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November 21, 2004

Neopatrimonialism and the monkeysphere

Two ways of making the same excellent point:

The Red Menace: Neopatrimonialism in America [HE Baber]

The Law of the Monkey [David Wong]

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I don't have time right now to read both articles completely, but I will. Having scanned them briefly, they very much put me in mind of a really good book on our patriarchal culture, and it's impact on our survival; "Sacred Pleasure" by Rianne Eisler. Her take on this mess is that we have the opportunity now to evolve past the need for a hierachic structure, to one that involves and empowers all members of society, not just the ones willing to destroy in order to maintain power. Her philosophy is one of hope, and I find myself referring to it mentally almost every day.

I'll check out the book. Sounds interesting.

These two articles are great. That is just what I needed as links for a long post I'm preparing these days.

In the meantime, check out books by David Harvey.

Nice blog. I'm one of those who learned about your site from James Wolcott's comments.

Very interesting topic, this one. First I guess we need a definition of "neopatrimonialism" that we could agree on. The first link was interesting but didn't really go into the aspects of this that would most interest me, that being patrimonialism as a type of traditional domination (following Max Weber). What was presented was more an ideal typical list of attitudes shared among the "Reds" and the "Blues" as closed groups. There is a good bit of truth to the various comments, but at the same time I don't buy that these traditional attitudes are really all that deeply held by the "Reds", but rather the effect of (propaganda) conditioning. I am reminded of Jacques Ellul's great book "Propanganda" where he wrote that propaganda was necessary in modern society to replace what had been lost in traditional communities of strong family ties reinforced by strongly held religious beliefs. Modern humans had to believe in something, couldn't or wouldn't fall for the old fallacies which had been undermined and had to believe in something new . . .

So the "new thing", or the post-modern thing, since we no longer believe in the state as an agency of worship or even positive social change is "neopatrimonialism".

I would define it in decidedly Weberian terms since we need the broad conceptual framework Weber provides. Currently could we say that the United States is changing from a modern rational state with a bureaucratic form of administration to a (neo)patrimonial form of domination?

The (neo)patrimonial ruler requiring personal fealty and unquestioning loyalty from his chosen nobles (the "nobility" being politically connected corporate managers who move in and out of government)? A "corporate-friendly Christianity" providing window dressing and legitimacy for the rip offs and wars conducted for the benefit of powerful political investors? Neopatrimonialism as a combination of traditional patrimonialism, "corporatism", the former rational state as "milkcow" for corporate interests and perhaps most importantly a powerful propangada machine able to redefine and repackage "traditional American values" and symbols any way it sees fit. . . ?

Personally, I happen to be a moral sentimentalist, and an appraiser-relativist to boot. I'm not sure if that makes me an immoral person in Lindsay's book or not: her absolutism sometimes scares me, but anyway, to me, I don't think that either universalizable principles or traditional ties really work in all circumstances. I suppose universalizable principles could work everywhere, but I just don't get how one's supposed to live that way. Once we start governing the state (or anything really big, like a corporation) with sentimentalist principles, it all starts to work rather badly, so I just say that the state should work on kinda-utilitarian principles. In fact, the distinction between personal sentimental morality and utilitarian state policy is one of the reasons I'm a liberal: to me, abortion is morally worse than gestation, eating meat is immoral, and God is as real as the tooth fairy. That doesn't mean I'd applaud an overturning of Roe v Wade, a restriction on meat consumption, or teaching of atheism (as opposed to God-neutral secular science) in schools. To me, it seems that conservatives are more universalistic and consistent, insisting that state policy and personal morality be merged into one. Perhaps it's just that everyone sees the mirror-images of our own morals in their political opponents. I'm a relativist and sentimentalist, and I see conservatives laying down universal principles. Lindsay's a universalist absolutist, and sees conservatives acting according to personal ties and sentiments (or at least, links to two people who do. I don't know if that's how she thinks).

Personally, I happen to be a moral sentimentalist, and an appraiser-relativist to boot. I'm not sure if that makes me an immoral person in Lindsay's book or not: her absolutism sometimes scares me, but anyway, to me, I don't think that either universalizable principles or traditional ties really work in all circumstances. I suppose universalizable principles could work everywhere, but I just don't get how one's supposed to live that way. Once we start governing the state (or anything really big, like a corporation) with sentimentalist principles, it all starts to work rather badly, so I just say that the state should work on kinda-utilitarian principles. In fact, the distinction between personal sentimental morality and utilitarian state policy is one of the reasons I'm a liberal: to me, abortion is morally worse than gestation, eating meat is immoral, and God is as real as the tooth fairy. That doesn't mean I'd applaud an overturning of Roe v Wade, a restriction on meat consumption, or teaching of atheism (as opposed to God-neutral secular science) in schools. To me, it seems that conservatives are more universalistic and consistent, insisting that state policy and personal morality be merged into one. Perhaps it's just that everyone sees the mirror-images of our own morals in their political opponents. I'm a relativist and sentimentalist, and I see conservatives laying down universal principles. Lindsay's a universalist absolutist, and sees conservatives acting according to personal ties and sentiments (or at least, links to two people who do. I don't know if that's how she thinks).

I doubt that I'm an absolutist, but I'm certainly a universalist. I suspect that I have greater moral obligations to most people I know than I do to most strangers. But that's because I've made explicit or implicit promises to the people I know. The basic premise of the articles that I linked to is that we struggle to overcome our innate biases against strangers. Neither author is arguing that we have identical moral obligations to every human, fetus, and animal regardless of our personal connections to them.

Honestly, I feel about the same moral obligation to do right by complete strangers in New Guinea as I do towards strange New Jersey dwellers. In neither case is this sense of obligation trivial. But, in neither case would I rationally will sheer familiarity to dictate my allegiances. Obviously, like everyone, I have prejudices and weaknesses of will. I don't voluntarily redistribute as much of my income as I should. But I hold myself responsible and strive to improve.

That's why I have contempt for "family values" as most right wingers conceive of them. I'm all for families. I even support special obligations between family members on contractual/utilitarian grounds. But I resent American political discourse being hijacked by the assumption that we should concern ourselves above all with the family unit.

The rhetoric of the Republicans is much less universal than that of the Democrats. The Democrats argue that we should reach out to other citizens of the world instead of going it alone as Americans. The Democrats are more committed to promoting racial, sexual, and economic equality for all Americans--not just for people who partake in the same "way of life" as their base. I.e. we want to protect jobs in the heartland even though many of us aren't farmers or industrial workers.

As for abortion being superior to gestation, it depends on the facts involved in the individual case. Abortion is never superior to gestation for the sake of a non-human fetus. If a woman decides to carry a pregnancy to term in order to give it up to an adoptive family whose desire for a baby would otherwise go unsatisfied, that woman is doing something incredibly generous. But in each case, the costs of carrying the pregnancy to term will dictate whether she is making a morally superior or morally neutral choice. Let's say a woman is unable to care for her existing children, continue her career development, and maintain a healthy pregnancy. In that case, abortion may be morally superior to gestation. Likewise, if someone has severe, chronic anemia meat-eating may be morally superior to vegetarianism in that person's case (at least until the deficiency is remedied).

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