December 25, 2005

Edmund Burke: Evolutionary Conservatism vs. Blank Slate Revolutionism

A few thoughts on the arch-conservative...

1.Mad Reflections
2.Policy after the Fact
3.Base Appetites Determine Political Pretexts
4.Parallel Evolution: Blake’s Orc

The text of Burke's Reflections
Blake's texts online

1. Mad Reflections

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions in France (1790) is a long, rambling rant of a letter, ostensibly addressed to a curious young man in Paris. The text astounded and perplexed its real target audience - philosophers, politicians and clergymen on both sides of the channel and across the Atlantic: the man who had defended national revolutions in America, Ireland and Poland, and who had so vociferously attacked royal prerogative, was now condemning the French Revolution as an attack on tradition, authority and the slow evolution of constitutional government. The book was rejected by radicals (Paine, Wollstonecraft) and conservatives (Fox, Pitt) alike.

“After reading the ‘Reflections’, Thomas Jefferson insisted that, ‘The Revolution in France does not astonish me as much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.’… Yet another group of readers unsentimentally concluded that Burke had finally gone mad. The exact state of Burke’s mind had been a matter of speculation for some time. The line of division between genius and insanity was thought to be a thin one… In the 1790s, the word ‘Burkism’ was coined to describe exaggerated claims…” [L.G. Mitchell, Introduction OUP]

Apart from its apparent political about-turn, ‘Reflections’ also shocked contemporary readers by its factual inaccuracy (a sign that Burke was out of step with - and maybe deliberately trying to misinform - an increasingly ‘well-informed’ public), and by its hyperbole and melodrama. Now that the shock value has worn off, Burke’s polemic is more irritating than anything else for modern ears: written in very much in the moment and shaped by the events with which it wrestled, the book is full of lengthy, moralizing bluster on topics such as the National Assembly’s confiscation of church lands, and Christian-conservative appeals to God as the author of the ‘English’ state: “They conceive that He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state — He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection.”

So, given that the ‘Reflections’ were universally panned by contemporaries, and are chockful of factual inaccuracies, why did Burke’s ‘Reflections’ become such an indispensable text in political theory and what relevance does Burke have now?

1. The 'Reflections' contains moments of extreme lucidity and many of his predictions were spot on. To the dismay of utopian radicals, Burke’s predictions for what would happen to the French Revolution – that it would descend into a bloodbath and be saved by a military dictatorship – were uniquely prescient. Indeed, Burke’s warnings held true for other high-minded, utopian adventures, such as the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power. Also, apart from the accuracy of his panicked prophecies, Burke could also be credited being the first to identify ‘the monied class’ as a revolutionary force (and therefore, in his books, one to be extremely wary of).

2. Burke is alive as a pre-cooked political symbol to be summoned up for leftoid convenience. There are, of course, elements of truth in the bogeyman Burke of the left: the Burke who can be safely referred to as reactionary, arch-conservative and right-wing, whose ‘swinish multitude’ can be readily and lazily cited for immediate, indignant dismissal of his thought. Marx’s vitriolic assessment typifies the simplification and moralistic class-fascism with which the left so conveniently packages Burke: “The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.”

Any attentive reader of Burke’s description of ‘the monied class’ would have problems labeling either him or his thought ‘bourgeois’:

“The monied property was long looked on with rather an evil eye by the people. They saw it connected with their distresses, and aggravating them. It was no less envied by the old landed interests, partly for the same reasons that rendered it obnoxious to the people, but much more so as it eclipsed, by the splendor of an ostentatious luxury, the unendowed pedigrees and naked titles of several among the nobility. Even when the nobility which represented the more permanent landed interest united themselves by marriage (which sometimes was the case) with the other description, the wealth which saved the family from ruin was supposed to contaminate and degrade it. Thus the enmities and heartburnings of these parties were increased even by the usual means by which discord is made to cease and quarrels are turned into friendship. In the meantime, the pride of the wealthy men, not noble or newly noble, increased with its cause. They felt with resentment an inferiority, the grounds of which they did not acknowledge. There was no measure to which they were not willing to lend themselves in order to be revenged of the outrages of this rival pride and to exalt their wealth to what they considered as its natural rank and estimation. They struck at the nobility through the crown and the church. They attacked them particularly on the side on which they thought them the most vulnerable, that is, the possessions of the church, which, through the patronage of the crown, generally devolved upon the nobility…

… In this state of real, though not always perceived, warfare between the noble ancient landed interest and the new monied interest, the greatest, because the most applicable, strength was in the hands of the latter. The monied interest is in its nature more ready for any adventure, and its possessors more disposed to new enterprises of any kind. Being of a recent acquisition, it falls in more naturally with any novelties. It is therefore the kind of wealth which will be resorted to by all who wish for change.” [109-110]

3. One of the reasons why Burke is worth reinvestigation is that he was instrumental at the time when the memes which continue to shape contemporary thought were taking on a definite form. The political categories of left-wing/right-wing, radical/reactionary emerged at the time of the French Revolution and have been slavishly applied ever since.

