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Fighting from below for recognition as human

Alan Gilbert interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Alan Gilbert is a groovy political philosopher in Denver. He knows the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring are significant. He murders oppression and injustice. He thinks about Marx and Rawls a lot.

3:AM: How did you turn out as a political philosopher? Were you fighting against injustice as a boy, or was this something that you grew into from other initial interests?

Alan Gilbert: Richard Gilbert, my father, was the first Keynsian economist in the United States and taught at Harvard before entering the Roosevelt administration as an advisor. He set much debated targets for guns and butter in early World War II which were vastly exceeded in the event. As a young man, he had been a Marxist of sorts, sympathetic to the Wobblies and free speech fights. When I was growing up, however, he was a Vice-President of Schenley Industries and then – when he could no longer stand it – an economic consultant in New York. But he was then recruited by former colleagues from Harvard to become the head of a Harvard-World Bank advisory group to the dictator Ayub Khan in Pakistan.

We once watched a TV news report on the nine black children in Little Rock entering Central High with the mob surrounding them. The New York Times had run a photo of a dissolute white teenager, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, kicking a black teenager on the ground. The newscast showed the national guard standing there, one man breaking ranks as this was going on, and hitting the racist with the butt of his rifle. My father cheered; and so did I. He used to appall my older sister by telling her and her husband that if he were in South Africa under apartheid, he would be a communist… My mom, Emma, was less political, but she had grown up in an anarchist community led by her father and mother (Russian emigres) when she was a kid. So there was lot in my family that prepared the way, despite their direction (liberal Democrats), for me looking at injustice deeply. When we went to Pakistan, there were six servants in an American household. Taj, the bearer (head servant), read and wrote three languages (better than most of the Americans there…), had one son whom he was helping to go to medical school. My father commented to me on the perversity of a regime that condemned so talented a man to this.

The summer of my first year at Harvard, I went with the international group of advisors to then East Pakistan where we toured a jute mill owned by the Adamjee family, one of the twelve families which dominated the economy and government of West Pakistan. I was friends with Ashraf Adamjee as a freshman at Harvard. It was the monsoon, 100 degrees outside and wet as we drove by the shacks of the workers, and a Dutch economist – Wouter Tims – pointed out that prices had tripled in the last seven years, wages had not risen. Inside the mill, it was dark, the racket of the machinery loud, the Pakistani supervisor/guide jabbering at us with his spiel, but as we began to see, all the workers were young women (probably 20-30 years old) and no one had 10 fingers on their hands… I think we were all nauseous. When we went outside, my father said to me: “This is what Marx called primitive capitalist accumulation. It’s been a hundred and fifty years and capitalism can barely show its bloody hands in daylight.”

The experience of seeing Pakistan and the American military/government/capitalist presence in the midst of so much poverty – we would go to the Indian ocean and be surrounded by a thousand boys running with the car and yelling “baksheesh, sahib” – give us some money, sir – and there weren’t enough drops in the Indian Ocean – or money in the pockets of individual Americans – to aid them (my father tried to, as an economist, and other people did). At Harvard, I went on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland the week after the sheriff had led a mob throwing a young woman through the glass window at Woolworth’s (we were lucky to miss the attack). I didn’t go on Freedom Summer, but my classmate from Walden School in New York, Andy Goodman did, and was murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner by another mob led by the sheriff. I became active in the first movement against the Vietnam War since I had seen what the US was in Pakistan and Thailand and reading some French histories of the war – Bernard Fall, Denis Warner, Jean Lacouture – made it all too clear.

Academically, I took social studies – an interdisciplinary program where I worked with Stanley Hoffmann and Barrington Moore – and did a lot of literature, French and German as well as English. I took Government 1a with Carl Friedrich and found it so vacuous and boring – “constitutionalism is effective, regularized restraint” was his mantra – that I didn’t take political theory (Government 1b). But social studies focused on social theory, and we spent several weeks reading Marx and Weber along with Smith, Durkheim, Freud, Hume and others. With Moore, I did more work on Marx, heard I.F Stone talk about the Vietnam war, met Marcuse (a friend of Moore’s). I was in the very first anti-war movement, the May 2nd movement, and had the experience of debating McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor and former dean of arts and science, about Vietnam (it was Harvard). I asked Bundy: “How does the US expect to win a war against a successful peasant revolt, trying to restore the landlords?” The audience cheered; Bundy assured us that he knew things that were not public… He didn’t.

