Back with a little tidbit from Bertrand Russell’s Human Society in Ethics and Politics: “Traditionalists hold their opinions more fanatically than their liberal-minded opponents and therefore have power out of proportion to their numbers. A man who publicly advocates any relaxation of the traditional code can be made to suffer obloquy, but nothing of the sort can be inflicted upon benighted bigots” (125).
Lots can be said about this—and count on me to say lots. For starters, we have here the usual contrast between mild-mannered liberals, lacking fire-in-the-blood passion, and visceral conservatives. The politics of reason versus the politics of passion. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats). I am not very convinced. More plausible, I think, are explanations that look to “loss aversion” and to the superiority in “reality” of what is over what could be. In my experience, those proposing reforms always meet with fierce resistance; stepping into the unknown always is based on uncertain gains balanced against very obvious losses. What will be destroyed by the change is concretely There. Those who are just fine with current arrangements will have a direct, straight-forward case for outrage. “Jeopardy” in Albert Hirschman’s anatomy of the “rhetoric of reaction.” Your changes will jeopardize the good things we enjoy now with no guarantee that what you put in the present’s place will be better. You, the reformer, are inflicting an easy to identify harm.
Russell believes that “most of the disagreements that occur in practice are, not as to what things have intrinsic value, but as to who shall enjoy them. The holders of power naturally demand for themselves the lion’s share” (110). Is this true? That is, are there actually very few deep moral disagreements; rather, the real source of disagreement is about the distribution of the goods that everyone agrees are actually good. That shifts the moral terrain significantly; the focus becomes who legitimately is entitled to a share and who legitimately can be denied a full share. I am inclined to think conservatism is always, au fond, about legitimating unequal distribution. The grounds for cutting some people out—race, meritocracy, education, expertise, various social and moral stigmas, citizenship—vary widely, but the basic goal is the same: to justify inequality. We fight over the goods–not over what should be designated good. At least in most instances. Sounds plausible.
One maddening thing is that unequal distribution could (possibly) be justified by scarcity. If there was not enough to go around, then some might have to do without. But there is ample evidence to show that removing the condition of scarcity does little to quell the urge toward unequal distribution. The drive for status, for hierarchy, for distinction, leads to inequalities as steep and as cruel (i.e. tending to total deprivation) as scarcity. Russell does not pay much attention to the deep desire for status. He is no sociologist. But he believes that the “desire for power” is basically universal, as is the abuse of that power by any who possess it (118). His only solution to this snake in the garden is sublimation: “to educate in such a manner that acquired skills will lead the love of power into useful rather than harmful channels” (118). Like Freud and William James, he seeks for a “moral equivalent” of war, competition, status seeking, and the desire to dominate over others.
Not much cause for optimism there. I do think “loss aversion” can help a bit here, as can a ground-level sense of fairness, of justice. Russell is not keen on appeals to justice. “I think that, while the arguments for approximately equal distribution are very strong wherever an ancient tradition is not dominant, they are nevertheless arguments as to means, and I do not think that justice can be admitted as something having intrinsic value on its own account” (117). The idea is that justice is a means to peace—where peace produces a stable society in which everyone can enjoy the goods they have without fearing the violence of either the strong seekers of power/privilege/wealth/status or the aggrieved violence of the deprived. Self-interest in such peace and the stability/security it provides is the foundational rock, not some commitment to justice per se.
I think Russell is wrong about that. I think a disinterested (for lack of a better term) outrage about perceived violations of justice is a much stronger—and independent—motive than he allows. It is, of course, true that many disputes that claim to be about justice are masking self-interest. But I do not think that is always to case. The same psychologists who uncovered “loss aversion” with their ingenious experiments have also noticed that people will be satisfied with less for themselves when a distribution procedure is seen as “fair.” A real life example is elections. People accept being on the losing side of a vote if they think the vote was fairly conducted. One sign of deep trouble in our democracy is the growing refusal to accept the outcome of elections. When results trump procedures, democracy is in trouble. Even then, radicals on both sides—left and right—will shout that the vote was not “fair,” that is was fraudulent in one way or another. A pretty infallible sign of the far-out radical left is the deep conviction that the “real majority” in the US favors the radical’s own program, refusing to countenance all the evidence that the American public is just not that leftist.
I am inclined to believe that those who are driven by an inordinate desire/need for power are a small minority, akin to the small set of adepts that Randall Collins claims can actually commit sustained violence. (In his book Violence.) That small number prey on the rest of us. Our part in life is to try to ward them off, to resist them, and to get on with the business of living. The powers of resistance are pretty strong; not always sufficient of course but able in many instances to frustrate the seekers of power. It is not the insecurity of the tyrant that makes him miserable (in my view and pace Plato). The control of the means of violence is pretty thorough, plus the tyrant’s delusions of grandeur include a sense of immunity to the normal vulnerabilities of the flesh (think of all those 80 year old Senators). No, what makes the tyrant’s life miserable is the limitations on his power. Finally, it’s just damned hard to get other people to do what you want them to do. They resist—passively more often than actively, by not paying attention or doing things half-assedly, or just melting away. The art of not being governed, as James Scott calls it. It’s the path that Fred Moten and David Graeber recommend. Just ignore the tyrant, as far as that is possible.
