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.

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:

What we think they should want

TH_Alienation Effect_Brecht glasses

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 the Canadian state as “cultural genocide.” I am reminded of Brecht’s poem, “The Solution”:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Also awful, however, is how much pleasure I take in this quote. Not because I agree with it at all, no. Rather, one of the virtues (if it can be called a virtue) that I have cultivated as I gradually come to identify myself as an academic, is this affection for pieces of evidence that provide the perfect example of some process or dynamic or force, even if that process is the name of what is going wrong with the world. Such pristine, self-contained cases. It is hard not to be drawn in by the sense of the universal in the particular (especially when, as here, it is about universalizing one kind of particular, and annihilating another).


Cezanne_HarlequinI am participating in a reading group on neoliberalism, or perhaps on “what we talk about when talk about when we talk about neoliberalism.”

Here is Hayek, within two contiguous pages (50-51) of his most-famous work, The Road to Serfdom:

  • “The intellectual history of the last sixty or eighty years is indeed a perfect illustration of the truth that in social evolution nothing is inevitable but thinking makes it so.
  • “Far from being appropriate only to comparatively simple conditions, it is the very complexity of the division of labour under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such co-ordination can be adequately brought about.”

One begins to understand, in reading the neoliberal canon, just what Strauss and his gang were on about when they suggested, given the low likelihood that authors of Hayek’s intelligence might accidentally contradict themselves so starkly, that the only reasonable reading is one that receives such glaring errors as a demand to read between the lines in a search for what the author might really mean.

The unthinkable alternative, of course, would be that Hayek was a fool, and one whose thinking has somehow come to seem inevitable.

The Rub

Ev11_45_12---Ballot-Box_weben if you hope that the Scots choose (choose!) to stay with England and Wales and Northern Ireland (and the Cornish :D), this piece by Irvine Welsh is an essential expression of what’s thrilling about the Scottish vote, which is that it represents a vindication of something true and real and powerful about the democratic principle. If the Scots choose to stay, it feels as if ‘politics’ will go back to process, to back and forth, to the channeling of imagination through a frame that, no matter how real the consequences, can’t help from being weighed down by its similarity to American idol. I don’t think that the Scots need to leave to feed this more expansive, imaginative, open idea of what democracy can be. But being given the opportunity to think more openly about how to organize society–aye, there’s the rub.

Democracy for Everyone!

Good news, everyone: finance is getting more democratic, because technology.

You know how democracy works, right? It means that a service that was previously only sold to some people gets sold to everyone now. It used to be that only finance dudes got to have finance, but now everyone does. Hooray! Let’s watch a video of democracy happening.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah: today’s breathlessness about the democratizing potential of financial institutions comes from Mohammed Al-Erian, who, as “Chair of Barack Obama’s Global Development Council,” apparently has a job whose sole requirement is an uncriticial embrace of the Silicon Valley doctrine of social policy, i.e. the best way to deal with the social problems caused by deterministic technological change and inevitable laissez-faire economic governance is just let them keep happening.

He assures us that this creeping expansion of financial logic into all areas of our lives isn’t just democratic, it’s also disruptive. I mean, what could be more disruptive than just letting faceless, inevitable social processes (“innovations suddenly appear…mechanisms emerge… business models face challenges”) proceed without any attempt to manage their social consequences at all?

Tackling these claims to disruption, democratic potential and to brand-new, never before-seen processes can get pretty tiring. Jill Lepore at The New Yorker has done a pretty devestating take-down of the disruption discourse, attacking head-on the idea that economic change proceeds in big leaps rather than incremental steps. Peter Frase at Jacobin points out that those most committed to “disruption” get cold feet when the disruptions aren’t derived from a tech-enabled business model. Evgeny Morozov has made his career skewering those with a growing religious faith that “more tech means everything is better for everyone” and, if he can be accused of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, part of the reason is that there is just so, so much dirty bathwater.

There are lots of reasons to be happy about increased access to certain financial services. Bringing down the prices of life insurance and small business loans could put them within the reach of people who didn’t otherwise have access to them. That could make their lives better. Al-Erian may be right that technological change will “reduce the cost of financial intermediation while providing for fairer risk-pooling outcomes and better credit underwriting.”

But here’s the thing: cell phones are now within the reach of almost everyone, and it hasn’t made society more democratic. Buzzfeed may have displaced community newspapers, but I can’t see how that makes things more democratic. The last 40 years of financial innovation brought us near-unprecedented levels of wealth inequality and the largest economic crisis since the 1930s. Why would anyone believe that the next 40 years of financial innovation are going to automatically create a utopia of equal democratic citizenship? How can Al-Erian keep using this word “empowerment”  to describe things like kickstarter, Kiva and bitcoin? It’s inconceivable.

The End of Capitalists

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200Now, I am not sure I totally agree with his reading of the politics, for reasons I’ve tried to spell out elsewhere. But JW Mason does a good job of making a point that has occasionally come up with since the economic crisis drove down interest rates, namely i. that there is no reason to think that real interest rates should be above zero, and ii. when real interests rates are very low, capitalists (qua money owners) have no real function:

Under capitalism, the elite are those who own (or control) money. Their function is, in a broad sense, to provide liquidity. To the extent that pure money-holders facilitate production, it is because money serves as a coordination mechanism, bridging gaps — over time and especially with unknown or untrusted counterparties — that would otherwise prevent cooperation from taking place. [1] In a world where liquidity is abundant, this coordination function is evidently obsolete and can no longer be a source of authority or material rewards.

Back in 2007, Cory Doctorow wrote a short story whose basic conceit was a future in which capital–liquid capital–had truly become obsolete, especially relative to the available human ingenuity, inventiveness and the capacity to make stuff (sigh: yes, yes, i.e. human capital). Low interest rates is one way to make that world happen.

Its easy for egalitarian leftists to get excited about this prospect. Real interest rates that stay consistently below (even very low) economic growth rates would mean the refutation of Piketty‘s grim prophecies. The idea of monocled, top-hatted plutocrats getting crushed under the wheels of history offers the schadenfreude of class enemies losing, with the added zest of partially confirming certain strains of Marxist historicism, in form if not in function.

The defeat of the capitalists, however, doesn’t mean permanent victory for humanity (or the working class, or the multitude, or whatever your favourite representative of eschatological emancipation happens to be). There’s no reason to believe, in a world of low returns on cash, that there won’t be political efforts to hoard the relatively scarce resources that were the source of wealth in Doctorow’s world – education, skills, networks, the preternatural ability to interact with robots. If the last 5000 years are any indication, there are likely to be intellectual movements to justify limited access to the new sources of wealth, as well.

The end of capitalists may mean the end of capitalism as we know it, but it won’t be the end of politics.