January 06, 2007

The Future Past of Republicanism in the World

Here is the opening chapter of a book focusing on the ways that democracies and republics deal with problems of foreign policy. The author Daniel Deudney attempts to argue that all our strands of foreign policy- whether Liberal internationalism (a varient of which armed with weapons might be termed neo-conservatism) or realist pragmatism- date back to particular arguments and concepts used by a series of thinkers he identifies as republicans. Such thinkers he argues came largely from Republican societies and dealt with the question of how Republican societies endured and prospered within the world- the concerns they discussed were military, material and institutional. Republics in this theory are defined as governments which are not absolute, which are sensitive to the problems of power and which beleive in some sort in a constitution and have an element of election. Obviously as a definition that doesn't work in all circumstances- Plato's Republic was not in this sense a republic and it does not meet many other definitions of a republic- Ciceronian, Harringtonian or other.

To take some examples, Deudney argues that Hobbes, a theorist interested in the preservation of law, was fascinated by the spectacle of military collapse- the state of nature lay at the heart of Hobbes's fear. Adam Smith working with economic tools argued that through free trade and the expansion of sympathy peace was more likely than war. Alexander Hamilton showed how Republics had to survive be large and confederate- the first would preserve them from fear, the second would mean they retained their quality as Republics.

There is much to commend in Deudney's work- its worth remembering firstly how precarious democracy and republicanism are. Ancient Athenian democracy lasted generations, the Roman Republic was consumed by its own success and historically Republics have existed within city states. Early Modern theorists were preoccupied with this weakness of Republicanism- Machiavelli's Discorsi was preoccupied with the question of what made Rome rise and what made her fall. Thucydides (and his later transalator Hobbes) were interested in the fall of Athens. Neither Venice nor the Dutch Republic with their histories of on the one hand stasis and the other hand domestic instability performed the role of a model for Republican theorists of the state. Looking say out from eighteenth century America, Republics looked as if to survive they had to be small and it looked difficult to maintain their durability. Consequently Deudney is right to argue that Republican theorists were interested in what made states survive- in the person of Machiavelli and the conception of virtu they developed insights beyond those developed by most others.

Let's be careful though because Republicanism as Deudney defines it is a very wide category. Hobbes afterall reccomended a despotism whose theoretical power was unlimited. The Oakeshottian interpretation of Hobbes as an endorser of limited government might be right- but even then there is a strong division between him and contemporaries like Edward Coke who saw law as a limit on the power of the executive. There is also another qualification- that all of this activity took place in the Christian west under the eye of God. Its no accident that its the 17th Century which sees through the work of Grotius the first development of international law- the concept which dominated the middle Ages was that of the Republic of Christianity and the issue between the imperial and papal theorists, between say Marsilius, Dante and the Pope was the question of who headed that Commonwealth. The Reformation as much as the Republic struck through the whole idea of a Commonwealth of Christianity. Machiavelli was unusual as a fifteenth century theorist in putting his weight behind secular not religious ideas. Republicanism was not the whole of European thinking.

The way that that is reflected in our modern ideas is fascinating. The discourse of natural rights goes back to ideas of natural law expressed by the theologians of the twelfth century. The very idea of law as argued by Coke, a form which grew in conjunction with its people, was a development of Natural Law theory and owes its origins in England to men like Sir John Fortescue. Republicanism does have Roman origins but it also has medieval origins and so does much of our thought.

There is little reference either to the different strands within Republican philosophy- no mention of Grotius is positively criminal in this kind of discussion. No mention of John Selden, Grotius's great opponent is also criminal. Montesquieu gets mentioned as does Rousseau and both were interested in Republics- but very different kinds of Republic. That's not to mention the change through time that we can see- if John Pocock's suggestion that a North American farmer was thinking of Machiavelli as he rose in revolt challenged many historians- then the assertion that Thucydides, Machiavelli, Jefferson and Kant all shared the same ideas would stun historians. We should be careful about reading too carefully vertically down time, as opposed to historically. Locke and Filmer have more in common ultimately than either with Paul Wolfowitz.

These flaws are really both flaws of ahistoricity. I can't speak about the alternative that Deudney wishes to propose but it is definitely a chapter worth reading- if only to recall that there is an aspect of political philosophy addressing this subject- security. And that the current proliferation of democracies is a very recent phenomena- democracy was once assumed to be the most unstable and weak of states. Thinking about how that changed is definitely a worthy enterprise and asking those earlier theorists some questions will help us understand the future as well as the past of democracy.