I then went to the London School of Economics in political sociology, studied for a year with Ralph Miliband (I am amused by the peregrinations of David and Ed, particularly given parliamentary socialism, a fine depiction of the limits of the Labour Party, short of mass revolt). I had a close friend at the Ecole Normale in Paris and spent much of the winter there going to seminars by Althusser, and meeting many of his very clever Maoist students. Althusser had just written about Montesquieu’s discovery of the new terrain of a theory of history and I found this – in addition to reading Capital – exciting. I decided to go back to Harvard as a graduate student rather than stay in England mainly because I wanted to fight against the war in Vietnam. I also wanted to learn Chinese, but came back late to intensive Chinese and ultimately switched out. I took some Chinese government courses which were sadly air-headed (but we got to look at the hidden library including CIA documents on the Chinese revolution and agriculture – one, written by a smart analyst, had a brief subsection on the issue of justice, saying drily: “There is no problem of social justice, as we understand it, in Chinese agriculture.” Of course, this judgment proved somewhat superficial).

I also took a course in early modern political theory with Michael Walzer who was my advisor. At the time, political philosophy was the only breath of life in political “science,” a pretty dim field (as Moore and Marcuse and Miliband had shared with me). I also worked with Dita Skhlar, who gave me a reading course on Montesquieu and then Aristotle (and so, I began to take up Greek political thought). At the same time, I met Hilary Putnam and John Rawls, talking with them at lunch in Harvard Restaurant about the events at Harvard and Althusser’s views of the transformation in modern chemistry and Marx’s analogies to it in Capital. I also met Dick Boyd. In SDS, there were lots of philosophy graduate students. So I spent a fair amount of time, becoming acquainted with what philosophers were thinking – many very creative adaptations of scientific realism (see Alan Garfinkel’s Forms of Explanation, the best book still, I think, in philosophy of social science, and Norm Daniels’s early writings on Rawls, for example). I would be thrown out of Harvard as a leader of the Harvard strike for two years and readmitted by majority vote of the faculty (some people voted “no” and I am afraid that though it hurt and I value the many good things about Harvard and the people who teach, work and study there, I have also always taken it as a compliment). Eventually, I did a year at Cornell in the philosophy department on philosophy of science and ethics, working with Boyd, Nick Sturgeon, Richard Miller and David Lyons, among others, on an American Council of Learned Societies grant.

Thus, my way to radicalism and to democratic theory was through visual, visceral and personal experience of injustice, coupled with a deep introduction to social theory, and then working my way back into political philosophy with a large tincture of contemporary philosophy. In a way, the inter-disciplinarity of social studies especially helped; I have never looked at these issues through the lens of one discipline or taken a prevailing point of view, even when it is attractive to me as scientific realism was at the time or alternately Marxian theory – but only, as I argue in my first book Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, with a much larger element of politics and possible creativity (that real possibilities or in technical terms, counterfactuals are much broader than most people, tempted by Marxism, think) – without a lot of skepticism. But that political philosophy and social theory are attractively and intensely critical of American militarism and racism, I have never had much doubt.

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3:AM: You make great links between contemporary politics and earlier periods. So one really interesting case was where you looked at Leo Strauss‘ letter to Karl Loewith in the 1930’s where Strauss “defends, against Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the politics of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” You draw a connection “with the many Straussian neoconservative advisors to and publicists for the Bush-Cheney administration.” You wrote this in 2009. Now this is really cool, but is there a danger that drawing on such history and the ideas of thinkers like Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx etc. will become increasingly irrelevant as contemporary societal arrangements (and technological innovation) transform our ideas about what it is to be human, happy, empowered etc, as some philosophers, such as Alex Rosenberg, argue?

AG: In ‘The Iliad, the poem of force‘, Simone Weil traces the impact of extreme violence in proving the mortality of even great warriors and on reducing other humans to objects. The poem also, as she notes, does not take sides, often focusing on the humanity of each person. In the wars of the 21st century, children are often the primary casualties. And the wars now often have an automated (drones) and privatized (mercenaries; not announced to the democracy) character. But war needs to go out of style and we need great movements from below to do that.

Rosenberg has telling comments on the harmfulness of the Chicago school of neoclassical economics during the collapse of 2008. In a way, my critique of Strauss and his influential political followers advancing executive power or tyranny is similar, i.e. concerned with the truth of argument and present-day impact (though of course Strauss’ arcana, though at least as politically and morally ugly as neoclassical economics, are more obscure…). But the thought you mention is a piece of speculation so far removed from the brutal realities and dangers of today as, in the most important respect, to be fairly idle.

