“Elective Affinities” and Intellectual History.

by Robin Marie

I’ve been following the debate over Corey Robin’s recent article on Hayek’s Nietzschean-like vision of  gross Politick fairly closely the past few weeks. Fortunately, people far more familiar with the intricacies of Hayek’s thought have carried on that end of the debate quite extensively, and as a consequence, I’ve learned a lot about the Austrians. (I was already very familiar with Nietzsche, with whom I have a sort of sordid, complicated past.) So since I’m a relative novice when it comes to the particularities of economic theory, I have nothing to contribute to that particular discussion. Another issue raised by the debate, however, has been romping around in my mind quite a lot, especially since it bears very directly on a question I ask and answer in my dissertation.

That is the concept of “elective affinities,” and in particular, the debate over whether Robin’s argument makes such a tenuous connection as to not be any connection at all. To be quite frank, I am really confused by the confusion over this concept. While I think perhaps a more helpful phrase than “elective affinity,” could be devised, the idea itself is actually remarkably straightforward and, furthermore, hardly trivial at all. Now, perhaps I am in fact misunderstanding what Robin, and others who think there is value in the idea of elective affinities, are arguing, which is partially why I am writing this post – to make sure I am not confused. So here is my attempt at explaining the concept, in a perhaps dumbed down, but as clear as I can make it manner:

Let’s say person X – let’s call him Balfour, just for fun – has a certain idea. Now let’s say, person Y – we’ll call him Romo – has another idea. Now, imagine that Balfour and Romo lived in different times, and came from different places – but not wildly different times (within the same century) or wildly different places (they were raised on the same continent, perhaps). Although Balfour and Romo never knew one another, or paid much attention to the other, they nonetheless grew up in broadly the same culture and faced broadly the same problems particular to that culture. And they both proposed answers to those problems.

Their answers are not identical. In some respects, they even seem to be in direct conflict. Yet, there is something about some of the fundamentals of their answers which are weirdly similar. In certain ways – perhaps some of the most important ways – they seem to be on the same wavelength. Therefore, the suggestion is that we can learn more about each if we put them into a kind of artificial conversation together – since they are struggling with broadly the same problems and coming up with some strikingly similar answers in many regards, then, perhaps, we can use them to help explain each other.

So this is the first dynamic, and value, of elective affinities. Now, I mean absolutely no snark at all in asking this – but is this not half of what intellectual historians do? Surely we are not in the business of merely mapping out networks of who read whose work, or who studied under this person three degrees removed from this other person, and so on, right? Surely, we look at how people, when confronted with the problems of their time, developed answers by swimming around in the water surrounding them and then creatively trying to construct a response, no? And when we examine parallels between these responses, we are trying to learn more about that shared swimming water, and the water we tread in today as well, right? (And just hope no one was peeing in the pool!…) That people would not find this to be valuable puzzles me exceedingly, and makes me wonder if somehow, I’ve come under a misguided understanding of how we study the history of ideas.

But there is also a second value to looking at elective affinities. Because then, time passes. A following around Balfour and his ideas forms, and a following around Romo and his ideas also forms. These two groups of believers are not identical – and yet, they often overlap in a certain striking manner. In particular, there seems to be a type of affection between those who adhere to either one or the other which has a predictive value – often, if someone says something nice about Balfour, you can make a calculated guess that they will also nod approvingly of Romo, or at least enjoy citing his most delicious observations (or strike-out stats) from time to time. Perhaps, the two groups will claim they are not that similar at all, yet when push comes to shove will form political coalitions with each other to pursue the joint goals they do, in fact, agree on.

What this tells you, in turn, is that there are some deep underlying currents that both the ideas of Balfour and the ideas of Romo are propelling, and despite many differences – some considerable, others perhaps more trivial than they seem – there’s something going on here. Perhaps, Balfour and Romo adherents are not merely attracted to the ideas of their particular heroes, but are also – perhaps more fundamentally? – attracted to some more broadly shared historical response to a set of historical problems. By looking at where the followers of these two ideas converge, in other words, we can learn more about what is really driving them both.

That, it seems to me, is the basic idea. Or maybe there is much more, something much more controversial? Or, I got it wrong somehow? Again, I’m genuinely asking, and would like to be corrected if I have misunderstood. It does seem to me that on the second point – about libertarians being fans of Nietzsche – Robin has a harder case to make, empirically speaking. I’m not going to dive into that particular whirlpool, at the moment. (Yes, I’m going to continue with the water metaphors; why not?) But I will say that I was very surprised to find out that libertarians find this connection offensive. Libertarians do not like Nietzsche? Have they ever read Nietzsche? Now, I love Friedrich as much as the next person, in the way that you love your poor, brilliant ex-boyfriend who, although he says a lot of cruel and ridiculous nonsense, you will nonetheless always feel a certain affection for. And I’m perfectly aware of how complicated and prone to various interpretations his ideas are, and how it is a mistake indeed to equate them – and in particular his idea of the ubermensch with some caricatured wet dream of Ayn Rand’s. But I also think leftist thinkers have a tendency to explain away some pretty ugly stuff – at the least, very dubious stuff – in Nietzsche’s work that we can hardly blame many people for interpreting in ways we find distasteful. Based on my knowledge of Nietzsche, and the majority of my encounters with libertarians and their ideas, I would have thought they would savor a connection to the man who argued that egalitarian values would be the death of all inspiring culture. Of course, no one likes to be called elitist, even when they are elitist – not in this day and age, at least. But plenty of people have taken up that theme, and I’ve digressed.

