Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poetry, Art, and Experts

We live in a technocratic age of specialization where the voice of experts carries a kind of sacred currency, so we are hesitant to take seriously the ideas of anyone who we do not perceive to be a specialist of some kind. And while this elitism has been particularly marked in the areas of science and economics, technocracy has also gradually colonized the humanities so that fewer and fewer non-academics have been prepared to venture into regions of intellectual endeavor such as literary theory. This exclusivity has been magnified by the increasing influence of linguistics in all areas of the humanities. In recent years many studies in the humanities have imported concepts and terminology from linguistics that are pseudo-scientific and nearly impossible for the uninitiated to understand. One can quite easily find essays on, say, William Blake that are so turgid and complex that even a graduate degree in the subject is no guarantee of understanding let alone appreciation. In the end I believe that one’s experience of a poet such as Blake will not be enhanced, and may even be hindered, by such complex ideas as ‘performative language’ or ‘speech-act theory.’ But within a culture where such specialists’ ideas are fast becoming the prevailing wisdom, how is a non-specialist to justify swimming in the depths of poetic waters?

Michael Schmidt is a non-academic who discussed this problem in the opening pages of his book, Lives of the Poets. In an imagined conversation, Schmidt hears the words of his practically minded father telling him that the experts will 'have his guts for garters," and asking him what hope he has of "escaping unscathed." The answer to such a question is, of course, that Schmidt had no hope of escaping anything. In fact, any non-expert who steps into this kind of arena expects the slings and arrows of professional criticism to rain down upon him.

But why should a growing technocracy and the threat of professional ridicule stop anyone who is determined to speak his or her mind on a matter of importance? And if someone does decide to undertake such a journey, I am not certain that they should feel compelled to justify themselves to the barking dogs of specialization or any of the members of the public who happen to support them. After all, the most important thing to remember is that art and poetry belong equally to all of us. And, far from having a monopoly on knowledge, I believe that academics develop such specialized viewpoints concerning all of the arts that they often lack the passionate engagement necessary for true aesthetic insight. For example, while every professor of Art History may teach her students of Van Gogh and his place in post-impressionism, few seem concerned with his plea to human compassion. And most professors, stable members of the bourgeoisie that they are, would be unable to see a man such as Van Gogh, if they actually met him, as anything more than a drunkard and a madman.
But if, after having considered all of this, there are still readers who question the wisdom of such an undertaking, I point them to the great essayist Michel de Montaigne. While Montaigne’s only professional accreditation was a law degree, he single-handedly invented a literary genre and the dozens of essays that he wrote are full of insights that span the spectrum of human endeavor. Montaigne, one of history’s great skeptics, made no pretence of specialized knowledge and readily offered himself up to ridicule in the hope that while studying himself and his own opinions, he was really studying humankind.

“I have no doubt,” Montaigne once wrote, “that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by masters of the craft... and whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me.” I deeply sympathize with such a sentiment because I believe that passion for a subject such as poetry is, in the final analysis, more important than learning and offers the opportunity for knowledge that is more universal. And keeping in mind that universalism, in any form, has gone distinctly out of fashion amongst philosophers; I do not seek to speak of universal truth but only for the opportunity for universal appreciation.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Decline of Unions

I encourage everyone to get the new book entitled The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse, the labour correspondent for the New York Times. Mr. Greenhouse makes many great points concerning the pressure felt by US workers in this contemporary economy. These includes the fact that over the past thirty years the riches one percent of US citizens went from making eight percent of the wages to over twenty five percent of the wages. The US is the only industrialized nation in which the federal government does not guarantee workers any sick days, any maternity leave, and no vacation days. Most interestingly Greenhouse shows how the impoverishment of US workers (particularly in relation to European workers) is in direct ratio to the decline of unionization. Anyone who thinks that unions are unnecessary today should look again at the way the US is becoming more and more like a third world nation specifically because unions are in decline.

And in consideration of the decline in the power of unions I point you to the Toronto Transit workers strike over this past weekend. Transit Workers, in a legal strike position, were able to stay on strike for less than two days before the despicable Liberal government of Ontario was able to hold a special session of the legislature and put through back to work legislation with, and here is the kicker, UNANOMOUS CONSENT of the house!! Yes folks, you heard it correctly; every NDP MPP voted to legislate the transit workers back to work so that there could be business as usual in Ontario’s capital city on Monday morning.
In the final stages of any Empire’s decline the rich reach greater and greater heights of wealth and the average people become ever more impoverished. Thus it should not be forgotten that although my recent posting talked of the decline of Marxism, if we look carefully a great deal of Marx’s analysis concerning the nuts and bolts of the capitalist economy is becoming more relevant all the time.

I submit, for your consideration, my letter to Howard Hampton, the leader of the Ontario NDP who yesterday abandoned the principle of collective bargaining and proved that he is on the side of Capitalism rather than the workers.

