Author: john mcgowan

Protest in an Unjust Society

Not just Micah White’s The End of Protest, but also the essays of Martin Luther King, to which I have been sent by a wonderful essay by Alex Livingston, a political theorist at Cornell, and Livingston’s own book on William James [Damn Great Empires!  William James and the Politics of Pragmatism (Oxford UP, 2016)], have pushed me to this question: if the mechanisms of democratic accountability are broken, then what forms should protest take?

Let’s frame this question in Martin Luther King’s terms.  “The American racial revolution has been a revolution to ‘get in’ rather than to overthrow.  We want a share in the American economy, the housing market, the educational system and the social opportunities.  This goal itself indicates that a social change in America must be nonviolent.  If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. . . . The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced” (“Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom [1966].)

But what is the appeal to “the forces of good will” does not work?  Even King realizes that things seldom happen because that is the right, the moral, the non-evil, thing to do.  He is quite realistic that other pressures—especially economic pressures through boycotts and political pressure through disruptive non-cooperation—must also be applied.  The bigger point, it would seem, is that these other pressures cannot be effective if the moral high ground is lost.  The social movement must be on the side of justice, must be seen as appealing to the community’s best self, in order for its other tactics to bear fruit.

Success in the rhetorical battle over right and wrong is, thus, necessary for success, but not sufficient.  At issue right now is what other ingredients are needed to complete the circle, to give us the magical combination that is gives us the necessary and the sufficient.

A big obstacle here is a fundamental asymmetry.  Protestors almost always lose the high ground if they resort to violence.  The use of violence is also tantamount (it would seem; I am on shaky ground here) to seeing overthrow of the existing power and social relations as the movement’s goal.  If you want in (as King puts it), if the goal is fuller inclusion—and inclusion along more egalitarian lines–, then it seems as if violence is ruled out.

Yet—and here is the asymmetry—the forces opposing change get to use violence without undermining their cause.  This is not a blanket statement.  There are many ways the state—and other established power centers—can lose legitimacy and popular support by resorting to violence.  But there are also many cases where state violence is not condemned, or is even applauded.  Thus, incarceration of those deemed criminals rarely generates any dissent.  Similarly, police actions against “rioters” are most often applauded and almost universally tolerated.  The present of gun-toting policeman on the streets of our cities and villages is taken for granted.

Similarly, various forms of surveillance of employees is mostly accepted and the summary firing of employees deemed trouble-makers is also immune from protest or legal redress.

In short, we have a double standard.  Violence—both direct and indirect—establishes inequality and differential treatment of citizens—and is used to uphold that unequal state of affairs.  Such violence is often unremarked, and is seldom condemned, and even more seldom openly contested.  But if those who would contest this “maintenance violence” (to coin a phrase) resort to violence, they jeopardize their whole cause.  But in a battle so unequally joined, how can the contenders, the protestors, ever hope to win.

There are, by now, both historical examples and theoretical accounts, of non-violence winning this apparently hopeless contest between established violence/inequality and those who would hope to transform prevailing conditions.  SO: never say never.

One way the civil rights movement did win some successes was by pitting some laws against other laws.  The legal system—especially on the federal level—did provide some protection against, and even the ability to annul or override, injustices legally established at the state level.  Even if democratically elected politicians were unresponsive to the protest movements, the courts were another site of possible progress.  And, of course, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the1965 Voting Rights Act, even the politicians were responsive.

The contrast to the anti-Vietnam war movement is instructive here.  There was never any avenue of legal redress to pursue.  Swaying politicians was the only way to get the government to change course.  And that never happened.  The New Left could not win enough elections to advance its cause; it couldn’t even scare enough politicians in the ways that the conservative movement since 1980 has been able to do.  (The “no new taxes” pledge is one example of frightening politicians into compliance; enforced attitudes toward legal abortion and gun control are another example.)  The only thing the anti-war movement accomplished was the end of the draft.  The politicians decided they could wage war so long as they didn’t force any citizen to actually fight in those wars.

