Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: philosophy (page 2 of 27)

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

To review: in the first two chapters, Simmel established money’s capacities to (a) make incommensurable systems of values commensurable, and (b) dissolve meaning through a process of universalizing abstraction. He reviews the Kantian analysis of the second chapter:

What one might term the tragedy of human concept formation lies in the fact that the higher concept, which through its breadth embraces a growing number of details, must count upon increasing loss of content. Money is the perfect practical counterpart of such a higher category, namely a form of being whose qualities are generality and lack of content; a form of being that endows these qualities with real power and whose relation to all the contrary qualities of the objects transacted and to their psychological constellations can be equally interpreted as service and as domination.

“Money in the Sequence of Purposes” concludes the first half and first part of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, the “analytic part.”  Simmel now turns to the teleological paradox of money. This paradox, in short, is this: by privileging a universal quantity over individual qualities, money becomes its own end. This is a paradox because money’s meaning lies sheerly in its lack of any particular end: it’s not good for anything in itself. Yet because the sum of money’s potential ends are always far greater than what may be gained from any one of them, it takes on a universal potentiality greater than any actual good, and becomes more valued in itself. It is a universal tool.

Love, which according to Plato is an intermediate stage between possessing and not-possessing, is in the inner subjective life what means are in the objective external world. For man, who is always striving, never satisfied, always becoming, love is the true human condition. Means, on the other hand, and their enhanced form, the tool, symbolize the human genus. The tool illustrates or incorporates the grandeur of the human will, and at the same time its limitations. The practical necessity to introduce a series of intermediate steps between ourselves and our ends has perhaps given rise to the concept of the past, and so has endowed man with his specific sense of life, of its extent and its limits, as a watershed between past and future. Money is the purest reification of means, a concrete instrument which is absolutely identical with its abstract concept; it is a pure instrument. The tremendous importance of money for understanding the basic motives of life lies in the fact that money embodies and sublimates the practical relation of man to the objects of his will, his power and his impotence; one might say, paradoxically, that man is an indirect being.

For those of you who’ve been waiting to see Uncle Scrooge show up, you can see a bit of this paradox in Carl Barks’ inconsistent treatment of how Scrooge feels about his money: sometimes he loves it for the pleasure its physical presence brings him, other times he loves it for the history behind the acquisition of the particular coins, while other times it is a mark of his superiority of having been “tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties”; regardless, however, Scrooge never really talks about what he can do with it (nor does he ever actually do that much about it besides swim in it and worry about it).

tougher-than-the-toughies

Simmel suggests that the rich attract our interest and worship as much for their vast potential of actions (“What would do with that money?”) as for their particular lavish lifestyles:

This usurious interest upon wealth, these advantages that its possessor gains without being obliged to give anything in return, are bound up with the money form of value. For those phenomena obviously express or reflect that unlimited freedom of use which distinguishes money from all other values. This it is that creates the state of affairs in which a rich man has an influence not only by what he does but also by what he could do; a great fortune is encircled by innumerable possibilities of use, as though by an astral body, which extend far beyond the employment of the income from it on the benefits which the income brings to other people. The German language indicates this by the use of the word Vermögen, which means ‘to be able to do something’, for a great fortune.

Now, finally, Simmel brings Marx into the equation. The alienation of the worker from labor, Simmel argues, precisely parallels the divorce of money from concrete meaning and particular ends. This is not a consequence of capitalist exploitation per se, but a consequence of modern urban society itself. The result is tragic:

With increasing competition and increasing division of labour, the purposes of life become harder to attain; that is, they require an ever-increasing infrastructure of means. A larger proportion of civilized man remains forever enslaved, in every sense of the word, in the interest in technics. The conditions on which the realization of the ultimate object depends claim their attention, and they concentrate their strength on them, so that every real purpose completely disappears from consciousness. Indeed, they are often denied.

By removing Hegel from Marx, Simmel turns Marx’s vision of capitalist economy bleaker. There is no dialectical process at work here, just a dynamic, organic growth that increasingly distances individuals from a grasp of meaning, replacing particular linkages with the generic, abstract links of money. Consequently, an individual sees instead of concrete  relations, a confusing mass of inadequate potential. In one of his most poetic moments, Simmel describes the sheer strain this puts on the individual consciousness and our efforts to live simultaneously in the moment and for the future:

We are supposed to treat life as if each of its moments were a final purpose; every moment is supposed to be taken to be so important as if life existed for its sake. At the same time, we are supposed to live as if none of its moments were final, as if our sense of value did not stop with any moment and each should be a transitional point and a means to higher and higher stages. This apparently contradictory double demand upon every moment of life, to be at the same time both final and yet not final, evolves from our innermost being in which the soul determines our relation to life—and finds, oddly enough, an almost ironical fulfilment in money, the entity most external to it, since it stands above all qualities and intensities of existing forms of the mind.

The result is at once to feel inextricably a part of a unified dynamo, yet without the perspective or the agency to grasp one’s particular place in it or establish it. For contrast, the Greeks’ (i.e., Athenians) sense of finite placement and the strict division of rights based on land-ownership gave them the bearing to reify a substance-centric philosophy.

Landed property, the relatively safe possession protected by law, was the only possession that could guarantee for the Greeks the continuity and unity of their awareness for life. In this respect, the Greeks were still Orientals, in that they conceived the continuity of life only if the fleetingness of time was supplemented by a solid and constant content. It is thus the adherence to the concept of substance that characterizes the whole of Greek philosophy. This does not at all characterize the reality of Greek life, but rather its failures, its longing and its salvation. It reflects the tremendous scope of the Greek mind in that it not only sought its ideals in the extension and completion of the given, as happened with lesser-spirited people, but further reflected this scope in their attempt to complete their passionately endangered reality—always disrupted by party strife—in another realm, in the secure bounds and quiet forms of their thoughts and creations. The modern view, in total contrast, views the unity and coherence of life in the interplay of forces and the law-like sequence of moments that vary their content to the utmost. The whole diversity and motion of our life does not dispose of the feeling of unity—at least not usually, and then only in cases where we ourselves perceive deviations or deficiencies; on the contrary, life is sustained by it and brought to fullest consciousness by it. This dynamic unity was foreign to the Greeks. The same basic trait that allowed their aesthetic ideals to culminate in their forms of architecture and plastic arts and that led their view of life to be one of a limited and finite cosmos and the rejection of infinity—this trait allowed them to recognize the continuity of existence only as something substantial, as resting upon, and realized in, landed property, whereas the modern view of life rests upon money whose nature is fluctuating and which presents the identity of essence in the greatest and most changing variety of equivalents.

Well, maybe–this probably says more about Simmel than the Greeks. The point is clear, though: we are comparatively unmoored even as we are more integrated. And as we work for money rather than particular goods, our goals become more unmoored because we conceive of our goals in aggregate, in terms of a particular income or particular buying power, before we conceive of ends in particular forms, because the achievement of those forms is presented in terms of monetary cost. When we do settle on a particular end, money reminds us that that end is hardly final, because we have selected it among all the other uses to which our money could have been put. Money reveals to us that the chain of “ends” never ends.

That the means become ends is justified by the fact that, in the last analysis, ends are only means. Out of the endless series of possible volitions, self-developing actions and satisfactions, we almost arbitrarily designate one moment as the ultimate end, for which everything preceding it is only a means; whereas an objective observer or later even we ourselves have to posit for the future the genuinely effective and valid purposes without their being secured against a similar fate. At this point of extreme tension between the relativity of our endeavours and the absoluteness of the idea of a final purpose, money again becomes significant and a previous suggestion is developed further. As the expression and equivalent of the value of things, and at the same time as a pure means and an indifferent transitional stage, money symbolizes the established fact that the values for which we strive and which we experience are ultimately revealed to be means and temporary entities.

