Book Discussion with Walter Russell Mead

by Roger Alford

Opinio Juris is pleased to announced that in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations we will be sponsoring a book discussion with Walter Russell Mead about his new book, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

The book discussion will be held the week of February 4, and we wanted to announce it early to give our readers the opportunity to buy the book and participate in the discussion. In addition to Mead’s participation, we will have prominent guests as well as the participation of the permanent contributors.

God and Gold is currently a bestseller on the Foreign Affair’s Bestseller List. The book posits that Britain and America were singularly responsible for shaping the modern world, helping to create the liberal, democratic capitalist system whose economic and social influence continues to grow around the world.

The New York Times has a nice review of the book, which includes this choice summary:

[Mead] believes every age needs a “liberal empire” to control the world’s seas and make free trade possible. This was discovered by the United Provinces of the Netherlands four centuries ago, then by the United Kingdom — and now by the United States. Indeed, “the last 400 years of world history can be summed up in 10 letters. … The story of world power goes U.P. to U.K. to U.S.” Each of these “liberal” maritime empires defeated towering, glowering rivals. From the Spanish Armada to Soviet tanks, they prevailed for one reason: they adhered to an unwritten code that the author wryly terms “the Protocols of the Elders of Greenwich.” These are simple. Build an open society at home. Channel its dynamism outward, toward the global economy. Use the full force of the state to control the oceans, protect commerce and defeat illiberal adversaries abroad. Open the global system to others, even your enemies, if they agree to abide by the rules. Then the world’s waters — and markets — will be yours.

Please go buy the book and join us the week of February 4 for a lively discussion with Walter Russell Mead.

7 Responses

  1. I look forward to reading this book but I would think the French and the Spanish would demur from this vision. I suspect also the Chinese. It sounds so rosy – no slavery, no imperialism, no carving up of the New World and Africa. Just protecting commerce and defeating illiberal adversaries abroad. Amazing!



  2. Make peace, not war!

  3. The imperialist mania for control and possession, i.e., for an empire of any sort, ill-suits a true democracy in a world where the U.S. could and should lead by example. A “liberal empire” should be an oxymoron, as the quest for same betrays a lack of self-confidence in the integrity and viability–the universalization or generalization–of democratic values, principles, and ideals.

    That world history has, for whatever number of years, gone in a particular direction is no excuse to construct ideological apologies for maintaining that direction: this strikes me as Hegelian historicism gone amok. That it once was that way (e.g., ‘Each of these “liberal” maritime empires defeated towering, glowering rivals.’), and remains this way (i.e., ‘The story of world power goes U.P. to U.K. to U.S.’) does not amount to a compelling ethical and political argument that things should remain that way. Perhaps history needs to move in a new direction, take a different course, if we are to flourish and survive as a planet of human beings who, in the end, are not beholden to blood and soil, to geo-political borders that often lack rhyme or reason, to economic structures and values that trump non-economistic criteria for what constitutes the “good” life, for widespread individual and collective human flourshing.

    An “open society” is not equivalent to an “open economy,” and much nonsense follows a conflation of the two. In any case, “our” open economy is predicated upon market capture and domination by MNCs who need not be committed to democratic principles and practices. Furthermore, this “open economy” runs roughshod over the lives of workers inasmuch as they are subject to the fortunes and follies of capital and labor markets that make mincemeat of their personal lives, that ignore, corrode, and more or less destroy the worldviews and traditions, the communities and moral reference groups, that possess the temerity to question the domination of capital, the commodification of anything and everything. Whatever the vices of the communitarians when it comes to an appreciation of moral autonomy and ethical individualism, they are right about the precipitous decline of virtues and the collapse of moral life. Michael Luntley’s precis remains persuasive:

    “It was only by virtue of the dissolution of the weave of reference groups and the dissolution of the good life, that capitalism could flourish. For what capitalism requires is the ‘freeing’ of the labouring subject from the norms of, for example, feudalism, which bound him to the land and the master, so that he could enter ‘free’ contracts for his labour power. The emergence of the market in labour power required the dissolution of the reference groups, so that one subject came to face another no longer within the web of norms presented by the sharing of various reference groups. Instead, one subject came to face another solely as competitor in the market to supply Capital with the labour power necessary for the maximisation of profit. Capital needs labour power to be freed from the normative bonds of our moral traditions, or else its supply will be economically ineffient. And of course, for Capital, the only measure of the adequacy of its supply is the economic efficiency in terms of profit maximisation.”