As matters currently stand, conservatives—through wealthy donors and strong single issue groups—can influence politicians to a degree that the left cannot.  Although, it must be said, the conservative control only works for negative action: no gun control, no new taxes, no expansion of legal abortion rights.  Conservatives are not able to accomplish anything positive.  And now—with the failure to repeal ObamaCare and the probable failure to pass new tax cuts—their ability to do anything at all in Congress is in serious doubt.  The Trump administration, of course, can do considerable damage on its own, starting with the sabotage of ObamaCare and moving on to destructive dismantling of environmental and financial industry regulations.

More troubling is that we have now have minority government—and that minority is doing everything it can to retain its hold on power.  Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and allowing big money to dominate politics are all designed to keep a Republican Party that gets a minority of votes in power.  The dysfunctional rules of the electoral game in America are being exploited in a straight-forwardly undemocratic fashion.

Most troubling is that this Republican gaming of the system has extended to a quite deliberate—and frighteningly successful—take-over of the judiciary at every level.  The cherished path of using legal recourse to undermine the system’s inequities and injustices is being taken off the table.  In other words, where violence was, legality is about to rein.  The Republicans have done nothing illegal—as they love to keep shouting from the mountaintops, even as they gerrymander, and refuse to ratify court appointments that are put forward by Democrats.  They are, they insist, playing by the rules—even as, naturally, they use the rules to further their own interests.  That’s what winning is.  You play the game to win.  Both sides do.  And you don’t cheat.

The upshot is that an undemocratic political system and an increasingly unequal economic system is now being fully legalized.  Recourse within the system is now deeply endangered because even winning a majority of votes in an election does not give you any leverage over government, while the legal system is packed with judges who will not countenance any challenges to the electoral system or to the rights of corporations.

So: what is a protest movement to do?  I am fully willing to believe (even though I think leftists are often deluded on this score) that a majority of our fellow citizens in these united states of America do not want what our current government is delivering.  But—and this seems to me the crux—I also believe that a vast majority of those citizens are not willing to step outside the bounds of legality to challenge what is going down.  Either things have just not gotten bad enough—or do not touch them personally enough—or there is a deep in-grown habit of legality.  Whatever the explanation, this is where asymmetry hurts.  A social movement that acts outside the bounds of legality will lose any chance of mass support.  Yet the structures of legality are tightening to the point where action within their limits has less and less chance of being effective.

Massive civil disobedience is one possibility.  The classic tactic of non-cooperation.  But no suitable target immediately offers itself.  The rush to airports after the first Muslim ban was the most hopeful—and useful—response to the Trump administration to date.  The problem here is the site of noncooperation.  Civil rights activists had two obvious sites: segregated public places and voting registration offices.  In each place, they could dramatically stage their attempts to overcome unjust laws.

No such obvious sites are on offer right now.  Occupy went to Wall Street, which makes sense.  But they didn’t actually confront the financiers who were responsible for the mortgage crisis.  And they didn’t have any rhetorically effective way to force such a confrontation.

I am going to stop here.  But the search for answers will continue—not that I have any on the tip of my tongue.  Subsequent posts will keep worrying this topic.  I don’t promise any solutions.

Micah White’s The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution

Micah White was one of the people who inspired (?)/initiated(?) Occupy Wall Street.  He certainly can’t be said to have organized it since he did nothing beyond publicizing the idea and setting a date for its occurrence.  He never visited the site and made no effort to direct how it unfolded or what it demanded.  He thinks the Occupy movement was a “constructive failure.”

I was drawn to his book The End of Protest (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016) because White is adamant that “change won’t happen through the old models of activism.  Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mass media frenzy. Protests [especially marches and other mass demonstrations] have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics-as-usual.  Western governments are not susceptible to international pressure to heed the protests of their citizens” (27).  That last statement is a little odd, but is explained (somewhat) a bit further on.

