Matthew Simonton: American Oligarchy

SimontonThe 2016 election brought the burning issue of populism home to the United States. Donald Trump is, in many ways, part of a larger movement of populist politicians worldwide who have claimed to speak in the name of the “ordinary people.” (Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are other examples.) As with other populists, Trump’s presidency brings with it unsettling questions about illiberalism and ethno-nationalism. But in all the talk about “making American great again,” we are in danger of losing sight of a deeper problem, one which Trump will not change and in fact will likely exacerbate: the steady creep of oligarchy. The United States Constitution is enacted in the name of “We the People.” Abraham Lincoln famously described America’s political system in the Gettysburg Address as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet how much authority do ordinary citizens truly possess in today’s America? As the ancient Athenians would have put it, does the demos (people) in fact have kratos (power)?

Several indicators suggest that that power, if it ever was actually held by the people, is slipping away. Princeton University Press authors Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have brought before our eyes hard truths about our “unequal democracy,” the fact that, too often, “affluence” brings “influence.” Gilens and the political scientist Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in an important article from 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens … have little or no independent influence.” Readers familiar with the findings of the economist Thomas Piketty have heard that the U.S. and other advanced capitalist economies are entering a new “Gilded Age” of wealth concentration. Can anything turn back inequality—what President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time”—and the widening gap in political power and influence that comes with it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer to the problem of inequality, which they called demokratia. It is well known that Greek-style democracy was direct rather than representative, with citizens determining policy by majority vote in open-air assemblies. Yet democracy meant more than just meetings: political offices were distributed randomly, by lottery, on the assumption that every citizen was qualified (and in fact obligated) to participate in politics. Office-holders were also remunerated by the state, to ensure that poorer citizens who had to work for a living could still share in the constitution. Princeton author Josiah Ober has examined the ideology and practice of ancient democracy in multiple publications. In his latest work—similar in its conclusions to those of the ancient historian Alain Bresson—he has argued that democracies created fair rules and equal access to opportunity that secured citizen dignity and discouraged runaway economic inequality. Thus, as much as ancient democracies fall short of our contemporary standards (and they had grave faults in the areas of slave-holding and gender relations), they might constitute a model, however imperfect, for thinking about reducing both economic and political inequality.

On the other hand, many Greek city-states had a form of constitution based on diametrically opposed premises, and which encouraged opposite tendencies. This was oligarchia, the “rule of the few.” Ancient Greek oligarchs—members of the wealthy elite—most assuredly did not believe in citizen equality. Oligarchs thought that their greater wealth, which (by their lights, anyway) afforded them greater intelligence and virtue, made them uniquely qualified to rule. The non-elite, which then as today represented the poorer majority, had to be kept out of politics. (For a recent argument in favor of such an “oligarchy of the wise,” see Princeton author Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy.)

In my book Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, I chart the rise of oligarchic thinking, showing that it emerged in conscious reaction to democracy, or the “power of the people.” Faced with the challenges democracy brought to their affluence and influence, oligarchs devised a new set of political institutions, which would ensure that the people could make no inroads into oligarchic privilege. This was not simply a matter of attaching property requirements to office-holding, although oligarchs certainly considered that essential. Oligarchies also stacked the judicial system in elites’ favor; sought to control the people’s speech, movement, and association; hoarded and manipulated information crucial to the city’s well-being; feathered their own nests with economic perquisites; and on occasion even resorted to extra-legal assassination to eliminate subversives. Oligarchies were, in short, authoritarian regimes. Engaging with contemporary scholarship in political science on authoritarianism, I show that ancient Greek oligarchies confronted the same basic problems that haunt modern authoritarians, and experimented with similar institutions for preserving their rule. In ways that have not been fully apparent until now, oligarchs and demos resemble today’s dictators and democrats.

As history shows us, inequality in one area (wealth) tends to convince elites that they have unequal abilities in another (politics). Yet in situations like that of Classical Greek oligarchy, when the wealthy obtain the unaccountable political power they desire, the result is not enlightened government but increased oppression. It would do citizens of modern democracies good to bear this in mind. In the United States, many are frustrated with politics, and with democracy in particular. Liberals worry about the supposed ignorance of the electorate. Conservatives want to restrict what majorities can legislate, especially in the area of economics. And the last election saw countless voters openly embrace a vision of America as headed by a billionaire strongman. In longing for a restriction on democracy, however—even if “only” meant for those with whom we disagree—we increase the likelihood of a more general oligarchic takeover. We play into oligarchs’ hands. If the Greek example is any indication, such short-term thinking would bode ill for the freedom of all citizens—and it would only make inequality worse.

Matthew Simonton is assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is the author of Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.

Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.


Walter Scheidel longlisted for the 2017 Cundill Prize

We are delighted to announce that The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel has been longlisted for the prestigious Cundill History Prize 2017. Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2017, the international prize recognizes the best history writing in English. A press conference reception will be held to announce a short list of the three finalists on 26 October 2017 in London. On 16 November, 2017, the three finalists will be invited to the Cundill History Prize Gala in Montreal where the winner will be announced. We offer our heartfelt congratulations to Professor Scheidel and to all of the authors selected for this honor.


