March 19, 2010

Historical Surveying

This is a fascinating piece contrasting modern and early modern (and medieval) attitudes to surveying. Working out who owns what was probably even more central to the primarily agrarian cultures of the past than it is today: afterall one of the signs of modernity is the invention of different forms of property in the world, whether the concept of shares of a company or the idea of a future. In the medieval world the habitual survey was something like the Doomsday book, you rounded up the oldest members of the community and asked them who had owned what and you asked the community who now owned what. The piece linked to gives other examples. What O.F. Smith also proves in that piece is that at some point in the early modern era you have a shift towards a more mathematical and statistical attempt to understand what people did and did not own. In a sense it is a movement from a experiential understanding of space to a mathematical one- parallel perhaps to the move from the intuitive to the counter intuitive in the natural sciences.

You might think of the latter as superior- but it depends what you are measuring superiority by. The older system could persist in a society with a stronger idea of what E.P. Thompson called the moral economy- that property was held by the consent of the property less and its price could be set by violence- whereas the statistical makes more sense in a society in which absolute right determines ownership. The former means that the community can decide to forget ownership, the latter means an outside agent determines it no matter what the community thinks. It is worth noting that in some areas we still adopt the former model- we still in the UK have jury trial where it is the opinion of the community, represented by the jurors, about a case that determines guilt or innocence and not the opinions, however certain, of experts relying upon natural or any other science. I think more interesting than the polemical points though is trying to reenter and understand a world in which communal knowledge was more important than a statistical survey- this is one of those moments when we are confronted by the strangeness of our forebears- at least for me the idea that a consensus is better than a ruler is strange enough to merit further investigation and reflection.

March 18, 2010

The American West

Conventionally everyone understands that the American West was a zone of opportunity for the new Republic. Had it not existed the Republic would have had no hinterland to rely on and is unlikely to have turned itself into the greatest Democracy in the world- the arsenal of Democracy- that it later became. That perception may make sense from a historical perspective- but during the American founding the West was a source not of hope but of worry for the original leaders of the United States. John Jay, Supreme Court Justice, diplomat, politician and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers warned his country men in 1787 that 'the Western country will one Day give us trouble- to govern them will not be easy'. Jay's expectations were confirmed when it was proved very difficult for Congress to sell land to appropriate people in the West during the 80s and 90s. Those whom Congress wanted out West were not those who wanted to go. The problems of the West though went far deeper and attacked the very nature of the nascent Republic- we need to understand two in particular in order to understand the way that the West, even at this early date, affected the trajectory of the United States.

The West was not unpeopled before Congress started selling off land. It was populated by Indians and the same dynamic that had worked when Britain controlled America, worked when the Federal Government tried to control the outer reaches of the colonies. The colonists wanted to expand- to go further West and to get more land. The central government though would have to fund the consequences of that- aggression against the Indians repaid with war from the Indians. The consequences would create armies and taxes. Whether in London or Philadelphia, ministers were aware of the need to be gentle but found their subjects obstinately not so. This problem created the need in the 1790s for Washington to form an American army and immediately to make that army march on the Indians- ie to reform it into a body that could fight and win an Indian war. Immediately this created, as Alexander Hamilton and others desired, a continental American imperium rather than a Republic whose ultimate safeguard was the absense of a standing army. It shifted the balance towards the Federal Government and away from the States.

Secondly its worth noting what these Indian wars and colonial expansion created, America annexed chunks of what is now the United States. Again this brought an interesting issue to light and again the way that the state dealt with it created the conditions for America to become Lincoln's and then Roosevelt's America. As Gordon Wood argues, the American solution was ingenious and unique. Rather than creating an empire as the British had done: either through making the new territory subject to the Federal government or subject to the states forever, the Americans opted for a process of transition. Each new area would attain statehood after a certain population had been reached and before then would be governed federally. A couple of things followed naturally: firstly the major winners in the deal were the Western Colonists, but the major losers were the original states. Their power would be diluted by new states. The Federal Government was a winner because its power rose as the territory increased. What we have here is a slow change in the powers of one state or two states relative to all the others- a change introduced by the American's method of dealing with the West.

Jay was right in his analysis to suggest that the West was difficult to govern. The Whisky war of 1794 caused when Washington imposed a tax on Whisky (a commodity that western farmers liked because they could transform produce into alcohol which preserved longer and could therefore be taken East and out to the sea) reminded Americans of that. The decisions that they took, both in the support of the West against the Indians and in the creation of new states threatened in the long term to change the nature of their regime. If the American regime was born out of old Whig ideas, that standing armies meant tyranny, that the states should govern themselves, then the decisions taken in the early republic changed those principles into something new- a durable imperial Republic.

