Monday, May 18, 2015

The Promised End

Eight years ago today I initiated this blog, as a sort of loose commitment to read, summarize, and lightly comment upon ten of Bertrand Russell's works. Today, Bertrand's 143rd birthday, the plan is complete. (OK, there was that one plan revision.) Thanks to the many visitors to this project, visitors from Pakistan and India, Russia and Ukraine, the US and the UK, along with visitors from other points adorning our globe; it has been a pleasure sharing this journey with you. Perhaps the future holds revisions and updates, or further destinations; but for now, the tiny Reading Bertrand Russell river merges into the mighty cyber sea.

In Praise of Idleness, Full Time

While the first half of In Praise of Idleness centers on a critique of the profit motive under industrial capitalism, the second half moves away from the economics sphere. The movement away is only partial, however, in that the effects of the rise of science and industry (largely in the advanced capitalist countries) dominate the second-half subject matter.

Science and industry, for Russell, are the hallmarks of Western civilisation. Technological advances in warfare require the cooperation of huge swaths of people, prompting the government to seek ways – including promulgating propaganda – to develop political cohesion. (Though cooperation is necessary, achieving it through appeals to a fervent nationalism is a mistake, and one that makes other countries wary.) US-style industrialization brings about a cultural and political homogeneity that contributes to political cohesion, though possibly at the cost of an intolerance of difference and a decline in individualism. [Russell’s view of the narrow political spectrum in the US still seems right to me, but the notion that US politics are somehow less contentious doesn't seem to hold – perhaps Russell overlooked Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”?] The comfort that comes with high living standards, political cohesion, and freedom leads to a cynicism in intelligent youth, who have little recourse except to serve ignorant but wealthy masters.

The problem of cynicism can be overcome if the masters are not so ignorant; thus, a broad education is key, and not just for the masters. The general goal of education is to promote civilisation, which involves knowledge but also an array of individual and social virtues, including openness to novel ideas and people. This goal is best served through a considerable degree of freedom for schoolchildren, when they are in the hands of teachers who should not be overtaxed, and who enjoy their company.

The world is full of harm, and this is a reality that cannot and should not be kept from children. Dangers (such as death) should be acknowledged but not dwelt upon, sometimes diluted even to the point of missing opportunities to reduce the probability of harm. The encouragement (through education) of broad, other-regarding interests can help avoid a fixation on potential disasters. No one would develop self-control in the face of danger if they were always shielded from danger; but an avoidance of excessive coddling should not be used to open the door to sadism and cruelty on the part of teachers and parents. A young person who is attracted to a valuable goal will discipline him or herself in an effort to achieve that goal.

Our species is doomed, though that doom is temporally remote (assuming the insects don’t get us), and therefore we do not exhaust psychic energy in worrying about it. This is the message that we should send to children curious about their own deaths, too: inevitable but quite distant, and no cause for brooding. Our commitment to truth-telling to children rules out that we tell them that the soul is eternal. Broad interests forge a connection to the human past and future, even to a future in which one’s body and one’s mind, or one’s soul, are no longer present. As Russell wrote elsewhere, our lives are like a river joining a larger sea.

As a whole, the essays that comprise In Praise of Idleness are an impressive achievement [MRDA]. The idleness essay itself is part of a wider “idleness” discourse that was unknown to me until I read Professor Woodhouse’s Introduction and Woodhouse's mention of Karel Capek’s much different essay. (One of the better pre-Russell contributions comes from Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, writing in 1880 (republished with revisions in 1883). Lafargue goes Russell one better, calling not for a four-hour workday but a three-hour one: "If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her.") But I was most struck by the extent of the overlap between Russell’s ideas and those of William Morris. The four essays by Morris that are reprinted in this short collection presage the first three chapters of In Praise of Idleness, including thoughts on the non-necessity of long working days – especially if war were rationally avoided – and on the importance of architecture. Morris also presents, as Russell does in Chapter 7, a case for socialism.

Incidentally, the Russellian case for socialism, as a rational response to the conditions brought about by industrialization, seems quite convincing to me; I prefer it to more recent (even identically named) treatments. The Russell version avoids both envy of the rich and warm feelings for the Bolsheviks.

Russell’s faith in the social healing power of architecture seems a bit extreme, but his analysis seems to run in the right direction. In the recent book Happy City, Charles Montgomery notes (p. 90) the excesses of the architecture-as-cure crowd: “The messianic certainty of the high modernists of the last century makes it easy to pick on them.” But Montgomery also verifies (p. 55) Russell’s contention, that suburban life breeds unhappiness and undermines social and political activity.

The reference to Montgomery’s 2013 book is itself a nod towards Russell’s continuing relevance. The essays that make up In Praise of Idleness were written more than 80 years ago, but they are dense with useful information (or useless information, that’s fine), and that informational richness is combined with a writing style that makes them easy to digest. This Russell fellow has a promising future ahead of him.

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fifteen

“What is the Soul?,” pages 170-174

Progress in science has a way of undermining what (we had been confident) constituted knowledge. When I [Russell] was young, everyone knew that humans had a body and a soul. The materiality of the body was self-evident, and questioned only by philosophers. But now, we learn from physicists that the existence of matter is suspect. Simultaneously, psychologists tell us that the existence of mind is suspect; indeed, many psychologists think of the mind as a wholly material phenomenon. And the body seems to be a construct of the mind, completing an unpalatable circle. [So far we are covering ground further adumbrated in an essay in Portraits From Memory – RBR] “Evidently this cannot be quite right, and we have to look for something that is neither mind nor body, out of which both can spring [p. 171].”

Surely as a first impression, material objects exist, and you can bump into them. [Russell does not mention Samuel Johnson’s “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley – RBR] But physicists challenge this interpretation, as bumping has something to do with electrons and protons but little to do with you touching something, even though your brain registers the sensation of touch – and your brain can be mistaken. These electrons and protons are waves or probabilistic clouds, not fully material themselves. Nor can science find the mind or soul in what passes for matter.

The world, then, is events, some of which involve causal connections that make it sensible to lump those events into what we refer to as a material object, and others that we might want to collect and refer to as a mind. An event in your brain is of both types, involving the brain, seen as a physical object, and the mind. We can group events into mind or matter at our convenience, choosing one or the other form to serve our present purposes.

Mind and matter are ephemeral. The sun loses matter by the ton, and a person’s memories do not seem to survive his or her own demise.

Though materialism is not an accurate portrait of the world, our emotional connection to the world would not be much changed if materialism were descriptively precise. The spurs to anti-materialism, perhaps, are the hope that mind is eternal and the hope that mind, in the long run, trumps physical power. The materialists have the better of the argument, however. Despite our accomplishments, it is the limitations to our mental powers that stand out. It is only on the surface of the earth that we can see any real effect of mind, with the rest of the universe being untouched by human ideas or desires. And even on earth, it is the energy from the sun that fuels any power we do have.

We can achieve more in the future, but science suggests that one day, humans will cease to exist. This future non-existence exacts no psychological toll today, we are not that emotionally invested in humanity’s fate millions of years down the road. The science that foretells our end has its opponents, but it is tolerated, because though it anticipates a bleak future, modern science brings comforts in the here and now.

Monday, May 4, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fourteen

“On Comets,” pages 168-169

Comets have an honored history of foretelling events such as the death of Caesar, and hence our astronomical visitors were accorded respect by our forebears. Highly educated people such as the Venerable Bede and John Knox were cognizant of the prophetic nature of comets. The American colonists recognized the role of comets in the deaths of notables, and in providing warnings about indulgence in vice. Alas, the work of Halley and Newton revealed that comets were orderly in their travels, and this knowledge, though suppressed, eventually became general.

“In our day, it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody, high and low, educated and uneducated, was preoccupied with comets, and filled with terror whenever one appeared [p. 169].” Now, thanks largely to artificial lighting, we don’t even notice comets or the rest of the cosmos, either. Our man-made environmental cocoon offers safety, but also makes us self-centered and unaware of deeper matters. The appearance of a comet now, if it were noticed, would probably not stir us enough to forgo our own indulgence in vice.