A. James McAdams on Vanguard of the Revolution

Vanguard of the Revolution is a sweeping history of one of the most significant political institutions of the modern world. The communist party was a revolutionary idea long before its supporters came to power. A. James McAdams argues that the rise and fall of communism can be understood only by taking into account the origins and evolution of this compelling idea. He shows how the leaders of parties in countries as diverse as the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and North Korea adapted the original ideas of revolutionaries like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to profoundly different social and cultural settings. The first comprehensive political history of the communist party, Vanguard of the Revolution is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand world communism and the captivating idea that gave it life. Read on to learn more about the origins and evolution of the communist party in Russia.

What led you to write a book about the communist party?

My initial motivation was that I couldn’t find any systematic political histories of the party. I felt that scholars and other interested readers would benefit from a broad comparative study that accounted for both this institution’s tremendous staying-power over the past century and then its swift collapse by the early 1990s. The communist party was more than a fleeting political organization. It was the principal rival to the other, prevailing form of party rule in modern times—liberal democracy. During the past century, over a billion and a half people were ruled by communist parties, roughly 38 percent of the world’s population.

I was also motivated by a factor that was missing in my discipline. Political scientists have written an impressive number of books on party behavior in both developing and advanced democracies. But they have generally neglected the communist party. This may be due to the assumption that that all communist parties have adhered to a stereotyped definition of “Leninism,” i.e., an organization characterized by dictatorial practices, rigid hierarchies, and rampant brutality. Yet, as I show in my book, the communist party took multiple forms over its long history, just like liberal-democratic parties did in the West. Although all communist parties had certain features in common—especially the conviction that the progressive march of history was on their side—they also differed in significant ways. Just look at the variation in the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. This was not only true of dictatorships. There were notable differences among the communist parties that competed in national and local elections in the West, such as the French and Italian communist parties.

Communist parties also assumed different identities over time. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were vastly different from what the communist party became under Joseph Stalin. Likewise, Nikita Khrushchev’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s conceptions of party leadership were different as well. One of the most important things Mikhail Gorbachev did when he came to power was to attempt to transform the party according to a highly idealized vision of Leninist rule. Yet, his efforts to reform the idea of the party inadvertently resulted in the institution’s total loss of legitimacy.

What do you mean by referring to “the global idea” of the party in the subtitle of Vanguard of the Revolution?

I am a big believer in the role of ideas in driving human behavior. You can’t understand the communist party’s lasting appeal unless you recognize that the party was an idea before it took the form of a fully fleshed-out organization. When Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, he did not trouble himself with the issue of party organization. He was so convinced about the immediacy of the proletarian revolution that he assumed that the party would simply materialize as the prophetic voice of the working class. Over the following century, his ideas about the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressed and the inevitable victory of good over evil galvanized the emotions of revolutionaries in as disparate locations as Hungary, the United States, Poland, Yugoslavia, and China. Although the conditions these radicals faced were very different from those that Marx encountered in England and Germany, his and his successors’ ideas gave them the confidence that they, too, would be victorious.

Of course, I don’t mean to attribute the longevity of communist parties to ideas alone. As I emphasize in Vanguard of the Revolution, a political order based solely on the idea of constantly revolutionizing society would explode. At one point or another, all communist leaders recognized that their movements would not survive without effective organizations. Yet these parties would not have lasted if they had lacked the ideas to motivate their followers. It’s when you put ideas and organizations together that you get a viable institution, one that lasts a long time.

What is so exciting about the communist party is that it was a truly global institution. Long before the advent of the internet and social media, a combination of factors—advances in communications media, repeated military conflicts, and social upheaval—made it possible for communists and other sympathetic radicals to bring the idea of an international revolution to life. These revolutionaries were not only focused on their own countries, they drew upon a vast network of personal ties to spread the good word about communism around the world.

Why were so many party members willing to sacrifice their lives—or the lives of others, including comrades and family members—in defense of their cause?

This question haunts everyone who seeks to make sense of the history of world communism.  Certainly one motivating factor was fear. During Stalin’s Terror or Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, if you failed to denounce someone who was accused of being a “counterrevolutionary,” you would be accused of the same crime. Another factor was opportunism. For many party cadres, these times presented opportunities for moving up the social and political ladder.

But the factor I consider the most important—and disturbing—was the rigid psychology of many of the true-believers. As writers like Arthur Koestler, Wolfgang Leonhard, and George Orwell, have beautifully captured in their accounts, there was an intoxicating element of messianism in these movements. Party cadres were prepared to do normally unthinkable things to others because they truly believed that they were on the right side of history. As we know about all messianic movements, the more deeply such believers are immersed in their cause, the more they are inclined to engage in cognitive denial. In the face of all contradictory evidence, they can be convinced that people they have known their entire lives are spies, saboteurs, and “wreckers.”

Your book covers an extraordinary number of communist parties over long periods. How did you become interested in the study of communism?

