Category: Democracy

Keeping Spirits Bright

I have had a number of responses to my post about the UK elections and my own dispirited despondency facing the current American scene.  The responses ranged from sympathetic to chidings (mostly gentle) for letting the side down.  Despair, people reminded me, is not an option.  We must keep fighting or the other side wins.  I don’t have counter-arguments; it’s not as if I am happy to throw in the towel.  I agree it does no one any good to be defeatist, to say that the other side has already won.  So I am not going to try to defend myself.  Except if saying these three things counts as some kind of defense.

1. The fight itself is soul- and life-destroying.  Again, we must fight against that fact, but there it is.  Being consumed by the fight–and the constant effort to keep fighting–is no way to live.  The daily life of this country has been warped by the ugliness and  cruelty of the right wing.  To step aside from it all is open to well-off people like me, and resisting that temptation to just cultivate indifference, to pursue other interests, requires an effort that is part of the warping.  All around, people are tuned into careerism, consumerism, family, with seemingly nary a care for the cruelty of our society.  Why do I have to care?  And why do I have to agonize over the my inability–and the inability of those like me–to get them to care?  That’s one way of expressing the tiredness I am feeling.

2.  Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.  It is hard to find the right balance between some kind of clear-eyed realism about the mess we are in and the maintenance of belief in a better future.  The internal battles within the left (another, different fight) are about what is realistically possible in the current moment.  I participate in those battles–and am outflanked to my left by many of my friends.  I think they are deluded about what the American electorate will go for.  I do not believe that Sanders would have beaten Trump in 2016.  And I certainly don’t believe (as I will discuss in a future post) that some alternative to the market is on the horizon.

To be scolded for compromising with the market is a favorite rhetorical move of the “radical left”–and I find it depressing because so untethered to reality.  Whether to have a market society or not is not where the true political battle of this moment in America is being waged.  And the radical left is hors combat (i.e. useless) so long as it refuses to engage in any fights that don’t put the market as its stakes.  To add insult to this injury, the radical left spends way too much of its time and energy scorning “liberals,” those potential allies it loves to hate.  I understand that I am the pot calling the kettle black, that I am upbraiding the radical left for what seem to me to be its sins even as I tell them to stop calling out my sins.  Mostly, I try to avoid that.

Thus, in my book on liberalism, I devote a scant five pages to outlining my differences from the left.  The real enemy–the frighteningly potent enemy–are the conservatives.  But let me confess that it drives me nuts to read various self-appointed leftists talk of Antonin Scalia as a liberal, or to claim that current-day American liberals and conservatives as all members of the same “neo-liberal” club.  It’s a time-honored leftist tradition, and one that is as silly today as it was in 1932, to assert that there is no significant difference between the two political parties in the US.  Since the radical left is such a negligible force in American politics, they can be mostly left to their dreams of utter transformation.  But can I register that they are, as my daughter would say, “annoying”?

3. The problem, I guess, is that politics is difficult, and that progress is so very slow, and that even the battles one thinks are won (getting blacks the right to vote) are never fully won, but have to be fought for over and over again, constantly.  The other side is so relentless, so resistant to ever giving an inch.

The self-righteousness with which privilege defends itself has always amazed me.  In fact, self-righteousness is too weak a descriptor.  Fury seems more apt.  The right (the defenders of privilege, of inequality) are always outraged by assaults (perceived or real) on the prevailing hierarchies and rarely hesitant to use violence to maintain those hierarchies.  The use of violence is almost completely taboo on the left these days, but remains part of the common sense of the right.  They resort to violence without an iota of uneasiness or guilt.  And, as readers of this blog know, I can never decide if the left’s refusal of violence is its shining glory or its fatal weakness.  I do know that I cannot imagine being violent myself, that I must put my faith in the ballot box, in the normal political processes of democracy, to effect political and societal change.  But that faith can seem a mug’s game when the other side cares a rat’s ass for democracy–and do everything in their power to short-circuit democratic processes.  So, as usual, I have written myself into another corner, making it awfully difficult to keep my spirit bright.

The Way Things Are Now

I have just returned to the US after four months in London.  The British election was dispiriting, precisely because it seemed so dispirited.  My on-the-ground sense (for what it is worth) is that the electorate was deeply tired and, thus, disengaged.  There was little to no visible passion.  The Brexit thing had exhausted every one except the right-wing and so the sense was “let’s fucking drive over this cliff; at least then it will be over.  Better disaster then this endless wrangling.”  I was not in the least surprised by Johnson’s victory–and it makes me think Trump will win in 2020 through a similar combination of cynicism, the opposition’s incompetence, an avalanche of lies, and the victory of a politics of fear and punishment (of the most vulnerable) over any kind of generous vision of society that cares for its members.

That said, I will take up blogging again now that I have returned.

I am having trouble disentangling the personal experience of decline that is old age from what I deem a more “objective” sense of decline in the world(s) I inhabit.  For the record, I now, for the first time, feel old.  Various capacities are slowly draining away.  The decline is not precipitous, but it is relentless and certainly feels irreversible.  There are no miracle cures or even roads to improvement out there.  My responses to this fact range from impatience at my many new incompetencies to anger at my ineptitude to grief about my lost abilities.  Old age is not pretty and how to suffer it gracefully so far eludes me.

But my grief and anger also focus on the current situation in my world(s).  My mantra has become “I know I am old and cranky, but objectively things are worse.”  Is that actually true?  I can’t tell.  I can only say that I look at the world and my guitar not so gently weeps.  Was it really better in 1969 (when George Harrison wrote those words)? No.  If you were gay, or a soldier in Vietnam, or living in many parts of the so-called third and second worlds, 2019 is likely better than 1969.  The failure of American democracy, registered by the ability of the government to wage a senseless war in Vietnam for over ten years, was open to view then.  The CIA’s shenanigans a few years later in Chile was evidence of a rogue state no less corrupt than Trump’s.  Another danger of getting old: you end up saying I’ve seen all this before; there is nothing new under the sun.

