For many of us college folk separated by thousands of miles from the east coast, the recent protests at Yale and Princeton initially seem both frivolous and ridiculous: here is a bunch of students and faculty at fancy schools getting all worked up over “trigger warnings” and Halloween costumes. First-world problems on steroids! How nice it would be to study, live, or work at such enormously privileged institutions, where these are the biggest problems! The rest of us are working hard to keep class enrollments under fifty, or to qualify for comparatively measly amounts of financial aid, or to scrape together a couple of thousand bucks to send a debate team to nationals.
Since these fancy colleges are so powerful, there issues forth an endless stream of articles trying to explain what has gone wrong with “the American mind,” and how today’s college students are “coddled” and emotionally immature. But it’s seldom recognized that what some professors may be seeing on occasion in some elite institutions doesn’t really carry over to the vast majority of students and faculty at a broad range of less-than-elite schools. Our problems, let us proudly announce, really are problems, and our students could not be accused of being “coddled” in any way. We face problems that no institution with a $24-billion endowment can begin to imagine, and our students are not about to walk into the fleet of Wall Street jobs held open for the graduates of the Ivy Leagues.
Harrumph, harrumph. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep and important philosophical conflict that is at the root of the campus protests, and it is one we all should reflect upon. The conflict emerges as a society built upon the Enlightenment becomes aware of the cost of its privilege.
In a very short summary, the Enlightenment was both good and bad. The good side is that thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and Smith all evidenced a great optimism in the human capacity to know the world through empirical science and govern themselves with justice and political equality. Their vision laid the foundation for the great republican democracies of our age. The bad side is that Enlightenment culture was paid for with a lot of blood. As at least one historian has pointed out, rather than thinking of the great French Encyclopédie as the grand emblem of the Enlightenment, one might instead focus on the slave ship, cleverly designed to carry hundreds of captives without incurring so much death and suffering as to make the venture unprofitable. This ship was the Enlightenment in practice, rather than on paper, and the “enlightened” thinkers were complicit in such commercial inhumanity, whether they knew it or not.
As a result, the institutions we have as a result of the Enlightenment – great universities, in particular – are both good and bad. The good is that these institutions are shrines to the Enlightenment ideals of free inquiry, free speech, the lively exchange of ideas, the building of rational and critical faculties, and the respect for individuals as autonomous thinkers. The bad is that these institutions also reflect, in ways big and small, the tyranny of colonialist cultures and the subjugation of non-European people. One recent article on the campus protests unwittingly makes this point evident when the author writes,
These [protesters] are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?
Indeed, what’s not to love about the manor house when you’ve been called in from slaving away in the cotton fields? Of course these students themselves haven’t been slaving away; but their existence, as well as the existence of the institutions themselves, are grounded in that forced labor.
To their credit, our contemporary universities have no shortage of courses where this good/bad legacy of the Enlightenment is explored at great length along many dimensions. (In fact, these days one is more likely to find greater examination of the bad side than the good.) College students take these classes, and they are forced to reflect on the great stretches of injustice that made their institutions possible – and not just to reflect, of course, but to feel righteous indignation at the hypocrisy of these institutions as they try to paint themselves in the rosiest possible light.
Now, again, these are college students, and, smart as they are, they often have not developed the full set of dispassionate argumentative skills displayed by the great Enlightenment thinkers. They feel rage, and they find some way to express it. So they shout and petition and carry on and spit and tweet and so on. And they feel renewed fury when they are admonished by the guardians of the institution to pipe down and work through the proper channels. Sometimes the complaints raised by some of these students sound just silly – “Help me! I’m being victimized by a Halloween costume!” – and the videos of these students confronting their institutions’ leaders show shameful, grossly indecent behavior. But these sometimes inchoate complaints are growing out of a deeper frustration that there’s a whole lot of past (and present) injustice that is being trivialized. The open letter written by the Yale students features a strong central point: “We are not asking to be coddled. The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear.”
