Come Together VI: Live While You Live, A History Boy, 23/03/2017

Read the Come Together series of posts on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract from the beginning.
• • •
Continued from previous . . . I ended yesterday with a question. If even the most virtuous will inevitably fall, why should we even hope?

The question underlies the whole point of writing about utopias and political or ethical ideals at all. Well, no, it underlies rather more than that. Taken rhetorically, it’s the sigh of despair for every aspect of life. It’s the possibility that death nullifies the value of life.

It’s the challenge of mortality. Everything ends eventually. Realizing this thought is sobering, and sometimes terrifying. Funny thing is, it’s actually defined my work since I started publishing philosophy.

My first published essay in an official philosophy venue was an essay in the first Doctor Who and Philosophy collection. Because of course it was. It grappled with that existential question, of what the value of life could be if death negated all its achievements.

The answer to the question is to deny its validity. Just because the effects and knowledge of your actions won’t last forever doesn’t rob them of their value. The value of our actions are in the actions themselves, and the immediate time frame of their effects.

The city rises and will fall one day. Its dignity is in its life.
If I help one old poor woman get a good lunch one day, it doesn’t matter that she died that very evening of a catastrophic coronary in her sleep.* If you go to any figure in the general canon of Western philosophy, you’ll find this concept most clearly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.

* I sometimes feel like I don’t do enough to help people who need it.

But I see it asked in Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and I’m left wondering about its status in that very ambiguous text. Before I picked up Rousseau’s books again for this string of classical research, I hadn’t really touched his writing since I was an undergraduate.

I learned a very simple Rousseau back then, one that doesn’t quite jive with the ambiguous thinker I see here. My education in political philosophy suffered from the unfortunate trend of undergraduate teaching – making the ideas clear, too clear.

Rousseau’s work is remembered because of his ambiguity. He’s a genius at describing the hidden potentials of humanity – freedom, happiness, social harmony, all the aspects of our perfection. But he’s also a genius at explaining what it is about human society that keeps us from realizing that potential.

We can conceive of this potential and approach it, even though we might only inch toward living a more perfect existence in our own lifetimes. Circumstances might conspire against us completely in trying to become more perfect creatures.

I’m reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy right now. He, most stereotypically of anyone else in the tradition, is a thinker of contingency and crap circumstances. You can tell, when you read these two books one after the other, how scholars are on target when they discuss the deep influence Machiavelli had on Rousseau.

Scholarship aside, it’s not as though Machiavelli’s pragmatic sensibility survives in Rousseau. The Social Contract and all his major works are aporetic – they leave you hanging. There are no certainties, no comforting paths forward.

You understand the human condition better than before you read it – our possibilities for social harmony and perfection along with our tendencies to corruption, greed, violence, and ruin. Understanding leads to wiser action.

Wisdom is not a correct answer on an exam. Never confuse the two.

Come Together V: Even the Best Will Fall, Research Time, 22/03/2017

Continued from previous . . . Say freedom explodes in a society. Tyrants fall. The corrupt oligarchs and bloodthirsty generals either flee or are strung up. People look around them when the fires die down and see a wide field of potential. And they smile.

The truly insightful ones, underneath their smiles and their joy at finally being free, are also scared shitless.

A tyrant can be so exalted among his people that
he appears invincible, as if he'll always be their
ruler.
Because when you literally get the chance to form an entirely new republic, constitution, institutions and all, you’re faced with a tremendous burden. You have to build a state that does justice to your people, especially if you really have overthrown a dictator and have a chance to grow a democratic society.

It’s interesting, in that context, to read Rousseau steadfastly refusing to say anything like what the best government for people would be. That’s what a good chunk of traditional political theory is – analyzing and arguing over state institutions, their powers, and their affects in shaping a political culture, to identify the best form of government.

Thinking about this question is where Rousseau’s pessimism begins to emerge. However much he’s known as a utopian thinker – and however much he really is a utopian thinker – he’s a deep pessimist about real human potential.

He shies away from answering this question with any content for two reasons. One is an empiricist’s humility. Rousseau knows that there’s a huge amount of cultural and economic variety just among the different states and societies of Europe.

You can’t, given that variety, give an account of the best forms of government that will be universal. Not if you want that account to have much content other than the will to freedom. Which doesn’t get our hypothetical fellow in the ruins of his old tyranny out of his problem.

Because you don’t escape the problem of how best to govern people. Rousseau explains that all governments – no matter how virtuous in their beginning – will always eventually fall apart. As he puts it, any unified government of free people will eventually collapse into either another tyranny or violent anarchy.

