Link: Elections in Germany, Liberal Progress

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog .

‘Germany’s Shift to the Right’, Dennis Nottebaum. 28th September, 2009 in OpenDemocracy.

An article in the left leaning democracy and human rights website OpenDemocracy. Nottebaum points to the surge for the FDP (Free Democratic Party), a liberal party which emphasises free markets, a limited state, and civil rights, led by the first open gay to lead a major German party, Guido Westervelle. The FDP came third in German elections, which is evidently a limited kind of success, but it’s the biggest third party vote ever in the Federal Republic, the biggest FDP vote ever, and marks a big shift in power.

I don’t entirely endorse the notion of a shift to the right. It could also be descried as a shift away from social conservatism to social liberalism, and from monumental dominant parties to a more varied political scene in Germany freed from political machines linked with the churches, trade unions, and businesses seeking corporate welfare. The main parties, SPD (social democrats) and CDU-CSU (Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union), fell back from what was already a historically low share of the vote.

The Greens and the Left increased their proportion of the left inclined vote, and the Greens were co-lead by a German of Turkish origin, Cem Özemir.

The FDP matched the SPD in the youth vote.

The FDP ran on a platform of reducing regulation and taxation, showing that the current economic down turn is not leading to an automatic inexorable move to more regulation of the financial sector. And quite rightly so, it’s a big myth that the decline in value of financial assets was due to deregulation, seeing as the deregulation is a myth.

The existence of the FDP, and its success, shows that civil liberties, human rights, and social pluralism, are not the sole possession of the left; it shows that free market policies go with social tolerance and limitations of the security state.

Links:Thomas Gregersen. PoliticalPhilo/Political Theory

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Thomas Gregersen of Copenhagen is running two great online sites in political theory and philosophy.

PoliticalPhilo is a primarily a Twitter service, but also exists as a website with an RSS feed, which is how I keep up with it, as I do not use Twitter. Great selection of links to books, interviews, blogs, articles, news item etc in political philosophy. Alright, it did link to my first ‘Liberal and Libertarian Foucault’, which is how I know about it, but great links in general.


Political Theory – Habermas and Rawls A blog devoted to news and items relevant, broadly defined, to those two recent giants. Not favourite thinkers of mine, but certainly thinkers who cannot be ignored and who continue to inspire important discussions. I particularly recommend a recent item, with links to articles in the German press, about a dispute in German newspapers between Peter Sloterdijk and Habermas’ student Axel Honneth, referring to Sloterdijk’s Nietzscheanism and leanings towards cutting down the state, including the social state.

O Fortuna: Foucault, Rawls, Habermas, Nussbaum

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault is concerned, amongst other things, with the way that the early modern state tries to master fortune and chance. I’m not sure if Foucault quotes Machiavelli’s rather notorious suggestion in The Prince that fortune is a woman who needs to be beaten, but he brings The Prince (but unfortunately not The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy) into his discussion on the early modern state, and the issue of the state controlling chance is a persistent one. As Foucault suggests in Lecture II, there is a tendency from the Renaissance to Napoleonic times, to think of nature and history containing uncontrollable fortune of a rather personified, something that could be traced back to earlier ideas of a wheel of fortune. and the work of the fates.

Yesterday I posted on Foucault and the Physiocrats, which really approaches the issue of new attitude to fortune, fate and chance, in which allowing the market to work ends the repetition of famines which had seemed like the results of harsh fortune. Chance of one kind is limited by allowing chance of another kind.

A contrast can be made with John Rawls’ concern with minimising chance in A Theory of Justice. Chance is limited in these ways, and possibly more: the initial situation and veil of ignorance attempt to eliminate chance from the rational design of principles of justice; theoretical equilibrium between intuitions and reasoning aims to ensure that the optimal principles will be revealed; the attitude to inequality is that it should be compensated and eliminated where it is the result of chance, which must be an unfair outcome.

I would not want to reject all that Rawls says, but this urge to minimise and eliminate chance is unsatisfactory for various reasons, including the way it must allow extremes of state intervention in the emergent outcomes of market, and other voluntary, networks of actions and decisions. There could be a strong case for wanting to modify some outcomes, some kind of state supported social minimum is something I would support, but Rawls’ approach inevitably leads to a gigantic and ramifying apparatus of intervention and rectification from above.

It is is important that Jürgen Habermas, though more Marxist than Rawls in his formation, shows concern with this possibility, though not while discussing Rawls. I don’t see that Habermas has a solution, but at least he recognises the problem.

