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Intellectual history

Pluralizing Intellectual Histories of Climate: Beyond the Tropics with Watsuji Tetsuro

By Archit Guha

With Europe reeling under the effects of a torrid summer that solidifies the pressing reality and futurity of climate change, there has been some discussion generated around how Europeans managed to colonize the tropics while being unable to beat the heat today. The construction of the ‘tropics’ were one of the primary colonial technologies of rule tied to climate as an observable and palpable natural phenomenon that lent itself to fixity and hierarchization seamlessly within colonial frames of reference.

Much of the scholarly conversation around the fraught co-constitution of climate and people has been from the vantage point of colonial governance, which is hardly surprising given how fundamental knowledge production around the populations and natural environments to be governed was to the imperial project. However, it might be worthwhile to turn our attention away from Europe and questions of governance, to grasp how the relationship between climate and people was being theorized elsewhere, to denaturalize colonial and Eurocentric frames of reference as the only ones contributing to these debates. One such example was the twentieth-century Japanese philosopher, Watsuji Tetsuro, whose Climate & Culture: A Philosophical Study (first translated into English, 1952; published in Japanese, 1935) was at once a meditation on climate as a cultural and phenomenological concept and a mediation between European and non-European knowledge systems—giving us an alternative paradigm to the tropics. It is important to note that Watsuji himself was writing in imperial Japan, and as we will see, his understanding of climate too was shaped by a loyalty to Japanese imperial ambitions grounded in an ideology of civilizational progress that idealized Europe. Before I delve into Watsuji’s ideas, it would be good to contextualize how tropical climates have been central to learning how the British Empire sustained itself.

As David Arnold notes, the advent of a scientific tropicalism made its presence felt in the processes of British governance in the colonies through ‘observation, mapping, and classification.’ What this meant, in essence, was that climate as a geographically specific set of conditions started to get mapped onto ideas and concepts that bore no direct linkage with climatic forces beyond sharing the same geographies—in this way, theories of climate and race became inextricably analogous to each other, and got mapped onto a variety of colonial projects. The impact of theories around race and climate have been well-documented in medicine and public health, especially in the emergence of miasma theory and tropical medicine as objects of study that marked difference. They registered their impact in areas farther afield as well though.

Ashwini Tambe shows how the age of consent debates that emerged in the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s borrowed heavily from eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropological writings on ‘the races of man’ and climatically deterministic understanding of racial hierarchies. Tambe argues that during this period, when white feminist consciousness was on the rise in Britain, white women (among other stakeholders) actively endorsed anthropologists’ views in a bid to save brown women from brown men. Such rhetoric clearly highlights how race and climate became ideological cognates. The biopolitical and gendered rationale for raising the age of consent to counter trafficking suggested that lower ages of consent were more common amongst people in warmer climates. Warmer climates, they said, posed particular problems because menstruation and sexual maturation also occurred earlier in such places compared to colder climates, which increased the threat of trafficking.

A text produced in 1813 showing how colonial British climate anxiety led to
scientific knowledge production (Source: Wellcome Collection)

These ideas of the body as the ultimate bearer of and responder to the climate were also applied to white people, but the stakes of that discourse were quite distinct. Bharat Venkat argues that imperial anxieties around heat began to coalesce around the white body as a “sensing technology” that experienced heat differently than the “natives.” White people, it was commonly thought, were more acutely sensitive to thermal fluctuations, which became a subject of more sustained research once meteorology was formalized as a state science in British India in the late nineteenth century. This proved to be a thorn in the flesh for the British for two reasons. First, it meant that the everyday struggles with tropical climatic conditions that wore them out in ways big and small generated a lot of concern for the health and well-being of the British in India. The oppressive climate also left the existential question of the sustenance of empire in perpetuity, premised as it was in British permanent settlement in tropical lands, in the doldrums. Could the British manage their hold over the colonies if living there proved to be especially arduous on account of climatic differences?

Watsuji does not answer this particular question, as we will go on to see, but he does address and raise some important other ones. Climate and Culture was a response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, which Watsuji believed was too temporally embedded, and therefore, could not rise above the atomistic individual in its conception of Dasein. Watsuji offered a more spatially informed concept—Fudo—which literally means wind and earth. Climate, then, was crucial to understanding how cultural formations emerged, impinging on people’s daily lives and bodies. Fudo establishes climate as the primary interface of man’s interaction with the environment, as opposed to the more commonly used category of ‘nature.’ For Watsuji, this is a deliberate choice to indicate the subjective human feeling of climate as a natural object that is external to the self. But can only be experienced physically through the body. He refers to this as an “intentional experience,” which though subjectively felt, can only be a reality when there is the objective climatic condition that makes one feel a certain way—the feeling of being cold, then, can only arise out of the encounter with the cold air outside of one’s body.

While this may seem like it furthers the idea of the individual as the channel of this experience, Watsuji shows us how the social is inevitably imbricated in this dynamic—the ‘I’ cannot neatly be separated from the ‘we.’ How one chooses to either protect or immerse oneself from shifts in weather is socially constituted and often intergenerationally inherited—enjoying a spring day outdoors or using the fireplace in the winter, then becomes a reflection of a historical sociocultural adaptation to climate. So far, these claims may not seem very different from how Europeans encountered unknown climates, and constructed the tropics as a distinct geographical and climatological zone that were alien to them—disproportionately producing negative effects on their health.

However, unlike European thinking, he never slips into the language of race and biology, thereby resisting easy anthropological naturalization of this apprehension of climate. Instead, he relies on climate as a metanarrative that shapes all of our social and cultural expression—from food and dietary choices to artistic and literary works. Such a framing also allows Watsuji to forward his typology of climates, which works quite differently than the dominant European scientific processes of mapping and classifying global climates that were happening coevally. Watsuji’s conceptions of climate are similar to an older European philosophical tradition that explored how geographical and climatic differences shaped worldmaking projects—from Tacitus’ Germania (98 AD)  to Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748).

The three climatic types and the geographical regions they apply to that Watsuji identifies are:

1) Monsoon: the coastal belts of East Asia, including China and Japan, and the larger Asiatic Indian Ocean.

2) Desert: Arabia, Africa, and Mongolia.

3) Meadow: The Mediterranean and Western Europe.

It is unclear why Watsuji leaves out the Americas, Australia, or the polar regions entirely outside of this process of classification. But even so, there is much to contemplate through the texture he provides through this schema that has no mention of the tropics. As a method, it transcends the temporal limits of the contemporary and reaches back to antiquity to make the historical and philological commensurate with the everyday and embodied. I shall focus on some snippets from Watsuji’s analysis of the Indian case and then contrast it with how he represents Europe, given my interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean world.

India, he suggests, is “the most faithful example of the monsoon pattern,” which results in a “fullness of feeling” that defines “a resignatory relationship with nature” characterized by “anxiety and unrest:”

The continental heat itself already tests the power of this resistance to the very limit; but when this heat is linked to humidity, man can no longer do anything but submit. Thus, nature withers and relaxes man’s energies and slackens the tension of his will. The fullness of feeling of the Indian is not experienced by any unifying will power. The structure of the resignatory type, in the case of the Indian, is set in a mould of a lack of historical awareness, a fullness of feeling and relaxation of will power. This is exemplified in both the historical and social aspects of India’s cultural patterns. (p. 26)

The “historical and social aspects of India’s cultural patterns” are best exemplified for Watsuji by a turn to the Vedas and Upanishads, which showed India’s richness in art, culture, and philosophy, but less so in commerce and warfare. Contrary to the Greeks who shared roots with Indians, but mastered the art of governing a polis. The reliance on antiquity to make these claims allows Watsuji to see the eastward spread of Buddhism outside of the borders of India and the lack of a forceful struggle for independence against the British in India as part of a larger pattern of resignation. This pattern, then, stifled both active learning and political strategizing in favor of ritual, superstition, and an acquiescence to subjugation. One could certainly argue that this reeks of an orientalist vision of India no different than one finds when reading colonial accounts that reduce the idea of India to Hindu upper-caste authority completely shorn of its complexities. However, it also offers us conceptual frames to historicize and locate spatially and temporally that were facilitated by longer processes of circulation and translation. In Watsuji’s case, his idea of India was certainly shaped by Japanese interaction with South Asia via Buddhism as well as European orientalist scholarship that legitimated European colonial authority in the region.