So is something really different this time?  I think so.  What is different is the open cynicism, the complete unleashing of “I will take mine and death to all the others” without any shred of ideological cover.  Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and that tribute has now become passé.  It’s open season on the poor, the immigrant, the “losers.”  No need to even pretend to feel compassion for their troubles, not to mention actually doing anything to alleviate them.  Just pour it on: scorn, neglect, direct harm.  And the aggression to those least able to fend it off is met with howls of glee.  I am constantly reminded of Yeats’s caustic poem of disillusionment, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “we, who seven years ago/Talked of honour and of truth/Shriek with pleasure if we show/The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.”  As they say, this is unfair to weasels who are amateurs when we consider the violence humans can do—and the delight humans (and why mince words? it’s mostly men) can take in that violence.

More Yeats (has anyone ever traced the agonies and emotions that traverse aging better?)  “My mind, because the minds that I have loved,/The sort of beauty that I have approved,/Prosper but little, has dried up of late,/Yet knows that to be choked with hate/May well be of all evil chances chief.” (From “Prayer for my Daughter”)

There is such pleasure in hatred.  The ritual conversations that I and my ilk have about Trump and his minions have come to annoy me now.  But they were sustaining for quite some time.  Now I just want to walk away.  I want to occupy another province, not the lowlands of hate.  But the alternative seems to be resignation since I, too, live in a world where the things I most approved, most loved, most held dear, prosper but little of late.  I think of myself as living in a world where I am a stranger to the beliefs, emotions, and desires of most of my fellow humans.  I will never understand them—but they also seem to hold all the cards.  Let me state the fear directly: after the Boris Johnson victory in England (you can hardly call it Britain since Scotland and even Northern Ireland voted the other way), I think Trump will win reelection.  I think his nihilism and cynicism play well with an astonishing number of white Americans.  They revel in taking the view that everyone is out to get me so I am best off hitting the first blow.  Preemptive strikes: American orthodoxy since the Bush/Cheney years.

To be more parochial: the despair is not just about American society at large, but also about what is being done to higher education as a public institution and good.  A combination of privatization and a relentless attack on critical thought and the production of knowledge.  I guess we should be flattered that we are so hated and feared by the right-wing ideologues.  But it is how ineffectual our responses are to these attacks that garners most of my attention.  I feel on both the macro (society) and micro (university) level a helplessness as I watch the flood coming downriver with full relentlessness and agonizingly slow motion.  The disaster unfolds slowly (rather like global warming) and we do nothing to alter its course.

I will admit to the old age crankiness of, to some extent, blaming the victims.  I find my colleagues’ attitudes and behavior in the current crisis ostrich-like.  They keep acting like it is 1960.  Hannah Arendt was on to a deep truth when she saw much of the behavior in Nazi Germany as motivated by career ambition, by the sheer need to have and hold a job, and to keep advancing up the ranks placed above one’s current position.  Academics (the ones lucky enough to occupy one of the diminishing number of tenurable positions) are focused, as they have ever been, upon getting that next book published and on getting their partner a job at the same school.  Those quests absorb all their energy—and much (most?) of their interest, aside from the ritual denunciations of the Trump and their university’s administrations.  These soi-disant radicals scream loudly against even the mildest suggestions of reform/change in their received practices.  That the university might have to change in order to remain pertinent in a changed world is heresy to them.

That said, however, my experience at UNC clearly demonstrates that there is no placating the enemies of the university—and all that it stands for. Reforming our teaching and research practices (much as I think such reforms are needed) will not call off these weasels.  My despair, it is fair to say, stems from my belief that the relentlessness and aggression of our right-wing enemies echoes a wide-spread “structure of feeling” in white America—and, here is the corresponding source of despair, a conviction that (despite the laudable insistence of some of my left-wing friends otherwise) there is simply no equivalent structure of feeling underwriting the kind of politics I hold dear.  I simply do not believe that Sanders or Warren could win a national election.  I think the right has succeeded in planting a fear of “socialism” so deep in the electorate’s psyche that Warren and Sanders would suffer the same fate as Corbyn.  The British miracle election of 1945 comes to seem more and more a “black swan” when we consider post-1945 politics in both the UK and the US.  For once, the promise of socialism triumphed over Churchill’s fear-mongering about the coming police state.  The only equivalent might be LBJ’s 1964 victory—when a fear of right-wing radicalism equivalent to the fear of socialism for once led to victory.  Of course, in the aftermath of that election, the Republicans discovered white American resentment and have ridden that horse ever since with pretty good results.  (Yes, the Republicans are a minority party, but they have combined the oddities of the American institutional structure [the electoral college; the make-up of the Senate] with an absolutely ruthless undermining of democracy to secure their hold on power.)

So I don’t see a pathway out of the full unleashing of right-wing nastiness in the US and the UK.  I guess we can say that the taboos against violence so far are holding.  We are seeing nothing like the street fights (and killings) that characterized 1920s and 1930s Germany in the lead up to Hitler.  Yes, we have our right-wing militias, but politically motivated domestic terrorism has been confined, so far, to loner shooters.  I do think (and certainly hope I am right) that more organized violence would prove counter-productive, would generate a strong negative reaction to those using such tactics.

But the right-wing has not needed to resort to violence.  Its aggressive shredding of institutional protections against the abuse of power has worked just fine.  It has discovered that the electorate neither cares nor pays much attention to power-grabbing maneuvers that are procedural.  There is no accountability any longer—for corporations that engage in various illegal financial capers, for rich tax evaders, or for politicians who work to deprive citizens of votes or to deprive elected officials of the other party their ability to function.

Among the things I hate is the wistfulness that accompanies my despair.  Late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature (think Proust or Henry James, especially in the abominable Princess Casamassima, or even Virginia Woolf) is replete with tales that witness (helplessly) to the ongoing disappearance of a class (call them aristocrats, but better described as the leisured classes who did not have to earn their bread by working) whose faults the writers can see, but whose virtues they also think are superior to those of the commercial classes.  These writers know this leisured class is doomed—and they don’t even try very hard to defend their existence, even though they think the coming world is bound to be worse.  (Yeats and Eliot, of course, attempt more full-throated defenses of aristocracy, which is why they are anti-democratic conservatives in a way Proust, Woolf, and even James are not.)

