Category Archives: Society

“The Fable of the Bees”

Further to our previous post, here’s “The Moral” of Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees. The complete text of the poem can be found here.

Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive
To make a Great an honest Hive.
T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniencies,
Befamed in War, yet live in Ease
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.
Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live;
Whilst we the Benefits receive.
Hunger’s a dreadful Plague, no doubt,
Yet who digests or thrives without?
Do we not owe the Growth of Wine
To the dry, crooked, shabby Vine?
Which, whilst its Shutes neglected stood,
Choak’d other Plants, and ran to Wood;
But blest us with its Noble Fruit;
As soon as it was tied, and cut:
So Vice is benefcial found,
When it’s by Justice lopt, and bound;
Nay, where the People would be great,
As necessary to the State,
As Hunger is to make ’em eat.
Bare Vertue can’t make Nations live
In Splendour; they, that would revive A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.

Society, Individualism, Laissez-Faire, and Eighteenth Century Sensibility

As we’ve been following the laissez-faire thread for some time, it’s nice to end up seeing it as part of a larger social and literary pattern.

From “Varieties of Eighteenth Century Sensibility”:

The feeling of an intensely social view of literature within the Augustan trend has to be qualified by an interpenetration of social and individual factors that were there from the beginning. The base of operations in Locke’s Essay is the individual human being, not the socially constructed human being: Locke’s hero stands detached from history, collecting sense impressions and clear and distinct ideas. Nobody could be less solipsistic than Locke, but we may notice the overtures in Spectator 413, referring to “that Great Modern Discovery . . . that Light and Colours . . . are only Ideas in the Mind.” The author is speaking of Locke on secondary qualities. All Berkeley had to do with this modern discovery was to deny the distinction between primary and secondary qualities to arrive at this purely subjective idealist position of esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” If we feel convinced, as Johnson was, that things still have a being apart from our perception of them, that, for Berkeley, is because they are ideas in the mind of God. It is fortunate both the permanence of the world and for Berkeley’s argument that God, according to the Psalmist, neither slumbers not sleeps [Psalm 21:4]. But Berkeley indicates clearly the isolated individual at the centre of Augustan society who interpenetrates with that society.

The same sense of interpenetration comes into economic contexts. In the intensely laissez-faire climate of eighteenth-century capitalism there is little emphasis on what the anarchist Kropotkin called mutual aid: even more than the nineteenth century, this was the age of the work ethic, the industrious apprentice, and the entrepreneur: the age, in other words, of Benjamin Franklin. A laissez-faire economy is essentially an amoral one: this fact is the basis of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, with its axiom of “Private Vices, Publick Benefits.” The howls of outrage that greeted Mandeville’s book are a little surprising: it looks as though the age was committed to the ethos of capitalism, but had not realized the intensity of its commitment. (CW 17, 29-30)

Frye: “Laissez-Faire is Anti-Democratic”

The trillion dollar bailouts of just three years ago demonstrated that we now have a “too big to fail” oligarchy who fleece citizens by whatever means necessary. It has nothing to do with democracy; it is kleptocracy

Laissez-faire is as anti-democratic is as it is “anti-Christian“:

The geopolitical America, unlike the European countries, was able to add its colonies to its own body, and hence was a kind of proving ground for all the expansionist energies of its age, economic laissez-faire, political liberalism, and religious individualism included. The belief that men can be and have a right to be equal and independent is the growing point of this expansionism and the source of everything vital in it, and that belief, rather than any political modus operandi, is what is usually implied first of all by the word “democracy.” As the conception of democracy has matured, it has separated itself from its vague background of Utopian optimism. Many Americans still believe that laissez-faire is the economic aspect of democracy, but there is a growing realization that laissez-faire by itself does not lead to democracy, but to oligarchy, and thence to managerial dictatorship. Laissez-faire by itself is antidemocratic: all progress in the conditions of the working classes has been wrung from it in a kind of cold civil war — not always so cold, as it has included lynchings, sadistic beatings, systematic starvation, and an occasional massacre. (CW 11, 251)

Quote of the Day: “Resistance to Civil Government”


An excerpt from Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government: “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”

I hope I am not overreaching here, but since Michael has invoked civil disobedience, it seems like an apt occasion to quote Thoreau. This passage from Resistance to Civil Government (1849), I think, applies here, mutatis mutandis:

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. …

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

Sir Thomas More


The trial of More in the 1966 film adaptation of A Man for All Seasons (parts 2 and 3 after the jump)

Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor of England on this date in 1532.

