Chapter 34. Don’t Get Violent, Get a Leisurely Hobby

I’ve been meaning to write a short new natural law commentary on David Harvey’s Marxist ideas for a while.  These thoughts are still in the works, but I’ve been seeing how photography could connect with my new natural law musings.  So I’ll put some of them down here first, just as a kind of draft.

Why David Harvey? Well David Harvey’s work on neoliberalism is very influential beyond the boundaries of his own disciplinary expertise, which is geography.  His A History of Neoliberalism, is especially well cited by educational theory, which is often closely tethered to publications in the social sciences written by scholars on the left of the political spectrum. Harvey’s most recent work is The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism. It is a work that my colleagues in the social sciences and education will surely be keen to draw on, as they critique not merely marketized educational systems, but also the capitalist political-economies in which these are often contextualized.  Indeed Harvey’s book will not disappoint them.  In The Enigma of Capital, Harvey indicts those who accumulate capital to a point of obscenity.  Such capital accumulation generates economic infelicities that are never ever resolved, but are simply displaced geographically.

One gets the strong sense that in discussing the crisis of capitalism, Harvey’s approach is fully normative: his is not a merely descriptive analysis of the current economic scenario. We should even say that his normative orientation helps him frame his analysis, and choose his tools of analysis.  Speaking to the RSA in April 2010 about how he came to write about the 2008 global financial crisis, he says that he posed himself the question, “What can Marxism say to this state of affairs?” Harvey is not simply asking how he could work out a purely speculative analysis drawn from Marxist first principles, as it were.  An ideological commitment to Marxism is not his only or primary starting point.  Rather, Marxism for Harvey is merely a fitting, intellectual tool, used as a means of analysis and for articulating some other more fundamental moral ideals.  This becomes clear, when he alerts his audience to what he calls the “obscenity” of capital accumulation. The judgment that capital accumulation has come to a point of being “obscene” is not something that Harvey derives from Marxism; instead, it is prior to and thus separable from his Marxist analysis.

Hence he asks, “What can Marxism say about this state of affairs?” – meaning, this state of affairs that he already judges to be obscene and needs to be resisted;  and only then does he grope about for a choice theoretical frame to explain and clarify the causes, nature and effects of such obscenity.  As it happens, his preferred theoretical frame is Marxism. But the point is that Harvey’s judgment that capital accumulation has become obscene and needs to be resisted and criticized is epistemologically as fundamental, if not more fundamental, than the book’s Marxist analysis of the crisis.  The Marxist, theoretical analysis is composed with a conceptually distinct and separable moral agenda.  This moral agenda is pre-theoretical with respect Marxist theory, and independent of Marxism.

If so, then at least part of Harvey’s motivation and most fundamental (moral) insights can be shared and welcomed, not least, by new natural law theorists. Like Harvey, new natural law theory can agree that the obsession to accumulate wealth is obscene, if anything because such dedication to wealth accumulation that makes light of all other welfare goods trampled on along the way irrationally considers wealth as the most significant good, in spite of the fact that there are a plurality of incommensurably unique, and hence, intrinsically choice-worthy goods.

Less agreeable to new natural law, however, are Harvey’s prescriptions to address such obscenities.  His recommendation is to challenge the right to private property, defended by Friedrich Hayek’s political economy. But such a recommendation is wrong-headed and at odds with his own epistemologically moral (and not merely ideological) starting point. Harvey does not seem to realize that the right to own private property is central to one’s having that moral viewpoint based on which one begins the critique of capital accumulation. He does not seem to realize that, without the right to private property, persons are in grave danger of failing to arrive at that comportment, to borrow Heidegger, which affords the very practical first principles that enable us to find unpalatable the obsession with mere wealth.   Meaning, if private property is abolished, David Harvey the social critique is eminently in danger of being dissolved; Harvey will be no more, but rather end up an intellectually slavish serf, without criticality, and without the critical consciousness to grasp the obscenity of capital accumulation, nor ipso facto, be burdened with the desire to grope about for Marxist categories to critique such capital accumulation. (Perhaps Harvey the Marxist will still critique capital accumulation for Marxism’s sake. But then, why bother with Marxism?)

