Archive for the 'Politics' Category

RAND, Rand and Accelerando

Just a few things of interest:

  • Profits of fear — Boing Boing has Charles Platt’s story about Sam Cohen, inventor of “the most moral weapon ever invented”…the neutron bomb. A fascinating look at nuclear hysteria, the Cold War and (of course) the military-industrial complex.
  • Evicting Politics — JTK makes an interesting observation:
    I find it striking that Rand’s great protagonists were inventors and businessmen, yet her admirers tend to focus almost exclusively on rational evangelism. The most powerful model for collective action appropriate to individualists is business, yet business gets short shrift from libertarians as a means for curtailing the state – they tend to devote themselves instead to collective political movements.
    Josh brings up the usual objection in the comments: “you won’t get liberty if your neighbours want you to be enslaved, no matter the number of gadgets you have”, but Kennedy rightly points out that this argument doesn’t fly:
    Few people primarily want to enslave you, they want something else and they think enslaving you is the only or easiest way to get it. When enslaving you is more expensive than it’s worth they lose interest in enslaving you.
  • Accelerando — Charles Stross’ new novel is available for free download in a variety of formats with the blessings of his publisher. Both Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise were excellent and the first chapter of Accelerando, published separately as the short story “Lobsters,” is quite good as well, so I have high hopes for Stross’ latest effort (GR: definitely check it out). As in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, one of the major themes of Accelerando is the social impact of a technological singularity, which is a fascinating topic.

    Incidentally, Stross is doing this as a “marketing exercise”; he wants to see what impact (if any) releasing a free version online has on his sales figures. Apparently the initial results “look promising.” In the interests of helping him to keep track of how many people are reading the free version (and, hopefully, to convince his publisher to allow him to offer future novels as free downloads), consider reading the HTML unless you really prefer plain text or PDF.

When yippies are also yuppies

“London-based Iraqi novelist” Haifaa Zangana claims that “Iraqi women know that the enemy is not Islam…The enemy is the collapse of the state and civil society. And the culprit for that is the foreign military invasion and occupation.” Um…I’m not sure how a set of ideas could be an enemy in any case, but if she has in mind Islamists and not the abstraction “Islam,” why exactly should we think of it as an either/or situation? Doesn’t “the collapse of the state and civil society” (if you could call Saddam’s government that) work in tandem with Islamist aspirations, so that people, in a time of chaos, run to them because their espousing of simple, brainless, exceptionless, absolute rules seems like an appealing bastion of stability and certainty? Of course, one might think that those same Islamists are partly responsible themselves for the “collapse of the state and civil society” through their bombing of police stations, power generators, randomn crowds of people, etc. but no, it’s solely the fault of those American devils and their use of “a modern form of napalm.”

End platitude dependency!

I’m no lover of the Saudi royal family or SUV’s, but it strikes me the trendy environmentalist battle cry to “end oil dependency” would sound a lot less attractive if it were “let’s impoverish the Middle East,” which is what it really means. Of course creating or sustaining poverty is the dark unstated goal of the environmental movement as a whole, since wealth is a function of consumption of resources and the environmental movement generally takes as its cue the witholding of natural resources from human use. But in this case I find it particularly amusing that the environmentalist bleating happens to accord so nicely to nationalist economics and politics.

Isn’t the problem with the Middle East not that it profits too much from international trade but that it is not involved enough? I don’t deny that the situation is far from ideal to today, when a single region and culture holds near-monopolistic control over a single critical natural resource, which comprises virtually the whole of its economic output. But the call to “end oil dependency” is a purely negative step: subtract oil, thus cutting off the Arab world’s cash flow, and what will you have? Africa. Less dangerous internationally for the immediate future? Undoubtedly. Better overall for humanity? Only the callous and myopic would believe that. As I recall a debate of a somewhat similar nature ensued during the occupation of Germany after World War II. Since the German political system had seemingly showed itself incorrigibly expansionist, autocratic and militant, some believed that the country should be reduced to a pre-industrial pastoral state to spare the rest of the world. Fortunately, some people (here’s looking at you, Mr. Hayek) recognized that the problem was not that Germany needed to be cut off from the rest of the world but that it had never really been integrated enough, with its nationalist-based economy and political system. Say what one will about the EU, its undoubted achievement has been to make Germans, and all Europeans, realize that they really cannot exist without each other.

