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Burke in Debt

24 Oct

Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he  told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, Burke secured from Pitt in August 1795 two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”

The History of Fear, Part 5

17 Oct

I’m back today with part 5 of my intellectual history of fear. After my posts on Hobbes (rational fear), Montesquieu (despotic terror), Tocqueville (democratic anxiety), and Arendt (total terror), we’re ready to turn to more recent theories of fear, which arose in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the conservative backlash against the 1960s and the collapse of communism.

In my book on fear, I divide these recent theories into two broad camps: the liberalism of anxiety and the liberalism of terror. The first camp tracks communitarian liberalism (or liberal communitarianism) as well as some influential arguments about identity and civil society; the second camp tracks what is often called political liberalism or negative liberalism, and it includes treatments of ethnic conflict and violence. The first camp takes it cues from Tocqueville, the second from Montesquieu.

The primary theoreticians of the first camp include Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Will Kymlicka, Amitai Etzioni, David Miller, and to a much lesser degree Seyla Benhabib. The primary theoretician of the second camp is Judith Shklar, but her arguments are echoed by theorists like Avishai Margalit and Richard Rorty and popular writers like Philip Gourevitch and Michael Ignatieff. The work of Samuel Huntington hovers above both camps.

Both camps, I argue, are responses to the failures of the radicalism of the 1960s and to the conservative retreat since then. To that extent, their political and intellectual context mirrors that of Tocqueville writing in the 1830s and Arendt (and other Cold War intellectuals) writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All were grappling with questions of fear in the wake of ruined insurgencies.

Today, I’ll only focus on the liberalism of anxiety; in my next installment, I’ll talk about the liberalism of terror.

• • • • •

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
—Emily Dickinson

Though the liberalism of anxiety borrows from the reaction against the French Revolution, though it takes aim at philosophers like Kant and Descartes, the immediate occasion of its misgiving is the 1960s. Anxious liberals make frequent, unhappy references to gains won and goods lost throughout that decade and its aftermath—entitlements to welfare without corresponding duties, expansive rights “to ‘do our own thing,’” and other smaller liberations. According to Amitai Etzioni, individual freedom and communal life are “out of balance after decades in which self-interest and expressive individualism have prevailed.” That imbalance, adds Jean Bethke Elshtain, is a product of the “new attitude toward rights that has taken hold in the United States during the past several decades.”

The sixties, in this view, is not simply a historical moment, but an ongoing project of individual emancipation, which has not been beaten back in any significant way. At a time when Democrats and Republicans have stripped suspected criminals of procedural protections, when a presidential candidate’s membership in the ACLU suggests membership in the Communist Party, and when there are fewer counties in the United States with abortion providers than there were in 1973, the liberalism of anxiety worries about a “rights-absolutist climate of opinion” that has not dissipated.

While its discontent is plainly addressed to the 1960s, the liberalism of anxiety is no simple antagonist of that decade. In the same way that Tocqueville was ambivalent about the French Revolution so are the liberals of anxiety conflicted about the rights revolutions of forty years ago. Contrary to the claims of their critics, these writers are not entirely hostile to liberalism or its recent achievements. They express no desire to return to a segregated or sexist America. Some, like Michael Walzer, were among the most eloquent voices of the 1960s, and still argue for the elaboration and extension of its achievements. Others, like Etzioni, claim that communities should be fostered and nurtured, but not at the expense of individual rights. Majorities can be tyrannical, Etzioni warns, which is why the Constitution has wisely deemed “some choices” to be “out of bounds for the majority.”

Nor should we return public argument, write Etzioni and Michael Sandel, to premodern canons of natural law or religious authority; instead, we should embrace the irreducible pluralism—and contentious debates—that liberalism at its best insistently honors. Walzer argues that communitarianism, the most prominent version of the liberalism of anxiety, is an “intermittent feature of liberal politics,” which, “like the pleating of trousers,” seeks not to overthrow liberalism but to texture it with sociological and moral depth. And in their effort to incorporate communitarian criticisms into liberal arguments, philosophers like William Galston and Will Kymlicka have proven Walzer correct.

The ambivalence of the liberals of anxiety toward the sixties runs even deeper. Though they often argue for a revival of community and civic virtue by reference to Aristotle or Machiavelli, their vocabulary is often drawn from the very individualist ethos they question.

The anxious liberals care much for the fate of the self, which they believe rights-based liberalism has deprived of full agency and force. They do not praise community and civic culture as goods unto themselves: community is worthy in their eyes because it lends a necessary theater to the self’s appearance.

According to Etzioni, “Individuals who are bonded into comprehensive and stable relationships and into cohesive groups and communities are much more able to make reasoned choices, to render moral judgments, and to be free.” Kymlicka claims, “Cultures are valuable, not in and of themselves, but because it is only through having access to a societal culture that people have access to a range of meaningful options.” Membership in a common culture, particularly a culture of diverse subcultures, helps us make “intelligent judgments about how to lead our lives.” Without close-knit communities, writes Walzer, the individual suffers a radical “decline in ‘the sense of efficacy.’”

Anxious liberals thus do not spurn the individualism of the 1960s: they question its political sociology. For them, social order—which can range from the nation, a common culture, or subculture, to an institution, a voluntary association, or a local community—is the seedbed of the self. It provides the deep grammar of individualism, the nurturing ground upon which the self learns who she is and what she believes. From preestablished moral prescriptions and social ties—that which is given, as opposed to that which she chooses—the individual learns to express herself and her needs in a publicly intelligible language. Once she has internalized these prescriptions and ties, she can think and act for herself. She no longer requires an authoritative structure to direct her every step; she can take her own steps, even steps that contradict or challenge those assigned to her, for a properly pluralist social order offers the individual a variety of scripts—doctor, lawyer, Christian, Muslim, Democrat, Republican, and so on—to perform. It even tolerates her efforts to revise or write new scripts. Like parents and teachers, the agents of social order use their power to guide rather than repress, with the goal of turning the student or child into a rational, autonomous adult.

But the liberalism of anxiety also stows a darker, more subversive account of social order. Recalling an argument made by everyone from Tocqueville to the Frankfurt School to Christopher Lasch, anxious liberals quietly cherish social order as a necessary antagonist of the self. Social order makes demands upon the self, they claim, exacting obedience, asking the individual to abide by its rules. Such constraints often provoke the appearance of a more fractious, defiant self, who knows what she believes and is willing to risk all to pursue it. A Martin Luther or Anna Karenina—those great refusals of history and literature who declare, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In the revolt against constraint, the self defines her own beliefs, articulates her own principles—far more vigorously than she would under the soporific gaze of an excessively tolerant parent.

The prerequisite of such a deeply felt intransigence is a social structure that weighs heavily upon her. Without that structure, rebellions will be shallow and trivial, freedom an empty gesture. “Radical freedom,” Walzer insists, “is thin stuff unless it exists within a world that offers it significant resistance.” He adds, “the easier the easiness” of breaking loose, the less strong the individual will be. Or, as Galston writes, “Rational deliberation among ways of life is far more meaningful (I am tempted to say that it can only be meaningful) if the stakes are meaningful—that is, if the deliberator has strong convictions against which competing claims can be weighed.”

The radical pursuit of freedom, these critics argue, and corresponding decline of social order, breed anxiety, crippling the self. The “vaunting of ‘free individuality,’” writes Kymlicka, “will result not in the confident affirmation and pursuit of worthy courses of action but rather in existential uncertainty and anomie, in doubt about the very value of one’s life and its purposes.” “Self-determination,” he adds, “has generated more doubt about the value of our projects than before.” It destroys the personal intimacy and social proximity we need to become full individuals. The result, writes Walzer, are identities “mostly unearned, without depth.” This observation does not prompt conservative nostalgia. Instead, it asks us to make good on the promise of comprehensive individuality and robust agency that the sixties were supposed to deliver. If we were once again “participants in a common life,” we would witness a true flourishing of human capacities, for men and women “are stronger, more confident, more savvy” when they “are responsible to and for other people.”

In the 1950s, at a comparable moment of political retreat, American intellectuals responded in like fashion to the end of the New Deal and a rampant McCarthyism. Like our contemporary liberalism of anxiety, the Cold War version took its cues from Tocqueville. Intellectuals argued that the average American felt isolated and alienated, that the greatest threat to individual agency was the anxiety of anomie. “A fluid social structure,” wrote David Riesman, “creates anxiety and bewilderment.” The solution was not to return to the past, but to create what Talcott Parsons called an “institutionalized individualism,” to situate the individual within institutions. A “strong emphasis on freedom and responsibility,” Parsons insisted, required “a framework of both normative order and collective organizations.”

The Cold War intellectuals did not see the quiescence of the 1950s or McCarthyism as the product of a resurgent Republican Party in Congress, the overthrow of a dynamic labor movement, or the capitulations of liberal Democrats to red baiting. Instead, they assumed that it was the continuing momentum of liberalism that generated anxiety and crippled individual agency. For liberalism, in the words of Lionel Trilling, was “at this time . . . not only dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States.

Like other reactions to failed emancipations past—one also thinks of Tocqueville’s diagnosis of democracy after the French Revolution, Arendt’s meditations on spent modernity after World War II—the liberalism of anxiety is the voice of a ruined insurgency. It conveys the promise of liberated human capacity, and the disappointment of seeing that promise betrayed.

But what makes the liberalism of anxiety a reaction against the insurgencies of the 1960s—as opposed to a symptom of their decline—is its peculiar understanding of the threats to the self’s agency, an understanding drawn from Tocqueville’s analysis of anxiety. Where Hobbes understood the fearful self as a being of fixed contour, frightened and threatened by forms of external power that thwarted it, the liberalism of anxiety imagines a weak self of almost vaporous indeterminateness. This weak self, rather than external coercion or repression, is the Trojan Horse of unfreedom.

