"Without the ultrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible; for the vision of a just society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those who do not regard it as impossible."--Reinhold Niebuhr
Metaxis We are in-between beings whether we like it or not. We become substantive to the degree that we hold our opposite tendencies, especially the spirit vs. matter tension, in balance and to integrate them.
The Reasons for My Concern Comprehensive background statement that explains the historical cultural framework that informs the posts I put up on this blog.
How Liberalism Got Its Bad Name How the sixties put Liberals in an impossible situation, and were blamed for chickens come home to roost that were hatched from eggs laid in the 1870s.
Latent Authoritarians Talks about the role of the principle of susidiarity in combating the top-downism of the right and the left.
Believing What we believe shapes how we live, whether our beliefs are superficial or profound. Whatever narrative we ultimately choose opens up certain possibilities and closes off others; it shapes what we can see and what we are blind to.
The Hypertropied Eye Modernity and its eye centeredness created the conditions for the possibility of individualism and critical reflection, but it also led to the gradual disenchantment of the world which became reified.
Dying Traditions Living traditions survive in the U.S. only so long as they can resist acculturation into the larger modern American milieu. The economic pressures working to break down such subcultures are terrific.
I first posted this McLuhanesque lecture by Leonard Shlain in 2010. I think it's worth another look because of the way it treats themes discussed this week. Lecture starts around 2:30 minute mark. He doesn't use the term 'disembedded', but that's what he's talking about. Great images.
I've posted this one before, too, but if you haven't seen it, it's worth watching and supplements Shlain in an interesting way. It runs about twelve minutes.
Protestantism is the expression of faith that resulted from changes in consciousness effected by the spread of literacy after Gutenberg. Catholicism is the expression of a faith shaped by a consciousness formed in traditions and customs that have its roots in oral culture. A literate consciousness is one that hears the Word while reading alone. An oral culture hears the Word when it is read aloud and heard in the assembly in the context of a sacramental ritual--the mass--which became meaningless hocus pocus for the modern Protestant sensibility. I'm not talking here about the difference in doctrine between Catholics and Protestants, but about a very fundamental difference in the way each experiences and encounters the Word.
A spoken-word culture shapes minds that easily swim in the world of symbol and mythopoesis. The premodern ear-centered imagination is a far richer than the literal literate mind of moderns. Things change very dramatically when a culture tips toward literacy from orality. It's the difference between whether the ear or the eye is the main organ for processing information that comes to us from the world outside our minds. And this shift from orality to literate consciousness is central in understanding what caused the shift from medieval to modern consciousness. This is Marshall McLuhan's basic thesis, and it's an important one to understand if we're to grasp the significance of what is happening to us at this moment as once again consciousness is being changed by our continuous exposure to electronic media.
There are so many things that can be said about this, but the most important for my purposes here is the way these processes require the hypertrophied eye. Did you ever think that what we mean by doing science is essentially thinking only about what we can see and that the scientific revolution was founded on the development of instruments like the telescope and later the microscope that helped us to see more, and that knowing eventually became equated with seeing. In contrast, knowing in a textless world came from what people heard, from the poets and storytellers, which meant that human 'knowing' by people not less intelligent than us was more metaphorical and analogical. The experience of knowing was different because it was done in very different mode of consciousness than the one we now take for granted as universal.
In the scientific age, the age of seeing, everything that was invisible was thought to be unreal—or merely a matter of subjective opinion. But the effect of this new habit of thought was to render a whole dimension of reality as unreal subjective fantasy even though for preliterates this dimension of reality was as objective as the chair upon which I’m sitting. In other words the invisible dimension of reality was pushed into unconsciousness, and as the mind individuated during the modern era, we came to understand the “unconscious” as a personal, subjective realm rather than as a transpersonal collective one. The "unconscious" means for almost everyone today our individualized personal reservoir from which arise personal thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, and we project back our own experience into the minds of the primitive preliterates as having thoughts, feelings, and fantasies the way we have them. Therefore, moderns think, the mythologies they created are the same thing as moderns writing science fiction--a species of imaginative speculation.
But what has become unconscious for us was conscious, or semi-conscious, for them. They lived in a world that was permeated by the gods. The gods were not in here locked in our individual unconscious minds, but out there animating a world shimmering with their presence. We have just come to think that the poor benighted fools were projecting intrapsychic unconscious content onto the blank screen that was the world around them. They weren't. This is simply the prejudice of a shriveled kind of mind that knows only with its eyes and brain.
Nature, for moderns, became the realm of "common sense,” but it has never been other than a cognitive consensus based on sharing in the heritage of alphabetic literacy. The world became “Newtonized” as mystics like William Blake lamented. The scientific process cast aside traditional lore and authority as steeped in superstition and the irrational, and substituted a new understanding of objectivity which required the freezing of reality by making most of it irrational, i.e., opaque to reason, except its physical husk. The world literate moderns came to live in is more like one of those awkward looking exhibits at local Natural History Museum than the living, buzzing, spiritually animated and soulful world of preliterates. And it is this experience of the world that is at the heart of our allienation and of our longing for something more.
Our cognitive capacities to understand more deeply come from listening and speaking. “Out of the depths I cry out unto you, O Lord.” What depths is the Psalmist speaking of? Music and the spoken word correctly heard engender feeling states that are the precondition for deeper modes of cognition. Music is very important here, and the trivialization of music is linked to our loss of a sense of the sacred and of the "moods" or "modes" of consciousness needed for extraordinary cognitive states. And so insofar as our acoustic sense has atrophied, so has our capacity for cognitive depth. What passes for deep thinking is just complex thinking, which comes from complex seeing, analytical seeing, decontextualized seeing, abstract seeing.
So I would argue, then, that Marshall McLuhan was one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the 20th Century. For him understanding the shift from orality to literacy was central to his understanding about how the modern mind is programmed, and his ideas about how the mind is being even now reprogrammed by electronic media is a major driver that is bringing us into a post-modern, post-literate world.
This is really the meaning behind McLuhan's idea of how society is becoming tribal. He didn't mean by this Balkanized or fragmented; 'tribal' was a positive word for him, and he didn't mean it as a regressive movement. He meant it as a way of describing a social connectedness that was lost during the modern era. The point bears repeating: post-literate doesn't mean a regression to preliterate, as it is commonly supposed. But reading and the eye will no longer remain virtually the exclusive means through which we obtain and process information. The goal is to return to a broader, more balanced cognitive capacity that will allow for a more ready acceptance of objective realities that are “unseen.”
McLuhan's point is that the human being in becoming literate paid a price by throwing off what had been a more balanced ratio among the senses. The hypertrophied visual man lives in a kind of estrangement from the world around him in a way that was not the experience of the preliterate, acoustic man. Modernity and its eye centeredness created the conditions for the possibility of individualism and critical reflection, but it also led to the gradual disenchantment of the world which became reified, Hamlet's sterile promontory, a thing over against which we become aware of our own subjectivity, but which in itself lost its numinous character. Yes, we developed a capacity to see with our physical eyes more accurately—but we see only the surfaces of things, and as a result our ability to cognize a richer kind of multidimensional reality has severely atrophied.
Electronic media is changing us profoundly, but these changes are gradual just as the shift from oral to literate did not change humans very quickly. Literates until recently lived in a world in which most people were still illiterate, and the oral world still flourished in the rural areas, and the oral culture preserved there was an endless source of material and inspiration for the literate artists of the last two or three centuries. But as literacy has become almost universal and along with that the rural world withers as it technologizes, another way has to be found to break out of the literate straitjacket so many have come to assume is the sole basis for our civilized life.
