Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The direct and indirect effects of the eudaimonistic community on the individual: from Godwin to Keynes

On the Facebook page for the group, Union for Radical Political Economics, which I recently joined, I read a wonderful 1930 essay from Keynes: “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (I’m not sure if this title is from Keynes himself). Keynes asks an uncommon question for members of his profession: “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence?” I found his reflections on this question (in part II) pleasantly surprising and it prompted me to entertain the possibility that his membership in the Bloomsbury Group speaks in part to why he summoned the intellectual courage to indulge in such speculation, particularly insofar as it takes us beyond (capitalist) economics. It took some daring if only because, in his words,

“… [T]here is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard – those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me – those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties – to solve the problem which has been set them.”

Keynes’ essay moved me to think of the possible direct and informal influences on his thought that may have arisen from participation and fellowship in the Bloomsbury Group, a select circle of rather intelligent and creative individuals whose class status and social background provided them a tantalizing taste of what freedom from “economic necessity” (in the capitalist sense) might mean for individual and collective self-realization. Of course axiomatic concern for such freedom earlier motivated Marx’s critique of capitalism, as Jon Elster makes clear in his brilliant essay, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life.” In other words, membership in the Bloomsbury Group is provocatively emblematic (as both cause and effect) of that which afforded Keynes both the time and inclination to reflect seriously in a utopian key (the phrase used here in a non-pejorative sense*) of life beyond capitalism, to imagine what it means for “man” (anthropologically speaking) to fully (i.e., existentially if not metaphysically) confront and ponder the real possibility of how to use “his freedom from pressing economic cares,” that is, to initiate careful consideration of “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well,” which I suspect will undermine most of the current claptrap of what we think is involved in the pursuit and attainment of “happiness.” However precipitous its fall from grace and despite the somewhat harsh retrospective judgments by its own members of the Bloomsbury Group’s shortcomings, it’s worth speculating on the memorable praxis of this remarkable group of individuals who, to some significant extent at least, used their privilege, even if unintentionally, to concretely demonstrate what it might mean to live “beyond” or after capitalism.

Indeed, Keynes and the Bloomsbury Group calls to mind an earlier instance of a similar cause and effect relation of such interpersonal group dynamics on the thought of another original thinker, in this case, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin (1756 –1836). It seems Godwin drew inspiration for his model of the plausibility of anarchist society and its conspicuous reliance on sophisticated individual judgment as a vehicle of rationality and benevolence from “the context of the social circles in which he lived, worked and debated.” These radical social circles in turn “were part of a larger middle class community which drew on a range of philosophical and literary traditions in developing critical perspectives on contemporary social and political institutions.” (Mark Philp) To be sure, Godwin drew upon the philosophes and British radicals, as well as the periphery of the early Liberal tradition (e.g., Paine), but especially the “writings, sermons, and traditions of Rational Dissent” when composing An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (first edition, 1793, later editions to 1798), but his belief in the veracity of his critique and vision was grounded in the daily life of the social circles of metropolitan radicalism in which he worked and spent his convivial and leisure activities. While this social and intellectual culture soon succumbed to government repression, it provides the intimate empirical evidence Godwin needed to confirm his belief (shared with Condorcet) in the “perfectibility” (which is distinct from perfectionism) of man and the necessity of an anarchist society as the soil of germination for same. Godwin was not a political activist (although he knew members of radical groups and organizations) but a philosopher, but the radical social circles in which he lived tempers our understanding and seasons our judgment of the more extravagant utopian tendencies of his great work, at the very least they demonstrate radical principles were incarnate in a group praxis, even if Godwin had insufficient appreciation of the greater and deeper socio-economic and political conditions that gave birth to and nourished such radical sentiment: “Given the assumptions and conventions of his background and his social circles” writes Philp, “his position could be rationally defensible.” Godwin’s seemingly naïve faith in the power of private rational judgment received strong empirical or experimental confirmation, in other words, in his experience of these social and intellectual circles. In Philp’s words,

“…[Godwin’s] membership [in] a literate and intellectual culture which cannot be identified politically, socially or intellectually with either aristocratic privilege or with the potentially violent and disruptive London poor. It is in this group that we find the politically unattached intellectuals and writers who had greeted the French Revolution and who had called for reform at home on intellectual and humanitarian grounds.