The oil industry pretty much functions as a giant welfare program for Middle Eastern nations. It produces huge amounts of money but, due to its particular nature, it doesn’t actually require the residents to engage in economic activity to any great degree. It is a resource, essentially inalienable, that just sits underground until someone pays the owner of the ground above to let them tap it. No need to produce anything that consumers wish to buy–the product is already there, so these nominal producers don’t have to do anything. The change in social institutions and personal habits that usually accompanies the birth of a commercial society is thus not necessary. It should be no surprise then that the political liberalization that usually ensues from this development has not obtained in the Middle East to a degree commensurate with the amount of wealth created. And that money has given greater reach and influence to the non-liberal ideals of these societies even though it has not had the power to liberalize them. But just because the money derived from oil has not brought about sufficiently deep changes in these societies, does not mean that subtracting that money will be any kind of solution to the basic problems. How much oil is there in Pakistan? Afghanistan? Somalia? Chechnya? Morocco? Are these states any less problematic to their own citizens or Westerners? In short, while I definitely concur that it is highly desirable that the nature of trade with the Middle East change, it seems to me that the only true solution to the problems in our relationship to the Middle East is a broader economic investment in those states, not a lesser one.

Crisis in Bavaria!

Some of you may have scoffed when I suggested a while back that socialized medicine means your health decisions become public policy, but now we have further confirmation: the EU wants to outlaw dirndls in Bavarian beer gardens on the grounds that revealing so much cleavage is a serious skin cancer risk. Aside from the obvious blow this would deal to the masturbation fantasies of millions of men (and maybe a few women) and to the Oktoberfest revenue stream, I can’t help but think this is just another step on the road to mandatory one-piece grey jumpsuits for everybody.

In other news, if you haven’t already, you should definitely check out and start using:

  • S5 — Short for Simple Standards-Based Slide Show System, S5 is an XHTML/CSS/JavaScript alternative to PowerPoint, which means you can view and display your presentation with any browser on any computer using any operating system. Admittedly, PowerPoint sucks, but if you must do a PowerPoint presentation, you should be a true geek and use S5.
  • Gmaps Pedometer — If you haven’t already realized that Google Maps is ten times better than pretty much any other online map service out there, get with the program. And if you want to know how long your morning run really is or whether the Magnificent Mile is really a mile (it’s not), well, the Gmaps pedometer is like cartographic crack.

Also, it’s not really a web app like the above, but it’s cool that you can put ebooks on your iPod (if you have one). Of course, the iPod screen is still pretty damn small; has anybody out there found a workable solution for reading books off, say, Project Gutenberg? I read all of The Count of Monte Cristo with my laptop perched on my chest, but, in general, it’s too much of a hassle not to make it worthwhile just to buy the damn book from the bookstore.

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.

War for Votes

In a post from a few days ago, Patri Friedman points to a little back-and-forth between Alex Tabarrok and Brian Caplan about “freaky economics”. Therein, Tabarrok references a paper by Hess and Orphanides that suggests that presidents go to war to get re-elected:

If the economy is doing well, a sitting president is up on one score and without evidence can be assumed to be as good as the challenger in war-making ability. Thus, the president gets reelected. But if the economy is doing badly then an incumbent who cannot present evidence that he has superior war-making ability will lose for certain. Crucially, an incumbent can’t demonstrate war-making ability without a war – so when the economy is doing poorly and the President is up for reelection the model predicts more wars.

Hess and Orphanides define a war as “an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence.” Using data from the International Crisis Behavior Project, they compare the onset of wars in first terms when there is a recession with (a) the onset of wars in first terms with no recession and (b) second terms. Stunningly, however, they find that in the 1953-1988 period wars are about twice as likely in first terms with a recession than in first terms with no recession and second terms (60% to 30%). The probability of this result occurring by chance is low.

Need I mention that the Hess and Orphanides model has proven to have predictive power?