Yes, in the context of The French Revolution, Burke was ‘right-wing’ and ‘reactionary’, yet he did not sit comfortably in either the conservative or ‘bourgeois’ camps. There are sections of the ‘Reflections’ which are distinctly dangerous: they provide no comfort for either the ‘left’ or ‘right’ (and comfort and convenience are prized commodities in political discourse – enemies need to be identified, judged and condemned with clear conscience).

Burke the prototypical ‘reactionary’ went far deeper than the ‘radicals’ in his analysis of the undercurrents that determine political groupings and polarizations: while Marx stopped his excavations at the level of productive forces and concludes that humans are determined differently, on a fundamental level, in accordance with their relation to productive forces, Burke digs down to the permanent strata of vicious ‘appetites’ that determine any economic relations or any political ideas or schemes: though humans find themselves in unequal positions in society, they are constituted the same way and, no matter what kind of nonsense they have in their brains, they are bound to behave in predictable ways once they get their hands on power. As a consistent consequence of this deeply pessimistic perception of human nature and society, Burke had not the slightest interest in a program or in reprogramming. Human nature is permanent, inequality is natural and unavoidable, the oppressed will become oppressors if given the chance. The best Burke has to offer in terms of advice or policy is his caution; the worst is his cynical obscurantism.

2. Policy after the Fact

"The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science, because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself and intended for such practical purposes — a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be — it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.

These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are by the laws of nature refracted from their straight line. Indeed, in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. If you were to contemplate society in but one point of view, all these simple modes of polity are infinitely captivating. In effect each would answer its single end much more perfectly than the more complex is able to attain all its complex purposes. But it is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered than that, while some parts are provided for with great exactness, others might be totally neglected or perhaps materially injured by the over-care of a favorite member.” [61-61]

In contrast to the Rousseau-inspired French radicals who were busy attempting to re-engineer human nature and society from scratch, and busy carving up France into geometrically imposed regions, Burke saw society as far more complex than the brains entrusted to govern it. A country’s political system as a depository of collective wisdom which evolves slowly and cautiously over the ages. The fact that a nation exists at all indicates the system running it has a high degree of functional strength. That the people are neither permanently at each other’s throats nor occupied or enslaved by a foreign power is evidence that, even if there is gross inequality, the system is not broken, so it would be wise to take a great deal of care when trying to fix the running of it. The system is run by humans, with the help of their ancestors’ body of laws. Good government requires long experience and extreme caution because ‘schemes’ can have extreme and entirely unforeseen consequences: utopian schemes, no matter how just and good-intentioned, can lead to tyranny and mass slaughter; policies which might seem unjust and ‘prejudicial’ now could actually prove beneficial to everyone in the long run. Policy has to look back before it can move forward: careful observation of the present through reference to the past is the responsible basis for making any political decision concerning the future. Burke’s conservatism conserves the past by treating it as a database that requires constant updating.

Burke viewed England’s Glorious Revolution of 1687 and the American Revolution/War of Independence as continuations of tradition. These revolutions involved violence and upheaval, but they were also part of a slow evolutionary process by which society was moving from feudal tyranny to liberal, civil society. The French Revolution advocated a clean break.

The conservative emphasis on responsible, responsive policy also runs through Burke’s criticisms of The National Assembly’s issuing of assignats, a <'a href="">paper currency’:

“To redeem the huge public debt and to counterbalance the growing deficit, the revolutionary constituent assembly issued (Dec., 1789) treasury notes, called assignats, to the amount of 400 million livres at 5% interest. These were intended as short-term obligations pending the sale of confiscated crown and church land. They were made legal tender in Apr., 1790, and subsequent issues bore no interest.”

Burke deplored the issue assignats because they were grounded in the confiscation of private property. No matter how unjust or corrupt the Crown and Church’s possession of these lands was, as far as Burke was concerned, the state’s appropriation of this land in order to extricate itself from bankruptcy did not bode well for the future of liberty in France. Having violated the principle of property rights and imposed a currency, Burke foresaw that the state would encroach on its citizens’ property and liberties.

The imposition of assignats led to massive hyperinflation and in 1792, one year after the Reflections were published, the assignats lost all of their nominal value.

In 1792, with the emergence of the National Convention, The French Revolution began its full-scale assault on liberty - its impositions, encroachments and atrocities including: the butchery of the Reign of Terror, a universal levy, price fixing, ID cards, travel restrictions, the Revolutionary Calendar, centralization and bureaucratization, language standardization and programs to abolish dialects…

The French Revolution was the first empirical proof that radical social engineering simply does not work, that attempts to reprogram humans by revolutionizing their culture and economy play straight into the hands of the dark side of human nature and human stupidity. Further, society and the economy are beyond the planning capabilities of living human brains: all that those in government can hope to do with a modicum of success is observe and manage: New Economic Models emerge as niches and opportunities to be exploited. E-commerce was not planned in advance from above.

3. Base Appetites Determine Political Pretexts

"History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same

— troublous storms that toss
The private state, and render life unsweet.