The physical constraints of civilisation

The Granite Studio has in his normal fascinating way found a report from Nature which blames climate change for the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 10th Century China. The physical constraints on civilisations are seldom studied by historians. The great work on this kind of subject has to be Fernand Braudel's history of The Mediteranean in the age of Phillip II and other scholars like Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has provided a more modern attempt to delineate the ways that civilisations interract with their environment.

The thesis that the Tang fell because of climate change is a simplification. Political discord, migrations, economic trends and other human events probably influenced the fall of the Tang as much as environmental factors. Humanity is obviously dependant on its physical environs, its difficult to run a civilisation in some climates. It surely is no accident that it was on great riverbeds like the Nile, Indus, Tigris, Euphrates and Yellow River that the first civilisations developed. Its no accident that its proved exceptionally hard to maintain political authority in the central Eurasian plain- empires like Attila's and Genghis Khan's proved easy to conquer given the lack of physical barriers but also given the same factor swiftly fell apart. The lack of rivers running east-west as opposed to north-south made transport across Russia difficult for years so though the Urals in the 18th Century were producing as much iron as the UK, they couldn't export it because of the costs of transport. Physical barriers do influence history, they constrain what rulers and populations can do but they don't explain history. They don't explain for example why and when the Tang collapsed- but they explain why it was difficult for the Tang to govern at that point.

The Granite Studio has yet again highlighted something of great importance here. There is obviously a relationship between climate and the developments seen in history- but climate and physical environs represent constraints upon what humans can do, they don't explain it. Personally as a historian I find the human aspect most interesting- but that's just me. Global Warming could become a more terminal constraint than previous physical impositions upon human civilisation- though no doubt some kind of civilisation would survive and the form that would take would depend on the way that human ingenuity dealt with the crisis.

The physical shape that the world around a civilisation takes constrains the way that the civilisation can behave but doesn't predict its history.

January 05, 2007

A draft: Intellect and Politics

American Prospect today sketches out one of the most interesting features of modern political speech. Their writer, Dean Baker, argues that there is a distinction between victory in politics and having the best ideas. Its interesting but on both sides of the Atlantic that case needs to be made. In the US Republicans have often argued that their party shows more ideological vigour and argue that the proof of this is that they win elections. In Britain the same argument is seen from various members of the Labour party- but its not neccessarily true.

The problem is that we tend to conflate two separate avenues of work. One is governing- most of which is a reflex activity, responding to crisis (whether real or manufacture) and securing one's place in the political realm. The other is the work of economists, political scientists, philosophers, historians, scientists and civil servants, the real spade work of the manufacture of ideas about how to improve and understand society. Few politicians know much about the lower detail of that spadework- few of them for instance will ever base historical generalisations upon the ideas generated directly by historians- rather they rely on people who transalate those ideas for them into position papers, policy proposals and leglislation. The army of civil servants, lobbyists, activists and think tanks that stand between manufacturers of original ideas and the politicians.

We tend to conflate these two separate avenues of activity- we tend to overrate the degree to which the skill of the politician is to come up with original ideas and thoughts actually, it isn't. Politicians have to take too many decisions, know and observe too much of the world to be an expert on anything. Yes it is an advantage for a politician to know what it is to be an expert, because knowing what being an expert and producing expert work is like means that you can evaluate it better- you can understand the process of collecting evidence (one of the reasons why I would prefer politicians to have done PhDs)- but the core function of the politician is not to be an expert but to quickly evaluate what the experts say and take a decision. The peak of a politician's ability is when he is faced with a crisis and has to take a quick decision with vast importance.

Expertise takes years of hard work on one topic, mastering the evidence, basing your conclusions upon empirical data, understanding languages, learning the mathematics and learning the subject. It takes years to provide that level of depth and thought- and its also fairly inaccessible. The real battles of ideas don't take place in the public square- they might in magazines like the Economist, Prospect and some of the more intellectual blogs on the net- but they definitely don't in places like the Guardian or even the Sun. There is no battle of ideas there.

What we vote on is not whether our politicians have the right expertise- because they don't have any relevant expertise. Its whether we trust this politician to be able to evaluate, understand and present the evidence to us to justify a policy. We also vote on a purely character driven level- is this someone who you can trust to stay calm in a crisis and do the right thing. That's one of the reasons why for example its useful to see politicians debate and dispute- because its a test of how they cope with stress.

