Monday, April 30, 2012

Correspondence with Doug Vaughan about the anti-democratic character of the Constitution

The teaching of American political institutions tends to draw - though often without acknowledgement - on one of my great favorites among political and social theorists, Montesquieu. The Baron differentiates despotism and torture – used to mock Parisian institutions in the Persian Letters, but also to enshire the image of Oriental "despotism"(Marx, too) in the long trend from Aristotle to “Orientalism” (see Edward Said on the racist trends in Germanic, English and American scholarship carried to a new pitch after 9/11 and in the aggression against Iraq and the likely one against Iran) - from the rule of law

But as Black Patriots and Loyalists and the last post here show, the Federalist Papers and the constitution adopted Montesquieu, but often emphasized the worst or most reactionary features of constitutional design In the Federalist, Madison (accompanied by Hamilton who had once mainly been an abolitionist in alliance with John Laurens, but was now for the triumph of centralized commerce and John Jay, also a federalist and abolitionist) wrote of the “horrors” of the Shays rebellion 11 times. Captain Daniel Shays left his land, at Washington’s promise that the land would be there, unencumbered, when he came back, during the American Revolution, to fight the British. Washington did not tell the truth...

Many white “Patriots” served in the militias for but 10 months. In contrast, blacks in the first Rhode Island regiment, whose freedom was purchased in exchange for fighting, served for 3 years and were the best warriors on the American side, according to Baron von Closen, Washington’s advisor, the key troops – led by John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton – at Yorktown. One might also imagine Shays and others serving a longer term in the Continental army (perhaps like William the patriot who gets killed in Downton Abbey). They returned home to find their land seized by the banks (pretty much as human then – consider Mr. Potter in “It’s a wonderful life” - as Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and the rest of them now; one might, of course, speculate about degrees of impersonal predation…).

Stealing their lands was what the authors of the Federalist Papers were about.(h/t Randall Conrad) They invoked Montesquieu’s novel point about a large federal republic (book 9) - a federation of small republics or states - to suggest that a revolution in one section might burn itself out without support. In addition, Madison and Hamilton thought that a centralized army could suppress such democratic movements from below.

For the poor farmers were democrats and often abolitionists (during the Shays rebellion, 3 participant farmers from western Masssachusetts whom I cite in Black Patriots and Loyalists, one with the pseudonym Consider Arms, denounced the Constitution for its enshrinement of slavery (Article 1 section 2 on the slave counting as 3/5th of a vote to elect others and ensure their prominence, Article 4 section 2 barring help to escaped slaves – a response to the massive escape to the Crown during the Revolution - and article 5 extending the slave trade till 1808 (the real federalists, as a group or faction within the government, perhaps confused themselves that this would limit the growth of slavery and set it on a declining course…).

Imagine, these farmers said, that your daughter goes to the brook to fetch some water for you and is stolen by slave-traders, and sold into slavery far away all the days of her life.

This constitution enshrines this practice, these farmers said. It cannot be mine. Thoreau echoed them and John Brown and others acted on this thought. The constitution of the slave-owners, in this respect, cannot be ours…

This way of thinking is what John Rawls in A Theory of Justice names putting oneself in an original position. One imagines oneself as possibly being the least advantaged (empathizes with that person, puts oneself in his or her shoes), and rules out institutions which are not cooperative towards – fair towards – everyone. Justice as fairness or democratic contractarianism is, as Rawls once said to me, the moral theory of the American Revolution as this thought, widespread in the abolitionist objection to bondage, illustrates.

The Federalist Papers are named for Hamilton and Jay, famous New York federalists. Madison, a Virginian and a slave-owner, cooperated (he would form the Democratic-Republican Party, the party of the South, a decade later). But the debate is misnamed. The so-called Anti-Federalists wanted the democratic power of state legislatures and the so-called Federalists wanted centralized power.

At courts which would dispossess farmers or such legislatures as in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the armed forces of the Shays rebellion, soldiers of the Revolutionary War, could go and demand forgiveness of debt: to keep their small plots of land. Theirs was direct, democratic influence on the legislatures, citizen to citizen, countering the ordinary power of the rich.

After many political victories, the banks could suppress them only with a ragtag army drawn from Harvard and the Boston elite, led by later Congressman Harrison Gray Otis (reactionaries from Harvard actually went to fight in those days, unlike William Kristol, happy to blow up others with his words – the voice today of the neocons and political Straussians in Washington…)

Otis denounced the Shays' rebellion as "democratic disorganizers," prefiguring Samuel P. Huntington who stigmatized a "democratic distemper" - the anti-War movement, civil rights and the union movement in the 1970s.

Following Montesquieu, the constitution meant to establish a national army to suppress the people more effectively. The so-called Federalist Papers are thus deeply anti-local or state power. They are sophisticated, often brilliant, in institutional design, but frequently for reactionary purposes. Federalist 54 on slavery, for example, is hard to read because the bad faith involved in treating slaves as three-fifths human was known to Madison. He dares to speak of "the great propriety" of the constitution, when his words and actions betray it:

"…But we must deny the fact that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is that they partake of both these qualities; being considered by our laws, in some respects as persons, and in other respects, as property. In being compelled to labor not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another—the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others—the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property. The federal Constitution, therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property. This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied that these are the proper criterion; because it is only under the pretext that the laws have transformed the negroes into subjects of property that a place is disputed them in the computation of numbers; and it is admitted that if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants…."

As Madison's colleague Patrick Henry put it more frankly, “slavery is abhorrent, but I can’t live without it.”

Henry’s motto names what is awful about the American constitution.

My friend Doug Vaughn, an independent journalist who is also a lawyer, captures the reactionary quality of the constitution. The Senate which enshrines the pathetic Max Baucuses and Mitch McConnells of this world, licenses the few to block a common good. That is the central point of Doug’s letter below, and it is visible in the destruction of the decent measures – over a hundred and fifty – adopted by the Nancy Pelosi-led House in the 2008-2010 session. The Senate and the electoral college are the bad joke which the slave-owners played on the rest of us – and the amendments after the Civil War created more equal rights but did not abolish these reactionary institutions.

In addition, the Thirteenth Amendment permitted the enslavement of prison labor – and in Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name under segregation, and today, as Michelle Alexander reveals in The New Jim Crow – these practices continue. America today imprisons 2.3 million, 25% of the world’s prisoners – and has 5.1 million more on probation. The United States is by far the largest police state in the world and its origin is in the power of the slave-owners in the Constitution. Doug is right that this needs to be defeated and every point he makes about the odious limitations on the suffrage, the anti-democratic character of elections to the Senate, originally by state legislatures, or the enshrinement of the Ku Klux Klan as the leaderhsip of the South in the "election" of Hayes (the "compromise" that ended Reconstruction taking place far from the people in the House of Representatives) are very important. These were or are all practices that need(ed) and need to be abolished.

But as Montesquieu puts it in book 11 of the Spirit of the Laws, there is another aspect to the separation or balance of powers. Such separation bars "the question" (that was what torture was called in the Inquisition, predecessor to Cheney and Bush). The idea is to prevent a deficient, will of all democracy - one which betrays a common good or a general will - from murdering or torturing questioners (the murder of Socrates, the Palmer raids, Truman-McCarthyism and the like), suppressing dissent, and destroying freedom of speech (and the Bill of Rights). Madison and Jefferson, paradoxically, drafted the Bill of Rights, Ironically, they were good on other basic individual rights aside from slavery, a terrifying contrast.

Freedom and democratic dissent (and even revolutions like the Shays Rebellion for Jefferson - those that would "water the tree of liberty every twenty years with the blood of patriots and tyrants" - but not the great slave revolt in Saint-Domigue that created Haiti and certainly not the democratic uprising of Jefferson’s slaves) must be protected or defended against tyranny - executive or commander in chief power. A constitutional division of powers is an important way to do this.

The first such measure was the Bill of Rights. The second was the creation of an independent judiciary whose only justification is to defend equal basic individual rights (basic: the right to private property is subordinate to such rights; if inequality of property leads to oligarchy and the perversion of basic rights, it is, as John Rawls suggests in his priority of the equal liberty principle over allowable inequalities, barred).

The creation of serious judicial review, however, was the result of John Marshall’s chief justiceship more than the constitution itself (in a self-contradictory fashion, even the practice of judicial review might be ruled out by the flaky "original constructionists" who seek to tear down every aspect of American liberty to enshrine a Guantanamo-like police state, one which battens off racism at home toward black and brown young men – see again Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow).

Judicial review can defend such rights, as in Brown v. Board of Education and other decisions (it is this that the “original constructionists” – Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts – hate). It can also, as in the Dred Scott decision or the decisions against unions, operate against equal individual rights like freedom and freedom of association.

When it affirms basic rights, the Supreme Court fulfills its function as what protects Americans against tyranny. Such decisions exemplify the desirable separation or balance of powers.