Once again: money is pure teleological form without content. By being the ultimate in mere means it embodies the most general (and most empty) of ends. What this confusing relationship entails is, more or less, the collapse of the means/ends distinction by reducing everything to means.

Money is not content with being just another final purpose of life alongside wisdom and art, personal significance and strength, beauty and love; but in so far as money does adopt this position it gains the power to reduce the other purposes to the level of means.

The abstract character of money, its remoteness from any specific enjoyment in and for itself, supports an objective delight in money, in the awareness of a value that extends far beyond all individual and personal enjoyment of its benefits. If money is no longer a purpose, in the sense in which any other tool has a purpose in terms of its useful application, but is rather a final purpose to those greedy for money, then it is furthermore not even a final purpose in the sense of an enjoyment. Instead, for the miser, money is kept outside of this personal sphere which is taboo to him. To him, money is an object of timid respect. The miser loves money as one loves a highly admired person who makes us happy simply by his existence and by our knowing him and being with him, without our relation to him as an individual taking the form of concrete enjoyment. In so far as, from the outset, the miser consciously forgoes the use of money as a means towards any specific enjoyment, he places money at an unbridgeable distance from his subjectivity, a distance that he nevertheless constantly attempts to overcome through the awareness of his ownership.

All objects that we want to possess are expected to achieve something for us once we own them. The often tragic, often humorous incommensurability between wish and fulfilment is due to the inadequate anticipation of this achievement of which I have just spoken. But money is not expected to achieve anything for the greedy person over and above its mere ownership. We know more about money than about any other object because there is nothing to be known about money and so it cannot hide anything from us.It is a thing absolutely lacking in qualities and therefore cannot, as can even the most pitiful object, conceal within itself any surprises or disappointments. Whoever really and definitely only wants money is absolutely safe from such experiences. The general human weakness to rate what is longed for differently compared with what is attained reaches its apogee in greed for money because such greed only fulfils consciousness of purpose in an illusory and untenable fashion; on the other hand, this weakness is completely removed as soon as the will is really completely satisfied by the ownership of money. If we desire to arrange human destiny according to the scheme of relationship between the wish and its object, then we must concede that, in terms of the final point in the sequence of purposes, money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.

This passage is a fairly blatant echo of Hegel’s very famous lordship/bondage dialectic, except the bondsman is absent. Again, Simmel abandons Hegel for Kant. The problem is not one of intersubjectivity, but that of an individual consciousness, the miser, accumulating an object that is devoid of content, being satisfied with the thought that money cannot disappoint the miser’s expectations because money has no expectations to disappoint. All you can do is own it.

Revising Hegel further, Simmel then replaces the skeptic and the stoic with his own two opposed attitudes: the cynical and the blase. (Unlike Hegel, these are available to the miser as well as the missing bondsman.) The cynic devalues everything save for money in itself, while the blase individual simply becomes indifferent, paralleling the skeptic and the stoic respectively.

The nurseries of cynicism are therefore those places with huge turnovers, exemplified in stock exchange dealings, where money is available in huge quantities and changes owners easily. The more money becomes the sole centre of interest, the more one discovers that honour and conviction, talent and virtue, beauty and salvation of the soul, are exchanged against money and so the more a mocking and frivolous attitude will develop in relation to these higher values that are for sale for the same kind of value as groceries, and that also command a ‘market price’. The concept of a market price for values which, according to their nature, reject any evaluation except in terms of their own categories and ideals is the perfect objectification of what cynicism presents in the form of a subjective reflex.

Whereas the cynic is still moved to a reaction by the sphere of value, even if in the perverse sense that he considers the downward movement of values part of the attraction of life, the blasé person—although the concept of such a person is rarely fully realized—has completely lost the feeling for value differences. He experiences all things as being of an equally dull and grey hue, as not worth getting excited about, particularly where the will is concerned. The decisive moment here— and one that is denied to the blasé—is not the devaluation of things as such, but indifference to their specific qualities from which the whole liveliness of feeling and volition originates. Whoever has become possessed by the fact that the same amount of money can procure all the possibilities that life has to offer must also become blasé.

Simmel now turns to the subject of money’s quantification. The very notion of quantity implies that there can be more than one of something, and so money is treated not by individual units (which would be meaningless) but in the aggregate, and its power is purely determined through the comparison of aggregates rather than any outside measure. This sort of quantified object is totally without form:

As a purely arithmetical addition of value units, money can be characterized as absolutely formless. Formlessness and a purely quantitative character are one and the same. To the extent that things are considered only in terms of their quantity, their form is disregarded. This is most evident if they are weighed. Therefore, money as such is the most terrible destroyer of form.

If the object makes room for value elements other than form, then the number of times the object is created becomes important. This is also the basis of the deepest connection between Nietzsche’s ethical value theory and his aesthetic frame of mind. According to Nietzsche, the quality of a society is determined by the height of the values achieved in it no matter how isolated they may be; the quality of a society does not depend on the extent to which laudable qualities have spread. In the same way, the quality of an artistic period is not the result of the height and quantity of good average achievements but only of the height of the very best achievement. Thus the utilitarian, who is interested solely in the tangible results of action, is inclined towards socialism with its emphasis on the masses and on spreading desirable living conditions, whereas the idealistic moralist, to whom the more or less aesthetically expressible form of action is crucial, is usually an individualist, or at least, like Kant, someone who emphasizes the autonomy of the individual above all else. The same is true in the realm of subjective happiness. We often feel that the highest culmination of joie de vivre, which signifies for the individual his perfect self-realization in the material of existence, need not be repeated. To have experienced this once gives a value to life that would not, as a rule, be enhanced by its repetition. Such moments in which life has been brought to a point of unique self-fulfilment, and has completely subjected the resistance of matter—in the broadest sense—to our feelings and our will, spread an atmosphere that one might call a counterpart to timelessness, to species aeternitatis—a transcendence of number and of time.

Now, Simmel already made the case earlier for money’s formlessness based on its ability to assimilate and reconcile disparate value systems. Here he seems to be saying that commensurability and quantification are two sides of the same coin. The reconciliation of those value systems requires that some regularity of exchange be possible between them, and the only system for setting such rates is one that lacks any particular form–that is, numerical quantity. Contrariwise, the quantification of goods across multiple people, as a utilitarian would have it, obviously requires commensurability, which has often proven to be the utilitarian’s albatross. Simmel’s implication is that whether or not the utilitarian admits it, utilitarian philosophy effectively monetizes the good. There is no way to calculate maximum good or determine its distribution without emptying it of content.

This is all seeming very grim, but Simmel admits to some positive effects. The individual gains greater freedom to select which value systems to inhabit and exchange into. If you can determine a meaningful purpose for yourself, however arbitrarily, modernity gives you greater flexibility in pursuing it. Hence the paradox of the increase of individualism even as the individual is bound more tightly into a larger social system.

The contents of life—as they become more and more expressible in money which is absolutely continuous, rhythmical and indifferent to any distinctive form—are, at it were, split up into so many small parts; their rounded totalities are so shattered that any arbitrary synthesis and formation of them is possible. It is this process that provides the material for modern individualism and the abundance of its products. The personality clearly creates new unities of life with this basically unformed material and obviously operates with greater independence and variability compared with what was formerly done in close solidarity with material unities.

