27 February 2015

The perpetual Enlightenment machine

Cross-posted from Ethika Politika:

In a recent article for Tablet magazine, Todd Gitlin in his vociferous and sweeping defence of the ‘Enlightenment project’ levels some flippant dismissals against ‘climate-change-denying cranks’ and ‘perpetual-motion machine designers’.

Normally I wouldn’t linger too long on such dismissals, for two reasons. First, for what it’s worth, these aren’t hills worth shedding blood on—I’m not one to lend much credence to people who deny the validity of facts from reliable and authoritative sources, for reasons that are ultimately self-serving and self-interested. Second, such dismissals have the purpose of getting people on board with one’s argument without too much critical thought—drawing lines in the sand helps people understand on what side of the conflict they stand. After all, what right-thinking American progressive wants to be cast into the outer darkness with the climate-change deniers and other such quacks? The not-so-subtle tribal subtext seems to be that, either you’re with us—the courageous, virtuous, rational defenders of Enlightenment—or you’re with them.

Not so fast, on second thought.

Gitlin, just after dismissing as irrational cranks (and rightly so!) the purveyors of perpetual motion machines, then goes on to display his own idea of the perpetual motion machine. The patent isn’t under his own name, of course. But he makes it clear: ‘it’s not an end-point, it’s a journey’. The punchline for his sales pitch is a strident, Promethean defiance of the second law of thermodynamics: ‘It’s dreadfully intertwined with a dominant growth fixation that overheats the atmosphere and melts the icecaps to such a degree as to threaten human civilization. And also—it’s the same scientific revolution that provides the tools to record the damage and clamor for a restart.’ In other words, the machine might overheat a little, but we have to have faith that it can solve that problem on its own.

Gitlin describes the ‘Enlightenment project’ in much the same way as perpetual motion machine purveyors do. Once started, this intellectual ‘force-field’ contains within its own closed system everything necessary to sustain and correct itself. Gitlin begins by loudly disavowing any claims to perfection, but this sounds a little bit too perfect, a little bit too pat, for my tastes. Are all of the people and movements that corrected the Enlightenment in its bloodiest and most brutal historical excesses to be explained from within the framework of the Enlightenment itself? This is not a reasoned or empirical claim, and it could use a fair bit of scrutiny.

Even from the beginning, the Enlightenment had its opponents, and these opponents by and large were those who held to the idea that a certain degree of axiomatic authority existed outside the realms of one’s own reasoning. The early abolitionist sentiment held by Dr. Samuel Johnson did not rest on the basis of an independently reasoned conviction in the equality and brotherhood of man, but on the basis of his religious conviction that black and white were alike created in the image of God, a conviction that his ‘Enlightened’ (and pro-slavery) biographer Boswell thought to be ‘zeal without knowledge’. The biting satire of Rev. Jonathan Swift was motivated not by the smug self-assurance that drove François-Marie Arouet to put pen to paper, but instead by a profound Tory traditionalism that favored the works of classicists over the ‘new learning’ of the ‘Enlightened’ Baconians and the political economists of his time. In Russia, abolition of serfdom was emphatically supported, not by the ‘Enlightened’ despots like Catherine the Great (who indeed expanded and consolidated the practice), but instead by the traditionalist, communitarian Slavophils led by Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Konstantin Aksakov, and Yuri Samarin, all of whom were equally insistent on monarchical rule and a society founded on the traditional values of the Russian Orthodox Church. In Western Europe and America, it makes absolutely no sense to talk about the labour movement without mentioning Rerum Novarum and the subsequent involvement of the Catholic Church in the labour movement. The Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council understood itself as irreconcilably opposed to Enlightenment thinking, but not to its liberatory aims.