I feel very ambivalently about technolgoical civilization, because it's not at all clear that the changes that come are an unambiguous good. So the question here, as elsewhere, is who's in the driver's seat--the serpent or the dove? (Matt 10.16) If it's the serpent, we're likely to evolve into a race of cyborgs. But if the dove is driving or at least influences the direction evolution will be taking in the future, something else is possible.
And so if there is one point I hope I’ve made so far it's that being literate is not the goal of the evolution of consciousness; it’s just a stage. And whatever anxiety we may understandably feel about the unknown terrain to be navigated ahead, we need to trust that we will have the resources to find our way. These technologies cannot be feared, they must be mastered and used for transformative purposes. And the one rudimentary resource we have to achieve that now at this point is conscience--Protestantism's bequeathal to the future, which is the way the serpent part of us searches out and listens for the prompting of the dove part.
From a piece worth reading in its entirety in Salon article today:
Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For Shelley, great art had the potential to make a new world through the depth of its vision and the properties of its creation. Today, Shelley would be laughed out of the room. Lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview. Indeed, cynicism saturates popular culture, and it has afflicted contemporary art by way of postmodernism and irony. Perhaps no recent figure dealt with this problem more explicitly than David Foster Wallace. One of his central artistic projects remains a vital question for artists today: How does art progress from irony and cynicism to something sincere and redeeming?
Or put another way: Why did the avante-garde lead to nowhere?
I'm working on an essay tentatively titled "1848" in which I try to understand (think out loud about) the impact of what I called in a recent post the Flood and what Eric Hobsbawm calls the "dual revolutions"--i.e., the French and Industrial Revolutions--on European and by extension world culture. It's also an attempt to explore further a question I address in my essay "Metaxis": Why did Romanticism die?
Why did its intoxicating spiritual aspirations, aspirations that dominated the cultural elite of the first half of the 19th century, from Schiller and Beethoven to Shelly and Wordsworth, become something about which the cultural elite of subsequent generations could only talk about ironically? Why did their imagination of the world lose and a soul-shriveling bourgeois materialism win? Why was the last great Romantic, Friederich Nietzsche, the first great postmodernist in the nihilist key? Why did David Foster Wallace, an achingly honest, good man, commit suicide? Why will his Bizarro doppelganger, Don Draper, probably do the same? What options, what life possibilities are open to talented, imaginative men and women such as these?
An afterthought: Later in the article the authors talk about the spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" as pointing to the antidote:
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary explains the seeming contradiction between the grief of the refrain and the promise of the closing exaltation.
"And you sort of say, sure, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Sure, there is slavery. Sure, there is lynching, segregation. But, Glory Hallelujah. Now, the Glory Hallelujah is the fact that there is a humanity and a spirit nobody can kill."
One can hear that abiding spirit in the voice of Sam Cooke in his pop adaptation of the song, and in renditions by others like Louis Armstrong and Marian Anderson. Cornel West elaborates on the contradiction between the refrain and rejoinder.
"Glory Hallelujah is a tragicomic moment. Going to struggle anyway. Cut against the grain anyway. Never view oneself as a spectator but always a participant. Never view oneself as somehow outside the struggle but always meshed in it."
Both West and Wallace call for participation over spectatorship. We must move toward the Glory Hallelujah, toward the possibility of something greater. The best art can inspire us and push us closer.
Watch Fellini's "Nights with Cabiria" with this in mind. I just saw it for the first time over the weekend. Its last scene is a perfect example of what the writers are pointing to. It was one of the most deeply moving moments I've experienced from a film in a long time. Cabiria's look into the camera breaks the fourth wall in a way that breaks your heart most unironically. But then Fellini is a great Romantic.
"Even though he slay me, yet will I trust him," says Job--and says the Negro spiritual singer. False consciousness? Or one that has made a discovery?
I'm finding that I have less and less in common with most Catholics I know--particularly the ones in the mangagement class--because they have become so Protestantized. By that I mean, to stereotype somewhat, overly literal, overly moralistic, and lacking anything that remotely resembles a sacramental sensibility. So when I talk about Catholic or Protestant, I'm not talking about denominational affiliation so much as I'm talking about a question of cultural style, a sensibility, or a way of imagining the world. There are Catholic Protestants and Protestant Catholics. I feel closer to the first group. Although certainly Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air.
The classic Protestant style is to think of God as so utterly transcendent and of the yawning gulf that separates him from humans, who are unworthy and irretrievably depraved beings incapable of anything good. The Catholic style is more sanguine. It understands that we live in a fallen world, but understands it as wounded, not destroyed. And it understands that we humans are in our deepest depths good because we carry within us the image of God, broken but capable of being healed, and that grace is the necessary healing balm. For Catholics there has always been this sense of the fundamental goodness of creation, even if it is not what it could be or was meant to be.
And I think that Catholics are more sanguine because for them grace is more readily available, that it's more small 'c' catholic in its ubiquity, that we all of us humans are swimming in it, and that all we need to do is drink it in. For Protestants grace comes through a narrower gate, in the classical moment of conversion and choosing his salvation, and then that's pretty much it. Either it happens or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, well that's a sign that you're not one of the presdestined elect. After conversion, it's mostly a question of living a moralistic, stiffly upright life, which more often than not lacks any real joie de vivre. I think those conversion moments are real and important, but I don't think they are the only way. And these moments are like seeds that need to be sustained, nurtured, and grown to maturity.
And that's for me where the mass comes in, because in one's understanding of it lies another key diference between the Protestant and Catholic sensibilities. If you think this is just a memorial service, you're a Protestant, regardless of your denominational affiliation. (I read somewhere recently that somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of practicing Catholics believe this. Don't quote me on the number, but it was a big one.) But if you think it's the reenactment of the mystery of Good Friday, then you're a Catholic.
All of the other fine points of theological debate boil down to this fundamental difference. It starts with the idea that the mass is a reenactment of the sacrifice on the cross and everything that this implies. One of the Protestantizing effects on Catholic liturgical practice is now to call the altar the "table", commemorating the table of the Last Supper and also as an image of the banquet table to which all the lame and the poor and the outsiders are invited. I'm fine with that, but only so long as we don't lose the idea that there are two moments--the altar moment, then the table moment: first the sacrifice, then the banquet. If there is no altar moment, then there's nothing on the table worth eating.
The modern sensibility is offended by the idea of sacrifice, particularly bloody sacrifice. But if sacrifice isn't an essential part of what we understand is being reenacted in the mass, then quite frankly, who cares? I don't. It's a trivial exercise in nostalgia. The sacrificial part is key because it emphasizes a willing vulnerability on both sides. The willingness on the one side of a Being who, as the very antithesis of death and want, took death and want into himself, was penetrated to the core of his being by it, and was all but crushed by the weight of it.
On that side, the divine side, it begins on Christmas and ends on Golgotha. It begins with the kenosis, this willing emptying of himself of this superabundance of life and taking on the body of death, which in turn is emptied on the cross as we see the blood dripping from his wounds into the earth; it's a double emptying--the first spiritual in the incarnation, the second physical on Good Friday. Everything he has he has given away, and the final result is an interpenetration of the physical and the spiritual that we have not yet begun to fathom.
The Protestant imagination, it seems to me, stresses the continued separation of these two worlds rather than their having been conjoined by the events of Good Friday through Easter. While it's true that most Catholics think similarly, I think that the Catholic sacramental imagination permits the possibility of thinking of history since those events as a process that effects the gradual interpenetration of both worlds, the fallen and unfallen, and by it the gradual redemption of the former. And it leads to the possibility of someone like Teilhard de Chardin whose prfound sacramental sensibility led him to a magnificent, if preliminary, reframing of evolution in a spiritual key, and to see in it possibilities for the salvation, that is, the sacramentalizing of the earth.
