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An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: an Overview, Part Three

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“One cannot have political power without political obedience; one cannot have strong government without a sense of national identification.”

These two propositions, which assume for Heilbroner the status of self-evident axioms, will guide him through the rest of the Inquiry in order, (i) to supplement his socioeconomic analysis of post-industrial societies by introducing the badly needed political dimension and, (ii) to anchor the latter in
“human nature.” Both tasks are necessary, for without taking account of the political, Heilbroner’s analysis would be incomplete. And as for repositioning the latter as something we come by naturally, well, I attempted this very thing in articles prior (see, for instance, “From Obligation to Loyalty: Gateway to New Political Thinking” or “On Loyalty, Politics, and Statehood”), with the result that our predisposition to loyalty, of all human traits, seemed ideally suited for the task at hand, and the reason was: it combined our natural affinity to other humans, our sociability index if you like, with functionality, i.e., the likelihood that underneath our natural predisposition to sociability, or alongside it perhaps, there may underlie a sense of purpose, the idea that both parties stand to benefit from the arrangement, the one element reinforcing the other, and vice versa. Naturally, we must therefore ask, How does Heilbroner’s brand of solution compare to the loyalty trait in us?

Offhand, we may have to grant that singling out the trait of obedience, along with our capacity for identification, doesn’t strike one as particularly objectionable: both qualities, one way or another, surely figure somehow in the mix and add up to that complex sentiment we call loyalty. To be sure, we may question the emphasis that’s being placed here on political obedience and on national identification (see the opening paragraph); but considering Heilbroner’s overarching purpose, which is to stave off the dangers facing the human prospect, it’s quite understandable he’d delimit the discussion to the specifically political type of obedience and identification. Even so, and given the restricted context, it’s still pertinent to ask whether aspects of human personality, which Heilbroner regards as paramount and from which he derives the political in us, can be said to approximate the quality of character we tend to associate with loyalty.

The answer doesn’t come easily but requires close examination of the text; in particular, the manner of Heilbroner’s derivation of our political behavior, tendencies, etc., from more basic human traits. Consider the following, for example:

…the behavioral traits that “permit” the use of political power lie within our scrutiny; even, to a certain extent, within our predictive capabilities. Therein lies, therefore, the direction in which we must go if we are to introduce the missing political dimension into our inquiry.

Such an effort takes us in the direction of that shadowy concept we call “human nature,” but along a very different route from that of the classical historians. We are interested in an examination of man that may throw light on certain attributes of his political behavior. Hence we must begin by focusing our attention on a central fact of human existence: the extended period of helplessness and development through which all human beings must pass and in which the elements of their adult personalities are first molded.

The essential features of this crucial period are familiar from the work of Freud and his successors, and can rapidly be summed up. As an infant, still unable to move, the human being experiences…a sense of infantile omnipotence, in which it “believes” that the world is only an extension of itself, responding to its cries with food, warmth, tactile support, and so on. Moreover, if this “belief” were not in fact based on reality, the infant would perish. Later, as the infant begins to recognize the independent existence of an outer world, it gains the frightening awareness that far from being omnipotent, it is virtually powerless, literally dependent for life itself on the ministration of adults over whom he has no control whatsoever. Later still, as the child seeks to control and direct its physical and psychic energies, it learns to model its behavior on that of adults whose presence is still indispensable and whose wills are irresistible.

It is thus, Heilbroner concludes, that human personality gets molded and serves, in turn, as a major determinant of most our impulses and habits of thought and action, politics included. The critical passage follows:

In this universal crucible of experience, as we well know, are forged those tendencies in the human personality that later reveal themselves in various sexual, intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and other attitudes. What interests us here, however, are those aspects of the conditioning process that find their vent in the traits of obedience and the capacity for identification; the necessary preconditions for the successful functioning of political institutions in mobilizing individuals for tasks of both peace and war.

Again, there’s nothing strikingly out of the ordinary or disagreeable about the cited passages. Heilbroner is a seasoned and skillful writer, quite adept at weaving a spider web so as to catch the reader unawares. Consequently, it’s not to the details that we must look if we’re to discern points of contention, but to such things as nuance, the tone, the intended or unintended effect, the overall thrust. For my part, I happen to think the rather undue stress Heilbroner places on “helplessness” and on “[utter] dependency,” if not a dead giveaway, is at least a clue.

Not that these terms of description, in and of themselves, are inappropriate when applied to an infant. Of course they’re not! The point rather is that when put together with talk, alas, with a full-blown discussion of “the conditioning process” and “tendencies” which are first “forged” only to “reveal themselves” at a later time, all resulting, of all things, in “the trait of obedience” (see the immediately preceding paragraph), one can’t help but arrive at a certain composite, a picture of…”from-birth-to-death determinacy.” Adults simply are destined to stumble through life as though overgrown children; they are overgrown children! There’s just no room in Heilbroner’s grand schema for such things as growth, none whatever for human maturation or development, no allowance of any kind even for the possibility, however remote, that the conditioning process is not written in stone but rather, that it can be transcended, put behind us or, however miraculously, overcome. It’s open and shut for him from the beginning to the end, no ifs, ands, or buts: we’re all born into a state of utter dependency and helplessness, conditioned by it, live our lives accordingly, obedient children or adults that we are, and then we die. But as I said, Heilbroner is an accomplished writer.