While the utilitarian or the socialist may empty things of aesthetic and moral content, such quantification nonetheless allows for more equality, since equality can now be calculated. Equality is not a notion that shows up all too often in the global history of thought, and when it does it’s usually restricted to conveniently ineffable things like souls. Money is what makes equality possible, by allowing for any particular imbalance to be compensated for. Likewise, we see the potential leveling of social inequality and elitism, since no one set of values necessarily has a lock on ultimate meaning, but all are subject to the empty arbiter of monetary value. Particular values are taken apart and reconstituted in the most general and distributed way possible, which in turn supports a democratic sentiment.

The same viewpoint can be observed in the historical sciences: language, the arts, institutions and cultural products of any kind are interpreted as the result of innumerable minimal contributions; the miracle of their origin is traced not to the quality of heroic individual personalities but to the quantity of the converging and condensed activities of a whole historical group. The small daily events of the intellectual, cultural and political life, whose sum total determines the overall picture of the historical scene, rather than the specific individual acts of the leaders, have now become the object of historical research. Where any prominence and qualitative incomparability of an individual still prevails, this is interpreted as an unusually lucky inheritance, that is as an event that includes and expresses a large quantity of accumulated energies and achievements of the human species. Indeed, even within a wholly individualistic ethic this democratic tendency is powerful and is elevated to a world view, while at the same time the inner nature of the soul is deprecated. This corresponds to the belief that the highest values are embedded in everyday existence and in each of its moments, but not in a heroic attitude or in catastrophes or outstanding deeds and experiences, which always have something arbitrary and superficial about them. We may all experience great passions and unheard-of flights of fancy, yet their final value depends on what they mean for those quiet, nameless and equable hours when alone the real and total self lives. Finally, despite all appearances to the contrary and all justified criticism, modern times as a whole are characterized throughout by a trend towards empiricism and hence display their innermost relationship to modern democracy in terms of form and sentiment. Empiricism replaces the single visionary or rational idea with the highest possible number of observations; it substitutes their qualitative character by the quantity of assembled individual cases. Psychological sensualism, which considers the most sublime and abstract forms and faculties of our reasons to be the mere accumulation and intensification of the most ordinary sensual elements, corresponds to this methodological intention.

Again: this is not just capitalism, this is modernity. The socialist or communist who promises a return to integrated meaning once exploitation and/or money is abolished is simply wrong unless they are also preaching a Luddite return to primitive society. The very thing that fuels modern society is the same thing that strips it of all particularized teleological meaning, and sets us toward seeing the world in an increasingly instrumental, quantified fashion.

Only metaphysics can construct entities completely lacking in quality, which perform the play of the world according to purely arithmetical relations. In the empirical world, however, only money is free from any quality and exclusively determined by quantity. Since we are unable to grasp pure being as pure energy in order to trace the particularity of the phenomena from the quantitative modifications of being or energy, and since we always have some kind of relationship—even though not always exactly the same one—with all specific things, their elements and origins, money is completely cut off from the corresponding relationships that concern it. Pure economic value has been embodied in a substance whose quantitative conditions bring about all kinds of peculiar formations without being able to bring into being anything other than its quantity. Thus, one of the major tendencies of life— the reduction of quality to quantity—achieves its highest and uniquely perfect representation in money.

"Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours."

“Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.”

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money

[Continuing from my Introduction to Simmel’s Philosophy of Money.]

The first part (of six) of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money is the most abstract and the most philosophical. The whole book never quite descends to earth, but it’s at the beginning that he comes closest to Kantian transcendental-style arguments about how the categories of value affect our cognition of the world, though he ironically uses these in the service of attacking the a priori and theories of the a priori. And the central theme he uses is the idea of commensurability: that money provides the lubrication to reconcile and ultimately synthesize systems of value that are initially entirely distinct and incommensurable. It is without a doubt the hardest-going of the six parts, but it is the necessary foundation for everything that comes after, and possibly the most original and far-reaching.

We assign value to a human life, an animal, a romantic relationship, a friendship, to food, to sex–but by instinct and by the initial circumstances of human culture, these values are only very loosely comparable if at all, and quantifying the values and exchanging between them is something that either rarely comes up or is painful and dispute-ridden when it does. Limited ad hoc systems of exchange spring up, but they are arbitrary and unsatisfactory, and thus impossible to adjudicate consistently. Think of the Iliad and Achilles’ demand for some sort of compensation for the loss he’s suffered when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him. The arguments are vague, the values are ill-specified, and ideas of fairness and logic are inchoate. Value is not given to us by nature; it is human-generated in the messiest manner imaginable:

Their equality before the law of nature, the constant sum of matter and energy, the convertibility of the most diverse phenomena into one another, transform the differences that are apparent at first sight into a general affinity, a universal equality… The value of objects, thoughts and events can never be inferred from their mere natural existence and content, and their ranking according to value diverges widely from their natural ordering.

For Simmel, it is only with the introduction of neutral, intrinsically valueless currency that allows such negotiations to be made. Money is the mediating force that makes incommensurate systems of value commensurable. Since money is free of the bias and specificity of one or another particular system of value, you simply translate your values into quantified monetary figures (or even more concretely, your valuable but particular objects into generic currency), and you have now built an exchange between the two value systems.

Since the basic characteristic of all knowable existence, the interdependence and interaction of everything, also refers to economic value and conveys this principle of life to economic material, the essential quality of money now becomes comprehensible. For the value of things, interpreted as their economic interaction, has its purest expression and embodiment in money.

Only money, in terms of its pure concept, has attained this final stage; it is nothing but the pure form of exchangeability. It embodies that element or function of things, by virtue of which they are economic. It does not comprehend their totality, but it does comprehend the totality of money.

From this wellspring comes pretty much all the phenomena Simmel discusses. What begins as a nearly awe-struck tone at the power of money to absorb disparate values and build commerce grows more despairing and melancholic as the book goes on. Unlike Smith and certainly unlike Marx, Simmel does not see the benefits and deficiencies of modern economies to be separable from each other or from modern life itself. In this he echoes Henry Adams’ model of the dynamo, though Simmel displays less of Adams’ nostalgia and innate pessimism. Rather, his philosophy is one of pure dynamism, like that of Denis Diderot and Charles Sanders Peirce before him. Everything in life is part of a great system that participates in both sides of every extreme. But there is no Hegelian Aufhebung; there is no progression to a new level where contradictions are reconciled. Rather, the tensions and oppositions define the system. A static metaphysical conception of reality, sought by much philosophy as an endpoint of certainty, is a dead-end illusion, guaranteed to produce an “Is that all there is?” reaction in all but the truest believers. Dynamism and contingency are the order of the day.

There are several core components of Simmel’s overall philosophical view to keep in mind:

  1. Dynamism and processualism
  2. Fallibility (in the pragmatic sense)
  3. Holism
  4. Coherentism
  5. Anti-teleology
  6. Heuristic reasoning

This next passage is rough going. I’ve highlighted the key terms, but please skip it if it proves too impenetrable.

