Archive for July, 2005

Killing Yourself to Live

Since Curt’s been providing book reviews left and right these past few days, I figure it’s my turn to say a little something about the book I’ve been reading recently, Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live. I’ve been a big fan of Klosterman’s ever since reading a little back-and-forth (ESPN Insider subscription required) he and Bill Simmons did on, which in turn encouraged me to read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which I’ve mentioned once or twice before.1

Killing Yourself to Live is, purportedly, an account of Klosterman’s road trip around the country to visit the Chelsea Hotel (where Sid Vicious almost certainly killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen), Memphis (where both Elvis and Jeff Buckley drowned; Elvis in his own vomit, Buckley in the river), a forest in rural Mississippi (where half of Lynyrd Skynyrd made an unscheduled landing), a greenhouse in Seattle (where Kurt Cobain swallowed a shotgun shell), and various other places where rock stars and their fans and associates died. It is, in his words, an attempt to discover why “the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing”.

Which sounds like a reasonable and even sort of cool telos, but it’s telling that the only death-site Klosterman visits which evokes much of anything is in West Warwick, Rhode Island, where “the night pyrotechnics from the blues-metal sauropods in Great White turned a club called the Station into a torture chamber”. In fact, the entire scenario is sort of anamolous within the context of the rest of the places Klosterman visits: West Warwick is the only place on the itinerary where rock fans (as opposed to rock stars or their girlfriends) were killed, it’s the only place where the musicians involved didn’t rise in the popular esteem after the catastrophe, it’s the only place where the visitor doesn’t feel like, in the words of the Chelsea Hotel manager, he is “not serious-minded” and “looking for nothing”, and it’s the only place where a sort of community has developed around the site (friends of the deceased apparently gather there each night to drink, get high, and reminisce). Pretty much everywhere else Klosterman visits is either inaccessible, banal, isolating or some combination of the three. In other words, while the deaths of rock stars may be compelling, the places they died don’t seem to be. Klosterman himself admits in the prologue:

In the course of this voyage, I will stand where 119 people have fallen, almost all of whom were unwilling victims of rock’s glistening scythe. And this will teach me something I already knew.

That lesson? “Even when it’s merely an accident, dying somehow proves you weren’t kidding.” As Klosterman says, in the context of the Station fire, “people of [his] generation despise authenticity, mostly because they’re all so envious of it. It’s almost like they want to be burned alive, because that would prove they had grit.” However, true as this may be, it’s really not, in and of itself, enough to sustain an entire travel memoir.

Fortunately, Klosterman isn’t afraid of shucking off strict reporting in favor of entering into his own thoughts and experiences when reality doesn’t live up to editorial aspirations, so there’s more to the book than just a laundry list of relatively uninspiring and only quasi-famous places. Which should be all to the good, since Klosterman is the guy who, in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, blamed the inability of “dynamic, nonretarded Americans” to “experience the kind of mind-blowing, transcendent relationship they perceive to be a normal part of living” on John Cusack, is secretly ashamed to be attracted to Pamela Anderson because “[i]t’s almost like desiring Pamela Anderson is like admitting that—sexually—you have no creativity”, argues that “[t]here is no relationship that is not a [1980’s] Celtics-Lakers relationship”, and thinks born-again Christians are cool because “they want to be judged. They can’t fucking wait.” In other words, Klosterman is, at least in theory, interesting and insightful enough to carry a book on the strength of his observations, his musings, and the 600 CDs he brought with him for the journey.

At times, he thoroughly lives up to this potential, whether he’s noting that “[i]t’s like looking down from heaven and watching all the mortals majoring in philosophy” when he realizes that he, in hotel in Montana, knows that power will return to New York the next day (this was August, 2003) while the people there have no idea when or if the lights will come back on, or offering a delightfully self-indulgent paean to the hotel shower:

Hotel showers are flawless. Within the realm of your hotel shower, you are an emperor. A tyrant! Everything is designed solely for you: one little bar of soap, one little bottle of shampoo, and a circular heating lamp stationed above your skull.

