Category: Violence

Violence, the Irish and Religion

Here, from Maud Gonne’s autobiography, is her rationale for being a firm “physical force” advocate, scorning the “constitutional” road toward Home Rule pursued by the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1885 to 1914.

“A robber will not give up his spoil for the asking unless the demand is backed by force.  Once a constitutional party turns its back on physical force, because not being able to control it, . . . its days of usefulness are over.  It may linger on, but, being unable to deliver the goods, it falls shamelessly into the corruption of its environment.  . . . The funeral of the Parliamentary party should have taken place when its leader Parnell was lowered into his grave at Glasnevin in October 1891.  He had failed when he had repudiated acts of violence.  He was never a physical-force man himself, but he had walked hand in hand with physical force in the early days when luck and the spiritual forces of Ireland were with him, so that even ordinary words from his lips became charged with great significance and power.  Luck deserted him when he deserted the force which had made his movement great” (174-75). [The Autobiography of Maud Gonne, University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, spends hundreds of pages worrying the issue of violence.  Basically, he keeps insisting that humans experience some kind of mysterious or mystical connection to the “numinous” when engaged in or stand as witness to acts of violence.  He never gets more specific than that, but insists efforts to simply repress violence will never work.  Violence is as ineradicable as sex; religion both gropes toward a way of grasping the meaning of violent and sexual acts, while also providing forms (rituals and stories) that enclose those acts.  Here’s a typical Taylor passage along these lines (he repeats this point several times without ever getting more concrete):  “if religion has from the beginning been bound up with violence, the  nature of the involvement has changed.  In archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it related violence to the sacred, and gives a kind of numinous depth to killing, and the excitements and inebriation of killing, just as it does through other rituals for sexual desire and union.  With the coming of the ‘higher,’ post-Axial religions, this kind of numinous endorsement is more and more withdrawn.  We move toward a point where, in some religions, violence has no more place at all in the sanctified life. . . . But nevertheless . . . various forms of sanctified and purifying violence recur.” {at which point Taylor instances the Crusades and the violence of ideologies like fascism and communism} (688-89).

Without ever saying so, Taylor seems to imply that religions that incorporate violence, that practice sacrificial rites, can thus contain it.  Whereas attempts to eradicate violence only lead to uncontrolled, massive outbreaks of the sort that characterized the 20th century.  At other points, he references William James’s idea of finding a “moral equivalent for war,” but doesn’t pursue that idea; rather, he seems faintly skeptical that some substitute would do the trick.  We want/need real violence because of that urge to connect to the “numinous.”  All of this goes mostly unsaid in Taylor because he cannot bring himself to simply endorse sacrificial practices.  Yet he is also committed to this idea that violence and the numinous have some kind of “deep” (his favorite word in the whole book) connection to one another—and thus religion has to attend to, even provide the means for, achieving, that connection.

What has this to do with Maud Gonne?  Yes, she offers a utilitarian defense of “physical force.”  The English robbers are never going to relinquish hold of Ireland unless forced to do so.  But there’s more.  Non-violent movements become corrupt (she argues); without the laying of one’s all, one’s life, on the line, there is no way to overcome the temptations of life.  The reformer will succumb to the fleshpots available to him; he will betray the cause in favor of his own comfort and advancement.  As in Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan (Gonne, famously, played the lead in its first public performance), only those who renounce everything to serve the Queen (Gonne’s autobiography was titled “Servant of the Queen” with that Queen being Ireland) can be trusted to serve the cause faithfully to the bitter end.

The logic here is precisely the logic of sacrifice, where in some weird way the proof of one’s absolute devotion to the cause, the willingness to die for it, becomes more important than the success of the cause itself.  Pragmatism and utilitarianism are spurned; caring about the ends violence might achieve is subordinated to the glorious commitment itself.  Such would seem to be the burden of Padriac Pearse’s sacrificial fantasies—embodied in the plays and pageants he staged—in the years just prior to the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  And, of course, the dating of that uprising at Easter was no coincidence.  The rising was a pageant itself of sacrifice leading to resurrection.

And as we see in Rene Girard’s work—and this idea lurks there in Taylor although never made explicit—an embrace of violence is palatable when connected to self-sacrifice.  Harder to countenance is murder, the killing of the other guy.  It’s the embrace of one’s own death that is fairly easy to sanctify; even ritualized killing of the other is harder to stomach.  For all her hatred of the English, Gonne devotes her life to the cause of aiding imprisoned Irish rebels and their destitute families, not to killing Englishmen.  The one time in her autobiography where actual violence seems in the offing, Gonne (to her credit) backs down and avoids pushing the confrontation to killing.  Gonne is speaking to a riled-up crowd, when the police arrive.  Here’s her rendition of the incident.

“’If you go on I shall give the order to fire,’ said the officer.

‘Go on, go on,’ cheered the crowd.

I heard an order given. I saw the constabulary get their rifles at the ready and heard the click of triggers.  Most of the men now had their backs to the platform and were facing the police; they had nothing but ash plants in their hands but were ready to fight; some still shouted for me to go on.

‘No,” I said.  ‘Men, you know your duty; the proclaimed meeting is now over,’ and I got off the car.

There was disappointment; one man said: ‘You should have gone on.’  I heard another man say: ‘You couldn’t expect a woman to fight.’  I said: ‘If you had guns I would have gone on; the rifles were pointed at you, not me. I couldn’t see unarmed men shot down.’

Again a wave of depression overwhelmed me. . . . Perhaps I had been wrong in not letting the Woodford evicted tenants fight and be shot down.  Dead men might have aroused the country as living men could not and at least made the evicted tenants a live issue.  I had not dared take responsibility; I had refused leadership and the situation was not of my own making” (301).

The practical triumphs over the ideal here, as I (for one) would wish it to.  But then she is led to wonder if bloodshed would have been impractical.  A massacre might, in fact, have advanced the cause, making it (ironically) a “live” issue.  She wonders if she, at the moment of crisis, has proved weak, has allowed inappropriate scruples to stop her hand.

Which brings us back to the earlier passage—to Gonne’s analysis of Parnell, an analysis that actually seems to put some flesh on the bones of Taylor’s idea that violence connects us to the “numinous.”  Gonne argues that Parnell’s charisma in only intact so long as he remains tied to the ”physical force” revolutionaries. And that is because the “physical force” advocates are in touch with, bring forward into some kind of mysterious presence, “the spiritual forces of Ireland.”  Violence is the way those spiritual forces speak to us, through particular men who are its priests, its mouthpieces.  Here, eloquently stated, is Taylor’s conviction that violence provides a pathway to the numinous.

