A road not taken

“By around 1970 Europe and Japan had more or less recovered from the Second World War and were becoming economically competitive with the United States, which had recently wasted enormous resources in Southeast Asia. The US responded by reneging on the Bretton Woods regime: going off the gold standard, establishing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and turning the IMF into a global enforcer for Wall Street. Among its other benefits, this move conveniently positioned us to capture the flood of petrodollars that followed the oil price rises soon afterward. The savage Volcker interest rate hikes later in the decade further weakened the US manufacturing sector and strengthened the financial sector. The Reagan years saw American companies flee abroad in droves. The end of the Cold War presented the US with a fateful choice. We could relinquish the artificial financial advantages that kept money flowing into Wall Street even as foreign demand stagnated, American industry declined, and the American trade deficit grew. This would have meant military retrenchment and a period of economic austerity, but it would have restored our competitiveness, allowing for reindustrialization on a solid basis and with a more evenly distributed prosperity. But we didn’t.” – George Scialabba, “Socialist Register 2004″

Good luck with all that

“Our culture’s trek to the present has been a Long March through one province after another of philosophical folly: Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s essences, Descartes’ mind-body distinction, Kant’s Ding-an-sich, Husserl’s phenomenological method, the logical positivists’ scientific method—all in quest of absolute, suprahistorical Certainty. At last we have learned from the great antiphilosophers—James and Dewey, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Foucault—that this Certainty is not to be had, and that wanting it was all along a lack of maturity, a failure of nerve, a yearning for what Nietzsche called ‘comfort.’ There is no God, in other words, and no telos. “ – George Scialabba, “Consequences of Pragmatism”

Thor of the boardroom

“Modern culture has produced a distinctive character-type, our equivalent of the Homeric warrior-hero, the Athenian gentleman-citizen, the Christian saint, the 18th-century honnete homme. The defining activity of this character-type is manipulation; its most common embodiments are the aesthete, the therapist and, above all, the manager. All three express their culture’s understanding of social relations as primarily instrumental: by the consumption of other people as interesting sensations, or by the deployment of morally neutral expertise to achieve organizational goals. In a developed society that has renounced the ideal of virtue, of universal, rationally justifiable norms, this is the form taken by the war of all against all, and these characters are its warrior-heroes.” – George Scialabba, “After Virtue”

What it’s about

“In theory, the outcome of elections in the United States reflects, with only minor distortions, the political preferences of the electorate. That’s what representative democracy is supposed to mean. Only it doesn’t work out that way. More precisely: the range of choices over which the American electorate is allowed to exercise its preference is sharply and systematically constrained. Electoral politics is dominated by two major parties, whose programs, to the extent they differ, correspond to the needs and goals of opposing sectors of the business community. The goals and ground rules that all sectors of business agree on constitute the framework of public policy, rarely or never challenged in the electoral arena. Policy proposals that fall outside this framework — i.e., good new ideas from the left — remain invisible and inaudible. This is not a conspiracy theory. Business leaders do not meet in secret to decide how best to delude the public mind and thwart the public will. They don’t need to. In a capitalist democracy, business control over the state is assured structurally. There are two reasons for this. First, since most people are economically vulnerable — they depend on employment rather than on ownership or some other entitlement to survive — the best predictor of their voting behavior is likely to be the state of the economy at election time. Overall, the state of the economy is determined by the level of investment. Since investment decisions in a capitalist economy are made privately, governments must nurture that most delicate of blossoms, ‘investor confidence.’ The second reason for business dominance is that political participation in a mass society costs a lot of money. Voting may be free, but setting the agenda is enormously expensive. To work out and put forth a detailed political program at the national level requires information, organization, and publicity, and all these require cash. Since the only people with spare money are capitalists, they have an effective monopoly on political speech.” – George Scialabba, “Right Turn”

Apples are not oranges

“The aims of scientific method—predictiveness, universal applicability, logical simplicity, ontological parsimony—cannot be imported into the study of psychology, history, or politics. Individuals and cultures are radically diverse, ineffably deep, infinitely complex. Only imaginative identification, a renunciation of the urge to theoretical mastery, and a yielding to the sheer particularity of things can produce genuine understanding. Even more important than this interpretive pluralism is ethical pluralism. Moral no less than aesthetic values are radically diverse. Both within and among human beings, conflict, or at any rate tension, is inevitable. Compromise is possible, but not perfect harmony.” – George Scialabba, “The Crooked Timber of Humanity”