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community in some hands and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates, and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with a fresh vigor of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst you are gibbeting the carcass or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourselves with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers. It is thus with all those who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse." [141-2]

Returning to the seams that Hobbes had mined, Burke utterly rejects the Enlightenment memes of the noble savage and the Blank Slate which had emerged in his time: human nature has deep roots and the organism cannot survive attempts to uproot it; further, human nature is predominantly and ineradicably nasty: ‘the causes of evil are permanent’. Political ideas and schemes which seek to utterly annihilate the injustice of society are themselves driven by the vicious strategies they deplore. Burke perceived the French Revolution as part of a broader class war which nowadays goes by the more homely name of ‘the Enlightenment’. For Burke, the Enlightenment was a war waged by ‘the monied class’ and its ‘literary cabal’ against the aristocracy: starting with property confiscation, disempowerment and humiliation, and leading inevitably to bloodshed, chaos and tyranny.

“Along with the monied interest, a new description of men had grown up with whom that interest soon formed a close and marked union — I mean the political men of letters. Men of letters, fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation. Since the decline of the life and greatness of Louis the Fourteenth, they were not so much cultivated, either by him or by the regent or the successors to the crown, nor were they engaged to the court by favors and emoluments so systematically as during the splendid period of that ostentatious and not impolitic reign. What they lost in the old court protection, they endeavored to make up by joining in a sort of incorporation of their own; to which the two academies of France, and afterwards the vast undertaking of the Encyclopedia, carried on by a society of these gentlemen, did not a little contribute.

The literary cabal had some years ago formed something like a regular plan for the destruction of the Christian religion. This object they pursued with a degree of zeal which hitherto had been discovered only in the propagators of some system of piety. They were possessed with a spirit of proselytism in the most fanatical degree; and from thence, by an easy progress, with the spirit of persecution according to their means. What was not to be done toward their great end by any direct or immediate act might be wrought by a longer process through the medium of opinion. To command that opinion, the first step is to establish a dominion over those who direct it. They contrived to possess themselves, with great method and perseverance, of all the avenues to literary fame. Many of them indeed stood high in the ranks of literature and science. The world had done them justice and in favor of general talents forgave the evil tendency of their peculiar principles. This was true liberality, which they returned by endeavoring to confine the reputation of sense, learning, and taste to themselves or their followers. I will venture to say that this narrow, exclusive spirit has not been less prejudicial to literature and to taste than to morals and true philosophy. These atheistical fathers have a bigotry of their own, and they have learned to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk. But in some things they are men of the world. The resources of intrigue are called in to supply the defects of argument and wit. To this system of literary monopoly was joined an unremitting industry to blacken and discredit in every way, and by every means, all those who did not hold to their faction. To those who have observed the spirit of their conduct it has long been clear that nothing was wanted but the power of carrying the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution which would strike at property, liberty, and life…

…Writers, especially when they act in a body and with one direction, have great influence on the public mind; the alliance, therefore, of these writers with the monied interest had no small effect in removing the popular odium and envy which attended that species of wealth. These writers, like the propagators of all novelties, pretended to a great zeal for the poor and the lower orders, whilst in their satires they rendered hateful, by every exaggeration, the faults of courts, of nobility, and of priesthood. They became a sort of demagogues. They served as a link to unite, in favor of one object, obnoxious wealth to restless and desperate poverty.”

The utopian philosophy driving The French Revolution was merely a pretext for seizing power, and that power, though it has changed hands, is once again exercised on behalf by the vicious appetites the philosophers had hoped to exterminate. Philosophy might be high-minded, but “Wickedness is a little more inventive.”

By dangling unlimited power in front of the majority, the National Assembly were facilitating the obliteration of minority classes. The radicals also made the mistake of identifying the system with the people and assumed that by eliminating a certain group of people they would eliminate the power relation expressed by their position. However, “A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community in some hands and under some appellation.” Burke’s main criticism of the National Assembly was that its exercised power poorly: it allowed resentment to seize control, made absurd financial decisions, de-motivated and lost control of the military, and paved the way for a military coup and dictatorship.

“In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that even shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.” (220-1)

4. Parallel Evolution: Blake’s Orc

There are parallels with the evolution of Orc in William Blake’s visions. In America (1793), Orc symbolizes the libidinal, liberating power of revolution, the eternal desire repressed by organized religion and tyrannical monarchy/empire. Blake’s retrospective vision sees Orc at work in American independence from British Colonial rule, which is maintained and defended by Urizen, the repressive faculty of reason, and his earthly representative, Albion’s Guardian. At the end of ‘America’, Urizen, after having lost control of America, manages to contain Orc’s blaze and prevents him from erupting in Europe for 12 years, until the time of The French Revolution:

The British soldiers thro' the thirteen states sent up a howl
Of anguish: threw their swords & muskets to the earth & ran
From their encampments and dark castles seeking where to hide
From the grim flames; and from the visions of Orc; in sight
Of Albions Angel; who enrag'd his secret clouds open'd
From north to south, and burnt outstretchd on wings of wrath cov'ring
The eastern sky, spreading his awful wings across the heavens;
Beneath him roll'd his num'rous hosts, all Albions Angels camp'd
Darkend the Atlantic mountains & their trumpets shook the valleys
Arm'd with diseases of the earth to cast upon the Abyss,
Their numbers forty millions, must'ring in the eastern sky.

