Adam Smith: Bourgeois Republican Patriotism

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

The final post on my recent re-reading of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The end of the book is taken up with discussion of taxes. The most ideal situation for Smith here seems to be found in the modern merchant republics of Hamburg and the Netherlands. In both cases, he suggests that occasionally taxes are raised through a wealth tax, tax on the total worth of individuals which is paid voluntarily, Everyone makes a payment based on unchallenged self-assessment, and Smith claims that great honesty is shown in both states. Smith does not suggest that taxes could be regularly raised in this way, even if citizens could be expected to be frequently so honest, frequent taxes on the total worth of individuals would destroy the capacity to pay taxes up by using up all individual wealth.

The worst examples Smith gives of taxation are in France, at that time an absolutist monarchy administered at local and national level by the aristocracy in patchwork of different tax regimes. The irregularity of tax is one problem, another major problem is that heavy taxes are placed on the necessities of life. Smith strongly believes that taxes should fall most heavily on luxuries mostly consumed by the rich. Smith is not a redistributionist though, he does not suggest progressive rates of tax, and restricts taxation to taxes on consumption rather than on income (leaving aside occasional wealth taxes). His reasons for opposing taxes on the necessities of life are explained just as much in terms of keeping the cost of labour down, as in terms of assisting the labouring classes, but the two things are difficult to keep completely distinct.

Britain occupies a middle place between the Dutch Republic and France. Smith welcomes the lack of taxes on internal trade within Great Britain, but is concerned about taxes on the necessities of life. He is very condemnatory of customs on imported goods, suggesting that these promote smuggling and are not respected by citizens who frequently buy from smugglers; he suggests that customs taxes should be replaced by excises taxes (both used to be levied by a distinct unit of British government) on the manufacture of goods.

The discussion of British taxes runs into a more general discussion of the political system in Britain. He suggests that Scotland benefited from the union of the Scottish Parliament with the English Parliament, that is the abolition of the Scottish Parliament and the inclusion of Scottish representatives in the English Parliament. The reason he offers is the escape of the Scottish people from aristocratic domination. Smith objects to the principle of aristocracy rather than the Scottish aristocracy as such. He describes the Scottish aristos as honourable, as deserving of their station and so on. There is an implicit rejection of the very ideas of honour, station, and so on, there. He calls for a similar Act of Unio between Ireland and Britain to rescue the Irish from domination by a worse aristocracy, a Protestant English aristocracy who despised Catholic Irish tenant farmers. An Act of Union did take place in 1800 (creating the United Kingdom, the Irish component now only consists of Northern Ireland), and political discrimination against Catholics was ended in 1829. Unfortunately this did not bring about an end to mutual hostility, including violence.

Smith hints at hostility to aristocracy, and even monarchy, in contrast to his friends Edmund Burke and David Hume. It’s important to distinguish Smith as the least conservative, and most liberal, of that trio. There may be some tension with his idealisation of the merchant republics of the Netherlands and Hamburg. As Smith himself explains, the taxes paid by the Dutch merchants are dependent on their dominant place in Dutch politics. He gives a shining account of the republican patriotism of the Dutch merchants: their profits from trade and from lending money are greatly lowered by the taxes they pay. On the other hand, he believes that they will not be willing to pay those taxes if their political influence wanes. Smith did not really entertain the idea of democracy as votes for all, or certainly not in the text of The Wealth of Nations. He advocated representative government, but implicitly for the merchant class.

It may be that Smith assumed that the merchant class would be the most natural politicians, even in conditions of universal suffrage. His views are based on the assumption that labourers and merchants have common interests under a set of clear laws which maintain ‘free trade’ (by which Smith understood all that we would understand as free market, or open market). It seems to me that this is broadly correct, but Smith clearly underestimated the degree to which merchants and labourers would use the state, its laws and regulations, its expenditure and employment opportunities, as ways of promoting monopolies, and restrictions on market exchange; and clearly underestimated the degree to which these would become the sources of political conflict and the ways in which political parties would try to appeal to electoral alliances of various interests of these kinds. He did also gave us the intellectual tools to understand and criticise that process.