What makes the self so weak and anxious, in this view, is the absence of external structure and order, the absence of coercion and repression. What would make the self strong? A revival and strengthening of integrative institutions like churches and families, which could once again press upon the individual and propel her to be a full self.

The insurgents of the 1960s presumed that the self was an agent who knew, and was passionately committed to, her interests and beliefs. Indeed, it was this knowledge and commitment that hurled her against the barriers of constraint—Jim Crow, the family, the Pentagon—for she believed those barriers prevented her from achieving her aims. If the self did not act, it was because these barriers—or her fear of them—stopped her from doing so. Challenging barriers meant taking risks and making sacrifices, resulting perhaps in the loss of career and opportunity, or, in some cases, life itself. Knowing that danger made men and women afraid, sometimes to the point of not acting. Fear thus required two actors of real presence—a determinate self and the agents of social order.

But the liberalism of anxiety has turned the self’s knowledge of her beliefs and interests into a problem, the agents of social order into an indeterminate ether, and, with that, fear into anxiety. Because anxious liberals believe contemporary America lacks integrative institutions, they imagine the self to be a thin figure of disintegration. Conversely, because the self has grown thin, she cannot participate in integrative institutions. Where there was presence, now there is absence; where there was fear, now there is anxiety.

One of the most telling symptoms of this shift from fear to anxiety is the discussions over the last two decades about the problem of identity. The occasions of these discussions have been various: pitched battles over political correctness, scholarly debates about nationalism and ethnicity, meditations on the politics of recognition versus the politics of distribution. But the underlying vocabulary and assumptions of these arguments have been consistent. The most pressing questions of politics, according to many participants in these debates, concern not the distribution of power and resources or the aggressive contest for equality and expropriation. Politics instead involves those agitated questions of membership and exclusion—of who belongs and who does not, who I am, who you are, and the unrelenting anxiety over borders (of self and society, group and nation) that such questions entail.

In the words of David Miller: “It matters less, it seems, whether the state embraces the free market, or the planned economy, or something in between. It matters more where the boundaries of the state are drawn, who gets included and who gets excluded, what language is used, what religion endorsed, what culture promoted.” “The negotiation of identity/difference,” writes Seyla Benhabib, “is the political problem facing democracies on a global scale.” Unlike “the struggles over wealth, political position, and access that characterized bourgeois and working-class politics throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century,” she claims, today’s struggles are about what Jürgen Habermas calls “the grammar of forms of life.” Or, as Samuel Huntington puts it, “In the post–Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

Though oppositional intellectuals during the 1960s were not uninterested in identity, they spoke of it as an instrument of rule. Dominant groups, these earlier thinkers believed, organized differences—of race, class, and gender—vertically, placing one group on top of another, distributing more resources, status, and power to those at the top. As late as 1982, feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon gave voice to this dispensation in a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. Feminists, according to MacKinnon, had little interest in socially generated differences as desirable or undesirable in themselves. They worried about differences that “enforced subordination, limited options,” and generated “social powerlessness.”

This political understanding of difference prompted an interest in fear, rather than anxiety, for fear arose from and reinforced society’s vertical cleavages. Fear was a tool of the powerful against the powerless, and a reaction of the powerful to the possibility that the powerless would one day dispossess them of their privileges.

But contemporary theorists of identity conceive of society horizontally, which is why anxiety is their preferred emotion. We are divided into groups not at the bottom and the top, they argue, but at the centers and the margins. Whether the group is a race, ethnicity, religion, nation, or culture, it is never sure of the coherence or durability of its borders. It worries that its perimeter is too permeable, that foreigners will slip through its porous frontiers and jeopardize its existential character and basic unity. Because men and women are not sure where they begin and end, there is a pressing need to “differentiat[e] oneself from what one is not.”

The struggle for identity, in other words, results from the anxiety over borders, which produces a redoubled effort to guard those borders. Reviving unwittingly an argument from an earlier moment of political retreat, theorists of identity ascribe a nagging political salience, trumping all other conflicts, to anxieties about self and other, in group and out group, nation and enemy.

To be sure, intellectuals did not initiate these arguments over identity in a vacuum: with post–Cold War debates over inclusion and exclusion threatening to dissolve entire societies into chaos, theorists felt legitimately called upon to offer some guiding intelligence. But these theorists have gone further, interpreting identity claims as the political return of the deepest, most elemental disquiet of the human condition.

Huntington writes that “peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans can face: Who are we?” Identity, argues Taylor, “designates something like an understanding of who we are.” Those who struggle on its behalf are roused by the sense that “there is a certain way of being human that is my way.” When we refuse to recognize that way of being, we harm the person, imprisoning her “in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.” Politics should accommodate men and women who seek to identify themselves with a nation or some other culturing grouping, explains Miller, because “identifying with a nation, feeling yourself inextricably part of it, is a legitimate way of understanding your place in the world.” Or, put more strongly, politics is the effort to define oneself with the nation or some other cultural grouping.

Because the liberalism of anxiety values the expressive self of the 1960s—but worries about its disruptiveness—it seeks a politics that allows for individual expressiveness without its disintegrative consequences. For that reason, anxious liberals prize institutions of civil society that are nonpolitical or antipolitical, and cares and concerns that are social and cultural, but not ideological or partisan. It is these institutions and concerns that combine the virtues of expression and connection, allowing the individual to disclose who she is without provoking disorder and disintegration.

Civil society is valuable, according to Etzioni, because it encourages us to “attend to nonpolitical institutions.” Local communities should be supported, Elsthain suggests, because they are not ideologically maximalist: their “ethos is preserving, not acquiring,” their goal is “to defend and sustain what remains of a way of life.”

Civic associations, writes Taylor, are important because they are “often dedicated to ends which we generally consider nonpolitical.” The ideal form of civil society is a conversation between two people: “A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals, but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action. It is of a kind with—to take a more obvious example—the dance of a group or a couple, or the action of two men sawing a log.” Conversations can range from Mozart to the weather, for “in human terms, we stand on a different footing when we start talking about the weather.” In conversation, we don’t just impart information to a separate self. Instead, we create a shared universe of intimate meaning between ourselves. Conversations model the ideal form of politics, which should be expressive and embedded, collective but not divisive. “What has all this [talk of conversation] to do with republics?” Taylor asks. “It is essential to them,” for “they are animated by a sense of a shared immediate common good.”

This bias against political action and debate is by no means uniform among proponents of the liberalism of anxiety. Some, like Walzer, praise the rough and tumble of democratic politics. But even when Walzer embraces disruptive and redistributive organizations—labor unions, for instance—it is partially their integrative function, their support for “cooperative coping,” that he praises. And when the state supports unions, he adds, it helps men and women overcome their isolation. For Walzer, the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize and join unions without fear of employer retribution, does more than protect workers from intimidation by their employers: it also “counter[s] the dissociative tendencies of liberal society,” protecting “communities of feeling and belief” from the centripetal force of individual mobility.

It is these quietist tendencies within the liberalism of anxiety—the love of intimate conversation, the praise of non-ideological associations, the embrace of integration over conflict—that ultimately render it an inadequate philosophy of politics. The liberalism of anxiety was aroused by remorse over the disappearance of the passionate conviction and crusading movements of the 1960s, and still longs for the individual and political vitality of an earlier age. It seeks a stronger self, a more defiant individual.

But little of that is to be found in the PTAs and Rotary Clubs it so fulsomely praises. Whatever their value as modes of social integration, these organizations are not weapons of social conflict or training grounds of strenuous selfhood. They may be partial to conversation and cocktails, perhaps some cooperative coping, but they eschew antagonism, conflict, and political confrontation. Civil society must thus remain an object of permanent disappointment for its defenders. Because it disappoints, its advocates are driven to embrace an alternative ethos, the liberalism of terror. Formulated by a different group of writers in response to a different set of concerns, the liberalism of terror provides the bracing resolve and militant politics liberals of anxiety seek but cannot find in private associations, civil society, and conversations about the weather.

Nozick: Libertarians are “filled…with resentment at other freer ways of being”

15 Oct

I don’t know how I missed this the previous times I read Nozick, but John Holbo—in a terrific paper on liberalism, conservatism, and ideal theory, which is due to appear in a forthcoming volume of Nomos—points me to this revealing line from Nozick’s preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This is how Nozick characterizes his libertarian comrades:

Many of the people who take a similar position [as Nozick's] are…filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being.

From his lips to your ears.

Or, as I wrote in The Reactionary Mind:

Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not.

Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.

Adam Smith on the Mobility of Labor v. Capital

3 Oct

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 10, Part II:

Corporation laws, however, give less obstruction to the free circulation of stock from one place to another than to that of labour. It is everywhere much easier for a wealthy merchant to obtain the privilege of trading in a town corporate, than for a poor artificer to obtain that of working in it.

Same as it ever was.

Adam Smith Was Never an Adjunct

2 Oct

Every single one of the explanations that Adam Smith offers—in Book 1, Chapter 10, Part 1, of The Wealth of Nationsfor the difference in wage rates between various kinds of labor is discomfirmed by the example of adjuncts in the academy.*

Turns out: work that is harder, more disagreeable, more precarious, riskier as a long-term career opportunity, of lower social standing, and that requires more time and training to enter into and more trust from society to perform, does not in fact pay better.

*These explanations have to do with what Smith calls “inequalities arising from the nature of the employments themselves.” These explanations are to be distinguished from those having to do with government policies or the forces of supply and demand.

The History of Fear, Part 4

30 Sep

Today, in part 4 of our series on the intellectual history of fear, we turn to Hannah Arendt’s theory of total terror, which she developed in The Origins of Totaltarianism (and then completely overhauled in Eichmann in Jerusalem.)

