Tag Archives: Whig Interpretation of history

Are We All Value Pluralists Now?


John Gray, Isaiah Berlin:
An Interpretation of His Thought

            A year ago, I ranked Isaiah Berlin near the top of my 20th century intellectual heroes, a thinker with profound insight into liberal democracy and its European antipodes, Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Then, I read David Caute’s “somewhat revisionist” portrait of Berlin in Isaac & Isaiah, The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, reviewed here in December. The Berlin in Caute’s book is, I wrote, “far from an endearing figure,” a smug, vindictive, slightly arriviste member of the British establishment. Having finished Caute’s book, I discovered that John Gray, an eminent professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, now retired, had updated his 1996 analysis of Berlin’s thinking, Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought, with a new introduction (in a review of Caute’s book, Gray also mounted a vigorous defense of Berlin: http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/gray_07_13.php).

          The republication of Gray’s book thus seemed an opportune moment to deepen my understanding of Berlin’s thinking. Alas, after reading the book, Sir Isaiah continued his downward slide on my heroes list. Although I noted no further personal deficiencies, I found Berlin’s thinking anachronistic, a still-useful reminder perhaps that utopian schemes based on man’s perfectibility can lead to totalitarianism, but not much more. The chief insight which Gray attributes to Berlin, that no overarching principles can reconcile conflicting values, may represent solid armchair philosophy but seems of little utility in the real if messy world in which liberal democracies function.

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            Berlin was born into a prosperous Jewish merchant family in Latvia in 1909, and spent formative young years in St. Petersburg, which his family left for Great Britain in 1921 amidst the chaos that followed in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Berlin spent most of his adult life at Oxford, except for brief stints in New York and Washington during World War II and an even shorter period in Moscow in 1945, after the war. Berlin lost both grandfathers, an aunt, an uncle and several cousins in the Holocaust. Having seen the havoc precipitated by the Bolshevik Revolution close up and first hand as a young boy, as an Oxford scholar Berlin retained a life-long aversion to Marxism and Communism, an aversion which he extended to utopian schemes and ideological thinking of all stripes.

          Berlin liked to say that he transitioned in mid-career from a political philosopher to an historian of ideas. The difference can sometimes be difficult to grasp, but the six chapters in Gray’s book seem to fit neatly into one or the other category. The first two, “The Idea of Freedom” and “Pluralism,” along with the last chapter, “Agnostic Liberalism,” capture Berlin’s thinking as a political philosopher. The three middle chapters, “History,” “Nationalism” and “Rationalism and the Counter-Enlightenment” seem to describe Berlin working as an historian of ideas. The core principles which Gray attributes to Berlin, his idea of “value pluralism” and his elevation of “negative” over “positive” freedom as the ultimate liberal value are primarily those of Berlin the political philosopher.

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            Gray considers Berlin’s notion of “value pluralism” to be his “idée matrîssse” (p.158, his master idea), predicated upon the irreconcilability of fundamental human values. Value pluralism presumes that “ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable, and that sometimes when they come into conflict with one another they are incommensurable; that is, they are not comparable by any rational measure” (p.36). Berlin’s value pluralism constitutes for Gray a “single idea of enormous subversive force” because it challenges the basic claim of the “dominant liberalisms of our time” that “fundamental liberties, rights or claims of justice are (or indeed must be) compatible and harmonious” (p.36).

            Negative freedom for Berlin involves “choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others” (p.51; Gray uses the words “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably). Berlin once argued that the “fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is an extension of this sense, or else metaphor” (p.55). Although the liberal tradition, complex and itself pluralistic, accommodates many conceptions of freedom, the negative one for Berlin is the “most defensible and most congenial to liberal concerns of diversity and toleration . . . most consistent with the rivalrous diversity of human purposes and goods” (p.57-58). Negative freedom “facilitates human self-creation by choice-making among goods and evils that are rationally incomparable” (p.177).

          Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, which Gray defines as the “freedom of self-mastery, of rational control of one’s life” (p.52). Positive freedom implicates “collective self-rule” (p.56). But positive freedom can be utopian-prone, linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, “one, and only one course of action, one form of life, for the individual” (p.57). Berlin muddied the distinction, however, when he contended that the two forms are at “no great logical distance from each other – no more than negative or positive ways of saying the same thing” (p.53-54).