Well, I began with East Germany. I was studying German at the Free University in West Berlin in 1973, and went to East Berlin on a regular basis. Crossing through the Berlin Wall was always an adventure. When I stepped into the Eastern side of the city, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to live under communism. As I passed people on the street, they would invariably look at my shoes and my jeans—both signs of capitalist affluence. Clearly, they were wondering what it was like to live in the West.

Once I had become familiar with one communist country, I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit all of them! Everywhere I went, whether to Cuba, Poland, or China, I found intriguing similarities and differences among their regimes. One of my goals in writing Vanguard of the Revolution was to account for some of these differences.

What is the most unusual communist country you’ve visited?

It would have to be North Korea, although strictly speaking, its government no longer has the formal attributes of a communist regime. When one sees pictures of North Korea, it looks like a very strange place. But when you get there, the country seems even more unfathomable. There are statues of the “eternal leader” Kim Il-sung everywhere, colorful mosaics of the “dear son,” Kim Jong-il, and endless monuments to heroic military battles. When I was there in 2006, I witnessed tens of thousands of parading students, jubilantly preparing for mass games to celebrate their leaders’ achievements. The word “bizarre” does not begin to capture the fervor you experience.

In building this anti-Disneyland, the North Korean government has been remarkably successful in blocking the flow of information into and out of the country. The first thing the police take from you when you arrive at Pyongyang International Airport is your cell phone. As a result of this enforced isolation, the country’s citizens have an almost childlike understanding of the outside world. They also know next to nothing about conditions in their own country. Our tour guide practically fell over from disbelief when I told her that Kim Jong-il had three sons. Now that one of those sons, Kim Jong-un, holds the reins of power, she undoubtedly reveres him as a divine presence who will safeguard her needs.

If you could go back in time, what aspect of the communist party’s history would you like to experience?

I would like to have been a “fly on the wall” during the early battles among Leftist radicals that led to the formation of communist parties, such as the founding congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called First International) in 1864 or the French socialists’ Congress of Tours in 1920. These were fantastically dramatic events. Both the passions and the animosities that they generated contributed substantially to the character of communist parties in subsequent decades. They also played a huge role in the terrible tragedies that were to come to the movement in later years.

Did writing Vanguard of the Revolution present any special challenges?

The biggest challenge was to get inside the heads of the people I was describing. Why were so many party members willing to sacrifice their lives—or the lives of others, their comrades-in-battle, and family members—in defense of their cause?

During my travels to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Asia, this was the first question I posed to long-time communists, people who had become disaffected with liberal democracy and capitalism at an early age and had experienced the tumult of war and other upheavals. Invariably, they convinced me that they were not opportunists; they sincerely believed that they were building a better world.

My challenge was to imagine what these and other communists were thinking and feeling as they lived their lives forward. To satisfy my curiosity, I not only familiarized with the relevant secondary literature.  I also read a lot of biographies, interviews, and even popular literature. These revolutionaries’ ideas directly reflected the cultures of which they were a part.

You call your study of the communist party a post-mortem. Why should we care today about the life and death of this particular institution?

If we interpret the party’s history in the right way, we can gain insight into the vitality of our own political system. The communist parties that ruled countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany didn’t come out of the blue. They were the product of the distinct political and social conditions of the twentieth century—war, economic collapse, and revolution. Strictly speaking, we will never again see this specific type of party. Even the few parties that are still labelled as communist, such as those in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, long ago shed the features that identified them with the Leninist tradition. However, this does not mean that we won’t encounter other militant parties that are equally opposed to liberal democracy. It all depends on having sufficiently turbulent conditions that allow incipient rabble-rousers and demagogues to convince their followers that the prevailing order should be replaced. We see signs of the potential for such extremist movements in the rise of right-wing populism in Europe today. Vladimir Putin’s perversion of Russian democracy is a good example of this trend.  Alas, even parties in the US are not immune to this authoritarian temptation.

McAdamsA. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include Judging the Past in Unified Germany and Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification (Princeton). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Dennis Rasmussen: The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime he was attacked as “the Great Infidel” for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy, and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships. The Infidel and the Professor is the first book to tell the fascinating story of their friendship—and how it influenced their world-changing ideas. Read on to learn more about the relationship between these two towering figures in Western philosophical thought.

Who were David Hume and Adam Smith, and why are they important?
Hume and Smith were eighteenth-century Scots who ended up becoming two of the most significant figures of the Enlightenment, and indeed the entire Western tradition. Hume is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language. He’s also among the most provocative of philosophers: a powerful critic of both religion and the capacities of human reason, as well as a forceful champion of commerce and the all-around benefits of civilization. Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we’d now call capitalism—in fact, he’s often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. As his modern interpreters never tire of pointing out, though, Smith was far more than an economist who theorized the invisible hand and championed free trade. Instead, he was a professor of moral philosophy who included political economy as just one of his many intellectual interests, and he recognized—to a greater degree than Hume, as a matter of fact—a number of potential dangers and drawbacks associated with commercial society. It’s truly remarkable that two thinkers of this stature were best friends for most of their adult lives; that’s a big part of what inspired me to write the book.

