Friday, January 18, 2019

Shelley & the descent of the left

An American teacher gave her students a test and asked them to identify "obstacles that keep people from moving ahead". One student gave the simple answer "white people".



Now, you might ask what this has to do with the English poet Shelley. As it happens, Shelley is part of a chain of thought on the left side of politics that ultimately leads to this answer.

In my last post I tried to explain why Shelley's concept of freedom was inseparable from a concept of equality. Shelley's political philosophy went something like this:

1. Human nature is not "tainted" in the sense of being fallen or having a fixed potential to do evil.
2. The reason why people do the wrong thing is because of existing political institutions which are based on some people having power over others (i.e. power structures).
3. Man can be regenerated if these power structures are abolished.
4. Power structures were those of the ancien régime, i.e. kings, aristocrats and priests.
5. This power structure should be replaced by democratic rule.
6. If power structures were replaced, then people would live an "Edenic" existence, i.e. a return to an idyllic, untainted existence as before the Fall.
7. Shelley, as a poet, unsurprisingly conceived this to be a kind of poetic existence within nature, with people living in complete freedom and equality, doing as they wanted, motivated by pure, selfless love, without jealousy or acquisitiveness etc.

This was how Shelley saw things in 1820. A generation later Karl Marx came along and made a key observation. Marx realised that you could get rid of the ancien régime, but in its place you would still have a power structure. The bourgeoisie would still hold power over the proletariat within a democratic system. Marx, cleverly in a way, revised the Shelleyan system, by noting that if the working class were to take power, there would be no other class below them to exploit. In other words, there would no longer be a class based power structure.

In that case, thought Marx, the power structure of society would be abolished, and you would have the kind of Edenic existence that Marx briefly sketched in his writings. His Eden was less poetic than Shelley's, but was similarly based on the idea of abolishing nations and families, and having people wander round as "unencumbered" individuals, doing whatever productive work they felt like doing (fishing, writing etc.).

Marxism is clearly a tweaking of Shelleyism, or at least of political ideas that were already in vogue.

And what of the modern left? Well, there has been a further tweak to the system. Even though Shelley did want to abolish sex distinctions, nations and marriage, he believed the key power structure to be overthrown was the class one (aristocracy). The same for Marx (the bourgeoisie). The modern left, though, focuses more on race and biological sex as power structures to be deconstructed (whiteness and the patriarchy). Only then will humanity reach its final destination of true freedom and equality.

So you can see why that school student dutifully answered that it was "white people" who were an obstacle to people moving ahead. That student is the end product of a current of thought that has existed within the left since at least the 1820s (probably earlier).

There are a few other things I should point out. First, there are other currents of thought which have also shaped the modern left. For instance, there is still the influence of the Fabians, who believed that progress would be led by a class of neutral experts employed by the state, i.e. by a technocracy ruling along scientific lines.

Second, it's interesting that the modern left no longer envisages the end point of history as a return to Eden. Perhaps that's a result of Christianity no longer shaping the mental landscape, even of those rejecting it, as much as it used to. What we are left with is a belief that white men are the privileged class upholding a power structure and that freedom and equality will finally be achieved when this power structure is defeated.

Third, it is noticeable that some of those pushing the modern version of Shelleyism are doing so to gain power for themselves, rather than to achieve a vision of utopian freedom. Middle-class feminists are often most interested in using "gender politics" to gain a competitive advantage in high status professions. They want status, money and power for themselves, rather than a system in which such things no longer exist. Similarly, it is clear that if whites become a minority in Western countries, that power will simply be passed to a new non-white majority rather than there being no power structure.

