Friday, November 7, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Five

“The Ancestry of Fascism,” pages 63-81

The dominant tenor of a country is influenced by political ideas of an earlier era; Soviet Russia, for instance, draws upon The Communist Manifesto of 1848. But for the ideas to be applied, they must meet a conducive environment, one prepared by economic and political events.

Newton’s revolution in the sciences brought hope that a similar deductive approach – often forgotten is the century of data collection that preceded Newton – could solve social and political problems. This hyper-rationalism reached its zenith with the Rights of Man doctrine popular at the time of the American and French revolutions. But by then, Hume had already laid the groundwork for undermining the deductive, ratiocinative method. Hume employed induction and empirical observation, while recognizing that induction could scarcely be scientific – and hence that science itself had unfirm foundations, rendering it as irrational as theology.

Nonetheless, Hume’s skeptical view towards science was for mental, not practical, consumption. For making our way in this world, science is our best bet.

Neither the continental nor the British followers of Hume were prepared to accept his agnosticism. “European thought has never recovered its previous wholeheartedness; among all the successors of Hume, sanity has meant superficiality, and profundity has meant some degree of madness [p. 65].”

Kant was driven to believe in things like God and causality which was not made easy in the shadow of Hume. So Kant resorted to inventing a distinction between pure and practical reason, where the lion’s share of living fell into the practical camp. But practical reason was just a blind for Kant’s own prejudices, not any logical truths. [Kant never seems to come off too well in Russell’s recounting.]

With no successful refutation of Hume in sight, we must admit that there is no clear demarcation between what constitutes reason and what constitutes unreason. But the embrace of reason tends to involve three features: a reliance upon persuasion and not force; a sincere presentation of arguments, an avoidance of disingenuousness; an eschewal of intuition when data and deduction are available. The Inquisition, political propaganda, and an appeal to the will of the gods are anti-reason, then.

Basing your arguments upon reason is an approach that generally assumes that you and your audience have shared interests. Despite the example of Mrs. Bond, you do not reason with those you intend to ingest. When the political class consisted of a small number of aristocrats, they could reason among their more-or-less equal selves. Diffusion of political power implies fewer shared starting points, and hence less matter for reason to work upon. The result is appeals to intuition; but intuitions differ, and conflict is likely.

The history of the world is replete with revolts against reason and the adoption of superstitions – as well as revolutions in the pro-reason direction. There is always an uneasy balance between the forces of reason and unreason; unreason has been growing since the 1860s. The new wave of unreason is distinguished from those of earlier epochs in that power, not salvation, is its aim. The camp of unreason can claim Carlyle and Nietzsche and Kipling; so far, Hitler is the culmination. In the opposite camp are socialists and utilitarians: “both are cosmopolitan, both are democratic, both appeal to economic self-interest [p. 68].”

Nietzsche provides a good account of what the fascists hope to achieve – a goal that rejects Bentham both with respect to happiness and with respect to being inclusive. [Bentham would have included all sentient beings in aggregating happiness or freedom from suffering – RBR.] That goal is to produce exceptional individuals, at the cost of the sacrifice of most of mankind. Goals, whether Nietzsche’s revolting one or more pleasant alternatives, cannot be said to be irrational: rationality involves matching means to given ends. Nonetheless, goals such as Nietzsche’s are closely connected to irrationality, as they all but imply a lack of impartiality. A goal that focuses on the creation and burnishing of great men is adopted by those who believe that they are great men.

The ideological parents of fascism share certain characteristics. In particular, will, power, and force take pride of place, as opposed to reason and happiness. A Spartan asceticism is advocated, with the goal of dominating others, not of building inner virtue. The proto-fascists adopt social Darwinism, where the units of struggle are races, not individuals, and where the winners are viewed as superior.

Fichte has received less than his due share of credit for inaugurating this great movement [p. 70].”  Fichte starts with the reflexive relation “I am I,” and decides that this declaration is an act of self creation; already, will is central to the story. Later, he declares that Germans are superior, based on the purity of their language. For Germans to maintain their purity, they must employ education to corral the freedom of the individual will. Germans should be economically self-sufficient, and universal military service should be mandatory, with patriotism, not defense, as the aim. Noble people will embrace such a self-sacrifice, and the ignoble must sacrifice, too – they do not count in themselves, and only are serfs meant to serve the noble. Democracy, which is the political twin of Bentham’s utilitarianism (and of Christianity, wherein every human being contains a soul), has no place in Fichte’s worldview.

So Fichte, like Marx’s communism, designates an elect, and those who adopt such views believe that they are the elect. But who are Fichte’s nobles? “There is no objective criterion of ‘nobility’ except success in war; therefore war is the necessary outcome of this creed [p. 72].”

Carlyle drew upon Fiche but added a sort of socialism that itself was not based so much on love for the proletariat as it was on a dislike of industrialization and newly-wealthy industrialists. Actual socialists are still sometimes taken in by Carlyle and his paeans to heroism, though those whom he views as heroic generally are brutal ruffians. There is little in Carlyle that would be objectionable to Nazis.

Mazzini, alternatively, identified the nation, not the individual, as the unit of heroism, and ranked Italy highest. But he shared with Carlyle the idea that duty is more important than individual or collective happiness. Democratic majorities have no moral significance, while people possess ingrained, intuitive, and correct notions of morality. But people have differing views on morality, so what Mazzini was proclaiming in practice was the superiority of his own moral views over the general will of the people.