Monday, March 30, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Thirteen

“Stoicism and Mental Health,” pages 159-167

Despite new alternatives offered by modern psychology, self-command remains necessary. Consider how to manage the fear of death. Some people try to ignore it, and avoid the subject of death as much as possible. Other people choose to obsess about the brevity of life and the unavoidability of death, in the hope that death will lose its sting through familiarity. (This approach was taken to extremes by a Cambridge Fellow who kept his coffin in his rooms.) Another popular approach is to convince yourself that death is really new life.

These three alternatives all hold disadvantages. Ignoring the reality of death will only work so long, until the all too real death of loved ones ends the blissful ignorance – and ends it more painfully than for someone who is better prepared. A monomaniacal focus on death, as on any subject, is profitless, particularly as we cannot act to avoid death (though we can and do act to postpone it). We need varied interests to be mentally healthy. [Russell sounds this theme in The Conquest of Happiness.] Concentrating on death is a sort of slavery to force majeure. [Recall how Russell, in Chapter 10, differentiates US “industrial” agriculture with European traditional agriculture on the basis of control over nature.] Meditation on death cannot eliminate the fear of death: if it could, then one wouldn’t have to keep meditating on death. And belief in an afterlife doesn’t seem to make most such believers any less anxious to avoid sickness, or more likely to be bold in battle. Religious ideas can influence conscious thought, but have more difficulty altering behavior as a whole. The fact that religious people sometimes show anger with non-believers is one sign that their own faith is not bottomless.

Children should not get the impression that death is a taboo topic, because that will only make it more of a subject of concentration. [Russell makes the same point elsewhere about sex, and he mentions the connection between proper sex education and death education in this chapter of In Praise of Idleness.] Nonetheless, we should nudge children away from a concentration on death, as we should nudge them away from a pornography fixation: both obsessions come at a cost in terms of overall development. We should not delude ourselves into believing that intellectual appeals will suffice to inculcate beneficial attitudes towards death.

While we should not lie about the inevitability of death, we should make it clear to children that death in all likelihood lies far in the future for them, and that it is not mysterious. “It should be brought into the same category with the wearing out of toys [p. 162].”

If someone close to a child – a brother, say – passes away, then the situation is somewhat different. [Russell lost a sister when he was quite young, though after both of his parents perished – RBR.] Parents must not try to hide their sorrow from the child, though they should try to moderate it. The topic should neither be avoided nor highlighted, and new amusements and attachments should be introduced, but not in a heavy-handed fashion.

A strong attachment in a child to one and only one person bespeaks a problem, that the child feels safe only under that person’s protection. If this person were to die, the child will be scarred forever, afraid that any attachment will result in immense pain, and needing excessive attention and reassurance from partners. A child’s affections need to be diversified to provide insurance against such an outcome, to guarantee that any loss does not prove devastating.

As children move into adolescence, they require more than the sort of underplayed truth-telling that is appropriate for younger children. Older people need to take part in a wide variety of ideas and actions, and should not be diverted by thoughts of death, either of their own demise or the deaths of others. “When [an adult] does think of death, it is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise its importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it [p. 164].” A similar mindset should be applied to any fear, where acknowledging the fear, and thinking through the actual consequences should the feared event arise, help to lessen the fear. Look at how common it is for people to overcome the fear of death in battle. This approach, recognizing that there are general interests that extend beyond your own life, and beyond the lives of your loved ones, is generally appropriate.

The broad and sincere interests of adults develop from the generous, zestful attitudes of youths, attitudes that become the foundations for life and work. Teachers and fathers can help nurture the requisite broad generosity in adolescents, who are primed for the message. Mothers (and female teachers), in the present environment, themselves lack the broad, impersonal interests that allow them to appropriately inspire the young in this direction.

Risky situations can be dealt with either by trying to avoid them, or by accepting them and acting appropriately when negative consequences ensue. Eventually, unless fear is to dominate your life, you must resort to the second approach, as not all risks are avoidable. The forthright handling of misfortune – which is what stoicism consists of – is currently undervalued. Those educators who attempt to instill it are at risk themselves of becoming sadistic: the taking of pleasure in thrashing young people is commonplace.

Stoicism is helpful in dealing with the fear of death, but also with the fear of impoverishment, the fear of pain, and so on. These fears really should be controlled, but we must not let ourselves succumb to the trap of ignoring opportunities to mitigate or eliminate negative consequences directly. The view, which still persists to a degree, that anesthesia should not be used to reduce the pain of childbirth, is unreasonable, and reflects an origin in “unconscious sadism [p. 165].” Nonetheless, the anesthetically reduced pain of childbirth has been accompanied by a decreased willingness in rich women to tolerate the the pain that does remain. We need to manage this potential tradeoff between protecting against dangers and meeting actual danger with fortitude, and to do so in a way that gives little scope for cruelty.

Showing too little sympathy for the troubles of small children is a severe error, but excessive sympathy also is to be avoided. “A child that invariably receives sympathy will continue to cry over every tiny mishap; the ordinary self-control of the average adult is only achieved through knowledge that no sympathy will be won by making a fuss [p. 166].” Children can handle and even appreciate a demanding adult caregiver if they understand that the adult loves them.

In theory, then, an enlightened love is what is needed for teachers. [This point echoes Russell’s contention in his 1926 book, Education and the Good Life.] But we must guard against allowing the inevitable visceral factors of fatigue and impatience among teachers to become an excuse for cruelty, doled out under the guise of serving the long-term interests of children.

Russell closes this chapter by reiterating its main points. Tell children the truth, even painful truths, in an unemotional manner (except when a tragedy requires some acknowledgement of sorrow), though there is no need to obtrude painful truths before the knowledge is needed. Adults should model a cheerful fortitude. Children should be made aware of the broad interests that exist in this world, and see that there is much to be said for embracing larger purposes than one’s own direct well-being. Misfortunes should be met with the knowledge that there still are reasons to continue on, and potential misfortunes should not be objects of intense concentration, even in the name of protecting against them. Guardians of the young must be continually wary to ensure that their necessary application of discipline is not about their own sadistic pleasures, but rather, aimed at developing the capacities of the young. The best discipline for the young is that which is self-imposed, and derives from the hope of achieving some valuable but difficult goal. “Such ambition is usually suggested by some person in the environment; thus even self-discipline depends, in the end, upon an educational stimulus [p. 167].”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Priase of Idleness, Chapter Twelve

“Education and Discipline,” pages 152-158

A thorough approach to education requires knowledge of the goal to be achieved, along with an understanding of the psychology of learning, to indicate the means through which the desired goal can be achieved. In the West, Christianity and nationalism are the usual sources of goals, though in the limit, as Germany is now demonstrating, they are incompatible. When they coincide, they both are wrong; when they differ, Christianity provides the better guide.

The goal of education should be civilisation, which is composed of both individual and social dimensions. A civilised individual needs to possess a solid foundation of knowledge, skill in an occupation, and respect for evidence. Necessary moral qualities for a civilised being include a kind heart, a degree of willpower, evenhandedness, and zest. [Russell advises zest in both The Conquest of Happiness and Education and the Good Life – RBR.] “In communities, civilisation demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends [p. 152].”

Given these goals, it is up to psychological science to provide the proper path. The major dimension that distinguishes alternatives concerns the degree of control exerted over students by educators. Full freedom does not ensure good behavior for children any more than it does for adults, whatever rump Rousseauvians might claim. The cooperation that society requires will not spontaneously arise in a population of unconstrained children. Further, life in modern society is dependent on science and technology, so education must provide some grounding in these areas. More generally, education requires some provision of “mental and moral equipment [p. 153]”; it cannot simply prepare fertile fields for the free development of children.

Still, significant freedom is desirable in education, because the extensive exercise of authority is bad both for the governed and the governors. Those whose inclinations are consistently thwarted by authority become either timid or rebellious. Timidity undermines mental and physical boldness, while the anger that submitting to authority generates results in the bullying of weaker individuals; hence, suffering is passed along from generation to generation. The authoritarian educators are poorly served by the lack of freedom that they impose, turning into sadistic inspirers of terror, not of learning. Knowledge becomes tainted through its connections to the horrific teachers.

