Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 3: the total alienation of oneself and all one’s rights to the community

“How to find a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as as before.”

This, Rousseau claims, is “the fundamental problem to which the social contract holds the solution.” That is – given that society is good, how it be reconciled with the ideal of self-rule, of ‘obeying no one but oneself’? It’s a good question. What about his answer?

“These articles of association, rightly understood, are reducible to a single one, namely the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community.”

This, I think, neatly sums up the most controversial aspect of Rousseau’s project in this book. At first sight it looks almost paradoxical: how can the way to remain free be to give up, not only all your rights, but even yourself as well, to the community? Isn’t that, like, the opposite of what he said he wanted?

I think that ultimately this incredulous response is right: what Rousseau offers is not an adequate answer to the problem he raises. But I also think that it maybe should not be written off too quickly. So in this post I’ll be mainly trying to put Rousseau as sympathetically as possible, so as to see exactly how far his argument goes, and where it fails.

So, let’s consider how he justifies the striking claim that we can only ‘remain as free as before’ by ‘the total alienation of all our rights’:

“in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover…if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all…and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses.”

In short, Rousseau seems to be arguing as follows: only by making the submission total, can we have equality. Consider a claim he makes a few pages later: “the social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right.”

Now one response would be to invoke the typical themes of right-libertarianism: this is levelling down, removing rights so that people are left, at the end, with equally few. It just shows that freedom and equality are in conflict, and we should simply prefer freedom. Now, whatever merit this position has, it would have when the ‘equality’ in question were equality of happiness (or well-being, pleasure, food, money, or anything else taken as a rough measure of ‘utility’). But it isn’t here – it’s crucially equality of power. And being unhappy about inequalities of power isn’t an alternative to valuing freedom, it’s a way of valuing freedom – if people have unequal power, those with more power are able to use it to control the actions of those with less (both deliberately and, sometimes, even without wanting to). Hence Rousseau’s concern with ‘obeying no-one but yourself’. To accept the legitimacy of an unequal society is to accept obligations upon oneself to ‘obey’ others, to guide your actions not by your own will but by theirs.

For these reasons I think we at least need to take Rousseau’s arguments seriously. If he is correct that absolute submission of individuals to society is necessary for equality, that would be a significant conclusion (whether it would be an overriding conclusion, that trumped competing considerations, is another matter). So is he?

Consider, by analogy, a romantic relationship. Suppose that you, dear reader, are socially awkward, conventionally unattractive, and lack many of the things that make it easy to find partners. Your partner, on the other hand, is charming, gorgeous, rich and stylish, and constantly has people falling at or on their feet. Now, imagine various possible forms that the relationship could take. It might be an open one, or one in which both partners kept dating and were willing to end the relationship if they found someone better who they cared for more. Does that affect the two of you equally? Of course not – it will probably gain you nothing, while allowing your partner to have multiple cakes and eat them. Or at least you might feel that way.

Similarly, what if the relationship, though not officially ‘open’, is casual in the sense that both parties are explicitly recognised as having the right to leave as soon as they feel like. Compare this with a formal or informal commitment, a promise or marriage ceremony, anything whereby each partner says ‘I am committed to this relationship, I will try to make work, and will stick with it if at all possible.’ It seems as though the less the commitment, the greater the ‘advantage’ that your partner gets from their greater attractiveness or popularity, the greater the discrepancy in dependency. If your partner can find someone new for every day of the week, they can better afford for this relationship to go badly, they are more independent – while you, having few if any other options, need it and need them more. But if the level of ‘commitment’ is raised, even if only emotionally, then leaving becomes harder and so they’re ‘advantage’ becomes less.

On the other hand, if commitment isn’t equal, if you’re very committed and they don’t really mind, then again it can feel that this affects the dynamics – it makes them more powerful, more independent, and you relatively dependent upon them. You might be ok with this, of course – you might even fetishise it. But in general, people like power and it seems generally better for people to be equally in control of, and equally vulnerable in, whatever relationships they enter into (other things being equal).