The true unity of apprehension is secured only by such a dissolution of dogmatic rigidity into the living and moving process. Its ultimate principles become realized not in the form of mutual exclusion, but in the form of mutual dependence, mutual evocation and mutual complementation. Thus, for example, the development of the metaphysical world view moves between the unity and the multiplicity of the absolute reality in which all particular perceptions are based. The nature of our thinking is such that we strive for each of them as a definite conclusion without being able to settle upon either. Only when all the differences and variety of things are reconciled in a single aggregate is the intellectual and emotional striving for unity satisfied. However, as soon as this unity is attained, as in the concept of substance by Spinoza, it becomes clear that there is nothing one can do with it in understanding the world, and that a second principle at least is necessary in order to make it fruitful. Monism leads on to dualism or to pluralism, but they again create a desire for unity; and so the development of philosophy, and of individual thinking, moves from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity. The history of thought shows that it is vain to consider any one of these viewpoints as definitive.

To recap: Simmel performs the Hegelian move of showing an opposition in philosophical thought between unity and multiplicity. But where Hegel would progress forward to some new magical category of spirit or logic, Simmel doesn’t introduce any new terms. (For you Hegelians, Simmel is effectively saying that all final philosophy is akin to stoicism.1This is it, he says. Life for us is defined by oppositions that do not get resolved, and for the proof, you don’t look to logic but to our experience.

The structure of our reason in relation to the object demands equal validity for both principles, and attains it by formulating the monistic principle of seeking to bring unity out of multiplicity so far as possible—i.e. as if we ought to end with absolute monism—and by formulating the pluralistic principle of not resting content with any unity, but always searching for yet simpler elements and creative forces, i.e. as if the final result should be pluralism. The same is the case if one explores pluralism in its qualitative significance: the individual differentiation of things and destinies, their separation according to quality and value. Our innermost vital consciousness oscillates between this separateness and the solidarity among the elements of our existence. Sometimes life only seems bearable by enjoying happiness and bliss in complete separation from suffering and depression, and by keeping these rare moments free from any remembrance of less exalted and contradictory experiences. Then again it seems more admirable, and indeed the very challenge of life, to experience joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, virtue and sin as a living unity, each one being a condition of the other, each sacred and consecrating the other. We may seldom be aware of the general principle in these opposing tendencies, but they determine our attitude towards life in our endeavours, our aims and our fragmentary activities. Even when a person’s character seems to be completely oriented in one of these directions, it is constantly thwarted by the other tendency, as diversion, background and temptation. People are not divided into categories by the contrast between differentiation and unification of their life experiences. This contrast exists in every individual, although his innerpersonal form evolves in interaction with his social form, which moves between individualization and socialization. The essential point is not that these two trends constitute life, but that they are interdependent in a heuristic form. It seems as if our life employs or consists of a unified basic function which we are unable to grasp in its unity. We have to dissect it by analysis and synthesis, which constitutes the most general form of that contradistinction, and whose co- operation then restores the unity of life..

Here Simmel pulls out a Kantian backstop to Hegelian reasoning. He argues that baked into our brains are limits of our ability to understand cognition and the world itself. Our scrawny outlook on the world requires us to observe opposing trends in tension and assess reality in heuristic rather than definitive form. This was the move toward fallibilistic science that neo-Kantianism took, divorcing itself from any firmly a priori investigations. Simmel in particular wants to avoid any further abstraction than is necessary (though as seen above, quite a fair bit appears to be necessary), because abstractions only retain the ability to match up to reality when they remain connected to some general conception of everyday lived experience as it is lived by a large proportion of people, not just a few philosophers sitting in Jena. What are the abstractions with which we deal with everyday? More than anything else, they are financial. We may experience via Kantian categories, but most people give no thought to them or anything like them. But abstractions of value, as defined and regulated by money, are something we all are forced to deal with, negotiate, share, and be subjected to.

As soon as one realizes the extent to which human action in every sphere of mental activity operates with abstractions, it is not as strange as it may seem at first glance that not only the study of the economy but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations. The forces, relations and qualities of things— including our own nature—objectively form a unified whole which has to be broken down by our interests into a multitude of independent series or motives to enable us to deal with it. Every science investigates phenomena that are homogeneous and clearly distinguished from the problems of other sciences, whereas reality ignores boundaries and every section of the world presents an aggregate of tasks for all the sciences. Our practice excludes unilateral series from the outer and inner complexity of things and so constructs the great systems of cultural interests. The same is true for our sentiments. When we experience religious or social sentiments, when we are melancholy or joyful, it is always abstractions from total reality that are the objects of our feeling—whether because we react only to those impressions that can be brought within the scope of some common cultural interest, or because we endow every object with a certain colouring which derives its validity from its interweaving with other colourings to form an objective unity. Thus, the following formula is one way in which the relationship of man to the world may be expressed: our practice as well as our theory continually abstracts single elements from the absolute unity and intermingling of objects, in which each object supports the other and all have equal rights, and forms these elements into relative entities and wholes. We have no relationship to the totality of existence, except in very general sentiments; we attain a definite relation to the world only by continually abstracting from phenomena, in accordance with our needs of thought and action and investing these abstractions with the relative independence of a purely inner connection which the unbroken stream of world processes denies to objective reality. The economic system is indeed based on an abstraction, on the mutuality of exchange, the balance between sacrifice and gain; and in the real process of its development it is inseparably merged with its basis and results, desire and need. But this form of existence does not differentiate it from the other spheres into which we divide the totality of phenomena for the sake of our interests.

Alongside this pragmatism comes a Quinean holism, which Simmel explicitly declares, painting himself in opposition to the nascent verificationist movement (I have no idea to what extent Simmel was aware of it). In the broadest sense, a system of thought, be it communal values or geometry, gains its truth in respect to the entire system corresponding en masse to reality.

The whole system of geometry is not valid at all in the same sense as are its single propositions. The latter can be proved by each other, whereas the whole is valid only in relation to something external, such as the nature of space, our mode of perception and the strength of our ways of thinking. Individual judgments may support each other, since the norms and facts already established substantiate others, but the totality of these norms and facts has validity only in relation to specific physio-psychological organizations, their conditions of life and the furthering of their activity.

As Quine said, “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.” But since we are finite beings, our epistemology is primarily fallible, and if our theories are not informed by this fallibility at the most fundamental level, they lack any relation to reality. Conceptual abstractions can never be said to have a guaranteed relation to reality; at best they are heuristic approximations. (As William C. Wimsatt memorably calls scientific theories, “piecewise approximations to reality.”) Metaphysically, Simmel is more or less a nominalist, believing that no universals (at least none that we can grasp) are sufficient to encapsulate the totality of reality. We participate, Kant-style, in a shared, “objective” space of conceptual abstracta as a tool for understanding the world. But this objective space is a shared social construct, not a metaphysical absolute. So in his most metaphysical passage, Simmel declares his fundamental opposition to the absolute:

Only a relativistic epistemology does not claim exemption from its own principle; it is not destroyed by the fact that its validity is only relative. For even if it is valid— historically, factually, psychologically—only in alternation and harmony with other absolute or substantial principles, its relation to its own opposite is itself only relative. Heuristics, which is only the consequence or the application of the relativistic principle to the categories of knowledge, can accept without contradiction that it is itself a heuristic principle. The question as to the grounding of this principle, which is not incorporated in the principle itself, constitutes no difficulty for relativism, because the ground is removed to infinity. Relativism strives to dissolve into a relation every absolute that presents itself, and proceeds in the same way with the absolute that offers itself as the ground for this new relation. This is a never-ending process whose heuristic eliminates the alternative: either to deny or to accept the absolute. It makes no difference how one expresses it: either that there is an absolute but it can be grasped only by an infinite process, or that there are only relations but that they can only replace the absolute in an infinite process. Relativism is able to make the radical concession that it is possible for the mind to place itself outside itself. The epistemological principles that remained content with one concept and thus excluded the continuing fruitful development of relations ended in self-contradiction: that the mind is supposed to judge itself, that it is either subject to its own definitive statements or exempt from them, and that equally each alternative destroys its validity. But relativism fully accepts the fact that for every proposition there is a higher one that determines whether this proposition is correct.