Now, based on psychological intuition, I don’t necessarily disagree with Hess and Orphanides’ conclusions. Nor do I necessarily disagree with the Mencken line Patri summarizes with: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” However, I do have an issue with the justification that H&O give for their theory (at least as summarized by Tabarrok; I can’t access JSTOR from home). First of all, why only use 1953-1988? The American presidency’s been around for over 200 years, so why only use 36 of the more recent years? My guess: because, given that those are the years at the heart of the Cold War, armed, international conflicts were far more prevalent and, therefore, indicative of the desired conclusion. Also, before I get into the above more deeply, note that the H&O model only predicts war if the economy is bad…but the 36 years being discussed were probably (I’m more or less just making this up, but I suspect the numbers would pretty much back me up here) the 36 years of greatest sustained large-scale growth in the history of the world and that, furthermore, arguably the worst period, economically speaking, occurred during the first (and only) term of Jimmy Carter, who was (again, arguably) the least war-like president of at least the last 7 decades or so.

Anyway, let’s be honest, here: those 36 years cover 9 election-cycles (which, depending on how you slice it, gives anywhere from 9 to 11 “presidential terms,” depending on how you classify 1964 and Ford’s time in office), which is a pretty damned small sample size to be drawing “predictive” conclusions from. This becomes more clear if we break it down more explicitly. I’m assuming that Johnson’s first year in office (after JFK’s death) isn’t really being counted as a first term, since he was still eligible to be re-elected in 1968. On the other hand, I’m assuming that Ford’s time in office does qualify, since, even if he had won in ’76, he wouldn’t have been eligible in 1980. Hence, we have the following terms and associated wars (as defined in the H&O paper and as I recall them; that being said, I’m sure I’ve missed some):

First Terms

  • Ike, 1953-56: Korea
  • JFK, 1961-64 (died 1963): Bay of Pigs, start/escalation (depending on how you look at it) of conflict in Southeast Asia
  • LBJ, 1965-68: Vietnam
  • Nixon, 1969-72: Vietnam
  • Ford, 1974-76: Vietnam (still)
  • Carter, 1977-80: None
  • Reagan, 1981-84: Lebanon, Grenada

Second Terms

  • Ike, 1957-60: None
  • Nixon, 1973-76 (resigned 1974): Vietnam
  • Reagan, 1985-88: None

So, by this count, we have “war” in 6 out of 7, or 71% of first terms (I’m guessing, in the paper, JFK gets put in the “no war” category, which is misleading, but, I suppose, technically correct, given their definition; anyway, that gives 5 of 7 or 57%, which rounds off to the cited 60%) and 1 of 3 or 33% of second terms.

Anyway, the point is, yeah, the percentages look pretty significantly different, but when you only have 3 items in the second category, it’s sorta hard to take those percentages seriously in terms of statistical significance.

Also note that if the paper had taken into account the years since 1988, things would look somewhat different. Each of the last five terms has included “an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence”: Bush I had Iraq, Clinton had Somalia in his first term and Kosovo and Afghanistan in his second term (betcha forgot about Afghanistan, didn’t you?), and, obviously, Bush II has had Iraq and Afghanistan in both terms. If we include this period, all of a sudden the percentages become 8 of 10 or 80% for first-term presidents (or 90% if we include JFK) and 3 of 5 or 60% for second-term presidents going to war.

Viewed in that light, the apparent difference between hawks trying to get re-elected and dove-like sitting ducks (sitting doves?) begins to vanish. In fact, the truly cynical might look at those numbers and wonder whether the primary reason presidents get involved in violent international conflict isn’t simply that they have the capacity to do so. The cynic who holds such views might also note that none of the 12 aforementioned “wars” were waged under the auspices of a Congressional declaration of war. And the truly, incurably committed of such cynics might point this little factoid out not in the wistful if-only-we-would-go-back-to-the-Constitution way of knuckleheaded conservatives/Libertarians, but rather as a nod to someone with the initials JTK.

To be or not to be done with all this

Allow me to say what I hope will be my final words on the whole Iraq debacle. Those who have been reading this site from its inception will know that my views on this subject have changed on more than one occaison, which I don’t hold to be anything to be ashamed about in regards to a subject so inherently volatile, since it seems to me that only someone totally intransigent would have remained completely unperturbed through the entire course of it. I have tried to reconcile my sympathy for the hypothesis that the world is almost always better off when the number of megalomaniacal dictators is reduced with my disapproval of the manifest incompetence which has poisoned the effectiveness of this whole adventure to a surprising extent. I suppose in the end I fall in with that whole group that I have often mocked in the past that is fairly supportive of the ostensible goal of ridding the world of said murderous regime while remaining extremely skeptical of the method by which it has actually been carried out.