I’m more partial, as I make clear in my book, to Eichmann than to Origins. But Origins has always been the more influential text, at least until recently.

It’s a problematic though fascinating book (the second part, on imperialism, is especially wonderful). But one of the reasons it was able to gain such traction is that it managed to meld Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror with Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. It became the definitive statement of Cold War social thought in part because it took these received treatments and mobilized them to such dramatic effect. (And one of the reasons, I further argue in the book, that Eichmann provoked such outrage was that it revived some of the ways of thinking about fear that we saw in Hobbes.)

Again, if you want to get the whole picture, buy the book.

• • • • •

Mistress, I dug upon your grave

To bury a bone, in case

I should be hungry near this spot

When passing on my daily trot.

I am sorry, but I quite forgot

It was your resting-place.

Thomas Hardy

It was a sign of his good fortune—and terrible destiny—that Nikolai Bukharin was pursued throughout his short career by characters from the Old Testament. Among the youngest of the “Old Bolsheviks,” Bukharin was, in Lenin’s words, “the favorite of the whole party.” A dissident economist and accomplished critic, this impish revolutionary, standing just over five feet, charmed everyone. Even Stalin. The two men had pet names for each other, their families socialized together, and Stalin had Bukharin stay at his country house during long stretches of the Russian summer. So beloved throughout the party was Bukharin that he was called the “Benjamin” of the Bolsheviks. If Trotsky was Joseph, the literary seer and visionary organizer whose arrogance aroused his brothers’ envy, Bukharin was undoubtedly the cherished baby of the family.

Nikolai Bukharin

Nikolai Bukharin

Not for long. Beginning in the late 1920s, as he sought to slow Stalin’s forced march through the Russian countryside, Bukharin tumbled from power. Banished from the party in 1937 and left to the tender mercies of the Soviet secret police, he confessed in a 1938 show trial to a career of extraordinary counterrevolutionary crime. He was promptly shot, just one of the 328,618 official executions of that year.

Not long before his murder, Bukharin invoked a rather different biblical parallel to describe his fate. In a letter to Stalin, Bukharin recalled the binding of Isaac, the unwitting son whose father, Abraham, prepares him, on God’s instruction, for sacrifice. At the last minute, an angel stops Abraham, declaring, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Reflecting upon his own impending doom, however, Bukharin envisioned no such heavenly intervention: “No angel will appear now to snatch Abraham’s sword from his hand.”

The biblical reference, with its suggested equivalence of Stalin and Abraham, was certainly unorthodox. But in the aftermath of Bukharin’s execution it proved apt, for no other crime of the Stalin years so captivated western intellectuals as the blood sacrifice of Bukharin. It was not just that this darling of the communist movement, “the party’s most valuable and biggest theoretician,” as Lenin put it, had been brought down. Stalin, after all, had already felled the far more formidable Trotsky. It was that Bukharin confessed to fantastic crimes he did not commit.

For generations of intellectuals, Bukharin’s confession would symbolize the depredations of communism, how it not only murdered its favored sons, but also conscripted them in their own demise. Here was an action, it seemed to many, undertaken not for the self, but against it, on behalf not of personal gain, but of self-destruction. Turning Bukharin’s confession into a parable of the entire communist experience, Arthur Koestler, in his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, popularized the notion—later taken up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror and Jean-Luc Godard in his 1967 film La Chinoise—that Bukharin offered his guilt as a final service to the party. In this formulation it was not Stalin, but Bukharin, who was the true Abraham, the devout believer who gave up to his jealous god that which was most precious to him.

But where Abraham’s readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice has aroused persistent admiration—Kierkegaard deemed him a “knight of faith,” prepared to violate the most sacred of norms for the sake of his fantastic devotion—Bukharin’s has provoked almost universal horror. Not just of Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership, but of Bukharin himself—and of all the true believers who turned the twentieth century into a wasteland of ideology.

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac

Moralists may praise familiar episodes of suicidal sacrifice such as the Greatest Generation storming Omaha Beach, but the willingness of the Bukharins of this world to give up their lives for the sake of their ideology remains, for many, the final statement of modern self-abasement. Not because the sacrifice was cruel or senseless—not even because it was undertaken for an unjust cause or was premised on a lie—but because of the selfless fanaticism and political idolatry, the thoughtless immolation and personal diminution, that are said to inspire it. Communists, the argument goes, collaborated in their own destruction because they believed; they believed because they had to; they had to because they were small.

According to Arthur Schlesinger, communism “fills empty lives”—even in the United States, with “its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society. For these people, party discipline is no obstacle: it is an attraction. The great majority of members in America, as in Europe, want to be disciplined.” Or, as cultural critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of the Rosenbergs after their execution, “their relationship to everything, including themselves, was false.” Once they turned into party liners, “blasphemously den[ying] their own humanity,” “what was there left to die?” Abraham believed in his faith and was deemed a righteous man; the communist believed in his and was discharged from the precincts of humanity.

As we now know, Bukharin’s confession, like so many others of the Stalin era, was not quite the abnegation intellectuals have imagined. From 1930 to 1937, Bukharin resisted, to the best of his abilities, the more outlandish charges of the Soviet leadership. As late as his February 1937 secret appearance before the Plenum of the Central Committee, Bukharin insisted, “I protest with all the strength of my soul against being charged with such things as treason to my homeland, sabotage, terrorism, and so on.” When he finally did admit to these crimes—in a public confession, replete with qualifications casting doubt upon Stalin’s legitimacy—it was after a yearlong imprisonment, in which he was subject to brutal interrogations and threats against his family.

Bukharin had reason to believe that his confession might protect him and his loved ones. Soviet leaders who confessed were sometimes spared, and Stalin had intervened on previous occasions to shield Bukharin from more vicious treatment. Threats against family members, moreover, were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. Instead of manic self-liquidation, then, Bukharin’s confession was a strategic attempt to preserve himself and his family, an act not of selfless fanaticism but of self-interested hope.

But for many intellectuals at the time, these calculations simply did not register. For them, the archetypical evil of the twentieth century was not murder on an unprecedented scale, but the cession of mind and heart to the movement. Reading the great midcentury indictments of the Soviet catastrophe—Darkness at Noon, The God That Failed, 1984, The Captive Mind—one is struck less by their appreciation of Stalinist mass murder—it would be years before Solzhenitsyn turned the abstraction of the gulag into dossiers of particular suffering—than by their horror of the liquidated personality that was supposed to be the new Soviet man. André Gide noted that in every Soviet collective he visited “there are the same ugly pieces of furniture, the same picture of Stalin and absolutely nothing else—not the smallest vestige of ornament or personal belonging.” (Writers consistently viewed public housing, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, as a proxy for leftist dissolution. Fiedler, for instance, made much of the fact that the Rosenbergs lived in a “melancholy block of identical dwelling units that seem the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.”) Perversely taking Stalin at his word—that a million deaths was just a statistic—intellectuals concluded that the gulag, or Auschwitz, was merely the outward symbol of a more profound, more ghastly subtraction of self. Even in the camps, Hannah Arendt wrote, “suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims.” It was instead that the camps were “laboratories where changes in human nature” were “tested” and “the transformation of human nature” engineered for the sake of an ideology.

If we owe any one thinker our thanks, or skepticism, for the notion that totalitarianism was first and foremost an assault, inspired by ideology, against the integrity of the self, it is most assuredly Hannah Arendt. A Jewish German émigré to the United States, Arendt was not the first to make such claims about totalitarianism. But by tracing the ideologue’s self-destruction against a backdrop of imperial misadventure and massacre in Africa, waning aristocracies and dissolute bourgeoisies in Europe, and atomized mass societies throughout the world, Arendt gave this vision history and heft. With a cast of characters—from Lawrence of Arabia and Cecil Rhodes to Benjamin Disraeli and Marcel Proust—drawn from the European landscape, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism made it impossible for anyone to assume that Nazism and Stalinism were dark emanations of the German soil or Russian soul, geographic accidents that could be ascribed to one country’s unfortunate traditions. Totalitarianism was, as the title of the book’s British edition put it, “the burden of our times.” Not exactly a product of modernity—Arendt repeatedly tried to dampen the causal vibrato of her original title, and she was as much a lover of modernity as she was its critic—but its permanent guest.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Yet it would be a mistake to read The Origins of Totalitarianism as a transparent report of the totalitarian experience. As Arendt was the first to acknowledge, she came to the bar of political judgment schooled in “the tradition of German philosophy,” taught to her by Heidegger and Jaspers amid the crashing edifice of the Weimar republic. Making her way through a rubble of German existentialism and Weimar modernism, Arendt gave totalitarianism its distinctive cast, a curious blend of the novel and familiar, the startling and self-evident. Arendt’s would become the definitive statement—so fitting, so exact—not because it was so fitting or exact, but because it mixed real elements of Stalinism and Nazism with leading ideas of modern thought: not so much twentieth-century German philosophy, as we shall see, but the notions of terror and anxiety Montesquieu and Tocqueville developed in the wake of Hobbes. As Arendt confessed in private letters, she discovered “the instruments of distinguishing totalitarianism from all—even the most tyrannical—governments of the past” in Montesquieu’s writings, and Tocqueville, whose work she read while drafting The Origins of Totalitarianism, was a “great influence” on her.