The eucharist is in this sense a meeting place between two worlds, where a world defined by living, pleromatic superabundance breaks into a world defined by death, dearth, illness, and want. And for us on the human side of this transaction, vulnerability lies in the imitatio Christi, which is a kind reversal of the ur-sacrifice enacted on Good Friday. If during the mass Christ enacts the sacrifice of living into our death, we are given the opportunity to die into his life. We are, in other words, given a means to empty ourselves of death. Of course we'd much rather not do this, and since we are free not to, we find ways to distract ourselves. So rather than make the sacrifice required of us in order to live superabundantly, we choose to live small, safe lives circumscribed by inertia, habit, and fear.
If we were great souls, we would find a way to take the superabundance he offers us into us in one radical gesture of vulnerability. He would give it to us without stint. St. Francis had that greatness--and there are many other holy fools less well known who have had it as well. But since we are most of us not great and fear becoming fools, we are given instead the eucharist, which slowly, at a pace we can handle, feeds us this life, assuages our want, and in some, to the degree that they have found a way to be vulnerable to it, over time, find that this real life builds up enough in their souls to overflow into the lives of those around them so that then these around them are awakened to the possibility of living a life other than the death-soaked alienation that they take for the real world.
Catholics are for this reason incrementalists, and the danger for them is complacency. Protestants look for the one great moment of choice, and the danger is anxiety and despair if it is never made in some definitive way, or if after it is made nothing seems to change, and he slides into a joyless, boyscouty, bourgeois, heady moralism which is a species of alienation just as toxic as any other. For Catholics there is no one moment of choice; there is a lifetime of choices, and this choice is made, or should be, every time they go up to the altar/table to eat the bread and drink the wine, to take into themselves this fragment of superabundance, which like a hologram contains within it the whole thing, the whole of the real presence of the living Christ.
So for me the meaning of mass and receiving the eucharist, to the degree that I can bring any level of consciousness or intentionality to it, goes back to this old sacrificial idea of "giving up" in the sense of loosening my grip on the things that I cling to that prevent this huge thing from penetrating to my inmost core. For me the struggle is not with doubt that this superabundance is waiting there for its opportunity to flood my soul. The more significant struggle lies rather in my sense of shame for all the ways that I keep it at bay. But that shame is counterbalanced with a sense of trust that my persistence is chipping away at my resistance.
To most people these days the Protestant/Catholic rift seems irrelevant. As an institutional matter, I would agree. Who cares? The separations within the church are just another form of doctrinal tribalism and are silly. So I am not interested in arguing whose doctrines are closer to the truth, but rather in the development of a sensibility or a cultural style that integrates what's best from the 'spirit' of both traditions. The spirit of Protestantism emphasizes the individual conscience; the spirit of Catholicism, the goodness of creation and of our sacramental interdependence in the communion of saints. We need both.
As I get older I become more convinced that the basic spiritual cultural task is to find a way of reconciling opposites. This is the practical key to understanding the command to love one's enemies. So the reconciliation of the Catholic/Protestant polarity is the task for Christians of all denominations in the next century. It's the need to reconcile symbolists and iconclasts, mystics and intellectualists, antinomians and legalists, communitarians and individualists, universalists and sectarians, world affirimers and world deniers, immanentists and transcendentalists, sacramentalists and moralists. These are the things that separate us more than whether we are Calvinists or Catholics, eastern or western. We are, after all, one body; we are the Corpus Christi, and sooner or later we might actually look like him.
First this from Krugmnan'a NYRB review of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century:
But even those [economists] willing to discuss inequality generally focused on the gap between the poor or the working class and the merely well-off, not the truly rich—on college graduates whose wage gains outpaced those of less-educated workers, or on the comparative good fortune of the top fifth of the population compared with the bottom four fifths, not on the rapidly rising incomes of executives and bankers.
It therefore came as a revelation when Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, are actually the big story in rising inequality. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Gilded Age, which might have seemed like hyperbole, was nothing of the kind. . . .
The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.
A revelation? I'm glad we have economists who now have received it. That', I'm sure, will change everything.
But the newfound attention to income inequality isn’t just another facet of a more liberal, Keynesian economic worldview. The fund’s economists have been producing research that suggests that inequality could make the world economy less stable.
Ms. Lagarde echoes an I.M.F. staff paper issued in January, which suggested that policies recommended by the fund should also be judged for their impact on inequality. “Income inequality can be of macroeconomic concern for country authorities, and the fund should accordingly seek to understand the macroeconomic effects of inequality,” it says.
Jonathan D. Ostry, the I.M.F.’s deputy head of research, and Andrew Berg, another economist at the fund, published a study three years ago suggesting that inequality makes growth less durable: The average stretch of robust growth among relatively equitable industrial countries lasted more than 24 years. In Africa, a much more unequal place, the average was less than 14 years.
A flatter distribution of income, the study concluded, contributes more to sustainable economic growth than the quality of a country’s political institutions, its foreign debt and openness to trade, its foreign investment and whether its exchange rate is competitive.
I often wonder why anybody listens to economists. Their prestige far exceeds their usefulness. They exemplify the worst kind of rear-view mirror thinking. They are exceedingly conventional and reactive, and have little real insight to deliver that people don't already know from their knowledge of about history and human nature. There's this pretense that somehow it's scientific and objective, but it just isn't. Whenever you hear some economist spouting off, ask what his politics are. That will be a clearer indication of his thinking. Economics is not science; it's ideology.
Even Keynesianism was legitimated only as an ex post facto explanation for what happened in a kind of ad hoc experimental way in the U.S. during the 1930s and 40s. It was easily supplanted by voodoo economics and Laffer curvers when it seemed unable to explain the stagflation of the 1970s.
Economics as a discipline ought to be demoted to a subdiscipline within university history departments. Let them gather their statistics, but make them stay away from theories that have the patina of a-political or "scientific" authority. The idea of giving the Nobel prize to economists is more an indicator of elite conventional thinking than it is about any economist having real objective insight into the world as it really works. It's about as silly as giving the peace prize to Henry Kissinger or Barrack Obama.
So I post this about Piketty or the IMF not because it's startling news, but because it's an indicator of a shift within the precincts of elite thought. The establishment is worried about instability. Who'd of thought? Would that working and middle class folks in this country would give it more cause for worry. That's the only thing that will ever change their thinking further. It's the only thing that will create the conditions for the emergence of an economics that represents their interests rather than those of the One Percent. But let's not fool ourselves that it's anything more than a political ideology that seeks to bend theory to serve one set of interests rather than another.
Not clear what the criteria are to get to his goals, and who decides which candidates gets the thumbs up, but I'm for it until there's a reason I shouldn't be. A little quixotic, maybe, and I'm not given to the quixotic, but this is a walk I'd like to take--at least it gets people away from their screens and out of their heads. May not get immediate results, but it sends a message, and might even spark something surprising.
Good opening story about Intel. Where's there's enough of an outcry, there's a way--and the money will be found.
I've been a lifelong Democrat, but I'm getting close to quitting. I think the Clintons, Obamas, Emmanuels, and the whole New Democrat crowd have ruined the Democratic brand for years to come. It might be salvageable, and I've stayed in because it's possible to win fights within the local Democratic Party, but ultimately it comes down to money as it does everywhere else. And Dems are the establishment party locally, and that means that many of them can run as Neoliberals and get away with it, and the local LD clubs go along in supporting them, and it turns my stomach.