In this way, the conflict being expressed in what seems initially to be frivolous and ridiculous protests in fact strikes at the root of our most cherished institutions. We Americans and Europeans indeed are privileged people; and we have come to enjoy this privilege by subjugating and enslaving others. What do we do with that legacy? Try to forget it? Note it now and again, and then move on with business as usual? Offer reparations? To whom? It’s far from clear what justice requires from us. Like Macbeth, we have hands that just won’t wash clean.
Came over here from Leiter. A few thoughts:
Your first few paragraphs are well-taken and spot on. I teach at such an un-fancy place, where students are largely the first generation in their families to go to college and hail from very modest, largely rural communities. To watch the bratty display at Yale, Wesleyan, and other such places has been somewhat nauseating, considering the population I serve.
But then you undermine your own point. Speaking again of the academic 1%ers you say:
“They feel rage, and they find some way to express it. So they shout and petition and carry on and spit and tweet and so on.”
Rage is not an appropriate sentiment for a person perched at Yale. I don’t care what color he or she is. If you are there, you are the elite of the elite.
“these sometimes inchoate complaints are growing out of a deeper frustration that there’s a whole lot of past (and present) injustice that is being trivialized. The open letter written by the Yale students features a strong central point: “We are not asking to be coddled. The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear.”
Everyone at Yale is privileged. Every one. My students are descended from migrants from Appalachia. They are not privileged, relative to a Yalie, regardless of color.
And then you say this:
“In a very short summary, the Enlightenment was both good and bad. The good side is that thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and Smith all evidenced a great optimism in the human capacity to know the world through empirical science and govern themselves with justice and political equality. Their vision laid the foundation for the great republican democracies of our age. The bad side is that Enlightenment culture was paid for with a lot of blood. As at least one historian has pointed out, rather than thinking of the great French Encyclopédie as the grand emblem of the Enlightenment, one might instead focus on the slave ship, cleverly designed to carry hundreds of captives without incurring so much death and suffering as to make the venture unprofitable. This ship was the Enlightenment in practice.”
This just strikes me as wrong. And it’s exactly the sort of thing that intellectually — and emotionally — immature college students say.
The Enlightenment represented tremendous progress over the preceding eras. The idea that this is not enough — that it all should have become perfect right then! (stamps foot) — represents neither a mature, nor a serious understanding of history.
Daniel, you’ve misunderstood the point of this post so badly, in such a cliché combination of condescension and sour grapes, that it’s not surprising you’re teaching far, far away from the “Yalies.” Heaven forbid the elite of the elites hold their institutions to moral standards of reflection and correction, and heaven forbid that the results of their own reflection lead them to feelings that aren’t “appropriate.”
Thanks for explaining the “progress” that involved European colonialism far more brutal than any previous Western imperialism, without even the benefit of Roman citizenship! And the massive organized trans-atlantic slave trade – never before had human industry moved *so* many people so smoothly! Such “progress over preceding eras.” Good thing history only happens to Europe! We should never forget that the mature, serious understanding of history blossomed in the 19th century and has only been besmirched in the meantime by perpetually adolescent critics. Really, we’re all very glad you chimed in.
We’ll just have to disagree on this. Snark notwithstanding, I appreciate your point of view.
“Rage is not an appropriate sentiment for a person perched at Yale.”
Nice. Good to remind people that you don’t have to be a young privileged student to express, in one statement, such foolishness on the internet. Well done, Professor.
Well, there’s an argument.
Daniel, you write: “Everyone at Yale is privileged. Every one. My students are descended from migrants from Appalachia. They are not privileged, relative to a Yalie, regardless of color.”
The point I assume Yale students are making is that one can be (a) “descended from Appalachian migrants” (or from slaves) AND (b) “a student at Yale,” all at once. Being both (a) and (b) means that you’re more privileged than most other members of the group (a), but probably less so than many members of the group (b). They’re not whining about “not being privileged enough,” as you seem to assume.
“Of course these students themselves haven’t been slaving away; but their existence, as well as the existence of the institutions themselves, are grounded in that forced labor.”
