Monday, April 30, 2012

Cabbages, Kings, and Leo Strauss

 Sometime during the dark abyss of the Bush Administration, Leo Stratus's name became attached to the doctrines of the Neocons. Whether Strauss actually advocated the regime these doctrines describe no one will ever know, for Strauss was careful not to let the wrong people know what he was thinking. In any case the doctrines were not his brainchild. The regime it outlines is the philosophical solution Plato offers in the Republic to the problem of protecting philosophers from Socrates's fate. The doctrine is this: the best government is one run by philosophers and fronted by aristocrats. It's purpose is to allow real human life, the life of the philosopher, to flourish. It flourishes in a soil of slaves, sometimes called “the people.” The aristocrats have a talent for commanding authority and, if the philosophers so direct, are warriors who control the slaves through force. But otherwise they exert control through culture, the shadows on the cave wall, which is one thing for the people and quite another for the aristocrats in their business-class cave. "The people" are children mesmerized by flashing lights. The philosophers carefully control the flow of culture so that it serves to make “the people” docile and the warriors ferocious and hypocritical. Low culture and high each does its job. Niceties require that the philosophers pretend the aristocrats are in charge.

Kings have always had advisors chosen for their cleverness. From the time of Plato, philosophers have advised rulers, as Plato did, with nearly disastrous results, in Syracuse. Though the king seems to rule, he does, if he knows what's good for him, what he is advised to do. For life at court does not really prepare him to think about international affairs. Courts are stages upon which dramas of personal ambition play out, and personal ambition distorts all information through the prism of self interest. Someone smart, without the possibility of such ambition, is needed. Enter the philosopher. Besides, the job of king leaves no time to think. It's a busy life. Though the king might develop a good ear for intrigue, he has no time to calculate and judge the mood of either the mass of people whom he rarely sees or that of his neighbor king and potential enemy. He needs advisors who have spies. So the Platonic politics Strauss was blamed for was commonplace. That others can use adherence to this doctrine as an accusation shows that a newer alternative challenges it.

The political content of the Enlightenment, the doctrine of universal human equality, exploded the European mind and with it the Platonic political structure. The doctrine of universal human equality contains no idea of enemies. It breaks up traditional hierarchies and brings rulers down to a level. At least in theory, the former rulers are not the foe, for we are now all equal. Of course as soon as the rulers move to retain their position, they become the foe, first of all in their own eyes. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the defenders of the enlightenment refused to recognize the foe and continued simply to insist on equality in day to day commerce. What would the Duke have done when a peasant came by and said, “ Hi, Joe?” The storming of the Bastille was, in fact, superfluous. The entire revolution had already been completed when people decided they were “equal human beings.” People suddenly discovered that they had been in chains, and that those chains were chains of the mind. They stood up, and the ancien regime was over. The “people” were in the strange position of having suddenly discovered, with human equality, that throughout their entire lives until that point they had been in chains without knowing it. That this strange idea did not trouble them (or many of us) shows that equality is intoxicating. Citoyen! Universal human equality gave birth to a new man, the freed prisoner, and soon, a new woman. But, by condemning all previous experience as “mentally chained,” it also left judgment up the creek without a paddle.

Plato thought his Republic fair to everyone, for the craftsmen, the people, are craftsmen by nature, not mentally chained to it as the Enlightenment doctrine insisted. Except for the actual slaves, he did not think anyone was exploiting anyone else, and he specifically allowed for the talented offspring of the demos to rise. The Enlightenment negated all prior experience and caused people to see everything through the tinted glasses of “equality.” But what were they equal to? Of what had the chains deprived them? Apparently, of being treated as an equal, that is, like one of the aristocrats, whatever that meant.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment had trouble with the exploded hierarchy. Where does the political structure come from? Rousseau's General Will and Locke's Social Contract didn't work, for they require a community before there is one. With the old hierarchy gone where was the new one to come from? Nobody thought of the possibility that there wouldn't be one, that day to day life might provide structure quickly at times of need through all manner of human interaction including the use of force. Of course no single person could possibly muster the force to overcome even three other people, even people considerably weaker than he. So only speech could really dominate, as it should. The only way to use force to dominate, say, a government, is to have others willing to obey, that is, people who are not equal. Were people simply to refuse to give up their equality, hierarchies would come into being only through a willing choice to embrace them. And this would happen only in the face of an emergency. But, Enlightenment Revolutions always foundered when they tried to create new institutions, for universal human equality supplied none and undermined leaders who did.