So in this morning's NYT I read this about the Vermont Progressive Party:
The Vermont Progressives have only eight seats in the State Legislature, but they played a decisive role in the 2010 gubernatorial election. They promised not to play spoiler if the Democratic candidate supported single-payer health care. “Shumlin was very clear on his stance, and it pulled him through a narrow primary — a lot of Progressives were volunteers on that — and then he narrowly won,” Chris Pearson, a Progressive state representative from Burlington, told me. “He kept his promise.”
What explains the success of the Progressive Party? Vermont is small, and “it was expected that I’d knock on every door in my district,” Mr. Pearson said. “Progressives are dedicated to that style of campaigning. It’s also affordable. You can run a House race for $5,000.”
Despite their urban origins in Burlington, the Progressives have won crucial support from rural, traditionally conservative parts of the state, where lifelong Republicans have responded to the same argument that the Populists once used: Without regulation and a public safety net, capitalism will grind the independent farmer into the ground.
Read on. This is the kind of thing I've been talking about. It has to start local by building consensus face to face as described here. More on this as I find out about how these guys got started.
I mean, ask yourself: who is more likely to call for the elevation of identity politics above all other kinds of political engagement, liberals or socialists? Liberals. Who has thrown their shoulder behind the gay rights movement with all of their fervor but demonstrated nothing resembling a similar commitment to economic justice? Liberals. Who’s more likely to accept the empty symbolic politics of the Obama administration, rather than calling for deeper change and a real alternative to American plutocracy? Liberals. Who identifies people as being “the right kind” through the kind of limp social signalling expressed through buzzwords, rather than based on deeper concerns about the fundamental social order? Liberals. Salon gives readers a never-ending parade of complaints about who used the wrong word when; Jacobin questions the basic power structures that make the oppression those words signal possible. The Nation wants people to say nice things about women and people of color; In These Times wants to reorganize our economic order so that it doesn’t matter if white men say nice things about women and people of color. I suspect Goldberg knows that.
I have lots of radical queer friends, socialists and anarchists, who are totally contemptuous of the kind of politics involved in #CancelColbert or the recent Mozilla CEO freakout. They are far more likely to complain about Brendan Eich’s salary and power than they are to complain about his boneheaded views on gay marriage. Nor are they likely to think that enshrining the ability of gay people to engage in bourgeois marriage contracts represents some sort of ultimate victory, in a world where stultifying social and economic norms are otherwise untouched. . . .
I am not, and have never been, an “it’s not about race” lefty. It’s most certainly about race, and sex. What I am is a lefty who thinks that the only way for permanent racial justice and equality between sexes and genders to be achieved is for people of color and women to have the economic and political strength necessary to secure their own best interests. . . .
Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teacher Union, an organization filled with women of color fighting daily for economic justice through street level activism and labor organizing, has less than 3,000 Twitter followers. Suey Park has almost 23,000. Yet Lewis does more for women of color in a day than Park has done in her whole life. If attention is the coin of the realm in a world of hashtag politics, then something is clearly wrong here.
Karen Lewis v. Rahm Emmanuel is like Katniss Everdeen v. President Snow. Identity politics is an entertainment for the good citizens of the Capitol. It is faux outrage as all emotion is faux emotion in the Capitol.
Stupid analogy? I don't think I'm nailing it, but it points to something and I'm trying to put my finger on it. In part it's about the level on which we should focus our struggle against injustice. But more than that it's about how identity poltics is ultimately a symptom of profound alienation, a dehumanized and dehumanizing alienation that is so well depicted as normative in the Hunger Games films. Identity politics is like wanting to be with the cool kids in middle school. Its outrages have more in common with the attitude of mean girls making fun of the girl who is wearing the dorky dress than it does with an attitude that wants to get to fundamental roots of what ails us. It's a symptom of the disease, not a path to its cure.
And yet my outrage about the fatuity of identity politics is about as impotent as the outrage felt by those I'm outraged by. So I just want to name it and move on. To do otherwise is to stay stuck in this loop that renders us impotent. How to break out of it--not just individually--lots of individuals are not caught in this loop--but how to do it collectively?
In brief, for classical liberalism, the human world consisted of self-contained individual atoms with certain built-in passions and drives, each seeking above all to maximize his satisfactons and minimze his dissatisfactions, equal in this to all others, and 'naturally' recognizing no limits or rights of interference with his urges. In other words, each man was 'naturally' possessed of life, liberty and the pursit of happiness, as the American Declaration of Independence put it, though the most logical liberal thinkers preferred not to put this in the language of 'natural rights'. In the course of pursuing this self-interest, each individual in this anarchy of equal competitors, found it advantageous or unavoidable to enter into certain relations with other individuals, and this complex of useful arrangements--which were often expressed in the frankly commercial terminology of 'contract'--constituted society and social or poltical groups. Of course such arrangements and associations implied some diminution of man's naturally unlimited liberty to do what he liked, one of the tasks of politics being to reduce such interference to the practicable minimum. . . . Social aims were therefore the arithmetical sum of individual aims. (Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, p. 235-36)
When seen in this stark description of its primitiveness, I don't think it's hard to understand why not only reactionaries have resisted the the spirit of the new age. Hobbes through Bentham and the whole tradition of classical economics and Neoliberal politics and political economy accepts this narrative or variations of it as the most accurate description of the human condition. From a Christian perspective it is a description of Hell, a nightmare world to be saved from.
While a good part of me is revolted by the spirit of Liberalism, there's another part of me that accepts it as the inevitable--a kind of Noah's flood to wash away the inequities and corruptions of an ancien regime that lived past its usefulness. It would have been nice if another way could have been found, but humans being who they are, that was never likely.
If modernity can be likened to a flood, we can acknowledge its cleansing and fertilizing 'utility', but it does not have within it the resources for constructing something new. That something new will arise--I am certain of it--but it will come from Logos bearers and people who carry seeds of things that grew before the flood worth preserving and cultivating in a brave new, no-longer-modern, that is, no-longer-flooded world. The flood waters have not quite receded, but when they do, it will be time for planting.
A threat Marx downplayed has accelerated the concentration of wealth among the very richest. As Michael Hudson has noted, Marx recognized the destructive potential of financial capitalism, but thought it was inconceivable that it would become dominant. He believed the industrialists would succeed in keeping the bankers in check. They have not.
As income disparity has widened enormously and class mobility has eroded, Marx's idea of class warfare seems particularly apt. But as long as there is a sufficiently large remnant of the American middle class, still socialized to identify with the established order, no matter how beleaguered they are, it's hard to see how any organized, large scale uprising could occur. (Source.)
I think this is right. Resistance in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution wasn't driven so much by people who were already desperate and immiserated--they were largely broken-spirited and complacent. Resistance was driven mainly by those who had something in the pre capitalist order to lose--the artisans, tradesman, home weavers and spinners. They saw rightly that the new industrial system was destroying what was for them a decent way of life.
Neoliberalism might be destroying the American middle class, but it's doing it slowly, and it's not been that disruptive of the older way of life. Not at least in a way that has come close to reaching a critical mass. And anyway, it doesn't feel like something new. If anything, as the Tea Party folks point out, I think rightly, it draws on a deeply entrenched American mythos and retrieves the spirit of classic 19th century liberalism and its self-reliance ethos. It's the familiarity and comfort so many people feel with it that makes it so hard to fight. It's what made America great, right?
