Author: john mcgowan


I spent the whole month of February hobbled by sciatica nerve pain.  For two weeks I could neither walk nor sleep.  The only position that was half-way comfortable was sitting down.  Up all night, I watched every single romantic comedy on Netflix.

By the middle of March, I was 80% recovered–and am now at 90%.  I actually did two back-to-back 30 mile bicycle rides last weekend.

Yet . . . . I can’t tell you how this has knocked the stuffing out of me.  I haven’t been able to get back to blogging (obviously) or to much of anything else.  For the first time, I just feel old.  Which not only means tired and de-energized, but also disinterested.

I have still been reading a fair amount–and all over the map as usual.  From William Carlos Williams to a biography of Alexis de Tocqueville.  But I feel no urge to write my reactions up, as if taking part in some ongoing conversation (even if it is a fantasized one) is no longer part of who I am.  Makes me wonder if, all these years, I just felt a need to report to the world (again a fantasized audience), like any dutiful child: “see, look what I’ve done.  I’ve read this and thought that.”  And now I feel outside of that game.

Will it come back?  I don’t know.  I have agree to write a few brief pieces.  And I am writing a self-help book for aspiring actors with Kiernan and Raven.  We’ll see if anything comes of that project.  The words still flow if I sit down at the keyboard.  I just don’t feel any urgency about getting to the keyboard.

Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)

Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)

The second “macro” setting for the disinvestment in public education that Newfield highlights is the disconnect (since 1970) between rises in productivity and rises in wages.  Since economic growth is driven primarily by two factors–increasing population and increasing productivity–the economy’s health is dependent on making workers more productive.  At least in the years from 1940 to 1970, when workers became more productive, their additional contributions to the economic well-being were registered fairly directly in higher wages.  And those higher wages tracked very closely with higher household incomes.

Continue reading “Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)”

Dustin Howes (2)

I have been debating most of today as to whether I should publish this email exchange between me and Dustin from about 12 days ago.  And now have decided to do so.

In response to the New Year’s letter that Dustin sent to a group of his friends and family members, I wrote the following note to him on January 10th.

Dear Dustin:
Thank you very much for your letter.  I am going to be presumptuous here and respond in ways to which I am not entitled.  But I thought you might be interested in my response to what you have to say.
My first thought was “what does happiness have to do with it”?  And that led me to these thoughts.  It seems to me that what you want for yourself is the full experience of having lived (even with the awful cards you have been dealt) and (this second part is crucial) of being able to record that experience.  You are a writer.  (Yes, you are a father, a teacher, an academic, etc. as well.) But you are most decidedly a writer.  Experience doesn’t really count for you unless you can record it as well.  You have always lived as someone who intends to drink life to the dregs.  And what defines your current will to live, to keep living even under these conditions, is your ability to still reflect upon, still record in words, your experiences.  As long as you can do that, you are alive.  And why would you not want to be alive?  No reason at all.
Of course, the ongoing relationship with your children is also primary.  What is presumptuous here is my speaking for your motives.  But, as I said, I thought you might find my reaction something to chew on–while you can ignore it completely if it is off base.
I am assuming there is physical fear.  Certainly, in your shoes, I would be feeling a lot of physical fear.  But what I admire is your mental courage, your determination to be true to your capacities for thought, reflection, for (essentially) consciousness.  You are determined to be fully present to your life, to see it straight, and to record what you see.  That strikes me as the right way to be in your circumstances–and as tremendously admirable because so hard to do.  May the force be with you.  And do call on me–as you call on your various friends and family–to do what we can to make you remain true to your hard and admirable choice.
With love,
To which Dustin replied a few hours later:

The thought  “what does happiness have to do with it”?   has for some reason had me smiling on and off all day


