UnHerd | think again

Challenging the herd with new and bold thinking in philosophy, politics and culture.
— Read on unherd.com/

A graduate school friend shared a post from http:www.unherd.com. The post left me conflicted. On the one hand, for twenty years Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has anchored every course I have taught. More specifically, Aristotle’s distinction between the “bovine” approach to life, which counts anything that is pleasurable good, and mistakes the good for the pleasurable; and the life of “virtue” or aristes, where “the good” is counted as that which depends on no other, but upon which all else depends. It is from this principle that Aristotle then derived the social or political character of the human being, the good for the many being superior to the good for the one, the principle covering the many superior to the principle covering the one. On the other hand, the supreme classicist Friedrich Nietzsche took Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics at face value to derive its natural successor: the good for the many could not possibly be the good at all. The “good for the many” was, by definition, the very “herd” mentality that Aristotle had initially castigated. It followed, for Nietzsche, that Aristotle was mistaken.

I am not a critic of Nietzsche. At least not a uncritical one. But I also feel that, in this instance, he was a less than careful reader of Aristotle. For Aristotle, the good for all was not, under any circumstances, a democratically derived principle. The good could only be thought by those who acted good — who were themselves good. And being good was not itself a matter of thought, but a consequence of care. For Aristotle, any individual who had been cared for — fed, clothed, secured against harm, sung to, read to, walked with, talked with — in Greek society only a privileged individual was equipped to act virtuously and therefore privileged to know the good, the true, and the beautiful. In theory, therefore, every individual who was thus privileged could be equipped to judge, to identify the right path.

What Nietzsche — and Aristotle — objected to was granting to individuals who had not been so equipped the power to judge. This, for Aristotle, would be the equivalent to granting preference to “the herd.”

There is a curious anthropological footnote to this dissonant discourse. Anthropologists have shown that so long as communities maintained a size not exceeding one hundred and twenty-five, lying is ineffective. For communities larger than 125, the only way to organize effectively is to collectively embrace shared lies. To this extent, the herd mentality is a function of size. From this vantage-point, Aristotle was eager to press the limits of this functional limit. He hypothesized that freedom could expand the circle of individuals equipped to conduct their lives transparently: freedom from fear, freedom of knowledge, freedom from hunger, freedom from loneliness, freedom from want.

The classical republican theory is that a society composed entirely of highly educated, healthy, secure, safe, cared for individuals could conduct themselves individually and collectively as an independent society, irrespective of their size, far beyond the anthropological limit of 125 individuals.

Ideally, I would like to believe that radical republicans are right. A highly educated, cared for, well fed, healthy community could push the anthropological limit. But, of course, this was not at all Nietzsche’s ideal. Instead, he viewed the vast majority of human beings, exceeding ninety per cent, as irredeemable members of the herd. Only a minuscule few could unherd. And, in a very real way, he was right. Until all members of a community are sufficiently equipped, they will remain members of the herd, and those who are not members of the herd will be condemned either to manipulate the herd or remain subject to their judgments.

This means, however, that unherding requires a concerted, collective, effort to generate the conditions that make for freedom. It requires an operationalization of achieving the unherd, a very un-Nietzchean idea.

The modernity of anti-modernism in Islam

“Throughout the colonized lands of the Middle East and North Africa, the voice of modernism and integration with the Enlightenment ideals of the European colonialists was consistently drowned out by the far louder and more aggressive voice of traditionalism and resistance to the insufferable yoke of imperialism.”

— No god but God by Reza Aslan

And, yet, Aslan would be the first to admit that empire was often resisted in a voice that is as much the voice of capital is empire: the voice of nationalism. Islam and Islamic empire was born prior to the emergence of capitalism. In its best expression, Islamic empire was multi-ethnic and even multi-religious, even if the clan or tribe always lay not far beneath the surface. But this means that the drawing out and extension of what we imagine the past to have been — traditioning — which Hadith got wrong even before the Holy Prophet was buried, should not be confused with its fetishized form under capitalism, which, in its opposition to the specific fetish Islam calls “the West,” incorporates the logic of capitalism itself into its very core. Modernism and the Enlightenment are not enemies of traditionalism, but its perfect complement; traditionalism is among its most illustrious fetishes. A deep critique of Islam, a critique in which Islam redeems criticism, has yet to be written.

