Category: Democracy

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.

Silent Sam: The Current State of Play

What follows is my understanding of where things currently stand in the ongoing controversy over the disposition of the Confederate monument (known as Silent Sam) on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  This is a reconstruction based on the conversations I have had with various people and on the public news reports.  I could be very wrong about all of this.  But I do not think that I am.  The one crucial institutional fact you need to know to thread your way through this labyrinth: the Board of Trustees (BOT) is the local governing Board for the Chapel Hill campus.  The Board of Governors (BOG) is the governing body for the whole University of North Carolina system.  Both boards are dominated by Republicans appointed by the aggressively partisan North Carolina state legislature which has enjoyed (since 2012) a veto-proof majority in both houses.  (That veto-proof majority will end in January 2019, when the State House will still be majority Republican, but will not be a 2/3rds majority.  Hence the Democratic governor Roy Cooper will now be able to veto bills and not see his vetoes overridden.)

In the case of Silent Sam, the BOG was the body designated to make a final recommendation as to the statue’s disposal.  But even their recommendation was only that, since the law (passed in the wake of the Dylan Roof shootings in Charleston SC that led to the removal of several Confederate monuments around the country) by our Republican legislators said that monuments on public property could not be removed, except at the behest of the state historical commission, and even in such cases could not be placed in a museum or re-located to another jurisdiction.  The law was pretty obviously aimed squarely at Silent Sam, which has been a sore point on campus for well over forty years, with the intensity of the protests against his presence waxing and waning over that period.

After the statue was toppled by protesters in late August 2018, the Chapel Hill campus was given by the BOG until November 15th to suggest a plan for its disposal.  Even that was a small victory since it headed off those on the right wing who insisted the statue must immediately be restored to its now empty pedestal.  Failing to put it right back up, the right insisted, was caving in to “mob rule.”  Campus fears that the statue would be restored led to faculty and student clamor vociferous enough to lead Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt to make a public statement (on the Friday before Labor Day weekend) that she did not believe the statue belonged in its former place, prominently displayed at the entrance to campus.  She was immediately reprimanded by the chair of the BOG for disrespecting the process that had been put in place, since she was taking one option for the November 15th recommendation unilaterally off the table.  Folt’s Labor Day statement was made, I believe, with her understanding that her public comment could get her fired. She weathered that storm. Subsequently, on University Day, the annual celebration of the university’s birthday (this year was its 225th anniversary), Chancellor Folt make a public apology for UNC’s racist past.

The November 15th date appeared to have been chosen to push the final decision past election day, in a year when the Democrats were making a concerted push to break the Republican “super majority” in the state legislature.  Except for Folt’s University Day apology, which in fact generated surprisingly little response from either left or right, the Silent Sam issue went underground.  Campus seemed preoccupied by the usual business of a semester, while the issue played no part at all in the legislative races around the state.  Since there were polls suggesting that 70% of the state’s residents believed the statue should be restored to its empty pedestal, the failure of Republican candidates to demagogue the issue baffled me.  The reason, I was told, was that Apple was about six inches away from announcing that it was opening a major new facility in North Carolina (in fact, about ten miles from the UNC campus) and that the only thing holding Apple up was the Silent Sam mess.  They wanted nothing to do with aggressive Southern white boy culture.  So, apparently, the fix was in from the state Republican Party about staying silent about Silent Sam.

The silence was broken post-election when, after a small delay (the November 15th deadline was not met) Chancellor Folt and the UNC BOT announced in early December their recommendation: to build a brand new five million dollar “history and education center” (that was, somehow, not a museum) on the Chapel Hill campus to house the statue.  The proposal, it seemed pretty clear, was meant to stay within the parameters of the state law regarding confederate monuments while also respecting the fact that every single possible spot on the current campus was impossible because the current occupants of those places had made it very clear they didn’t want the thing.