Dustin Howes

I learned early this morning that Dustin Howes has died.  Dustin had been fighting ALS these past three plus years–with his characteristic energy and zest for life.  Somehow, while very ill, he completed Freedom without Violence, while also writing extensively about his illness and keeping up a voluminous email correspondence with his friends (who were legion).  No one who knew him could forget Dustin’s broad smile and his way of striding into a room as if its walls would have to burst to contain all his energy.  He gave himself without reserve to all the things he loved.  And he cared passionately about creating a better world than the one we currently inhabit.  His continual mediation on the problem of violence and his desire to craft, in his terms, “a credible pacifism” have influenced my thinking and my politics profoundly.  I am sure there are many others who would say the same.  He was looking forward to continuing the dialogue we had been conducting on this blog–just one sign of how he was engaged intellectually to the very end.  He was equally dedicated to maintaining his ties to family and friends. All the instruments agree; it is a sad day.

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake—Part One: The Big Picture

Christopher Newfield’s sobering new book, The Great Mistake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), is subtitled: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.  Most of the book is devoted to the wrecking part—and it is a grim tale indeed.  I think of myself as more conversant than the average faculty member with the realities of university finances and the world-view of university administrators.  So, for example, I was aware before Newfield began bringing this fact to more general notice (in his work prior to this new book) that funded research is a money-loser for big universities.  Just as athletics drains money (in almost all cases) away from the instructional budget, so large grants for research (whether funded by the feds or by private foundations or businesses) do not cover the costs of doing that research.  Instructional funds (whether secured by tuition or by state operational appropriations ) subsidize the research being done in the “big” science fields of engineering, the natural sciences, and the health sciences.

But, despite my being fairly knowledgeable about such things, every page of Newfield’s book taught me something new—and, again and again, showed me that what I believed to be the case was quite simply wrong.  Anyone who wants to understand how American higher education is organized and funded needs to read this book.  It, of course, has more to say about public universities, but has plenty of information to offer about private research universities as well.

I will get into the details in subsequent posts, because the details are important.  But in this post and the next one I am going to talk about two big picture items.  First up, is the inability in the current climate to make a compelling case for public goods.  Next up (next post) is the decoupling of productivity gains from wage increases over the past forty years.  Both items are, arguably, hallmark features of that vague monster called “neo-liberalism.”  Whether labeling them in that way is at all helpful is a moot point.  But it is important to recognize these two facts of the world we currently occupy.

SO: public goods.  Newfield offers what he admits is a crude definition of a public good, a definition more geared toward provocation, for getting us thinking, than to nailing down the term once and for all.  That definition is a public good is a good whose “value increases as access becomes universal” (65).  The basic idea is that rendering access to such a good scarce (or even just differential) through market processes undermines the good effects the good can achieve.  An obvious example is clean air.  If you allow pockets of pollution, there is really no way to segregate them so successfully that at least some people will not feel the effects of a somewhat polluted atmosphere.  Since society’s economic productivity increases as more people have access to higher education, and since there are other demonstrable effects of higher education (including better health, less criminal behavior, better education and cognitive development of one’s children, increased longevity, and better control over family size, consumption and savings [69]), the return on investment in higher education is pretty direct if measured economically (lower prison and health care costs for society etc.) and also substantial if we turn to a non-economic measure like “well-being” or the Nussbaum—Sen set of “capabilities.”  General social welfare, in other words, increases as access (and ability to complete) higher education increases.

But, in fact, access to higher education in the United States has stagnated over the past thirty years.  The US used to be the world’s leader in number of college graduates as a proportion of its entire population.  “The United States is now nineteenth of twenty-three countries (the rich countries of Europe and Asia) in the proportion of entering university students who successfully graduate.  . . . [T]wenty-four year olds in the lowest quartile of income have college graduation rates of 10.4 percent, or about one-seventh that of students in the top quartile” (19).