Politicians need various skills, they aren't participants in the battles of ideas (which rarely if ever flow along partisan lines anyway) but they need to be via civil servants and others observers and they need to be able to quickly understand and get to the heart of a matter.

This by the way is only the first development of a thought- so please criticise but there is something here I think worthy of consideration.

Carnival of Cinema

The Holiday season is over- and the Carnival of Cinema has returned packed with interesting pieces and good reviews (and a review from here that fits into neither category)- there is some good stuff go over and read.

January 04, 2007

Best Way to celebrate New Year- Protest!

Well done the protesters in Nantes who called on the UN to stop the march of time and declare January 1st, 2006. Having realised they had failed, they then refocused on the real enemy- the inevitability of 2008. Thanks to the Tin Drummer for alerting me to this wonderful news.

January 03, 2007

Humanity and Paper Balloons

The last film directed by the famous Japanese film drector of the thirties, Sadao Yamanata before he set off to fight and die in Manchuria at the age of 28, Humanity and Paper Balloons is a work about class and gender conflict in 18th Century Japan. How far it actually represents accurately the Edo era of Japanese history is not for us to say but what it really does do is discuss sensibly the degree and manner of class conflict.

Yamanata is focused upon class conflict within an integrated community- this is a community of actual people and not abstract concepts. The film revolves around a group of characters collected in a district of Edo, the then Japanese capitol, who live in what we would term a slum. They encompass all types of people- from Barbers to Samurai fallen on hard times. We see how the slum is terrorised by the pawn shops and those who profit and maintain a monopoly from gambling. The photography is exquisite, the film opens with a shot of dark and rainy streets- such shots continue through the film. The dankness and darkness, the anonymity of being poor are all shown by the camera work. This is a slum that only comes together to party after a suicide. This is a slum the members of which are too anonymous to be beaten up by the big city gangs that run the monopolies. This is a slum which obscures in its grime and dust, for an outsider the marks of Japanese rank.

Indeed the other part of the story is the distinctions within Japan of rank and class in a different way. One of the denizens of the slum, Matajuro is a samurai who has declined through drink to living in this fetid place. He tries to work on old connections of his father's to get a job but fails every time. His underlying nobility is reflected in the ceaseless bashing of his head against the stone wall that his own uselessness and fecklessness represents- failing to understand that he is now reduced to the level of the slum inhabitants, his tragic hope is something that renders him in the end hopeless. Matajuro though is able to use his rank within the slum to good effect- the officials won't search his house and he is a samurai so he can hide a kidnapped girl, his rank distances himself from the other inhabitants of the slum. Yet we also see the other side, the very first scene of the film takes place after another suicide, a suicide of another samurai who like Matajuro has fallen on hard times- this suicide is greeted by the slum inhabitants with ridicule- a samurai who could not fall on his own sword is an object of comic condescension even for the poorest of the poor. Matajuro in the end is murdered in a double suicide with his wife- significantly he is not killed with a sword but with a knife- yet again one can imagine the inhabitants of the slum will respond with ridicule.

As the opposite side to Matajuro's struggle to get out by using personal connections, we have Shinza the other major character of the second half of the film. Shinza is heading for disaster. His gambling efforts are easily detected and stopped by the cartels. As soon as he starts gambling again, it takes mere days to discover him. He acts in order to act, he wishes to be free yet every free act ends up destroying him. He acts by continuing to gamble, by selling the implements of his barber shop in order to defy the order imposed upon him. He acts eventually with kidnap. All these actions though incarnate a moment of resistance but end in disaster for Shinza personally- he is beaten up several times in the film (the only violence in this "samurai" film is the cowardly ganging up of the many on the few) but he persists in the illusion of a freedom that only leads to disaster. On a smaller scale we can see this in all the inhabitants of the slum, they are all incredibly crafty, cadging and robbing each other of things and robbing the landlord, yet in the end their actions lead merely to a temporary respite from the inevitable. They can get drunk on a couple of bottles of Saki provided by the unwitting landlord, yet they'll go back to live in their slum in the morning.