Aside from these and similar interludes, Klosterman’s musings on Kurt Cobain’s suicide really form the highlight of the book, because they tie together most of Klosterman’s main obsessions: sex, love, death, authenticity, popularity and music. He’s not afraid to point out that Pearl Jam had supplanted Nirvana as the most popular Seattle grunge band by 1994, that Cobain was rapidly acquiring a reputation as a self-absorbed nutball and that people who didn’t even know or care much about Cobain or Nirvana turned his death into a retrospectively epochal event. Klosterman’s explanation for all this seems eminently reasonable: that Cobain’s death didn’t change the public’s perception of him so much as its perception of itself;

Cobain’s suicide was of the postmodern variety; his death changed the history of the living. Suicide gave sorority girls depth; nihilistic punk kids, a soul; reformed metalheads, a brain. All you had to do was remember caring about Nirvana, even if you did not. And it’s not that these self-styled revisionists were consciously lying; it’s more that they really, really needed that notion to be true. Kurt Cobain was that popular-yet-unpopular kid who died for the sins of your personality.

While these musings on Cobain form the climax of the book, Klosterman (in my mind appropriately) follows with a final chapter that is mostly anti-climactic, stepping back a bit (as it were) from the rhetorical ledge and refusing to ignore the “mildly depressing revelation that dead people are simply dead.” Unfortunately, he also needs to provide closure to by far the weakest narrative theme of the book, his obsession with three different women that he’s either in love with, or used to be in love with, or wants to be in love with, or something.

Klosterman’s (mostly imaginary) love life increasingly dominates the book, starting with a relatively innocent ride he gives to a co-worker and sometimes lover on the first leg of the journey, and ultimately metastasizing into an entire imaginary conversation/argument with the three women he’s obsessed with, a discursion on the KISS solo albums that morphs into an equation of each women he’s loved in his life to some member or former member of KISS, and a number of relationship ultimata both given and received. The KISS comparisons are weirdly compelling, but, although at times one can identify with Klosterman’s situation and mixed feelings of love, they’re ultimately all a little too personal and specific to really make the nut, to use a favorite phrase of the inimitable Hunter S. Thompson, who was a master of making the personal general.

That all having been said, Killing Yourself to Live is still a diverting and interesting book and, to be honest, I think its faults lie more at the feet of the editor than the author. Klosterman is, at heart, an essayist, social critic, and astute observer of minutiae who, at least at present, seems to lack the novelistic instincts required to maintain a narrative that his editor hopes will be “epic” (pg. 12). If it had been conceived as a collection of semi-independent essays, I think Killing Yourself to Live could have been a stronger, more focused counterpoint to the wide-ranging and scattershot brilliance of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.

1. An attack of honestly which may, perversely, prevent similar situations from arising in the future, compels me to mention that, although I would have bought and read the book anyway and this review is as honest as I can make it, I did receive a free review copy of Killing Yourself to Live. And if anybody else wants to send me free books, I’ll be happy to review those, too.

Sexless Tolkien?

I recall one other objection that has been leveled against Tolkien’s work, which is that the allure of power symbolized by the Ring is not very convincing since, unlike in the case of Wagner’s Ring for example, it does not seem to procure any of the finer things desired by the higher passions, love for example. This certainly reflects better on Wagner’s tragic heroes than on Tolkien’s villains, but in a sense I think that that is partly the point. I think the evident misery of those who covet the Ring, like Gollum, and maybe even Sauron himself (who at the very least certainly enjoys the misery of others), and in fact the sheer disorientation of scale whereby ultimate power is invested in a little nothing, an ordinary gold ring, is meant to cast the their greed in a somewhat ridiculous as well as distasteful life. The joke really is on them, who cannot or do not enjoy the great green world around them but have desire only for that tiny little ring. And in the end that is all that they will have even if they do possess it–a ring. That might from a distance not seem a very compelling temptation, but consider this passage from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he marvels at how madly the Byzantine emperors coveted and fought to occupy the throne for a few short, unhappy and suspicious years before (very often) meeting the same fate they had dealt to their predecesors:

“The observation, that in every age and climate, ambition has prevailed with the same commanding energy, may abate the surprise of a philosopher; but while he condemns the vanity, he may search the motive, of this universal desire to obtain and hold the sceptre of dominion. To the greater part…we cannot reasonably ascribe the love of fame and of mankind…Was personal happiness the aim and object of their ambition? I shall not descant on the vulgar topics of the misery of kings, but I may surely observe, that their condition, of all others, is the most pregnant with fear, and the least susceptible of hope.”