There  are multiple causes for this decline, but Newfield makes it abundantly clear that under-investment in public education (both at the K-12 level and at the university level) is a major factor.  As a society, we have simply lost the will to invest in the commons, in the infrastructure on which all depend for certain shared goods.  We know this is a fact about our roads and bridges, about our dangerously antique electrical grid—and it is also true of our public colleges and universities.  We do not, in the United States, spend nearly as much (as a percentage of GDP) on infrastructure as we did in the 1950s and 1960s.  Quite simply, today’s politicians will not approve the appropriations necessary to maintain, no less upgrade, our current infrastructure.

Why this failure?  1.  Simple short-sightedness.  An inability to invest today to secure benefits that are not short-term and may, in some cases, be hard to measure.  To answer why we have, as a society, become less capable of long-range investment would lead us into questions of confidence, of solidarity, and of equity.  All important questions, but I am not going to linger there.

  1. Privatization. Newfield focuses on this cause—and I am not going to be able to do justice to his sophisticated handling of the topic. Just read the book.  He is very shrewd and completely convincing about the way that prisons, roads, and (yes) our universities have been semi-privatized in ways that let private businesses extract profits from government contracts that also place almost all the risks on the government (state or federal) that pays the bills.  He also proves, through a careful and thorough look at the budgetary books, that “privatization,” which is supposed to bring “market discipline” to universities and thus improve their efficiency and their bottom lines, inevitably increases costs.  That’s because the private contractors milk the university’s resources; those contractors are not more efficient than government workers.  There are some exceptions, and thus outsourcing on a case by case basis is worth examining, but blanket assertions that “the market can do it better” are worthless—and positively destructive in many cases.  In sum: an ideology that says “private enterprise” can always do the job better and at less cost than the public sector has done palpable harm to public education without delivering its promised benefits.  The disaster of the for-profit universities (which feasted on federal funds supplied to lower income students) is a notable case in point.

  2. The great risk shift. The term comes from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, whose wonderful work on contemporary trends in American society and politics, is cited by Newfield.  Part of privatization is to take costs that were once “socialized,” were distributed across the whole population, and to shift those costs onto the individual.  Once we lose the idea that higher education is a public good, one whose benefits redound to everyone, then it is a short step to saying the good of an education is the benefit it provides to the student.  So why should I pay for the student to get that benefit?  If we define education as an exchange similar to the market exchange in which I buy a pair of shoes, then the logic of a public subsidy for that good is lost.  The student must take the gamble that going into debt to get a degree is going to pay off.  Society as a whole refuses to take the gamble that providing a good education to as many as possible will produce wide-spread social benefits.

  3. Structures of feeling and common sense. Brush up on your Raymond Williams and your Antonio Gramsci.  What seems most discouraging about the current mess is that the “logic” of privatization has become such a generally accepted “taken for granted.”  Here’s a health care example: I am unmarried, or a 50 year old.  I am not going to have a child.  So why should I pay increased health care premiums so that health care covers pregnancies?  The prevailing idea is that I should only pay for what I get.  In North Carolina, that has led our Board of Governors to declare that money from tuition increases cannot be devoted to financial aid.  Why should middle and upper-class students subsidize the costs of lower-class students?  Why should they be “taxed” (as the issue was framed in the public debate before the vote) to pay someone else’s tuition?

I am particularly interested in this last point for this reason.  I am part of a reading group that meets yearly to discuss works in political theory.  Our group ranges in age from 35 to 65—and spends, as you might imagine, lots of time agonizing over the current political climate in the US.  I have phrased to this group my sense of things, which is: the right wing has devoted a vast amount of time, energy, and money to discrediting the basic features of the post World War II social democratic framework.  That social democracy was hardly perfect, but it delivered the most widespread economic prosperity history has ever witnessed.  It created a truly mass middle class. And it created that middle class, in part, by creating a robust public higher education system, which greatly expanded access to college.  We are in the process of dismantling that success.  We know the kinds of things that work—social security, government assurance that labor has some power in its bargaining with capital, mass free education, universal health care.  The left should makes its priority the protection and expansion of  those successful programs.  We do not need to reinvent the wheel—and if we get disillusioned with social democracy we have let the right-wing’s relentless propaganda attacks upon it win.

