Category: Theory (Page 2 of 5)

The Pledge of Allegiance: A Reading

By: Richard Oxenberg

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What does it mean to say the Pledge of Allegiance? In this time of national tension, when the President of the United States has pronounced his inauguration day a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” and declared that “from this day forward it’s going to be only America first,” it might be helpful to remind ourselves just what we devote ourselves to whenever we say the Pledge.

To this end, I offer this brief reflection on the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

It is an oddity of the pledge of allegiance that, in it, our allegiance is pledged, not to any particular, actual, nation, but, first of all, “to the flag.”

What can it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? What is a ‘flag’ such that one can pledge one’s allegiance to it? Of course, if we take the flag to be no more than a piece of decorated cloth this makes no sense. Rather, the flag is a symbol. Our allegiance is pledged to a symbol and what it symbolizes.

This symbol transcends the instantiated nation as it may exist at any moment in time. We do not pledge our allegiance to the United States of America as it exists now, or at any time. Rather our allegiance is pledged to its symbol and what it represents. To understand just what we are pledging our allegiance to, then, we have to ask what the symbol symbolizes.

II. And to the Republic for which it stands

The flag symbolizes – “stands for” – a Republic. The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin, ‘res publica,’ meaning literally, ‘public entity.’ It refers to a society dedicated to the public good, the good of all its people, as opposed to the private interests of any of its people, and governed for and by its people toward that common end. Thus, in pledging our allegiance to the symbol of this Republic, and to the Republic symbolized by it, we are dedicating ourselves to a particular ideal: The ideal of a society itself dedicated to the common good.

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Women Rule – How They Took Down a King

By: Elizabeth Larkin Bouché

As inauguration day approaches and women ready themselves for the Women’s March on Washington, I am reminded of Europe’s most remarkable uprising of women against tyranny—The Women’s March on Versailles in 1789.

It was a major, dramatic event on a par with the storming of the Bastille. A food riot in Paris, led seven thousand women, transformed into an armed march to take flour from the king’s stores 12 miles away in Versailles. Revolutionaries seized the opportunity to join the women and forced the king to sign the recently composed “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” so ending his absolute rule.  The king and his entourage were dragged back to the capital as prisoners. It was a turning point in history, signaling a shift in power from the nobility to the common people.

The Women’s March on Versailles is a reminder of the power of popular protest movements. Following the election of Trump, and spurred by growing unease with our own Versailles-like oligarchs, similar protests are now cropping up at grassroots level in the United States. The Paris women were driven by famine; they and their children were hungry. Women today are mobilized by threats to hard-won advances made since the Enlightenment. The ordinary women who have organized the March on Washington are unleashing what is perhaps a primal and formidable maternal fury once again.

The comparison between revolutionary France and current events is not so far-fetched. Civil unrest in Paris was fueled by paranoid plots in the press and fake news. It was also the result of basic needs becoming unaffordable, market deregulation, widespread distrust of government, huge national debt, and deeply divided political opinions. One key factor was the staggering inequality of the ancien régime, in which the clergy and nobles, or first and second estates, held vast wealth and paid no taxes, while the third estate, or 97 percent of the population, were heavily taxed for foreign wars. The parallels did not escape the notice of “Time” magazine. Its person of the year cover featured Trump seated on a tawdry carved chair decorated with a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. Indeed, Trump draws the comparison himself when he chooses to be interviewed while seated in a gilded throne in his French Rococo-style dwellings.

Considering all this, and with large numbers of women taking to the streets, it is interesting to look at what drove French women to insurrection at a powder keg moment in history.

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Rethinking the Goals of Finance: Lessons from the Amherst Arbitrage

By: John Brodie Gay & Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

I. BACKGROUND

Financial devices, like all technologies, develop – sometimes intentionally, sometimes by historical accident – to benefit particular interests and reinforce certain values at the expense of others. Therefore, the form in which we encounter these various technologies today is not a necessary characteristic of those technologies, but the result of their respective histories. If those histories had unfolded differently, then those technologies might benefit sharply different values and interests. Given this contingency, we can plausibly pursue different ways of repurposing financial devices (as well as technology more generally) and thereby altering the interests and the values they protect. With a bit of imagination, we can realize alternative potentials in these devices.

The sort of argument just previewed has been largely ignored by the left. In general, progressives tend to treat the financial sector as a scapegoat for the ills of society.  In our view this is a mistake.  There is nothing inherently problematic about finance. Insofar as our contemporary financial practices are troubling, they are troubling because of their execution, not because finance is itself problematic. To the contrary, finance – if directed purposely – can be a great asset to the political programs of any stripe.

Our goal in this short essay is merely to demonstrate the aforementioned contingency and transformative potentials in our financial devices. We argue by way of example, using a peculiar story about the use of credit default swaps after the 2008 mortgage crisis to illustrate our larger themes.

II. FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES

We begin with a rather strange fact: our financial system allows individuals and firms to place side bets on any homeowner’s ability to pay his/her mortgage. Known as financial derivatives, the total amount gambled in these bets can greatly exceed the outstanding amount on the underlying mortgage. Bizarre as it may seem, this is the financier’s utopia: a “complete market” that allows participants to bet on any chance event. Natural catastrophe, the result of an election, even a terrorist attack could be the source of profits for the shrewd gambler.

In theory, these financial derivatives can be tools for prudently distributing risk across parties. In practice, however, the use of financial derivatives often results in dangerous concentrations of risk. As it happens, a significant proliferation of these sorts of financial derivatives coincided with the real estate bubble and the subsequent 2008 mortgage crisis.[1] Though much has been written about that crisis, the story presented in the following section will likely be unfamiliar to most readers – even to those who keep up with this sort of thing. This is probably not a coincidence. The story illustrates the potential inherent in our financial technologies and devices to disrupt the common practices of finance and harness its power for varying purposes.

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What is “Fascist”? Umberto Eco on Ur-Fascism

Howl of the Day: Nov 30, 2016

There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

In 1995, the late Umberto Eco wrote an essay on what he called “Ur-Fascism”. What he meant by this term is the fuzzy constellation of ideas and feelings out of which fascism grows. “[B]ehind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.” In the case of fascism, this is Ur-Fascism.

Eco’s essay is as relevant today as when he wrote it. Indeed, with the election of Trump, and the debate over to what degree it is fair to call him or his positions “fascist,” it is extremely timely. (A topic we have covered a number of times before.)

The key insight of the essay is that fascism, and the underlying mode of thinking that gives rise to it, are impossible to clearly define, because they embrace many contradictory elements. “Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

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Chuck Klosterman and Relative Morality

Thoughts on “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past”

By: Matt Ryklin

When I was fifteen I had ridiculous opinions. Of course, at the time I didn’t think they were ridiculous, I thought they were well deliberated, intelligent, and insightful.

Everyone looks back with some disgust and amazement at how they behaved when they were younger, but the opinions I’m talking about weren’t only related to music, or fashion, or how to get girls. When I was fifteen, I was of the opinion that we shouldn’t legalize gay marriage. Now, I couldn’t imagine holding this opinion, and I even look disdainfully upon those who do. How could you not legalize gay marriage? It has no effect on anyone except for the positive effect it has on people in love who want to be together. I can’t possibly imagine not being for the legalization of gay marriage. And yet nine years ago, I didn’t think it was necessary.

This is where my head went when I first heard of Chuck Klosterman’s newest book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. He seeks to explore how future society will look back upon the time in which we currently live. To do so, he first explores how we look at the past and how our present morals and values shape our perception and distort reality. Then, he examines how predictions about future society are almost always wrong, because we naturally employ present-day values in order to create these predictions. Klosterman then uses this analysis as reason to question nearly everything we think about ourselves in the present, asserting that our present is draped in an unavoidable relativism that makes it difficult to reckon with right and wrong, and makes it almost impossible to attempt to understand how future societies will think about their past – our present.

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The US Left: A Short Introduction

by Victor Wallis
October 2016

Is there a US Left? More specifically, is there a popular movement for socialism in the United States? And what chance does such a movement have for affecting national policy any time soon?

There have been several promising signs. The first was a national survey conducted in May 2012 which found that, among people under 30, there were slightly more who had a positive view of socialism than had a positive view of capitalism [1]. This is quite remarkable considering the endlessly negative evocations of socialism by politicians and the mass media. The second hopeful sign was the election to the Seattle City Council, in December 2013, of Kshama Sawant, representing a group called Socialist Alternative; she received an absolute majority against an incumbent Democrat [2]. Perhaps even more striking, she overcame a massively financed campaign against her to win reelection in 2015. Third, of course, is the popularity of the presidential campaign of “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders. Although Sanders’ conception of socialism corresponds to 1930s policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democrat), his acceptance of the socialist label removes a stigma that had long been attached to it as a result of the ideological repression that has plagued the US Left through much of its history [3].

Underlying this new openness to socialism is a broader public awareness, especially since the economic collapse of 2008, that capitalism is incapable of satisfying the basic needs of the majority. This awareness is indirect but unambiguous. It is manifested in overwhelmingly hostile attitudes toward politicians and, more importantly, toward big corporations. These attitudes became sharply visible during the Occupy movement of 2011. More recent expressions have included nationwide demonstrations and strikes by low-wage workers against fast-food companies and against the mega-store Wal-Mart.

Still, there is an enormous gap between these developments and the emergence of a solid and coherent national political force with a capacity to grow. To understand this gap – and why it has been so persistent – we must return to a question that has been posed about the United States for more than a century: Why is the US so difficult for the Left? Deep structural factors are at work, and we need to take these into account before returning to the question of what can now be done.