The BOT recommendation was met on campus with incredulity and outrage.  Campus again went into overdrive, with the Faculty Senate condemning the proposal and reiterating its conviction that the statue had no place on the Chapel Hill campus, while graduate students and a small group of faculty sympathizers announced—and worked to muster support for—a grade strike.  They would not submit grades for the fall semester work, just about to be completed.  (They could not stop teaching, since classes for the semester had ended by this point.)

There is some plausibility to the claim that the BOT proposal was really just a way of kicking the can down the road since its implementation would take years—and in that time the state’s politics might have changed enough to make repeal of the monument law a possibility.  But the Chancellor and the BOT could hardly state that hope in public as a way of justifying their plan.  Rather, in taking the plan to the campus and the world, the Chancellor said she preferred an off-campus disposition of the stature, but that she was constrained by the law and, thus, was offering the only feasible and palatable option that the law made available.  The campus was not impressed, since the campus community did not care a fig about the law and saw no compelling reason to abide by it.

I think it is pretty obvious that the proposal from the BOT represented the best plan the Chancellor could get that body to agree to.  Remember that it is stacked with Republicans.  As for the Chancellor herself, I think it fair to say that she has behaved exactly as Barack Obama did on the issue of gay marriage.  Her position has been “evolving” over the past two years—and that evolution has been driven by the persistent pressure from campus activists to her left.  She has always been a tight-rope walker, trying to placate all sides in a state where campus sentiment, public sentiment, and the beliefs/actions of the state legislature do not align but are deeply at odds with one another.  She has always been in a terrible position.  I don’t think she has played her hand particularly well, but she has definitely had a very bad and fairly weak hand to play.  There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the line she has tried to walk has been pulled steadily leftward over the past two years (hence her statement that the statue should not be restored to its pedestal and her public apology) because of the campus activists.

So—and here we really get to what is speculation on my part, but speculation that I am 80% certain is correct—we come to the events of the past five days.  Speculation number one: leading up to the BOG’s scheduled meeting for December 14th, during which it would respond to the BOT proposal, Chancellor Folt and the UNC administration lobbied the BOG to table the BOT proposal.  In other words, the campus response to the BOT proposal had led to yet another “evolution.”  Now the Chancellor wanted the BOG to reject her own proposal.

In the meantime, the campus administration was desperate, in particular, to head off a grade strike, convinced that such a strike would only strengthen the hand of the right wing in the state by generating public outrage over campus teachers not doing their jobs.  That desperation led to campus officials threatening those who withheld grades with expulsion and with financial penalties.  I think the administration over-reacted, both because actual participation in such a strike was always going to be much, much less prevalent than they imagined, and because the threats only cemented the determination of the most dedicated to not back down.  In any negotiation, you need to give the other side a face-saving way to back down.  But the administration didn’t negotiate; it simply made its threats.  (Let me add here, that the administration’s failure, over the past two years, to engage in any serious negotiations with black faculty is, to my mind, is its greatest—and most egregious—failure during this whole saga.)

The BOG not only tabled the BOT proposal at is December 14th meeting—but rejected it altogether.  The can got kicked down the road again.  The time honored formula was followed: appoint a committee to look into the issue and come up with a recommendation.  This new recommendation is to be ready by March 15, 2019.  This non-resolution was announced after a three hour closed session of the BOG.

So here comes speculation number two, since obviously I cannot know what went on behind closed doors.  My claim: the most conservative members of the BOG lost.  The three hours gave those conservatives time to vent.  But if the far righters had the votes to force the return of the statue to the pedestal, they would have held that vote and won.  The formation of a committee means that the return of Silent Sam to the now empty pedestal is never going to happen.  The far right’s moment to force reinstallation has now come and gone.  They were outvoted.  Folt and the UNC administration had successfully lobbied the BOG to not recommend the restoration of the statue to its former place.

That also means that the campus protesters have won a partial victory—only partial but none the less extremely significant.  One problem, of course, is that their victory cannot be publicly acknowledged by the administration or by the BOG because they do not wish to rile up the state legislature.  But the failure to acknowledge the victory also means that many on the left do not believe—or understand—that restoration of the statue will never occur.  Some on the left are fighting the wrong battle at this point, fighting against restoration, not against its relocation on campus.  And the left is also missing its chance to declare victory—when victories, especially when partial, are a means to attracting more people to a cause.  “See what we have accomplished so far.  But there is still more to be done.  Join us.”