“We have been acting as if people have sovereignty over their governments when they act collectively.  Now it is clear that the people’s sovereignty has been lost.  We were wrong to believe that bigger and bigger street protests could force prime ministers and presidents to heed the wishes of the people. . . . [T]ese ritualized spectacles of tens of thousands in the streets are only effective when applied against autocratic regimes that are vulnerable to international pressure.  It seems that popular protest functions only when it is aligned with the pre-existing Western geopolitical agenda” (36).  We must recognize that we live a “precarious historical moment of broken democracy and the rule of the wealthy” (43)  Having lost “faith in the legitimacy of representative democracy” (38), an entirely new set of tactics must be developed to ferment change in our plutocratic and oligarchic condition.

There is a lot here to unpack—and I will be doing that work over the next few posts.  But, today, I just want to hone in on White’s commitment to revolution.  “[R]evolution’s chief characteristic,” he tells us, is “the transfer of sovereignty and the establishment of a new legal regime” (60).  But those two things are not the same at all.  “Revolutionary activism,” he asserts, “is any attempt to make the illegal legal or the legal illegal” (60).  I like that claim a lot.  I have nothing at stake as to whether one instance of political activism is deemed revolutionary while another is not.  Worrying about whether something is reformist or revolutionary does not interest me.

But I do think it very useful to focus in on this question of legality.  Segregation was legal, was the law, in the Jim Crow South.  The civil rights movement worked to change that.  Domestic abuse was not specifically illegal, and was almost entirely deemed outside the law’s purview, until feminism changed laws and attitudes toward violence in the home.  We know, of course, that reforming the law is only half the battle; cultural change—a change in attitudes—is also required to have fully successful social transformation.  But pinpointing the legal change that is desired gives social movements a focused goal, a clear message, and a benchmark for progress, even for success.

Hypothesis #1: Where social movements do not have an unjust law to focus upon, they have much more trouble gaining traction.

The second point for today is to think about transfer of sovereignty.  Only very fringe social movements in today’s US imagine overthrowing the government.  So it is not clear to me what a “transfer of sovereignty” means in our context right now.  It is absolutely true that power has been concentrated in the hands of the few—and that it strains credulity to call the US a functioning democracy at the present moment.  But the concentration of power is very different than the legal apparatus of sovereignty.  It does not appear that anyone is interested in undoing that legal apparatus.  Instead, as White himself says, “activists may use one law to overturn another” (61).  The prevailing strategy is to work through the legal means afforded by the system to alter, rewrite, or abolish the laws and practices that undermine our democracy, that keep it from truly representing the will of the people.  (Let me get away with that solecism for the moment.  White has a very bad tendency to believe in Rousseau’s “general will.”  Let’s just note for the moment that, when it comes to gun control and the tax code, the legal and governmental status quo is demonstrably not in aligned with the view of the majority.)

But, and this is where I will end today and resume tomorrow, what if we no longer have any faith that the current legal and institutional system afford any possibility of reforming it back into the direction of making government responsive to the people?  In other words, if we accept that we no live in an oligarchy, what alternatives do we have for fighting that reality.  I fully agree with White that marches and petitions are not going to get the job done.  They are ignored with impunity.  So what should we be doing?

The Script for Dismantling Protest Sites, or Fool Me Once . . .

In late August of this year, students at UNC, Chapel Hill initiated and maintained a round-the-clock vigil at Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on campus.  The vigil, which never had tents–but did have tables, sleeping pads, and folding chairs–was left unmolested by campus authorities for eight days.  Then the students were informed on Thursday, August 31st that they had to vacate the spot and that anything they did not remove would be confiscated by the police at 6AM on Friday morning, the first.  It did not seem coincidental that the first football game of the season would be played in Chapel Hill on Saturday the 2nd.   The administration did not want football fans to be distracted with thoughts of the legacies of slavery.

I cycled over to campus at 5:30 that Friday morning in order to witness—and to video on my phone—the arrival of the police.  About fifteen students were there.  Most of the vigil’s paraphernalia had been removed.  The students did not intend to resist the police incursion or to get themselves arrested, but did plan to chant various slogans throughout the police action.

I hung around until 8:45 or so, chatting with students and colleagues on the scene.  The police did not show up.  Later that day, I learned that the police arrived around 9:00 am and did just what they had informed students they would do: dismantle the site of the vigil and threaten any students who refused to leave the site with arrest.