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Philosopher-Kings in the Kingdom of Ends: Why Democracy Needs a Philosophically-Informed Citizenry

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction

I would like to begin with a bit of a riddle: How do you turn a democracy into a tyranny? The answer, as those familiar with Plato’s Republic will know, is: Do nothing. It will become a tyranny all by itself.

Plato spends a good part of the Republic developing his argument for this, and yet the gist of that argument can be found in the word ‘democracy’ itself. ‘Democracy’ is derived from two Greek words: ‘demos,’ which means ‘people,’ and ‘kratos,’ which means ‘power,’ and might be defined as ‘power of the people.’ This corresponds with Abraham Lincoln’s famous designation of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” – which he hoped would not perish from the earth.

But what exactly are we to understand by the word ‘people’? I can illustrate the problematic character of this word through the title of a book I was assigned to read many years ago when studying for my Bar Mitzvah. The book was entitled, When the Jewish People Was Young. Even as a twelve year old the title struck me as grammatically odd. Shouldn’t it be: When the Jewish People Were Young? No, because the word ‘people,’ generally a plural, was here functioning as a singular. The phrase ‘The Jewish People’ was not intended to refer to a multitude of Jewish individuals, but rather to a singular entity made up of these individuals.

May we say the same about democracy? When we define democracy as ‘power of the people’ are we using the word ‘people’ in the singular or the plural sense? Do we mean a collection of separate individuals or do we mean some singular entity made up of these individuals?

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Progress and its Implications

By: Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]W. Benjamin

DEVELOPMENT OR PROGRESS?

How do we determine whether our society is getting better or worse? Have we experienced progress or regress in the last 100 years? 1000 years? Ever? Herbert Marcuse writes that critical thought when: “confronted with the given society as an object of reflection…becomes historical consciousness; as such it is essentially judgment.”[2] However, this does not suggest relativism, continues Marcuse, because “in the real history of man” we can find “the criteria of truth and falsehood, of progress and regression.”[3] Perhaps Marcuse is too optimistic in his belief that the criteria of truth and falsehood can be found in history, or anywhere else, but he is on to something useful with his historicized notions of progress and regress.

Any claim that something has progressed requires a value judgment. Since progress denotes something good we must have some notion of what is good (or ‘the good’), however vague, in order to defend our claim. For example, one cannot say that community X has made progress when it builds new housing developments unless one believes that new housing developments are something good for the community. It might be the case that the construction of these homes has destroyed something believed to hold great cultural/historical value and so the construction actually indicates a regress.

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Locke and the Right to (Acquire) Property: On the Philosophical Basis of Progressive Liberalism

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction

Do the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes? How do we determine this “fair share”? Does the government have the right to tax some in order to provide services for others? What is the basis of this right? Is redistributive taxation a form of theft, as some on the political right claim, or might it indeed be mandated by the fundamental principles upon which a free society is founded? These are some of the questions that are up front and center for us in this political year.

The purpose of the following essay is to explore the philosophical basis for answering such questions. In particular, I wish to  examine the philosophical underpinnings of what might be called “progressive liberalism,” by showing its derivation from the basic principles of classical liberalism – especially as these are developed by John Locke, whose theory of natural law and natural rights was instrumental in providing the ethical framework for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  I argue that a careful analysis of the right to property as developed by Locke shows that this right is neither absolute nor unlimited. Indeed, analysis shows that, considered in the light of modern capitalist society, to honor this right will demand a fairly robust and ongoing program of progressive taxation, aid to the poor, and social programs sufficient to bring the distribution of property into accord with the “difference principle” articulated by John Rawls. This principle implies that a just economic system must be such as to garner the freely proffered consent of its least advantaged members.

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Georgetown and Slavery: Catholic Redemption in Contemporary Political Time

By: Justin R. Harbour, ALM

Georgetown University is currently engaged in an attempt to research, understand, and repair its role in the perpetuation of slavery in 19th century America. Georgetown University is not the first American university to undertake such an uncomfortable and disheartening reflection. Some of these institutions preceding Georgetown, Harvard and Brown University included, arrived at such a reflective moment through a natural desire to confront their relationship to this most sordid institution of American history. Others have been delivered to this moment through student demands (Yale, Princeton, and Oxford, for example). Georgetown’s deliverance is more of the former than the latter. As MIT historian of slavery Craig Steven Wilder recently observed to the New York Times, Georgetown’s attempt at reconciliation “recognize[s] the humanity of the problem they’re dealing with, [and are treating] it as more than a public relations problem.”  Yet the fact that Georgetown has gone further than any of its peers with respect to research and suggestions for repairs should not be surprising. In the foregoing I will argue that Georgetown’s reconciliation with its relationship to slavery today is the result of a historical development of Catholic Jesuits at a unique place in historical time that makes their contemporary institutions of higher learning an obvious and predictable introspective exemplar amongst its secular peers, and one that should be celebrated.

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