In the flames stood & view'd the armies drawn out in the sky
Washington Franklin Paine & Warren Allen Gates & Lee:
And heard the voice of Albions Angel give the thunderous command:
His plagues obedient to his voice flew forth out of their clouds
Falling upon America, as a storm to cut them off
As a blight cuts the tender corn when it begins to appear.
Dark is the heaven above, & cold & hard the earth beneath;
And as a plague wind fill'd with insects cuts off man & beast;
And as a sea o'erwhelms a land in the day of an earthquake;

Fury! rage! madness! in a wind swept through America
And the red flames of Orc that folded roaring fierce around
The angry shores, and the fierce rushing of th'inhabitants together:
The citizens of New-York close their books & lock their chests;
The mariners of Boston drop their anchors and unlade;
The scribe of Pensylvania casts his pen upon the earth;
The builder of Virginia throws his hammer down in fear.

Then had America been lost, o'erwhelm'd by the Atlantic,
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite,
But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire
The red fires rag'd! the plagues recoil'd! then rolld they back with fury

The plagues creep on the burning winds driven by flames of Orc,
And by the fierce Americans rushing together in the night
Driven o'er the Guardians of Ireland and Scotland and Wales
They spotted with plagues forsook the frontiers & their banners seard
With fires of hell, deform their ancient heavens with shame & woe.
Hid in his caves the Bard of Albion felt the enormous plagues.
And a cowl of flesh grew o'er his head & scales on his back & ribs;
And rough with black scales all his Angels fright their ancient heavens
The doors of marriage are open, and the Priests in rustling scales
Rush into reptile coverts, hiding from the fires of Orc,
That play around the golden roofs in wreaths of fierce desire,
Leaving the females naked and glowing with the lusts of youth
For the female spirits of the dead pining in bonds of religion;
Run from their fetters reddening, & in long drawn arches sitting:
They feel the nerves of youth renew, and desires of ancient times,
Over their pale limbs as a vine when the tender grape appears
Over the hills, the vales, the cities, rage the red flames fierce;

The Heavens melted from north to south; and Urizen who sat
Above all heavens in thunders wrap'd, emerg'd his leprous head
From out his holy shrine, his tears in deluge piteous
Falling into the deep sublime! flag'd with grey-brow'd snows
And thunderous visages, his jealous wings wav'd over the deep;
Weeping in dismal howling woe he dark descended howling
Around the smitten bands, clothed in tears & trembling shudd'ring cold.
His stored snows he poured forth, and his icy magazines
He open'd on the deep, and on the Atlantic sea white shiv'ring.
Leprous his limbs, all over white, and hoary was his visage.
Weeping in dismal howlings before the stern Americans
Hiding the Demon red with clouds & cold mists from the earth;
Till Angels & weak men twelve years should govern o'er the strong:
And then their end should come, when France reciev'd the Demons light.

Stiff shudderings shook the heav'nly thrones! France Spain & Italy,
In terror view'd the bands of Albion, and the ancient Guardians
Fainting upon the elements, smitten with their own plagues
They slow advance to shut the five gates of their law-built heaven
Filled with blasting fancies and with mildews of despair
With fierce disease and lust, unable to stem the fires of Orc;
But the five gates were consum'd, & their bolts and hinges melted
And the fierce flames burnt round the heavens, & round the abodes of men

In Europe – A Prophecy (1794) Blake’s disillusionment with revolution is palpable. Orc has now taken on a more demonic form and, after repression in England, his revolution has turned into a terror of sacrificial blood-letting in France:

Arise O Orc from thy deep den,
First born of Enitharmon rise!
And we will crown thy head with garlands of the ruddy vine;
For now thou art bound;
And I may see thee in the hour of bliss, my eldest born.

The horrent Demon rose, surrounded with red stars of fire,
Whirling about in furious circles round the immortal fiend.
Orc! smile upon my children!
Smile son of my afflictions.
Arise O Orc and give our mountains joy of thy red light.

She ceas'd, for All were forth at sport beneath the solemn moon t190
Waking the stars of Urizen with their immortal songs,
That nature felt thro' all her pores the enormous revelry,
Till morning ope'd the eastern gate. t191
Then every one fled to his station, & Enitharmon wept.

But terrible Orc, when he beheld the morning in the east,

Shot from the heights of Enitharmon;
And in the vineyards of red France appear'd the light of his fury.
The sun glow'd fiery red!
The furious terrors flew around!
On golden chariots raging, with red wheels dropping with blood;
The Lions lash their wrathful tails!
The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide:
And Enitharmon groans & cries in anguish and dismay.
Then Los arose his head he reard in snaky thunders clad:
And with a cry that shook all nature to the utmost pole,
Call'd all his sons to the strife of blood.

This ending the poem is ominous and prophetic: the ‘strife of blood’ anticipates the French Revolutionary Wars and The Napoleonic Wars which raged across Europe from 1799 to 1815.