But within a decade of publishing The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt changed course. After traveling to Israel in 1961 to report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann for The New Yorker, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, which turned out to be not a trial report at all, but a wholesale reconsideration of the dynamics of political fear. Not unlike Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or the first half of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Eichmann in Jerusalem posed a direct challenge to the account of fear that had earned its author her greatest acclaim. It produced a storm of outrage, much of it focused on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, her savage sense of irony, and her criticism of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. But an allied, if unspoken, source of fury was the widespread hostility to Arendt’s effort to upend the familiar canons of political fear: for in Eichmann, Arendt showed that much that Montesquieu and Tocqueville—and she herself—had written about political fear was simply false, serving the political needs of western intellectuals rather than the truth. Arendt paid dearly for her efforts. She lost friends, was deemed a traitor to the Jewish people, and was hounded at public lectures. But it was worth the cost, for in Eichmann Arendt managed “a paean of transcendence,” as Mary McCarthy put it, offering men and women a way of thinking about fear in a manner worthy of grown-ups rather than children. That so many would reject it is hardly surprising: little since Hobbes had prepared readers for the genuine novelty that was Eichmann in Jerusalem. Forty years later, we’re still not prepared.

Victims of the Great Purge

Victims of the Great Purge

If Hobbes hoped to create a world where men feared death above all else, he would have been sorely disappointed, and utterly mystified, by The Origins of Totalitarianism. What could he possibly have made of men and women so fastened to a political movement like Nazism or Bolshevism that they lacked, in Arendt’s words, “the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or the fear of death?” Hobbes was no stranger to adventures of ideology, but his ideologues were avatars of the self, attracted to ideas that enlarged them. Though ready to die for their faith, they hoped to be remembered as martyrs to a glorious cause. For Arendt, however, ideology was not a statement of aspiration; it was a confession of irreversible smallness. Men and women were attracted to Bolshevism and Nazism, she maintained, because these ideologies confirmed their feelings of personal worthlessness. Inspired by ideology, they went happily to their own deaths—not as martyrs to a glorious cause, but as the inglorious confirmation of a bloody axiom. Hobbes, who worked so hard to reduce the outsized heroism of his contemporaries, would hardly have recognized these ideologues, who saw in their own death a trivial chronicle of a larger truth foretold.

What propelled Arendt in this direction, away from Hobbes? Not the criminal largesse of the twentieth century—she repeatedly insisted that it was not the body counts of Hitler and Stalin that distinguished their regimes from earlier tyrannies—but rather a vision, inherited from her predecessors, of the weak and permeable self. Between the time of Hobbes and that of Arendt, the self had suffered two blows, the first from Montesquieu, the second from Tocqueville. Montesquieu never contemplated the soul-crushing effects of ideology, but he certainly imagined souls crushed. It was he who first argued, against Hobbes, that fear, redefined as terror, did not enlarge but reduce the self, and that the fear of death was not an expression of human possibility but of desperate finality. Tocqueville retained Montesquieu’s image of the fragile self, only he viewed its weakness as a democratic innovation. Where Montesquieu had thought the abridged self was a creation of despotic terror, Tocqueville believed it was a product of modern democracy. The democratic individual, according to Tocqueville, lacked the capacious inner life and fortified perimeter of his aristocratic predecessor. Weak and small, he was ready for submission from the get-go. So strong was this conviction about the weakness of the modern self that Arendt was able to apply it, as we shall see, not only to terror’s victims but, even more wildly, to its wielders as well.

Melding Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror and Tocqueville’s account of mass anxiety, Arendt turned Nazism and Stalinism into spectacular triumphs of antipolitical fear, what she called “total terror,” which could not “be comprehended by political categories.” Total terror, in her eyes, was not an instrument of political rule or even a weapon of genocide. One will look in vain throughout the last third of The Origins of Totalitarianism, where Arendt addresses the problem of total terror, for any reckoning with the elimination of an entire people. Total terror, for Arendt, was designed to escape the psychological burdens of the self, to destroy individual freedom and responsibility. It was a form of “radical evil,” which sought to eradicate not the Jews or the kulaks but the human condition. If Arendt’s totalitarianism constituted an apotheosis, it was not of human beastliness. It was of a tradition of thought—established by Montesquieu, elaborated by Tocqueville— that had been preparing for the disappearance of the self from virtually the moment the self had first been imagined.

The History of Fear, Part 3

29 Sep

Today, in my third post on the intellectual history of fear, I talk about Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. (For Part 1, Hobbes on fear, go here; for Part 2, Montesquieu on terror, go here.)

I suspect readers will be more familiar with Tocqueville’s argument. But that familiarity is part of the problem. Tocqueville’s portrait of the anxious conformist, the private self amid the lonely crowd, has come to seem so obvious that we can no longer see how innovative, how strange and novel, it actually was. And how much it departed from the world of assumption that, for all their differences, bound Hobbes to Montesquieu.

For more on all that, buy the book. But in the meantime…

• • • • •

There are many who pretend that cannon are aimed at them when in reality they are the target of opera glasses.

—Bertolt Brecht

Just fifty years separate Montesquieu’s death in 1755 from Tocqueville’s birth in 1805, but in that intervening half-century, armed revolutionaries marched the transatlantic world into modernity. New World colonials fired the first shot of national liberation at the British Empire, depriving it of its main beachhead in North America. Militants in France lit the torch of equality, and Napoleon carried it throughout the rest of Europe. Black Jacobins in the Caribbean led the first successful slave revolution in the Americas and declared Haiti an independent state. The Age of Democratic Revolution, as it would come to be known, saw borders transformed, colonies liberated, nations created. Warfare took on an ideological fervor not seen in over a century, with men and women staking their lives on the radical promise of the Enlightenment.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

But more than any particular advance, it was a new sense of time and space that distinguished this revolutionary world from its predecessor. Montesquieu came of age in the twilight of Louis XIV’s sixty-three-year reign. The uninterrupted length of Louis’ rule left a deep impression on The Spirit of the Laws—of time standing still, of politics moving at a glacial pace. The Age of Democratic Revolution set a new tempo for political life. Jacobins in France announced a new calendar, proclaiming 1792 the Year One. They tossed out laws bearing the traces of time immemorial. They took new names, affected new manners, and voiced new ideas. History books still register this extraordinary compression of time, with dynasties rising and falling within months and years rather than decades or centuries. Even Kant, with his obsessive punctuality, reportedly could not keep up with the pace of events: on the morning in 1789 when he heard of the fall of the Bastille, he stepped out the door for his daily walk later than usual.

Politics not only accelerated; it thickened, as amateurs rushed on stage, demanding recognition as political actors in their own right. Prior to the Age of Democratic Revolution, political life was a graceful but delicate dance between king and court. But suddenly the lower classes were given the opportunity to make, rather than watch, history. According to Thomas Paine, politics would no longer be “the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community.” With plebeian recruits jostling for space, “the soil of common life,” Wordsworth noted, grew “too hot to tread upon.”

As late as France’s Revolution of 1848, even the most liberal of aristocrats would feel squeezed by this inrush of new bodies. On the morning of February 24, just after the Parisian insurrections had begun, street demonstrators confronted Alexis de Tocqueville, soon to be minister of foreign affairs, on his stroll to the Chamber of Deputies.

They surrounded me and greedily pressed me for news; I told them that we had obtained all we wanted, that the ministry was changed, that all the abuses complained of were to be reformed, and that the only danger we now ran was lest people should go too far, and that it was for them to prevent it. I soon saw that this view did not appeal to them.

“That’s all very well, sir,” said they, “the Government has got itself into this scrape through its own fault, let it get out of it as best it can.”

“. . . If Paris is delivered into anarchy,” I said, “and all the Kingdom is in confusion, do you think that none but the King will suffer?”

Whether Tocqueville’s “we” was a reference to his interlocutors in the street or colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies, it suggested the populist familiarity that high politics had now acquired, a political immediacy simply unthinkable under the Old Regime.

Honoré Daumier, The Uprising

Honoré Daumier, The Uprising

These changed dimensions of time and space would utterly transform how Tocqueville—indeed, how his entire generation, and generations after them—thought about political fear. It would do so in two ways: first, in his sense that it was the mass, and not the individual, that drove events; second, in his recasting of Hobbes’s fear and Montesquieu’s terror as mass anxiety.

Tocqueville believed that the crashing entrance of so many untrained political actors made it impossible for anyone to undertake, on his own, significant political action. “We live in a time,” he noted, “and in a democratic society where individuals, even the greatest, are very little of anything.” Or, as Michelet, describing the plight of the individual amid the mass, put it: “Poor and alone, surrounded by immense objects, enormous collective forces which drag him along.” For all their differences, Hobbes’s sovereign and Montesquieu’s despot were singular figures of epic proportion, projecting their shadow across an entire landscape. The mass eclipsed such figures, allowing no one, not even a despot, to put his stamp on the world. There simply wasn’t enough room.

For Tocqueville, the mass meant more than political congestion: it threatened to dissolve the very boundaries of the self. Not by crushing the self, as Montesquieu had envisioned, but by merging self and society. Unlike the frontispiece of Leviathan, where the individuals composing the sovereign’s silhouette insisted upon their own form, the canvas of revolutionary democracy depicted a gathered hulk, with no recognizable human feature or discrete part. So complete was each person’s assimilation to the mass, it simply did not make sense to speak anymore of individuals. “By dint of not following their own nature,” John Stuart Mill gloomily concluded, men and women no longer had a “nature to follow.”

The new political tempo of the Age of Democratic Revolution, Tocqueville claimed, also produced a new kind of fear. With everything in the world changing so fast, no one could get his bearings. This confusion and loss of control made for free-floating anxiety, with no specific object. Montesquieu’s victims were terrified of tangible threats: punishment, torture, prison, death; Hobbes’s subjects feared specific dangers: the state of nature and the coercive state. The anxiety of Tocqueville’s citizens, by contrast, was not focused upon any concrete harm. Theirs was a vague foreboding about the pace of change and the liquefying of common referents. Uncertain about the contours of their world, they sought to fuse themselves with the mass, for only in unity could they find some sense of connection. Or they submitted to an all-powerful, repressive state, which restored to them a sense of authority and permanence. Anxiety, then, was aroused not by intimidating power—as fear had been for Hobbes and terror had been for Montesquieu—but by the existential condition of modern men and women. Anxiety was not a response to state repression; it induced it.