Dear Mr Hampton

I have been a federal NDP supporter all of my life and have voted for the provincial NDP ever since I came to Ontario. I will tell you honestly that I have voted for the Ontario NDP only with a certain degree of trepidation given your personal involvement in the Government of Bob Rae and your failure to properly oppose the horrible Social Contract legislation. I believe that you and the Party have consistently failed to condemn the gist and intention of this legislation in a way that would make it clear that the Ontario NDP stands for workers rights and principles of justice. Now, with your support for back to work legislation for the TTC workers, you have made it clear that you never abandoned the politics that motivated the Social Contract. I am appalled and disgusted by this blatant abandonment of principle. You have finally made it very clear that you are not a man of the people but that you are little more than a suit with vacuous analysis of the social relations at the heart of contemporary. You have enjoyed your high salary and job security for far too long to understand the plight of real workers. But more than this you have abandoned the principles of collective bargaining and the rights of workers to stand up for themselves and for future generations. I urge you to join the Liberal party as your former boss did and take your place among the other high-flying suits that have lost touch with working people. It is a tragic waste that you are helping to destroy one of the only true social democratic parties in North America. You have joined the ranks of the worst capitalist and your support for this legislation proves that you would not be out of place in Conservative Party

As the politics of Western democracies has shifted gradually to the right, political leaders have been dragged right along with this shift. Social democratic parties have played a central role in the protection of collective bargaining rights but their principles are being eroded. And, saddest of all, they are being eroded by men like you that parade about legislative houses feigning genuine concern for social principles. You see, Mr. Hampton, the true test of a constitutional democracy only comes at moments of crisis. Only at the very darkest times will we really know whether our constitution can truly stand up for freedom of speech and minority rights. Similarly, the true test for a left-wing social democrat only comes in episodes of crisis such as labour unrest. Only then can we see whether someone who purports to be left-wing will stand up for the rights of working people. Well, you have failed this essential test now on more than one occasion and you have been exposed to the core supporters of the New Democratic Party for the loathsome Liberal that you really are. As you have made it clear that you do not believe in the principles of collective bargaining and workers rights, I urge you to step aside and leave the party to people who really believe in its principles.

Kirby Evans

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The breakdown of Marxism

I made a fairly comprehensive study of Marxism for many years and there is much that I appreciated and took from that study. In fact, it seems to me that there is an important degree to which we are all Marxists in important ways. Certain aspects of Marx’s thought have crept into our basic background beliefs about individuals and society. The idea that people are, in essential ways, products of socio-economic conditions is an idea that doesn’t seem radical to us today but is, in large part, a result of Marx’s philosophical endeavours. Marx’s ideas of history also have been very influential and even a thinker like Francis Fukuyama, a professed non-Marxist, could not have written his book on the end of history if not for Marx. In the 90s Jacques Derrida, one the most interesting and important philosophers of the 20th century, and by no means a Marxist in any traditional sense, wrote The Spectre of Marx, which was a panegyric to the importance of Marx in his own thought and in philosophy in general.

In Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that there exists, in society at large, only one living philosophy at any given time, and he further contends that Marxism is that living philosophy. But Search for a Method was written a long time ago now and even if Sartre’s claim about one living philosophy is true, it would be difficult to contend today that that living philosophy is Marxism. Certain fatal blows were rendered against Marxism in the past generation, not the least of which were Farwell to the Working-class by Andre Gorz, The Mirror of Production by Baudrillard, and The Accursed Share by Georges Bataille. The attack on Marxism, in the final analysis, came from many directions and many of the critiques were analytically devastating for a philosophy that seemed to pride itself on its analytic power. Bataille and Baudrillard, for example, both made remarkable demonstrations of the problems with making production the primary defining element of human endeavour. While their arguments are far too complex to review here, whether you agree or disagree with what they said, their work had a shattering impact on traditional Marxist notions. However, in the end, it was not any one particular critique of Marxism that undermined its status; rather it was a fundamental change in our ideas toward traditional rational critique in general that changed how we look this important philosophy. With the influence of Continental philosophy, many thinkers have abandoned any idea of meta-theories that explain the world with huge overarching ideas that attempt to impose an order on the world and its history. It was as a theory of history that Marx had originally gained a great deal of its power and it is precisely as a theory of history that more and more people abandoned Marx’s work. This failure was, I believe, already showing its first signs back in the twenties, and Gramsci’s work on Capitalist Hegemony is a noble attempt to shore up the cracks that were beginning to show. In the final analysis, the idea that history is driven by a continual conflict between classes whose ideology is formed by their place in a system of production was simply not believable to most people. But more than this, most philosophers in general have abandoned the idea that history has any demonstrable order or that our ideological beliefs have any primary source, least of all the system of economic production.