    But, and perhaps most importantly insofar as it captures the logic of our present situation,

    “Capitalism prevents the rebuilding of the traditions of thought and feeling that would enable us to construct the reference groups necessary to see our way through the political dilemmas of the modern world. Capitalism cannot abide the construction of relationships other than those economic ones in which it places one labourer in relation with another. [As the fate of uniouns in our time makes all too clear], as soon as labourers construct relationships other than that of competitors in the labour market, the accumulation of capital decreases. It is a necessary part of the labour/captial relationship that Capital should continually seek to achieve ever cheaper and more productive supplies of labour. For as soon as one capital plant achieves such a supply, the rest must follow on pain of going out of business. It is this total economisation of human relationships under capitalism that stands in the way of the repair to the good life…. For capitalism to flourish, moral agency has to be replaced by economic agency, and therefore it is no good trying to put a ‘human’ face upon capitalism. [….] It is the fragmentation of the reference groups grounding our moral traditions that characterises the modern world and the spirit of anomie prevalent. [….] Capialism requires, and receives, the economisation of all social relationships in place of the normal sharing of reference groups which alone ensure the continuation of moral life.”

    —From Luntley’s The Meaning of Socialism (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989).

    By all means, read Walter Russell Means’ book, and then read (or re-read) Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society (1983).

    After that, I would recommend the following:

    Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Pfeffer, Rodney G. Marxism, Morality and Social Justice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    Schweickart, David. Against Capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

    Wolff, Jonathan. Why Read Marx Today? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Rather than valorize the vices and imperatives of empire, we should contemplate the necessities and obligations (i.e., the ethics, economics, and politics of) global distributive justice.

  4. Erratum: please place the closed parenthesis immmediately above after the word ‘politics’

  5. I trust Professor Walter Russell Mead will forgive the mispelling of his name above: I suspect it was some sort of subversive Freudian slip (cf. ‘Russell Means,’ Oglala/Lakota Indian activist and first director of the American Indian Movement).

  6. Incidentally, it is rather telling that, as the review notes, “Mead ends with a call for a rehabilitation of the thought of the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.” Niebuhr’s Protestant theology is utterly beholden to Luther’s political theology insofar as it sanctions a doctrine of double moral standards: one for the individual in her private life or intimate sphere, and another for the conventional political realm and collective conduct. As one of my former political science teachers explained, “prudentia politica or niti is held to be the charioteer of the other virtues, and adapts the natural law or dharma to raison d’etat or artha. Politics may be subordinated, but it must not become subservient, to morals.” In effect, this political theology necessitates, when not justifying, political policies and practices that an individualistic ethic (say, of Kantian provenance) “must always find embarrassing.” Indeed, I see this doctrine as putting us on that ethically slippery slope that leads to elaborate if not tortuous apologetics on behalf of “dirty hands” and in which, justice ultimately serves, after Thrasymachus, the interests of the stronger, that is, might comes to make right. The disturbing corrollary here is that “good governance” sometimes requires the sacrifice of moral principles. This same slippery slope is what brings us frequent rhetorical appeals to the putative “necessities of politics,” signifying, at least since Machiavelli, and in the words of C.A.J. Coady, “not only necessary risks of an apparently immoral kind, but necessarily even lies, cruelties and even murders. Taking their lead from Sartre’s play of the same name, modern philosophers tend to talk of the necessity for ‘dirty hands’ in politics, meaning that the vocation of politics somehow rightly requires its practitioners to violate important moral standards which prevail outside of politics.” To continue,

    “…[A]lthough he has in mind the need to override Christian morality, [Machiavelli’s advocacy of ‘necessary immorality’] has wider application to moral codes and virtues that are recognized in secular and other contexts beyond Christianity. When Machiavelli says, ‘a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not so good. Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good and to use this knowledge or not according to necessity,’ he is genuinely challenging a very deep and compelling picture of morality. According to this picture, we can understand what it is to lead a good life and/or the duties of a moral code, and such an understanding provides us with final, authoritative guidance on how to act. Moral reason may not always have something to say about our choices and decisions…but when it does intervene seriously and relevantly, it must carry the day against all competing considerations. This picture is challenged by Machiavelli because he thinks that there are powerful reasons which can and should override the moral reasons.”

    With Michael Stoker, I believe that it is “difficult to overestimate the importance of the rule of immorality in creating situations which necessitate and justify acting with dirty hands. In at least many cases…were it not for the immorality, there would be no need or room for dirty hands. The issue is important enough to stop and show that the immorality of the circumstances can provide the specific differences between cases of dirty hands and other cases.”

    Finally, and again with Coady,

    “[O]ne may readily concede that some areas of life lead to more frequent clashes between moral and non-moral values but we need to recall both that precisely which areas these are is a matter of historical contingency, and that frequency of confrontation need not correlate with frequency of justified overriding. Politics may be very bland as, I imagine, in Monaco, and private life can be a maelstrom of agonizing conflicts, as in a black ghetto or an Ethiopian village during famine. Moreover, where politics is morally perturbing it doesn’t follow that decisions against morality will necessarily be legitimate. Some area may be morally dangerous than another without being less morally constrained. Politics may often be sleazier than housekeeping without this fact licensing fewer moral constraints in politics. On the contrary, the more frequent temptation is, the greater, we might naturally suppose, the need for stern attachment to moral standards and virtue. (This was indeed the view of Machiavelli’s famous humanist contemporary, Erasmus, in his The Education of a Christian Prince).”

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