So in general, and setting aside the one-sidedness of discussing romantic relationships in such antagonistic terms, it does seem to be true both that low levels of commitment leave those with greater natural advantages in a more powerful position, and also that uneven levels of commitment leave the less committed in a more powerful position. That then seems to mean that for equality of power, equal high levels of commitment are ideal. And if everyone gives up all of their natural rights, then everyone is (and must be!) committed – everyone is in the same boat, and nobody can swim.

So I think there is some merit in this argument. But there are also, I think, a lot of holes.

Even if we grant that low levels of enforced commitment, i.e. leaving people with extensive rights against the community, might mean greater powers for those with greater pre-existing advantages, it’s not clear that this couldn’t be cancelled out by making specific distributions to empower the less advantaged. I’m not talking so much about property (Rousseau’s take on that is a whole other issue) but ‘natural’ advantages. We already do this in some ways – for instance, in relieving people of certain obligations (e.g. to work in order to get X money) if they’re disabled, and providing them with other things to make them more secure and capable, funded by taxation on general economic activity (that’s not to make any judgement about modern society and its treatment of disabled people overally, merely to observe that the principle here is already accepted in some cases).

To this it might be objected that this would require an already-established social body to make those decisions – but since we are trying to set up a social body, we cannot presume that. We need equality from the word ‘go’. This may well be invalid, for the reasons discussed in my last post. Even if it weren’t, it ignores a very important point about ‘natural advantages’ – namely, that it is often largely society that determines what they are and what their extent is. Social model of disability, ‘differently abled’, you know the drill (and if not, google the drill).So the idea of society discovering pre-existing power imbalances that are independent of its own decisions might be considered fictional.

Thirdly, one might just ask whether this issue is really as important as Rousseau seems to make out. If the concern is ‘natural’ advantages, then how much inequality do they really produce – isn’t most of the stuff we think of when we use that word ‘inequality’ (certainly ‘domination’ or similar) 99% social, in that if you want to have power over someone else, simply being stronger or smarter isn’t a very good bet, compared to seeking positions of social power. On the other hand, if it’s something else (like property – it seems likely that part of Rousseau’s intent with his ‘total alienation of oneself and all one’s rights’ talk is to deny the possibility of a contract between an already-rich person or group and already-poor people), then let’s talk about that more specifically (e.g. let’s discuss property rights) and judge how seriously to take the associated forms of inequality.

In response, we might imagine Rousseau saying ‘even if the effect is small, it is important – I demand complete theoretical purity’. If that’s what he demands, though, he seems unlikely to get it. A person who can speak will not cease to be in a position of power over one who can’t, simply by the waving of social-contract-wand. Nor will the more beautiful, the healthier, the smarter. Their advantages may be made less salient, less of a power issue, but they will never disappear until society comes under the control of an omniscient (and hence effectively omnipotent) ruler. And at that point worries about ‘inequality’ will become somewhat superfluous.

In conclusion, then, Rousseau’s argument doesn’t really work. If it tolerates a small level of inequality of power, then it will not compel its conclusion: if it cannot, then it will be forever frustrated in reality. It identifies a genuine point, and something that is worth considering, but overall I think the standard ‘knee-jerk anti-totalitarianism’ response is correct. And fortunately, a deep concern with inequalities of power need not commit one to defending his conclusion.

Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 2 – does a contract make sense?

Following my last post, in which I started reading ‘The Social Contract’, I said I’d deal with some arguments for thinking that the whole social contract idea, even if it is (as I cautiously suggested on Saturday) necessary for the conclusions Rousseau wants, is just stupid and not worth taking seriously. There are two specific points I want to consider.

The first, and quite simple criticism, is just the following three claims:

1) A social contract implies some kind of voluntariness;

2) There is no appreciable voluntariness in the genesis of any actual societies;

3) Whether something is voluntary makes a big difference.

I think this might be a good point against Locke or Hobbes, both of whom use social contract accounts to justify governmental systems fairly similar to really-existing ones, but Rousseau need not be tied to the defense of any particular aspect of the status quo – indeed, ‘The Social Contract’ is something of a break from his dayjob of whining about how society has corrupted us and made everything worse.

So I think this criticism can be deflected by resolving to first examine Rousseau’s claims about what, hypothetically, would make a society just, without any prior assumptions about the relation to any real world cases.