People resist new things, not old, familiar things. The early 19th Century peasants and brigands in Italy fought against the liberal bourgeois republicans for King and Church despite their immiseration by the latter. In the old mythos, King and Pope were benevolent patrons who would succor them if only they could. (In fact there was more mercy in the old customary system than there would be in the new one ruled by a stark bourgeois utilitarianism, but they didn't know that yet.)
I think for Americans now, there's a similar attitude toward free-market capitalism. You stick with what you're used to, and central to the capitalist mythos is that opportunity and good fortune are there for everyone who works for it. I might be poor now, but with some hard work and a little luck, I don't have to be. And even if I fail, there's always hope for my kids. No matter how little factual support there is for this mythos, it feels right, it feels noble and morally sound, and in contrast abstract notions of fairness and equality seem like justifications for parasitism. That's not who we are.
It will take a generation or two before people lose faith in this mythos.
The Tea Party types insist they aren't racists because at the heart of their criticism of black and brown people is I think the correct perception that many black and brown people do not believe this mythos--they've lived with it for more than a generation or two. They see its reality more clearly and understand that the game is rigged, but that's beside the point for people who still believe in it. If you don't embrace the get-ahead, capitalist American mythos, you remain unassimilated and un-American. Enoch Powell made the same argument in the sixties as Britain was absorbing some of its decolonized masses--it's not about skin color, but about culture. These people do not understand our ways; they threaten to undermine everything that has made us great.
America as land of opportunity provides a very strong ethos frame that will resist facts to the contrary for a long time to come, and nothing changes until that frame gets crashed and another replaces it. I don't see that happening any time soon. In the meanwhile, it's interesting to note that important factions within this broad traditional ethos have always hated the banks and later Wall Street. Maybe that's the place to organize around.
I found this interesting description in a comment left in a TAC article by cka2nd talking about the ethos of the New Left:
For all of the criticism of far left “sects” and their follies, we represent a pretty small proportion of the U.S. Left. The majority of the left flies under the radar while its members:
a) Engage in short-term and largely ineffectual activism as performance or catharsis. b) Use organizational methods that have grown out of a mix of 70′s radical feminism and anarchism (consensus instead of majority rule, facilitation instead of chairmanship, “none of us are leaders, all of us are leaders” but look behind the curtain and you can readily identify the leadership clique). c) Delcare that every new reformist activist group is utterly new and unique, a never before seen protoype for a New New Left. d) Eventually go to work for NGO’s funded mainly by the elite and pursuing advocacy approved by the establishment. e) And finally, pimp for the Democratic Party.
I’ve worked in both mileaus and while the Old Left has many faults, the newer lefts could learn a lot from it, and not just what not to do.
Politics is at its root about power--about who has it and who doesn't. The Left ethos, insofar as it professes itself to be the party of equality, is not a political movement; it is a cultural sensibility. Its relationship to power derives mostly from its being a faction within the Democratic party that drafts behind those who have power, the wealthy Neoliberal elites, the freedom-for-the-wealthy-to-do-as-they-please faction. As such the cultural sensibility Left abets the foundational inequality problem rather than providing any hope for redressing power and wealth imbalances in this country.
Power draws upon two fundamental resources--money or people numbers. The tiny minority with money holds power over the majority because the majority remains divided along tribal lines. It's that simple. The wealthy minority with power understands this and exploits it by fanning the fires of tribal hostility. This is the rasion d'etre for FOX, but the Left tribalism of MSNBC is almost as bad.
There's a reason GE gives its lefty talking heads such a long leash. It doesn't matter what people say or think so long as it doesn't lead to organized action.
Beltway politics are dominated by passionate and often outrageous partisan rhetoric, which cannot quite conceal the fact that Congress has become a useless, paralytic institution that can’t get anything done. Power lies elsewhere, and remains inaccessible. In a similar fashion, angry wars of words between and among self-styled progressives on the Internet do not entirely camouflage the relative powerlessness of everyone involved. Getting into a comments-thread battle or a Twitter-lather about Colbert’s bad joke or Lena Dunham’s fashion-magazine shoot or whatever other outrage du jour conveys a temporary feeling of pseudo-power, much as watching MSNBC (or Fox News) crow about the idiocy of the other side is pseudo-participation in a pseudo-democracy.
I would even take this a step farther and argue that the symbolic politics of the Obama presidency — the same factors that drive right-wingers crazy — are exactly what liberals and progressives like about it. I mean, what other explanation is there? Here we have an administration conducting a worldwide drone war that has killed unknown numbers of innocents, managing an ultra-secretive surveillance state beyond Dick Cheney’s wildest dreams, paying lip service to the existential crisis of climate change while doing nothing about it, and protecting and nurturing exactly the same cabal of bankers who brought us to the brink of financial apocalypse in 2008. For a candidate who ran as the populist embodiment of hope and change to wield such unprecedented and shrouded executive power is an irony that should keep historians of the future busy, providing we have historians or a future. But he personally seems like a cultured, funny, sharp-dressed guy who has gay friends and watches “Game of Thrones,” and the semiotics of his White House are awesome. So it’s all good.
But let’s back away from that, to the position that the mean Republicans won’t let Obama do anything, and so the politics of semiotic awesomeness are the best we can get. That too is demonstrative of our dilemma. We can’t do anything about worsening inequality or the poisoned planet or the total defeat of the labor movement or the broken immigration system or the incarceration of young black men. Our country is too “divided,” we can’t make up our minds about anything. The power to change those things, supposedly vouchsafed to us in the Constitution, has migrated somewhere else. But we can drive Gilbert Gottfried off Twitter for being such an enormous asshole. Change we can believe in. (Source)
Politics as cultural sensibility: impotent outrage.
We've heard plenty about the "soft bigotry of low expectations." And Michael Gerson wasn't entirely wrong-- we have a history of all too often writing off students because of poverty or race or chaotic home life or not-so-brightness. Too often we really have held our most challenged students to no expectation at all.
But for the soft bigotry of low expectations, we have substituted the hard tyranny of ridiculous expectations. We have, for instance, substituted the expectation that every third grader will read at grade level no matter what. In some states (I'm looking at you, NY) we raised the standard for proficiency arbitrarily. And we have just generally pushed the idea that all students should be at grade level (as determined by anything from data averages to a politician's whim) all the time.
That seems like a swell expectation. It's not. It's stupid. Let's just apply that reasoning some more. Let's compute the average height for an eight-year-old and declare that all third graders must be that height. Let's require all children to be walking by their tenth month and potty trained by month thirteen. Let's require all seventeen-year-old males to be able to grow facial hair and all fifteen-year-old females to fill a B cup. And let's tell all young men and women that they must be engaged by age twenty-two.
Let's take every single human developmental milestone and set a point by which every human being must have achieved it. Because that is totally how human beings develop and learn and grow-- on exactly the same path, at exactly the same speed, at exactly the same time.
Deneen is one of a handful of cultural conservatives that understands that "liberalism" is first and foremost about how culture adapts to the market economy:
Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. He described a sea change of economic practice that took place especially beginning in the 19th-century, but whose theoretical groundwork had been laid already in the 17th- and 18th-centuries by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. “Ultimately that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”
Polanyi describes how the replacement of this economy [embedded in traditional communities] required concerted and often violent reshaping of the existing life-world, most often by elite economic and State actors disrupting and displacing traditional communities and practices. It also required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts, and with that move the “individuation” of people, but their acceptance that their labor and nature were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian terms. Yet market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as these “fictitious commodities,” as material for use in industrial processes, in order to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals separate from nature and each other. As Polanyi pithily described this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.” (Source)
While I almost always agree with Deneen and the others at TAC in their understanding about how we got here, I depart from them because I am resigned that what was lost is lost, and it's pointless to keep whining about it. And I differ from them because I embrace the welfare state when they do not, not because it repairs the damage done to embedded communities, not because it's some approximation of utopia, but because human decency demands that something be done to mitigate the damage wreaked by market capitalism, and no other means is capable.