When it affirms concentration camps for Japanese-Americans under FDR in World War II, it is but a rubber stamp of tyranny, a perfumer of lynch-mobs, and does the opposite. It is quite often the “court” of sycophants to the rich, the powerful, the slave-owners, the bigoted, those who care not for liberty or the Bill of Rights. It is then in love with tyranny. And that is the Roberts-Scalia court which endangers all of us.

So we need to fight not only for democracy but for the rule of law – for habeas corpus and against Guantanamo, against racism, against the legislation outlawing marijuana (prohibition of alcohol was awful in its effects; why should the ban on marijuana be better? In addition, alcoholism is now widespread; marijuana is nothing like alcohol in whatever bad effects are fantasized about it, and the war on drugs has wrecked Mexico), for the Bill of Rights taken seriously and extended to social rights (the right of each individual to higher execution without debt slavery, the right to health care, the right to a reasonable pension, the right to a decent minimum income). A debate about a democratic constitution, as Sandy Levinson has often suggested, needs to be taken up widely if America is to survive in this period. It is a task which will be up to Occupy because the elite – Obama in certain ways excepted, in certain ways an accomplice - is pretty unified in undermining that survival.

Here is Doug’s letter:

"Dear Alan,

Duly noted and well-argued [see here], but even in these exchanges and commentaries you might want to explain, since most people are blissfully unaware of the anti-democratic details of our republican Constitution; it therefore bears repetition that the scheme gave state legislators the power to set qualifications for office and rules restricting the right to vote.

These included restrictions based on language, ethnicity or race, gender and property such that the right to vote or to hold elected office were restricted to only European, not Native American or African-born persons or later Asians, and mostly English-speaking males, not females, over age 35 and registered as owners of property (especially land but including other persons, therefore also including those held in debt-bondage as indentured labor for a term of years, usually 7 but sometimes renewable for longer periods).

State legislators, in turn, elected 2 such persons per state to the US Senate, where seats were not apportioned according to population; slave-holders received disproportionate power in the House by virtue of the repugnant 3/5 rule you cite, but state those fractional persons still could not vote -- they were 'represented' only by their owners and only as if they were 3/5 human -- until their own rebellion secured rights as humans by the amendments passed by the truncated legislatures in the wake of the Civil War that broke the power of the slaveholders, at least temporarily, and barred them from holding office or voting. Until then, candidates for President were elected not by popular vote, even with restricted suffrage, but indirectly by vote of electors from each state; if this Electoral College could not come to decision, the House would determine the victor as illustrated by the election of Hayes over Tilden by a single-vote margin in the House as part of the compromise that ended Reconstruction in 1876, and the withdrawal of federal troops that had guaranteed the equal protection and civil-rights amendments, a vacuum into which the armed violence of the paramilitary force of the land-holding aristocracy of former slave-owners became the exclusive violence of the state(s) to enforce new forms of debt-bondage of labor to the land and legal resrictions on the former slaves' right to vote and hold office.

This violence, state-sanctioned and state-sponsored, is the single most important reason that the Senate remained a bastion of reaction even after suffrage was formally extended through the Jacksonian period to other white males, with fewer restrictions based on property, beyond the emancipation and prohibition of slavery (13th Amendment, 1865), the extension to former slaves of equal protection of the laws and apportionment [of representatives] by population (14th Am.) and right to vote (15th, ratified 1870), still specifically excluding Indians and women; and even the election of the Senate by popular vote (17th, 1913) restricted to males and still disproportionate to population until the present despite female suffrage (19th, 1920) and the civil-rights legislation extended by the courts to the states via the Equal Protection clause in the 1960s.* The Senate and the Electoral College remain the two bastard offspring of convenience and necessity in the formation of the republic in rebellious war against empire, and in its bloody transformation in continuous rebellion of slaves against the slaveholders thus compelled and provoked to themselves rebel in secession, and by giving greater weight to the votes of less populous states, continue to drag down their incestuous union.

The denial of facts, reality, history by the current crop of hypocritical and casuistical proponents of "original construction" and "original intent" now ensconced in the judiciary, the legal profession, and the commentariat includes most significantly the denial of the role of organized violence, sometimes extra-legal but more often legalized violent suppression of the democratic instinct of every person to claim an equal right, an individual political will derived from biology (that is, if you prefer from our "Nature and Nature's God") that must by definition and the laws of empathy as well as entropy become universal. The democratic impulse toward universal, equal, human rights demands the abolition of the Electoral College to be replaced by direct election of the President by popular vote of the whole electorate, and the abolition of the Senate with direct election of a unicameral legislature by equally apportioned districts.

Best wishes,

*As if on cue, Reince Priebus, head of the "Republican' (more aptly imperial-authoritarian-racist) national committee, proclaimed:

"For centuries our electoral process is based on one person, one vote, and for anyone to politicize the issue reeks of desperation and represents the worst in modern politics,' Mr. Priebus said." (New York Times, April 30, 2012, p. A11)

One man one vote is an egalitarian principle of the 1960s...It is the right principle but hardly a centuries-old American constitutional one.
And this, from the party which has just now passed laws disenfranchising the old, students, the poor and especially blacks and chicanos in the upcoming election.

Denial - a possession by intense, in the unconscious racism - is what, sadly, marks this party...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Correspondance with Dennis Pilgard about disenfranchisment and the Tea Party

My friend Dennis Pilgard, who does not like Obama and often supports the Tea Party (but also likes Ron Paul), sent me this note from the AARP [the American Association of Retired People] about the disenfranchisement of the old, disagreeing in general with stripping the vote from those who don't have driver's licenses. An address and a bill in your own name should be sufficient to vote; in fact, there should be special provision for the homeless, many of whom are vets as far back as Vietnam and as recently as Iraq and Afghanistan, to vote. For younger people, one has a driver's license since one is often living in one's car...But then, of course, one no longer has an address...

The roots of disenfranchisment, going back a long way in American history, stem from the defeat of gradual emancipation in the American Revolution and the triumph of the slave-owners in the Constitution. In connection with my book, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, I have been discussing with Duncan Campbell, for instance, on "Living Dialogues" on KGNU last week (April 22), the Constitutional and governmental practices that ensured slave-holding through pseudo-enfranchisment (the creation of the unrepresentative senate and the filibuster were two).

Duncan pointed out that for 52 of the 72 years between 1788, the first Presidential election, and 1860 when Lincoln was elected, the President was a slave-owner. The only Presidents then elected to two terms were slave-owners. Jefferson was elected in 1800 because of the article in the Constitution which says that slaves are to be counted as 3/5 of a man to elect their owners (in the 1850s, when the population in bondage numbered 4 million, this produced 2.4 million votes for the "owners" of other human beings).

Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 says: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." Mirroring the racism and denial of many original constructionists, the Tea Party in the House in 2011 insisted on reading the Constitution, but omitted this and 2 other clauses that sanction slavery. (In this, they emulated the pretences of the drafters since the Constitution does not mention bondage by name. They knew the horror: "slavery is abhorrent," Patrick Henry once said, "but I cannot live without it." Shame at the practice of bondage while cleaving to racism is the explanation of the circumlocution then, the omission now).

Justices of the Supreme Court like the infamous Taney of the Dred Scott decision were often Southerners. Garry Wills, in 'Negro President': Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003), traces Andrew Jackson's genocidal policy of "removal' of Native Americans to the votes allocated to the slave-owners, defeating serious resistance from below (h/t Steve Schwartzberg)...*

Here is the AARP note Dennis sent:

Can We Still Vote? Without a valid photo ID,

many older Americans will not be allowed to vote this year by: Marsha Mercer | from: AARP Bulletin | January 1, 2012

The midwife at the 1949 home birth in rural South Carolina delivered a healthy baby girl but didn't file a birth certificate. Donna Jean Suggs grew up, got a Social Security card and found work as a home health aide. Try as she might, though, she couldn't get a birth certificate. That meant she couldn't get a driver's license or register to vote.

[the program does not reproduce photos] You may not be able to vote in 2012 unless you have a government-issued photo ID. — Photo by Alamy
"I fought with them and fought with them," she said of the local and state officials. "I prayed and prayed." In time, said Suggs, 62, who lives in Sumter, S.C., "I gave up on things" — like voting.

Having a driver's license or photo identification card is commonplace for most Americans, but about 11 percent of adult citizens — more than 21 million people — lack a valid, government-issued photo ID, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Increasingly, this puts their right to vote at risk. A year ago, only Georgia and Indiana required photo ID cards to vote. Since then, 34 states have introduced voter ID laws. Five enacted them, governors in five other states vetoed them, and other states are considering them.

"What's new is the no-photo-no-vote" laws, said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow specializing in elections at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. "The 2010 elections' big shift toward Republican control of state legislatures was certainly a piece of that." Older voters most affected. The trend alarms voting advocates like Lawrence Norden, acting director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, who said photo ID laws hit older people, the poor, African Americans and students the hardest. "This is the first time in decades that we have seen a reversal in what has been a steady expansion of voting rights in the United States," Norden said. "There's no question that citizens over 65 will be particularly impacted. The older you get, the more likely you won't have an ID."