March 16, 2010

Pufendorf the socialist

Socialist has not always meant what it means today. To be a socialist was not to be in favour of a higher income tax or a higher rate of public spending in the seventeenth century. It meant, as Istvan Hont argues in one of his articles in the Jealousy of Trade, his new fantastic collection (and much of the argument of the following is borrowed from it), that you believed there was some kind of innate instinct in man to form society. The most famous socialist was Hugo Grotius, the Dutch philosopher, who had argued that there was a natural law which bound all mankind. Grotius's theories were demolished though in the mid-seventeenth century by the English man Thomas Hobbes. In his Leviathan (published 1650) Hobbes argued that such a concept was unneeded to explain the state. The state for Hobbes was the product of three human behaviours: the first was that human beings were all equal, the second that human beings lived in a condition of natural scarcity and the third that human beings were driven not by reason but by passion and desire. These three things led to a state of nature where life was 'nasty, brutish and short' and which could only be made pleasant by the creation of an autocracy.

One of the leading thinkers who argued against Hobbes whilst acknowledging his influence was the German Samuel Pufendorf. Pufendorf wanted to reinstate the idea of sociability- the sense that Grotius had had that men came together in society because society suited men- but he had to do so using a Hobbesian method. Pufendorf started therefore with a problem with the pre-existing discourse. He suggested that any dichotomy between nature and society was a false one. It missed out the central fact about man- his helplessness without a community and his power within a community. Granted this fact, Pufendorf argued that community was natural. He explained the growth of inequality as a product of changes in society. Originally men lived together in moderation, natural scarcity and the rise of population led to the creation of a communal state, that fell apart under the Hobbesian pressure of ego and that disruption led to the creation of the modern propertied state. You will notice that it is only at the second stage that Pufendorf acknowledges the role of Hobbes's dynamic, the first steps into society are taken out of man's natural needs not because of his fears.

This is a very brief summary- but what the debate showed is how much seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers had invested in what we would term anthropology. This doesn't only go for Hobbes and Pufendorf but for Hume and Vico amongst others. Hobbes's state would look very different from Pufendorf's: as he only recognised the dynamic of Leviathan, his state derived its authority solely from that and no citizen had a right against it. Pufendorf's position allowed citizens a claim against the state because it was a later creation than the original society which surrounded it. Also the argument demonstrates neatly how the disciplines that we all live with today were often created as a route around arguments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries about the nature of man. Reinterpreted some of Pufendorf's argument would be taken up by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations- other attempts against Hobbes were made anticipating anthropological insights (see Vico). Lastly I think it throws into relief the huge influence of Thomas Hobbes: whoever you were in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century he was one of the thinkers to engage with. He still matters today- Oakeshott, Schmidt, Strauss and others have based parts of their philosophy or account of philosophy on a close reading of Hobbes.

In the transition from one type of socialist to another, only one thing is constant, the provocative nature of the book named Leviathan.

March 14, 2010

When do you know that you are you?

At a key point at the end of Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, Werner Heisenberg explains to Niels Bohr that life is made up of moral decisions between absolutes, it is only when you make them that you actually profess which is more important. The play's Heisenberg had to choose between his family who might be bombed and destroyed by allied aircraft and the fact that only that bombing could destroy the odious Hitler regime: he chose his family and worked, he thought, to prevent Hitler getting the bomb by going slow. Whether that was a real choice or a historically accurate presentation of the real choice that Heisenberg faced is immaterial, the real issue that Heisenberg demonstrates there is a conceptual one- between tyranny and family- and he argues that you can only resolve that through an action. You cannot know which you would chose until you are faced with that choice. Isaiah Berlin's idea that there were absolute and incompatible moral principles which at times you could not reconcile comes into play here- but so does the idea that it is only with a willed action that you can express moral choice.

In that context this argument from Gracchae is very interesting. She is currently in the process of becoming a Catholic- this obviously involves a ceremonial signification of conversion- an act which says that freely she consents to being a member of a community. The idea of a ceremonial assertion of a belief is dying out: in the early modern period, you would sign oaths, in the medieval you would perform homage, but now if I'm a socialist or a conservative the most that happens it that I put a cross into a ballot box. Like Gracchae I wonder about the effect of this. Go back to Heisenberg, he argues in Frayn's play that the way I know what I believe is through my acting it out- in a sense the way Gracchae knows she is a Catholic is by being confirmed. How do I know though what my beliefs are if I do not act them out- if it is merely a cross in a ballot box? They are not less important but in some sense I wonder whether they are less imposing- whether the rhetorical importance of conversion diminishes if you do not have to act it out and whether like changing a suit of clothes, you can more easily change your views if you come into new company. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I'm not sure. Neither am I sure about the relationship between ceremony and opinion- but there must, as Gracchae is finding out, be one.