I read somewhere, probably in TAC, that the one thing that all conservatives agree about is that something happenened in the past--a mistake was made--and now things are terribly wrong. They differ on how far back the mistake was made. For some it was the 1960s; in Deneen's case it traces back to mid to late 1600s and Hobbes and Locke. I wonder, though, if Deneen would agree with me that a mistake was made in 1979/80 when the Anglo-American world to the cheers of conservatives embraced Thatcher and Reagan. By his own argument Neoliberalism is Hobbes and Locke updated and repackaged, and surely he can see that it takes a bad situation and has made and continues to make it worse.
My argument in my overly long piece posted over the weekend is similar to the one Konczal is making here in this important, informative essay in The Atlantic. His point is that the development of the welfare state during the Progressive and New Deal eras was organic--that it was not the work of social engineers, but of pragmatists responding to the scale and complexity of life in a rapidly industrializing capitalist society.
If you have conservative friends who insist that progressives are social engineers who are destroying the fabric of traditional communities in a misguided utopian mission to create the good society, have them read this article. The Progressive left in this country did not destroy traditional society; for better and worse, capitalism and the industrial revolution did. Progressives are simply people who have sought practical ways to mitigate the suffering caused by its disruptions.
The Progressive tradition in this country is one that is pragmatic and realistically adapted to the economic and social realities people live. The conservative tradition in this country is populated largely by people living in a nostalgic fantasy about a time that, if it existed at all in America, existed before the Civil War. (Perhaps this mentality persists in the south, the rural midwest, and the mountain west because industrial capitalism was slower to come to those parts of the country. It's more complicated than that, but it's probably a factor.)
Nevertheless, insofar as these arguments are broadly accepted as justification for the dismantlement or privatization of the social safety net programs developed over the last hundred years by Progressives, we are indeed regressing to the situation the Progressives confronted starting around the 1880s. My argument in the Burke v. Paine piece is that Progressives are the more Burkean in their political approach, and that conservatives and Neoliberals are Tory reactionaries insofar as they are seeking to return the country to some impossible status quo ante of their imaginations. In doing so, they are forcing American society into unnecessary suffering that will simply require the development of solutions along the lines that we have already done.
There are basically two arguments offered by Libertarians and Neoliberals that justify the dismantlement of entitlements. The first is the one that Konczal destroys in this article--it's better to let private charities handle it than faceless government bureaucracies. The second is that we can't afford it, and all the freaking out about the national debt, Social Security, and Medicare.
Is there some merit to the freak out? Yes and no.
Yes, because the Bush administration irresponsibly ran the country into the ground by lowering taxes at the same time that he began an enormously expensive and unnecessary war, and introduced Medicare Part D without cost constraints (e.g., allowing importation of prescription drugs from Canada) and raising taxes. That's Republican fiscal conservatism for you.
Yes, because in the recent attempt to reform healthcare in the U.S., an attempt that was absurdly circumscribed by Neoliberal market ideology, we did little to nothing to address absurdly escalating costs in the healthcare system that people like Steven Brill have been exposing for their absurdity.
No, because there's a difference between saying we can't afford it and we don't want to pay for it. The money is there, but it's in the pockets of people who would rather spend it in buying politicians to make sure the poor and middle class get poorer than to support existing programs that mitigate their suffering or provide ways to deliver them from it.
The money is there, it's just a question of who gets to decide where it gets spent. That's a practical problem with a pragmantic solution, and that solution is impeded by, not driven by, ideologies divorced from reality.
In a review of Yuval Levn's bookThe Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, Burke biographer Jesse Norman writes:
But one might wonder if these categories can really be mapped onto the left and right of American politics today. After all, it was Ronald Reagan, icon of American conservatives, who in declaring his candidacy for the presidency in 1979 repeated Paine’s words that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” a sentiment that taken literally should be utterly repugnant to any Burkean. Indeed, one way to read America’s own political development is as a progression from the Burkean conservatism of the Founding—which, as Michael Barone has shown, preserved so much of the British legal and constitutional settlement of 1688—steadily forward to the modern populist embrace of Paine.
Indeed, the irony is that as the federal government has grown, so has the number of self-professed Burkeans of the left seeking to preserve the status quo; while it is the Paineans of the right who seek to begin all over again. Needless to say, this misreads both Burke and Paine; indeed it makes one despair for the future of Burkeans in American politics. . . .
I am familiar with Corey Robin's mission to demythologize Edmund Burke and to paint him as little more than an apologist for free markets and oligarchic entrenched interests. But free markets were progressive in the anti-Tory, anti-landed gentry/aristocrat sense in the 1790s, and I wonder if Burke would have had the same opinion of free markets had he lived to see what was happening in Lancashire by the 1830s. His younger soul mate de Toqueville was revolted by it. Nevertheless, without getting into arguments about who was the "real" Burke, I think we can talk about a Burkean temper of mind, and so a Burkean left and a Painean Left. As Norman points out, Burke was considered a man of the Left before 1789:
The French Revolution had been widely celebrated amongst intellectuals, radicals, and bien-pensants in Britain, and many people naturally assumed that Burke would join his protégé, the Whig leader Charles James Fox, in acclaiming it. It came as a profound shock for them to read not merely that he was bitterly opposed, but opposed in terms that combined soaring rhetoric with what was quickly recognized as a profound statement of political philosophy, including a devastating critique of revolution itself. As that critique came under fire—and the Reflections became a bestseller—Burke himself was denounced as a turncoat and traitor to the progressive cause. His reaction was to redouble his efforts, in a desperate bid to halt what he saw as the canker of Jacobinism from spreading to Britain.
To none was the shock of the Reflections greater than to Thomas Paine. He had made his name as the author of the revolutionary tract Common Sense in 1776, stiffening American popular resolve for war against the Crown. Returning to Britain, he stayed for several days in the summer of 1788 with Burke at the latter’s house near Beaconsfield. Now he saw that Burke’s book demanded a rapid and equally trenchant public response. The result was The Rights of Man, whose two parts were an even bigger popular success, if not quite as big as Paine claimed. There followed dozens of further pamphlets, as opinion divided over the issue, while the revolution in France descended—as Burke had predicted—into anarchy, terror, and war.
So before the French Revolution Burke was perceived as what might be anachronistically called a Progressive. Fox and Paine saw him as their ally and were shocked to learn that he opposed from the beginning what was happening in France. They thought that he was one of them, because on issues like slavery, the American Revolution, Ireland, and other issues he was with them, so why would he depart from them on this, the most fantastic eruption for human progress and liberaton from tyranny in the history of the world?
It is understandable from the perspective of 1789-1792 why honest thinkers alive then might embrace the Revolution in France--I'm sure I would have been among them. But can anyone on the left argue now in a post-1989 world that Burke was wrong and Paine and Fox were right? For clearly Burke was more prescient, and his fundamental insight explains also why the Jacobin principle of social change--to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch--while appealing to a certain kind of naive idealism--has proved itself over and over again to lead to even greater evils than those they were designed to eliminate.