The most recent addition to the intellectual underpinnings of fascism is racism, where certain races are declared to be superior for faux-Darwinian reasons. (Nietzsche supported breeding super-men, but their superiority did not lie in their race or nationality.) “About race, if politics were not involved it would be enough to say that nothing politically important is known [p. 74].” As far as we can tell, environment trumps genetics. We have no rational reasons for judging one race or nationality as superior to another. “The whole movement, from Fichte onwards, is a method of bolstering up self-esteem and lust for power by means of beliefs which have nothing in their favour except that they are flattering [p. 75].” Men become lunatics when their self-esteem is annihilated, so those who impose the annihilation shouldn’t be surprised when lunacy follows.

The seeds of anti-rationality ideologies abound, but only occasionally do they fall on fertile ground. The major strands of anti-rationalism – the emphasis on will and power, and the acceptance of intuitively-held propositions that could not withstand scientific scrutiny – hold appeal to industrially-oriented minds and to those whose loss of power is befuddling. War and industrialization, therefore, have prepared the ground for fascism. The large numbers of dispossessed (that is, those dispossessed of their former privileges) are used by the militarists and industrialists to adopt an ideology that embraces modern industry and war, but looks backwards in other matters.

The adoption of a fascist ideology by the industrialists is rational, in that such an ideology, in power, could well serve their interests; the dispossessed will not recover their lost glories, however, so that their embrace of fascism is irrational. Emotion overcomes the reason of the dispossessed, and the fascist leaders dole out irrational claims that feed this emotion. The militarists’ gain will involve untold human suffering, so while rational, it is deeply immoral.

The leading German industrialist Fritz Thyssen supports the Nazis because he thinks, incorrectly, that his economic interests will be served by Nazi policies, and socialism will be eradicated. “It is necessary for him to stir up German self-confidence and nationalist feeling to a dangerous degree, and unsuccessful war is the most probable outcome [p. 77].”  [Recall that In Praise of Idleness was published in 1935.] The Germans might have early success in a military confrontation, but they won’t prevail in the long run: the Germans are repeating their mistake from the Great War, that of ignoring America.

Protestantism (with its rebellious spirit) might seem to be an ally of the Nazi movement. Certainly the proto-fascist thinkers, including Fichte, Carlyle, and Mazzini, had Calvinist or Lutheran leanings. But Protestantism shares many elements with Catholicism, and along these dimensions, Protestants cannot easily be reconciled to the Nazis. Perhaps organized Christianity can keep the Nazi menace at bay.

Christianity involves an ingrained respect for truth that is anathema to the Nazis. Galileo was persecuted on the grounds that his ideas were false; the Nazis reject relativity because its discoverer is Jewish, and truth is not even part of the argument. When objective truth leaves the field, the question of what to believe will be answered by might, not right.

Another force that promotes unreason is that many people of ability lack an alternative outlet for their love of power. Suburbs offer little in the way of public life. Suburb dwellers who commute to their white-collar work in a great metropolis have no role in governing, while at work, they take orders from their bosses. They would be prone towards socialist doctrines if snobbery did not keep them from associating with the working classes. An active spirit in these conditions would find fascism to offer a hopeful alternative.

Anti-reason, therefore, grows in politics on both the demand and the supply side. The demand comes from people whose current circumstances do not offer sufficient prospects, but they are unwilling to connect to a socialist movement that puts the working class in the vanguard. The supply comes from intelligent, wealthy men whose own interests are served by swelling certain types of hysteria. “Anti-Communism, fear of foreign armaments, and hatred of foreign competition, are the most important bogeys [p. 80].” These notions are not irrational per se, but they are used to hinder intelligent discussion of practical affairs.

Socialism and peace are what the world needs, but these do not conduce to the wellbeing of the powerful. Movements towards socialism and peace can be made to appear detrimental to large classes of society, and this appearance can be fostered by fomenting hysteria. Economic hardship eases the job of the merchants of unreason.

The rise of nationalism and class tension brings a plethora of “truths,” those of the English and those of the French, those of the wage earners and those of the capitalists. With the turn to unreason, these competing truths cannot encounter each other in rational discourse, leaving ongoing strife and war as the available fora. Reason appeals to universal standards, whereas unreason draws from private passions. Cooperative agreements are harder to come by when reason is swept away. Reason always is needed for human flourishing. The need is strongest when an impersonal rationality is “despised and rejected as the vain dream of men who lack the virility to kill where they cannot agree [p. 81].”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Four

“The Modern Midas,” pages 49-62

[A footnote attached to the title of this chapter notes that the essay dates from 1932; In Praise of Idleness was published in 1935.]

Russell opens Chapter Four by recounting the King Midas tale, referencing (as he did in Education and the Good Life) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales. The world is slow to digest (hard food for Midas!) the moral of the story. The Spanish hoarded Peruvian gold, raising prices but not increasing their consumption – though perhaps the increase in nominal incomes gave Spaniards a psychological boost through money illusion. The eastern seaboard of North America, left to the secondary powers of Holland and England, was less prized because of its lack of gold, but proved to be much more valuable.

Though we can see the folly of thinking of gold as real wealth when we examine historical examples, the deception continues to trip up governments: look at the indemnity imposed upon a defeated Germany in the wake of the Great War. The German reparations had to be paid in goods, but this implied that Germany was required to maintain what is considered to be a favorable balance of trade with the Allies; that is, the Allies were doing what their economic thinking took to be a favor for redeveloping Germany. Further, domestic producers in the Allied nations did not welcome competition from those German repayments-in-kind. The Allied view was that Germany had to pay, but any particular method of payment was unacceptable to the Allies. [Later, on pages 52-53, Russell presents a single-individual, Robinson Crusoe version of the Allies’ behavior, to sharpen its absurdity.]

