Home > Philosophy, Politics (general) > Out of the Crooked Timber of Humanity, no Straight Thing was ever Formed

Out of the Crooked Timber of Humanity, no Straight Thing was ever Formed

September 6th, 2011

That’s the tagline of Crooked Timber, the group blog of which I’ve been a member for quite a few years. I knew that it was quoted by Isaiah Berlin as a translation of something written by Kant, but I’ve never, until yesterday, seen it in a more complete context. That’s when I finally stumbled across Berlin’s, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows

a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant[1], a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.

Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.

fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.

Categories: Philosophy, Politics (general) Tags:
  1. September 6th, 2011 at 06:34 | #1

    what always disturbs me is that ideologues always assume that the core reason of the plight of humans or some group of humans is the application of the wrong political philosophy

    my daughter asked me last night to explain the difference between “left” and “right” in terms of economic policy

    here was my answer – understand that she grew up on a SEA rice farm so my answer was based on her world view of food being central to everything

    imagine you are out bush walking one day and after a long hike you discover a huge valley filled with mangoes and bananas and other fruit as well as wild geese and pigs and everything you could imagine

    nobody has ever seen the valley before

    you think “i could take food to the market and sell it” – which is what you do

    the next day you take a big pack and go back to the valley, making sure nobody follows you

    you fill your pack with delicious mangoes and return and then you go to the local market and sell your mangoes and make a lot of money because everyone can see they are really great mangoes

    you do this for several weeks before your sister asks you if she can sell some food at the market too – and you agree to let her in for 50% of what she can carry and sell (she is your sister after all)

    so next day the two of you head back to the valley with you packs….

    after a while you have a number of family members all going to the valley with packs and soon with a cart and then with a horse and cart to fetch food to sell

    that is free market economics

    one day, the local head man approaches you and says “you have been selling a lot of food – you have to give me 50% of everything you make so i can help the poor families of the village”

    so now you have to give the head man half of everything you make and everyone has to wear a cut in income – but you have more horses now and all of the family and some distant cousins are all involved so it’s not so bad – you can live with it

    the head man distributes much of what he takes from you among the poor families of the village and his popularity grows

    so soon he is being approached by more people to get help for this and that – and soon he is back to you for a bigger cut of what you make from selling your fruit and meat

    this my dear daughter is the “left”

    your clever cousin has watched your problems with the local head man and he decides that if he can get the other people from the market to vote for him to be the head man then he can give less money away and you can pay less

    he competes in the next village head-man election and wins – now you are paying less to the head man because he will only keep his job if he can get the people at the market to all vote for him

    that my dear daughter is the “right”

    at this point my daughter asked “what happens when all the food in the valley is gone”

    to which i responded

    that my dear daughter is the exact plight of the world at this moment

    both sides – the left and the right claim that the prosperity of the village flows from their superior management of the local economy

    but the fact is that both sides are leeching and the only real source of wealth for all of the village is what the local environment can produce

    she asked me why couldn’t people understand economics if it was so simple to explain?

    to which i replied

    my dear daughter – both head men truly believe that they are important and the people they talk to every day are convinced by their fine clothes and fine words that they are speaking truth

    pop

    http://thepeakoilpoet.blogspot.com/2011/07/at-how-river-roars.html

  2. Greg
    September 6th, 2011 at 07:52 | #2

    http://www.gmi.co.nz/bigkahuna/

    “New Zealand’s tax and welfare policies are a mess.
    Could the solution be abolishing the current welfare system and radically overhauling the tax system?”

    John, you’ve probably heard of Gareth Morgan – a member of your own profession.

  3. Freelander
    September 6th, 2011 at 08:54 | #3

    The problem with much utopianism (or maybe all) is that even the cleverest of us is nowhere as clever as we might think. Consequently, utopian prescriptions are usually based on false assumptions and/or faulty reasoning, are always imperfect in their implementation, and result in a myriad of unintended consequences. Sad also, is that anti-utopians, like Berlin and others, are often implicitly peddling their own utopian visions, even if their visions are somewhat dystopian, although to their mind, still, the ideal to be aimed for as the best of all possible worlds.