The relative few of the thwarted individuals who turn to rebellion are mainly on the wrong road, too – most rebellion is foolish, not wise. A commitment to oppose authority and received opinion is not praiseworthy; rather, it involves accepting many mistaken ideas. A rebel who moves into the ranks of educator sometimes will try to sow rebellion among his charges, which harms the learning environment.

“What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas [p. 155].” [This comports well, unsurprisingly, with Russell’s views in Education and the Good Life.] The friendliness can be inculcated by sympathy towards a child’s natural impulses and desires, as opposed to treating children as material to be shaped into drones supporting God and/or country. Children should also understand that what they are being taught has actual value to them (if indeed it does) – learning takes place with much less labor when the value of learning is clear. A significant dose of freedom tends to serve all of these ends.

The freedom should not extend into promoting an aristocratic disregard of the interests and feelings of others. Formal manners are not what is necessary – indeed, these seem to be most prominent in the most barbarous societies – but rather, doing one’s share for the common good and taking on small but, in the aggregate, socially valuable obligations. [Russell often offers only lukewarm support for manners.] Children should understand that they are not the center of the universe, and that good work habits are important.

Adult authority must be exercised to protect the smaller and weaker children from their stronger peers. Having a high regard for the interests of others is not a feeling that is naturally imbued in every young breast. Adult abdication of supervision in this realm is apt to lead to a tyranny beyond what is commonly seen in adult hierarchies.

Some children are almost lost to the effective blend of freedom and discipline by the time they enter school, due to poor (perhaps overly solicitous) parenting. But children with a more sensible upbringing can flourish and remain friendly with authority figures in an environment featuring a considerable degree of control.

“I think modern educational theorists are inclined to attach too much importance to the negative virtue of not interfering with children, and too little to the positive merit of enjoying their company [p. 157].” A sort of high regard for children, of the type that people frequently display for dogs and horses, goes a long way into making reasonable discipline acceptable to the young – and to reducing the times when such discipline is necessary. A regard for children that is based on seeing them as potential allies for your political party or soldiers for your future wars will not win their affection.

Teachers are so overtaxed, however, that they cannot maintain spontaneous pleasure in the company of children. [Russell remarks further on the excessive workload of teachers in Unpopular Essays.] Teachers should spend just two hours a day in the company of children: more time than this results in fatigue, and then irritation will show itself in interactions with the children, no matter what high ideals the teacher holds. The friendliness that should exist between rested teachers and their charges allows for an ad hoc approach to discipline: the decisions made in the moment will be fine, and the friendliness will ensure that the children perceive the decisions as fair. “No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact [p. 158].”

Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Eleven

“Men versus Insects,” pages 149-151

The current talk (and action) of letting slip the dogs of war among men overshadows the important, ongoing conflict between humans and insects. Humans were once the prey of large animals, but now, it is only ourselves and the very small animals that put us at risk. Recall that the huge and seemingly dominant dinosaurs on our earth were eclipsed by much smaller mammals. It may be that the combination of small brains and massive offensive weapons – horns – doomed the dinosaurs.

After supplanting the dinosaurs, mammals grew in size, though the largest mammal, the mammoth, has disappeared, and other large mammals are threatened. Man’s survivability is not at risk, except at the hands of insects and microbes. [Russell altered this view after the invention of nuclear weapons – RBR.] Insects such as ants exist in unfathomable numbers that dwarf those of humans. Germs are spreading as people migrate; yellow fever used to exist only in West Africa, but it has moved beyond those borders, and is likely to threaten massive human fatalities in China and India.

Scientists can devise ways to keep problem insects under control, often by relying on other organisms that are parasites of the targeted insect species. But scientific knowledge can be used for good or evil. The German professor who developed a method for fixing nitrogen was aiming to make a potent fertilizer, while his political masters wanted bombs, and they exiled the professor for insufficient interest in explosives. “In the next great war, the scientists on either side will let loose pests on the crops of the other side, and it may prove scarcely possible to destroy the pests when peace comes [pp. 150-151].” The only lasting winners in the next, biological war, might be the insect combatants. The universe might view this result with apathy, but I [Russell] would be saddened for my species. [Elsewhere Russell expressed greater ambivalence about the continuation of homo sapiens – RBR.]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Ten

“Modern Homogeneity,” pages 141-148

Europeans in the States notice how the people in every region (excepting the one-time rebel states) hold similar viewpoints, even as each region strives to assert its individuality. The fact of uniformity only enhances the desire to trumpet minor points of distinctiveness. But the old South is almost a different country: “It is agricultural, aristocratic, and retrospective, whereas the rest of America is industrial, democratic and prospective [p. 141].” Even the non-southern rural parts of the US take an industrial approach to agriculture [a point Russell made in Chapter 8, too]; captains of agriculture could just as well be captains of other industries.

Peasantry of the European or Asian style is nearly non-existent in the US. As peasantry fosters some harmful anti-social attitudes, its absence in the US is a benefit. The systematization and industrialization in the orange groves of California are thousands of years ahead of what is found in the orange groves of Sicily. [Russell has some unduly sharp words for the qualities of the Sicilian workers, claiming (among other insults) that “what they lack in intelligence towards trees they make up for by cruelty to animals [p. 142].” He grants them “an instinctive sense of beauty,” however.] California grove workers can see themselves, like industrialists, as controllers of nature, not passive recipients of what the earth doles out.

Control over nature is what renders Minnesotans and Californians nearly indistinguishable, while Norwegians and Sicilians are poles apart. The ancient European religions concerned human interactions with the climate, and Christianity picked up some of the threads. The fact that Hell is described as very hot indicates its southern origins, because the Norwegians would have feared extreme cold instead. But Hell is not about climate in either (industrialized, so to speak) California or North Dakota: “in both it is a stringency on the money market [p. 143].”

Both the environment and the thoughts in America are mechanized. Radio transmits the same news everywhere, even to the remotest areas, so the whole country holds similar household conversations. I [Russell] was subject to broadcast ads while trying to read Virginia Woolf in a train traveling through the country’s midsection.

The same economies of scale that lead to efficiency in the production of pins lead (of necessity) to uniformity in the production of opinions. The role of the radio and of cinema in school education will continue to grow; lessons will be produced in one location and sent everywhere, so that every student will receive the same lessons. [Russell occasionally extolls the virtues of film for educational purposes.] Churches already (it is reported) produce centrally a weekly sermon, and send it out to be delivered by clergy who thereby are freed of the necessity of generating their own material. Syndicated news services ensure that local newspapers, nationwide, print nearly identical stories. “Reviews of my books, I find, are, except in the best newspapers, verbally the same from New York to San Francisco, and from Maine to Texas, except that they become shorter as one travels from the north-east to the south-west [p. 144].” Even the books that people read are the same across America: unlike in Europe, book purchases in the States are dominated by a handful of blockbusters.

Hollywood’s market preeminence ensures that cinemas worldwide – except in the Soviet Union – disseminate midwestern American views on family life and much else. (The Soviets impose their own, separate, uniformity.) The introduction of sound to film makes it likely that Hollywood will soon be the source of a global language.

There are advantages and disadvantages to such uniformity. The similarity of ideas and culture probably adds to peaceful co-existence – but at the price of intolerance of minorities. (Perhaps the dominant culture’s strength will mean that soon there will be no minorities to suppress.) The ways in which uniformity is established influence the mix of costs and benefits. [Warning: More Russellian Invective Follows!] “Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility [pages 145-146].” American public schools squelch the sensibility, but seem to be less adept at bringing the other features into closer compatibility with US norms. This point is more general: it is easier to assimilate desirable traits than undesirable ones, so that any general push for uniformity is likely to produce a levelling down.

A nation of immigrants such as America must needs engage in a project to assimilate the children of immigrants. The path chosen, which involves over-the-top nationalism, is unfortunate. This nationalism, emanating from the most powerful country, inspires fear in European nations.

Americans seem to equate a refusal to follow the herd with elitism, and hence as an undemocratic impulse. French democracy has avoided this interpretation. Occupations differ in France, they each have their own standards, without institutionalizing a stuffy hierarchy. All professional occupations in the US resemble business, somewhat akin to an orchestra consisting only of violin players. Americans are envious of any superiority that cannot be made general – except for superiority in athletic pursuits. “It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regard to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration of brains [p. 147].” Americans distrust the notion of intellectual expertise; popular science books abound because they appeal to the belief that special training is not necessary to understand science, even if it is necessary for athletic prowess.