There is much else that is fascinating to pick up on in this film- I have barely dealt with gender relations- one of the most amazing things about Matajuro's state is that his wife has a different attitude to him, continuously providing him with the means to go out on his quixotic quests with the money provided from her trade in selling paper balloons. In many ways Matajuro's outlook is reflected in his wife's trade- she sells the ballons but only in the hope of Matajuro's success. We are left in no doubt that her activity is secondary to Matajuro's despite the fact, that and this is their tragedy, his activity is secondary to hers. Their acceptance of their failure is marked by her not him taking the initiative.

In many ways therefore the film represents the world of the slum as inevitably dark dangerous and horrible. Taking the attitude of Matajuro and hoping to escape through superior connections or of Shinzo and knowing that your destruction is inevitable both end in the same place. The Japan represented is a Japan of uncertainty- where the only thing certain is that you die in the end of the story. The amazing thing about this film is that despite its deeply depressing message- the moments of respite are genuine, the humour and acheivement of beating the system is important- its just that the end result is inevitably bad. In a way the film makes us question the validity of looking at a life or an action through its end- Shinzo's sense of fatalism is also a sense that an action acheives something even if it leads to destruction- its a revelling in irresponsibility.

This is one of the great films of Japan's first golden age of film (sadly many of the films made in this period were lost because of bad preservation and also of course the second world war)- I suspect it shows more about the 1930s than the eighteenth century. The acting is intensely interesting- its difficult to interpret across cultures- but the photography and iconography are superb, furthermore the film illustrates some of the stresses and strains of proletarian life in a society where though it seems impossible to rise, it seems very possible to fall.

The title thus functions as an analogy- the humanity in this film is puffed about by winds like a paper balloon but inevitably falls to the ground. Or rather to take the film's final image, like a paper balloon humanity drifts downstream- the point is as Shinzo does- to enjoy the voyage, ultimately you are going to end up dieing anyway.

An unambiguous duty to go into politics?

Brian Jenner has written an article today on Conservative Home. Its a rather interesting article because it argues for participation in politics. Politics today is not a very tempting career- I myself would never go into it because in my view being a senior politician means inviting the press into your private life- something that I would be unwilling to subject people close to me too. But Brian raises an interesting point- there may be a moral obligation upon us to be political. Quoting Jonathan Sacks, he uses the Martin Niemoller argument that unless we stand up, then it will be the dregs of society- the thugs and the brutallisers- who seize control.

Brian is right in the sense that political engagement is encumbent upon us all. But I'm not sure that the temptations run in the same way for us all. There are sacrafices a political career entails for your intimates. The problem is weighing your obligations to the people close to you against your obligations to your community- its one of Isaiah Berlin's irreconcilable choices. What do you say to a young man who comes to you in the midst of the second world war and says on the one hand my mother is dying in Paris and I love her and want to care for her and make sure she dies with dignity, if I leave she will eke out her existance in pain and maybe even starve to death, but on the other I have a duty to my country and I know that there is a war and I want to fight in the resistance and I want to help Jews escape the Holocaust. Private good clashes with public good and the answer isn't obvious as to how one should choose.

I suppose the one error in Brian's formulation is the totality of it though. My own thought is that we can all do things for the public good- joining political parties even writing blogs. All obligations in the end are scalars- my duty to my friend includes having coffee with her, far from an onerous sacrafice, but might also include looking after her when she is drunk and abusive. Politics is the same, obligations might start with contributing a fiver a year and end with not sleeping beacuse you are waiting for a vital communique. In that sense there is a scalar on this moral good as there are on all others- its not a matter of good or evil but of levels of being good.

At some point this scalar interferes with other scalars and my choice shows my priorities. For example does x stay at home and make his daughter's supper or does he leave her sandwiches and leaflet some council estate, does y become Prime Minister or does she turn down the honour because she knows if she did her sister's drug habit would be exposed. It all depends which obligation you think trumps the other- something which is as much emotional as based on reason- where do you derive your sense of self worth from governs the way you act.

The problem is that whereas there are principles that most of us would regard as unambiguously good- look after one's family, treat others as you would wish to be treated- the way that those principles interact is not so straightforward. Much moral debate contributes heat not light to situations because people fail to realise what they are actually debating is not the principle at stake but the situation and how a principle applies to a situation. Restating the principle as in Brian Jenner's article is really not meant to persuade us of its existance but to move it up the heirarchy of principles in our minds.

Its worth always remembering the only conflicts aren't between good and evil and nor are they solely political.