The biggest problem with the breakdown of Marxism is that we now live in a vacuum in which there is no clear way forward for radicals. Unfortunately, the forces of capitalism have taken the breakdown of Marxism as an opportunity to discredit practical goals of socialism which have often been, but are not necessarily, connected to Marxism as a philosophy. The real challenge now becomes finding a way out of the Capitalist trap which will eventually turn the earth and the human soul into wastelands of lifeless solitude. Marxism has now formed part of the background of general ideas, but we need certain fundamental ideas that can live in the foreground and that are more than the pure relativism that forms the backbone of so much of what passes for ‘post-modernism.’

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Habermas and the Enlightenment

I have long suspected that the Enlightenment, that great rational awakening of Western society, is largely an exercise in public relations. Jürgen Habermas, in his remarkable work, Theory of Communicative Action, talked at various levels about distinctions between pre and post Enlightenment societies. Habermas suggests that while certain kind of fundamental beliefs where more or less set in stone in pre-Enlightenment societies, modern societies were more malleable. This change, according to Habermas, derives from certain changes in processes of communication. Members of modern societies, contends Habermas, recognize a series of competing beliefs in a kind of market-place of ideas (a phrase that I am using for convenience but one that Habermas, I believe, does not use). According to this theory of communication action what makes we ‘moderns’ different from members of a pre-Enlightenment society is that we can make claims about our factual, normative, or personal beliefs that we can, if called upon, discursively redeem. In short, we can say things that we believe are true, that others may not, and we can defend what we say in conversation. Now, it has been many years since I have read Habermas, but if I recall correctly he uses certain fundamental beliefs in pre-Enlightenment societies, such as religious beliefs to point out the ways in which members of non-modern societies take certain values, philosophies, or attitudes as read and simply could not recognize as meaningful any discourse concerning their legitimacy. So, to take an example of my own creation, if you met a 12th century Aztec and suggested to him or her that the sun was not a god at all but a simple ball of fire spinning in the sky, that member of the ancient Aztec race could not engage in a meaningful discussion about what you have said because he or she could not see such non-belief as meaningful in anyway. The Aztec would simply believe you to be mad or lacking coherence. Habermas wants to contend that members of ‘modern’ societies are in no such quandary because we can listen to the truth claims of others and engage in a process of discursive interchange in order to attempt to substantiate those claims. This is one of the fundamental ways in which a philosopher like Habermas defines and defends what we commonly call the Enlightenment. However, this is exactly what appears to me to be an exercise in public relations, because on close examination what Habermas is claiming here simply does not appear to be the case. I think one does not have to look to closely at our society to find types of beliefs that people would not recognize as open for discussion. If you were to bring together an average cross-section of people in North America and attempt to open a discourse by claiming that competition is unhealthy, or that capitalism is fundamentally evil, or even that the big-bang theory is a modern creationist myth not unlike the Christian or Hindu view of the beginning of the universe, you would have a great deal of difficulty engaging in a meaningful discourse on any of these subjects because the vast majority of people are largely unable to see these beliefs as questionable in any way. Most people would just pass you over as crazy and leave it at that. As much as Habermas would like to believe that we live in a society in which all beliefs are open to discursive redemption, we are subject to the same kind of biases and prejudices to which pre-Enlightenment individuals were subject. We may have a greater number of things which are subject to discussion and we may have a greater ability to engage in redemptive discourse, but basically we rely on certain myths in order to maintain our social order. And just like so-called pre-Enlightenment societies, those myths serve, for the most part, the ideology of the wealthy and powerful in our culture. The biggest difference between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment societies is, I believe, not that we have reached a place beyond myth but that we have convinced ourselves that we have reached a point beyond myth. This would make Jürgen Habermas one of the great myth-makers of our age.

