Whats Water.Andrew Sullivan is well known as the Catholic Republican who, because of his personal experiences, took on causes that were unpopular with other conservatives and thereby made himself somewhat of a cause celebre among American progressives. He deserves praise for the courage of standing against his tribe on principle, and he’s also a great writer. Nonetheless, I am always wary of his arguments, as they often derive from old-school, small-c conservative commitments to fundamental human fallibility, the resulting necessity of centralized authority and hierarchy, and a suspicion of anything too new. I think in his recent and widely-shared piece on the meaning of Donald Trump, this conservative reading of his sources has gotten the better of him.

The picture of America Sullivan draws has little to do with democracy as we know it (and reads selectively from Plato, to boot). At best, it describes the cultural commitments of an increasingly narrow slice of liberal middle class America; at worst, only the nightmarish fantasies of its opponents. What is America actually suffering from? The bottom half of earners are doing worse now than in the mid 1970. Black people are worse off than they were back then, too, and are incarcerated at 4-5 times more than they used to be. Wages are stagnant, the distribution of wealth is unthinkably uneven and those who were responsible for the financial calamity that led to dispossession and despair were never held to account–“no banker went to jail” as they say.

If their diagnoses differ, it is clear that Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, along with the supporters of both Bernie and Trump, have been inspired by a deep sense of injustice about the distribution of power and wealth in American society. And in that sense of injustice, they are right.

To describe America’s problem as a surfeit of democracy is thus to bend the meaning of the word to its breaking point. The influence of money on American politics, both before and after Citizens United, has corrupted the ideal (and here I steal from Larry Lessig) of a republic for, by and of the people. The centrality of wealth to the American political system, given the massive inequality of wealth, renders the system a loose oligarchy. The problem is not, per Sullivan, the democratic licentiousness of the populace. The problem is in the democratic deficit of the political sphere.

You might say that money doesn’t matter, because the candidates who win aren’t the ones who get the most money. This ignores the question of what the field of candidates would look like, and what sorts of policies they would be promoting, if the whole process wasn’t awash in cash. Congress spends 2/3 of its time fundraising. Water doesn’t determine which fish will win in a race, but it’s still pretty important to the outcome.

Sullivan’s version of America’s problem requires him to recount a just-so-story about the rise of Trump that is neither credible in structure nor a good fit to the actual history. If his reading of Plato is right, then after the elites have been toppled, his story goes, a dictator arises by exploiting antipathy and distrust of the elites. But if the elites have been toppled, where is the political benefit in challenging them? Is it not a more believable hypothesis, given the evidence, that Americans are raging against elite corruption because there has in fact been a centralization of power, and a disproportionate allocation of benefits, to a narrow few? Beyond whether his parable makes sense on its face, there is the problem that he can fit Plato’s narrative about the slide from democracy to tyranny to the American case only by imagining that political systems somehow develop according to some evolutionary logic of ideal types. And that means letting the actual political actors off the hook.

As many have argued, Trump’s ascendance is hardly without precursors in the American political discourse. Trump is the harvest of what the Republican party has sowed: exploitation of racial difference for political gain? a disdain for any principle that stands in the way of electoral advantage? a willingness to sacrifice substance for rhetorical splash? Has Sullivan not heard of Karl Rove? But the Democractic party doesn’t get off scot-free, either. As well-documented by this excellent historical review in nplusone, Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1990s was rooted in his party’s turn away from labour, the middle class and the poor, expressed most clearly in the party’s simultaneous deification of free trade and its denial of trade’s distributive costs. Economists like to make great hay of the overall gains that can be made from open trade, and depending on where you are standing, the big numbers do go up slightly. But the size of those numbers don’t do much for Flint, Michigan. For the last twenty-five years, the Democratic party as much as the Republican has been perfectly willing to embrace a policy that enriches the country at the expense of the working class, while blaming the working class for their resulting unemployment and penury, and actually making life harder for those who find themselves out of work.

Trump is certainly wrong to place the blame for any of this on China, Mexico, the Muslims. And in his diagnosis of America’s ills, in his prescriptions to overcome them and in his campaign methods, he’s not only wrong, but dangerous. But his popularity lies not only in the novelty of his scapegoating, but in being one of two candidates in this election who has refused to look at the struggle of America’s popular classes, and place the blame back on them.

America’s problem isn’t that there is too much democracy, but that there is too little. And the rise of Bernie Sanders, Occupy–even the Tea Party–suggests that Americans may be ready to re-balance the ledger. We don’t need Plato’s cynicism to see that clearly.