The second, and deeper, criticism is something like this: not only has there never actually occurred a ‘contract’ between pre-social individuals, but there never could. To enter into any kind of agreement requires capacities (e.g. language, planning, recognition of others) which only arise in the process of socialisation. We are ‘always-already’ social beings, and if we try to imagine ourselves, even hypothetically, as prior to the society we inhabit, we’ll be left imagining unrecognisable, feral, speechless beings with hardly any resemblance to who we actually are.

I’m not going to argue with this psychology or sociology, it’s probably true. But I don’t think that Rousseau needs to deny it. If ‘The Social Contract’ was a scientific work, trying to describe the arising of a phenomenon, then yes, it would need to suppose contracting parties entirely unsocialised. But it’s not – it’s a study of how the “sacred right which is the foundation of all other rights” “might be made legitimate.”

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Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract” – Part 1,

This is the book I mean. ^

I’m going to have to read ‘The Social Contract‘ over the next couple of weeks (well, re-read) and since it’s a short, interesting, and influential book, it seemed a good idea to do some posts on it while doing so.

This first post is concerned with only the 1st 14 pages, Chapters 1-5 of Book I. The topic in this part is a good one to start with, for it contains Rousseau’s argument for why it’s worthwhile to even consider the idea of a ‘social contract’, why that approach to political philosophy makes sense – something that has often been contested, from a number of directions. It ends with Chapter 6, in which the terms of the titular contract are laid out.

A lot of Rousseau’s energy here is devoted to criticism of particular opponents, and theories that to our ears sound bizarre – the right of the strong to rule, or the right of a victor in war to enslave the enemy, or the right of the biological heir of Adam to rule the human race. To an extent this is Rousseau being ahead of his time – he was part of a wave of ideas now so common-sensical that these rival views appear absurd.

But we might still discern, behind the particular targets, Rousseau’s argument by elimination. Political obligations cannot be based on force, he argues; nor can they based on nature. Nor again can there be such a thing as a slave-contract by a whole people. So what else can they be based on, but something like a contract or covenant?

Note that it is never doubted that there are political obligations – that is, that beyond rights and duties that relate to ourselves, or to other individuals, beyond obeying the law because it’s convenient, or voting to defend one’s interests or the interests of someone else, there are specifically political duties and rights, e.g. to obey the law because it is the law.

After all, if we agreed that nobody is born with political observations ‘naturally’, and also that none could be created by the use of force, we might conclude that there are none: that people should be just with themselves and with each other, but that official social units and arrangements are just a means to an end, something to work with, not to work for.

“But” Rousseau says, “the social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all other rights. And as it is not a natural one, it must be based on covenants. The problem is to determine what those covenants are.”

Questions we might ask:

1) Is the social order really so ‘sacred’?

2) If it is, is it ‘natural’ in the sense Rousseau has in mind?

3) If not, is a ‘contract’ really the only alternative?

On 1. I’ll say nothing for now – in the other posts I’ll keep this option open, to see how it throws Rousseau’s claims into relief.

2. is more interesting. For political rights and duties to be ‘natural’ could mean many things but here it just means – do they arise in the natural course of things, without any conscious direction? That is, do we just ‘grow’ a duty to obey the law, the way we grow our adult teeth or our first hairs? More pressingly, do some people just ‘grow’ a right to command, and to back their commands up with violence – and if so, who?

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God or Nature

If I point to something and say “that’s Manganorama, and Manganorama is orange and fearsome”, I could be doing two things.

a) On the one hand, I might be defining Manganorama as being (among other things), orange and fearsome, and then moreover applying the concept so defined to ‘that’. If someone disagreed, the natural thing for them to say would be ‘that’s not Manganorama, because it’s not orange and fearsome’.

Moreover, if they thought that nothing in the world was both orange and fearsome, they might say “Manganorama doesn’t exist”, or “there is no Manganorama”.

b) On the other hand, I might be fixing the word ‘Manganorama’ not to a definition but to ‘that’, and then moreover observing that it was orange and fearsome. If someone disagreed, the natural thing to say would be “Mangorama is not orange” or “Mangorama is not fearsome”.

