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Camden Philosophical Society Meeting

Tuesday, May 18, 2021 @ 4:00 pm 6:00 pm

The Camden Philosophical Society at its next session on Tuesday, May 18, will discuss some examples of “new” thinking about its recent topic of Freedom, and also revisit in a new light some old attitudes or prejudices about a few alternative political strategies. This month’s readings include a short essay by the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and three short essays written or co-written by contemporary anthropologist and social activist, the late David Graeber. All of these writings revolve around the free exercise by the individual in responding to various socio-political questions.

All are welcome to participate in the online discussion via Zoom. Let us know by emailing sarahmiller@usa.net and cmarecic@gmail.com if you wish to attend via Zoom. You will receive an invitation on the morning of the meeting.  Click on the “Join Zoom Meeting” link in that invitation at the time of the event.

The session will be led by Chuck Marecic.  Chuck provides the following commentary on the topic, as well as internet links to copies of the readings:

In his essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment,” Immanuel Kant wrote, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that’s the motto of enlightenment.”

As we saw last month, Isaiah Berlin echoed Kant’s sentiment against “paternalism” in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In criticizing positive liberty (Bentham’s Utilitarianism in particular), Berlin wrote quoting Kant: “Paternalism is the greatest despot imaginable… This is so because it is to treat men as if they were not free, but human material for me, the benevolent reformer, to mold in accordance with my own, not their, freely adopted purpose.”

Kant’s short essay is both a reminder of the early expectations of the enlightenment project, and just how radical that project was. A copy can be found here: Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment https://users.manchester.edu/Facstaff/SSNaragon/Online/texts/318/Kant,%20Enlightenment.pdf

The three essays by Graeber et al. provide an opportunity to revisit several “mythological” assumptions surrounding the definition and exercise of political freedom. The three concepts discussed are: the birth of inequality, communism and anarchism. 

Of the first, anthropologists Graeber and David Wengrow argue that what we accept as the narrative linking the co-trajectories of rising inequality and social complexity are, in fact, based on a myth (actually a thought experiment) created by Jean Jacques Rousseau to explain his puzzlement with humanity’s “rush to the chains!” 

“Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism,’ or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative. 

It isn’t true.”

Countless scholars from the late 18th Century to the present have relied on this myth to explain, justify, criticize, vilify the “historical” trajectory of social and political inequality. The trouble is that the prehistoric archaeological record doesn’t support the narrative. Our prehistoric ancestors were much more creative, thoughtful, and experimental than we imagined.

“What Rousseau presented is, by contrast, more of a parable. As emphasized by Judith Shklar, the renowned Harvard political theorist, Rousseau was really trying to explore what he considered the fundamental paradox of human politics: that our innate drive for freedom somehow leads us, time and again, on a ‘spontaneous march to inequality.’ In Rousseau’s own words: ‘All ran headlong for their chains in the belief that they were securing their liberty; for although they had enough reason to see the advantages of political institutions, they did not have enough experience to foresee the dangers.’ The imaginary State of Nature is just a way of illustrating the point.”

David Graeber and David Wengrow, How to Change the Course of Human History: https://usa.anarchistlibraries.net/library/david-graeber-david-wengrow-how-to-change-the-course-of-human-history

In the second essay, Graeber discusses two kinds of communism. The first he calls “mythical” Communism which is “a theory of history, of a classless society that once existed and will, it is hoped, someday return again (see essay above!). It is notoriously messianic in its form. It also relies on a certain notion of totality: once upon a time there were tribes, some day there will be nations, organized entirely on communistic principles: that is, where ‘society’ — the totality itself — regulates social production and therefore inequalities of property will not exist.” 

The second, he calls “everyday communism,” which is the basic underpinning that makes society work-“from each according to ability to each according to his need.” According to Graeber, even Capitalism is organized on everyday communistic principles, although we never recognize it as such.

David Graeber, Communismhttps://usa.anarchistlibraries.net/library/communism

In the final essay, Graeber and Andrej Grubačić discuss why they think Anarchy is the best alternative political strategy heading into the future. 

“Everywhere from Eastern Europe to Argentina, from Seattle to Bombay, anarchist ideas and principles are generating new radical dreams and visions. Often their exponents do not call themselves ‘anarchists.’ There are a host of other names: autonomism, anti-authoritarianism, horizontality, Zapatismo, direct democracy… Still, everywhere one finds the same core principles: decentralization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the network model, and above all, the rejection of any idea that the end justifies the means, let alone that the business of a revolutionary is to seize state power and then begin imposing one’s vision at the point of a gun. Above all, anarchism, as an ethics of practice — the idea of building a new society ‘within the shell of the old’ — has become the basic inspiration of the ‘movement of movements’ (of which the authors are a part), which has from the start been less about seizing state power than about exposing, de-legitimizing and dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning ever-larger spaces of autonomy and participatory management within it.“

Interestingly, the description of Anarchy provided by Graeber and Grubačić appears to realize much of what Berlin had laid out in the 1950s. It is based on the principles of negative liberty (freedom from coercion) with an explicit emphasis on avoiding both paternalism and a single totalizing solution. Ironically, it also seems to fit quite well with Kant’s vision of “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity!” Were Berlin and Kant Anarchists?

David Graeber and Andrej Grubačić, Anarchy or the Revolutionary Movement of the 21st Century

See you at the discussion!

Chuck Marecic

55 Main Street
Camden, ME 04843 United States