Adam Smith against Colonialism, for Representation

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

Nothing new for anyone who already knows their Adam Smith, but a lot of people are still surprised to hear that Smith criticised colonialism. Karl Marx, by contrast, endorsed British rule in India, though with considerable qualifications. The essential claim is that Asian societies are so backward that rule by Britain must be more progressive than self-government or rule by another Asian power.

The assumption behind the surprise at Smith’s position is largely that colonialism is something to do with ‘capitalist exploitation’, combined with the assumption that being pro-capitalist is inexorably connected with right-wing, or conservative views, on everything, particularly with regard to the power of the state in dominating territory.

There is nothing pro-capitalist about the state raising taxes to send administrators and military forces to other parts of the world. The belief that colonialism brings economic benefits to the colonisers, rests on the idea that state protected monopoly and coercion of coerced people to give up goods benefits the colonisers. Monopoly benefits monopolists, it certainly does not benefit consumers in the colonising country, which means it also does not benefit any branch of the economy affected by high prices in that monopolised good. State enforced monopoly directs stock (productive economic factors) towards an area of economic activity were it would not flow otherwise, this is intrinsically less efficient than allowing economic actors follow their own tests of market conditions, and profitable activities.

Forcible extraction of natural resources brings short term benefits to governments, and those with access to government favours. It only creates the illusion of benefit for the nation as a whole. Spanish and Portuguese imports of gold, from their American colonies, created inflation of gold so that people in Spain and Portugal could not purchase more than they could purchase before. The gold held by governments reinforced the power of despotic governments. Smith argues that the economically rational thing to do is to cut colonies loose, or confederate them with the colonising nation, on equal terms with regard to political rights and the burdens of financing the state. Unfortunately governments are too blinded by concerns with prestige to follow such policies. Where Smith refers to prestige, we might think about the economic interests of those employed by the state, and state hangers on, in diversion of resources to state expenditure of a wasteful kind.

Wealth is created by trade, administering the country with which are trading; and forcing it to trade on terms convenient for those with state power in the colonising country, harms both sides.

In his account of confederation, Smith refers to some ancient history. He suggests that the Romans could not confederate properly with conquered nations. If they did not give political rights to those people, they faced the costs of holding them down by force. Giving rights to other tribes in Italy, meant they had the right to attend popular assemblies in Rome. Under the Republic, Rome had a strong element of direct democracy in meetings of the tribes held to make up Rome. Once anyone could come to those meetings from anywhere in Italy, the meetings lost any proper political character. Not all Italians could be present, but those present could out weigh the votes of the real existing political community of Rome. This could not be solved because democracy then was always understood to be direct democracy. If Britain confederated with the American colonies, already in rebellion, as Smith suggests, then the Parliament would contain those elected from the colonies as well as Britain proper, on the same basis and with no disturbance of the democratic element of the constitution. Smith argues that direct democracy killed off the Roman Republic, which became an Empire under one deified chief.

Smith presents his arguments against colonialism in self-interested terms, but this really gives more weight to the ethical argument against colonialism. He is criticising coercion and lack of representative government, and gives this the soundest possible foundation in self-love. Self-love and benevolence both work best when seen as mutually supportive.

Link of the Day: Case against economic sanctions

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

Thomas Bell. Western sanctions are doing nothing for the people of Burma, from the Daily Telegeraph, London.

It’s a shame to be disagreeing with the `Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is is a genuine hero, but Thomas Bell is right to do so. As Bell points out Burma has been under more or less heavy sanctions since 1988, when pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down in Rangoon. In 1990 a military junta cancelled the election victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and the county has been run by the dominant personalities in national military and intelligence institutions ever since. There was a period of inward investment and economic growth in the 1990s but this has been stymied, at least in part, by economic sanctions, as Bell briefly indicates. Some relevant detail is that there was huge campaigning in the United States for sanctions in the 1990s, which met with success in the mid 90s with three laws, and with decisions by state and local governments to exclude companies trading with Burma from receiving public contracts. In general companies investing in Burma found themselves under extreme moral and social pressure. As Bell points out, this has not brought the extremely disgusting Burmese government to its knees. It has kept Burma impoverished while the regime has gone from bad to worse.

