A comment on, “A philosophical interpretation of recent campus protests” by Huenemanniac

What follows is a lengthy comment on this blog entry.

I also came over here from Brian Leiter’s blog, and may be something of a johnny-come-lately because due to work obligations only saw this essay last night. Disclaimer: despite my Ph.D. and publications including books I have been outside academic philosophy for several years now, so some might say I no longer have “skin in the game,” which is true insofar as it goes, but — trust me! — not having to worry about being laid off from one’s adjunct-instructor position liberates a person to say things he would NEVER say if he had that worry: for example [TRIGGER WARNING!!!!!] that Black Lives Matter revealed themselves (some of them anyway) to be a group of narcissistic thugs with a single hashtag (#F***Paris). And yes, as the lowly branch campus in the South I walked away from where philosophy was the most poorly funded subject on campus, I can only be bemused at the people in Ivy League colleges, students or faculty, who see themselves as put-upon or repressed because of a politically incorrect email. But anywise …

Professor Huenemann, suppose for the sake of argument that your assessment of the Enlightenment and privilege is correct. In that case, yes, the Enlightenment-derived technologically advanced civilization and creature comforts we all enjoy was built on the backs of subjugated peoples and has more blood on its hands than any of its expositors or defenders care to admit, or even think about. Although I used the phrase “for the sake of argument” this is not merely hypothetical; last year, the work of renegade economist Michael Perelman came to my attention, especially excerpts from his book The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation  (2000) which demolishes the idea championed by Adam Smith and David Hume, and later by David Ricardo, that British (later British-American) capitalism developed voluntarily when multitudes of peasants flooded into the cities looking for new opportunities in the factories. Perelman asks a surprisingly simple question: why would these people abandon lives of relative independence and stability in farming or related agrarian work for lives of dependence in dark, dirty, and often dangerous factories? His answer is, they wouldn’t and they didn’t. Relying on little-known correspondence, diaries, etc., dating from the period, peasants were forced to do so. Perelman shows how capitalists quietly advocated government policies that forced them off their land and left them with no alternative except moving into burgeoning cities where they either worked in factories or starved. He argues that Smith, Hume, and others rationalized this with their philosophies of capitalism as representing progress, self-correcting, and therefore in no need of direct regulation apart from the creation of the larger legal infrastructure. The actual goal was to deprive peasants of their land and enjoin on them by force the need for “primitive accumulation” (Perelman’s term) as instrument for control over labor. This argument emphasizes class as it existed in the rising British empire, before we even get to the slave trade!

It is sobering to reflect that much of the ideology of modern capitalism, however cashed out, is built upon a false premise as well as upon exercises of force its leading defenders today, libertarians, repudiate with their “non-aggression principle.”

But given this — I may have just strengthened the arguments for a “second” look at the Enlightenment and its leading expositors — and supposing no errors of historical fact or logic here, the troubling question remains: what can we do about all this NOW? We cannot exactly turn back time. We can acknowledge that some have always been sacrificed so that others may prosper, and it happens today in a more modest form every time an occupation performed by humans is replaced by automation. But this hardly seems any kind of basis for the moral view of the world philosophers invariably seek (unless they decide that this view of the world is an illusion!).

We may be chained by our histories, metaphorically speaking. Rising Westerners hardly invented the above practices. Human beings have been enslaving and brutalizing one another for as long as there has been a human race. If anything, we Westerners have taken more and larger steps towards eliminating various forms the chains of slavery (chattel or otherwise) can take, than any previous civilization. We have done much to reduce the level and acceptability of cruelty, at least in our own culture (although, again, IMHO we’ve regressed badly since 9/11!). We have our Enlightenment ideals to thank for what progress we’ve made, even if we’re a long way from being out of the woods: I would say that we are not out of the woods until no one can be fired from a job for saying something politically unpopular which may be factually true. The employment system that eventually evolved from the factory system has remained a form of control, after all.

If we are to have any kind of future, we must learn to break those chains and end these controls, at least within the parameters human nature permits. That will mean making peace with a past we cannot change, having resolved to learn from it what we can, and — yes — move on, into a future that cannot be better than the past any other way. It was macrohistorian Carroll Quigley (1910 – 1977) who once said that the future can be better than the past, and we have an obligation to try to make it so.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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