Of course, to a pragmatist skeptic like myself, the numinous here is better described as “nationalism”—and the cult of the nation seems to result in much more evil than good.  Taylor knows that, which is why he keeps stumbling on the vexed question of just what is the content of the numinous, just as he cannot specify an actual violent rite that we, with our modern sensibilities, could actually endorse.

Historical distance offers one out here.  Do I wish that the 1916 rebellion never took place?  One hundred years later don’t the rebels seem admirable heroes—even though I have no doubt that in 1916 I would have thought them vainglorious fools.  And didn’t their sacrifice actually achieve, in the long run, their ends?  Yes and no.  Plausible to say that there would have been no Irish Republic without the Easter rising.  Equally plausible to say that the ongoing violence of Irish politics throughout the 20th century was also a product of that rising.  No violence, it seems, without answering acts of violence, producing those cycles of violence that are all too familiar, and rarely conclusive, rarely actually creating a desired state of affairs.  There is always some rub, some imperfection, that justifies more violence—even if it is just the violence of revenge.

Would Taylor accept that the numinous is always out of reach—and thus no act of violence, even if it yields intimations of the numinous—ever satisfies?  Religion is born of frustration, of a longing for “something more” than what the ordinary provides—and violence is born of frustration as well.  Infinite desire in a finite world.  Or a desire for the infinite in a finite world.  We can dream of more than what we can actually have.  Taylor wants to honor how those dreams push us beyond the here and now, how they lead to the astounding, almost unbelievable, things that humans manage to do.  But why claim that destruction and violence are part and parcel of that reaching for what exceeds our grasp? Why not, instead, think of destruction and violence as the rage engendered by our reach falling short, as the spite (resentment) we feel against the world and against others when they disappoint our visions—or worse when someone else achieves what we have failed to accomplish?

One riposte from the Taylor side—and here we return to the power of nationalism—is that violence (like religion more generally) is a collective act.  Soldiers always talk of the astounding camaraderie, the enjoyed intimacy, of the platoon.  One of the things we long for is that kind of melting of the self into communion with others—and that melting can feel numinous, a connection to some larger and higher power.  Violence, like sex, is a way of escaping the self, of ecstatically merging it with others.  It carries us outside of ourselves.  That’s one of its attractions, its lures, its way of thumbing its nose at bourgeois calculations and prudence.  Violence is aristocratic (as in Yeats and in Gonne) or sub-bourgeois (as in Synge).  Taylor wants to tap that “noble” side of religion as well—a task made rather difficult by Christianity’s affinity with book-keeping.  The ledgers of sin must be kept so as to see if the reward of heaven will be won.  Hardly an ecstatic way of thinking.

Another, very different, note on which to end.  In Roy Foster’s wonderful book about the Irish revolutionaries, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (Norton, 2014), he mentions how naïve the “physical force” rebels were.  In some ways, they simply shared the naiveté of a Europe that went blithely to war in 1914.  A massive failure of imagination.  Violence is rarely attractive when seen close up, which is why historical distance is so often needed to sanitize it.  (We are back here to Grossman’s work on killing—which is only exhilarating at a distance except for a very few, exceptional, persons.)  I have always thought it greatly to Yeats’s credit that he mostly abandoned his romantic celebrations of violence once he witnessed actual violence during the 1920 to 1923 wars in Ireland.  Foster quotes Min Ryan, who “admitted afterwards that when Tom Clarke told her in 1916 that most of them would be ‘wiped out,’ it brought her down to earth with a bump. ‘I got an awful shock because I was living a most unreal kind of life as if nothing could happen to anyone.  I could hardly believe that we would take up arms at all and then I began to believe that we would come out of it alright.’”  Foster goes on to comment: “The five years from 1916 to 1921 would provide a steep learning curve” (72)  Why he excludes the two years of the Civil War, with its brutal executions, is a mystery.

In any case, the rhetoric that calls for violence is easy, all too easy, and very often disconnected from any real sense of what violence means or entails.  Again, violence is more palatable the more distance one maintains from it.  It is hard for me to imagine Taylor participating in the rites he seems to endorse.  Certainly, I want no part of them—even if the numinous were to arrive as promised.

Religion, Sect, and Party (Part 3)

Moving from religion to politics, in Slezkine’s The House of Government, basically entails moving the search for transcendence, the negotiation of the gap between the real and the ideal, from the difference between the profane and the sacred to the difference between the status quo and some projected (imagined) improvement upon the existing state of affairs.  Institutional religion—the church—represents the more quietist approach: the acceptance of the imperfection of the fallen world along with the promise of a better world elsewhere coupled with structures and hierarchies meant to insure stability, peace, and order in the imperfect here and now.  The compromises of the institutional church are always contested by impatient visionaries who long, with equal fervor, to create a utopian now and to punish those who stand in the way of achieving that utopia.

For Slezkine, the utopians organize themselves into “sects.”  Following the work of Ernst Troeltsch, “the distinction between a church and a sect” can be stated as follows: “a church is an institution one is born into. . . . [A] sect [is] a group of believers radically opposed to the corrupt world, dedicated to the dispossessed, and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity, and social egalitarianism” (93).  In Slekzine’s philosophy of history (I can use no other term for his wild—and world-weary—identification of a pattern he thinks repeats itself over and over) “the history of the new order [humanist post-Christian polities], like that of the old one [Christianity prior to the Reformation], is a story of routinization and compromise punctuated by sectarian attempts to restore the original promise” (107).  Sectarians scorn compromise and institutions, are often galvanized into action by a charismatic leader, and embrace violence in the name of the good.  When not fighting the reprobate, they are constantly in-fighting in order to insure that only the absolutely pure are members of the sect.

If revolutionaries are best understood as sectarians, Selkzine’s model explains a) their trust in and non-distaste [to use a weird double negative] of violence; b) their suspicion of and hence ineptitude in establishing institutions; c) their difficulty in sustaining trust and working, cooperative relationships once the movement grows beyond a “knowable community” (i.e. they are very bad at “imagined communities” because committed to the intense relationships of a shared oppositional—and doctrinally pure—set of beliefs); and d) their impatience with compromise and their fury when their utopian vision does not materialize (generating the frantic search for people to blame for that failure).

This, of course, is another way of saying that it is easier to be in opposition than in power.  It seems fair to say that the Republican Party has become more and more sect-like over the past thirty years.  Certainly it is much more prone to expel members who don’t toe the line (RINOs), and is hostile to compromise and to institutional structures/norms.  Its contempt for the routines of governance makes it just about incapable of governing; it has ground legislative activity to an almost complete halt, while rendering federal bureaucracies increasingly inept.  As many have noted, today’s Republican Party is not conservative; it is revolutionary reactionary.  It is out to destroy, not to conserve.