There is a post-script to this posting: Just over ten years ago I was making these very same claims to Professor William Outhwaite, professor of sociology at the University of Sussex who, I believe, knows Habermas personally. Mr. Outhwaite, a proper Englishman if ever there was one, was somewhat aghast at my suggestions. But I contended that it was from the safety of the university that he and Habermas could maintain that they live in a new age of open discourse. I offered him the challenge of going into one of the rougher pubs of London on the day of an important football match and tell a few drunken hooligans that their obsessive enjoyment of football was really just a twisted militarist fantasy driven by over active production of testosterone and see if he could start up a enlightened, open discourse about the possibility. Needless to say, he declined the challenge.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Few great thinkers have been as insecure and deeply troubled as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But, of course, few people of Coleridge’s stature, at least in modern times, have had so many reasons to be troubled. Coleridge was deeply scarred by a difficult upbringing, and the weaknesses that emerged from his plight led understandably to terrible problems as an adult. Coleridge was the youngest of ten children by his father’s second wife. Not all of his siblings lived into adulthood, and by the time Coleridge reached his age of majority he had lost five brothers and his only sister. Coleridge’s father was a clergyman of very modest means and the family seldom had enough for a descent life. Then, as if to add insult to injury, Coleridge’s father died when the boy was only nine. As a result of this untimely death, Coleridge was ripped from the only security that an insecure boy had and he was given a scholarship to the famous boarding school Christ’s Hospital. Coleridge’s experience at boarding school was both the making and breaking of this remarkable man. Christ’s Hospital was a ruthless institution rife with violence and punishments. Such an atmosphere must have been devastating for a youth already stained by insecurity and death. But Coleridge was a naturally talented youth and took quickly to Latin, Greek, philosophy and versifying. Coleridge was deeply fortunate to learn in this atmosphere and Christ’s Hospital surely set him on the path to his eventual achievements. But it was also a deeply lonely place for Coleridge and during his entire nine years of attendance it seems that his mother failed to visit him even once, and visits from his older brothers were few and far between. Coleridge felt abandoned by his mother and even referred to himself as an orphan on more than one occasion.
Given these difficult youthful experience it is not surprising that Coleridge eventually fell into a spiral of debt, marital problems, and opium addiction. His constant problems mad it very difficult for Coleridge to finish most of the major projects that he took on. All his life he desired to create an epic work of poetry but failed to even get it off the ground. Instead, Coleridge counselled Wordsworth on writing the epic work; which he did, assuring his status as one of the great poets of the English language. And yet despite all his shortcomings, Coleridge must be said to be the most accomplished man who never lived up to his potential. Depending on the edition, Coleridge’s collected works run from eight to thirteen volumes, and though some of the works are highly challenging (some even impenetrable), many of them are full remarkable insights as well as great poetry. Coleridge gave several sets of lectures on literature and philosophy which garnered him a fair degree of attention. But much of what he said in these lectures was extempore and the only records we have of them is what others noted. But what I find remarkable in Coleridge is the fact that his failure to create any ordered and reasoned body of work, it is this very failure that makes him interesting. It is the fact that Coleridge’s work darts from place to place and subject to subject that gives him his challenging beauty. Coleridge is never sedate, orderly, or methodical. Instead he dips through the world and touches truth in strange and unlikely snippets. In a post-modern age that eschews meta-narratives of all kinds, Coleridge seems perfect for contemporary readers. He may hold many traditional views but the twists and turns of his thought means that you are unlikely ever to find entirely solid ground on which to rest.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lessons from the past

The other day I was looking through the August 25, 1915 edition of Punch, the great English magazine, and I happened across an article, obviously meant to be satirical, entitled Phases of a Year of War (From a Patriot’s notebook). I was immediately struck by the opening entry in this imaginary diary which read as follows: "Aug. 1914 – War declared. Rather startling. Imagine that it will be a tremendous business, involving great changes even in my obscure life. Am, forever, at once agreeably surprised by the reassuring battle-cry, ‘Business as Usual.’ The war is to be won, apparently, by our taking no notice of it, thus causing an immense feeling of depression among the enemy.”

It seems that the contemporary spin on war, which we have so ruthlessly experienced over the past 6 or 7 years, had its start a few generations ago. It seems that the leaders in Britain were already perfecting the art of propaganda in a way that Carl Rove and George Bush would be proud of. Or should we call it the art of ‘un-propaganda?” Because what this notebook from so many years ago really points to is the art of promoting indifference. Already at the beginning of WWI, politicians were encouraging their populations to ignore the war as much as possible and go about their ‘Business as Usual.’ Does everyone remember the days immediately following the events of September 11th the literal way in which the Bush administration applied the very same idea? Bush greeted frightened Americans and told them to go shopping as a response to their troubles. And in the years since then the Western Governments have done everything in their power to compel us to continue on with our business as usual and ignore the devastating conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. Just as this anonymous writer in Punch eighty years ago noticed that the government was encouraging him to ignore the war, our governments, with tremendous help from the media, has done everything in its power to divert our attention from its terrible cause. Of course, nowadays our governments are smart enough not even to declare war, thereby making it even easier to go about our business with little or no concern for the raging conflict.

Anyway, lest we forget how long the rich and powerful have been encouraging our forgetfulness just pick up an eighty year old magazine to remind you that there is little new under the middle-eastern sun.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Shelley and the power of poetry

In the past generation a major revaluation of Percy Shelley has been taking place. There have traditionally been two public images of Shelley: one was of a selfish rouge, an atheist with little or no regard for others; and the other image was of an ethereal, fairy like, asexual, sprite. Slowly there has been emerging a more life-like picture of a genuine flesh and blood creature with all the emotions and feelings of a man of his age. One important part of the revaluation of Shelley has been that of his ideas of poetry. Newer readings of Shelley great essay A Defence of Poetry have concentrated on the ambiguous and ambivalent attitude toward poetry that Shelley displays there.