It, then, would come as no surprise that the resignation Watsuji found in Indians was absent in the Europeans, who were blessed with the “docility of nature” that was beneficial for progress:

One realises thus that nature’s docility is not to be separated from the development of man’s technical knowledge about nature. Patterns can be deduced fairly readily from nature that is docile; this discovery of a pattern in itself renders nature a stage more docile. Discovery of this kind was not easy in the case of a nature which was forever making unexpected assaults on man. In the one case, there is the domination of the resignatory attitude which entrusts the whole of fate to Heaven. Here is the watershed which determines whether or not the spirit of reason is to flourish.  (p.108)

There may not be the resignation present in India, but Watsuji argues that northwestern Europe’s lack of sunshine lends itself to a “sense of gloom” that hampers intellectual and cultural production, which tends to reduce appreciably as one travels through warmer, more sun-filled climes. This is why ancient Greece and Rome were the apotheoses of culture for him, given that they had been blessed by the ideal interaction between climate and humans, and the Reformation “was a Renaissance conditioned by the gloom of western Europe.”

Where does an engagement with Watsuji’s text lead us, then? On one level, it expands our sense of the archive, moving away from the more dominant colonial European theorizing, as I had suggested. But as a philosophical work, not directly tied to questions of governmentality, it also gives us an opportunity to raise more provocations as we continually face changing climates in future years.

More specifically, in Watsuji’s case, I wonder how he would resolve the issue of the European in India (or vice versa), given his model accounted for no movement of people across geographies, and also how he would locate the impact of changes in climate that had already occurred in centuries past by his time, undermining a conception of stasis. Beyond these questions, though, the text is generative for broader research agendas. How, for example, was climate characterized as an immutable phenomenon, and how did it become a diagnostic for societies and cultures en masse despite its ineffable and internally varied nature? What do we make of feeling and affect in invocations of climate, and does that necessitate broadening our historiographical reach beyond the histories of science, technology, environment, and medicine, that climate has traditionally been situated in?

The tensions between the ostensible certainty of climate and the everyday fluctuations of weather have become an increasingly important historical analytic to contend with in the context of the flows of European colonial capitalism. Texts like Watsuji’s, written in conversation with, but outside of Europe, give us an optic to explore how global and planetary histories were being envisioned at the brink of decolonization, emphasizing the centrality of climate.


Archit Guha is a doctoral researcher in the History Department at Duke University, with interests in the climate and extreme weather phenomena in Modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: 1) Watsuji Tetsuro captured by the Mainichi Graphic Newspaper in 1975 (Source: Wikimedia Commons). 2)

Categories
Intellectual history

How the Khmelnytsky Uprising Shaped Modern Ideas About Refugees

By Hans Wallage

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine sparked the largest refugee crisis within Europe since World War II [1]. Due to bombardments, atrocities, and food shortages, refugees are waiting in line to cross the borders of Hungary, Moldova, Poland, and Romania. Stories about the reception and shelter of these refugees have been mostly positive in international media. According to online news outlets like CNN and the BBC, neighboring countries have welcomed Ukrainian refugees and expressed feelings of empathy and solidarity with their fate.

However, the reporting also revealed another side of the same coin: some people who tried to cross the border were denied access. It appears that refugees with African or Asian heritage have been sent back to the Ukrainian war zone. Due to their ethnic background, border guards often regarded members of these groups as non-deserving refugees, coming from third-world countries and residing illegally in Europe. 

To differentiate between groups of refugees is not a new phenomenon; it dates at least to the early modern period. During several early modern refugee crises, communities facing limited resources to provide shelter discussed which refugees deserved help and which did not. These communities grappled with the question of whether all refugees were to be treated the same, and if not how to make distinctions amongst them.

In this piece, I consider the impact of refugee flows from one conflict, the Khmelnytsky Uprising, on the idea of the refugee. I situate debates on this topic within the Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam where many of the refugees arrived. My piece analyzes how and why the idea of distinguishing between deserving and non-deserving refugees emerged in that community, and the consequences that this political debate had for the refugees themselves.

In Rescue the Surviving Souls, Adam Teller analyzes the grim origins of the crisis which would spur Amsterdam’s Jewish community to rethink their ideas of the refugee. The Khmelnytsky Uprising broke out in 1648, as a revolt against the dominating Polish nobility (szlachta). It began with Cossack forces in thePolish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s eastern territories under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a minor aristocrat and military leader who had served with Cossack forces since 1617. These units had been established to protect the Commonwealth’s southeastern border from enemy incursions, but rebelled against Polish rule after years of failure to pay their salaries and broken promises to improve the Cossacks’ social status.

Portrait of Bohdan Khmelnytsky c. 1650, District Museum of Tarnów/Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, this rebellion need not have greatly concerned the region’s Jews. But circumstances changed as the conflict grew to include more parties. Many of the peasantry joined the Cossacks, which introduced new sources of tension and forms of hostility, including rising antisemitism, into the conflict. The peasants’ grievances were now specifically directed against Jews. Since the sixteenth century, Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been given the task of collecting and delivering tax revenues for landlords. Because of their intermediary position, and longstanding ethnic and religious animosities, Jews were viewed by many peasants as complicit in their oppression.

In other words, the Jewish population had become the visible embodiment of the hated serf system. As a result, when the Cossack armies and the peasantry marched through the Commonwealth, including territories in modern-day Ukraine, peasant rebels went from town to town, destroying villages and burning down synagogues. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the most gruesome ways, with many drowned or burned on the pyre, those who were healthy and had reached maturity would be sold into slavery. 

Once it became clear that the city walls were no guarantee of safety, Jews fled westward in large numbers, hoping to stay ahead of the advancing armies. The persecutions created chaos in which hundreds of thousands of panic-stricken Jews found themselves on the road, desperate to maintain their personal safety, and looking to start a new life in cities further West such as Kraków, Prague, Vienna, Hamburg, Venice, or Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam, the Sephardic board, mahamad [2], was hesitant to shelter Ashkenazi Jews when they began to arrive around 1648 [3]. The Jews from Poland and Lithuania had little in common with the Spanish and Portuguese Jewry already long settled in the Netherlands. This was partly because of different ideas about proper religious life: They spoke different languages, had their own religious rituals, and practiced their own customs. But it was also a matter of social distinctions. In fact, what most disquieted the Sephardic community leaders was the poor circumstances in which the Ashkenazim arrived. 

The Sephardim had good trade contacts in the Atlantic-oriented economies of their former home countries. This network had found them a respectable place within Dutch society, and allowed them to continue their work in the new environment after being forced out of the Iberian kingdoms. As a result, they were better able to earn a living in the Low Countries. The newly arrived Jews from the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth had no such advantages, especially given the chaotic circumstances under which they had fled. As a result, the Ashkenazim in Amsterdam were much poorer, depending on help from the established, mainly Sephardic, community. 

Despite the differences, and some mutual mistrust, the Sephardic board initially interpreted new arrivals above all as co-religionists. As such, the Amsterdam community had certain obligations toward them. The board members stated that it was a “religious commandment to help and assist persecuted Jews” – in Judaism called a mitzvah. The established idea of performing a mitzvah gave structure to the way that Amsterdam’s Jewish community responded to and offered help to the victims of the Khmelnytsky Uprising. The board soon wrote a letter to their members finalizing their decision. It announced that the imposta, a communal tax to pay for religious charity, had to beraised to shelter all incoming refugees, regardless of cultural difference or economic prospects.

As a result, the mahamadissued resolutions decreeing that it was not permitted to give money to Ashkenazi Jews who were begging “in front of doors and the esnoge[4]. Despite this initiative, the board kept receiving complaints from the city council about the public visibility of Jewish homelessness. The complaints led the mahamad to fear that if they remained identified with the newly arrived Jews, whose publicly visible poverty so displeased the authorities, this would lead to sanctions against the entire Amsterdam Jewish community.

Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte, 1680, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Therefore, the mahamad decided to search for a long-term solution to the growing homelessness problem. This economic and political pressure led them to reconsider their earlier idea that it was a “religious commandment to help and assist persecuted Jews”. Instead, they began to draw distinctions amongst the refugees, deciding who was deserving and who was not, which in turn served as a strategy to display their own distance from the refugees to the city authorities.