Foucault sweater polo

Rod Macdonald was a brilliant mind, a warm, often generous mentor, and a charming man. One of the things he taught me is that, when you are smart, well-educated, charming in your own way—and, I suppose, if we are to be honest with our typology, when you are a man—avoiding hagiography, and by the same lights, preventing admiration from turning into discipleship, required finding ways to keep people at a distance, ways to compensate for the charm.

It seems to me that Foucault’s strategy was the same as Rod’s: if you want to ensure that the enfant terrible is not appointed under protest as leader of a movement, one can simply be childish. If you want people to take your seriously, but not too seriously, act like a brat. Viz (translation in hover text):

Je voudrais que mes livres soient une sorte de tool-box dans lequel les autres puissent aller fouiller pour y trouver un outil avec lequel ils pourraient faire ce que bon leur semble, dans leur domaine. L’ Histoire de la folie, je l’ai écrite un peu à l’aveuglette, dans une sorte de lyrisme dû à des expériences personnelles. Je suis attaché à ce livre, bien sûr, parce que je l’ai écrit, mais aussi parce qu’il a servi de tool-box à des personnes différentes les unes des autres, comme les psychiatres de l’antipsychiatrie britannique, comme Szasz aux États-Unis, comme les sociologues en France : ils l’ont fouillé, ont trouvé un chapitre, une forme d’analyse, quelque chose qui leur a servi ultérieurement.

Les Mots et les Choses, au fond, est un livre qui est beaucoup lu, mais peu compris. Il s’adressait aux historiens des sciences et aux scientifiques, c’était un livre pour deux mille personnes. Il a été lu par beaucoup plus de gens, tant pis. Mais, à certains scientifiques, comme Jacob, le biologiste prix Nobel, il a servi. Jacob a écrit La Logique du vivant; il y avait des chapitres sur l ‘histoire de la biologie, sur le fonctionnement du discours biologique, sur la pratique biologique, et il m’a dit qu’il s’est servi de mon livre. Le petit volume que je voudrais écrire sur les systèmes disciplinaires, j’aimerais qu’il puisse servir à un éducateur, à un gardien, à un magistrat, à un objecteur de conscience. Je n’écris pas pour un public, j’écris pour des utilisateurs, non pas pour des lecteurs.

This short quotation, of course, provides a delicious example of his strategy (“Il a été lu par beaucoup plus de gens, tant pis”–what an asshole! what a brat!), while demonstrating, if one takes its key thrust about how he hoped his work on discipline and governance might be put to use and holds it up to the light of most the literature that subsequently drew on his work, just how unsuccessful that strategy was.

Neoliberalism in One Image

Now, the interesting question is whether those lines will keep falling, and what might rise in their place.



Update: For those who don’t know about google ngram. And for a more enlightening case study:

and especially:

Rule Thyself/Read Together

One of the unexplored concepts for a themed blog or tumblr or twitter account or…—anyway, a concept which lays fallow for reasons that will quickly be made clear—would have a title something like “read together.”

To explain: the upsides of being in my location in a global division of labour that nominally assigns me the task of reading books and articles, and writing down my thoughts about what I have said cannot be overstated. […More] ‘ Rule Thyself ‘

What we think they should want

I am informed by a colleague that in 1963, Arthur Laing, then Canada’s minister responsible for Indian policy, asserted that, “The prime condition in the progress of the Indian people … must be the development by themselves of a desire for the goals which we think they should want.”

Which we think they should want.

This is of course awful, an expression of the sentiment that makes it fair to describe the policy of […More] ‘ What we think they should want ‘


Why so little attention in conversations about neoliberalism to where this is all happening? What about land and territory? As in, when it came to the VW emissions scandal, what planet exactly did these high-level executives think they were going to move to?

Your point about the role of space and place in neoliberalism is spot on. What is fascinating about the reading I’ve been doing about financial imaginaries, and their slow diffusion into […More] ‘ Annihilation ‘

Don't ask your female students to babysit

If you supervise a graduate student, or a student doing an honours thesis, the offer to do some research assistance for you can be an attractive proposition. If your student is lucky, he or she may actually get to do research in this research assistant job, for which he or she will get almost vanishingly small credit but through which, at least, he or she may actually learn things that are valuable to their development […More] ‘ Don’t ask your female students to babysit for you ‘