Elections planned for next year hold out a very slight hope for amelioration of the situation, but we must expect the elections to be rigged and for members of the new assembly to be uncritical servants of the regime. One can only hope that some slight crack of light will emerge with, regard to public debate and debate in the assembly; and if the regime does go into crisis, the existence of a national assembly might allow members of the national assembly to behave more like normal politicians (or jump off a sinking ship), and form the nucleus of constitutional democracy in a new Burma These are very faint hopes though, and sanctions have so far only brought more real repression, and what will for a long time be a ritual decorative national assembly. Though the sanctions imposed by the US and its allies have been tough, the increasingly wealthy countries of southern, south-eastern and eastern Asia have continued to trade enthusiastically with Burma. As Bell points out, the moral outrage and the associated sanctions are strangely selective. Why not China? Why not Sudan?

When have sanctions brought more? Is there any evidence that sanctions hastened the end of Apartheid in South Africa? Apartheid ended with the Cold War and South Africa was always able to trade. The Cold War ending was not the only factor, internal resistance and economic problems were factors as well. Apartheid was economically irrational, and more and more so over time. Businesses benefit from being able to hire people from any place and have the widest pool of talent possible available. Segregating populations, and providing the majority population with limited education chances is clearly not the way to achieve that. The exclusion of the majority population from the political process, and basic justice, caused contempt for legality, still a problem in South Africa. Again the economy does not benefit where there is contempt for law, alongside associated property rights and contractual rights.

Have sanctions ended Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in Cuba? Clearly not, and they probably increased the legitimacy of the regime internally and internationally, by giving it excuses for economic backwardness It’s a complete delusion to think economic backwardness and shortages in Cuba are due to US sanctions. The USSR which used to subsidise the economy had exactly the same problems, because that is consequence of one party rule combined with a state monopoly of economic activity above a very low level. Cuba can trade, and does, trade with many countries in the world apart from the US. In any case, many people from America visit Cuba illegally via other countries, spending dollars, so Cuba is in practice trading with the US. Cuba was receiving subsidies from the USSR, and it now receives them from Chavez, so is now ultimately funded by Venezuela’s oil wealth, and is still a country of shortages in very basic goods.

In the cases of Burma, South Africa and Cuba, sanctions have never proved at all comprehensive, In that sense we don’t know if sanctions would work, because they have not been tried. I suppose the closest to really enforced sanctions was Iraq between the two Gulf Wars. They still didn’t work to bring down Saddam’s regime and clearly there were illegal imports and exports. It’s clearly not possible to make all countries in the world impose sanctions and impose them with full force.

Sanctions impose costs on Burma, the country does trade but with a relatively limited range of partners, limiting the benefits of trade. So costs are endured by everyone in Burma, though probably not the regime, Since the regime is able to loot national finances at will, it’s unlikely that any of this harms its members, though it probably restricts the chances of those regime associates who wish to go into business. We should want these people to go into business, certainly the people outside the core of the regime, since it’s less likely they can treat business as receiving a state monopoly. We should want associates of the regime to participate in trade and wealth making in the market place.

It’s a shame that people with bad political connection benefit, but the advantage of the market is not that it rewards the good, but that it produces constant technological and organisational innovation, and increases living standards for everyone. Economic growth produces more people above the subsistence level, more educated middle class people, more people with the will and self-confidence to demand more rights. There is no automatic immediate progress from increasing prosperity, and increasing business and middle classes to full democracy as we see in China, but that does not mean there is no link. We have seen the process work out over several decades in the Republic of Korea (i.e. South Korea).

Trade with established democracies increases the chance of ideas of democracy and human rights spreading. Trade with established democracies, and tourism from those countries, increases the chances of Burmese people meeting people from established democracies and learning about democratic ideas. Increasing movements of people into and out of the country makes it easier for Burmese democracy activists to slip out of the country to avoid persecution, and makes it easier to slip back to continue their work. The growth of commerce, with all its contracts and laws, increases the spirit of legality in a country and understanding for the merits or equality before the law, and accountability of the state to law. Companies may pursue profits through corrupt alliances with the state, or the use of illegal violence, but the more trade and prosperity there is, the more difficulty there is in dominating the market in this way and turning it into a means for extracting tribute from the population.

