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