The absolute signifies a road stretching to infinity whose direction is still marked out no matter how great the distance we cover.

I read Simmel here as laying out a pragmatic ladder akin to that of Peirce, though less rigorously. Where Peirce wanted to ground truth, Simmel is trying to explain how it is that we live. So while Peirce sought to ground truth in a particular scientific method, Simmel seeks to ground value in particular human practices and limitations.

The pragmatic provisionality of our thoughts, in fact, links directly to the need for money: a non-teleological, mediating force with no intrinsic final ends. It is a coping mechanism for finitude.

Reality and value are, as it were, two different languages by which the logically related contents of the world, valid in their ideal unity, are made comprehensible to the unitary soul, or the languages in which the soul can express the pure image of these contents which lies beyond their differentiation and opposition. These two compilations made by the soul, through perceiving and through valuing, may perhaps once more be brought together in a metaphysical unity, for which there is no linguistic term unless it be in religious symbols. There is perhaps a cosmic ground where the heterogeneity and divergencies that we experience between reality and value no longer exist, where both series are revealed as one; this unity either being unaffected by the two categories, and standing beyond them in majestic indifference, or signifying a harmonious interweaving of both, which is shattered and distorted into fragments and contrasts only by our way of regarding it, as if we had an imperfect visual faculty.

These limitations are reflected not only in our cognition but in our will, and our chronic dissatisfaction with stasis. The dynamism of life, which only increases in modernity, is reflected in our need for a system that allows both for familiarity and novelty, in experience as well as in values, the shifts between them being guided by (you guessed it) money.

Life in general is determined by the proportion of these two facts: that we need variety and change of content just as we need familiarity; and this general need appears here in the specific form that the value of objects requires, on the one hand, scarcity—that is to say, differentiation and particularity—while on the other hand it needs a certain comprehensiveness, frequency and permanence in order that objects may enter the realm of values.

The economy transmits all valuations through the form of exchange, creating an intermediate realm between the desires that are the source of all human activity and the satisfaction of needs in which they culminate. The specific characteristic of the economy as a particular form of behaviour and communication consists not only in exchanging values but in the exchange of values.

Money grounds our own abstractions of value. It is a simultaneously an abstract, symbolic, and concrete entity. It has a physical instantiation, but more importantly, it is the thing by which any private and particular value can be quantified in a abstracted, universal manner, enabling us to journey from the subjective to the communal objective.

The projection of mere relations into particular objects is one of the great accomplishments of the mind; when the mind is embodied in objects, these become a vehicle for the mind and endow it with a livelier and more comprehensive activity. The ability to construct such symbolic objects attains its greatest triumph in money.  For money represents pure interaction in its purest form; it makes comprehensible the most abstract concept; it is an individual thing whose essential significance is to reach beyond individualities. Thus, money is the adequate expression of the relationship of man to the world, which can only be grasped in single and concrete instances, yet only really conceived when the singular becomes the embodiment of the living mental process which interweaves all singularities and, in this fashion, creates reality.

Money is, bizarrely, both the most universal and the most banal thing (like Spinoza’s substance), the most useful and the most ultimately useless.2 It concretely cements values in the most provisional and unstable of ways (reflecting, as it does, human judgment).

Norms are the types and forms of relativity that develop among, and give form to, the specific phenomena of reality—whether they are termed ideas, as with Plato and Schopenhauer, logoi as with the Stoics, the a priori as with Kant or stages in the development of reason as with Hegel. These norms are not relative in the same sense as the objects subjected to them, because they themselves present the relativity of the objects. Thus it becomes comprehensible that money as abstract value expresses nothing but the relativity of things that constitute value; and, at the same time, that money, as the stable pole, contrasts with the eternal movements, fluctuations and equations of the objects.

So money is really the best term in which to consider abstractions of reality, because unlike Plato’s forms and Hegel’s stages, money indisputably exists and we all have to deal with it, despite it being the most abstract and undefined thing ever, an empty container for whatever values we choose to put in it. Yet it forms the basis without which modern society would literally be impossible. 3

At this point, you may be wondering whether money can possibly support the titanic role which Simmel has assigned it. Part of this is due to money’s sheer banality; Plato’s forms just seem a lot more profound because they’re so mysterious. Simmel’s answer to that is to invoke, finally, the sheer consequence of money, in which its concrete importance is made viscerally palpable:

Money is a specific realization of what is common to economic objects and the general misery of human life is most fully reflected by this symbol, namely by the constant shortage of money under which most people suffer.

Take that, Plato.

  1. “The True and the Good, wisdom and virtue, the general terms beyond which Stoicism cannot get, are therefore in a general way no doubt uplifting, but since they cannot in fact produce any expansion of the content, they soon become tedious.” Phenomenology of Spirit §200.
  2. As Danny DeVito said in David Mamet’s Heist, “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!”
  3. Hence, then, why post-capitalist visions are so hazy and vague. Having been forced to reject the free flow of value embodied by money, such systems are forced to either put up or shut up. They have to either give the exact pre-specified allocation of those values (as with communism) or else trust to individuals that an organic system of exchange will emerge in the absence of capital (as with anarchism). Simmel would say that either approach would effectively require undoing the modern world and retreating backwards into local, parochial communities. But only the most severe Luddites are willing to explicitly embrace this prescription, and so such systems are mostly left incredibly vague, because they simply cannot recover enough of our present life in their visions. Money is not everything, but it is so much that its absence eliminates life as we know it. Its elimination would entail a regression to a more subjective, less spontaneous life, because there would cease to be any sufficiently universalized, neutral mechanism for the negotiation of value itself.

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.

The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.

The main themes, as I read them, are the following:

  1. Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
  2. The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
  3. The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
  4. The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations

The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)

Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:

Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.

In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.

Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.

Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”

The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.

Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.

Robert Sheckley’s “Warm” and P. F. Strawson’s Objective Attitude

Sci-fi great Robert Sheckley‘s “Warm” is one of his more flat-out horror stories, comparatively free of the sardonic cynicism that usually marks his fiction. It’s even got a bit in common with the Lovecraft formula of the man exposed to unfortunate knowledge that drives him mad. The gnosis here, though, isn’t any sort of secret otherness that controls our world, just the standard scientific, materialist worldview–the “scientific image of man” in Wilfrid Sellars’ terminology.

Driven by an especially unhelpful voice in his head, protagonist Anders starts seeing other people not as people but as aggregates of “thoughts, expressions, movements” and raw material stuff. This happens just as he is trying to confess his love to the lovely Judy, who rather likes him as well. Judy is wholly generic, but given the story, that more or less fits. Here’s Anders talking to Judy, the voice chiming in:

“Yes … I wondered what you were doing at noon,” the reactive machine opposite him on the couch said, expanding its shapely chest slightly.

“Good,” the voice said, commending him for his perception.

“Dreaming of you, of course,” he said to the flesh-clad skeleton behind the total gestalt Judy. The flesh machine rearranged its limbs, widened its mouth to denote pleasure. The mechanism searched through a complex of fears, hopes, worries, through half-remembrances of analogous situations, analogous solutions.