Nearly one in five citizens over 65 — about 8 million — lacks a current, government-issued photo ID, a 2006 Brennan Center study found. Most people prove their eligibility to vote with a driver's license, but people over 65 often give up their license and don't replace it with the state-issued ID that some states offer non-driving residents. People over 65 also are more likely to lack birth certificates because they were born before recording births was standard procedure. Strict new photo ID laws could make voting this year more difficult for 3.2 million voters in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, if the new laws stand, according to the Brennan Center.

Late last month, the Justice Department rejected South Carolina's law for discriminating against minority voters, who it said were nearly 20 percent less likely than white voters to have a government-issued photo ID. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said she would seek to have the ruling overturned. The department was also reviewing the Texas law.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed against the Wisconsin law, and other states' photo ID laws face possible legal challenges. In November, Mississippi voters approved an amendment requiring a photo ID, but it must be implemented by the legislature and would not take effect until 2014. In the states with strict photo ID voting laws, voters who show up without photo IDs generally are allowed to vote a provisional ballot that is counted only if the voter brings a photo ID to a government elections office within a few days, and may not be counted at all unless the election is close."

I responded: "Dear Dennis, Thank you very much. This is entirely a 'Republican' strategy in many states that the Tea Party won the governership in 2010 to disenfranchise people, the young, blacks and elderly. And of course older people will perhaps vote more heavily 'Republican' in the likely Presidential election (are more troubled about Obama) but someone, as it were, gets people like Romney a driver's license. The old who are disqualified are perhaps, if one goes in for this grotesque kind of calculation ("let's win elections by disenfranchising voters") likely Obama supporters, but that is unclear. Romney and others could stand up on such matters, but their electoral hopes rest on disenfranchisement…

The fight for one man one vote (or one person one vote) is at the heart of the American project, what makes America decent. It would be very good to send the people who do this a message… All the best, Alan"

*The three-fifths ratio, or 'Federal ratio,' had a major effect on pre-Civil War politics due to the disproportionate representation of slaveholding states relative to voters. For example, in 1793 slave states would have been apportioned 33 seats in the House of Representatives had the seats been assigned based on the free population; instead they were apportioned 47. In 1812, slaveholding states had 76 instead of the 59 they would have had; in 1833, 98 instead of 73. As a result, southerners dominated the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War. In the important book, 'Negro President': Jefferson and the Slave Power, Garry Wills has argued that without the additional slave state votes, Jefferson would have lost the presidential election of 1800. In addition, as he says at p. 5, "...slavery would have been excluded from Missouri...Jackson's Indian removal policy would have failed...the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico....the Kansas-Nebraska bill would have failed...."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reading/signing of Black Patriots and Loyalists at Tattered Cover, Friday at 7:30

I will read from, take questions on and sign my new book, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence at Tattered Cover on Colfax Friday April 27 at 7:30. The University of Chicago Press has put up a facebook page about the book with more information about the book here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Alan Gilbert will be on Living Dialogues this Sunday with Duncan Campbell, KGNU, 12:30

I will be in a conversation with Duncan Campbell on Living Dialogues this Sunday, 12:30 to 1, on KGNU (AM 1390, FM 88.5) on Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence and the startling persistence today of racism in America. It will deal, among other matters, with the racism in the Constitution (one of the two original sins of the American regime, the other being the genocide toward indigenous peoples) and among the founders, a striking exception to which is the abolitionism of John Laurens, and the two revolutions of the time, internationally, the revolution for independence (much discussed) and the deeper revolution for abolition and the freedom of all extending from the Caribbean to North America to the creation of Haiti by slave insurrection, the liberation of Venezuela accompanied by gradual emancipation and the forging of a radically democratic regime at Freetown in Sierra Leone. I will do a reading/signing of the book at Tattered Cover on Colfax, Friday, April 27th at 7:30.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Initiation in Plato or how Thrasymachus throws the argument off track, part 4

Suppose the Republic, like many other Platonic dialogues, was brief and concluded after book 1. One would lose its driving power and greatness, its political character, the conversion of Glaucon from secret and subtle believer in injustice to foreswearing becoming a tyrant. And that would be - as a literary, moral and political matter - a huge loss. In addition, the resonant image of wrenching around from the cave to do philosophy, to ascend to the light, would also be lost.

But would what is lost be about how to do philosophy? In the latter perspective, do the last 9 books keep to the track of questioning and following argument, illustrated by Socrates and Polemarchus, or do they become something both satiric - a send up of the Athenian charges, a modelling of what it would take to clean up the gods - and often aslant of the direction of doing philosophy. Socrates asks questions, makes arguments, spins tales or gives images - but does the argument progress so well with Glaucon? Glaucon is dazzled and persuaded to give up the ring of Gyges, to not seek to become a tyrant, but does he do philosophy?

There is thus a kind of false track here - if one does not take in the argument with Polemarchus and his growth as someone beginning to do philosophy - on which this stunning argument is also propelled. Socrates defends going down beautifully in book 7 (elliptically, he says upon questioning, that the guardians in the city in speech are bred, as in a hive, to go down; in reality, Socrates goes down and is killed in fighting for a decent democracy - see here). But the way to ascend is actually modelled briefly - and signalled by Polemarchus's and Cleitophon's exchange - in book 1. See here. The last 9 books are only comprehensible if one practices it, notes the difference between the mostly satirical city in speech - Glaucon's martial city - and what a philosopher might create. See here and here. They are only understandable if one is not overcome with the brilliance of the ring of Gyges - Glaucon is clever, but one is also meant to think about what the object of his cleverness is. Plato perhaps expects the reader to take in the weaknesses of Glaucon, struck with admiration at Socrates, trying to please him, or stammering out what he really thinks (the idea of the good - you can't mean pleasure...). The track of how to do philosophy is often lost - hinted at negatively or by way of satire - in the last 9 books.

Perhaps these two tracks mark out a line of demarcation between the anti-tyrants (Socrates, Chaerophon, Polemarchus, Demosthenes, Cicero) who went down for a common good-sustaining democracy and the would-be advisors to ostensibly wise tyrants (Al-Farabi, Heidegger, Strauss) as well as those who in a more superficial and flattened way, one which misses any element of satire or complexity, echo that interpretation (Popper, but also much ordinary education about Plato's "utopia," what Plato must be taken to say in "our" way of reading, a dramatically different way from the one than Plato invites which does not seek to understand the complexities of dialogues. Plato's writings on how to read, i.e. the Phaedrus 275d-277a, and hence, Plato's writings, are a closed book to this common reading).

In this respect, the dramatic exchange with Thrasymachus is pivotal. Thrasymachus deepens the argument about injustice - makes the ordinary injustice of politics more vivid. He incarnates the forces that killed Socrates in an attempt to kill his way of arguing. Thrasymachus thus moves the argument, as argument, away from philosophy.*

What Socrates says in response to Thrasymachus and later Glaucon is, once again, a kind of send-up of the Athenian charges of blasphemy and corrupting the young. See here. In response to Glaucon's challenge about the austere city - "where are the relishes?" (Glaucon is hungry for the "pleasures" of tyranny...), Socrates creates a regime in which poetry is censored - what it would take to keep poets from saying anything frightening about death, anything derogatory toward the gods. But he does so on the basis of doubtful arguments, the most amusing: that dogs, relying on knowledge, are like philosophers - see here. The amusement here stems precisely from the fact that Socrates has already shown this claim of Polemarchus - to wag one's tail for friends or masters and to bark ferociously at enemies - to be false in book 1. For what if the ruler mistakes his friends and enemies? That questioning started Polemarchus on the way to doing philosophy. One has to forget the insights gained in the questioning in book 1 to swallow Socrates's depiction of the beautiful city...It has some truth, but many untruths. Its beauty is mainly in heading off Glaucon from becoming a tyrant.

Plato here, as author and teacher, signals the serious reader to continue to question.

Revealing the complex nature of a dialogue, the Republic elaborates a dual theme: 1) Plato expects students to think about the strengths and weakness of each argument, as Polemarchus was invited to. This is connected both to satire or Socrates's famous but unspecified irony - some of the arguments aren't very good or are not to be believed and one has to think about them, ask further questions, work towards a more refined version, and 2) the argument is, in fact, driven by the power of injustice in the world, emblemized by Polemarchus's and Thrasymachus's assertions - justice is harming enemies and benefiting friends; justice is the advantage of the stronger - and then realized memorably in Glaucon's image of the ring of Gyges. On this second theme, Socrates is the opposite as much in his going down in the trial and the execution as in the argument. But the Republic gains its compelling power over the centuries from duelling metaphors - the ring of Gyges, the descent and fate of Socrates - which reveal and cure the deep temptation of Glaucon to become a tyrant. This second aspect is so fascinating that it will draw most readers away from Polemarchus and the first. It is thus hard to gain initiation, as Plato intends, through studying this dialogue into doing philosophy.

