Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 2 – Tyranny, Republicanism, and the End of Radical Politics

Following on from Part 1 of this series, I want to suggest that Machiavelli’s work can be seen as grounded in a concern with the vigour and health of the republic, defined in a specific way. The way I want to use the word ‘republic’ here is centred around the idea of a collective agent: the political group conceived by analogy with the individual person, so that terms like ‘vigour’ and ‘health’ can be applied to it.

The key feature of persons that I want to consider is their goals and desires. Let us suppose that we have no problem with speaking of the interest or goals of a single individual. What then are the interests or goals of the group?

Well, the first notion to define is the simplest, what I’ll call the collective interest: which is simply the sum of the interests of all the individual members added together. But that will be diffuse and often contradictory, and so won’t produce much of the unity in action that characterises a person.

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The Spinoza and Leibniz Show, Part 3

In the last episode, Spinny and Leiby showed that for a certain definition of some of the key terms of our common-sense conceptual apparatus, of substance and property, cause and effect, part and whole, it was logically necessary that all substances, that is all really properly existing things, be indivisible and not interact with each other.

This is in a sense quite a direct and intuitive move: if we understand ‘substance’ as ‘what can be understood to exist without implying the existence of anything else’, then the only substance is the total system, not any element of it. Leibniz, who believed in a personal God, could then say that there are a multitude of such insulated systems, one of which is me, but I know that the others exist, and what they are like, because of my faith that God created them and made them exactly the way I think they are (when I’m thinking properly).

Spinoza, sensible enough to reject a God of this sort, instead had to say that only one substance exists (in his words “God or Nature”) of which I and you are simply aspects. I’m going to focus on Spinoza because I don’t believe in God. Now we ask – what lesson can we actually draw from this 17th-century Dutch jew’s work?

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The New Etiquette?

People sometimes claim that ‘political correctness’ (whatever precisely that is*) is ‘the new censorship’. Usually this is because they’re dickwads.

It occurred to me that perhaps a more appropriate phrase might be ‘the new etiquette’. That is – things like how to ask a transperson what gender identity they prefer, or what ethnic description, etc. doesn’t really bear any relationship to a government sending the secret police to stamp out those criticising it. But they do bear a strong relationship to Victorian Britons reading manuals on how to propose marriage, how to discuss religion, or whatever.

I think this is quite a nice way to look at the matter – though like any analogy it’s not perfect. I like it firstly because it locates the ideas of politeness and rudeness at the centre of the issue, downplaying the element of ‘politics’. It also clarifies the relationship of political correctness to freedom of speech –  an etiquette manual aims to help people to do certain things more smoothly and confidently, rather than dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

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The Spinoza and Leibniz Show, Part 2

So last post I set up where I think we should see Spinny and Leibby as coming from: they want to take the concepts

This image comes up in a google-image for Spinozism

This image comes up in a google-image for 'Spinozism'

which we use in understanding the world, and actually express them rather than leaving them as fuzzy indefinable somethings. In this post I want to explore how this apparently innocuous endeavour leads to hilarious results.

For example, they try to put into words the idea of ’cause’, and come up with ‘when one thing happens, and as a result, another thing then has to happen’. But why does it have to?

The most readily available answer is ‘because it’s logically necessary’ – i.e., causation is an intelligible relationship, the cause logically implies the effect the same way that premises logically imply a conclusion. This of course blurs together causation and implication, but what can we say about causation if we keep them separate? Hume tried to do just that, and the result was very underwhelming.

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Urine and the Internet

Consider this situation: a group of people who never, or very rarely, meet each other, but who know each other and communicate ‘indirectly’ through the following mechanism: there are a number of ‘spaces’ which they do regularly visit, and where they can leave messages for the others to pick up when they come there later. Those people can then respond by leaving their own messages, allowing for ‘conversations’ spread over long periods of time.

What does that sound like? Well, most obviously, it’s how lots of bits of the internet work. But its also, for many people, the main way that domestic dogs communicate with each other. Their messages are deposits of urine and faeces (when it’s not removed by trolls humans) which are obviously much more limited in the scope of what they can express, being non-linguistic. We don’t know exactly what is conveyed, but broadly it’s things like the identity, size, sex, and reproductive status of the dog leaving it, and thereby information also about territories and so forth.

People sometimes allege that the rise of the internet is having psychological effects on humans, who become habituated to the structures of indirect interaction rather than to ‘face-to-face’ communication. I have no idea if they’re right or not. But might we have produced a similar effect on domestic dogs, who have been forced to rely progressively more on urine-based communication than on face-to-face (or more often, face-to-crotch) interactions?