It is true that of the sins greed and pride occupy a much bigger place in Tolkien’s universe than lust, but his presentation of the essentially unsatisfying nature of power, so often accompanied by jealousy and suspicion, shows that he had the same mixture of perception of mixed with incredulity at the persistent force of its attraction.

Hayek’s ghost

One couldn’t find a better indication of the failures of central planning than this, as what appears initially as a somewhat promising debate over the means and goals of environmental management immediately degenerates into a strangely nasty fight over the relative importance of specific environmental problems. It’s quite possible that in the case of the air, for example, the tragedy of the commons is inevitable since air cannot really be divided up among people, but those cases are the exception rather than the rule, and by and large this sort of exchange envisions exactly the sort of situation that characterized the early part of the 20th century in economic affairs, with the government pushing money and resources around from one crisis to another, with no long-term solutions in sight because no one affected had any means of taking care of their affairs independently.

Of Tree and Root

Although it seems a little embarassing, as if my childhood has barely ended before I begin indulging in nostalgia for it, I have been re-reading The Hobbit and the The Lord of the Rings, probably the books that meant the most to me when I was a small child but which I have not gone back to in over 12 years, which is to say since I was about nine years old. They hold up surprisingly well even under closer analytical scrutiny, but while Tolkien is justly credited, like the Irish Renaissance writers before him (and more convincingly in my opinion than for example James Joyce), with helping to revive mythology and the epic as suitable subjects for treatment in the modern literary styles (and eventually in film), his reputation seems to have been established on false grounds in certain other respects, two in particular. He is for example accused of encouraging escapism in literature. In the sense that he does not bother with a retailing of the ordinary details of our modern industrialized lives, this is undoubtedly true. But this is as much a moral choice as an aesthetic one, and it seems to me that this is largely the appeal for a child like me when I first discovered the books. It is immediately obvious that as epics they are unmistakeably modern simply because the hobbits start out from a thoroughly domesticated semi-modern existence. They are not bold heroes, and although they mostly accomplish their goals by stealth and cunning they are not the sort of amoral tricksters that usually act in this way in mythological stories, like the Navajo coyote-man or Brer rabbit. They are simply rather indolent innocents, children really who have never had to expand or take on responsiblity until verging on middle age, approximately the age of the writer himself while writing them.

What is crucial is that in order to develop morally, to become wise, mature and unselfish they have to venture out into the wilds of the world, to leave the Shire so to speak. Some writers of the fantastic genre, like the fairly reprehensible Roald Dahl, send a hedonistic message to children, indicating to them that their own selfish little desires and habits of life are more important and worthwhile than the dreary world of adulthood and counselling them to indulge in them no matter how amoral. Those writers I universally found distasteful as a child, but they could not be more different from Tolkien. Tolkien’s epics are tales of initiation or apprentissage, and while the world of innonence is very sweet and charming he is clear that all the finer virtues must be developed with maturity. The protagonists gradually change from diminuitive to grand only with great pain. This is probably what adults forget about childhood, if my own was at all indicative. It is easy to look back on the past, but one always forgets the part of one’s mind and heart at that time that was looking towards the future, both with apprehension and hope. For myself as a child I could think of nothing more important or compelling than to grow up, in the sense of developing from a nothing into someone distinguished in some admirable way, either by heroism or by generosity or by genius. As fantastic as the world of Middle-Earth may be, it is clear that from the Tolkienien point of view it is really us who refuse to venture beyond the staid and comfortable little boundaries of our own little social existences, our own Shires, who are the escapists, in the sense that we, for the sake of comfort and due perhaps to a lack of imagination, do not confront the real dangers of life that challenge us to become great, or at least self-justified.

