Category: Social Cooperation

Roberto Unger: Utopia, Participatory Democracy, and Exemplary Action

I have now read two recent pieces by Roberto Unger: the essay “The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View” and the transcript of a session at the OECD in Paris, entitled “Inclusive Vanguardism: The Alternative Futures of the Knowledge Economy.”  (Both are available as PDFs on Unger’s website: http://www.robertounger.com/en/).

Here is a quick outline of his basic project: the knowledge economy names a significant shift in the mode of production.  Specifically, it changes the Fordist model of the mass production of exactly identical products into the machine-driven production of customized products.  Thus, the new automatons change the dynamics of scale—and have the potential to upset entirely the “law” of diminishing returns. (Each now copy of a digital product costs almost nothing to produce; so the millionth copy of Microsoft Word produces a larger profit than the first 10,000 copies.)

Interestingly, Unger (unlike so many others writing on this theme) does not think the human race is about to reach a condition of post-scarcity.  Perhaps this is because he comes from the global South.  Because he still believes scarcity is a problem, he is in favor of “perpetual innovation” and increasing the productive powers of our machines.  Utopia, in his view, is having humans only do the work that cannot be done by machines (which might be characterized as “care” work—teachers, health care providers, child and elderly care, environmental protection etc.) 

To unleash both the full productive and full utopian possibilities of the knowledge economy requires, in his view, the full-scale involvement of all in the work of innovation—hence his focus on “inclusive vanguardism.”  We need to structure our societies to encourage constant experimentation as we search for the technical solutions to our many needs and problems. 

In focusing on the mode of production and in what can only be called his technological optimism, Unger looks very much a disciple of Marx.  I think many readers would share my sense that the biggest lacuna in his work is any attention to environmental concerns.  He talks (in the OECD session) a lot about Brazil, yet never once mentions the subjection of Brazil’s land to extractive processes that are an environmental disaster.  The knowledge economy (this statement is me, not Unger), no less than Fordist production, is a vampire with a seemingly endless appetite for “natural resources.” 

“Perpetual innovation” in and of itself is no answer.  Innovation has to be in the service of ends that are not destructive and/or unjust.  Yes, we must experiment with and try to develop innovations that alleviate the severity and costs of climate change.  But to believe (and invest and pursue) only technological fixes to environmental degradation is to trust the very mind-set that got us into this mess. We need also to re-think the whole obsession with “productivity” and “growth.”  Unger appears utterly committed to the promotion of growth as the correct goal of our economics.

Having lodged that (fundamental) objection to his project, I want to dwell on what I found inspiring in these two pieces.  Unger is advocating for radical social changes, but he argues forcefully that change is always piecemeal.  You must begin where you are, experimenting with what is possible in this set of circumstances, even as you have an eye on the long-term, larger transformations your local action is aiming toward.  On the other hand, this focus on the local (which includes an endorsement of “radical devolution” in federalist arrangements that permit substantial regional divergences) does not neglect the considerable power of the state.  For starters, the state must permit those local experiments—and enable them through institutional/legal orders and with financial resources.  But there also has to be a national (at least) vision that enlists the state in the project of inclusion, of breaking down the hierarchies that establish the division between the “knowledge workers” and the drudges. 

When faced with an acknowledgement of all that is wrong with current arrangements, Unger insightfully tells us that any suggested remedial actions usually are felt to be “too trivial” (not substantial enough to effect the “real” change we want to see) or “utopian” (not remotely feasible under present conditions; just fantasies that we have no way of getting to from here).  This strikes me as completely accurate—and it has a chilling effect, is a formula for hopelessness, exhaustion, and apathy. 

My own sense (derived from Arendt) of how to combat this dilemma is to say that any kind of political or social activism must combine immediate rewards with “eyes on the prize.” Change is slow, uneven, prone to set-backs, never matches the full utopian vision, and a source of painful conflicts and compromises.  Plus it is very hard to see the effectiveness of any single action in bringing change about.  For all those reasons, the participation in any social movement must involve the excitement of working creatively with a set of people toward a common end.  It is that experience of immersion in a collective project that sustains long-term political movements.

Unger is an advocate of what used to get called (I guess still is, although this theme has retreated from much recent work in democratic theory) “participatory democracy.”  He calls for “a high-energy democracy that makes change less dependent on crisis because it increases the level of organized popular engagement in political life . . . and combines the possibility for decisive action on the part of central government with opportunities for radical devolution to states and towns—the creations, in different parts of a country, of countermodels of the national future” (68-69 in the Knowledge essay).