            Gray wraps Berlin’s core principles together into an approach labeled “agnostic liberalism” — that there can be “no overarching principle of liberty, and no structure of fundamental rights or set of basic liberties, fixed or determinate in their content and harmonious or dovetailing in their scope” (p.61). Agnostic liberalism rejects the idea of a “perfect society, or a perfect human life” (p.106), and substitutes a “stoical and tragic liberalism of unavoidable conflict and irreparable loss among rivalrous values” (p.36). But to temper what might sound like nihilism, and avoid a collapse into overtly anti-liberal forms of governing, such as Hitler’s National Socialism, Berlin allowed that an agnostically liberal society must maintain a “minimal universalism” (p.191), or “minimal standards of decency” (p.202).

           Berlin’s anti-utopian, agnostically liberal approach is reflected in his ambivalent interpretation of the 18th century Enlightenment. Berlin was committed to the Enlightenment’s “central element,” which Gray describes as “illumination of the human world by rational inquiry” (p.45). But Berlin rejected what he saw as the “universalist or uniformitarian anthropology of the Enlightenment” (p.165), its expectation that human beings would “converge on a universal identity as members of a cosmopolitan civilization” (p.199). The Enlightenment in Berlin’s view “consistently underestimated the significance of cultural difference” (p.144). Differences in culture and language should be preserved and lauded, Berlin contended, not suppressed or reduced to a common denominator. In this sense, Berlin’s thought aligns with that of the German Romantics and thinkers hostile to the Enlightenment. But Berlin’s agnostic liberalism and value pluralism were also a challenge to religious traditions which posit a “best way of life, one force good for all human beings” (p.153), and in this sense are entirely consistent with conventional views of the Enlightenment.

            Berlin’s view of history reflects this skepticism toward the universalism of the Enlightenment (and also reflects his value pluralism, agnostic liberalism, and anti-utopianism). Berlin regarded history as a discipline apart from both the natural and social sciences, affirming a method of inquiry based on “empathy and imagination” (p.116). He rejected as “indefensible” theories of development which postulate general historical laws, whether of progress or decline (p.115). Berlin thus had no use for Whig interpretations of history as embodying improvement or progress. He found such interpretations incoherent because of the lack of “any overarching standard whereby global progress or regress could be judged” (p.118). The idea of a “single human history” was for Berlin as “misconceived and incoherent as the idea of a perfect human life, which it is the deepest import of his pluralism to subvert” (p.109).

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            Berlin’s value pluralism may still be an idea of “enormous subversive force” because of its underlying premise that there can be no overarching standard to harmonize conflicting values. But modern liberal democracies have built into their systems a soft version of Berlin’s value pluralism, allowing room for divergent views to express themselves and compete for influence. Democracies can accept Berlin’s fundamental premise that a collision between basic human values that are legitimate and worthy of respect in the liberal state may not reconcilable by any overarching principle. Democracies, however, do not have the luxury of fretting over the lack of such principles to resolve value conflicts. Accommodating competing values is what democracies do; or, more precisely, liberal democracies should provide a process by which conflicting values can be accommodated. That the accommodation may be imperfect and impermanent is itself consistent with Berlin’s notion of value pluralism.

            Liberty and equality are for Gray the prototype examples of “inherently rivalrous goods” which “often collide in practice” and “cannot be arbitrated by any overarching standard” (p.79). But the list goes way beyond to include national security versus the right of the individuals to spheres of privacy and to know what their government is doing; the right of criminal suspects to a fair process versus the general right of the public to security; the right to exercise one’s religion versus the right of unwilling citizens to be free from state imposition of religion; and the “hate speech” conundrum, the right of unfettered free speech versus the right of minorities to be free from verbal vilification. And on and on.

         Although Berlin was himself no proponent of an unregulated capitalism, his negative freedom aligns closely with the classical liberal view of a minimalist state, associated with such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner in the 19th century, and Friederich Hayek and Ayn Rand in the 20th (sometimes termed “libertarianism” in contemporary North America). If liberal values of equal good are inherently irreconcilable and incapable of harmonization, it becomes difficult to argue that the state should privilege any one such value over any another. Instead, the state should privilege “choice-making as the embodiment of human self-creation” (p.176). The counterpart to the minimalist view is by definition more statist. It can embrace Marxist models that verge into totalitarianism, but also includes modern social democracy, in which the state regulates economic activity in the public interest and provides some sort of social safety net to meet “minimal standards of decency” (p.202), to use Gray’s phrase.

