Rousseau and the Legacy of Romanticism

One idea that I’ve fondly taken from Augusto del Noce is that ideologies have an internal logic to them, which unfolds as they interact with real-world events. Philosophies aren’t static, but constantly changing as they play out against one another historically. This view, while similar to the Marxist notion of praxis, finds ultimate inspiration from Joseph de Maistre. It’s de Maistre who writes that the French Revolution sweeps men up against their will and devours its own children.

Once put into practice, revolutions take on a life of their own, and like a wild tiger on a leash, drag their authors to new and unheard-of places. This isn’t to deny human free will; something I strongly affirm. It’s rather to recognise that rational humans, faced with circumstances, strive to act consistently with what they believe. This mechanism of consistency is what causes ideologies to evolve over time.

This insight is a powerful tool for understanding the long-term consequences of philosophies. The social sciences may quantify popular actions and opinions, but because human wishes are often nebulous, and people are fond of lying to themselves, there’s always room to dispute the results. The romantic primitivism of Jean Jacques Rousseau is one such ideology. Since being unleashed into the world from the bloody womb of the Reign of Terror, it has branched in many different directions and morphed into shapes Rousseau himself wouldn’t have recognised.

To define romanticism, I turn to Irving Babbitt and his 1919 work Rousseau and Romanticism. Romanticism sets itself in opposition to classicism. Classicism seeks standards for ethics and culture in universal types which it deems natural. It’s not the case that classicism seeks rules necessarily (lest we confuse it with Kantianism). Aristotle is the foremost classicist, yet he denies that norms are truly codifiable into rules. A universal type is rather an ideal based upon the nature of something. A classicist (like Aristotle) might say that being polite at the dinner table is something we should do, and this politeness consists of showing due moderation in eating, drinking, talking etc. But this isn’t a rule so much as a way of displaying the excellence proper to a human being.  

Classicism isn’t opposed to emotion either. Rather, it subdues emotions to rational norms. Human nature has a standard of excellence which demands the proper use of emotion. In other words, emotions are good or bad depending on how we wield them according to a standard for the human species. The one able to do this is a universal type, what Aristotle calls the phronimos, or wise man. The later Stoics didn’t condemn emotions entirely, as the popular misconception of them. They rather encouraged natural emotions and discouraged the unnatural. Again, nature is a standard for ideal behaviour, external to individual fancy.

Romanticism, on the other hand, seeks standards in what’s unique and unrepeatable. Instead of conforming to generic ideals, goodness comes from spontaneous individual acts and thoughts. The cause for this is Rousseau’s doctrine of original sanctity. Classicism makes a distinction between ‘things-as-they-are’ and ‘things-as-they-ought’. Humans, animals, and plants don’t come into the world fulfilling an ideal; they arrive imperfect and must strive after their ideal. If we deny this, as Rousseau does, then to be good just is to be what one is. The generic ideal has no purpose and drops out. Authenticity to oneself as one is becomes the aim of life, and this can only find expression in unrepeatable spontaneous acts.

Indeed, once authenticity becomes central, it’s but a short step to rebelling against all standards which society imposes on the self. Since whatever standards society imposes must be ideal repeatable types, and no ideal repeatable types are authentic, no socially imposed standards can be authentic. And since goodness lies in authenticity, being truly good means casting off the standards society has imposed.

As Alasdair Macintyre wryly says in After Virtue, Enlightenment philosophes have the least self-awareness of all thinkers. They create new and revolutionary systems, but the content of their morality is entirely inherited from the civilisation they’ve inherited and which they despise. Thus, Rousseau’s ethics are stuffed full of quaint and puritanical Calvinist ideas from his Genevan upbringing. “Effeminacy” is one of his constant worries, and he applies the term, in boyish fashion, to anything he doesn’t like.  Thus, in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he can condemn civilised man:

“By becoming sociable and enslaved, he becomes weak, fearful, and grovelling, and his soft and effeminate way of life ends by enervating both his strength and his courage.”