That misconception should already point to another one, particularly dire in the ’60’s when the books first became popular and very evident in the little preface to my own edition written by someone in 1973 in California. This is the view that Tolkien is some sort of proto-environmentalist and hippy, standing up for the green earth movement before there was such a thing. Tolkien was notoriously unfriendly to allegory, but the obvious emotional and moral component of the characters’ journey into the wilds of Middle-Earth should indicate caution in seeing the books as a simple paeon to nature. For one thing, the nature being spoken of is not “real” nature in the sense that it all occurs in an imagined world (or rather the imagined mythological pre-history of our own world) populated by all kinds of dreamed-up creatures. It’s not the real natural world of the English or any other countryside but the countryside that is produced by and nourishes an active imagination. Secondly, the natural world in the books is by no means universally happy and friendly. It is sometimes malevolent and always dangerous, and the characters do not develop by communion with it but rather agonistically, in conflict with their surroundings. The virtues they develop there are far from the pacifistic or passive ones mistakenly identified by the ’60’s crowd: they become brave, bold, even aggressive in defense of a just cause. The latent violence in Middle-Earth is quite pervasive. It really is the natural world in the sense of a competition among the various species and races, which is one aspect of Tolkien’s vision which I cannot approve of morally. Among the main characters there is always a moral struggle, but whole swaths of Middle-Earth seem blocked-out ethically. Elves, wizards and the High Men of the West are (almost) always good, orcs, trolls, spiders and dragons are always bad, and the murder of one of the members of the bad species never even requires a justification beyond reference to that species. It is well-known (now) that Tolkien was not exactly a fervent opponent of the Nazis, and the geographic and genetic moral segregation in the books is pretty bad and has never been justified satisfactorally that I know of. That by itself should indicate that Tolkien is a different type than he has often been made out to be.

It seems to me that his style, reflected in his language (an element of the success of the books under-appreciated both by readers and by the generally poor writers who followed in his path) among other things, is the opposite of ironic: it builds up rather than undercuts, makes a subject that does not seem intrinsically serious important. I do not know whether Tolkien actually believed in the existence of fantasy-worlds, though his outlook does seem rather pagan (which does not necessarily clash with his vowed Roman Catholicism, it being itself a borderline pantheistic religion), but he does constantly stress the need for belief in the fantastic for the health of the imagination and, in turn, for the hope, the belief in life being played upon a larger stage, which is essential to inspire moral development. It does not brush aside the essentials of life, but rather, just as the parable always suggests a level of meaning beneath that which is apprehended, so the fantasy here constantly pushes to a realm of possibility just a little beyond that which was previously accepted.

For Americans the European Union, for Europeans les États-Unis, the E.U. is always perceived as the problem

It’s amazing how in just a few months skepticism about the EU seems to have become endemic almost universally. My own perspective on this is that I have never looked at modern Europe as an independent society, simply because any nation or group of nations that delegates the most fundamental societal task, military defense, to a foreign power has ceded, even if not permanently, the essence of its sovereignty. That’s why it seems absurd to me to talk about the EU as an alternative model of societal organization to the U.S., since it continues, in the final evaluation, to shelter under the American wing and to depend absolutely upon the continued dominance of the eagle. The fact that it is being applauded precisely for having “de-emphasized” military power seems positively irresponsible. It is analogous to the socialist mentality critiqued by Hayek: just as those who have supported socialism did not in general really wish to put an end to economic considerations in life but merely to dispense with the hard and sometimes unpleasant choices and limitations exposed by economic self-management, so many Europeans seem to wish to deny the reality of unfriendly neighbors and at times violent competiton by removing the responsibility for managing that side of social life to a distant land. So in a sense it is pointless to argue about the relative successes and failures of the “European system” because it has never really been exposed to the world sufficiently to determine whether it can sustain itself. Its major industries are protected by heavy tariffs and subsidies, its workers’ wages are supported by a restrictive immigration policy and its continued existence is guaranteed by a huge American military investment. And politically, the failure has become already evident. The much-applauded “polycentric” governance is the essence of the problem. I have become convinced that the single most important factor in governmental “legitimacy” is the psychological acceptance on the part of the population of a singular authority. Not to say that one individual or group has to control everything, but in every area covered by governmental juridiction there can be no ambiguity about who has the final say. The lack of such cohesiveness and credibility is massive in the EU. It may be very noble to wish to gain the consent of everyone before taking action on this and that, but in the EU it frequently seems that no back-up plan exists if not everyone agrees. Remember, the U.S. tried to govern itself that way for several years under the Articles of Confederation, and the results in that case were more dramatic perhaps only because the EU exists in a much friendlier international environment where it is artificially sheltered from the immediate consequences of ineffective policy. Failure in this case has become evident only because the EU has not even met the basic standard of being able to agree on a plan, let alone formulating a successful plan.