That the BOG failed to recommend restoration signals a split among its members.  Without a doubt, some hardliners on the Board favored restoration.  That certain Board members have taken to the press to express their hardliner positions is a sign of weakness, not strength.  They knew they did not have a majority on the board, so were going public in an effort to stir up enough public outrage to move their fellow board members in their direction.  For that reason, the left wing should ignore the public comments of these BOG outliers.  For better and for worse, in the non-democracy that is North Carolina (hat tip to my colleague Andy Reynolds) what happens in public is mere froth.  The real action is in the back rooms.

So what is happening in the back rooms?  That depends on how severe the schism is between “moderate” business Republicans and the social conservatives.  How pissed off are the business folks at the loss of Apple and at the general loss of reputation for the whole state, which now exists in the same nether world as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi after decades of priding itself on being more sensible than that.  Because the action moves now to the state legislature. (In that busy last week leading up to the December 14th meeting of the BOG, Apple announced it is expanding in Austin, Cupertino, and San Diego.  North Carolina’s failure to resolve the Silent Sam mess meant it lost Apple.  You will object: but Texas is hardly a beacon of progressivism.  Yes, but they removed confederate monuments on the University of Texas campus and there was barely a stir.)

The March 15th deadline is to provide time to lobby the legislators to accept an off-campus disposition of the statue, to put the Silent Sam mess behind us once and for all.  I have no idea as to what the outcome will be because I have no idea about the balance of power between the business Republicans and the social conservatives.  Part of me wants to say that money always wins—and, thus, if the business Republicans really want to solve this problem once and for all, they will get their way.  But I don’t know just how pressing they think solving the problem is.  And the pessimist in me says that we have tons of evidence that, in fact, it is culture that always wins.  Racism and lots of other deep-seated cultural values/beliefs are demonstrably economically harmful—but seem ineradicable just the same. (Of course, I really, really wish that the “right” thing–morally–would be what wins, but somehow it seems to lose out to money or culture just about every time.)

This is non-democracy 2018 style.  The decision will be made in the backrooms—and the politicians involved will be swayed by their ambitions within the Republican party pecking order and by their need to have money to run their campaigns.  Public opinion on the issue might play a 10% role in which way they finally choose to jump.  Their own personal convictions about what is the right thing to do will play a 15% role for some of them, and no role at all for others of them.  What they will do is what they deem it is safe to do.  They are about avoiding pain, avoiding losing office, and not about doing anything positive.  It is all about avoiding the negative.

Despite our well-grounded fears about the decline of faculty governance, the university is much more democratic than the general polity.  All the campus protests have accomplished a lot.  We have pushed the evolution of the Chancellor and have insured that the statue is not restored.  I don’t know how campus activism can influence this next stage.  The administration clearly fears that aggressive tactics like a strike will back-fire, handing the right wing a hammer to use against us.  That is certainly a plausible fear.  Escalating a fight in a way that leaves no face-saving exit, in a way that backs your opponent into a corner, often leads to non-optimal results.  But backing down in a fight can also be taken as a sign of weakness—a weakness that your opponent will then move to exploit.  There simply is no infallible rule here about which tactics will work best.  The elites—the legislators and the Republican power brokers—who now have to decide the statue’s fate are, for the most part, beyond the reach of us on campus.  We can only reach them indirectly, by keeping up the pressure on the Chancellor.

But even there, I think it fair to say that the Chancellor deserves a grade of B+ for fall semester 2018 (her grade for prior semesters would be much lower in my opinion.)  She has swung the BOG over to her side, a substantial feat.  They have now come to accept that the statue cannot be restored to its former place.  At this point, it pretty much is out of Folt’s hands.  She has to leave it to the BOG to do the lobbying of the legislature—and hope that they can pull off the impressive feat of getting the law relaxed in such a way as to allow for a off-campus installation of the damn thing.  Stay tuned.