Take these relics away, however, and Rousseau’s romanticism has only its sentimental primitivism to act as a limiting moral principle. Goodness is whatever lies in the untainted human heart, freed from social corruption. What becomes of it then? I wager it must enter an eternal spiral of liberation. Romanticism is built on the idea that we’ll be truly happy only when we free ourselves from all external rules and uncover a pre-social authenticity. Since this is a lie, no amount of liberation will ever create happiness. So, to remain consistent with itself, romanticism must seek ever more shackles of oppression to shatter. It’s either that or admit error.

The progressive radicalisation built into romanticism is visible everywhere. The sexual revolution, for example, has no brakes, because it’s built on a romanticised and primitivist vision of sex that would be falsified the moment brakes are applied. The radicals of the mid-twentieth century believed that socialised sexuality was corrupt, and once the orgasm was freed from all external restraints, pure happiness would result (Wilhelm Reich, for example, thought-free love was the precondition to utopian social democracy). Free love hasn’t made us happier, however. So, the answer is to find ever more previously unknown sexual taboos, whose chains we must shatter if we’re at last to be free.

In everyday morality, romantic assumptions have remade the life quest we each undertake for goodness, into a quest for authenticity. Finding one’s true self is now a drain on the wallet of the entire Western bourgeoisie. People of ages past underwent transformative moral journeys that turned them from sinners to saints, but theirs wasn’t a trek for authenticity. They did something far more mundane: they changed their minds. There’s an implicit vanity in the true-self doctrine. Changing your mind means admitting error. Finding your true self means you were right all along, but just didn’t notice it, because society was keeping you blind.

The cultural production of this quest is, I believe, simply inferior to the production of a mind that looks outwards from itself onto something else. Someone obsessed with finding his authentic self doesn’t have time to stand in awe of things greater than himself. What is falling in love, if not to be overcome by the sense of the intrinsic irreplaceable value of another person, without reference to oneself? We have all effectively become Rousseau writing his Confessions. A man who delighted in nature and other people only as frissons to express his authentic self, and could begin his book with the words:

“Here is the only portrait of a man, painted exactly after nature and in all her truth, that exists and probably ever will exist.”

In education, romantic ideas have done away with the rote learning that characterised pedagogy from Ancient Greece, through the middle ages and down to the Victorian Age. Twentieth-century educators like John Dewey, following in Rousseau’s footsteps, sought to remake schooling around the true self doctrine. Instead of moulding a pupil to conform to an ideal (a gentleman or citizen), modern education exists to help him discover his uncorrupted pre-social self. Self-expression without rules has become the educational norm, with the result that we have people who are experts in analysing their own minds and emotions, but incapable of self-denial or rigour. The excellence of mind and body requires constant training. We accept this more readily about the body because physical fitness is visible. But the mind, which is invisible, needs just as much training to be fit for purpose.

In the end, I see romanticism as an enormous civilisational gamble. The difference between classicism and romanticism is about what we think reality is truly like. The classicist sees a human race born lacking and sees culture as how a scaffold is to a building. Culture exists as an aid to human completion. The romantic, meanwhile, claims that human nature isn’t completable, but already complete, and merely corrupted. He wagers that if we accept this idea, we can remake the world for the better. Like any gambler, he doesn’t think about the stakes if the wager is lost. Here the stakes are social catastrophe if the assumption is untrue. If the truth is classical, then romanticism is akin to raising a lion on a strict vegetarian diet. 

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Immaturity as Slavery

“… but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a world of secondhand, childish banalities.” – Sir Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance. 

The opening quote comes from a part of Alec Guinness’ 1999 autobiography which greatly amuses me. The actor of Obi Wan Kenobi is confronted by a twelve-year-old boy in San Francisco, who tells him of his obsessive love for Star Wars. Guinness asks if he could do the favour of “promising to never see Star Wars again?”. The lad cries, and his indignant mother drags him away. Guinness ends with the above thought. He hopes the boy is weaned from Star Wars before adulthood, lest he become a pitiful specimen. 