It’s certainly remarkable that they were best friends, but you go so far as to claim that theirs was the greatest of all philosophical friendships. That’s a big claim.
Yes, it is, but I think it’s a warranted one. In fact, it takes some effort to think of who the closest rivals would be. During the course of writing the book this became something of a parlor game that I played with fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy? Most people’s first instinct is to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The leading contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

You suggest that the context in which Hume and Smith’s friendship took place was almost as remarkable as the friendship itself; can you say a bit more about that?
Hume and Smith were the leading figures of what’s now known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which was really one of history’s intellectual golden ages. Scotland began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe, but Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement. Some of the important men of letters of the period, in addition to Hume and Smith, included Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Francis Hutcheson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Dugald Stewart. This Scottish renaissance also comprised natural scientists like the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, and James Watt of steam engine fame, as well as artists like the painter Allan Ramsay, the playwright John Home, and the architect Robert Adam. Hume and Smith knew all of these figures personally, and they each play a role in the book. I also describe their encounters with some of the luminaries of the age beyond Scotland, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and Voltaire.

Did Hume and Smith influence one another’s ideas and writings, in addition to being close friends on a personal level?
Hume was almost certainly the single greatest influence on Smith’s thought. There are numerous references to him, both explicit and implicit, throughout Smith’s writings. The reverse is less true, as Hume—the older of the two by a dozen years—had composed almost all of his works before Smith even began to publish his, though Hume did write an anonymous review of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, soon after its release. That’s not to say, however, that Smith simply adopted Hume’s views wholesale. On the contrary, he modified almost everything he touched. The book explores where and how Smith drew on his friend’s thought and where and how he challenged it on a host of topics, including morality, economics, politics, religion, and the workings of the human mind more broadly.

What’s the significance of the title—why The Infidel and the Professor?
One of the running themes of the book is that Hume and Smith adopted broadly similar views, but very different public postures, toward religion and the religious. Hume was a religious skeptic; he never denied outright the existence of a higher power, but he deemed the principal arguments on behalf of one highly implausible, and he considered the effects of religion to be mostly pernicious. This will be somewhat controversial, but I argue that Smith’s views on this score were substantially closer to Hume’s—that is, substantially more skeptical—than is usually assumed. In making this case I place a special emphasis on a controversial public letter that Smith wrote soon after Hume’s death in which he chronicled—some would say flaunted—the cheerfulness and equanimity of Hume’s final days and described his unbelieving friend as a paragon of wisdom and virtue. Whereas Hume was fairly forthright about his lack of faith, however, Smith generally went to great lengths, in both his writings and his personal life, to avoid revealing his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). These contrary postures led to equally contrary reputations: Hume was christened “the Great Infidel” and was deemed unfit to teach the young—he twice sought professorships, but in both cases the clergy opposed his candidacy decisively—while Smith became a respected professor of moral philosophy.

Does the book break any other new ground?
The literatures on Hume and Smith taken individually are vast, but this is—nearly unbelievably—the first book on the two of them considered together, so it’s easily the fullest account of their personal and intellectual relationship. On a related note, the book also provides the first systematic treatment of Smith’s responses to Hume’s thought over the course of his entire career, from his early essay on the history of astronomy (which was written by 1746) through the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (which was published in 1790). Still further, the book aims to shift the usual assumptions regarding what’s original and important in Hume’s and Smith’s writings. For much of the twentieth century Smith’s philosophical writings were deemed to be little more than a series of footnotes to Hume’s, and as an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he is taken notice of at all. Ironically, putting the two side by side serves to highlight the importance of Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy and Hume’s to political economy. Smith followed Hume in developing a moral theory based on human sentiments, but his version of moral sentimentalism incorporated several significant improvements on Hume’s. Conversely, Hume argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared, and it’s striking how much of that work builds on Hume’s insights.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The Expanding Blaze: Moderate vs Radical Enlightenment

IsraelIn The Expanding Blaze, Jonathan Israel argues that the American Revolution, the first of a series of revolutionary upheavals in the West during the period of 1775 to 1859, exerted a massive impact on the rest of the world that was ultimately central to the shaping of democratic modernity. According to Israel, the Atlantic revolutions were all linked pragmatically and philosophically, and were propelled forward in part by a tension between moderate Enlightenment ideas and radical Enlightenment ideas.

Israel argues that all “national” enlightenments were characterized by a struggle between moderate and radical Enlightenment streams. More specifically, the Atlantic revolutions all involved debate between democratic and aristocratic republicanism including support for, versus rejection of, universal rights, citizenship for all versus limited suffrage, and disagreement over the place of religious authority in society. On one side of the debate were individuals including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who admired such philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu. They argued for a more conservative, aristocratic system. On the other side of the debate were people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who became icons for the Atlantic revolutions for their universalizing, secularizing, and egalitarian beliefs.