Unger has some sharp critiques of social democracy along these lines—basically arguing that it turns citizens into passive recipients of benefits handed out by the central government instead of active shapers of their civic life.  He doesn’t want to see citizens as “consumers” that the government must serve.  Unlike the conservative critique of the “nanny state” (even as Unger’s worries about passivity chime with some conservative views), the idea here is to have citizens actively engaged in the provision of those services.  Unger favors mandatory national service; along with paying taxes to see that children and the elderly are cared for (to take one example), citizens would be expected to provide that care for some portion of their working life (either as a two year service period or as a periodic—one month a year—seconding.) This service would increase trust and empathy, both of which are in short supply in today’s world, even as it would also increase a sense that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all our fellow citizens and actively engaged in both thinking about and participating in the best ways to insure that welfare.

Multiple ways to promote citizen interaction, as well as citizen involvement in the shaping of policy, would also be needed.  Most crucially, perhaps, is the need from workplace democracy.  The whole notion of an “inclusive vanguard” is built upon breaking down the hierarchies in the workplace that reserve expertise to a small minority.  Everyone should be invited to participate in developing innovative ideas and experimental projects—and everyone should be provided with the education that makes such a democratization of expertise possible.

Unger understands that experimentation cannot take place where people have no economic security.  Necessity, it turns out, is not the mother of invention.  The absence of fear, the knowledge that one’s daily bread is secure, plus immersion in high-energy, collaborative (yet also somewhat competitive; Unger is fond of the phrase “cooperative competition”) environments is what stimulates the imagination and makes it possible to take risks.  Make the cost of failure too high—and very few will take any risks.  So, far from those conservative cowboys who adopt the macho line of letting the fittest survive in the jungle of the “free market,” Unger describes a political/economic regime that underwrites innovation and experimentation by providing the resources that make sure such experiments are not matters of life and death. 

Why the focus on experiments?  Three reasons, I think, all of which resonate with the project of “social choreography.” First, we don’t know in advance (through some kind of theoretical thought) what actually works.  There are always unanticipated and unexpected consequences of any course of action—just as there are always unanticipated obstacles and (if we are lucky) serendipitous successes. 

Second, experiments undertaken collectively are a site (and a very non-trivial one) of happiness.  Participation can be—and often is—a joy.  And it is the energy of that joy that carries the project forward even as it encounters difficulties and even as its contribution to a larger social transformation is not clear.  Participation (and this is the Arendt piece) can be an experience (in miniature but in the real time of the present) of the kind of society we are aiming to produce. In short, participatory democracy in action, here and now.

Third, if we accept that change is piecemeal, then our experiments are “exemplary actions” (the phrase is Unger’s), demonstration projects that show what is possible.  We don’t have to—and should not—wait upon total transformation to begin living the lives we desire to live.  We can find the others who are willing to experiment with us—and begin to dance.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a funny case.  He is a prolific writer, has been based for much of his career at Harvard’s Law School, and has twice served as Brazil’s Minister of Strategic Affairs—and, yet, his work is not read in the political theory and political activist circles that I frequent.  I don’t know why Unger’s work is not required reading for academics working in these fields.  He is not unknown, but he is not read.  Which is a pity. 

Unger’s concept of “false necessity” (from his 1980s trilogy Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory) has been foundational for me.  That concept is also not a bad entry point into Unger’s work.  He is best described as a visionary.  He refuses to accept that current social, legal, and political arrangements are dictated by some facts about human nature or irrefutable “realities” that make alternatives implausible, perhaps even impossible.  At the same time, he is unimpressed by global categorizations of any set of arrangements.  Terms like “capitalism,” “liberalism,” and “socialism” are, in his view, impediments to thinking and to action.  We need, instead, granular imaginative visions of what is possible—and specific interventions at the institutional sites (workplaces, schools, markets, law courts, legislative and regulatory bodies) of social interaction. 

The first requirement for making something happen, as Woody Allen famously remarked, is showing up.  How unsexy is that!!  Unger’s focus on specific sites of engagement is all about showing up, about transforming conditions on the ground not through the magic of some overarching theory that explains everything, but through working out and then sustaining alternative relations among the actors (human and non-human) involved in that specific undertaking. 

The focus (deriving, ultimately, I think from Marx’s emphasis on the “social relations” that accompany any mode of production) in Unger is always based firmly on relations.  Who gets to do what?  Where does authority reside?  Who sets the agenda?  Who gets the deciding vote when conflicts arise? Most crucially: how does any group establish relations that unleash the imaginative and creative potentials each of us possess?  That’s Unger’s visionary, utopian moment: his firm belief that a meaningful and satisfying life is based on conditions that allow (nay encourage) each individual to discover and express his or her creativity.  Current arrangements stifle us—and unnecessarily so.  We need to fight our way toward unleashing what is currently bottled up—and we need to wage that fight at the multiple sites where we are engaged with others in the variety of enterprises that interest us. 