In addition, one learns that Polemarchus, Lysias's brother (Lysias is in attendance, but silent in the Republic), has made a turn toward philosophy only in the Phaedrus. There, Socrates holds Polemarchus up as an example to Phaedrus, the lover of Lysias and of Lysias's oratory which they are discussing. Only a (potential) student of Plato would get the track of Polemarchus from reading and asking questions about the Republic and Phaedrus. That questioning, in turn, opens a path to the steep ascent of seeking the idea of the good, the mystically invoked sun in the larger noetic universe which, comparable to the sun in the physical universe, brings all things to life (the two realms are in ratio of pi to one another - see here).

Note in contrast, that Glaucon (and Adeimantus) appear in no other dialogue.

The drama of the persons, Socrates and Glaucon, and their fates - Socrates's death, Glaucon's historical anonymity and thus non-tyranny - makes the Republic unique among the dialogues (and among writings in political philosophy). And yet the Republic is, as I have also underlined, a sendup of the ideal city of Glaucon - the pattern or paradeigma of justice glitters in the Republic, but it is not this pattern - and each particular exchange Plato means to be thought about and questioned deeply by his students/careful readers. This subtly fractured or two track nature of the Republic - the theme of Polemarchus beginning to do philosophy, the wrenching turn from being a democratic thug (the arrest in the initial page) toward the light (the opening of book 7) and the ascent, the aslant theme of the censorship of poetry and the manipulation of guardians all to have the same passions, the same habits, the same experiences - is something that even the most careful listeners and readers might need some time to take in.

Thus, Thraymachus's challenge about injustice throws the argument off its course - by the rhetorical way he tries to defeat Socrates - and Glaucon deepens this process. A reader or student is meant to think back and forth about the quality of the argument, the person who makes it, and how it is made. The Republic is thus, a living thing, a multifacted, perhaps inexhausible argument/imagery to be engaged with, not merely absorbed. In this context, teachers who offer students the surface meaning of the Republic as what students "must" know about it, have taken the wrong track, reached the wrong conclusion. They teach students in a dogmatic or more precisely, aphilosophical way, both teachers and followers lost to the actual questioning.

The Republic is thus an invitation, with Polemarchus, to learn from Socrates how to question and argue. As a Platonic initiation, it is not a source of true opinions about regimes or as, with the later intervention of the Catholic Church and its residue in English, doctrines about what Plato and/or Socrates thought.

Still by reading the last 9 books and asking questions, one can learn quite a lot about what Socrates and even Plato thought, but not simply or even mainly what is surface. For instance, as the Seventh Letter reveals, Plato did advise Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, to adopt laws; he thus experimented, at the behest of Dion, his best student, with philosophical-kingship, just not the rule of the wise tyrant largely without laws in the Republic.** And from the first line, the Republic moves with metaphors of going down (Gyges finds the ring in a chasm opened by a storm in the earth, the cave and the ascent, the Myth of Er); Socrates goes down to fight tyranny both in the Republic and in life....

After Glaucon finishes conjuring the ring (forging it in the literary fires of Mount Doom one might say, as Tolkien later suggests), Socrates remarks that if he did not know Glaucon and Adeimantus well, he would conclude that they really believed these arguments. Here too, one must listen carefully to Socrates. He is making a deep psychological point. For he does know Glaucon and Adeimantus some, and as we will learn from the dialogue, takes Glaucon's hunger for pleasure, his desire for tyranny, seriously. He thus makes the statement ironically, and yet also means it - that Glaucon and Adeimantus make this challenge as what they nearly, hiddenly believe, but also want to hear Socrates refute it. Were Socrates to fail, however, the stakes are high.

That the refutation, if one forgets Socrates's life - truth in Greek is not-forgetting, aletheia, as Heidegger insists - is imperfect is revealed by such readers as Al-Farabi, Heidegger and Strauss....

The stakes are about how each of us is to live, the challenge powerful, the setting of a dialogue ambiguous about what Plato means, who Plato (and Socrates) are. The exoteric meaning of the dialogue is that a philosopher-king is good - a legislator who sets the laws in the beautiful city such as they are, expels the children over 10, and molds everyone to the same habits, the same passions - and thus, Hitler, with his "beautiful hands", advised by a want-to-be philosophical tyrant Heidegger, might be good. See here. Socrates seems to defeat a narrow tyranny with Glaucon, but does he - or Plato - not advance " philosophical" authoritarianism, Heidegger or Strauss might ask? Is this not the deception, they might ask, which Plato is pursuing? (Once again, they forget the trial and death of Socrates...See The snare of words, part 1, here):

"I have always admired the brilliance of Glaucon and Adeimantus," comments Socrates, "but on this occasion their words gave me special pleasure." The Myth of Gyges is brilliant - and yet, brilliance differs from ability to follow argument carefully, incarnated by Socrates and praised in Phaedrus, as a "turn toward philosophy."

Socrates continues, partly warningly, partly sincerely, to build Plato's brothers up, alerting the student that Glaucon, an actual hero in battle, is a potential tyrant in Athens. In this, Glaucon resembles Critias or Charmides, the cousin and uncle of Plato, as Glaucon and Adeimanus are his brothers...Once again, these specific dialogues are, for Plato, a kind of family and psychological drama (see here).

"So I said to them. 'Sons of a noble father- Glaucon's friend put it well when he wrote to honor you both for your heroic deeds at the Battle of Megara:

'Sons of Ariston, you honor the godlike
heritage of a famous father.'"

Adeimantus had, of course, described the ring as enabling one to live like a god...:

"Will they not ask with Pindar***:

'Which way to climb a loftier tower
where all my life will be safe
by justice or by unjust deeds?'

They will say that to be just without seeming so will bring no profit; instead there is only pain and loss. But if a man chooses injustice and at the same time fabricates a reputation for justice, he can expect to live like a god." (365b)

To be a god of Athens is to do what one wants, good or evil. Socrates's external or poetic praise conceals, as the dialogue shows us, the ring of Gyges.

"'There must be some divine spark at work in your natures that you should be able to make such formidable arguments on behalf of injustice and yet resist being convinced by your own reasoning. And I believe you are not really convinced. I infer this from my knowledge of our characters; if I had to deal with your words alone I would be suspicious of you.'" (367e-368b)

Once again, these words are, on one level, true - as many things Socrates says are. Glaucon and Adeimantus do not simply believe these arguments (their character forbids it). But in a deeper way, plunging in emotionally - what we would call unconsciously, ruled by his appetites as Leontias is, finally looking, against his will, at the corpses in book 4 - to the seeming pleasures of tyranny, Glaucon also does. That is another illustration, in the action of the dialogue, of Socrates's irony.

As a logical matter, Socrates (or Diotima in the Symposium) sometimes says, when you think about it you yourself do not agree with the assertion you are now making. See Alcibiades 1. This psychological warning is a variant on this kind of ambiguity.

For we learn later in book 2, that Glaucon is disturbed at the austere city, a city without war, a potential city of philosophers. He demands: “relishes” and stigmatizes it as a “city of pigs.” (372c-d) That throws the argument into forging a city of war, a fevered city, a city that conquers unjustly:

"Then we must further enlarge the city. The well-founded city we started with will not be enough. It must be extended and filled up with superfluities. There will, for example, be hunters aplenty. There will be crowds of imitators, those who paint and sculpt. Others will make music; there will be poets and their attendants, rhapsodizers, players, dancers and impresarios.There will be a market for a greater variety of goods, and stylish women will want dressmakers and more servants. Will not tutors be in demand as well along with wet-nurses and dry-nurses, barbers and beauticians, cooks and bakers? We shall also require swineherds. There was no need for them in our original city, for there were no pigs there. Now, however, we shall need pigs as well as other kinds of animals for those who will eat them." {Socrates]

"You are right" [Glaucon]

"And this way of life will require many more doctors than were needed before." [Socrates]

"That is certain" [Glaucon]

"Must we assume that the territory that was once sufficient to feed the city will no longer be adequate?" [Socrates]

"Yes." [Glaucon}

"So we shall covet some of our neighbor's lands in order to expand our pasture and tillage." (373b-d)

And after the whole discussion of his just city, once again, Glaucon gasps in book 7 at the idea of the good – “you can’t mean…pleasure.” Socrates responds: “Hush”.

The complexity of Socrates's irony, of what he means by the truth in the things he says as well as distancing himself, in specific ways, from them, what he says and does not say, needs to be taken in by each reader and thought about.

The dialogue - or in this case, the narrator's commentary on the conversation - is an invitation to questioning. And the example of how to question is also in the conversation with Thrasymachus, though Thrasymachus fights against it, does not pursue it.

“’Thrasymachus, after unloading all these ideas, surely you won’t run off before ascertaining whether they are true or not. Have you so little concern for the real question before us, the question how each of us may live the best life?’” ( 344a-e)

Here the question: what is justice? is made personal. Thrasymachus has just advanced the idea that injustice is best for an individual, and Glaucon (and Adeimantus) will develop his argument more vividly. That is the supreme egotistical idea – the idea to "triumph" by silencing and murdering others.

Thus, the example of Socrates’s death haunts every word of this discussion. In contrast, Socrates leads a life of integrity, goes down the line for justice, seeks the truth.