In The Four Zoas (1797), Orc becomes a more tragic figure. He is chained in the depths by his jealous father, Los, who perceives him as a threat. The repression of desire is irreversible: when his parents want to release him they are unable to:

But when they came to the dark rock & to the spectrous cave
Lo the young limbs had strucken root into the rock & strong
Fibres had from the Chain of Jealousy inwove themselves
In a swift vegetation round the rock & round the Cave
And over the immortal limbs of the terrible fiery boy
In vain they strove now to unchain. In vain with bitter tears
To melt the chain of Jealousy. not Enitharmons death
Nor the Consummation of Los could ever melt the chain
Nor unroot the infernal fibres from their rocky bed
Nor all Urthonas strength nor all the power of Luvahs Bulls
Tho they each morning drag the unwilling Sun out of the deep
Could uproot the infernal chain. for it had taken root
Into the iron rock & grew a chain beneath the Earth

Later, Orc is forced into an unwilling alliance with Urizen, who uses his repressed energy to impose his tyrannical order on humanity.

And Orc began to Organize a Serpent body t771
Despising Urizens light & turning it into flaming fire
Recieving as a poisond Cup Recieves the heavenly wine
And turning affection into fury & thought into abstraction t772
A Self consuming dark devourer rising into the heavens

Urizen envious brooding sat & saw the secret terror
Flame high in pride & laugh to scorn the source of his deceit
Nor knew the source of his own but thought himself the Sole author
Of all his wandering Experiments in the horrible Abyss
He knew that weakness stretches out in breadth & length he knew
That wisdom reaches high & deep & therefore he made Orc
In Serpent form compelld stretch out & up the mysterious tree
He sufferd him to Climb that he might draw all human forms
Into submission to his will nor knew the dread result.

Orc remains in ‘Satanic Serpent’ form and functions an agent of Urizen’s repression in his deistic and rational religions until Eternity and intervenes and Orc is revealed as Luvah/’the Lamb’. As Blake loses faith in Orc’s liberation, the figure of Christ and the redeeming role of forgiveness become increasingly central to his visionary system.

In Blake’s symbolic perception of the universe, desire/energy is productive, violent and unwieldy. When his poems were full of revolutionary optimism, Orc was more than a match for Urizen. But as events in France began to colour Blake’s visions, desire becomes bloodier and is put in the service of the very powers it initially opposed. While the imaginative faculty or ‘emanation’ fails to take the reins and incapacitates itself with sexual neuroses, the rational, calculating faculty has no qualms about wielding and channeling desire for its own tyrannical purposes. However, it is no coincidence that, at the precise moment when he is enslaving Orc, attention is drawn Urizen’s delusions and self-deception: “Nor knew the source of his own but thought himself the Sole author/ Of all his wandering Experiments in the horrible Abyss.” Neither can Urizen foresee ‘the dread result’ of his schemes.

It is here that Blake meets Burke, if only in passing. Both men treated The French Revolution primarily as a psychological event – for Burke it had significance for the future of civilization, whereas for Blake the significance was cosmic. Disillusionment led Blake to the realization that the cycles of revolution lead inexorably to tyrannical orthodoxy, while Burke had already reached the same conclusions, as the initial events were unfolding, in his apparently deranged Reflections.

5. To follow up:

• Comparison of Burke’s pessimism with the more idealistic project outlined in ‘The Federalist Papers’
• Reflections on the Bolshevik Revolution (e.g. the proletariat as pretext)
• Genetic/technological reprogramming of human nature

[all Burke references are to the OUP edition of the Reflections]

Posted by sd at December 25, 2005 11:37 PM | TrackBack





Posted by: northanger at January 4, 2006 01:02 AM



Okay--will put just this on-topic remark, that I read entire Burke piece and found it fascinating on revolution(s) and have recommended it to several people. Thanks, sd

Posted by: Patrick J. Mullins at January 4, 2006 02:52 AM



thanks PJM.

this link (from Nick, in the tangents) is definitely on topic: the left's love of central planning being equivalent to Intelligent Design interference.

The Left’s Intelligent Design Problem

No one's driving - well great. The question is - who/what is steering?

Posted by: sd at January 5, 2006 09:23 AM



slightly confused here: thought Borders confusing & Galbraith dead-on. is this wrong?

Posted by: northanger at January 5, 2006 10:50 AM



well this seems quite clear:

"Galbraith (deliberately?) misunderstands the bulk of the arguments for ID. After all, if “Smith’s Creator did not interfere,” his analogy with ID does not hold. ID depends on the idea of a Designer’s interference in the process of forming complex life-forms. By contrast, there’s Darwin, whose process is seemingly blind and purposeless.

Indeed, if ever there were a view of economics that builds in the blind, purposeless processes of trial-and-error, specialization, and complexity (the hallmarks of the Darwinian algorithm) it is Smith’s invisible-hand economics -- the Austrian variants of which are the most strikingly evolutionary in character. It is therefore odd that Galbraith calls his article “Smith v. Darwin.”

Indeed, it is the economics of the left, so affectionately espoused by Galbraith and his compatriots, that is secular Intelligent Design par excellence.