In the global south of the 19th century, the opium trade in China was supported and encouraged even at gunpoint by the proponents of economic liberalism and free trade, and was left to be opposed by Confucian classicists and scholar-officials like Lin Zexu; even today, questions about China’s problems with economic inequality and political corruption are addressed with the greatest urgency and moral clarity not by the pragmatist or liberal children of the Enlightenment, but by Confucian thinkers like Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, and by idiosyncratic leftists like Wang Hui and Gan Yang. Criticism of 20th-century African colonialism drew heavily upon nationalist and postcolonial ideas (for example, those of Abbé Alexis Kagame and Dr. Henry Odera Oruka) which defended specifically Tutsi and Luo ways of life and emphasised a specifically African way of doing politics and approaching the humanistic questions, even as they made common cause with Christianity and the study of the Western classics. Even when Gitlin acknowledges a ‘partial exception’ in Mohandas Gandhi, he claims that it doesn’t matter because Gandhi was assassinated for his anti-clericism. True though this is, it would be arguing in bad faith to ignore the traditionalist dimension of home rule, and the independence of India that constitutes the main point of Gandhi’s legacy.

Thus we can see part of the way in which Gitlin’s perpetual motion machine works. The people who fought for the inclusion of the marginalised, the rights of the enslaved, and the rights of the colonised, can all be explained away in Gitlin’s thinking as fighting for ‘Inclusive Enlightenment’ over ‘Fraudulent Enlightenment’: In this way the ‘self-correcting’ mechanism of the Enlightenment machine draws upon the energy inputs of the people who either explicitly oppose it, or understand themselves to be outside it. But there is a flaw: The thinkers, activists and institutions mentioned above simply cannot be thought of merely in terms of their ‘courage to use [their] own reason’, for the simple fact that the reason they used was not their own to begin with. In each and every case highlighted above—the English Tory moralists, the Russian Slavophils, the Catholic workingmen’s associations, the political Confucians, the Chinese New Left, the African post-colonial theorists, the followers of Gandhi’s swaraj—the moral drive for the activism originates not in the power of individual reason, but in some form of transcendent or culturally situated authority.

This is not to deny, of course, that the Enlightenment had, and continues to have, its own internal critics. But it does seem a remarkable sleight-of-hand for Gitlin to refer to the critics of Enlightenment across the board as ‘tendentious’, particularly when he is so eager to claim credit for such critics as Gandhi on the Enlightenment’s behalf. Every contraption has its flaws; but the contraption has not yet been seen that can be counted on to fix itself under its own power, every time it goes wrong.

26 February 2015

Of Ukraine, Daesh and the Gulf states

The new Ukrainian government, which according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been asking for weapons in preparation for a ‘full-scale war’ with a nuclear power, ‘however dangerous it sounds’, has found a willing supplier in the United Arab Emirates, which is one of the top buyers in the world for American-made weapons. We should be highly concerned about a military escalation taking place on the Russian border in the wake of the tenuous Minsk peace talks, and we should be highly concerned that this escalation is taking place with our own weapons.

In fact, our military support to the Gulf states needs to be subject to a great deal more scrutiny than it is, because so many of these states are either direct or indirect supporters of the single worst threat to the Christians and Shi’ites of the Middle East today: Daesh. According to Günter Meyer, an expert in Middle East and North African affairs and a Director for the Centre for Research into the Arabic World at the University of Mainz, ‘the most important source of ISIS financing to date has been support coming out of the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia but also Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates’. The reason for this, he explains to Deutsche Welle, is sectarian religious Gulf state opposition to Assad’s Syria. They seem to be thinking twice about such support now, because they appear to be realising that the Daesh militants they send to Syria might cause trouble for them when they return home. But the same lack of wisdom that the Gulf states are applying to Syria and Daesh, we are seeing in our own governments in their support for the new Ukrainian government.