“To this lunatic situation a lunatic solution was found [p. 51].” The Allies lent Germany the money to pay the reparations. No domestic industries were directly hurt, and the notion that Germany was being punished for its transgressions was maintained. The cycle was extended when Germany was loaned funds with which to make the interest payments on its earlier loans. When the limits to these sorts of machinations were reached, bankruptcies spread throughout the system, and the global depression, which had many other stimulants, ensued.

The Allies first took the viewpoint of consumers when they pressed for German reparations, but then they realized that Allied producers might not be so enthralled with the whole idea. Their shift in roles resulted in the crazy pay-only-in-a-useless-fashion compromise, one that would be seen as evidence of insanity in an individual, but is taken to be wisdom when pursued at the national level. Robinson Crusoe would welcome the option to specialize in the production of some goods and to trade for others – his living standards will be low if he must make himself everything that he consumes. But somehow nations feel they need to have domestic capacity in all industries. A rational plan for production, one that included retraining for workers departing from declining industries, would avoid this costly devotion to autarky – but such rationality is “contrary to business orthodoxy [p. 53].”

The mythologies connected to gold are surprisingly common. French enmity for Britain forced the British off of the gold standard, which was the proper economic policy, but one that was widely viewed as shameful in Britain. The whole “dig up gold in one place so it can be stored underground elsewhere” industry is quite absurd. [Russell reiterates this observation in Unpopular Essays.] “Nevertheless it is still supposed that, by some hocus-pocus, everybody’s financial stability depends upon a hoard of gold in the central bank of his country [p. 55].” Sometimes the gold can be in one country’s vault, but designated as being owned by another country. It would be simpler just to pretend that the gold had been mined without disturbing it from its original resting place. [Echoes here of "The Island of Stone Money."]

The notion that a gold standard commits governments to prudent monetary policy is misplaced; in a pinch, a government will adjust or suspend the standard, and override the commitment. All the warring parties in Europe depreciated their currencies post-conflict and hence diminished the real value of their debt, sometimes to the point of hyper-inflation making debt payments worthless. The Russians were forthright about debt repudiation, while the depreciating or inflating nations paid lip service to propriety. Countries, like people, repay debts when and only when it serves their interests. Domestic debt is particularly susceptible to strategic governmental behavior, as the nominal value of the domestic currency can be manipulated by the state. Repudiation of international debt is held in check, imperfectly, by the threat of hostile reactions from the debtor nations.

Ownership of property is generally due to military might. Look at how New York changed hands between Native Americans, the Dutch, the English, and the Americans. Natural resources discovered in poor countries have a tendency to fall under the control of powerful nations, with arms either directly or tacitly involved. Similarly, powerful nations, if they are debtors, can get away with not repaying. The only path to currency stability is not a tenuous gold standard, but a world government with military capabilities. Such a global state could provide stable money by guaranteeing the price of a standard commodity bundle, and would have a direct interest to do so. [I believe that Russell’s belief in the stability of such a currency is misplaced; see this paper by Paul Krugman -- RBR.] The fact that business people do not support a single central bank and a world currency is evidence that they are willing to trade their own prosperity in exchange for keeping foreigners poor.

Our psychological responses to buying and selling seem to ignore the fact that we cannot directly consume money, and that it is consumption, not production, that is the ultimate goal. “In almost every transaction, the seller is more pleased than the buyer [p. 58].” The psychic superiority of selling comes from our love of power, which for many, but by no means all people, exceeds our desire for pleasure. Those who do desire power more than pleasure, however, set the tone in our competitive times. Governments inherit these skewed ideas from the movers and shakers, with the nonsensical result that all countries desire to sell but not to buy.

Sellers care about consumers and competitors. But consumers are numerous, while competitors are few and known, so producers end up focused on their competitors, who, after all, are a source of harm. When those competitors are foreign, the focus is, if anything, more intense. Other countries are viewed more as economic foes than as potential customers, lending a stimulus to the imposition of tariffs. Countries are like a butcher in a small town, whose enmity for the other butchers in town is so outsized that he embarks on a successful mission to turn the entire town into vegetarians – and ruins himself along with the targets of his wrath. Hatred of foreigners similarly renders countries unable to see that those foreigners who sell to them also, directly or indirectly, are their customers.

In Britain, the longstanding conflict between the rich and the poor has shrouded the fact that rich bankers have interests that also are opposed to the interests of rich industrialists. The political success of the financial sector in the banks v. manufacturers rivalry almost ruined the country.

The divergence between the interest of the finance sector with that of society is a more general phenomenon. [Russell noted this disconnect in 1919 in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] Running a country to promote the interests of financiers is like running a museum to benefit the curator, who might profit most by selling off the holdings. The profit motive, in many instances, serves society’s interests, but the profit motive within the financial sector now does not do so, even if it has done so in the past. Regulation is needed to ensure that finance serves the interest of industry – which generally is more closely aligned with the public interest – instead of serving its own, parochial desires.

Superstitions are used by the powerful few to control the subordinate many. In the past, superstitions have been promulgated to aid the power of priests and kings. Now, the superstitions surrounding gold protect the rule of the financiers. Ordinary people are dazzled by the jargon, and associate larger gold reserves with more security. The subservience to financiers is protected by more than just the gold standard, however. They are wealthy, and wealthy people are in a position to influence academic and public opinion, and serve as natural leaders for those who fear communism. The superstitions concerning gold might be crucial to the insulation of the financial sector from normal democratic scrutiny.