Divine Violence

I have been chanting the Benedictine hours through Covid. This entails many, many Psalms, every day, every week, along with the accompanying Canticles. Much of it is about war. Much of it places God at the head of armies. Initially I found this deeply offensive. The Trump White House has changed my views. Was I naive?

I have never been a pacifist. Even though I find the retrospective arguments for the US entering WWII historically unconvincing — we did not enter the war when we learned that Hitler was killing Jews, Communists, and homosexuals — I believe defeating fascism was a relative good.

But I have also never countenanced religious justification for war.

Well. That’s kind of the point of the Hebrew sacred text. And the Psalms. And the Canticles. So. How do you handle that?

Lately, I have become increasingly convinced that truly evil people — like Trump and his supporters — need to be defeated. They will be using real guns, real bombs, real violence. They will be fighting for the right to eliminate women’s rights, eliminate gay and lesbian rights, eliminate the rights of Muslims. They will be fighting with real weapons.

In graduate school I studied German Nazi culture. Not so much the war. I read about the war. But I was more interested in Nazi law, Nazi education, Nazi advertising, etc. These people wanted to eliminate Jews, homosexuals, and anyone who displayed divergent mental, physical, or spiritual characteristics. Who will defeat them?

I am now reading the war texts of the Hebrew Bible in a different light. Who defeats this evil? What does David (or whoever) mean by the arm of God? The sword of God? The army of God? Who is that? Who does this?

In the Hebrew sacred text, these are people. They are us. Although they are credited with divine agency.

Emptying into the streets. Holding banners. Pounding the pavement. Descending on state houses. All of this is good. This is the army of God. But the Hebrew sacred text suggests that there might be another stage.

Obama’s and the Left’s Blind Spot

As I near the end of volume one of Barrack Obama’s memoir, The Promised Land (2020), two sections are coming to stand out for me; sections that are indicative of a blind spot Obama shares with many of his detractors on the left. In one of these sections, Obama offers a sympathetic reading of the visceral white Christian nationalist hostility to him and everything he stands for. In the second passage, he openly wonders at why Republicans refuse to entertain legislation that only months earlier with Bush in the White House they had lustily endorsed. The two phenomena are intimately related. But Obama, and many of his left-wing detractors, keep them separate.

The hatred directed toward him, Obama attributes to un- and underemployment, to having been ignored by members of both parties since the 1970s. The refusal of Republicans to countenance legislation they had supported only months earlier, legislation that would lift working families out of poverty and extend the same privileges to them that are enjoyed by the educated, investor class, Obama cannot quite fathom. Why would Republicans refuse to help those whose anger is directed against him, against Obama.

This dilemma ought to be familiar. Left-wing Obama detractors regularly lay into the elitist, educated class, blaming them for having ignored the working class. The elite, educated class should abandon their identity-based, environmental, tree-hugging, trade- and tech-hungry narratives and embrace the working class, manufacturing carbon-heavy, predominantly white and male narrative that feeds anger against Wall Street Democrats like Obama. Then Democrats could seize the white Christian nationalist initiative and defeat the Republicans at their own game, like Andrew Jackson did, when he fed white anger by rounding up and slaughtering Indians in droves, before expanding the slave state into Texas.

Remember, Jackson too donned an anti-elitist, anti-banker, anti-Wall Street demeanor. But, of course, the bankers had the last say. They were only all too happy to have Jackson doing their bidding. And that precisely is the blind spot.

Indian Wells did not create white Christian male anger against the elites. Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism was a petri-dish for white Christian male anger. Indian Wells simply packaged that anger. They created the narrative that is now on the tongues of every left- and right-wing pundit: white Christian men are angry. They are angry at educated, elitist, social democrats who wish to deprive them of their freedom. Why would Republicans want to promote this narrative?