Here enters the figure of the twenty-first century man-child, alias the “kidult”. He’s been on the radar for a while. Social critic Neil Postman prophesies the coming of “adult-children” in The Disappearance of Childhood from 1982. American journalist Joseph Epstein calls this same creature “The Perpetual Adolescent” in a 2004 article of the same name. But the best summary of this character I’ve yet found is by the writer Jacopo Bernardini, from 2014, to which I can add but little.

The kidult is one who lives his life as an eternal present. As the name suggests, his life is a sort of permanent adolescence. He is sceptical of traditional definitions of adulthood, so has deliberately shunned milestones like marriage and childbearing, in favour of an unattached lifestyle which lasts indefinitely. His relations with other people remain short and shallow; based entirely on fun and mutual use (close friendships or passionate love-affairs are not for him).  

Most importantly, the kidult doesn’t change his tastes or buying habits with age. The thresholds of adolescence and maturity have no bearing on the things he likes and purchases, nor how he relates to these things. Not only does he like the same toys and cartoons at thirty as he did at ten, but he continues to obsess over them and impulsively buy them like when he was ten. Enjoying childhood fare isn’t a playful interlude, but a way of life which never ends. He consumes through instant gratification, paying no thought to any long-term pattern or goal.

Although it must not strike the reader as obvious, I think there exists a link between Guinness’ “secondhand, childish banalities” and a kind of latter-day slavery. To see the link needs some prep work, but once laid, I think the reader will see my point. 

First to define servility. I believe the conservative writer Hilaire Belloc gave the best definition, and I shall freely paraphrase him. The great mass of people can be restricted yet not servile. Both monopolistic capitalism and socialism reduce workers to dependency, but neither makes them entirely slaves. Under capitalism, society retains an ideal of freedom, enshrined in law. Even as monopolists manipulate the law with their money, the ideal remains. Under socialism, state ownership is supposed to give all citizens leisure to do what they want (even as the state strangles them). In either case then, freedom is present as an ideal in theory even as it ceases to exist in practice. Monopolistic and socialist states don’t think of themselves as unfree.  

Slavery is different. A slave society has relinquished even the pretence of freedom for a large mass of the working people. Servility exists when a great multitude are forced to work while having no productive property, and no economic independence. That is, a servile person owns nothing (or effectively nothing) and has no choice whatsoever over how much he works or for whom he works. Most ancient civilisations, like Egypt, Greece, and Rome were servile, with servility existing as a defined legal category. That some men were owned by others was as enshrined by law as the ownership of land or cattle. 

Let’s put a little Aristotle into the mix. There are two kinds of obedience: from a free subject to a ruler, and from an unfree slave to his master. These are often confused but distinct. For while the former is reasonable, the latter involves no reason and is truly blind. 

True authority is neither persuasion nor force. If an officer argues to a soldier why he should obey, then the two are equals, and there’s no chain of command. But if the officer must hold a gun to the man’s head and threaten to execute him lest he do his duty, this isn’t authority either. The soldier obeys because he’s terrified, but not because he respects his superior as a superior. True authority lies in the trust which a subordinate has for the wisdom and expertise of a superior. This only comes if he’s rational enough to understand the nature of what he’s a part of, what it does, and that some people with knowhow must organise it to work properly. A sailor understands he’s on a ship. He understands that a ship has so many complex functions that no one man could know or do them all. He understands that his captain is a wiser and more experienced fellow than he. So, he trusts the captain’s authority and obeys his orders. 

I sketch this Aristotelian view of authority because it lets us criticise servility without assuming a liberal social contract idea. What defines slavery isn’t that the slave hasn’t chosen his master. Nor that the slave doesn’t get to argue about his orders. A slave’s duty just is the arbitrary will of his master. He doesn’t have to trust his master’s wisdom, because he doesn’t have to understand anything to be a slave. That is, while a soldier must rationally grasp what the army is, and a citizen must rationally grasp what society is, a slave is mentally passive.