So our man in the rubble can build with all the ambition and wisdom his people can muster. It will all be a tyranny again eventually.

Only a few tyrants are ever really so fortunate. And you think Qaddafi
got it rough in the end. You should have seen Rome.
Rousseau uses a concept of corruption in this argument that I think has roots in Aristotle. I may dig around for a copy of On Generation and Corruption to examine the concept there. But in the context of The Social Contract, this corruption is a kind of cultural erosion.*

* Here's another welcome sign of Rousseau's materialism. Nowhere in his account of the reasons for humanity's corruption does he fall back on any Christian concepts of original sin. He relies on no talk of the soul or our fallen relationship with God. He speaks only of the material processes of culture, the social forces among classes as some communities tend to work as private citizens and some communities tend to produce governors, bureaucrats, and other powerful people.

Any stable state maintains itself in tension between a few fundamental social forces. As Rousseau puts it, that tension is between the sovereign power of the people themselves, and the institutional power of the governing classes.

In a well-structured society, it’s a creative tension – incredible achievements arise from the battles and rivalries among the popular and institutional classes. But the heat will always wear away the machinery of the government. That creativity may make a state last longer and achieve greatness, but things will begin to creak.

They’ll be near-silent, but audible.

That’s the tragedy of human society. We can achieve so much when we can encourage freedom in society while building institutions that solve our coordination problems for large-scale activity. But the energy in any culture is fuelled through the tension and conflict of people and institutions.

Such greatness occurs only in the most virtuous governments, which are rare enough as it is. Most real states are far more vicious. Cruel. The 20th century even saw the perfection of government through mass murder-suicide. Our virtue is rare.

If even the most virtuous will inevitably fall, why should we even hope? . . . . To be continued

The Terror of Popular Skepticism, Composing, 21/03/2017

I’m taking a break from my extended treatment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most canonical essays for some self-promotion. My latest essay just dropped at the Reply Collective, and I’ve had some follow-up ideas.

I always have follow-up ideas to these essays. Sometimes, they tumble out onto the blog and nothing much else happens with them. Sometimes, some of my SERRC colleagues pick them up formally or casually. Sometimes, we all have a big chat about it. Sometimes, I just write a follow-up essay for them later.

I’m actually waiting to hear back from Buzzfeed Reader about a pitch for basically the same essay, but rewritten in a more casual, journalistic tone.

In “Subverting Reality,” I consider that my own discussion of fake news will probably become obsolete or incomplete in the time between drafting and publication. Even though that was only about three weeks. I was half-serious, but only half-joking, since things really do change that fast in Trump’s world.

He is epochal.
And it turned out that I was right! The day “Subverting Reality” was published, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the ongoing investigation of the Trump Campaign (now the Trump Administration) regarding a possible quid pro quo with Vladimir Putin’s government.

How this all plays out will create a dire test for democracy – if a group of people accustomed for so long not to trust government and to believe the most ridiculous conspiracies about their opponents can believe inconvenient truths anymore.

There are significant numbers of Americans whose worldview is shaped so much by pernicious conspiracies – birtherism and pizzagate – that an intelligence community plot to destroy their movement’s leader is an ordinary thought. How does the truth win out in a society where lies are more trustworthy?

Call them institutional skeptics, because they’ve lost trust in the government institutions whose trustworthiness grounds the entire legitimacy of the state. A lot of those people are seniors who watch too much FOX News. But enough of them could also be in militias like Ammon Bundy’s.

Judging by what Comey said and pointedly avoided saying, many high-profile figures in the Trump campaign are under intense investigation. The collusion with the Russian government could constitute incredibly serious charges.

How do you convince people who’ve had their entire practical political worldview shaped by this culture of partisan falsity and conspiracy since the 11 September attacks to trust in democratic institutions again?

That's a terrifying and epochal question for the thinkers of social epistemology – in its most political sense, as the knowledge of the people – to grapple with.

Come Together IV: Liberation Through Communication, Research Time, 20/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . Rousseau offers us conceptual resources to understand how political power is rooted not in the state or any institution, but in ordinary people themselves. If I can throw a bone to my right-wing populist friends, Rousseau is a classical source of critique against “the elites.”*

* Whoever these elites actually are, since the definition gets more than a little slippery.

Here’s the structure that “the sovereign” has when you read The Social Contract. It’s the energy of a whole community acting in harmony, the kind of self-conscious social harmony I described on Friday.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 and 2012 were attempts to overthrow
oppressive, tyrannical governments and replace their corrupt practices
with democratic, accountable leadership that served the common
interests of citizens. Citizens came to know their common interests
through talking with each other, which allowed them to come
together as one social body to demand change. Never forget this.
Sovereign power emerges from the expression of thousand (or maybe even millions) of people in a community acting together on their known common interest. That's the immanent power of political action.