Love quickly fades from Anders’ mind, since it’s very hard for him to feel love for a flesh machine or a reaction machine. (Vladimir Sorokin would use this sort of dehumanizing language to great effect in The Ice Trilogy; see my essay Meat and Clones)

“Can I get you a drink?” the reaction machine asked.

At that moment Anders was as thoroughly out of love as a man could be. Viewing one’s intended as a depersonalized, sexless piece of machinery is not especially conducive to love. But it is quite stimulating, intellectually.

Sheckley uses the terminology of gestalt psychology, though it was only one contemporary explanation of the psychological struggle between scientific and humanistic worldviews. The story endures because Sheckley transcends the particular argot of gestalt psychology by portraying the schizophrenic-like collapse in prosaic terms.

They were one with the lights, which lent their tiny vision. They were joined to the sounds they made, a few feeble tones out of the great possibility of sound. They blended into the walls.

The kaleidoscopic view came so fast that Anders had trouble sorting his new impressions. He knew now that these people existed only as patterns, on the same basis as the sounds they made and the things they thought they saw. Gestalts, sifted out of the vast, unbearable real world.

“Where’s Judy?” a discontinuous lump of flesh asked him. This particular lump possessed enough nervous mannerisms to convince the other lumps of his reality. He wore a loud tie as further evidence.

“She’s sick,” Anders said. The flesh quivered into an instant sympathy. Lines of formal mirth shifted to formal woe.

“Hope it isn’t anything serious,” the vocal flesh remarked.

This sort of psychic dissolution is a major theme in 20th century fiction. It’s there in Beckett, obviously, but also across the board in new wave science fiction, like J. G. Ballard’s “Manhole 69.” I see it as the successor theme to the mechanistic clockwork universe theme that you read about in everything from Dangerous Liaisons to Nietzsche. There determinism was just the problem, but now the social conventions of the self are collapsing due to the popularization of the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Watson and Crick, and pick-your-favorite-scientist.

And that brings up P. F. Strawson’s famous essay on determinism, “Freedom and Resentment.” Strawson draws a contrast between the “participant attitude,” which is the everyday attitude with which we treat people as autonomous agents with moral responsibility and freedom of choice; and the “objective attitude,” which is the scientific attitude that sees people as “reaction machines.” Though Sheckley uses the vocabulary of gestalt psychology, the story works just as well in showing a man moving entirely into the domain of the “objective attitude” and being driven insane by the ensuing alienation. Here is how Strawson describes the objective attitude:

To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided, though this gerundive is not peculiar to cases of objectivity of attitude… If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may light him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him.

Strawson points out that there are groups of people whom society habitually sees only through the eye of the objective attitude, but that these people are inevitably treated as not fully human: children, schizophrenics, hopeless irrationals, etc. That is, as creatures that are either not human yet or are abnormal and perhaps in need of correction. To be human, it seems, requires that one fall under the gaze of the participant attitude. Being human requires that one be seen as beyond the domain of the mechanically/biologically natural and brought out as some kind of special agent.

Strawson ultimately appeals to “natural human reactions” as defining the participant attitude, with some degree of optimism, believing that we have a tendency to treat each other as such. But those natural human reactions are taking an awful beating. One of the reasons why Sheckley’s story evokes very real horror is that the gnosis to which it appeals is, on some level, knowledge that many of us come to gain as we grow up and are educated and learn more about people, social sciences, and statistics and probability. Lovecraft is a lot scarier if there’s a possibility that the secret knowledge might actually be true, and not so secret after all.

Robespierre the Incorruptible, Robespierre the Daemonic

Robespierre in better times (1791)

Robespierre in better times (1791)

I remember many years ago being very surprised to find out that there were people who esteemed Robespierre. Not only esteemed him but idealized him. I’d been raised on the standard account by which Robespierre was a bad guy, not on the order of Stalin or Mao, but indisputably an unsympathetic villain. Seeing him defended was about as surprising as if I’d found out there were fans of Louis XVI or Richard Nixon (little did I know…).

I think Alexander Cockburn’s memoirs were the first place I encountered a positive mention of Robespierre. Eric Hobsbawm’s histories are sympathetic but far more tentative on the matter. But Cockburn had busts of Robespierre and Robespierre’s younger-and-badder lieutenant Saint-Just in his house, and proudly identified with the man who, at least in his mind, was an absolute patriot of the French Revolution and its ideals, executions and all.

I was later surprised again when I discovered that Robespierre-fandom had once been mainstream in the fairly Marxist French historical school in the first half of the 20th century, particularly the giants Albert Mathiez and George Lefebvre. Mathiez especially saluted Robespierre as an unalloyed hero.

The wheel has turned quite a bit since that time, since a lot more people today have read Simon Schama arguing that the whole revolution was rotten from the start (in his bestselling Citizens) than have even heard of Mathiez. Schama will never convince me, since I see very little to his argument that the Old Regime was coming around and would have treated the 99% better had they just been a little bit more patient, but the horrible bloody Revolution was doomed to violence from the start. Schama is tendentious and, more or less, wrong. And if you’re going to be biased, shouldn’t you at least be biased on the side of those who had it rotten, rather than those who lived in luxury while 99.9% of the country worked under them?

Georges Danton

Georges Danton on a good day.

But on the other hand, I remain pretty unsympathetic to Robespierre, even though I find him fascinating as a human being. People tend to oppose the gregarious Danton and the hyperserious Robespierre, but I never much cared for Danton either, who comes off as a charismatic, though well-meaning, buffoon. I suspect I would have found Danton more annoying (and more corruptible) than Robespierre, but Robespierre was far more dangerous. I agree that “Robespierre the Incorruptible” was indeed incorruptible…but I also think that incorruptible people can be pretty scary. Robespierre had some glaring but not appalling personality flaws, like a puritanical obsession with purgative morality and a total lack of humor and self-awareness. These personality flaws were only going to become a problem if circumstances brought out the worst in him. Boy, did circumstances bring out the worst in him.

R. R. Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled is an extremely well-written chronicle of the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety in 1793-94, as they tried to keep post-Revolutionary France from disintegrating through increasingly draconian methods, eventually resulting in the Terror. Eventually the twelve of the committee succumbed to infighting and. In Palmer’s account, Robespierre and his two closest allies Saint-Just and Couthon were squeezed on both sides when the more moderate technocrats (Carnot, Lindet, Prieur) and the revolutionary ultra-radicals (Billaud, Collot, and Bertrand Barere) abandoned them, which is how Robespierre and Saint-Just got the guillotine while the bloodthirsty Billaud and Collot survived. Unlike the high-minded Robespierre, Billaud and Collot come off as brutally proto-Leninist, while Barere’s mixture of idealism and opportunism defies easy explanation.

Cockburn endorsed Palmer’s book, which is somewhat surprising as Robespierre comes off rather badly. While Robespierre never appears as a murderous maniac, it’s actually more disturbing that a fundamentally nonviolent person would end up consenting to an regime of oppression, censorship, persecution, and executions. The source of Robespierre’s problems wasn’t paranoia either. Paranoia was in the air at the time, with very good reason. I don’t know that Robespierre was any more paranoid than anyone else in his circle, but the collective fear that everything was going to hell exacerbated Robespierre’s pre-existing tendencies to go overboard in his Manicheistic assessments of others. The originating flaw, as Palmer puts it:

Robespierre had the fault of a self-righteous and introverted man. Disagreement with himself he regarded simply as error, and in the face of it he would either withdraw into his own thoughts, or cast doubt on the motives behind the other man’s opinion. He was quick to charge others with the selfish interests of which he felt himself to be free. A concerted action in which he did not share seemed to him to be an intrigue. He had the virtues and the faults of an inquisitor. A lover of mankind, he could not enter with sympathy into the minds of his own neighbors.