Unlike Sean Hannity, you don’t see me calling for the end of liberalism

Final reactions to reading Hayek:

  1. Hayek states, more or less, that the core of any totalitarian movement consists generally of the stupid and brutish types. This unaccountable bit of intellectual snobbery seems to overlook the fact that the early converts and leaders of most of these movements that I know of tend to be petty intellectuals, whether they be failed painters like Hitler, failed poets and philosophers like Mao or failed lawyers like Lenin. The thugs that often accumulate around them from an early stage seem more like opportunists, certainly without the planning ability or long-term goals that can start a true megalomaniacal organization in motion. Indeed, a certain degree of intelligence seems requisite to formulate and persevere with a strategy that stands in revolt against liberal society, alongside ruthlessness and the loyalty to men and ideas that comes from fanaticism. These qualities are the core of any such movement and are certainly distinct from the common loutishness of the brown- or blackshirts. But Hayek in other places seems to be aware of this, noting that the very nature of a totalitarian state seems to select for those who have the desire and ruthlessness to impose their own objectives on all those around them.

  2. I don’t find the moral difference between liberal and dictatorial societies to be essentially the difference between normative and teleological ethics. It is not a matter of totalitarian rulers not having moral values but of being the sole ones vested with moral authority both as the interpreters and objects of ethics. In a liberal society everyone has or should have a free space of action to which they can apply their own code of conduct, but in a totalitarian society no such space exists, which proves catastrophic because, as Hayek suggests, those inclined to abuse authority are most likely to succeed in such a society.

  3. Hayek says things like “freedom can be had only at a price and…as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve our liberty.” For some members and in some cases that may be true, but if it were true in aggregate that there is a necessary trade-off of liberty versus prosperity of this nature it would greatly weaken the value of a liberal society. I understand that he is counselling a certain amount of stoicism as regards the economic system in the face of misfortune, but the evidence indicates to me that economic and political liberty prosperity are strongly correlated and are in fact practically synonymous for society as a whole. One considerable aspect of economic liberty is precisely the opportunity to achieve prosperity, and it seems to me one of the follies of socialism, at least in the pre-war period, was to dissociate the two, a view which Hayek seems to be implicitly endorsing for some strange reason (granted he had at this time perhaps only had the opportunity to observe the oppression and not the poverty wrought by Nazism and communism).

p.s. It seems to be the conventional wisdom that the immediate object of Hayek’s criticism is dated because, whatever the indirect pressures of redistributionary policies and the welfare state, direct state management of major industries is over except in a few backwards outposts like North Korea. It may be true that the citizens of the major countries do not tolerate this anymore in the management of their own affairs, but certain cases like this one suggest that some, perhaps many, are in favor of central planning in areas outside their boundaries that they can dominate. If I were even more cynical than I am I might suggest that the combination of high environmental standards levied by Western countries on foreign products, protectionist economic policies and direct administraton of “aid” in conjunction with the ruling oligarchies of poor countries were deliberately designed to effectively re-colonize the Third World by reducing it to a state of total dependence in such a way as to seem to keep the wealthy countries’ leaders’ hands clean. In any case, the effect would be substantially the same.

The road to academic thraldom

As I am working my way through Hayek, I have two more points to respond to briefly (I apologize, just as I did in the case of Kuhn, for arguing with a book without providing background for those who haven’t read it, but, just as with Kuhn, the book is short and the issues readily comprehensible for almost anyone, I believe). Firstly, he claims that a free society is distinct from a despotic one in that a free society is governed by laws, while a despotic society is governed by arbitrary power. In this case laws are not defined as whatever the government decrees but rather rules based on general principles which are not discriminatory for or against any particular individual or group. I think this mostly valid, but insufficient. One can easily think of social systems, such as Islamic sharia, which are totally consistent, universally applied and yet utterly tyrannical. The problem is their excessive rigidity and all-embracing nature. A society needs a relatively large scope for unregulated action to be truly liberal, and even the actions directly addressed must provide for more than one course of action–in other words restrictive but not proscriptive. Even something as seemingly intuitive and fundamental as “thou shalt not kill,” for example, if taken totally rigidly and proscriptively, would rule out not only war and executions but also accidents and self-defense. Again, I don’t know if this was really an error on Hayek’s part or merely an overly convoluted line of argument, but I believe that at the least it simplifies the issue to imagine the essential dichotomy as being between a society that allows multiple courses of action and one that permits only one.

