Friday, July 15, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #6: You and the State

"Indeed, there is a paradox here. Insofar as you actually use the force you threaten, you fail to get what you wanted, which was for the other person to do your bidding. If you don't use it but merely threaten it, you might succeed in that. But if the other person thinks through it, he could alternatively just refuse, and then where are you? This is the classic game theorist's situation known as 'chicken.'" --Jan Narveson

If you're having reading problems, I feel bad for you, son. I read 99 pages, plus a whole 'nother one. Hit me!

Today's book is Jan Narveson's You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy. This reading introduces another element as of yet unseen in my series: bitter, vehement disagreement between reader and author. Essentially, Narveson's book is on the utility of the state, and whether some other models (read: anarchism and libertarianism) may be more useful, or at least open for discussion. The first hundred pages doesn't really get to this argument. What we get instead is an introduction on political philosophy, a discussion of the need for government in the face of (or sometimes, created by) those who would claim rule through brute force, a discussion of conservatism in light of the guardian state, and the first half of a run-down of classic liberalism.

For the first half of the hundred pages, my main argument with the book is also my main praise: its accessibility. I know from hard experience how easy it is to let a discussion of any philosophy, political or otherwise, get bogged down in overladen terminology and discipline-staking jargon. That Narveson avoids this jargon is to his credit; that he embraces simplicity in his prose is even more so to his credit. My problem, however, is two fold. First, and we'll deal with this complaint more fully in a moment, speaking simply sometimes lends itself to speaking broadly, and that in turn leads to overgeneralizing. Second, there's a fine line between speaking plainly and patronizing, and I think Narveson, in his commitment to the former, passes over to the latter, as evidenced by the quotation above. But really, that's a minor quibble; I imagine the book was written for an undergraduate audience, and it's ideally accessible for a first year political science class.

Where things get a little more disagreeable for this Person of Consequence is the chapter on conservatism. Again to his credit, Narverson starts off with the recognition that conservatism is a much misused word, as it refers to political parties that don't really practice it in any traditional sense, and it refers to a common use that makes it equivalent with "slow to change," which can be ascribed to virtually any political system. Rather, he defines it as any political system that forces values on its people, and the contrast is liberalism as the view that individuals are the authorities of their own good. And thus we range through the historical "conservative" leaderships: aristocracies, martial rule, hereditary aristocracy, oligarchy, rule by priests, slavery, and--here's where the trouble starts, Marxism. Basically, I disagree fully with Narveson's characterization of the problems with Marxism, and his discussion on the other side of things, the value of capitalism and the free market. Allow me to explain, in arduous, hippy-laden detail.

First the disclaimers: I don't really consider myself either a Marxist. I've read too much lit theory to ascribe to theoretical Marxism, as I find it rather boring, and I've read too much history to ascribe to Marxism as it was put into practice, as I find that rather terrifying. If you had to boil my philosophy down into a clear statement, it would be, after much hand-wringing, that each individual person has a personal and moral responsibility to help out their fellow human beings (and, sometimes, just fellow beings), or, at the very least, avoid doing anything that actively harms them. The avoidance part leads to a liberalism in social issues, and the helping part leads to a governmental system of support in other issues. So if you know of a pithy term that encapsulates both those aspects, let me know.

And now that I've poured my political heart out, and bared my socialist(?) soul, my actual complaints against Narveson are fairly mundane. He argues that Marx was wrong for three reasons. 1)The theory of value doesn't work because it's trumped by the reality of market value--that is, the market determines what work is, not the amount of labor put into it. 2) Labor is not exploitative because the worker gets something out of it. 3) The polarization of the classes never happened. Responding to Marx's claim of growing inequality, Narveson says: "Uh-huh--so say we now, as our highways are crowded with proletarians equipped with SUVs, hauling their powerboats to vacation sites, and so on. What, we must ask, went wrong (or, better, went right!)?". And later, he argues that free market is better than socialism for obvious reasons: "Twentieth-century socialist States, for example, were prize polluters, and its chiefs wholesale thieves of their citizens' money." His chief example of a model socialist being, in this case, Fidel Castro.

My problem with Marx's argument is that it is overly reductive; my problwm with Narveson's is that it magnifies the reduction and swings it the other way. Both reduce their respective cases to all-or-nothing binary cases. Yes, I'd agree with Narveson that there's no such thing as pure labor value, narrow class divide, or entirely exploitative labor. But to dismiss Marx's arguments entirely on those grounds is equally as wrong. Market value isn't the only way to value things, and some scholars, such as Negri and Hardt, have made a reasonable academic name arguing for other models.
To use the American middle class as evidence that there is no class divide or exploitation of workers is a stretched comparison at best, and disingenuous at worst. First, exploitation CAN still take place even if the worker is apparently getting what they immediately desire out of the situation; one of the core tenets of ideology is that it masks the true state of affairs from those who are entrenched in it. Second, owning a powerboat and SUV is still something of a class divide if your boss owns a half dozen Corvettes and a private yacht. More to the point, Narveson is ignoring the evidence that this middle class is steadily shrinking, and that the appearance of wealth and the reality of wealth are two different things, as anyone with a mortgage can tell you. Finally, his example also elides the fact that exploitation and class divide often moves to where the upper class folk don't have to look at it, overseas in factories with subhuman work conditions and lax labor laws.

And don't get me started on the problems of using Castro as a socialist leader. Suffice to say, as Naverson himself acknowledges, no market is entirely a free market. Placing socialism and capitalism as binary opposites is a false comparison; they're more two ends of a spectrum, with the actual market fluctuating between the two ends.

I'll fully admit that what I don't know about political theory can fill entire libraries (and, in fact, does). But Narveson's book, as it stands at 100 pages, ignores as many questions as it answers.

Verdict: It's certainly a good book for generating political discussion; your personal preference for it will depend largely on your stance towards his version of liberalism.

Would read the rest?: I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I'm not too eager to continue on a book that I disagree with on so many levels. But at the same time, I am curious to see exactly where Narveson's argument is going, and I believe that pursuing things you feel strongly about is an important part of intellectual development, whether you're pursuing something you agree with or not. But I should probably focus on things more directly related to my subject area first.

Final Word: I feel like "You and the State" should be the title for a buddy comedy.

Later Days.

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