The tension between moderate and radical Enlightenment beliefs was particularly felt in the debate about slavery. In the late eighteenth century, European colonial territories in the Caribbean were very prosperous, importing valuable goods back to Europe. The large plantations were headed by white planters and run by hundreds of thousands of slaves. In fact, slaves outnumbered the rest of the population by a huge margin. In order to counter claims that slavery was morally unjustifiable, the Caribbean aristocracy invoked the ideas of moderate Enlightenment philosophers, including Montesquieu’s moral, social and political relativism. Conversely, the anti-colonialism espoused in radical Enlightenment texts of the mid-eighteenth century based their arguments on the basic unity of mankind, the equality of races, and universal human rights. These ideas called into question the prevailing notion that white people possessed an innate superiority and authority over other groups and, therefore, the notion that black slavery was defensible.

To learn more about how moderate and radical Enlightenment ideas influenced the Atlantic revolutions between 1775 and 1848, pick up a copy of Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze.

Lewis Glinert: Language dreams – An ancient tongue awakens in a Jewish baby

GlinertIn a Jewish section of Jerusalem, in 1885, a young couple, Eliezer and Devora Ben-Yehuda, were fearful for their child: they were rearing him in Hebrew, an unheard-of idea. They had taken in a wet-nurse, a dog and a cat; the nurse agreed to coo in Hebrew, while the dog and the cat – one male, the other female – would give the infant Itamar an opportunity to hear Hebrew adjectives and verbs inflected for gender. All other languages were to be silenced.

When Itamar turned three, however, he had still not uttered a word. Family friends protested. Surely this mother-tongue experiment would produce an imbecile. And then, the story goes, Itamar’s father marched in and upon finding the boy’s mother singing him a lullaby in Russian, flew into a rage. But then he fell silent, as the child was screaming: ‘Abba, Abba!’ (Daddy, Daddy!) Frightened little Itamar had just begun the reawakening of Hebrew as a mother tongue.

This is how I heard the story (embroidered, no doubt, by time) when I interviewed Itamar’s last living sister, Dola, for my BBC documentary ‘Tongue of Tongues’ in 1989.

As a young man in Russia, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born Perlman) had a far more modest dream: Jewish cultural rebirth. Groups of eastern European Jews, intensively schooled in the Bible and the Talmud in the traditional religious way, were beginning to explore a new, secular Jewish identity, built on reimagining their past and at the same time forging a ‘modernised’ Hebrew to acquaint fellow Jews with contemporary arts and sciences. Hebrew novels started appearing in Warsaw and Odessa, along with periodicals, newspapers, textbooks and encyclopaedias. They variously called their project haskalah (‘enlightenment’) or tehiyah (‘reawakening’).

Cultural renaissance, of course, was a rallying cry across 19th-century Europe, driven by a romantic reverence for a simpler or more glorious national past and, especially after 1848, by tumultuous struggles for ethnic and linguistic self-determination. The driving forces and goals were various and complex. Some, such as ennui in the soulless big city or the mobilisation of the masses through literacy, were modern; others were rooted in old ethnic identities or a respect for the vernacular in the arts and religion. The words and ways of the peasantry had a particular ring of authenticity for many nationalistic intellectuals, often neurotically out of touch (as Elie Kedourie and Joshua Fishman have documented) with the masses they aspired to lead. These sophisticated intellectuals were equally enchanted by childhood and the child’s access to truth and simplicity, as celebrated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake and William Wordsworth.

To the vast majority of Jews, Hebrew language and Hebrew culture felt passé – pious, outmoded, arcane. The future, as they saw it, lay with English, German and Russian, and with the education, earning power and passport to assimilation that these languages promised. Migration to the West was on many minds. The young Ben-Yehuda was well aware of this. If current trends continued, he believed that his generation might well be the last erudite enough to understand its Jewish literary heritage.

But what kind of cultural ‘liberation’ could Jewish nationalists hope for? The Jews had no territory of their own, and a Jewish state, even Jewish autonomy, seemed a fantasy. (Zionism as a mass movement was still a generation in the future.) Nor was there a Hebrew-speaking peasantry or a Hebrew folk heritage to turn to for authenticity, or so it seemed. Hebrew was incorrigibly adult, stuffy. There was Yiddish, of course, the vernacular of most European Jews in the 19th century, but they generally considered it undignified, comic, a language without a grammar, a mishmash.

Then, in 1878, as Europe was toasting Bulgaria’s triumph against the Ottomans, the 19-year-old Ben-Yehuda had his epiphany. As he recalled years later in his memoirs: ‘The heavens opened … and I heard a mighty voice within me calling: “The rebirth of the Jews and their language on ancestral soil!”’ What if Jews could build a modern way of life in the Holy Land – raising their children to speak the old language?

Ben-Yehuda wanted great literature to be preserved down the generations. But to speak in order to read? Today, it sounds back-to-front, but in the 19th century it would have seemed quite reasonable. The trouble was that no child had used Hebrew as a mother tongue in close to 2,000 years. Thinking logically, Ben-Yehuda reasoned that a new mother tongue would need a willing mother: and so he found one, in an intellectual young woman named Devora Jonas, raised like him in Yiddish and Russian, and with only the barest knowledge of Hebrew. (Intensive textual study was traditionally reserved for young men.) No matter – they would marry and she would learn. In 1881, the young couple set sail for the Holy Land, pledging to set up the first secular, ‘progressive’ household in the pious city of Jerusalem, and to communicate with each other (and eventually, their children) only in Hebrew.

