Tyrants

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.

More.


 

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


and especially:

“The Danes do it better”

There’s a lot of noise in Chris Maisano’s long critique of Lane Kenworthy‘s work, but in his key claim he’s on the nose and pithy to boot, calling out Kenworthy for adopting the “Danes do it better” argument.

Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona, has followed the popular “Ted Talk” strategy for academic notoriety: make a controversial claim about a well-known subject in easy-to-understand terms. Kenworthy’s particular brand, which appears to be paying off, is “America’s future is social democratic.”

The core of Maisano’s critique is that Kenworthy gets it right right on policy, wrong on politics. He has no quarter with the normative content of Kenworthy’s policy proposals, but serious doubts about their value as prophecy:

Like a good empirical social scientist, Kenworthy assumes that politics is fundamentally a rational, evidence-based pursuit and that good policy will eventually win out over bad politics. But his appeal to reason and evidence is almost touching considering how patently deranged U.S. political culture can be, particularly when it comes to questions of welfare and social spending. The rhetoric of reaction that Kenworthy dismisses as a gradually weakening obstacle to reform will not be defeated by the force of evidence-based, reasoned argumentation alone.

As a social theorist, I of course have great sympathy for Kenworthy’s entreaty to Consider the Evidence. But pleading does not make it so and evidence doesn’t make policy. Changes happen only after the issues reflected in that evidence have been prioritized over others, and translated into practice through political action.

The great majority of people, if they were to look at the evidence, might conclude that the Danes are better off than Americans. A social democratic United States, however, would require that political institutions and constituencies be organized in a way allows those opinions to be translated into policy change. This is a point that is too often missed by liberals, legal scholars, and policy wonks. Part of the problem may lie, too, in fictional depictions of politics (we might also call it the “West Wing” problem). When it comes to illustrating the politics of political change, it turns out that the Danes really do do it better.

Wolves in Women's Clothing

Not a word here about using trans imagery as the symbolic palette humiliationIn a (damning, though fair) review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book painting conservative ideology as united only by the revanchist urge to maintain rule (and a slightly less controversial text from a grinning TV posterboy of the American left, Chris Hayes), Andrew Seal argues that placing affect/feeling of individuals at the centre of their analysis—as he claims both authors do—means consistently mistaking hegemony for hierarchy, missing the forest for the trees, and forgetting that, if there is a ruling class, that it then needs to be addressed as a class.

It’s a mesmerizing, superb piece of writing, more than enough to scare me away me from either of his sources. Invoking Tony Soprano and Jay Gatsby, he writes that “Robin’s vocabulary of feudalism…rhymes with preconceptions not yet articulated except as myths.”

Yet, in focusing away from affect and shining the spotlight instead on an amorphous “class interest,” Seal might be cutting off too much. It may well be that the maintenance of power structures results from instincts more complex than the monarchical pretensions of individual autocrats (an idea I give some credit), but to ignore instinct, affect and feeling entirely in favour Seal’s call to conceptualize “how the group acts” risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Every time another layer of the Koch brothers’ global empire of misdirection, astro-turfing and white-washing is unpeeled, each new insight into the revolutionary plot hatched at Mont Pellerin to enthrone market-friendly ideas, each time money flows from powerful hands into the palms of key US decision-makers, it becomes easier to imagine power in the form of a cabal or a clan, as a clandestine conspiracy united not only in interest but in strategy to maintain their lordship over the suffering plebes.

Of course tracing and tracking these strategies matters, and responding to them needs to be a part of everyday politics. Yet, it’s also important to pay attention to the way in which feelings, and especially in-group feeling, play a part in perpetuating power structures. A recent piece by Sam Polk, a lapsed Wall Street insider, does something similar, and it’s gotten a fair bit of attention. Polk treats the industry’s pathology in terms of addiction. Most interesting about the piece, however, is not the soulless drive for ever more money and power (it’s always odd to me that people are surprised by capitalists acting, as Marx predicted, “as capital personified”), but with the picture he paints of industry politics. It’s true that the industry hates both financial regulation, and taxes on the rich, but when Polk put the systemic advisability of certain measures in question, the response from his boss was that he didn’t “have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

It’s not that the US financial class is uninterested in politics, but many of them nonetheless have an unsophisticated view of politics, backed up by fear and selfishness, not a desire to rule per se.

