A State of Statelessness

I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the weekend. It was pretty good. I still prefer its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but the sequel is interesting for different reasons. One thing I noticed, and I’m not sure if it’s intentional, is that the film presents a fairly positive picture of a stateless human society, at least as post-apocalyptic futures go. The usual trope in post-apocalyptic fiction is that once the state collapses due to whatever disaster befalls the planet, humans devolve into animals, with the exception of a few heroic individuals (e.g. The Walking Dead). By contrast, in Dawn: POTA the stateless human society seems to hold together relatively well. There’s a lot of cooperation, what looks like a robust marketplace, and it’s generally peaceful (before the central conflict of the story) despite everybody being well-armed. In other words, it’s precisely the scenario that anarchists predict would happen in a post-state situation. Is there any evidence that this would be the case?

One of the criticisms of anarchy is that there’s little empirical evidence to support its positive predictions. There aren’t very many real world examples for sociologists to study and those stateless regions that do exist, for example pre-2012 Somalia, aren’t exactly tourist destinations. Imagining how a peaceful, prosperous anarchist society would organize itself is often left to science fiction writers. However, the examples we do find, including Somalia, are instructive.

Somalia was without a national government from 1991 — 2012, which is enough time to draw some conclusions about the effects of statelessness. Admittedly, it didn’t become an anarcho-capitalist utopia as predicted by anarchist theory. But neither did Somalia fare worse than it did under its former government; nor was it worse off relative to other sub-Saharan African nations. In fact, Somalia improved in several international development metrics during its experiment with statelessness, despite remaining very poor by Western standards. You can read about that here and here. Of course, none of this proves that Somalia would be better off stateless than it would be under any government whatsoever. That remains to be seen. But it was arguably better off stateless than under the governments typically on offer in the region.

Another much studied stateless society is medieval Iceland (see here and here). When one thinks of Vikings, one usually thinks of people who settled their disputes with swordplay rather than through non-violent arbitration. However, historical records indicate that the latter was more often the case. Indeed, medieval Iceland fared better than its European counterparts in almost every area. As David Friedman writes: “Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output, in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.” Iceland flourished for three centuries (906 — 1262) without a centralized government in relative peace and prosperity when compared with the feudal kingdoms of medieval Europe.

Medieval Iceland is instructive because it demonstrates the possibility of having a sophisticated legal culture without a robust political culture. Michael Walzer has argued that ancient Israel is instructive for the same reason (HT: Kevin Vallier). According to the biblical text, the ancient Israelites debated about whether to have a king at all — an unprecedented occurrence in the Ancient Near East. Even after ancient Israel became a monarchy, the king was not an absolute authority like the other rulers in the region. In commenting on ancient Israel’s apolitical culture, Walzer notes: “The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.” One also finds this apolitical attitude among modern Jews in the Diaspora. As a persecuted minority in Europe especially, they often supplanted state institutions with their own: private schools, private arbitration, and ‘grey markets’ (untaxed, unregulated markets in otherwise legal goods).

What conclusions can we draw from these examples? I would venture two relatively modest conclusions. First, we shouldn’t conflate legal culture with political culture. As the examples of ancient Israel and medieval Iceland show, it’s possible to have the former without the latter. Second, we shouldn’t conflate state with society. Societies can exist, and historically have, without the state. Rather than being the basis for society, the state is but one particular organization a society can take. Society need not collapse because the state does. This is relatively good news for survivors in a post-apocalyptic future.

The Love Letters of Sigmund Freud

freudFreud wrote the following in a letter to his fiancé, Martha Bernays:

I know you are not beautiful in a painter’s or sculptor’s sense; if you insist on strict correctness in the use of words then I must confess that you are not beautiful.

In another letter:

[N]ature shaped your nose and mouth more characteristically than beautifully, with an almost masculine expression, so unmaidenly in its decisiveness …. if there is any vanity left in your little head I will not conceal from you that some people declare you beautiful, even strikingly so. I have no opinion on the matter.

But wait, there’s more:

We surely agree that the management of a house, the care and bringing up of children, demands the whole of a human being and almost excludes any earning, even if a simplified household relieves her of dusting, cleaning, cooking, etc. …. Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm and sweetness. Law and custom have given much to women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.