John Hodgson, in his book, Coleridge, Shelley and Transcendental Inquiry, contends that far from having a positive, transcendental view of poetry, Shelley harboured deep-seated negative view of poetry’s potential. Without going into the details of Hodgson’s long and turgid arguments, I say that what is wrong with Hodgson’s view, and most academic notions about poetry and art, is that he is unable to view Shelley’s work with the eyes of a poet. Hodgson makes far too many demands concerning logical consistency and fails to understand that Shelley possesses ambivalent views of poetry because, as a great artist, he could not do otherwise. Shelley’s essay, for all of its remarkable insight, must express an underlying ambivalence because the project of art is one that constantly moves from doubt to transcendence. In his brighter moments Shelley, like most artists, is certain of the transcendence of poetry and insists that a poet is someone who “must put himself in the place of another and of many other; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of every new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilation to their own nature all other thoughts and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens that faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”

But this is the optimistic side of the great artist speaking: the youthful sprite who is able to see the universe in a grain of sand. But the pendulum of an artist like Shelley must swing in both extremes if he is to be the creative force that he is. Thus in the same essay Shelley can express this much darker and pessimistic view of the poet’s life: “a poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

The ground on which great artists must stand is never secure, it shakes and moves; at one moment it crumbles into an abyss of blackness and then in the next moment it rises up to God. Look for this ambivalence in the great artists you admire and it will enrich their work while it enriches you.

What is poetry?

I have struggled, in this most unpoetic age, with the meaning of poetry in its broadest possible sense. I remain hopeful and optimistic about what poetry can do, how it can capture our utopian imagination and how it can build us a better future. Not everyone has a positive view of poetry. Besides Plato’s infamous condemnation of poets and poetry as a purely mimetic force that always exists second hand, many others have condemned poetry. Consider this approach to poetry outlined by Thomas Macaulay, a British Whig politician and, ironically, a poet in his own right.

“Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty become more and more definite, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which the poet calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.”

Here is poetry defined as deception. Rather sad outlook I believe. But for all his strange and erratic behaviour, I prefer William Hazlitt’s more positive outlook on poetry. Hazlitt writes:

“Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else. It is not a mere frivolous accomplishment… it has been the study and delight of mankind in all ages. Poetry is only the highest eloquence of passion, the most vivid form of expression that can be given to our conception of anything, whether pleasurable or painful, mean or dignified, delightful or distressing.”

I leave you to decide which you prefer.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Democracy's Failure

If you are 35 or older then you should have a pretty clear memory of the demise of the Soviet Union and the so-called failure of the ‘communist’ project. ‘Fair enough’, most leftists contend today, ‘the horrors of Stalinism that exercised its power through the dreaded Commintern certainly deserved to be condemned to the dustbin of history. ‘ Of course, the real tragedy, as many of us predicted, was to be the fact that the failure of communism on the model designed by Lenin and Stalin would significantly contribute to discrediting almost all parts of the socialist cause. This was certainly not difficult to predict because the forces of greed will obviously take every possible advantage to undermine any and all collectivist efforts. But putting aside, for the moment, the tragedy of the general abandonment of most elements of socialism, there is an interesting historical phenomenon that accompanies the demise of communism. While people of various political stripes, and capitalists in every corner, have been trumpeting the failure of communism as evidence of the impracticality and impossibility of any collectivist effort, people have uniformly, failed to cast an eye on the credibility of Western Democracy. If communism, in its 20th century guise, can be said to have failed, surely democracy as we presently practice and understand it, has also failed quite miserably. The simplest expression of democracy is found in the paradoxical principle that those who seek power are, in most cases, the very people who should never possess it. But we need not look to principles to see the failure of democracy because it is everywhere for us to see at a practical level. Among Western democracy’s most profound failures are, in no particular order:

- the increases in the concentration of wealth and dependence of the electoral politics on money which makes general participation in the process of democracy difficult and increasingly meaningless.

- the concentration of media control means that information is managed by a small group of rich and powerful people. This media control narrows and minimises public discourse and without public discourse is impossible.

- the globalization of the economy increasingly restricts the policies that nation-states are able to pursue.

- democratic mechanisms are designed not to reflect a general will but the will of a relatively small and powerful group.

- modern capitalism atomizes people to the point that healthy communities are difficult to form and is becomes harder for grassroots organizations to meaningfully advocate on behalf of average citizens.

- modern ideology reduces people to the status of ‘tax-payers’ and an active notion of citizenship is slowly being eliminated.

- all of the above create a situation in which modern democracy is not a meritocracy but a system of salesmanship.

As though to add insult to injury, Western governments since September 11th have increasingly attempted to chip away at the civil rights that the West has so longed boasted about. Anyone who is honest with themselves must surely know that Western Democracy is suffering from a profound legitimation crisis and demands significant and thoroughgoing reforms if it is to survive and thrive.