Sacrifice and Politics

Every day it seems I discover a new reason to understand how completely I am a secular, liberal humanist.  And I am pushed each time to double down on that commitment.  The latest occasion is reading a superb essay by Alexander Livingston, “Fidelity to Truth: Gandhi and the Genealogy of Civil Disobedience,” published in the journal Political Theory (2017: pp. 1-26).

Livingston makes a compelling case that Gandhi’s understanding of non-violence and of political action are severely misunderstood (“creatively misread” if we want to be more generous) if adapted to a means-ends understanding of politics (i.e. non-violence adopted as a tactic to gain certain ends) or if non-violent civil disobedience in Gandhi is interpreted as entailing an appeal to (hence a respect for) constituted legal forms and authorities.  Livingston calls the theory of disobedience that sees it as mobilizing a certain kind of action in order to sway constituted authority “liberal”—and claims (persuasively) that such a view accords those authorities a legitimacy that Gandhi does not grant them.  Gandhi, instead, advocates a political practice that steps outside of constituted modernity and its self-praising notion of itself as “civilized” in order to seek an elsewhere.  That search is, in Gandhi, the search for truth—which should be the locus of action.  Gandhi seeks “to reorient the time of action away from the teleological pursuit of abstractions, like principles of justice, towards giving oneself over to the experience of seeking truth in the lived present” (19).  “The pursuit of truth reorients political action inwards toward a transformation of the self rather than primarily outwards as an appeal to the law” (14).  It entails “courageously acting without attachment to the fruits of action” (18).  As contrasted to the “impatience” that characterizes ends-driven political movements, Gandhi issues a “call for patience” that “by contrast, repudiates the very idea that the future can provide redress to the present” (9).

The similarities to Fred Moten’s work (my post on Moten here) are apparent to me.  On the one hand, there is the totalizing rejection of modernity as rotten all the way down.  (Livingston explains to us how Gandhi includes modern medicine in his totalizing renunciation.)  On the other hand, there is a search for an “elsewhere” to modernity, a place where one can live somewhat sheltered by its horrors.  For Moten, that elsewhere is “black sociality,” the undercommons.  For Gandhi, it is the pursuit of truth.  In both cases, I find the elsewhere disappointingly vague.  Truth in Gandhi is radically unspecified, which (of course) its adherents would say is partly the point.  The closest we get is the recommendation of a set of practices of “humility and self-renunciation” that, combined with exhortations to be “fearless” in the face of death, are supposed to lead (admittedly paradoxically) to “self-realization” (16).  Equally paradoxically, this patient self-renunciation will prove politically more efficacious than more direct, ends-oriented political action.

I don’t see it.  Here’s my basic position.  We live in a social/political order that imposes sacrifices on the many.  That imposition is wildly unequal. The politics to which I subscribe is oriented toward challenging—and changing—that inequality.  Three issues immediately arise.

One: is the goal access to the goods that the privileged already enjoy or to establish an entirely new social/political order?  I read the suffragette movement (with which, as Livingston shows, Gandhi was in continuous dialogue) and the American civil rights movement as seeking access.  Hence the huge emphasis on the getting the vote.  They wanted in; so, I guess, their movements qualify as “liberal” in Livingston’s terms.  They affirmed the current order of law; they just sought a voice within it.

A similar question would arise in relation to economics.  Is the goal a piece of the pie—or a transformation of the whole economic order?  Social democracy, as I understand it and am committed to it, looks to state/political intervention in the economic to see that its goods are more widely and equitably distributed while also attending to the conditions of labor, and controlling environmental devastation—not some vision of an entirely alternative economic order.

It looks like Gandhian politics doesn’t even address those questions in any specific way.  There is the total condemnation of modernity and the desire/set of practices to step entirely aside from it—but no strategy for the dismantling of the modernity that is loathed.  Except perhaps the old “what if they declared a war and no one showed up.”  Seceding from modernity seems to be the path both Moten and Gandhi offer.