One keeps reading stuff like this. But what can it possibly mean?
In what way was slavery essential to the existence of our important institutions? It did, of course, exist in a certain period of Western civilization, and did play an economic role. But if it was essential, why, when it was abolished, did Western economies not only not go into decline, but actually took off like never before? Are people not aware of the tremendous growth in prosperity in Western countries since 1864? Slavery was a great moral evil, but how can one pretend that it was an economic necessity without which all subsequent prosperity would not have possible? Is there any plausible argument that if slavery did not exist in Western countries, and, instead, workers were paid to do the same work as slaves did, prosperity would never have come?
This whole line of argument seems to me completely confused.
You’re right; rhetoric got the better of me there. It would have been better to say that Enlightenment thinking is essential to modern-day universities, and was also essential to the practice of slavery over the 18th and early 19th centuries. Slavery wasn’t a “forced” move economically, but it was a sort of “you’re a damned fool if you don’t” kind of move. It disappeared as it became too expensive, given industrialization and the emergence of wage workers.
“Enlightenment thinking is essential to modern-day universities, and was also essential to the practice of slavery over the 18th and early 19th centuries.”
Isn’t this the equivalent to saying “Rivets are essential for building bridges, but also for assembling bombs, therefore rivets are both good and bad.”? Any advance in human knowledge or technology is likely to have both good and bad consequences. But to lay the immorality of the bad consequences at the feet of the good seems incoherent. It’s not as if the slave ships would have been absent barring the Enlightenment (or if you think it is, that argument is missing).
To the contrary, slavery had been practiced for as long as we have written records and it’s surely *not* a coincidence that its disappearance throughout the civilized world coincided with the spread of the Enlightenment conception of the rights of man.
That would have been a better argument, but still, I think, not a particularly good one.
(NB – I see similar points have been made by other posters, and more succinctly, but I still think this adds enough to the discussion to post it.)
Slavery was hardly unique to cultures that experienced the Enlightenment, and neither, for that matter, were the attitudes underlying the tyranny and subjugation that characterized colonialism. If Enlightenment cultures practised these things on a scale unheard-of elsewhere, this is mostly because they had the technological advantage over their peers required to do so. It’s certainly not because other cultures, on the whole, felt ethical constraints against these things that European ones did not.
Indeed, a strong case can be made that what was unique to post-Enlightenment cultures was precisely the attitudes that made slavery and colonialism *controversial* in those cultures, and eventually led to their being deemed beyond the moral pale. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone else who had even the vestigial level of respect for human rights evident in the early Enlightenment at that time. Early modern Europeans may have done a tragically poor job of putting those ideals into practice, but did anyone else even have the ideals?
When this point has been brought up in other places where these debates take place, I have invariably seen it met with much… let’s be polite and say “passionate disagreement”, but very rarely in a form that I’d describe as logical argument. If someone is inclined to try to defend the position that the attitudes of the Enlightenment were uniquely horrible, they might start by answering the question – “and what alternative THAT WAS REALISTICALLY ON OFFER would you have preferred?”. Ought implies can; criticizing our ancestors for not having ethical views that would have been centuries ahead of their time makes only slightly more sense than criticizing them for failing to sprout wings and fly. Specifically which culture of that era was the social-justice utopia that people seem to think is the only acceptable alternative to what we got?
Voltaire was a defender of “enlightened” monarchy, Mill of “guided” democracy.
A lot of the spoiled rich kids you’re mocking are black. They’ve made common cause which has been reciprocated with students at a place called “Mizzou”, which as of this week has a “White Students Union”. You should read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. You might learn something.
If you want to defend the university as such then you should accept that it’s conservative by definition. Maybe the students should as well. The value of the university is not enlightenment, which absent religious belief is nonexistent, but distance. Disinterest is important, but the only thing that’s brought change to corrupt but stable systems is profound interest, skin in the game: women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, commoners. Change comes from below, from the bourgeoisie not the aristocracy, with playwrights not philosophers. “Irony is the glory of slaves”. Yours by comparison is self-serving and cheap.
