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An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
10
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.
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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.

 

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”

 

Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.

 

 

 

 

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In the aftermath of Irma, these volunteers won in Florida

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 19, 2017

We were still surrounded by the debris of Hurricane Irma when the Volunteers showed up

Actually, it was a football game, one of those compulsive rituals which neither “the powers that be” nor the hoi poloi can ever say no to.  After all, who could deny the local fans their bread and circuses in the aftermath of a disaster?  Well, everything depended on who won…whether the spectacle would go down in the record books as a morale booster or moral misdemeanor.  As providence (do I hear someone say luck? Nah!) would have it, Florida won in the last seconds of a crazy game who’s merits on either side will be endlessly debated.  The Tennessee Volunteers returned home, perplexed and saddened.  Florida had, once again, been saved from itself.

But there were other volunteers in town that day.  Linemen of a different sort, hailing from Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and even parts of the state which were nursing their own hurts.  They weren’t watching football, although sometimes they worked within earshot of cheers and jeers from the high-tension game.  And yes, they were volunteers, even though they had been sent down by mammoth utility firms and could expect to draw overtime.  This is still America and nobody is forced to do any job they can walk off from.  But instead of “You can take this job and  shove it!” they arrived in large numbers, willing to work 24/7 in the humidity, often in the dark, and among the local fauna (think “gators” of the non-football ilk) which were spreading out into newly flooded zones.

In our neighborhood we had transformers down.  On the night of the storm, people had heard the  blast and seen the blinding blue ark light as the lofty cylinders seemed to turn into electric grenades.  Then darkness.  Days later there was still no electricity, and the Florida jungle was beginning to reclaim its own.  No heat, no cool, no refrigeration, no communication, and living off of canned and dry goods.  It could have been far worse as the water mains had kept their integrity.  Still, we were starting to wonder…

Then we saw the trucks.  We noticed (by we I refer to those who could read a map) a seal with the outline of the state of Indiana on its sides.  They had come a thousand miles, but the hardest part of their journey were the days of street by street, block by block progress until the worst hit part of town was rewired and on line.  They weren’t all from Indiana.  The man who went up in the bucket to replace our utility pole was from Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Bowling Green, Bowling Green

I wish I was in Bowling Green

Good old Bowling Green

And I bet he did!  But he had heeded the call to do a job which required a critical mix of physical endurance and intelligence.  The dead transformer was dangling in a virtual cats-cradle of wires and woods. When I murmured, “I can’t see how you will ever get that pole up.”  The Kentuckian answered, “Stick around and you may see more than you wager for.”  By literal hook and crook, mechanized to be sure, it all got up, poles, wires, transformers, until we heard the go ahead signal and the power returned.

I couldn’t help thinking that these men, who had come down from the regions around the Ohio river, were lineal descendants of the “volunteers” of yore, legendary men like Boon and Crockett, and the countless others who never became legends.  Historians can argue ad infinitum whether or not these were the men who “made America great,” or as per cultural Marxism, they were just land-pirates building a sand-castle civilization called the United States.  What is not arguable is that on short notice, their descendants had been mobilized and formed into an effective army to see that the swamp (here literally!) didn’t reclaim that network of urban humanity which calls itself modern Florida.

My general impression was that the whole operation, as befits volunteers, looked more like a “spontaneous order” than a command structure.  This was not to say that there was no planning, of which there was much evidence, but that the planning was horizontal rather than vertical, with the local agency and the out-of-state personnel cooperating on a case by case basis, combining local knowledge with volunteer can-do.  The federal government was invisible, although you could say that Floridians were the beneficiaries of a “national” effort by localities which had sent their people and resources across state lines to get the job done.  In military lingo you couldn’t say they weren’t regulars…just regular folks.

And that, my friends, is what makes America great.

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The Trump fizzle….the R3volution that wasn’t (and the one that was)

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 27, 2017

Trump’s non-revolution as an educational device

As of this writing pretty much everything which was promised in the salad days of Mr. Trump’s MAGA tours has been either hung up in pending legislation or put on the back burner.  Nobody, at least nobody who wasn’t born yesterday, really expected Ms. Clinton to go to jail or a physical wall to be built on the Mexican border, even assuming such things were desirable.  However few anticipated that  the President would morph into a double of his worst enemy, a.k.a., Sen. John McCain, which is pretty much what happened on foreign policy.  On the domestic front we now hear that refugee resettlement, something which is very different from voluntary immigration, can be expected to reach record highs.  The politics of blow-back, “invade the world and invite the world” is still as much the order of the day as it would be under any hypothetical Democrat administration.

I still retain a basic gut-level sympathy for Mr. Trump and his family, and a chivalrous disdain for the libelous attacks of the old-line media on their reputation.  None the less, I have lost any sense that a Trump revolution is afoot, unless that means a rebellion of Trump’s subordinates against their titular boss.  In place of a revolution, the most that conservatives and libertarians are likely to glean from this (possibly short-lived) administration is what, in patronizing terms, we refer to as a “learning experience.”  Yes, we are getting “a-lot-a-learning” taught to the tune of something far worse than a hickory stick…a broken heart.

On a deeper level, anyone who thought that a “Revolution”  was possible at this stage of American history is deluded.  However if we spell it R3volution, on the understanding that this is a counter-counter-revolution ( and if you see where the “3” comes in you are very clever!) then perhaps we have the basis, if not for hope, at least for a coherent narrative.

Put into schematic form that would be.

1.The original (libertarian) revolution against state absolutism. (a.k.a., the “Spirit of ’76)

2.The counter revolution of the administrative state under the pretext of various ideologies (egalitarianism, socialism, scientism).

3.The various attempts at counter-counter revolution launched against the New Order of the administrative/managerial state, usually labeled with that awkward term “conservatism.”

Basically, we are stuck at item 2, since we live in a historical situation where the administrative state has entrenched itself to the extent that most attempts at push-back fail before they become a credible threat to the New Order.  Mr. Trump’s revolution-manque is only the most recent and glaring example of this process.  Probably the best description of this situation was a series of essays written by an ex-editor of the Saturday Evening Post around the mid-point of the 20th century.