The US is the leading militarist power in the world and will be, even broke, very hard to stop. The US has for instance 1280 bases abroad; France its leading “competitor” has 5 in former French colonial Africa. Even Obama, the anti-“dumb” Iraq war candidate – the war was one of aggression, crimes of torture to the fore, and to call it merely “dumb” is to say something, unfortunately, at best ambiguous and, prima facie silly – is waging aggressions or occupations in 6 countries, not counting Iran. The use of drones in Pakistan, irrelevant to taking out Bin Laden, has murdered many civilians – called “collateral damage” by the killers – created justified mass hatred of the US, and turned a nuclear power into, increasingly, an enemy of the US. The addiction to war and the forces in imperialism/capitalism that lead to it – particularly given US dependence on militarism as the main productive and innovative part of the economy (creating both the internet and drones for murder abroad/internal surveillance) – will be hard to turn around. If one adds in the speculative casino of finance capital – it has always been parasitic, but with derivatives it now beats the band for perversity (Goldman Sachs advised and made loans to the Greek government and simultaneously took out derivative bets that the Greek government would fail, driving up interest on renewing loans) – and the encouragement of consumer and student debt, one sees the causes of economic collapse.

On the other hand, mass nonviolent movements from Tunisia and Egypt to Greece, the indignados in Spain, student and worker protests in England and Occupy are having an increasingly large effect in the world (regimes are far more often falling, in revolutionary situations, by nonviolence today than by armed struggle). This is a great, potentially civilizing countermovement. I appreciate the aspect of the question on Strauss. His influence in the United States was to create a group of students/reactionary politicians to push the idea of executive power (authoritarianism, tyranny) in place of the checks and balances in the Constitution. From Carl Schmitt – “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception” (the first line of his 1923 Political Theology) through Strauss’ May 1933 letter to Karl Loewith on the “principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperial” to commander in chief power – the leading thought of Cheney and his Straussian advisors like Bob Goldwin and Mike Malbin – the lineage, once one looks, is clear.

The sentence you mention, however, was mistranslated by Scott Horton (and by me, in advising him) and Eugene Shepperd. We all assumed that the phrase “meskine Unwesen” referred to Hitler. But Michael Zank and William Altman have pointed out that the Italian/French meskine often means miserly and is used in reference to Shylock and Fagin. What Strauss meant is that though the German right will not accept even Jews who are pro-Nazi, it still is the only “dignified” way to fight the modern, in Nietzschean terms, “Jewish” reality of the last men. This is pretty startling because it makes vivid Hannah Arendt’s wisecrack to her friends about Strauss – “he wanted to join a party that wouldn’t have him because he was a Jew.” Strauss was blown away by Heidegger (see his posthumous Introduction to [Heideggerian – the word is the editor’s] Existentialism.) He was through the 1930s and long after emigrating to the United States sympathetic to and active in furthering anti-democratic and belligerent politics (working against Brown v. Board of Education, advising Charles Percy, an ambitious Republican, that Cuba should be taken out after the Cuban missile crisis and a near miss for nuclear war). So the case is a really dark and interesting one of the dialectic between reactionary thinking and politics.

Obama is the American President and quite reactionary (strengthens executive power, removes some forms of torture but then ignores the crime of torture and even tortures Bradley Manning, and the like). But the anti-democratic movement in the American elite has been shaped to a considerable extent by Strauss’ ideas (not simply: that he would have supported the Iraq War as a way to advance Americanism by conquest is not obvious – even though his politics was even darker than this – and torture is not something, as opposed to the destruction of “the last men,” he hinted at). The key element is executive or commander in chief power – authoritarianism – coupled with the need for unending war and an appeal to “Evangelicism”… (Strauss had no political sympathy for toleration or the separation of church and state). The contrast with Obama or Clinton shows that the Bush period uniquely established torture and indefinite detention in violation of the rule of law and created a circumstance which will be hard to reverse. Obama, in ordering the murder of American citizens abroad – Awlaki and his 16 year old son – far from the field of battle and without a gesture at judicial procedure, has extended this further. There is a bipartisan police state regime, in Yale constitutional lawyer Jack Balkin’s idiom, increasingly emerging in the US and it will take a major movement from below, on behalf of the rule of law, to reverse it.

In this context, it is very important to distinguish serious conservatives who believe in habeas corpus – that each prisoner must have a day in court and not be tortured – as the center of the rule of law and imperial authoritarians (Straussians, neocons – all the Republican candidates for President except Ron Paul). In America, what are misleadingly called “conservatives” in the corporate press are usually the latter, whereas the British Tories opposed proposals for longer detentions when put forward by Labour. Over the past 10 years, I have often found myself in alliance with conservatives like Scott Horton, Andrew Sullivan and even Bob Barr to defend habeas corpus and to oppose torture (my former student Condi Rice, was sadly one of the leading war criminals in the last administration). Much of my writing, for instance, Democratic Individuality, sketches the core of all decent political positions, liberal, conservative, radical. The prohibition against torture, enormously eroded in this period, is, as the Law Lords, said, absolute, and the nonpartisan core, since the Magna Carta, of all decent politics.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012.