Americans appreciate excellent achievements, but they place barriers in the way of such achievements through intolerance of eccentricity. Young artists face particularly steep obstacles, as the requisite “business”-style template is particularly unsuitable for artists. So America imports from Europe many of its most-admired achievers.

The imposed uniformity harms the exceptional individual, but smooths life for average people. A speaker can be well assured that his listeners will agree with him. Political differences are narrowed, so politics is a less contentious field. American-style uniformity is likely to spread to Europe as industrialization progresses: Europeans cannot glibly attack the homogeneity in the US and think themselves immune. [Somehow this reminds me of Karl Marx’s quotation from Horace in the preface to Das Kapital: “If, however, the German reader shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural labourers, or in optimist fashion comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad; I must plainly tell him, “De te fabula narratur!”]

As uniformity spreads, international cooperation should become easier, just as political cohesion within the US is eased by homogeneity. The uniformity need not mean stasis, thanks to the changes wrought by ongoing scientific and technical progress. “I see therefore no reason for undue pessimism, however standardisation may offend the tastes of those who are unaccustomed to it [p. 148].”

Friday, February 27, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Nine

“On Youthful Cynicism,” pages 132-140

Educated young people in England, France, and the United States display an unusual degree of cynicism – a trait that is not shared by their counterparts in Russia and China, Japan, Poland, and elsewhere. [Bertie discussed the lack of cynicism exhibited by young people in Russia, India, China, and Japan in The Conquest of Happiness, which was published in 1930, five years before In Praise of Idleness. A footnote is indicated in the title of Chapter Nine, which (judging by other such footnotes in the book) is presumably meant to provide information noting that the chapter was originally written some years prior to the publication date of In Praise of Idleness; however, in my copy, the footnote itself (as opposed to the indicator, the superscript “1”) does not appear – RBR.]

Russian youth avoid cynicism by buying into the ideal of building communism. The work, much of it manual, involved in spreading industrialization and communist ideology serves as a cynicism preventative.

British rule and the subsequent detestation of British ways offer Indian youth a menu of meaningful, cynicism-protective activities. Some of these involve choosing the non-British path, preferring handicraft production, for instance, to mechanized industry, and preferring moral might to British military power. “The persecution of nationalist activities in India is just sufficient to make them heroic, and not sufficient to make them seem futile [p. 133].”

Chinese youth are nationalistic and inspired by the dream of Western-style freedom and prosperity. Japanese youth also are inspired by early nineteenth century European liberalism, and are struggling to conquer feudalism.

But Western youth believe in nothing, not the precepts of their elders, nor anything in reaction against those precepts. The traditional ideals – “religion, country, progress, beauty, truth [p. 134]” – fail to inspire. Why?

Science has made it hard to hold the fervent religious beliefs of earlier ages. It is the supposed usefulness of religion, and not its literal truth, that seems to be the main draw for the religious now. The Church itself is a major property owner, jealous of its privileges, and conservative. It counsels an ethic which in many applications appears cruel. Those who desire to follow Christ can find themselves ostracized from official Christianity.

Patriotism remains politically influential in Western countries, but young people see it as a regressive force once a country has established freedom. And it can be such a force: Poland used newfound freedom to oppress Ukraine, and Ireland used its achievement of freedom to censor books. The nationalism of larger countries is still more costly: the winners in World War I, who claimed to be fighting against militarism, became devoted militarists at Versailles. “Such facts have made it obvious to all intelligent young men that patriotism is the chief curse of our age and will bring civilization to an end if it cannot be mitigated [pp. 135-136].”

The sort of progress that is measurable, business success and increased consumption, does not inspire, and hawking these ideals to the young is unremunerative. Meaningful, inspirational things, even if they no longer involve (as they did for Shakespeare) the quality of an age’s poetry, cannot be measured.

The traditional artistic goal of seeking for beauty seems out of date: modern artists want to inculcate pain, not awe. Artists in the past, the chief inhabitants of Athens or Florence, say, could view themselves of being of utmost importance, leading residents of leading cities of a planet at the center of the universe, members of a species at the pinnacle of creation. The joys and sorrows of such creatures could be viewed as holding profound implications. Not so any more, individuals are fleeting collections of atoms in a vast, eternal, uncaring cosmos, our little lives rounded by a sleep. Lear’s clarity in madness [accidentally, RBR’s second use of this phrase] allows him to glimpse the insignificance of unaccommodated man; for moderns, the portrait is all too familiar.

Truth used to seem certain and attainable, and the search for truth drove my [Russell’s] youthful inquiries. [Russell later recounts his misguided belief in Truth in Portraits from Memory – RBR.] Truth has lost its esteemed position, truth now is relative and redolent with the flaws that flesh is heir to, and so truth cannot easily attract worshipers. [Russell amends a line from Pope to indicate that the updated understanding of gravity even robs Newton’s laws of their profundity.] A modern person questions any truth he holds, as being motivated by either economic (a’ la Marx) or sexual (a’ la Freud) considerations.

But skepticism about truth should be viewed like other beliefs, driven not by rationality but by sociology. Widespread cynicism stems from a comfortable existence – oppressed people are too angry to be prey to cynicism – paired with a lack of power to effect change. Intellectuals used to be influential, but as basic education has spread, they subsist by serving the non-intellectual rich or powerful. This service to the stupid ideas of the ruling class becomes palatable to intellectuals only through the adoption of a cynical outlook. A bright young person who is deeply knowledgeable about literature (as opposed to science) cannot exercise his talent in a manner that he regards as important.

So cynicism cannot be overcome by improved preaching to the young. “The cure will only come when intellectuals can find a career that embodies their creative impulses [p. 139].” This improvement can only arise if the ruling class were truly educated. People can work in finance with no interest in or knowledge of how their activities affect any part of the world beyond their own bottom line. [Here’s a recent contribution on that point – RBR.] Physicians cannot practice so! The world would be better if our financial and political masters were required to know economics and history, poetry and novels – and indeed the interconnected world implies that their actions have ramifications that extend to these seemingly remote areas. The anonymity that allowed Rabelais to publish and to keep his university post is no longer available, as publicity will out. [And even more so, now, of course – Rabelais could be identified through digital metrics of his writing style – RBR.] Hence, today's Rabelais will not create his work in the first place.

The stupidity of rulers has not intensified, but their power has. The social need for rulers to be well educated therefore has increased. Meeting this urgent need is a feasible, though not a simple, task.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Eight

“Western Civilisation,” pages 118-131

If we want to understand our civilisation, the tools that we have at hand are those of history, anthropology, and travel. All of them have a tendency to tell us more about the researcher than about the civilisation, however. Anthropologists who study savages can make them noble, or bloodthirsty, or what have you: “the savage is an obliging fellow who does whatever is necessary for the anthropologist’s theories [p. 118].” But we must work with the tools at our disposal.

Civilisation is marked by forethought. [Russell later devotes more time to forethought in Human Society in Ethics and Politics – RBR.] We can grasp the notion of forethought by considering activities that involve current pain but hold the prospect of future reward. The higher the pain, the lower the future pleasure, and the longer the interval between pain and pleasure, the greater the forethought that is required for such activities to go forward. Society might display a high level of forethought, even though individuals do not; for instance, it might be the case that the rulers reap the future pleasure, but require the minions to contribute the current pain. Collective forethought is significant in industrialized societies, which abound in projects such as railroads and harbors that take many years of nurturing to yield fruit. [A bit surprised that Russell doesn’t mention the opposite time profile, that associated with tempting or addictive goods, of current pleasure paired with some probability of future pain – RBR.]

Ancient Egyptians laboriously embalmed bodies with the view to a resurrection in 10,000 years, so in that sense their planning horizon more than equaled that of today’s industrial societies. Their efforts indicate that civilisation advances not just through forethought but through knowledge, so that those present pains really do stand a chance of paying off down the road. Nonetheless, even patience that is not well-informed can inculcate habits that can build civilisations, just as Puritan efforts to postpone pleasures [those addictive goods! – RBR] until the next life helped to spur economic investment. But a working definition of civilisation is: “A manner of life due to the combination of knowledge and forethought [p. 119].”