Drawing on the equally unyielding Rousseau, who has since served as the founding text for much anti-liberal thought on both left and right, Robespierre smashed the public and private spheres together with a firm equation of Law = Morality = Justice = Goodness, seeing himself as the best arbiter of what fell inside their lines and what most certainly didn’t. The homogeneous totality of Rousseau’s General Will combined very badly the paranoia of the times, since opposing factions could not be loyal but had to be virulent and disagreement quickly turned into treason. Conciliation was therefore defeat. Again, Rousseau’s absolutist philosophy, unlike the far more practical, non-absolutist mainstream of the French Enlightenment, is distinctly unhelpful in such a situation:

Nor were the ideas to be gleaned from Rousseau more suited to encourage conciliation. In the philosophy of the Social Contract the “people” or “nation” is a moral abstraction. It is by nature good; its will is law. It is a solid indivisible thing. That the people might differ among themselves was a thought that Rousseau passed over rather hurriedly. Believers in the Social Contract thus viewed political circumstances in a highly simplified way. All struggles were between the people and something not the people, between the nation and something anti-national and alien. On the one hand was the public interest, self-evident, beyond questioning by an upright man; on the other hand were private interests, selfish, sinister and illegitimate. The followers of Rousseau were in no doubt which side they were on. It is not surprising that they would not only not compromise with conservative interests, but would not even tolerate free discussion among themselves, or have any confidence, when they disagreed, in each others’ motives. Robespierre in the first weeks of the Revolution was already, in his own words, “unmasking the enemies of the country.”

Robespierre stoked such fanaticism in others, which created a nasty feedback loop of encouraging further paranoia and purity, in a story that’s repeated itself many times before and since. (Look at how the Tea Party treats anyone with anything good to say about the Affordable Care Act or Obama, for example.) Character counted more for results, particularly when the judge was Robespierre’s de facto protege Saint-Just:

Saint-Just was a political puritan. He could not willingly work with men of whom he morally disapproved. He judged men more by their motives than by the contributions they might make to a common achievement. He feared that the good cause would be tarnished if dubious characters were allowed to promote it. This was not practical politics.

Saint-Just’s ideas were Robespierre’s ideas sharpened, simplified, exaggerated, schematized and turned into aphorisms. Robespierre had in him a broad streak of average human befuddlement, even mediocrity; Saint-Just was a specialized machine of revolutionary precision. Robespierre denied that Sparta was his model; Saint-Just harped continually on the ancients. Robespierre was self-righteous, Saint-Just more so: “God, protector of innocence and virtue, since you have led me among evil men it is surely to unmask them!” To Robespierre the straight and narrow way was plain enough; to Saint-Just it was terrifyingly obvious: “I think I may say that most political errors come from regarding legislation as a difficult science.” Or more laconically: “Long laws are public calamities.”

Demonizing opposing factions is one thing, but demonizing the People is a real problem, since Robespierre depended on the identity of his will with that of the People. This leaves open the question of what to do when The People do not agree with what you have decided. Robespierre was a great student of the idea of false consciousness before the term had even been coined. Ordinary people, alas, were suckers:

It is reassuring to be told that public opinion was the sole judge of what was in conformity with the law, but Robespierre claimed in the case of Avignon that, since all peoples aspired to be free, any Avignonnais who had not voted for incorporation into France ‘must be deemed oppressed’. Avignon was a local example of a more general problem. The goodness, patience and generosity of the mass of ordinary people meant that they were an easy prey to self-serving hypocrites. It was therefore the duty of the Assembly to ‘raise our fellow citizens’ souls . . . to the level of ideas and feelings required by this great and superb revolution’, Robespierre maintained in an undelivered speech of September 1789.

Robespierre’s problems were the product of what he believed to be his unique grasp of the political situation. The mass of the population meant well but, ‘aussi leger que genereux’, it was continually misled by ‘cowardly libellers’. On 3 March, he suggested sending the latter before the Revolutionary Tribunal, but that was merely striking at the symptoms. ‘Public feeling has lagged behind the Revolution . . . the people still lacks political sense.’ ‘Our enemies have public opinion in their hands.’ There had been sound political reasons for not submitting the fate of the king to a referendum, which would have made the division within the country explosively obvious, but that was not why Robespierre had opposed it. He asserted that ‘simple folk’ would be misled by ‘intriguers’ and that working people would not spare the time to attend the meetings of the primary assemblies. This was an argument, of course, that applied to all forms of democratic election. When, on 13 April, Gensonne’ proposed referring the Girondin-Montagnard quarrel to the electorate, Robespierre denounced such proposals as ‘blasphemies against liberty’.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

So Robespierre, unsurprisingly, had much less sympathy for trade unionism and civil protest once he had assumed dictatorial powers. While Hampson sees this as an outgrowth of his purism, Palmer sees it as an inevitable consequence of being in power:

The Committee, in short, was on the side of production, as most effective governments of whatever social philosophy apparently are. The labor policies of the revolutionary Republic and of the early industrial capitalists had much in common. The Committee punished strikes severely, and regarded agitators among the workmen as criminals at common law.

Nonetheless, Robespierre did want to bring the people along with him, and his rhetoric–and the rhetoric of the revolutionary government which he controlled–became focused on communal unity.

Privation can be met either by acceptance, which leads to Spartanism, or by discontent, which, when exploited for political aims, may lead to revolt. The Committee of Public Safety became increasingly Spartan, lauding the virtues of discipline and sacrifice. The reason was not simply that it was the government in office. “Virtue” was a favorite idea among the more honest Revolutionists; it meant a patriotism blended with a good deal of the old-fashioned morality of unselfishness. Of this quality Robespierre was the almost official spokesman; it was he who had put Virtue in the Revolutionary Calendar.

In the absence of 20th century mechanisms of control, central planning simply came off as inept. Again, much of the failings originated from Robespierre projecting on to The People an idealized vision out of touch with reality.

Saint-Just, like most other middle-class leaders of the Revolution, had almost no real knowledge of the problems of working-class people. He saw an undifferentiated mass of indigent patriots to whom it would be both humane and expedient to give land. He failed to distinguish between those who could use land and those who could not, between able-bodied landless agricultural laborers and the rest of the needy, the small artisans and city wage-earners, the not-quite-landless peasants, the old, the widowed, the orphaned, the crippled.

Increasingly frustrated and impatient, Robespierre charted out a plan to bring the entire populace into the realm of the True and the Good. This is his speech of February 5, 1794, which Palmer calls a milestone. It is pretty damn scary reading, from a man who was evidently unfamiliar with the maxim of “Underpromise and overdeliver.”

Too long, Robespierre began, have we acted in difficult circumstances only from a general concern for public good. We need “an exact theory and precise rules of conduct.”

“It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution.

“We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings awakened; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to be useful to one’s country; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the country secures the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his country; where all minds are enlarged by the constant interchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where industry is an adornment to the liberty that ennobles it, and commerce the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous riches for a few families.