The Lonely Crowd

The Lonely Crowd

With mass anxiety giving rise to political repression, with the experience of those below forcing the actions of those above, Tocqueville completely transformed fear’s political meaning and function, signaling a permanent departure from the worlds of Hobbes and Montesquieu. Redefined as anxiety, fear was no longer thought of as a tool of power; instead, it was a permanent psychic state of the mass. And when the government acted repressively in response to this anxiety, the purpose was not to inhibit potential acts of opposition by keeping people down (Hobbes) or apart (Montesquieu), but to press people together, giving them a feeling of constancy and structure, relieving them, at least temporarily, of their raging anxiety. Thus did Tocqueville take yet one more step away from the political analysis of fear offered by Hobbes, and set the stage for Hannah Arendt, who would complete the journey.

But Tocqueville also departed from assumptions about fear that both Hobbes and Montequieu, despite their considerable differences, had shared. Unlike Hobbes or Montesquieu, Tocqueville saw the lines of anxiety’s genesis, cultivation, and transmission extending upward, from the deepest recesses of the mass psyche to the state. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the state needed to take certain actions to arouse fear or terror, that the initiative came from above. Tocqueville turned that assumption upside down, claiming that anxiety was the automatic condition of lonely men and women, who either forced or facilitated the state’s repressive actions. To the degree that the state acted repressively, it was merely responding to the demands of the mass. Because the mass was leaderless, divested of guiding elites and discrete authorities, state repression was a genuinely popular, democratic affair.

Unlike Montesquieu or Hobbes, Tocqueville suggested that the individual members of the mass who sought to lose themselves in the state’s repressive authority were culturally and psychologically prone to submission. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the individual who was to be afraid or terrified had to be created through the instruments of politics—elites, ideology, and institutions in Hobbes’s case, violence in Montesquieu’s. But in Tocqueville’s eyes, politics did not have to do anything at all. The anxious self was already on hand. No matter how politics and power were configured, the self would be anxious by virtue of his psychology and culture.

Ultimately, it was this vision of the democratic individual amid the lonely crowd that made Tocqueville’s vision of mass anxiety so terrifying. In claiming that anxiety did not have to be crafted, that it was a constitutive feature of the democratic self and its culture, Tocqueville suggested that danger came from within, that the enemy was a psychological fifth column lurking in the heart of every man and woman. As he wrote in a notebook, “This time the barbarians will not come from the frozen North; they will rise in the bosom of our countryside and in the midst of our cities.”

Hobbes had tried to focus people’s fear on a state of nature that lay in the future and in the past and on a real sovereign in the present, Montesquieu on a despotic terror that lay in the future or in the far-off lands of Asia. Both sought to focus people’s fear on objects outside themselves or their countries. Tocqueville turned people’s attention inward, toward the quotidian betrayals of liberty inside their anxious psyches. If there was an object to be feared, it was the self’s penchant for submission. From now on, individuals would have to be on guard against themselves, vigilantly policing the boundaries separating them from the mass. At the height of the Cold War, American intellectuals would revive this line of thought, arguing that the greatest danger to Americans was their own anxious self, ever ready to hand over its freedom to a tyrant. Warning against the “anxieties which drive people in free society to become traitors to freedom,” Arthur Schlesinger concluded that there was, in the United States, a “Stalin in every breast.”

The Vital Center

The other object to be feared was the egalitarian culture from which the democratic self arose. Tocqueville did not call for a reversal of democratic gains or a retreat from equality. He was far too much a realist and believer in the revolution’s gains to join the chorus of royalist reaction. Instead, he argued that to preserve the gains of the revolution, to help the democratic individual fulfill his promise as a genuine agent, the self would have to be shored up by creating firm structures of authority, restoring to it a sense of local affiliation, fostering religion and other sources of meaning, situating the self in civic associations whose function was less political than psychological and integrative. To counter mass anxiety, egalitarians and liberals, democrats and republicans, should cease their assault on society’s few remaining hierarchies. They should not participate in the socialist movement to centralize and enhance the power of a redistributive state. Instead, they should actively cultivate localism, institutions, and elite authority; these remnants of the Old Regime were the only bulwark against an anxiety threatening to introduce the worst forms of tyranny seen yet. The task, in other words, was not to continue the assault on the Old Regime but to stop it, to focus attention not on overturning the remains of privilege—local institutions and elites, religion, social hierarchies—but on enhancing them: these were the only social facts standing between democracy and despotism, freedom and anxiety.

One hundred and fifty years later, communitarian intellectuals in North American and Western Europe would offer a similar argument.

The History of Fear, Part 2

28 Sep

Yesterday, I inaugurated my series of posts on the intellectual history of fear with a discussion of Hobbes’s theory of rational fear. Today, I continue with a discussion of Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror. (Each of these discussions is an excerpt from my book Fear: The History of a Political Idea.)

Montesquieu is not often read by students of political theory. He’s become a bit of a boutique-y item in the canon, the exclusive preserve of a small group of scholars and pundits who tend to treat him as a genteel guardian of an anodyne tradition of political moderation. With their endless paeans to the rule of law and the separation of powers, these interpreters miss what’s most interesting and disruptive in Montesquieu. I’ve tried to recapture some of that here.

But again, if you want to read more, buy the book.

• • • • •

Fear always remains. A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt, but as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.

Joseph Conrad

Hobbes wrote about fear in the midst of political collapse, when the centripetal forces of civil war could no longer be contained by established norms of religion or history. So unnerving was this experience of political entropy that he sought to have it permanently imprinted on the European mind, there being “nothing more instructive towards loyalty and justice than . . . the memory, while it lasts, of that war.” Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu—a French aristocrat born in 1689, a full decade after Hobbes’s death—took up the question of fear just as that memory began to fade. Montesquieu’s was a world suffering not from the confusion of disorder but from the clarity of established rule. By the time of Montesquieu’s birth, Louis XIV had turned a country that only narrowly escaped the revolution that wrecked Britain into the most orderly state in Europe.

Convinced that “a little harshness was the greatest kindness I could do my subjects,” Louis concentrated political power in his own hands, subduing nobles and commoners alike. He seized control of France’s armies, turning semiprivate militias into soldiers of the crown. He banished the aristocracy from royal councils of power, relying instead on three trusted advisors and an efficient corps of officials in the countryside. He snatched veto power from local grandees accustomed to striking down royal edicts in regional parlements. He bankrupted the nobility through obscure methods of taxation; others he corrupted with frivolous titles, assigning them to positions of responsibility over his kitchen and stables. A class that had shared power with the royal family for generations was reduced to competing for such privileges as helping the king get dressed in the morning and perching on a footstool near the queen. Louis, the French historian Ernest Lavisse aptly noted, ruled with “the pride of a Pharaoh” and possessed, according to a character in Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters, “a high degree of talent for making himself obeyed.”

Louis XIV

Louis XIV

Montesquieu had a visceral awareness of this aristocratic displacement. As a participant in the Bordeaux parlement and a substantial landowner involved in the wine trade, he chafed at royal interference in local matters, especially restrictions on the production and sale of wine. Everything about the reign of Louis XIV—the eclipse of the nobility, the drive toward centralized power, the loss of local institutions—he identified with despotism, and any limitation on royal power earned his support as the mark of reform. Combining a rearguard defense of noble privilege with a visionary critique of centralized power, he took positions sometimes traditional, sometimes reformist, but always opposed to the absolutism favored by Hobbes.

This was the world and the politics that prompted Montesquieu to launch his reconsideration of Hobbesian fear, a revision so profound and complete it would shape intellectual perception for centuries to come. Political fear was no longer to be thought of as a passion bearing an elective affinity to reason; from now on, political fear was to be understood as despotic terror. Unlike Hobbesian fear, despotic terror was devoid of rationality and unsusceptible to education. It was an involuntary, almost physiological response to unmitigated violence. The terrorized possessed none of the inner life that Hobbes attributed to the fearful. They were incapable of thought and moral reflection; they could not deliberate or even flee. They cowered and crouched, hoping only to fend off the blows of their tormentor.

Montesquieu also reconceived the politics of fear. Where Hobbesian fear was a tool of political order, serving ruler and ruled alike, Montesquieu believed that terror satisfied only the depraved needs of a savage despot. Brutal and sadistic, the despot cared little for the polity. He had no political agenda; he sought only to quench his thirst for blood. The Hobbesian sovereign was aided by influential elites and learned men, scattered throughout civil society, who saw it in their interest to collaborate with him. The despot decimated elites and obliterated institutions, subduing any social organization not entirely his. While the Hobbesian sovereign generated fear through the rule of law and moral obligation, the despot dispensed with both.

Why this shift from fear to terror? Part of it was due to context. Creating political order in the wake of Louis XIV simply did not pose the same challenge to the Frenchman that it had to the Englishman. When Montesquieu tried to imagine a state of nature, as he did in the opening pages of The Spirit of the Laws, he could barely muster eight short paragraphs on the topic. The sheer brevity of his account—not to mention its benign descriptions—suggests how unfazed the political imagination of his day was by the specter of civil war.

But part of this shift was due to a change in political sensibility. Unlike Hobbes, who yearned for absolute government, Montesquieu sought to limit government power. Where Hobbes believed sovereigns should guard all political power as their own, Montesquieu argued for a government of “mediating” institutions. In his ideal polity, individuals and groups, housed in separate institutions, would share and compete for power. Forced to negotiate and compromise with each other, they would produce political moderation, the touchstone of personal freedom. Montesquieu argued for social pluralism and toleration—also checks, he believed, on the one-size-fits-all regime Louis XIV seemed bent on creating. With his vision of limited government, tolerance, political moderation, and personal freedom, Montesquieu was to become one of liberalism’s chief spokespersons, about as similar to Hobbes as a butterfly is to a wasp.