Civilisation, then, begins with agriculture and animal domestication. Traditionally, there has been separation and even dissonance between agricultural and pastoral societies, and agricultural societies have tended to have more developed civilisations. (The biblical tale of Cain and Abel swims against the tide, intending to illustrate the superior virtue of shepherds.) Prior to industrialization, the agriculture-based civilisations around the world were more similar than they are now; “Science and industrialism are nowadays the distinctive marks of Western civilisation…[p. 120].”

Pre-industrial Western civilisation began to differentiate itself through the Greek inventions of geometry and deduction. The Greeks had many other successes (in art, for instance, and in empirical methods), but these were either lost or undeveloped, and hence these excellencies did not lend themselves to traditions which became a distinctive part of Western civilisation.

The contributions of Greek reasoning and mathematics might have been lost due to Greek political incompetence, if the politically astute Romans were not able to preserve them. Roman political institutions allowed emperors to come and go with little effect on the workings of the empire’s bureaucracy. The Roman innovation was loyalty to the state, not to the emperor, and its legacy still contributes to Western political stability.

As Roman power waned, Christian institutions picked up some of the building blocks of modern Western civilisation, including ethics, reasoning (for the purposes of theology), and a bureaucracy featuring centralized control, along with a legal code. During the Middle Ages, these building blocks were dormant, and Chinese and Islamic civilisations eclipsed the West. The rise of the West and science remain mysterious, incapable of being explained solely by economic factors. (The decline of Spain concerned intolerance, not economics.) Though there have been some isolated cultural blooms, including the recent one in Western Europe, “The general rule is that civilisations decay except when they come in contact with an alien civilisation superior to their own [p. 122].” The times of spontaneous growth are hard to differentiate from the more common periods of stasis, so we are left with the notion that a handful of exceptional people can be enough to advance a civilisation. Their contributions must find fertile ground, but the ground has been more available than the geniuses who thrive in it. Without Newton, Kepler, and Galileo, we currently would live in a world that would resemble the world of the 1500’s. Stasis remains possible, if the well of talented people runs dry.

Representative democracy on a large scale is a valuable legacy of the Middle Ages, one that promotes stability; nonetheless, representative government has not proven to be a viable export to non-English speaking countries (except for France).

Western civilisation is unique in its political “cohesion.” This cohesion is rooted in patriotism, which took on its modern form when England was threatened by the Spanish Armada, and found “its first literary expression in Shakespeare [p. 124].” Japan caught up to the West in the sense of political cohesion in the 1800s.

Technological improvements in warfare strengthened the hands of governments, who have been able to establish this cohesion. The large number of workers needed to produce advanced weaponry pressure governments to maintain the support of significant segments of the population. One manner of doing so is through effective propaganda, and we can expect the persuasive arts to be enhanced through extensive governmental efforts.

Europe is engaged in a centuries-long transition, with science and patriotism contributing the centripetal force formerly supplied by Christianity. European-style outcomes cannot be assured in other cultures when science gains a foothold, because of differing foundations. Christianity, for instance, provides a basis for respect for the individual – a respect that science itself does not require. Science does not come packaged with any set of moral values. [Sam Harris disagrees – RBR.] Most of our moral ideas are inherited from a pre-industrial age, but over time they will adjust to conform with the realities of modernity. The rapid change in living conditions has led morality to lag: “the world has changed more in the last one hundred and fifty years than in the previous four thousand [p. 125].” [Writing in the 1840s, Friedrich Engels made a similar point: “Sixty, eighty years ago, England was a country like every other, with small towns, few and simple industries, and a thin but proportionally large agricultural population. To-day it is a country like no other, with a capital of two and a half million inhabitants; with vast manufacturing cities; with an industry that supplies the world, and produces almost everything by means of the most complex machinery; with an industrious, intelligent, dense population, of which two-thirds are employed in trade and commerce, and composed of classes wholly different; forming, in fact, with other customs and other needs, a different nation from the England of those days.”] Many of our outdated codes view the relief of suffering – such as by condoning birth control – to be immoral. But in a science-based society, attempts to limit access to the tree of knowledge as a means to sustain outdated beliefs will not be effective. [The urge to censor knowledge to serve other goals comes up frequently in Russell’s writings.]  

Our moral traditions derive from the level of the individual and from small groups, whereas modernity requires the cooperation of countless numbers of people. Thus the largest coherent group, the nation, takes on a moral character, and patriotism becomes a sort of religion, one for which people willingly sacrifice their lives.

Industrialization and large-scale organization threaten the status that individual liberty achieved in recent centuries. Bridges and skyscrapers are the work of many, while a work of art might be one person’s achievement. Those living individuals who gain respect generally do so for trivial accomplishments in sport or cinema.

Perhaps the greatest creations require an individual creator. Or, maybe the art that will be produced by groups in the future will exceed the solo masterpieces of the past. Much science already is best thought of as being accomplished at the laboratory level, not as the work of an individual scientist. At any rate, the rise of collective endeavor will surely entail some cost in the form of reduced individuality and assertiveness.

The Christian notion that each human has a soul has been a boon to individualism. [Russell raised this point again in Unpopular Essays.] Family connections tended to mitigate the extreme individualism that Christianity promotes, but families have weakened, and now the state provides the communal connection. It might be better if people were drawn to a broader aggregate, humanity writ large, but absent a major change such as a grave external threat to the globe, the psychological sympathies of people are hard to expand beyond the nation state. [Adam Smith made a similar claim in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (VI.II.27): “The state or sovereignty in which we have been born and educated, and under the protection of which we continue to live, is, in ordinary cases, the greatest society upon whose happiness or misery, our good or bad conduct can have much influence. It is accordingly, by nature, most strongly recommended to us.”]

The main elements in Western civilisation now are science and technology. Nonetheless, these building blocks will produce still larger effects in the future – note how long it took agriculture and the ideas associated with agriculture to spread across the globe. (Aristocratic classes are still stuck in the hunting stage of development.) It will be a long time before the ideas of industry fully replace those of agriculture. Nonetheless, the industrial mentality can spread rather quickly. In the US, agriculture itself is being industrialized. In countries like Russia and China, the backward peasantry is uneducated and illiterate – their children, therefore, can easily be captured by the industrial propaganda of the state, allowing for a rapid change in worldviews.

The rise of science and industry might be uncomfortable for some traditionalists, but their Western roots date at least to Rome, and can be seen in Plutarch’s account of Archimedes’s military inventions. “Energy, intolerance, and abstract intellect have distinguished the best ages in Europe from the best ages in the East [p. 129].” The persistence of Western intolerance sometimes is overlooked, despite the fate of Socrates and Plato’s rigid recommendations. [Plato’s intolerance is discussed by Russell elsewhere, too.] Many of the worst features of modern life existed in ancient Greece, including corruption, nationalism, and militarism. The Greeks were advantaged relative to us by not having an efficient police force, which meant that significant numbers of the best people were able to escape oppression.

The previous century and a half of emphasis on religious tolerance is an aberration in the West’s historical arc, and is giving way to a new round of racial and religious intolerance. Persecution in the West took off with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The Christians combined Jewish certitude of having the one true religion with Roman desires for world conquest and Greek capacities for finely grained thinking. The product was a degree of persecution that greatly surpassed that of the world’s other major religions, which often allowed non-coreligionist neighbors to live in peace.

So Fascism and Communism come by their intolerances honestly. Would someone opposed to government orthodoxy in modern Europe have fared any better in ancient Sparta, or in medieval Christendom? Europe has a brutal history: burning witches and killing those who refused to accept the existence of witches, destroying the Incas, following a 19th century pope who disclaimed any human duty to non-human animals. “I am afraid Europe, however intelligent, has always been rather horrid, except in the brief period between 1848 and 1914 [p. 131].”

Sunday, February 8, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Halftime

In keeping with an RBR tradition, this halftime report on In Praise of Idleness comes well after the halfway mark of the book – though more than half of the chapters lie in the future.