What they stand for in Ukraine, is precisely what we stood against in the 1930’s and 1940’s. And they are crazy enough in their total dedication to the Ukrainian national myth, including the fascist elements, that they are – by the admission of their own officials – willing and indeed eager to risk not only their own security but the security of all of Europe and North America in their mad and self-destructive undeclared war against Russia. America’s entire security strategy, both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, will ultimately prove self-defeating, unless we start to show some discernment in our allies, and not allow Cold War prejudices, either against Russia or against the secular Arab states, to cloud our judgements about our present engagements.

EDIT: Looks like the ties between Daesh and Ukraine are even more direct than this. According to this story, Ukraine has been using men from Daesh in volunteer units like the Dudayev Battalion, to fight against Russia. Not a pretty picture, to say the least.

25 February 2015

Crown Prince Naruhito is a true kunshi

A ‘lord’s son’ 君子 both literally and in the full Confucian sense. As evidenced by this story, in which he indirectly castigates his own country’s historical revisionists who deny or downplay the claims of the women who were impressed into the Japanese army as sex slaves, or ‘comfort women’, during World War II.

The need for Japan to ‘look back humbly’ on its own history is a very real need, of course. It needs to correctly understand and pass down its own role in history, particularly in light of the fact that its own history, to paraphrase Faulkner, is neither over nor even past with regard to South Korea, China and Russia. As the prime (though flawed, as I have argued elsewhere) representative of Japan’s rapidly-fading traditional culture, Crown Prince Naruhito’s voice is authoritative, and he deftly and carefully uses it here within Japan’s constitutional framework and unwritten laws for Imperial conduct and discretion, and without wading out into an openly political discussion.

So, three cheers for Japan’s royal family! It’s important to note that in light of Japanese culture, Crown Prince Naruhito would assuredly not have made such a public statement without first having the approval of his father and of the rest of the family, who are here boldly taking a stand on the side of truth. And if that means going against the very modern right-wing revisionist nationalists who seek to appropriate them for geopolitical purposes, so much the better. Would that more heads of state in the region (and in the world!) had the courage and discretion to face their own histories with humility and courage, the way Prince Naruhito has done.


21 February 2015

The Holy Church was built on their blood

For a Christian, the best type of death is, of course, martyrdom for Christ the Savior. In principle, that is the best type of death one may attain. While some people sent condolences to Optina Hermitage after the murder of three monks, for a Christian, such death is in fact a source of great joy. In the ancient Church, people never sent condolences when anyone was killed. All of the churches immediately sent their congratulations. Imagine! To congratulate them with the fact that they had a new defender in Heaven!

- the Rev. Fr. Daniel Sysoyev, Neomartyr of Russia

20 February 2015

And it is, it is a glorious thing

How long has it been, gentle readers, since I last penned a missive against the fraud that is anarcho-capitalism? Well, in truth, there are several reasons I haven’t done it very much recently. The first is that the case gets made for me, all too well and all too often. The second is that there are far better writers than I am out there, keeping up that particular good fight, like Ms. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig over at The New Republic (see especially these two fine works). And the third is that, quite frankly, my own attention has been caught up in the mendacities of an Anglophone media which is busily pushing a neoliberal economic agenda on other fronts, with all the force of the American military-industrial complex behind it. Calling out techno-utopians and anarcho-capitalists on their errors rather took a back burner.

But actually, I did want to share this article on Aeon Magazine about the rise and fall of ‘the Silk Road’, or Tor Hidden Services, which started out as a techno-libertarian utopia where people could trade in drugs, guns, child porn and other vices not sanctioned by the evil state - but which wound up transmogrified into an amorphous network of miniature states all on its own. The article provides not only an excellent excuse for me to post a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan, but also an excellent run-down of how at every turn, consistent market behaviour has to be guaranteed by a certain level of trust, which can only be backed up in an anarchic world like this by measures such as sanctions and bans. But this part was the real kicker:
They were vulnerable to more profound betrayals, too. Customers had to give mailing addresses to dealers if they wanted their drugs delivered. Under Silk Road’s rules, dealers were supposed to delete this information as soon as the transaction was finished. However, it was impossible for Ulbricht to enforce this rule unless (as happened once) a dealer admitted that he had kept the names and addresses. It’s likely that Silk Road dealers systematically broke these rules. At least one former Silk Road dealer, Michael Duch, who testified at Ulbricht’s trial, kept the names and addresses of all his clients in a handy spreadsheet.