In the two cases I’m really conveying almost exactly the same information: I think ‘that’ is fearsome and orange. But I make use of a certain word in different ways.

And the appropriate way of disagreeing with a) would be entirely absurd if I had meant b) – because if I point and something and name it ‘Manganorama’, then just about the only thing we can be sure of is that Manganorama exists. Someone saying ‘there is no such thing as Manganorama’ would be saying something like ‘this thing here doesn’t exist’.

Conversely, the appropriate way of disagreeing with b) would be to say that ‘Manganorama is not orange and fearsome’ – but if a) was meant, then it is the definition of Manganorama to be orange and fearsome, and so that claim is like saying ‘cats are not feline’.

What if I said it without definitely committing myself to one meaning or the other? Then I could respond to any disagreement by making it appear absurd and self-contradictory. This might be quite convenient – indeed I might well mistake this bit of ambiguity for self-evidence.

Now compare this with the word ‘God’. If someone says ‘God, who produced the world, and who everything depends upon to exist, is supremely wise and just’, is this meant more like a) or more like b)?

If it’s like a), and the word ‘God’ is being defined by His supreme wisdom and justice, then the appropriate way to disagree is to say ‘there is no God’, meaning ‘there is no supremely wise and just being, and certainly no such being produced the world’.

Whereas if it’s like b), and the phrase ‘God produced the world and everything depends on God’ functions like pointing, to fix what the word ‘God’ is to refer to (namely, the ultimate source and foundation of everything that exists, i.e. of all this stuff around us here) then the appropriate way to disagree is to say ‘God is neither wise nor just’.

The former is the more common thing to say – but sometimes one finds theists protesting that God’s existence is undeniable, a fact as obvious and self-evident as 2+5=7. Which it is – if ‘God’ designates simply ‘the ultimate source and foundation of everything that exists’. For there must be some such thing, even if it is simply ‘everything that exists’.

On the other hand, if one accepts this and says ‘God exists, but is simply a material being’, or ‘God is spacetime’ or something like that – one is open to the objection that this seems to make a mockery of the definition of God. God is defined, for instance, as wise and just, and spacetime is neither.

Do I have a point? One point is just a (fairly common) criticism of a lot of theistic argument strategies (like ‘first-cause’ arguments). But those strategies aren’t even seen around very often any more, I think.

So really the point is to observe that what is really the same debate could either take the form of “God exists and is just” vs. “God doesn’t exist”, or “God exists and is just” vs. “God is indifferent to your petty morality”.

Moreover, one might take the position of ‘atheism’ while not only saying ‘God exists’ but also agreeing with many of the arguments that theistic philosophers made about God – such as that God cannot have parts, strictly speaking (which means that if God is spacetime, then spacetime must be wholly indivisible – is that coherent?). Or that God is beyond time, or infinite (what would that imply – if anything?)

But most of the time of course people are too busy shouting and burning stuff…


There are at least four senses I can see in which a position, person, or society might be ‘individualist’:

1) It might mention individuals – when the theory is asked ‘what is just?’ it responds by talking about benefits to individuals or the rights of individuals. That is, individuals are the primary term in its theoretical vocabulary.

2) It might support private property rights and defend the interests of those with property;

3) It might endorse selfishness and concern with one’s ‘individual interest’;

4) It might endorse the idea of individual choice – that for some range of topics (belief, sex, clothing, etc.) all decisions should be individual in scope and made by the individual who they apply to, rather than made by a group for all its members, or made by some people for others.

We might call these 1. formal individualism, 2. economic individualism, 3. cultural individualism, 4. not sure – liberalism, libertarianism, pluralism, all might have some claim to association with this principle.

Do these things have to go together? Largely, I suspect no. I think there might be to some extent a correlation between 2 and 3, or between 4 and 3: no real connection is obvious between 2 and 4: and I would suggest that 1 implies nothing substantive.

That is, it seems to me that you could use pretty much whatever theoretical language you want to express a given political content – the same practical demands could be produced by a utilitarian, a virtue-ethicist, a natural-law theorist, etc. given the right background assumptions.