This argument leaves my younger colleagues cold.  It does not resonate with them at all.  The find social democracy completely unappealing—as a rallying cry or as the place they want to make their political stand.  (Maybe Bernie Sanders’s campaign will have moved the needle a bit.  I will have to see when we next get together.)  Social democracy is just not where their affections (in the most literal sense of that term) lie.  Their investments are, in fact, scattered about—and say a lot about the left’s current disorganization.  The shift in “common sense” or “sensibility” is a shift in what matters to people, in what they feel passionate about.  And I think it correct to say, as Newfield does, that there has been a “loss of collective understanding of collective capability.  That is the loss of a feeling for it, of a sense of attachment to it, or commitment, or a right to it—the loss of a common feeling that a complete education to the highest level is a part of who we are” (308).  Public goods, and the public programs to supply those goods, do not command widespread allegiance today—even, I am saying, among the younger leftists that I know. Recapturing that commitment will be essential.  Otherwise, public education will continue being hounded to starvation, a way station on its progresss toward death.

Hatred of Politics, Part Two

I began this blog shortly before the election, that is two months ago.  I am not the only one, I am sure, who feels like it has been two years, not two months.

Today I want to complete the thought about hatred of politics before moving on to other things.  Perhaps Trump will be good for someone like me by pushing me to attend to lots of other things in this world.  Certainly, I fully intend to avoid being Trump obsessed.  The media’s all-Trump all the time posture has done its part in helping to insure I will not be Trump obsessed.  The coverage is so fatuous, so imbecilic, that it has proved easy to tune out.

Anyway, here’s my thought.  Politics is about, on some very basic level, how we can manage to live with one another.  Human life is unsustainable without cooperation.  We are social animals and, thus, have to develop ways of being together.  That is our glory and our curse.  The frictions of our close proximity to intimates, the neighbors, and to strangers are all too familiar.  It’s hard to get along with people—maybe because of the very fact that we are dependent upon them.

In any case, one way to define politics (as my last post already suggested) is that it attends to the ways we can manage to live together without descending into violence.  Such violence is an ever present possibility and all too often a reality.  But I want to say that ordinary, mundane, quotidian politics, with all its frustrations, compromises, and less than ideal arrangements, offers our alternative to violence.  We rub along as best we can, having to decide again and again if this injustice, this slight, this inequity needs be swallowed—or if not swallowable, how far are we willing to take the fight for what we deem fair.

So mundane, everyday politics is a pain in the ass.  It requires the constant vigilance that we are told is the price of freedom, requires always being on one’s guard against others trying to take advantage, and then having to gin up oneself to once again enter the fray.  When there are so many other ways that one would like to be occupying one’s time.

And, then, if we move from this everyday, mundane politics, there are two further sources of disappointment, of hatred of politics.  The first is utopia.  If politics is about the ways we arrange to live with one another, it is all too easy to imagine alternatives that are better than what we currently have.  People are just so god-damned ornery, uncooperative, selfish, inconsiderate etc. etc.  The everyday is never as good as we think it could or should be.  So getting bogged down in the tiresome negotiations that characterize our getting along with others always pales in comparison to the better society we can imagine if people would only be more agreeable.  Daily, lived, politics will never be as good as it should be—and so we will always hate it.  It’s so difficult, so time-consuming, and the results are always so imperfect.

On the other side of utopia is violence.  Within all of our political arrangements, even the most benign, there is the place of violence, the place where physical force is exerted against bodies.  The police and the prison.  Enforcement of the law.  So even for those who love politics, who are attracted to both its theory (how to build cooperative institutions and social arrangements) and its reality (the give-and-take of negotiations and compromises), there is always this haunting by violence, this fact of a fatal flaw in the pursuit.  This tainting must afflict our attitude toward politics, must insure an ineradicable ambivalence.  At least for me, it is why I keep coming back to the issue of violence, why that issue feels like the one I have most inadequately addressed in my by now voluminous writings on political questions.