Sanctions on Burma are a proven failure. The path from autocracy to democracy through trade and economic growth is a proven success. All countries, on an upward path of trade and prosperity, move from autocracy to democracy sooner or later. Bill Clinton was President of the US at the time of the anti-Burma trade laws, but opposed them. He had to give in to Congress and ‘public opinion, i.e. the activism of the pro-sanctions lobby. According to Bell, Hillary Clinton has said since becoming Secretary of State that sanctions have not worked in Burma. I hope that Barack Obama, and other democratic leaders agree, or can be persuaded. The people of Burma should not be punished for living under an autocracy. This does not prevent sanctions on the regime members, bans on foreign travel, educating their children abroad, keeping deposits in foreign banks, and so on. Sanctions which hurt the bad people, not the people as a whole.

Link of the Day: Native American City Excavated

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


Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, by Andrew O’Hehir reviewed at Salon.com.

The review has the highly unfortunate title ‘Sacrificial Virgins of the Mississippi’, referring to the real likelihood of human sacrifice at the city, but it is more than a sensationalist account of the most dubious aspects of a pre-modern society. As O’Hehir points out, this was a city of 20 000 at its Medieval peak and shows that Native Americans in what is now the USA had an urban culture. For a long time, the urban aspects of pre-Columbian Americans in North America, as they have been seen as purely nomadic. One reason for this misunderstanding may be that European diseases first brought to the Americas in the 15th Century may have devastated urban culture north of Mexico before much European settlement took place. The microbes may have travelled north more quickly than the settlers could arrive.

Excavations have shown piles of bones of young women strongly indicative of sacrifice. As in other cases where early urban cultures practised human sacrifice, this can be understood as a way in which the central state-religious authorities staged cruel dramas of power to keep the ruled obedient. It’s well known that the Aztecs had similar practices. It should be remembered that the Ancient Phoenicians practised ritual child sacrifice, that is the same Phoenicians who had an early alphabet which is the model for the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, who spread literacy to the Greeks, who traded across the Mediterranean, and constructed Carthage. Carthage is known through Roman history as the enemy of the Romans, and the creator of one of the legendary generals of history, Hannibal. Aristotle refers to Carthage as a political state (the best form of state for Aristotle) based on political relations between free citizens.

I would like to add something that partly strikes me, because of a visit to the Manx Museum, in Douglas, the Isle of Man (a self governing Crown Dependency of the UK in the Irish Sea). I learned there of the Viking sacrifices of young slave girls. That would be the same Vikings who founded the House of Keys, the lower house of Tynwald, the Manx Parliament. This could be the worlds longest continuously existing representative assembly.

If I mention the human sacrifices at Caholia Mounds, I certainly don’t do so to reinforce any idea of an essentially degenerate pre-Columbian culture, no more than I would want to claim that it was an Edenic existence without sin. The history of representative government, the history of democracy itself, is also the history of human sacrifice as a means to maintain social bonds and loyalty to the state.

John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche on Individualism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Mill, not just the link.

John Stuart Mill picture in the image above.

I always find it creates a bit of a shock if I suggest that John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche had much in common about anything. It’s true that Nietzsche was rather rude about Mill and that they expressed contradictory views about parliamentary democracy and the women’s movement. However, it is also true that it would be absurd to interpret Nietzsche according to the first impression his provocative rhetoric gives; and it would be absurd to say that two philosophers who disagree could not have underlying agreement in the area where they have some disagreement.

Nietzsche’s criticisms of 19th Century liberalism need two major qualifiers:

He expressed admiration for liberal figures like Voltaire, Mirabeau (a leading moderate in the early stages of the French Revolution) and Kaiser Friedrich (very briefly German Emperor between William I and II, and unlike them a supporter of liberals in German politics).

His criticisms of parliamentary democracy, and democratic culture, are expressions of the same criticisms that 19th Century liberals had of the culture and politics of the time.

The general context for this, is that 18th and 19th Century liberalism was very anxious about the consequences of a democracy which incorporated voters with little, or no education and property. As much as anything, liberals of that time were concerned with restricting the possibilities of levelling down egalitarianism and incoherent populist surges in democratic politics threatening individual righys, and in the earlier part of that period tended to prefer limitations on voting rights. I would say that idea broke down with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40), a major influence on Mill, which really established the idea that it was only a matter of time before all developed countries became fully democratic. Mill himself thought political rights should be denied to ‘barbarous’ peoples, like Tocqueville he thought such peoples should be educated for civilisation and democracy through colonialism. Even in the advanced countries, Mill was concerned with uneducated voters participating in the political process and suggested giving more votes to the more educated. Sometimes, Mill comes very close to suggesting a new aristocracy of education, and intellect, should be ruling in ways that insulated them from waves of popular feeling, amongst the uneducated. In some sense, the existence of a constitution and laws, interpreted by judges not popular assemblies, makes that true of all modern democracies; something Tocqueville who was from an old aristocratic family noted with great interest.