Which leads me to number two of my responses.  Here’s the oddity of my—and many other intellectuals’ political position: I am doing just fine, thank you.  The inequalities of the current order do not afflict me.  So what is the appropriate political action for someone of my sort? I cannot help but feel that devotion to self-realization through a search for a vague and never to be fully attained truth is a cop-out.  It may be a deeply satisfying practice, but I can’t see how it does anything for the many who are living lives of misery in the current order.  The powers that be would be very happy to see all the trouble-making activists and intellectuals turn to the path of truth-seeking.

In short, politics is rhetorical.  And a key feature of its rhetoric is appeals to principles of, intuitions about, justice.  Practices of political action take place in public and are meant to persuade others of the righteousness of one’s cause.  Gandhi’s truth-seeking is only political because it was conducted in public—and was meant to sway the many fence-sitters, those who were still sitting on the sidelines.  The extent to which such political action does accord legitimacy to currently constituted power depends on the extent to which it rests on a notion that democratic power should rest in the majority.  Politics as rhetoric is premised on the need to create that majority through public action/speech that tries to win the undecided (or even your adversaries) to your side.  Non-violence to my mind always involves this acknowledgement (even if never explicitly enunciated) that the only means to legitimate power is through democratic processes and persuasion.  To seize power through violence is illegitimate—and (furthermore) usually has deeply undesirable consequences.

So: I can’t buy the notion of political action that does not have any eye on its “fruits.”  The pursuit of self-realization is not political (to my mind) unless it aims for political effects—and I prefer action that aims for those effects by trying to mobilize a democratic majority.  What worries me about Moten—less about Gandhi–is that their attempt to step outside of modernity leads to a non-political quietism that doesn’t challenge modernity on the grounds on which it could be changed.  Non-political efforts of self-realization are not outlawed; I just don’t like it when they claim to be political, to be transformative as some level beyond that of the self.

Third, I have the traditional worries about power when I read this account of Gandhi.  I.e. that established power is perfectly happy to allow people to sacrifice themselves and/or retreat into some space of spiritual transformation.  If we live in a world of unequally imposed sacrifices, then it seems dangerous to me to embrace sacrifice.  Furthermore, the worldview that sees sacrifice as a (necessary?) pathway to achieving certain goods is precisely the one I wish to combat.  The logic of sacrifice partakes of an economic logic—that everything has its cost—that I want to repudiate.  It seems to me that adherence to that logic only augments suffering—while providing a facile explanation of why suffering must be endured.  I want to see sacrifice as (in the vast majority of cases) as what power imposes on the non-powerful—so I respond to an embrace of sacrifice as the non-powerful doing power’s work for it.

Additionally, I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that practices of self-renunciation and self-sacrifice will lead to “truth.”  Just as possible to claim—like Blake or Wilhelm Reich—that a full-scale embrace of one’s desires is the path to full self-realization.  What would/could count as evidence here? When the desired end—truth or self-realization—is so nebulous?  Even if self-sacrifice has pay-offs you affirm, what would lead me to believe I would get similar results?  Try and see is fine.  But praising sacrifice in the name of truth doesn’t seem to me enough.  Livingston writes: “Truth is one but our perspectives on it are plural” (19), but I would argue (instead) that truths are many.  The pluralism goes deeper than just a multiplicity of perspectives.  There is not one Truth with a capital T, but many truths—and they are not even all compatible with one another.  It’s a messy universe we inhabit—and I am suspicious of all efforts to clean up the mess via assertion of a unifying truth (or any other covering term one prefers.)  In short, I am not a monotheist, but a full-bore pagan.

“Ends-oriented political action characterizes the weapons of the weak: non-violence is a commitment that remains conditional on the good will of others to concede to the justice of one’s demands,” Livingston writes (15).  But I would read it exactly in reverse.  Stepping aside from pushing for ends and eschewing incessant clamoring for justice is the weapon of the weak.  It is tossing in the towel, using non-participation as the only option open because the battle is lost.  And, yes, politics is about trying to engage the “good will” of others by convincing them of the facts of injustice that need to be addressed.  There is no politics without that rhetorical work, without that attempt to sway the others with whom one lives in the polis.  To cede to others the political work that centers around disputes about justice is simply to accept defeat.

