film is that greed is universal: it is not specific to businesspeople. Another is that the success of the entrepreneur seems inevitable after the fact, which is a quite false way to look at wealth creation and what an entrepreneur does.

The next example moves into the world of the money-lender—the film deliberately uses the term with its negative Biblical connotations—and Frank Hanna, merchant banker.
Hanna and his brother pooled some funds, borrowed further money with it as a down-payment, then loaned out the funds and kept doing that. They were now managing about $1.5bn in funds. (I did wonder, during the film, how they had weathered the Global Financial Crisis.) In the process, we are treated to a very clear explication of the basics of how capital markets—which Hanna has a very clear grasp of and could explain well—interspersing his explanations with narrated animations. The entrepreneur gathers information and then decides where the capital should be employed: good decisions mean more wealth. “If he makes bad decisions, he will not be making such decisions for very long”. (Unless, of course, government subsidises failure by bailing firms out: but this film predates the recent bailouts.) Hanna explains credit as a time-transfer and how spreading the risk allows more capital to be lent, so no one bears the entire cost of an individual failure. “Hopefully you create wealth, and hopefully money is a representation of the wealth created”. The key is to understand the time value of money and the benefits of risk diversification. Hanna waxes lyrical about the role of insurance—specifically maritime insurance—in creating the United States. It is a nice discussion of the role of insurance (particularly Lloyds of London) in commercial shipping. Calculating risks allowed risks to be shared (and thus dispersed). In the discussion after the film finished, it was pointed out that Lloyds was started by religious refugees (Anabaptists, Quakers, Jews: mainly from Catholic Europe) who met in a cafe. Back in the film, we are treated to a denunciation of the picture of capital markets put in the film Wall Street as the most insidious mis-representation of the market. Markets are not a zero-sum game. Wealth “did not come from someone else, it was created.” Commentator George Gilder argues that the notion of zero-sum economy is the most evil economic idea: leading to violent, confiscatory, destructive behaviour and social arrangements. In other words, to death, oppression and unnecessary poverty. Frank Hanna is so articulate on how markets and entrepreneurship works, he continues to comment throughout the rest of the film. We then meet the person with the most moving story, Jimmy Lai. He was about four when the People’s Republic and Mao’s revolution came to his village. His family was a rich family, so “enemies of the people”. Their property was confiscated and their mother allowed home from the labour camp only on weekends to look after her three young children (who otherwise had to look after themselves). Jimmy Lai tells us how, in communist society, surrounded by all the lies, the outside world is a scary place. But he worked in a railway station, so he got to see outsiders. They were information carriers: they were well-dressed, and treated railway porters much better than local people did (in China, carrying bags meant you were a marginal person). Then, as part of a tip, one of the outsiders gave him a chocolate bar. He was (as normal) hungry, so he bit into it immediately. It tasted wonderful, the best taste he had ever had. So he asked what it was. When the man, who was from Hong Kong, explained it was chocolate, Jimmy Lai decided he had to go to Hong Kong (he was 11 ½ years old). It took him a year to convince his mother that he had to escape to Hong Kong (who was frightened that, if he left, she would never see him again). At the age of 12 ½, he got a visa to Macau from a policeman friend, and (at 12 ½!) went in crowded fishing junk to Kowloon. His mother’s sister paid$HK370 to smugglers even though they were very poor people. Jimmy was sent to work the night he arrived. There he smelled food he had never smelled before. He worked long hours, eating and sleeping in the factory, but he remembers it as a very happy time because he knew he had a future.