The Revolution Was

The man was Garet Garrett, a curmudgeon of the anti-New Deal resistance.  His thesis was that conservatives and moderates didn’t need to fear the advent of socialist revolution…since it had already occurred.  Of course by “revolution” he meant the authoritarian counter-revolution, not the American revolution, let alone any R3volution to restore the ideals of ’76.

Furthermore, Garrett underscored the permanence and near irreversible nature of the administrative state by articulating three reinforcing spheres in which the state made itself dominant and absolute. The welfare state, the system of international managed trade, and the system of collective security.  These were all solidly in place by the end of the Korean war.  These were each covered by an installment in his trilogy of essays, The Revolution Was(1938), Ex-America(1951), and The Rise of Empire(1952). (Note: the whole trilogy was packaged as The People’s Pottage , 1992)

Subsequent to Mr. Garrett’s analysis, but implicit in it, we see that so-called conservatives cavil at the welfare state, but accept it as the price of empire, while so-called liberals cavil at the empire, but accept it as the price of the welfare state.   Thus the people, through their representatives in Congress, were not liable to overrule the autonomy of the state bureaucrats, since the policy outcomes were always amenable to one or other section of the politically active classes.

A New (albeit false) Hope

Garet Garrett pointed out that at no specific point was the system of Constitutional government abrogated.  Rather, the Constitution was simply ignored and a substitute system of norms evolved to face changing contingencies.  Mr. Garrett dubbed this “Revolution within the form,” or in more exact nomenclature “counter-revolution within the form.”

The remedy therefore became opaque, since it was not a question of  legislating a new constitution, but of reasserting the salient provisions of the original, but neglected, law.  At the time of FDR the judicial branch occasionally still used it powers to limit the scope of the federal administrative state, a stance which was commonly thought to be the main justification for the doctrine of judicial review.  However, since that time, and especially since the ’60s the courts have become progressively (pun intended) subversive of the idea of any sphere of authority outside the administrative state.

An alternative to judicial redress was the possibility, however unlikely, that the American people would elect a libertarian president, or at least a kind of anti-FDR who would restore the Republic to its original vitality.  I had occasionally heard such sentiments voiced in libertarian and conservative circles prior to the election of Mr. Trump, however most people were surprised when the scarcely hoped for became incarnate in the form of a celebrity non-politician.  Or as it turned out, not.

We are left with what we should have started with, the prospects for political education and its impact on the legislative branch.  We now know that the “Hail Mary! pass” to a heroic chief executive doesn’t work.  Why? Because the theory of the unitary executive only works when it is in the interests of the administrative state.  When the chief executive opposes the interests of the (albeit “his own”) managerial class, the unitary executive crumbles like a sand castle at high tide.  We are at the high tide of statism.

If there is a silver lining to the present circumstances it is that the legislative branch can still throw a monkey wrench into the works, for good or evil.  In theory, a legislative branch that responded to the long range interests of the people, which is not that of the managerial state, could reverse the (counter-) revolution.  In theory, the right way to the right kind of freedom can be found…if only after exhausting every other way first.

 

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Africa through the Leftist looking glass

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 4, 2017

Leftist “Afrocentrism” is not Africa-centric at all, rather, it is Negative Euro-centrism

The cardinal, and supposedly indisputable, fact which determined modern Africa’s destiny is what people generally refer to as “The Partition of Africa” as if Africa were a huge cake that was cut into slivers by greedy and importunate dinner guests.  Indeed, there was a conference held in 1885 to ratify the European states’ spheres of influence in Africa, and it set the standard for determining the boundaries, not just of colonial Africa, but the territorial limits of today’s independent states.  Thus this phrase, and the image it evokes, has endured as the beginning of all disquisitions and inquisitions into the matters and morals of modern Africa.

Unfortunately this notion of “partition” fails the reality-test.  Apart from the history of European diplomacy, the “Partition of Africa” has no utility or even meaning.  In order to divide something up, the “something” has to first exist as a unified entity, and (except as a geographical concept) there never was any such thing as “Africa” to divide up.  In contrast, when historians speak of the division of Poland in the 18th century, they are referring to something concrete.  There was indeed a unified historic Polish state which suffered dismemberment at the hands of Prussia, Russia, and Austria.  Poland disappeared, its neighbors were enlarged.

This is not what happened to Africa.  Granted, something very important did happen in and on the continent of Africa during the late 19th century, and it happened (primarily) through the intervention of the European powers.  However, the actual process was precisely the opposite of a partition.  What happened circa 1885 to the various peoples of Africa was a process of forced unification, not forced division.  From the point of view of genuine Afro-centrism, or what might be more objectively called “ethnological realism” the 1885 event is better described as the (forced) unification of the African territories.

Yet somehow the myth of a division of a non-existent country called “Africa” has persisted in the collective imagination of world history.  The original impetus for this myth was, as everyone might suspect, the ignorance, chauvanism and pride (I abjure the term “racist” but you get the general point) of the European ruling classes at the height of Western world power.  It no doubt flattered them to think that they were able to enforce their will on territories who’s indigenous populations had no say in the matter whatsoever.

I won’t be going into the pros and cons of colonialism, a vast subject.  Rather, what I am arguing is the reality or otherwise of a single thought-construct, the “partition” of Africa.  After 1885 Africans found themselves inhabiting much larger political units than they had ever experienced before.  Some aspects of life in these larger units were beneficial, some were degrading, and let the chips fall where they may in each department of evaluation.  However what happened post-1885 was a unification rather than a sundering.  Sundering did occur in isolated instances, as when a boundary was arbitrarily drawn through the middle of a village, or though the grazing territories of a nomadic tribe.  However these were the exceptions which proved the rule.  The rule was that Africans woke up to a new reality, and in this reality they now were thrown into political relations with people whom they had had little contact with previously.  And these other people were not just the Europeans, but, most importantly, other Africans as well.