This created an obvious vulnerability – indeed, an existential threat to Ulbricht’s business. If any reasonably successful dealer leaked the contact details for users en masse, customers would flee and the site would collapse. And so, when a Silk Road user with the pseudonym FriendlyChemist threatened to do just that, Ulbricht did not invoke Silk Road’s internal rules or rely on impersonal market forces. Instead, he tried to use the final argument of kings: physical violence. He paid $150,000 to someone whom he believed to be a senior member of the Hells Angels to arrange for the murder of his blackmailer, later paying another $500,000 to have associates of FriendlyChemist murdered too.
A rather peculiar position to take, what, for someone like Ulbricht who set out to ‘use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind’? But in a way, Ulbricht’s experiment wasn’t completely without merit - its failure would appear to suggest, in fact, that Karl Polanyi was not completely off-base when he suggested in The Great Transformation that what we would consider under the neoclassical synthesis to be ‘market behaviour’ is always already prefigured by the assumption of implicit or explicit violence on the part of the state. Please do read the entire article; I personally hope to see some more on this subject in the near future!

18 February 2015


Wishing a very happy Chinese New Year to you, all my gentle readers, and a blessed beginning to your Lenten disciplines and journeys!

10 February 2015

On crusaders and misguided Crusade apologias

The most recent comments by Obama on the – shall we say, checquered – history of Christianity with regard to human rights, with the usual boxes tickmarked (the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery), did not go over well in the usual quarters, or even in some quarters where Obama might have expected more sympathy. Indeed, many voices on the American right have come out of the woodwork attempting to defend the Crusades as a just response against a violent aggressor, and the Inquisition as having been more lenient than the secular courts. Both of these stances have decent cases to be made, though one might well question the motives of those committing themselves to such stances now. (What has modern American politics to do either with the Crusades or the Inquisition? Slavery and Jim Crow as we understand them are indeed New World phenomena, but at first glance the same cannot be said about the former two.) Coming as Obama’s comments do amidst the continuing US air strikes on Daesh, though, the question needs to be considered seriously, though the answers reflect well neither on the President nor his Crusade-defending detractors.

Even if we grant, for example, that the Crusades were wars of just cause, undertaken with good intentions by well-meaning people at great personal expense and with a profound care for the state of their own souls – and speaking as an Orthodox Christian, indeed our predecessors (notably Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire) prompted and facilitated that cause – the conclusion cannot be escaped that the results were not as bargained for, to put it bluntly.

It is not merely that the Crusaders behaved literally worse than the Goths of Alaric when it came to Jerusalem, or to Constantinople, or to Jews practically anywhere. It is not merely that the just cause devolved into unseemly bickering between self-serving Normans and Franks, and the Byzantine Emperors who had asked for their help. It is not merely that the Crusader states ultimately failed to bring justice to the Christian pilgrims in Muslim-held lands. It is that the Crusades provided a precedent for justifying modern warfare. In the Christian world, war was no longer something which, though a grave wrong, sometimes had to be done out of the necessity of defending the helpless – but something which itself could be exculpatory of other past wrongs. There is every reason to take seriously the idea that noblemen could wash away their sins of past violence through further violence – this was the main innovation of Crusade.

In this, Obama (whether wittingly or not) positions himself as the heir of the very Crusades he criticises. The violent wrongs which have been done by previous American administrations in the Middle East, and even by his own (see here and here), are not to be criticised, are not to be reflected on, are not to be repented. They are to be washed out by air strikes against Daesh – an entity which we have not only helped to create by our blundering actions in Syria and Iraq, but which we continue to help by supplying weapons to ‘moderate’ groups which lie brazenly to our faces – in the hallowed name of liberal ideals.