Martha Nussbaum’s case is interesting here. She pushes further than Rawls in an interventionist rectifying direction than Rawls, or further than Rawls mentions in A Theory of Justice where Rawls is trying to accommodate neutral comparison between many designs for justice. In that respect, Rawls does allow chance in, through accepting many possible outcomes of the initial position.

However, in Nussbaum’s ethics, certainly as presented in The Fragility of Goodness, she is very concerned with arguing that strong rational control of chance is not the best option for ethics as it lacks sensitivity to chance and the passions. Something argued largely against Plato, or some moments in Plato, with reference to Aristotle, tragedy, poetry and some moments in Plato.

As far as I can see Nussbaum has failed to apply the lessons of her ethics to her political theory. I think she would probably reply that the complex kind of welfarist interventionism she favours is necessary to respond to the complexity of different kinds of human, and human situation, and she would want to add the complexity of allowing for animal rights as well.

I claim that Nussbaum has overlooked the dangers of too much control of chance in the socio-political sphere. It would be a good idea to reflect on what she has written with regard to her ethics, and with regard to Habermas and Foucault.

O Fortuna. Not in the rigid sense of fortune as an agent, but in the sense of pure chance and indeterminacy in the natural and social universes.

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault III: Physiocrats

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lecture Two (page 207)

Actually, we can say that thanks to these measures, or rather thanks to the suppression of the juridical-economic straitjacket that framed the grain trade, all in all, as Abeille said, scarcity becomes a chimera.

The context of this quotation is a discussion of the impact of Physiocrat doctrines in 18th Century France. Quesnay, Turgot and others argued that grain shortages could not be cured by the measures the French monarchy had been using, that is measures of state coercion to keep down prices and prevent hoarding. The measures of the absolutist French monarchy to prevent farmers from storing grain and pricing it according to demand, are still the kind of things a lot of people find immediately convincing. Many states in the United States now, have laws against ‘gouging’, that is charging high prices for goods in an emergency which causes shortages. The issue of hoarding is linked, since those selling grain, or any other good, will not hoard it unless they expect to charge high prices for it in some future shortage. A reaction popular now, shared by despotic French monarchs is that shortages arise from hoarding, and shortages arise from sellers charging too much during an emergency.

Foucault endorses the Physiocratic policies, which anticipate Adam Smith who met the Physiocrats in a visit to France. As Foucault points out, it’s the Physiocrats who coined the phrase ‘laisser faire’ (letting it happen) in economics, and linked phrases like ‘laisser aller’ and ‘laisser passer’; and as Foucault implies, that policy worked. Allowing farmers and merchants to ‘hoard’ and ‘gouge’ ensures that enough grain is produced, and stored, to mean that there is no starvation even in times of relative shortage. As Adam Smith pointed, France was much more prone to hunger than Britain with less measures to restrain prices and prevent large scale storage ‘hoarding’. As Foucault recognises, the starvation of the poor was alleviated by following English style policies, which allow prices to go up. That benefits the poorest, since such market incentives mean there will still be grain available in times of relative shortage and much more cheaply at those times, than if the price of grain has previously been restrained.

In these lectures, Foucault is as much describing, or analysing, as judging or evaluating. The evaluations often have to be inferred, nevertheless the context really does not allow any interpretation other than that Foucault thought that the Physiocrat policies were an improvement on Mercantilist regulation. The quote above makes it clear that Foucault thinks such policies limit the power of the state in a desirable way.

It would be wrong to present Foucault as simply celebrating the market policies of 18th Century governments; he is constantly concerned with the way that limits on the ‘juridical-economic straitjacket’, or more generally sovereignty, biopolitics and disciplinarity, are consistent with their expansion. The French monarchy accepted Physiocratic policies in order to keep its power. That does not change the reality that Foucault recognises a preferable kind of power where state regulation is limited.

On a more general note, I ma titling this series of notes ‘liberal and libertarian Foucault’. Making this more precise, I would not link Foucault with those who insist that Classical Liberalism, or Libertarianism, means the end of all welfare and all regulation; and certainly not with those who think the state should be abolished or turned into a nightwatchman only, minarchist entity. Somewhat earlier, when Foucault was in contact with Maoists was the time he was closer to anarchism. Later text display anarchistic tendencies, but are overall disposed to look for a reasonable limitation on state power, and more dispersed forms of power, rather than abolition.