In particular, that means that ‘human rights’ in the abstract is empty: to get a meaningful idea requires you to specify what those human rights are. This means that to my mind a language like ‘human rights’ isn’t so much wrong or right as convenient or not for expressing what needs to be said.

What about the other three meanings? Are they good or bad? I think 2. is bad, as the ‘communism’ tab at the top of the screen might suggest. Conversely, I think that 4. is good – for an individual to make those choices which primarily affect only them is just democratic and sensible.

What about 3.? That’s the trickiest. I think here moderation is wise. Excessively narrow concerns – being just out for ‘self interest’ in some selfish sense – seems to be very much a sub-optimal sort of culture, not what we would like to see. But I’m also suspicious of an excessive concern with ‘society as a whole’ or with some vast national or other group – I worry that such an abstracted ideal can be satisfied by the dominance and triumph of that group, but not by anything like its passive, relaxing, or even submissive pleasures, because the group only defines itself as a group when it’s active, not when it’s passive. This might mean that an excess of ‘collectivism’ in this sense has an innate bellicosity and aggression, which would be undesirable.

Perhaps this is just me but it seems ‘healthy’ that people should have individual and independent lives to be interested in – and also healthy to have deep connections to particular other individuals and to immediately-encountered groups, and to a lesser extent larger groups. So on that score (though I’m open to being persuaded) it seems like neither support for ‘individual-ism’ nor opposition to it is best, but some sort of middle-ground.

So the question ‘is individualism good?’ gets the answers ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘somewhat’, and ‘neither’.

Disintegration and Sexual Pleasure

I’ll be involved over the next few months in a course on the philosophy of sexuality, so expect a few sexual musings to appear. Here’s one.

Reading over an anthology of pieces on said topic, I was amused to find two philosophers arguing for opposite conclusions using very similar arguments. One (a ‘New Natural Law’ Catholic) argued that sexual activity carried out for the sake of pleasure is wrong, because it “disintegrates oneself”. The other (a feminist) argued that sexual activity not carried out for the sake of pleasure is wrong, also because it disintegrates oneself.

I’ve paraphrased somewhat to make them sound more similar: the second writer (Robin West) doesn’t say that anything is wrong, but that is potentially (very) harmful, and doesn’t speak so much of whether the purpose of an activity is pleasure, but of “sex [someone] does not desire…that, although consensual, is in no way pleasurable.”

The upshot is that given the two actions of desiring to masturbate, and so doing so, vs. not desiring to have sex with a spouse, but doing so anyway for some other reason, they take precisely opposite stances: one endorses the second but not the first, the other the first but not the second.

(The Catholic, a guy called John Finnis, is also a fucktard on numerous levels, such as explicitly claiming that people who thinks that non-procreative sex brings them emotional intimacy or personal connection are “deceiving themselves” and pursuing “an illusion” without the possibility of fertilisation. But let’s look past that*)

That’s intriguing, isn’t it? That the same sorts of concern – that people should aim always to help themselves become ‘integrated’, to be whole – should be appealed to in support of opposite views of the importance of physical pleasure. How does this work? What can it teach us?

Finnis says that the “disintegrity” (is that a word?) of, say, masturbation, or any activity motivated purely by pleasure, consists in “treating one’s body as a mere instrument of the consciously operating self, and…making one’s choosing self the quasi-slave of the experiencing self which is demanding gratification”.

For West, conversely, the potential harms of undesired, unpleasurable sex include that “the psychic connection, so to speak, between pleasure, desire, motivation, and action is weakened or severed. Acting on the basis of our own felt pleasures and pains is an important component of forging our own way in the world – of ‘asserting’ our ‘selves’…these harms – particularly if multiplied over years or indeed over an entire adulthood – may be quite profound.”

Compare these arguments. In the second case, it’s fairly clear how a certain connection is being ‘weakened or severed’ – the connection between certain feelings and motives, and certain actions. And that connection is said to be important to ‘self-assertion’: someone who routinely acts contrary to their feelings will be less able to identify and act on their feelings when they want to.

I can kind of see that. More could be said about how to estimate the significance of this kind of effect, or whether it really happens, but West’s explicit goal is just to ‘open a dialogue’ and it makes enough sense for that. The other one seems kind of a mess.