Speaking Hebrew was actually nothing new in itself; it had long been a lingua franca between Yiddish-, Ladino- and Arabic-speaking Jewish traders (and refugees). The markets of the Holy Land had resonated with Hebrew for hundreds of years. But a pidgin is not a mother tongue. Ben-Yehuda was a born philologist; he plucked words from ancient texts and coined his own, hoping one day to launch Hebrew’s answer to the Oxford English Dictionary. The birth of Itamar gave him an opportunity to put his experiment with Hebrew to the test. Could they rear the boy in Hebrew? Could they shield him from hearing other tongues? And, just as critical, could the family be a model for others?

Devora’s limited Hebrew was presumably sufficient for a three-year-old, but, like immigrant mothers everywhere, she eventually learned fluent Hebrew from her children, thereby demonstrating the two-way validity of the model. Ben-Yehuda, however, won the acclaim. ‘Why does everyone call him the Father of Modern Hebrew?’ sniffed the author S Y Agnon. ‘The people needed a hero,’ a politician wryly quipped, ‘so we gave them one.’ Ben-Yehuda’s political vision and scholarly toil complemented the physical toil by which the Zionist pioneers made their return to the Holy Land sacred.

Many more pieces had to fall into place in subsequent years to turn a language of books into a stable mother tongue for an entire society – some carefully laid, others dropping from heaven. But amid the waves of revolutionary-minded migrants deeply schooled in traditional texts, the developing demographics, economics and institutions of a new nation, the nationalistic fervour, and a lot of sheer desperation, we should not forget Hebrew’s very special version of the romance of a child’s talk.

The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert is out now with Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Yuri Slezkine on The House of Government

Slezkine The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Yuri Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared. Read on to learn more about the House, the book, and why the Bolsheviks can be considered a millenarian sect.

What gave you the idea to write this book?

YS: I grew up in Moscow, in a communal apartment (an apartment that contained several unrelated families, each occupying one room and sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and hallway). About twenty years ago, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a history of the Soviet Union through the history of one such apartment. Tracking down different families and their archives proved difficult, however, and I kept moving from one building to the next until I ended up in the largest and most famous of them all, the House of Government.

What was the House of Government?

YS: It was the apartment building where most top members of the Soviet Government lived in the 1930s. It was located in a low-lying area called “the Swamp,” across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe and a model of socialist domesticity, it combined 550 fully furnished family apartments with public spaces including a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in clinic, child-care center, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, theater, movie theater, tennis court, and several dozen rooms for various activities (from billiards and target shooting to painting and orchestra rehearsals). It is still there today, next to Swamp Square and across the river from the Kremlin—still a house, but no longer “of government.” Most Muscovites know it as a huge, sinister gray building—the last address of the founders of the Soviet state and the subject of Yuri Trifonov’s wonderful novella, The House on the Embankment.

Is The House of Government a history of that building?

YS: It is a history of the building and of the men, women, and children who lived there. It begins with the Old Bolsheviks’ conversion to communism, culminates in their execution for treason, and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a history of the Russian Revolution through the story of the original revolutionaries and their families.

 In what sense is it a “saga?”

YS: It is an epic prose narrative with multiple heroic characters and, at the same time, a history of particular families over several generations. The reason an apartment building is a perfect subject for a book about the revolution is that all radical attempts to transform human life are ultimately assaults on the family (the oldest and most conservative of human institutions). Family apartments were places where Bolsheviks came home and the revolution came to die. Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. My book is about how and why that happened.

Why millenarian?

YS: Because, in my view, the Bolsheviks were a millenarian sect. They believed in Providence (which they called History), the fatal corruption of the world (which they called “the last stage of capitalism”), the approaching apocalypse (which they called Revolution) and the more or less immediate—”in this generation”—collective salvation leading to the Millennium (which they called Communism).

Their prophecy was analogous to those of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Mormonism, Nazism, Rastafarianism, and the Branch Davidians, among many others, but the Bolsheviks were more successful than most because they took over Babylon while still expecting the disappearance of the old world in their lifetimes (Christianity did not become the empire’s official faith until the wait for the Last Days had become routinized). It is as if the Fifth Monarchists, the most radical of the nonconformist dissenters, had won the English Civil War and formed a Puritan International. Or as if Jim Jones had installed himself in the White House, renamed the United States the People’s Temple, and won the civil war he had done so much to bring about.

The Bolsheviks succeeded in casting out the moneychangers and collectivizing most worldly possessions, but they failed the test of disappointment. All end-of-the-world prophecies have so far proven false. Some millenarian sects have managed to cross the succession threshold, institutionalize themselves as churches with hereditary membership, and turn the revelation into an allegory and the promise of “till Kingdom come” into a synonym of “till the cows come home.” Others—the overwhelming majority—have disappeared, more or less violently, along with the first generation of believers.