Indeed, the understanding that the right to private property is closely, even if not necessarily, connected to the capacity to arrive at critical consciousness  seems to me Hayek’s major insight that motivated his political economy. His desire to promote an open society, in contrast to the great society, was plausibly a primary motivation for his defense of the right to private property, and other corollaries like the free market economy.  His fear, it seems to me, was any monopolizing ownership of economic goods important for life, by any kind of central power, lest the latter became a source of intellectual homogenization. This is most clear when he talks about the “man of independent means” and his worry that in his time too many were coming under the employment of the state.  Thus his The Constitution of Liberty writes, and I quote at some length:

“The leadership of individuals or groups who can back their beliefs financially is particularly essential in the field of cultural amenities, in the fine arts, in education and research, in the preservation of natural beauty and historic treasures, and above all, in the propagation of new ideas in politics, morals and religion…However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of the free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.  There is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral and artistic leaders belong to the employed class, especially if most of them are in the employment of the government. Yet we are moving everywhere toward such a position.  Though the freelance writer and artist and the professions of law and medicine still provide some independent leaders of opinion, the great majority of those who ought to provide such a lead—the learned in the science and humanities—are today in employed positions, in most countries in the employment of the state.  There has been a great chance in this respect since the nineteenth century when gentlemen-scholars like Darwin and Macaulay, Grote and Lubbock, Motley and Henry Adams, Tocqueville and Schliemann, were public figures of great prominence and when even such a heterodox critique of society as Karl Marx could find a wealthy patron who enabled him to devote his life to the elaboration and propagation of doctrines which the majority of his contemporaries heartily detested.” (191-194)

Rather than merely repeat or unpack what Hayek’s writings regarding the connection between the right to private property and the capacity for criticality say, let me develop and retrieve the insights in that text by drawing on the recourses available in new natural law theory. In so doing I would of course go somewhat beyond what Hayek himself said and thought, although such an analysis would throw greater light on the precise nature of the connection between private property rights and the capacity for critical consciousness. Now what is important is that, Hayek is not just concerned about the threat of physical violence against persons, but even more so, the subjection of persons to intellectual hostage:

“Coercion occurs when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose…Coercion implies, however, that I still choose but my mind is made someone else’s tool, because the alternatives before me have been so manipulated that the conduct that the coercer wants me to choose becomes for me the least painful one…Coercion thus is bad because it prevents a person from using his mental powers to the full and consequently from making the greatest contribution that he is capable of to the community.  Though the coerced will still do the best he can do for himself at any given moment, the only comprehensive design that his actions fit into is that of another mind.” (p. 199-201, italics mine)

Furthermore, it would seem to me that it is not just a matter that persons without private property are under threatening coercive duress from a powerful state.  At least it is not just a matter of being cowardly when the thought of being labeled a dissenter, and having one’s livelihood ruined and one’s shelter confiscated by a powerful central authority, is entertained.  Rather there is another kind of “coercive duress” at work: one having less to do with the lack of the virtue of courage, and having more to do with the deflection from entering the comportment for practical reasoning. In this latter case, even if one is rashly courageous, and one is not at all afraid, one could still be subject to a kind of coercive “duress”, understood metaphorically.  One’s thinking is bridled not through fear, but rather through being locked out of the capacity to enter into the epistemic state for practical reasoning, because ringed in by the kind of bureaucratic, means-end, instrumentalist, technical reasoning that draws upon merely theoretical reasoning’s resources, and therefore merely shows the latter and its first principles, on reflection.

How so?  The way to comprehend this is to understand how under new natural law theory practical reasoning works, and how the first principles of practical reasoning (also called ‘the natural law’) give of themselves in reflection.  One does not derive the first principles of practical reasoning, which yield prescriptions pointing out the various incommensurably choice-worthy goods and which form the basic premises for moral reasoning. Obviously, there is the problem of the naturalistic fallacy when one attempts to derive these normative “ought” claims from a merely descriptive account of the world, or of human nature, or a metaphysics.  Over and above that, however, is the way practical reasoning shows itself and gives of its principles phenomenologically.  There is some sense in which, to borrow Jean-Luc Marion, that practical reasoning is to some extent “anamorphic”: the Monet water lilies do not show themselves unless we comport to the painting correctly, as it demands of us, at the right distance away from it. The task here is to unconceal the natural law, rather than to deduce the natural law.  In the case of natural law theory, this has to do with the fact that practical reasoning and the showings of these first practical principles occur when one is confronted with radically open possibilities and when one asks oneself, “what ought I do?”  In reflecting thus, some goals can be grasped as intelligibly choice-worthy goods in themselves, and not necessarily good because of some other goal. Memories of such open questioning about what is to be done then allow us to trace these events and their deliberative trajectories, locating through persistent interrogation some final goals which we had thought worth achieving for their own sakes.