That’s the background, let’s list some specific points where Mill and Nietzsche agree

Modern society promotes conformity and uniformity which undermines the existence of strong and diverse individuals.

Traditions and customs, particularly religion, are chains on the mind which should be cast off.

Traditions and customs, including religion, produced the great, strong, and varied individuals of the past.

We need to find ways of producing great, strong, and varied individuals for the future.

A society is at least partly justified by its creation of particularly notable strong and varied individuals.

Higher cultural values should be recognised, and defended against uniformity in culture, which always descends to a low level.

State decisions should never be based on the immediate desires of an uneducated mass.

I believe that clearly establishes some common ground. Further commentary on this would looks further at themes common to Mill, Tocqueville and Nietzsche; and would consider the relation to Mill and Nietzsche to the kind of liberalism established by Wilhelm von Humboldt in The Limits of State Action. Mill refers directly to this text. and while I’m not aware of any direct references in Nietzsche the parallels are most striking. These issues should be coming up in future posts.

Link of the Day: Pirate Economics and Democracy

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with fun illustrative picture!

A great discussion of the economics and political organisation of pirates.

Leeson on Pirates and the Invisible Hook

Also this shorter video discussion

I’m later than I would normally expect to be with putting up this link, but it’s still on the home page of EconTalk, at the bottom. I really want to draw attention to what Peter Leeson does with pirates, He looks at the economic rationality behind piracy. The most obvious aspect of this free money through robbery, but there’s a lot more to why sailors became pirates. Conditions were more relaxed on pirate ships than naval or legal trading ships, but not in these sense of chaos. There was a Captain and a Quarter Master General, both elected by the crew. They provided inspiration, leadership, organisation and discipline, in a deal in which crew worked out for themselves which crew member would provide the best combination.

One of Leeson’s most interesting points is that the Quarter Master General provided a kind of constitutional check on the power of the Captain. Leeson argues that this anticipates aspects of the United States constitution and that the experience of mini self-governing republics on pirate ships did have an influence on political thinking in the early modern period, when democratic, constitutional and self-governing republican thought was growing.

Leeson also looks at the economics and calculations of self-interest in piracy. Pirate crew not only benefited from more relaxed conditions than on legal ships of the time, they had considerable employer benefits. Stolen property was shared in a transparent way, pirates were compensated for injuries and received medical attention. So pirate ships provide an early example of social and health insurance from employers.

Pirates used minimal violence, except where they were disposed to sadism anyway. Despite role of illegal violence in piracy, pirates found it is more economically efficient to minimise violence, and keep it as an unused threat. Pirates would torture and murder in order to locate property on ships, but realised that if they behave pleasantly where property was handed over quickly that they could avoid a lot of expenditure of effort. So pirates encouraged publicity which betrayed them as extremely violent and cruel when obstructed, but kind and pleasant when the loot was handed over. Crew and officers on ships robbed by pirates were likely to have more problems with ship owners who suspected them of not trying hard enough to fight off pirates.

Leeson also suggests a real basis for the way pirates talk in literature and then films, a high proportion came from the West of England where people did have that kind of accent and phrasing. Pirate travels also meant they really did have parrots.

All of this refers to Leeson’s book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, which I have not read sadly. However, I hope during the course of this year, and produce several blog posts on what seems like a really admirable book, combining history, politics, economics and literature, with great humour. The title refers to a phrase used by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. Smith only uses the phrase once but it does sum up a central idea in the book, that individual pursuit of economic interests often has the unintended consequence of promoting the interests of society as a whole. Leeson looks at how this works within the world of piracy. He is of course not suggesting that piracy itself promotes social welfare, but he does point out that the way pirate ships self-organised did have some unintended consequences in showing how constitutional democracy might work, how individuals can be protected against misfortunes at work, and how employers may benefit from non-autocratic behaviour towards employees.

