Sunday, June 27, 2010

Freedom of Speech and Prosperity

In writing the conclusion to the volume on the history of freedom of speech in the West I am trying to articulate an idea that is counter-intuitive to many 18th-century scholars. There is a tendency to view the Enlightenment as an age when men suddenly "saw the light" and threw off the shackles of past authority, especially as authority was constituted by church and state, and demanded self-governance, including such rights as that of freedom of speech. In my view, however (and this is also implicit in my work on Goethe and world literature), it was the spread of prosperity in the West, beginning in about 1500, that gradually led to the transformation of institutions and the legalization of rights. People started to have enough money to feed themselves and a roof over their heads; in the process, they felt better about themselves and demanded that they be treated differently. In other words, first prosperity, then democratic rights.

We all want to be prosperous, but prosperity itself has a bad name lately, as witnessed at the demonstrations and protests at the G20 summit in Toronto. Protests at the meetings of these forums addressing the world financial system have become ritualistic. The motives of the groups are too numerous to be able to file under a single label, but all seem to be united in anger about the conditions of the world. And they are mad at the political leaders for not doing something about these conditions -- as if leaders as diverse as the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of the United States, and the chancellor of Germany had some kind of magic wand they could wave.

As I have been reading there is something economists call absolute poverty, which contrasts with relative poverty. The first was the rule for the majority of mankind throughout history. As Thomas Hobbes famously described it: "the life of man, solitary, nasty, brutish and short." Things began to change in the West in about the above-mentioned 1500, first in Holland, then in England, where the combination of property rights protection and open intellectual inquiry began to transform the nature of material life. The scientific revolution of the 17th century opened the way for inventions and technological innovation. With the harnessing of steam power and the invention of the telegraph, the Western world was on a path of economic progress from which it has not retreated. The result has been the reduction of absolute poverty, certainly in the West but also in most of the developing world, where people live much better lives than did Europeans in the year 1400.

Nevertheless, relative poverty still exists. The term "relative" is particularly appropriate for the modern age. After all, our prosperity rests on the production of goods, indeed the constant proliferation of goods, the rejection of the goods we loved only yesterday in favor of ones that we want today. It is not surprising that the concept of the "Good" has been relativized. So it is that the poor of the Third World are only "relatively poor"! By all objective measures, they are better off that their ancestors only a generation ago, but "objectivity" has also become a suspicious term.

What I find interesting is the degree of romanticizing of the poor of the world, as if capitalism had brutalized what would otherwise be an idyllic way of life. This began of course in the Romantic period, and the notion would grow throughout the 19th century. Here is Friedrich Engels describing the condition of the working class in England in 1844:

So the workers vegetated throughout a passably comfortable existence, leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material position was far better than that of their successors. They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which , in itself, was recreation for them, and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbors, and all these games -- bowling, cricket, football, etc., contributed to their physical health and vigor. They were for the most part strong, well-built people, in whose physique little or no difference from that of their peasant neighbors was discoverable.

Historical evidence (not to mention the testimony of Thomas Hobbes, much closer to the conditions of the ordinary Englishman in the 17th century than was Engels) does not jibe with this idyllic picture. Examination of bodily remains from earlier centuries shows that people died early from their labors and that their bodies were shrunken. There is something about the capitalist process itself, however, that makes us forget the past. Again, this forgetting corresponds to the market demand that we abandon tomorrow what we loved only yesterday. If we do not want to lose our rights, including that of freedom of speech, we need to remember that it is a right that has been historically achieved. It represents the legacy of preceding generations, and like all cultural legacies needs to be cultivated.


Pedro Peixoto said...


I am merely a onetime random reader of your blog, in a random voyage through blogspot. I shall, therefore, leave a random comment on this post.

Your main idea is that protests against a so called capitalist necessary consequence - poverty - is not a new idea and not rooted in the defense of democratic values as it seems nowadays, but that that attitude contra-capitalism was begot by the same movement which led both to capitalism and democratic values, rooted early in sixteen century Holland and England and expressed through the work of seventeen century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that movement being the "spread of prosperity in the West". I would like to call your attention to two aspects:

I) The quote of Hobbes is inserted in the XIII chapter of "Leviathan", in which the author makes a thought experiment in describing a fictitious/hipothetical "state of nature" from wich men came or to which will fall if government is to be abolished. It is impregnated with dramatic pathos, due to Hobbes particular style, but its main purpose is not to call attention to the evil consequences of economic prosperity, that is, the necessity of poverty - relative or absolute. The whole point is precisely the opposite: to call attention to the inevitability of it in a society where economy - capitalist or not - cannot work due to lack of government (authority and regulation).

II) It is that notion of "state of nature" that Engels seems to describe too, but adopting the antithetic view of Hobbes's. You are right to say that contemporary protests descend from this idealized past, but its true origin is not in Engels but in Rousseau. Rousseau believed that Hobbes transfered to the "state of nature" all the problems - mainly human evil passions unchecked - that he saw in his own society and deduced the consequences of it. He presented a new, definitely idilic and, even though apparentely plausible, very much fictitious, "state of nature" where only two passions dwelled within the human heart: "Amour de Soi et PitiƩ", that is, love of one's life and compassion for others sufferings. He allied this view with harsh criticism of modern society and even Culture, defining the human as a "sick race". With due propriety, it should be said that the origin of the romantic view of a "world without poverty" comes from Rousseau, which transmitted it to the romantics and to the communist romantics.

I hope you wont find my comment dislocated or awkward. Thank you for reading.

Pedro Peixoto (

cantueso said...

That democracy is based on prosperity is an American idea, but it is also Marxist, and it is probably wrong, for it overlooks the Protestant element, the ethics and the honesty principle.

The honesty principle is not Catholic, it is Protestant; it makes examine who or what they really are, makes them look inside, look for truth, spot a liar or a cheat.

This favours honest = hard work, and that creates prosperous people.