Freedom isn’t free

“Whatever else liberal democratic societies have had in common, there’s this: they’ve all been rich. The two pillars of liberal ideology—the right to undisturbed enjoyment of one’s property and the right to a fair share of society’s resources, at least enough for a decent subsistence—may be fundamentally inconsistent, but the contradiction has usually remained implicit. There’s generally been enough money around to keep everyone off the streets, except for a minority of desperate or adventurous souls, quickly crushed by the National Guard and the secret police. In a society that makes more promises than it can keep, prosperity is the root of all harmony. When prosperity fails and those promises are called in, choices have to be made.” – George Scialabba, “Liberalism Reconsidered”

Imagine all the people

“Culture and psychology are central to politics. But cultural politics must reckon with our psychic ecology: the sum of our adaptations, over the course of two million years, to infantile dependence, territoriality, scarcity, mortality, and the other hitherto inescapable limits of human existence. We are organisms; we cannot flourish at just any tempo, pressure, or scale. Imagination itself is an evolutionary adaptation, whereby we master a threatening environment when young by binding or investing fantasy within nearby entities – parents, neighborhood, church, ethnic group. These intense primary identifications can and should be gradually left behind, but they cannot be skipped, on pain of shallowness, instability, and – paradoxically – an inability in later life to stand firm against authority. Cultural politics should aim to reform rather than abolish marriage, the family, hierarchy, authority, morality, and law. These institutions and practices evolved to serve essential purposes. They are not purely, or even primarily, strategies of exploitation. To consider them prisons rather than temporary outposts is not radical but superficial, like considering religion and myth mere lies rather than inadequate attempts at explanation. Cultural radicals will sometimes, in fact, need to defend these institutions; i.e., insist that some way be found to achieve their formative or protective purposes. As the global economy and mass culture lay siege to inwardness, plow up our psychic root system, and alter the very grain and contour of our being, conservation increasingly becomes a radical imperative.” – George Scialabba, “Don’t Think, Smile”

You can’t get there from here

“Utopia, then, is in the future. Why is this worth emphasizing? Revolutionists and abolitionists, utopia’s false friends, insist that it can be constructed out of present materials through a heroic act of will. This is to underestimate recklessly the depth and subtlety of the necessary changes and the intricacy and inertia of every moral culture. Utopia is impossible unless, among an overwhelming majority, solidarity and trust are nearly instinctive; responsibility, self-reliance, initiative, honesty, and other civic virtues are practiced much more widely than now; and democratic habits of self-confidence, candor, and tact are far better developed. Channels of communication and public information are as yet rudimentary. And let’s not forget rhetorical skills like wit, fluency, and concision: without a vast improvement in the general level of these, attendance at all the necessary meetings on the way to utopia will result in an epidemic of premature brain death. With all these moral and psychological changes in place, we can make a start on the technical problem – no less complex, probably – of reconciling equity and efficiency in production and distribution. Obviously such drastic and intimate changes, on the requisite scale, without undemocratic coercion or divine intervention, cannot be accomplished in a generation, or probably even in a few generations. Carrying off a general strike may be a fine thing, but creating a new moral ecology is an infinitely more difficult and valuable thing.” – George Scialabba, “The End of Utopia”

What’s the price on that?

“Critical rationality, as propagated by the Enlightenment and modeled on the natural sciences, has (along with market rationality) undermined the cultural authority of virtually all moral values, norms, customs, and beliefs in virtually all modern societies. The moral foundations of Western culture have been hollowed out. To the question ‘why be good?’ there is now no philosophically compelling answer, even if most people don’t know it yet. The name of this condition is nihilism: the eventual result may be spiritual paralysis or, worse, a war of all against all and of all against nature.” – George Scialabba, “Enlightenment’s Wake”

Divided we stand

“Is it necessary to choose between cosmopolitanism and agrarian populism? Let us hope not. The liberal virtues and the republican virtues are both indispensable. But that does not mean they are, at this moment, equally urgent or equally vulnerable. The apparently irresistible thrust of global capitalism threatens the latter virtues far more than the former, rootedness and psychological integrity far more than mobility and personal growth, perhaps even — to stretch a point — independence and self-reliance more than impartial benevolence. The ‘heroic ideal’ and the ‘tragic sense’: these phrases already sound archaic. But our civilization has not outgrown what they signify; it has merely forgotten. Cultural amnesia is not the same thing as progress.” – George Scialabba, “Cultivating Humanity”