Now, some two months later, I discover, while reading Micah White’s The End of Protest (of which more in subsequent posts) that the Chapel Hill action followed a script devised for the dismantling of Occupy sites around the country in late 2011 and early 2012.

“The eviction in Lower Manhattan was effective, and it was no coincidence that evictions spread immediately.  Five days before Zuccotti [the Occupy Wall Street site] was dismantled, police coordinated nation-wide conference calls with mayors from eighteen cities.  An eviction script was developed to counter the tactics of Occupy.  Mayors learned to announce an impending eviction, to give Occupiers a firm deadline so that the people would gather to defend the encampment.  Authorities would then let the deadline expire so that protestors were exhausted by the state of tension and readiness.  Many protestors would return home believing the crisis had passed.  At that point, the police would strike and complete the eviction using maximum force.  The counter-revolutionary tactics developed by Bloomberg and others were quickly deployed in city after city” (The End of Protest, 30-31).

“Maximum force” was not used in Chapel Hill, nor was it needed given the students’ resigned acquiescence in the eviction.  But I was gulled by a trick used five years earlier because I didn’t know of its existence.

UNC Now Spies on Its Students

Spying on the students.  The disheartening actions of Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration at UNC, Chapel Hill just keep coming.

Last Friday, the university community learned that an undercover policeman spied on the students who participated in an eight day vigil to protest the continued presence of Silent Sam, UNC’s Confederate monument, on campus.  Claiming to be an auto mechanic named Victor, sympathetic to their cause, the undercover policeman from UNC’s Department of Public Safety, chatted up those at the vigil.  Does the university now have dossiers on students that contain information gathered under false pretenses?  What exactly was the spy fishing for?  What threat did the administration imagine these protestors—conspicuously non-violent throughout their vigil—posed?

The student vigil at the Confederate statue lasted from August 22nd to August 31st, at which point the administration intervened and insisted that it come to an end.  The vigil itself, the two mass rallies that took place during its eight days, and its dismantling (which the students did not contest) never disrupted normal operations at UNC and, apart from two arrests for very minor infractions the night of August 22nd , never involved any illegal or violent behavior. At least two uniformed police officers were on site at every moment during the vigil.  Their presence (in my view) was completely appropriate. Maybe even having a plainclothes policeman on the scene can be justified.  But to infiltrate the student group gathered around the statue?  Those are J. Edgar Hoover tactics.

These are our students! The university’s educational mission is predicated on the free and open exchange of ideas.  When there are disagreements or even more serious conflicts on campus, we address them by talking to our fellow community members with whom we disagree.  If the matter at hand is too delicate, that conversation may have to take place in private. Ideally, however, –and in 90% of the cases in actuality—the dialogue is public, starting with frank discussions in our classrooms and spilling over from there into the other spaces our campus provides for open inquiry and spirited debate.

Yet no one in the administration ever approached the student protestors and asked for an opportunity to talk with them about their opinions or goals.  The only meeting of administration personnel, including the Chancellor, with the student protestors was a belated gathering on September 23rd, held in response to threats the students had received.  The students were told at this meeting that “we are not here to discuss Silent Sam, but only your safety.”

Where does the fear, the suspicion, that would motivate sending a spy to infiltrate the students camping out around the statue come from? Why should they be treated as potentially dangerous criminals instead as participants in the general conversation that is at the heart of education? These are our students, whom we work with every day, trying to give them the knowledge and skills they need to grow and prosper.

Is this the message we want to send to prospective and current students: you attend a university that instead of talking with you will accord itself the right to spy on you?

If Chancellor Folt did not authorize this over-the-top response to a student protest, then the person who did so should be fired.  The undercover police officer should be suspended, pending a full investigation, not for following orders and doing his job, but for his behavior when “outed” by students who recognized him on campus in his police uniform.  According to reports (and video of the incident), he told the students they could not film their interaction with him, a clear violation of their unambiguous rights, while also threatening them as they tried to walk away.  There should be no rush to judgment here, but what exactly happened needs to be discovered—and appropriate action taken once the facts are determined.