I don’t like standing in a similar place, wistfully defending a set of values and a group of people who have lost their social standing, have lost their ability to influence the direction their society takes.  But the flood of words from people like me—who never lose our ability to pour out more verbiage—seems more pathetic by the day.  We wallow in our own virtue in a world where the weasels reign and we have nothing else to offer.

I will, per usual, knock on doors next fall, and do whatever else the Democrats ask me to do.  Inevitably, I will once again donate money, and even run (as I have the last two cycles) a fund-raiser or two.  I hate (so many things to hate!) abetting the link between politics and money (corrupting in every possible way) in the US.  I try to abide by my resolution to give my money to local charities that I respect instead of to local political candidates.  But I do not stick to that resolution resolutely.  And all of it—from the knocking on doors to the raising of money—feels like tokenism to me.  I don’t believe it makes an iota of difference.  The real levers are located elsewhere, far from any place I will ever enter.  So why do I do it?  To ease my conscience.  And also because people I love, people whose commitment to the fight inspires me because so whole-hearted (even as I think it naïve) do believe such things matter and ask me to do my bit.  I don’t want to let them down, but they can also see my heart is not really in it.  Just another messy compromise—giving something but not in a spirit that would make the gift truly welcome.  But, then again, isn’t politics the art of compromise?

What does remain is the despair, the deep daily hurt of living in a society that is so cruel, and that revels in its cruelties.  I don’t understand these people, yet not only must live among them, but also must accept their dominance, their ability to shape what gets done and said and felt.  I will never reconcile myself to that fact—and it is crazy-making and depressing and fuels dreams of flight.

The United States and the History and Fate of Liberal Democracy

 

I have just finished reading Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2019).  For much of the book, I was disappointed by what Berman has to say.  She lays out the histories of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain (with a more truncated account of the Eastern European countries of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) to describe their transition to liberal democracy (or failure to make that transition) from their starting points, monarchial dictatorship in the case of France, Britain, and Spain, non-statehood in the cases of Germany and Italy, and the muddled, colonized situations in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The disappointment came from the fact that she offers non-revisionist history in what, even in a long 400 page plus book, must necessarily be fairly quick narratives of each country’s story.  It is nice to have all of this history within the covers of a single book, but I learned nothing new.  And the stories told are so conventional that I found myself suspicious of them.  Surely more recent work (my knowledge base for this material is at least twenty years old) has troubled the received accounts.

But Berman’s final chapter takes her story in a different direction.  She develops what has been hinted at throughout her narratives: a set of enabling conditions for the achievement of liberal democracy.  Basically, she sees six types of governments in European nation-states since 1650: monarchial dictatorship (Louis XIV; attempted unsuccessfully by the Stuart kings in England);  military (conservative) dictatorship (Franco, Bismarck, other more short-lived versions; Napoleon Bonaparte is, in certain ways, a liberal military dictatorship, thus rather different); fascist dictatorships (Italy, and Germany; crucially not Franco); totalitarian communism (Eastern Europe after WW II); illiberal democracy (Napoleon III, Berlusconi, Hungary and Poland right now); and liberal democracy.

Today, it seems pretty clear, illiberal and liberal democracy are pretty much the only games in town, at least in what used to be called the First World.  Military coups and their follow-up, military dictatorships, are still possibilities, especially outside of Europe, but not all that likely in Europe.  More ominous, perhaps, are the authoritarian regimes now in place in Russia and China—regimes that don’t fit into the six types listed above, and represent some kind of new development that responds to the aftermath of disastrous totalitarian communist regimes.   Again, the appearance of such regimes in Western Europe seems unlikely, although a real possibility in Eastern Europe and perhaps already installed in Turkey.

Here’s Berman on what makes a democracy “liberal.”  “[L]iberal democracy requires governments able to enforce the democratic rules of the game, guarantee the rule of law, protect minorities and individual liberties, and, of course, implement policies.  Liberal democracy requires, in other words, a relatively strong state.  Liberal democracy also requires that citizens view their government as legitimate, respect the democratic rules of the game, obey the law, and accept other members of society as political equals.  Liberal democracy also requires, in other words, a consensus on who belongs to the national community—who ‘the people’ are—and is therefore entitled to participate in the political process and enjoy the other rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Reflecting this, throughout European history liberal democracy—but not illiberal or electoral democracy—has consolidated only in countries possessing relatively strong states and national unity” (392).

Berman thus insists that liberal democracy is dependent upon the nation-state—where a shared sense of national identity underwrites (makes possible) the existence of a strong central state.  There are three major obstacles to the achievement of national unity: regionalism, ethnic differences, and the “old order.”  For the most part, Berman focuses on the “old order.”  She adopts Eric Hobsbawm’s assertion that “since 1789 European and indeed world politics has been a struggle for and against the principles of the French Revolutions” (49 in Berman).  For Berman, that means that the old order which straightforwardly granted “privileges” to a certain segment of society (the aristocracy and the clergy in ancient régime France) must be destroyed to create the political equality of full participation and the general equality before the law that are the sine non qua of liberal democracy.  The story of European history since 1650 is of the very slow destruction of the old order—and of the ways that elites resisted fiercely the movement toward democracy and toward liberalism. (Crucially, democracy and liberalism are not the same and do not inevitably appear together.  Napoleon Bonaparte arguably was a liberal dictator, whereas his nephew Louis Napoleon was an illiberal democratic leader.)

A key part of that story is Berman’s claim that the “sequencing” of the moves toward democracy is crucial to actually getting there.  Three things must happen: 1. A strong central state must be created; i.e. the power of regions must be broken as well as the power of local elites; crucially, this move involves the creation of institutions that can function to govern the whole territory;   2. A strong sense of national identity (again opposed to more local loyalties) must be created; and 3. Building upon the existence of that strong state and strong sense of shared identity, liberal democracy can be securely established.  Berman notes that in post-colonial situations, where the new state begins without possessing a strong central government or a strong sense of national identity, the attempt to establish liberal democracy almost never succeeds. Doing all three things at the same time is just about impossible.