The oddity is that its destructive urges are almost entirely negative.  It is not driven by a positive vision, but mostly by a hatred of the elites it associates with anti-American values, tastes, and snobbishness.  Yes, there is nostalgia for a certain kind of small-town American culture that was built on racial exclusion and post-War prosperity.  But there is no serious—or even non-serious visionary—platform for reestablishing that world.  Empty slogans suffice if the joys of hatred are allowed free expression.  It really is as if the losers in this neoliberal universe will be content if given free rein to express the animus—most fully expressed in the death threats they love to send to people, but more mildly expressed in the various statements now deemed unacceptable in polite discourse—they feel toward the non-whites and the professional elites they cannot avoid in today’s business world and public sphere.  In their heart of hearts, undoubtedly there are true believers who think deporting all the immigrants is a possibility, but surely they are a small minority of those who vote Republican.  Similarly, those same voters know that the manufacturing jobs are not coming back.

Contrasted to sects (in Slekzine’s view) are parties:  “Parties are usually described as associations that seek power within a given society (or, in Max Weber’s definition, ‘secure power within an organization for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members’) (58).  The key difference here is that the party accepts, has a huge amount invested in, the current institutional and political order.  To that extent, parties are all conservative; they seek to preserve the current system—and are oriented to gaining power with that system as the means toward furthering the party’s particular ends.  That’s why parties are the “loyal opposition”; they are not revolutionary, but are partners with other parties in the preservation of the current order.

Thus, today’s Republican Party seems to exist in some kind of uneasy (unsustainable?) tension between being a party and a sect.  It quite obviously seeks power to gain advantages for its active members—the donor class to which it delivers the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation etc.  But its appeal to its non-donor class voters is sectarian—and the result is that its elected officials include true believers who embody the no compromise hostility to institutional forms that is a large part of the party’s current brand.  These radicals will cheerfully have the government default on its debts (to take one example) and are constantly at odds with the more staid party functionaries who are only interested in power within the current system (Mitch McConnell being the epitome of this kind of politician).

Because of its use of sectarian tactics (tactics which someone like McConnell thinks he can keep safely under control), the Republicans have clearly abetted (by authorizing) various kinds of hate crimes and violence, even as they have given us an authoritarian, charismatic President.  The Party has moved far enough toward being a sect that its ability to actually govern is more than questionable, even as its attacks (voter suppression, harassment—and worse—of immigrants) upon outsiders to its “America” increase in ferocity.

All that said, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a sectarian left.  Sects make things happen in the world; I have just finished reading Maud Gonne’s autobiography (of which more in future posts) and she, as well as Slekzine, tells a tale featuring dedicated conspirators, people spending their whole lifetimes committed to a cause of radical change.  A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are American examples.  In all these cases, from the 400 or so “Old Bolsheviks” to the 400 or so dedicated Irish nationalists to the 400 or so “race warriors” in the US, mountains were eventually moved.  If there exists such networks in the contemporary world, I don’t know of them.  Yes, we have the rightist militias.  But what do we have on the left: the respectable organizations, the ACLU and the like, fine in their own way, but very much within the established institutional order.

What I guess I am saying is that I want sectarian dedication, single-mindedness and energy, without sectarian violence and constant in-fighting.  After all, both Bolsheviks and the Irish revolutionaries, once they had succeeded in overthrowing the existing system, ended up fighting against one another.  It is shocking—at least to me—to read anti-Treaty documents in 1922 that casually refer to the Free State soldiers and officials as “the enemy” when those numbered in “the enemy” were one’s comrades in the fight against the British in 1921.  Yes, there was some hesitation at the start of the Irish Civil War about killing one’s friends and erstwhile comrades, but that hesitation disappeared with frightening, sickening, rapidity.

Maybe—and just maybe because I may be wildly over-idealizing here—one key factor (hardly the only one) involves careers.  Today’s Republican Party reactionary revolutionaries can safely attack governmental/legal/political institutions because they are not threatening (in fact see themselves as reinforcing and protecting) the institutional structures of American capitalism.  And it is well documented, there in plain sight for any operative to see, that the right has sinecures (in the think tanks, in lobbying organizations, increasingly in academia, etc.) readily available for those who do the party’s work.  That’s one way of saying that the Republicans are between a party and a sect; they are attached to an existing structure that provides a ladder to climb, a route to riches, recognition, and security.  It is just that that structure is, they like to believe, non-political, the “free market,” and thus enables a no-holds-barred hostility to political institutions.

The revolutionaries of the left—Lenin, Gandhi, Rustin—had no such safe perch, or secure position at which to aim.  They were fully on the outside, existing in a no man’s land where recognition, money, and eventual success were never guaranteed and were (for years) withheld.  They were stepping out into a void with no safety net.  As I say, maybe I am wrong here, guilty of over-idealizing.  I am hardly claiming these men did not have their faults—their vanities and their self-indulgences.  But they did not exist within any kind of established institutional order that provided security.  Only the intense relations within the sect offered some form of support.

Am I saying that existence within institutions stands in the way of being a true advocate for change?  Certainly, concern for the preservation of one’s own slot, one’s own career, for the sources of one’s own income and status, are deterrents to devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a transformation of existing conditions.

I don’t see where the kind of sect, the kind of movement that enabled Lenin, Gandhi and Rustin to live almost completely outside existing political, economic, and social setups, exists on the left today.  The Bohemian outside appears to have disappeared.  Life in the US has become so expensive, especially housing costs, that the counter-cultural enclaves such as Brooklyn or the Bay Area are the playgrounds of the rich now.  At the same time, increased surveillance (both physical and digital) gives a revolutionary counter-culture much less room in which to maneuver.

There is also the left’s almost universal repudiation of violence (the overblown existence of the anti-fa “movement” notwithstanding).  Maybe it is hard to have a sect without some kind of commitment to violence.  (I want to consider that idea in subsequent posts.)

Add the fact that being a sectarian is tedious.  Mostly what the old Bolsheviks did was read, write, and have endless meetings—for which they then spent long stretches of time in prison.  The hoped-for moment of transformation is endlessly postponed.  How energy, passion, and hope are sustained over such long periods of time is a mystery and a miracle, much to be admired.

Maud Gonne’s life has much to offer in thinking about such issues.  So I will go there next


George Shulman (NYU prof who is part of the reading group that meets in New York every year) is interested in impasse—basically the feeling that we are stuck in a world we hate but can’t figure out how to change.

