03 January 2014

The Terror of Reform

One man’s justice is another’s injustice; one man’s beauty another’s ugliness; one man’s wisdom another’s folly; as one beholds the same objects from a higher point of view. One man thinks justice consists in paying debts, and has no measure in his abhorrence of another who is very remiss in this duty and makes the creditor wait tediously. But that second man has his own way of looking at things; asks himself which debt must I pay first, the debt to the rich, or the debt to the poor? the debt of money, or the debt of thought to mankind, of genius to nature? For you, O broker, there is no other principle but arithmetic. For me, commerce is of trivial import; love, faith, truth of character, the aspiration of man, these are sacred; nor can I detach one duty, like you, from all other duties, and concentrate my forces mechanically on the payment of moneys. Let me live onward; you shall find that, though slower, the progress of my character will liquidate all these debts without injustice to higher claims. If a man should dedicate himself to the payment of notes, would not this be injustice? Owes he no debt but money? And are all claims on him to be postponed to a landlord’s or a banker’s?

There is no virtue which is final; all are initial. The virtues of society are vices of the saint. The terror of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.

Emerson, “Circles”


The truth is that no two political constitutions are the same, just as no two economic structures are the same. The truth is that the formula is anything but the arid expression of a glaringly obvious natural law. Between the premises (economic structure) and the consequence (political constitution) the relations are anything but simple and direct; and the history of a people is not documented by economic facts alone. The unraveling of the causations is a complex and involved process. To disentangle it requires nothing short of a profound and wide-ranging study of every intellectual and practical activity. This sort of study is possible only after the events have settled into a definite continuity, i.e. long, long after the facts have occurred. The academic may be able to state with certainty that a particular political constitution will not emerge victorious (will not exist on a permanent basis) unless it is attached indissolubly and intrinsically to a particular economic structure - but his statement will have no value other than as a general indication. And while the facts are actually unfolding how could he possibly know what pattern of dependency would be established? The unknowns are more numerous than the facts which can be ascertained and verified, and every single one of these unknowns could upset the eventual conclusion. History is not a mathematical calculation, it does not possess a decimal system, a progressive enumeration of quantities amenable to the four basic operations, the solution of questions and the extraction of roots. Quantity (economic structure) turns into quality because it becomes an instrument for action in men's hands - men whose worth is to be seen not only in terms of their weight, their size and mechanical energy they derive from their muscles and nerves, but in the fact that they have a mind, that they suffer, understand, rejoice, desire, and reject.

Antonio Gramsci’s note on “Utopia” (1916-17)

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