Economics is of fundamental importance, but schoolchildren are not taught economics, and even most college students do not study it. Those who do usually receive the finance-biased, fanciful version which leads to support for the status quo: “superstition and mystery are useful to the holders of financial power [p. 62].”

Proficiency in finance is unfortunately akin to proficiency in arms, in that those who possess such expertise tend to have views that are not consonant with the public interest. They are obstacles to progress, not consciously, but because their profession biases their judgment. Broader and improved economics and social science education can help to counter the influence of these biases. Presumably such an educational reform would be welcomed by any friend of democracy, though such friends now appear to be rather scarce.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Three

“Architecture and Social Questions,” pages 38-48

Buildings possess practical utility, but also can be used to impress upon the world the grandeur of a religion, or a king, or a city. The dwellings of the poor tend to ignore aesthetic or political messages in favor of serving their utilitarian purposes. Commercial buildings took on an aesthetic edge in the Middle Ages, with Venice the exemplar of beautiful public buildings and exquisite dwellings for the merchant titans, while the poor carefully were hidden from view.

The religious monasteries and abbeys of the Middle Ages combined elaborate and beautiful communal areas with Spartan individual accommodations – and their wonders still can be glimpsed at Oxford and Cambridge. The French and English aristocracy aped the Italian fashions, and could build country houses once domestic security did not require fortifications. The credibility of this security was undermined by the French Revolution, “and since that time the traditional styles of architecture have lost their vitality [p. 40].”

Nineteenth century architecture is marked by large factories and small homes arranged in rows for workers. Large buildings make commercial sense for offices or apartments in crowded cities, but their inhabitants tend not to form a medieval-type commune; rather, they prefer to be as separate as possible, despite the close quarters. Buildings for work or business serve as the sole non-domestic centers of social life. “If the social ideals of an age are to be judged by the aesthetic quality of its architecture, the last hundred years represent the lowest point yet reached by humanity [pages 40-41].”

Economic production now is conducted among large groups of people, but we have become more individualized, more isolated, in the rest of our lives. Housework and child care take place by wives on a house-by-house basis, which renders the work dull and makes women captives within their homes. But women seem to prefer the individual home to anything more communal. It might reflect their lack of opportunities in the broader economy: as they are forced to be housewives, they need an individual house to oversee. The system also plays to the interest of husbands in seeming to be important, and a decrepit social life keeps spouses out of harm’s way from potentially dangerous liaisons.

The availability of more work outside the home for women would stoke the demand for outsourced or communal cooking and childcare. It is too difficult to work normally outside the home while maintaining the standard household duties that fall to wives. (Men who take on the household duties would soon understand this.) Architecture could shift in ways to ease the socialization of much of the housework burden; indeed, the architectural shift might have to precede the rationalization of housework.

That each working family dwells in a single family home or tenement has far-reaching effects. The children do not get enough outside exercise, and poorly educated, overworked moms are unable to provide nutritious meals. [Russell is quite the proponent of youthful exposure to the great outdoors.] The children, condemned to the indoors and thus lacking an appropriate environment for their natural vivacity, harry and exasperate their mom. The mom has no leisure, and performs rather poorly those myriad chores for which she is untrained. Mothers are tired, and can take little pleasure in their children’s company. The result of this common arrangement is that children end up “rickety, neurotic, and subdued,” while the moms become “irritable, narrow-minded, and full of envy [p. 43].” The dad then reacts badly to the whole situation, blaming his family instead of the fundamental factor, the architecture.

The fact that through extraordinary self-control and wisdom some families can avoid acting out this depressing vignette is not evidence that the tendency is any less real or malevolent.

[Russell goes on to describe his vision for an architecturally sound communal life, a’ la Fourier’s Phalanstère or, given the shared high-rise construction, the Unité d'Habitation of Le Corbusier.  Architecture is almost a panacea for domestic woes and childhood unhappiness, a jaded reading might suggest –  RBR.]

Clear out the old tenements and small single-family dwellings, and replace them with high rises. The buildings would form a block, with a courtyard quadrangle in the middle. The southern-facing building would not be so high, to allow in more sunlight. The children’s area should be free of things that could harm children or objects that they could harm, to minimize the use of “don’t!” The children would mainly play outdoors, and even their standard indoor area would be open to the elements on one side. Children would take all their meals in the nursery, which could ensure the nutritional value of the food. From a young age, children would spend all day at the nursery school, with minimal supervision. These arrangements would conduce to the children’s better health and character. They would be nearly free-range children, and develop muscularity naturally, like animals do, given their liberation from the ban on motion that is requisite in standard adult settings.

Mothers would benefit, too, by being able to outsource childcare to specialists following weaning. Their days would be like their husbands', with work and with leisure, not just one long slog through cooking, cleaning, and babysitting. Their morning and evening times with their children would be joyous, not trying; mothers would have the energy to play with their children, and the children would appreciate more fully their parents’ affections.

“What is good in family life would survive, without what is worrying and destructive of affection [p. 45].” Though Robert Owen was ridiculed for his parallelograms, his ideas for nursery schools were a success in both theory and, at New Lanark, in practice. Owen was mistaken, however, in attempting to make New Lanark both a residential and an industrial community. The overemphasis on production (as opposed to consumption and quality of life) that has accompanied the Industrial Revolution results in an extensive division of labor in factories, but almost no specialization within households, where mothers do everything. The lack of a profit motive in home life leads to irrational household arrangements.