It is this unification which was the salient reality at the dawn of modern Africa, not sundering.  However, to say that unification was salient is not by any means a value judgement.  The pros and cons of this unification are all arguable, what is not arguable was its reality.  In fact the history of African politics, and of the rest of the world’s attitude towards Africa, largely revolves around the pros and cons of large political units.  Indeed, this is a theme which is hardly unique to Africa.  What is a nation?  What is a state?  What is the relation between these two, and are either of them or both of them good or evil?  This has been a universal theme since at least the times of the American and French revolutions.  However events on the African continent can throw these themes into either sharp relief or obscurity, depending on what kind of moral handle one has on the issues.

My thesis is that the political left has grabbed these issues at the wrong end, and that conventional discourse has slavishly followed the tone set by the left.  It is as if we had a telescopic view of Africa but were looking through the telescope from the wrong end.  This has had disastrous consequences, both for Africans and for everyone else.

Ethnographic realism and Federalism, Negative Euro-centrism and the unitary State

The seemingly abstract discussion above has more than historical relevance.  It is true that much of  Africa experiences debilitating social and economic conditions.  Furthermore, it is true that outside agents play a disproportionate role in the affairs of African states.  However it is singularly unhelpful to label these concrete conditions the result of “neo-colonialism” when in fact they are manifestations of the same globalist system which interferes in the affairs of non-African regions.  Due to the weakness of African political systems organizations such as the IMF, the World Court, and the so-called “peace keeping” UN military play the exaggerated role that they would like to assume throughout the world at large.  The reason why they are unable to play this role universally is that states outside Africa are stronger and less amenable to outside pressure.

And why are African states notoriously weak?  The general consensus is that “tribalism” (variously defined) keeps the political situation of all but the most stable African nations in a state of perpetual turmoil.  This is certainly true, however people have been analyzing the phenomenon of “tribalism” through the leftist looking-glass for several generations, and still no solution has been found to this problem, if “tribalism” is indeed a problem.  The leftist-Marxist view is that every African nation should have a unitary state, which will then enact economic and social planning to lead its population out of poverty and dependency.  Any groups which stand between the individual and the state are seen as running interference with this program are deemed reactionary.  Prominent among these groups are tribes, ethnic, and kinship organizations.

Does this sound familiar?  It should, since this has been the left’s prescribed rout to utopia throughout the world, not just Africa.   Worldwide, this started at the end of the 18th century, when the Paris Jacobin government abolished the provinces (the “tribes” of France) in favor of direct rule over localities by centrally appointed “prefects.” (N.B.:  This policy was extended to French West and Central Africa in the 20th century, and was inherited by the Francophonic states after independence.)

However in the case of Africa, the left ultimately envisions a continental union.  Hence the Marxian endorsement of the outmoded and Eurocentric notion of a “division” of the African continent circa 1885AD.  This is bad historiography but shrewd politics, since it gives substance to the myth of an undivided continental polity which should be restored in the future.  In fact what happened was not a division, but a forced unification of vast territories which have now become the nations on the African map.  If there had been no such forced unification there would have been no general problem of “tribalism” since the forcibly unified tribes would have been nations in themselves.

What has been done has been done, and today’s African political units are, and will remain, multi-ethnic.  This can be either a blessing or a curse.  If we look at it from the left-wing viewpoint, which I am equating with advocacy of political centralization, it interferes with the smooth operation of a unitary state.  However there are alternatives to this viewpoint.

The salient alternative is federalism, or having weak central governments and strong local governments.  The fewer rewards which can be contested at the national level, the less likely it is that various groups, ethnic, religious or otherwise, will have an opportunity to come into conflict.  Thus federalism, in any region, but notably in Africa, is likely to diminish the likelyhood of inter-group friction.

Advocates of political centralization generally fail to contest the above premise.  Rather, they claim that strong unitary states are necessary to resist outside pressure, generally framed as “imperialist” or some kindred threat.  However, even here the case for centralized unitary states is dubious.  In fact it is far easier for outside political forces to subvert a single political head than to deal with a multitude of layered political agencies.

Yes, the root problem in Africa is the one factor that the left refuses to blame: excessive political centralization.  Federalism would keep contentious ethnic forces from each other’s throats, and furthermore would minimize, though not eliminate, outside political interference in the affairs of the various nations.  The forced political unifications of 1885 are irrevocable, but their negative effects can be mitigated through decentralization.

Should be be surprised that the political solution for African nations is the same as the political solution for other regions of the world?  After all, the root human condition is the same everywhere.  That is what the left professes to believe.  Why doesn’t it endorse local autonomy and limited government everywhere on Earth?  Perhaps because it has simply adopted its historiography from its alleged imperialist enemies.

“Division of Africa” indeed!  Would that it were so.  We need smaller political units on every continent, so that people can easily trade, cross borders, and be friends.

 

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Mr. Trump’s deepest, darkest secret revealed!

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 26, 2016

He’s a Centrist!

Sarah Palin just found out, but I figured it out earlier…and psychologist/cartoonist Scott Adams probably had discerned the secret long before anyone else.  Surprisingly, the liberal media covered for Mr. Trump in this particular instance, battening down the kind of tight lid they normally reserve for Ms. Clinton’s emails.

Mr. Trump isn’t a Conservative, he’s a Centrist!

Of course Trump had blurted it out long ago.  In a candid moment (for he has no other kind) he declared, “This isn’t the Conservative party, this is the Republican party, get used to it!”  Few seem to have deduced a confession of Centrism from the statement, which is unsurprising since the prospect is so alarming that most political minds would banish the notion to that untidy abyss where mental monstrosities lurk.   After all, a genuine Centrist would be something new in American politics, a terrifying possibility which, in lieu of getting used to, we had better examine critically. Well, do you know anybody who voluntarily describes themselves as a “Centrist”?  I thought not.  We all want to be a little weird, trending to the left or right to assert our personal quirks.  As individuals we will have nothing to do with Centrism, but collectively….ah, there’s the rub…

Then again, what the heck is a Centrist, that Mr. Trump should be such a creature?  Perhaps the via negativa is our surest line of inquiry into the matter.  Thus we should proceed by a process of elimination, and winnow away the pseudo-centers until we get to the real core, the genuine marrow…or perchance that hole in the political doughnut called Centrism.