Such radically open reflection on what one ought to do needs to be distinguished from a pseudo-practical reasoning, which also asks what is to be done, but asks this merely pragmatically, or technically, as one would ask about what one needs to do in order to achieve a given, pre-determined end. Calling it “pseudo” practical reasoning risks putting the point across too strongly. Still, the point is that, in this latter case, one’s reasoning is strictly speaking, theoretical, because it requires no more than that one works out, mathematically, the most optimal or satisfactory means to that given end. Here, one is interested merely in the truth to the puzzle: what is the best (shortest, quickest, most effective…) means to X? This kind of query, even if it appears to have to do with action, is essentially not different from truth seeking questions of another type: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Or: what are the basic constituents of atomic particles? Radically open practical reasoning, however, leaves even the ends open, and invites the person to ask, “what final end(s) (and not just means) is worth seeking?”

Yet it is all too easy to obscure such practical reasoning about action, and substitute practical deliberation with its cousin, the theoretical reasoning for action. This happens when final ends are prescribed and accepted and when deliberation about the means to such given ends consumes all our time and energies. This is precisely what happens when one has no right to private property, and hence always has to restore what necessities he requires, because these are at most on loan, and so needs to be ongoingly paid for. This then means he needs to spend the whole of his life under the employ of someone else, having to do another’s bidding – i.e., having to find ways of serving ends someone else gives you. Of course there may be opportunities for rest, and for asking what one wishes to do during those times; but if one is asking such a question in that context one means to ask what activity one wishes to do or not do, in order to rest, so to service new or recurrent given ends by one’s employer. Such rest is never quite the same as leisure, which asks what one wishes to do for oneself, period, and not merely so that one can rest in order to work for someone else. There is little opportunity for radically open practical reasoning.

This is true even for the courageous man, who would quite easily oppose what he sees is incorrect, with a critical eye; yet in such a current he is ill disposed, or ill-comported to arrive at any such epistemic state approximating the critical eye.  For all his bravery, he is absorbed in theoretical means-end reasoning, and, unable to think practically, and to show the basic goods and their demands.

In other words, rather than demolish the right to private property, and as Harvey in fact commends, “not without violent revolution” (Search it! he does say that), which diminishes the possibility of leisure, he should instead promote leisurely activity, and more of that.  In other words, the thing to do in order to promote more equity (rather than radical egalitarianism) is precisely to encourage the kind of leisure that unconceals the practical critical, often displaced by the instrumental theoretical.

These ideas, as I said in the beginning, are still in the works.

But here’s something about photography that occurred to me.  Well, what about photography? Photography done for leisure, rather than to rest, precisely as I’ve argued in various chapters of the Manual, comports us to give of the deliverances of the natural law, which as John Finnis and Joseph Boyle and Sabina Alkire in various places shows is the basis for public reasons, in the public square, that should guide law, economic and public policy, implying perhaps reasonable considerations for the enforcement of provision for the welfare of persons deprived of opportunities, the redistribution of superflua, etc, in a creative way that does not undermine the critical consciousness and its emergence.

All these practical reasons, both their first principles and possible inferences, can then be on the table for discussion.  With reasons, then we can a debate, a discussion. But take away private property, dissolve the comportment for leisure-ly reflection, then there will be no such discussion of practical reasons, because the latter will be hidden.

Incidentally, Harvey’s “discussions”, if you don’t mind me saying, seem to lack practical reasons, rather they appear to be intelligent Marxist analyses propelled by feelings of envy and anger: that’s the extent of his “criticality”.  And if it’s merely envy and anger, then as Harvey rightly says, there’s no discussion at all needed – or rather, there is no discussion possible: you either have these feelings, or you don’t.  All the more, then, the need for private property rights, so that practical reasons’ first principles can show, besides feelings or preferences. Unless there are reasons, one cannot elevate anger to the status of moral indignation…OK, I won’t press this point.

Still, here’s another way about a revolution. Rather than abolish private property in violent anger, install public reasons at leisureHarvey should buy himself a good old Leica M, and start a Marxist photography club, welcoming others to the leisurely hobby. That seems more consistent with his own seemingly critical stance, than the self-contradictory abolishment of private property, which will have us rest, but never in peace.  The point is: don’t get violent; have a leisurely hobby.