Later, Freud famously said in a letter to Marie Bonaparte, “the great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’” No shit.

Rules and the Specificity Problem

I was reading recently about the inevitable remake/reboot/sequel to Gremlins. There was some discussion in the comments about the coherence of the rules in the movie, especially the prohibition against feeding the gremlins after midnight. This rule doesn’t seem to have a straightforward interpretation. After all, every time of day is ‘after midnight.’ At what point, exactly, is it permissible to feed a gremlin? This particular rule lacks the specificity necessary to give it any real content. I began to think of other examples of rules that have the same feature.

Take, for example, the famous genie-in-the-bottle story. The genie will grant you three wishes. The obvious thing to do — which most of us figure out even as children — is to wish for unlimited wishes. Usually, however, ‘the rules’ state that this move isn’t allowed. But couldn’t one wish that one’s wishes aren’t bound by arbitrary rules? What exactly is the content of the rules governing wishes? It’s never spelled out.

This problem of specifying content could apply to any statement, including the wishes themselves. There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Man in the Bottle” that illustrates this point. A poor couple find a genie’s bottle and are granted wishes. However, their wish for wealth and power has unforeseen and unhappy consequences. For example, much of their newly acquired wealth is taxed by the IRS, leaving them no better off than before. In a trademark Rod Serling twist, the husband’s wish to become a powerful ruler transforms him into Hitler during the fall of Berlin. The genie, of course, warned him to be careful what he wished for. But there’s a problem: Does adding specificity to the wish necessarily guarantee that the wish won’t have further unintended consequences? Another problem: How much qualification can one add to the description of a state of affairs without ‘changing the rules’ such that the state of affairs is no longer attainable?

This latter problem often comes up in theological discussions of the problem of evil. Both the atheist and the believer face a version of it. In the first case, the skeptic’s claim that he could create a better world than God allegedly has, faces the specificity problem. How exactly would one go about it? What would such a world look like, exactly? Would it be a world entirely free of adversity? If so, that would also rule out much human achievement born of adversity. Would it be a world void of human vice? If so, we would have to figure out how such a world is compatible with freedom. Would it be a world without disease and natural disasters? If so, we would have to specify what different physical laws would govern such a world. In short, specifying the content of this hypothetical world with enough nuance to exclude everything we wish to rule out and include only what we wish to retain, is quite difficult in practice.

The theist faces a related problem. The believer claims that God is omnipotent, however, that statement — coupled with the claim that God is good — seems incompatible with the evil in the world. The theist then has to explain how it’s possible for an omnipotent being to fail to prevent evil. It turns out that there are rules governing omnipotence too. Take the famous ‘Stone Paradox’ that’s familiar to many undergraduate philosophy students: Can an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? If one says ‘no’ then there’s something an omnipotent being can’t do, namely create the stone. If one says ‘yes’ then there’s something an omnipotent being can’t do, namely lift the stone. Of course, one could argue that one of the things an omnipotent being could do is to cease to be omnipotent. So an omnipotent being could create the stone, cease to be omnipotent, then fail to lift it. This is a cheat though, because the failure would not be the failure of an omnipotent being. Also, laying aside his omnipotence is something that God, given the rules, can’t do, so this option is not open to the theist. Again, my point is that outlining the rules governing omnipotence in sufficient detail to explain God’s failure to prevent evil without qualifying God’s power such that he ceases to be omnipotent, is quite a difficult exercise.

So there are several rules that are tricky to spell out in a satisfying manner. This problem also faces law-makers, which explains why the law becomes so complicated. However, even with all of that specificity there are still loopholes and unintended consequences. As Wittgenstein pointed out, such practical problems are bound up with the limits of language. But that’s little consolation when I’m trying to figure out when to feed my gremlin.

Live and Let Live?

james bond sean conneryDr. No famously called James Bond ‘just a stupid policeman.’ However, Fleming’s Bond is often morally conflicted about his role as a ‘blunt instrument’ of the government and is much more distrustful of authority than the patriotic ‘For Queen and Country’ hero of the films. As Bond explains to Mathis in Casino Royale:

 [P]atriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts …. Take our friend Le Chiffre. It’s simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it’s simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I’m afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.

