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Posts from the ‘Ancient Philosophy’ Category

The Incompatibility of Democracy and Capitalism

In her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean explains that those who wanted to reap the rewards of unfettered capitalism realized in the mid-twentieth century that democracy and democratic institutions and practices were a threat to their efforts.  In the wake of the New Deal and Great Society, Americans had grown to expect the government to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens–the poor and the elderly.  The government was regularly called upon to rectify historical wrongs, as in the case of racially segregated schools where schools for Black children were not equal to schools for white children.  Labor unions sought collective rights to bargain for better contracts.  Environmentalists sought government regulations to protect water and air and other natural resources from contamination and against climate change.  Americans saw the government as a source of positive change.

In my last post, I lay out MacLean’s case for how libertarians like James M. Buchanan and Charles Koch sought to sow the seeds of nihilism, suggesting that politicians, scientists and educators were not aiming to serve the public good, but for their own interest and therefore should not be trusted.  In this post, I address the recognition that these folks came to have that their dreams of capitalism without restraint were at odds with democracy, and the ways that they employed the rhetoric of democracy to undo the democratic gains of the twentieth century, especially in the areas of civil rights, labor unions, health care and social security, and public support for those in poverty.

As MacLean explains, average American citizens had come to realize that they could have power to influence government by joining their voices into a collective.  Buchanan aimed to break the power of these collectives by casting them as undemocratic special interests.  Following his notion of “public choice theory,” where politicians’ goal is only to be re-elected and not to do what is right and just for the common cause, Buchanan argued that politicians had become beholden to “special interests” of labor unions, including teachers unions, and civil rights organizations who would work to defeat them in elections if they did not do what they asked.  In this way, Buchanan and his cohort turned the process of making politicians accountable to their constituents into a situation in which politicians were held hostage to those special interests.  This rhetorical move is particularly ironic given the Koch brothers active efforts to defeat politicians who supported the Affordable Care Act.  MacLean traces this strategy back to Brown V. Board of Education, when Black families sued counties and states that refused to integrate and were then cast as seeking special protections when what they wanted was equal protection under the law and equal access to high quality education.  This move culminated in Pres. Reagan casting recipients of assistance for poor families as “welfare recipients” who were taking advantage of the government.

By making collective appeals to the government–the only appeals that were effective for those who were historically excluded–by calling these appeals those of special interests, they were able to turn the tables for how to influence government back to those individuals who had the wealth to do so.   If collectives were suspect, and only collectives could make a difference for the working class, then making collectives seem undemocratic returned the power to the undemocratic moneyed individuals who could then use the same “public choice theory” that politicians only cared to keep their jobs to threaten politicians that they would lose their jobs if they voted in support of the collective interests of the common people.

In Politics III.8, Aristotle says that democracy occurs “when those who control [the constitution] do not have much property, but are poor” (1279b18-19).  With this definition of democracy, Aristotle points out the very problem that Buchanan and the Kochs encountered: democracy wants to address the concerns of the poor, who outnumber the rich.  Outnumbering the rich, the practioners of democracy are at odds with the rich who aim  to produce wealth without restraint or concern for others and without having to support the community in which such wealth is produced.  The only recourse for the rich is to make the democratic practices themselves suspect and to replace them with the force of their wealth, which is in fact the current state of affairs.

Herein lies the ruse of libertarianism, whose view of freedom is not unlike the view of freedom that Aristotle associates with the democrats: to do whatever they want without license.  Aristotle implores them to recognize that the law is not slavery, but salvation, as I explicate in a recent article.  The law is considered slavery when it is viewed as coming from somewhere else.  Law is recognized as coming from somewhere else when government is seen as otherwise than the citizens, which is what Koch et al want — to be the source of government and law at the expense of the democratic many.  To the extent that they want to be free of government, they want to be above the collective determination of what is good. Outnumbered, they alone want to say what is good.  Their wealth has made them think that they are not dependent on others and so it has made them, like the Cylcops, as one who is “clanless, lawless, and homeless” (Pol. 1253a4). Following the association of wealth with virtue that can be traced back to the ancient oligarchs, who thinking themselves unequal in one way, supposed they were unequal in all ways, they think that their wealth makes them as the one who is so outstanding in virtue that they should not be a part of the city (1284a4-7).  As MacLean shows, they aren’t really opposed to the city and the law altogether, but they want it to divide the city in such a way that the government serves only their interests rather than that of the democratic majority.  Arguing that the collectives are undemocratic, they aim to make the government undemocratic for their own ends.  They are willing to put their wealth to work to turn the law and government from the public good to their own private goods.  They do this because they suppose they are better than the democratic majority, but it is worth noting that Aristotle will go on to say that the multitude is stronger, richer and better, when taken as a collective (1283a39-41).