Nietzsche and Burckhardt

I’ve finished reading Burckhardt’s The Greeks and Greek Civilization. It’s a great work on politics, culture, religion and many things in Ancient Greece. It really tells a story about the road to Golden Age Athens, and a decline in Athens, followed by the destruction of the Ancient Greek world as it was taken over by the Macedonian monarchy and absorbed into the Hellenistic world resulting from Alexander’s conquests. Today I’ll highlight a few things which seem particularly relevant to reading Nietzsche, who was Burkhardt’s friend and colleague at the University of Basle.

Burckhardt strong emphasises the role of competition in the Ancient Greek world. The Greek states were united in the Olympic games, and there were many other forms of competition. The great Athenian tragedies were written for competitions. There were all kinds of contests in gymnastics, poetry, and music throughout the Greek world. Communities took enormous pride in the achievements of locals in the Olympic games and other contests. The pride in winning and the efforts made to win were extreme. This can be seen in the wounds suffered by wrestling and the great interest of tyrants in backing winning teams. This should remind us of two early essays by Nietzsche on ‘The Greek State’ and ‘Homer on Competition’. It also provides a perspective for understanding ‘master morality’ in Nietzsche.

Burckhardt regards the interest in competition as part of the Aristocratic culture. It also existed in democratic Athens, and was the source of its great achievements. The attitude of the great democratic leader Pericles to Athens power in Greece itself shows this. However, the democratic world undermined competition. Excellence and the competition for excellence became the kind of jealousy and urge to denunciation, which led to the trial and death of Socrates. Athens after the Peloponnesian War weakened under the influence of this kind of spirit in which demogogary, perjury, and parasitic law cases became dominant. Here we see why Plato preferred Crete and Sparta. However, Sparata itself lost its old civic virtues at this, according to Burckhardt, becasue its very somination of Greece made it weaken under the influence of the other parts of Greece.

For Burckhardt, democracy means an individualism based on the cult of excellence and the growth of resentment. The decline of the aristocracy which vreated the values used by democracy allows great culture to flourish, but only for a limited period. These aspects of Burckhardt are close to Nietzzsche’s thoughts on politics and culture throughout his life, and should be taken into account.

Nietzsche’s Friend Jacob Burckhardt: How a Conservative 19th Century Historian Anticipated ‘Poliitcally Correct’ views of Antiquity.

I’ve just started reading The Greeks and Greek Civilization by Jakob Burckhardt. Burckhardt was a friend and colleague of Friedrich Nietzsche at the University of Basle. Unlike Nietzsche, Burkhardt was a native of Basle. He turned down the chance to succeed to Leopold Von Ranke’s chair in Berlin. Ranke was a great historian, who preached objectivity and the importance of archives, but also wrote history from the point of view of the Prussian dynasty. Burckhardt rejected Ranke’s Prussian-German nationalism, but from a conservative point of view. In this he followed the precedent of Goethe. The emphasis Burckhardt puts on the individual above national state ideology also gives him a liberal aspect, like Nietzsche. They were both suspicious of democracy and mass culture, from the point of view of an individualism which stands above conservative tradition, particularly in its religious aspects. At the very least Nietzsche and Burckhardt turn conservative tradition into an instrument of individualism, and Nietzsche certainly found it possible to take the same view of democracy. Both of the Basle Professors shared an early enthusiasms for the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Both were attacked by the brilliant but narrow minded philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorf.

I was previously familiar with Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which looks at the individualism of the Renaissance as a movement in politics and statecraft as a well as art, and which clearly bears comparison with Nietzsche. In fact both books by Burckhardt are essential companions to Nietzsche’s philosophy (that is not to say they are the same in all respects).

The focus of today’s post is the way in which Burckhardt anticipates attitudes to antiquity from a ‘politically correct’ point of view since Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. I do not have a firm view right now of Black Athena, or any text influenced by it. I may return to this in the future, all I have to say for now is that I am sure that Bernal addressed issues that need to be addressed about the place of Greek antiquity in the broader antique world. It may or may not distort history for political reasons. It may or may not mix such distortions with valid points.