In short: imagine new forms of collectivity, of being together, that exchange frustrating us for fulfilling our potential. And then put those imagined forms into action.

I have returned to Unger’s work (since my first encounter with it in the 1980s) periodically over the years, having read at least six of his books.  (You can access just about everything he has written in pdf format on his web page: http://www.robertounger.com/en/)

Right now, I have picked him up again at the behest of Steve Valk, who heads up the Institute of Social Choreography (based in Frankfurt; https://www.facebook.com/InstitutFuerSozialeChoreographie).  In particular, Steve is interested in Unger’s recent work on the “knowledge economy,” in which he argues (among other things) that the imaginative innovations we associate with the knowledge economy have been restricted to an “insular vanguard.” That small group retains possession of its ideas through patents, copyright laws, and intellectual property statutes while also limiting access to the imaginative processes of creating ideas by limiting educational opportunity and by strictly enforcing workplace hierarchies that segregate the “idea work” from the grunt work performed by the underlings who form the vast majority of workers.  Unger calls for an “inclusive vanguard” which would entail new ideas arising out of practices on the workshop floor (or the equivalent concrete interactions at other social sites) instead of the current procedure of helicoptering new ideas in from outside of those interactions.  Think of your latest report from McKinsey as the paradigm of outsourcing creativity to “consultants” instead of calling on the people actually doing the work to consider better and innovative ways to do it.

Unger’s vision—with its focus on concrete interactions—is inspiring for the Institute for Social Choreography because, in the words of Andrew Hewitt (author of the book, Social Choreography, Duke UP, 2005):  “We might think of choreography in terms of ‘rehearsal’; that is, as the working out and working through of utopian, nevertheless ‘real’, social relations.” Dance is, par excellence, a collective art form—and thus a fruitful site for imagining and then enacting new forms of social togetherness. In addition, dance reminds us that social relations are lived in and through the body, are instantiated in bodily habits as much as in received, unquestioned ways of thinking.

In subsequent posts, I will consider Unger’s take on the “knowledge economy” in more detail.

Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.

War and Peace (Two)

Further into my journey through War and Peace, I find Tolstoy stating directly his disbelief in people’s ability to transcend their self-interest and submerge themselves in a larger cause.  But with a twist, as you will see if you read the relevant passage:

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were ficeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the defense of the father-land, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall. The tales and descriptions of that time without exception speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians. But it was not really so. It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had. Yet in reality those personal interests of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed. Most of the people at that time paid no attention to the general progress of events but were guided only by their private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful.

Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw every-thing upside down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish like Pierre’s and Mamonov’s regiments which looted Russian villages, and the lint the young ladies prepared and that never reached the wounded, and so on. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pretense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of. In historic events the rule forbidding us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is specially applicable. Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance. If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless.

The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance. In Petersburg and in the provinces at a distance fromMoscow, ladies, and gentlemen in militia uniforms, wept for Russia and its ancient capital and talked of self-sacrifice and so on; but in the army which retired beyond Moscow there was little talk or thought of Moscow, and when they caught sight of its burned ruins no one swore to be avenged on the French, but they thought about their next pay, their next quarters, of Matreshka the vivandiere, and like matters.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Four)

Tolstoy, at least in War and Peace, is an odd mix of quietist fatalism (it is all in God’s hands, so human action is futile, blind, presumptuous, and never achieves that for which it aims) and radical critic of society and human depravity (a leftist Christian).

Here’s an example of his radical critique of social institutions:

“That evening he learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Nine.)

But Pierre is saved from execution by a moment of human contact:

“Davout [the French governor of occupied Moscow] looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his con-science with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Ten.)

This seems plausible to me; how could you look another human being in the eyes—and then torture that person, or kill him or her?  Yet we know it happens.

Pierre then witnesses the execution of five other prisoners, not knowing until after they have been shot that he will not himself be executed.  His response is to lose all faith in life, to sink into complete despair.

“From the moment Pierre had witnessed those terrible murders committed by men who did not wish to commit them, it was as if the mainspring of his life, on which every-thing depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul, and in God, had been destroyed. He had experienced this before, but never so strongly as now. When similar doubts had assailed him before, they had been the result of his own wrongdoing, and at the bottom of his heart he had felt that relief from his despair and from those doubts was to be found within him-self. But now he felt that the universe had crumbled before his eyes and only meaningless ruins remained, and this not by any fault of his own. He felt that it was not in his power to regain faith in the meaning of life.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Twelve).

He is pulled out of his despair through his conversation with a peasant/soldier prisoner who tells him we are all in God’s hands.  We cannot expect to understand God’s plan, but must simply affirm it and place ourselves in the hands of the divine.  Tolstoy’s fatalism is offered as the solution to the problems of evil and of suffering.