First we must dispense with the great national myth of Centrism, a hoary relic which functions, as intended, to make political and historical thought impossible.  Once, so we are told, there was a time in the primeval depths when we were all Centrists.  There were wonderful leaders, men like Lyndon Banes Johnson, who inherited a great country and aimed to keep it that way.  There were eloquent bards like Walter Cronkite who could express the American mind with an unequivocal unanimity, and dub this the “national consensus.”  Then there was some sort of terrible falling out, the bowl of Centrism was broken, and from its shards the warring demons of Left and Right were born.  So we are told.

We are not told that this so-called Centrism was a ploy to marginalize debate on the national level and consolidate a political duopoly.  If such be the case then this mythical “Centrism” can bear little resemblance to Mr. Trump’s politics, which is opening up new questions and exposing old divisions between the political class and the rest of us.  A painful process no doubt, but one which is essential if politics is to have any meaning distinct from administration.

A more recent form of alleged Centrism might be called Rhino-centrism.  Alas,  this is not an amiable obsessing over riparian mammals of the upper Nile, but a political disease.  However like the Blue and White Nile, Rhino-centrism is a confluence of two currents, crypto-liberals in search of power joined with conservatives willing to compromise for the sake of sinecures and security.  Confusingly, the former stream is called “neo-Conservatives” but at the point of convergence they might as well be called Centrists, albeit of the RINO variety.  These people uniformly hate Mr. Trump, so we can only guess that their Centrism is a horned animal pointing in the opposite direction from the elephantine Trump in the living room.

Then there are the chattering classes who call themselves moderates, but who are really just conservatives who are too fearful to broach the salient issues, knowing that doing so would be like touching a naked wire.  Mr. Trump has touched that wire, and we all have seen what happened.  Better safe than sorry!  Yet if these people are Centrists, what is Mr. Trump?

I, Ideologist!

Mr. Trump is a very unsatisfactory person for those of us who deem ourselves thinkers, especially thinkers on the right.  Let’s take two issues, one popular and one fairly esoteric.  One is hard pressed to think what Mr. Trump is going to do in the case of pro-life/pro-choice.  He waffles.  One surmises that he is genuinely of two minds on the issue.  In this regard his personal meditations would reflect the non-consensus of the American people…a kind of Centrism if you will.

At the other extreme is an issue which nobody except libertarians and lawyers care about, eminent domain.  The courts are now saying that the government can seize any land it wishes if the promotion of greater social and economic welfare can be demonstrated by the state.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see Mr. Trump, with his real estate background and utilitarian mode of thinking, concurring in this doctrine.

As a libertarian I am offended by the doctrine of eminent domain, which asserts that the Earth ultimately belongs to the state.  Not to God, not to communities, not to individuals…to the state.  Qua ideologist I could never permit myself to vote for any magistrate who concurred with the doctrine of eminent domain.  Qua ideologist I would willingly sit this one out.  Indeed, there are good reasons adduced by conservatives to throw the election to Ms. Clinton…either by not voting or by voting for Mr. Johnson.  Perhaps the best argument is that, in expectation of a recession/depression, Ms. Clinton would be the one holding the hot potato.

Eminent domain!  Eminent domain!  Oh, if only everyone could see with my kind of moral clarity!  And yet, one wonders if Mr. Trump, so egregious in theory, would be so really bad in practice.  Could he be as bad as Mr. Obama, who with a flick of the pen is trying to transfer as much land from private to federal domain as possible?  Indeed, the land acquisition policy is beginning to take on almost Shammanic overtones, with the Earth as god and the state as its prophet.  Indeed, if you think that for-profit land use is bad, and surely it can be, wait until the advent of the false prophet…for unalloyed badness!

Likewise with pro-life.  Whatever his ultimate views on human life and sexuality might be, Mr. Trump could hardly make worse Supreme Court appointments than Ms. Clinton.  And while we are at it, what about World War III?  Might that not have something to do with life?  I don’t particularly approve of Mr. Putin, but a bit of “making nice” to the Russians might be preferable to Ms. Clinton’s harrowing neo-Conservative record of “creative destruction” and foreign entanglements.

Yes, as an ideologist I am offended by Mr. Trump’s lack of principle, by his shameless ferreting out of that elusive volunte general, i.e., the general will of the American people.  It smacks of “democracy” in the pejorative sense that Edmund Burke gave to that term, indeed, as a new form Centrism, simultaneously bold and enigmatic.  Yet, as a human being I am persuaded that we can live with Centrism…indeed, that we may not be able to live without it.

 

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Observations on the Christian Libertarian Conference (Aug. 2016, Austin TX), Pt. 2 Afternoon session

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 19, 2016

The Soul of the Entrepreneur

Dr. Victor Claar gave the most upbeat presentation at a conference which was distinguished by a generally upbeat tone.  One had the feeling of being in Sunday school, with plenty of scripture being quoted, and careful analogies drawn between the Biblical narrative and action in modern day society.  Claars’ premise was that entrepreneurial action was an image of God’s creative action.  Good uplifting stuff, albeit it tended to sell short the sense in which human finite reason and senses were only a poor hint at the fiat creation of an omnipotent and omniscient God.

A useful term for this same insight, which Dr. Claar did not employ, was J. R. R. Tolkein’s “sub-creation.”   All human activity, from art to entrepreneurship, is mundane mirroring of God’s creative action.  It struck me that there are actually two levels operative here, the moving about of productive factors within creation, and the imaginative reconstruction of the world with language.  These are different, with the former being closer to God’s creation in substance, while the second seems closer in terms of form.