If the Chancellor herself authorized this undercover operation, she owes the campus community an explanation—and an apology.  What was the administration aiming to accomplish and how has it used the information collected?  The apology is for spying on students, a practice that only the most extreme circumstances could ever justify.

If neither an explanation nor an apology is forthcoming, the disintegration of our educational community, based on transparency and open dialogue, will continue apace.

Offered without Comment

“The wretched of the earth do not decide to become extinct, they resolve, on the contrary, to multiply: life is their only weapon against life, life is all that they have.  That is why the dispossessed and starving will never be convinced (though some may be coerced) by the population-control programs of the civilized. . . .  The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their ‘vital interests’ are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the ‘sanctity’ of human life, or the ‘conscience’ of the civilized world.  There is a ‘sanctity’ involved with bringing a child into this world: it is better than bombing one out of it.  Dreadful indeed it is to see a starving child, but the answer is not to prevent the child’s arrival, but to restructure the world so that the child can live in it: so that the ‘vital interest’ of the world becomes nothing less than the life of the child” (James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 16-17).

“The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic–a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall.  The question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day–it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day; it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor.  An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.  Identity seems to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.  This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes” (The Devil Finds Work, 79-80).

“last night I had a recurrence of that dream which, as I told Mother Sugar [the protagonist’s analyst], was the most frightening of all . . . When she asked me to ‘give a name to it’ (to give it form), I said it was a nightmare about destruction.  Later, when I dreamed it again, and she said: Give it a name, I was able to go further: I said it was a nightmare about the principle of spite, or malice–joy in spite. . . . [T]he principle or element took shape in an old man, almost dwarf-like . . . . This old man smiled and giggled and snickered, was ugly, vital and powerful, and again, what he represented was pure spite, malice, joy in a destructive impulse.  . . . And the creature was always powerful, with an inner vitality which I knew was caused by a purposeless, undirected, causeless spite.  It mocked and jibed and hurt, wished murder, wished death.  And yet it was always vibrant with joy” (Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, 456-457).

Dilemmas of Violence

Reading Jane Addams’ essays in my on-going exploration of reflections on violence and non-violence.  Two (fairly) quick observations.

First, Addams writes that “an ideal government is merely an adjustment between men concerning their mutual relations toward those general matters which concern them all” (3).  To that end, “organization is [our] only hope, but it must be kept distinct from militarism, which can never be made a democratic instrument” (3).

Politics, in short, is a consequence of humans being social animals.  We must find modus vivendi, ways of managing to live together that foster, at the minimum, survival of the species and, at the maximum, the flourishing of members of the species.  Ideally, flourishing will be available to all—but that can only be achieved through collective action, through cooperation.

Thus, politics requires organization, making arrangements and then striving to maintain them.  In the usual formulation, it is assumed that there will always be outliers who threaten any particular arrangement, people against whom that arrangement will have to be defended.  There is also the problem of blood feuds.  Classically, the origin of the state is attributed to one of these two motives: protection of social arrangements (particularly property) against threats internal and external—or the establishment of a legal system that takes vengeance out of the hands of private citizens.  The argument then goes that the establishment of the state leads to a reduction in violence because the state acts to suppress violent actions through deterrence and punishment.  Certainly, Steven Pinker takes this view in his book on violence.

The nay-sayers to that view, however, point out that organization as represented by the state greatly increases the scope and effectiveness of violence perpetuated by state actors as contrasted to isolated individuals.  Armies are far more violent than criminals; wars far more devastating than family feuds.  “War is the health of the state,” writes Randolph Bourne.  Even if there is pre-state violence, the formation of states to restrain it introduces a cure that is worse than the disease. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  Violence is just baked in.  And we don’t even get to pick our poison since the state has become (just about everywhere) triumphant.

Back to Addams then: one way to express the problem is to say: how do we get the benefits of organization and cooperation without the militarism?

Worth mentioning, I guess, that there is a school of anthropologists and primatologists (I am just beginning to read their work) who say violence isn’t baked in and that the archaeological record does not indicate much violence among humans prior to the Neolithic Age (about 10,000 years ago, a mere blip in the evolutionary time scale), while studies of our primate cousins also suggest violence is rare.  For these writers, the state is the culprit, not human nature.  But not clear how that helps, since it is hard to imagine a return to a pre-state human condition.