I grew up around lawyers. Lawyers are tradespeople, and they play an important role in democracy. Philosophers are theologians, full of high sentence and a bit obtuse, at best. At worse they’re reactionary snobs.
Another view might be that, as in the 1960’s, events at Yale etc. get reported more, because of their elite status, but similar events are happening elsewhere, i.e. non-elite schools, just not reported. I teach part time at the U of Oregon, some but not all of the same things have been happening here as in the more publicized cases. I doubt anyone outside the U of O knows this, as I don’t know whats happening at other similar cases; so maybe we shouldn’t make assumptions. Another thought, on Dan’s comments. Yes, if you play your cards right, going to Yale etc. gives you elite status. But surely some of the student activism at places like that is a sincere reaction against the self-important, full-of-shit elite education there. I say this as someone who was expelled from Harvard for political activities, motivated in part by such a reaction. Leiter cites approvingly someone who says that 60’s radicals like me were involved in some Oedipal “slaying of the father”–I guess Vietnam had nothing to do with it. I think we were raising legitimate questions about the institutions we inhabit, as many students are again doing now.
There are some such things going on at my own university — though on a much smaller scale — where there have been substantial racial problems, in a region plagued by racial problems.
I certainly would want to relevant make distinctions. Much of what is going on at the University of Missouri strikes me as quite sound, while the calls to defund a student newspaper at Wesleyan and the collective meltdown over Halloween costumes at Yale do not. Some of this has to do with the relative privilege of the people involved, while some has to do with the intrinsic merit of the issue at hand.
I also came over from Leiter and teach at a large mainstream university.
I agree with Daniel, the essay went off track on the subject of the Enlightenment. The slave ship was not “the Enlightenment in practice,” it was a remnant of the medieval world. And it was the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality that provided the ammunition to bring down the institution of slavery.
In case anyone is interested in exploring further the connections between Enlightenment thinking and slave trade and management, there’s an interesting recent book on the topic by Justin Roberts (“Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807”, Cambridge UP); a good sense of the book can be gleaned from David Richardson’s review of it on H-net: https://networks.h-net.org/node/16749/reviews/21321/richardson-roberts-slavery-and-enlightenment-british-atlantic-1750-1807
John Brown waged Jihad. Gandhi was a religious fundamentalist who thought that if the only food available were sirloin, a starving child should be left to die. But maybe you should look up the history of famine in India under the Raj.
Your post reminded me of this http://jhiblog.org/2015/10/28/only-buddhists-and-anglicans-moderation-and-the-church-of-england/
—Is it possible to be a fanatical Anglican? The idea sounds like a contradiction in terms. One readily thinks of George Eliot’s Casaubon, the stuffy and pedantic academic, or more sympathetically, Dawn French’s jolly and down-to-earth Vicar of Dibley. But Anglicans—in contrast to members of every other religious group I can think of—are never represented as “militant” or “fanatical.”–
Again compare: the end of the British empire 1967
–Once we stood together in Crater watching the Argylls stacking, as in a butcher’s shop, the bodies of four Arab militants they had just shot and Mad Mitch said: “It was like shooting grouse, a brace here and a brace there.”–
No wonder the Irish are famous for their humor.
Usually I can afford to be lazy, given what I read. I don’t have much patience anymore. Then sometimes I’m caught up short, which is a relief. It’s not like I wouldn’t be happier doing something other than spitting bile. And the points still hold, even if their relation to your arguments are not what I intended.
Is it possible to be a fanatical Anglican? Absolutely. The Anglican Church may not be a persecuting Church in the present but it certainly has been the past. See for instance Jenny Uglow’s History of the early part of Charles II’s reign *A Gambling Man* ch. 15 ‘Governed Like Beasts’ . It should not be forgotten that for something like one hundred and fifty years, the Anglicans enjoyed and enforced a monopoly of state employments in England, depriving Dissenters, Catholics (and of course atheists) of the vote. *One* reason that Anglican Church seems relatively benign nowadays is that it has been deprived of the ability to do mischief.