The issues that are associated with Bernal and his followers that matter regardless of the value of what they wrote: the Greek polis (city state) follows the example of earlier states in the Near East; there are ways in which aspects of Ancient Greek thought that take things from the Near East: some aspects of Near Eastern culture and thought were in advance of Greek culture and thought in antiquity.

Where does Burckhardt come in?
1. The Greek polis, to some degree, was preceded by Phoenician city states in which the supreme power of rulers was limited by an aristocratic council.
2. Ancient Greek culture took many things from the Ancient Assyrians and Egyptians.
3. Ancient Greek culture seemed immature to the Ancient Egyptians due to its faith in immediacy and lack of any real transcendence of perception.
4. Ancient Greek culture had an instrumental attitude to truth and oath taking whoch shocked other Antique peoples and this is not just a case of seeing the worst in another culture.

Burckhardt emphasised other things that undermine the idealisation of Ancient Greece, particularly the view of the polis as the goal of human existence. Burckhardt emphasises that the polis emerges from extreme violence on villagers. A polis was formed by forcing inhabitants in a group of villages to leave their homes and live within fortified walls. The reasons for this were militaristic. The process in which villagers were forced to live in a polis in constant military conflict with rivals is what lies behind Greek myths of sacrifice (voluntary and involuntary) to the interests of the state and the harsh punishment of critics of the state. Villagers had the cruel experience for Ancient Greeks of being torn from the graves of their ancestors. Legal codes were designed for the aristocracy who struggled to protect original laws against amendment and addition by the people. ‘Democracy’ was based on one group forcing itself on other peoples and subordinating them to itself. This could happen because citizenship excluded slaves and those of foreign origin, as well as women. Greek gods were immoral and this limited Ancient Greek moral understanding, which included obsessions with revenge, though this was mitigated to some degree by philosophy. However, even philosophical ethics was primarily concerned with the health of the individual self, not obligations to others.

What’s Wrong with Hugo Chavez?

My online Poll
I have had a poll on the right hand column asking visitors to the site whether they welcome or do not welcome the recent defeat by referendum of changes to the constitution of Venezuela, proposed by the President, Hugo Chavez. Strictly speaking the referendum was on changes proposed by Chavez and the National Assembly.

The number of recorded votes was modest, 9, suggesting that traffic would need to become much higher before I post a similar question. The voting was 7 welcoming Chavez’s defeat and 2 not welcoming it. A clear victory for the Anti-Chavez camp but from a very small pool of respondents. I was intially thinking that there would be more pro-Chavez votes. This blog does frequently cover Foucault and Derrida. Most students and academics working on them are distinctly left of centre. I thought such people might find Chavez’s social programmes and anti-US stance to be attractive and be unconcerned about possible threats to property rights or political constitutionalism. maybe I have more left-liberal readers than vanguardist leftist.

Why the Left should Oppose Chavez
I’m definitely a liberal rather than a socialist, a capitalist libertarian though at he moderate end of that opinion. Nevertheless, I want to put a case to socialist about what’s wrong with Chavez on the grounds of shared values around democracy and the restraint of state power.

It seems obvious why conservatives and free market liberals would think Chavez is a bad thing, given that he claims to be leading socialist revolution. The issue is then, should left-winger,including radical socialists support Chavez?

Chavez Fan of One-Party State Socialism
A very obvious point is that Chavez is a supporter of Fidel Castro and of the memory of Che Guevara. Oddly, one of Chavez’s left-wing defenders in the British press, Johann Hari of the Independent, has strong condemned Guevara as a Stalinist. If Chavez admires Stalinists, if he purses a special relationship with a one party state which puts its critics in prison, then this must be disturbing.

Chavez’s Failure to help the Poorest
Chavez has poured very large amounts of public money into subsidised shops, and other measures to benefit the poor of Venezuela. Supportrrs of Chavez who have checked the effect on living standards have found a shift towards the poorer part of society, but very concentrate on the less desperately poor. The poorest of the poor have not benefitted from this very substantial shift expenditure.

Chavez’s Personal Control of Economic Resources
Budget surpluses in Venezuela derived from revenue go into a fund administered by Chavez outside the supervisionof the National Assembly and anyone apart from the President. One of the defeated referendum measures was to abolish the independence of the central bank by placing it under the direct control of the President. There is a clear pattern, economic resources and influenced, are to be directed in a personalised way by Chavez not by other parts of the state or any way of representing the population of Venezuela.