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“21st-Century Socialism”: a stream of consciousness

Yesterday I saw the phrase “Socialism for the 21st Century” on an advert for some conference or something. This phrase, or something like it, pops up a lot. “21st Century Socialism” is a recurrent label, but tbh I’ve not yet got a determinate sense of in what sense it differs from 20th Century Socialism or from 19th Century Socialism. I suspect it doesn’t have a determinate meaning at all, at least so far.

But the fact that I’ve seen it so many times, in different contexts, is interesting – it seems to fit with the zeitgeist. A fair number of people seem to feel that socialism needs re-inventing if it’s to appeal to people. They may well be right – there are certainly plenty of people whose response to words like ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ is ‘they’re nice in theory but they’ve been tried and didn’t work’, and others whose reaction is more vaguely dismissive out of an inarticulate sense of their oldness and ‘dinosaurianism’.

This raises the question of socialism’s relationship to the past. Some ideologies (e.g. nationalism?) can appeal to a long-gone glorious past – like the golden age when a) there were no blacks in Europe or b) there were no whites in Africa, as you prefer.

Others can relate to a past still present but in need of upholding and defense – or equivalently to a threat of ‘decline’ and ‘decadence’, bemoaning the plight of ‘Broken Britain’. Conversely, some can tell people that things are getting steadily better, and nobody needs to worry too much, just ensure that ‘progress’ continues.

Socialism’s not really set up for that. It’s meant to be all about the future, and maybe this affects how ‘socialism-now’ is perceived to relate to ‘socialism-then’. At some level it’s not rhetorically effective to say “revolution is just around the corner, just like it says in this book…from 100 years ago.”

(That’s not meant as a criticism of socialism, just a possible factor in why people feel like it needs reinventing)

I also sort of wanted to elaborate on what I posted a few days back – that even if one accepts the theoretical claims of class-struggle history, socialist revolution, etc. etc. one might question the socialist tradition’s most common self-understanding.

That is, it often seems to be felt that during the relative strength of socialist organisations, and relatively widespread acceptance of socialist ideas, that got sort of fucked up in the early 20th century (splitting into those who supported WWI and those who supported the USSR, neither very inspiring) – that during this period, what was happening was that we were getting closer to socialist revolution, and if things hadn’t gone wrong it would all have worked.

Here’s an alternative story: what was happening in the 19th-century, really, was that large numbers of people were revolutionary for reasons entirely unconnected to the prospects of a proletariat-run society. In particular, everything was new. A very different society was still within living memory (that prior to the French, American, and especially Industrial revolutions). Moreover, the experience of that revolutionary change was within living memory.

Obviously that different perspective in all the newly-urbanised, newly-proletarianised, people, would give their criticisms of capitalism bite: not only could they be pissed off about X, Y, or Z, but it actually seemed possible to do something about it. Unfortunately, there was never much success because there was no particular coherent basis to this rebellion – just an undirected restlessness.

I won’t be saying anything very original if I say that many of the most successful ‘socialist’ organisations, like the Bolsheviks, the UK Labour Party, the CCP, etc., were more concerned to stabilise, control, and mislead people than to really liberate them (whatever their subjective intentions).

So that position just needs to be tweaked a little to fit with the hypothesis being offered here. Rather than even having the honour of diverting and subverting what would otherwise have been a movement towards socialism, they actually functioned to divert and subvert precisely that undirected restlessness that accompanied the transition to capitalism. That is, they were (as I’ve suggested before) instrumental not just in ‘defending’ capitalism but in getting it properly established, consolidating the mass of the population from one way of life into another.

This may not be true, but it makes as much sense to me as the other theory.

And if this were true, then the past two centuries of socialism are not really a guide to the future at all. If there is a proletarian revolutionary movement and a proletarian revolutionary ideology, it may well bear little resemblance in its priorities, culture, language, etc. to the past.

Does that actually mean anything though – I mean, do any ideological traditions stay that constant over time? I don’t know. That’s why this post is called a stream of consciousness…

Is the Government Routinely Guilty of Murder?