One of the themes that comes through to me in the first “half” of In Praise of Idleness is how much of the thinking is consonant with Marxian ideas. I guess this should not be a surprise when reading an openly socialist thinker like Russell (who has much good to say about anarchism, too), but Russell’s direct comments on Marx tend to be rather critical. What are some Russellian echoes of Marxian ideas? The ethical positions of society, according to Marx, are those notions that suit the ruling class – and Russell claims that the idea that hard work is virtuous is one such position – as long as the hard work is done by others. (And the education system will attempt to sustain support for the existing order.) Even the Soviet Union, with its praise of the proletariat and its campaigns to enlist young people for manual toil, offers Russell a case in point. The reserve army of the unemployed is a feature of capitalism that, for Marx, helps keep the demands of laborers in line; for Russell, unemployment makes it appear that leisure time cannot possibly be evenly distributed. For Marx, work under capitalism is just a means to an end, as opposed to being what it should be, life itself, manifesting the human need for purposeful labor. Further, workers are required to work such long hours that they have no room for active leisure pursuits. Russell concurs on both points, along with the Marxian (and Millian) observation that machinery has not lightened the load for workers. Property ownership largely stems from military prowess, according to Russell, a’ la Marx’s primitive capitalist accumulation. (As Marx puts it, “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.”) Academic economists tend to be stooges of the rich and powerful, according to Russell. Marx was there first: “Though he [a capitalist] chanted to us the whole creed of the economists, in reality, he says, he would not give a brass farthing for it. He leaves this and all such like subterfuges and juggling tricks to the professors of Political Economy, who are paid for it.” The state apparatus itself is captured to serve the interests of rich industrialists, according to Russell. For Marx, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Marx and Russell share views about other features of the capitalist economy, too. They both recognize the capitalist tendency for large swings in the business cycle and pressure to extend the working day, while they both also seem to believe that economies of scale in production are always available, so that larger producers can out-compete small producers (p. 100). [It turns out that is not always the case.] Of course, Marx and Russell differ on many points. Marx has little good to say about the profit motive within an advanced capitalist system (though the early stages of capitalism create wonders). Russell is more nuanced, suggesting that there are areas where free enterprise delivers the goods and other areas where it does not. For instance, the fact that housework lies outside the profit-oriented economy leads to worse conditions for women. But those areas where the unregulated pursuit of profits fails society are legion for Russell:

(1) The profit motive does not inspire the type of architecture that promotes wellbeing. Desirable architectural reform cannot take place without shielding design from the profit motive, that is, without a species of socialism in this realm.

(2) Relatedly, the profit motive ruins the aesthetics of suburbs. Along with the ugly suburbs, the chase for profits produces anxious wives and unhealthy children.

(3) Profit-seeking in the financial sector leads to anti-social behavior. One element of this anti-social behavior is the promulgation of self-serving myths (which, as noted above, are parroted by academics and other influential people). The policy ideas of people in the financial sector are as divorced from social wellbeing as are the policy ideas of people who are proficient in the military arts. [This is reminiscent not only of Marx but of Adam Smith’s analysis of the disconnect between the interests of capitalists and social wellbeing: “The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it."]

(4) Speaking of the military arts, war is promoted by the profit-seeking of industrialists. [And Smith again on the colonies: “A great empire has been established for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers all the goods with which these could supply them. For the sake of that little enhancement of price which this monopoly might afford our producers, the home-consumers have been burdened with the whole expence of maintaining and defending that empire. For this purpose, and for this purpose only, in the two last wars, more than two hundred millions have been spent, and a new debt of more than a hundred and seventy millions has been contracted over and above all that had been expended for the same purpose in former wars.”]

(5) The unemployment that comes from the volatility of investment represents a social cost that is not taken into account by profit-maximizing decisions within heavy industry. Society does not thrive, then, when the commanding heights of the economy pursue profit in an unregulated fashion. Indeed, poverty is perpetuated by excessive devotion to profits.

(6) The profit motive has not been a major influence on education, but to the extent that it has had an influence, the tendency is for that influence to be detrimental.

(7) The arts cannot thrive when they are driven by profit considerations alone.

Russell’s case for socialism is non-Marxian, it does not follow from class war or even conceptions of fairness to workers. Rather, Russell sees socialism – which includes state control of the commanding heights and some income protection for the poor and unemployed – as being a necessary part of a rational response to the conditions that accompany large-scale industrialization. Why should willing workers suffer because of macroeconomic forces over which they have no control? [Once again, I am reminded of Engels: “Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the bourgeoisie, are really his road to happiness? No one. He knows that he has something today and that it does not depend upon himself whether he shall have something tomorrow.”] Surely the unavoidable risks of unemployment should be spread through society, not forced to be borne by the few (in relative terms) who are unlucky. Also for Russell, wealth differentials are tolerable, as long as they do not translate into power differentials. Russell’s vision brings to mind the views of the philosopher Michael Walzer, who in Spheres of Justice (p. 127), also finds that income differentials become a problem when they allow for people to become powerful outside of the economic sphere: “If we succeeded absolutely in barring the conversion of money into political power, for example, then we might not limit its accumulation or alienation at all. As things are, we have strong reasons to limit both of these – reasons that have less to do with the marginal utility of money than with its extra-mural effectiveness.”

Russell is perhaps most stridently non-Marxian (or at least non-Leninist) in his belief that socialism cannot be established in a sustainable fashion through force; persuasion is the route to the rationalization of capitalism that Russellian socialism represents.

Another thinker who came to mind on a few occasions in the first half of In Praise of Idleness is (Bertrand’s friend) John Maynard Keynes. Russell echoes Keynes’s views on the unnecessary and perverse severity of the Versailles Treaty. Russell is prescient in foreseeing another European war on the horizon, stoked in part by the German reaction to the Versailles Treaty. Russell also predicts that the war will be a losing one for Germany, despite initial German victories, and that neglect of America will once again be the cause of German military over-reaching – pretty impressive for an essay published in 1935.

Perhaps the most famous quote of Keynes’s is: “…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Russell’s essay “The Ancestry of Fascism” seeks to trace out those political philosophers whose ideas helped spark the rise of fascism. Among the many names that Russell identifies, Johann Gottlieb Fichte seems to hold what, in other contexts, might be termed pride of place.

One fun Russellian nugget from the first half of In Praise of Idleness involves a story of how a town’s butcher is so spiteful towards his competitors that he converts the town to vegetarianism – and thereby destroys his own livelihood along with those of his competitors. This story has a Keynesian, beggar-thy-neighbor flavor, and it occurs within the Keynesian context, too, of foreign trade controls.

A second memorable moment is yet another rather depressing depiction of domestic life. Suburban existence even provides fertile ground for fascist ideologies to flourish, as the lack of public life in suburbia combines with hierarchical structures at work to preclude other outlets for men to exercise power. (In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Russell compares human suburban existence unfavorably to that of jungle-dwelling monkeys.)

A third small point that I think I will remember from the first half of In Praise of Idleness is that fascism, for Russell, is diabolical both in what it hopes to achieve and how it hopes to get there. [Elsewhere, Russell similarly characterizes Marx as someone “who substituted Prussian discipline for freedom as both the means and the end of revolutionary action.”] And while Russell correctly foresees its eventual military defeat, he also sees as fascism’s intellectual opponents two rather different bodies of thought, Bentham-style utilitarianism and Russell-style socialism. If Russell is right about socialism, however, then utilitarianism and socialism are quite closely allied: socialism brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

On to the second half of In Praise of Idleness

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Seven, Part Two

“The Case for Socialism,” Part Two, pages 105-117

Picking up from Part One with the remainder of Russell’s nine arguments for socialism….

6. The Emancipation of Women and the Welfare of Young Children   The economic dependence of women, whose housework is unremunerated, on their husbands cannot easily be remedied absent socialism. The state needs to see to the financial demands of children, and wives need to work outside of the house: architectural adjustments and the provision of nursery schools are part of the requisite reforms.

7. Art   The privacy fetish undermines public art, and this predilection also can be overcome with socialism.

Commercial motives are holding back the development of cinema: some observers even believe that the apex of the cinematic art lies in Soviet Russia. Profit-motivated authors, too, temper their writing to preclude offense and produce pap to widen their appeal. The state monopoly of publishing that an insecure socialist state would offer could be worse [-- a concern that Russell expressed years earlier.] In a secure socialist state, however, more free time for creative activity, and a norm that anyone’s work can be published if the expenses are privately covered, would lead to more creativity than now exists.