Workers, currently devoted to their private dwellings, might find my [Russell’s] architectural reforms to be a hard sell. But there will still be a good deal of privacy, even if cooking becomes communal. As women increasingly enter the world of work, current feminist views on the desirability of private cooking and in-home child care may change. Men are less likely to recognize the need for any change in the life circumstances of their wives.

Socialism might be necessary to reduce unemployment, which itself might be necessary to allow women to enter the paid labor force in large numbers. Socialism will also be necessary for my architectural reforms, because they are not driven by the profit motive. The chase for profits produces many wonderful things, but it is not conducive to soothing the nerves of wives, promoting the health and character of children, or beautifying suburbs. The unaesthetic nature of the suburbs is not foreordained, however, any more than poverty is: they both result from our excessive devotion to the idol of profit.

Friday, March 28, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Two

“'Useless' Knowledge,” pages 26-37

Knowledge has long been thought to be a source of power, and typically yields that power as in the case of Prospero, where knowledge brings control over magical forces. Francis Bacon understood, as we do now, that science could become more powerful than Prospero’s staff.

In the Renaissance, learning became something to be enjoyed for its own sake, frequently unmoored from practical concerns. People learned ancient Greek to appreciate Homer – though knowledge of ancient Greek and other languages helped to resolve theological puzzles and forgeries, and classical history provided guides and precedents for current, controversial political actions. Nonetheless, the primary motive for learning was pleasure, some of which emanated from broadened vistas for art and philosophy.

The allure of the ancient languages carried over into improved reputations for those sciences to which classical sources were devoted, such as geometry and astronomy, at least if seemingly disreputable post-classical scholars hadn’t fouled the disciplinary pool.

The sort of impractical approach to knowledge that characterized much of the Renaissance began to give way during the Enlightenment, and the decline accelerated with the French Revolution’s attack on upper-class habits and the proliferation of machines. The value of knowledge has come to be associated with the economic value of its practical applications – an association which exists in England and France, but is carried much further in the USA and the Soviet Union. Practicality has even become an excuse for pruning the acquisition of language to the minimum number of words requisite for business, as if economic expediency were the only purpose for speech. The Russian interest in education serving state aims takes the criterion of practicality still further – though a handful of the elect must learn philosophy to defend the state’s version of dialectical materialism, and a few Soviet scholars acquire a foreign language because “the sacred scriptures must be studied by some in the original German…[p. 29]”.

The interdependence among people, both political and economic, is greater in the modern world than it was previously, and hence the desire to force others to act in ways that we approve also has increased. Educational institutions, for the most part, are charged with producing loyal and productive citizens. [The sacrifice of education to propaganda is a Russellian concern that resurfaced in Unpopular Essays.] Hence we see a premium placed on what is considered to be practical knowledge, as part of a more general phenomenon that also underlies universal military conscription and the boy scouts. We do not have the free time and mental resources to acquire what is deemed to be impractical knowledge.

Of course, practical knowledge really is quite useful. “Without it, we should not have machines or motor-cars or railways or aeroplanes; it should be added that we should not have modern advertising or modern propaganda [p. 30].” We get innovations to improve health and innovations in the means of mass murder, but at any rate, there is still a need for more useful knowledge.

Much of a traditional ornamental education was wasted of course, including the small Latine, and lesse Greeke. Better to teach culture in modern languages than in dead ones – the claim that there should be room in education for useless knowledge is not a defense of traditional education. [Russell also made this point in Education and the Good Life.]

A focus on knowledge that promotes technical efficiency crowds out other types of knowledge that are not as directly practical, but that nonetheless carry large rewards. “When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder [p. 32].” [Compare Russell in The Conquest of Happiness: “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster [p. 61].”] Overworked military strategists and political fanatics of many stripes are cases in point. Adults, like children, need play, and for play to have its salutary effect, it must be based on strong interests that are independent of one’s main work.

The leisure pursuits of the masses in developed countries tend now to involve mere spectatorship – better than no leisure at all, but not as beneficial as active interests. [And Russell was writing before the ultimate form of passive entertainment, television, was available.] Education must be supplemented to ensure that the population has access to intellectual interests, which are necessary to render significant amounts of leisure time enjoyable. [Russell devoted a chapter of The Conquest of Happiness to impersonal interests.]

Cultural education is necessary to ensure that improved techniques serve socially desirable ends. There is a significant streak of cruelty in humanity, and while education cannot eliminate the tendency towards cruel behavior, it does seem to lessen that tendency. School bullies and the ringleaders directing lynchings are not generally the more intelligent people in their communities. Education doesn’t necessarily make one more of a humanitarian, but it will engender interests in pursuits that are more edifying than being cruel towards others. People like power and to be admired, and the uneducated can only achieve these through brutality. Galileo could make the world better without the need to persecute.

“Perhaps the most important advantage of ‘useless’ knowledge is that it promotes a contemplative habit of mind [p. 34].” People feel compelled to take action, not only unthinkingly, but when doing nothing would be the preferred choice. The charge against Hamlet is too much thought, too little action [though of course, it is Hamlet’s rash killing of an unknown person behind an arras that ignites the wholesale slaughter – RBR], but Othello should be just as compelling a warning of too much action, too little thought. Contemplation helps ward off the compulsion to power and stimulates grace under pressure; it provides the wide vistas which alone can protect against the pain of life’s tragedies.