The Straussian philosophers, those who wanted to retain the Platonic political structure, devised ideas to combat universal human equality and re-enslave the demos. We need not assume they were in bad faith. They believed their system was best. Burke countered with the “rights of Englishmen.” The Rights of Man, equating everybody, Burke said, were an airy nothing. What was solid was the rights of Englishmen, their habits, customs, and in particular, their having a king. This idea seemed to restore equilibrium to the English aristocracy, some of whom had obviously listened to the wrong philosophers, even though this idea was roughly equivalent to saying, “ the shacks and sheds on this land are real. Your plan for a new building is merely a plan.” Herder invented nationalism, a state that was home for a Volk, an appeal to us against the awful them, and not much different from Burke's idea. The main point was to restore obedience and by so doing end equality. The trick was to make the slaves willingly slip back into chains.

Nationalism insists upon something, almost anything, that distinguishes us from them. Since the idea of universal human equality, life without hierarchy, requires universal trust that there is no us and them, it was only natural that many would fail to retain this trust. Fear creeps in from we know not where. We mistrust. The fearful first fear they are alone and powerless against the unknown. “Us against them” allows them to retain the fear they could in any case not escape, and at the same time feel that they are not alone, that they have allies. So who the “us” is matters little as long as I am one of them. For then I am not alone.

And the one who describes the nature of the “us,” a philosopher, will rule. But anyone who first embraced universal human equality and then nationalism out of fear, embarked upon a trackless journey into criminality where we, because we are we, are good and they, because they are they, are not. Since the distinguishing characteristic of the “we,” that you are American, German, Basque, or what not, does not confer goodness, especially to one who had once embraced universal equality, the justification is practical, and honesty remains the best policy only until it isn't, when it becomes more practical to become a crook. But since the “we” fluctuates, at times being a country, at others no more than ones own family, one's loyalty is eventually only to oneself, which is the recipe for petty crime. Since falling away from universal human equality is cowardly, done out of fear, honor, and therefore all principle, is sacrificed. Nationalism scooped up many of the fallen who, as a result had become stupid as Socrates predicted they would.

Fear, of course, rules slaves and so anyone who has succumbed to it is slavish. The slave chooses life over honor. Since honor depends upon acting correctly without being influenced by “necessity” (hunger, tiredness, fear, pleasure), to act from fear is to act slavishly. Honor, freeing oneself from necessity, is a prerequisite for human life, since to act from necessity is to act like a stone. And once someone has cut himself free of honor, and plunged into life for “survival,” committing atrocities is like aggravating a toothache with one's tongue. Of course to act for survival is to choose life over everything else, like a slave. If survival of the fittest is the law of life then life is the life of slaves. Not surprising that Europe embraced Darwin, proving Nietzsche right. Nation states with their hierarchies scooped up the loyalties of the Enlightenment's freed slaves because these people retained their slavishness. Though they had stood up and demanded to be treated equally, this was more or less a hollow posture as long as they retained their fears and joined “us” against “them,” and acted from necessity. They needed only to be told they were free and they would remain slaves in a new upright posture.