My first comments were sloppy, but my apology was too. The protests at Yale were about getting the administration to acknowledge the existence of racism. The defense of free speech would be to tell the protestors that life is about learning to put up with schmucks, that policing every little thing causes more problems than it solves. No one made that point. Christakis defended the integrity of the bubble; he defended Yale, and coddling for all concerned.
The protestors at Mizzou were protecting their friends from being hounded. The most they were guilty of was protecting the overly fragile. But the person who recorded the incident, considered the hero and defender of free speech, was also a whining self-pitying child, later in tears, a racist, his incredible lack of self-awareness due to the fact apparently that he’s autistic. https://www.reddit.com/r/autism/comments/3sx12q/sad_skepticon_invites_autistic_speaker_who_was/
I jumped and assumed I was reading another full-throated defense of the enlightenment, and I was wrong. But the post and discussion is a discussion among the sheltered, with no sense of real politics.
Very nice essay, Charlie. Thanks.
By now any interested person could have learned that the situation at Yale involved more than an email about Halloween costumes, although, that was the last straw. Economic, social, or educational privilege does not make a person safe from racial discrimination or hatred. A university that offers community life in the form of residential student houses with “masters” has a responsibility to ensure that students feel welcome in those communities. These students of color did not feel welcome and they should be admired for expressing their disapproval, which might improve the situation for future students of color both at privileged institutions and at underprivileged ones. Students rightly expect to feel pride in and identify with their schools (especially if the school is elite). It is understandable and fully appropriate that they feel rage when their schools disappoint them by ignoring injustices both past and present.
There’s a difference between the ideals of the enlightenment and what enlightenment figures, human all too human like the rest of us, actually did. The ideals of the enlightenment still seem to be the most likely and most proven path towards a better, fairer society, which respects human rights. However, it’s a bit unfair to compare the ideals of the Yale students with the practice of enlightenment figures. We should compare ideals with ideals or practice with practice. When today’s Yale students come to power, if they do, their practice will undoubtedly be human all too human.
Also here from Leiter Report, I hope you don’t mind interlopers.
Leaving aside the philosophical meat of the post, it doesn’t seem to me that the protests are being percieved in the way you imply they are. I’ve been following this story pretty closely, and not a lot of people are writing what amounts to “First-world problems on steroids!” Nicholas Kristof, Roxanne Gay and Charles Blow in the NYT, Julani Cobb in the New Yorker and Kate Manne and Jason Stanley in The Chronicle of HigherEd have all been sympathetic and broadly supportive. Even those more critical like John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Conor Freiserdorf and Daniel Drezner have been careful to point out where they are in solidarity with protestors. You quote Freiserdorf but the quote does not strike me as quite representative. He has tried to couch his comments as “constructive criticism” and, particularly in his reply to Cobb, he pointed to many points in which he is in solidarity with the protesters and has written on the same issues they have been raising in the past. Sure writers in the WSJ and the NAtional Review threw fits but really what do we expect from those publications. It just seems to me that more people are writing that the protesters should not be dismissed then people dismissing the protesters.
Likewise I do not see people centering on and generalizing from elite schools in quite the way you say they are. In the first place Mizzou has been getting at least as much press as Yale. An early piece (Nov 10) focused on Missouri, Michigan, Oklahoma, Arizona and, yes, Yale and UCLA. These are big schools but most are not “elite” I would think. You alluded to the Haidt and Lukianoff piece, but as I recall that did not focus particularly on elite schools. Neither did a similar piece by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine earlier in the year.
Everyone keeps writing against “the narrative” but the narrative people are writing against seems to be the one we all expected and not the one that emerged.
Thanks, David – good point. I can’t think of anyone else who has made the “first world problems on steroids” point explicitly – but on the other hand, the issues and concerns that are being shared nationally do seem to me pretty far removed from the chief concerns of a great many universities. That doesn’t make the issues trivial, of course (which is the point I try to make in the rest of the essay) – but it has led in several cases (like in the “coddling” article) to generalizations that seem to me not to fit many campuses very well.