Foucault was always a man of the left, but I would argue on the basis of his later texts, that he was moving closer to an earlier sense of ‘left’ or ‘radical’ which regarded state intervention on behalf of sectional interests, or increased statism in general, as the enemy of liberty and of opportunities for the poorest to improve their living standards. Again, we must recognise the critical side of this; Foucault also points out that the original radicals, along with later socialists and anarchists, had attitudes based on ‘race war’, that is identifying the state and privilege with a non-national entity. I also doubt that Foucault thought all the forms of growth in state intervention since the early Nineteenth Century could, or should be, terminated. Extrapolating from these late texts, what others close to him have said, and so on, I would say that Foucault moved towards a position where he was in broad culture and allegiance on the left wing of politics, but in details on the left, or more moderate, side of free market libertarianism, allowing for state welfare but suspicious of the consequences of allowing state activity beyond very strict limits. I should also add that his concerns with disciplinarity and the dispersed nature of power, precludes a position in which the presence or the absence of the state is the definitive issue.

Nietzsche’s Positive Ethics (Not his Genealogy)

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In Ecce Home, Nietzsche refers to a distinction between his no-saying philosophy and his yes-saying philosophy. The book which has been most discussed in recent years, On the Genealogy of Morality, is listed as no-saying and we cam take it that genealogy is part of his no-saying philosophy. Three books are listed as part of his yes-saying philosophy: Dawn, Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There’s certainly nothing wrong with studying the Genealogy or the wave of work concentrating on it, but we should be wary of taking that book as definitive of Neitzsche’s ethics. It might be definitive of his diagnosis of ethical illusions, but not of the ethics he is offering. Recent studies of the Genealogy may sometimes recognise it as a diagnostic work with regard to previously existing, but tend to stop there rather than move onto any kind of fully considered positive ethics in Nietzsche. Where Nietzsche is considered as an ethicist with a positive ethics, this often becomes Nietzsche as moral élitist or Nietzsche as aesthete of life. Neither position is necessarily wrong, but there could be more work on the details of what Nietzsche has to offer.

One problem is that at least some of the time, Nietzsche is saying that ethics, or morality, as such is an illusion, and a barrier to life. With that in mind, it could be said that Nietzsche has a philosophy of life rather than an ethical philosophy. However, I don’t think it is necessary to do this, as Nietzsche sometimes distinguishes between better and worse ethics rather than denouncing ethics as such. If we do resort to talking about ‘enhancement of life’, we risk talking about ethics, while calling it something else. In any case, ‘enhancement of live’ sounds like ‘virtue ethics’, though in that context the phrase ‘flourishing of life’ is more normal. It’s useful to discuss Nietzsche in the context of ‘virtue ethics’, and he fits better into that category than the other normal categories of moral theory, nevertheless Nietzsche should also be seen as challenging virtue theory, as it has normally been defined with reference to Aristotle, or maybe Plato, or the Stoics. A complete discussion of virtue theory would bring in (Saint Thomas) Aquinas, certainly complicating things. That’s not something I can go into now. What I do have is a list of points about Nietzsche’s ‘yes-saying ethics’, largely inspired by a recent reading of The Gay Science, Book III.

Virtues are something we should learn to be sceptical about, with regard to defining ourselves with regard to courage, generosity etc.

Virtues begin with adaptation to herd living in the earliest stages of human existence. Later stages of human existence break up the herd, and lead to more individualistic moral systems, or systems of virtues.

The separation of individuals from each other is progress in the human species and leads to progress in ethics. Growth, abundance and variety and signs of natural strength.

Ranking, and comparative evaluation, are necessary and admirable activities. It is important to say what or who, is better or worse than some other thing or person.

We can expect a future in which art, science and ‘practical wisdom’ are unified to create something which would make current law givers, doctors artists, and scholars, look petty (Gay Science 2nd edition, 113). The reference to ‘practical wisdom’ looks like a reference to phronesis in Aristotle, which includes ethics, an impression reinforced by Nietzsche’s reference to law givers, who by Aristotle’s standards are engaged in phronesis, or practical wisdom.

The loss of the world of God based ethics, particularly ethics based on Christianity, creates a sense of being lost in an ocean, and being on the verge of the infinite (Gay Science 2nd edition, 124).

The sense of moral scepticism advocated by Nietzsche partly comes from Christianity because of its scepticism about Ancient virtues. The sceptical work is taken further in Enlightenment’s scepticism about Christian virtues.

Christianity gives use the sense that Ancient virtues of courage, generosity etc, conceal sin, or in Nietzsche’s terms undermine any idea of perfection in a personality dominated by any one virtue (Gay Science 2nd edition, 122).