His criticism of Crusade and of Christian history more generally, merely highlights the self-serving shift in emphasis. Obama’s punchline in castigating Christian crimes is not to call people to question their commitment to America’s wars (or to examine more carefully how they have stoked ‘sectarian war in Syria’ or the ‘murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria’ or the rise of Daesh), but rather to highlight the ‘wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation’, and to conflate ‘humility’ in one’s religious understanding with the liberal ideals of America’s founding. Brendan O’Neill of spiked makes the point that these wars are all undertaken with the purpose of exculpating the guilt of a liberal foreign-policy outlook, thus completing the analogy in one final ironic twist. Good intentions are still enough, and blood must still be shed in the Holy Land, that the sins of laïcist America, the Leader of the Free World™, will be forgiven.

Where both President Obama and his detractors miss the point, ultimately, is that President Obama is not to be understood as an anti-Crusader in any meaningful sense. He’s simply stripped the last Christian element from an already dubiously-Christian enterprise, and appropriated it for American foreign-policy idealism, and for the military-industrial complex which reaps the lion’s share of the benefits. Once again, the historical record about Syria and Libya will get papered over by the true believers and the zealots – but this time those true believers are Christian only in a nominal and cultural sense. Their true faith lies with the deists; more wont are they to believe in the credo that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants’. And with the blood of a few innocent people – but hey, Jefferson will know his own.

03 February 2015

Keeping balance in Central Europe

Cross-posted from Oriental Review:

Central Europe is an interesting place right now, politically. Hungarian prime minister Orbán Viktor, Czech president Miloš Zeman, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, and moreover from southern Europe recently-elected Greek prime minister Aléxis Tsípras, have all begun to show a remarkable shift in their public commitments. All of them have made public certain nationalist and populist stances that the European Union is not an absolute commitment; certain old-fashioned leftist economic stances in favor of increased national sovereignty over industrial and agricultural production; and certain geopolitical stances (in particular criticism of anti-Russia sanctions, criticism of media coverage of recent events in the Ukraine, and opposition to the admission of Kosovar nationhood) that edge their respective nations toward a rapprochement, or at least a benign neutrality, with Russia.

Certain corners of the Anglophone media have been tempted into reading this as mere Soviet nostalgia, an atavistic remnant of anti-Western authoritarianism, and they look hopefully to (and not-so-subtly encourage, by means fair and foul) the protest movements against the above leaders to topple them. But the contradictions in such a reading are blindingly obvious. The only one of the above politicians who can rightly lay claim to any such nostalgia is Fico, who was a member of the KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) right up until the dissolution of the Czechoslovakian state. But Zeman was an active member of the dissident Czech Civic Forum before going on to found his own political projects. Tsípras seems to have left his puerile teenage Leninism long behind him (as many youth indeed do). And – most problematic for this interpretation – Orbán launched his political career as the young leader of Hungarian resistance to Soviet political repression, taking up the former cause of nationalist reformer Nagy Imre.

What is going on in Eastern and Central Europe now clearly isn’t Soviet nostalgia. There are other forces at work – not only political, economic and geopolitical (though those do indeed make a difference!), but cultural as well. In Greece, both the long-standing economic problems, exacerbated by the IMF’s signature cutthroat austerity policies, and the atmosphere of prejudice amongst Western European nations against ‘indolent’ and ‘profligate’ Mediterranean cultural values and lifestyles, have contributed to the present Greek reaction against austerity and against anti-Russian sentiment. But in the Slavic and Magyar lands, even though the economic factor still does very much attain, something slightly different even to this is going on.