Of course the left has always had a certain distrust of democracy and I leave you with some comments by William Godwin , founding father of Anarchist thought, from his classic Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Godwin wrote:
“But there are certain disadvantages that may seem the necessary result of democratical equality. In political society, it is reasonable to suppose that the wise will be outnumbered by the unwise; and it will be inferred that the welfare of the whole will therefore be at the mercy of ignorance and folly. It is true that the ignorant will generally be sufficiently willing to listen to the judicious, but their very ignorance will incapacitate them from discerning the merit of their guides. The turbulent and crafty demagogue will often possess greater advantages for inveigling their judgement than the man who, with purer intentions, may possess a less brilliant talent. Add to this that the demagogue has a never failing recourse, in the ruling imperfection of human nature, that of preferring the specious present to the substantial future. This is what is usually termed playing upon the passions of mankind. Politics have hitherto presented an enigma that all the wit of man has been insufficient to solve. Is it to be supposed that the uninstructed multitude should always be able to resist the artful sophistry, and captivating eloquence, that may be employed to perplex the subject with still further obscurity? Will it not often happen that the schemes proposed by the ambitious disturber will posses a meretricious attraction which the severe and sober project of the discerning statesman shall be unable to compensate?”

A rather pessimistic (maybe even paternalistic) view of things presented by Mr Godwin. But one only has to look at the present state of things to be infected by the same pessimism.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

State and Community

The function of the State or government is essentially two-fold; to act on behalf of the community as a whole and help to promote or foster community. Everything that the State does, or should do, falls under the heading, in one way or another, of one of these. Ideally, the State acts on behalf of the community as a whole in various ways; through the creation and support of the police and courts, regulating what people can do and how the economy can function, protection of the environment and the lands of the nation, national defence, support of hospitals and schools etc. The State helps to foster community by aiding people and groups in the creation of community organizations and culture. This process could be everything from support for women’s organizations, promoting the nation’s film industry, funding literacy groups, bestowing grants upon a community organization for the building and staffing of a community centre, or even, arguably, the support of business creation programs. I believe that most political debates between the left and right are centered around the degree to which the State should act in these ways.
Unfortunately, since the end of the long post-war boom and the gradual emergence of what is often referred to as a ‘neo-liberal’ ideology, the terms of debate have radically changed. Rab Butler once said that “politics is a matter of the heart” and fifty years ago the heart of politicians, even conservative ones like Butler, was concentrated much more on communities than it is today. In recent years it has become acceptable and commonplace, even in centrist politics, to deride the State as though it were something that is imposed upon the people rather than representational of the people. Furthermore, there is a growing acceptance of the idea, despite obvious and ubiquitous evidence to the contrary, that the State is profoundly inefficient and somehow incapable of fulfilling its fundamental role as community builder. As a result, in the current political context it is hard to imagine the most important community projects that the State undertakes, such as universal education, ever getting approved if they were just being introduced today. In this radically changed atmosphere, those on the political Right have a tendency of throwing epithets such as ‘communist’ or ‘Bolshevik’ at people when they advocate for a larger role for the State either in acting on behalf of the community as a whole or helping to foster community. For example, a proposal like universal childcare is treated by many on the right, and even some centrists, as some kind of socialist plot to take our children, even though it is arguably a simple extension of an already existing universal education system. There is a intense hypocrisy at work here because almost no politician will publicly argue for the elimination of the education system but any talk of universal child-care along the same lines is scorned as evidence of a dangerous and creeping socialism. This hypocrisy is even more pronounced when one considers that you never hear anyone being accused of Bolshevism when they advocate that the State should put more community resources into police or prisons. The fact is that almost everyone, right or left, believes that the State must fulfill these basic roles, the main question of political discourse concerning the issue should therefore be ‘to what degree’ the State plays a role. The right believes that a healthy or necessary degree of community will simply emerge spontaneously out of the free market, and often accuses people on the left of being too paternalistic or lacking faith in the power of people on their own to create community solidarity.
But there is a central issue that the free-marketers and right-wingers do not understand, and the left has failed to articulate: capitalism has a deep-rooted tendency to undermine communities. Capitalism, particularly contemporary (So-called, ‘post-industrial’) capitalism, individualizes and atomizes society in such a way as to make the spontaneous creation of communities increasingly difficult. This is one of the fundamental problems of modern political discourse; right-wingers, and even many centrists, fail to understand this degenerative aspect of capitalism and the necessity, regardless of one’s place on the political spectrum, of compensating for this issue. The atomization of society is a fundamental pressure exerted on communities that creates a situation in which communities cannot be expected to prosper spontaneously. This effect is further exacerbated by the increased technologies that allow people to work and play in increasingly isolated ways. Understanding this fundamental problem, many on the left continually advocate for the State to play a larger role in acting on behalf of the community as a whole or helping to foster community at a smaller level.
For most people this advocacy has nothing to do with a belief in socialism or any ‘ism’ per se. Rather, this is a simple sign that they feel that their communities are threatened and becoming increasingly vulnerable in a globalizing market in which all ideology is reduced to dollars and cents. The atomizing effects of capitalism are not, of course, the only thing that creates difficulties for communities. Poverty, racism, domestic violence, narrow distributions of wealth, also poses serious threats to healthy communities and they are issues that the state needs to actively work on in order to help build healthy communities. But it must understood that the right-wing and those who possess undue faith in the market, continually fail to comprehend the damaging effects that capitalism can have on the creation and maintenance of a strong healthy community and the necessity of counterbalancing this effect. It is the very failure to compensate for the pressures put on communities by our contemporary economy that leads to increases in gun-violence, increases in high-school dropout rates, increases in suicide rates in certain communities, and many other fundamental social problems. Only by increasing the strength of communities and the ability of people to be active in them will we face the challenges of the future.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

