I am standing in a classroom in a maximum security prison. It is the first class of the semester. I am facing 20 students. They have spent years, sometimes decades, incarcerated. They come from some of the poorest cities and communities in the country. Most of them are people of color.
During the next four months they will study political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Niccolò Machiavelli, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and John Locke, those often dismissed as anachronistic by the cultural left.
It is not that the criticisms leveled against these philosophers are incorrect. They were blinded by their prejudices, as we are blinded by our prejudices. They had a habit of elevating their own cultures above others. They often defended patriarchy, could be racist and in the case of Plato and Aristotle, endorsed a slave society.
What can these philosophers say to the issues we face — global corporate domination, the climate crisis, nuclear war and a digital universe where information, often manipulated and sometimes false, travels around the globe instantly? Are these thinkers antiquated relics? No one in medical school is reading 19th century medical texts. Psychoanalysis has moved beyond Sigmund Freud. Physicists have advanced from Isaac Newton’s law of motion to general relativity and quantum mechanics. Economists are no longer rooted in John Stuart Mill.
But the study of political philosophy, as well as ethics, is different. Not for the answers, but for the questions. The questions have not changed since Plato wrote “The Republic.” What is justice? Do all societies inevitably decay? Are we the authors of our lives? Or is our fate determined by forces beyond our control, a series of fortuitous or unfortunate accidents? How should power be distributed? Is the good statesman, as Plato argued, a philosopher king — a thinly disguised version of Plato — who puts truth and learning above greed and lust and who understands reality? Or, as Aristotle believed, is the good statesman skilled in the exercise of power and endowed with thoughtful deliberation? What qualities are needed to wield power? Machiavelli says these include immorality, deception and violence. Hobbes writes that in war, violence and fraud become virtues. What forces can be organized to pit the power of the demos, the populace, against the rulers, to ensure justice? What are our roles and duties as citizens? How should we educate the young? When is it permissible to break the law? How is tyranny prevented or overthrown? Can human nature, as the Jacobins and communists believed, be transformed? How do we protect our dignity and freedom? What is friendship? What constitutes virtue? What is evil? What is love? How do we define a good life? Is there a God? If God does not exist, should we abide by a moral code?
These questions thunder down through the ages, asked during different times and under different circumstances. The most radical contemporary philosophers, including Frantz Fanon author of The Wretched of the Earth, built their edifices on the foundations of the political philosophers that came before them. In Fanon’s case it was Friedrich Hegel. As Vladimir Lenin correctly said of Marx, most of his ideas could be traced to previous philosophers. Paulo Freire, the author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” studied philosophy. Hannah Arendt, who wrote“The Origins of Totalitarianism,” was steeped in the ancient Greeks and Augustine.
“It is indeed difficult and even misleading to talk about politics and its innermost principles without drawing to some extent upon the experiences of Greek and Roman antiquity, and this for no other reason than that men have never, either before or after, thought so highly of political activity and bestowed so much dignity upon its realm” Arendt writes in “Between Past and Future.”
Cornel West, one of our most important contemporary moral philosophers, who once admonished me for not having read the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, is as conversant on Søren Kierkegaard, who he taught at Harvard, and Immanuel Kant as he is on W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon, Malcolm X and bell hooks.
The ancient philosophers were not oracles. Not many of us would want to inhabit Plato’s authoritarian republic, especially women, nor Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” a precursor to the totalitarian states that arose in the 20th century. Marx presciently anticipated the monolithic power of global capitalism but failed to see that, contrary to his utopian vision, it would crush socialism. But to ignore these political philosophers, to dismiss them because of their failings rather than study them for their insights is to cut ourselves off from our intellectual roots. If we do not know where we came from, we cannot know where we are going.
If we cannot ask these fundamental questions, if we have not reflected on these concepts, if we do not understand human nature, we disempower ourselves. We become political illiterates blinded by historical amnesia. This is why the study of humanities is important. And it is why the closure of university classics and philosophy departments is an ominous sign of our encroaching cultural and intellectual death.
Political theory is not about political practice. It is about its meaning. It is about the essence of power, how it works and how it maintains itself. The most important activity in life, as Socrates and Plato remind us, is not action, but contemplation, echoing the wisdom enshrined in eastern philosophy. We cannot change the world if we cannot understand it. By digesting and critiquing the philosophers of the past, we become independent thinkers in the present. We are able to articulate our own values and beliefs, often in opposition to what these ancient philosophers advocated.