Practically, you’re now forced to ask how to produce this intense solidarity in your community. It would be wonderful to live in that kind of community, where every interaction with your neighbours is defined by mutual aid and friendship.

Even though Rousseau often talks as though his ideals are impossibilities – a utopian through and through, that hypocritical old Genevan – he does give a few possibility conditions, even if in a roundabout way.

Communication is a necessary condition of the general will, the spontaneous unity and harmony of a whole community. He doesn’t argue for this directly in The Social Contract, but it’s implied by what he says about the conditions where a despot thrives.

By this, he means the material conditions. The most important one is the dispersal of a people in a country. If there are a lot of small, relatively isolated communities, dictators can do remarkably well.

Keep your eyes on the material conditions of the world where Rousseau was writing too. This is a world where real-time communication is pretty much impossible except between people standing literally right next to each other and physically speaking.

Rodrigo Duterte uses intense public relations through Facebook to
manage his public image in The Philippines, where as president he's
leading a radical and violent campaign against drug use and the drug
trade. Communications technology is a condition of liberation, but
can easily turn against the interests of free people.
To people of my generation, this is a strange, alien world. A 21st century person taken to the technological context of 1762 Geneva would probably have a mental breakdown from information starvation.

I’m not just talking about the internet – email, videoconferencing, all the social media and messaging platforms we use daily, casually. We’re a culture that’s just so accustomed to things like telephones, radio, and television that a world without these things is disorienting.

We take vacations camping in the middle of the woods to escape these networks for a few days, but if we ever had to live in these conditions for our entire lives, we’d curse the god who sent us there. Now imagine if this is the only world you ever knew.

Communicating over any distance whatsoever, with more than a few hundred people in your life, depends on mass media. And in Rousseau’s day, any kind of media transmission – printing presses, pamphlets, mail – depends on state institutions to guarantee their stability. Or just straight-up building the media networks in the first place.

It’s such a contrast to our lives, where the physical architecture of the internet – server farms scattered around the world, enormous cables strung under the sea, consumer ISPs hitching onto phone and cable lines, satellites – is beyond the control of any single government.

The Street Enters the House, a 1911 painting by Umberto Boccioni.
Boccioni's paintings often depict the mass movement of people and
technology recreating the physical world itself, always a unified,
harmonious movement.
Communication is necessary for building a community. It’s a truth that goes beyond just the similarity in words. Communication lets us know each other as people, lets us figure out together what ideas and goals our society will share. It helps us harmonize our beliefs and interests.

That’s the earliest, most rudimentary steps of harmonizing a society around common interests. In Rousseau’s time, this can happen only among small communities without the direct help of the state.

But in our time, like-minded people can connect with each other all over a country, and all over the world, for real-time communication limited only by the languages they speak. Communication technology has been central to democratic revolutions from the 1700s to today.

Of course, oppressive regimes can also use the communication technology that otherwise liberates. Having the technology doesn’t mean freedom will follow. But the technology for real-time mass communication would appear to be an important condition for an explosion of freedom.

But what shall we do with our freedom if we gain it? . . . . To be continued

Come Together III: In Perfect Harmony, Research Time, 17/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . An impossibility is an inspiration. It is Eden. Heaven on Earth. Rather, it’s Earth becoming Heaven.

That’s the movement Rousseau makes from the reality of humanity to its perfection. In real life, we’re a bunch of incurably corrupt, inescapably ignorant bastards. But in our perfected state, we damn near perfectly understand the common interest of our whole community, and are kind enough always to act on it.

Submitting completely to an authority that speaks with the voice of God
has never been a request that turns out well for anyone of whom it's
asked. Usually, it's a submission to slavery, as when Indigenous
Canadian children literally had Christianity beaten into them.
This is the mind-set of the individual when the will of a community is expressed as the general will. The harmony of thought across the whole society isn’t somehow imposed from above.* It’s a perfectly harmonized expression of every individual spontaneously.

* I haven’t read nearly enough Rousseau scholarship to say authoritatively whether my hypothesis is generally on target. Nor would I really want to, even if I had time. It’s not like I would have had time as a professor either – I’d have had budget meetings to attend with the associate vice-deans.

When he says that “Gods would be needed to give men laws,” he isn’t talking about God as a person standing over obedient humans. This isn’t any divine absolute despot, giving orders to which you submit.