family and capitalism

I have been thinking lately about the hypocrisy of the right-wing and how strongly they represent the forces of non-poetry. What got me started thinking about this was hearing some ill-educated simpleton on the radio (wearing a grey suit I imagine) attacking the idea of gay marriage. He told his audience that gay marriage was one of a number of elements that were attacking the family and that, being that the family is the foundation of our society, our entire culture was going to break down into chaos. Now as laughable as this is on the basic level of everyday rational argument, it reminded me most of all of their ignorance and their hypocrisy. Their ignorance is displayed in their misunderstanding of the foundations of society. First of all it must be said that it is not the ‘family’ per se with which the right-wing is concerned – it is the bourgeois family that is their obsession; the modern insulated bourgeois unit that has so well upheld the modern capitalist economy. But this is not what families inherently are; it is what they have become. Prior to age of the nuclear family, families were extended groups that formed essential parts of communities. It is, and has always been, communities that form the foundation of societies. But once the scope of the family had been seriously restricted, once the focus of society had been reduced to the individual and his or her children, capitalism gained its real force. When we have no extended family, no community on which to rely and revel in, we must fit into the society of commodity production or we will perish in our vulnerability. But this is precisely what they want. What the right-wing is really threatened by is the extension of the family into communities – because then we will not so easily be victims of the casino economy. They want us to restrict our lives to small nuclear family units, which they convince us are the foundations of society, because that is the foundation of their political economy! Some right-wingers understand this. But most of them live in pure ignorance; they have simply adopted a pseudo religious ideology that they themselves do not even begin to understand. These are very much like the fools who accepted Colonialism at face-value, as the bringing of God and civilization to a world of savages. What grandly convenient foolishness! But just like some of the Colonizers understood, some of the right-wing knows what they are doing. They know that it is not the family they are defending against liberalism, it is capitalism that they are defending against the return of real communities! It is not families that concern them, they have no love of communities, they don’t care about society, they could care less for Shakespeare or poetry; it is capitalism that they must defend – money and its power. This is irony and hypocracy and ignorance all rolled into one. And here is the final twist – they don’t even defend the nuclear family that they profess to love so much. They create tax structures and advocate trade policies that make it increasingly difficult for one parent to stay at home even if he wanted to. It is harder and harder to maintain a household in the bourgeois fashion that they claim to represent. Instead the ‘family’ is their spin to keep the simple-minded on their side. It is not the third-world that they now colonize it is the minds of the citizens.

Our Adversity

We have left the world behind haven’t we? I want to be in Poliphili’s dream for a while. That would be a triumph of everything wouldn’t it? To begin in a forest before there were men with guns. Everything would be enunciated perfectly if we could follow Poliphili into this strange place of rest. I would tell the despicable dull-suited men that “although we are intent on such praiseworthy idleness, you will not disturb our calm and pleasant relaxation.” How wonderful it would be to put the grievous pains behind us and wallow in everything that has so far not been taken into account.

“Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep, wide sea of Misery
Or the mariner, worn and wan,
Never thus could linger on –
Day and night, and night and day,
Drifting on his weary way
With the solid darkness black
Closing round his vessel’s track.” (Shelley – Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills)

Where are our green isles? They are taking them from us; they are building arms factories in their place aren’t they? Is their nothing we can do? I suppose that too many of us have lost faith in poetry and if we cannot speak the words of liberation, speak them with subtlety and invigorating grandeur, then we cannot bring wonder and justice into the world

“A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.” (Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors)

A Comedy of Errors – how profoundly fitting is that!?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Romanticism and cynicism