Secondly, and this is not a point on which I disagree with Hayek but rather one in which I felt the need to add an additional principle to come round to agreement with him, is the always tricky matter of the inherent inequalities in a liberal society that arise from such things as unearned income by way of inheritance and the like. Hayek resolves the issue by casting it as a choice of the lesser of two evils, arguing that there is no impartial means of income redistribution and that whatever the flaws in allowing people to accumulate income they didn’t earn pales by comparison to ceding someone or group the power to determine what income people deserve. This is true as far as it goes, but I still think it pays too much regretful homage to the mirage of equality of wealth and feel that the legitimacy of inheritances and so forth can be more solidly established on the following grounds. In my opinion for a government to forbid or consfiscate these is essentially to outlaw or rather to monopolize generosity. Consider: all gifts are by their nature unearned. Nevertheless the act of giving, or more particularly giving that which one has earned, that is to say altruism, is the highest of human impulses. To confiscate that which is given as a gift is to take on the responsibility of determining who is the most deserving of it and thus to obviate the whole nature of gift-giving. Therefore, to mandate against them is tantamount to forbidding the most virtuous of human acts. To me this is an a priori wrong just in the way that an insistence on “equality” above all else is an equally wrong tribute to envy, the lowest of humans emotions.

Comparing fruits

I have been reading The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich August Hayek recently, quite a reasonable book I find, though one, like John Locke’s work on education, that seems to have suffered the peculiar fate that its ideas have become so influential and entrenched that now they seem anodyne and commonplace. In order to retrench their merit, it perhaps helps to remember that, just as Rousseau was arguing 100 years after Locke that the best education for children was to let them run free through the woodlands (much as perhaps Rousseau’s own abandoned children did), so Paul Samuelson’s book Economics, undoutedly the most influential American economics textbook of the last half-century, in every edition up to the late ’80’s claimed that the Soviet Union proved the capacity of a command economy for dynamism and growth. And so the Haykian thesis that not only prosperity depends upon economic autonomy and the free allocation of resources but also political freedom continues to be well-taken. However, two subsidiary issues trouble me from the very beginning, quite apart from my uneasiness with the vagueness of his terminology, particularly grandiose and multi-faceted terms like “power” and “freedom,” which particularly when discussing complicated historical phenomena make almost any position endlessly debateable. However, I am at pains to reconcile myself to it by keeping in mind that the work is largely polemical, a political pamphlet more than a detailed discussion.

I can’t think of a relatively politically free society that is not commensurately economically liberal, but I am not sure that political freedom is a necessary pre-condition of economic liberalism. Hayek seems to imply that it is when he says of Europe’s commercial development: “The…elaboration of a consistent argument in favor of economic freedom was the outcome of a free growth of economic activity which had been the undesigned and unforseen by-product of political freedom.” Even in connection with this particular case this is quite a debateable point, and while I might agree that British commercial growth, especially in Scotland, did largely follow upon political liberalization and greater autonomy for regions and citizens, for Europe as a whole I think it is considerably less true. The first true commercial state in Europe was the Byzantine Empire, which was as oppressive intellectually and politically as any in the world, with its absolute imperial despotism and rabid enforcement of Christian orthodoxy. The commercial states of Italy largely came about due to its subsequent collapse and the disappearance of Constantinople as the world’s great center of trade. Because the Italian city-states were (at least technically) subject politically to the Holy Roman Empire through the 17th century and intellectually and financially to the Catholic Church, it was only with the money that they received from trade that they were able to fight or pay off their feudal and ecclesiastical enemies. Thus political freedom certainly accompanied the growth of free trade, but it could hardly be called an antecedent. And as a general statement, I think there are even more profound challenges to the theory. The great example today is of course China.

It seems to me that the Chinese have become more free since the advent of the market there (though no doubt less than was hoped), and that this will continue as the country becomes wealthier, if nothing else because money is power in a commercial society and power can obtain a degree of freedom. One might even speculate that if political liberalization does not continue apace then economic growth will slow or even stall. Right now I think the Chinese economy is still in replicant phase, largely reproducing technology and models that already exist in the West. With a certain base of competency and a concentration of resources and energy this is in some ways the simplest phase of economic expansion–even the Soviet Union industrialized in about a decade under Stalin’s lash. But without a great deal of latitude for entrepreneurs this will not probably be sustainable when one gets to the stage of the Western nations, where continued growth depends largely on invention and experimentation. But whether this be or no, political freedom cannot be held to be an antecedent, much less the cause of the economic explosion, even if the market inherently means a degree of freedom in economic affairs.

