Free Against Hope

Achilles kills Hektor, from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, dated to 500-450 BCE. Rome, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano H545.
Achilles kills Hektor, from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, dated to 500-450 BCE. Rome, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano H545.

(Originally published on Gods & Radicals)

Lately, I’ve recalled a conversation a friend of mine had with me several years ago, back in Texas. He wondered why I even bothered studying Marxism – “do you really think,” he inquired, “that there will ever actually be a revolution in America? I’d call that a pipe dream.

Looking over a few of my personal political heroes, I’ve weighed his question. After all, their experiences seem to share one particular theme. See if you can spot it:

Each movement created ideas and techniques full of potency and beauty. Each one generated plenty of experiments and concepts from which today’s radicals could learn much. And each one failed, liquidated by hostile forces, their goals still unrealized decades later. Historically speaking, even the cleverest and most effective revolutionary movements stand an overwhelming chance of destruction, not success. Sure, it’s prudent and useful to keep hold of some revolutionary optimism. And unlike my friend, I do believe that there can, eventually, be a successful fundamental restructuring of politics, economy, and society. However, it stays true radicals in the West, by and large, end their lives frustrated or worse. Further, those who do make it to power often find (as did Prime Minister Tsipras and President Mitterand) that winning the political game doesn’t always mean you get to change the rules.

So, one might ask, what’s the point? Is Leftism merely quixotic, just defiance for its own sake? Why should we do what we do?

 

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Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle, tapestry, Jacob Jordaens and Jon Raes, ca. 1625. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 68.23.

Why did Achilleus fight at Troy?

After all, he didn’t expect to capture the city. He knew, thanks to the Pythia’s prophecy, that signing up for that war meant that he’d die in the field before Troy fell. Obviously, that meant he didn’t fight for personal material gain either; what good does a casualty get from plunder? And, of course, he wasn’t trying to contribute to the maintenance of his family or kingdom. If he wanted that, he would have chosen the long and unremarkable life the oracle offered. Few families celebrate a member’s death in combat overseas, or their committing to join a campaign that (according to a respected diviner) was guaranteed to last nearly a decade.

Did he fight for honor, glory, and fame? Sure – but that only bumps the question back one degree, like the monotheistic child who asks “if God made the world, who made God?” Why did Achilleus find honor, glory, and fame worth more than his life? What made them so profound that Achilleus not only relinquished his chance at survival, but also let go hope of participating in an Achaian victory?

Let’s begin from the problem of Achilleus’s motivations and find out what, if any, ethical framework we can extrapolate. Ethics, after all, only means figuring out what to do and why. And, we’ll see, the implicit ethics that Achilleus exemplifies also turns out to be quite relevant when revolutionary work faces likely failure.

Traditionally, formal ethics contains three main camps: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Roughly, each category proposes a different primary criterion for rightness and wrongness. For consequentialists, the likely results of an act – the consequences – determine its morality. Deontological ethicists, however, say that what counts is the act itself: regardless of consequences, some actions are inherently right and others are intrinsically wrong. Finally, virtue ethicists prioritize the character of the person involved. According to them, ethics means making yourself into someone who exemplifies goodness.

In general, the Left embraces consequentialism. Marxists, anarchists, and reformist socialists all tend to agree that the currently-existing government and economy cause quite a bit of harm. Marxists and reformists also usually believe that they need to respond by engaging with government. Reformists say running for office works best, while Marxists disagree and typically support outright replacing the existing state instead. Anarchists mostly reject working with any state at all, but generally do concede that some degree of social disruption (either violent insurrection or mass nonviolent resistance) will be necessary for any future solution. Few anarchists consider either inflicting or risking violence to be intrinsically morally good, any more than Marxists and reformists consider the existence of governments in general to be. But, in the end, all understand that bringing about needed change to reduce harm doesn’t mean causing literally zero harm in the process. It means selecting the option that offers the least extra harm and the most potential benefit. Even though these different segments of the Left frequently dispute which path, exactly, fits that description, they still typically share a basic moral landscape.

Admittedly, one can also find deontological and virtue ethical undercurrents. In particular, proponents of nonviolence often argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and should not be accepted as a revolutionary tactic. (Typically, they express more comfort with property damage, maintaining the distinction between things and people). Additionally, certain branches of Marxism-Leninism place great weight on the habits of character their adherents cultivate. Nevertheless, in the end, even revolutionary pacifists generally end up framing their position in consequentialist terms: “nonviolence works better,”not “killing is always wrong.” Similarly, even the more character-focused communists ultimately concur that their ethics are only virtue-based inasmuch as they provide helpful rules of thumb in the pursuit of larger, consequentialist goals.

Achilleus does, of course, accept the defined goal of the Achaian campaign. He and his comrades fight the Trojans because without conquering Troy, they can’t punish Paris and make Helen come back to Menelaus. But is Achilleus expressing a consequentialist’s reasoning that he ought to do whatever will most likely accomplish his stated aim with the least trouble?

(Read more here…)

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