The essence of the French Revolution and the others inspired by it is radical discontinuity with what preceded it. The American Revolution was about continuity, about being left alone to govern themselves as they were wont to do before the encroachment of a meddling monarch (and parliament) after the French and Indian War. But the spirit of discontinuity inspired by 1789 defined for the rest of the world what it meant to be progressive, and those who were uncomfortable with the assumption that progressive social change equated with radical discontinuity were forced into the opposition and branded reactionaries.
This is, I think, the key to understanding why the temper and spirit of American progressivism is different from progressive movements inspired by the spirit of 1789--it is more evolutionary and experimental, more about continuity than discontinuity, and at its heart it is resistant to meddlesome centralizers and technocrats, be they monarchical or revolutionary. All progressives embrace freedom and equality, but in American culture freedom is primary, equality secondary. For societies inspired by the the spirit of 1789, I'd argue that in most cases equality is primary, and freedom secondary.
For me the politics of a social social democracy is not about the dominance of one or the other, but it accepts that there is a dynamic tension between freedom and equality, and that continuous adjustments are necessary when there is too much freedom at the expense of equality or too much equality at the expense of freedom. Neither is absolute; both are defined in relation to the other. In America that means that progressives most often find themselves fighting to increase equality, because there is too little of it as the American temper is biased toward freedom.
Progressivism in the late 19th Century through the New Deal and Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and Gay Rights eras has been about fighting inequality. In the beginning it was about redressing inequalities in the economic sphere; toward the end it has been about redressing inequalities in the social sphere. And my argument here for some time has been that the American left's focus on social inequality has provided cover for economic elites to push for egregious inequalities in the economic sphere in the name of freedom.
So now we find ourselves back where we were in the early Progressive period. Elites in either party have little problem with the push for social equality, but they are very reluctant to embrace adjustments to inequality in the economic sphere. That's a much tougher adjustment, because it's one thing to fight against relatively powerless old white people who listen to FOX and quite another to fight Neoliberals in the think tanks and foundations, and on Wall Street. They are not powerless, and they pretty much own the Democratic Party.
And so another question arises, and that is whether, especially now in a post-1989 world, the spirit 1789 provides an adequate frame for progressives now, and whether it can provide an adequate counterbalance to the Neoliberalism that has has emerged triumphant since 1989. My argument here for years is that the secular spirit of 1789 was never was indigenous to American progressivism, even though since the sixties it has become the spirit of the cultural and political left in this country. And I would argue that Main Streeters who otherwise want progressive change reject alliances with the left precisely because it is not home grown. Americans are allergic to Jacobinism in all its forms. Jacobins might win temporary victories, but if progressive change is to be framed in a way that can be embraced by the broad American public, it has to be framed in terms more consonant with 1776 than 1789. There is a difference.
The American Revolution and the Glorious Revolution in Britain were Burkeish revolutions because they were about taking steps forward that were continuous with their pasts; the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions were Jacobin revolutions in that they emphasized discontinuity and the imposition of abstract social blueprints in ruthlessly top-down ways. It's the discontinuity that leads to anomic, social vacuums that too often lead to barbarism. Jacobin revolutions led to the Terror and to Napoleon's military dictatorship, to Stalin's purges and the holodomor in the Ukraine, to Mao's forced famine and his Cultural Revolution, and to Pol Pot's killing fields.
There are less dramatic examples, and I'd argue that technocracies everywhere run by earnest idealists, the best and the brightest, people who sincerely think they know better and have a plan to make it better. Such people are Jacobins in the temper of their minds. A toxic, elitist, puritanical paternalism shapes the Jacobin mind. Jacobins always think they are doing the right thing; they justify their atrocities because they were necessary to promote positive change, and they can do this because they have the temper of mind that characterized Tom Paine's--they see truth in a decontextualized, absolute, black and white way. Norman quotes Paine here:
Time with respect to principles is an eternal NOW … what have we to do with a thousand years? Our lifetime is a short portion of time, and if we find the wrong in existence as soon as we begin to live, that is the point of time at which it begins to us; and our right to resist it is the same as if it had never existed before.
Is it any wonder that such a way of thinking is embraced by intelligent people of good will in every generation since. But can you also see how this temper of mind leads to and justifies the paternalism of every technocrat from Robert McNamara to Arne Duncan and why both sincerely see themselves as progressives? Norman explains that
[Paine] is deaf to the rationality of existing arrangements and constantly prey to the idea that because humans ought to be able to decide on a given problem using abstract reason—itself an often rather questionable premise—they will do so. . . . He constantly calls for evidence, yet despises experience. His insistence on the power of reason becomes a recipe not for sober statesmanship, but for individual and generational arrogance.
It's such rationalistic, abstracted and arrogant thinking about social change that leads to hubristic policies that lead to the deaths of millions in Russia or China or tens of thousands in Iraq or to the destruction of a localist K-12 educational system whose foundations are sound. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out some time ago:
If modern conservatism can be held to derive from Burke, it is not just because he appealed to property owners in behalf of stability but also because he appealed to an everyday interest in the preservation of the ancestral and the immemorial. And the abolition of memory, as we have come to know in our own time, is an aspect of the totalitarian that spares neither right nor left. In the cult of "now," just as in the making of Reason into an idol, the writhings of nihilism are to be detected.
There is no eternal now in which what is right must be imposed. Historical context is everything. Societies evolve, and so there are moments in every society where crises arise and present opportunities to move forward in a progressive way. And very often these moments require top-down interventions. But an intervention is not the same thing as trying to reengineer an entire society. There is a kairos for such interventions--the pregnant moments in the development of any society when adjustments are necessary.
The 1780s were deeply kairotic for the development of American society, but the kairos then was not to abolish slavery. That moment came in the 1850s. The 1930s were a moment when there was a possibility for the development of social democracy in the US, and the 1970s, alas, a moment when Neoliberals saw their opportunity to dismantle it. As I've argued before, 2008 presented a kairotic moment to push back against Neoliberalism, but the Obama administration failed to respond. But the point is this: How humans respond or fail to respond to these moments is critical, and the worst possible response follows when Jacobins or Fascists with big, radically discontinuous ideas get the upper hand. Better no response, which is essentially what we got from Obama, whose administration's mission was to return to the status quo ante.
My argument here is that the temper of mind that promotes the best possible outcome is Burkean, not Painean. By this definition, despite Norman's discomfort with the idea, FDR was indeed a Burkean and Reagan a Painean. The social democratic system that developed in the 1930s was not Jacobin social engineering, but Rooseveltian pragmatism in responding to a massive, historical economic crisis. And, yes, I'm sure there were plenty of Jacobins in the Roosevelt administration pushing him harder to the left than it was possible or healthful to go, but FDR was no Jacobin.
Reagan's and Thatcher's radical mission to dismantle social democracy after the crisis of the seventies was not at all conservative in the Burkean sense. But neither was it fascistic. Whatever might be repugnant in it, Reaganism/Thatcherism is not that. Its goal is free market anarchism. That anarchy eventually leads to inequalities of wealth and power is common sense, and with that too often a fascistic subjection of the weak to the powerful is the flaw that sincere, Neoliberals and Libertarians seem not to understand.
Social Democracy, if it can be developed in a subsidiarist, non-technocratic key is the only sane form of government possible in a complex, globalizing world. Robin's critique notwithstanding, I think that Burke would have been smart enough to understand how things look differently now than they did in the 1790s, but even if today he would align with the reactionary right, it's possible for others with his temper of mind to develop their own ideas about what the historical moment demands. I think of myself not as a Burkean--I concede that label to those on the right. But I do think of myself as Burkeish, especially if the alternative is the temper of mind that typifies Paine and the Jacobins.