The Bolsheviks’ failure was almost as spectacular as their success. They built a great empire but never figured out how to penetrate the home and reform the family. Their faith remained silent on the mysteries of birth, marriage, and death, and the Babylon they conquered proved more durable than they did. A hundred years after the fall of the Winter Palace, Russia is back, and the Bolsheviks are all gone.

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books includeThe Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.

Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Mitchell Cohen: The Politics of Opera

CohenThe Politics of Opera takes readers on a fascinating journey into the entwined development of opera and politics, from the Renaissance through the turn of the nineteenth century. What political backdrops have shaped opera? How has opera conveyed the political ideas of its times? Delving into European history and thought and an array of music by such greats as Lully, Rameau, and Mozart, Mitchell Cohen reveals how politics—through story lines, symbols, harmonies, and musical motifs—has played an operatic role both robust and sotto voce.

Politics is not usually the first thing most people think about when it comes to opera. Why did you write a book on politics and opera?

MC: It was natural. I have a passion for opera and I am a professor of political theory and co-edited Dissent, a political magazine. I began writing the book in order to explore the intersection of two apparently disparate domains. Moreover, if the relation between aesthetic ideas and political ideas interests you, opera provides a great terrain for exploration. Of course, not all operas are political, but more are—or have political implications—than many people realize. I should add: politics does not consume all there is to say about those operas that are political. The Politics of Opera is about how and when two domains come together, and I define politics broadly. In any event, there was also a selfish dimension to my project: I had to go to the opera for work. There are worse things to have to do.

Your book is unusual because of the time span you cover, roughly from the birth of opera through Mozart, some two hundred years. Why choose this period?

MC: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Modern politics—the modern state in Europe—was, broadly speaking, born at the time of the Renaissance. Opera emerged in the late Renaissance. In the last decades of the 16th century, humanist intellectuals in Florence debated about “ancient” and “modern” music—they meant Greek antiquity and their own day. Galileo’s father was one of them. Their conversations led to experiments that, in turn, became opera at the turn of the 17th century. In roughly this era, in Italy and France, important debates occurred and books were published about politics and the nature of politics because it was transforming. One might say that Machiavelli, decades earlier, began the discussion. Of course he didn’t write operas (he did write plays). The parallel between the development of a new form of politics and a new form of musical stage art intrigued me. But in Mozart’s day there was a massive political crack-up, the French revolution—there was, then, great upheaval and great genius at the same time. That’s why I took the late 18th century as a natural historical border. The Politics of Opera seeks to sink operas into the political times in which they were first imagined and not to imagine them as somehow standing outside their times. Another way of saying that is that if you want truly to grasp the politics of an opera you must look deeply both into history and into the ideas that were current when it was written and composed. You have to know what was being argued about then and not just impose your own contemporary preoccupations, although your own preoccupations may be enlightening too—so long as you keep an eye on the differences between your ideas and those found, say, in an opera by Monteverdi or Rameau or Mozart.

For whom are you writing?

MC: I try to write for a broad intelligent public and for scholars. I sought to make a contribution to our understanding of interesting, not-always-evident matters but in accessible ways. I hope that opera fans along with scholars and students of history, culture, music and politics will all be engaged by it. I hope they’ll learn something of what I learned in writing and researching it.

Your book’s prologue speaks of the itinerary of your explorations. What was the route?

MC: Italy, France, Vienna. Florence under the Medicis was the obvious place to begin because those humanists I mentioned were talking about relations between music, feelings, and ideas. The earliest opera for which we still have both the libretto and the music retold the story of Eurydice and Orpheus for a political event, the marriage in 1600 of Maria de’ Medici to France King Henri IV in Florence (He didn’t show up but sent a stand-in!). But then there was a leap of musical imagination when, in Mantua just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi began composing operas, first of all his remarkable Orfeo. I am always tempted to call him “the great Monteverdi” and indeed he was the first great composer of opera, although he wrote many other wonderful compositions too. He would eventually be fired from Mantua’s ducal court but then he received a much more prestigious position in Venice, a republic. Towards the end of his life he composed some amazing operas in collaboration with librettists who were close to power in Venice. This included the first directly political and historical opera, The Coronation of Poppea. In it the philosopher Seneca and Roman emperor Nero quarrel over ‘reason’ versus ’emotion’ in ruling. From Italy I went to France, more precisely to the birth of French opera thanks to Jean-Baptiste Lully during the reign of Louis XIV. Then I turned to the quarrel in the 18th century between a great composer and theorist of harmony, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a popular but not-so-great composer of opera, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yes, the Rousseau, the famous political philosopher who advocated sovereignty of the people but who also aspired to be a composer. Poor Rameau! Poor Rousseau! Rameau was the great artist and my book devotes considerable space to his opera Les Indes galantes, a remarkable opera that in part reflects the Age of Exploration—what others would call the Age of Imperialism. But Rameau was not a spectacular writer and Rousseau’s music, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to go too often to his best-known opera, Le Devin du Village (the Village Soothsayer). However, you really wouldn’t want to get into polemics with him since he was a master of them. 