One objection to any parallelism between entrepreneurship and God’s creative act is the presence of uncertainty in the former.  Theorists of entrepreneurship, such as the Austrian school’s Israel Kirzner, have talked about the entrepreneur as someone who is capable of “seeing around the corner” and discovering a gap in the market, some need or deficiency which has not been hitherto met.  However the entrepreneur cannot magically control the outcome of the enterprise.  This human capacity for being wrong renders the analogy between human action and creation less than perfect.  I mentioned this to Dr. Claar and he seemed to concur with this caveat.

The Plot Thickens: Enter Rene Girard as mimed by David Gornoski

“A Neighbor’s Choice” applied mimetic theory (MT) to the issues of politics and liberty.  Of all the presentations this was the one which came closest to offering a Christian solution to tyranny, and human bondage in general.  Most of the audience was probably unaware of the late Rene Girard’s work on social imitation, the mimetic triangle, and scapegoating.  As one of the conference attendees noted “libertarians scapegoat the state.”  Well, I am not sure that the way libertarians blame the state is congruent with Girard’s “scapegoat” theory, but the comment articulates an important truth.  The “state” is an abstraction which can only become incarnate in human action.  Therefore we must ask ourselves what is the primal human motive which results in the institution of elaborate and tyrannical systems of control.

For Rene Girard, it is the violation of the tenth commandment, Envy, which is at the heart of both social cohesion and conflict.  Imitation is the indispensable mortar for building individual bricks into a social structure, but imitation turns to nihilism as the fires of envy intensify and the continued existence of the imitated other becomes unbearable.  At the root of the problem is the unique quality of human imitation, which, unlike animal imitation is not just a miming of behavior but a imaginative appropriation of the other person’s desires.  This leads to rivalry and ultimately the assassination of the rival so that one can occupy and replace one’s rival’s very selfhood.  The assassination is then speedily mythologized, and turned into a religion to mask the aggression of the new leadership, a strategy which is generally successful in the short term, or at least until the fires of envy once again build up beyond a tolerable limit.

According to Girard, this pattern continued throughout human prehistory until it was unmasked by the passion of Christ.  In the gospel records for the first time ever, the narrative is related from the point of view of the victim.  Ideally, Christ should have been the last victim of mimetic rivalry, but as David Gornoski reminded the audience, the pattern has continued to operate up to the present and provide a rationale for that institution which we call “the state.”  Gornoski reminded the audience that the gospel accounts not only provide a diagnosis of the sinful basis of society, but also a strategy for dealing with mimetic rivalry…to eschew rivalry and usurping of the tyrannical rival’s functions, no matter if the overthrow and replacement be masked as “justice.”

It would seem that with Mr. Gornoski’s presentation we had got to a point during the conference where theory was beginning to give way to practice.  However the “practice” of a Girardian anti-mimesis would be less action than restraint on action, which brings to the foreground the common tendency of anarchism to encourage quietism rather than political activism.

Pico himself was beset by his usual theological scruples, and being a Girardian himself, though perhaps in bad standing, was eager to sound out Mr. Gornoski on the dangers of diverting the passion narrative from soterology to sociology.  Mr. Gornoski replied that he was convinced a sociological perspective on Christ’s victimhood in no way diminished the doctrine of the atonement, and that Girard himself (who became a practicing Catholic) saw no contradiction.  Pico was willing to let the matter stand, although this is a fundamental point which needs to be clarified in Girardian circles.

Conclusion: Political Burlesque and a Resounding Call to Inaction

It was inevitable that, in a Presidential election year, there would have to be some concluding fireworks…and that these would have to be managed so that the dangerous explosives didn’t blow apart the meeting in a satisfying but divisive finale.  This job was delegated to Jason Rink who’s semi-comic “Never a Chump: A Christian Libertarian guide to the 2016 Election” concluded with an appeal for libertarians to vote, not with their feet, but with their couch.  Even Mr. Johnson, the darling of the LP and other mild-mannered reformers, got the cold shoulder on the premise that if you don’t vote you aren’t morally responsible for the inevitable brutality of practical statecraft.  Of course this went double for Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton.

Wisely, there were no rebuttals due to time constraints, so partisan matches and fireworks were kept from any incendiary conjunction. The enthusiasts of Mr. Johnson just had to grit their teeth and defer to their anarchist betters.  However, just for the record, Pico would like to ask: Are there not crimes of omission rather than commission?

Let me get down to specifics.  After all, Pico has made no secret of the fact that he is sympathetic to the oh-so-terrible Mr. Trump, so let me take Mr. Rink to task on his logic.  With regard to the Republic slate in general, Mr. Rink correctly observes that the Christian Right have served as the useful idiots (a.k.a. “chumps”) for a G.O.P. which has become subservient to neoconservative policies and banking interests.  Rink therefore concludes that now is the time for Christians in general and libertarians in particular to assert their independence from the Republican machine.   Four or eight years ago this would have been a valid premise, and in fact many Evangelicals did desert the G.O.P in 2012, if only due to Mr. Romney’s religion.

However Mr. Rink fails to understand that a G.O.P. under the sway of the Trump movement is no longer the Republican party of pre-2016.  If Trump has his way (and in spite of the obtuse G.O.P. leadership he seems to be getting it) the only continuity between today’s party and the pre-2016 organization will be the name.  If Mr. Rink, and the rest of us, could get beyond labels and pose the question objectively we would ask: Can Christian Libertarians support the Bull Moose Party, or the Populist Party, or whatever moniker you fancy for Trump’s new breed? Indeed, it was a tremendous coup (literally!) for Trump and his people to retain the name and franchise of “Republican” but that’s a whole new animal you see walking around the elephant’s skin.  So we pose the question whether Christians should join fortune at its tide, and be counted among those who will have clout in a possible Trump administration, or not?  I have a hunch that a Trump administration might succeed in “Making America Small Again” which would be an improvement on the present globalist regime.  Of course don’t expect Mr. Trump to be saying any such thing, which would be against both prudence and his own expansive nature, its just that rhetoric and results are often polar opposites.