Second thing in Addams.  In her attempts to broker a peace during the First World War, she advocated the charming idea of convening an international tribunal that would hear the claims of each nation in the conflict.  In other words, each nation would come to the table and say (for example): that we, the British, are at war with Germany because we need this or we object to the Germans doing that. And then the tribunal would judge which claims were legitimate needs or grievances, and which were not.  There would follow an international effort to satisfy the legitimate claims.

What is so charming about the idea is that it slyly (I don’t in fact think this was Addams’ intent) reveals how many “war aims” cannot stand the Kantian publicity test, that is could not be acknowledged openly with any faith that others would admit their justice.

But, less charming, is the fact that, by the end of 1915, few of the nations involved in the war would have even been able to articulate what the war was about.  As Addams discovered in her many conversations with belligerents on both sides of the contest, the war continued because to end it would be to admit or accept defeat—which was unacceptable not because of any dire consequences that would follow from defeat, but simply because of the humiliation of defeat.  In short, the tribunal idea, precisely because it is so irrelevant to the actual causes of the conflict’s perpetuation, indicates just how irrational violence is.  The violence is not the means to some end.  It does not partake of means/ends rationality at all.  It exists in some entirely different register, which we can conveniently call “madness.”  But that designation gets us nowhere in trying to explain what is going on.

So my other dilemma concerning violence (in addition to how states both prevent and cause violence) is how to “think” violence when it seems essentially irrational.  I want some satisfactory account of the dynamics, motives, and trajectories of that irrationalism.

The Right-Wing Attack on the Universities

Chris Newfield has a response (lifted from Facebook) to my previous post.  Here it is (in quotes) followed by my reactions to his comments:

“I’m reposting this because I meant to comment on this before. Thank you John McGowan for raising so pointedly both the Right’s systematic attacks on public universities and the question of their end game. To amplify what you’ve written, I think there are two big things going on.

One is a struggle for political control: 40 years of culture wars has convinced the Right that universities are a block arrayed against them, and with few exceptions it favors their political enemies. The university seems to them to have powers of deep cultural change and not just of truth-claims that generate policy and lawsuits, though those are also a major threat.

The second thing is their real economic plan, one that I detail in Stage 8 of the book. That is to cut capitalism’s dependence on knowledge and knowledge workers–to move it “past the knowledge economy,” though no one ever uses that phrase. This involves reducing brain workers’ independence from management, shrinking the middle class, particularly its politically troublesome “liberal professions” (in the French sense), freeing employers of any obligations to their direct employees (health care, pensions, shared governance through unions or employee representatives), and dumping any and all social costs. In the Right’s traditionalist capitalism, poor people have existed to provide fungible and hence precarious labor on demand, not to get better educations than their parents had; everyone should be fireable at will, etc.

The Right’s model makes cultural and economic sense in US history: it remarries corporate ownership to patriarchy, affirms de facto white supremacy, helps restore an earlier dependence of women on men, to name just a few cultural features. And it makes economic sense in the context of the American extractive economy–which requires mass quantities of cheap docile labor via slavery, then Jim Crow and immigration without rights– that is historically the bedrock of American wealth, and still is in most “red state” sectors of the country (e.g. NC’s hog and poultry agribusiness).

In short, the right’s “endgame” is the restoration of plantation capitalism. It will have new forms, but the key economic strategy is the prevention of knowledge workers from keeping the value of their productivity gains, which requires they be marginalized politically. The Great Mistake also discusses the various ways university administrators have played into the Right’s hands on economic as well as policy matters. At the same time, I’m fairly sure that if more regular voters understood what the weakening of universities will do both to their salaries and their status in society, these NC-style attacks would lose most of their (already mostly passive) support. I think the national politics are more fluid than they appear.”