Making sense of it

“Symbolic expression, however forceful, leaves a space between communicator and recipient, a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words and images, organizing to oppose whatever action the abhorred speech may incite. Though speech may, and often does, support the structure of domination, whether by lending aid and comfort to the powerful or frightening and discouraging their targets, in leaving room for opposition it falls short of enforcing submission. For this reason the unrestrained clash of ideas, emotions, visions provides a relatively safe model – one workable even in a society marked by serious imbalances of power – of how to handle social conflict, with its attendant fear, anger, and urges to repress, through argument, persuasion, and negotiation (or at worst grim forbearance) rather than coercion. In the annals of human history, even this modest exercise in freedom is a revolutionary development; for the radical democrat it prefigures the extension of freedom to other areas of social life.” – Ellen Willis (quoted by George Scialabba in “The Trouble with Principle”)

Making America Great Again

“Safe, simple, effective, and relatively cheap ways to increase intelligence and longevity in the American population include mounting the equivalent of the antismoking educational campaign against the high levels of fat, sugar, and salt in our national diet; encouraging physical activity, for example by forcing ourselves, through gasoline taxes and urban rezoning, to walk more, if only to get to public transportation; implementing national health insurance, or at least universal free health care for children under five; and subsidizing public radio and television. Reducing economic insecurity and environmental degradation also offers virtually unlimited opportunities for enhancing our beleaguered selves.” – George Scialabba, “Our Posthuman Future”

 

Not just another word

“What is free speech supposed to be free from? Political and legal restrictions, presumably. But commercial fraud, libel, perjury, declaiming in a stranger’s living room, and shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater are all uncontroversially restricted forms of speech, whose boundaries are nevertheless sometimes contested. Those contests are resolved—and hence the boundaries of ‘free’ speech are determined—legally and politically: not once and for all, through metaphysical discovery, but contingently and revisably, through democratic deliberation.” – George Scialabba, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech”

Making sense of it all

“The political and the non-political, freedom and restriction, fairness and unfairness, ideas and their consequences: these distinctions are all indispensable but contingent. They are working distinctions. We can’t do without them, on pain of intellectual and social incoherence. But what content we give them is determined by our fundamental goals and values, our deepest sense of how things are and who we are. It’s no use saying that there’s no disputing about such questions. Either we discuss them publicly or they’re settled, for public purposes, without discussion.” – George Scialabba, “Debating P.C.”

Making art safe

“Contemporary society, and in particular contemporary criticism, has tamed the arts, gradually deprived them of their prophetic and subversive possibilities. There’s no place in modern life for the mystical or the unpredictable; the arts have been institutionalized and are now managed by a cultural bureaucracy of scholars, critics, patrons, businessmen, and publicists. . . . The techniques of modern management are various: the blockbuster phenomenon and the star system, with their accompanying publicity machines; the centralization of public patronage; the recruitment of artists into universities.” – George Scialabba, “The Arts Without Mystery”

It’s a free country

“A four-letter word beginning with ‘f’ has tragically corrupted the minds of countless innocent Americans. I mean ‘free,’ in the expressions ‘free market’ and ‘free enterprise.’ It is a glorious word, of course, but its association with these morally neutral abstractions generally serves to obscure their often harsh and irrational consequences.” – George Scialabba, “The Market System”

 

All you need is

“Literature has always been about love; the modern novel has been about love as a problem. More precisely, about love as one instance of the fundamental modern problem: autonomy, individuality, selfhood. Enacting one’s identity, living up to one’s inherited role, offered premoderns plenty of scope for literary heroism; but devising one’s identity, choosing one’s role, is a peculiarly modern difficulty. It has been the burden above all of modern women, the response to which has included several waves of feminism and a line of great novels: Wuthering Heights, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, The House of Mirth, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Women in Love, To the Lighthouse, The Golden Notebook, Wide Sargasso Sea, and others by Meredith, Gissing, Forster, Cather, and more. These novels show women — and men — struggling for self-knowledge, self-reliance, or self-definition against the weight of traditional expectations and dependencies. The terrain of this struggle is love-and-marriage, which is where — at least in the world in which those novels take place — most people have their deepest experiences and meet their most significant fates.” – George Scialabba, “The End of the Novel of Love”