[While this group is] “diffuse and made up of heterogeneous social and intellectual currents…there seems to be no doubt that in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, there existed in both London and the provinces significant number of critical, literate, professional men and women who held often very radical views on social, political and religious issues who regularly met together for the purposes of discussion in a number of overlapping social and professional circles. [….] Godwin moves in the company of artists, portrait painters, engravers, grammarians, industrialists, writers, editors, publishers, antiquarians, librarians, actors, theater managers, playwrights, musicians, novelists, poets, classical scholars, scientists, dons, lawyers, mathematicians, doctors, surgeons, and divines—and this list is not exhaustive. We should also recognize that members of these groups sustained a commitment to radical thinking throughout most of the last decade of the century.”

“As both [Roy] Porter and [Marilyn] Butler stress,” the middling class radicalism of these men and women was not simply the product of a Dissenting background, the French Revolution, and the influence of the philosophes, for it required the warp and woof of a cultural experience of that type of sociability that formed the “basic fabric of late-eighteenth century intellectual life:”

“Once he had concluded his morning’s work Godwin’s day was free and he generally spent it in company—talking and debating while eating, drinking and socialising. His peers’ behavior was essentially similar; they lived in a round of debate and discussion in clubs, associations, debating societies, salons, taverns, coffee houses, bookshops, publishing houses, and in the street. And conversation ranged through philosophy, morality, religion, literature and poetry, to the political events of the day. Members of these circles were tied together in the ongoing practice of debate. These men and women were not the isolated heroes and heroines of Romanticism pursuing a lonely course of discovery; they were people who worked out their ideas in company and who articulated the aspirations and fears of their social group. Their consciousness of their group identity was of signal importance….”

It is the daily life of this social round which fleshed out the skeletal structure of Godwin’s anarchist ideal of a natural society that is fundamentally “discursive,” in other words, a society defined by “intellectually active and communicative agents, a society where advances are made through a dialectic of individual reflection and group discussion.” Reason and argument were the lifeblood of the radicalism that flourished in this kind of sociability:

“The rules of debate for this group were simple: no one has a right to go against reason, no one has a right to coerce another’s judgment, and every individual has a right—indeed, a duty—to call to another’s attention his faults and failings. This is a highly democratic discourse, and it is essentially non-individualist: truth progresses through debate and discussion and from each submitting his beliefs and reasoning to the scrutiny of others.”

The values of openness, rationality, and discussion or conversation that distinguished this sociability were likewise suffused with the norms and values that animated the literature of sensibility from this period:

“Sensibility provided a means for exploring new regions of emotional and social experience, and in so doing it helped generate an identity for an emerging social class. Sensibility was not a philosophical perspective based on a withdrawal from the social world and a solipsistic reflection on sensation; rather, it was a celebration of that social world and an appeal to the emerging self-understanding of members of that world. Sociability and sensibility combined with a burgeoning market for literature of all kinds to produce a public realm in which art, literature, science, philosophy, and morality appeared as commodities to be consumed, discussed and improved.  [….] The experiments in the possibilities of experience conducted in the literature of sensibility, the rationalism which with they laid open every dogma to criticism and the deep concern with the arena of politics from which many of this class were debarred by virtue of their religion or their incomes can all be seen as essential components of this socially, intellectually and politically critical and ambitious group. But these ambitions were less individual than group-oriented: it is as a group that they see themselves as the foundation for a new and equitable social order.”

I think it profoundly important to consider the indispensable role of “the group,” to tease out and trace the myriad causes and effects of such circles of convivial community and ethically robust sociability that we discover in the life and work of a Godwin or Keynes, particularly when we sit at our solitary desks and computers and imbibe on the more nourishing and exhilarating products of their fertile minds.   

* I introduce the substance and possible parameters of such utopian thought and imagination here and here.

References & Further Reading:
    • Bell, Quinton. Bloomsbury Recalled. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.  
    • Elster, Jon. “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.  
    • Nicholson, Virginia. Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.  
    • Norton, David L. Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991. 
    • Philp, Mark. Godwin’s Political Justice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986. 
    • Rosenbaum, S.P., ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memories and Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, revised ed., 1995.


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