The quotidian troubles of the missing-the-train ilk are quite minor, but nevertheless can destroy wellbeing; some interest in a slightly relevant intellectual detail or historical parallel can serve as an antidote, removing us from our present travails. A browse through Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy can itself relieve melancholy. This same broader perspective enlivens our pleasures, too. I [Russell] enjoy apricots more from knowing their provenance and etymology.

The largest payoff to contemplation draws from its ability to shield people from adopting anger and cruelty, which are fostered by the intolerance of narrow minds. Broad knowledge provides perspective, both of human limitations and of human potential.

People often invent myths to help them relieve the pain of life – but this short-term palliative stokes pain over the longer term. Russell concludes the chapter with a sort of secular version of the Serenity Prayer. In Russell’s version, useless knowledge helps build the intelligence that allows people to know the difference between what can and what cannot be changed. Further, useless knowledge promotes the broad perspective that renders it easier to accept with fortitude those conditions that are not amenable to reform.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter One

“In Praise of Idleness,” pages 11-25

The essay opens by noting that this is a case of doing what I say, not what I do. I [Russell] was imprinted in childhood with the notion that work was virtuous, and my dutiful nature rendered me evermore hardworking. But I do not believe that hard work and virtue are kin; indeed, I believe that this opinion is harmful, and that a world of more leisure would be a better place.

The notion that there are a fixed number of jobs, so that one person stopping work makes way for someone else to work, is not correct and of course not the basis for my call for idleness. A worker earns money, and the spending of this money helps to feed others. A person who chooses to save (and not through a bank), however, does not generate the income and employment benefits that come from a spender.

Many savers lend their money to a government, which typically needs to borrow to pay the monetary tab of its previous or intended wars. Such a loan promotes the military, and is akin to hiring assassins. “Obviously it would be better if he [a saver who lends to a government] spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling [p. 12].”

You might think that investing saved resources in an industry will generate jobs, but most such businesses fail, and so the labor that goes into them is wasted. At least if you spend on parties you and your friends get some consumption benefits, and the suppliers (including “the bootlegger”) earn income. Nonetheless, those who become bankrupt through failed investments are seen as unfortunate, while those whose excessive spending supports sociability are held in contempt. [These passages of Russell’s can be compared with those of Adam Smith, who also compares unfortunate investors with spenders, and differentiates between those who spend on durable goods and those who spend on immediate consumption. The wealth of society is advanced more by spending on durables than by throwing parties, according to Smith. But not all dimensions of concern favor the person who invests in durable goods (II.3.42): “I would not, however, by all this be understood to mean that the one species of expence always betokens a more liberal or generous spirit than the other. When a man of fortune spends his revenue chiefly in hospitality, he shares the greater part of it with his friends and companions; but when he employs it in purchasing such durable commodities, he often spends the whole upon his own person, and gives nothing to anybody without an equivalent. The latter species of expence, therefore, especially when directed towards frivolous objects, the little ornaments of dress and furniture, jewels, trinkets, gewgaws, frequently indicates, not only a trifling, but a base and selfish disposition.”]

Back to Russell. Work involves either acting upon matter, or ordering other people to act upon matter. [This sounds like a Russellian trope I have come across before, but I cannot place it. Maybe it is Marx instead? – RBR] “The first kind [of work] is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid [p. 13].” There can be an extensive ecology of order-givers and their advisors. Politics involves opposing advisors, and the requisite skill is persuasion, not knowledge of the specific area of contention. Besides the two types of workers, Europe also has a landowning class that receives tribute. Landowners are exemplars of idleness, but not the species that I [Russell] favor. They can only be idle because others are hard-working, and landowners have no interest in seeing their brand of idleness become more universally established.

Up to the Industrial Revolution, a hardworking family generally could maintain subsistence, with most of the surplus being taken by the military and the clergy. In difficult times, the working people might starve, but the military and clergy generally remained provided for. This historical legacy is no longer descriptive of much of the world, but views concerning the virtues of work tend to be relics of this earlier era. The leisure that previously belonged only to the small privileged classes can now, thanks to increased productivity, be distributed more broadly. “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery [p. 14].” [So, for Russell, the virtue of work is one of those ideas which have become obsolete.]

Eventually, the force that allowed the privileged to grab surplus production spawned a legitimating ideology advancing the morality of hard work and a duty to transfer the surplus. The ideology exists to this day: the vast majority of British people would be astonished at a proposal that the King receive a standard, working-class salary. At times the privileged classes have used the leisure that was bestowed upon them by the exploitation of working people in ways that have advanced civilization; nonetheless, it is the leisure, not the hard work of others, that is desirable. Civilization now can move forward through an alternate channel, one that spreads leisure widely.

Wartime demonstrated the vast extent of the economic surplus. Despite huge swaths of humanity, both men and women, being removed from productive labour in favor of war making and materiel manufacture, the average person on the side of the Allies was maintained in excellent physical condition. (Don’t be fooled by the mysteries of finance, whereby wartime borrowing generates the illusion that today’s subsistence is provided by the future.) The war indicated that with a rational approach to production, everyone could be maintained despite only a small number of workers being devoted to providing the means of maintenance. A peacetime version of such rationality would allow living standards to be sustained on just four hours of work (per worker) per day. Instead, the chaotic approach to production was reinstituted post-war, where long hours for some workers were matched by involuntary unemployment – and starvation – for others.