“European political development makes clear, in short, that sequencing matters: without strong states and national identities, liberal democracy is difficult if not impossible to achieve.  It is important to remember, however, that regardless of how sequencing occurred, there was no easy or peaceful path to liberal democracy.  The difference between Western and Southern and East-Central Europe was not whether violence and instability were part of the back-story of liberal democracy, but when and over how long a period they occurred.  In Western Europe state- and nation-building were extremely violent and coercive, involving what today would be characterized as colonization and ethnic cleansing, that is, the destruction and absorption of weaker political entities into stronger ones (for example, Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine into France, Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland into Britain) and the suppression or elimination of traditional communities, loyalties, languages, traditions, and identities in the process of creating new, national ones.  But in much of Western Europe these processes occurred or at least began during the early modern period (but not, notably, in Italy or Germany), and so unlike Southern and Central Europe, Western Europe did not experience the violence and coercion associated with state- and nation-building during the modern era at the same time the challenge of democratization appeared on the political agenda.  By the nineteenth century in France and England, and by the second half of the twentieth century in the rest of Western Europe, states were strong and legitimate enough to advance nation-building without overt coercion but instead via education, promoting national culture, language, and history, improved transport and communication networks, and by supporting a flourishing civil society within which potentially cross-cutting cleavages and networks could develop, strengthening the bonds among citizens” (394-95).  East and Central Europe did not have this long time span—and had to cram all three projects (state building, nation building, and democratization) into the same period, which makes success much less likely (where success is establishing a stable liberal democracy).

Berman also argues that, in the aftermath of World War II, Western Europe adopted “social democracy” (aka the welfare state) in order to demonstrate the state’s commitment to the well-being of all its citizens after the sacrifices of the war and the sufferings of the depression.  National solidarity, she argues, is heightened by this responsiveness of the state to the needs of all its citizens—an antidote to the 1930s conviction in much of Europe that liberal regimes could not protect citizens from the depredations of capitalism.  She quotes Henry Morgenthau, American Secretary of the Treasury in his opening remarks at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference: “All of us have seen the great economic tragedy of our time.  We saw the worldwide depression of the 1930s . . . . We saw bewilderment and bitterness become the breeders of fascism and finally of war.  To prevent a recurrence of this phenomenon, national governments would have to be able to do more to protect people from capitalism’s ‘malign effects’” (Berman, 284).  Berman is a firm believer in Habermas’s “constitutional nationalism”; she thinks that national solidarity is best reinforced by a welfare state that extends benefits and protection to all its citizens.  (See pages 296-297).  She also is a strong proponent of “the primacy of politics” (the title of her excellent earlier book, which I discussed in this blog post), meaning that governments should take management of the economy as one of its essential political projects.

How might all this relate to US history?  It certainly offers an interesting way to think about the American South.  To even create a national state, the South had to be granted the privilege of continued slavery.  Without slavery, there would have been no United States in 1787.  The founder of my university (the University of North Carolina), William Davie is only recorded as speaking once at the Constitutional Convention.  “At a critical point in the deliberations, however, William Davie spoke up for the interests of the Southern slaveholders. In his pivotal statement, Davie asserted that North Carolina would not join the federal union under terms that excluded slaves from being counted for representation. Unlike other Southern delegates, Davie was flexible and willing to negotiate, because he was committed to the realization of the union. Indeed, once the three-fifths compromise was reached, Davie became an enthusiastic advocate of the United States Constitution. He spent two years campaigning for the document’s ratification.” (Source)

Hence slavery was akin to the privileges (the bribes) French kings had to grant the nobility in order to create a strong central French state.  Similarly, the regions (i.e. the separate colonies) had to be granted the privilege of equal representation in the Senate in order to yield sovereignty to the national government.  Thus the American state was compromised from the start.  It took violence to end slavery and then the South was bribed again in the aftermath of the Civil War when a blind eye was turned on Jim Crow.  The elites of the South, in other words, never had to submit to democratization; they barely had to maintain any kind of national allegiance or identity.  The South was allowed to go its own way for the most part.  Yet the Dixiecrat South, because of the Senate, held the balance of power in Roosevelt’s New Deal, guaranteeing that the first steps toward social democracy in the US were not open to all citizens.  Blacks were excluded from most of the New Deal programs.  The non-democratic Senate (made even less democratic by its extra-constitutional adoption of the “filibuster”) served anti-democratic elites well.

Arguably, World War II created a stronger sense of national identity through the participation in a mass army. (The war, of course, also made the federal government immensely bigger and stronger.) That mass participation opened the way toward the civil rights movement—both because the national government felt more secure in its power and because the justice of rewarding blacks for their military service appealed strongly to Harry Truman (among others), even as service overseas gave black veterans a taste of dignity and freedom.  It is not an accident that the first significant integration mandated by the national government was of the military (by Truman in 1948).

It is also no accident that Strom Thurmond ran against Truman in the 1948 presidential election, winning five Southern states, and beginning the slow process of the South moving from being solidly Democratic to becoming solidly Republican.  Even though Republicans (the party of Lincoln) were crucial to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the party’s presidential standard bearer in that year was Barry Goldwater, who opposed the civil rights bill—and carried the South even as he was defeated in a landslide.  The “Southern strategy” was born.  The long impotent right-wing opposition to the New Deal could gain power if the national solidarity created by World War II and the welfare state could be overcome by selling a significant portion of the  general populace on the notion that welfare was exploited by lazy, sexually promiscuous, and potentially violent blacks.  Throw in fear of communism and a religious-tinged moral panic about “permissiveness” among the unwashed, drugged-out hippies protesting the Vietnam War and the scene was set for the conservative roll-back of America’s (always less than generous or fully established) social democracy.