The films, of course, often sacrifice scenes like these in favor of white-knuckle action, exotic locations, and sultry women. While all three are certainly part of the Bond canon, the more subtle aspects of the character are often lost in the spectacle. The most recent entries in the series starring Daniel Craig spend the most time exploring Bond as psychologically damaged, morally conflicted, and suspicious of his superiors.

In addition, the Bond of the novels is closer to the colonial age than his celluloid counterpart and more skeptical about the exporting of democracy. In From Russia with Love, Bond’s Turkish contact, Kerim says the following:

That is the only way to treat these damned people. They love to be cursed and kicked. It is all they understand. It is in the blood. All this pretense of democracy is killing them. They want some sultans and wars and rape and fun. Poor brutes, in their striped suits and bowler hats. They are miserable. You’ve only got to look at them.

A similar sentiment is echoed by Bond’s contact, Henderson, in You Only Live Twice:

For God’s sake, get it into your head that the Japanese are a separate human species …. Just because people play baseball and wear bowler hats doesn’t mean that they’re quote civilized people unquote …. I stand for government by an elite.

Of course, one is tempted to attribute these statements to racist and imperialist attitudes on Fleming’s part. Although he doubtless says some regrettable things, that interpretation would be too simplistic in light of the fact that Fleming often portrays Bond, beneath his veneer of sophistication, as a savage who can’t handle the demands of polite society. As Fleming says in From Russia with Love, Bond is “a man of war …. and peace was killing him.”

To return to my point, however, the Bond of the novels is, ironically, quite skeptical of Western interventionism in foreign affairs. In You Only Live Twice, he discusses the American occupation of Japan following the Second World War. His interlocutor, Tanaka, complains that American consumer society has replaced Japanese nobility. Bond replies:

I’ve got a lot of American friends who don’t equate with what you’re saying. Presumably you’re talking of the lower level GIs — second-generation Americans who are basically Irish or Germans or Czechs or Poles who probably ought to be working in the fields or coalmines of their countries of origin instead of swaggering around a conquered country under the blessed coverlet of the Stars and Stripes with too much money to spend.

Another passage, this time from Goldfinger, describes Bond’s — and presumably Fleming’s — critique of the devastating effect of Western foreign policy — particularly the ‘war on drugs’ — on far-away lands:

A big man in Mexico had some poppy fields. The flowers were not for decoration. They were broken down for opium which was sold quickly and comparatively cheaply by the waiters at a small café in Mexico City called the ‘Madre de Cacao’. The Madre de Cacao had plenty of protection. If you needed opium you walked in and ordered what you wanted with your drink. You paid for your drink at the caisse and the man at the caisse told you how many noughts to add to your bill. It was an orderly commerce of no concern to anyone outside Mexico. Then, far away in England, the Government, urged on by the United Nations’ drive against drug smuggling, announced that heroin would be banned in Britain. There was alarm in Soho and also among respectable doctors who wanted to save their patients agony. Prohibition is the trigger of crime. Very soon the routine smuggling channels from China, Turkey and Italy were run almost dry by the illicit stock-piling in England.

Far from being a jingoistic hero, then, Fleming’s Bond is quite a bit more nuanced. He often voices the notion that perhaps the world would be better off without the kind of political adventurism for which he’s famous. Maybe if we let people figure things out for themselves — live and let live, if you will — we wouldn’t need 007. Perhaps he’s not just a stupid policeman after all.

Quote of the Day 2

Since my job affords me only a few minutes during the workday to read, I’m reading philosophy that comes in pithy, aphoristic bursts. Theodor Adorno is a master of this method and his Minima Moralia is perhaps his most accessible work. Consider this passage from the entry ‘Out of the firing line’:

The old exaggeration of skeptical liberals, that war was a business, has come true: state power has shed even the appearance of independence from particular interests in profit; always in their service really, it now also places itself there ideologically. Every laudatory mention of the chief contractor in the destruction of cities helps earn it the good name that will secure it the best commissions in their rebuilding.