The main conclusion to draw from all this, though, is that it is the initial assumptions of Shelley that have to be challenged. Where did these beliefs of Shelley come from? I can't be exactly sure, but it's possible they go back all the way to thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Shelley himself traced the intellectual journey of his ideas about human nature as follows (from his 1820 political manifesto):
the new epoch was marked by the commencement of deeper enquiries into the point of human nature than are compatible with an unreserved belief in any of those popular mistakes upon which popular systems of faith with respect to the cause and agencies of the universe, with all their superstructure of political and religious tyranny, are built. Lord Bacon, Spinoza, Hobbes, Boyle, Montaigne, regulated the reasoning powers, criticized the history, exposed the past errors by illustrating their causes and their connexion, and anatomized the inmost nature of social man. Then, with a less interval of time than of genius, followed Locke and the philosophers of his exact and intelligible but superficial school. Their illustrations of some of the minor consequences of the doctrines established by the sublime genius of their predecessors were correct, popular, simple and energetic. Above all, they indicated inferences the most incompatible with the popular religions and the established governments of Europe.

Shelley here praises Hobbes (and others) for having "anatomized the inmost nature of social man" and then praises Locke for having popularised the genius of thinkers like Hobbes.

So what was Hobbes' view of the nature of man? Hobbes began by imagining a state of nature in which men were free to do as they wanted. Hobbes then argued that in such a state of nature life would be short and brutish as individuals would attack each other and there would be no security of life or property. Therefore, argued Hobbes, individuals rationally made a social contract to give up part of their rights to government in return for such security. Hobbes used this argument in favour of the authority of kings.

The problem with this Hobbesian view is that it it undermines natural, uncontracted, prepolitical forms of human community, such as family and nation. The reality is that we don't begin as disconnected individuals, reluctantly combining via a social contract. We are by nature social creatures, and we express important aspects of our created natures within a social context.

It is possible that Shelley ran with the Hobbesian view, as it undermined the idea of a natural and/or divine order, but that he refigured it by challenging the idea that human nature was selfish and violent. In other words, Shelley built on some of the framework established by Hobbes (autonomous individuals in a state of nature) but made these individuals naturally good and therefore able to live a peaceful, free and equal coexistence, once the tainting influence of power structures was removed.

If we want to reject modern leftism in a principled way, it is possible that we have to go back all the way to the seventeenth century and reject the Hobbesian way of framing politics.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Shelley the Utopian

In my series of posts on the English poet Shelley (here, here and here), I've looked at his very liberal attitude to freedom, and how this made him want to abolish marriage, sex distinctions and nationality.

I'd like to end the series by considering why this liberal concept of freedom also committed Shelley to such an emphasis on equality.

I think the answer goes something like this:

1. Shelley rejected the idea that human nature was tainted, i.e. that man was a fallen creature.
2. He believed instead that man had power over his own nature. It was human institutions that had corrupted this nature, and these could be reformed.
3. Once man was perfected he would return to his intended, natural condition of being good, free and equal.
4. In this condition, a utopia would emerge, a heaven on earth, in which human existence would be regenerated, with everything being made beautiful, in body and mind, and subject only to a pure universal love, unmotivated by any base concerns.

Man was corrupted, in Shelley's view, and denied this wonderful utopian existence, by acts of tyranny - the exercise of power over others. It was this that threw a "mask" over the world, hiding man's true nature from himself. In Shelley's own words:
The man
Of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys:
Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate'er it touches

And this is where freedom and equality become such great and noble (and inseparable) objectives for Shelley. The aim was to reach a condition in which there was no exercise of power over others. Shelley was so serious about this that he even portrayed God as a tyrant and a modified version of Satan as the hero who rebelled against the authority of God.

So try then to imagine how Shelley saw things. For him, what mattered was a fight for liberty against "tyranny" (defined as any exercise of power of one person over another) which therefore was also a fight for equality (for abolishing "distinctions" that gave one person some sort of standing vis-a-vis another person). Hence the twinning of freedom and equality.

Freedom and equality were the keys to establishing humanity's true condition of heaven on earth and so were supercharged in their significance.

It would be easy to criticise Shelley's world view as being unworkable or impractical. But more than this it deserves to be condemned for being, mostly, undesirable - a dystopia rther than a utopia.