Getting up to leave following big speeches is a sign, in the action of these dialogues, that truth is not at issue in rhetoric, Thrasymachus's form of communication. Big speeches are characteristic of the Athenian stranger in the Laws (the Athenian stranger is, once again, the not-Socrates, the one who does not take the poison - see William Altman, 'A Tale of Two Drinking Parties"). A big speech is also Protagoras’s democratic creation myth, even though it has in it some truth and is also poetry. And the other myths or stories do in Plato as well: the cave and the ascent or the myth or Er or the ring of Gyges...

Poetry differs from rhetoric or big speeches: it tells us something about the territory that philosophy or questioning has yet to stake out or perhaps needs to stake out in a more complicated way or even, cannot, beyond conjuring a luminous image, get a hold on at all. The point of the journey is that the destination is not yet known, and that the exact significance of what Plato reached is hinted at, but not given in the dialogues...

As Socrates questions Protagoras about whether virtue can be taught, he recognizes that his interlocutor is getting angry. And Socrates suggests that he has to go; Alcibiades and others then intervene to get Socrates and Protagoras to continue.

The movement to get up and leave on Thrasymachus’s part or, more unusually, on Socrates’s part, is a striking indication that big speeches as opposed to questioning, dialogue, conversation, are not a way to seek the truth. They sometimes do not reveal the truth even as a hint or intution. For they are sometimes also - and in Thrasymachus's case, mainly - a way to avoid that seeking,

In addition, Socrates in the Apology comments on how his daimon warns him about continuing some conversations, though not what he said to the court – a speech in defense of questioning – which led to his death. Socrates's questioning is genuinely democratic - one seeking a common good, a general will - against the deficient, will of all rhetoric of Thrasymachu and a crusading, unjust, murderous "democracy." Dissent is, once again, the life-blood of decent democracy as well as philosophy..

Much as Socrates was moved (and he is not only being ironic) by Protagoras’s speech about democracy, his inner voice - while Protagoras became angry and resisted arguing - apparently warned him to leave. Why this is true is one of the important questions raised by the action of that dialogue (perhaps a showing to students that even admirable egotism, which pours down its bath as the inspiration of democracy, almost a poetry of democracy, is but a preliminary, is not the way…).

Strauss seems oddly to have felt that Thrasymachus represents the truth about justice in cities, and largely about policy. He seems to have thought that Plato was pointing to Thrasymachus in this way, and that that would be the answer to why Thrasymachus stays; he and Socrates later, in Socrates’ phrase, become friends, “though we were not enemies before.”

For Strauss, Socrates, in a modified Xenophonian image, seeks to become a tyrant, a philosopher/legislator who can use rhetoricians (see his letter to Kojeve, April 12, 1957 in Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 275). Socrates is, as it were, a grander rhetorician, a legislator or creator of a new regime, and thus a tyrant with a higher purpose, a greater attention to (some aspects of) a common good. Socrates (Plato), for Strauss, is the Athenian Stranger. It is in this sense, Strauss suggests, that Socrates means his statement that he and Thrasymachus are now friends though they have not been enemies before. Thraysmachus is to be Socrates' "charmed snake."

But on the contrary, Socrates could, in that expression of friendship toward Thrasymachus, prefigure Gandhi. There are no permanent enemies, no one to be treated unjustly or as without a soul. Thrasymachus and Socrates were not enemies before, because Socrates does not live in enmity...

The point of philosophy is to ask questions, to uncover such truths. And Socrates's example of doing what we call civil disobedience and giving his life for questioning is the opposite of Heidegger or Strauss.

In fact, Strauss ignores the spiritual perspective on the trial and death of Socrates and the magnetism of Socrates’s argument; these realign people, Polemarchus on the path of philosophy (see Phaedrus, 275d-277a), Thrasymachus, inexplicit though staying, perhaps listening, and Glaucon, no philosopher - acting good for appearance's sake - and the most dangerous, choosing not to become a tyrant.

*For parts 1-3 of "the snare of words," see here, here and here.

**The "beautiful city" has laws for a three class structure, for no private property or family, and the like. In contrast, the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman and the Athenian Stranger in book 10 of The Laws recommend the rule of the best man as an antidote to the rigidity of laws. Both of these Strangers are non-Socratic or in the case of the Athenian Stranger, the one who escapes, who does not take the poison, anti-Socratic characters. Plato, it should be noted, was almost sold into slavery by the hoped-for "wise" tyrant Dionysius. Socrates wisely says that he does not know. One has to study Socrates and Plato with an extraordinary predilection for tyranny or fascism - as some have - to see in a "wise" tyrant a hope. As Leo Strauss put it in a 1938 letter to Klein: "Nomoi [Laws}: a book about laws with an antidote [Gegengift] to laws [Nomoi]," This issue of whether a wise tyrant, like Jesus at the last judgment, should see into the souls of each and make the right decision in each case divides Plato and Socrates (who do not believe it) from, for example, Strauss who does. The idea that in a nation of 300 million people, one would want a wise tyrant - "executive" or "commander-in-chief power" or "prerogative" in the Straussian (Herbert Storing, Robert Goldwin)/Bush slogan, now taken up to some extent by Obama and rendered bipartisan - is literally crazy...

***Pindar's words blandly invoked by Cephalus for seemingly noble purposes are now cited by the clever Adeimantus to reveal a darker side.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Audio of my conversation with Soul Watson and Mike T. about racism in the Revolution and now on KGNU

The link for my conversation about Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence and the line to racism today with Soul Watson and Mike T. on KGNU here. I particularly emphasize the interest of the democracy (and of whites) in fighting racism, and why the fate of all of us - in terms of war, depression and the destruction of the middle class - depends on this. I will be on again on Soulmic Metro next week before I talk about/sign the book next Friday, April 27th at Tattered Cover on Colfax at 7:30.

Monday, April 16, 2012

KGNU interview Tuesday 3 pm on Black Patriots and Loyalists

For those in the Denver areas, Soul Watson will interview me about Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence on KGNU - FM 88.5, AM 1390 from 3-3:30 on Tuesday, April 17, on Soul Mic Metro. As a related matter, I will give a reading/signing of the book at Tattered Cover on Colfax, Friday, September 27th at 7:30. For those who are interested in more information on the book itself, the University of Chicago Press has set up a facebook page here.

Here is the response I gave to Richard Marshall at 3:AM magazine in London on the significance of the book (see here):

3:AM: Your new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence just came out. Can you say what the thesis of the book is and if there are political lessons to be learnt from this history?

AG: Sixteen years ago, I started working on blacks escaping and soldiering in exchange for emancipation during the North American Revolution. After many downs - nothing like entering a new field, the writing of history, and in America, its most sacred area, the Revolution, and telling a tale in which blacks from below liberate themselves, but, nonetheless, most escaped to and were taken to freedom by the Crown. As a lifelong anti-racist, this story is threaded from the introduction – a dedication to my grade school classmate and friend Andy Goodman, murdered during Freedom Summer, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner – and concludes with the defiant speech of Gabriel, a black artisan who almost led the burning down of the wooden city of Richmond in 1800. Gabriel likened himself and his cause to George Washington (Washington would be a greater leader if one could liken him to Gabriel or Toussint L’Ouverture). The story is of how courageous individuals, with insight into the wrong of slavery, travelled lonely paths to move the mountain. For instance, John Woolman in the 1750s among Quakers began with a refusal to write wills which bequeathed slaves and then walked throughout the South talking with Quakers about the evil of holding men in bondage. John Laurens was the scion of an influential slave-owning family in South Carolina, whose father was a Christian opponent of slavery in the abstract but also, when blacks rose up, stuck at them viciously. John studied Rousseau in Geneva in the early 1770s, and came back the leading elite abolitionist in the Revolution. An aide to Washington, his name is on the Laurens proposal, passed by the Continental Congress in 1779, freeing 3,000-5,000 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia in exchange for fighting. Thomas Peters was a prince in Africa, kidnapped and sold into bondage in South Carolina and branded twice for trying to escape. Peters then succeeded, fought as a sergeant in the Black Pioneers, went to Canada with the defeated British and led a movement among those not given land for redress. He travelled to London, and became the leader of a democratic expedition to and experiment in Sierra Leone. The book explores how through many such stories, then and afterwards, individuals contributed to forging the movement which finally outlawed bondage in the Empire in 1834 and rose to a crescendo in the American Civil War. Often small or not initially determined efforts which achieve, over time, deeper purposefulness can have a great effect.

Today, I believe that such efforts, for instance Michelle Alexander’s (author of The New Jim Crow) can make such a difference about the system of mass incarceration in America, focused on imprisoning black and latin teenagers for being caught with marijuana. The US has 8 times as many prisoners as in the 1970s, 2.3 million, 25% of the world’s prisoners, and another 5.1 million on probation, lives ruined, barred from getting a job or living in public housing or voting. 50% of the increase in prisoners is for marijuana, 80% of these for possession… In talking about the book in the US, I will connect these issues, and precisely the point that it is only individuals taking up the struggle in the darkest conditions which ultimately moves the mountain. In Britain, the police murders of Afro-Caribbean young people strike me in a similar way (I hope to be in London in early June).