All this provides proper context for a recent exposé in New York Magazine detailing the hazing rituals of Kappa Beta Phi, an exclusive club for powerful Wall Street types.  What is most striking about this soirée for billionaires (and those making due with only hundreds of millions) is not simply the fact of their gathering, but how much closer their hijinx come to the crude embarrassments of a freshman fraternity rush than a secret meeting of the Illuminati. It’s a wonder, reading the KBP piece next to a recent investigation into real college fraternities, that more Wall Street types aren’t falling off things to their death.

It’s easy to look at the incredible power that has been accumulated by Wall Street over the last 30 years and assume that its ascendance was by design, that it could only have resulted from a clandestine, concerted scheme. It’s doubly so, given that much of the still-powerful neoliberal orthodoxy is not only the brainchild of an intellectual revolution, but the result of a concerted political project. Fine. But strategy to respond has to take into account as well, how much “the smartest guys in the room” are far from it, and how much the structures of power are self-reinforcing, with or without concerted efforts by anyone. If there’s one thing Wolf of Wall Street can help make clear, it’s that.

Dr. Pepper is hurting America

One could call a recent episode, in which the employees at a Mott’s factory in upstate New York’s Williamson face a $1.50 an hour pay cut combined with other benefits reductions just another day in the continued American slide toward inequality. Yet as noted by New York Times writer Steve Greenhouse, the strike is interesting because the concessions are being demanded at at time when the parent company, The Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, is showing healthy profits.

As noted by Leo Casey over at Dissent Magazine’s blog, there’s nothing new about the race to the bottom which has undermined middle class incomes over the past 40 years. Wages for the bottom 90% of the American workers have stagnated for the last 30 years, at the expense of the wages of the top 10%. That’s 20 years of growth for which all of the benefits have flowed to society’s richest.

There is no reasonable argument that this is fair – data shows that the change can’t be attributed to growing gaps in educational attainment.

Besides fairness, however, there is growing understanding, backed up by evidence and theory, that inequality is a large part of what caused the financial crisis.  Former chief economist at the IMF Simon Johnson lays out arguments to that effect from Robert Reich and Raghuram Rajan, no economic slouches themselves. While admitting the long term fiscal problems faced by the United States, Johnson points out that the immeditate causes of the fiscal crunch was paying for the financial crisis – one facilitated by 30 years of growing inequality.

Johnson’s argument is about the implications of this understanding for US fiscal policy, but it also provides a useful perspective on the Mott’s strike. A recent book from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (you can read a defence against their critics here) has demonstrated the almost unbelievable numer of ways in which equality improves the lives of whole societies (that is, not just the poor); the work of Johnson, Rajan and Reich simply adds another reason to realize that the US has far from crossed the line from reasonable into irresponsible.

Some public advocacy groups have taken a hard tack on inequality, yet public awareness on the causes of inequality have as of yet gained much less traction, and policy responses seem focused on tax measures alone. It is all well and good to focus on individuals and their earnings, but ultimately distribution is a result as much, if not more, of the regulation of the market as it is of post-income readjustment. The Mott’s strike demonstrates just one of the myriad ways in which corporations – empowered and informed by legal rules and government policies – are allowed to increase their share of the total economic pie. It is this wealth which has increasingly found its way into the hands of America’s richest.

If Americans want to do something about inequality – and the crisis has shown that we all have a stake in America rebalancing its economic pie – then they have to do more than raise taxes on the beneficiaries of corporate largesse. They have to go after the largesse itself, with policies which ensure a fairer distribution between business and workers in their common enterprise. That requires a political strategy which focuses not only on the individual workers, but on the larger economic ramifications of short-term corporate policies.

It requires progressives not only to stand in solidarity with the striking workers, but to point out to American independents, fiscal conservatives, and anyone willing to listen, that is not only a matter of Mott’s shortchanging handful of workers. These policies, and those like it, have implications for American social outcomes, global financial stability and the nation’s fiscal health.

So even if it has the ring of comedy, we have to start pointing out the greater truth of the matter, much as John Stewart did when he called out the hosts of CrossFire: it’s not that the demand in Williamson for concessions are bad. It’s more than that.

Dr. Pepper is hurting America.