A new year, a new example of James Higham's inexhaustible knowledge of the blogosphere and his attempts to make us all get to know each other. Yep the Blogfocus is back with tales about Spike Milligan and Beer pong (don't ask), its yet another good collection of interesting posts.

January 02, 2007


Right, having posted an absurdly over intellectual post, I just wanted to say that I completely agree with this post from the Katie at the Inky Circle. She says and I think she's right that the most satisfying intellectual experience is rereading old favourites. I have some history books I have always loved (and will no doubt at some point bang on for reams about) which I always turn to, fiction as well- my copy of M R James's Ghost Stories is amazingly well thumbed, I once went round Russia for three weeks reading only it and the Gulag Archipelago- so basically my only comfort reading was James. Part of the fun of such books is you find that every time you go back its a bit like looking at an Esher drawing, you suddenly see different sides of it. The other thing is that my memory often functions like tracing paper, it takes an outline or an impression of something, but rediscovering the texture and taste and feel of a book is a wonder because what remained in my mind from my last reading was a dry pencil outline, whereas the picture I see when I read is filled with garish yellows and fading browns, bright blues and effervescent reds. Maybe I'm just weird, but now that the inky circus has confessed to rereading books under the label of geek chic, I'm going to join them, rereading old stuff is cool. And just as a new year begins, its worth remembering how many of the things that the previous year left behind were really good.

(By the way the books in the photo above aren't the kind I own, I've got tatty paperbacks mostly- those are the kinds of books I fantasize about owning but will only ever see in libraries- it is amazing when you open say an original text from the seventeenth century though and think to yourself, this has been in existance for four hundred years- one of the best things about being a History PhD.)

Rousseau on solitude

Placing friendship and solitude at the core of political thinking might seem an odd expedition for someone interested in politics. Our societies are too vast, too incomprehensibly big for friendship or solitude to matter within them, definitions of friendship are also difficult to understand and maintain consistently. If we are going to think sensibly about this, then the place to start is by looking closely at the way that past thinkers have handled the question of social relationships between individuals and have used those as a microcosm of society as a whole. If you like, some thinkers have understood society via the way that society affects the individual's psyche and abstracted from that a notion of the stability and morality of society as a whole. Hence if one arrangement of society makes for selfish individuals then it is to be condemned.

Definitely that could be taken in part to be the view of Jean Jacques Rousseau- the great French philosophe and thinker who lived through much of the 18th Century. Rather than tackle Rousseau's considerable oeurvre head on, I want to discuss one work in particular, published four years after the philosopher's death in 1782. The Reveries of a Solitary Walker aren't widely known outside of academia- they were written by Rousseau in the later years of his life and there are twelve reveries which are a set of thoughts collected and arranged by links to a particular walk that Rousseau had taken. Like Montaigne's essays, indeed consciously modelled on Montaigne's essays, the walks take themes and develop from the particular to the more general philosophical questions that Rousseau finds himself interested in. Again there isn't space for all of these questions but there is space here to develop one of those themes a little.

Of particular interest to Rousseau as he took these promenades was sociability- the capacity of men and women to get on in the world. Rousseau was interested in this because of his own biography, he beleived himself to have been unjustly plotted against and then attacked from all sides. Rousseau's solitary reveries therefore provide him with time to reflect and understand what has happened to Rousseau- the reflexivity of that question is intentional, sometimes one gets the feeling that Rousseau's intellectual preoccupation was the explanation of Rousseau to Rousseau. Rousseau basically argues in his Reveries that he was happy at two points in his life- he was happy early on in his social career when he didn't know of the plots against him, he then was happy later in his social career when he had given up on society and decided that solitude was better for him personally.

Amongst Rousseau's earlier works, you can find the explanations for why Rousseau came to this conclusion. He beleived that man was a solitary animal to start with and then came together to form societies. Like Hobbes or Locke he beleived in a state of nature. His argument was that in a state of nature, man had no self-consciousness, that civilisation and society were the products of the development of a self consciousness as a human being amongst other human beings and that that self-consciousness was inherently competitive. Linking this all to property, Rousseau found the reasons for the anomie of modern society as lying in the self conscious competitive self love of individual men- that competitive self love rendered society, in his view, at once immoral, luxurious, corrupt and unequal. It also made society unstable because such competitive instincts could never be satisfied. Rousseau projected a nightmare vision of the capitalist world onto the canvass of works like the Social Contract and the Discourses on Inequality, a nightmare he hoped to do away with through a new social contract and organisation of society around the principle of a general will. The only way he thought that a society could live without this malaise, was if all the individuals discarded their individual wills in favour of adopting the general, collective will.