Framing it as a question of impasse helps me to state baldly some major themes of this blog’s agonizing over the past six to eight months.  First comes the sense that current evils somehow operate under a thin veneer (but an effective veneer) of legality and normalcy.  There seems no way within current legal and political institutions to intervene to stop daily operations that are unjust and render millions of people miserable and millions more vulnerable, a step away from misery.  The machine grinds on relentlessly.

Second comes the primary debate on the left.  At what level should the effort for change takes place.  Is electoral politics any use at all?  Could we actually vote into office  a political party that would effect the changes needed, alter both the ends and the means (i.e. significantly redistribute resources in ways that actively alter balances of political and economic power)?  It seems to take larger and larger leaps of faith to believe that the system can be reformed (to use the hoariest of clichés).  The gridlock (another cliché) that is another name for impasse seems utterly baked in at this point.  Too many veto points, too many established immunities (campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression, lobbying, tax breaks, conservative judges etc. etc.) for those fighting against change.  Obstruction is the order of the day.

So the electoral route is only going to work if there is astounding pressure for change from the populace—and the US populace rarely swings left and seems, instead, to cling desperately to what little it has (deeply averse to risk) instead of working to force the system to yield it more.

The alternative, then, is some sort of forced, dramatic change.  Two things intrude here.  The first is the worry (a big and legitimate one) about forcing a change that the majority does not desire.  Anti-democratic (in the core sense of the term’s reference to the will of the people) change is problematic for any number of reasons.  So the left’s first work, it would seem, must take place on the battlefield of rhetoric.  We must win the hearts and minds, so that the clamor for substantive change can not be ignored.

The second problem is violence.  With the possible exception of Terry Eagleton (and even he masks his talk of violence in the “soft” language of Christ-like sacrifice and of Greek tragedy), all the radical leftists I read shy away from talking about violence.  In Judith Butler’s book on the performative theory of assembly, she briefly says that activism must be non-violent.  Interestingly, the force of that “must” is more pragmatic than ethical.  Violence is counter-productive; it calls down repression at the same time that it alienates potential supporters.  Non-violence is the winning strategy.

But a description of effective non-violent tactics is missing.  Non-violent disruptions of business as usual, of daily life, will be treated almost as harshly as violence.  Which isn’t to say that martyrdom can’t prove effective politically.  But we seem at this moment pretty far from a place where martyrs will be viewed sympathetically.  (Contrast to King’s children campaign.)  I fight shy of asking people for fruitless sacrifices; of course, the response is that one never knows ahead of time if the sacrifice will be fruitless.  We can’t know what might, against all logic and predictions, galvanize people.  The shortness of the current news cycle, the way in which things (even the horrible mass shootings at schools), fade from public attention is just another barrier in the way of imagining galvanizing sacrifices.  (This returns me to my obsession with figuring out how to create a movement that has legs, that is sustainable over the long haul.)  When today’s anti-liberal, radical leftists write of galvanizing moments, they reference Seattle’s anti-globalization demonstrations and Occupy, neither of which really offers grounds for hope.  There is a vast sympathy for the Palestinians, but nobody is calling for the formation of liberation fronts or armies in the West.

Eschewing violence has much going for it.  Calling for large-scale, systematic transformation, however, and refusing to think hard about the means (including violence) toward that change seems more wish-fulfillment than productive thinking.  King’s non-violence was paired with the urban riots of the 60s; the anti-war demonstrators were beaten by police and they didn’t end the war, although they did makes its prosecution more costly for our benighted political leaders.  The system (I keep using that word for lack of a better shorthand at the moment) is violent through and through—under the cloak of legality.  The left keeps coming to a gunfight with a knife—and keeps refusing to even consider the fact that it might be in a gunfight.

Within this set of dillemmas/delusions, the left’s most characteristic move is to argue that the majority really is on its side, that if we just offered the populace full unadulterated leftism (some kind of democratic socialism presumably, although the left gets fuzzy on those details as well), we would win elections handily. Bernie Sanders would have swept to victory.  It’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?  And it gives our dissident leftist so much to do—fulminating about those liberals who queer the pitch, instead of thinking about the really hard work that would be required (especially in addressing that populace he is convinced secretly agrees with him) to break the ongoing impasse.

Do I have anything constructive to offer?  Not all that much since it wouldn’t be an impasse if we weren’t stuck.  But I will say that I much prefer loud denunciations, usually on moral grounds but sometimes on pragmatic ones, of the right’s constant enactment of petty and major cruelties.  The internecine fights on the left (of which I guess this post counts as one) are tiresome and not very useful.  True, the temptation to go that way is reinforced by the fact that such arguments may even gain a hearing and a response, while one’s jeremiads against the right seem cast out into the void, aiming to reach a general public that is nothing if not absent more than present, and certainly not going to move a right that has proved itself, again and again, without conscience and beyond shame.  Still, better to be a witness to infamy, than a nit-picking polemicist within one’s own tribe.

And better to be a clear thinker about ends and means than to throw blame about indiscriminately (those nefarious liberals!) and talk as if political victory was a matter of just snapping one’s fingers.


Arendt never appeals to honor—and, no doubt, she would find the concept antique.  But both her celebration of “public happiness” and her comments on the desire to excel in public, to live a life worthy of becoming the stuff of stories,  point to her desire to find some account of motives that transcend the desire to satisfy material, bodily needs.  On the one hand, denigration of the body has a long history in Western thought, with both Greek and Christian variants.  On the other hand, that suspicion of the “material” gains a new impetus in the 1950s from the twin perspective of Arendt’s anti-Marxist repudiation of materialist philosophy and her equally ant-consumerist suspicions of “materialist” consumer culture.

Love of the world, then, is meant to describe a commitment that extends beyond the selfish desire to accumulate material goods, just as her resolutely non-material “action” and its production of an ephemeral “space of appearances” introduces something utterly distinct from the necessities connected to “life.”

What I am pursuing here is her account of what motivates “action” (understood in her strict sense of the term).  The good action directly strives for is called, at various times in her work, “freedom,” or “renown.”  Actors want to win the admiration of others even as they also (in Nietzschean fashion) simply enjoy the expenditure of energy that is action.