I am going to stop here—but will use tomorrow’s post to take up another thread in the Livingston’s essay: Gandhi’s analysis of “fear.”  Let me finish by saying that I have no doubt that Livingston’s reading of Gandhi is correct—and that Livingston, in channeling Gandhi, is not necessarily fully endorsing his views.  My point is to say how those Gandhian views do not seem to me terribly productive in the context of our current political battles.

Rom Coles

I have been traveling, so not posting.  But I have also been talking some with Rom Coles via email–as he responded to my post some time back on his book, Visionary Pragmatism.  Rom is a human of unbelievable energy, having written a number of interesting books of political theory (in fact, “visionary” is the best word to describe his books), while also carrying on a more than full life as a community organizer/political activist.  In particular, he is deeply committed to and engaged in democracy on the ground.  So here is his description of what he is currently up to in Sydney, Australia, as he works to catalyze community responses to climate change and to the economic devastations of neoliberalism.  Everything in quotes is by Rom.

“Thanks for those sharp reflections in your blogpost.   I think I agree with basically everything there – including, for sure, the need to work with/in the Democratic Party in order to pull it left in the context of winner takes all election system.  Especially when the only alternative is the Green ‘party’ which is a party in name only – or worse, a parody of a party.  I also really liked some of your other posts, including the Merlefest one.   For all its limitations, I have found Merlefest to be a pretty heterogeneous space of conviviality (yes, all white, but also these festivals tend to be the only places where conservative southerners, hippies, professionals, etc., gather and share at least some overlapping enjoyments…).  But then, I’m biased as I just love bluegrass and especially new grass and bluegrass-jazz-classical-blues fusions!  We go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival most summers and love it – though it is much less diverse.

 

The one thing I’m interested in opening further than you may want, perhaps?, is a lot more institutional change in higher ed that is supportive of engaged modes of research and pedagogy.  I ‘get’ the critique of that – perhaps most famously from Wendy Brown, and also many others – and I love reading, teaching and writing about great books as much as anyone.  But I also think that we are in the last decade (if that) for generating major change to avert complete planetary collapse, widespread neofascism emerging in quite a few spots, etc, and that there is still comparatively a lot of freedom in these spaces we inhabit – though the boxes are shrinking rapidly for sure.

 

In Sydney, I’m working more on an inter-institutional level right now, helping to catalyse an engaged research and pedagogy movement that so far has drawn scholars from 8 institutions of higher ed in the city.  We are working with Sydney Alliance, which is an umbrella organisation of 45+ organisations – ranging from a variety of faith traditions, unions, nonprofits and so forth.  We’re cooking up a pretty ambitious ‘pilot’ collaboration around climate justice in migrant communities in western Sydney.  The aim is to pull all sorts of capacities together to cultivate green energy, participatory democratic cultures that collaborate across lines not crossed so far (in this case Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Indians, Middle Easterners, white progressives, and more), perhaps (still in discussion stage) generating new community-based economic models/platforms, etc.  We’re also strategising to ‘flip’ those parliamentary seats, which are pivotal to Aussie politics – sort of like how if you flipped several states in the Southeastern US you would flip the country – pulling the plug on the ’Southern Strategy’ that has held sway for half a century now!

 

At the same time, something that is very exciting about it is that we are organizing this through the National Tertiary Education Union, so at one and the same time building an inter institutional identity as scholars and a locus of power to intervene on educational issues at the state and national level, and also really trying to shift what the union is, so that it not merely a wage-contracts negotiating unit (important as that is) but also a union that is a locus of voice and organizing power around the craft of research and teaching and how universities are structured.  This is super important in AU right now because the form neoliberalization is taking is to abolish departments – leaving faculty as mass anti-associational ‘lumpen’ and creating yet another administrative layer on top that dictates downward.  Anyhow, all this is to say we’re up to some interesting stuff, I think.”