The Politics of Posterity

Titus Livius, or simply Livy, Historian of Rome. The question is why did he write his histories?

In assessing the battlefield casualties Rome suffered in the first thirty years of the second century BC, Livy (c59 BC – c17 AD) estimates 55,000. The classicist Mary Beard distrusts the figures – and that number, she suggests, is far too low. In the first instance, ‘there was no systematic tally of deaths on an ancient battlefield; and all numbers in ancient texts have to be treated with suspicion, victims of exaggeration, misunderstanding and over the years some terrible miscopying by medieval monks.’ In addition, she continues, ‘[t]here was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses; it is not clear whether allies as well as Roman citizens were included; there must have been some battles and skirmishes which do not feature in Livy’s list; and those who subsequently died of their wounds must have been very many indeed (in most circumstances, ancient weapons were much better at wounding than killing outright; death followed later, by infection).’ (SPQR, p.131-2)

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The Philosophical Influences of F. A. Hayek

Friedrich Hayek receives the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1974

Friedrich Hayek is perhaps best known as the father of neoliberalism, a quasi-messianic belief in markets as the prime source of a concept of value (and deliverance from totalitarianism), and the idea of spontaneous order, that things – all things – are not controlled, but ordered, spontaneously. His Nobel prize in 1974 was awarded in part for his ‘penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.’ In other words, he was no mere ‘financial’ economist, whatever that might mean. His was a big project, one that encompassed the ultimate political objective of protecting individual liberty, in a career that spanned over sixty years, and major works including The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty.

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The Aesthetics of Aged Things

“And these glimpses have been as often of the ways that were and the ways that might be, as of the ways that are; for ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.” – H. P. Lovecraft, The White Ship

Staring out the window of the house this morning, I admired the raised beds I’d built ten years ago when we moved in. I had used eight foot scaffolding boards – they were going for a song after the crash, and the building trade was in the tank. Three high, two wide and two deep, these were large beds, with now semi mature trees, nestled into a yard paved with moulded concrete slabs and elsewhere dotted with containers and pots with all sorts of flowers and herbs. The boards were rotting now, but the heavy soil behind had long since settled and posed no direct-pressure threat to the integrity of the walls; they were threatened more from within, as the process of decay meant that they would pretty soon begin to crumble. Autumn is settling in now. I sipped my tea and exhaled; it was a comforting view.

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Failures of Political Philosophy

Adam Smith: the Invisible Hand only goes so far.

In a very crude sense, the western history of political philosophy can be divided into five phases: the city state Greek democracy, an oikonomia derived in Ancient Greece from a principle of agreed control; colonial empire, deriving first from the Greek colonies and extending into the military-bureaucratic structures of the Roman empire; federalist patrimonial states, an essentially feudalist structure allowing for larger domains to be managed through grace and favour; and modern variations on social democracy (including communism) since the French Revolution, based on concepts of individual equality and freedom. Max Weber, Francis Fukuyama and countless others have variations on these phases and structures, some more global (Fukuyama in particular considers Indo-Sino histories), and others more scientific (Weber’s forensic sociology in particular).

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The Soul of the State

Our stories define us; and how
we tell them is really important.

In his 2019 book The World Philosophy Made, Scott Soames quotes the historian of Greek religion Walter Burkert, who claimed that the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod was no less than ‘the glue that held Greek society and culture together.’ Burkert says that ‘[t]he authority to whom the Greeks appealed was the poetry of Hesiod and, above all, Homer. The spiritual unity of the Greeks was founded and upheld by poetry – a poetry which could still draw on living oral tradition to produce a felicitous union of freedom and form, spontaneity and discipline. To be a Greek was to be educated, and all education was Homer.’ (Soames, The World Philosophy Made, p.2; Burkert, Greek Religion, p.120)

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Hirschman and The Romantic Spirit

Albert Hirschman, 1915-2012

When we think of the romantics, at least in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, we often consider careful lovers in lace and ruffles, lovers primarily of love itself, as a noble, worthy aesthetic. We think of the poetry of Wordsworth (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’), Shelley (‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being’) and Coleridge (‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A Stately pleasure-dome decree…’), or of Edmund Burke’s concepts of the sublime and the beautiful. Situated in late eighteenth century Europe, however, and juxtaposed with Continental romanticism, the picture becomes altogether more political, theological, and – though fractured into myriad interpretations – more substantial. It becomes, in essence, a reaction to the Enlightenment, to the new scientism, a rejection of dogma.

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The Quantified Life

In many respects, the Summer 2020 Hedgehog ReviewQuestioning the Quantitative Life – presents a series of different perspectives on a singular dichotomy: the quantitative versus the qualitative. There is a hidden sense in this that neither is quite the objective, complete picture, something having been lost in translation. Accompanying this dissatisfied position is a feeling that data – the quantitative sort – is somehow nefarious, dangerous, and compromised. Leif Weatherby in his piece Data and the Task of the Humanities argues that language is not unequivocal, and therein lies its power (that mere data lacks) – ‘what the linguist Roman Jakobson called the ‘poetic function’ of language.’ Language has a nuance, a subtlety that data lacks. Language is a qualitative presentment of experience; as Weatherby continues, ‘[t]he very porosity of language means that datafication will never capture it entirely.’

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The Mirage of Liberal Democracy and the Importance of Art

The whole Liberal Democracy thing all started off so well. It deteriorated pretty quickly though.

Much has been written about political apathy, disenfranchisement, the democratic deficit – in essence, the political process has become distant from its protagonists in Western Liberal Democracy. This has been grist to the mill of libertarians, and small-state reactionaries, yearning for less government intrusion in people’s lives. But government, and in particular liberal democracy, is supposed to be of the people, by the people. Today, I’m going to look at Juergen Habermas’ work on the public sphere, juxtaposed against Hayek on Spontaneous Order, and Carl Schmitt on States of Exception, as well as Fukyama and Huntingdon on the concept of political decay. Finally I’ll look at art and the creative process as an antidote to modernist nihilism, bringing in Gilles Deleuze and a few others.

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The Ontologies of Technology

Richard Lindner, Boy With Machine, 1954

In Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s 1991 book What is Philosophy?, the writers make the argument that philosophers are things of their time, creators of concepts through which the world can be interpreted. Philosophy, juxtaposed alongside science and art, provides the fundamental constructs that those disciplines require as a kind of prima terra, before any art can be made, or any science can be done. Philosophers, then, are in the business of creating ontologies.

This is of course a rejection of truth, at least in the absolute sense of the word. Richard Rorty distinguished between the concepts that ‘the truth is out there’ versus ‘the world is out there’. This goes all the way back to Wittgenstein and language, and the relations between the subject and the world: truth can only exist with language; and language can only exist with a subject. Therefore truth can’t exist ‘out there’, only the world can be out there – with its phenomenona (Husserl) and forms (Plato) and things-in-themselves (Kant).

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Covid-19: State of Emergency

Image result for break glass in case of emergency
These are not ordinary times.

On Friday last, the United States declared a National Emergency to deal with the Coronavirus, accessing up to $50bn for the problem, bypassing conventional appropriations procedures. In Spain, the Government has taken over private healthcare. In Ireland, government formation negotiations have been largely shelved in the wake of an indecisive February General Election, and a caretaker government continues in office; the same is happening in Belgium. Conventional politics – and our liberal democratic institutions – have been suspended in favour of a supposedly brief dose of totalitarianism, which everyone agrees is necessary to deal with what is an unquestionably dangerous pandemic.

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