Consider quotes like this from the New York Times’ Paul Krugman: “What's interesting about [the Bush Administration] is that there's no sign that anybody's actually thinking about ‘well, how do we run this economy?’” "

The point being that the economy, like evolution, can run itself. Darwinism proves that God's interference is unnecessary; conservative economics demonstrates that the economy tends to boom when government keeps its hands off it.

Attempts to plan and interfere in the economy - whether driven by rampant stupidity, resentment, perceived injustice or plain paranoia (capitalism as a gothic brain virus) - lead to stagnation and backwardness at best, and murderous famine at worst.

Posted by: sd at January 5, 2006 02:26 PM



sd. my confusion sorted (need to stop reading George Müller).

Posted by: northanger at January 5, 2006 05:03 PM



sd - absolutely, but that gyres us around to the awkward fact that the world's most unabashed conservatives are culturally pushing the ID nonsense along with numerous antilibertarian policies based on attempted top-down suppression of certain (typically extremely vibrant) markets (in drugs, sex, gambling, genomodification, body parts ... for e.g.)

Posted by: Nick at January 6, 2006 12:27 AM



Nick - yes, but it's better to see the funny side of conservative outrage and suppression than to get wound up by it. They're good at managing the economy - so let 'em (who wants to do all that hard work anyway?). To what extent do these markets owe their vibrancy to the fact they are illicit? And here I don't just mean the obvious forbidden fruit/dirty little secret hangover from Xtianity. Conservative cultural policies actually encourage illicit markets to be extremely adaptive, robust and cunning. Since the flows of capital can't be taxed, the conservatives are in fact giving these markets huge tax breaks - so this is, in a weird way, consistent with their economic policies. Amusing rather than irritating - it's the negative hyperstition I mentioned somewhere else: the act of trying to prevent a reality emerging actually brings it about; attempts to repair the damage make the damage worse.

Posted by: sd at January 6, 2006 02:15 PM



sd - that's an ambivalent argument IMHO: in a certain respect it's clearly right, but the problem is that it can't be generalized without saying that the optimum environment for the emergence of robust private enterprise is soci*lism!
Gangsterization of capitalism has a rough and romantic appeal to those of libertarian inclination, but it chews up civil society, operates parasitically and often ends up in alliance with the totalitarian forces arrayed against the overall liberal order (see narcoleftism in Latin America or the role of Hawala informal finance in Jihadi terrorism) ...

Posted by: Nick at January 7, 2006 01:53 AM



Nick - of course it's ambivalent (I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as an argument either).

"it can't be generalized without saying that the optimum environment for the emergence of robust private enterprise is soci*lism!"

There's a world of difference between illicit markets at the suppressed edges of free economies and the black markets omnipresent in repressed soci*list economies. The former run on excess, the latter are essential for survival. The austerity of (truly) communist/soci*list economies provided its 'citizens' with poor quality and a permanent lack. The black market flourished because 'the market' itself was suppressed in principle, and life was reduced to a constant hunt for basic necessities, which meant there was apparently little demand for the products provided by the illicit markets of free economies. When the population has to queue for food and is forced to work for a pitiful subsistence then the illicit market is crude: clothing and luxury food, homemade and contraband alcohol, sex traded for food and favours.

In contrast to the furtive black markets of repressed economies, the illicit markets of free economies in civil societies have developed bold and aesthetically sophisticated cultural products. Artifacts, behaviour and norms associated with underground or criminal cultures insinuate themselves into the mainstream to the point where their presence has been so thoroughly absorbed and accepted that they are imperceptible: conservatives work themselves into a froth about drugs but fail to notice the drug-inspired music that saturates the environment; the odd moral rant might the greet the appearance of a basically pornographic advert, but the majority don't bat an eyelid and sales figures are up; Internet gambling is condemned yet nations sit on the edge of their seats waiting for lottery balls to pop up; gangster language and fashion is appropriated by white, middle-class youth... The environment that conservatives inhabit is shaped by the economic activity they deem illicit. [cultural memes, like viruses, seem to thrive on attempts to stamp them out]

In repressed economies, the government is more often than not itself a form of organized crime, run by gangster/military cronyism and funded by non-transparent trade - so to this extent it is shaped by the black market it suppresses/is in cahoots with.

"Gangsterization of capitalism ... chews up civil society"

The unleashing of free markets in Russia has led to the gansterization of capitalism because Russia is country that lacks the traditions of civil society. If, as Robert D. Kaplan stresses, civil society requires an assertive middle class and the protection of property rights, Moscow is proof of what happens when it is absent: businesses and property are 'repossessed' and 'taken over' with the help of muscle from private security firms; rampant corruption means that a blind eye is turned; it's the new Wild East...

[some useful links on corruption/civil society/property rights in Russia: ]

Kaplan suggests that if there is no tradition of civil society in a country, then authoritarian conservative rule is better for international security than a premature democracy, until a confident middle class emerges... but this is another can of worms...

Maybe the only - and perhaps obvious - generalization that can be made is that illicit markets take on an increasingly vicious form in accordance with the degree that civil society and property rights are absent.