Still, I suspect that it is Mr. Rink and not Pico who had his hand on the pulse on the conclave’s membership.  The dominant strain in the organization, which is now three years old, seems to be pietistic semi-anarchism of the David Lipscomb variety.  That is a worthy tradition and not be gainsaid, albeit Pico has been tending more towards a theonomic perspective recently.

Most of all, whether we are inclined towards libertarianism or theonomy, it is important to oppose the mainstream Christian Right in its fatal love affair with militarism and American exceptionalism.  To that end, I was glad to see that Dr. Norman Horne, the conference organizer, had learned some hard lessons from his debate with Dr. Al Mohler, President Emeritus of the largest Protestant denomination in America, and an evangelical celebrity.  During this previous encounter Mohler had dismissed “libertarianism” as a distracting ideology which was inherently non-Christian if not anti-Christian.  By his own account, Dr. Horn felt he came off poorly in the debate, as one would only expect of an upstart idealist going to the mat with a seasoned polemicist.

Dr. Horne concluded that in a projected rematch he would be less inclined to mince words and accept Dr. Mohler’s premises at face value.  Rather, he would have recourse to libertarian first principles, which are in fact Christian first principles.  He would like to remind Dr. Mohler that aggression is not endorsed by the gospel and that power corrupts.

Whether there is a reprise of the Horne/Mohler debate, let’s hope that someone is listening.  War drums are beating ever louder, Ms. Clinton is solidly in the pocket of the neocons, and militarists are wrangling for influence with Mr. Trump.  Christians, both committed and nominal, still represent the biggest single demographic in America, and a force for good or evil depending on how they are mobilized.

Let us meditate deeply on what action, or perhaps inaction, we should take in 2016…and may God help us all.

 

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Observations on the Christian Libertarian Conference, (Austin TX, Aug. 1016) Pt. 1, Morning session and main speaker

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 10, 2016

Can Christians be Libertarians?

Pico had the rare privilege of attending the third annual Christians for Liberty Conference, held in Austin Texas on Aug. 6.   There were about a hundred or so Christians and libertarians in attendance (mostly those who were both, but perhaps a few who were neither but curious) which made it lively enough for what is unfortunately still deemed an eccentricity, and drawing people, such as yours truly, from far and yon.  Now this writer, “Pico” if you will, is more of a paleoconservative, or at least a paleolibertarian, and perhaps there were a few of similar persuasion lurking among the crowd.  Undoubtedly this will give my observations a certain piquant sharpness since I fall short of whatever ideological median existed among the participants.  Yet this range of views is the glory of all such libertarian conclaves, such that one can hardly bring any two of the participants together without finding three opinions among them.   If you were to scratch the surface of conviviality, it would have revealed anarchists, minarchists, low-tax liberals, Rothbardian purists, one or two misdirected Randians, LP activists-on-the-make, pissed-off Republicrats, and a vast variety of other species in attendance.  But, characteristic of this fusion of freedom and gospel, there was no rancor among the sub-sects, and the whole thing concluded with a resounding call to spread the complementary messages of political autonomy and spiritual dedication to Christ.

The conference was sponsored by the Christian Libertarian Institute, itself the brainchild of Dr. Norman Horne, who was the chief organizer of the event.  The first speakers were Elise Daniel and Jacqueline Isaacs, who posed the question “Can Christians be Libertarians?.”  While Pico hates the generational monikers which the media have made into mandatory age-casts, for ease of understanding, I will reluctantly describe Ms. Daniel and Ms. Isaacs as so-called “millennials” addressing their peers.  As always there is tragedy and hope.  The tragedy is that young Christians in public universities and starting corporate careers are members of an oppressed minority which is still stigmatized as an oppressing majority.  The hope is that the brightest among the millennials will come to understand that Christianity is not a form of authoritarianism, but an exercise in responsible individualism mandated by God.

On the other hand there is a prejudice in the church which conflates libertarianism with a kind of roll-your-own lifestyle (properly, this would be termed “libertinism”), a view reinforced by the image of the pot-smoking narcissist who cares only for his or her own rights to enjoy the things of this world.   However to decriminalize sinful behavior is not to give it moral sanction, indeed, it is to restore responsibility for the moral order to the teaching and sanctions of the family and the church.  Libertarianism doesn’t teach the “unleashing of desire” promised by the progressives, but rather seeks to end the usurpation of individual responsibility by the state. Rather than an end to all governance, one of the speakers gave an apt summary, “I like my religion top down, and my politics bottom up!”  In the pursuit of that goal, these two bright lights in the rising constellation of Christians for liberty have combined with four of their peers on a project to show how the age old ideal of “liberty in Christ” can speak in a contemporary idiom.  The outcome will be a new perspective entitled Called To Liberty, which answers the question “can Christians be libertarian” through the experience and personal reflections of the six witnesses.  This is a faith-based initiative in both the gospel and the entrepreneurial sense, since at the time of the conference the book was still half way towards being crowd-funded for publication.

A more somber and historical tone was struck by next two speakers Dr. Jamin Hubner and Dr. Mark Cherry.  Hubner called the historical record to witness, and answered the question of whether Christians can be libertarians in the affirmative.  Indeed, Hubner seemed indignant that the question even needed to be posed, since the anti-statist nature of the gospel was less evident in the apologetic tracts of the early theologians than the praxis of the catacombs and the Colosseum.   While Hubner was pointed and direct, Cherry was rather baroque in his philosophical analysis of the theological epochs of the church, illustrating how Christians often got off track by rendering their faith too abstract and universal.  For Cherry, the interesting question was not how libertarians and Christians could propagate their understandings indiscriminately, but how freedom of concrete choices empowered Christian individuals and families to live out of the will of God in the face of clear alternatives.

Since, as common sense and Austrian economics both teach, there is no such thing as equality in the realm of values, anyone attending a conference on libertarianism and Christianity must eventually ask which is the head and which is the tail, the Christian part or the freedom part.  There were many pious statements implying that the joint endeavor would lead Christians to become more libertarian and libertarians to become more Christian.  Yet without further clarification the deadly hint of dual allegiance inevitably starts to debilitate the methods and motives of all hyphenated movements.  So it was with great relief that Pico and others heard Ms. Daniel affirm that the most important value was Christian faith, besides which infinite value no secular ideal can compare.