If you don’t know the answer to this question, you are not paying attention.

Externalities and Labor

According to one popular microeconomics textbook, an “external cost” is “an uncompensated cost that an individual or firm imposes on others,” while an “external benefit” is a benefit “that individuals or firms confer on others without receiving compensation” (Krugman & Wells Microeconomics 2015: 465).

This is the “textbook” definition of externalities. What should be clear, but is not, is that the “external cost” that an individual or firm imposes on others is, by definition a benefit to the individual or firm; similarly, an “external benefit” that an individual or firm confers upon others is a benefit for which they would be compensated if they could.

The failure of markets to automatically track externalities has led some progressive economists to embrace a very non-progressive solution: give a price to all externalities. It is the same solution vigorously promoted by radical right wing economic thinkers, such as Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute. Although few of you will have heard of Walker or the Fraser Institute, some may remember the segments from Achbar and Abbott’s 2004 The Corporation, in which Walker proposes precisely this solution.

It makes sense. Only when we know the real cost of anything (or the real benefit) can we make rational economic decisions. Except that the underlying premise of pricing is that all things, including things that are not things, have prices that are differentially related to the prices of all other things. And this holds true only in fully elaborated, highly integrated, capitalist economies. Only in capitalist economies does it make any sense at all to monetize things as outwardly different from one another as “family time,” “health,” neighborhood “amenities” such as green space, well-maintained roads, or a view of two bridges. Only in capitalist societies do we differentially value gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation in highly rigorous mathematical models that actually predict and prescribe outcomes.

This is possible because in capitalist societies all things, including things that are not things, are valued in terms of a single social substance: homogeneous undifferentiated labor in the abstract. This means, on the one hand, that it makes good sense to measure the cost individuals and firms are compelled to pay for the carbon foot-print caused by the decisions made by others, an externality. On the other hand, it is only possible to measure this cost because all things, including things that are not things, have been reduced to the same abstract form.

But this also means that things as such have no value. And this is a problem.

Now let us say that we no longer measure value in terms of the abstract homogeneous labor time consumed in their production. To even suggest such a possibility is likely to make people nervous. How, if not in the differential relationships that they bear to one another, can we establish the value of things? Consider something simple like paid family medical leave. I have no other way to measure the value of this leave than in terms of the opportunity cost carried by my employer or by investors so that I can care for an ailing spouse, parent, or child. That is to say, the only way there is to value this time is in terms of abstract value. To even begin to talk about this time in other ways is to “wax poetic,” to resort to “metaphor,” to live in a “fantasy world.” In the hard-nosed bargaining that won workers family leave, all that mattered was the marginal cost and/or marginal benefit it placed on workers and/or employers.

But this also means that accurate pricing of externalities fails to address the underlying problem: our lost capacity even to think about value outside of its relationship to abstract homogeneous labor time.

Is it good to know the total value lost in our dependence on fossil fuels? Yes. Of course. On the other hand, so long as we are measuring this value — the value of property damaged and property lost to extreme weather events, the value of health care for individuals suffering a higher incidence of lung disease and cancers, the value of decreasing bio-diversity and growing dependence on genetically modified organisms — so long as we are measuring value in terms of its abstract value coordinate, we have lost sight of the values of things per se.

The bad news is that this loss is near universal. The good news is that it is extraordinarily recent. Out of the 2.4M years humans have occupied the planet, it is only over the last half millennia that human beings have lost the capacity to value things. In the cultural remains left to us, we have access to a rich, highly diverse, catalogue of ways communities have valued things in the past. Studying and exploring these communities is not simply a flight into the past. It had better be a flight into our very near future, or we very likely will have no future.

Finally, it cannot be overlooked that recalibrating how we value things offers a much more satisfying path to consideration of externalities. Bio-feedback mechanisms are everywhere. We need only learn how to read and listen to them.