American Conservatism from 1964 on was not simply Southern, but took its playbook from the South.  That is (to recall Berman’s list of the requirements of liberal democracy above), the Republican party embraced positions that denied the full equality of all citizens in terms of political participation and demonized the opposition as unfit to govern, as an existential threat to the nation, as not “real” Americans.  The two Democratic presidents post-Reagan were condemned as illegitimate and criminal by the right-wing media and by Republican congresses, with Clinton impeached and Obama subjected to everything from the “birther” fantasies to deliberate obstruction and the refusal to even vote on his Supreme Court nominee.

In short, Berman’s analysis suggests that the South was never integrated into the American nation—and has successfully resisted that integration to this day.  Furthermore, one of the national political parties has allied itself with that Southern resistance, using it to further its own resistance to democracy.  That resistance to democracy has multiple sources, but certainly includes the business elites’ desire to prevent government management of the economy—including environmental regulations, support of labor’s interests against employers, aggressive deployment of anti-trust and anti-discrimination laws, and strong enforcement of financial regulations and tax laws.  Just as the South had to be bribed to even nominally be part of the Union, so the economic elite has also been bribed to accept grudgingly even the attenuated democracy and welfare state in place in the US.  The bribery, we might say, goes both ways; the plutocrats bribe the politicians by financing their campaigns, and the politicians bribe the plutocrats by keeping the state out of their hair.

Berman’s story is that liberal democracy collapses when people become convinced that it cannot serve their needs.  Only “a socioeconomic order capable of convincing its citizens that liberal democracy could and would respond to their needs” (295) stands between us and the illiberal alternatives that offer themselves when liberal democracy appears incapable of delivering the goods. The failures of liberal democracy since 1970 are manifest; its corruption and its slide into plutocracy in the United States are plainly evident.

In the United States today, we live in a cruel society.  The right wing solution is to say “Yes, life is cruel.  There are winners and losers—and we are offering you a chance to be on the side of the winners, while also giving you a way to justify the fate of the losers.  They are the lazy, or the weak-willed (drug addicts), the ungodly, or the illegal (criminal, or undocumented,) or otherwise unworthy of full citizenship, or full compassion.”  The left tries to hold on to the vision of social democracy.  An anti-democratic left is not a strong force in present-day America the way it was in 1900 to 1935 Europe.  The mushy center wants to hold on to existing civil liberties and to the existing rules of the game even as the emboldened right ignores both with impunity.

It is possible that the 2020 presidential election will present a clear choice between a robust re-assertion of social democracy versus the divide-and-conquer rightism that also aligns itself with ruthless capitalism. (We could also get a Democratic candidate like Biden who represent the mushy center.) I have friends who are convinced that the right will not accept the election results if it loses by a fairly small margin.  I find that scenario implausible; I don’t think the stability of American democracy is that precarious.  But a recent conversation with one friend made me less sure.  And Berman’s book puts the question rather starkly: If the Trumpists refuse to accept the election results, is there enough commitment to liberal democracy to lead to the kind of large-scale public response that would make a coup fail?  Or has faith in liberal democracy been so eroded by its gridlock and its impotence over the past eight years (ever since the feeble and inadequate response to the 2008 financial crisis) that the response to another stolen election would echo the shrug of January 2001 when the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush.  A scary thought.  But it would certainly seem, in light of the history Berman outlines, that a complacent faith in the persistence of our (even attenuated) liberal democracy is probably unfounded.

Secular Ethics

I am about one-third of the way through Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, 2019), of which more anon.

But I have been carrying around in my head for over seven months now my own build-it-from-scratch notion of ethics without God.  The impetus was a student pushing me in class last fall to sketch out the position—and then the book on Nietzsche’s “religion of life” that I discussed in my last post (way too long ago; here’s the link).

So here goes.  The starting point is: it is better to be alive than dead.  Ask one hundred people if they would rather live than die and 99 will choose life.

A fundamental value: to be alive.

First Objection:

Various writers have expressed the opinion that is best not to have been born since this life is just a constant tale of suffering and woe.  Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Here’s Ecclesiastes, beginning of Chapter 4:

“Next, I turned to look at all the acts of oppression that make people suffer under the sun. Look at the tears of those who suffer! No one can comfort them. Their oppressors have all the power. No one can comfort those who suffer. I congratulate the dead, who have already died, rather than the living, who still have to carry on. But the person who hasn’t been born yet is better off than both of them. He hasn’t seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Here’s Sophocles’ version of that thought, from Oedipus at Colonus:

“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. For when he has seen youth go by, with its easy merry-making, [1230] what hard affliction is foreign to him, what suffering does he not know? Envy, factions, strife, battles, [1235] and murders. Last of all falls to his lot old age, blamed, weak, unsociable, friendless, wherein dwells every misery among miseries.”

And here is Nietzsche’s version, which he calls the “wisdom of Silenus” in The Birth of Tragedy:

“The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is to die soon.”

Second Objection:

As Hägglund argues, many religions are committed to the notion that being alive on earth is not the most fundamental good.  There is a better life elsewhere—a different thought than the claim that non-existence (not to have been born) would be preferable to life.

Response to Objections:

The rejoinder to the first two objections is that few people actually live in such a way that their conduct demonstrates an actual belief in non-existence or an alternative existence being preferable to life on this earth.  Never say never.  I would not argue that no one has ever preferred an alternative to this life.  But the wide-spread commitment to life and its continuance on the part of the vast majority seems to me enough to go on.  I certainly don’t see how that commitment can appear a weaker starting plank than belief in a divine prescriptor of moral rules.  I would venture to guess that the number of people who do not believe in such a god is greater than the number who would happily give up this life for some other state.

Third Objection:

There are obvious—and manifold—reasons to choose death over life under a variety of circumstances.  I think there are two different paths to follow in thinking about this objection.