Soon thereafter, Heilbroner goes on to explain how this trait of obedience, surely a regular feature, or so we’re told, of the infant’s life (because it’s been inculcated in him or her from the very beginning, “in the first few years of experience”), makes itself manifest at a later stage, in full-grown adults. “The phenomenon to which I wish to call attention,” he says, “Is the normal willing acquiescence of men in the exercise of political authority itself.” And after paying lip service to such inconsequential little things as “the legitimacy of this authority” (is Heilbroner completely unaware here, one wonders, of wars of liberation or against colonialism?), he concludes:

…I wish to stress an aspect of political authority that may be obscured by an exclusive concentration on its objective purpose. This latent function [my emphasis] is to provide a sense of psychological security by recreating the accustomed relationships of sub- and superordination to which our long period of helpless dependency has accustomed us.

Once again, we’re thrown back into our original state of utter dependency and made to rely upon our helpless selves. We’re not even required to have an excuse for living irresponsibly; blind and unquestioning obedience is all that is expected of us, the only excuse we’ll ever need. And whenever we do happen to think or act contrary to expectations, it’s only because we’ve chosen the path of the rebellious little children, or adults as the case may be; it’s but a simple matter of temporary aberration or lapse of consciousness, soon to be rectified by living in a real world. After all, it’s the obedient adults who make the world go round, not the rebellious children we can be.

It’d serve no purpose to bring up example after example of more of the same: the entire Chapter IV of the Inquiry is replete with many such and it stands open to the reader’s scrutiny. I’d be remiss, however, if I failed to show the lengths to which Heilbroner is willing to go in order to press on with his argument. Again, after making a number of concessions concerning the abundance of objective, “more ‘positive’ reasons for the acceptance of political authority,” “the presence of force, overtly or covertly employed by the ruling elements to establish and maintain their authority” being of course the most important, we are treated to this gem:

Nevertheless, a ready admission as to these…[and other] reasons for the acceptance of political authority does not explain the phenomenon to which my speculations are addressed. This is the perplexing readiness, even eagerness, with which authority is accepted by the vast majority. An acquiescence, in, or search for, a hierarchical ordering includes not only the lower and middle reaches but also the upper levels of society, who regularly look for “leadership” to someone still higher in the world. Indeed, it finds striking expression in the habit of rulers, including the most dictatorial and absolute, to declare their own submission to a will higher than their own, whether it be that of God, of the people, of some sacred text or doctrine, or of voices audible to themselves alone.

Now, it is one thing, I submit, to suggest that most of us desire to better ourselves, and further, that part of this desire is to be looking up to those we consider our betters; it’s another thing, however, to claim that we may be in “search for…a [social] hierarchical ordering” (see the passage above). In the first instance, the desire to better ourselves translates to “our sense of identification,” along with the attendant predisposition to loyalty; a kind of bonding that is predicated on positive valuation of people we’re about to bond with and to remain loyal to; in the second, in the absence of a qualifier to specify what it is exactly that’s being postulated as our basic human need, the resulting quest for social order and hierarchy, if it doesn’t smack of a deep-seated insecurity, is at best value neutral. In the first case, the kind of authority, political or otherwise, that is apt to emerge in the course of our thus formed relationships is likely to be regarded as legitimate and just; in the second, questions regarding justice and legitimacy are bracketed. In the first instance, with loyalty at the helm as the basis of political and social relations, the accent is on the positive and the effect is uplifting (since the appeal which underpins the loyalty concept is to the best in us, the best in human nature); in the second, since obedience is the presumed source of, and motive behind our desire for, fixed social order and hierarchy, the corresponding appeal is to our deepest fears and insecurities. According to the first scenario, our political and social relations emerge, as it were, organically, as a byproduct of both our natural affinity towards one another and the underlying function, and the bond of loyalty which cements said relations is freely formed; according to the second, however compelling the argument which purports to ground our predisposition to obedience in human nature and the conditioning process, we can’t help but regard those very relations as somehow coerced and artificial, (super)imposed from without.

True to form, Heilbroner doesn’t restrict the human conditioning process and its dubious fruit, our proclivity to obey, to lower classes alone. It’s a well nigh universal human trait for him: everyone’s included. Thus, this “acquiescence, in, or search for, a hierarchical ordering includes not only the lower and middle reaches but also the upper levels of society, who regularly look for ‘leadership’ to someone still higher in the world.” We may of course go along with him on this score to a point, but mind you, only to a point, for immediately thereafter, he writes, “Indeed, it [our acquiescence, eagerness to accept authority, etc.] finds striking expression in the habit of rulers, including the most dictatorial and absolute, to declare their own ‘submission’ to a will higher than their own…”

One doesn’t know how to read Heilbroner here. Is he speaking with a straight face or with tongue in cheek? Does he really mean to suggest that the rulers of this world, even the most corrupt ones, truly believe in an authority higher than their own, an authority from which their own power and sway over men may be said to derive?

