Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands (Sir Roger Scruton)

Scruton, Roger.  Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands.

The New Left is different in that the traditional Marxist categories are harder to apply.  This makes sense.  How many “Starbucks Socialists” really understand the Base and Superstructure paradigm? The New Left focuses more on Liberation and Social Justice than on surplus value.  This is understandable since few are likely to get excited on the metaphysical reification of labour.

Social Justice is not equality before the law but the rearrangement of social structures.

Marx’s contradiction: the future state is one where there is a full legal order present with none of the structure of the law.

Socialist utopias are violent “because it takes infinite force to make people to the physically impossible.”

Thesis: The purpose of language, at least on one level, is to describe reality. Newspeak asserts power over reality instead. As he notes, “Ordinary language warms and soens; Newspeak freezes and hardens. And ordinary discourse generates out of its own resources the concepts that Newspeak forbids.”  The New Left encapsulates reality in “Newspeak.”

Resentment in Britain

Problem with the Marxist theory of history: there is a web of connections between social and economic life, but it really can’t say which is the cause and which is the effect.  Marxists would reply that base (economics) determines superstructure, but as Scruton points out, there is no series of experiments for which we could test the theory.

Another problem with class warfare theories of history: it cannot account for the fact that many people, indeed most people for most of history, did not place their loyalties in a class, but in entities like the nation or the church. Indeed, “Nation, law, faith, tradition, sovereignty – these ideas by contrast denote things that unite us.”

Scruton maintains that the concept of English Common Law completely devastates the class theory of history.  Common law transcends class and itself has been the instigator of economic change, not vice-versa.

Disdain in America

I might disagree in emphasis with Scruton on one point: I don’t think John Kenneth Gailbraith was entirely wrong. To be sure, he was a proponent of the Welfare State and that’s a problem. Still, I think Gailbraith somewhat accurately anticipated how mass consumerism and mass society enslaves us.  Galbraith is probably best seen, not as a socialist, but as a modern New-Deal liberal.  As Scruton notes, like other liberals, he isn’t bothered by private property. He is bothered by the private property of others.

France and Foucault

Galbraith remained a relatively sane liberal.  His interviews with William Buckley Jr. are worth watching. He would no doubt oppose the extremism of Zizek.  When we move to French philosophy, however, all bets are off.  We can probably understand this chapter as the central hinge of the book, since most of the disaster known as modern Continental philosophy today stems from France.

Fun fact: The French Communists were allied, at least indirectly, with Hitler when he invaded France.  Munitions workers went on strike in support of the Nazi invasion.

Before we get to Kojeve, we should clarify what Hegel meant:  As Scruton points out, the process by which we come to know ourselves as subjects and the process whereby we realize our freedom are one in the same. Whereas Hegel drew conservative conclusions and saw the opposites–Self and the Other, Subject and Object–as coming together in a unity, left-wing Hegelians hardened the opposites into oppositions.

Scruton’s comments on Sartre and others are important, and Sartre’s influence on Pol Pot cannot be minimized, but an extended analysis would take one far beyond the scope of the review.

Foucault: focus on episteme, a new structure of knowledge. It serves a power-interest. 

Tedium in Germany

Lukacs: Lukacs took the “hidden meaning” of Marxian exchange value and applied it across the board: There is always a hidden undertone to society that needs theory and interpretation to bring it out.  

Brutal Bon Mots

Scruton almost rivals Samuel Johnson in the well-time phrase.  We list a few:

“Liberation of the victim is a restless cause, since new victims always appear over the horizon as the last ones escape into the void.”

“Marx’s remark about hunting, shing, hobby farming and lit. crit. is the only attempt he makes to describe what life will be like without private property – and if you ask who gives you the gun or the fishing rod, who organizes the pack of hounds, who maintains the coverts and the waterways, who disposes of the milk and the calves and who publishes the lit. crit., such questions will be dismissed as ‘beside the point’, and as matters to be settled by a future that is none of your business.”

“Peace never appears in Newspeak as a condition of rest and normality. It is always something to ‘fight for’, and ‘Fight for Peace!’”

“Intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it.”

“Had Heidegger attached his great ego to the cause of international socialism, he would have enjoyed the whitewash granted to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Hobsbawm and the other apologists for the Gulag. But the cause of national socialism could enjoy no such convenient excuse, and the sin was compounded, in Heidegger’s case, by the fact that it was precisely the national, rather than the socialist aspect of the creed that had attracted him.”

“When, in the works of Lacan, Deleuze and Althusser, the nonsense machine began to crank out its impenetrable sentences, of which nothing could be understood except that they all had “capitalism” as their target, it looked as though Nothing had at last found its voice.”

“Their few empty invocations of equality advance no further than the clichés of the French Revolution, and are soon reissued as mathemes by way of shielding them from argument. But when it comes to real politics they write as though negation is enough. Whether it be the Palestinian intifada, the IRA, the Venezuelan Chavistas, the French sans-papiers, or the Occupy movement – whatever the radical cause, it is the attack on the ‘System’ that matters. The alternative is ‘unnameable in the language of the system.”

“While exorting us to judge other cultures in their own terms, he [Said] asks us to judge Western culture from a point of view outside—to set it against alternatives, and to judge it adversely, as ethnocentric and even racist.”

“The search for a policy to overcome original sin is not a coherent political project.”


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