Now, to Belloc’s prophecy concerning the fate of the west. The struggle between ownership and labour, between monopoly capitalism and socialism, which existed in his day, he thought would result in the re-institution of slavery. This would happen through convergence of interests. The state will take an ever-larger role in protecting workers through a safety net, that they don’t starve when unemployed. It will nationalise key industries, it will tax the rich and redistribute the wealth through welfare. But monopolies will still dominate the private sector. 

Effectively, this is slavery. For the worker is protected when unemployed but has entirely lost the ability to choose his employer, or even control his own life. To give an illustration of what this looks like in practice: there are post-industrial towns in Britain where the entire population is either on welfare or employed by a handful of giant corporations (small business having ceased to exist). To borrow from Theodore Dalrymple, the state controls everything about these people, from the house they inhabit to the school they attend. It gives them pocket-money to spend into the private sector dominated by monopolies, and if they want to work, they can only work for monopolists. They fear neither starvation nor a cold night, but they have entirely lost their freedom. 

This long preamble has been to show how freedom is swapped for safety in economic terms. But I think there’s more to it. First, the safety may not be economic but emotional. Second, the person willing to enter this swindle must be of a peculiar mindset. He must not know even a glimmer of true independence, lest he fight for it. A dispossessed farmer, for example, who remembers his crops and livestock will fight to regain them. But a man born into a slum, and knowing only wage labour, will crave mere safety from unemployment. Those who don’t know autonomy don’t long for it.

There now exist a troop of companies that market childish goods for adult consumption. They typically do this in one of two ways. First, offering childish products to adults under the guise of nostalgia. The adult is encouraged to buy things reminding him of his childhood, with the promise that he will relive it. Childish media and products are given an adult spin, and remarketed. Toys are rebranded as collectibles. Children’s films get unnecessary, adult-oriented, sequels or remakes (what Bernardini calls “kidult movies”). Originally child-friendly festivals or theme parks are increasingly marketed to childless adults.   

The second way is by infantilising adult products. Adverts, for example, have gradually replaced stereotypical busy office workers and exhausted housewives with frolicking kidults. No matter how trivial, every product that is not related to Christmas, is now surrounded by giddy, family-free people engaged in play. The message we’re meant to get is that the vacuum cleaner or stapler will free us to act like children. By buying these things, we can create time for the true business of life: bouncing and smiling with one’s mouth open. 

I believe infantilism to be a kind of mental slavery. In both the above examples, three elements combine: ignorance and mass media channel anxiety into childishness. This childishness then binds the victim in servitude to masters who take away his freedom while robbing him in the literal sense.

An artificial ignorance created by modern education is the first parent of the man-child. Absent a proper and classical education, the kidult’s mind is an empty page. Lack of general knowledge separates him from the great achievements of civilisation. He cannot seek refuge in Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Dante, for he has never heard of these. He cannot draw strength from philosophy and religion for the same reason. Neither can he learn lessons from history, for the world begins only with his own birth. Here is a type of mental dispossession parallel to an economic one. Someone utterly ignorant of the answers great people have given to life’s questions will seek only safety, not wisdom.

The second parent is anxiety. Humans have always been terrified of the inevitable decay of their own bodies, followed by death. The wish for immortality is ancient. Yet the modern world, with its scepticism, creates a heightened anxiousness. When all authority and tradition has been deconstructed, there is no ideal for how people ought to live. Without this ideal, humans have no certainty about the future. Medieval people knew that whatever happened, knights fought, villeins worked, and churchmen prayed. Modern man’s world is literally whatever people make of it. It may be utterly transformed in a very short time. And this is anxiety-inducing to all but the most sheltered of philosophers.