According to the mahamad, the begging problem revealed that there was a difference between what they called: “sincere refugees” and “economic profiteers”. They defined sincere refugees as those who searched for work upon their arrival in Amsterdam. So-called economic profiteers may well have had legitimate reasons to flee, but they were then seen to have taken advantage of the generosity of society, and their fellow Jews in particular, by begging. In this way, the emphasis shifted from an assessment of refugees’ origins to an assessment of their behavior. 

For example, a member of the mahamad wrote in 1658: “they [the profiteers] were unable to help in the peaceful lands where the goodness of the blessed God exists.” According to the same letter, it was easy to prove who was a sincere refugee and who was not. Amsterdam, they argued, offered sufficient economic opportunities for any new arrival to be self-sustaining so any refugee not working should automatically be regarded with suspicion. 

In the eyes of the mahamad, the fact that some of the refugees were begging revealed that these were “lazy people” who tried to profit from the goodness of the congregation. This new idea, that a deserving refugee was one who behaved according the local view of appropriate economic behavior, allowed the mahamad to implement policies which treated some arrivals differently from others. Eventually, they concluded that all Polish, German, and Lithuanian beggars were to be classified as “profiteers” who had to “go back to their country,” regardless of their safety. 

The new distinction between a deserving and a non-deserving refugee had considerable practical consequences. On 12th of July 1656, the mahamad paid 550 guilders to a ship captain named Jan Goosens for the service of transporting 125 to 130 people, explicitly stated to be poor Polish-Jewish refugees, southeast via the Rhine to Frankfurt. This incident was far from an isolated one. As part of the long-term solution sought by the board, the Sephardic community decided to send those who did not fulfill the requirements of a ‘sincere refugee’ back East. Still afraid to return to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, many settled instead in the growing Jewish communities of central European cities like Frankfurt or Cologne. 

Considering the case of the refugees from the Khmelnytsky Uprising shows that the kind of distinctions made amongst refugees today are not new. In the seventeenth century, the Jewish community in Amsterdam already distinguished between “sincere refugees” and “economic profiteers.” Although there are powerful echoes here of our modern ideas, the categorization of the deserving and the undeserving relies on different intellectual framings and depends different economic and political circumstances in each historical case.

In the seventeenth century as today, however, authorities formulated their understandings of new refugees at a similar intersection of political, economic, religious, and intellectual concerns. As similar ideas take shape during the present refugee crisis in Ukraine, this historical case can help us to think about the way that these distinctions develop and the consequences that they may have for vulnerable people seeking safety.


[1] UNHCR estimates that 3.5 million have fled Ukraine so far. The total number of refugees from the Syrian Civil War remains the largest in recent times, with 6.8 million people displaced to date.

[2] Sephardi Jews, also known as Sephardic Jews or Sephardim, and often referred to by modern scholars as Hispanic Jews, are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in traditionally established communities in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).

[3] Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or Ashkenazim, are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium CE. In the late Middle Ages, due to widespread persecution, the majority of the Ashkenazi population steadily shifted eastward, moving out of the Holy Roman Empire into the areas that later became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

[4] The esnoge was a local Jewish name for the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam.


Hans Wallage is a historian specializing in Jewish and Migration history. He holds BA and MA degrees in history from Leiden University. His bachelor thesis discussed the returning influence of fascism in Dutch society after the Second World War and his master’s thesis investigated the Dutch restitution process for Holocaust survivors between 1945 and 1960. He is currently a PhD Candidate in the NWO VICI-project The Invention of the Refugee in Early Modern Europe at the University of Amsterdam. 

Edited by Alexander Collin

Featured Image: View of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam c.1675, Wikimedia Commons

Categories
Intellectual history

Morris R. Cohen’s Critical Lessons in Legal Reasoning

By Samuel Turner

Who is the most influential American philosopher? William James and John Dewey are among the two more common answers, but in 1926, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed a lesser-known name: Morris Raphael Cohen. A student of James and admirer of Dewey, Cohen was a prolific legal scholar who linked pragmatism with logical positivism in a strand of philosophy now largely forgotten. It is nearly impossible to speak of these traditions except in the broadest of strokes, but generally speaking, pragmatism treats knowledge as inseparable from agency and logical positivism draws on scientific, logical analysis to address philosophical issues.

Why should we turn to Cohen now? A reluctance to probe history for legal insight is more than understandable. The Roberts Court has brought history to the forefront of its legal decision-making, with the conservative wing insisting on a rigid interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that adheres to “original understanding” or “history and tradition.” The liberal wing, by contrast, often points to some version of judicial pragmatism to frame the U.S. Constitution as a dynamic document that must evolve with the times. Cohen, too, was a pragmatist, but unlike some judicial pragmatists today, he did his finest work in the historical terrain. He wielded the authority of history to delegitimize deeply rooted and flawed legal theories.

In this spirit, we would be wise to revive Cohen’s long-forgotten, historicist project to dismantle the repressive constructs of yesterday’s jurists and imagine new, emancipatory possibilities for law and its adjacent disciplines.

The brilliance of Cohen’s method lay in his principle of polarity. He explained the principle in his magnum opus Reason and Nature (1931), “Opposites such as immediacy and mediation, unity and plurality, the fixed and the flux, substance and function, ideal and real, actual and possible, etc., like the north (positive) and south (negative) poles of a magnet, all involve each other when applied to any significant entity.” The principle served both metaphysical and methodological purposes, inspiring, in its latter form, Cohen’s piercing analysis of legal theory. He drew on the principle to collapse sometimes unhelpful legal distinctions (e.g., public and private, criminal and civil law) while building up important ones yet to be recognized (e.g., acts harmful and those merely deemed harmful). As an example of the latter case, Cohen pointed to “the history of the martyrs of religion and science [which] amply indicates that acts deemed criminal at a given time in a given community often turn out to be of the greatest value for human life.” His acute attention to false and missing binaries in law deserves, if not our agreement with Holmes and Russell’s assessment, at least our praise—especially in the context of the bad-faith reasoning that lurks in law today.

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Cohen derived his principle of polarity from the “logical pragmatism” of another lost titan of American intellectual history, Charles S. Peirce. This founding father of pragmatism proposed that an idea’s meaning follows from all its possible consequences. An inspired Cohen sought to close the gap between the meaning and consequences of legal ideas, an abstract separation that had allowed defective ideas to infect American legal thought and democracy. “It is an error,” he wrote in Reason and Law (1950), “to think of the meaning of a legal proposition as something completely independent of its consequences.” Cohen wielded this powerful Peircean concept to unmask the actual consequences of legal ideas in criminal, contract, property, and constitutional law. By scrutinizing the most entrenched underpinnings of legal theory, Cohen exposed the oppressive normative assumptions and power relations baked into the American legal system.

In his early article “Property and Sovereignty” (1927), Cohen attacked one of the most basic ways the law had been structured: the distinction between public and private law. He started with two seemingly opposite concepts—one in private law (property), the other in public law (sovereignty)—and traced their relationship in actual practice throughout history. Private claims to property, he found, have public consequences, routing power towards a given social group. That is, property is merely a disguised form of sovereignty. Just as sovereignty grants the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, so does property empower its owner to exclude people from a given thing. Sovereignty and property are “inseparable,” Cohen wrote, insofar as they both authorize the exercise of “power over the life of others.” The seemingly innocuous concept of property concerns more than individual owners; it upholds injurious power relations in society, conferring “sovereign power on our captains of industry [and] finance.”

Cohen’s work on contract law further ruptured the public-private barrier. In “The Basis of Contract” (1933), he reviewed the history of contractualism and assessed theories of the nature of contract based on their consequences. He concluded that contracts grant individuals the capacity to initiate private litigation with the sanction of state force. Cohen wrote, “That the courts should enforce all contracts made ‘freely’ […] merely brings the power of the state into action on the side of the stronger party.” A so-called “cult of contractualism” had legitimized “contract transactions in which there is no negotiation, bargain, or genuinely voluntary agreement,” such as labor contracts. In other words, private contracts were not a fair agreement between two individuals but an unwitting vehicle for the conferral of public power. That was the real meaning of contract law. Cohen’s treatment of the law as a tool of oppression and economic ills respectively anticipated two later leftist movements in legal thought, critical legal studies and Law and Political Economy.