I agree with Chris that red states (especially) are pursuing a strategy that undercuts the “knowledge-based economy” in pursuit of a nostalgic vision of “manufacturing” that fits the “extractive model.”  But I am more convinced than I am sure he is that such a strategy is hopeless.  The Alabamas of our union are condemning themselves to comparative poverty—and the agony here in North Carolina is watching a state that has attracted a fair share of the knowledge based economy to these parts work to dismantle it and become Alabama instead of Massachusetts.  In other words, I don’t see where the right can win if it is playing the game that Chris describes—and I think much (hardly all) of the business elite understand that fact.

That said, it is worth saying a few further things.  One, North Carolina’s prosperity is largely based now on the Research Triangle Park (RTP), which was built as a private—public partnership between businesses, state government, and the three research universities: Duke, UNC, and NC State, starting in the late 1950s.  That kind of public investment—as opposed to the kind of negative investment of tax credits epitomized by the new FoxComm deal in Wisconsin—is pretty close to unthinkable today.  The difference is that the positive investment of public dollars gave the public a place at the table in the planning of the RTP, with largely positive results.  It was also based on a fifty year plan that proved to be fairly accurate about the challenges facing North Carolina (decline of textile, tobacco, and furniture industries) and pretty accurate about what could replace those lost economic drivers.  There’s a decent case to be made that the original fifty year plan is now outdated and that the RTP needs a serious reboot and rethink at the moment.  Not surprisingly, the ability to forge the kind of partnership that got things rolling in 1957 appears totally lost.  But there is also no coherent vision of what the next fifty years will see us requiring.

There is no denying that North Carolina’s prosperity is very, very unevenly distributed.  This is not just about income and wealth inequality, which still does not reach Northeast levels (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts) in this state, but is nonetheless real.  It is also about geographic distribution.  The eastern and western parts of the state are far poorer than the prosperous Piedmont in the middle.  Given the structure of American political districting, which gives disproportionate power to rural over urban voters, the legislature is skewed toward those who are not beneficiaries of the knowledge economy—and who, in many cases, view that economy as their cultural and economic enemy.

If nothing else, the left should be pushing for a realistic “living wage” for all workers and for basic job security and health/retirement benefits.  I don’t see any realistic alternatives to a market economy.  That’s where I am liberal.  But I do think there should be strong state intervention in/regulation of that economy.  On the intervention side, some measures should address market forces directly (like a high minimum wage) while other measures—primarily progressive tax rates—should mitigate the market’s tendency to produce extremely unequal outcomes.  That’s where I am a social democrat.

And, as my last few posts have suggested, I believe the tax revenues should be devoted in part to investment in infrastructure.  I take universities—and the creation of an educated citizenry—as part of that infrastructure.  Even if the right wing refuses such investments—and, in fact, as Chris suggests, desires a return to “plantation capitalism”—I don’t see how such a strategy can be anything but self-defeating.  The knowledge economy will leave the Alabamas in the dust.

Note that all of this says nothing about “finance capitalism.”  New York (and the way wealth is generated there) is not California (Silicon Valley).  The relation of finance capital to education is very complex—as is suggested by today’s Kevin Drum piece about the way that membership in a fraternity increased lifetime earnings by a whopping 36%.  That wouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone in the development office at UNC.  All the Wall Street guys were frat boys back in the day.  And the measures needed to regulate/intervene in finance capital (starting with a transaction tax, a meaningful increase in capital gains tax, and strict rules about computer trading) are different than those called for when dealing with Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Finally, I agree with Chris that the political situation in this country is more fluid than might appear.  One of the left’s biggest problems has been its inability to overcome the “passivity” of which Chris speaks.  I was astounded—and still am—by how quietly the unemployed took their fate in the wake of 2008.  They crawled into a corner, ashamed, and licked their wounds, as if it were a personal flaw that led to their being laid off.  I don’t understand that.  There’s an enthusiasm gap, at least when it comes to electoral politics, that is fatal in the low turnout on the left for mid-term and local elections.  Counting on 75 year old Bernie to solve that problem is a formula for disaster.  We need some you, fire-breathing, and inspirational leaders.  I think there are plenty of people out there who could be inspired by such a visionary.