Nietzsche does not advocate a return to Ancient ethics, he says that it looks childish to us now, and as we have seen thinks Christianity has done a useful job of undermining Ancient ethics.

One criticism Nietzsche has of Ancient ethics is that is morality based on mores (der Sittlichkeit der Sitte), which was challenged by Plato and others, when they tried to introduce new moralities. Nietzsche criticises any ethics which is just a following of existing customs. (Gay Science 2nd edition, 149)

Nietzsche regards the different moralities of different nations as evidence of illusion about the nature of ethics. He also advocates new ethics, and the multiplication of ethical views. This apparent contradiction can perhaps be resolved by thinking about the value Nietzsche gives to the integration of multiplicity and conflict into one organism, or one work of art.

Every experience, and every judgement, is moral, because always embedded in our sense of honesty and justice (Gay Science 2nd edition, 114). This is one reason why Nietzsche is not arguing overall that we can abandon ethics, even if we try to expose ethical illusions. We are always concerned with what justice and honesty are.

One thing that justice requires is to see that different people are not the same and are not equal. Presumably different morality, or different virtues, are good for different people.

I don’t see that Nietzsche is saying that some people should be denied rights, though he does think some people are better others. These are two distinct points in any case.

Nietzsche is against altruism, we should not do something because it is good for someone else, and we should not wish to sacrifice ourselves for that reason. Some of what comes about through altruism may still come about through a self-interested desire for strength, growth and health. Individual health may be associated with generosity and indifference to injury.

Mill:Liberty/Socialism, Principles of Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Returning here to a topic I addressed on September 9th. The ways in which Mill seems to depart from On Liberty in Principles of Political Economy, though he was working on it at about the same time. The several editions the Principles went through somewhat confuses that interpretative issue.

More ways in which Mill departs from the On Liberty perspective, in Book II on Distribution (which does not appear in all versions currently in print).

Wages are at least to some degree determined by custom rather than markets. Mill here seems to be referring to those upper professions which tend to be linked with the upper classes and have social power, law, medicine and so on. One might expect Mill to suggest that that non-economic power had enabled members of these professions to increase their welfare through restricting entry, monopoly of practice of that profession through compulsory member of a professional body, and so on. Adam Smith had already made similar points. However, Mill seems to regard these examples as evidence that distribution of income can generally be separated from supply and demand in the market.

The previous point feeds into the consideration he gives to the possibility of communism, which I have already mentioned. In connection with what he says on custom determining income, he suggests that income distribution could be flattened and there would still be an efficient economy.

The last point itself connects, if indirectly, with the suggestion that there could be a static economy, with no further development. It might be easier to conceive of a state reallocation of income, of the economy has reached some kind of plateau, in which case rearranging who gets what income might not seem like to harm the economy. Mill thinks such a state could be reached if existing materials and technology have been exploited to the full. This ignores the tendency to innovate with regard to the use of materials, technological innovation and the possibilities of innovation in the organisation of labour.

There may be societies which have reached some stasis. I would guess irrigation based agricultural communities in Pharonic Egypt, or pre-Columbian Guatemala. In both cases, a despotic political system presided over, and was reinforced by control of irrigation. In both cases, the political and economic stasis killed innovation and I believe led to a lack of adaptation which led to catastrophic collapse in the face of climate change or over use of fixed resources. Mill’s hypothesis of a static economy would be the product of political despotism, and a connected killing off of incentives to innovate. If that is part of Mill’s argument for the possibility of socialism, then it’s a rather dark picture, counteracting Mill’s growing tendency to believe over time that personal liberty might co-exist with communism.

Link: Return of Jefferson’s Deism in the US

Primary version if this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Steven Waldman, ‘Deism: Alive and Well in America’, Wall Street Journal

Waldman refers to the Deism influential among the Founding Fathers of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson. That is a position according to which religious scriptures are regarded as unreliable, but God is accepted, along with aspects of religious teaching falling short of complete acceptance of the standard dogmas of religious tradition. Waldman could also have mentioned that Abraham Lincoln had Deist inclinations, though was also inclined to think of God as a providential force in history in late life. Deism in its strictest sense may exclude all intervention by God in the universe he created, but as Waldman points out, a kind of impure Deism was what Jefferson and others of that generation followed. The main contemporary point is that as the more conservative forms of religious belief are declining in the US, Deism is on the increase along with complete non-belief.