By weakening long-standing theoretical divisions, Cohen unmasked the genuine consequences of legal arguments. He did not leave unprobed even our most fundamental assumptions, couched in seemingly uninvolved academic terminology, because peoples’ lives and livelihoods were at stake. Cohen’s analysis of the criminal-civil law distinction was particularly attentive to this reality. In “Moral Aspects of Criminal Law” (1940), he argued that “the criminal law cannot be distinguished from the rest by any difference of moral principle.” For example, the fact that both civil and criminal law could treat theft indicated that the real distinction between the two types of law was merely a matter of procedure and custom. To be sure, Cohen did not deny “some differences between civil and criminal procedure” or that “legislatures and courts can, do, and should call certain acts criminal.” But rather, he wished to show that “criminal law is an integral part of the legal system and is subject to the same considerations which do and should influence the whole.” Orthodox legal scholarship tended to neatly compartmentalize phenomena and judge them only in reference to legal traditions, but the most determinative forces in society—power and inequality, to name two—pervade every area of law.

Cohen’s attention to idealized, if flawed, conceptual polarities extended to the very notion of law itself. Long has the public revered the “rule of law” as the cornerstone of civilized society. But even this seemingly unquestionable fact of modern life did not escape Cohen’s principle of polarity. As he saw it, any discussion of law must include its opposite: those who make and enforce the law. In his essay “Moral Aspects,” Cohen observed that “acts are criminal not because they are harmful [to social interests], but because they are deemed harmful by those who make or interpret the law.” Embedded in his scrutiny of the criminal-civil distinction prowled a deeper, potentially more destabilizing criticism: the false separation between law and lawyer. Cohen subscribed to the not unpopular view that law should weigh social consequences. To him, individual legislators and judges were mere proxies, often imperfect ones, for the collective sentiments and logic of society.

To be sure, Cohen did not claim to have all the moral answers either. In discussing the ethical problems of criminal law, he urged his readers to “realize the inadequacy of the maxim that the good or ill of any act is to be judged by its consequences only. For this does not determine which consequences are to be deemed good and which are to be regarded as bad.” Cohen, like Peirce, did not answer his own call for an ethical procedural system to measure consequences. The lack of an ethical complement to Cohen’s analytic legwork has long been viewed as a failure, and that may be a valid conclusion to draw. But it may also be the case that Cohen disrobed the jurists of old for the very purpose of allowing a new generation, one conscientious of the repercussions of legal reasoning, to decide how to dress anew.

The stakes were high in American society. The law facilitated, among other things, segregation, patriarchy, and imperialism. Cohen’s skepticism of conventional legal distinctions shaped his skepticism of law altogether, including the U.S. Constitution. In an unpublished essay, “The Sanctity of Law: A Critique,” he noted that the law has long been tied to religion and thus imbued with moral sanctity. But, Cohen said, it is the “duty of thoughtful people to examine the law of their land critically and to test whether it does or does not promote human welfare.” This continual testing of beliefs in terms of their consequences (here, welfare) is a mark of Cohen’s pragmatism. However, his recommended attitude towards the law (skepticism) was obstructed by what he rightly perceived as an unhealthy level of constitutional veneration. The cause was again hidden in an apparently harmless theoretical distinction—between self-evident principles and contextual facts.

Cohen unveiled the not-so-logical logical proclivities that inclined early American elites to elevate a single document, the U.S. Constitution, as the source of all legal answers. The eighteenth-century elite education in “Euclid’s Geometry, in which everything seemed to follow from a few self-evident principles […] made plausible the analogous idea of a simple code of nature containing self-evident principles of natural right from which the solution of all possible problems as to just law could be rigorously deduced,” he wrote in “Constitutional and Natural Rights in 1789 and Since” (1938). Admittedly, Cohen also attributed constitutional veneration to American exceptionalism, writing that “what is psychologically the most important element, namely, sentiment and the need for some objects of worship to strengthen the authority of government.” But his principle of polarity unlocked the additional, biting insight that ideal logic, if not tempered by real facts, ushered in an unhealthy glorification of law.

To Cohen, the cults of the Constitution, property, and contractualism formed the chief elements of American conservatism. He endeavored to expose and eliminate all three and, in doing so, remove the obstacles to liberal democracy in the United States. Cohen’s skepticism of seemingly unimportant polarities drew attention to long-disguised unequal power structures (from the Electoral College to the U.S. Senate) that still exist today.

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Peirce undoubtedly inspired Cohen’s relentless application of scientific logic to law. Still, Cohen, faithful to the principle of polarity, clung to a nuanced view of legal science that did not reduce the law to science. Here was a theoretical distinction that should remain. As law dealt in more ambiguity than science, Cohen never presumed his conclusions, no matter their political resonance, were the objective truth. Despite his belief in the power of rigorous, scientific exploration, his early papers conveyed his refusal to reduce human activities, law among them, to simple facts. The ideal legal procedure balanced the “the appeal to self-evident principles and the appeal to the obvious demands of the specific situation before us.” Cohen remained suspicious of a growing liberal gravitation towards scientism and would later attack what the next generation would call the excesses of positivism. His preferred “rational liberalism” admittedly shared with science “a critical examination of the content of all our beliefs,” but the liberal temper differed from science in arising from faith in the possibilities of human enlightenment rather than the close-minded pursuit of a “new set of dogmas.” The latter mindset had undermined the progressive, self-critical nature of social thought and action by prizing individual “material productivity” over “ultimate human values.” In an age of data-driven public policy, contemporary American liberalism seems to have continued along the trend Cohen feared, treating politics as a purely practical affair and technocracy as the key to governing. The modern embrace of technocracy is evident in the growing reach of the administrative state’s “informal” rulemaking and the growing power of other parts of government staffed by experts, including the Supreme Court.

The principle of polarity led Cohen to view the legal system as a function of power relations, not the triumph of ethical ideals. While grounding his own analysis of law in history, Cohen’s pragmatic spirit was still attuned to the reality and value of change. Even if history were to dominate legal analysis (as it does today), we must not “abdicate the truly evaluative role to history itself,” he wrote in Reason and Nature. The principle of polarity insisted on a balance of “the values of order and stability with the values of change and progress.” It provided some structure to a philosophical and political tradition (pragmatism) that theorized the “changing” sometimes at the cost of ignoring the “constant.” And perhaps more importantly, it provided the philosophical firepower for political action.

***

Many commentators have unsurprisingly noted the lack of a unifying factor or even field of Cohen’s scholarship. His star student Sidney Hook said of him, “Although he preferred to call himself a logician, Morris Cohen was primarily a critic and moralist.” It is true that Cohen’s scholarship sprawled in all directions. Perhaps Cohen’s legacy has been unfairly neglected because we, Hook included, draw too sharp a line between law and its cognate disciplines—science, philosophy, history and literary criticism, among others. To break free from the inflexible clutches of legal reasoning, we must apply the severest pressure to our most fundamental notions of law. The choice between an originalism of the past and living constitutionalism of the present is a false one. We must rethink the rigid distinctions we make between concepts that are all too blurred: criminal and civil law, public and private law, constitutional sanctity and change, science and law, history and philosophy, and above all, an idea’s meaning and its consequences.


Samuel Turner is an incoming graduate student in history at Yale University, where he earned his B.A. in Ethics, Politics, and Economics and wrote his senior essay on the life and ideas of Morris R. Cohen.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Photo of Cohen from 1900

Categories
Intellectual history

War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices: An Interview with Beatrice Heuser

Beatrice Heuser holds the Chair of International Relations at the University of Glasgow, UK but is currently seconded to the General Staff College of the Bundeswehr where she heads the Strategy section. She has also served briefly in NATO’s General Staff in Brussels. Her previous publications include The Evolution of Strategy (CUP 2010) which covers a similar timespan to that of her new book, Brexit in History: Sovereignty vs. European Union (Hurst, 2018) which contextualizes the Brexit debate in centuries of ideational debates about independence and integration.

Thomas Furse is a primary editor of the JHIBlog

***


Tom Furse: Over the last few years, a series of works about war and strategy have emerged in Intellectual History, a discipline that has not usually given a great space to it. From Ron Robin’s The Cold World, They Made (2016), David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017), Rory Cox’s work on Ancient Egyptian Just War theory and ethics of pre-modern war, and most recently to Samuel Moyn’s Humane (2022). I see your book as a related contribution to this endeavor. This book’s historical range is vast, stretching over several millennia to show a non-linear history of the constant mutation of war from Western Europe to the Middle East.