And yet beneath their considerable differences lay a deep vein of agreement. Like Hobbes, Montesquieu turned to fear as a foundation for politics. Montesquieu was never explicit about this; Hobbesian candor was not his style. But in the same way that the fear of the state of nature was supposed to authorize Leviathan, the fear of despotism was meant to authorize Montesquieu’s liberal state. Just as Hobbes depicted fear in the state of nature as a crippling emotion, Montesquieu depicted despotic terror as an all-consuming passion, reducing the individual to the raw apprehension of physical destruction. In both cases, the fear of a more radical, more debilitating form of fear was meant to inspire the individual to submit to a more civilized, protective state.

Why would a liberal opposed to the Hobbesian vision of absolute power resort to such a Hobbesian style of argument? Because Montesquieu, like Hobbes, lacked a positive conception of human ends, true for all people, to ground his political vision. Montesquieu’s liberalism was not the egalitarian liberalism of the century to come, nor was it the conscience-stricken protoliberalism of the century it had left behind. Unlike Locke, whose argument for toleration was powered by a vision of religious truth, and unlike later figures such as Rousseau or Mill, whose arguments for freedom were driven by secular visions of human flourishing, Montesquieu pursued no beckoning light. He wrote in that limbo period separating two ages of revolution, when weariness with dogma and wariness of absolutism made positive commitments difficult to come by and even more difficult to sustain. His was a skeptical liberalism: ironic, worldly, elegant—and desperately in need of justification.

Despotic terror supplied that justification, lending his vision of limited government moral immediacy, pumping blood into what might otherwise have seemed a bloodless politics. Montesquieu did not know—and did not care to enquire—whether we were free and equal, but he did know that terror was awful and had to be resisted. Thus was liberalism born in opposition to terror—and at the same time yoked to its menacing shadow.

But hitching liberalism to terror came at a price: It obscured the realities of political fear. Montesquieu painted an almost cartoonish picture of terror, complete with a brutish despot straight out of central casting, and brutalized subjects, so crazed by terror they couldn’t think of or for themselves. So did he overlook the possibility that the very contrivances he recommended as antidotes to terror—toleration, mediating institutions, and social pluralism—could be mobilized on its behalf. An expression of the despot’s deranged psyche, Montesquieu’s terror was an entirely nonpolitical or antipolitical affair, circumventing political institutions and sidestepping the political concerns of men. The polemical impulse behind his account was clear: If Montesquieu could show that despotic terror destroyed everything men held dear, and if he could show that terror possessed none of the attributes of a liberal polity, terror could serve as the negative foundation of liberal government. The more malignant the regime, the more promising its liberal alternative.

Built into Montesquieu’s argument, then, was a necessary exaggeration of the evil against which it was arrayed. Though repressive, the rule of Louis XIV did not entirely warrant Montesquieu’s overheated depictions, prompting Voltaire to complain that Montesquieu “satirizes more than he judges” and that he “makes us wish that so noble a mind had tried to instruct rather than shock.” Montesquieu was not unaware of the flaws in his account. In a youthful work, The Persian Letters, he offered plentiful evidence to suggest that his mature conception of despotic terror, stated in The Spirit of the Laws, was as much political pornography as it was social vision. In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu described a form of fear quite similar to that depicted by Hobbes. Rational and moral, fear relied upon education; it aided rather than subdued the self; it depended upon a powerful ruler working in concert with elites; it required the collaboration of all sectors of society. But in his later years, Montesquieu could no longer abide this youthful gloss. So he rejected the earlier vision, as have subsequent writers, who would ignore or misinterpret The Persian Letters, resulting in the distorted vision of terror we possess to this day. Montesquieu’s, then, is a cautionary tale, revealing the pitfalls of a liberalism that relies on terror and thereby misconstrues it, making the Frenchman a creature of not only his own time, but also our own.

But what exactly was this fear, this despotic terror? Curiously, The Spirit of the Laws never defines it. Part of Montesquieu’s unwillingness to define it was due no doubt to his intellectual temperament. He was repelled by the austere architecture of Hobbesian thought, in which unadorned definitions gave rise to severe edifices of theoretical conclusion, a style of deductive reasoning he believed mirrored the harsh simplicity of despotic rule.

But Montesquieu’s refusal to define terror registered an even deeper conviction. Terror, he had come to believe, was a great nullifying force, so oriented toward destruction and negation it could not sustain anything suggesting presence or concreteness. “Everything around” despotism, he observed, was “empty.” Terror’s most telling sign was silence, the desolation of verbal space signaling both the dissolution of men capable of speech and the disappearance of a world capable of description. No words, no definitions, could withstand terror’s decimating energies.

Hobbesian fear—and the fear Montesquieu described in the harem—traveled in a world of things, among men with ends to pursue and goods to be sought. Absence and loss were certainly fear’s companions: there was, after all, no more categorical loss than death. But the fear of death was a powerful emotion for Hobbes precisely because it conveyed to its sufferer the prospect of losing the goods he valued in life. The fact that the generation of Hobbesian fear required the cooperation of elites and institutions only added to this sense that fear flourished in a world of things. The denser the world, the more opportunities for depriving men of the objects that mattered to them, the greater the possibilities for arousing fear. In an empty space where human affections were thin and the objects of human attachment few, fear would find an inhospitable terrain.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu conceived an altogether different relationship between terror, self, and world. Terror preyed upon a person stripped of selfhood—of reason, moral aspiration, the capacity for agency, and a fondness for things in the world. The more self a person possessed, the more capable he was of resisting terror. The more connected he was to the world and its objects, the more resources he would have to challenge the despot. Deprived of self and world, he was the perfect victim of despotic terror. The ideal environment for terror was a society in which social classes and complicating hierarchies had been eviscerated and the individual was forced to stand alone—not unlike the world, Montesquieu believed, of Louis XIV. Liberated from the thick constitution of medieval ranks and orders, the despot would be free to wield his sword with unequivocal force. The most fertile climate for despotic terror, then, was not a dense atmosphere of desiring selves, collaborating elites, and robust institutions, but a vast expanse of nothingness, from which liberalism derived its somethingness.

Hobbes thought that a person’s fear of death was an expression of that person’s most intimate desires and wishes. All fearless people were alike— brash, foolish, enthralled by death—but a fearful person was fearful in his own distinctive way. For Montesquieu, it was the reverse. Because the terrified were incapable of reason, agency, and formulating their own ends, they possessed none of the irregularities distinguishing one person from the next. Terror fed on the dull sameness of animals motivated by nothing but the biological imperative of staying alive. The victim’s “portion, like beasts,’” was “instinct, obedience, and chastisement.” The fear of death could not be linked to the goods of a particular life, for it flourished only in the absence of those goods: “In despotic countries one is so unhappy that one fears death more than one cherishes life.” In free societies, obedience was “naturally subject to eccentricities.” Free subjects thought too highly of themselves to slavishly obey; they forced their rulers to accommodate their demands. Not so in despotism. A de-individualizing experience, despotic terror made no room for pluralism, difference, and individuality.

In recent years, intellectuals of varying stripes have taken the liberal tradition to task for its celebration of the independent, autonomous self. A figure of titanic but chilly remoteness, the liberal self is supposed to be Kant’s bleak gift to modern morals. According to Michael Sandel, the liberal a self is “an active, willing agent,” who chooses her beliefs rather than embrace or discover those she has inherited from parents, teachers, and friends. She is not bound by her “interests and ends.” She “possesses” such ends but is not “possessed” by them. She lurks, like a spider, behind all the strands connecting her to the objects of the world—content in her remove, autonomous at the center of her austere web.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

The original vision of a self detached from its ends and the world, however, was born not in triumph but in grief. Long before Kant, long before the liberal subject of communitarian complaint, there was Montesquieu’s victim, a fragile being severed from its basic goods and the world’s objects. Dispossessed of contingent aims, ends, and desires, the victim was divested of every unique relationship and circumstance that made him who he was. For only after shaving off these distinctive layers of self could the despot act upon a creature of pure physicality.

Despite these differences between the proverbial liberal self, and Montesquieu’s brittle victim of terror, the two figures did share an elusive affinity. Kant’s self may not have been the victim Montesquieu envisioned, but Kant could only think of the self as he did because Montesquieu had redefined terror to be an entirely physical phenomenon. By stripping terror of the emblems of selfhood and by conceiving those emblems as checks against terror, Montesquieu made it possible for subsequent theorists to think of fear, redefined as terror, as an experience unhinged from the life of the mind. If a person were rational or moral, Montesquieu suggested, he was not likely to be found among the terrorized.

Kant picked up on this contrast between terror, on the one hand, and selfhood, on the other, only he turned it in an entirely different direction. Like the despot, Kant sought to strip the self of its contingent features—its particular ends, its attachment to immediate circumstances, its objects of desire. But where the despot uncovered a creature ripe for terror, Kant discovered an agent of moral freedom, a pure good will, attuned solely to the dictates of reason, who could act upon the requirements of duty without the “admixture of sensuous things.” Such a person, Kant believed, would be incapable of fear, precisely because he had been liberated from the things of this world, including his physical self. But where Montesquieu’s stripped-down self was prepared for a descent into hell, Kant’s rose gloriously to the kingdom of ends. Thus was the liberal self conceived in the shadow of terror.