I do want to make one, final, unrelated point.  There are those who love politics because they love the thrill of electoral contests.  Certainly, our media plays to the “horse race” side of politics while under-reporting the details of actual political negotiations.  Given the winner take all nature of American elections (as contrasted to proportional representation schemes), the thrill of annihilating your opponent can be attached to winning an election.  So the very attributes that would lead one to be a “political junkie” in relation to electioneering are exactly the wrong attributes for doing the day-to-day work of politics—which is finding a way of enabling people in a pluralistic society to get along and even to manage to accomplish some things collectively.  That’s why the Republican Party strategy of “if Obama is for it, we are against it” is so distressing.  It turns politics into perpetual contest, with no attention to what it might be good to do, but only attention to thwarting one’s opponents at the polls and in matters of policy.  And, as others have noted, that strategy generates hatred and disgust of politics—which serves the end of getting people to tune out, thus allowing the robbery of the public good that many Republicans aim for.

I feel rather condemned by this paradox.  To hate politics today is to cede victory to the Republicans.  They have worked hard to make Americans hate politics—and that hatred provides cover for their rearranging our society to benefit only a very small elite.  So the obvious response is that I should fight against that hatred; I should keep my head in the game.  But it is so dispiriting, so ugly, so soul-destroying.  The temptation is not to touch this pitch, to save oneself since the general conflagration appears unstoppable.

I am going to address another version of this worry when I turn to discussing Christopher Newfield’s extremely important book, The Great Mistake, in my next few posts.

Liberalism and Violence

This will be the last of this series of posts on liberalism, although there will be one more post on the theme of “hatred of politics.”  After that, I hope to abandon political theory for a good long time, turning to other topics of interest.

For leftists, one form of their contempt for liberals is to claim that liberals are blind to 1) the violence that underwrites the societies in which they live and 2) to the fact that class conflict (or some other kind of conflict) is endemic to those societies.  Liberals are Pollyannas, simply unwilling to face up to the facts of violent oppression.  (Conservatives offer a version of the same argument when they say squeamish liberals leave the tough work of insuring social order to the police and the army—and then don’t have the police or the army’s back, but instead criticize them endlessly.)

Are leftists fatalists?  In other words, do leftists believe class conflict is always present, that all societies are ultimately reliant on oppressive violence?  If that is true, then liberals can be condemned as fact-evading and delusional, but are they to be faulted for trying to imagine societies in which conflict is muted?  The leftist, presumably, has a utopian vision of a violence-free society, but it is not present here and now.  What that leftist objects to is the liberal’s apparent belief that current society is not conflict-ridden or violent all the way down, with that conflict and violence permeating every single interaction within the society.

Leftists, it seems to me, face two dilemmas.  The first is that, if violence currently rules the roost, then it is only violence that is going to change the current order.  It is the liberal refusal to endorse such violence that (partially) motivates their scorn.  But, in fact, it seems to me that most leftists today (at least in the US) do not openly advocate revolutionary violence.  (The right—with its gun advocates and militias is much more likely to espouse violence.)  So the left can’t bring itself to embrace the means for change that its own political analysis appears to make mandatory—even as it scorns liberals for not being “radical” enough.  But leftist radicalism looks to me like posturing; it’s an attitude thing not any difference in tactics or actual behavior.

Second dilemma: this is a classic one.  Does the leftist utopia require everyone to be on the same page, for everyone to get with the program?  That is, does a conflict-free society have to eschew pluralism?  How do we imagine a pluralist utopia?