Path #1:

People (all the time) have things that they value more than life.  They are willing (literally—it is crucial that it is literally) to die for those things.  Hence the problem of establishing “life” as the supreme value.  Rather, what seems to be the case is that life is an understood and fundamental value—and that we demonstrate the truly serious value of other things precisely by being willing to sacrifice life for those other things.  To put one’s life on the line is the ultimate way of showing where one’s basic commitments reside.  This is my basic take-away from Peter Woodford’s The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (U of Chicago P, 2018; the book discussed in my last post.)  To use Agamben’s terms “bare life” is not enough; it will always be judged in relation to other values.  A standard will be applied to any life; its worth will be judged.  And in some cases, some value will be deemed of more worth than life—and life will be sacrificed in the name of that higher value.  In other words, “life” can not be the sole value.

I am resolutely pluralist about what those higher values might be that people are willing to sacrifice life for.  My only point is that an assumed value of life provides the mechanism (if you will) for demonstrating the value placed on that “other” and “higher” thing.  In other words, the fact (gift?) of life—and the fact of its vulnerability and inevitable demise (a big point for Hägglund, to be discussed in next post)—establishes a fundamental value against which other values can be measured and displayed.  Without life, no value. (A solecism in one sense.  Of course, if no one was alive, there would be no values.  But the point is also that there would be no values if life itself was not valued, at least to some extent.) Placing life in the balance enables the assertion of a hierarchy of values, a reckoning of what matters most.

Path #2:

It is possible not only to imagine, but also to put into effect, conditions that make life preferable to death.  As Hannah Arendt put it, chillingly, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the Nazis, in the concentration camps and elsewhere, were experts in making life worse than death. Better to be dead than to suffer various forms of torture and deprivation.

I want to give this fact a positive spin.  If the first plank of a secular ethics is “it is better to be alive than dead,” then the second to twentieth planks attend to the actual conditions on the ground required to make the first plank true.  We can begin to flesh out what “makes a life worth living,” starting with material needs like sufficient food, water, and shelter, and moving on from there to things like security, love, education, health care etc.  We have various versions of the full list from the UN Declaration of Rights to Martha Nussbaum’s list of “capabilities.”

“Bare life” is not sufficient; attending to life leads quickly to a consideration of “quality” of life.  A secular ethics is committed, it seems to me, to bringing about a world in which the conditions for a life worth living are available to all.  The work of ethics is the articulation of those conditions.  That articulation becomes fairly complex once some kind of base-line autonomy—i.e. the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves what a life worth living looks like—is made a basic condition of a life worth living.  [Autonomy is where the plurality of “higher values” for which people are willing to sacrifice life comes in.  My argument would be 1) no one should be able to compel you to sacrifice life for their “higher value” and 2) you are not allowed to compel anyone to sacrifice life for your “higher value.”  But what about sacrificing your goods—through taxes, for example?  That’s much trickier and raises thorny issues of legitimate coercion.]

It seems to me that a secular ethics requires one further plank.  Call it the equality principle.  Simply stated: no one is more entitled to the basic conditions of a life worth living than anyone else.  This is the minimalist position I have discussed at other times on this blog.  Setting a floor to which all are entitled is required for this secular ethics to proceed.

What can be the justification for the equality principle?  Some kind of Kantian universalism seems required at this juncture.  To state it negatively: nothing in nature justifies the differentiation of access to the basic enabling conditions of a life worth living.  To state it positively: to be alive is to possess an equal claim to the means for a life worth living.

Two complications immediately arise: 1. Is there any way to justify inequalities above the floor?  After every one has the minimal conditions met, must there be full equality from there?  2.  Can there be any justification for depriving some people, in certain cases, of the minimum? (The obvious example would be imprisonment or other deprivations meted out as punishments.)

Both of these complications raise the issue of responsibility and accountability.  To what extent is the life that people have, including the quality of that life, a product of their prior choices and actions?  Once we grant that people have the freedom to make consequential choices, how do we respond to those consequences?  And when is society justified in imposing consequences that agents themselves would strive to evade?

No one said ethics was going to be easy.  Laws and punishments are not going to disappear.  Democracy is meant to provide a deliberative process for the creation of laws and sanctions—and to provide the results of those deliberations with legitimacy.

All I have tried to do in this post is to show where a secular ethics might begin its deliberations—without appealing to a divine source for our ethical intuitions or for our ethical reasonings.

Inequality and Violence (Final)

To sum up the previous posts.  Scheidel offers three reasons to think that violence leads to decreased inequality of both wealth and income.

  1. The sheer destruction of wealth by violence. Since the wealthy have more to lose, if you destroy a lot of wealth, the gap between those with a lot and those with a little will be closed to some extent.  Even the 2008 financial collapse led to a short-term diminution of the percentage of US total wealth owned by the top 10%.  The decrease was not huge, and the lessening of the gap was only temporary (lasting about 18 months), but there was a dip.  The more prolonged and extreme destruction of wealth of the world wars, especially of World War II, was an equalizer (again, only to a certain degree, but of a degree unseen in the West over the past four hundred years).
  2. Income disparities are lessened when labor becomes relatively scarce and can, thus, command larger wages. Total warfare of the 20th century variety renders labor scarce.  There is more work to be done than hands to do it—and thus incomes rise for those lower down the ladder.

 

  1. Total war also has, to some extent, a “moral” effect—or perhaps it is only a prudential one—in that the wider distribution of economic benefits (accompanied by a sense that all should also share in necessary sacrifices such as rationing and the provision of sons to the military) is seen as “fair” and as conducive to patriotic solidarity for the duration. The programs put in place to achieve that wider distribution take a fairly long time to dismantle—if we can generalize from the experience of the post-World War II years.

There seems to me a fourth way to account for (at least in the 20th century context) the connection between total war and greater economic equality.  War seems the only pretext for confiscation of wealth and for sharply progressive income taxes that serves to bring modern democracies to enact those measures.  If capitalism tends toward growing accumulations of wealth in the hands of the few and to sharp differentials in incomes, then only confiscation of wealth can undo accumulation and only progressive income taxes can lessen the effects of widely unequal wages.  Again, Scandinavia may offer the exception here, a place where the need to finance a generous welfare state was enough to put high taxes on both wealth and income into place.  But Scandinavia aside, the US and the UK only had high tax rates in the 1950s and 1960s as left-overs from the war effort.   Nations will confiscate wealth to pay for war–and not for other goals.