Charlie, just to join in because you provide points worth considering even by us non-philosophers – and also worth debating, judging from the comments generated.
Regarding your statement that “We Americans and Europeans indeed are privileged people; and we have come to enjoy this privilege by subjugating and enslaving others” – yes, this is true insofar as the building of America was based on taking the lands of the indigenous (Native American) peoples and subjugating them economically and culturally, and various other forms of subjugating laborers, etc., as you say. But the building of America was also and simultaneously based on hard work by the colonizers, settlers, and subsequent generations who implemented social institutions based on Enlightenment ideals and Christian principles. Are these two sides the same that define recent debates about principled and unbridled capitalism?
Hi, Lynn – yes, hard work, certainly. Fernand Braudel’s studies, from a couple of generations ago, demonstrate just how close to the margins most people have been while trying to eke out a living, particularly in the post-medieval period. I think Enlightenment ideals and Christian principles have been decidedly mixed bags – as you well know from the sad history of whites doing their best to “civilize” the Native Americans. I’m not sure what to say about the debates over capitalism you mention. I think Thomas Picketty’s work is really important, though I am no sort of expert. The more popular stuff in the media – “unfettered capitalism will save us from deficits and poverty” – requires putting on some hilariously large blinders, it seems to me.
I see very little evidence that history boils down to the conscious decisions of individuals. This is a confusion of cause and effect. Things do not progress because people decide to become moral. Things change due to blind selective pressures operating on ideas and institutions, and these in turn shape the minds of individuals and the forces that put them in the social positions that allow them to make the decisions that they do. People vastly overestimate the degree to which the development of human society is different from any other evolutionary process. With that in mind, it is likely impossible that we could have achieved the level of technological progress necessary to expand the circle of need enough to actually have people concerned about oppression and equality withough socity proceeding though brutal wars, colonialism, and mass enslavement.
Because of this, it is an exercise in intellectual masturbation to morally condemn people for the institutions of their day. They cannot hear you as they are now nothing more than desiccated corpses. Rather than seeing them as interdependent things with minds and mores shaped by society and genetics, one criticizes them for not having their minds correctly connected to the Forms. Perhaps their pineal glands were malfunctioning. …
What a comforting delusion that must be.
Here from Leiter.
I would like to ask the author though what exactly the role slavery is supposed to be playing on this account. It’s uncontroversially bad and something that society won’t forget easily, but I wonder how much the institution actually compromises the positive contributions of the Enlightenment to Western culture, such as the basic ideas of liberal equality and freedom. I don’t want to see them compromised and I don’t think they’re undermined by the institutions that those who developed the ideas relied upon. Sure, these concepts had different extensions when they were created (e.g., white landholding adult male), but surely the terms don’t depend wholly upon their extensions, right? If they do, then yeah sure get rid of the ideas (the “master” issue is an interesting case), like if the ideals of liberal equality and free expression and intellectual growth etc. etc. turn out to *rely* upon an enormous slave population—not just that they *did* when they were created, but that they wouldn’t make any sense without that population—then yeah jettison them i guess, but I just can’t see that being the case. Perhaps they were constructed by an elite class who relied on slavery, but does that mean that the concepts themselves are inherently oppressive, or that all the ideas we owe to that period as the foundation of Western governance *depend* upon an oppressed sub-population to function? If the ideas are any good, then I’d say they certainly can’t be. But what informs that? My liberal conception of freedom and equality, and there I am, off in a circle.