If that were the kind of god that was on order, then Rousseau is quite the totalitarian. That’s what it means to submit all of human existence to the orders of an authority. But I’m taking Rousseau as a thinker of radical freedom, and it’s easy to do so if you just think of God in that line differently.

Remember that he’s said that the only true laws that a legislature could write were rules and institutions written as the expression of the general will. Only when the entire community (politicians and bureaucrats included) act in perfect harmony and love spontaneously is any legislation a truly legitimate law.

In any case less perfect than that, the laws are just rules backed up by threats of punishment (like jail time) or rewards (like tax credits). The law has only moral significance.

No ethical significance. The general will is the immanent expression of a community itself. Now you see it.** I’m using Rousseau in Utopias as part of a tradition of political materialism, whose fulcrum is Spinoza.

Well, hello there, good sir.
** And so do I.

I have one question for any of my scholar friends who might come across this. I may actually just write a former professor of mine who I remember has published academic articles on Rousseau. I’m not sure how believable this reading is. Maybe I should call it an appropriation. I feel like that’s a more accurate term for what I’m doing with the historical research for this book.

One of the problems with Rousseau is that he knew his audience too well. This is what makes it difficult – as a scholar or just an attentive reader – to be sure he’s really thinking what you think you read in his writing.

So when he uses terms like “the sovereign” or tosses off flourishes like that line above about gods, he sounds like he’s referring to monarchs and God the Father. Because that’s what his audience of reasonably intellectual literate people in 1760s Europe thought of when they heard those terms.

It’s how Rousseau’s own audience thought of power, authority, kingship, and the divine. This conception of divinity as a perfect material expression would have gotten someone strung up for some hardcore heresy.

Geneva was a Calvinist country at the time, and that is not a religious authority known to tolerate leniency. At the time, “Spinozist” was an insult you hurled at someone when you wanted to destroy their reputation. Materialism of Spinoza’s expressive, free kind was considered just as corrosive as atheism.

So how plausible would it be for me historically to make Rousseau a chain link in a semi-underground Spinozist tradition? Should I even care about plausibility to the scholarly community when I don’t even plan on making Utopias a scholarly book? . . . To be continued

Come Together II: When a Person Becomes a Legion, Composing, 16/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . Inescapably, we’re all individuals. Easy thing to say. But it can quite often be very difficult to live as an individual. Social contact is a required part of human life – a socially isolated person becomes unhinged, deranged, profoundly broken.

Consider Garry Davis and Mike Gogulski, the men I wrote about yesterday who’d renounced their citizenship, purposely become stateless. They lead (or led, in Garry’s case) active lives, have (or had) circles and networks of friends and colleagues.

Of course, the problem with Rousseau's philosophy is that people often
read his very abstract text – literally writing impossibilities – as
empirical or historical accounts of primitive humanity. That's how he
got the reputation of promoting his free pre-civilized individual as the
"noble savage." Rousseau himself never used this phrase, but he did
pepper The Origin of Inequality with a whole bunch of other racist
bullshit about indigenous Americans.
But there’s a loneliness to statelessness. A drift. Floating. Not purposeless, but empty of at least one purpose.

Rousseau is one of those classical Enlightenment writers who embodies paradoxical complexities. Few people worth reading for literally centuries don’t.

The seeming paradox I want to concentrate on in this series of posts running through The Social Contract is between a vision of the free individual and the power of community. Rousseau famously imagines humanity before the social complexity of large communities as a contented wanderer.

Imagine an individual with no cares in the world, no serious obligations, a life of leisure, his only cares (and it is always a him) are gathering the abundant food, bedding down comfortably for the night under temperate, friendly skies. That’s the image of human freedom that Rousseau is most famous for propagating.

He’s also famous for introducing another concept, the general will of a community. Now, I don’t know that this concept is famous in the same way his free pre-civilized man is. The free wanderer is a pop culturally famous image. General will is something else.

No, general will is famous because figuring out precisely what Rousseau means by the term has become a cottage sub-discipline in academic philosophy. The term is very complex in The Social Contract, and Rousseau scholarship has never settled on anything like a consensus.

It probably never will, since scholars are incentivized to fragment their fields with proliferating new takes on their primary material. You make your name in scholarship by advancing and defending an interpretation that no one else yet has. If a field were to decide on one absolutely correct conclusion for a debate, they’d put themselves out of work.

So I'm not about to say I have anything like the totally accurate take on Rousseau’s general will. I’m not that kind of raging egomaniac. Even if I worked in academics still, I couldn’t pretend to be a raging egomaniac like you’re supposed to.