8. Unprofitable Public Services   There are many public goods, such as defense, that are poorly provided by individual, profit-oriented activity alone, and as a result, these goods are provided by the government. A recent addition has been public health measures, which the private enterprise fanatics have opposed, but which bring substantial benefits in practice. Private enterprise in this realm might involve blackmail via privately profitable threats to spread a plague: better that quarantine be a public mandate.

The scope for public provision of services has expanded, with education now being largely a public matter, though religious, charitable, and profit-oriented schools also exist. (“On the whole, the profit motive has had little influence on education, and that little bad [p. 108].”) Even areas dominated by private provision of goods and services are regulated by the government, and rightly so, as the spillover effects are often broad and long. Residents in one neighborhood of a city work in other neighborhoods, so multiple areas are affected through behavior that in itself is geographically isolated. Transport and economic development increase interdependence and undermine the self-sufficiency of towns and villages. Power stations have monopoly control, and unfettered, that control could be exercised in an extortionate fashion. Roads, railroads, and airplanes all advance, heightening geographical spillovers.

9. War   War is too dangerous to risk, and socialism holds the potential to reduce the risk of war – which is not to say that war is a capitalist invention. Economic motives are traditionally prominent in war-making, but so are status motives: spirited men enjoy war, and enjoy that women like men who are successful soldiers. Global socialism would be an effective antidote to war, but socialism in the largest, most powerful countries, would also offer substantial protection.

The intellectual case against war is now strong and widely shared, bolstered by the sufferings of both the winners and the losers from the previous war [WWI]. The next war will involve even more damage and death to civilians. Entire cities can be destroyed, and Britain has lost its longstanding immunity against invasion.

Despite the broad desire for peace, further war is on the near horizon. “The proximate cause, of course, is the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, with the consequent growth of militant nationalism in Germany [p. 110].” Nonetheless, the next war likely will bring a still harsher peace, and the process will repeat itself. So the answer lies not in winning a war but by ending the causes of conflict, which primarily are economic.

Economies of scale help to stoke the rivalry. Large factories can undersell small factories, so manufacturers need access to a huge market to be profitable. The US domestic industry has such a market, but the manufacturers of Britain, France, and Germany do not. Further, much industrial demand (such as for steel) comes from armaments, so industries profit from international tensions. German and French steel makers believe that they will flourish when their country wins the next war (with the costs borne by others), though their unsurprising confidence is unwarranted. The valuable ore in Lorraine switched from German to French hands after the last war, providing an example of the economic benefits of victory, and making Germans keen for their turn.

The capture of the state by large industries is facilitated by their tapping into popular sentiments, such as fear or resentment. Sophisticated self-interest argues for cooperation among European nations in ways that can improve well-being generally, but voices of reason are drowned out by nationalistic cant – and the cant itself is stoked by those with a financial interest in keeping tensions high. This is the mechanism through which modern capitalism causes war: the drive for profits produces propaganda that appeals to the worser angels of our nature. [Smedley Butler’s phrase “War is a racket” still echoes today. – RBR] An international democratic socialism that conducted the affairs of large industry in the interests of society instead of for profits would eliminate this mechanism for militarism – and even a partial socialism, comprising the most powerful countries, would go a long way to ending militarism.

Beyond the nine advantages already adduced, socialism can mitigate other problems. Decentralized, profit-oriented investment decisions lead to the absurdity of investment booms followed by low prices and bankruptcies. [This was a major part of the Soviet critique of capitalism, as put forth, for instance, in their 1930 book aimed at explaining central planning to young people, New Russia’s Primer. – RBR] Under socialism, transitions from old to new technologies can be made gradual, with younger workers being retrained for the new jobs; further, shorter work days will keep unemployment low. Those who are unemployed but who are willing to work will not suffer financially from unemployment. And the productivity gains from technological improvements can be shared between higher living standards and increased leisure.

Economic dependence on other individuals will decline under socialism, replaced by both less uncertainty and the state as provider. Wives will not be dependent on their husbands, and children will be less dependent on the qualities of their parents.

Socialism holds the potential to be good for virtually everyone, by sharply limiting economic insecurity and by decreasing the likelihood of war. The belief of some communists that socialism can only be introduced at the point of a proletarian sword in a class war is unfounded. Socialism has developed in the minds of its opponents an unnecessary and unfortunate connection both to atheism and to tyrannical rule. Nonetheless, socialism is consistent with religious views of all stripes, and most tyrannies are of the reactionary sort (though in battling these regimes, socialism might be contaminated with some of their bad features). “But in countries which still permit some degree of free thought and free speech, I believe that the Socialist case can, with ardour and patience combined, be so presented as to persuade much more than half the population [p. 115].” Perhaps there will be counter-revolutionaries, but their numbers will be small, and overcoming their opposition will not induce a socialist tyranny. And if the majority is not in favor of socialism, then it should not be imposed, in keeping with standard practice in democratic societies. [This is a point Russell repeatedly made years earlier.]

Some people say that the slow, evolutionary methods of introducing socialism are unrealistic in a world where fascism has taken hold. This might be true in fascist countries themselves, but is not the case in France, Britain, and America. Indeed, both France and Britain have socialist political parties with considerable support. In Britain, the socialists could soon be in charge. But even in power, they will face obstacles to implementing their policies, and a forcible implementation will be a temptation. But again, force will be to no avail in making socialist policies lasting. Indeed, departures from democratic methods strengthen the hand of fascists, not socialists.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Seven, Part One

“The Case for Socialism,” part one, pages 91-104

Chapter 7 is sufficiently long that following long-established RBR precedent, its summentary will be broken into two parts. This is part one…

Most current socialists are Marxists, and accept that a proletarian-based revolution is the only path to socialism. This dogma repels non-proletarian would-be sympathizers, and many non-proletarians think a preemptive strike against socialists might be better than waiting for their own defeat in the coming class war. Fascism draws some support in this fashion; more generally, the equating of socialism with Marxism makes it very hard for socialist ideas to make headway in the West.

Though I [Russell] am a fervent supporter of socialist ideas, for me, socialism is not fundamentally about class war or economic fairness. “I regard it primarily as an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race [p. 91].” The violence associated with a transition to socialism is not inherent to it, but is a byproduct of the attitudes of its intemperate supporters.

The definition of socialism includes state control of the commanding heights of the economy, as well as democratic control of the state. Marx and other early socialists would concur with these descriptions of socialism, but the Bolsheviks opted to limit political power to members of the party vanguard. Such a regime might be part of a transition to socialism, but a sustainable socialist system requires democracy to go along with social ownership of the economy. “Unless there is popular control, there can be no reason to expect the State to conduct its economic enterprises except for its own enrichment, and therefore exploitation will merely take a new form [p. 92].”

Some small-scale private enterprise, including construction and finance, is compatible with socialism. People can be personally wealthy, but they cannot be coupon clippers, as there will be no large publicly traded companies in which to invest, and such investments would be prohibited. Wealth disparities would be minimized when interest incomes are unavailable – but only disparities that do not confer power over other individuals would be permissible.

Socialism offers many advantages, but they probably would not be realizable if the socialism were achieved after a protracted, bitter, and militarized class war. The analysis here presupposes a largely peaceful transition to socialism. The path could be more peaceful if socialists would focus on the advantages of economic organization, as opposed to envy of the rich. Here are nine of the many arguments in support of socialism. [The numbering and the italicized titles of the pro-socialism arguments are copied directly from Russell, but I suppress quotation marks in this instance – RBR]:

1. The Breakdown of the Profit Motive   The belief that the pursuit of profit would lead to proper decisions about what and how much to produce once was reasonable, but no longer is so. Large-scale manufacturers face great uncertainty about the salability of their products. If they cannot make a profit, their capacity is unutilized (much of the capital stock is not easily transferable to other industries) and their employees are let go. The reduced incomes of the employees in turn reduce spending, so other businesses cannot sell their wares. Thus a miscalculation in a small part of the economy can cascade throughout the system. Further, economies of scale make it imperative to capture a large market, which leads to economic imperialism. In the transition to market domination by the largest producers, many sizeable manufacturers will be driven out of business, too.

