29.1.16

INSTITUTIONS ARE CIVILIZATION

I've recently remarked favorably on research by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, whose work focuses on a part of the world that figures in my own history.  He recently finished another book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, that appears to be advancing the thesis that Hitler blamed "the Jews" for the moderating institutions by which people resolved their differences rather than killing each other.  And thus, mediating institutions put the stronger at a disadvantage relative to the weak.  I'm going to have to read through the work, to see how he develops this argument.  I have a vested interest, in years of teaching economics, of commending the mediating institutions, including the rules of contract, fraud, property, and propriety, in benefitting the stronger and the weaker alike.

But Professor Snyder has also taken, recently, to the popular press to caution the enlightened layman that a similar terror might be one bad harvest or one bad batch of immigrants away, should the objective circumstances be trying enough.  Thus, in a Guardian essay from last fall, here is the way the mediating institutions might crash, and why that would be bad.  (There's a lot more in the essay, by all means read it.  I have only the message about institutions this afternoon.)
States should invest in science so that the future can be calmly contemplated. The study of the past suggests why this would be a wise course. Time supports thought, thought supports time; structure supports plurality, and plurality, structure. This line of reasoning is less glamorous than waiting for general disaster and dreaming of personal redemption. Effective prevention of mass killings is incremental and its heroes are invisible. No conception of a durable state can compete with visions of totality. No green politics will ever be as exciting as red blood on black earth.

But opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and politics, order and freedom, past and future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but its handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labour of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination, maturity and survival.
If that sounds a little like emergence plus a conservative habit of mind plus be careful in deconstructing institutions, good!

Professor Snyder advances a similar argument in a New York Review of Books essay.
For Herbert Spencer, the British defender of capitalism, a market was like an ecosphere where the strongest and best survived. The utility brought by unhindered competition justified its immediate evils. The opponents of capitalism, the socialists of the Second International, also embraced biological analogies. They came to see the class struggle as “scientific,” and man as one animal among many, instead of a specially creative being with a specifically human essence. Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist theorist of the day, insisted pedantically that people were animals.

Yet these liberals and socialists were constrained, whether they realized it or not, by attachments to custom and institution; mental habits that grew from social experience hindered them from reaching the most radical of conclusions. They were ethically committed to goods such as economic growth or social justice, and found it appealing or convenient to imagine that natural competition would deliver these goods.
Put another way, the use of mediating institutions is an evolutionary stable strategy. Here's Professor Snyder's hypothesis again: this time evolutionary stability confers evolutionary advantage on the undeserving, who in Hitler's view, are Jews.
When paradise falls and humans are separated from nature, a character who is neither human nor natural, such as the serpent of Genesis, takes the blame. If humans were in fact nothing more than an element of nature, and nature was known by science to be a bloody struggle, something beyond nature must have corrupted the species. For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew. It was the Jew who told humans that they were above other animals, and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves. It was the Jew who introduced the false distinction between politics and nature, between humanity and struggle.
I'm going to have to read the book, which has many more pages to develop the argument than a relatively short passage in the New York Review does.

But what happens when you view "politics" and "humanity" as social constructions?  Here's James W. Ceaser, a Virginia political scientist, suggesting a weaker corollary to the proposition that you deconstruct institutions at your peril.  He's offering an analysis of the three pillars of so-called progressivism, namely the technocratic impulse, the Sixties "New Left," and post-modern philosophy.  It is through post-modern thinking that we find the intellectual foundation for viewing "politics" and "humanity" as constructions, and thus malleable.
Postmodernism is the last of the developments on the intellectual left that has influenced modern progressivism. Less directly connected to politics than the New Left or multiculturalism, it entered American thought from the academy. Its main premise is that there are no real or true theoretical foundations or philosophically grounded values. The Declaration of Independence's laws of nature and the theoretical idea of progress, not to mention Nature's God and God's providence, are fictions. In philosophy classes, this premise might be subsumed under the formula that "nothing is by nature, and everything is by convention." Expressed in a more popularized version, as one might hear it today in any course in cultural studies, it is that "everything is socially constructed." Exported from the classroom to the quad, this slogan is deployed to call into question any custom or institution that the left is currently targeting for extinction.
Here I stand with my bayonet and there you stand with your law.  What happens, though, if it is the rule of the Perpetually Aggrieved that is to be deconstructed?
Postmodernism's impact on politics was initially more tactical than theoretical. Intellectuals, already on the left before they ever became postmodern, discovered in postmodernism a useful weapon to advance their goals. Denying the truth of foundations served to undermine important parts of the tradition, from the claim of natural rights that underlay American exceptionalism to the religious tenets that supported older morality and customs. If all things are socially constructed, there is no reason not to discard any one of them and replace it with something else, it being self-evident that all social constructions are created equal. Progressives employed this tactic selectively, deconstructing only the ideas and practices they disapproved of. Yet since much of the culture at this point still rested on traditional beliefs, it made sense for progressives to embrace the general postmodern doctrine of nonfoundationalism, or what they called "pragmatism." The claim of social construction proved attractive to progressives in one other respect. It encouraged the view that everything is malleable. Reality is what we make it. This liberating notion gave impetus to creating new norms, lifestyles, and genders, with each breakthrough becoming an occasion for celebrating yet another festival of a first.
In practice, though, when you deny coherent beliefs of any kind, you get incoherence. Or perhaps a strongman.

How is that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?
The general public sees problems all around — a loss of opportunity, a low-growth economy, stagnant wages in the middle class, mounting debt, and lingering poverty. Yet who or what is accountable? For progressives the fault continues to lie with liberal capitalism. For conservatives it lies in the new system, progressivism, that was built supposedly to resolve these problems.

Where then is the left today? Gone is the pixie dust that Barack Obama sprinkled over American politics in 2008 that led so many, for a moment, to imagine a new dimension to American politics. The left today is all about the ideology of progressivism. It is fated to blame all ills on the shrinking part of the political order and society it does not yet fully control and to demand more measures to shrink it still further. Progressivism is on a treadmill, running either at a fast clip toward huge new piecemeal changes or at a faster clip toward a change to socialism. The direction is the same.
Or perhaps progressivism will collapse of its own internal contradictions, which would be enough to make a Marxist giggle.

It will take a good idea to replace a bad idea, though.  Where there are no ideas, there well might be strongmen.

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