Let me make the following analogy: suppose a man leaves his house and murders several neighbors one day. The government in response puts him under house arrest. Then a bit later on someone else alleges that he left his home and procured a number of pistols and other firearms. The police demand to enter his house and he refuses, then relents. They show up, don’t find anything, have some arguments with him about where they are and are not allowed to search, and then leave. Two weeks later they show up with a judges’ decree condemning him for uncooperativeness and cut his head off. If this is not the most lurching, inconsistent, arbitrary sort of justice imaginable, I would like to see what is, even if everybody, most especially the neighbors, would be better off if he were removed from their proximity. Of course the U.S. military is not exactly an accepted world governing body, but since it is essentially assuming the prerogative of enforcer of “international law” then it might at least act as a responsible government and propogate a coherent set of policies, infractions, consequences, etc. This is purely practical self-interest, since the single greatest consequence of this whole mess for the U.S. is that America is seen as the aggressor by the rest of the world. I can understand the point of view of those who hold, as the above example suggests, that the whole thing was actually a defense of international laws or principles or whatever, but that’s trying to have it both ways: the American government is exempt from being constrained in any way, but it can enforce “international regulations” whenever it chooses, no matter how inconsistently.

I think that the end of the Iraqi regime has been beneficial to Iraq, and the world, as a whole, especially when one considers that all the terrorism and violence since then has been largely, in my view, a continuation of that regime’s attempt to regain power by setting off a civil war, and that this would almost certainly have been the result no matter how or when the regime fell. However, ironically enough it seems to me that America has incurred the most needless damage in this whole thing, what with the military commitment and the cost and the overall degradation of its image abroad. As one of my friends said the other day: “Do you remember when Americans were popular in the world?” It is in the interest, as well as being the obligation, of any peaceful nation to remain at peace until threatened by an aggressor, and above all never to become the aggressor. I can understand that aggression can come in more subtle forms these days than tanks overriding a frontier, but if arms stockpiling is the new standard, than that must at least coalesce into a clear principle, and of course even then it must fall within the bounds of reason.

Saul Alinsky said that the price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative, but I don’t think that those who approve of the dictatorship coming down but still deplore the circumstances are liable for inconsistency or even obligated to propose an alternative means by which it could have been destroyed. After all, everyone wishes for things for which they are not willing to sacrifice everything, and I wouldn’t have spent the price of the last three years for the questionable benefits that Iraqis may have gained by it, just as the forty years of the Cold War were preferable to some sort of Ragnarok with the Soviet Union in the late ’40’s. These types of governments have a tendency to implode sooner or later, and since the U.S. is much more stable and powerful than any of them, time is always on its side. There is no reason to squander that advantage by bringing matters to a head and subjecting everything to the perfidies of fortune. Freedom is a cause worth fighting for, but likewise a people that desires freedom should fight for it themselves, because only they can ultimately adjudicate the best form of social organization for themselves. This was as true for Russia as it is for Iraq.

Jason Giambi and Bill Clinton, separated at Perth?

“If only these folks in Congress showed as much passion about campaign finance reform, seeing how soft money is politics’ equivalent of steroids.” –Dan Shanoff, ESPN.com

I agree. Both are phony moral issues in which people who otherwise claim to believe in free competition try to force other people that are more apt than they from increasing their competiteveness, despite the fact that this preparation violates no one else’s rights. I note that no amount of political funding or advertising can force anyone to vote a certain way, and that steroids are (or should be) equally available to anyone. But I’m sure that both politicians and athletes will save themselves from sinking to hypocrisy and lying by either defending their undoubted right to indulge in both or honestly forswearing the practice, instead of paying lip service to a questionable value and going about secretly violating it just as before.

