Kaj je narobe z liberalizmom? Njegov računovodski pogled na naše početje

Moj najljubši članek tega tedna je razprava zgodovinarja Davida Woottona o liberalizmu. Opiše evolucijo utilitarizma, kot temelja liberalizma, ki na naše početje glede strogo računovodsko – kot na knjigovodski popis občutkov zadovoljstva in bolečine. In ko imate takšno bilanco na dnevni ravni, ko lahko na dnevni ravni “izračunate” vaše “neto zadovoljstvo“, lahko torej tudi preprosto matematično maksimirate vaše zadovoljstvo. Toda ta računovodski, racionalistični pogled na naše početje kot razliko med vsotama zadovoljstva in bolečine je individualističen, razčlovečen in ahistoričen. Z njim ne morete razumeti sreče, “žrtvovanja sebe” za družino, z njim ne more razumeti zadovoljstva, ki ga prinaša osrečevanje drugih. Z njim ne morete razumeti, zakaj so ljudje večinsko proti imigracijam ali zakaj volijo Trumpa, AfD, za Brexit, saj so imigracije vendar ekonomsko neto pozitivne.

S tem računovodskim pogledom, ki ignorira človečnost, kulturo in zgodovinski kontekst, pač pa naše početje zreducira na uokvirjeno racionaliziranje posamičnih dejanj, ne morete razumeti sveta in zakaj počnemo stvari, kot jih počnemo. Morda bi največjim libertarnim utilitaristom koristilo, če bi pri študiju utilitarizma od Hobbesa do Benthama upoštevali zgodovinski kontekst, zakaj se je utilitarizem razvil v obliki, kot se je. Zakaj se je takrat – v vojnah med katoliki in protestanti – bilo treba odpovedati “neracionalnim” človeškim prepričanjem, veri, identiteti in zakaj je abstrahiranje teh “neracionalnosti” danes največji problem pri razumevanju vzpona populizma. In morda bi pomagalo še branje zadnje knjige Francisa Fukuyame “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment“.

In 1826 the 20-year-old John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown. He had been raised by his father, James, as a utilitarian. Consequently, he had believed that all that mattered in life was pleasure and pain. Suddenly, nothing gave him pleasure anymore. Having been taught that his purpose in life was to spread happiness, he now realised, as he later reported in his Autobiography, that making other people happy would not bring about his own happiness. He emerged from this crisis when he realised that happiness is peculiar: it is a byproduct of doing something you care about, something you believe in. Paradoxically, he was now free to devote himself once more to making other people happy. His recovery began when he read the historian Jean-François Marmontel’s account of the death of his father and wept. Mill, having imagined the death of his own father, had begun to think and feel for himself.

This story has something important to tell us about what John Maynard Keynes called modern civilisation’s moral decay. For what Mill discovered is that utilitarianism alone cannot enable us to make sense of our lives or give us a purpose for living. Mill had been educated in an intellectual tradition which made no distinction between pleasure and happiness (though we know that plenty of people are happy in the face of adversity, while others are miserable when indulging every pleasure money can buy). It maintained that all pleasures are equally good. Good and evil, Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Bentham had all taught, are simply pleasure and pain. From the Huguenot refugee Pierre Bayle onwards, people wrote about pleasure and pain as if they were entries in an account book; reason, it was claimed, was simply a process of calculating how to maximise pleasure. Hobbes had pointed out that the word ‘reason’ derives from the Latin for ‘calculate’, while Bentham invented the word ‘maximise’. Hobbes was the first to insist that all pleasures are equally good, which implied they could be quantified; Locke’s psychology explained how we pursue happiness; Hume argued that moral judgements are simply judgements regarding pleasure and utility; and Adam Smith explained how a hidden hand ensures that individuals, pursuing their own selfish interests, benefit those around them.

This is the tradition out of which Bentham constructed utilitarianism: radically individualist and ahistorical. Although it acknowledged that not all human behaviour is rational, it insisted that, if people would only learn how to think straight, they would become both rational and happy. Looking back from 1938 to the days of 1914, Keynes diagnosed the contradiction. ‘Bertie [Bertrand Russell] in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was carry them on rationally.’

In the complaints of those who seek to defend liberalism against populism we hear over and over again this same incompatible pair of opinions: those who vote for Brexit, or Trump, or Alternative for Germany are irrational, ignorant, uneducated; if only they had a proper grasp of their own interests, they would vote for Remain, or Clinton, or Merkel. But where the two sides disagree is precisely on what it means to be rational and, more fundamentally, on whether human beings can or should approach life as a series of profit and loss calculations, as if there might be some calculus that enables us to choose happiness.