The Keynote Speaker: Dr. Robert Murphy

The featured Dr. Murphy was not a particular “draw” for Pico, since that latter had some vague reservations about the author of the “Contra-Krugman” blog.  Many Austrian economists have a smart-Alec approach to lecturing.  Knowing (and I feel they are correct in this assumption) that they are among the most intelligent human beings on the planet, they are keen to confirm the general public in the same conviction.  Perhaps some decades-old encounter with Dr. Murphy had filled me with trepidation about the speaker.  But as he began his talk it became clear  that, like Pico, Dr. Murphy had at some point in his personal sojourn become “a new creature in Christ” and I warmed to him.  Yes, he was every bit as witty and contentious as he had ever been, but, now bearing the mark of a servant, one could see that there was more than ego involved.

Moreover, Dr. Murphy’s topic was neither libertarianism nor Christianity per se but, surprisingly, apologetics.  Granted that his title “Is God a tyrant?” would have hinted broadly at apologetics in any session where the themes were less political and more theological.  The thesis was indeed a tour de force, and while Dr. Murphy (with his new found modesty) demurred from making any such claim, I will go ahead and call this an entirely new and revolutionary kind of apologetics.  How so?

Keeping in mind that Dr. Murphy did not make any such claim, it seems to Pico that he was hinting at a “third way” within apologetics.  If the first way is Classical apologetics (associated with Aristotle) and is evidence based, and the second way is Prepositional (associated with Paul, Anselm, and certain reformed thinkers) “believe that you may know” then Dr. Murphy’s take on the matter seems different from either. I’m not sure whether to call it Economic, or Judicial apologetics, or something else, but the take-away is that the thought of Murry Rothbard (a Jewish “pagan”) takes on a contemporary significance analogous to the influence of Aristotle on scholastic apologetics.

Rothbardians, following Locke, understand property as originating in the creation of goods through the mixing of labor with the materials provided by nature.  Once these goods have been created, they are owned absolutely by their creator.  He or she has the right to keep, destroy, or give away the created good voluntarily.  Conversely, nobody else has a right to possess, occupy, or enjoy the good owned by the owner (who is either the creator or a successor to the original creator at some subsequent degree of gifting and/or purchase).  As Murphy notes, this doctrine leads to any number of potential scenarios which normal people find morally uncomfortable.  A typical illustration will involve the owner expelling from his or her property a trespasser who is certain to die in the hostile environment surrounding the owner’s place of business or habitation. However these dire consequences are not logical paradoxes, they follow from logical principles whether or not people feel emotionally or morally comfortable with the outcome.

When we consider God as the first laborer to whom all artifactual creaton by humans is analogous, then we can understand the parallel between the libertarian defense of property rights and God’s sovereignty over creation.  God owns everything, and therefore has a right to dispose of His property as he sees fit.  We are his property and in no position to claim any rights which does not acknowledge the prior claims of God on everything we are and own.

I find this kind of reasoning compelling, even though, or because, it gives one a sobering realization of how wrong it is to claim autonomy in the face of one’s Creator.  There is a complementarity here, where the heteronomy of the creature is both contrasted to, and supported by, that same creature’s legal status as an autonomous person within civil society.  It is also remarkably in accordance with scripture once we consider the gospel as part of an integral covenant rooted in the so-called Old Testament.  Basically, Israel is a community of freeholders, yet they do not truly hold freely, but by the grace of God.

In summary, God is not a tyrant because he made the people over whom he allegedly tyrannizes.  Human tyrants are what they are because they have not only usurped Christ.s crown rights, but they have intruded into the lives and properties of their fellow human beings.  If they had made themselves and us, human tyrants would be in better shape to assert their claims, but fortunately we do not owe them our existence…as we do to God.

And now for something completely different

Dr. Murphy concluded his talk on an ominous note, echoing Paul’s observation that we battle not against flesh, but against powers and dominions, he cautioned against optimism based on a naive belief in rational persuasion of  the masses.  He noted that behind support for statism lurks something more than bad thinking or even vested interest, rather there are strong spiritual forces arrayed against freedom.  Pico entirely concurs, and feels that libertarians as a whole are a rather Quixotic bunch.  Leaving the ultimately supernatural opposition aside, there are many factors even in mundane existence which libertarians generally prefer to ignore, such as who precisely is doing what to whom, and if this involves money or other levers to power.  It would seem that when God divided up political intelligence the right got principles and the left got strategy, and one wonders if it is too late in the day for the former to learn any new tricks, dirty or otherwise.

Of course there is always the flip side, as illustrated by those self-professed pragmatic “libertarians” whom Murray Rothbard despised but who arguably have a better grasp on reality than the utopians.  As if on cue, Dr. Murphy’s talk was followed by Lauren Daugherty’s “Toward a Libertarian Foreign Policy” which seemed like an attempt to synthesize moral and economic liberalism with certain aspects of neoconservative doctrine.  Knowing that the room was peppered with anarchists and pacifists, it took visible courage on Ms. Daugherty’s part to advocate a rather muscular retention of pax Americana, albeit one which clearly prioritized cultural propaganda and sea power in preference to boots sinking into quagmires.  Pico always enjoys it when a solitary individual stands her ground in the face of a crowd, and sure enough, the young lady prevailed, while the crowd, generally speaking, “blinked.”  To paraphrase Star Wars’ Senator Palpitine, many will be watching Ms. Daugherty’s career with great interest, and hopefully she will not succumb to the dark side of the force.

 

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Congrats Brits!!! 2016 may be your 1776…(if you can keep it!)

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 24, 2016

A serious blow has been struck at the Globalist empire

It is with great pleasure that lovers of localism and freedom can contemplate the rejection of the unelected “federal government of Europe” by the  voters of the UK.  With the vote comes a reprieve from further alienation of the rights which go back to the Magna Carta and before.  Britain is back from the brink of absorption into a continent wide managerial state without due process, representation, or any of the other rights which were secured by the Wig Revolutions which rolled back the tyranny of the Tudors and Stuarts, ushering in that oxymoronic but workable form of republicanism which goes by the name of “constitutional monarchy.”

