Category: Theory (Page 2 of 5)

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


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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Antithesis in Federalist Number One

By: Nicholas Napolio

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Number One” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.[/perfectpullquote]

This is how Alexander Hamilton poses the great question of what kind of government is best to the people of the newly formed United States.  Federalist Number One, the first of eighty-five essays written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, is the introductory essay in which Hamilton frames the debate surrounding the ratification of a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, which the nation saw as ineffective.  Hamilton frames the debate in favor of ratification and introduces several ideas important to ensure the prosperity of the United States—ideas that are still discussed and debated today, such as federalism, individual liberty, and the separation of powers.  Much contemporary commentary on The Federalist Papers analyzes the authors’ political theories, critiques the ideas they present, or seeks to apply their ideas to current issues. Fewer commentators analyze the ways in which the authors’ ideas are presented and of their rhetorical strategies, which is the focus of this article. The Federalist Papers will be seen here less as a work of doctrinal political theory, and primarily as a rhetorician’s political attempt to persuade its contemporaneous readers of the rightness of its cause.

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Liberal Values in Market Society

By: Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

Much of political philosophy concerns itself with devising a priori systems (derived purely from theory) for organizing society. However, in doing so it tends to overlook many extant structures – particularly those of the economic sphere. In this piece I examine what it is that these a priori systems overlook, as well as the ways that the existing structures alter the institutions haphazardly placed on top of them. I devote the bulk of my attention to the frequent attempts made to overlay liberal values into our market society.

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Heart-Mind Cosmos: Panentheism in Mahayana Buddhism And Early 19th Century German Idealism

By: Stefan Schindler

In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton synthesized the European scientific discoveries of the previous two hundred years. This scientific revolution had been built on the scientific method formulated by Francis Bacon, who insisted that nature’s secrets could be unveiled through a combination of rational theorizing and rigorous empirical testing.  This was called the experimental method.  All previous knowledge was thrown into question in what Descartes called “methodical doubt.”

The point was to establish science on a firm foundation.  Assumptions and superstitions were to be replaced with certainties.  Accordingly, mathematics was the language for the formulation of the laws of nature.

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Was Nietzsche an aristocratic elitist?

By: Ippolit Belinski
An earlier version of this article appeared on Paradox of the Day.

Nietzsche is often portrayed as an aristocratic elitist, whose main concern was with higher morals and who strongly opposed any type of herd mentality. This is generally true, albeit very crudely formulated (and indeed oversimplified). But it does not mean—as is often claimed—that Nietzsche was also an elitist aristocrat in his political views.

It is often claimed that, because Nietzsche was concerned with higher morals, he therefore disavowed any sense of egalitarian community. By this reading, he staunchly opposed democratic principles, or any form of politics which aims towards equality.

I believe this account is highly problematic.

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What Fascism Is Not, What It Is, and Why It Matters

Howl of the Day: May 31, 2016

Fascism, as a term, has become almost synonymous with injustice. And this common view of fascism is a good place to begin understanding the phenomenon. Once the term is scrutinized just a bit, however, fascism becomes a more difficult thing to understand. This is despite the fact (and to certain extent, because of the fact) that the media is saturated with loud speeches and vivid images on the subject.

Fascism is so familiar to us as a shorthand for injustice that it is hard to see beyond that surface impression. But fascism cannot simply be the same as injustice. However objectionable it is, there are surely other political ills.

For example, the use of force to implement political policies is often referred to as fascistic. The same with political commonplaces, such as declarations of war and the existence of inequity. But force is employed in every type of regime, both good and bad, and inequities of some kind are ubiquitous. Without recourse to some standard of justice, there is no way to distinguish fascism from liberalism, or tyranny from democracy.

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