    Still, Berlin and others have interesting ideas and are worth a read. And, I hope, thinking about how to make the world a better place is a worthwhile endeavour.

  4. September 6th, 2011 at 10:46 | #4

    Pr Q said:

    It’s hard to spell out what [a social democratic utopia] means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights).

    Ahh, the 1970s, the Me Decade, first decade in which tertiary educated Baby Boomers started to flex their cultural muscles. Of course elite members of cultural identity groups (gays, women, coloreds) have made vast steps towards emancipation since the 1970s, just look at the President and Prime Minister. Yet at the same time progress in broad social equity stalled then went backward.

    Its no accident that elite members of the self-styled meritocratic progressive generation should have been a party to the end of general social progress. Thats the way they like it.

    Of course in the aftermath of WWII, improvements in social equity helped foster improvements in the status of cultural identity groups.Think of the late fifties and early sixties, the Honeymooners and Flintstones coexisted with all those movies featuring Sydney Poitier, Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn.

    But it does not necessarily work the other way. The $64 question is whether the continued focus on special cultural identity actually constrains progress in general social equity. Mainly by reducing the social solidarity needed to foster community ethical concern.

    Progress in the Culture War may retard progress in the Class War. How many times have we heard leaders of cultural identity groups denouncing red-necks, chavs and bogans? The Broad Left needs to confront this problem or all its talk of reform will simply founder in the next battle of the Culture War.

    Conservative social democrats like me are not hankering after some utopian system. We would be content with “forward to the past” c. 1972.

    More generally, effective progress comes more from the combination of institutional conservatism and instrumental constructivism. Keeping what was good in the past about our social rules and using the scientific method to drive future improvements in our technical tools.

  5. September 6th, 2011 at 10:47 | #5

    Pr Q said:

    It’s hard to spell out what [a social democratic utopia] means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights).

    Ahh, the 1970s, the Me Decade, first decade in which tertiary educated Baby Boomers started to flex their cultural muscles. Of course elite members of cultural identity groups (gays, women, coloreds) have made vast steps towards emancipation since the 1970s, just look at the President and Prime Minister. Yet at the same time progress in broad social equity stalled then went backward.

    Its no accident that elite members of the self-styled meritocratic progressive generation should have been a party to the end of general social progress. Thats the way they like it.

    Of course in the aftermath of WWII, improvements in social equity helped foster improvements in the status of cultural identity groups.Think of the late fifties and early sixties, the Honeymooners and Flintstones coexisted with all those movies featuring Sydney Poitier, Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn.

    But it does not necessarily work the other way. The $64 question is whether the continued focus on special cultural identity actually constrains progress in general social equity. Mainly by reducing the social solidarity needed to foster community ethical concern.

    Progress in the Culture War may retard progress in the Class War. How many times have we heard leaders of cultural identity groups denouncing red-necks, chavs and bogans? The Broad Left needs to confront this problem or all its talk of reform will simply founder in the next battle of the Culture War.

    Conservative social democrats like me are not hankering after some utopian system. We would be content with “forward to the past” c. 1972.

    More generally, effective progress comes more from the combination of institutional conservatism and instrumental constructivism. Keeping what was good in the past about our social rules and using the scientific method to drive future improvements in our technical tools.

  6. Ikonoclast
    September 6th, 2011 at 12:42 | #6

    @Jack Strocchi

    Jack, I have considerable sympathy with the view that “effective progress comes more from the combination of institutional conservatism and instrumental constructivism. Keeping what was good in the past about our social rules and using the scientific method to drive future improvements in our technical tools.”

    I would add that the acceptance of institutional conservatism obviously has some caveats. Not all institutions are good and blind conservatism amounts to the tyranny of the (often ignorant) past over the present. A case in point is national constitutions implemented by previous generations. Not one of us living had a vote or say in the Australian constitution with sole possible exception of some changes by referenda.