Before I get to that question, let me give a good instance of leftist confusion.  I have just finished reading James Bladwin’s The Fire Next Time.  In that text, Baldwin excoriates liberals precisely for their blindness to the violence that keeps blacks “in their place” in US society.  And Baldwin is highly skeptical that the non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement will bear any fruit.  Yet, in the closing pages of his essay, Baldwin also writes that violence corrupts those who employ it—and urges instead a politics of love as the course that blacks should pursue.  Except that this praise of love leads directly into his closing threat that it will be “the fire next time” if America does not become more just.  So his whole essay is premised on a violent, fiery apocalypse—but there is no agent of this avenging violence.  It just somehow appears.

I think this basic move is repeated time and again in leftist writing.  Violence will be required to effect change—and that violence is invoked.  There is even a call for it in a kind of magus voice.  But there is rarely any descent into actual tactics or any attempt to identify a concrete agent of that violence or an appeal to any group of citizens to take up arms.  It’s as if the violence will occur naturally, the inevitable outcome of long prolonged injustice.  Violence as natural, not political.

That change can be effected by non-violent means—and that those means are quite specifically and purposively political—is the main stake in Dustin Howes’s book Freedom without Violence.  He wants to convince us that non-violent means can be effective—and, crucially, that they are the only means that will secure the outcomes we desire.  Like Baldwin in his sections of love, Howes argues that violence corrupts—and thus undermines the very justice and freedom it claims to be seeking.

Back to liberals.  They do not deny there is social conflict.  But they want to contain conflict to words.  (Rorty makes this point again and again in his work.)  A pragmatist view of democracy is to say democracy is a way to manage conflict.  Since everything in a democracy is up for debate, and since no political decision or institution is immune to becoming a subject of debate, there is good reason for everyone to stay within the game.  There is always the next election, the next legislative session, another day in court.  A vote only cuts off debate temporarily.  The losers can always take their case to the public—and work to win the next election.  The gambit is that the benefits of social peace are big enough to provide everyone with a reason to go along with decisions democratically arrived at.  (Again, we are in the land of trade-offs.  The benefits of peace weighed against decisions that I hate.  No guarantee that I—or anyone else—will choose peace.  There may come a decision that seems worth fighting for—literally, violently, fighting for.)

If we accept this pragmatic view of democracy, we can see why screwing with the rules, with democratic procedures, in a way to game the system so your side can hold onto power indefinitely is a formula for disaster.  If the losers in an election or a debate have no reason to believe they can win the next time around, they have no reason to remain players in the game.  At that point, their only reasonable course is to take to the hills and take to the various forms of rebellion that are not “within the rules or norms of democratic procedure.”  If those rules have been abrogated by the party in power, there is no course open but secession or rebellion or a fatalistic acceptance of injustice, inequality, and the death of democracy.

All of which leads to the final point.  Liberalism is about imagining a pluralist utopia, not a homogeneous one.  Just as liberals are all about trade-offs among competing, incompatible, values, so liberals are trying to imagine a polity that can encompass the widest diversity of peoples, of fundamentals values, and of ways of being in the world.  Conflict in such pluralistic societies is inevitable.  So it is not about avoiding or denying conflict.  It is about keeping conflict from erupting into violence.  One path is tolerance—which might be called “cultivated indifference” to the ways that others live.  Cultivated because indifference does not come naturally.  We are all busy-bodies and we are all outraged by the foibles of our neighbors.  We have to learn how to leave them be, to allow them to do as they please (so long, as the liberal J. S. Mill mantra goes, as they are not harming anyone but themselves).

But pluralism also entails, beyond tolerance (which is a negative virtue), the positive development of institutions, norms, laws, and social arrangements that provide a space for conflict to occur (a free press for example) or that mitigate it (by insuring equality before the law and the full operation of oppositional parties).  What looks to leftists and rightists, then, as liberal wishy-washiness, as the inadequate “radicalism” of liberals, is, in fact, a principled stance that says you should never wish for the annihilation of your opponent, of the person or groups with whom you disagree.  That is the formula for endless violence—and produces a world that we really wouldn’t’ want to live in.