Thus in the future, the vote of June 2016 may be celebrated as a narrow escape from bondage to a faceless and unconstitutional tyranny.  The bracing question should be, “How did it ever come to this?”  Unfortunately the so-called “market” was a negative instance of Hayek’s principle of social evolution, for the EU was indeed an order “established through human action but not human design.”  Putting aside a few doctrinaire thinkers, few envisioned reestablishing the Holy Roman Empire, or the Kingdom of Charlemagne in post-WWII Europe.

Then who were the advocates of this grotesque system and why?  Oddly, it was the “marketers” in other words, the free-market liberals, those who today are more properly called the “libertarians.”  Freedom advocates had been so used to combating national socialism, fascism, and state communism, that the concept of an international market appeared as a panacea to the ills of narrow autarchic governments.   Few could imagine that the international network of trade, either on a continental or a global level, could itself be organized into a managerial authority which would hold entire nations at its mercy.  Like their liberal American counterparts who were so fixated on the corruption of local political machines that they overlooked the abuses of the military-industrial complex, Europeans emerging from the night of fascism and the Iron Curtain failed to see the anti-libertarian implications of a supra-national federal government.

That will be the retrospective sigh of relief if what has begun in June 2016 is followed through to completion.  The danger now is that vested interests will push back using either political or non-political means.  Having rejected continent wide federalism, Britons now need to reform their national system to end the very factors which invited supra-national tyranny into their islands.  The warfare-welfare state is still iniquitous on the local as well as the continental level.  The ancient British system was based on a population of freeholders bound together by contracts and covenants.  Returning to this system, based on common, not administrative, law should be the ultimate goal of “conservative” (really libertarian) politics.

To paraphrase what Benjamin Franklin said after the United States constitutional convention of 1787, the Brits now have their “constitutional monarchy” back again…if they can keep it!

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The psychological projections of the Authoritarian Left: The Emperors of (doling out) Ice Cream call out the terrible Tyrants of the Breakfast Table

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 22, 2016

The Cultural Marxist background of America’s uncivil political rhetoric

No, Donald Trump is not a “Fascist” even if the all-purpose F-word could be stretched to the max.   James Freeman does a brilliant take on why the real estate tycoon makes an improbable, or rather impossible, “dictator” in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece

http://www.wsj.com/articles/clinton-obama-trump-and-the-abuse-of-power-1466548914

The upshot of the argument is that Mr. Trump’s critics (at least the F-mongering ones) fail to make a distinction between economic and political power.  The not-so-ominous parallels are hilarious, if not quite Hillary-ous.   Mr. Freeman draws our attention to the brute facts of the tyrant’s career, for example

By his early 60s Stalin had already killed millions of his countrymen.  At the same age, Mr. Trump had already offered a signature collection of shirts, ties, cuff links, eyewear and leather goods.  He has also peddled furniture, mattresses, bedding, lighting, home decor and more.  Did Stalin ever have his own fragrance?

Since Donald Trump has never held any civil office, he has hitherto been innocent of the judicial murders that heads of state throughout history have committed.  He may be raw, coarse, and boorish, but these are not political crimes.  A critic might conjecture that someone with such traits is likely to become a tyrant, but there have been smooth and fastidious tyrants as well.  Between the vulgar Attila and the edified Robespierre, I find the latter more terrifying for all his sincerity and culture.  Be that as it may, the issue is between someone who is a political wild card, and those who have a proven record of creating mayhem and madness in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Mr. Freeman, hewing close to the interventionist line of the WSJ, limits his criticism of the Democratic establishment to domestic irregularities, but military skeptics can carry his  arguments even further.

More interesting is the allusion Mr. Freeman makes to the cult of the “authoritarian personality,” which he notes is now under severe revision by contemporary scholarship.  Evidence suggests that authoritarianism is more characteristic of leaders on the “left” (providing we define “left” as people and movements who want to implement their objectives using state power, which obviously excludes anarchists et al).  If so, this pseudo-diagnostic category turns out to be an exercise in projecting the critic’s personal faults onto hated others.  The “Authoritarian Personality” was coined as a tool of analysis by Theodore Adorno and his colleagues (the “critical” or “cultural” Marxists) to stigmatize and ultimately abolish the institution of the “bourgeois family.”  From a Marxist point of view the family must be subordinated to the state, the latter serving an an instrument of the oppressed.  This contrasts with classical political rhetoric, where the “tyrant” was implicitly the head of a state.  In the inverted Marxist world, the state is (ideally) a noble project run by a committee of guardians, while the persistent tyrannies are those of the social world, heads of families, firms, churches and whatever.

To put the theory in terms which a child would understand, though hopefully a wise a child would not be deceived: The real tyrant is the tyrant of the breakfast table, the paterfamilias and bread-winner of the traditional family.  In contrast, the state is a harmless and distant Emperor of Ice Cream.  While the kiosk vendor who employs that grandiose title might be an exploiter, the state scoops out free benefits to the public.  These benefits include education and cradle to grave security.  Since it is supposed that there is no bottom to the ice cream barrel, autonomous institutions outside of the state are rendered superfluous.  Hence economic activity is evil and political activity is noble.  Hence Mr. Trump is a fascist.  No data are necessary as the argument is purely deductive.

Whatever one thinks of Mr. Trump and his policies, his candidacy has become a wonderful diagnostic tool revealing the extent to which mainstream political rhetoric in America has been reformulated according to categories devised by German Marxists of the 1920s and 30s.   The leftists of that time and place were not only theorists, they were bold agents provocateurs who helped engender the original fascists.  Moreover the old fascists were widely recognized as just an off-brand form of leftist, and in no way conservatives. No wonder that today’s ideological descendants of the old German left are so fond of calling everyone “Hitler.”  They helped to create the original.

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