Secondly, the book also breaks down statistically every list of black troops or muster roll of black settlements I could obtain from the Revolutionary period, revealing, among other matters, that many more blacks escaped to Canada with the Crown than has previously been thought. A third theme of Black Patriots and Loyalists is the importance of democratic contractarian reasoning, roughly what is theorized in Rawls’s notion of an original position, in condemnations of slavery at that time and in the growing movement against it.

A fourth theme is how real moral and historical advance is often possible during a period for which historians too easily deny it. As a result of military competition for recruits between the Crown and the revolutionaries, the dynamic of freedom (if all men are free, why not black men and women, too?) and widespread sentiment that bondage was an abomination, particularly in churches (Samuel Hopkins named it “a sin of crimson dye”), gradual emancipation occurred in the North during the Revolution and over the next quarter century. The revolution for Independence in the North, in this respect, resembled Venezuela’s. In the South, many of the same forces were at play as the Laurens proposal showed. Further, in every other independence movement in the hemisphere, at least gradual emancipation occurred (in Saint Domingue, the uprising of the slaves in 1791, defeating the French including Napoleon, as well as English and Spanish colonialism, made Haiti in 1804). Only in North America does independence not lead to gradual emancipation. I offer this account of historical possibilities to oppose a more economic determinist Marxian vision that only by the time of the Civil War, and not during the Revolution itself, was abolition possible.

A fifth theme is the centrality of blacks – and the issue of emancipation – to both sides in the Revolution. The best fighting unit on the Patriot side was the black and Narragansett indian First Rhode Island Regiment. Whereas mainly white militias served for 10 months, members of this regiment mostly fought for five years. At the concluding battle at Yorktown, walking around the field, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private fighting with a French unit allied with the Americans, recorded in his diary that most of the corpses on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors). No one taught me (or anyone I have met) that startling fact about Yorktown. This story of two revolutions, one for independence, one for emancipation, working often at odds, but on the American side at Yorktown together (the First Rhode Island and other black regiments led by John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton conquered the two strategic British redoubts, deciding the battle) is a different way of seeing the War, one based on unexpected, powerful evidence.

I started this project while working on the Federalist Papers in the context of Shays Rebellion (of poor farmers who had served in the Revolution and returned to find their plots indebted and threatened) and the Alien and Sedition Acts. As an anti-racist, I thought I should look into what the slaves had done, even though I surmised that there would be a few uprisings, but basically it was the slave-traders – the Crown – against the slave-owners (the Patriots). I then read Gary Nash’s Race and Revolution who says, however, that “a gigantic number of slaves escaped to the British and were freed in exchange for fighting.” He gives five reasons why gradual emancipation might have occurred throughout the country (the military competition, what I discovered to be the central causal mechanism, not among them), but then after a page and a half, turns away. Where he and others had not probed (British emancipation of the most oppressed is the Revolution’s “dirty secret,” as Nash later put it), I stopped.

If anything like this is true, I realized, the way we think about the American Revolution is false. Barrington Moore had long ago taught me that only the Civil War was a revolution, but plainly, the American Revolution was a much more interesting and complex social revolution, often clashing with the political revolution, than had been thought. Because I lived with this question for several years, I found marvelous documents in thirteen research libraries in the US, England, Canada, France and Spain. Seeing the right question within the material opened things up. Once again, a certain kind of Marxism, for instance even so sophisticated an account as Robin Blackburn’s – in the Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, he writes dazzlingly on the interplay of the French and Saint Domingue/Haitian revolutions – debunks the vast escape and recruitment of blacks during the American Revolution and argues in a foolish, economic determinist vein that slaveholding was “quickly restored” after the War. He ignores even the gradual emancipation that occurred in the North (analogous to the Venezuelan independence movement). Having the right questions and seeing the political dynamics afresh enables a very different radical account, I think one much more sophisticated and open to experience, one that highlights the real and intense class conflict over bondage.

Five poems in 3:AM magazine last Friday

3:AM magazine in London just published 5 poems of mine.

3:AM Magazine:
Five poems

By Alan Gilbert.

a distant spo t


blue arched in yellow
the gaslight sputtered in the night
a girl pressed her cheek to Dostoyevsky’s
Poor People

and wept

and at so many anarchist meetings
in Stelton
you’d nod off among
rows of would-be

“will she sleep on the back bench?”


one night some Italian cobblers
at work under the eaves
blew the roofOF F

a man stood naked among pigeons
and the ruins

and stared out

your father
spirited him to Philadelphia

and you went off to college

“never leave him alone with the
chambermaid” warned

your New England


summer afternoons
I hit against Pete Taggard
who had a live fastball
on the old racecourse by our

mornings, on your advice,
read Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov

while you ran for School Committee
in our town – “But after all, Jews
can’t live in Greenwich” –
by the Connecticut sound

you who taught your children how to read
but told no childhood tales
for all the world was Westport

blown from a distant spot

Prin ts


jute fibers rasp and sting
visitors gasp the humid heat
a woman tends a clacking loom
thirty no more
her ring finger
no more –

I peer through heavy air
does no one have a set of ten -

the Dacca mill guide
jabbers rapidly
as if economists
will understand

the Dutchman has gone green
the Scandinavian turns away
my ashen father
covers his mouth

and I stag
ou t
into the mere heat
of the monsoon

“Marx called this primitive accumulation”
whispered my teacher

“150 years and capitalism
can barely show
in daylight”

come rains
I open my mouth in stubborn

will sheets of heavy rain
swell the Ganges

wash the shores the walls
wash out the blood?


money flees
from East,
“internal colony,”
to West

jute owning Adamjees – their son’s
my friend at Harvard -
jowl by jowl
my father hates Punjabi racism

with the powerful
his group “Harvard advisors
to Governor Wallace”

stand sheeted at Alabama
door to block a lone



my parents toured
Comilla cooperatives
small farmers working to make do -

my mother caught their glow
redolent of anarchist farms
she’d known so long ago
exuberant as she

near spoiled in Springfield silos
he’d made a works program
so that the poor

be fed

Bengali hands
forged dams cut

drew prideinpubli



I journeyed with my mother
to the Sundarbans
great Ganges swamps
swept by the busy clouds

our steamer chugged
late against the current
to the Government House
near ruin or unfinished
who can say

boatmen say
come stalking by the door
even to bedrooms
lie easy on that beach

the board from stern to porch
shivers unstead y
under hesitan t

“perhaps” mom says
”the sleeping’s
better on the boat”

come morning
beaches empty to tall grass
I and a guide –
he’s left his gun

behind -
walk in sunlight
by the muddy water

we stare at

paw print
where the lithe

tiger had gone

to dr in k


that fall at Harvard I told Ashraf
bespectacled scion

of his family factory

charming as always
he’d squin ted at the
and at his nails

and never spoke to me

Kin g of fears


I wrote my parents
of the anti-nuclear march
in Washington
freedom ride
to Chestertown
explosions of silvering
world and glasss
so fragile in our hands

(not of clumsy love
ardent and fragile
on the trip back)

advisor to dictator Ayub Khan –
dictated a letter
“you’re a fresh ma n

don’t act
there’s so much

not yet Montaigne
nonchalant among cabbages
I wonder

will the world
outlive its gardens


that summer in Pakistan
sun soaked
my father’s house
Taj – man of many languages
and hopes for his son –
served the meal
five other servants
moved quietly
behind the doors
and in Karachi gardens
where the cobras glide

nag a
hooded king of fears
fanged flower among flowers

“aren’t you a socialist?”
my father asked,
“every on e
should be a socialist

when young”

Sanders Theater

at Sanders Theater
troops in Vietnam



cousin to
Robert Lowell

and Dick Blau
behind his knitting
aunt and mother

“which one’s the young
“the wooly haired

Ecole Normale Superieure


on gray Parisian evenings
Dick Blau and I would browse the bookstalls
by the Seine
leaves of poetry
and smoke would curl
in bedrooms
the curve of imagined sex
as live as taste or smell

“god pity those
but wanton to the knees”

and in the afternoons
I’d go with Bob Leonhardt
to Althusser’s seminars
on the silences in Marx’s Kapital
or leaflet with Maoist friends about Vietnam
at factory


we’d walk to Bob’s room
through the workers’ corridor
small chambers with a cot
chair table picture

of spent galaxy
a solitary star

the militants never spoke
with them


as sight or speech.

Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, Democratic Individuality, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. You can read an interview with him on 3:AM here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 13th, 2012.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

3:AM magazine: interview with Richard Marshall, pt 1

Fighting from below for recognition as human

Alan Gilbert interviewed by Richard Marshall. For the full interview, see here.

3:AM Alan Gilbert is a groovy political philosopher in Denver. He knows the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring are significant. He murders oppression and injustice. He thinks about Marx and Rawls a lot.

3:AM: How did you turn out as a political philosopher? Were you fighting against injustice as a boy, or was this something that you grew into from other initial interests?