The Founding Fathers, that is to say, Alexander Hamilton, the philosopher behind the Constitution, employed a different idea. Hamilton wanted a central government that could supply an army that could conquer an empire. He dreamed of being a new Caesar, and said as much to Jefferson in a famous exchange. The culture that would control the slaves was not nationalism, but “the system.” an idea that was in the air during those heady Enlightenment days. Made plausible by the Enlightenment's fascination with rules, which no doubt come from the Enlightenment fascination with and belief in science, the Constitution's checks and balances would protect freedom. Although Hamilton, who had declared to Jefferson that only force and interest could control men, had no belief in "the system," he used Madison to argue for it in the Federalist Papers to push through the Constitution. Those checks and balances would protect against the constitutional tyranny that Patrick Henry and the other antifederlsits feared. Madison went along  for he  wanted that army to repress uprisings like Shay's Rebellion. He tried to calm his friend Patrick Henry's fears with assurances that the spider web of checks and balances would control the army and protect the freedoms they had fought for. Almost immediately, seeing Hamilton's machinations in creating the Federalist party, and fearing he had been wrong, Madison broke with Hamilton and pushed through the “Bill of Rights,” designed to offer protections against the tyrannizing structure of the Constitution bare of them. But this came to nothing when the Supreme Court arrogated to itself the right to interpret the Constitution ( Bill of Rights). For then they were were put under the structure of the original constitution which they were meant to amend and protect against. The checks and balances, ostensibly to protect freedom, offer an incredible maze to anyone who might want to change anything. Since the regime the Constitution sets up is oligarchic, in practice the Constitution served primarily to thwart those seeking more equality. It is a bulwark against freedom. as Patrick Henry saw, rather than a protection of it.

“The system” stood in the way of those who actually wanted universal equality. For the system only allowed one to object to this or that manifestation of inequality and then made the path of cure arduous. Two party system, congressional committees, a Senate of gentry, presidential vetoes, and the Supreme Court made victory difficult and Pyrrhic. Later, the Supreme Court could reverse themselves and chip away at any gains, as they have with civil rights. The new notions of “jurisdiction” and “standing” made it possible for the courts to turn their backs on injustice with equanimity. One needed constant vigilance to prevent Supreme Court reinterpretation. New legislation could circumvent, for example, labor laws, with new concepts, for example, “independent contractor.” But universal human equality, which had already won socially, was so powerful, that these countermeasures had to be taken in its name.

The two devices, nationalism and "the system" mixed on both sides of the Atlantic, and Western post Enlightenment regimes used elements of both to thwart the desire for universal human equality, which, in any case, was more a feeling than anything that might consist of a policy, but no less powerful for that. The terror associated with the French Revolution was a Godsend to the Platonic rulers. This terror, and the Napoleonic Wars, they blame upon the idea of universal human equality. There was some justice in these accusations, for surely a huge country couldn't run without hierarchy and the revolutions could not supply it. People would fight and squabble. Perhaps true, perhaps not, but so what? What's wrong with fighting and squabbling other than it doesn't support legalistic hierarchies?

Because the Enlightenment idea was so powerful, these countermeasures, nationalism and “the system,” both had to be justified as protecting enlightenment freedoms rather than limiting and even extinguishing them. The philosophers went to work and wove from words not the robes of truth, that these were measures opposed to equality, but a cloak of propaganda extolling nationalism and “the system” as supporters of enlightenment freedom. However, reality kept showing through this threadbare garment. Revolutions popped up throughout the nineteenth century. When nation states launched imperialist ventures they contradicted their own justification as protection for an “English” or “French” way of life. How justify the nation of England ruling India? Minds not yet fully clouded wondered. The Dreyfus case exposed the legal system as Kafkesque wheels turning within a penal colony of torture without rhyme or reason. Behind it other forces determined the outcome in the courts. The case revealed that rules on rails were no protection against anything. The American claim that the Constitution protected freedoms came crashing down in the civil war that exposed the United States for what it was, a growing and unlimited repressive army hiding behind a charade of procedure, just as Patrick Henry, in his anti-federalist speeches in the Virginia legislature, foretold that it would become. The sovereign states were sovereign no more.