From France I went on to Vienna, to Metastasio, the Imperial Poet of the Holy Roman Empire whose librettos were set by many composers, including Vivaldi. For my purposes the most interesting of them was Cato in Utica, which is about the last Roman republican resistance to the rise of the Roman Empire—Cato versus Julius Casesar. Of course, the book must finally come to Mozart’s operas.

As I looked at all these operas I tried to contextualize them and also to show parallels with key political ideas and problems of the times—ideas and problems that are embedded in them. So readers will come across a number of important thinkers and writers—some well-known, some less-known today—weaving throughout the book. These range from Machiavelli and Tacitus to Jean Bodin, Diderot, Edmund Burke, Rousseau and others.

Was Mozart political?

MC: Mozart was, of course, a man of music before anything else. We should be forever grateful for that. The more you study him, the more amazing he becomes. He didn’t write on politics but he certainly had problems with authority. His operas are filled with political themes and political issues of his time. He didn’t write his librettos but he helped to shape them. I try in The Politics of Opera to give a close reading (and hearing) to the results. The book actually stretches a little beyond Mozart and rounds off by discussing a little known work. The German poet Goethe wrote a sequel to The Magic Flute a few years after Mozart’s death. Goethe never finished it and nobody was brave enough to write music for it. In it there is a regrouping of the forces of darkness. Led by the infamous Queen of the Night they launch an assault against Sarastro’s enlightened realm—he is on a sabbatical—and Tamino and Pamina. Goethe wrote it in the mid 1790s. It is easy to think of it in light of wars and politics in Europe just then. There is, of course, much more to be found in it too.

You certainly cover a lot of territory. How do you approach it all?

MC: By using insights drawn from many thinkers and varied methods—political, philosophical, musicalogical, historical—in different combinations. I don’t impose one model on everything. I prefer what I call a methodological medley. It seems to me a particularly fruitful way to be inter-disciplinary.

MitchellCohen Cohen is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York and an editor emeritus of Dissent. His books include The Wager of Lucien Goldmann and The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and has written for many publications including the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement (London).


Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Dennis Rasmussen: National Friendship Day

Today, August 6, is National Friendship Day. Rather than celebrate this Hallmark holiday by sending a slew of greeting cards, as its originators hoped, I propose to use it to raise and answer a fascinating but seldom-asked question: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy?

I am convinced that the answer is clear, once the leading contenders have been considered: the greatest of all philosophical friendships was that of David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume is, after all, widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, and Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we would now call capitalism. They are two of the most significant figures in the entire Western tradition, and they were best friends for most of their adult lives. My new book, The Infidel and the Professor, follows the course of Hume and Smith’s friendship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death more than a quarter of a century later, examining both their personal interactions and the impact that each had on the other’s outlook.

During the course of writing the book I frequently invited fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians to nominate alternative friendships as the greatest in the history of philosophy. Most people’s first instinct was to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The strongest contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

Given their stature and influence it is remarkable that no book has heretofore been written on Hume and Smith’s personal or intellectual relationship. One likely reason for this is that friendships are more difficult to bring to life than feuds and quarrels: conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie does not. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there have been many books written on philosophical clashes—think of David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker and Rousseau’s Dog, Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic, and Robert Zaretsky and John Scott’s The Philosophers’ Quarrel, to name only a few recent titles—but far fewer on philosophical friendships. Even biographies of Hume tend to devote less attention to his long friendship with Smith than to his brief quarrel with Rousseau, which, sensational as it may have been, was not nearly as central to Hume’s life and thought.

The relative lack of attention paid to philosophical friendships, while understandable, is unfortunate. Friendship was understood to be a key component of philosophy and the philosophical life from the very beginning, as even a cursory reading of Plato or Aristotle should remind us. The latter famously claimed that friendship is the one good without which no one would choose to live even if he possessed all other goods, and Hume and Smith clearly concurred. Hume held that “friendship is the chief joy of human life,” and Smith proclaimed that the esteem and affection of one’s friends constitutes “the chief part of human happiness.” Indeed, Hume proposed a small thought experiment to prove Aristotle’s point. “Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man,” he suggests. “Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him. He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.”

Aristotle divides friendships into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by pleasure, and—the highest and rarest of the three—those motivated by virtue or excellence. Smith draws a similar distinction in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though he insists that the latter alone “deserve the sacred and venerable name of friendship.” Smith’s relationship with Hume represents a nearly textbook model of this kind of friendship: a stable, enduring, reciprocal bond that arises not just from serving one another’s interests or from taking pleasure in one another’s company, but also from the shared pursuit of a noble end—in their case, philosophical understanding.

An examination of Hume and Smith’s personal and intellectual relationship thus allows for a different kind of reflection on friendship than is found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and the like. Whereas these leading philosophers of friendship tend to analyze the concept in the abstract—the different forms that friendship takes, its roots in human nature, its relationship to self-interest, to romantic love, and to justice—a consideration of Hume and Smith allows us to see that rare thing, a philosophical friendship of the very highest level in action: a case study, as it were. As my book aims to show, it is a friendship very much worth celebrating.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.