           Berlin’s preference for negative freedom was a direct outcome of his aversion to Marxism and Communism, which elevated a statist notion of positive liberty and dismissed negative liberty as an artifact of bourgeois, middle class liberalism that perpetuated economic inequalities. Marxism, however, is no longer with us as a serious argument for structuring the modern state. But if Marxism has largely been confined to the dustbin of history (and to scattered academic departments around the world), so too has the model of the entirely or even predominantly negative state. Outside of active libertarian movements in the United States and Canada, supported by some portions of today’s Republican party, there is almost no enthusiasm for an unregulated capitalist state or one that does not recognize the legitimacy of some sort of social contract between the state and its citizens, establishing “minimum standards of decency” by providing at least a modicum of social welfare benefits to its citizenry

          When they work well, modern democracies accommodate Berlin’s two notions of freedom, maximizing to the extent possible the spheres in which the state abstains from constraining individual choice while regulating economic activity in the public interest and providing some sort of safety net to cushion capitalism’s vicissitudes, so that even the least economically fortunate have the opportunity for the self creation which lies at the heart of Berlin’s preference for negative freedom. This is the model of modern social democracy, the model underlying the European Union’s approach to governance, and one embraced, however timidly, by elements of today’s Democratic Party in the United States.

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          Political theory need not be a blue print for day-to-day governance, but it should nonetheless have some relevance to governing. Berlin’s warnings about the dangers of ideological and utopian schemes, based on misplaced notions of human perfectibility, remain useful reminders. But in today’s democratic world – a significant portion of the planet – ideological and perfectionist schemes of the type that worried Berlin have little influence. The insight underlying Berlin’s value pluralism, that we will never satisfactorily harmonize conflicting values, appears oddly detached from the world in which democracies must operate. From the perspective of the mid-point of the 21st century’s second decade, the agnostic liberalism which Gray attributes to Berlin may still be stoical and tragic, but it also seems to border on irrelevance.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 27, 2014



Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory

Old New World Order

Walter Russell Mead,

“God and Gold:

Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World”

[Introductory note: this is another comment initially written in 2009, slightly revised]

In “God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World,” Walter Russell Mead takes a sweeping look at the last 400 years of history, through an Anglo-American lens.  Mead contends that the “biggest geopolitical story in modern times” is how the English and the Americans, between them, have dominated world history since the mid-1600s. “First Britain and then the United States rose to a global power and cultural dominance never before seen.  It is perhaps bad manners to say so, but that does not make it less true. . . Nothing in the history of the modern world is as enduring or as important as the development and rise of the Anglo-American world order” (p.80-82).

Mead thus advances a version of what the British historian Herbert Butterfield termed the “Whig interpretation of history” – an interpretation which, roughly speaking, sees history (particularly English history) as a progressive evolution toward every greater ordered liberty – and he does so on a very broad scale.  In my view, Mead overstates the commonalities between Great Britain and the United States.  Looking forward, Mead sees an America ruling the seas and much of the rest of the world for the foreseeable future, a comforting view in this pessimistic era, but hardly an inevitable outcome.  Yet, Mead expounds his grandiose theory with zest, using wry humor and clever sub-titles, suggesting that he may be provoking the reader into a conversation on the role of Anglo-American institutions in creating the present and shaping the future.  It is a worthwhile conversation.

The foundation for Mead’s Anglo-American world order is a culture based on a robust, transformative capitalism, and a favorable mix of religion, geography, and political and legal institutions – a culture “uniquely well positioned to develop and harness the titanic forces of capitalism as these emerged on the world scene” (p.14).  Mead contends that Anglo-American capitalism has bested its rivals through continual transformation and adaptation to changing global requirements (the Dutch were the first in the modern era to figure out global capitalism, Mead argues, but by Cromwell’s time had ceded the lead role to the English).  Throughout the centuries, the English-speaking world has been “less bound by tradition, more willing to embrace change, tolerate dissent, and, above all, allow the chaotic and sometimes painful transformations that capitalism creates and demands” (p.174).