Or scream bloody murder—like the traditionalists do. Take the moral high ground whenever any kind of change is proposed. There were all those artists—Yeats, Proust, Galsworthy, Nietzsche—documenting (often lamenting) the death of the aristocracy as the 19th century became the 20th century. A privileged class was losing some of its privileges, but more crucially was losing its relevance. Its material well-being wasn’t threatened, but its right to lead, to set the tone culturally and to direct the nation politically, was slipping away. Today, it’s white America that is slipping away. In the popular arts, black America has set the tone for quite some time. Look at our music and our sports (the NFL and the NBA). The change has been less swift in film and TV, and even less swift in the non-popular arts like classical music and museum culture. The difference this time (as contrasted to the period of 1880 to 1920) is that neither the declining class (whites) nor the ascendant one (non-whites) is gaining economically. Instead, both groups are getting played by the 1% that is hoovering up all the wealth to itself. But the decliners, the traditionalists, are certainly screaming bloody murder. To a lesser extent, so are the exploited. (Or maybe they are screaming just as loud, but lack access to the channels–literally Fox and Limbaugh–that would allow their screams to be heard. The corporate consolidation of American media condemns them to an outer darkness.)
Hence the generalized rage. The whites has “loss aversion” to the max; they are increasingly irrelevant, feel disrespected, and increasingly insecure financially. The non-whites, while accorded a certain kind of cultural power and respect (but only within elite circles in New York and Hollywood and, even there, inconsistently), are resolutely kept from getting a decent slice of the pie. And everyone looks for someone to blame, with the sad, boring, classic American story of getting the poor whites to obsess about their non-white rivals to the advantage of the rich whites. I wish I had a different story to tell. Sometimes the truth is astoundingly uninteresting, completely predictable, and apparently immune to any kind of creative rewriting. It just sits there, an indigestible lump.
No surprise, then, that we turn to the young for an imagined way out of this impasse. Their much-vaunted sympathy for socialism coupled with their skepticism toward a capitalism that has not served them at all (no less “well”) is seen as the road toward radical transformation. The radical always relies on a sense that “things can’t continue this way,” that the current arrangements are unsustainable. But they are unsustainable only if people refuse to countenance, to suffer, them. And things from my perspective have been intolerable for fifty years now. And, somehow, little in terms of the basic structures of distribution have changed in the US—except for the worse.
I can’t help but think that American politics are still transfixed by the political, economic, and cultural upheavals of 1965 to 1975. Just like mainstream economists are still fighting the battle against inflation of the 1970s (unable, apparently, to process that inflation has been a non-issue for Western economies since 2000), so our political fault lines divide along the axis of those who want to return to a mythical 1950s (its prosperity, its blue collar jobs, its women contentedly at home, its blacks out of sight and out of mind, its gays utterly invisible) and those who affirm the various upheavals that brought women, blacks, gays into the public view, with their noisy demands for attention, respect, and their due. Astounding, really, how traumatic the 1960s were—and how long-lasting (as is the case with traumas) its after-shocks. The problem is that it is the cultural upheavals (experienced as traumatic by some and liberating by others) that gets all the attention, that generates 90% of the heat. The economic coup d’etat, every bit as traumatic as the cultural changes, mostly flies under the radar. The consolidation of economic power never becomes the explicit topic of political inquiry or rhetoric.
Those fiery youth of the 60s did not effect some radical transformation. The few radicals, like some SDSers and Martin Luther King at the end of his life, who tried to “pivot” away from anti-war and pro-civil rights activism toward economic issues (the poor people’s campaign) didn’t get much traction. (Although we should not forget that something akin to a basic guaranteed income for all was actually debated in Congress in 1971. How far we have fallen from that high moment.) Rather, as my daughter likes to remind me, the baby boomers have left the US—and the world—much worse off than they found it. So I am not likely to place too much faith in the transformative power of today’s youth, even if the generational divide is once again as intense as it was in the “generation gap” years. Sixties youth, after all, had the insouciance of those who felt immune to economic worry. No such luck for today’s millennials as they step into the world of contract labor. Welcome to the precariat.
The lines of this analysis are familiar enough, which (as I say) doesn’t mean they are not (roughly) true. But David Graeber offers a different way to think of all this—and I will go in that direction in my next post.