Right at the beginning of the book, you argue that the Classical tradition and Abrahamic religions greatly influence the morality and thinking of war in the West. And their texts, from Aristotle’s Politics to the Old Testament to Saint Augustine’s work on Just War, have been interpreted in various ways, from the pacifist Mennonites to the Teutonic Order’s violent crusading. This sets the book up to argue that morality is inherent in all humans: “People prefer to think of themselves as noble rather than just greedy. That is where ideas come in” (p. 3). It is then ideas like being noble or the idea of solidarity that can encourage war, violence, and peace. This argument, to me, puts us in the position to see that even hardened war criminals aren’t violent simply for selfish economic interest alone. Although I find this convincing, how do you show in this book the influence of ideas on people, particularly the soldiers and thugs who do most of the violent work in war, especially since they’ve probably never read al-Mawardi’s jurisprudence or the Geneva Convention?

BH: Hardened war criminals are unlikely to act on noble impulses, but they may well persuade themselves and others that they are, even if what Hitler or Milosevic and their followers regarded as “noble” is despicable to our eyes.

But indeed, ideas are central to my book. The question of how elite ideas are passed on to the masses is a riddle to me, perhaps for social psychologists to unravel. We have all encountered people spouting and regurgitating truncated ideas they have picked up – from politicians’ inflammatory speeches, posters, or social media. Simple slogans have great traction: “for England and St George,” “Ami go home,” “Ne ABD ne Rusya” (a Turkish Cold War slogan: neither the USA nor Russia), “Britain for the British,” “Wandel durch Handel” (the now somewhat discredited German hope that Russia and China could be transformed by trading with them), or “Stoppt den Krieg” (in Germany now: end the war [in Ukraine], but of course not accompanied by any proposal on how this should be done) – those are all slogans easy to put on posters, paint on walls, easy to internalize. If soldiers in the Hundred Years’ War ever shouted “booty” or “butin” as their battle cry when attacking a town, this did not make it into the historiography of their time that was intended to make them look better than that. And so, they must have known even then that raw economic interest could not justify violence. Nor did Germans who torched Jewish shops on 9 November 1938 note in public that they were getting rid of competitors: “purifying” the German Volks-body to them seemed a nobler cause. 

TF: Interesting, but what about the economic interest that played a role in the Nazi’s war in the East?  The quest for “Lebensraum”?  And the mass starvation deliberately inflicted upon the Soviet citizenry?

BH: You are right, Lebensraum was an economic interest that the Nazi state wholly owned up to. But the famines created by the Germans in the USSR were not made public, even though they led to the death of millions. You can imagine that as a consequence of these German-created famines, German soldiers who were POWs in the USSR were not exactly fed well. Yet those who returned never put two and two together and harbored grudges against the Russians for having “starved them.” 

But to get back to slogans and deeper understanding, even on another level, it is noteworthy that most ideas pass by slogans or soundbites rather than through reading. An MoD official once told me that he found it perfectly satisfactory to listen to academics and think tankers in conferences and saw no need to read the articles, let alone books in which they produced the evidence for their 20-minute presentations. 

TF: A core rationale behind the book is that it seeks to show how war and violence haven’t radically changed in history. For instance, the Assyrians were besieging cities in Mesopotamia in 700 BC, just as the Wehrmacht did on the Eastern Front in 1941. This shuns a clear developmental account of the past and prefers to stress the role of contingency instead. This puts you in direct tension with the ‘New Wars’ thesis from Mary Kaldor and others who caused an almighty amount of controversy with their argument that war in the 1990s and 2000s had changed its character into a smaller, irregular, privatized, and crime-ridden affair. In this view, these wars, usually within authoritarian states, became global ‘problems’ to be solved by well-ordered states. For Kaldor, ‘new wars’ were more of a research methodology or strategy to guide policy, not specifically a ‘new’ definition of war—even if the name and some of her writings strongly suggest it. You’re unabashedly opposed to this undertaking in any case. Did this stem from your methodology or your careful criticism of the ethics and politics of liberal/humanitarian interventionism and its idealized view of progress?

BH: Indeed, like most historians, I tend to the Solomonic verdict that there is little that is new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12) and agree with Martin van Creveld that many armed conflicts today resemble pre-modern patterns. That is not the same as arguing that war has never changed. But it has not evolved in a linear fashion – the war in Afghanistan in the early 2000s resembled the armed conflict of robber barons in the high Middle Ages; the Roman Civil Wars of the 1st century BCE had much in common with the English Civil War. But the periods in between produced quite different wars. Many examples of authors, throughout the last couple of millennia, claim that war in their own times is quite new because that particular type has not occurred within “living memory” (meaning what their parents and grandparents talked about). I had cited some in my book, including Francesco Guicciardini at the end of the 15th century, who thought the use of cannon new when they had already brought down Constantinople forty years earlier, or the recurrent expressions of surprise at the re-emergence of forms of irregular warfare, including by US Presidents, including Kennedy and Bush (pp. 40, 56-58). Most recently, many commentators have hailed “hybrid warfare” as something new when the mix of kinetic and non-kinetic means of warfare is anything but new. Mark Galeotti’s intervention on Russian military doctrine and the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” is insightful here.

At the same time, what little has been new about particular wars could be revolutionary. Nuclear weapons were a cataclysmic turning point for international relations. As was the development of ships that could sail on all oceans, and then the move from sail to steam. So it was the transformation of nationalism from an elite idea in a handful of European countries into a political ideal that would arouse peoples all over the world to go to war for the ideal of creating their own “nation-state” (usually with the side effect of massacring or expelling ethnic or political minorities perceived as not part of their nation). This is still a driving force of wars today, as we can see in the Russian war against Ukraine, ostensibly fought to rescue Russian co-nationals from “Fascist” Ukrainian domination.  By contrast, the asymmetric or sub-State level warfare of the 20th and early 21st centuries is part of a particularly enduring and oft-recurring phenomenon that existed throughout recorded history. 

Admittedly, as Clausewitz rightly suggested, all wars have their distinctive features and particular character.  In that respect, the wars of Yugoslav fission with the early use of mobile phones and social media did have some unprecedented characteristics, which Mary Kaldor picked up when she spent a few months in the Balkans.  But even when it comes to new communications technologies and social media, I am more sympathetic to those who classify Facebook as a new and infinitely faster way of something old: the spreading of propaganda and rumors.

TF: Just war theory and the right to revolt against tyranny occupies a substantial part of the book, and you marshal a variety of evidence from the Western canon about it, from Cicero to John Wycliffe to Antoine Rougier, to Boutros Boutros Ghali. This certainly gives a coherent picture, but it also could obscure how thinkers in different parts of the West and in different times are making different points. Deciding on context is up to the historian, but there are general boundaries and specific moral coordinates that create precise meanings for controversial terms, like Just War. Cicero lived in a violent Republic that saw little, if any, moral problem with Caesar’s bloodthirsty campaign against the Gauls, while Boutros Ghali as Secretary-General of the UN wouldn’t be able to sustain this level of indifference, yet both were thinking of just war and justice in war. Are they talking about the same perennial issue(s)?

BH: You are quite right in suggesting that “justice” would be interpreted differently in different periods by different cultures.  As would “liberty” or “freedom” or “security,” or “order.”  These ideas would become molds into which different substances could be cast. One people might demand “a place in the sun” (meaning, a colonial empire), presenting that quest as “just,” on the basis of deeply racist assumptions which we now regard as massively unjust.  And yet “just war” and the conditions enumerated by Cicero would form the ideas of later generations: we see thinkers of later periods deviating from or coming closer to the earlier notions, depending on how thoroughly they immersed themselves in Roman thinking.  There is still a debate about whether Cicero, for one, thought of all humankind as having certain basic rights, which would put him at the origins of our ideas of universal human rights. Or would he have excluded slaves and barbarians but felt it unnecessary to articulate that, as it was so much taken for granted in his times?  Either way, he sowed the seed that in later interpretations would flower into les droits de l’homme. This may also illustrate that many ideas escape the control of those with whom they originated: later thinkers can take them to logical conclusions that might have surprised the former. Such an idea is that of the total mobilization of a population in defense of their rights in a war – an idea we find articulated already in the French Revolution.  The logical step from this to postulate that such totality should also be applied to the other side: that a whole population might be defined as enemies to be persecuted, massacred, gassed, or bombed would be taken much later, with the admixture of racism. 