In my first class, I spoke about Aristotle’s distinction between the good citizen and the good person. The good person’s loyalty is not to the state. The good person “acts and lives virtuously and derives happiness from that virtue.” The good citizen, on the other hand, is defined by patriotism and obedience to the state. The good person, like Socrates or Martin Luther King, Jr. inevitably comes into conflict with the state when he or she sees the state turning away from the good. The good person is often condemned as subversive. The good person is rarely rewarded by or fêted by the state. These accolades are reserved for the good citizen, whose moral compass is circumscribed by the powerful.
The concept of the good citizen and the good person fascinated the class, for the state has been, since their childhood, a hostile force. The outside world does not view the incarcerated, and often the poor, as good citizens. They have been excluded from that club. As outcasts, they know the immorality and hypocrisy baked into the system. This makes vital the articulation of the questions these political philosophers pose.
Sheldon Wolin, our most important contemporary and radical political philosopher, who mentored a young Cornel West when he was Princeton University’s first Black candidate for a doctorate in philosophy, gave us the vocabulary and concepts to understand the tyranny of global corporate power, a system he called “inverted totalitarianism.” As a professor at Berkeley, Wolin backed the Free Speech Movement. Wolin, while teaching at Princeton, was one of few professors who supported students occupying buildings to protest against South African apartheid. At one point, Wolin told me, the other professors in Princeton’s political science department refused to speak with him.
Wolin’s radical critique was grounded in these political philosophers, as he writes in his magisterial work, “Politics and Vision,” which my students are reading.
“The history of political thought”, Wolin writes, “is essentially a series of commentaries, sometimes favorable, often hostile, upon its beginnings.”
You can see a three hour interview I did with Wolin shortly before his death here.
Wolin argues that “an historical perspective is more effective than any other in exposing the nature of our present predicaments; if not the source of political wisdom, it is at least the precondition.”
Neoliberalism as economic theory, he writes, is an absurdity. None of its vaunted promises are even remotely possible. Concentrating wealth in the hands of a global oligarchic elite — 1.2 percent of the world’s population holds 47.8 percent of global household wealth — while demolishing government controls and regulations, creates massive income inequality and monopoly power. It fuels political extremism and destroys democracy. But economic rationality is not the point. The point of neoliberalism is to provide ideological cover to increase the wealth and political control of the ruling oligarchs.
This is a point Marx famously makes when he writes in his Theses on Feuerbach:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.
As a ruling ideology, neoliberalism was a brilliant success. Starting in the 1970s, itsKeynesian mainstream critics were pushed out of academia, state institutions and financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and shut out of the media. Wolin, once a regular contributor to publications such as The New York Review of Books, found that because of his animus towards neoliberalism, he had difficulty publishing. Intellectual poseurs such as Milton Friedman were given prominent platforms and lavish corporate funding. They disseminated the official mantra of fringe, discredited economic theories popularized by Friedrich Hayek and the third-rate writer, Ayn Rand. Once we knelt before the dictates of the marketplace and lifted government regulations, slashed taxes for the rich, permitted the flow of money across borders, destroyed unions and signed trade deals that sent jobs to sweatshops in Mexico and China, the world would be a happier, freer and wealthier place. It was a con. But it worked.
Ideas, however esoteric they may appear to the public, matter. These ideas shape a society, even if most in the society are unfamiliar with the nuances and details of these theories.
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood,” writes the economist John Maynard Keynes. “Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
Most of the great works of political philosophy have been written during a period of crisis. The breakdown of society, war, revolution and institutional and economic collapse, obliterate established belief systems and render hollow the clichés and slogans used to justify them. These instabilities and vicissitudes bring forth new ideas, new concepts, new answers to the old questions. Political thought, as Wolin writes, “is not so much a tradition of discovery as one of meaning extended over time.”
The answers to the core questions asked by political philosophers differ depending on the circumstances. The answers in my prison classroom will not be the same as those in a classroom of an elite university where students come from, and seek to become part of, the ruling class. My students are responding to very different phenomena. Their responses come out of the injustices and suffering they and their families endure. They are acutely aware of the perfidy of the ruling class. White supremacy, deindustrialization, the collapse of the justice system, the internal armies of occupation that terrorize their communities and poverty are not abstractions. The solutions they embrace will inevitably be subversive.
The ruling class, like ruling classes throughout history, seek to keep the poor and oppressed uneducated for a reason. They do not want those cast aside by society to be given the language, concepts and intellectual tools to fight back.
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