I see a double problem here, a Scylla and Charybdis, if you will.  Scylla is the contempt for the body, for mere life.  We have already seen this with Ruskin declaring “life is the only wealth” and then going on to tell us the terms upon which different living creatures should accept death.  Arendt’s version of this line of thinking comes in her meditations on Socrates in her late work.  Living out of harmony with oneself, sacrificing one’s integrity and moral ideals simply in order to survive in a despicable regime like Hitler’s, is to win life on terms where it is not worth having.  So we get two things here: a standard by which some lives are ruled deficient, and a denigration of the bodily as (at best) an insufficient basis of value judgments or (at worst) a positive detriment to making value judgments.  In the second case, whatever pertains to the body and its needs should be ruled out of court when considering the worth of a human life.  Pushed even further, to the Hegel master/slave phenomenon,  the person who would prioritize “life” over other (more worthy) standards ends up a slave—and (perhaps) rightfully so.  This final bit is not Hegel because he has his dialectical reversal coming, but it is not clear that Arendt offers any such escape.  She seems simply contemptuous of the modern consumer who has no sense of or taste for the joys of public life.  Such people are living swinish (Mill), unfree (Arendt) lives.

The Charybdis here is trying to identify a non-pernicious standard of value that doesn’t simply reduce to supplying material needs.  We certainly seem to need a non-utilitarian, non-economic, set of motives—and those motives should, in some form or another, include moral considerations addressing our desired relations to others and to the planet.  Reductionism (Kenneth Burke’s “debunking”) can only lead to cynicism.  If everyone is always out for the main chance; if it’s the struggle for life that overwhelms all else, then we get the macho “eat or be eaten” with its concomitant scorn for all the sentimental claptrap about decency, rights, love, altruism etc.  Yesterday’s New York Review of Books offers a poignant example.  James Shapiro reviews a new interpretation of Hamlet that basically argues that the play shows Shakespeare revealing humanist claptrap to be the hot air that it really is.  Hamlet delays because he can’t face up to the realpolitik of courtly life, while spouting half-baked humanist truisms that he has neither mastered nor believed.  Hamlet is a fatuous young fop—and the play reveals his fatuousness.  And Shakespeare is a complete nihilist.  A perfect reading for our current political moment.  There are no barriers of any sort (religious, moral, humanist) against sheer brute power.

When Arendt comes to this point, in her meditations on morality under the supreme conditions of Nazi rule, she can only conclude that the kind of integrity, the felt need to live a life in accord with the moral principles one had understood as one’s own, is rare, but not impossible or utterly unknown.  She famously says that the Nazis showed that most people will change their moral code as easily as they will change their table manners.  (She probably should have said as easily as they will change the kinds of clothes they wear in response to changes in fashion.  We also have Shakespeare’s marvelously cynical statement in The Tempest –spoken by the villain Antonio—that “For all the rest,/They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk;/They’ll tell the clock to any business that/We say befits the hour” (Act 2, sc 1, 289-92).  Most people will say what the powerful tell them to say.)  In short, Arendt has only a very thin reed to offer us; there will be some who will die rather than live the life totalitarianism puts on offer, but only “some” and they will not be effective in face of the ruthless totalitarians.  A very short step from cynicism—or maybe the better term in despair.

Despair is certainly one quite understandable response to our dark times.  And maybe the long bloody track of human history makes a sensible response altogether to “the human condition.”  For we can consider one last twist of the knife: honor (or morality) might seem, if it exists, a bulwark against sheer power.  But then honor and morality themselves are so often used to justify violence.  Honor killings, as well as the fact that “honor” is so central to warrior cultures, reminds us that the “doux commerce” of the bourgeoisie was supposed to usher in a kinder and gentler era.  The bourgeois critique of honor is hardly entirely off-base; the same can be said of the atheists’ critique of sectarian violence.  The Nietzschean conclusion that humans can turn anything into the occasion for oppression and violence appears to hold.  Despair and misanthropy seem to follow in course, accompanied by a fierce sarcasm about all the high-falutin’ words with which humans dress up their shitty behavior to one another—and to non-humans.

I want a standard of decency that will hold, some kind of barrier against the flood of exploitation.  I don’t see one on the horizon at the moment.

Population Control and Violence

To go back a few steps, one puzzle is why Arendt, Foucault, Taylor and others believe that taking “life” as the primary value leads to states that kill (in large numbers?)

James Scott’s Against the Grain (Yale UP, 2017) (which I have just about finished reading) offers some ideas along that line.  Scott accepts that both slavery and war existed before the emergence of the state.  But he sees the state as obsessed from the start with population control.  So much for Foucault’s bringing the question of population on board somewhere in the eighteenth century.  For Scott, it is all about people, and almost nothing to do with territory, when considering the underlying motives of war.

Life, in its barest form, is about subsistence, about producing enough to sustain life.  (In that sense, Scott is a materialist of a fairly straight-forward Marxist/Darwinian type.)  The state always creates classes of people who do not directly (or even indirectly) produce the stuff needed for subsistence.  Thus, any state must 1) organize production in such a way that a surplus is produced, and 2) appropriate that surplus for distribution to those who do not produce the basics (food, clothing etc.)  Furthermore, states create a need for non-subsistence goods (metals, luxuries, the implements of war, the ceremonial architecture of hierarchies) that necessitate 1) trade and 2) even more laborers who are not directly producing subsistence goods and who must be fed.

The problem with life—if we think in Arendt’s terms—is that it requires “labor.”  The problem of the state, in Scott’s rendering, is that it amplifies the need for labor because states invent so many more things to labor on.  War is a primary means to gain access to more labor.  The most important prize of a successful battle is prisoners who can be turned into slaves.  Or, alternatively, the threat of violence can make a neighboring society agree to pay tribute.

The state, then, has a stake in keeping its slaves alive, in increasing its population in order to secure an adequate supply of labor.  But it also has to coerce people into doing that labor because there is no good reason to voluntarily do the work.  It’s economic exploitation and appropriation from the get go—and all the way down.  States are always kleptocracies—and taxes are the form that robbery takes.

Scott has written a book called Two Cheers for Anarchism that is not very good.  His other work is off the charts fantastic.  (Seeing Like a State, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Weapons of the Weak, and The Art of Not Being Governed.)  He comes down squarely on the side of organized violence is far worse (because more effective and more systematic) than the sporadic but ever-present violence found in non-state societies.  Far be it from Scott to accept Steven Pinker’s insistence that the rule of law curbs violence.  If we go by the numbers, the legitimate violence of the state always claims more victims than free-lancers.

Still—does a state that claims to be working in the service of life inflict more death than a state that locates its raison d’être elsewhere.  And does it even make any sense to think in those terms?  What would a state look like that did not claim to be enhancing, protecting, sustaining the life of its subjects?  Even the most brutal regime, one that accepts, without putting any kind of pretty face on it, that power must be deployed ruthlessly and continuously, still sees that power as enhancing and protecting the lies of the powerful. The wielders of power don’t will their own death.