TF: The book concludes with the door left open that humans and states might find peaceful negotiations more in their interests rather than war and violence. Yet you temper this optimism with some criticism of popular thinkers on the topic. “Steven Pinker argued that a sea-change in culture began with a growth of empathy through reading novels, and that this led to the abolition of slavery and more recently in women’s emancipation, the abolition of corporal punishment, and the protection of gay rights. Alas, this is not convincing” (p. 413). This comment will likely make some people smile, while others may accuse you of cynicism. Where do you see this possible change coming from, is it from cultural and organizational changes, and what would they be? Is it more ‘enlightened’ leaders who avoid violence?

BH: I thought the idea that reading novels would make us more empathetic was charming.  I confronted colleagues in university literature departments with this notion, who denied that this idea was being discussed, let alone being a matter of consensus, in their discipline. They mischievously pointed me to the many failed marriages and intra-departmental fights among their colleagues, anecdotal evidence that people spending their lives reading novels do not necessarily become more empathetic. Seriously, though, I do think ‘enlightened,’ humane leaders are the key to peace and justice.  After almost 40 years’ teaching in higher education, I have become pessimistic about the force of persuasion, especially that of the written word. 

I suppose it is crucial whether the charismatic leaders who come to power happen to have a humane disposition, a genuine commitment to doing a good job for the benefit of others, and believe that every human life is as precious as every other. Chances are probably greater that this will be the case in largely secular democracies, notwithstanding pretty gross experiences even there in recent times. 

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated again that events in a far-away country about which we know little can be of great effect on the rest of the world – countries as far away as India, Egypt and Sudan will suffer food shortages or famine on account of grain exports from Ukraine not reaching them due to the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. The key lesson from Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, however, to me, is that it thoroughly confirms the importance and powers of idiosyncratic ideas: in this case, that Putin, and all who support him or do not oppose him, are prepared to sacrifice thousands of lives for the greater glory of a social construct, in this case: Russia’s standing in the world. When from a Western point of view, the Russian people would have been infinitely better served by peace and trade. I know that there are Russians today who would agree with this perspective, and this is an old debate in Russia, encapsulated even in the illustration I chose for my book’s cover. It is a painting that today is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, called “the Apotheosis of War,” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin.  When he wanted to exhibit it, along with other works, in St Petersburg in the 1880s, the organizers excluded this painting – it was seen as too critical of war!

In my book, I set out to illustrate how much ideas matter while also coming clean about the limited traction of ideas limiting atrocities. Explanations for the frequent escalation of violence, for atrocities, for casting aside restraining ideas can presumably again be found in social psychology, the study of crowd behaviour. But in addition to that, I am also persuaded by the argument made by the late David Benest, who clocked up the actual experience of this rising to the rank of Colonel in the British Armed Forces, and who at least where atrocities committed by soldiers are concerned, traced this back to poor, permissive leadership. Without absolving the rank and file if atrocities happen, this again focuses attention on the leaders, on their ideas and role models in their early careers. I am currently learning more about their education in the staff colleges of various countries, and again, my preliminary findings caution against relying on the persuasive power of the written word. It seems that we have come back to a situation similar to that of the Middle Ages, when only a few people, especially practitioners, read books: nothing is new under the sun… 


Tom Furse is a primary editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD student at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between strategic thought, the social sciences, management theory and political economy.

Featured Image: Romans fighting the Dacians. Creative commons.

Categories
Intellectual history

A History of Green Ordoliberalism

By Isabel Oakes


In the last book before his sudden death, the politician Herman Scheer, a driving force behind the Energiewende, the enduring renewable energy transition in Germany, called for a ‘timely ordoliberal framework for a socially acceptable power supply.’ A decade earlier, in 2000, Scheer played an instrumental role in implementing the German feed-in electricity tariff, a scheme that offers homeowners and businesses above market prices and long-term contracts for providing renewable energy to the electricity grid. This spurred renewable energy investment and opened the energy market to small renewable energy producers. In breaking up concentrations of market power and  employing government regulation, commentators noted the ordoliberal nature of the feed-in tariff, especially when compared to more market-fundamental schemes such as emissions trading. Alongside this, initiatives, projects, and think tanks dedicated to realizing an ‘eco-social market economy’ in the German-speaking world emerged. An example is the non-partisan think tank, Forum Ökologisch-Soziale Marktwirtschaft (A forum for an ecological-social market economy), founded in 1994, which advocates for sustainable reform in finance as well as an ecologically and economically sound future. Outside of Germany, scholars from Poland and Canada have also turned to ordoliberalism as a framework for global sustainable development.

The engagement between ordoliberalism and climate politics has led many to question what exactly an ‘ordoliberal approach’ entails and whether market-based approaches can genuinely solve environmental issues. Exploring the history of green ordoliberalism, and the extent to which early ordoliberals engaged with environmental questions from the 1930s onwards, can help answer these questions. As pointed out by the environmental historian Frank Uekotter; ‘In order to fully understand the social, political, economic and ecological context of contemporary environmental problems we need to be conscious of their histories.’

The intellectual seeds of ordoliberalism were sown at the University of Freiburg during the 1930s and 1940s when economists and lawyers, drawing heavily from the fields of politics, sociology, and religion, came together to develop a new and more contextually informed economic liberalism. The key architects were the prominent economist Walter Eucken (1891-1950), Alexander Rüstow (1885-1963), a former socialist who coined the term ‘neoliberalism’ and Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966), a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Politicians such as Alfred Müller-Armack (1901-1978) and the former chancellor of West Germany, Ludwig Erhard (1897-1977), were also adherents. They envisioned a completely competitive market order guided by state regulation embedded in a legal and social framework. In other words, as succinctly summarized by renewable energy journalist Craig Morris ‘if the market is a football game, then ordoliberals want referees. The refs may sometimes make bad calls, but the game is fairer with them than without.’ The referees here are the government and legislature. This framework is said to have guided post-war economic restructuring in Germany and established the foundation for the ‘social market economy’, which is still considered to be the model for German economic decision making today.

The early ordoliberals were alive before the climate crisis and modern notions of renewable energy, nevertheless, issues such as water and air pollution were recognized as early as the late nineteenth century. Cultural critics, or Kulturkritiker, in Germany linked these issues to the industrial revolution and urbanization, an observation the ordoliberals shared as well. Beyond this, the ordoliberals also harbored concerns about resource depletion and the concentration of resources in urban centers. These fears were rooted in late eighteenth-century romanticism, which partially sprung out of fears surrounding the disharmony between humans and nature and the increasingly uncertain visions of a highly technological future society. Rüstow observed how the romanticism of the eighteenth century, which opposed the ‘attitude of dominion vis-à-vis nature,’ had been overthrown by the ‘enlightened absolutism and despotism’ of the late nineteenth century, with its ‘systematic mastery and exploitation of nature by man for the increase of his power, his welfare and his enjoyment.’ Rather than incorporating oneself into nature and subjecting oneself to her laws, the modern individual sought to ‘become her monarch and autocrat.’ Rüstow warned that the consequences of this would be dire; ‘the revenge of nature on man’ in which he predicted a future where waterfalls would fall silent, streams would dry out, and landscapes would consist purely of man-made artefacts.

Despite believing in the potential benefits of technological innovation, the ordoliberals knew the Earth harbored finite resources that were being violently exploited. Röpke explored how Europe was witnessing a gradual deterioration of soil quality and a change of climate owing to excessive use of artificial fertilizers, recognizing that ‘the location and the fertility of the soil are immutable data of nature; and that even tools and machinery cannot be increased in quantity according to our good pleasure’. He explored the effects that this exploitation of resources, coupled with the destruction of future productive potential due to soil erosion, would have in the face of a rapidly increasing population. Therefore, Malthusian fears of overpopulation were at the root of these environmental concerns.

Malthus’ theory of population, introduced to the world in the first edition of his ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population,’ published in 1798, rested on the assumption that, if left unchecked, population would grow exponentially, especially if the means of subsistence increased. Despite over 200 years having passed, Malthusian fears remain as relevant as ever. As articulated by Garret Hardin, one of Malthus’ most prominent disciples of the twentieth century; ‘in the 20th century Malthus has, so to speak, been buried every year by his commentators – only to be dug up again the following year.’ The post-war baby boom, globalization and growing economic and societal interconnectedness instilled fears of a shrinking Earth in which there were too few resources to satisfy too many people. These fears were increasingly securitized in the 1960s, epitomized in publications such as Paul Ehrlich’s ‘The Population Bomb’ and Kenneth Boulding’s ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’ in which he presented the Earth as a spaceship with limited reserves of resources that were rapidly running out.

