Saturday, February 28, 2015

On Greece – and some broader issues

I haven't been posting lately, but I have been following very closely the Greek debt crisis whilst continuing to review my own ideas on economic and political issues. Needless to say, my sympathies are not with the the radical leftist coalition which has been in power in Greece for a little over a month now – and which has been indulging in absurd posturing and making reckless and unrealistic claims and promises and unnecessarily alienating their creditors (mainly other eurozone governments).* But nor am I endorsing the approach of the euro establishment whose actions have arguably exacerbated Greece's problems.

With respect to my own general views on social, political and economic questions, there hasn't been any dramatic change, though one always watches how well (or badly) one's (for want of a better phrase) ideological preferences match the unfolding realities.

One of my main preoccupations is to resist those metaphysicalizing tendencies which are as much – if not more – a feature of left-wing as of conservative thinking. In general I find views based on religion or traditional metaphysics – for example, notions of natural law and universal human rights – to be flawed and unconvincing and am very much scientifically-oriented in terms of my worldview. At the same time, I am strongly attracted to conservative and pragmatic approaches to many personal, social, cultural and political questions.

Something I have been trying to do for years now – and without much success, actually – is to identify thinkers with whom I can identify on a wide range of issues. The trouble is scientifically-oriented thinkers are usually leftists or at least left-leaning; whereas conservatives or classical liberals all too often maintain an explicit or tacit commitment to religious ideas.

Take the European neo-liberals I refer to in the current version of my 'Sketch of a Social Philosophy'. Most of the thinkers in this group, including the most prominent examples like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, arguably had religious or at least traditionally metaphysical convictions. Mises was not religious in the conventional sense but saw the major world religions as somehow reflecting some kind of underlying metaphysical or essential religious truth. Hayek, who had a Catholic background but was not a churchgoer, called himself an agnostic. There are very strong Kantian elements in his thinking, however, and, as with so many of his friends and colleagues (Karl Popper and Eric Voegelin come to mind), it seems clear that his moral and political commitments were driven by a sense that human beings have a capacity for freedom (and insight?) which somehow transcends the bounds of scientific and pragmatic reason. I value my personal autonomy and privacy as much as anybody, but I balk at transmuting this feeling – part cultural, part psychological trait – into some kind of metaphysical position or generalized belief in 'human freedom'.

Voegelin I have been looking at recently: interestingly conservative ideas but tied explicitly to a distinctly religious (though non-doctrinal) view of the world.

I have also been looking at some legal philosophy. Hans Kelsen's legal positivism is worth considering but I'm not entirely convinced by it. (Kelsen, by the way, was Voegelin's dissertation advisor.) At least Kelsen rejects the natural law tradition.

Another legal philosopher I have been looking at is Carl Schmitt (who in fact engaged in a long dialogue with Hans Kelsen). Schmitt also emphasized the parallels between religion and politics. His analysis of the weaknesses of liberal-democratic systems is insightful but his prescriptions could all too easily be used (as they were by the Nazis) to justify totally unacceptable practices along the lines of ethnic or ideological cleansing.

Schmidt's ideas are not focused particularly on 'race'. He saw the roots of the political in the friend/enemy distinction, in a sense of collective identity so strong that group members would be willing to defend the group's existence and autonomy by force of arms.

Schmidt's views reflect a very pessimistic view of human nature which, although obviously related to the notion of original sin, is not without a certain plausibility. In general terms it could be defended on secular and empirical grounds alone. And, though he bases the political in the notion of potentially lethal antagonisms, he doesn't glorify war or encourage violence in the way many radical thinkers do. (Georges Sorel, for example, saw certain forms of violence as intrinsically noble; and many Marxists, of course, actively encourage(d) violent revolution.)

In today's economically and politically volatile environment, respect for the basic social and political institutions is waning, even (especially?) amongst conservatives, so there is a special interest in truly radical thinkers (like Schmidt) who question the liberal foundations of modern Western democracy.

I personally see the law in very pragmatic terms and only respect it to the extent that it limits itself to providing basic and uncontroversial guidelines and protections and disincentives to harmful and antisocial activities. In my view the legal systems in most Western countries have been ideologically corrupted over recent decades and have, as a consequence, lost a large degree of their credibility.

But these are deep and complex issues and I am here merely noting a few half-developed thoughts and feelings.

* Ambrose Evans-Pritchard – currently in Athens – gives an excellent, historically-informed account of how things stand at the moment.