I also came over here from Brian Leiter’s blog, and may be something of a johnny-come-lately because due to work obligations only saw this essay last night. Disclaimer: despite my Ph.D. and publications including books I have been outside academic philosophy for several years now, so some might say I no longer have “skin in the game,” which is true insofar as it goes, but — trust me! — not having to worry about being laid off from one’s adjunct-instructor position liberates a person to say things he would NEVER say if he had that worry: for example [TRIGGER WARNING!!!!!] that Black Lives Matter revealed themselves (some of them anyway) to be a group of narcissistic thugs with a single hashtag (#F***Paris). And yes, as the lowly branch campus in the South I walked away from where philosophy was the most poorly funded subject on campus, I can only be bemused at the people in Ivy League colleges, students or faculty, who see themselves as put-upon or repressed because of a politically incorrect email. But anywise …
Professor Huenemann, suppose for the sake of argument that your assessment of the Enlightenment and privilege is correct. In that case, yes, the Enlightenment-derived technologically advanced civilization and creature comforts we all enjoy was built on the backs of subjugated peoples and has more blood on its hands than any of its expositors or defenders care to admit, or even think about. Although I used the phrase “for the sake of argument” this is not merely hypothetical; last year, the work of renegade economist Michael Perelman came to my attention, especially excerpts from his book *The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation* (2000) which demolishes the idea championed by Adam Smith & David Hume, & later by David Ricardo, that British (later British-American) capitalism developed voluntarily when multitudes of peasants flooded into the cities looking for new opportunities in the factories. Perelman asks a surprisingly simple question: why would these people abandon lives of relative independence & stability in farming or related agrarian work for lives of dependence in dark, dirty, & often dangerous factories? His answer is, they wouldn’t and they didn’t. Relying on little-known correspondence, diaries, etc., dating from the period, peasants were forced to do so. Perelman shows how capitalists quietly advocated government policies that forced them off their land and left them with no alternative except moving into burgeoning cities where they either worked in factories or starved. He argues that Smith, Hume, and others rationalized this with their philosophies of capitalism as representing progress, self-correcting, and therefore in no need of direct regulation apart from the creation of the larger legal infrastructure. The actual goal was to deprive peasants of their land and enjoin on them by force the need for “primitive accumulation” (Perelman’s term) as instrument for control over labor. This argument emphasizes class as it existed in the rising British empire, before we even get to the slave trade!
It is sobering to reflect that much of the ideology of modern capitalism, however cashed out, is built upon a false premise as well as upon exercises of force its leading defenders today, libertarians, repudiate with their “non-aggression principle.”
But given this — I may have just *strengthened* the arguments for a “second” look at the Enlightenment and its leading expositors — and supposing no errors of historical fact or logic here, the troubling question remains: what can we do about all this NOW? We cannot exactly turn back time. We *can* acknowledge that *some* have always been sacrificed so that *others* may prosper, and it happens today in a more modest form every time an occupation performed by humans is replaced by automation. But this hardly seems any kind of basis for the moral view of the world philosophers invariably seek (unless they decide that this view of the world is an illusion!).
We may be chained by our histories, metaphorically speaking. Rising Westerners hardly invented the above practices. Human beings have been enslaving and brutalizing one another for as long as there has been a human race. If anything, we Westerners have taken more and larger steps towards eliminating various forms the chains of slavery (chattel or otherwise) can take, than any previous civilization. We have done much to reduce the level and acceptability of cruelty, at least in our own culture (although, again, IMHO we’ve regressed *badly* since 9/11!). We have our Enlightenment ideals to thank for what progress we’ve made, even if we’re a long way from being out of the woods: I would say that we are *not* out of the woods until *no one* can be fired from a job for saying something politically unpopular which may be factually true. The employment system that eventually evolved from the factory system has remained a form of control, after all.
If we are to have any kind of future, we must learn to break those chains and end these controls, at least within the parameters human nature permits. That will mean making peace with a past we cannot change, having resolved to learn from it what we can, and — yes — move on, into a future that cannot be better than the past any other way. It was macrohistorian Carroll Quigley (1910 – 1977) who once said that the future can be better than the past, and we have an obligation to try to make it so.
Wow, some rough comments on this one. A friend of mine at The Atlantic has been interested in this topic (and related topics), he keeps following up on it in this topic thread in theatlantic.com notes section.
That’s a really useful topic thread – a good tool for getting to the most helpful insights. The “rough comments” I’ve gotten here are mainly surprising to me insofar as they reveal narrow reading and huge confidence. But there are some good insights along the way, too.