Alan Gilbert: Richard Gilbert, my father, was the first Keynsian economist in the United States and taught at Harvard before entering the Roosevelt administration as an advisor. He set much debated targets for guns and butter in early World War II which were vastly exceeded in the event. As a young man, he had been a Marxist of sorts, sympathetic to the Wobblies and free speech fights. When I was growing up, however, he was a Vice-President of Schenley Industries and then – when he could no longer stand it – an economic consultant in New York. But he was then recruited by former colleagues from Harvard to become the head of a Harvard-World Bank advisory group to the dictator Ayub Khan in Pakistan.

We once watched a TV news report on the nine black children in Little Rock entering Central High with the mob surrounding them. The New York Times had run a photo of a dissolute white teenager, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, kicking a black teenager on the ground. The newscast showed the national guard standing there, one man breaking ranks as this was going on, and hitting the racist with the butt of his rifle. My father cheered; and so did I. He used to appall my older sister by telling her and her husband that if he were in South Africa under apartheid, he would be a communist… My mom, Emma, was less political, but she had grown up in an anarchist community led by her father and mother (Russian emigres) when she was a kid. So there was lot in my family that prepared the way, despite their direction (liberal Democrats), for me looking at injustice deeply. When we went to Pakistan, there were six servants in an American household. Taj, the bearer (head servant), read and wrote three languages (better than most of the Americans there…), had one son whom he was helping to go to medical school. My father commented to me on the perversity of a regime that condemned so talented a man to this.

The summer of my first year at Harvard, I went with the international group of advisors to then East Pakistan where we toured a jute mill owned by the Adamjee family, one of the twelve families which dominated the economy and government of West Pakistan. I was friends with Ashraf Adamjee as a freshman at Harvard. It was the monsoon, 100 degrees outside and wet as we drove by the shacks of the workers, and a Dutch economist – Wouter Tims - pointed out that prices had tripled in the last seven years, wages had not risen. Inside the mill, it was dark, the racket of the machinery loud, the Pakistani supervisor/guide jabbering at us with his spiel, but as we began to see, all the workers were young women (probably 20-30 years old) and no one had 10 fingers on their hands… I think we were all nauseous. When we went outside, my father said to me: “This is what Marx called primitive capitalist accumulation. It’s been a hundred and fifty years and capitalism can barely show its bloody hands in daylight.”

The experience of seeing Pakistan and the American military/government/capitalist presence in the midst of so much poverty – we would go to the Indian ocean and be surrounded by a thousand boys running with the car and yelling “baksheesh, sahib” – give us some money, sir – and there weren’t enough drops in the Indian Ocean – or money in the pockets of individual Americans - to aid them (my father tried to, as an economist, and other people did). At Harvard, I went on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland the week after the sheriff had led a mob throwing a young woman through the glass window at Woolworth’s (we were lucky to miss the attack). I didn’t go on Freedom Summer, but my classmate from Walden School in New York, Andy Goodman did, and was murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner by another mob led by the sheriff. I became active in the first movement against the Vietnam War since I had seen what the US was in Pakistan and Thailand and reading some French histories of the war – Bernard Fall, Denis Warner, Jean Lacouture – made it all too clear.

Academically, I took social studies – an interdisciplinary program where I worked with Stanley Hoffmann and Barrington Moore – and did a lot of literature, French and German as well as English. I took Government 1a with Carl Friedrich and found it so vacuous and boring – “constitutionalism is effective, regularized restraint” was his mantra - that I didn’t take political theory (Government 1b). But social studies focused on social theory, and we spent several weeks reading Marx and Weber along with Smith, Durkheim, Freud, Hume and others. With Moore, I did more work on Marx, heard I.F Stone talk about the Vietnam war, met Marcuse (a friend of Moore’s). I was in the very first anti-war movement, the May 2nd movement, and had the experience of debating McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor and former dean of arts and science, about Vietnam (it was Harvard). I asked Bundy: “How does the US expect to win a war against a successful peasant revolt, trying to restore the landlords?” The audience cheered; Bundy assured us that he knew things that were not public… He didn’t.

I then went to the London School of Economics in political sociology, studied for a year with Ralph Miliband (I am amused by the peregrinations of David and Ed, particularly given Ralph's Parliamentary Socialism, a fine depiction of the limits of the Labour Party, short of mass revolt). I had a close friend at the Ecole Normale in Paris and spent much of the winter there going to seminars by Althusser, and meeting many of his very clever Maoist students. Althusser had just written about Montesquieu’s discovery of the new terrain of a theory of history and I found this – in addition to reading Capital – exciting. I decided to go back to Harvard as a graduate student rather than stay in England mainly because I wanted to fight against the war in Vietnam. I also wanted to learn Chinese, but came back late to intensive Chinese and ultimately switched out. I took some Chinese government courses which were sadly air-headed (but we got to look at the hidden library including CIA documents on the Chinese revolution and agriculture – one, written by a smart analyst, had a brief subsection on the issue of justice, saying drily: “There is no problem of social justice, as we understand it, in Chinese agriculture.” Of course, this judgment proved somewhat superficial).

I also took a course in early modern political theory with Michael Walzer who was my advisor. At the time, political philosophy was the only breath of life in political “science,” a pretty dim field (as Moore and Marcuse and Miliband had shared with me). I also worked with Dita Skhlar, who gave me a reading course on Montesquieu and then Aristotle (and so, I began to take up Greek political thought). At the same time, I met Hilary Putnam and John Rawls, talking with them at lunch in Harvard Restaurant about the events at Harvard and Althusser’s views of the transformation in modern chemistry and Marx’s analogies to it in Capital. I also met Dick Boyd. In SDS, there were lots of philosophy graduate students. So I spent a fair amount of time, becoming acquainted with what philosophers were thinking – many very creative adaptations of scientific realism (see Alan Garfinkel’s Forms of Explanation, the best book still, I think, in philosophy of social science, and Norm Daniels’s early writings on Rawls, for example). I would be thrown out of Harvard as a leader of the Harvard strike for two years and readmitted by majority vote of the faculty (some people voted “no” and I am afraid that though it hurt and I value the many good things about Harvard and the people who teach, work and study there, I have also always taken it as a compliment). Eventually, I did a year at Cornell in the philosophy department on philosophy of science and ethics, working with Boyd, Nick Sturgeon, Richard Miller and David Lyons, among others, on an American Council of Learned Societies grant.

Thus, my way to radicalism and to democratic theory was through visual, visceral and personal experience of injustice, coupled with a deep introduction to social theory, and then working my way back into political philosophy with a large tincture of contemporary philosophy. In a way, the inter-disciplinarity of social studies especially helped; I have never looked at these issues through the lens of one discipline or taken a prevailing point of view, even when it is attractive to me as scientific realism was at the time or alternately Marxian theory – but only, as I argue in my first book Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, with a much larger element of politics and possible creativity (that real possibilities or in technical terms, counterfactuals are much broader than most people, tempted by Marxism, think) - without a lot of skepticism. But that political philosophy and social theory are attractively and intensely critical of American militarism and racism, I have never had much doubt.

3:AM: You make great links between contemporary politics and earlier periods. So one really interesting case was where you looked at Leo Strauss‘ letter to Karl Loewith in the 1930’s where Strauss “defends, against Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the politics of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” You draw a connection “with the many Straussian neoconservative advisors to and publicists for the Bush-Cheney administration.” You wrote this in 2009. Now this is really cool, but is there a danger that drawing on such history and the ideas of thinkers like Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx etc. will become increasingly irrelevant as contemporary societal arrangements (and technological innovation) transform our ideas about what it is to be human, happy, empowered etc, as some philosophers, such as Alex Rosenberg, argue?

AG: In ‘The Iliad, the poem of force‘, Simone Weil traces the impact of extreme violence in proving the mortality of even great warriors and on reducing other humans to objects. The poem also, as she notes, does not take sides, often focusing on the humanity of each person. In the wars of the 21st century, children are often the primary casualties. And the wars now often have an automated (drones) and privatized (mercenaries; not announced to the democracy) character. But war needs to go out of style and we need great movements from below to do that.

Rosenberg has telling comments on the harmfulness of the Chicago school of neoclassical economics during the collapse of 2008. In a way, my critique of Strauss and his influential political followers advancing executive power or tyranny is similar, i.e. concerned with the truth of argument and present-day impact (though of course Strauss’ arcana, though at least as politically and morally ugly as neoclassical economics, are more obscure…). But the thought you mention is a piece of speculation so far removed from the brutal realities and dangers of today as, in the most important respect, to be fairly idle.