During the Progressive Era and the New Deal era that succeeded it, idealistic professional-class reformers were only one element of a coalition they were forced to share with the representatives of farmers and blue-collar workers — groups that made up a majority of the workforce in the mid-20th century. Take away the farmer-labor wing of the center-left, and you are left with upper-middle-class do-gooders like Woodrow Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt. A progressivism based among college-educated professionals is going to be much more elitist, and perhaps much less egalitarian and effective, than one dominated by union leaders, urban bosses and agrarian politics. True, nonwhite and low-income Americans are important in the Democratic electorate — but they are grossly underrepresented in the organized center-left.
If there were a real progressive movement in the U.S., its attitude toward the professional class would be more skeptical than celebratory. In order to fund a decent-size welfare state, genuine progressives would demand higher taxes on Americans making more than $100,000 — or maybe more than $50,000 or even $30,000. Why not? Polls show that Americans are willing to pay somewhat higher taxes as long as they get better benefits like expansions of Social Security or Medicare. The pressure to exempt professional households that make between $100,000 and $250,000 a year is not coming from Middle America.
Genuine progressives would side with producers, of all kinds, against rentiers, of all kinds — including credential-rentiers like the members of professional monopoly guilds. If software can replace pricey lawyers, if moderately paid instructors can replace highly paid professors, if skilled nurses were allowed to do some of the things that only M.D.s now do at a fraction of the salary, the working-class majority would benefit immensely.
The proletarianization of the professional class should be welcomed and encouraged by the progressive movement. Already independent physicians are being replaced by doctors who are salaried employees of hospitals. Let prole lawyers work for legal services corporations and prole professors work for educational service companies. Unable to set their own incomes by means of guilds, many downwardly mobile professionals might belatedly discover the benefits of unions and legislation protecting workers against exploitation by managers and investors.
The bad news, then, is that the self-serving minority of credentialed professionals, rather than the majority of wage earners, is increasingly important in setting the agenda of the center-left. The good news is that the contradiction between progressive reform and the self-interest of the professional elite may come to an end as technology and economic reorganization eliminate the professions altogether.
This, in part, explains why Neoliberalism is embraced by so many Democrats. It is an ideology whose purpose is to sustain the interests of elites, and elites now define the center of gravity in the Democratic Party. Nothing changes until the center of gravity in the party shifts back to labor.
I don't know if I can get up much enthusiasm for the proletarianization of anybody, but if that's what it takes to get a coherent, broad-based pushback against the way the top wealth percentiles have rigged the system in their favor, then so be it. Wage slavery is wage slavery whether your collar is blue or white.
What kind of society do I want? Might as well lay it out here in broad strokes.
In the long run, ownership of companies has to shift away from the rentier class to workers on the Mondragon model or other variations of it.
I support state ownership for a few enterprises that serve the common good, like healthcare, energy, and transportation.
There should always be room for innovative, small startups, and that requires capital, but there are ways of raising it and rewarding investors without their owning the company indefinitely.
A few thoughts about the future of education and the professoriate:
I'm fine with the public-private mix in education. K-12 public schools should get state and federal funding, but should be governed locally.
Tenure as we know it should be abolished in post-secondary education, but there should be mechanisms in place to insure due process for faculty who are fired. But class distinctions between tenured and non-tenure faculty should be abolished. The criteria for accountability should be developed in faculty senates, and it should be possible for the faculty senate to overturn unjust firings.
I don't know what's going to happen to the large state research universities regarding undergraduate education.They will not much longer be able to justify the large, impersonal lecture classes in the MOOC era. My guess is that they'll downscale and become heavily subsidized centers for graduate education for engineers, biotech, healthcare professionals, and other science/technical professions.
While they are not going away any time soon, I think Law School and MBA programs are credentialing scams. There are far less expensive and more practical ways to train lawyers and business people. Certificate programs in specialized areas make more sense, but a lot of that could be handled by MOOCs.
I would like to see a continued place for small, liberal arts colleges for undergraduates, but how that will work economically I don't know. Perhaps as an extension of the K-12 system. I suspect that the elite schools will survive because of their endowments and because there will always be an elite willing to pay the freight, but I wouldn't want anybody I care about to be just MOOC educated. Maybe people want to discuss that in comments.
The Beltway hawks want to defeat Putin, depicted as a new Hitler by Hillary Clinton, to punish the Russian leader who put a stop to the oligarch looting spree of the 1990s that had sent Russia into a death spiral. Their dream: humiliating Putin, setting off “freedom” demonstrations in Moscow, perhaps a civil war to bring Putin down.
Why, one must ask, is this an American interest? Why would we want chaos in a state which possesses 8,000 nuclear weapons? If the neocons and neoliberals got their way and Putin is defeated and falls, who then assumes power? Or does Russia break into warring fiefdoms with various warlords vying for control? And in this scenario, who, if anyone, commands Moscow’s nuclear arsenal? Is this really the future—with all its attendant uncertainty, desperation, and humiliation—Americans want to see? Truly it is hard to imagine anything more stupid or shortsighted.
I don't talk a lot about foreign policy because it doesn't interest me that much. Monitoring what's going on is about as interesting as reading the police blotter in the local newspaper. It's simply a matter of different gangs fighting with one another to improve their territory and market share. Nationalist sentiment is nothing more than wearing gang colors. It's primitive and uninteresting, but unfortunately, you have to deal with it if you live in a neighborhood controlled by gangs, and we all do.
So when it comes to foreign policy, we shouldn't look at our own US policy as motivated by anything differently than defending its market share. I honestly believe that at this time in our national development we are collectively incapable of anything better than enlightened self interest. I doubt we are even capable of the enlightened part. Whenever the US gets idealistic about foreign policy, it almost always makes things far worse, especially for the people we insist we want to help. We are collectively incapable of doing the right thing, even if it's clear what the right thing is to do, and usually it's not. Never trust anyone who professes to be an idealist in foreign policy; he is either a charlatan or a dangerous fool. The bottom line is that our shrewder gang leaders realize that they don't have any market share in this part of the world to protect, and that they should leave it alone. It's not noble, but it's sane, and when genuine nobility is not a possibility, sanity should be embraced.
So I am all for the Ukraine getting a higher level of self-determination than it had under the Russian puppet Yanukovych, but maybe the price for getting it is the Ukraine's giving up the Crimea--and, though possible, less likely--some of its eastern borderlands occupied mostly by Russian gangsters. It's a decent tradeoff--give up territory inhabited mostly by people who don't wear your colors in exchange for control over your own still extensive territory.
That's what the terms of the negotiations should be about now, but I doubt that's how the Ukrainians see it. Too bad. Regardless, it's, first, the Ukraine's business, and, second, the European Union's, and the US role should be simply to stand on the sidelines and support any decision these parties come up with that promises sanity, stability, and as much self determination for the concerned parties as seems practicable given the political realities.
We're approaching the centenary of the beginning of WWI. It started because a Serbian gangster took out a rival Austrian capo. The Austrian gang moved to retaliate, and the Russians mobilized to protect its market share in the Balkans, and this started the chain reaction that led to thirty years that were among the most horrific in European if not world history. It should have stayed between Austria and Russia without everyone else getting in the act. It may have led to disaster for one or the other, but it would have been a limited disaster. The same goes here.
Putin is a silly, strutting gamecock, but while he's a threat to his immediate neighbors, he's not a threat to world order. Not even remotely in the way that a major military conflict in this region would be. That's why it's important for the West not to listen to our own strutting gamecocks like McCain, Graham, NRO, and the gangsters on FOX. These fools are nuisances that need to be prudently managed and contained, but not to be taken more seriously than they deserve.