There is the revolutionary alternative.  The Russian and Chinese Revolutions did confiscate accumulated wealth.  But doing so required massive violence—either through the outright murder of those who held the confiscated property or by driving the wealthy into exile with much of their wealth left behind.  As Machiavelli already suggested, the wealthy will in most (although not all) cases fight to the death to maintain their wealth—although it is also fair to say that in Russia and especially China the revolutionary regimes preemptively assumed the rich would fight for their wealth and put them to death before they had much chance to take up arms.  American slavery appears another similar case.  Confiscation of the wealth represented by slaves could only be effected through violence.  And if we want to be really brutal about it, we could say that the American Civil War (a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight) left the old slave-owners in place and thus did not effect the social revolution required to actually place the enslaved on any kind of equal footing with the slave-owners even after emancipation.  The point: it is not clear that you can confiscate wealth on a large scale and still actually retain the formerly wealthy as citizens in your new regime.  They are very unlikely to come over to your side, becoming instead the reactionaries of the equalizer’s nightmares.

The challenge, then, today is to get enough political support—and, perhaps more importantly, enough political power—to enact the kind of wealth and income taxes that the experts (including Thomas Piketty) say would be needed to reverse the increasing economic inequality in the West.  Opinion polls seem to suggest that a majority of Americans favor higher taxes on the top 15%, but the majority doesn’t hold the power (currently) in the US to put such aspirations into law or practice.  Lots of reasons for that lack of power, but capital flight (in all its varied forms) is not the least among them.  Democracy (political power) is currently subservient to economic power.

I want to make two further points to bring this thread to a conclusion.  Violence is connected with the lessening of inequality, because that lessening (it seems) always requires bringing the wealthy down.  This, of course, is the cry of conservatives, who attribute the project of equality to “envy” and see that project as always about making some people worse off without ever doing anything to make others better off.

The leftist utopia, on the other hand, depends on not shrinking the overall pie, but of distributing its pieces more equitably. Here we get into the territory of Rawls max/min—how much inequality should we tolerate in order to maximize the overall (national) wealth, the amount that can be distributed.  Conservatives, of course, like to insist that the only things holding back even greater production of wealth are high (disincentivizing) taxes and excessive regulations.  Take off those restraints—and we’d see the market really take off, to the benefit of all. (And like my colleague on rural electrification, the conservative will say that inequality doesn’t matter at all.  It is just the raising of the floor, the availability of various benefits of prosperity to all that matters.  Even if the rising tide makes the rich richer, it will also make the poor better off.)

But liberals can also have their own versions of models that see economic growth as a cure for our ills.  We could lessen the pain (and conflict) of confiscation if somewhat more progressive taxes were joined to economic growth managed in such a way that the gains went mostly to those at the bottom.

This is where Piketty’s work becomes important.  Straightforwardly, he tells us that you can’t grow your way into greater economic equality unless the rate of return on capital is less than the economic growth.  So long as R>G (i.e. return on capital is greater than growth), all growth will only increase inequality.  And Piketty’s lesson is that it is just about completely impossible to make R<G in the absence of high taxes that undo what the market will do of itself—which is increase inequality.  You have to confiscate market-derived income and wealth to counteract the market dynamics that always (except in periods of massive catastrophe like the world wars and the great depression) lead to ever larger concentrations of wealth.  On that, Piketty in telling us, Marx was right.

Scheidel—and this is my second (and last) point—wonders if Marx was right about the dynamic that pushes wages ever lower and lower.  Absent catastrophes, are there any governors that would keep us from returning to the conditions in 1840 Manchester and 1890 East London?  Scheidel attacks this question by pondering what is the maximum inequality that a society could reach before failing to reproduce itself.  In other words, how high a rate of inequality is sustainable.  His answer is: quite high.  The current US GINI coefficient is about 48, as is China’s.  Norway is 27, France 30, Brazil 49, Columbia 54, and South Africa 63.  Through a series of mathematical calculations that I admit are beyond my ability to follow, Scheidel believes that a GINI coefficient of 60 is very close to “the level of inequality at which current levels of output could no longer be attained” (453).  At the other end of the scale, he also concludes that “in market economies, disposable income inequality needs to be significantly above zero in order to sustain his levels of per capita output” (456).  He suggests that a GINI coefficient of 10 designates a floor (where, we should recall, a GINI coefficient of zero represents total equality).  Thus, modern economies operate within an “inequality possibility space” between 10 and 60 on the GINI scale.  The US has moved from a GINI of 35 in 1979 to one of 48 in 2017.  So, apparently, [if Scheidel is right about the upper limit] we have room to continue the accumulation of wealth and income in the upper echelons that has characterized the last forty years.

As with climate change, the question is whether there are any political forces organized and powerful enough to reverse current trends.  Or are we doomed to keep traveling in the direction that we have been going?

Violence and Inequality (Part Three)

Continuing my engagement with Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017).

A colleague of mine who teaches about the dynamics of violence was very dismissive of Scheidel’s book.  He claimed it was simply wrong—and explained he hadn’t read the book because its thesis was so patently absurd.  He reasoning: there has never been violence on a scale massive enough to effect the kinds of redistributive effects that Scheidel reports.  Unfortunately, our conversation then got sidetracked by another colleague who was present and disputed Scheidel’s thesis by pointing to rural electrification.  Poverty in the American South was greatly reduced by the watershed event of introducing electricity—and that had nothing to do with violence.

So what does all this lead me to say?  First, if technology makes something like electricity cheaper and thus more widely available, that doesn’t mean that inequality (which is always relative, not absolute) was lessened.  My colleague’s response to that was: then why does inequality matter? A good question.  It is the case that, as Branko Milanovic is fond of pointing out, even the poorest person in the United States is better off than 40% of the world’s population.  So, if extreme poverty doesn’t exist, why care about the distribution of goods and wealth?