Add to this the rise of a selfish culture. As Christopher Lasch tells us, the nineteenth century still carried (in a bastardised way) the ideal of self-sufficiency and virtue of the ancient man. Working and trading was still tied to one’s flourishing in society. Since 1960, as family and community have disintegrated, the industrialised world has degenerated into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”. A world of loneliness without parents and siblings; lacking true friends and lovers. When adulthood has become toxic and means to swim in a sea of disfunction, vulgarity, substance abuse and pornographic sexuality; it’s no surprise some may snap and long for a regression to childhood. 

Mass media is the third condition. It floods the void where education and community used to be. The space where general knowledge isn’t, now gets stamped by fiction, corporate advertising, and state propaganda. These peddle in a mass of cliches, stereotypes, and recycled tropes. 

My critique of kidults isn’t founded on “good old days” nostalgia, itself a product of media cliches. Fashions, customs, and culture change; and the citizen of today doesn’t have to be a joyless salaryman or housewife to count as an adult. Rather, the man-child phenomenon is a massive transfer of power away from the small and towards the large. The kidult is like an addict, hooked on feelings of cosy fun and nostalgia which are only provided by corporations. These feelings aren’t directed to the good of the kidult but the organisation acting as a dealer. The dealer controls the strength and frequency of the dose to get the wanted behaviour from the addict.     

Now we see how kidults can be slaves. First, they’ve traded freedom for safety (false as it is) like Belloc’s proletarians made servile. Unlike the security of a traditional slave, this is an emotional illusion. The man-child believes that there’s safety in the stream of childish images offered to him. He believes that by consuming these the pain of life will cease. Yet man-children get no material or mental benefit from their infantilism. Indeed, they’re fast parted from their money, while getting no skills or virtues in return. The security is merely psychological: a Freudian age regression, but artificially created. 

Second, while authority in Aristotle’s sense means to swap another’s judgement for your own, for the sake of a common good you understand; here you submit to another’s judgement for the sake of their private good, which you don’t understand. Organisations seeking only profit or power impose their ideas on the kidult, for their benefit. An immature adult pursues only pleasure, lives only for the present, and thinks only in frivolous stereotypes and cliches implanted during childhood. He’s thus in no position to understand the inner workings of companies and governments. He follows his passions like a sentient puppet obeying an invisible thread, leading always to a hand just out of sight. 

In the poem London, William Blake talks about “mind-forg’d manacles”. These are the beliefs people have which constrain their lives in an invisible prison of sorts. For what we think possible or impossible guides our acting. Once mind-forg’d manacles are common to enough people, they form a culture (what’s a culture if not collective ideas on how one should act?). Secondhand childish banalities are such mind-forg’d manacles if we let them determine us wholly. Their “secondhand” nature means the forging has been done for us, and this makes them more insidious than ideas of our own creation. For if what I’ve said above is true, they threaten to make us servile. If enough people become dependent on secondhand childish banalities, as the boy who met Alec Guinness, then the whole culture becomes servile. Growing up may be painful, but it’s a duty to ourselves, that we remain free.

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Foucault was right, actually; Everything is a prison

Generally, in our circles, Foucault is mostly mocked for his personal life and called one of ‘those French intellectuals that ruined it all’. However, if we were to actually investigate his claims, we’ll realise that he is quite close to the Moldbugian thought, except he never connected the dots.

I’m here to introduce an opinion that may shock you. Foucault was right, actually. And I’m going to explain why.

For those, who don’t know much about his theories, we can pretty much boil it down to the following:

1. Everything is a prison

2. There is no escape from the prison

3. The institutions are your enemy

4. The system creates ‘docile bodies’ that are not able to rebel against the power structures

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault comes out with the theory of The Carceral, he brings up the example of the Mettray school which was known for its “cloister, prison, school, regiment” function. He uses his example to develop an argument about institutions being the main tool for surveillance and punishment.