The ordoliberals invoked such language as early as the 1930s and directly engaged with Malthus’ work and the debates he introduced into society. In ‘Economics of the Free Society,’ Röpke discredited ‘prophetic’ Malthusianism, which he described as the belief that population growth is subject to an unyielding natural law. He engaged instead with what he termed ‘analytic’ Malthusianism, which concerns moral questions surrounding population growth. In an article published in 1929, Röpke hinted that the real issue lay in the fact that poorer sections of society were reproducing at a much higher rate than those who were more well off.[1] The eugenicist and elitist undertones of this will be addressed later on. Over thirty years later, in 1963, Rüstow gave a speech to the German Horticultural Society at the scenic Lake Constance in South Germany in which he spoke with admiration of the conservation movement in America. However, like Röpke, he stated that the efforts of such conservation movements were a mere drop in the ocean regarding the collective action needed to mitigate the detrimental effects of overpopulation.

The link between over-population and environmental degradation appears obvious, however, as environmental literature from the 1970s onwards shows, focusing on the general issue of overpopulation diverts attention away from the West’s overwhelming responsibility for resource depletion and environmental pollution. The West’s economic success is entrenched in centuries of environmentally exploitative practices. Furthermore, as the Club of Rome report on the ‘Limits to Growth’ first pointed out in 1972, our current economic system, predicated on exponential exploitative economic growth, can be placed at the root of our environmental crisis. Recent data has shown that ‘the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015.’ The burden of our environmental catastrophe can therefore not be distributed evenly across the population and seeking measures to limit population growth would not necessarily have widespread environmental benefits.

Furthermore, the interrelatedness of the Malthusian, neo-Malthusian and environmental conservation movements of the twentieth century had dubious undertones. Individuals with eugenicist, elitist and racist beliefs often utilized environmental issues to justify the promotion of population control, predicting ‘race suicide on the cultural level and an environmental wasteland on the other.’ A prominent example can be found in the Nazi ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric which promoted the idea that German land was bound to German blood and used environmental arguments to justify racists, eugenicists, and genocidal practices. However, the Nazi’s true dedication to preserving the environment has been hotly debated, and the wide sweeping environmental damage caused throughout their time in power seems to indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, contemporary right-wing movements have reinvigorated Nazi ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric, making the recent resurgence of eco-fascism as alarming as ever. 

Though a staunch anti-Nazi, Röpke’s later work brings to light his underlying racist motives, as can be observed in his 1964 essay ‘South Africa: An Attempt at a Positive Appraisal’ where he came to the defense of apartheid. In an earlier essay, he observed with disdain how the West and its organizations, such as the UN, were being polluted by non-European culture and identity. This movement cast a shadow over most genuine efforts to protect the environment, and it is important to note that most ordoliberals did not espouse racist rhetoric. Most ordoliberals appeared to harbor genuine environmental fears of overpopulation and resource depletion. Rüstow, for example, focused on the link between overpopulation and overconsumption, an issue that is still very much in focus today. Furthermore, Walter Eucken’s daughter claimed that her father accounted for environmental issues in his economic theory.

How genuine were these early ordoliberal environmental warnings? Were they used to justify other motives? After all, ordoliberalism was, and still is, a market-based ideology that places the primacy of the market over most other things, including environmental concerns. Ordoliberals certainly valued the aesthetic merits of the environment and recognized the environmental consequences of urbanization, industrialization, and mass consumption. This may allow for a more environmentally friendly economic theory than demand-focused Keynesianism or fanatic free-marketeers, but could it truly enable a fundamental shift in thinking and market structure necessary to impede the environmental crisis?

It is important to note that most early ordoliberals passed away before the true urgency of the climate crisis became apparent, with one exception; Alfred Müller-Armack, who lived well into the 1970s. Müller-Armack, the intellectual father of the ‘social market economy,’ wrote about the need to tackle environmental issues, stating that; ‘economic growth leads to increased environmental pollution, the depletion of raw material reserves and energy sources and explosive population growth.’ Furthermore, in later writings on the social market economy he implored that the ‘social’ element of the social market economy included environmental protection. Yet, in his 1973 article ‘Der Humane Gehalt der Sozialen Marktwirtschaft’ (The humane content of the social market economy), he deemed the calls for complete economic restructuring to prevent climate change, as suggested in the Club of Rome report on the ‘Limits to Growth,’ ‘wrong and utopic.’ In advocating for limitation and restraint and a complete overhaul of our current way of life, the report clearly went too far for Müller-Armack. Though sympathetic to the environmental cause and, at times, more environmentally engaged than their fellow economists, ordoliberals were not strictly committed to finding solutions to environmental issues. Today, this still appears to be the case, with economics professor Daniela Gabor recently describing green ordoliberalism as a soothing ‘status-quo’ in which ‘decarbonization doesn’t have to come at the cost of prosperity or existing institutional arrangements.’  Rather than calling for a true environmental transformation, green ordoliberalism seeks to reconcile perceived environmentalism with the market mechanism. Therefore, the commitment to the environmental crisis appears somewhat hypocritical since issues are pointed out but not dealt with in their entirety. True change cannot happen until environmental concerns are placed at the very core of our economic, political, and social systems.


[1] Friedrich List-Gesellschaft. On the debate in Bückeburg on October 26th to 28th, 1929 on capital formation and tax systems – The influence of socio-economic factors (income level and income stratification) on capital formation. Wilhelm Röpke Archive, University of Cologne, Germany.


Isabel Oakes is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the ways in which ordoliberal thought engaged with concepts of nature and the environment and the ways in which this influenced environmental policy making in Germany in the twentieth century. She has published articles on the intellectual history of ordoliberalism and the ways in which ordoliberal competition theory can address market power in the digital age. She has also worked in the private sector, primarily analyzing ESG ratings for publicly listed companies in the DACH region.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: From the European Economic and Social Committee.

Categories
Intellectual history Think Piece

Altering the Nation from Within: The Mexican “Working Nation” in the 1840s

By Matias X. Gonzalez

Like most Latin American societies in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico spent its first three decades of independent life (1821-1851) in a contentious process of nation-building. Since the 1990’s, scholars have continued to discuss which signifiers were mobilized for the construction of a concept of nation as determined by specific conflicts and alliances. Florencia Mallon’s effort to drift away from a category of nation as an “already defined, integrated community with a territory, language, and accepted set of historical traditions” continues to be especially relevant in these queries. Those who have managed to introduce a greater degree of contingency into the study of Mexican nation-building have, not coincidentally, identified certain groups that destabilize the image of the nation as dependent upon an ex post facto artifact, which corresponds to a Nation-State that was ensued only in the second half of the century. The 1840’s concept of industry was a significant threshold where the world of labor and official industrialization agendas mutually contested their ideas of nation-building. In this piece, the contingency introduced by the former is analyzed.

One might justifiably ask: why analyze the world of labor and these industrial projects to understand the contested nature of the nation? The answer follows the wake of previous efforts to go beyond an “artificial” conception of the nation: the working groups articulate an original project of the nation that is in creative dialogue with other official political projects. Here, two symbolic examples are offered. On the one hand, Lucas Alamán’s Memoria (memory, or report) on the status of agriculture and industry in 1845. On the other, Estévan Guénot’s project for a silk company and some entries in one of the principal newspapers regarding Mexican industry: the Semanario Artístico. These contending figures embody, and thus help explain, the “contested processes of nation-building” in nineteenth century Mexico.

Arguably one of the most prominent thinkers and politicians of post-independence Mexico, Lucas Alamán hallmarked some of the most significant economic proposals that wished to establish a national industry. He was behind the Banco de Avío, the “world’s first national development bank” in 1830, was the head different ministries as well as the Dirección General de Agricultura e Industria (General Direction of Agriculture and Industry) in the 1840’s. Throughout the Memorias he commissioned to the government, an underlying message may be found: Mexico needed an industry that functioned as a “producer of public wealth” which could garner “enough “powerful means for the improvement of the mass of the population’s customs”. Alamán described Mexico’s economy as “backward” because it had not procured the insertion of the real product surplus into a commercial economy. This “backwardness” would only be solved by ensuring consumption of all those products that had been left out of the commercial circuit of production for consumption. The “land’s products” did not have any value if they were not “transformed in products for commerce” by local factories.