We have allowed technical-rationalism and capitalism to degenerate our ideology until many people have just accepted that human development has come to a stand-still. Peter Sloterdijk chronicaled this degeneration in his remarkable book entitled Critique of Cynical Reason. In this book Sloterdijk illustrates how most comprehend, to a substantial degree, what he refers to, if I properly recall, as ‘enlightened false consciousness.’ But it is easy to forget that in the 19th century people still existed in a state of pre-cynicism. There was a time when utopia was a place still worth looking for. Here is part of a letter written by Shelley to his friend Elizabeth Hitchner in which he reminds her that even if perfection is not entirely attainable, it is something for which we should constantly strive. “You say that equality is unattainable: so, will I observe, is perfection; yet they both symbolize in their nature, they both demand that an unremitting tendency towards themselves should be made; and, the nearer society approaches towards this point the happier will it be. No one has yet been found resolute enough in dogmatizing to deny that Nature made man equal; that society has destroyed this equality is a truth not more incontrovertible. It is found that the vilest cottager is often happier than the proud lord of his manorial rights. It is fit that the most frightful passions of human nature should be let loose, by an unnatural compact of society, upon this unhappy aristocrat? Is he not to be pitied when by an hereditary possession of a fortune which if divided would have very different effects, he is as it were predestined to dissipation, ennui, self-reproach, and to crown the climax, a deathbed of despairing inutility? It is often found that the peasant’s life is embittered by the commissions of crime … (yet can we call it crime? certainly when we compare the seizure of a few shillings from the purse of a nobleman to preserve a beloved family from starving , to the destruction which the unrestrained propensities of this nobleman scatter around him, we may almost call it virtue). To what cause are we to refer this? The noble has too much, therefore he is wretched and wicked, the peasant has too little … Are not then the consequences the same from causes which nothing but equality can annihilate? and, altho’ you may consider equality as impossible, yet, admitting this a strenuous tendency towards it appears recommended by the consequent diminution of wickedness and misery which my system holds out … is this to be denied?”

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Poetry vs Conservatism

I don’t know about you but I have little sympathy for Robert Southey. Born in 1774, Southey was the son of a linen draper and though he received a rather patchy education, he displayed an early talent for Latin and writing verse. Although he began an education at Oxford with an eye toward the clergy, Southey was drawn to writing, eventually earning an impressive reputation and living as an author of poetry and a number of histories, including a multi-volume history of Brazil. In 1813 Southey won the appointment of Poet laureate, guaranteeing him a place in the history of English poetry. Now even though the ‘office’ of Poet Laureate has been occupied by such illustrious names as Dryden, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, none of the truly great poets of passion and vision have ever held the title. In fact a number of interesting poets have refused the title including William Morris and Philip Larkin. But it is not his status as Poet Laureate that turns me off of Robert Southey, rather it is his abandonment of idealism, the true focus of great poetry, that makes it difficult for me to sympathise with him. As a young man Southey admired the motivations behind the French Revolution and was committed to the struggle for political reform and social equality. For a long time Southey was committed to elaborate plans with his friend Coleridge to found a utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. But Southey quickly abandoned his political radicalism and became a fervent and active Tory, supporting the government of Lord Liverpool. Southey, like most Tories, was fond of blaming reformers and the working-class for their own oppression and was strongly opposed to Catholic emancipation. Now as much as I despise Tories in general, I hold a special place of loathing for a person who begins at point of poetry and idealism only to abandon the cause of humanity. The greatest consolation we can draw from Southey’s abhorrent abandonment of everything good and humane (as all Toryism is) is that he is now a largely forgotten poet, little known or read. A couple of years ago I had a friend who was taking a university course in English Romanticism and Southey wasn’t even included! Perhaps the only thing that Southey wrote that is still widely known is the Three Bears.

Yet despite Southey’s Toryism and abandonment of hope, I recently found something interesting and ironic. I was reading through a six volume edition of the Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey compiled by his son, Charles, when I found something he had written in a letter to friend named John May that sparked my interest. Southey wrote:
“It is not manners and fashions alone that change and are perpetually changing with us. The very constitution of society is unstable: it will, and in all probability will, undergo as great alterations, in the course of the next two or three centuries, as it has undergone in the last. The transitions are likely to be more violent, and far more rabid. At no very distant time, these letters, if they escape the earthquake and the volcano, may derive no small part of their interest and value from the faithful sketches which they contain of a stage of society which has already passed away, and a state of thing which then will have ceased to exist.”

This letter, written when Southey had already abandoned his youthful ideals, is remarkable. It is amazing that a man committed to the deplorable ideology of Toryism – an ideology distinguished by its blind commitment to tradition and resistance to social and political change – could make this basic insight concerning the inevitability of change. A conservative is someone who accepts a radical idea a century after it was conceived, after the radicals have moved on to something better. Unfortunately conservatives also fail to recognize this basic reality, imagining instead that, because of fundamental human inadequacies, we have now reached the greatest height of social or moral development. It is odd therefore to read these words written from the hand of rather despicable Tory, words that recognize that his own beliefs and commitments will soon be surpassed.