Cultural Banach space

A week or so ago, Petya quoted the following definition of “heteronormativity” (March 29th entry):

Heteronormativity means, quite simply, that heterosexuality is the norm– in culture, in society, in politics. Heteronormativity points out the expectation of heterosexuality as it is written into our world. It does not, of course, mean that everyone is straight. More significantly, heteronormativity is not part of a conspiracy theory that would suggest that everyone must become straight or be made so. The importance of the concept is that it centers on the operation of the norm. Heteronormativity emphasizes the extent to which everyone, straight or queer, will be judged, measured, probed, and evaluated from the perspective of the heterosexual norm. It means that everyone and everything is judged from the perspective of straight. [Samuel A. Chambers: The Telepistemology of the Closet; or, The Queer Politics of Six Feet Under. The Journal of American Culture, Volume 26, Number 1, March 2003]

Around 5:00 AM on Sunday, I sent her a short response which she quoted and dissected (April 4th entry). In essence, I had two points, which may or may not be self-contradictory: (1) there’s no qualitative difference between “heteronormativity” and any other cultural norm; (2) “social norms” are basically a bullshit construct to begin with. Of course, given that I wrote the email very early on Sunday morning, I didn’t state either of these points particularly well (or, one might argue at least in the case of the second, at all).

I should say that the above-quoted definition/exposition of heteronormativity is basically correct; in a society in which the majority of people are (or, according to Kinsey et. al., merely identify as) straight, it’s inevitable that, e.g., most people will, in the absence of additional information, assume people they’ve never met before are probably straight. This observation verges on the tautological. Of course, to extend the meeting-someone-new example, most people also assume that people they meet aren’t cannibals and watch a fair amount of television, so it’s not at all clear that there’s anything particularly special about heteronormativity as opposed to non-cannibal-normativity or telenormativity.

At this point, I realize that someone whose brain works differently than mine might think I’m trivializing the whole heteronormativity thing with my examples; after all, cannibals are a damned sight rarer than homosexuals and it’s probably not a good idea to worry to much about whatever psychic damage the non-cannibal norm is doing to them, and people who don’t watch television are unlikely to suffer anything worse than occasional social awkwardness when someone mistakenly assumes that any sentient American will identify and be amused by the phrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!” In contrast, it’s clear that people whose sexual proclivities/identities differ from the heterosexual norm (not just homosexuals) will, at the very least, have to deal with consistent low-grade and occasional acute psychological trauma, precisely because psychological health, self-perception and identity are so intimately related with sex and sexual preferences. In this context, however, please note my careful use of the word “qualitatively” in the opening paragraph. The hetero-norm is no different in kind from other cultural norms, but, because sexual identity tends to be so important to our lives, the deleterious effects of such a norm tend to be felt more intensely than those of many other norms and, hence the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative.

By now, I hope, it’s clear that the statement “[t]he problem with heteronormativity is that it is hardly ever recognized as a norm” is entirely wrong. There are dozens of norms that are hardly ever recognized as norms; I mentioned two above, but other examples include the “bathing regularly” norm, the “education is good” norm, the “democracy is good” norm (intimately tied in with the “voting is good” norm), the “wearing clothes is good” norm, etc. Of course, all of these norms have been pointed out and dissected at by various social critics, academics, etc., but, for practical purposes, they’re not “recognized as norms”. No, the problem (or, perhaps, importance) of heteronormativity derives not from its purported lack of recognition as a norm, but from the relatively greater importance people ascribe to their identity as sexual beings than to their identities as television viewers, bathers, students or voters.

In fact, the notion that “[t]he problem with heteronormativity is that it is hardly ever recognized as a norm” seems to be an expression (presumably unintentional) of the rather pernicious but increasingly popular assumption that norms qua norms are bad. Ironically, this is (or at least has the potential to be) itself a norm. Anyway, norms, in and of themselves, are value-neutral. Certainly anyone who finds him/herself on the wrong side of a norm isn’t going to think much of it, but this isn’t the whole story. For example, although there are people who legitimately suffer from the bathing-regularly-is-good norm (people allergic to soap, people without access to bathing facilities, etc.), I think even they would agree that, in general, it’s better if people aren’t going around smelling like mildew and passing along tinea to all their friends. Even more obvious examples of “good” norms are the one that says killing is bad or the one that tells a woman walking alone late at night in a bad part of town that young males in dark alleys should probably be avoided. The point is, norms in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad; the ones that are are so because they do damage to those who violate the norm (and, one might reasonably argue, everybody else as well, but this is a bit to psychological for me to deal with right now) without having any (or at least not enough) countervailing benefits.