Posted by: sd at January 7, 2006 05:43 PM



Yes, SD and Nick. This is one of the most interesting things, black markets operating within different kinds of societies. I haven't seen too much about it, but what happens in drugs, real estate in the U.S. in black market is then minimal, one can see, at least at least compared to black markets in USSR must have been even more than today's Russia. I remember being surprised at the enormous amount of alcoholism in the USSR--I guess it was a cheap enough thing to temporarily relieve misery, and probably even commodified workers so they'd be cheaply replaced. I guess there were a lot of black markets in the old USSR written about during all those years, but I never read anything about it. Very interesting stuff.

Posted by: Patrick J. Mullins at January 7, 2006 08:46 PM



PJM - this is informative:

the section:
The Mafia Phenomenon in the Soviet Union

Posted by: sd at January 7, 2006 10:42 PM



sd - excellent response. It would be interesting to do a region-by-region tour of the issue.
Fareed Zakaria seems broadly in agreement with Kaplan on democracy question, but as you say - that's another topic.

PJM - Supposedly the heroin situation in Russia is following the vodka trail. Seems like a cultural affinity for oblivion drugs.

Posted by: Nick at January 8, 2006 12:51 AM



Fantastic paper, I should have remembered beforehand reports of extensive bribery in China from the 90's, probably continuing even as the success forms set in; but didn't know about USSR. Thanks, SD.

Nick, heroin would be part of gangster style instead of prolish vodka. SD talks about US teens imitating gangster style. Don't know about Russian teens, but the gangsters themselves would be constantly refining their esthetics, and so probably compete for all the newest drugs, cars, designer clothes and get them. Also, I remember all those swaggering Baathist soldiers in Baghdad, who would have probably also been involved in this sort of thing.

Also interesting in article was inability to control construction mafias in NYC. I've seen sites in the Rockaways that just exuded mafiosi, and over a period of 15-20 years I never saw work going on in this construction company but once. There's a rich mob residential area in Queens, which has strangely tasteful mansions that are meant to look classy, not garish. Fulton Fish Market just closed for good, though.

Posted by: Patrick J. Mullins at January 9, 2006 02:17 AM



This article on Goldwater in the Wall Street Journal is definitely worth a look (and on topic!):

Posted by: Nick at January 12, 2006 06:46 AM



nick. isn't that the profound question? how do you convey morality & ethics in a free democratic society? how do you convey m&e in a free, democratic, *capitalistic* society? invent a way of depositing / receiving money quickly — everyone's got an ATM card. invent a way to call anyone from your car, from the bus, from the air, from the sea — everybody's got a cellphone. morality, ethics & religion? capitalism isn't supposed to have morals, just make money & be ethical about it. it's challenging, then, when western democracy seems driven more by the needs of the material (fur coat or revenge) than the spiritual.

essentially, i think sd's post is about what makes a good revolution. maybe morality & ethics is found embedded in the core.

Posted by: northanger at January 12, 2006 08:56 AM



Nick - a lot to think about there (must confess to never having heard of Goldwater before). The focus on nationalism and religion in American conservatism is complex and disconcerting (more ambivalence).

Burke says that he has never met a MAN - he has only ever met Frenchmen, Englishmen, Scots etc. For him, the universal altruism of the Enlightenment, with its constant talk of MAN and his rights, is an abstraction which has been constructed as part of an attempt to uproot national and local traditions.

The conservative perspective emphasizes the central role that self-interest plays in human investment: humans most readily invest energy and belief in (hyperstitional) constructs which are closest to home, when the benefits to themselves and their families are clearest.The international 'human community' is at the end of a list of potential bidders for altruistic investment: family, village/town, ethnic group, region, nation, continent, humanity. Nation is also a huge abstraction (often imposed on disparate ethnic groupings and arbitrary geographical divides), but people are prepared to invest in it, and even sacrifice their lives for it, as long as the investment pays off in terms of their self-interest (which can be channeled to their nearest and dearest gene carriers).

People will only invest in universal abstractions such as 'humanity' in times of security and luxury:

"... it was also the unprecedented physical and material security evinced by the suburbs in the decades following World War II that provided many Americans - young people especially - with the means to engage in the highest degree of altruism: the kind not limited to one's family or ethnic group, but extending to all humanity. Perhaps for the first time in history, there was a generation without direct experience of poverty, depression, war, invasion, and other terrors that other human beings for ages have regarded as ordinary elements of daily life: the Cold War, because it was cold, was also abstract; while the Vietnam War, to a significant degree, was fought by the less affluent classes. As the sixties' youth rebellion showed, this suburban cocoon bred both conformity and a rarefied idealism - a desire to transcend international politics rather than engage in them, with the unsatisfactory moral compromises which that entailed.
Particularly at the end of the Cold War, many believed that we could escape from the human condition, with democracy, free market capitalism, and a new respect for the rights of the individual replacing power politics and the self-interest of nations and other groups. The collapse of the Berlin Wall led to the hope that all humanity was marching toward the same progressive horizon. It was a notion that Isiah Berlin and Raymond Aron - echoing Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Founding Fathers - branded unrealistic, because such an ideal lay outside history, which is never free of human division and conflict. (Kaplan, Warrior Politics, p98/9)

Northanger, IMHO, self-interest is at the core, rather than morality and ethics. Nations or continents could share the same values and yet have conflicting interests. 'Freedom' is just a pretext.