Frye relates More’s Utopian outlook to Castiglione’s Courtier:

It is, I think, the latent Utopian tone of Castiglione’s dialogue, its implicit reference to hidden perfection in society itself, that makes it still relevant to us. Among the great educational books of that very fertile period, we have to place Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in the first rank. In More’s book there is a collision of views between Hythloday, the traveller who has been to Utopia and has returned a convinced Communist, and More himself, who listens to his narration. Hythloday is now a revolutionary who feels that nothing can be done for Europe until private property is abolished and the various principalities replaced with something more like the Utopian republic. More represents himself, in contrast, as feeling rather that Hythloday should use his knowledge of Utopia to act as a counsellor to European princes, trying to inform their policies with something in the Utopian spirit. Castiglione’s courtier has no Utopia to go to, but he has a similar informing vision to communicate. (CW 28, 351)

Continue reading

Video of the Day: “There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are only dollars”


Everyone remembers Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech from Network. But, while less viscerally memorable, this speech by Beale’s corporate nemesis, Arthur Jensen, is the movie’s darkly revealed core.

Network got it exactly right about the decline of television news into infotainment based upon already discernible trends in the early 1970s, right down to the frenzied pursuit of profit, whatever the social cost, as represented now by Fox News. But the movie also got it right about transnational corporatism, whose fundamental principles are lucidly laid out in the clip above.

Government representing the actual interests of actual citizens is a threatened species, which is suggested by the hoarding-insect behavior of an increasing number of politicians. Our votes are gradually devolving into the means by which the more cynical elements of the political class gain access to power (typically through progressively unhinged demagoguery), and whose single-minded purpose is to promote commercial interests at the expense of everything else, including the institution of government itself. Conservatives especially know that, just as it is easier to lie than to tell the truth, it is much easier to cut taxes to the richest of the rich than it is to reclaim that lost revenue from them somewhere down the line. Just look at the Bush tax cuts in the States. Those “temporary” cuts are, at the moment, the single greatest threat to an economy that could shed its deficit burden almost completely just by letting them lapse as they were supposed to do in the first place. As it is, the current Republican “debate” on budget cuts revolves around dismantling Medicare while, of course, providing still more top end tax cuts.

It promises to get worse before we can think about it getting even marginally better. Most of the population is still living in a world where political authorities are trusted to a minimally acceptable degree. It seems they will only be disabused of that misplaced trust one bloody insult and injury at a time. People understandably want to feel that their elected representatives have some residual sense of duty to them. On the right side of the political spectrum most notably, it’s getting harder to find any sign at all to suggest that might still be true.

The world we live in is looking more and more like the dysfunctional state described in the monologue above: no national or personal interests, just corporate ones in a multi-national sacrifice-ritual of saps who think they have elected governments to (snicker) “represent” them. Our elected officials are more openly go-getters in the exciting new world of transnational economies, where national wealth is just one more resource to cheat out of the suckers who haven’t figured that out yet.

So watch the clip above. Listen to what is said, and see if you don’t recognize it as a frighteningly rendered version of a world that is already way more familiar to us than it should be. (As sometimes happens, this video cannot be embedded: click on the image and hit the YouTube link.)

Television Violence


Vintage television commercial for the Johnny Seven–a seven-in-one toy gun

The first distance public television broadcast from Washington, D.C. to New York City occurred on this date in 1927.

From “Violence and Television”:

Many people think they are being practical about social problems when they think they have located a cause. . . But every such located cause turns out eventually to be one more symptom of the problem, and not a cause at all. . . First there were dime novels and penny dreadfuls; then there were movies, then comic books, and now television. One can always find some evidence for such arguments, but the evidence is seldom conclusive. . . Some people are always looking for something to trigger them to violence, and such stimuli are not hard to come by in any society. This is not an argument for diminishing the seriousness of the social effects of violent television programs, as so many of their producers say; it is merely an argument against regarding television violence as the cause of social violence. For as soon as a cause is thought to be located, the next step is “take it away; censor it; ban it.” This would be a logical inference if the cause diagnosis is sound, but it isn’t; there are too many causes. Censorship is itself violent, or counterviolent, solution: it assumes that you’ve caught the real villain and are justified in doing what you like to him, which is precisely the fallacy of violence itself. (CW 11, 158-9)