Since the real revolution was in what a human being was, how he carried himself, how he addressed others, and how he expected to be treated, imperial ventures with their enlightened soldiers themselves infected with the idea of universal equality and now serving in far off lands, spread the virus of the idea of universal human equality far and wide. Thus each imperial venture carried within it the seeds of third world revolution in the name of freedom and its own defeat. Ghandi's nonviolence could not have worked without the idea of universal human equality. The ancients thought nothing of slaughtering everybody. The Melian dialogue, an essential piece of elitist education, ends with the Athenians declaring that the powerful will do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. Then the Athenians killed all the Melian men and sold the women and children into slavery. Though the English were ready to slaughter many, they needed a moral vacuum to do so. When slaves refuse to be slaves it is game over. Since “we,“ the “us,” expands and contracts as needed, from oneself to one's family, tribe, race, nation or what have you, rule based upon it is a shape shifter, a “drunken boat” in Rimbaud's poem.

The history of Europe (and the United States) since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century, has been the history of this war between the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment masquerading as the Enlightenment. Today the justice of the claim of universal human equality is deep in our blood, and most of us take its truth as a matter of course whenever we look into one another's eyes. Most of us do, but certainly not all. The philosophers and aristocrats retain the idea of their superiority, even if they hide it in public. Their actual masked loyalties allowed them to be ruthless. No one aided them more than Karl Marx, whose persuasive argument in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon convinced everybody that the original French Revolution, that for human equality, was but a preliminary revolution to be followed by the real revolution that was a class war. This gave the bourgeoisie free rein without moral compunction. For all is fair in love and war. Prior to that the doctrine of universal human equality, in which there is no foe, weighed upon them, and their obvious inability to become aristocrats however rich they were, embarrassed them. Marx, the loudest, though not the only, voice of class war, allowed them to turn with clear consciences to this struggle. When at war nothing else matters.

The tools of the counterrevolution were themselves ideas, “nationalism” and “checks and balances” which were, somehow, supposed to protect freedom. Through bogus identification with the idea of universal human equality, these ideas hitched a ride on that idea and drew on its energy to support nationalist and systematic regimes. The mentally unchained demos, the freed mental slave, whose prior experience was now all false, were no match for the philosophers, so democracy, to the extent that the philosophers could pour propaganda into the public ear, supported the anti-Enlightenment regimes. Behind the professed embrace of equality is the real embrace of class warfare, Marx's gift to the bourgeoisie. Only when some harsh reality breaks through the ideology does anyone see the class war clearly. But that the world seen in terms of class war favors the bourgeoisie revolutionaries cannot see.

So the philosophers, betraying their own God of truth, wove a web of ideology attributing freedom to nationalism and “the rule of law.” Since this cotton candy of ideas had to conceal what nationalism and law really were, the philosophers had to constantly spin more of it whenever some sharp fact tore through the threadbare fabric.

Prior to the Enlightenment, political regimes did not need to go anywhere. They could be stable ways of life. But nationalist and systematic regimes had to profess adherence to freedom, which was not yet realized, and so had pretend to “progress” towards the goal of true freedom while working in reality to thwart this goal. Political regimes donned the motley of movements. To justify themselves these regimes had to be forging ahead, not merely wandering along like hobos. They had to be advancing the cause of freedom. Markers along the way— women's suffrage, civil rights acts promoting racial equality, social security, and the like, lent plausibility to claims for these advances. Equally important were material improvements that Enlightenment science could provide like nothing else. For wasn't freedom simply having money and things? And weren't we all having more and more? That was progress. A running battle to protect the freedoms in the Bill or Rights was a good distraction. Any grinding away of the system was a plus. We all know the fight for freedom is long and arduous and for every two steps forward there is one step back. Since freedom, for most people, meant freedom to be like the aristocrats, and in general people saw that as freedom to make money, freedom meaning freedom to get rich had a lot of plausibility. Behind it all, the Platonic political structure remained intact if held together with a tissue of ideology.