“We wish to substitute in our country morality for egotism, probity for a mere sense of honor, principle for habit, duty for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of custom, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, large-mindedness for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good men for good company, merit for intrigue, talent for conceit, truth for show, the charm of happiness for the tedium of pleasure, the grandeur of man for the triviality of grand society, a people magnanimous, powerful and happy for a people lovable, frivolous and wretched—that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and puerilities of the monarchy.

“We wish in a word to fulfil the course of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy, to absolve Providence from the long reign of tyranny and crime. May France, illustrious formerly among peoples of slaves, eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model to the nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe; and in sealing our work with our blood may we ourselves see at least the dawn of universal felicity gleam before us! That is our ambition. That is our aim.”

Maximilien could hardly have made it more clear. Nor could he have shown himself better as a child of the Enlightenment. He wanted a state founded upon morality, and by morality he meant not a sentimental goodheartedness, but the sum total of the qualities which he listed. His program was doubtless utopian; he expected a sudden regeneration of mankind, a complete transformation, seeing in the past no index, except negatively, to the future.”

Robespierre was eagerly coercive in bringing about this change. Again, his Incorruptibility went hand in hand with his self-determined Infallibility. These traits culminated in a very ham-fisted attempt at a deistic public religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, described best by Norman Hampson:

Without consulting his colleagues on the  Committee,  Robespierre now persuaded the docile Assembly to adopt the cult of the Supreme Being, which marked a new stage in his identification of republicanism with morality. Since ‘the sole foundation of civil society is morality’, the prime objective of the enemy was ‘to corrupt public morals’. Crime was now equated with sin and vice versa, which meant that the scope for repression was virtually unlimited. Robespierre’s attempt to implement the penultimate chapter of the Social Contract was accompanied by a tribute to Rousseau whose ‘profound loathing of vice’ had earned him ‘hatred and persecution by his rivals and his false friends’. The parallel was too obvious to need elaborating.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

And with Robespierre being clearly out of touch at this point, trapped more between his ideals and reality than between the people and the government, it’s not surprising that he was unable to defend himself when the Committee broke ranks and turned against him. His defense of himself was a disaster, as Palmer recounts, ensuring that he would be scapegoated for all the Revolution’s excesses in the years immediately following and for many years beyond:

This address, the last Robespierre ever made, was eloquent, profoundly sincere, predominantly truthful. It painted a picture of dissension and intrigue that honeycombed the state. It described the means by which its author was made to seem individually responsible for the worst features of the Terror. It predicted that if the Revolutionary Government should fail a military dictatorship would follow, and France be plunged into a century of political unrest. But the speech was tactically a gigantic blunder. If it expressed Maximilien’s best qualities it unloosed all his worst; and it confirmed the most deadly fears of those who heard it.

Robespierre made his appeal supremely personal. Individualizing himself, he sounded like what the eighteenth century conceived a dictator to be. He gave the impression that no one was his friend, that no one could be trusted; that virtue, the people, the fatherland and the Convention, considered abstractly, were on his side, but that he obtained only calumny, persecution and martyrdom from the actual persons with whom he worked. He threatened right and left, indulgents and exaggerated terrorists, as in the past; but when asked point blank to name the men he accused, he evaded the question.

The immense irony was that Robespierre’s purism made it trivially easy to associate him with any ideological excesses. The ultra-revolutionary radicals who’d teamed up with the moderates to depose Robespierre soon realized that the word of the day was now pragmatism and compromise–and soon enough, weakness, paving the way for Napoleon. In death, Robespierre was now a pariah and dumping ground for all dissatisfactions, the convenient scapegoat for whatever had been going wrong that anyone didn’t like.

But in fact, to the consternation of extremists, 9 Thermidor fundamentally altered the Revolution. The extremists overthrew Robespierre by combining with moderates. They discredited Robespierre by blaming him for the violence of the Terror…To preach terrorism after Thermidor was to expose oneself to suspicions of Robespierrism, suspicions which above all others had to be avoided. Terrorists of the Year Two identified the Terror with one man, that they might themselves, by appearing peaceable and humane, win the confidence of the moderates. Barère revealed what was going on, writing in self-defense when he was himself accused: “Is his grave not wide enough for us to empty into it all our hatreds?” This was precisely what happened. The living sought a new harmony by agreeing to denounce the dead. And Maximilien Robespierre, who in life could not have stopped the Terror, contributed to its end in his death, by becoming a memory to be execrated and vilified, his grave a dumping ground for others’ hatreds.

Robespierre’s insistence on the incommensurability of virtue, the necessity of the Good in politics, his inability to compromise, his collapse of the personal and the political, his embrace of false consciousness as the condition of most of the public: these all extend the accusation of banausia as I described in Leftism and the Banausic Thinker. Not as ruthless or as cynical as Lenin, Robespierre depicts the revolutionary mindset in a purer form–one that some neo-Jacobins find very attractive. But I do think that like Robespierre and Saint-Just, you have to be drawn to integrity and idealism for its own sake, because it’s not clear from the facts themselves that Robespierre’s particular vision worked out any better than that of more practical politicians, particularly those of the early years of the Assembly, and they certainly resulted in more authorized bloodshed.

On the other hand, I notice a distinct retreat from Robespierre’s rhetoric in his supposed successors, less of a willingness to put forth the sheer gleaming vision that came to Robespierre so naturally. I can understand this retreat as the result of two factors:

  1. Historical lessons that have shown the gleaming vision to be further off than Robespierre believed.
  2. Reluctance to make sweeping accusations of false consciousness toward the populace, as Robespierre did.

Those positive visions can be a little scary. But The Gleaming Vision and False Consciousness are two of the most crucial tools in the Revolutionary’s toolbox. I think that the tepid nature of much current Leftist writing (when it isn’t just disappearing entirely into theory) owes to the lack of a forceful (coercively so) positive future vision, and the complementary near-myopic focus on critique. Radical critique has no fangs in the absence of a vividly better alternative. When Obama was putting forth fairly empty rhetoric of solidarity in 2008, most of what I heard as a concrete alternative, even from Leftist sources, was pretty straightforwardly Liberal/Progressive or Social Democratic. I didn’t really have a problem with that, but that is a problem for the radical left.

Without a Gleaming Vision, and the accusations of False Consciousness to level at those who reject the Gleaming Vision, critique only serves the purpose of establishing internal purity tests, one-upping dialogic opponents, and getting tenure or magazine posts. Allusions to Gleaming Visions remain steadfastly vague, whether you are reading Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein, Silvia Federici, or Antonio Negri. While they are hectoring in their criticism of capitalism’s blatant faults, they are fuzzy on the details of its successor–and thus the need for revolution rather than reform is not clear. Thomas Piketty’s surprisingly modest solutions in Capital in the 21st Centurya global wealth tax, but that’s about it–drastically separate him from the radical crowd. In The Nation, Timothy Shenk half-heartedly carps about Piketty’s incrementalism while making only the fuzziest motions at “a much richer set of possibilities” and “a more promising alternative” for the future. He doesn’t bother to say what they might be. That won’t cut it.

Besides, Shenk, I mention Negri in particular because the books he wrote with Michael Hardt (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth) seem to have faded so quickly, the last one published to pretty much no notice. I believe this is precisely because of the limp, vague visions put forward in those books. Wide-ranging in their criticisms but terminally hazy in their jargon-laden biopolitical solutions, Hardt and Negri simply didn’t offer anything for movement members or the public to latch on to. If you are going to lay a claim to daemonic (non-banausic) thought, you have to do better than that. You need to offer a glimpse at Truth. Plato knew that, at least.

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