While Sigmund Freud is associated with the twentieth century’s assault on the sunny rationalism that Montesquieu and the Enlightenment supposedly inaugurated, we see here how closely Freud’s worldview paralleled Montesquieu’s, how much Montesquieu anticipated the sensibilities of our own time. (“There is hardly an event of any importance in our recent history,” Hannah Arendt would later write, “that would not fit into the scheme of Montesquieu’s apprehensions.”) Writing after World War I, Freud claimed that the fundamental conflict within men and women was between the instincts of life and death. The life instinct propelled the self out into the world for the sake of sexual and emotional congress, political and social union. The death instinct sought to return the self to a condition of utter stillness and separation, before birth, where the tensions and conflicts associated with life had ceased. What made the death instinct so powerful was the dim memory of the inorganic state that preceded all life. “It must be an old state of things,” Freud wrote, “an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return,” an idea that explained why “the goal of all life is death.” That memory of a prior inorganic state lay behind the human drive toward self-destruction, as evidenced by the World War I: it was why men and women not only traveled toward death, but also sought to advance the pace of the journey.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Montesquieu’s despotic terror was like the death instinct, an adjutant of decomposition, restoring self and society to a primal stillness. Liberal politics, by contrast, was like the life instinct: It sought to put things together, to build up rather than break down. It worked against the coercive impulse to ease oneself back into a lifeless past, and for that reason, was difficult and counterintuitive. Taking something apart is always easier than putting it together, for disassembly returns things to their simplest forms. A liberal polity demanded that its leaders “combine powers, regulate them, temper them, make them act.” It required “a masterpiece of legislation that chance rarely produces.” Despotism, by contrast, “leaps to view.” Where moderate polities required “enlightened” leaders and officials “infinitely more skillful and experienced in public affairs than they are in the despotic state,” despotism settled for the “most brutal passions.”

Hobbes is often considered a more pessimistic theorist of politics than Montesquieu, but it was the Frenchman who truly possessed the more terrifying vision. No matter how absolutist or repressive his Leviathan, Hobbes believed in the indissoluble presence of men and women, of discrete agents whose participation was necessary for the creation of any political world, no matter how frightening. They were confused, vain, and obnoxious, but their recklessness spoke to a more capacious truth—that dissolution was not the way of the world. Montesquieu spoke on behalf of a darker dispensation. For all the evil the despot was supposed to unleash, he was in the end a mere catalyst, setting in motion forces of nature that were far beyond his control and that would ultimately engulf him as well. If there was any genuine actor in Montesquieu’s story of this descent into hell, it was not human beings but the impersonal drive toward nothingness, which forced its way through the most civilized facades and corresponded to the elemental processes of life itself.

Montesquieu’s politics thus bore a peculiar relationship to terror. On the one hand, terror had to be fought, consuming, if necessary, Europe’s entire fund of political energy. On the other hand, terror seemed more real, more in sync with the deep movements of nature, than liberal ideals of moderation and freedom.

But if ought entails can, how could liberalism take up a struggle against such an indefatigable foe? The solution was, first, to localize terror, and, second, to externalize it. Even though terror threatened all polities, particularly monarchies, Montesquieu thought it could be enclosed within one type of regime, despotism, and that a liberal or moderate regime could keep it at bay. For someone who believed that terror was the universal tendency of all political movement, this was an ironic conclusion, overturning centuries of teaching about how fear ought to be managed. Fear had previously been as a problem for all moral beings. Its challenges were universal, its boundaries ethical. Even Montaigne, usually invoked as Montesquieu’s predecessor, believed that though fear was a great “fit,” it could be overcome by recalling one’s “sense of duty and honor.” Montesquieu envisioned the domain of fear along radically different lines. He suggested that terror was a passion with a specific locale, that it could be contained by the concrete borders of a moderate regime. Thus, when Hegel later ended his discussion of African despotism by writing, “We shall therefore leave Africa at this point, and it need not be mentioned again,” he was invoking more than a literary turn of phrase. He was voicing Europe’s new conviction that fear tracked the lines of territorial rather than moral geography.

Hegel’s comment pointed to a second element of Montesquieu’s strategy: his externalization of terror. Though Montesquieu believed much of Europe was heading toward despotism, he depicted terror as lying primarily outside of Europe, particularly in Asia. Montesquieu may not have invented the concept of Oriental despotism, but he gave it a new lease on life, portraying an entire region and people languishing in primitivism and barbarism. Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, one of Montesquieu’s early critics, decried his use of dehumanizing stereotypes, claiming that Montesquieu had so distorted the East, he inadvertently offered a justification for colonialism from the West. A theory designed to denounce despotic terror at home unintentionally provided an excuse for practicing it abroad.

But there was more than crypto-colonialism going on here, for Montesquieu seemed to believe that by situating terror abroad, Europe could escape its effects at home. This may not have been the first time that a writer turned upon the rest of the world for relief from his own, projecting crude stereotypes he secretly feared were true of his native land; it certainly would not be the last.

The History of Fear, Part 1

27 Sep

Long before I was writing or thinking about the right, I was writing and thinking about politics and fear. That project began as a dissertation in the early 1990s and concluded with my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which was published in 2004. When I embarked upon the project, few in the American academy were interested in fear; by the time I finished it, everyone, it seemed, was. What had happened in the intervening years, of course, was 9/11.

Fear is divided into two parts: the first is an intellectual history of fear, examining how theorists from Thomas Hobbes through Judith Shklar have thought about the problem; the second offers my own analysis of fear, drawing on everything from McCarthyism to Stalinism, from the Dirty Wars to the American workplace.

Because the second part of the book—especially its analysis of the workplace—has gotten more attention in the last few years, I wanted to highlight the first part here. In particular, I wanted to give readers a sense of how various our ideas about political fear have been, how innovative (and sometimes misleading) our modern conceptions of fear are, and how interesting Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt (the main protagonists of my history) can be.

So with this post, I’m going to inaugurate a series on this blog, in which I post excerpts from each of my five chapters on the intellectual history of fear. Part 1, today’s post, will look at Hobbes’s account of rational fear; Part 2 will look at Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror; Part 3, at Tocqueville’s account of democratic anxiety; Part 4, at Arendt’s account of total terror; and Part 5, at the theories of fear we’ve seen since the end of Cold War, which I divide into two categories: the liberalism of anxiety (communitarianism) and the liberalism of terror (what is often called political liberalism).

I hope you find some of this of interest.  And that you buy the book.

• • • • •

“No matter how important weapons may be, it is not in them, gentlemen the judges, that great power resides. No! Not the ability of the masses to kill others, but their great readiness themselves to die, this secures in the last instance the victory of the popular uprising.”

Leon Trotsky

It was on April 5, 1588, the eve of the Spanish Armada’s invasion of Britain, that Thomas Hobbes was born. Rumors of war had been circulating throughout the English countryside for months. Learned theologians pored over the book of Revelation, convinced that Spain was the Antichrist and the end of days near. So widespread was the fear of the coming onslaught it may well have sent Hobbes’s mother into premature labor. “My mother was filled with such fear,” Hobbes would write, “that she bore twins, me and together with me fear.” It was a joke Hobbes and his admirers were fond of repeating: Fear and the author of Leviathan and Behemoth—Job-like titles meant to invoke, if not arouse, the terrors of political life—were born twins together.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

It wasn’t exactly true. Though fear may have precipitated Hobbes’s birth, the emotion had long been a subject of enquiry. Everyone from Thucydides to Machiavelli had written about it, and Hobbes’s analysis was not quite as original as he claimed. But neither did he wholly exaggerate. Despite his debts to classical thinkers and to contemporaries like the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius, Hobbes did give fear special pride of place. While Thucydides and Machiavelli had identified fear as a political motivation, only Hobbes was willing to claim that “the original of great and lasting societies consisted not in mutual good will men had toward each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.”

But more than Hobbes’s insistence on fear’s centrality makes his account so pertinent for us, for Hobbes was attuned to a problem we associate with our postmodern age, but which is as old as modernity itself: How can a polity or society survive when its members disagree, often quite radically, about basic moral principles? When they disagree not only about the meaning of good and evil, but also about the ground upon which to make such distinctions? Establishing communion among subscribers to the same political faith is difficult enough; a community of believers, after all, still argues about the meaning of its sacred texts. But what happens when that community no longer reads the same texts, when its members begin from such disparate starting points, pray to such different gods, that they cannot even carry on an argument, much less conclude it?

Hobbes called this condition the “state of nature,” a situation of radical conflict about the meaning of words and morals, producing corrosive distrust and open violence. “In the state of nature,” Hobbes wrote, “every man is his own judge, and differeth from other concerning the names and appellations of things, and from those differences arise quarrels, and breach of peace.” This state of nature was not an extraordinary moment, no sudden storm over an otherwise placid sea. It was endemic to the human condition, constantly threatening a state of war. In fact, wrote Hobbes, it was a state of war.

Hobbes warmed to the fear of death—not just the affective emotion, but the cognitive apprehension of bodily destruction—because he thought it offered a way out of this state of nature. Whatever people deem to be good, Hobbes argued, they should recognize that self-preservation is the precondition for their pursuit of it. They should realize that peace is the prerequisite of their preservation, and that peace is best guaranteed by their agreeing to submit absolutely—that is, by ceding a great deal of the rights that are by nature theirs—to the state, which he called Leviathan. That state would have complete authority to define the rules of political order, and total power to enforce those rules.

Accepting this principle of self-preservation did not require men to give up their underlying faith, at least not in theory: it only asked them to acknowledge that their pursuit of that faith necessitated their being alive. When we act out of fear, Hobbes suggested, when we submit to government for fear of our own lives, we do not forsake our beliefs. We keep faith with them, ensuring that we remain alive so that we can pursue them. Fear does not betray the individual; it is his completion. It is not the antithesis of civilization but its fulfillment. This is Hobbes’s counterintuitive claim about fear, cutting against the grain of later argument, but nevertheless finding an echo in the actual experience of men and women submitting to political power.