What struck me when reading Foucault was the close resemblance of his thought to the Moldbugian concept of ‘The Cathedral’. As claimed by the man himself:

“The mystery of the cathedral is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.” – Mencius Moldbug, Gray Mirror blog, 21/01/2021, ‘A Brief Explanation of The Cathedral’

Foucault claims that universities are the main vehicles of power. There’s a never-ending cycle of power found within the university halls – a student is punished by the teacher, and the teacher is punished by the institution. A teacher is just a function of the power structures ruling over them.

When we then look at Giroux and his essay on Zombie Politics, (who completely misunderstands the political climate of the modern era but let’s forget that for a moment) – ‘zombies’ (here meaning politicians) have an “ever-increasing presence in the highest reaches of government and at the forefront of mainstream media”, which makes us think of the Chomskian concept of media manufacturing consent – there is a clear connection of the governmental powers using media and academia exerting power onto its subjects – they gatekeep access to higher levels of society if it doesn’t comply with their agenda. They are the ones wielding the power as they choose who will get high up in the ranks of control or not.

As such, when we’ll take Foucault focusing on academia being at the core of the power structures, Chomsky with manufacturing consent by the media, and Giroux linking it to the governmental controls, we basically have the Cathedral.

Foucault, although labelled as a left-wing thinker, which is perhaps more prominent in his other writing, never claims to have a solution to this problem. He just states the issues with the power structures and where they come from – and here, he is inherently correct.

The problem is that the status quo is currently left-wing. These power structures mobilise against right-wing thought – we have academia which is oversaturated by left-wing thinkers, mainstream media which doesn’t dare stray from the status quo and the ‘conservative government’ which is neoliberal masquerading as conservatives.

Foucault and others unwittingly pointed out the issue, but they never connected the dots.

So how do we deal with the world where the power structures surround us? There is no way out. Foucault claims that power structures use surveillance to catch any outliers, punish them by gathering knowledge against them and by using educative/punishing methods, render them docile and bring them back into the world, brainwashed, repackaged and back within the power structures they wanted to oppose.

And we see it these days – anyone who tries to dissent from the ‘current thing’ is immediately shut down, de-platformed, removed, their bank accounts closed, and freedoms curbed until they have no choice but to conform again.

Foucault may have not expected this to happen in this form, yet the issue remains. The increasing surveillance in the modern era is a cause of concern, too. One cannot function without technology, but this same technology cripples and watches us. Anyone who claims otherwise is a fool.

Another interesting point from Foucault was that it is the labels that the institutions give to the ill that cause the diseases. Considering that we live in an era where mental illness and gender dysmorphia becomes trendy, the labels are easy blankets to use to justify behaviours that would have been otherwise abhorrent.

Foucault offers a lot of useful insight. He describes the power-wielders as “technicians of behaviour, engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality”, sounds familiar? Currently, every current thing is manufactured, the individuality is only allowed if it fits the regime. The freedom of political thought is a thing of the past.

‘Orthopaedists of individuality’, orthopaedic suggests improving something that needs correcting – individuality is treated as a deformity that’s an unpleasant problem that needs correcting.

It is blatantly obvious that academia and journalism are overwhelmingly filled with left-wing thinkers and government structures are trying to appease the left-wing voters who are largely demographically middle-class, so the societal left-wing shift is apparent, this being facilitated by the large corporations. This noveau bourgeoisie class has got full cultural hegemony over the dominant cultural and political thought.

This successfully gatekeeps from the right-wing thought ever arising or being put under serious scrutiny, since it isn’t acknowledged in the first place.

With the rise and increase of surveillance and more legislation being put through by the government continually attempting to bow to the on-the-fence voters, the ever-increasing monitoring of free speech renders it no longer free.

This continuous surveillance and forced self-correcting of speech proceeds to create docile bodies – it incapacitates and removes any form of political discussion and fuels the actual Schmittian friend-enemy distinction. The government structures alongside academia and mainstream media create an unbreakable mode of power that devours and forces its subjects to yield.

Foucault may be a less popular guy on our side of politics, but he brings in a lot of important insight that can help us understand the power structures at hand. Everything is a prison. A man made, neoliberal hell of a prison. 

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