All of the above is intensely controversial- and also intensely intricate- one day I will develop ideas about that. But today I'm interested in the way that its reflected in Rousseau's account of his own psychological stability. If we turn to the Reveries, we can date a clear moment when Rousseau begins to feel happier about life. His sojourn on the St Peter's Island in Lake Bienne is supposed by him to be the happiest period his life. He depicts the period in his revery on his fifth walk, where he describes a life of classifying flowers, and wondering idly through meadows leaving books, letters and papers unfinished and untouched. The idyll ended quickly but part of the point of the reveries is that Rousseau attempted to recreate that idyll in his later years.

All of this is reflected in the way that Rousseau understands his own position after all his social defeats: Charles Butterworth beautifully translates a passage where Rousseau describes the evolution of his own self in reaction to his social disgrace here,

Everything is finished for me on earth. People can no longer do good or evil to me here. I have nothing more to hope for or to fear in this world; and here I am, tranquil at the bottom of the abyss, a poor unfortunate mortal but unperturbed like God himself

Rousseau's attention is now focused inwards- there is a sense here of social misfortune but there is a sense of liberation. Rousseau himself has become liberated from society which is why he alone can present to us an accurate account of his descent through society- he has lost his competitive self regard because he no longer has any use for it. It has died within him. Symbolic of this death is that Rousseau doesn't intend to publish the reveries, they weren't published until after his death and as far as we know he didn't wish them to be published. Rousseau therefore starts them by saying that as these are meant for myself alone, they are much more trustworthy than other similar accounts like Montaigne's essays- they aren't corrupted by my desire to look good because only I will read them. Rousseau is not alone in making that kind of point, Lord Hattersley today in the Guardian says similar things about the fact that you ought to trust a politician's diaries that weren't intended for publication over diaries that were intended for publication! Rousseau though was more consistant in his opposition to public performance than Lord Hattersley, he beleived that by publically performing we lied about our selves and made self knowledge almost impossible.

That public performance is at the heart of Rousseau's writing and is worth focusing on. Rousseau at the beggining of the Reveries asks the question, ok so everyone's deserted me, who am I? The topic of his essays is to answer that question and the answer he comes to is that he is most truly himself when he is alone. Public performance in this sense is a betrayel of self, a kind of self perpetuating lie. Society here is something to be avoided, something not to be sought unless it can be reformed through revolution- unless men can be as the Contract argues 'forced to be free'. Its in this sense that I think we should read the Reveries, for Rousseau like some medieval monk sees loneliness as salvation.

There is much more obviously to Rousseau, and much more to the Reveries- the length of an undergraduate essay won't sum up a hundred pages from a philosopher of his quality nor will my brief comments on his oeurvre suffice. If you are interested I reccomend going and reading his works. But it is worth contemplating in this light my original question because for Rousseau politics flows out of this sense of the way that societies affect personal relations. Because he beleives that all personal relations in a society based upon competitive egos are in a sense based on lies, based on self presentation and artifice, plots and machinations, therefore he argues that such societies can contain no true social relations, no true friendships and he feels that this invalidates them as ethical communities. Rousseau's critique of the world is a critique of the way that our social relations work and that he beleives is tied intimately to our construction of society.

Many other theorists, his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Hume, his forebears Aristotle and Cicero and his successors Marx and Oakeshott all saw in different ways the same issue. That government presents us with a space for social interraction and that depending on the dimensions of that space we can evaluate that government- obviously between Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Aristotle, Cicero and Oakeshott you have very different versions of what that space should look like but they all saw this question as crucial to their politics.

Again I must state that this is a huge misstatement of Rousseau, don't rely on me, go to the text and read it for yourselves- its an incredible read. But this is a snapshot of an idea about how to think about that text- its also uninfluenced by any secondary work- so I offer it as a possibility but I'm sure this is only the beggining of the evolution of my views of Rousseau and one of the privileges of blogging is that you can all correct me, so please do.

I should also note that in response to this post, the illustrious and distinguished Mr Higham has posted a note on Rousseau. I haven't read it yet but am sure its interesting.

Occasionally I can be sloppy and this is no exception- I should note thanks to Christopher in the comments that there are only ten walks not twelve- my mind just played a mental trick on me there and I didn't check. Anyways I don't think it affects the overall argument- he has a good reccomendation for further reading in the comments as well.