This is especially prescient since he wrote it just after the Second World War. Here’s another thoughtful passage from the same section:

To the question of what is to be done with defeated Germany, I could say only two things in reply. Firstly: at no price, on no conditions, would I wish to be an executioner or to supply legitimation for executioners. Secondly: I should not wish, least of all with legal machinery, to stay the hand of anyone who was avenging past misdeeds. This is a thoroughly unsatisfactory, contradictory answer, one that makes a mockery of both principle and practice. But perhaps the fault lies in the question and not only in me.

Adorno is endlessly fascinating, difficult to categorize, and his observations are always contemporary. He’s worth reading.



In his introduction to the latest edition of Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Thomas Nagel says the following:

If some flourish and others are left behind, there is nothing wrong in that, nothing that the state may use its power forcibly to correct. As Nozick says repeatedly, it is no more wrong than the fact that A cannot marry B because B prefers to marry C. A may be miserable, but no one has suffered a wrong or an injustice. There is no moral presumption in favor of equality; the separateness of persons is the basis of the moral order.

The general point, I think, is sound. I’ve noted before the problematic tendency of many on the left to conflate any and all inequality or unhappiness with injustice. Even in the most idealized socialist utopia, in which evils arising from material need — and perhaps the moral evils of our baser nature — have been eliminated, there would still be inequality and unhappiness. After all, ‘natural evil’ and ‘moral evil’ — to use the old theological categories — are not the only sources of human unhappiness; the game theoretic interactions of human beings, even if they are innocent of any malice, inevitably benefit some and harm others. No less a leftist than Theodor Adorno recognizes this point in a selection from Minima Moralia. Note the similarity to Nozick’s example:

While literature has treated all the psychological species of erotic conflict, the simplest external source of conflict has remained unnoticed because of its obviousness. It is the phenomenon of prior engagement: a loved person refuses herself to us not through inner antagonisms and inhibitions, too much coldness or repressed warmth, but because a relationship already exists that excludes another …. Even, and precisely, in a society cured of the anarchy of commodity production, there could scarcely be rules governing the order in which one met people. Such an arrangement would amount to the most intolerable interference with freedom.

No doubt there are disanalogies between market interactions and interpersonal relationships. One might have principled arguments for thinking that the state is justified in intervening in the first but not the second. It’s not my intention to get into the debate about the proper role and scope of government in this post. However, this little exercise helps us guard against utopian thinking. For the socialist, there will never be a perfectly egalitarian utopia. For the anarchist, there will never be a perfectly free utopia. The game theoretic dimensions of the human condition guarantee that there are hard limits to the amount and kinds of equality and freedom we can achieve through state action, or lack thereof. In other words, if complete human happiness is the goal of our politics, then our politics is destined to fail.

The Book of Dead Philosophers

If philosophy is, as Plato thought, preparation for dying, then perhaps we can learn something from the deaths of famous philosophers. That’s the central insight behind Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers. The book consists of short, biographical vignettes of philosophers, with special emphasis on how they met their end. Although it may sound like a morbid exercise, the goal is to cultivate a philosophical attitude toward death, thereby robbing death of its power. At least, that’s the idea.

Of course, the prime example of a philosophical death is that of Socrates. The equanimity with which he faced his demise set the ideal of the philosophical death for centuries. In the Apology, he says of death:

Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we have been told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another.

After nearly three millennia, these are still the two main options in our culture. Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean philosopher, opted for annihilation. For him, we shouldn’t fear the eternity after our death any more than we fear the eternity before our birth.

One who no longer is cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born, when once this mortal life has been usurped by death the immortal.

He also showed little regard for what happened to his body after death.

For if it is really a bad thing after death to be mauled and crunched by ravening jaws, I cannot see why it should not be disagreeable to roast in the scorching flames of a funeral pyre, or to lie embalmed in honey, stifled and stiff with cold, on the surface of a chilly slab, or to be squashed under a crushing weight of earth.

This is similar to the sentiment of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who said:

An unburied body will be consumed by crows and eagles, but a buried body will be eaten up by ants. So you’re snatching food from the mouths of crows and eagles and feeding it into the mouths of ants. Why are you showing favors to ants?