The alternative is a sacrificial culture, one centered around a death cult.  The Nazis approach that elevation of death over life.  “Balanced against this life, this death.” (Yeats).  It seems plausible to me that, in certain circumstances, a kind of fatalistic embrace of death, an even joyful embrace of destruction including destruction of the self, would be possible.  In all the stuff about killing that I have been reading, about the ecstasy, the “high,” of battle, I haven’t seen anyone talk about the ecstasy of embracing one’s own death in the general conflagration.  Surely, however, that’s an ecstasy of submission, not one of power.  (The ever presence of those two sides of Nietzsche, his celebration of the “beast” who acts unapologetically out of the will to power shadowed by the masochism of the Dionysian figure who glories in suffering and in willing to live his whole painful life over and over again.)  To embrace death is an odd combination of hatred for life and never feeling more alive than when the end of life is imminent.

The point, if we take the Darwinian perspective that also appealed so much to Engels, is that the preservation of life (enabling its reproduction) is the first requirement imposed upon us by biology.  No state could possibly escape that imperative.  Scott is simply arguing that the state is not necessarily the most efficient and preferable (according to a variety of criteria) means for preserving life—and employing the state as the means for subsistence comes with some very high costs.  He clearly believes that non-state solutions to the problem of subsistence are actually better for most involved (if not for the elites at the top of state hierarchies.)

Scott’s conclusion is driven by his not valuing the achievements of “civilization” very highly and by his firm belief that “culture” (as opposed to “civilization”) is preserved (and can ever flourish) in the stateless conditions that we have mistakenly thought of as “dark ages.”  Arendt’s take, it seems to me, would be the exact opposite.  She sees the polity—and politics—as the pinnacle of human achievement precisely because it transcends labor and the necessities of subsistence.  “Man’s life would be cheap as beasts” (King Lear) if we didn’t aspire to—and actually achieve—something more than mere subsistence.  “Freedom” is only granted to us by the polis and precisely means escaping from the bonds of necessity, of being able to indulge in the non-productive “action” that politics enables.  Arendt is motivated by a horror of production, of doing something for the sake of securing or making the means to life.  She values those things that are not conducive to preserving or sustaining life.

Thus, she also wants a state not oriented toward life.  Instead, her ideal state (just like her ideal political actor) is motivated by a “love of the world.”  That’s where I will pick it up tomorrow.

Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century

I am about 2/3rds of the way through The Long Twentieth Century, which has been a slog, but also worth the effort.  I will get back to the “life” stuff in subsequent posts, but want to pick up on three points from Arrighi today.

One: Arrighi is a fairly orthodox Marxist in that he firmly believes that economics drives history and, in particular, offers the explanatory causes for all armed conflicts.  Even more fundamentally, he believes that the exigencies of profit are the main drivers of all economic activity.  There is a logic to how and where profit can be made, as well as cycles that move capital from seeking profit through trade to seeking it through financial transactions.  Individual actors in capitalism have few, if any, options.  They must do what profit demands in any particular situation.  The iron laws of capitalism rule.

Interestingly, however, Arrighi recognizes that no profit could even be made if all actors only pursued profit.  Thus, he must posit that some people are otherwise motivated.  If everyone were motivated by profit, trade would come to a standstill because no one would make trades unless able to make a profit—and profit, finally, is a zero-sum game.  It is zero-sum because, unlike the fantasized barter exchange that is equally advantageous because I need eggs and your need clothes, the introduction of money translates all exchanges into the same currency.  I only make a profit if the eggs I exchange for clothes are worth less in monetary terms than the sum you give me, part of which I expend on clothes, the rest of which I pocket as profit. (Kiernan had a friend once who refused to sell any properties in Monopoly because his older sister had so consistently taken advantage of him in the past.  The result was an endless game, because no one could ever go bankrupt if not monopolies ever got formed.  That might prove a functioning economy, but it certainly isn’t a capitalist one.)

So what motivates people besides profit?  Arrighi answer (which, unfortunately, he doesn’t develop at all) is “power and prestige.”  War provides a consistent boon for those seeking profit—and most wars, he seems to think, are actually motivated by the need to protect or to expand sources of profit.  But he does seem to admit that aggrandizement, the quest for power and status apart from profit, can also motivate conflict, competition, and war.  And the profit seekers are more than glad to, in Country Joe’s words, “supply the army with the tools of the trade.”  War is not only a great consumer of merchandise (manufactured goods) but also a major source of debt (i.e. of profits for financial capital).  The potlatch that is war serves profit precisely because it does not seek profit itself, representing a different desire instead, one that cold-eyed profit seekers can exploit.

There are, of course, other ways to seek status besides war—and that leads us to topic number two.

Two: We are familiar with “crises of overproduction,” the paradoxical creation of poverty during economic downturns where the problem is not a scarcity of goods, but a surfeit of them.  Less often noted is the problem of a surfeit of capital, a crisis of “over-accumulation.”  Arrighi is particularly good on this species of crisis, one that seems particularly acute in our day and age.  For starters, the two types of crises can be (although they need not be) related. When markets are saturated, when there is not sufficient demand to meet supply and hence production is slowed because there is too much stuff around and no place to sell it, then capital might also begin to accumulate for lack of any place to invest it.  You can’t put the capital to work because there is no need for increased production.

In this situation, capital will move from production to financial markets.  Arrighi, in fact, believes that this movement from relying on commodities for profits to relying on selling money to make profits is the grand cycle of capitalism, with the movement to finance capital in the world’s dominant economy—first the Italian city-states, then the Dutch, then the British, then the US—marking the moment of transition from one site of dominance to the next.  The newcomer begins by taking over production from its predecessor until it, too, exhausts the profit capacities of production and moves into finance.  In this vision, the US, having moved from production to finance somewhere in the 1970s is in decline, with Asia bidding to become the next hegemonic capitalist site.

One possibility, then, is for capital to move from the former hegemonic site of production (the US) to the new one (China).  But, for fairly obvious reasons, capital is not entirely mobile.  For one thing, nationalist sentiments weigh against allowing the importation of too much “foreign capital.”  There are also risk factors: the worry that foreign lands might not be stable.  And there are transaction costs of moving into a different legal/banking regime and working in a different currency.