Apples and oranges

“The leading British conservative of the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli, was a legendary wit and a successful novelist whose books are still worth reading. The leading American conservative of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan, was an amiable duffer with a head full of old movies and a shoebox full of old newspaper clippings. The leading British liberal of the 19th century, William Gladstone, read 20,000 books in his lifetime, wrote extensively on Homer, Dante, modern literature, and theology, and was both the greatest financial expert and the greatest orator of the age. The leading American liberal of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt, was an amiable dilettante with shrewd political instincts and a dash of noblesse oblige but no political or economic ideas to speak of.” – George Scialabba, “Gladstone”

You can’t buy that

“When Jefferson opposed the spread of manufacturing, Jackson opposed a centralized financial system, Lincoln criticized wage labor, the Progressives criticized the trusts, and numerous states tried to halt the spread of chain stores, they did so not only for reasons of distributive justice, but even more from a desire to preserve the material conditions of self-rule and civic virtue. To many generations of American democrats, economic growth—our panacea—was morally suspect. Their political economy was meant to produce staunch, self-reliant citizens with deep local roots and commitments, not satisfied consumers or even highly-paid workers. This sets republicans apart from both conservatives and liberals. It was mass production, the factory system, and the concentration of capital and credit—in a word, big business—that vanquished the political economy of citizenship. Big government was a flawed effort to mitigate the worst effects of that triumph. Both forms of bigness confront the individual with impersonal, uncontrollable forces. Both generate large inequalities of wealth and power. Both subordinate the traditional virtues to newer skills of corporate gamesmanship and bureaucratic maneuvering. Both make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to realize the republican ideal. For better or worse, bigness is apparently here to stay. Can the republican ideal be adapted?” – George Scialabba, “Democracy’s Discontent”

In theory

“As a political theory, liberalism is systematically ambivalent. In its historically dominant version, it holds that maximum individual autonomy is the highest political good; that value preferences are purely subjective and arbitrary, hence none is more worthy of encouragement through social policy than any other, and that individual behavior is largely intentional rather than deterministic, so that people may justifiably be rewarded or punished for their actions, rather than seen as products of their upbringing and social environment. But each of these elements has a dialectical counterpart: that embeddedness in a supportive community is the highest good; that some desires are healthier or higher-order or more natural than others; and that heredity and environmental influence frequently, if not invariably, determine behavior. This philosophical ambivalence is reflected in a systematic tension within the law: i.e., between rules and standards, the two main forms of legislation. Rules are precise and allow for a minimum of interpretation (e.g., ‘motorists must always observe posted speeds and stop at red traffic lights’). Standards are flexible and allow for maximum interpretation (‘motorists must exercise reasonable caution at all times’). Both forms have disadvantages: shouldn’t it be permissible to go through a red light on a deserted street at 3 AM? And what if a judge or jury takes a dislike to a defendant—isn’t the open-endedness of ‘reasonable caution’ practically a license to indulge their prejudices? . . . [T]he law is so full of quirks, inconsistencies, and ad hoc solutions because it must try to incorporate, while concealing, the secondary, non-individualistic strain of liberalism. The legal system must incorporate this version of liberalism, because the primary, individualistic version is too rigid, too brittle, to accommodate all of reality. But it must conceal this incorporation, because atomistic individualism is the moral and psychological underpinning of competitive capitalism, and the legal system must pretend to enshrine it. . . . [E]ven the good faith of the privileged is bad faith: they are self-deceived, however innocently, to their own advantage; the rest of us are deceived to our disadvantage.” – George Scialabba, “A Guide to Critical Legal Studies”

Mox nix

“If it can make no practical difference which of two statements be true, then they are really one statement in two verbal forms. If it can make no practical difference whether a given statement be true or false, then the statement has no real meaning.” – William James (quoted by George Scialabba in “Genuine Reality”)