Consider [shades of Adam] a pin factory, that happens to make the entire world supply of pins, with employees working eight hours per day. Technical advance brings a machine that allows pins to be made with only half the labor previously required. But pins already are fairly inexpensive, and even with a price fall, the world doesn’t really require any more pins. “In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before [p. 16].” But what will actually happen is that there will be lots of short-term disruption and bankruptcies, and in the end, half of the workers will continue to work eight hours per day and the other half will become unemployed. Note that the rational method and the actual method involve the same aggregate amount of leisure, but the rational method makes leisure more widespread while still maintaining full employment. The actual method ensures misery for all, the unemployed and the overworked alike.

Rich people cannot abide leisure for poor people. Efforts to cut the huge working hours (even for children) in the nineteenth century routinely were met with claims that the long hours contributed to morality. But the duty to work should go no further than restitution for a person’s maintenance. Of course, much of the upper class is allowed their copious consumption without any work requirement. But their leisure is not as objectionable as are the requisite long working hours of the non-rich.

Rich men in America often work long hours, and are opposed to leisure time for the working class or even for their own sons. The aristocratic duty of leisure is one that they endorse only for women.

Making good use of leisure is itself a skill that requires education and refinement. People who have not developed this skill, and who are habituated to long hours of work, will find leisure extremely dull. “But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things [p. 18].” So let’s make sure that the widespread leisure that is available in theory is available in practice.

Soviet ideology promoting the virtue of work is the usual elite claptrap aimed at the poor – though the concocted deity who approves is not a traditional god, but rather dialectical materialism. The rise of the Russian proletariat has some parallels with the rise of feminism. Women traditionally were praised for their virtue, which was a religious obligation, and made to believe that the barriers erected to preclude female power were more than compensated for by their saintliness. [Russell is echoing his godfather; for instance, from Chapter One (page 27) of The Subjection of Women: “All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have—those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man.”]

Back to Bertie. Manual labor has been extolled in Russia just as the virtue of female dependency has been trumpeted more broadly. Russia even has its version of religious revival meetings, where young people are barraged with appeals to provide labor for some special project, appeals based on the virtue of such labor. Perhaps such an approach is reasonable while Russia remains undeveloped, and not yet in a position where leisure could be universal. It is likely, however, that even as the Russian economy expands, it will be hard for the authorities to allow leisure to take hold, given the ideological attachment to manual work as good in and of itself (page 21).

The west has its own approaches to make sure that manual labor is highly valued. With no interest in economic justice, the fact that consumption is skewed towards the rich means that everyone else must work for their daily bread. The reserve army of the unemployed ensures that output is scarce, so that surely, it would seem, widespread leisure would not be compatible with decent living standards. “When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war: we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks [p. 20].”

Manual labor is necessary but not a goal in itself, though we often extoll it as though it were such a goal. This preaching serves to keep the poor in their place; the rich “preach the dignity of labour, while taking care themselves to be undignified in this respect [p. 21].” But no manual labourer is taken in, no one views his leisure as an unfortunate but occasionally necessary intrusion into his righteous employment. Rather, work is regarded as necessary for life, but their happiness is connected to their leisure. [Bertie here is unwittingly(?) seconding Marx’s views of labor under capitalism: “First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.” The reason that I suspect (but do not know) that the connection is unwitting is because the quoted passage comes from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which were published in the original German by the Soviets just a few years before In Praise of Idleness, and were not available in English for a couple more decades.]

Will people know how to fill their leisure time if we instituted a four-hour working day? Surely in the past, when people were more light-hearted, this would not have been an issue. But now efficiency is king, and activity that does not entail financial profit is suspect. Those who provide commodities and even leisure goods, then, are engaged in worthwhile work, it is thought, while those who consume any more than is necessary to remain a productive worker are being dangerously unserious. This view is obviously mistaken. “Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them [p. 22].” But society acts as if it is more concerned with production than with consumption, and undervalues the happiness induced by enjoying consumption. [Adam Smith once again serves as a precursor (IV.8.49): “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”]

A four-hour work day doesn’t mean that the rest of the hours are frittered away. With the necessaries and conveniencies [as Adam Smith might have put it] of life secure, the remaining time can be used in freely chosen pursuits. Education must be up to the task, however, of inculcating preferences for, and knowledge of, fruitful uses of leisure time. These needn’t be elitist tastes. They would be active, however, unlike the passive spectatorship that now is common, and is the requisite use of leisure given long work hours.

The leisure class used to comprise but the privileged few, whose privilege undermined their ethics and sympathies; nonetheless, even in this withered state, most of the progress of civilization, in arts, sciences, philosophy, and literature, can be laid at the feet of the leisure class. But the unequal distribution of leisure was extraordinarily inefficient, as much of the leisure class had neither the talent nor the diligence to make much of their gift. The universities now provide a more organized attempt to promote progress, but they, too, are not a full answer in a world where those outside of the universities lack unstructured time. Those inside the universities are too cut off from the larger society, too restricted in their style of communication, and too tied to the status quo framework to induce major strides for civilization.

The better system is where limited work hours for all ensures that any person with passion and a scientific or artistic or literary idea can pursue that idea, without being beholden to the market for livelihood. [A similar formulation appeared in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] People with political or economic notions will not be cloistered in an ivory tower, and hence not as susceptible as they now are to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. Physicians and teachers will have the time to keep up with the advances in their fields.

Happiness will spread as fatigue and strained nerves become less common. Those four hours of work will not exhaust laborers, and leisure will still be scarce enough to command a premium. The increase in happiness will lead to more kindliness, and even war (which involves a good deal of work) will be less welcome. Good-naturedness derives from security, not from constant struggle. We can have security without our current combination of overwork for some and unemployment for others. Russell concludes his essay with a resounding echo of what his godfather, John Stuart Mill, wrote nearly 90 years earlier. Here is Mill: “Hitherto [1848] it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being.”