For various reasons, then, some (at least) excess capital will desire to stay home.  And that leads to bubbles and to creative “financial instruments” and to Ponzi schemes and other forms of fraud.  The bubbles, I would argue, are always often tied to status.  The inflated value of the “bubbled thing” (if I can invent a term) relies not simply on its supposed ability to be cashed in for a certain sum, but also for the prestige of owning such an expensive, highly valued commodity.  Currently, real estate and art works clearly play this role.  They are great places to park excess money, because they can be rationalized as investments, not just frivolous spending.  But owning a New York apartment or a painting by Monet is also conspicuous consumption.  More bang for the buck: prestige plus a profit to be made.

Another factor drives bubbles, I think.  The search for safety.  That seems paradoxical since bubbles contain enormous risks—if we believe that value must, in the final instance, be tied back to something “real.”  A very different dynamic is at work, I think.  The world is a dangerous, unstable place—and seems more dangerous every day.  (That fear of its dangerousness is, most likely, pretty constant across time.  There are always ample reasons for fear.)  The money being parked in New York and London and Vancouver real estate and in paintings by the masters is money being siphoned out of risky environments and salted away in places perceived as safe.  The American who buys a high-end New York apartment can’t find a better place to invest his excess capital.  The Chinese citizen who does the same is squirreling away his excess capital in a safe place.  Both acquire the prestige of having a place in New York.

The quest for status does lend itself to expenditures that are pretty much complete financial losses: high-end clothes and accessories, fancy vacations.  There is money to be made in the luxury trades and never more so than in times of slack production and excess capital.  Education is a funny hybrid in such times.  It is clearly a prestige item—the fancy prep schools, the elite colleges—but can also be rationalized as an investment.  It is hard to know if the return on investment (given the differential in initial outlay) for going to Harvard exceeds that of going to Grand Rapid State—mostly because the place from which the respective students start is so vastly different that the assessment of eventual outcomes (in terms of income or of other measures of economic well-being) cannot isolate the specific contribution of the degree.  But people love to spend money on things they think can also be justified as “investments.”  One need only look at the immense sums American parents are spending on sports training/competition for their children, justified as possibly leading to that child getting a scholarship to college.

In sum, profit depends on their being other powerful motives that overrule profit for some people.  As Marx put it on the more basic level of the material needs for subsistence, capitalism is in the business of turning your needs into weaknesses that it can exploit. The whole thing doesn’t work if there aren’t some people who do not pursue profit relentlessly and to the exclusion of all else.

Three: Arrighi argues that a major innovation of the American century, the time of its economic hegemony which encompasses the “long twentieth century” of his title, is the modern corporation.  In particular, the modern corporation—think Ford, Exxon, Kodak, Ma Bell—combined mass production with mass marketing.  These companies used the fact of being first in producing some product to gain massive market share by aggressively organizing its distribution and advertising operations.  Newcomers (i.e. potential competitors), Arrighi argues, did not face overwhelming technical obstacles to produce products with the same efficiency as the first-comers.  What the newcomers lacked was a way to crack into the market in sufficient volume to underwrite the capital costs of mass production.  Organizing the market in ways that orient it toward one’s firm is equally as necessary as establishing an efficient mode of production.  Where the two do not co-exist, the firm will not thrive.

On the one hand, this assertion still seems true.  Apple and Google and Amazon are prime examples.  They were, in some ways, technical innovators, although there were certainly personal computer makers in the 1980s who were Apple’s equals, and Amazon never did anything all that innovative technically.  In Arrighi’s words, “the transnational corporations that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries . . . were strictly business organizations [i.e.  were not state/business hybrids like the East India Company and South Africa Company of the British hegemonic period] specialized functionally in a particular line of business across multiple territories and jurisdictions” (250-51).  They integrated “the process of mass production with those of mass distribution within a single organization” (248).

It occurs to me that a similar “crowding out” operates in politics.  The difficulties of forming a “third part” or a new lobbying firm or a new social movement are enhanced by the presence of highly organized players already on the field.  Thus, for example, there is no strong anti-NRA group.  MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) might be a counter-example—and provide a model for those in favor of gun control to follow.  Of course, there was hardly a strong lobby for drunk driving, the way that the NRA is a strong lobby against gun control.  In any case, the advantages of being there first are only secured by also being organized.  An organized player in the field only attracts more resources by virtue of their power and visibility.  And, for that reason, I think (as has been a theme of so many of my musings) that the anarchist love of leaderless, horizontal, non-organized action so prevalent in many radical circles today is a losing strategy.  Organization (money, boots on the ground, a well-articulated set of objectives, and a coherent strategy for advancing toward those objectives, a strategy followed consistently by the organization’s members) will defeat an amorphous protest group every time.

And yet, on the other hand, the whole point of Boltanksi and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism is that the monster corporations of the middle twentieth century are dinosaurs, too cumbersome to respond quickly and adroitly to rapidly changing conditions on the ground.  IBM is just one poster child (GM and GE are others) for the supposed liabilities of the big firm.  Paired down, focused firms like Toyota, Southwest Airlines, and Dell computers can take on the big boys—and win—because they can keep costs down and quality high.  It is hardly that these successful new firms are unorganized.  But the organization is highly decentralized; responsibility for different aspects of the operation are widely dispersed—including, in many cases, to other firms who, by way of contract, provide key support services or even key component parts.  Such “outsourcing,” whether overseas or domestic, drives down costs, even as it increases accountability.

In politics, then, aspirant newcomers might want to consider how to play the disadvantages of size against the established players, the existing parties.  I must admit I am not sure how that would work.  For all the supposed “down-sizing” of the big dinosaurs in order to become leaner (and definitely meaner), it is not as if market share has changed all that drastically.  Coke and Pepsi still dominate the soft drink business; the big breweries buy up craft breweries almost as quickly as Apple and Google buy out any possible competitors.  I guess I would say that today’s firms are less uptight than the GM of 1950 about the need to do everything in-house, the need to be the employer of record of everyone whose work was needed to make the company function.  But today’s firms are even more obsessed with controlling the market.  Hence the endless customer satisfaction research.

Enough for now.  The big question still looms—as it always does for me.  What causes (there were obviously several) explain the “return of ruthless capitalism.”  Why were labor costs and profit levels that were deemed satisfactory in 1960 were no longer acceptable to capitalists in 1980?

Biopolitics and Racism

One quick note as an addendum to the first entry on Biopower/Biopolitics.  If we think of the diet and exercise industries, we can identify a non-state source of pressure on selves to toe the line as regards health, longevity etc.  And that pressure feeds fairly directly into the creation of markets to be exploited by commercial interests.  So biopower is hardly confined to states.