    That is not such a problem with a relatively good constitution but it may be a considerable problem with a relatively poor, anachronistic and quasi-democratic (at best) constitution like that of the USA. The US constitution was framed by slave-owning oligarchs and patriarchs who ensured in the framing that little real democratic power would ever devolve to the ordinary people. Many of the USAs problems have developed from its poor constitution. Now it is ungovernable in any way other than the satisfying of the oligarchs’ needs over the rest of the population. The US has shown itself to be unreformable. It is now in terminal decline precisely because of the hold of oligarchic, patriararchic, and religious fundamental conservatism over its national fabric.

  7. September 6th, 2011 at 13:03 | #7

    Dear Webmaster
    Sorry about poor html tagging at #4, please ignore or delete.
    Jack Strocchi

  8. shocked (just like Kylie)
    September 6th, 2011 at 13:32 | #8

    How about Distributism?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributism

    As Chesterton said, the problem with capitalism is that it produces too few capitalists. Distributism instead seeks to distribute the means of production, rather than the State accruing ‘em all.

  9. Paul Norton
    September 6th, 2011 at 13:51 | #9

    To put things succinctly, Bernstein’s dictum that “the aim is nothing, the movement everything” still leaves the question of how we can tell whether the movement is in the right direction.

  10. September 6th, 2011 at 14:57 | #10

    Whilst it is good to keep our minds focused on progress it would be foolish to ignore that things can always get worse. Its quite likely that unemployment will get much much worse and may not ever get better gain.

    In short, if one wants a vision of the future then its flash-mob London.

    Social democracy is essentially the political arm of labour – the producer class. Its top political priority is providing a progressive job structure for the producer class from pre-work training thru-work awards onto post-work income support. The anti-producer class – the feral under-class and financial over-class – can look elsewhere for political representation.

    The biggest political economy problem confronting the social democratic movement is the next wave of AI-driven automation. It will probably wipe out a significant fraction of productive middle-class jobs driven by the huge growth in white-collar industries. Even lawyers and doctors are not immune to technologically driven industrial immiseration. The industrial structure is “hollowing out” leaving a big hole where the middle-class used to live:

    MIT economics professor David Autor argues that intelligent machines are “hollowing out” the economy, with new jobs coming at the bottom of the economic pyramid and the jobs in the middle being lost to automation and outsourcing to lower-wage countries.

    And this trend, some analysts say, is only going to increase as machines become more sophisticated. “The economic impact will be huge,” said Carnegie Mellon’s Mitchell. “We’re at the beginning of a 10-year period where we’re going to transition from computers that can’t understand language to a point where computers can understand quite a bit about language.”

    American software entrepreneur and author Martin Ford thinks the economic impact of intelligent machines is likely to be nothing short of disastrous, and not just for displaced workers. As companies turn to lower-cost machines to replace people, according to Ford, it could be the beginning of the end for traditional capitalism. “It’s not just about unemployment,” Ford says. “It’s about consumers. As people lose their incomes they can no longer go out and buy things.”

    The owners and controllers of AI will have no need for human labour, which will be another nail driven into the coffin of the social-democratic settlement.

    Marx must be splitting his sides with laughter now that the Chinese Communist Party is at the vanguard of dispensing with the working class.

  11. adamite
    September 6th, 2011 at 21:22 | #11

    ‘A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.’

    John – As you say, difficult to spell out – but how is such a social-democratic utopia, however desirable, even ‘feasible’ in a global system where the population is projected to to reach between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by the year 2050? Maybe the real problem is the inherently species-centric nature of utopian thinking, Liberal, Socialist or otherwise?

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain
    September 7th, 2011 at 21:20 | #12

    The alternative to Utopia, what we have now, is Dystopia. Our global Dystopia is in terminal decline, as the market capitalist Utopia the Right promised is revealed to be anti-human, anti-life and anti-rational. There can be no ‘social democratic’ Utopia because that infers the continuance of capitalism which is a death sentence for our species and many others. The only Utopia that will work must run along the lines of ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. Greed must be tamed, a decent sufficiency guaranteed for all, and mankind revert to living within the planet’s ecological boundaries. Where Utopias have failed was often through an excess of zeal, but more often because of the violent opposition of those inside the countries concerned, and those of like mind outside, who refuse to countenance a fairer world. Utopianism might have a chance if sufficient countries change at once, and global bully-boys and enforcers for the ruling parasitic elites, like the USA and UK, are de-fanged. In the absence of an Utopian alternative the present accelerating collapse should see us out within decades.