As John Tutino shows, Alaman’s proposal for a new cycle of industrial and agricultural production intended to enhance the cheapened commodities and land by increasing the availability of product and its consumption. This would increase the demand for workforce which would in turn benefit from better pay loads that would drive the population to sustain a consumption-driven, commercial economy. After the serious blows to internal finances inflicted by external debt and low mining activity since the wars of independence (1810-1821), for Alamán Mexico’s industrial recovery could only come from the activity that linked agriculture, factory production and manufacture: the burgeoning textile industry.

For Alamán, to foment the industry of spinning and weaving expressly meant producing a greater number of “habits” that could provide “more consumers for [the manufacturer’s] production”. These pieces of clothing would also serve as moral correctors for the working populations, as these individuals would forcibly present themselves in the public sphere with the clothes that had been put at the commercial market’s disposal. By enforcing the use of these habits or pieces of clothing, the rest of the population would imitate them. It was the means for the textile industry to introduce “habits of greater comfort”, a concept that was economic but had moral implications to the extent that it inspired “the taste for certain necessities and conveniences, to the general mass of the population”. Consequently, greater production would be achieved in the textile industry (by then one of the most important industries in the country). By “always appearing dressed in public”, the workers almost instantly installed “civilization” through the promotion of consumption and, therefore, of the demand for a product: a prerequisite for increased productivity.

The metaphor of “habit” as a piece of clothing capitalized to reform the working population’s customs is quite illustrative of the profound intentionality that was built into Alamán’s project of a national industry. If there was a moral dimension to this project, it was conveyed by a correction of “public morality”, which was intended as a space of economic production that, in turn, sought the consumption of habits and their public display by the individuals that inhabited the “public sphere”. If the idea was directed at the working populations, it was because of their significance for Mexico’s industry, by virtue of their number––hence the impact for the rest of society––these groups lodged: more and better habits for the working groups banally meant more and better habits in the public sphere. Reforming their habits meant reforming a great deal of the national customs people would see strolling through Mexico’s streets and plazas. The material aspect of the reformation of their customs was limited to the production of commodities, by turning the worker himself into a display of a product, and the morality it reflected, through the neatness of “economic habits”. The conceptual circuit of national industry is functional, in Alamán’s Memorias, to the cycle of production aimed at the rise of consumption. Ultimately, the construction of a national industry and a national economy was a commodity and commercial-driven transformation of the nation that sought a singular way of insertion into the international capitalist economy.

            It would not be unreasonable to argue that Alamán’s was probably the most important industrial project in 1840’s Mexico. But it would quite naïve to disregard the specificities of his projects. Particularly, to whom they were destined: if at a first glance it may seem as though they were a plight for the insertion of Mexico’s working classes into a capitalistic global market, when treading beyond the first glimpses of his ideals’ consequences, the defining borders of his economic and political theories emerge. Indeed, there is little doubt among recent historians that his industrial projects were quite clearly destined to certain groups of the nation, the so-called hombres de bien: the rising middle and high classes, mainly industrial entrepreneurs and landowners, to which and by which the republican project known as the “Centralist Republic” (1836-1846) was greatly favored. Investments, credit, monopoly over certain products as tobacco, and trade protection were all important mechanisms through which Alamán and the hombres de bien built a particular, in the strict sense of the term, capitalist economy: their very own form of “crony capitalism”. This political and economic class was not exempt of facing a conflictive appreciation by the nation’s other groups, among others by those less advantaged industrials that were more concretely seeking the establishment of industries for the nation.

The difficulties in the establishment of a national industry and a national community emerge quite immediately when the historian minds another set of sources. A Frenchman named Stéphane Guénot, rechristened Estévan, had patiently sought the establishment of a Compañía Michoacana para el Fomento de la Seda (Michoacan Company for the Fomentation of Silk) through a discordant negotiation with the Junta General de Industria (General Council for Industry) in Mexico City. His dissent with the Junta General, and with the official agenda backed by Alamán and the hombres de bien, is quite transparent in an article published in the Semanario Artístico, probably the main newspaper where the idea of the “fomentation” of industry in Mexico was discussed at the time.

In it, he discussed the idea that productivity linked to consumption was the adequate solution for Mexico’s industry immobility. This idea, he argued, was based on a system of competition between the nation’s groups that did not even slightly consider that “not all are what they resemble because of the humble suit that covers them”. In an outright defense of their labor, Guénot warned Mexican manufacturers to beware of how the opulent confusingly “blames you for their shortcomings”. Although they continuously lamented about the need to morally reform the worker’s habits and customs, they did not “employ their riches to occupy you and thus remedy the ills they complain about”, namely, idleness. Instead of accurately distinguishing those that “affectionately embraced idleness” from those that were reduced to idleness because of “lack of work” due to the “current state of affairs”, the rich industrial continuously evaded the real solution to the nation’s industry: giving labor to the working groups. If they gave labor to those in lack of work or employment, the rich would alleviate the worker’s luck while simultaneously increasing “their own wealth”. The hombre de bien, who knew that “his duty was to provide well-being to himself as well as to his like” and did not pursue this affair, was nothing short of a “criminal”.

Guénot was openly criminalizing the crony capitalism that was being built by Alamán and the hombres de bien. Not necessarily because of its corrupt system, but because of the selected advantages their industrial system for consumption enacted. His project did not revile the idea of “material prosperity”: “pecuniary advantages” were not to be preemptively disregarded. Yet the development of national industry involved “conciliating the interests of all social classes”. Indeed, the economic and political conciliation of the nation’s groups was carried out by the participation of the “vast majority of the population”, the “impoverished classes”, in the benefits produced by “material labor”. Labor was thus conceived as the destiny of the “poor classes”, which would ward off the worker from the “hideous egotism of the monopolists”.

Instead of conceiving an industry trapped in the circuit of production for consumption, industry was fueled by labor, which was not the result of commodity production, but of the conciliation and cooperation of the working groups of the nation. This concept was not only his. In 1844, an artisan corporation backed his ideas on industry and labor: “To give a productive industry to the impoverished class is a purpose the governments should not lose sight of”. Noticeably, the contrast between these groups’ industrial projects stems in the principle upon which they were built.

For the hombres de bien industry was erected on the principle of increased consumption in relation to the existing, and potentially growing, productivity of local factories and economic activities. Theirs was an industry destined towards commercial activity understood as the search for “lucre”. Productivity and competitivity between the producing sectors were in contrast with the cooperation and conciliation between the working groups, intended in the broad sense of the word, which includes the hombres de bien, industrialists, as much as the manufacturer and the artisan. In fact, Guénot did not refrain from including the wealthy heads of national industry in his project, albeit with a critical stance. The contrast he conceived between productivity and cooperation is transparent once the historian notices that the class antagonism at the root of these divergent industrial projects is not so much suppressed as displaced. Capitalist competitivity was shifted towards the logic of labor cooperation, hence class antagonism between the “monopolists” and the working groups is not so much “solved” through consumption of the product of labor, as much as it is funneled through the cooperation of the working groups of the nation.

The working groups embodied a concept of industry that was in open “disagreement” with the one imagined by Alamán and other industrial leaders of 1840’s Mexico. Through the practices incorporated into their labor, national industry was repurposed as a guarantee of productivity through the conciliation of hitherto contending parts of their economy. In this sense, they were seeking new political values upon which to organize their society. The motive behind these new set of political-economic values thus utter a concept of nation that was radically alternative to previous and coexistent conceptions of nation. Instead of hampering these groups’ political projects through an ex post facto reconstruction that veils their logics of the nation under the Nation-State, labor historians should conceive their alternativity as radically as the worker and entrepreneur Guénot did. In sum, it should be possible to think of the labor association’s political and industrial projects as capable of epitomizing their very own political, social, and economic imaginaries of the nation, what could be called “Working Nation”[i].


[i] This concept is the product and title of a two-year seminar in the Laboratorio de Investigación sobre Movimientos, Estado y Sociedad (LIMES) in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina. It is thus nothing short of a fruit of collective discussion with colleagues that come from different social sciences backgrounds.


Matias X. Gonzalez is a PhD candidate at the University of Turin, in Italy. His interest in the intercrossed dialogues between conceptual history and social history have taken him from studying Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin, to C. H. de Saint-Simon, to currently writing a dissertation on the interconnected history of the Mexican and French working nations in the mid-nineteenth century.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Mexican dresses by Casimiro Castro.