For I’ve a more important fish to fry in this debate (Wait, are there fish in the pool? Apparently.), and that concerns a line of argument I pursue in my own work. Now first, I have to quickly familiarize you with my dissertation and one of its central arguments. My research focuses on social scientific work on poverty from, for the most part, the turn of the 1960s up until the start of the 1970s. In particular, I explore how ideas about poverty – its causes and potential cures – impacted the approach and legislation of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty. Central to this story is the old familiar figure of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and his creative repackaging of various ideas about poverty and race that culminated in the masterpiece that is known as the Moynihan report. In my dissertation, I argue that whatever Moynihan’s personal intentions – and by that, I merely mean the conscious ones – his ideas, rather than serving to galvanize the federal government or the American people to do something about black poverty (which is what Moynihan thought he was trying to do) were usually very attractive to, and helpful for, people advocating precisely the opposite. Fast forward a decade or two from the publication of the Moynihan report, and we have New Right pundits and intellectuals citing the report to promote their agenda of destroying the welfare state and leaving the black poor to their fate.[1]

My dissertation stops in the early 1970s, but considering that I live in this country and do not attempt to eliminate all political knowledge and experience from my life, I’m well aware of what the legacy of Moynihan’s report has been. These days, Moynihan’s report is beloved by liberals and conservatives alike; but the conservatives, especially, adore it. Just the other week, in fact, Moynihan was brought up on this much talked about discussion on Fox News about why the rise of female breadwinners is destroying America.[2] Now, liberal defenders of Moynihan often claim that such conservatives have appropriated and twisted Moynihan’s report and put it to partisan uses that distort what the report was really about – yet often, these same liberals do not seem to mind when, say, their work is praised by the National Review, and even are happy to accept a blurb from the heirs of William Buckley (and one talking about the wise realization of the limitations of government!, at that) and allow it to be placed on the back of the paperback editions of their books. (That’s right James Patterson, I’m looking at you.) I go into much greater detail about how we see these affinities between the liberal social science on poverty and the New Right reaction against the welfare state in my dissertation, and I argue that this cannot be explained away as a misunderstanding or appropriation of the ideas of post-war liberals, but in fact, a fulfillment of them. But all of that can be explained in the much more simple, straightforward formula below, which alludes in particular to the dynamic in my research I’ve just described:

If you come up with an idea, that, consistently, is beloved by assholes, and connected to horrible policies which those assholes consistently pursue, then the chances are good that it is a very bad idea connected to very pernicious things and that you, too, might be an asshole — unless you make a special effort to disassociate yourself with all said assholes; that is, an effort sincere and substantial enough to bring an end to their admiration of you. 

Which is only to say that the vogue in liberal circles to make apologies on Moynihan’s behalf are deeply misguided – something, again, I explore in more detail in the dissertation and will probably do so again here – and so is the attempt to take ideas which, historically, have been put primarily to very bad use, and try to squeeze out the virtue we are sure must be hiding, somewhere!, deep inside them. And of course, there is a larger argument here about history itself, and intellectual history, in particular, which seems to be this – do not get too distracted by what people claim their ideas are about. You must understand what they believe them to be about, of course, as a necessary starting point – but my personal bias is to give more weight to how those ideas actually end up getting used. Moreover, be especially skeptical of the “experts” (ie, fan club members) of these thinkers who respond to any critique they do not like with the claim that you simply do not understand their hero. (You don’t know him the way I know him!) I am aware I have now wandered into problems of historical method and ontology that are so deep, not even another water metaphor can save me. So, I’m going to stop – but I promise to return to this exact question, probably several times over. Because perhaps more than any other problem, it has been on my mind – for years now.


From the back cover of my edition of James Patterson’s book on the Moynihan report.


I will soon be writing a post on what I mean, exactly, by “assholes,” and why I think this is a fair and indeed, even helpful word to use in political and historical discourse. If anyone is troubled over my suggestion that we can consider Moynihan an asshole, I’ll just say this for now – he’s a rather lovable one, and the whole idea of what it means to be an asshole needs to be broadened and, in a sense, democratized, anyhow.


This morning, before I posted this, I ran across this post over at We Are Respectable Negroes, which addresses exactly the problem I wrestled with in my dissertation and am, to no small degree, still wrestling with now. DeVega expresses a common lament – can we not savor what legitimate insight there might be in a concept of “a culture of poverty” without falling into a blame-the-victim discourse? My very short answer, which I very much imagine I’ll be elaborating on sometime soon, is that while I agree it would be awesome if we could do this, liberals and yes, even the left have been trying to do so for decades now, and it has not been working out. So if we’re going to talk about a culture of poverty, we better find a radically different way of doing so, because so far, we’ve been unable to free the idea from all its uglier implications.

[1] I’ve written about this online more extensively in broad outlines over at my adviser’s blog.

[2] The Moynihan mention is overshadowed by all the other crazy going down, but wait for it…wait for it….there it is!, at 2:34, Doug Schoen brings up Moynihan and his wisdom; he’s such a big fan, apparently, he wrote a book about him.