If we return once more to Shelley's vision of what man would be like once the "mask" had been removed, and true freedom and equality revealed, we see the problem:
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains/ Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man/ Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,/ Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king/ Over himself

What does it mean to be free in a Shelleyan sense? It means that nobody has power over me and that I am king over myself - an autonomous individual. My will is uncircumscribed. But to be free and equal in this sense also means that I am tribeless, nationless, Godless and churchless. Also abolished, as Shelley explains elsewhere, are biological sex and marriage.

Do I really want Shelleyan freedom? What about the meaning, identity and belonging that I derive from manhood, from membership of a communal tradition, and from stable family commitments?

Shelley wants us to move away from particular loves and loyalties, and the obligations and commitments that go with this, toward disinterested universal ones, which do not "encumber" us, but which also abstract, atomise and deracinate our own personhood, and which make human relationships shifting, uncertain and volatile.

The last point is evidenced in Shelley's own life. He wanted "pure" relationships, based not on exclusivity or jealousy, but this ended in the suicides of two women, including his first wife. Throughout his life, he "abandoned" quickly and frequently.

It is not that Shelley was wrong in just one respect, or that his system could be tweaked a little to make it viable and desirable. It is the larger approach that fails, the overall framework.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Shelley & the machine

I'd like to take you back to 1820 again, this time to a manifesto written by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley titled A Philosophical View of Reform.

In this manifesto, Shelley praises Sir Francis Bacon for increasing "the powers of man" by initiating the perfection of "the mechanical sciences" but complains that the existing "forms of society" prevent these newly acquired powers from being applied in a utilitarian way to increase the overall happiness of society.

Fortunately, continues Shelley, the "political philosophers" have laboured to overcome the problem by thinking up new forms of society based on liberty and equality. Shelley puts his liberal/technocratic vision as follows:
"Modern society is thus an engine assumed to be for useful purposes, whose force is by a system of subtle mechanism augmented to the highest pitch, but which, instead of grinding corn or raising water acts against itself and is perpetually wearing away or breaking to pieces the wheels of which it is composed. The result of the labours of the political philosophers has been the establishment of the principle of Utility as the substance, and liberty and equality as the forms according to which the concerns of human life ought to be administered." 

I think we need to pause and carefully consider what Shelley is arguing for. Shelley believes that human society is to be thought of like a machine, one made powerful by man's increase in power over nature, and that this machine is to be geared to whatever is thought to increase utility, which can only, in Shelley's mind, mean that human life is to be administered according to the forms of liberty and equality.

Note how society itself is assumed to exist to fulfil a kind of Baconian mission of increasing power via technological organisation. Shelley might have been a poet of the romantic era, but this is already that rationalist, technocratic view of society that James Kalb writes about ("Liberal modernity tries to turn the world into a machine for manufacturing satisfactions")

The traditionalist mind doesn't conceive society this way, as a technology to procure an end according to a formula. A human society is, for us, a body of people to which we belong, one that carries with it a tradition, a culture, and a history. It has a value in what it is and as the larger body within which we express our social being.

The forms exist, in part, to maintain the society, but they also express aspects of our social natures. The family, for instance, exists not only to produce the next generation, and to enculturate this generation to successfully carry on a tradition, but it also allows men to fulfil that part of their masculine nature which is expressed in being a husband and father, and a woman likewise to experience being a wife and a mother. Each family also has the potential to embody a good within its own existence: it has a value in being a unique expression of human community.

Therefore, if a Shelleyan liberal were to say "the family fails as a form of society because it does not administer human life according to the principles of liberty and equality" a traditionalist would not see this as failure, as family is supposed to allow us to express aspects of our natures as men and women; to secure a future for a lineage, a nation and a tradition; and to be a unique and meaningful community in itself, one that helps to form identity, attachments, loyalties, commitments and a connection to past and future generations.

Society is not a machine to administer human life according to a single level formula. It is not a technocratic system to give power to such a formula. The pity, again, is that Shelley's view was to become the modern one; to give Shelley credit, he picked up very early on where liberalism would, if followed in a principled way, take a society.

(I had intended this post to be focused on Shelley's understanding of equality but got sidetracked. Will return to this topic soon.)

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.