The response comes in two varieties, it seems to me.  First response: I do think there is what I have come to think of as “bottom-line minimalism.”  That is, prior to worrying about equality per se, there should be the establishment of a “floor” below which no one is allowed to live.  The floor would be a package of basic goods, including food, shelter, health care, access to education, old age pensions and the like.  Since the funding for such a universal floor would have to, in large part, come from taxation, it seems likely that a robust social democracy will have less inequality than a less robust one—as well as lower levels of poverty.  Such is demonstrably the case in the contrast between European countries like France and Norway with the UK and the US.  But, once the floor is adequately funded, we could wipe our hands and have no further interest in reducing inequality.

The second response is to consider the social ills attendant upon inequality.  Now it may be hard to separate those ills out from absolute, as opposed to relative, inequality.  So, for example, the poor have a much shorter life expectancy than the rich in the US for a host of reasons.  Perhaps a basic package of guaranteed goods would close that gap.  It also seems demonstrably true to me (although I haven’t seen anyone make this argument—and thus prove my intuitions here) that inequality of the sort now prevalent in the US is a major cause of homelessness.  The reasoning goes like this: it obviously makes sense for any industry (in this case real estate and home construction) to go for the customers who have money.  At the same time, the more disposable money the people at the top have to spend, the more likely they are to spend it on real estate.  The rich now regularly have five homes or more.  Furthermore, as is well attested, global inequality leads to foreign money coming into the housing markets of Vancouver, Auckland, London, New York, and Los Angeles.  Housing prices are driven up; those providing housing have every incentive to concentrate on the high end of the market, while those whose income and wealth in increasingly a smaller fraction of the top earners are priced out.  The same sort of argument—attuned to the differences in the market in each case—might be made about health care and higher education.

Now I believe that in all of these goods—health care, higher education, and housing—we have markets that produce “artificial scarcity.”  There is no reason quality health care, quality education, and decent housing could not be widely available, instead of rationed as they currently are.  But when that scarcity (or, in the case of housing and education, the willingness, even desire, of the rich to pay very high prices for the luxury version) skews the market, we should fully expect that market to pay little attention to providing goods at the low end.  That task is left to “public education,” “public housing,” and “public hospitals,” all of which have been starved for funds ever since the neoliberal counter-revolution began in the mid-1970s.  It is impossible to decouple the US’s inability to solve its housing crisis, and to reverse its horrible health care record (when contrasted to every other “rich” country in the world) from the fact of the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth since the 1970s.  The two are certainly correlated even if the exact causal relation between them can’t be fingered.

None of this is exactly news.  What my first colleague’s objection to Scheidel’s thesis puts into question is how and why “the great compression” of 1914 to 1970 occurred.  Basically, given the size of the world’s population post-1800, the amount of violence required to substantially lower inequality is just about impossible to achieve.  World War I, along with the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, killed approximately 50 million people.  The population of the world in 1900 is reported as 1.6 billion people.  Therefore, the death toll is about 3% of the world’s population.  Compare that to the 33% decrease in population Scheidel attributes to the Black Death.  (As a side note, it is precisely the huge increases in population after 1800 that underwrite Steven Pinker’s insistence that violence has greatly decreased in the modern era.  The numbers required to show that a large percentage of people die violently are now simply massive.)

So: the violence of the 20th century does not seem large enough to create the kind of labor shortages that Scheidel associates with the Black Death.  In that case, his argument is that laborers are placed in a better bargaining position when they are in short supply and, thus, inequality drops because wages go up.  (A kind of reverse of Marx’s notion of the vast reserve army of the unemployed.)

But Scheidel’s argument about the effects of 20th century violence, in fact, seems to go in another direction.  The key feature of the 20th century wars is mass mobilization.  Thus the leverage the poor acquire stems from the need for their whole-hearted support of the war effort.  Governments feel compelled to assure that wages outstrip the inevitable war-time inflation and that government regulation tamps down “wartime profiteering.”  Such measures to equalize (if only moderately) rewards across the board then carry over into peacetime—for at least a period of time (about 30 to 40 years in the aftermath of World War II).  The dynamic is perhaps best represented by the famous Beveridge Report of December 1942 in the UK .  But there was also FDR’s “second bill of rights” in his 1944 state of the union address.  (Of course, the Beveridge Report was, to a large extent, implemented, whereas FDR’s ambitious program died aborning.)  So it is not the number of deaths that is so crucial as the scale of mobilization, which then exerts pressure to heighten national solidarity by moving the nation in a demonstrably more equal direction.  The issue then becomes whether there is anyway, short of war, to produce the kind of impetus toward lowering inequality.  The depressing evidence is No.  Climate change certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—even though a goodly majority now say they favor a “green new deal.”  William James’s hope for a “moral equivalent of war” keeps resurfacing in different guises.

Which now leads us back to another argument against relative inequality, even where absolute poverty has mostly been eliminated.  The top 1% in the US now (according to some reckonings) pay 40% of the cost for American electioneering.  Although goodly majorities favor increased taxes on the wealthy, the political likelihood of raising taxes is fairly slim.  We don’t have a democracy, but a plutocracy.  And that has deleterious effects in all kinds of ways, including an inability to respond to things like climate change and our housing crisis.  It is the inequities in power that unequal wealth breeds that are one possible objection to economic inequality.

I will end here today.  The question Scheidel poses is whether, apart from historic moments of great violence, there is some other form of pressure that would move a state to adopt measures that distribute economic goods more equitably.  I assume the history of the establishment of social democracy in Scandinavia would be most relevant here—and will admit to total ignorance of that history.  Sweden did not participate in either World War I or World War II.  The goal remains some non-violent alternative, some form of concerted democratic action, that could change the economic order—with its relentless (over the past 40 years) increase of inequality.  The civil rights movement which, in so many ways, serves as the model for such democratic action was fairly successful is winning increased political rights for African-Americans.  But it was a dismal failure in its efforts to improve the economic standing of blacks.  By all measures (except for the existence of a small black upper and middle class), blacks in the US today are no better off than they were in 1960.