January 01, 2007

The politics of Friendship: A first draft and highly incomplete idea

Mark Vernon writes interestingly today about the Politics of Friendship a subject that has received little attention throughout modern political thinking. Going back to the ancients, Aristotle and Cicero perceived an important role for friendships within politics- friendship for Aristotle was the enemy of justice. Aristotle revelled in the affection that friendship offered to people and the way forwards it offered to rational individuals. In Plato's Symposium both Pausanius and Socrates discuss the idea that a young boy ought to befriend older men in a homosexual but also friendly relationship in order to gain wisdom and discuss life. There is a profound sense in Plato, say in the Republic, that men and women can slip in and out of family and sexual relationships but that the most intense and rewarding relationship is that based on reason, friendship.

Friendship though was seen as one of the more difficult social relationships to define. Vernon is right to argue that my friend is special to me but as C.S. Lewis stated in the Four Loves some time ago, friendship also is different in quality to other loves. You could argue that as opposed to my family I choose my friends. Some might suggest that friendship represents in this sense a kind of rationality in our relationships that is absent in the fury of sexual love or the instinct of familial regard. Friends according to this highly intellectual model come together based upon a certain shared interest and conversation- indeed Lewis makes the whole model for his friendships civilised conversations and whilst he can imagine a friendship say based around football, the friendship he thinks about most naturally is one based around discussion. In a sense Lewis here is very interesting because as usual, as an intellectual magpie, he is picking up a number of threads from more ancient writers. There is a sense in which his own experience, together with a reading of Plato's dialogues- some of the best literature which demonstrates friendship as opposed to discussing it, comes together.

What though is the political use of all this literature about friendship? If we share this model of friendship- which has its identifiable flaws (where is the biology and this is incredibly intellectual)- where does it take us. In many ways it doesn't take us very far. The societies that are modelled upon the relationship of friendship are often socieities at whose basis is an exclusivity that we are unwilling to tolerate. Societies where membership of the political community is based on a common quality like the ability to reason are societies in which friendship finds a large part to play. In some ways the neo-roman revivalists of the 17th Century fit into this category- comparing the frankness of the relationships within a Senate to the secrecy and lies found within a court. In a sense as Sami Savonius has argued, its this kind of advocacy of friendship that puts John Locke into the neo-roman camp of seventeenth century political theorists.

The other significant way of thinking about friendship in politics though is as a way of reducing the anomie of life in a huge bourgeois society, of providing meaning to people's lives in a society where the Aristotelian justification of participating intimately in government is no longer available. Edmund Burke's little platoons march together out of friendship- they are voluntary self governing associations and in that way fulfill what Aristotle deemed to be the basic fundamental of human nature, sociability, without disturbing the equipose of a distant government. Friendship in this sense is a means of coping with the increased complexity and numbers of modern society- political philosophy moves out of the polis but political psychology remains in the invented non-polis of groups of friends.

Mark Vernon is right to argue that for Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, friendship was a crucial component of the state. However Vernon wants to move on, and asks

Is it not time for us to do likewise and re-establish a high place for friendship?

The problem with such a question is that it evades what has changed within politics since the era of the ancients. Their politics concerned communities based around the city state, ruled by the rational (whether in a Platonic society or indeed a Ciceronian aristocracy). We live in vastly different societies- vast democratic polities which stretch their sovereignty over millions of souls. You can hear in the renewed calls for localism, in the endorsement by the British comedy Yes Minister of street democracy and in the idyllic imagery of village life popularised by John Major a kind of popular angst about the huge size and scope of modern government but there are problems in using friendship to solve those questions. As tempting as it might be, friendship doesn't gives us the answers about how we relate to strangers.

What it does do though is provide a more Burkean answer to how we find meaning within our own lives- if friendship is important to us then its important within the kind of organic, self grown communities that Burke endorsed and like Burke envisaged, the role of government is sustaining those bodies must be to guarentee us all the competence to find them and to be secure (friendship is an ideal of the leisured) but it can't do more. Mark Vernon calls for a renewal not of the personal ideal of friendship but of the politics of friendship- I'm not sure what the second means- but if it means government action as opposed to government facilitation then I think it mistakes the organic nature of friendship for something that can be induced. If what he means though is a cultural endorsement of friendship then he might be on to something.