But, while all this was going on, the Enlightenment, over and above the political revolutions it sparked, changed the world picture itself. The world became scientific. Nihilism, here in the form of the scientific world picture, is, if not an Enlightenment baby, one the Enlightenment adopted. Science is an engine to power the ride on the highway of progress to nowhere. Industrial production, using scientific methods, creates a cornucopia that will make every proletarian into a patrician. It's geared to turn out the newest thing. While the philosophers were trying to drape dame equality with lies to protect the rule of the aristocrats, the industrial revolution was undermining them far more decisively than universal equality managed to do. Science, that cookbook of repeatable procedures, created industry that generated wealth and broke down aristocratic authority within the new bourgeois industrial state.

Within the new world picture mankind traveled along, acquiring more and more labor saving devices, but traveled towards what? Science and the scientific world picture has, as an axiom, purposelessness. We never ask why the planets do what they do, just what they do. Science throws out the question of why from the start. Science supplies procedures for generating predictable results, that is all. It's theories are, in the end, proposals for new procedures. Nietzsche saw nihilism as growing from something far deeper than the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment was a perfect expression of it. Science's content, a catalog of repeatable simple procedures, fit perfectly with the abilities of the confused, mentally-liberated, slave. They could be made to repeat mindless actions again and again. The union of the politics of the enlightenment with its scientific world picture sold production line work life as a step on the road to freedom. Resistance to industrial production, strong at the beginning, faded into a steady incoherent rumbling discontent. Progress towards real human life, conceived as having a lot of stuff or the power money could impart, justified this mindless work. The children will have it better. Freedom meant freedom to be an Horatio Alger character, or the mythic Abe Lincoln in his log cabin. Everyone was free to choose— between production-line misery with a distant, next-generation, cotton-candy, hope of escape, and starvation. The Enlightenment revolution, in part because of the counterrevolutions, but only in part because of them, had enslaved rather than ennobled human beings. In addition it had unleashed the philosopher's engine of deception to hide the pointlessness of the activity. Instead of truth he worked away at propaganda, justifying himself by his need to support the rich to protect himself against “the many” who killed Socrates.

Since the scientific world picture claimed to be a description of what was real, not just a catalog of repeatable procedures, its purposeless was a purposelessness of the whole. It was an explanation of the whole as a mechanism without purpose. Thus nihilism. Whereas the philosophers might be able to recognize their own political deceptions, as Alexander Hamilton surely did, they were less able to resist the scientific world picture. Its power was undeniable, and it soon became apparent that science determined the outcome of war. No one could afford propaganda in science. It had to really work.
Purposelessness was not a philosophical pose. Overcome by the scientific world picture, philosophers embraced it. The imperialism of the nation states punctured the balloon of nationalism; the Dreyfus case punctured the notion of the rule of law; the US civil war shattered the notion of a social contract; and the devastating depressions deflated Horatio-Algerism. When industrial production burst into the conflagration of imperialist war, a world without purpose marched people without purpose into wars without purpose in the name of a progress towards nowhere.

The philosophers, now intellectually bankrupt, could do nothing but continue to chatter. Only the very stupid believed them. Huge chunks of reality falling on people's heads had woken many of them up. The ritual of elections, the speeches of politicians, the rigmarole of law are all, as Kafka saw so well in his story In the Penal Colony, the workings of machines without purpose, wheels turning aimlessly and grinding up people. In the story, the machine's now obscure workings, contrived by a previous generation to give justice, only torture with a thousand needles and then kill. Like Kafka's foreign visitor, more and more people could see this empty murderous ritual for what it was. But what of it? The empty machine of civilization grinds on and the aristocrats or gentry, or those who made a lot of money, continue in control. The Enlightenment has been turned into porridge, but, for the philosophers, that is all to the good. So what if the machine of government grinds away chewing up people to no purpose? Those who should rule do.