The Spinoza and Leibniz Show, Part 1

Benny S.

This is the first in a series of posts about two Early Modern Philosophers* (EMPs) called Benedict Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. Sometimes reading Spinoza and Leibniz, one is struck by a powerful feeling: what the hell are these guys doing? Why do I care?

They seem to take some arbitrarily defined notion of ‘substance’ and then prove from it and various other implausible assumptions that everything you think is wrong, and that the truth about the world is something somewhat bizarre.

To make it worse, they seem to make very similar implausible assumptions, and then deduce apparently opposite conclusions. WTF, mate?

Freddy L.

Freddy L.

So in this post I want to try and put them in a context where their metaphysical craziness not only seems understandable, but moreover teaches us something actually relevant.

(this is another post liable to be mostly of interest to students of philosophy).

The broadest context for these two, and Early Modern Western Philosophy, is science. Science has appeared, along with capitalism, individualism, freedom of criticism, and philosophy is trying to come to terms with this, to express the scientific enterprise in an intellectually coherent way.

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Put People First, Psychological Biases, and the Role of Violence

Today I went to the ‘Put People First’ march in central london.

One of the things that really annoys one of the people I was with is the media presentation.

Every article, every broadcast seemed to have the following script: say there will be a protest march; say that there might “be violence”; say that the police are preparing for the possibility of violence being; get someone affiliated with the protest and ask them if there is going to “be violence”. Etc.

And similarly, the coverage afterwards was fairly uniform: there was a march; it was entirely peaceful – this time; but there may still be violence later in the week.

Now I find this hard to respond to because there are a number of problems and issues with the way the matter is framed, but dealing with each one pushes in a different direction. To lay it out as briefly as possible:

The presentation is – those with authority obviously use violence (but let’s say force), and the question to ask is whether they do so with the right manner and degree. Conversely, those without authority should never use force at all (let’s say violence), and if they do it reflects not a response to a situation but an expression of essential violence. If people without authority are violent, they are violent people.

For what it’s worth, this connects very neatly with a well-established finding in social psychology called (somewhat misleadingly) the fundamental attribution error.

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A Bit of Needless Definition-Mongering

Everybody’s always talking about their society, and their community. Maybe they love it, or they have duties to it, or they limit their concern to within its boundaries, or whatever.

But often it’s left vague what actually forms a certain person’s society. Obviously it’s possible to use the word in a totally subjective way – any group of people can be a society, so I can define any number of ‘societies’ that include me. And we can qualify the word to fix our reference wholly or partly – national community, local community, etc.

But surely there’s some way to use the word in which “my society” can have a single, non-subjective meaning (even if there are still grey areas or fuzzy boundaries). If not, let’s redefine the word so it can. What criteria would we use?

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Machiavelli Reveals Self as Patriarchal Dickwad, Surprise Largely Absent

Reading through Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy”, I came across a section entitled “HOW A STATE IS RUINED BECAUSE OF WOMEN”.

Mystified, I read the historical anecdote that was then recounted – which was, in short, that in a city once, an heiress whose father was dead was ‘asked for’ by two men, one upper-class, one lower-class, and being ‘under the protection’ of both her guardians and her mother, the former supported the latter and the latter the former, and in order to solve this dispute…the city united into two opposed groups, each of whom then called in allies from neighouring cities, producing a ruinous war.

Now I was mystified, for one thing, by the fact that not one person considered asking the heiress in question who she would rather marry. But my mystifaction was only increased by the conclusion that was drawn: “it is seen that Women have been the cause of many ruinations, and have done great damage to those who govern a City, and have caused many divisions in them.”

This seemed bizarre because, well, the story seemed to describe one man and another man having a fight, large groups of other men joining in, and then enlisting the support of more men.

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Mervyn King and the Rule of the Bourgeoisie

Some newspapers are describing Mervyn King’s recent declaration of ‘no money left’ as a ‘coup’ against Gordon Brown. What King (governor of the bank of England) said was that further stimulus-flavoured borrowing wasn’t really a practical options, despite Brown, I gather, being quite keen on the idea.

The ‘coup’ interpretation is that by effectively depriving the government of the credibility necessary to get through another stimulus plan, King has usurped Brown’s role as policy-maker, taking control into his own hands.

Obviously this is metaphor, not to mention hyperbole and, perhaps, onomatapoeia. But it’s also a perfect example, if you look at the unexamined assumptions, of reification serving to normalise the power of the bourgeoisie.

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