We shall consider here three other elements of Hobbes’s treatment of fear, for they also speak to our political condition. First, Hobbes argued that fear had to be created. Fear was not a primitive passion, waiting to be tapped by a weapons-wielding sovereign. It was a rational, moral emotion, taught by influential men in churches and universities. Though the fear of death could be a powerful motivator, men often resisted it for the sake of honor and glory. To counter this tendency, the doctrine of self-preservation and the fear of death had to be propounded by preachers and teachers, and by laws instructing men in the ground of their civic duty. Fear had to be thought of as the touchstone of a people’s commonality, the essence of their associated life. It had to address their needs and desires, and be perceived as defending the most precious achievements of civilization. Otherwise, it would never create the genuine civitas Hobbes believed it was meant to create.

Second, though Hobbes understood fear to be a reaction to real danger in the world, he also appreciated its theatrical qualities. Political fear depended upon illusion, where danger was magnified, even exaggerated, by the state. Because the dangers of life were many and various, because the subjects of the state did not naturally fear those dangers the state deemed worth fearing, the state had to choose people’s objects of fear. It had to persuade people, through a necessary but subtle distortion, to fear certain objects over others. This gave the state considerable leeway to define, however it saw fit, the objects of fear that would dominate public concern.

Finally, Hobbes marshaled his arguments about fear not only to overcome the impasse of moral conflict, but also to defeat the revolutionary legions contending at the time against the British monarchy. The English Revolution broke out in 1643 between royalist forces allied with Charles I and Puritan armies marching on behalf of Parliament. It concluded in 1660 with the restoration of Charles’s son to the throne. Between those years, Britain witnessed the war-related death of some 180,000 men and women, the beheading of Charles I, and the decade-long rule of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans.

Scholars have long debated whether this bloody struggle was a modern revolution or the last in a long line of religious conflicts unleashed by the Reformation. To be sure, Cromwell’s forces did not seek a great leap forward: they hoped to return England to God’s rule, conceiving themselves as restorative rather than progressive agents. Nevertheless, there was a revolutionary and democratic dimension to their actions, which Hobbes perceived and believed had to be countered. “By their harangues in the Parliament,” he complained of the revolutionary leaders, “and by their discourses and communication with people in the country,” the revolutionaries made ordinary people “in love with democracy.” Hobbes’s arguments about fear were in no small measure directed at the revolutionary ethos of these Puritan warriors. And this lends his account a decidedly repressive, even counterrevolutionary character, the ramifications of which we shall see in the work of later theorists like Tocqueville and contemporary intellectuals writing today, as well as in the actual practice of political fear.

What Hobbes’s arguments add up to is an acute analysis, never quite seen before or since, of fear’s moral and political dimensions. Though Hobbes owed much to his predecessors, his appreciation of moral pluralism and conflict drove him to a new, and distinctly modern, conception of the relationship between fear and morality. Previous writers like Aristotle and Augustine believed that fear grew out of society’s shared moral ethos, with the objects of a people’s fear reflecting that ethos. Convinced that such an ethos no longer existed, Hobbes argued that it had to be created. Fear would serve as its constituent element, establishing a negative moral foundation upon which men could live together in peace. Thus, where previous writers treated fear as an emanation of a shared morality, Hobbes conceived of it as the catalyst of that morality. And though Hobbes was indebted to his contemporaries’ analysis of self-preservation, he knew that the men of his age—tangled in revolution, indifferent to their own death—were not likely to accept it. This inspired some of his deepest reflections about how the fear of death could be generated and sustained by the sovereign and his allies throughout civil society.

While Hobbes’s analysis of fear owes more to classical and contemporary sources than we might think, his imagined orchestration of fear is more prophecy than reiteration, envisioning how modern elites will wield fear in order to rule, and how modern intellectuals will rely on fear, even as they distance themselves from Hobbes, to create a sense of common purpose.

But Hobbes’s doctrine evokes another side of modern politics—not the inaugural moment of counterinsurgent fear, when the forces of activist reform are defeated, but the succeeding era of quiet complacence and sober regard for family, business, locality, and self. After the demobilization of any popular movement, men and women tend to their own affairs, worrying about the everyday business of survival and success, forgoing larger visions of collective transformation. In her account of Pinochet’s Chile, for example, journalist Tina Rosenberg writes of Jaime Pérez, a socialist student leader during Salvador Allende’s last year in power. After the 1973 military coup, which ended 150 years of Chilean democracy, Pérez fled from public life. He did not protest, he “slept.” He traded his old car for a new one—every year—and bought three color TVs. Explaining his silence, Pérez says, “All I knew was that life was good,” and in certain respects, it was.

The Scream

The Scream

The United States has also seen such moments—most famously in the wake of the McCarthy-era purges. Once the tumult of repressive politics died down, men and women retreated to the goods of family life and getting ahead. Critics lambasted the social types of the 1950s as conformists, coining phrases like “the man in the gray flannel suit,” “the lonely crowd,” and “status anxiety.” But these were terms of moralistic accusation that evaded or sublimated the reality of McCarthyism. People were frightened during the 1950s, and they were frightened because of political repression. Their fear bore none of fear’s obvious marks; they did not resemble the terrorized face in Edvard Münch’s famous portrait The Scream. They looked instead like Hobbesian man—reasonable, purposive, and careful never to take a step in the wrong direction. Fear didn’t destroy Cold War America: it tamed it. It secured for men and women some measure of what they deemed to be their own good. American citizens didn’t betray their former principles: under the weight of intense coercion, their principles changed. Or they opted to forgo certain principles—political solidarity—for the sake of others—familial obligation, careerism, personal security. However they justified their decisions, their choices reveal the influence of Hobbesian fear. And if it sounds strange to contemporary ears to call it fear, that is only a testament to Hobbes’s success.

In this regard, I can think of no more representative figure linking Hobbes’s vision to the twentieth century than Galileo. According to his most celebrated biographer, Hobbes “extremely venerated and magnified” Galileo, whose influence is evident throughout Hobbes’s work. In the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht revived the story of Galileo as a twentieth-century parable of revolutionary courage and counterrevolutionary fear. Brecht turned Galileo into the improbable hero of a new proletarian science, a revolutionary slayer of medieval dragons. By threatening the church’s authority, Brecht suggested, Galileo’s teachings promised a world where “no altar boy will serve the mass/No servant girl will make the bed.” But when “shown the instruments” of torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted his revolutionary scientific theories.

Charles Laughton as Galileo

Charles Laughton as Galileo

At the end of Brecht’s play, Galileo confesses to shame and remorse over his capitulation. “Even the Church will teach you that to be weak is not human,” he spits out. “It is just evil.” Though he managed after his recantation to pursue a clandestine science, the very solitariness of the pursuit—its separation from a larger project of collective, radical transformation—betrayed the scientific enterprise, which demands publicity, solidarity, and above all, courage. “Even a man who sells wool, however good he is at buying wool cheap and selling it dear, must be concerned with the standing of the wool trade. The practice of science would seem to call for valor.” Most damning of all, Galileo realizes that he never was in as much danger from the Inquisition as he believed. Like the subjects of Leviathan, whose fear turns a mere spitfrog into a terrifying giant, Galileo magnified his own weakness and the strength of his opponents. “At that particular time, had one man put up a fight, it could have had wide repercussions. I have come to believe that I was never in real danger; for some years I was as strong as the authorities,” he says. “I sold out,” he wanly concludes.

Whether Galileo is a coward or a realist (and in good Brechtian fashion, the playwright suggests there might not be much difference between the two), one thing is clear: Galileo’s fear of death is connected to the goods he valued in life. As much as he speaks on behalf of a larger political vision of science, so does he subscribe to a more domestic conception of himself and his ends. Brecht’s Galileo is a bon vivant, a lover of the finer things—good food, good wine, leisure. His science, he believes, depends upon his stomach. “I don’t think well unless I eat well. Can I help it if I get my best ideas over a good meal and a bottle of wine?” He adds, “I have no patience with a man who doesn’t use his brains to fill his belly.” He hopes to use the proceeds from his science to secure a good dowry for his daughter, to buy books, to acquire the necessary free time to pursue pure research. Thus, when he chooses to abide by the dictates of the Inquisition and pursue his research on the sly, he acts in accordance with a principle that has been his all along: science depends first and foremost on personal comfort.

In choosing silence over solidarity, comfort over comradeship, Galileo swaps one truth for another. It is not that fear silences his true self, that self-interest gets the better of his moral code. It is that the only way he can imagine fulfilling his ends is to capitulate to fear. That is how fear works in a repressive state. The state changes the calculus of individual action, making fear seem the better instrument of selfhood. The emblematic gesture of the fearful is thus not flight but exchange, its metaphorical backdrop not the rack but the market. “Blessed be our bargaining, whitewashing, death-fearing community,” Galileo howls. And in the distance, one can see Hobbes nodding in silent agreement, without the slightest hint of irony.

Classical Liberalism ≠ Libertarianism

25 Sep

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations:

Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters. Thus the law which obliges the masters in several different trades to pay their workmen in money and not in goods, is quite just and equitable.

Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence:

The rich and opulent merchant who does nothing but give a few directions, lives in far greater state and luxury and ease and plenty of all the conveniencies and delicacies of life than his clerks, who do all the business. They too, excepting their confinement, are in a state of ease and plenty far superior to that of the artizan by whose labour these commodities were furnished. The labour of this man too is pretty tollerable; he works under cover protected from the inclemency in the weather, and has his livelyhood in no uncomfortable way if we compare him with the poor labourer. He has all the inconveniencies of the soil and the season to struggle with, is continually exposed to the inclemency of the weather and the most severe labour at the same time. Thus he who as it were supports the whole frame of society and furnishes the means of the convenience and ease of all the rest is himself possessed of a very small share and is buried in obscurity. He bears on his shoulders the whole of mankind, and unable to sustain the load is buried by the weight of it and thrust down into the lowest parts of the earth, from whence he supports all the rest. (emphasis added)


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