  13. jrbarch
    September 8th, 2011 at 08:39 | #13

    “Out of the crooked timber of humanity ….”

    That is an incredibly arrogant assumption. Last time I looked at a new born baby, or even a five year old, there was nothing crooked there at all. It’s all learnt, subsequently. That means it can be unlearnt.

    If people have no way of staying in touch with the ‘utopia’ inside of themselves – then there is no chance of manifesting it on the outside. Mind and ego (thoughts without understanding) make sure of that …. from maybe Freud or William Blake I remember a quote, something like: “It is only with the heart, that one sees clearly”.

    From the Vedas: “the worldly mind is born in darkness, lives in darkness, dies in darkness”. They should put that above the portal to every university in the land! Everywhere people have always sought ‘light’ (understanding) to make sense of the myriad of concepts floating around in the world. And ‘light’ has always been a gift of the human heart, ‘enlightening’ the mind; ordering its function. Without it, mind is a cavern, compensated falsely by ego.

    Problem is: for too long it has been predominantly mind that has governed in this world. Whether individually or socially, there is choice – which makes us responsible.

    “It is only with the heart, that one sees clearly” …

    Cheers,
    jrbarch

  14. may
    September 8th, 2011 at 12:33 | #14

    @The Peak Oil Poet

    you left out the bit where one lot put armed guards around the asset,
    slave/wage slave labourers harvesting the asset,
    paid mouths denying asset depletion,arguing natural selection,market forces and gods will
    and beneficiaries citing superior breeding/intelligence to rationalise and justify this

    echo-gnomics the dismally precient science?

  15. may
    September 8th, 2011 at 12:34 | #15

    prescient.

  16. September 8th, 2011 at 12:39 | #16

    (*)(*)(*)~~~} May

    now isn’t this the most interesting situation :-)

    my daughter’s name is May (aged 13) – so either you are she and i’ve been caught publishing our conversation (so sorry, i should have asked first)

    or you are not :-)

    either way, yes you are so correct

    but i needed to keep it simple enough so that a year 8 student and her sister from year 7 could both understand

    and besides, they can only handle my spiels in short bursts of less than 5 minutes else they run away screaming

    pop

  17. J-D
    September 10th, 2011 at 14:09 | #17

    “But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent.”

    Do we? Why is ‘a feasible version of utopia’ what we need? I’m not convinced.

  18. kevin1
    September 10th, 2011 at 22:16 | #18

    “we still need a feasible version of utopia.”

    Until recent times the counterpoint to capitalism has been the socialist world–transforming project, but this is clearly stone-dead, with virtually no traction anywhere for its statist, anti-market, Leninist essence. Yet much of the world continues to be unhappy with the TINA ideology – “there is no alternative” to capitalism – but its own logic of competition and change means alternatives must emerge, and I think this is happening. Until then, the socialist zombie, with its alluring values, lives on.

    How about starting from can we point to the dynamic here and now. Some of the dissatisfactions about institutions which resonate in many capitalist countries are:

    • Dissatisfaction with democracy parliamentary duopoly, with the remnant parties able to leverage their power to choose the winner; it connects the prize of govt with instability and political rentseeking, especially where coalitions are transient
    • this is an information issue of major consequence: if our polities were small groups able to implement direct democracy, we could expect a ballot recall to confirm that the governmental outcome reflected the intended mandate;
    • distrust of official media as “king maker”, and the awareness that commercial pressure is degrading their product
    • the educated class – in the western societies anyway – is large, with a lot of “distributed expertise”; respect for official experts and especially politicians is reduced accordingly
    • capitalism per se is no longer the big bogey: lots of commercial leaders are advocating for social change around sustainability, corporate altruism and social values, and not all of it is cynical.

    No doubt a lot more could be said, but the onward march of “creeping democracy” looks intrinsic to the times, and transparency and accountability are unarguable claims. Democracy in its widest sense sounds like a condition for utopia, without arguing against the imperfectability of humans.

Comments are closed.