The Platonic philosopher's loyalty was first to the aristocrats. Burke and Friedrich von Gentz, both of this social philosopher class, blunted the first revolutionary impulses to protect the rule of the English and Germanic princes they admired and lived with. But the industrial revolution, rather than the political one, toppled them. When the bourgeoisie gained control they had philosophers advising them. The philosophers just needed someone to extract wealth from the slaves and give some of it to them. The cared not who ruled, as long as they could rule. When Marx justified the class war he lent purpose to the bourgeois progress to nowhere. The regime's purpose was to fight the class war.

The fight to determine which system was better, or really just which would win, was on. A class war of “us against them” supplies more than enough purpose for a lifetime. This was, of course, a civil war between the rulers and the ruled, and could go on forever thus lending purpose to purposelessness. And since all is fair in love and war, unspeakable practices were justified. But these practices were justified only for the rulers. For the slaves fought in the name of universal human equality even as they fought the class war. Their justification for fighting the class war, and demanding what, according to the rules of property belonged to others, was unfairness. But to the extent that the freed slaves fought a class war, they too could engage in ruthless butchery to eliminate “class enemies.” Such butchery was not a new thing, except for scale.

The philosophers rode the rich, the rich the system, and the system the slaves. The bourgeoisie were able to create, manage, and guide giant industrial and legal systems that harnessed the procedures of science and law. Rulers held offices law created that gave them specific powers they relinquished when they left office. Wealth also bestowed power that disappeared when wealth did. None of it was personal; all was system. Industrialists mechanized and routinized as much of their operation as they could, including their own parts in it. Even at the highest levels of industry the officers did procedures that others might just as easily do. CEO's came and went. They were as replaceable as the workers. The rulers were not so much people as offices in both politics and the economy. Inevitably, philosophers found new loyalties to the system itself, to the offices rather than the people. Max Weber argues that this is the essence of the modern state. The system, rather than any particular person, supplied philosophers with the protected leisure they so craved. Their loyalty was to the offices and their advice was about how to win them. Plato had metamorphosized into Karl Rove. People were, indeed, the infamous cogs in the machine.

Universal human equality had lost, but the scientific world picture had won. Humankind busied itself in building a structure out of repeatable procedures in which human beings, since many could do the procedures, were replaceable parts. Procedures went round and round. There was the political cycle and the business cycle.

The rich seem to rule, but actually, the system does. The rich merely voice system's command for more system, for a world of system as the scientific world picture demands. The money they extract builds system, and destroys all outside system in “environmental” degradation, whose very name denotes something outside. For if system is what is real, the environment is outside what is real. The rich no longer work in their own interest. How does making the planet unlivable benefit them? Do they think the radioactivity spewing from Fukushima won't get into their air? Where will the food they will need in their protected enclaves come from? Everyone clings to the hollow jabber and empty offices of the system, for it promises life and strange pleasures as it's endless procedures gut and poison everything. Having chosen life in system over honor, all can pretend they are fighting the good fight-- within the system.

The final irony for the philosophers is that Socrates did not think his trial was a disaster. On the contrary, he welcomed it. If one reads Plato's Crito carefully, one reads this:

...that the really important thing is not to live but to live well.

Crito: Why, yes.

Socrates: And that to live well means the same thing as to live honorably and rightly...If it becomes clear that such conduct is wrong, I cannot help thinking that the question whether we are sure to die, or to suffer any other ill effect for that matter...ought not to weigh with us at all in comparison with the risk of doing what is wrong. [48 b-d]

And in the Apology:

No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to man. [29a]

I am quite clear that the time had come when it was better for me to die and be released from my distractions. [41d]

So if western political practice was a philosophical enterprise to protect Socrates from his fate, it was misguided. For Socrates wanted no such protection, and would not have accepted it.