Frye on Blake and Money: “The cohesive principle of fallen society”

Blake’s “To Annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit,” 1804-1808

Whenever we are tempted to believe that our current economic disparities and injustices are just the way it has to be, Frye in Fearful Symmetry takes on the money economy from a prophetic perspective:

Money to Blake is the cement or cohesive principle of fallen society, and as society consists of tyrants exploiting victims, money can only exist in the two forms of riches and poverty; too much for a few and not enough for the rest. La proprieté, c’est le vol, may be a good epigram, but it is no better than Blake’s definition of money as “the life’s blood of Poor Families,” or his remark that “God made man happy & Rich, but the Subtil made the innocent, Poor.” A money economy is a continuous partial murder of the victim, as poverty keeps many imaginative needs out of reach. Money for those who have it, on the other hand, can belong only to the Selfhood, as it assumes the possibility of happiness through possession, which we have seen is impossible, and hence of being passively or externally stimulated into imagination. An equal distribution, even if practicable, would therefore not affect its status as the root of a evil. Corresponding to the consensus of mediocrities assumed by law and Lockean philosophy, money assumes a dead level of “necessities” (notice the word) as its basis. Art on this theory is high up among the nonessentials; pleasure, in society, tends to collapse very quickly into luxury and affection. (CW 14, 82)

Frye and the “Mature Society”


Stephen Harper yesterday announced he will only take four questions from the national news media per day — a national media he sequestered behind a fence forty feet away. He’s also backed off on his challenge to debate Michael Ignatieff one on one.

Frye’s comments on liberalism are very much in the social democratic vein of John Stuart Mill. I am reminded of another phrase Stephen Harper is throwing about: “real Canadians,” though I guess both words should be lit up with capitals as “Real Canadians,” he is so clearly hypostatizing the term in an insidious and McCarthyistic way. The next thing you know he’ll be using the phrase “anti-Canadian” (if he hasn’t already). As Frye makes clear in this excerpt, there are no real Canadians or Canadian identity in that sense: there are only individuals, and society, in its most genuine form, is an expression of the individuals in it, who in turn are what the society is for. In The Double Vision, Frye asks: “What is the difference between the spiritual aspect of primary concerns and the secondary or ideological concerns just mentioned?” He answers this way:

I think the difference is expressed in two types of society, one primitive and the other mature. A primitive or embryonic society is one in which the individual is thought of as primarily a function of the social group. In all such societies a hierarchical structure of authority has to be set up to ensure that the individual does not get too far out of line. A mature society, in contrast, understands that its primary aim is to develop a genuine individuality in its members. In a fully mature society the structure of authority becomes a function of the individuals within it, all of them, without distinctions of sex, class, or race, living, loving, thinking, and producing with a sense of space around them. Throughout history practically all societies have been primitive ones in our present sense: a greater maturity and a genuine concern for the individual peeps out occasionally, but is normally smothered as society collapses back again into its primitive form.

I think there is little doubt about what kind of society Stephen Harper has in store for us.

Quote of the Day: “They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits”

It looks like the government will be defeated this week on a budget vote and an election called.

We are running a $40 billion deficit this year. This will be cited at some unspecified time to necessitate cuts in social spending. That’s playbook stuff. But the problem is that the Harper government is pushing for a further $6 billion in corporate tax cuts, even though Canada already has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the OECD.

Moreover, the Harper government also intends to purchase $30 billion worth of F-35 jet interceptors, even though they are not suited to either our foreign or domestic military needs. It isn’t, of course, an increasingly besieged public that will benefit by these policies. The Harper government has decided it somehow can’t afford substantial longterm increases in spending for education and health care, but that it can afford tens of billions of dollars worth of corporate welfare for Lockheed-Martin, while also further reducing already low corporate tax rates.

Here are a couple of representative observations from the patron saint of laissez-faire capitalists, Adam Smith, that might surprise some who consider themselves Smith-schooled laissez-faire capitalists:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

For the record, Smith was for high wages, supported the right of labor to organize, and, as the quotes above suggest, understood very well the plutocratic disposition of unrestrained commercial interests. Corporate tax cuts are not among the laws of nature. They do not even necessarily make for sound economic policy.

As promised in an earlier post, we will be citing Frye extensively on Canadian history, culture and political traditions as the election unfolds.

(Chart from The Ottawa Citizen)