Almost wherever one looks in the pre-1989 democracies we see signs of crisis. There are varied descriptions of what is going wrong: Patrick J. Deneen has written Why Liberalism Failed, Michiko Kakutani The Death of Truth. Neither focuses on an obvious question: what is the connection between the present crisis and immigration? From a Benthamite perspective, immigration is irrelevant: all economists agree that it is economically beneficial and unemployment is, by historical standards, low in all the countries where populism has taken hold. But opposition to immigration is strongest, not where immigrants are most numerous, but where people believe it will increase in the future. There is a tendency to think that hostility to immigration is about race: sometimes it is; often it isn’t. Hostility to white, middle-class incomers and gentrifiers mirrors hostility to immigrants. The issues raised by immigration are not just about income or race, but identity. Populism marks a new phase in identity politics for the simple reason that people fear not only poverty, but also identity deprivation.

For utilitarians, aversion to change, in and of it itself, is simply irrational: they can make no sense of nostalgia, of the affection for the familiar, or of the complex ways in which people construct a sense of identity. A utilitarian, who assumes that one pleasure can as easily be exchanged for another, as a pound can be exchanged for a euro, must mock the idea that a certain sort of pleasure, or a certain sort of identity, has some special added value attached to it, just because it conjures up memories, or fits like an old shoe. Yet people resist change and they are much more prone to mourn losses than to celebrate gains.

The Benthamite understanding of human nature and human behaviour, which drew on intellectual developments over the previous three centuries, from Machiavelli to Mill, always was, as the latter recognised, a profoundly unsatisfactory account of who we are. The errors are obvious: the conviction that human beings are, or can easily become, good and rational; that there is no arguing with someone who says ‘this is what gives me pleasure’, whether this (in Bentham’s example) is push-pin or poetry; and the presumption that we are all, as it were, in business as individuals, that the ties which bind us to family, friends, community, nation are purely instrumental arrangements of convenience. No one in this tradition was aware, to quote Keynes again (who was writing in September 1938, under the shadow of the coming war), ‘that civilisation was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved. We had, he wrote of his younger self and his circle, ‘no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom’.

I am a liberal. So was Mill; but his response to his moral crisis was to insist on the superiority of poetry to push-pin. So was Keynes; but his response to the rise of Nazism was to acknowledge the intellectual and moral failure of the liberal tradition. A similar response is called for now. At such moments historians have a particular responsibility. Keynes, in order to think about what was going wrong in 1938, felt obliged to think about the history of philosophy from Bentham to ‘Bertie’, just as I have felt obliged to think about the history of moral, political and economic thought from Machiavelli to Bentham, the eventual outcome of which has been what Weber called the ‘iron cage’ of modern economic and bureaucratic rationality. Only when we are prepared to acknowledge, as Keynes was in 1938, that our inherited presuppositions have become obstacles not assets can we hope to refashion our cage. If we fail to engage with those who disagree with us, if we fail to understand what matters to them, then our failings are both intellectual and moral. For humanity’s mental and moral incapacities there are, alas, no permanent cures, but we can aim to do better than we are doing right now.

Vir: David Wootton, History Today

3 responses

  1. Kaj predstavljajo Trump, Brexit, Alternativa za Nemčijo, gibanje 5 zvezdic in še bi lahko naštevali? Mnogo stvari, ampak predvsem pa predstavljajo nek skok v neznano.

    Osnovni paradoks življenja v neoliberalizmu je tale: vsakdanji ljudje živijo vse bolj tvegano, manj je varnosti, v politiki pa ni več nobenega tveganja, vse se zdi predvidljivo. Zato se politiki kot so Clintonova, Merklova, Macron, itd… zdijo povsem predvidljivi.

    Številni ljudje so zato naredili nekaj kar niti ni tako neumno: odločili so se za bolj tvegane politike, za populiste, v upanju, da jim bo to v vsakdanjem življenju prineslo neko varnost. Vprašajmo se torej zakaj jih liberalno/konservativni politiki, ki so res precej predvidljivi, ne prepričajo več kot nekoč.

      • Jaz mislim, da ni tako. Živimo pač v časih, ko smo dosegli pomemben paradoks: predvidljivi politiki, torej tisti, ki so dolgoletni del establišmenta, niso garant varnosti, temveč celo nevarnosti. Večina ljudi je to ugotovila.

        Skrbi z leve so, da so taki politiki garant vztrajajoče in naraščajoče prekernosti, proračunskih rezov v socialno varnost, garant za vse večje neenakosti, tudi veliko okoljsko brezbrižnost. Skrbi z desne so podobne, z dodanim strahom pred odrtimi mejami, pred življenjem s tujci, ki jih ne poznajo. Potem je tudi prisoten strah pred izgubljanjem ekonomske moči v nebrzdani mednarodni konkurenci, strah pred izgubo lastne kulture, itd….

        To seveda ne more trajati v nedogled, zato je vznik novih lažnih prerokov, le vprašanje časa.

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