There are I'm afraid lots of confusions in this piece. But friendship is a subject worth discussing, because it is a way that human beings are able to cope with the increasing distance of government and wealth from them. Friendship in that sense remains crucial to politics but whether can't be stimulated by government, it can only be stimulated by individuals. Burke's little platoons are more relevant to the modern world than the friendly cosy world of polis politics- they are what distinguish the human city from the ant colony.

As a postscript, here is Jacques Derrida talking about friendship and democracy- this speech is not that opaque unlike most of Derrida and is worth a read.

Iranian Oil some backup

As I recently posted on the crisis in the production of Iranian oil I thought I'd bring some new information in to bear on the issue for those interested. This is all courtesy of Bereft and they have discussed some of the implications politically for Iran over there. There is a fascinating post from the Jacksonian, what it points to is horrendous neglect by the regime of the basic economics of their major resource. It also points to the difficulties they are having because of their political machinations, if you cut off treaties with companies, they tend to ignore you and not trade with you and not help build up your infrastructure. They are in danger if they withdraw from the NPT of losing the cooperation of Japan, a country which really matters to them in this regard. Lastly there is the report on which this whole business is based by Roger Stern which by the way points out that it is very unusual for a country not to meet its OPEC targets and that Iran's domestic consumption is now rising fast while its production of oil doesn't increase but remains static- the point at which the two lines cross is obviously a point of danger. All these articles deserve reading and are by people who understand the issue much better than I do.

I would add though one point, it does demonstrate how difficult running a regime with people who neglect economic logic and who neglect relationships with foreign companies actually is. If even a state like Iran, which sits on a massive cash cow in the form of its oil reserves, can't in the longterm maintain its uneconomic policies and its affiliation to autarchy, then it says something about the capacity of states like this to have a longterm future. Of course we may all go up in smoke thanks to the Iranian nuclear bomb before then, but it does make one think about the way that the pressure of the market could come to bear in states who disdain the rule of law and neglect economic rationality.

(Apologies for repeating material, but I do think these reports with the added data are important to get out there and thanks to all the authors for providing me with that data.)

Happy 2007

Just wanted to say to everyone, happy new year. I've really enjoyed writing this blog over the last couple of months and thanks for coming over- thanks for commenting too- there have been some good discussions on some of the posts and I'm indebted to every single commenter for forcing me to rethink and question my own ideas.

December 31, 2006

Go Forth and Philosophize

I have the honour of running this month's philosophy carnival which is out on 8th January- so I need some of your most eloquent posts- there is a submission form here and you just go down and click through to philosophy carnival and submit- or you can even email me it at the email address in my profile. Anyway anyone is welcome to submit- I'm not a philosopher so anyone can submit no matter what your qualifications- no matter what your expertise- anything is acceptable, though it has to be vaguely philosophical (writing about how George Bush is thick is not philosophical unless you point out he misquoted Descartes at the same time!). Anyway send me stuff, and I'm bound to include things like the recent debates on God at the imagined community and other blogs- but there may be things I've missed so send it in.

In the spirit of Spinoza, go forth and philosophise and bring me back the results.

The execution of Saddam

I won't post anything else on the execution of Saddam Hussein. The two questions of the morality of capitol punishment and Saddam's crimes have been thoroughly explored by many over the past couple of days. This article by Juan Cole is in my view essential reading- one wonders whether as he argues finding a crime Saddam committed against Sunnis and not executing him on this particular day (given its position in the Sunni ritual calendar though not the Shia) would have been better. Cole asks good questions, not about the wider issues of Saddam's guilt and punishment, but about the specifics and how those specifics have inflamed the situation, making Saddam's trial a possibly more ethnically charged event than it should have been. The occupation of Iraq has been less often wrong and more often just badly handled- Professor Cole has just pointed out yet another way in which this is true and all these small errors may add up to the failure of the overall policy.

(There is a discussion of the point about the day in the comments which might be interesting in this context as well. I think my wording here is a little unclear- according to Cole the Shia and Sunni celebrate the same festival but Shia on Saturday and Sunni on Sunday- I should have clarified that in the post above- I apologise sometimes blogging has the danger that you write without the qualifications so sometimes you make errors despite not making them if you see what I mean- I'm willing for Cole to be corrected about the date difference, he is a Professor of Middle Eastern Studies so for the moment I'm going with him but if anyone has any contributions to make that'd be grand).