The US is the leading militarist power in the world and will be, even broke, very hard to stop. The US has for instance 1280 bases abroad; France its leading “competitor” has 5 in former French colonial Africa. Even Obama, the anti-“dumb” Iraq war candidate – the war was one of aggression, crimes of torture to the fore, and to call it merely “dumb” is to say something, unfortunately, at best ambiguous and, prima facie silly – is waging aggressions or occupations in 6 countries, not counting Iran. The use of drones in Pakistan, irrelevant to taking out Bin Laden, has murdered many civilians – called “collateral damage” by the killers – created justified mass hatred of the US, and turned a nuclear power into, increasingly, an enemy of the US. The addiction to war and the forces in imperialism/capitalism that lead to it – particularly given US dependence on militarism as the main productive and innovative part of the economy (creating both the internet and drones for murder abroad/internal surveillance) – will be hard to turn around. If one adds in the speculative casino of finance capital – it has always been parasitic, but with derivatives it now beats the band for perversity (Goldman Sachs advised and made loans to the Greek government and simultaneously took out derivative bets that the Greek government would fail, driving up interest on renewing loans) - and the encouragement of consumer and student debt, one sees the causes of economic collapse.

On the other hand, mass nonviolent movements from Tunisia and Egypt to Greece, the indignados in Spain, student and worker protests in England and Occupy are having an increasingly large effect in the world (regimes are far more often falling, in revolutionary situations, by nonviolence today than by armed struggle). This is a great, potentially civilizing countermovement. I appreciate the aspect of the question on Strauss. His influence in the United States was to create a group of students/reactionary politicians to push the idea of executive power (authoritarianism, tyranny) in place of the checks and balances in the Constitution. From Carl Schmitt – “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception” (the first line of his 1923 Political Theology) through Strauss’ May 1933 letter to Karl Loewith on the “principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperial” to commander in chief power – the leading thought of Cheney and his Straussian advisors like Bob Goldwin and Mike Malbin – the lineage, once one looks, is clear.

The sentence you mention, however, was mistranslated by Scott Horton (and by me, in advising him) and Eugene Shepperd. We all assumed that the phrase “meskine Unwesen” referred to Hitler. But Michael Zank and William Altman have pointed out that the Italian/French meskine often means miserly and is used in reference to Shylock and Fagin. What Strauss meant is that though the German right will not accept even Jews who are pro-Nazi, it still is the only “dignified” way to fight the modern, in Nietzschean terms, “Jewish” reality of the last men. This is pretty startling because it makes vivid Hannah Arendt’s wisecrack to her friends about Strauss - “he wanted to join a party that wouldn’t have him because he was a Jew.” Strauss was blown away by Heidegger (see his posthumous Introduction to [Heideggerian – the word is the editor’s] Existentialism.) He was through the 1930s and long after emigrating to the United States sympathetic to and active in furthering anti-democratic and belligerent politics (working against Brown v. Board of Education, advising Charles Percy, an ambitious Republican, that Cuba should be taken out after the Cuban missile crisis and a near miss for nuclear war). So the case is a really dark and interesting one of the dialectic between reactionary thinking and politics.

Obama is the American President and quite reactionary (strengthens executive power, removes some forms of torture but then ignores the crime of torture and even tortures Bradley Manning, and the like). But the anti-democratic movement in the American elite has been shaped to a considerable extent by Strauss’ ideas (not simply: that he would have supported the Iraq War as a way to advance Americanism by conquest is not obvious – even though his politics was even darker than this – and torture is not something, as opposed to the destruction of “the last men,” he hinted at). The key element is executive or commander in chief power – authoritarianism – coupled with the need for unending war and an appeal to “Evangelicism”… (Strauss had no political sympathy for toleration or the separation of church and state). The contrast with Obama or Clinton shows that the Bush period uniquely established torture and indefinite detention in violation of the rule of law and created a circumstance which will be hard to reverse. Obama, in ordering the murder of American citizens abroad – Awlaki and his 16 year old son – far from the field of battle and without a gesture at judicial procedure, has extended this further. There is a bipartisan police state regime, in Yale constitutional lawyer Jack Balkin’s idiom, increasingly emerging in the US and it will take a major movement from below, on behalf of the rule of law, to reverse it.

In this context, it is very important to distinguish serious conservatives who believe in habeas corpus – that each prisoner must have a day in court and not be tortured – as the center of the rule of law and imperial authoritarians (Straussians, neocons – all the Republican candidates for President except Ron Paul). In America, what are misleadingly called “conservatives” in the corporate press are usually the latter, whereas the British Tories opposed proposals for longer detentions when put forward by Labour. Over the past 10 years, I have often found myself in alliance with conservatives like Scott Horton, Andrew Sullivan and even Bob Barr to defend habeas corpus and to oppose torture (my former student Condi Rice, was sadly one of the leading war criminals in the last administration). Much of my writing, for instance, Democratic Individuality, sketches the core of all decent political positions, liberal, conservative, radical. The prohibition against torture, enormously eroded in this period, is, as the Law Lords, said, absolute, and the nonpartisan core, since the Magna Carta, of all decent politics.

3:AM: Democratic Individuality took a position arguing against moral relativism. You write: “An ethical point of view has its own integrity and depth, features not to be explained (explained away) in sociological, anthropological, or semantic terms. Whatever the intricacies of moral argument, relativism cannot be right.” You put Nazis and slavery up there to make this point appealing. But for some, this attractive position is indefensible. So how would you defend your anti-relativist position and why is it so important, give that for many your general moral and political position is attractive and seems defensible even if it is relativist?

AG: Relativism is the thought that since ethics differ historically and people have often been abused for who they are (gays and lesbians, for example) or beliefs they hold that do not harm others by “moralists” (for instance, bigoted Churches of all sorts), ethics has no coherence. There is much truth in the idea that moralisms have harmed people enormously – i.e., the Catholic Church in the new world was genocidal toward indigenous Americans, pro-slavery and cultivated the Inquisition. That these objectionable facts, however, require an inference to meta-ethical relativism is doubtful.

The problem for relativism is threefold. First, the objection to moralisms – don’t force your views down other people’s throats – is a moral objection. It seeks to defend the freedom of individuals by opposing tyrannical practices and institutions. It does not suggest that the rammers really have a “moral” point of view which can be justified compared with the obvious and reasonable objections of those who suffer the coercion. Properly understood, this thought suggests a politics and a society which furthers the cooperation and freedom of individuals and toleration or the absence of coercion about matters of conscience.

Second, relativism is the position that there is nothing in ethics: it is to be explained by beliefs held at a given time, for instance, sociologically, or reduced to other, psychological terms such as what a superego supposedly mandates. Since there is nothing in ethics, one must seek some other idiom, a sociological, anthropological or psychological one, to reduce so-called morals into. But if we ask the relativist what morals are, he can give no coherent answer. Morals are, for example, merely what the prevailing powers say they are – for instance, the Nazis are moral. If we ask further, what count as moral views, the answer here, too, is that anything may count, for instance, the dominant societal view, the view of a class or ostensibly incommensurable views of clashing classes or beliefs held by individuals. Meta-ethical relativism has no way of explaining what the moral views in a given context are. Put more generally, the skepticism that any moral view is true can be turned on the claim itself. What makes something moral according to a moral relativist? Can the moral relativist’s view of morality be true? The argument is, surprisingly, self-refuting. Thus, the many considerations that help give rise to relativism – that so-called moralities (moralisms) often harm people and are, at least in important respects, false – need to be given a contrasting and coherent meta-ethical explanation.

Third, Aristotle suggests that we can ask: what is a good life for humans? and arrive at some straightforward answers, for instance, that Nazism is not or, to disagree with Aristotle, that there is no “natural” slavery. Chapter one of Democratic Individuality traces debates of modern liberals and radicals with Aristotle. Those debates, however, acknowledge that the question he asked is a good one and that many of his judgments – that aggression is bad – are right, even though it questions others: that slave-hunting is a form of just war or that bondage can be justified (see Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book 15). Further, relativism has obscured the real character of these debates which are often driven not by underlying moral standards, which at a certain level of abstraction are uncontroversial, but by social theoretical/biological or empirical claims.

The kind of reasoning here is what Gilbert Harman calls inductive inference to the best explanation. The reasons one can give against bondage or the subjection of woman are much clearer, for example, than the foolish claims of racists and patriarchs, and much more obvious to most of us than quantum mechanics. As for the importance of the debate about moral truth, it is Socrates in the Meno who shows that any slave can prove advanced theorems of Greek geometry under questioning (and has the capacity to do so, contrary to slave-owners’ views and also the Aristotelian apology for “natural” slavery). This egalitarian insight and a willingness to act against the powerful on the basis of such insights have long been the source of decent changes in public life. The idea that such changes are no different, morally speaking, from, say, murdering Socrates or the reign in the American South of the Ku Klux Klan/Democratic Party is false.

We want a moral argument and a meta-ethics which will justify a wide plurality of individual choices (those which do not harm others) and which rule out the coercion or deprivation of freedom of individuals. Relativism is a gesture at the first thought, but belies the second. In addition, social explanations, for instance, Marxian ones, have rightly emphasized that oppressive arrangements continue for long periods of time. But at least a central component in the argument that people persist against great odds in fighting slavery, for example, is that slavery is wrong. There are many other aspects of explaining why, say, John Woolman or John Laurens or Gabriel or Thomas Peters fought against slavery during and immediately after the American Revolution but that the institution is an abomination is a large part of this. This is a theme of my new Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. See the University of Chicago press Facebook page on the book here.