The libertarian critique of government works as a ruse: it criticizes democratic efforts as undemocratic in order to undo democracy.  It works to encourage the majority to think it is undemocratic for the government to restrict those trying to make the community undemocratic.  This stealth move puts democracy in chains.

Power and the Pursuit of Justice

Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with  powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.”  I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.

As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power.  As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it.  Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power.  I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues.  Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.

The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power.  This point leads to several difficulties.  The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power.  The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone.  He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority.  The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice.  Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled.  Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge.  Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more

Political Nihilism: The Trolley to Hell

This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:

“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”

Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win.  One of them was a former spy.  Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process.  But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.

In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them.  But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win.  There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good.   Read more

Cephalus’s House IS Our House

Two things happened to me today.  A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical.  Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump.  I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace.  The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world.  The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse.  Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.

It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.”  Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.  We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more

How Scholars Work and Some Thoughts on the Prime Matter Arguments

I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment.  My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.

When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked.  One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective!  I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me.  That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter.  It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months.  I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together.  This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?

When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter.  It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore.  For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work.  But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole.  So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become. Read more

On Experts and Political Expertise, Again

This cartoon was circulated on social media last week by people concerned that the knowledge of experts is no longer respected in political matters.  Last week I blogged about the hatred of democracy that I think underlies this sentiment.  In November, I blogged about the “best and the brightest” political experts who were supposed to lead us into the path of peace and prosperity but instead enmired us in an unwinnable war.  I’m on an expert on some things.  I think that expertise should be recognized and I bristle when it is not, so I appreciate the concern that experts aren’t taken seriously. Read more

Buying a House: The Ship of Theseus

I just finished redoing the deck.  My dad who is a contractor recently told me that you should be putting 5% of the value of your house into it every year if you don’t want to be losing value.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued by saying, you’re basically rebuilding your house over the time you own it.   I was actually glad to hear the 5% because I had misremembered him saying 10-15% some years ago.  The rebuilding point is something I have been mulling over a bit.  It reminded me of the problem of Theseus’ ship.  In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates explains that he has been waiting in jail for some time to be executed because no executions could occur during a festival.  The current festival celebrated Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, which I report on after visiting Knossos last summer, where the fabled labyrinth was said to be.  To celebrate the festival, a ship was sent out to Delos ritualizing a recreation of the trip to Crete.  But over time, the boards had to be replaced, raising the question of whether the ship was still the same ship if none of the original boards remained.  Socrates’ discussion of the festival in a dialogue focused on the question of the immortality of the soul raises the question of what keeps a person the same if all the “boards” that comprise a person change.  (One recent commentator points to the range of ways that the dialogue associates Socrates on the one side and the Athenians on the other with Theseus, the fabled founder of Athens, suggesting that the execution of Socrates is the final stage of this re-enactment for the Athenians, where Socrates takes the place of the Minotaur and on the other hand Socrates himself re-enacts the trip by finally dying and escaping the labyrinth of his body). Read more

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, A Review

One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back.   I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.  I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true.  If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure.  In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world.  Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new.  And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.

In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more

Philosophy and Monotheism, Politics and Democracy

In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods.  Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament).  This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods.  The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s).  Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more

#APS16: Ancient Philosophy Society Talks Gender

Today was the first day of the Ancient Philosophy Society in Portland, Maine, hosted by Jill Gordon at Colby College.  A new day has dawned for the APS when so much discussion of gender in ancient philosophy and explicitly of feminist approaches to ancient philosophy is given center stage.  I was planning on posting a blog on the conference as a whole, but today’s program was so rich, and so focused on gender, that it deserves a post of its own. Read more