This disregard of the body found its way into Christianity, especially through the influence of Platonism. The ideal of the philosophical death can also be found in the lives of Christian saints, such as Boethius in his The Consolation of Philosophy. Although Boethius is ostensibly a Christian, it is Philosophia, personified as a woman, rather than Christ, who comes to console him at death. The only perceptible difference between the Socratic ideal of the good death in paganism and Christianity is in their evaluation of suicide. For the pagans, particularly the Stoics, suicide or euthanasia (literally “good death”) is preferable to slow decline. The stigma toward suicide is a decidedly Christian innovation in our Western tradition.

Despite philosophy’s attempts to come to terms with death, it arguably never completely succeeds in lessening our terror at the prospect of our own annihilation. As La Rochefoucauld said in the seventeenth century:

Nothing proves as well that philosophers are not as convinced as they claim that death is not an evil, as the torment they go through in order to establish the immortality of their names by the loss of their lives.

La Rochefoucauld’s contemporary Pascal, a Christian, accused Montaigne of having a ‘cowardly and effeminate’ conception of death based on classical paganism. For Pascal, one cannot come to terms with death without belief in immortality. His famous Wager comes to mind.

In the twentieth century, death is again at the fore of philosophy in large part due to the devastating wars that plagued the century. The Second World War in particular was a clash of ideologies and some philosophers died taking sides. The little known (at least to me) Italian philosophers Giovanni Gentile and Antonio Gramsci died for the causes of fascism and communism respectively. Gentile, the self-described ‘philosopher of Fascism’, was assassinated in 1944 after the liberation of Italy. Gramsci was imprisoned by the fascists. He was released when his health deteriorated and he died soon afterward. In the safe, professionalized world of philosophy today, one can hardly imagine a philosopher committed enough to die for a cause.

Other philosophers of the period became preoccupied with death as they fled persecution by the Nazis. Those who escaped to the United States, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, realized that their philosophy had to come to terms, not simply with their individual deaths, but with the mass slaughter of the Holocaust. Adorno especially seems to have questioned whether philosophy is equal to the task.

Heidegger, of course, (in)famously took sides during this period, becoming a member of the Nazi party. Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian Jew who was only saved from the concentration camp because of his status as an officer in the French army, remarked: “One can forgive many Germans, but there are Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger.” Heidegger died in his sleep at the age of eighty-six, having never recanted or suffered any repercussions for his Nazi sympathies.

If there’s one criticism of Critchley’s book — which he acknowledges — it’s that he prefers the Continental tradition and gives short shrift to the Analytic philosophers. This is not without justification, however, because the Continental tradition sees philosophy as inextricably bound up with one’s life (and death). As such, many of the Continental philosophers have more interesting biographies than their more sterile analytic counterparts. Of course, there are a few exceptions. Wittgenstein famously wrote his Tractatus as a solider in World War I and displayed almost reckless courage. He describes his first taste of combat: ‘Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live.’ And live he did, becoming one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. However, his desire to live waned when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On his last birthday, his friend Mrs. Bevan, wished him ‘Many happy returns’ to which he replied ‘There will be no returns.’ Of death, he said:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the same way in which our visual field has no limits.

Russell is another analytic philosopher with a very interesting biography. I can’t possibly go into the details of Russell’s long and interesting life. As a famous atheist, however, he had a predictably materialist view of death:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.

A.J. Ayer also led an interesting life, which provides two of the most memorable anecdotes in the book. He once attended a Manhattan party also attended by then-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. A woman rushed into the room saying that her friend was being assaulted by Tyson. Ayer found Tyson trying to force himself on model Naomi Campbell. Ayer confronted Tyson, who said “Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer replied, “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Surprisingly, Ayer survived the encounter and Ms. Campbell was likewise unharmed. Ayer had another near death experience after choking on some salmon in 1988, in which he encountered a bright light that he described as the governor of the universe. He also saw luminous beings in charge of space and time. Although he said in the Sunday Telegraph that his experience did provide “rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness”, he apparently remained an atheist until his permanent death a year later.

There are many other stories I could relate from the book, but I recommend that you read it for yourself. The book is by no means an exhaustive biographical treatment of these philosophers, but that’s not the point. Rather, the point is to see whether or not we can learn anything from the deaths of these thinkers and, importantly, whether the manner in which they faced their mortality was consistent with their philosophy. In our death-avoidance culture, I think that there’s much that we can collectively learn from reading this book.