Archives For Simone Weil

Born out of conversations with a friend from the United States, I was given the opportunity to read a compilation of fragments and essays written by Simone Weil called: ‘Oppression and Liberty’.  The compilation flows in chronological order and presents some of Weil’s thoughts on anthropology, economics, politics, ideology and war.

Simone was a French intellectual. Like Jacques Ellul, whom she presumably never met, Weil worked in the French resistance and was well schooled in Marxism.  Among many others in the elite French communist circles of mid 20th Century, she was a contemporary of rebel and excommunicated member, Albert Camus.

Later in life, Weil matured back towards Roman Catholic Christianity, taking an interest in aestheticism and Catholic mysticism. Detaching herself from the French intellectual trends of her day, Weil also made a break with Marxism. Whilst remaining a fan of Karl Marx, Weil set alongside her criticism of [crony] capitalism, an intense critique of Marxism, detailing the threat posed by plutocrats and bureaucrats when they choose to entertain and ride the backs of both monsters.

Unpacking this threat is ‘Oppression & Liberty’s recurring theme. Weil makes it known that she is no fan of big business or big government. It’s more apparent in the latter than the former, but both big business and big government form big bureaucracy.  This creates a ‘bureaucratic caste’ and is dangerous because ‘all exclusive, uncontrolled power becomes oppressive in the hands of those who have the monopoly of it’ (p.15).

Readers wouldn’t have to look far to locate examples of where big business and big government corroborate to create big bureaucracy. Some corporate promotion and imposition of new cultural laws such as those posited by radical feminist ideology, punishment for disagreeing with any forced imposition or disloyalty to the LGBT flag and the questioning of the movement’s agenda; weapons factories, political groups, career politicians, Islamist shar’ia, some parts of the institutional Christian church, pharmaceutical, oil and power companies, information tech companies and, the education and military industrial complexes, all provide adequate proof.

From an historical point of view, it’s easy to see the beneficial relationship that developed between industrialists and “Captains of industry” with the rise of National Socialists in Germany, Europe and America throughout the 1930’s. As is shown by Thomas Doherty in his 2013 book ‘Hollywood and Hitler’, European and American corporations did their best not to upset the newly established status quo. It could be argued that this is one of contributing factors to why Winston Churchill was so highly criticised for speaking out against the ‘gathering storm’.

Additionally, the Soviet nonaggression pact with the Nazis also gives further credibility to Weil’s conclusions about how big government and big corporations create big bureaucracy. Stalin had imperialist ambitions. Hitler was a way to implement them. Hence the Soviet attack on Norway on the 30th November 1939, three months after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (23rd August 1939) between the Nazis and the Soviets was signed. This gave parts of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union and open commercial ties with the Nazis.

Weil is right then to say that the ‘bureaucratic machine, though composed of flesh, and well fed flesh at that is none the less as irresponsible and as soulless as are the machines made of iron and steel.’ (p.13)

The ‘bureaucratic machine excludes all judgement and all genius; it tends by its very structure, to concentrate all powers in itself. It therefore threatens the very existence of everything that still remains precious for us in the bourgeois regime […] Instead of a clash of contrary opinions, we end up with an “official opinion” from which no one would be able to deviate. The result is a State religion that stifles all individual values, that is to say all values’ (pp.15 & 16).

For Weil, bureaucrats, like [crony] capitalists, can become parasitic. They receive benefits by causing damage. The three main areas Bureaucrats operate in are ‘Trade Union bureaucracy, Industrial bureaucracy and State bureaucracy’ (p.16). The working-class only exist as pawns, even in the ‘hands of trade unions’ (p.26). The worker and the poor are putty in the hands of the revolutionists, who utilise the hope that revolution inspires, unaware that ‘fanning revolt to white heat, can serve the cause of fascist demagogy’ (p.21).

This last point then leads into her much larger criticism and separation of Karl Marx from Marxism, which is something I don’t have room here to delve into. Very briefly, Simone applies Marx’s critique of power structures, including Marxism, stating:

‘All power is unstable, there is never power, but only a race for power – the quest to outdo rivals and the quest to maintain’ (p.64). This is the black hole of greed, the ‘aimless merry-go round’ (p.65) which the lust for power drags humanity into.

Weil concludes that all monopolies (centralised power) to be a leading cause of oppression. This might surprise some, but her conclusion aligns with capitalist economists such as Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell and Hayek. All of whom, see and saw, monopoly and big government as a being a restriction on the free market.  There are of courses differences between them on this, however, the object of their concern is the same. For the latter group, monopolies are oppressive to the free market, for Weil monopolies are oppressive to people. Despite this difference, they are essentially saying the same thing because economics is about people. There is no free market without people, who are free to operate responsibly within it.