I suppose that’s a profession I would like to be a part of…

Even if it is not immediately recognized as such, Law, as it is idealized by the new law student, is the philosophy of state power. Not in the explanatory sense of political science, but quite literally the philosophy which the state itself cleaves to in the exercise of that power. The idealistic among these students will join the ranks of the profession in the hopes that they might take part in contributing to this philosophy their own prejudices, fantasies and ires. But no matter how beneficial the edifice of the law or how lofty one’s principles, a tenuous bargain is involved in entering the walls of law’s empire, and it is one which should not be accepted lightly.
One is of course aware of the role of the professor to, as it were, continually attempt to expose the tears in the wall between the philosophy of the state and philosophy proper, that is, the human philosophy of everyday life. But so too is it the job of the law student. And, if one is fearless in their thinking; if one can escape from the work-a-day practices of the profession which result, if without conspiracy, at distracting from this question; if one is willing to risk, which is not to say sacrifice, the comfort and security of professional certainty and relative class privilege, then so too can this be the role of the working lawyer. The job of the law professor, then, is not just to expose the breach. It is to put the pick in the hands of the profession itself.

Dear Professor Johnson

I hope that you won’t mind too dreadfully me searching for your contact information online beyond the bounds of the forum where I found this piece to which I have a quick response. The thing is, one thing that is often missed by Zizek’s critics is that he makes otherwise difficult theory lucid, which is at least in part why he is so adored by undergraduates; that he also makes otherwise lucid theory difficult is perhaps why he is less appreciated in other circles. As someone on the left who believes that changing the world also requires really seeing it, the thrill in reading his work is that seldom do I find myself disagreeing with what seem to be quite astute characterizations of numerous situations (Berlusconi as clown, Paris riots checking the connection, financial crisis as yet indeterminate). Yet, overall, I share some anxiety that someone whose orientation toward Stalinism seems so…hazy, is more dangerous than he is worth. Bravo for taking his work seriously enough to critique it. I’ve signed up for the Dissent blog just for a chance to read your ongoing posts on the matter. But I have a question; hence the email.

At the core of your most recent post, you quote, from Did Somebody say Totalitarianism? an excerpt which ends with the following:

“So what if one is accused of being “anti-democratic,” “totalitarian…“.

I recently framed an essay, after laying out a troubling picture of the relationship currently existing between reporters and politicians, with a similar, apparently glib “so what?” Yet my intention was not to dismiss the problem out of hand, but (while obviously being a bit provocative) to suggest that solutions to the problem lay in better understanding the nature of our anxiety. That is, I intended that the question be read in the register not of ‘we should not be worried about it’ but in the register of ‘what exactly is it, as a matter of principle, that we are worried about?’ Your latest piece depends on an interpretation in the former register, and I am not sure it provides enough evidence to justify that interpretation. Can you say more about why you think that Zizek is being glib? Does his argument in the book, following this quote, support your reading?

This is especially important, given that there is evidence that this wasn’t his intention. First, he doesn’t say ‘so what if we return to totalitarianism'; he says “so what if one is accused of being anti-democratic and totalitarian.” Neither the accusation, nor even a personal orientation, would necessarily imply endorsement of a totalitarian politics. The second, though you have dismissed it out of hand, is the use of ‘inverted commas’ which suggest that it is only “democracy” as defined under liberal democratic coordinates ( an orientation to question of democracy you clearly don’t endorse) not democracy in the ideal, which he is attempting to muddle.

There is further support for this more generous reading; one could look outside the book to sources in which Zizek has unequivocally criticized the authoritarian tyranny of Socialist Bloc policies: here in his review of The Lives of Others (in which he suggests that western leftists could be easily be misled by the film about how bad the system was) and here (a video, in which he says at 2:25 “Let me make one point extremely clearly. I think that the Communism of the 20th century – more specifically, all the network of phenomena we refer to as Stalinsim, are maybe the worst, ideological, political, ethical, social (and so on) catastrophe in the history of humanity.”) But it is perhaps fair to respond to such outside sources with an observation that Zizek is wont to hedge his bets.

I would have put these remarks in the comments, but that doesn’t seem to be possible on the Dissent website.

Looking forward to your next critique, and if you find time, some further thoughts on this specific example.