Chavez dictating to the Left
Chavez has pursued a policy of merging the coalition of left wing parties behind him into one party. This is being resisted by some of these parties, who do not want to disappear as an independent force on the left. The left, like everything else in Venezuela has to be under Chavez’s personal control. Even Chavez’ defence minister has abandoned him and condemned the proposed constitutional changes, many allies are being lost in Chavez’ relentless desire to weaken any barrier to his own personalised power.

Chavez bypassing Local Elected Bodies
Some on the left are excited that Chavez wants to bring in direct democracy in some places for local government. This means democracy without secret balloting and is practice a way of putting Chavez’s followers into power over their fellow citizens, like ‘Neighbourhood Committtees’ in Cuba which spy on, and politically control, their fellow Cubans.

Chavez’ Attitude to Opposition
The first period of Chavez’s presidency led to a computerised list of supporters of opposition parties being used to keep opponents out of public employment. We know that is the case because hard copies circulate in Venezuela and many people have seen the list.

Ending Term Limits
Some of Chavez’s supporters claim that the proposal in the referendum changes to abolish term limits on the Presidency are not important, since other countries do not have term limits. However, this is misleading. In most republics, the president is term limited, and usually doe snot have executive power. Heads of government are not term limited, but in a situation where there is a separate head of state, and the head of government is appointed by the national assembly, term limits are not an issue. Chavez is state President and the chief executive who keeps trying to accumulate powers. All other elected offices are term limited. Chavez’s failed attempt to be allowed, in principle, to stay President until death is therefore sinister and does indicate a wish for total power for life.

Economic Situation
Chavez’s dramatic expenditure of oil revenue at home and abroad, for political and social purposes, conceals and is linked to economic failure. Inflation is 20%, higher than the rest of Latin America. High impact spending, like subsidising oil for some New Yorkers is gesture politics which does nothing for Venezuela ‘s economy or for its poorest. Chavez’ control of food prices had had the highly predictable result of choking off food production, as it becomes uneconomically priced, and the poorest are blighted by food shortages.

Corruption
Chavez appears to be uninterested in accumulating private wealth. Clearly many senior people in the public sector are not so fastidious. The wealth of some officials is great and obvious, this maybe an unintended consequence of Chevez’ policies, but it is the consequence of growing arbitrary state power in society and the economy.

No Excuses
Some of Chavez’ supporters try to blame the referendum loss and economic problems on American sabotage. It’s hard to see how the CIA can make people vote against Chavez in a referendum, unless the CIA and its allies have arguments which make sense to the people of Venezuela and connect with their life experience. Given that public broadcasting completely supports Chavez and his supporters control the state machine, blaming US manipulation for political defeat is a sorry argument. The economic problems in Venezuela are the predictable result of the mixture of extreme state controls and careless pumping of money into the economy. Even Chavez’s supporters are unable to explain how the US has created these problems, the excuse comes up in a very rhetorical manner.

Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Foucault

Foucault’s work from Society Must be Defended onwards needs to be understood in relation to Montesquieu and Tocqueville. We could even read Foucault as the third figure in a French liberal triumvirate spanning three centuries. This reading may have some problems attached to it, but no more than the other readings of Foucault around and less than most. Foucault’s reputation has been taken over by Post-Marxist/ Post-Modernist/Post-Structuralist leftists for whom liberalism is a dirty word. However, Society Must be Defended coincides with a liberal revival in France which includes a Tocqueville revival. It uses the terms and references of the two great French liberals (and republicans). It’s concerned with the kind of liberty that can exist under different kinds of regime. It’s concerned with the limitation of society in relation to the state. It uses Montesquieu to establish the evolution of the French state, bureaucracy and aristocracy in the Eighteenth Century. The understanding of the relation between the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution follows the analysis of Tocquville’s book of that name. Foucault refers to majoritarian and demagogic aspects of the emergence of left wing and democratic politics, very much in line with Tocqueville’s understanding of the possible dangers of democracy.

The reading of Foucault’s later work will be very incomplete until it is thoroughly understood and discussed in the terms of his two French predecessors in social and political thought devoted to liberty.