A quick question. We typically make a distinction between killing someone (which is murder, outside of certain defined cases, like self-defense), and acting in a way, a consequence of which is that they die.

Part of that distinction is intent, and part of it knowledge (it’s not murder to do something which causes death, if it was accidental, or if the result couldn’t have been foreseen). But those are obviously not the whole difference – I can knowingly, and deliberately, say, engage an ambulance driver in conversation, so that they are delayed in responding to my rival’s injury, which I did not cause but know about. And that is a very wrong thing to do, but not quite murder, it seems. Certainly at least, it is not ‘violent murder’.

(note that intent is not the same as motive. I can commit murder for noble motives – I may even be right to do so – as long as I am doing so deliberately. I can also regret that they must die, while still intending to kill them)

A big part of the remaining distinction, though, is about types of action, about the means used. Part of why the person above is not a murderer (if we think they’re not) is that the only action they performed – striking up a conversation – is a generally acceptable and benign sort of action. Stabbing, poisoning, or sabotaging equipment, so that someone (predictably) dies, would count as murder because those sorts of actions have some kind of directly ‘violating’ nature.

This reflects the sort of things a non-consequentialist ethical theory might say: even if the consequences (death) are the same, it’s still important that certain sorts of actions are different from others. Let’s grant this for now then. There are rules of action (do not poison people, do not physically attack people, etc.) that must be obeyed, and they are to some extent independent of consequences.

Now here’s my thought. If someone, with knowledge and deliberation, takes a violent action, or threatens violent action, and by so doing, brings about a certain person’s death, is that sufficient to count as either murder, or as something ‘morally equivalent’ to murder? Even if the ‘direct’ cause of death is something other than said action, or even if the person who dies is not themselves the victim of violence?

I wonder this because it seems that at some level, all state decisions are carried out with at least the threat of violence; the reality of violence is also fairly common. And it’s also the case that many state decisions lead to many deaths that might have been avoided, even if none of this violence is directly lethal. For example, on day 1 the police forcibly arrest and imprison someone for stealing food from a shop: a second person sees this and comes to fear the law. They are, however, financially destitute and this fear of the law prevents them from stealing food from that shop, or from forging health insurance or immigration documents, or some such things. As a result, they or one of their family dies, say from a childhood infection made dangerous by malnutrition.

Now, this seems to be a situation in which the state or some agent of it has carried out violent actions, which led to someone’s death – which death is predictable, if not individually then as part of a statistical average. (I’m here abstracting away from questions of who exactly in that great apparatus of decision-making and -enforcing is responsible – let’s just speak of ‘the state’)

Does this make said state guilty of murder, or of something morally equivalent to murder? If so, that seems to be quite serious – though of course it need not imply condemnation of the state. One might say that this sort of murder is justified by the particular circumstances that attend being a state.

But I do find my pedantic mind wondering about this. If it’s not murder, why not – what makes the difference? If it is something like ‘directness’ of causal link, then 1) what exactly is directness – how is the causal chain to be ‘segmented’ into distinct chunks? 2) why is directness – when distinguished from, say, reliability of connection – morally important? Is this just like the squeamishness of being more willing to support something unpleasant if you don’t have to see pictures of it?

History and the Meaning of Communism

Two people might differ on the definition of ‘cat’, in that one might espouse the definition “quadripedal mammalian carnivore with a highly flexible spine and a shortened face”, while the other prefers “stealth-hunting mammal with retractable claws and a tapetum in the eye”.

But the difference would be more profound, and more conceptual, if one person suggested the first of these definitions, and the other suggested “descendent of the common ancestor of all living cats” (followed by pointing to some examples). Here the difference is not between two definitions, but between two ideas about what sort of definition is appropriate to this word – different sorts of rope for connecting letters with meaning.

And this gives rise to an interesting possibility – that one word might be defined in two ways (e.g. ‘cat’ might have both a phenetic definition, by its characteristics, and a cladistic definition, by its ancestry). But then what if the two don’t match up? Then fun and excitement! For those interested in concepts, at least…

What about political ‘isms’ – what about, in particular, the word ‘communism’? It seems to me that there are at least three different ways people have of approaching this definition, and  I’m interested in the possibility that these three might not all coincide.