Mead explains how Anglo-American religiosity has bolstered its capitalist dominance.  Great Britain finished its religious wars early, in the 17th century.  Thereafter, clashes between faith and reason were far more muted than those on the continent.  Britons could take in and accept the Enlightenment’s scientific worldview, while not turning their backs on the moralizing power of religion.  In contrast to continental Europe, the English-speaking world “managed to reconcile a pragmatic and skeptical approach to history and philosophy with profound religious faith and a sense of God’s providential care.”  Consequently, the “chasm between religion and secular reform and modernization that dominated politics in much of Europe until the twentieth century  . . . was never as deep in the English speaking world” (p.205).  British reconciliation of religion and reason created a pluralistic society that was “at once unusually tolerant, unusually open to new ideas, and unusually pious” (p.14).  Throughout English history,  doctrine and practices shifted with “every passing wind from the age of the Stuarts to our own times.  .  .The heresy of today is the orthodoxy of tomorrow – and perhaps the heresy of the day after that” (p.203).  This “persistence of religion” seems to Mead to be “related to its ability to coexist and even thrive on a kind of skepticism that is . . . characteristic of the increasingly dynamic religious orientation of the English-speaking world” (p.203).

In addition to religion, Mean underscores the contribution of geography and mastery of the seas to the Anglo-American world order.  The English Channel separating Britain from the continent created a barrier protecting Britain from predatory continental powers, a barrier that even Hitler couldn’t overcome.  The United States is even more blessed, protected on two sides by oceans.  With the shield of the channel, Britannia ruled the waves for almost two centuries, from the early 18th century until well into the 20th, creating an Empire that at its height encompassed almost a fourth of the world’s population.  As Britain declined as a world power after World War II, the United States was in a position to assert maritime supremacy and, with it, mastery of the global capitalist game.

Mead draws upon Admiral Alfred Thayer  Mahan, a renowned 19th century American sea power advocate, to contend that “sea power is more than a navy. . .more than control of strategic trade routes.”  Sea power means:

using the mobility of the seas to build a global system resting on economic links as well as on military strength . . .using the strategic flexibility of an offshore power, protected to some degree from the rivalries and hostilities of land powers surrounded by powerful neighbors, to build power strategies that countries cannot counter [and] . . . using command of the seas to plant colonies whose wealth and success reinforce the mother country (p.95).

If there is a single overarching “plot” to the story of world power politics over the last centuries, Mead argues, that “plot” is the “long and continuing rise of the maritime system as its center shifted from the United Provinces [of the Netherlands] to the United Kingdom to the United States” (p.173).  Once established, this global capitalist system based on sea power has proven “extremely difficult to dislodge” (p.95).

           Mead spends less time than one would expect on the core political institutions of the Anglo-American world order.  But he is clear that the Anglo-American models of liberal capitalist democracy – British parliamentarianism and American constitutionalism – are demonstrably more conducive to economic growth and expansion than any existing rival.  Similarly, he finds the English common law, the base of both countries’ legal systems, ideally suited to buttress global capitalist mastery through gradual adoption of old principles to new and changing circumstances.  English jurists and public opinion saw early on the “great value in the unplanned, organic growth of their common law” (p.299), Mead contends.  Here, too, Britain and the United States have followed a distinctly different approach from that on the European continent, where more sweeping legal systems following the Napoleonic model have proven less capable of adapting to new and changing circumstances.

My professional experience working on criminal justice reform in Eastern Europe confirms Mead’s point.  The legal systems in this part of the world are based on the Napoleonic model, and remained more or less intact throughout the Cold War era.  As former communist countries strive to become functioning democracies, most are faced with serious organized crime and public corruption problems.  In confronting these related challenges, many have adopted common law practices – for example, use of cooperating witnesses and plea bargaining – which have proven to be better adapted to counter modern forms of criminality than those which continental legal systems afford.

Mead slights but does not ignore other English-speaking peoples in his analysis.  He argues that the “greatest difference between the British Empire and the tentative ventures of other states” was the “rise of the self-governing, English-speaking colonies” (p.115).  In a reference intended to include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Mead says that the “ability of the overseas English-speaking societies to welcome and assimilate vast numbers of immigrants from all over the world remains a key factor in the continuing strength of the United States (and other countries) to the present day” (p.118).  Curiously, Britain’s closest English-speaking neighbor, Ireland, receives almost no attention in Mead’s analysis, and it is unclear whether in Mead’s view Ireland’s dominant Catholicism and unique traditions impede its full participation in the Anglo-American world order.

Mead does not overlook the failings of the Anglo-American world order.  In particular, he emphasizes that Britons and then Americans have been unable to understand why the rest of the world — continentals across the channel and the billion or so Muslims in the Islamic world – has been reluctant to embrace the Anglo-American model.  Britons and Americans “consistently underestimate the difficulty of establishing the global democratic and capitalist peace they want” (p.271).  Citing Woodrow Wilson, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair, Mead notes that liberal utopia “continues to elude us” (p.272).  Outlanders who reject the Anglo-American style of capitalism ask whether it stands for anything more than the accumulation of material wealth, with the ethos of pursuing business, efficiency and the ever-rising standard of living, “unconnected to any deeper vision of life or meaning” (p.236).

