Sunday, April 29, 2007

Those savages are bloody savage…

Gracchi is troubled by the moral character produced by capitalism. He is attracted to the promise of left-libertarianism. This is the promise of a revival of history by a worthy challenger to the eminence of capitalist liberal democracy.

His critique of capitalism is that it creates an ego-driven society obsessed with the judgements of others. This obsession undermines the independence which capitalism is supposed to create and fatally undermines the project. Chris Dillow has responded by questioning whether this is really a result of capitalism and arguing that it is a result of hierarchy itself. I think that this criticism is probably valid although it underestimates status as a part of the human experience.

The idea that an obsession with social status is a creation of capitalism is clearly false. Stoicism is one of the older classical philosophies and its texts, Aurelius' Meditations are a good example, place great importance on fighting status-obsession. The Taoist texts place a similar importance upon not relying on the judgements of others to legitimise your existence. Unless these philosophies were tilting at windmills this problem is not new with capitalism. I suspect it is older than civilisation. Some of the oldest humans found in archaeological work possess tools and weapons far too large to be practical for use. They were status symbols on the modest scale allowed by a society without the means to produce BMWs and customised number-plates. Humans have been status-obsessed since, to paraphrase a Brass Eye joke, long before we evolved. Your average ape or dog has a fine understanding of status and hierarchy.

If capitalism hasn't created status-obsession has it increased its extent or made it more socially harmful?

I doubt it. Gracchi’s evidence is rather weak on this score. He points to statistical increases in depression and other mental illness. This is subject to serious measurement problems. What might have been viewed as unhappiness in another age is depression today. Also, the welfare state increasingly provides benefits to many of those depressed through the incapacity benefit system which provides an incentive for those unwilling to work. Comparing rates of depression over time seems unproductive. Even if depression is rising there are plenty of other possible causes.

Celebrity culture is status-obsession writ large. However, if it replaces some, more personal, status competition it does not necessarily mean more status-obsession. In a society with reduced transport costs and easy communication all manner of things are writ large, spectator sport or books. This is the super-star phenomenon which has been much studied in economics recently. Harry Potter is an example of this tendency in action. This is not intrinsic to capitalism and is not necessarily harmful. If the average Heat reader can get their fill by seeing some, well compensated, celebrity idiot fall they might be rather more co-operative with those around them.

I would argue that in general capitalism has channelled status-obsession to more useful endeavours than in previous ages. Early humans with oversized axes fought and killed to prove their strength and worth. Today’s BMW drivers have usually been very productive. They have probably increased the wealth of others and materially furthered the human condition. While Alan Sugar may try to banish morality from his business his companies have still done morally fine things like bettering the condition of thousands of employees.

Before capitalism most earned their status through heredity alone. Now, even the poorest can (even if they usually don’t) wind up rich and few inheritances are too large to be wasted or lost to idiocy or misfortune. This has to somewhat reduce the hopelessness of the condition of being at the bottom of the status pile. This is the reason almost every section of the political spectrum sees social mobility as important. While it has been in decline recently this has to be kept in perspective. Capitalism exhibits high levels of social mobility relative to most societies in the world today and historically.

In socialist societies, without the alternatives of capitalism or feudalism, status-obsession was more often focussed on politics. This led directly to horrific abuse. Wild Swans and the other telling accounts of living in these societies describe exactly the same petty jockeying for position as under capitalism but with the stakes massively increased. Every minor dispute was no longer a private matter of the disputants own social clout and private interests. The clunking fist of the state was constantly being enlisted to the service of one side or another with utterly inhuman results.

The definition of freedom that Gracchi cites is troubling in itself. He takes a definition from Skinner of a complete independence of decision making. As a right-conservative I am probably the right person to make the problems with this clear to my newly left-libertarian friend. I am pretty certain that only the Overman would count as free under Gracchi's interpretation of Skinner's definition. Nietzsche’s work is fascinating and every thinking person should make at least an attempt to grapple with it. However, I don’t think Nietzschean philosophy is one to order a society by. The kind of complete moral freedom and independence that Gracchi is arguing for is meant, at best, for those, almost certainly of snow leopard rarity, who if given the freedom of the death of all social restraint will not revert to savagery.

Social standards and pressure can be abusive and stifling but, in general, they are the forces that maintain civilisation. Of course, as Gracchi's quote shows Rousseau had no problem with this. He disliked civilisation and thought that the savages that would take its place would be deeply noble. Gracchi is relying upon exactly the same notion that if we rid people of civilisation they will respond to their newfound freedom with nobility. The problem is that they probably won’t. Savages are savage. Life without restraint is nasty, brutish and short. Human weaknesses, as I hope I’ve illustrated for status-obsession above, are not created by civilisation and without it they run wild. I think social conservatism has a persuasive case that members of the modern underclass are the savage-savage reality of the utopia Rousseau promised. Without the check of capitalist individual responsibility or moral restraint the result is broken families, abuse and chronic unhappiness. If left-libertarianism relies upon Rousseau’s conception of the noble savage then it will not survive contact with the real world.

As such, all societies need to limit freedom as Gracchi defines it. I would argue that the best measure of their success is not whether they can end facets of human nature such as status-obsession, religion and moral weakness. Humanity will always contain the seeds of both good and evil. The proper challenge is to make the best of all facets of our nature. If capitalism channels status-obsession into an imperative to satisfying a consumer want, as it has with Alan Sugar, then it has been gloriously successful. Western societies, when successful, use a combination of law-enforcement, legal opportunities for advancement and, perhaps most importantly, social judgement to ensure that greed is channelled into productive activity rather than unproductive activities like graft or good old fashioned raiding. If Gracchi wishes to embrace left-libertarianism he should ground his support in some case that philosophy will be better than capitalism at ordering a society of humans. The Roussauvian case that if we free them of civilisation men will turn to angels cannot be sustained.

I don’t think that Gracchi has yet identified a candidate for the ideology that can challenge capitalist liberal democracy. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think such a challenge exists. The great legions of the counter-revolution are already aware of a new ideological threat to the West. There was a memo. We are marshalling our strength once again. The Tranzis are in our sights.

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