My only point of real disagreement with Weil in regards to this subject is her position on Nazism and Socialism. For Wiel Nazism was not socialism, and attempts to bring National Socialism into the Marxist framework are ‘vain’ (p.7).

This is contrary to the well defended conclusions of F.A Hayek, George Reisman, Jacques Ellul, Roger Scruton, and Richard Wurmbrand. All of whom present National Socialism and Communist Socialism as branches of Marxism.

Simone seems to have her own definition of what Socialism and National Socialism are.

‘The orientation of the Hitlerite masses, though violently anti-capitalist, is by no means socialist, any more so than the demagogic propaganda of the leaders; for the object is to place the national economy, not in the hands of the producers grouped into democratic organizations, but in the hands of the State apparatus.’ (p.7)

On these points, genuine capitalists would agree that the economy should be in the hands of producers grouped into democratic organizations.  Genuine capitalists understand that capitalism without compassion is not capitalism. Greed strangles the life out of the free market. This is one of the reasons, why, in the West, Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ remains the number one film of all time.

Not because people long for a socialist revolution, but because they understand that a market weighed down by monopolies, big government and big business is not free. It is instead chained to the aimless merry-go round of big bureaucracy where the bureaucratic caste do what they can to outdo each other and maintain power.

Oppression & Liberty’ was a surprise. It wasn’t something I planned on reading, but am thankful I had the chance to. Simone’s work isn’t easy to read. ‘Oppression & Liberty’ sometimes comes across as lofty and too complex, which is very much a reflection of her schooling in French intellectual circles. That, however, doesn’t subtract from Simone’s sincerity or the insights that this compilation of fragments and essays offers.


References:

Weil, S. 1955 Oppression & Liberty, 1958, 2001 Routledge Classics NY

Pol Pot was a Marxist, schooled in France; part of the French communists such as Sartre et.al.

As I noted in a quote  from Simone Weil on Facebook the other day:

“Marxism is a fully-fledged religion, in the impurest sense of the word. In particular it shares in common with all inferior forms of the religious life the fact of having been continually used, according to Marx’s perfectly accurate expression, as an opium of the people.” (Simone Weil, Oppression & Liberty p.165)

Weil was a fan of Marx, but chose to leave Marxism behind.

In the particular fragment the above quote comes from, Simone’s conclusions pull up alongside Roger Scruton’s in ‘Fools, Frauds & Firebrands (2015)’, and Jacques Ellul’ in ‘Jesus & Marx (1988)’.

I would also add in here F.A. Hayek’s ‘Road to Serfdom‘ (1944), Richard Wurmbrand’s, ‘Marx & Satan (1976)’, Albert Camus’, ‘The Rebel‘ (1951) and for good measure, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s, ‘Sovereignty: God, State, & Self‘ (2008).

In an article called, A dark century’s blackest cloud, from November 2004, The Economist gives a decent summary of what an ideological allegiance made to Marxism demands, and the tragic consequences that follow it. The piece brilliantly summarises the pain caused by Pol Pot to the people of Cambodia. (If I could, I’d quote the whole thing).

“…it was the pseudoscientific certainty of Marxism-Leninism, that malformed child of the Enlightenment, which was chiefly to blame.
…All Cambodians were to become workers on the land. There were to be no wages. Meals were to be provided by collective kitchens (“unity of feeding”). Each Cambodian had to refer to himself or herself as “we”, forbidden to use the first person singular. When one region found it did not have enough food, supplies were not sent from better-off places; rather, the hungry were marched off to look for them.
Of course, it did not work. Up to 1m people died of starvation.”  (The Economist, 2004)

Marxism can be defined very simply as this:

Rich people manipulating not-so-rich people, into eliminating rich people, that rich people don’t like.


Further relevant reading on the snares of Marxism:

The N.Y. Times: Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. But in the last three years its economy has collapsed.

BBC News:  Venezuela protests: Man set alight as death toll rises

The Washington Post: It’s official: Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship

In criticising Marx’s Utopian communist dream, Simone Weil also provided an exemplary commentary on the final part of the movie Wall-E. The crux of which is found here:

“We have only to bear in mind the weakness of human nature to understand that an existence from which the very notion of work had pretty well disappeared would be delivered over to the play of the passions and perhaps to madness; there is no self-mastery without discipline, and there is no other source of discipline for man than the effort demanded in overcoming external obstacles.
A nation of idlers might well amuse itself by giving itself obstacles to overcome, exercise itself in the sciences, in the arts, in games; but the efforts that are the result of pure whim do not form for a man a means of controlling his own whims. It is the obstacles we encounter and that have to be overcome which give us the opportunity for self-conquest.”
(The Causes of Liberty & Social Oppression, 1934:80) [i]

Weil is critiquing Karl Marx’s ideal society. Oppression and exploitation, as understood by Marx, can only be eliminated when we have eliminated the curse of work. This is an either-or fallacy and Weil rightly takes it to task. Even if the worker owns the means of production, instead of being the means by which production happens, the worker is left with having to overcome his or her own vices, such as sloth.