At one point, Mead asserts that the English language should also be counted among the “blessings the Anglo-Saxons would bring to the world” and the “instruments that would allow them to rule it” (p.53).  I wish Mead had treated at greater length the contribution of the English language to the present world order.  There is no doubt that English is today’s global language, our era’s lingua franca.  English dominates commerce, international media, travel, entertainment, and much else.  No other language is close.   In those countries where English is not the national language (i.e most of the world, encompassing probably 95%+ of the world’s population), it is the key to transcending local boundaries and being part of the larger world.  I have attended numerous regional conferences in Southeast Europe where Albanians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Moldavians, Romanians, Serbs and Turks transcend centuries of mistrust and conflict to come together to discuss common problems – in English.

Difficult as it might be to prove empirically, one could argue that English-speaking countries should be at an advantage in the global capitalist game if the rules governing that game are set forth, interpreted and discussed in their national language.  This doesn’t mean that Japanese or German entrepreneurs, for instance, think like Americans or Britons or revere our countries because they speak our language fluently (often far better than the average American).  Indeed, one could also argue that Japanese or German entrepreneurs who speak English fluently, as many do, have an edge on their British or American counterparts.  Mastery of the English language provides insight into how their Anglo-American competitors think, whereas few American or British entrepreneurs are likely to speak Japanese or German.  Still, if the rules of the global capitalist game are written in the first instance in English, as they usually are, that seems to give the English-speaking world an edge in the global capitalist game (similarly, the cultural milieu in which the global game is played, as manifested by films and popular music, is also heavily weighted in favor of English).

As the book progresses closer to the present and begins to look ahead, it becomes clear that today’s Anglo-American world order is mostly American.  Mead acknowledges no handoff point, where Americans found themselves primarily responsible for preservation of this world order.  But one assumes that the handoff occurred sometime after World War II, as Great Britain found itself exhausted and bankrupted by its own war heroics, unable to maintain an empire or act as a great power.  Looking forward, this book is very much about the place of the United States in the first half of the 21st century, not the United Kingdom.

But even when it made sense to speak about an Anglo-American world order, it is worthwhile asking whether the two countries had as much in common as Mead suggests.  Britain and the United States have hardly marched in lockstep in the years since American Independence.  They fought a second war in 1812, dodged another during our Civil War when England threatened to take the Confederate side.  Notwithstanding winning two World Wars together, much separated the United States and Britain in the 20th century.  The United States was never particularly supportive of the British Empire.  The countries were on opposite sides during the Suez crisis of 1956 and did not see eye to eye on Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.   Britain retains a monarchy and established church – institutions antithetical to our notions of democracy — as well as a class system that remains more rigid than what we know in the United States.  Moreover, despite common Protestant roots, it is difficult to argue that religion has “persisted” in the United Kingdom.  When it comes to organized religion, Britons today are much more like their continental neighbors, far more blasé than Americans.  There is no Bible Belt in today’s Britain.

Further, as Mead looks to the future, I found his pronouncements on the “enduring” nature of the Anglo-American world order to be an invitation to complacency.  Endurance is today almost wholly dependent on the United States, and only the most stalwart optimist would argue that the United States has a lock on domination in the cutthroat global capitalist game of the 21st century.  A country counting on borrowing money indefinitely from China, and appearing likely to buy oil indefinitely from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Nigeria, Venezuela and other countries which share few of our values hardly seems poised to stay ineluctably ahead of the global curve.  Despite Mead’s endearing thesis, Americans assume at their peril that they will dominate the world economy in the first half of the 21st century in the same way they dominated the second half of the 20th century.

When I first read this book in 2009, I thought it was potentially another of the serious works that occasionally manage to become best sellers, allowing Mead to take his place with such non-fiction writers as Paul Kennedy, David McCollum, or Margaret MacMillan who have made money by producing books which challenge readers.  Mead’s “God and Gold” seemed to be precisely the type of work that the chattering classes, left and right, would gobble up.  Regrettably, the work never gained this traction.  Although I found his interpretation to be an overreach, Walter Russell Mead  provides much worth chattering about in this exuberant, provocative work.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 21, 2012

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Filed under History, United States History