If Henry Ford discovers a cheaper way to produce cars, the resulting bankruptcies of competitors carry with them enormous social costs, but these costs do not form any part of Ford’s profit-seeking decision calculus. During the transition to Ford’s market dominance, the full costs of supplying cars – which could include riots and repressive measures – increase. Capitalism is based on private profit, not on overall social wellbeing.

2. The Possibility of Leisure   Surely productivity has reached the point that fine living standards could be achieved with four hours of work per day for healthy adults. But work and leisure are not evenly distributed, so some people work long hours, while others are unemployed. [This is covering ground that Russell explored in the titular essay of In Praise of Idleness; he acknowledges this connection in an initial footnote on page 98.] Despite the unemployment, average working hours now exceed four hours, indicating that some time is wasted or is utilized to produce goods beyond the necessities and “simple comforts [p. 99]” that comprise a reasonable living standard. The waste is prodigal: advertising and marketing, the excess capacity resulting from private enterprise, trade restrictions inspired by nationalism that prevent goods from being produced in the lowest-cost fashion or location. “Then there is the waste involved in armaments, and in military training, which involves the whole male population wherever there is compulsory military service [p. 100].” In our current economic organization, a reduction in such waste would have the paradoxical effect of worsening the lot of the working class. [Russell’s point provides a faint echo of Mandeville.]

3. Economic Insecurity   Most people in today’s society have good reason to fear that they will become destitute -- if they are not already destitute. This pervading terror undermines happiness and stokes societal madness. The security that is at the root of most interest in wealth is unavailable, leading to a sort of recklessness in decisionmaking. “Economic security would do more to increase the happiness of civilised communities than any other change that can be imagined, except the prevention of war [p. 101].” People can be required to work if that is socially needed, but they should not be punished economically for an undersupply of jobs. Financial security with job retraining for those whose professions see reduced demand might mean that the pay of the highest earners is reduced, but it would be worth that cost. Few people work out of hope for an outsized economic windfall. [Russell noted in 1919 that most people would be happier working than by receiving the same wages without working.] Honor can be a significant motivator, and could be more socially useful if honors were distributed in ways that mirrored social benefits better than financial returns now do. The desire for success generally promotes the social good; the desire for huge wealth no more conduces to societal wellbeing than do other forms of gluttony.

4. The Unemployed Rich   Many rich people are quite idle, and though they are unsophisticated, they and their bad taste often control the production of cultural goods. Art could do better under socialism than under this form of capitalism. [Russell devoted a chapter of his 1919 book Proposed Roads to Freedom to creative endeavor under socialism.] The idle rich also provide the customers for innumerable and unnecessary small shops, all selling the same items in a desultory exchange which is a waste of everyone’s time. All of the retainers catering to the perceived needs of the idle rich suffer moral and intellectual harm from their economic dependence upon foolish wealthy people.

5. Education   Access to higher education is typically available only to the well-to-do, so much talent is wasted. State dominance in the education sphere assures that ideas that are not supportive of the status quo will be suppressed. [Shades here of Russell’s Education and the Good Life. ] It will require a socialist regime secure in its power to remedy these longstanding defects of the education system.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Six

“Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism,” pages 82-90

I [Russell] do not subscribe to the notion that one must, in effect, be a supporter of communism or a supporter of fascism: I am opposed to both.

First, I’ll provide eight reasons for not supporting Third International-style communism. (1) I see no reason to be convinced by either Marx’s or Lenin’s philosophy. History lacks a dialectical determinant, contra Marx and Hegel. (2) Marx’s economics is a hodgepodge designed to make classical political economy support Marxian politics. (3) A scientific outlook precludes regarding any thinker as infallible or any text as sacred. (4) The undemocratic nature of communism assures a tyranny by the powerful – in this case, the all-powerful state. Marx recognizes the potential for tyranny by all forms of government except communism. (5) The joining of political to economic control under communism would stifle individual liberty. Unpopular ideas, which are the source of progress, would be squelched by communist bureaucrats. (6) Marxism divides the world along class lines, being antagonistic to white-collar workers while glorifying manual workers. (7) The focus on the class war is likely to lead to a real war, with catastrophic consequences. Friends of socialism should aim for gradual persuasion, not military conquest. (8) Hate is a major driving force of Marxism and communism, and it will result in severe oppression by Marxists in power. [Russell’s critique of Marx and communism in In Praise of Idleness echoes many other Russellian writings on this theme.]

I [Russell] share many of the ends of communism, but oppose the means; for fascism, I object to both the means and the end. Though there are various strains of fascism, and more are evolving, they share some central elements. Fascism “is anti-democratic, it is nationalistic, it is capitalistic, and it appeals to those sections of the middle class which suffer through modern developments and expect to suffer still more if Socialism or Communism becomes established [p. 85].” (The theoretical version of communism also is anti-democratic, but only temporarily, and aims to promote the wellbeing of wage earners, a label which eventually is intended to include everyone.) Fascism is not interested in the general welfare; rather, it concentrates on favored groups which are deemed to be superior. The unfavored will be forced into serfdom, serving their masters. It can be hoped that fascism will provide a well-organized prison for the non-elect, but that is the extent of rational expectation. The economic planning that fascism took from the socialists is aimed to improve the welfare only of the favored folks – which in Germany and Italy, are the already dominant economic classes.

The focus on an elect within Fascist ideology is a throwback to a pre-Christian, pre-democratic era, when not all people were created equal, and the purpose of the unwashed was to promote the grandeur of the special classes.

Fascism in power would exacerbate the worst features of capitalism. The lower classes would barely receive subsistence wages, and effectively would be slaves. This is the outcome under dictatorship (as in Russia) or under a capitalism unconstrained by democracy. But fascism in power is a short-run phenomenon, as the focus on heavy industry turns into a prelude to war. The war will be highly destructive, and fascism will be one of its casualties.

Fascism cannot be said to represent a coherent body of thought. Its appeal is to the emotions of small shopkeepers and others whose interests in the modern world are under threat, as well as to the hunger for power of some wealthy industrialists. Its irrationality lies in its inability to actually serve the long-term interests of those whom it aims to help, though it does provide some short-term psychological comfort.

Ensconced traditions of representative government offer Britain and the US some inoculation against fascism; France perhaps is more at risk, especially under wartime conditions.

Commonalities in communism and fascism admit for common, and telling, objections. Both isms involve a small group of people trying to shape the whole population into a preconceived plan, to be cogs in the machine that the creators find so enticing. [Shades here of Adam Smith’s “man of system” treating humans as if they were chess pieces fit to be moved at the player’s behest, without regard to the humans’ own preferences – RBR.] People who do not readily enough fit the plan are disposed of. Such policies are both unethical, and, in the long run, unsuccessful.

As with plants, humans can be sheared into topiary-type designs – but the human subjects are not as passive as the plants. [Here Russell echoes his godfather John Stuart Mill.] One type of action for the trimmed man might be to learn the trade of the shearer, and to take up the shears himself, for those lower in the hierarchy. Pruning leads to such cruelty when it does not lead to listlessness. “And from a population with these characteristics no good thing is to be expected [p. 89].” [Compare with Mill’s On Liberty, just at the end: “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.” Reading Bertrand Russell has found occasion to cite this passage in the past.] 

The dictatorial powers at the disposal of a fascist or communist state, combined with the theoretical necessity to suppress the subordinate elements of society, imply that a cruel tyrant will hold the reins. Someone with a humanitarian outlook will not survive the competition for control, or will have to forcibly override his own gentler inclinations. Any good intentions that may have accompanied the original path to power will eventually be lost, replaced with the need to maintain power.

The appeal of machinery makes it easy to view society in mechanical terms, with parts, not people, and where the controllers have a sort of omnipotent status. But unlike machines, humans themselves alter under treatment, whether they are the controlled or the controlling. The resulting uncertainty about the long-term effects of manipulation makes it unwise to invest control in a dictator. “The ultimate psychological argument for democracy and for patience is that an element of free growth, of go as you please and untrained natural living, is essential if men are not to become misshapen monsters [p. 90].” Fascism and communism are not the only choices, and certainly not desirable choices, as democracy remains a viable and preferred alternative. It is only the belief that fascism and communism exhaust the options that could make it so.