The word ‘communism’ might be defined:

A) By ‘historical quotation’  – you see all those people and texts and parties loudly using words like ‘Kommunismus’ or ‘Comunismo’? Whatever it is they’re talking about, that’s what ‘communism’ means. For instance, if arguing over whether communism includes idea X, it would not be irrelevant to say “look here, idea X is explicitly endorsed in The Communist Manifesto.”

B) Theoretically – specify a certain principle and identify ‘communism’ as meaning that and everything that follows from it. For instance, one might specify the principle ‘collective ownership of all social wealth’; you might deduce that pervasive democracy is a logical precondition of this, and that freedom of expression is a logical precondition of democracy.

C) Most interestingly, in terms of ‘class role’. It seems to me that many writers (Marxists especially) use the idea that ‘communism’ is the ideology appropriate to the mature revolutionary movement of the proletariat almost as what fixes the meaning of ‘communism’. Or (to use the word to designate a possible state of society, rather than an ideology) there’s a habit of defining ‘communism’ as a classless society (and, at times, ‘socialism’ as a society in which the proletariat is the dominant class).

Now if these three approaches to definition were entirely unrelated, we would just have an ambiguous word, or rather three words spelt and pronounced the same (like with ‘stick’, a bit of a wood, ‘stick’, what glue does, and ‘stick’ it to the man).

But they’re meant to all define the same concept; hence they’re supposed to match up with each other. A certain historical collection of people and groups (A) are united (setting aside whichever ones you want to exclude from the club) by their espousal of certain ideas (B) and by their role as representative of a certain class movement (C).

Some opponents of communism would no doubt make a point of denying these connections – in particular, denying that either A or B link to C, denying that the wage-earning population have any natural connection to or interest in the ideas (B) that a certain tradition of people (A) have espoused. Alternatively, it might simply be denied that those ideas, as espoused by those people, have any prospect of revolutionising anything.

I disagree, as you might expect. I could go into why but I won’t.

Rather, I’m interested in the following possibility: that there might be a valid connection between A and B, and between B and C, but not between A and C.

That is, might it be that while ‘the communist tradition’ is indeed a good representative of ‘communist ideas’ (if we’re selective in the right way – excluding people like Stalin who are too obviously at odds with those ideas), and while these ideas are indeed those that naturally emerge out of and guide a ‘mature revolutionary proletariat’, no other connection exists between the communist tradition up ’til now, and that ‘mature revolutionary proletariat’ – because the latter has never actually appeared? (that’s not a diss or anything, ‘maturity’ here is meant in the sense of ‘historically undeveloped’)

This to me looks like a consistent position. I don’t know that it’s true, but it’s not obviously less plausible than the more traditional idea that all three of the definitions are tightly linked. Of course, it demands an explanation of what ‘the communist tradition’ was all about, why it existed the way it did and did what it did. And I can imagine some possible answers.

But for now I’ll leave it here: it seems to be consistent to accept both that (some significant core of) the historical communist movement was right in its ideas, and moreover that those ideas are, as it claimed, appropriate to a mature revolutionary proletariat, while also disputing the idea that proletarian revolution had anything to do with the successes and failures of that same movement.


The USA has announced its intention to exploit the unrest in Iran to impose further sanctions.

I’m not expert but this seems likely to undermine the prospect of positive developments in Iran. It’s easier to rally people in defense of the status quo when the constant refrain “dissidents are playing into our enemy’s hands” has actually been confirmed by said enemy.

To my mind, it looks almost as though the USA is more interested in the balance of power in the Middle East, and exploiting every opportunity to weaken, contain, and undermine a strategic rival, than is democracy, personal liberties, etc. But that can’t be right…

Meanwhile the Iranian government is continuing with arrests, torture, and killings. Apparently, on TV they are making references to the 80s, a period in which the Islamic Republic solidified its hold on power by killing thousands of political opponents – almost all of whom had been their allies in the ’79 elections. (there’s probably a joke one could make here about the song “it was acceptable in the 80s” but how bad would one’s taste have to be to even think of that?)