And here is Russell’s update: “Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever [p. 25].”

Monday, January 27, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Introductory Matter

Introduction and Preface, pages vii-xx, and 9-10

Things get underway with an Introduction by Howard Woodhouse, who indicates that his own opportunity for idleness on an academic sabbatical deepened his appreciation for the “useless” knowledge that he uncovered when re-reading In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. Much of Woodhouse’s Introduction is itself a sort of Reading Bertrand Russell-style summentary of the remainder of the book, so I will offer only a brief outline of the Introduction here. The Introduction suggests to me that the ideas advanced in In Praise of Idleness will largely be familiar Russellian notions, as put forth especially in Proposed Roads to Freedom, Bolshevism and the West, Education and the Good Life, and (subsequent to In Praise of Idleness) Unpopular Essays.

[Note: It appears that Woodhouse’s Introduction is available on the web here, via a portal (that I just learned about) that aims to make Russell’s work accessible to Japanese speakers. This availability will itself reduce the extent of my own summentary on the Introduction; please follow the standard advice accompanying a recommended link by reading the (original) whole thing.]

As the title might suggest, Russell’s recurrent policy proposal of arranging worklives so that idleness and seemingly useless endeavors will be economically and socially viable will feature in In Praise of Idleness. By Russell’s accounting, work as currently arranged possesses an undeserved favorable reputation, despite the lack of enjoyment that work brings to many people. More freedom to follow one’s muse, however trivial or playful that muse might be, would conduce to individual wellbeing. Such freedom also would have the further useful effects of combating dogmatism and opening minds to opinions and ideas that are uncongenial.

Indeed, anti-dogmatism and the promotion of tolerance are themes that permeate the essays of In Praise of Idlenesss [as they later would provide themes for Unpopular Essays.] These virtues would stimulate free speech, and the resulting debate – shades once again of Russell’s godfather – would benefit the world, primarily by enhancing social justice. The acceptance of useless activities and knowledge proves useful after all.

Russell found a striking uniformity of thinking in the US when he visited in 1930, a uniformity that has many negative features – including much overt nationalism – even as it perhaps is requisite for economic dynamism.

Fascism and communism are some popular isms [recall that In Praise of Idleness was published in 1935] that Russell reviles. Fascism is the greater of these twin evils, deplorable both in means and ends. Russell identifies the German nationalistic thinking of Johann Gottlieb Fichte as providing some of the intellectual underpinning of fascism. Industrialists and the military in Germany both viewed Bolshevism as a threat, further preparing the ground for fascist ideology. Russell finds common cause with communism’s goal of social equality, but sees (once again) the Bolshevik revolutionary route to that goal as leading to despotism.

Russell follows up his Bolshevism and the West debate with further thoughts on a peaceful evolution to democratic socialism. There are large economic gains available by reducing both weapons production and nationalist, militaristic thinking. Russell also builds on his proposals to ensure that women have more financial independence and opportunities in the workplace. He envisions the availability of public housing with communal spaces and childcare facilities.

Idleness has to have an expanded role in the education of the young, and teachers are overworked – both of these ideas were expressed by Russell elsewhere. Teachers and parents need to exercise their authority at selected times, in a manner that ultimately promotes the necessary development of voluntary perseverance in the young. The result will be a citizenry that can employ reason to see through the illogic of many a supposed expert.

Russell propounds that a world government, perhaps coercively introduced, is the path to ending nationalism, war, and many other ills, while providing the soil for unfettered thinking to sprout. [Russell’s defense of a coercive introduction of world government is viewed as a mistake (p. xvi) by the Introduction’s author, Howard Woodhouse, a mistake that can be employed as a rationalization for war.]

Russell has been accused of not recognizing the material standard of living decline that would result from shortened workdays. But Russell cares about wellbeing, not material living standards, and sees the potential for betterment when lifestyles are not dominated by work. The information revolution, like previous advances, has not lessened labor’s load. [Recall John Stuart Mill’s observation: “Hitherto [1848] it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being.”] Russell imagines a world in which improvements in technique could be used to free up time for activity that, though quite valuable, is not necessarily economically profitable.

Dr. Woodhouse notes that already in 1923 Karel Capek wrote an essay entitled (in English translation) “In Praise of Idleness.” [The English version is available here, on pages 80-82.] Russell’s teacher and then colleague, Alfred North Whitehead, was another contemporary who has kind words for idleness, and who deplores the extent to which work has undermined the pleasure that people can take from their own craftsmanship; readers of both can see the long-term mutual influences between Russell and Whitehead. [Readers who would like to learn more of Dr. Woodhouse’s thoughts on Russell and idleness can check out his 2001 journal article, non-free version available here. A fun 1983 book reprinted the pro-leisure views of Russell and other luminaries.]

Woodhouse’s Introduction is followed by Russell’s slightly-more-than-one page Preface. Russell mentions a couple of brief essays in the volume that were passed over in Woodhouse’s Introduction, one concerning insects and another (the last in the book) on the soul. “The general thesis which binds the essays together is that the world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided… [p. 9].” We could do instead with some “calm consideration.”

Russell concludes his preface by noting that many of the essays (though neither insects nor souls!) had previously been published elsewhere, and recognizes Peter Spence for her assistance in discussing the material; she (Peter was her nickname) became Bertrand Russell’s third wife the year after In Praise of Idleness was published.