The closest I'd say we've ever come to making Rousseau's general will
real is in North Korea's mass games. I don't think I need to say much
about how fucking terrifying that is.
No, I’m just going to give my own interpretation, developed for my own purposes. I’m doing a long period of research for Utopias, a book about the relation of our political imagination with our real-life activism and beliefs. I’m looking into the classics for a retroactive tradition-building – historical ideas that can be useful guides to the present situation.

I’m not arguing that this was what Rousseau truly meant. What he meant was what he wrote – he’d look at all of us arguing and be amazed that we didn’t understand.

I’m saying – here’s how the ideas about the general will in The Social Contract connect with my priorities as a philosophical writer today.

The general will of a community is the spontaneous and simultaneous arrival of complete social harmony among all its individuals. Not only does this total, community-wide, all-at-once synchronicity and sympathy happen in feeling, but every individual intellectually understands the common interest of the whole community perfectly.

And in that complete, fully self-conscious harmony, the community acts on its common interest.

That is the only circumstance in which law can be legitimate, says Rousseau. When the entire community, acting together in perfect sympathy and mutual understanding, legislates its own activity.

Anything short of that is an imposition on people’s freedom, because that general will is the only circumstance in which literally everyone in a community agrees.

So what can a writer do with an impossibility? . . . To be continued

Come Together I: A Citizen of the World or Nowhere, Research Time, 15/03/2017

I'm looking through some classics of Western political philosophy for ideas and concepts to help understand and live in our own turbulent times. You can’t apply a 300 year old idea directly to the problems of the current era.

But the classics are fertile launching points for a complex engagement with perennial problems as they appear in different forms and contexts. You need as many concepts in your thoughts as you can if you want to build a versatile, adaptable politics and way of thinking.

So read the classics. Read them critically. Let the ideas that have inspired people for literally centuries inspire you too.

In one of Theresa May's most infamous speeches since becoming UK
Prime Minister, she threw down a challenging gauntlet: that if you
considered yourself a citizen of the world, you were really a citizen
of nowhere
. The speech was an expression of May's curious new
vision of conservatism: paternal nationalist communitarian. But it
also showed the power that remains in citizenship and membership.
The West’s most fraught and volatile ethical conflict today is about the right to citizenship. Who should have it? Whose citizenship deserves respect? Whose doesn’t? Who do we want to be part of our community? Refugees? Migrant workers? Hyper-wealthy businessmen with eight passports? Stateless people with no citizenship protections at all?

All of these questions reflect different aspects of that core ethical question – Who deserves to join my community?

Citizenship isn't just the brand name of our passports. It's a set of institutions in which we're deeply enmeshed, relationships that determine significant parts of our identities. Citizenship implies a bond among all those who share it that the same set of institutions will, to some degree, protect you.

That umbrella of institutional responsibility defines the boundaries of our community just as much as national borders. It’s a promise of the institutions themselves to the people, that you are welcome here. Yet at its heart, your membership in that community remains voluntary. You really can give it up.

That’s the fact that anchors a lot of Rousseau’s thinking in The Social Contract. That citizenship is always voluntary became a point of political activism. What more blatant way to demonstrate your broken faith in the promise of the state than to give up your citizenship?

A few months ago, I was reading a short book about the – very twisted – politics and economics of citizenship in the 21st century. Atossa Abrahamian described a man named Garry Davis.

I hadn’t heard of him until I read her book, but he was a fascinating and admirable man. Disgusted by the violence of the Second World War, he renounced his American citizenship and literally became a world citizen.

An elderly Garry Davis holding the latest edition of the World Passport.
Technically, he was stateless, but he helped found a non-governmental organization that distributed the World Passport. Oddly, he actually got this travel document accepted as legitimate by many governments around the world. The World Passport was Davis’ lifelong demonstration that a post-national order based on peace and brotherhood was possible.

Mike Gogulski is an American computer programmer Abrahamian wrote about for VICE a couple of years ago. In the mid-2000s, he was living in Bratislava with his girlfriend at the time.

Disgusted with the violence of the American state in Iraq, he gave up his US citizenship. He’s made a living as a bitcoin trader (and launderer) ever since. His wife is a Slovak who works at the Chinese embassy processing visa applications.

His life is happy, if a little dreary. He’s not a globetrotting peace activist like Davis. Instead, he’s content to live in Slovakia with his wife and cat, plugging away in relative at crypto-currency projects.

In their own way, Davis and Gogulski demonstrated in real life what Rousseau argues in The Social Contract. No matter how much we may rely on our governments for a lot of our needs in life, that relationship is voluntary. Fundamental human freedom means that we can walk away at any time.

The practical question is whether you’re willing to live with the consequences. . . . To be continued