The house always wins

“The romantic, reckless, very lucky Colonel John Charles Fremont stumbled down into northern Nevada from Oregon in 1843. Against all advice, he decided to cross the Sierras in winter. It was a mild winter, so he discovered Lake Tahoe and returned East in glory to write a best-selling account of the expedition. Three years later the Donner Party set out from virtually the same spot but encountered a less clement winter and famously perished. This, one might say, was how gambling began in Nevada.” – George Scialabba, “In Nevada”

How that all turned out

“In 1900 there were grounds for optimism about the coming century. Apart from bloody but brief contests between Prussia and Austria and Prussia and France, Europe had been at peace since Napoleon. The first great age of industrialization had vastly increased national wealth and standards of living throughout Western Europe and North America. A moderate and humane liberalism, leavened by social-democratic stirrings, seemed the common political destiny. The arts, sciences, and crafts were flourishing; the graces and amenities of bourgeois civilization were gradually spreading. Among the educated, satisfaction prevailed and continued progress was the universal expectation.

“The actual history of the 20th century was, as we know, hideous beyond imagining. A world war begun by accident, unexpectedly and unprecedentedly destructive, dragged on for no adequate strategic or political reason, embittering an entire generation. The peace settlement was vindictive, creating lasting resentment among the losers. Statist parties took power in several countries with weak democratic traditions – notably Russia, Germany, and Italy – and ruled by indoctrination and terror, culminating in mass murder. Another world war, twice as destructive as the first, ended with the use of a new class of weapon, capable of obliterating cities in a few minutes. All this in the first half of the century. The second half was a little quieter, but still wracked by war, political murder and torture, and the novel threat of instantaneous global nuclear annihilation.

“We have a lot of reflecting to do.”

– George Scialabba, “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century”

One and the same

“The God of Plato and Aristotle, of Plotinus and Augustine, of Aquinas and Bonaventure, of Newman and C. S. Lewis; the eternal immutable, infinite, ubiquitous, omnipotent, omniscient Supreme Being, Unmoved Mover, ens realissimum, whose existence is identical with His essence and who is without body, parts, or passions, is one of the sublimest achievements of the human imagination. He, not Yahweh, is the deepest mystery, for metaphysics (as His reluctant admire Nietzsche pointed out) is the subtlest psychology, the supreme fiction.” – George Scialabba, “God: A Biography”

The end of the world and we missed it

“All too often ‘modernity’ has meant nothing more than the assault of capitalism on tradition, with enlightenment nowhere in view. Commodification, wage labor, and mass production have drastically undermined craft, regional, ethnic, religious, and even familial loyalties and virtues, substituting only the abstract disciplines of the market. Industrial capitalism may be readier than traditional societies to exploit the distinctive virtues of modernity — intellectual curiosity, originality, tolerance, social solidarity — but it does little to foster them. The result is an unanchored moral culture: shallow, fragile, manipulative, in a word, narcissistic. Modernity without enlightenment seems to be a prescription for nihilism. Premodernity, both psychic and political, must be outgrown rather than merely suppressed, as industrial capitalism tends to do. On the other hand, it is arguably only developed industrial capitalism that allows a society the economic luxury of postponing adulthood, whether through higher education, travel, or some other vocational moratorium. Between these constraints, it is difficult to see any clear path to a secular democratic-socialist utopia.” – George Scialabba, “A Prophet, Honored”

You’re a big boy now

“The infant’s and child’s outsized fantasies — of omnipotence and terrified helplessness, of rage and undifferentiated union, and so on — must gradually be worn down, reduced to human scale. And this inward, intensive identification — different from the outward-turning, assimilative identification that enlarges our sympathies — is what gives us human shape, psychically speaking, along with other, secondary identifications the same sort: with church, neighborhood, ethnic group, and their beliefs and practices. The memories of which these local identifications consist constitute us. We are our histories, in a way more precise and intimate than previously appreciated.” – George Scialabba, “A Prophet, Honored”

For others, it’s no so hard

“For an intellectual, it is the hardest thing in the world to be both passionate and disinterested, committed and open-minded, eager to convince and willing to listen: to be, in a word, fair.” – George Scialabba, “Why Orwell Matters”

 

No matter how little sense they may make

“Because old beliefs are not simply displaced but persist within new ones, dominant ideologies cannot be merely refuted but must be demystified, which means that their plausibility must be acknowledged and accounted for.” – George Scialabba, “Moneybags Must Be So Lucky”