What is at stake for them, is the self-same tradition of negotiating and eschewing the powers wielded over them. This is a tradition I am trying to understand better as I explore more of the history of Czechia and Slovakia, and that of the Jews in particular. My South Bohemian grandmother’s family, the Schulzes, was related in two generations by marriage to the Kafka family, which produced the author most famous for his literary depictions of people’s relationship to the law, from an Eastern European Jewish perspective. Torn between Western (German), Eastern (Czech) and countercultural (Jewish) identities, Franz Kafka’s protagonists (particularly Josef K. in Der Prozeß) are lost, alienated and often brutally isolated from the uncaring or hostile social environments they live in, though the degree to which they themselves are guilty and responsible for their own plight remains unclear.

Kafka’s works do speak for themselves, of course. He himself as an admirer of the populist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin would likely scoff at the spiritual sketch of his nation which I am making here. But even that association is somewhat the point – Kafka’s suspicion of state power does not draw wholly from the well-justified paranoia of the Jewish Diaspora. In Kafka’s deep suspicions against legalism there is a distinctly Slavic character as well. Kafka in his descriptions of alienated people caught up in their own internal struggles, in the shadow of uncaring capitalistic and legal structures, drew at least partially from that same well of Russian populist discontent with creeping bourgeois values which inspired Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’ (and we may be sure Kafka read Dostoevsky avidly!). He used these characters to touch at something that reverberated spiritually for many Czech (and other Eastern European) writers and thinkers who followed him.

Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and even the Silesian Poles all lived under the shadow of the Habsburg monarchy, and they shared a common history being, more often than not, on the receiving end of political violence from outside. They stand upon and embody a historical bridge between Eastern and Western peoples and ways of life. (Those who claim that Hungary is wholly Western need to bear in mind that Hungarians still name themselves after the Chinese fashion with the surname first, and that some Hungarians to this day lay claim to the legacy of Attila!) In this, the Central Europeans at once bear a marked similarity to the Russia to which they are now drawing closer, and also a distinction. Where Russia was subject to the Tatar yoke, thus being forced to focus both its anxieties and identity-building in an ‘eastward’ cultural direction, the Hungarians and Western Slavs were forced to understand themselves within the context of primarily-German political power. Kafka portrayed a distinctly German high modernity without sense, leaving the individual struggling and disoriented in the face of a faceless legalism… but, he portrayed it exclusively in German!

At the same time, Americans would do well to learn from Austria’s failures, and wise up to the truth that Atlanticism ill-fits this collection of nations which rose from the ashes of the old Habsburg monarchy. Nations, of course, are not people, and they can’t act be expected to act as individual people and smaller communities do, but they are informed by the experiences of individuals and communities. Nikolai Berdyaev spoke of the Slavic spirit of alarm and revolt which both underwrote and was understated by the Slavophil movement; even more, he argues convincingly that it is within the Russian idea to approach power only with a profound sense of its tragedy.

Among the Western Slavs this attains as well, though in different ways. Where once they rebelled against Soviet power, now Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary are beginning to turn their questioning gazes back upon European and American power. What Eastern Europe ended up getting out of the collapse of the USSR was emphatically not what they fought for, and the degree to which the leaders of each nation have been looking to shift back toward Russia ought to be an ample indictment of our own blindly legalistic geopolitical power-projection.

The point is not that these nations necessarily belong within the Russian sphere of influence. (Indeed, the example of Poland is one which goes in the other direction! Much as we may critique the total, pigheaded wrongness of Poland’s uncritical embrace of Atlanticism and American state violence in Iraq and other places, we have to acknowledge that it is indeed a reaction.) But as the actions of their politicians show, the distinctive character of Central European peoples and political communities is not to be underestimated, and it is not one which responds well to the manipulations of power-politics, from the West no less than from the East. That having been said, even though because of the cultural cross-pressures from the steppes of Central Asia and from the castles of Germany the civilisational ideas in the Russian world and Central Europe have diverged as they have evolved, the two still share a deep blood-kinship as well as a kinship in values. Neither one ought not to be overlooked.