Apart from countless examples to the contrary, both present and past, the use of the term habit suggests otherwise. And yet, although habit (it’s quite conceivable) may well start out by design, as something contrived, to progress eventually to something akin to policy, it’s also true that in due time it’s been known to become internalized. And the import of this is – once you start believing in something, the divine right of kings in this instance, you’re more apt to act in accord with that belief. It’s always easier to exercise one’s authority, however acquired, in the name of someone or something other than yourself: Psychology 101. So there’s no question that some of the worldly rulers Heilbroner may be referring to have truly absorbed the lesson and got to believe they represent the will of God or some other earthy or unearthly power on this here Earth. Even so, one can’t help but to conclude that the passage in question is ambiguous to say the least, that’s been made to be ambiguous, I venture to say, in order to promote his own agenda, his peculiar take on things.

It’s time to put all the pieces together so as to arrive at a composite. The objective demand for what amounts to almost unlimited political power arises for Heilbroner from the dire need to deal with imminent global dangers facing the human prospect, dangers which threaten our very survival. This objective demand, or so the argument goes, is being augmented by aspects of human psychology; in particular, by our natural propensity, it’s argued, shaped as it may be by our early conditioning, to listen and to obey. Furthermore, since the impending dangers are surely clear and present, we’re bound therefore to be doubly concerned; and this concern surely must translate to a call for ever greater political authority in order to avert the possibility of the impending disaster. Nothing short of it would or could. It is thus that the objective (or the positive) aspects of political authority, according to Heilbroner, are being met and reinforced by the subjective or the latent. They work in tandem.

In case you wonder, the repository of political power that’s in so great a demand, its proper locus is none other than the nation-state. Heilbroner couldn’t be clearer about this, no statement could better communicate his intent than this one: “The nation-state may all too seldom speak the voice of reason. But it remains the only serious alternative to chaos.” As far as I’m concerned, this says it all.

At last we’re in a position to understand Heilbroner’s treatment of the political. It’s not so much the case that the political dimension has been neglected or ever considered less important than the socioeconomic factors. True, it has been relegated to the background when compared to those factors, but for an entirely different reason: it’s precisely because decisive political authority (backed as it invariably must be by formidable enough political power) is such an indispensable element for any successful dealing with the external dangers facing the human prospect that Heilbroner takes it for granted. And we’ve seen of course that the requisite kind of political authority and power can reside for Heilbroner only within the confines of nation-states. Consequently, it’s the political configuration given by nation-states that counts for him as alpha and omega, or the last word, if you like, when it comes to the political. In fact, Heilbroner appears so intent on pressing on with this point that even authoritarian nation-states, regardless of their socioeconomic system, be it capitalism or socialism, happen to meet his criterion, which is the ability to stave off global threats facing humanity so as to ensure its survival.

We’ve already seen the reasons Heilbroner marshals in support of his thesis, namely, that it’s the nation-state, more so than any other kind of polity, that is uniquely qualified to meet the challenges at hand. And here, agree with him or not, the most important of all is “a sense of national identification.” (“One cannot have strong government without a sense of national identification.”) The next proposition, (also serving as an axiom) i.e., that obedience counts as one of the universal human traits, completes the reasoning process. (“One cannot have political power without political obedience.”) The context Heilbroner is working with, the overarching question, lends further support, or so it would seem, to the obedience postulate: humans are much more apt to support strong governments, even authoritarian or tyrannical governments, if and when their survival is at stake. What remains is to connect the dots.

Well, let’s just say this. Since nation-states, in particular, strong and viable nation-states, represent for Heilbroner the ultimate political configuration, which is to say, the essential ingredient of any solution to global problems and challenges facing the human prospect, they’re not to be tinkered with. Politics is not to be tinkered with. That’s the cash value of saying that the political dimension has been taken for granted. And to say this is to say, furthermore, that there’s no political solution, insofar as Heilbroner is concerned, to the kind of global problems and challenges confronting humanity today. If anything, politics, or the existing network of modern-day nation-states, to be more precise, is a precondition for any kind of solution, a necessary framework, if you like, within which all solutions must be tried and tried again until at least some of them succeed. It also goes without saying that the requisite kind of solution must be socioeconomic in makeup and origin; and that only a strong and viable nation-state, a network of strong and viable nation-states working in tandem, can make this happen.

This concludes our three-part series on the Inquiry. In the article to follow, I intend to tie up loose ends. In particular, I intend to compare Heilbroner’s idea that nation-states represent the ultimate in political arrangements, an arrangement we can’t possibly surpass (and further, that for this very reason, the only hope for humankind rests in the adaptability and resiliency of our social and economic institutions), with that of Macpherson who had quite a different take on the subject. Since both theorists were equally exercised by the same set of problems, global problems and challenges which threaten our very survival, the comparison should be instructive.

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