The racism argument, made briefly by Foucault and treated at greater length by Esposito in Bios, is a fairly straightforward version of the claim that an attention to preserving life leads to the infliction of death.  (We can see here a version of the “perversity” style of argument that Hirschman sees as dear to conservatives: namely the claim that efforts to do A—in this case to preserve life—in fact lead directly to an outcome that is not-A—the exact opposite of A—an increase in deaths.)

Basically, the claim is that efforts to preserve life will, inevitably, lead to identifying various threats to life, various agents that will cause life to cease.  Those agents are, then, slated for preventive destruction.  A simple case would be pesticides.  In order the insure the health and life of my crops I must kill the pests (insects/molds/funghi/weeds etc.) that threaten the crops.  Esposito shows how this logic feeds directly into Nazi thinking.  The Jews were pests that threatened the health of the German people—and hence had to be exterminated.  The killing of Jews was persistently justified in the name of health.  Similarly, Nazi eugenics and euthanasia were understood in relation to a notion of “lives not worth living,” i.e. life itself was judged according to criteria that designated some lives as not up to the mark.  (I will devote a future post to this conundrum since it brings up the issue of old age so directly).

Judith Butler’s recent work has focused just here: how is it that some lives are deemed more valuable than others?  Or, as she puts it, whose life is grievable?  We could translate from there over to Martha Nussbaum: how come only some get to have a flourishing life?  What are the criteria by which some are denied access to the necessaries that sustain life?  One criteria can be racist—whole categories of people are outside the circle of the worthy.

One question then: is it “inevitable” (a word Esposito loves) that protecting life requires designating enemies to life that must be eliminated.  This might be called the negative path.  There is also a positive path (the one I always associate with Dickens’s Great Expectations.)  Here the realization is that the sustaining of life can only come at the expense of other lives.  We all must eat—and so some living things must be eaten.  At that basic level, as Dickens sees it, we are all criminals.  Being alive is just proof that you have participated in the killing of something.  Life is paired inextricably with death—and the only two alternatives are self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of the not-self.  No innocent life.

The problem with a claim that large is that it seems universal—an absolute condition of life everywhere and everywhen.  But Arendt, Taylor, Foucualt and the rest are trying to make a claim specific to modernity, a claim that there was some kind of fundamental shift, characterized as the moment that the polity took the preservation of life as its chief focus and justification.  And if racism is a modern phenomenon (as many historians and theorists have argued), then there would have to be a connection of that racism with the new prioritization of life.  I don’t see the connection, or at least am not convinced that is the connection at work here.  Racism, certainly as it pertains to both Jews and Africans, is economically convenient in the European exploitation of the non-European world.  So I don’t see that we need biopower to explain racism.  What seems qualitatively different about Nazi racism is its roots in a discourse of health and its economic non-rationality.  The wholesale killing of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade was a cost of doing business, but killing Africans was not the direct purpose.  There was no economic gain to be had from a dead African.  But the Nazis (beyond stealing the resources of the Jews) had little to gain economically from genocide.  Their logic (if we can even use that term) does seem to refer to some kind of notion of disease, infection, immunization etc.  They were not about sustaining life economically, but about protecting life against dire external threats.

What gets left out, it seems to me, of Esposito’s mostly convincing account of the Nazis is hatred.  To focus on the “logic” that underlines their genocidal program is to miss the hatred that animates it, that renders killing a positive pleasure, an act in which one self-righteously indulges a most satisfying sense of vindication, of revenge, of seeing justice done.  Can those feelings really be traced back to a desire to preserve life?  Seems more the idea that these others (the Jews for Nazis, the blacks for the white Trump supporters that Arlie Hochshild describes in her book) have stolen something that is rightfully mine?  And it isn’t life they have stolen: it is dignity, recognition, legitimacy, status.  They seem to be thought of as more “worthy” (along some dimension) than me in the current social milieu. They get all the favors.  More in the “Mom always loved you best” mode than in terms of direct threats to my life.  Injustice, not fear for one’s vey life, is the motor, I would say.  A mixture of envy and indignation.

So I am not yet ready to buy that a focus on life as the highest good necessarily has the perverse outcome of increasing violence, of increasing the state’s proclivity to inflict death.

Another problem is Thucydides, or Steven Pinker.  It is just not obvious that modern states inflict death at any higher rate than premodern ones.  Pinker, of course, argues that violence is on the decline, that the obvious result of the Enlightenment movement toward notions of equality is exactly the result we have gotten: less wholesale killing.  In other words, the new valuation of life, which includes extending the right to life to the lowest born, did not have a perverse effect but had, in fact, the effects that we would predict to most directly follow.  Valuing life leads to a better deal for more people.  Placing power at the service of life leads to longer lives and fewer violent (human-inflicted) deaths.

The deep resistance of the left to all narratives of progress, to any suggestion that modernity is (at least in some ways) better than what preceded it, has (I would venture to guess) multiple causes.  A hatred of complacency mixes with a fear that we will settle for a half loaf where we should be striving for a full one.  But there is a deep incoherence in rejecting all ideas of progress in the name of a standard—the full loaf—yet to be reached.  A standard gives you something to measure by.  And once you are in the realm of measurement, then you have established a line along which progress can be tracked.  I guess Foucault could retreat to saying that all societies are unfree; they are just unfree is different ways.  But, even then, we would be tempted to judge some variants of unfreedom as more onerous than others.  Make the struggle against unfreedom as local and specific as you like; the struggle is still going to be toward something—either toward the removal of some form of oppression or the installation of some less onerous way of doing/arranging things.  We know better and worse in many circumstances—and all we need to some idea of progress is some notion of better and worse.

In short, I am hardly going to deny the violence of modern states.  But I am not convinced that that violence is generated or augmented by a devotion to the value of life.  I am much more inclined to say that the value placed on life is a brake (yes, a mostly, although not entirely, ineffective one) on even more violence.  Mass anti-war movements, large-scale dissent from a state’s war-making, is a modern phenomenon.  That we are even having this conversation seems to testimony to a transvaluation of values that can, conveniently, be described in terms of a heightened reverence for life.

Similarly, racism still seems to me best combatted by a generalized valuation of life.  Two things seem involved here: one, identifying something we value that is shared across whatever boundaries our categories can fabricate or our cultures erect, and two, identifying that shared thing’s vulnerability in relation to the fact that it can quite easily be lost.  Life’s value is established vis a vis the death we aim to delay, especially in relation to keeping humans from inflicting death upon one another.  I just don’t see how that worthy goal somehow (perversely) ends up causing more deaths than would have occurred if we didn’t set life at such a high value.

More thoughts about all this to come, including looking at Arendt and Taylor more specifically, trying to think about the logic of sacrifice, and questions about whether some lives are not worth living.