The second issue is not really an empirical one, but more a matter of valuation. Hayek is very keen to note the importance of individualism for both economic prosperity and political freedom, even going so far as to call it the essential feature of Western civilization, which is true as far as it goes but is still much over-simplified. In any case, he particularly notes Britain and the Low Countries as being for a long time the firmest bastions of individualism in the world. On a personal note, however, I have been to Britain, Belgium and Holland in the course my European travels and find them to be the most disagreeable countries in Europe. Graffiti, trash, crass commercialism, crime and general social hostility are the worst in Europe, and in the case of crime at least that is in fact objectively correlated. They are the most violent countries in Europe if not the world, with the most immigrants and the most meager attempts at assimilation. I find American cities just as bad, but am more comfortable on the whole in the U.S. because the country is less urbanized than those others and so the problem is less universal. In other words, the individualism so lauded by Hayek has a very distinct dark side, one which corresponds to a degree of social atomization I have seen nowhere else in the world and now find a little shocking. I have a feeling from Hayek’s language, particularly his condemnation of “antisocial privileges,” that he would in no way condone this and probably only advanced his notion of individualism in conjunction with the rule of law and on condition that a sense of voluntary obligation to one’s fellow man should replace and prevent coercion. It is nonetheless, whatever Hayek may have believed in or hoped for, the result of a philosophy of individualism without responsibility or obligation which has produced this reprehensible situation, and strangely enough, perhaps it is, just as with Marxism, an underestimation of the selfishness of man which is at the root of the failure. The callous indifference of middle-class life in the West is disappointing enough, but (along with Dalrymple) I find the wasteland of malignant hostility inhabited by the underclass here more appalling even than the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, to the point that I could not call it a true community or even a functional component of the larger society.

p.s. Let me anticipate one objection which I am almost certain is coming. It will be said that the salient feature of the Western underclass is the omnipresence of the welfare state, which seems to be anything but individualist, particularly given how Hayek himself summarizes the promises of “freedom” made by the later socialists, which is more or less a perfect description of welfare policies:

“The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restraints of the economic system’ relaxed.”

And so this is true in a way. For the non-welfare recipients in society, it definitely functions as a simple collectivist coercive policy. However, three points in response:

  1. Every country I have been to has some form of welfare, but this does not produce the same levels of violence and hostility in Sweden, in Germany or in Russia that it does in America or Britain or Holland.

  2. The phenomenon of social atomization is not limited to the underclass, it just reaches its most extreme form there, another reason that it seems to me as much of a cultural phenomenon as an economic one.

  3. One has to consider the way in which the welfare state divides people into two societies. As I said, subsidizing it is certainly an unwelcome imposition for me, but my true objection to it is the effect it has on the recipients. One can imagine that the most absolute form of collectivism would posit no rights, only obligations for the individual. The most extreme form of individualism would posit only rights and no responsibilities. The latter is more or less the case in the anarchic yet subsidized world of the Western underclass. The violence and lawlessness that ensue is I feel partly a natural result of the attitude of a class of people who in return for receiving enough to live on comfortably (relative to the rest of the world) are pretty much required to continue breathing, and consequently they evince about as much sense of social obligation as the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy. Thus welfare is in effect collectivist but philosophically I think it is, while paternalistic, ultimately a perversion of individualism that posits a rather excessive conception of everyone’s economic rights. Just as Hayek demonstrated that the political spectrum is a circle in which the opposite extremes of Nazism and communism almost exactly resemble each other, so the extremes of theoretical individualism and collectivism can result in the near-identical elevation of people to positions of corrupting privilege or power over others. As Aristotle said, virtue generally lies at an equal distance between opposite vices.

Running with the…motorcycles?

Looks like someone confused the Pla d’Adet with another town in (the vicinity of) the Pyrenees.


Another winner!

“We know that the killing of innocents is forbidden. But we don’t see two classes of blood; the blood of Iraqis is just as important to us as English blood…when you understand things from that perspective, why should we condemn the bombing?” –Dr. Imram Waheed, “Islamic activist,” in the NYT.

It’s clear that logic is prominent among the branches of Islamic philosophy.