Looking at the clock, I realize that I really should be going to bed and I haven’t even gotten to my second point, the fact that the two points may well be contradictory, the possibility that I may not even believe some of what I’ve written above, and my issues with Petya’s implicit dismissal of me as someone who does “not want to be bothered with conversations about exclusion, oppression, and -isms of all sorts.” All those will have to be left for another day; in the meantime, I’m curious to hear if anybody thinks the above is at all coherent.

Those old ahistorical Marxists

This article on the French and British Enlightenments reminded me of a thought I had when I was reading Aden Arabie by Paul Nizan, a Communist and friend of Sartre’s from the ’30’s who certainly appears, to my admittedly not authoritative eyes, to have pretty much formulated the so-called “existentialist” theory of action which Sartre gets all the credit for, a full 15 years at least before Being and Nothingness appeared. Anyway, the book is a semi-propogandistic autobiographical account of his intellectual conversion to commitment to revolution during a trip to Arabia. At one point in which he is ranting about how declaring publicly that one wishes to live as a human being would get one arrested in France, and how no one actually lives as a human being there, I got to wondering what he would actually define as a human being. At this point, an essential difference between what in this context you might call the French (anti-religious/communist/revolutionary/authoritarian) and British (capitalist/reformist/skeptical) Enlightenment models sprang to mind. The capitalistic economic theories of Adam Smith, for example, or the political sentiments of Edmund Burke, are often, when supported, lauded for being realistic and paying heed to the vulnerabilities and capacities of humankind, while revolutionaries are considered more idealistic as well as abstract and impractical. But it seems to me that the British model, to the extent we can talk about it as a unified phenomenon, is actually more idealistic than the French. What strikes me about the revolutionary model as embodied by Nizan, Voltaire, etc. is that the revolutionaries seem to view the world, and human society in particular, as essentially a zero-sum game. Uplifting the poor inevitably implies depriving the prosperous; instituting the cult of reason necessites consigning religion from public life. Supporting some ideal state of human existence requires that one stigmatize current life as inhuman. It’s not hard to see why the pursuit of ideals in this case is almost inherently violent.

The reformists, by contrast, seem to imagine a world of almost undefined possibility. The poor can be uplifted not by depriving others but by creating new wealth. Reason can come to bloom in human society not by shoving superstition out, but rather by complementing it in adding a new realm of reflection and thought (and action) which had not previously existed. Actual human existence contains the kernel for future dreams, which can be built upon, rather than being demolished. It is not necessary to go along with this philosophy to perceive that there is something more fundamentally hopeful and ambitious about it than in revolution. Of course, the one regard in which it cannot compete, let alone surpass, the revolutionary model is in the maintenance of equality. It’s true that equality is a more marginal consideration, and a more accidental by-product, of the British than the French conception. However, without going into an overly lengthy discussion at the moment, I think it is very necessary to consider whether levelling the top, or caving in to the middle, is what one any of us really value as a social or philosophical ideal, whether it can ever be distinguished from homogeneity, and whether it is not merely the province of envy.

p.s. My title, while intended to be ironic, might require a word of explanation. Marx, as you might guess, was pretty much the paragon of zero-sum revolutionary thinkers. Although idiots like Louis Althusser may believe that it was he that single-handedly brought history into philosophy and culture, it seems that his thinking, and by implication that of his intellectual descendants, is profoundly ahistorical. The opposition between worker and owner which existed at his historical moment in the mid-19th century, which he admittedly perceived very clearly, was to be imposed on the entire history of mankind and on its future. I don’t think he could imagine a true cultural and economic revolution, nor today, in our world of stock options, mutual funds, self-employed people, etc. could even a Marx probably be able to delineate exactly the boundary between worker and owner. Or, to take another example, when I was staying in Oxford several weeks ago, talking with a friend of mine and several other students, one of whom was a die-hard Marxist planning on studying in Japan, the subject was broached as to why no strong Marxist-type revolution or revolutionary movement had broken out in Japan despite its intensely hierarchical society and its monopolistic business model seemingly taken straight from the 19th century. I suggested that maybe the Japanese had simply never in aggregate identified themselves along economic class lines. The idea was not dismissed, but it did not seem to have occured to them before.