The refrains of nationalism and religion keep surfacing in 'Imperial Grunts', where he describes the unabashed American nationalism of the Special Forces teams and Marines, and the new Evangelical enthusiasm prevalent in the American military which, he claims, has done wonders for morale... The class refrain also reappears: the patriotism of working class American soldiers vs. the universal altruism of the middle-class media... (might make a good post actually)

this is also very much on topic:

The Burke Habit: Prudence, skepticism and "unbought grace." BY JEFFREY HART

Posted by: sd at January 12, 2006 11:46 AM



sd. that's the problem innit? governing self-interest.

Posted by: northanger at January 12, 2006 09:38 PM



sd, northanger - the Goldwater article was interesting to me because 'Goldwater Conservative' in its prior (and apparently questionable) sense, i.e. small government, market-happy, hawkish, socially tolerant politics still strikes me as a very attractive package. That said, arguments against libertarianism from the right - viz social policy etc. - seem far stronger and more worthy of serious debate then the moonbat ravings of the left (don't think I've heard a genuinely rational or coherent leftist argument for at least a decade, and that's with hanging out at numerous left-of-centre blogs - all you get is feeeeling, and stale resentment-based feeling to boot).

self-interest needn't be confined to individuals - every level of grouping has its own self-interest - and nothing in social science is more firmly established than the general convergence of rational self-interest with general welfare. A huge amount could be achieved by just discrediting theft (soci*list redistributionism) which has been demonstrated to the point of nauseating overkill to be as thoroughly destructive of general well-being as of individual achievement - and in the fullness of time, given its utterly corrosive social effects, probably more so ...

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 06:11 AM



As example of stimulating but (IMHO non-compelling) conservative argument, Edward Feser at TCS on why metaphysics trumps science:
(Think I'd be entrenched with sd in the 'Reductionist Conservatism' box of Feser's schema).
What's impressive here is that even though Feser is trying to uproot - or at least critique - the position I'd defend, he still describes it in a way that is productive and thought-provoking. Contrast with gaseous leftist harangues ...

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 08:09 AM



sd - Hart piece centrally on topic and excellent. This is good:
"Soft utopianism often has encouraged more frequent wars, as it is irresistibly tempting to the lion's claws and teeth."

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 09:54 AM



nick. from Feser: "...every single living human body, within the womb or without, severely damaged or not, counts as the body of a person and as a being having all the rights of a person, including the right to life." huh?

Posted by: northanger at January 13, 2006 10:41 AM



northanger - Similar sentiments in the Hart piece - as a neolibertarian I don't agree with this stuff, in fact the whole Hart argument of both pieces seems misconceived to me. The point is, they illuminate conservatism (remember, Hayek refused the label).

Key argument (just) up the road, foreshadowed here is about market-oriented thinking and its limits. IMHO, these limits are not oppressive, and the basic tenor of marketry (i.e. apolitical social bonding on basis of rational self-interest) is readily extendable to foreign policy and (neolib) war and peace issues once they are understood in terms of incentive structures (critique of appeasement).
Where Feser and Hart go wrong is eliding the mechanism for enforcement of values, which is to say they're implicit statists ...

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 10:56 AM



Possibly that sounds a little hurried :)

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 10:57 AM



nick. think we both agree Feser should have stuck with triangles in his metaphysics intro. "eliding ... implicit statists" halts tangent box rant.

someone quoted G.K. Chesterton recently: "We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty." Chesterton also said: "It was the mystical dogma of Bentham and Adam Smith and the rest, that some of the worst of human passions would turn out to be all for the best. It was the mysterious doctrine that selfishness would do the work of unselfishness."

Posted by: northanger at January 13, 2006 11:27 AM



lol. sd's right: time to change the subject!

Posted by: northanger at January 13, 2006 11:29 AM



Too late now ...

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 01:07 PM



nick. "too late now..." meaning we're in it too deep, or "too late now..." it's 1am in the morning, time to go to bed?

Posted by: northanger at January 14, 2006 07:37 AM



Nick - the Feser response to Hart is indeed illuminating.

The 'realist conservative' position is a very difficult position to maintain though: a) it is, by definition, non-adaptive - which means it will become ever more anachronistic and out-of-touch; b) it cannot accept that alternative moral codes and social mores might work in different social contexts, but has to impose it's values on the whole of humanity (is this what you hint at?); c) it cannot respond to evidence that morality and behaviour has evolved through evolutionarily stable strategies other than by snotty claims that this evidence is provided by a 'fad'.

The point that Feser misses is that Burke's conservatism is adaptive, at least in some passages of the 'Reflections'. His conservatism is also deeply cynical in places - acknowledging that 'prejudice' is irrational AND functional.

[also rather rushed, got a train to catch...]

Posted by: sd at January 14, 2006 08:59 AM



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