Creativity requires work. Tending to gardens in order to enjoy them requires work. Adam, for example, was given the task of tending and keeping the garden before the fall (Genesis 2:15). This was one of God’s first commands to humans. Work becomes cursed once Adam and Eve fall out with God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:19, 23). Something that were explicitly told not to do.

Despite this, God graciously works to clothe them, and in what could be described as discipline, moves to protect humanity from further destruction, by closing the Garden off to humanity. Eden’s gates are shut and guarded by angel and flaming sword (Genesis 3:24).

The result is that work is redefined by sin. It’s no longer something done in partnership with God. Work becomes what it was never intended to be, cursed, because humanity took it upon themselves to become the source of morality, good and evil.

Every dictator this side of Eden’s gates stands as the master, determining right and wrong, good and evil, to be whatever he or she dictates. The transcendent word of God, made imminent to us by His revelation, is replaced by the word of man and the word of woman.

Weil’s criticism doesn’t specifically mention Genesis like this, but the sentiment is shared. Work cannot be eradicated, it can only be reformed. It can only be redeemed. Work that begins in God’s work on our behalf. Just like the clothes made for Adam and Eve to replace their own meagre work (Genesis 3:7).

This is because the absence of work, which is said to set the worker free, only ends up enslaving the worker. Likewise the absence in our own work is flawed, if the God who lovingly summons us through His own work is ejected or forgotten. The worker is subjected to an ‘unconditional surrender to caprice’ [ii].

According to Weil, there is no way to avoid work, no way of eliminating it without also eliminating ourselves. Therefore, work, in the quest to fight oppression and exploitation of the worker, has to be redefined, reformed, then validated, it cannot be eradicated.

True liberty, writes Weil, is not ‘defined by a relationship between desire & its satisfaction, but by a relationship between thought & action.’ [iii]. Life requires work. Progress requires effort and a reliable foundation, not a mechanised overlord, or a machine that replaces human thought. I see a lot of room in Weil’s thought here for Dallas Willard’s mighty theme, ‘grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort’ (The Great Omission, 2006).

Weil writes:

“Bureaucratic machines almost reach the point of taking the place of leaders. Thus, in all spheres, thought, the prerogative of the individual, is subordinated to vast mechanisms which crystallize collective life, and that is so to such an extent that we have almost lost the notion of what real thought is.”
(1934. p.104) [iv]

My translation:

“If we have machines to tell us what to think, who needs to learn how to think? ‘Ah, just google it’ or ‘I don’t need to be interested in government, if I leave them be, they’ll leave me be. Each to their own.”

Weil’s words match perfectly with the story-line of Wall-E. When the time comes for humanity to return to earth after a long period of waiting, the machines designed to keep humanity safe, become humanity’s prison wardens. They know what’s best. When evidence is presented that earth is now liveable again, the machine seeks to destroy it. The only thing in its way is a lowly earth robot called Wall-E, who, while still a machine, has human-like consciousness. Unwittingly he finds himself in a struggle for human freedom.

Wall-E is a good illustration for the soulless mechanisation that Simone Weil was criticising. On board the ship, humans have gradually become obese, having nothing to do, but be served by their machines. All work has been eradicated. The worker is free, only to find themselves held captive under the dominion of their own creation. Even the Captain is moved around in a chair. All he really does is fill a role to assuage appearances that says to everybody on board that a human is still in charge.

Another example comes from the band Styx. ‘Mr. Roboto’,  lifts Weil’s concerns straight up from the page they were written on:

“The problem’s plain to see, too much technology.
Machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize”
(Dennis DeYoung, 1983)

Simone Weil isn’t advocating a troglodyte existence. Her criticism is about our dependence on technology; a dangerously indifferent and slothful dependence which ultimately works against humanity.  As Weil wrote, ‘the picture of a completely oppressive social life is where every individual is subject to the operation of a blind mechanism.’ (p.94) [v] This is already happening when it comes to who we rely on for information, morality, ethics, and how we approach education.

To be so convinced that true reality (or freedom) is existence without the One who birthed that existence, is to give in to an arrogance which rejects God’s grace, and chains humanity to the Dark agenda of total extinction.


 References:

[i] Weil, S. 1934 The Causes of Liberty & Social Oppression in Oppression & Liberty, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1958.

[ii] ibid, p.80

[iii] ibid, p.81

[iv] ibid, p.104

[v] ibid, p.94

Image: Simone Weil, date unknown sourced 9th December 2017, from brainpickings.org