Category: Democracy

National Socialism versus Social Democracy versus National Capitalism

Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge UP, 2006) has been sitting on my shelf a long time, but I only just got around to reading it, partly in response to John Quiggin’s recent declaration that he has given up on the term “social democracy.”  My discussion of that decision is here  and here.

One virtue of Berman’s book is that it shows how both Mussolini and Hitler were socialists—that is, both the fascists and the Nazis established strict governmental control over the economy (“the primacy of politics” over economics in Berman’s phrase).  In particular, the fascists and the Nazis developed full employment programs that used public works as a last resort for the unemployed, created or enhanced social welfare and insurance programs, and established firm state control over capital flows and investment.  The enthusiasm for Mussolini, in particular, that many (not just clowns like Ezra Pound) expressed in the late 1920s and early 1930s becomes much more understandable when reading Berman’s account of his regime’s fairly successful attack on the poverty and inequality capitalism wrought in post-World War I Italy.  Of course, the fascists and the Nazis did not dismantle capitalism entirely; in particular, they did not threaten private ownership.  But they did sharply curtail the autonomy of property; the Faustian bargain made by the capitalists was that they would accept a lesser level of profit and massive government interference in what and how they produced things in return for “order” and for a guarantee that property would not be confiscated or nationalized.  But, especially, by the standards of our own dark times, Mussolini’s and even Hitler’s economic policies look “progressive.”  For starters, their policies were Keynesian, depending on large public expenditure to provide employment and to jump start a depression economy back to something like prosperity.

Of course, much of that Keynesian spending was on the means for war.  Both regimes can look like giant potlatches—building up vast stores of military hardware in order to destroy them all in an orgy of destruction.  And the regimes had the same attitude toward citizens as they did toward tanks: they are expendable; plenty more where they came from.

The point, naturally, is not to praise Mussolini or Hitler.  The Nazis, in particular, dismantled liberal democracy in incredibly short order.  All other parties were outlawed by six months after Hitler’s becoming Chancellor.  And the left-wing economics were yoked to right-wing nationalism, to the mythos of the fatherland and of “blood.”  Violence was baked in from the start, as Walter Benjamin told the world in 1936.  The only possible end game was war—and that was explicit, a feature not a bug.

But Berman’s work led me to a rather different dark thought.  What does it mean to say that the only successful assaults on capitalism in the 20th century were accompanied by the destruction of democracy?  We might be able to dismiss Lenin and Stalin’s madness quickly by saying that the economics were impossible even apart from political crimes.  But what happens if we say that Mussolini’s Italy came pretty close to achieving an economic realm that most social democrats can recognize as their aspiration?  In short: can we get to social democratic heaven if we hold resolutely to the democratic part?  Does democracy—the rule of law, elections, legislative bodies, civil liberties along with property rights—afford capitalists too many tools for withstanding any and all attempts to gain political control over capitalist practices?  The impatience with liberal democracy everywhere evident in the 1930s reflected the inability of democracies to act quickly and decisively.  The post-2008 actions of the EU, especially, with its ongoing (even now, ten years later) constant kicking of the can down the road, appear to confirm the claim that democracies find it hard to act.  (The exception, always noted, is the US response to World War II; slow to get going, the historians say, but what a behemoth once roused; but it took a war for the US to end its depression, with precisely the kinds of Keynesian spending and government intervention into the economy that even the New Deal could never install.)

So here’s the horrible thought: only a non-democratic regime, one that steps on the “rights” of property owners and the many ways that the rich can control elections and elected officials, will be able to break the stranglehold that capitalism has on modern political communities.  Capitalism both strives to escape political (democratic) accountability wherever possible—and uses all the intricacies of democratic procedures to its advantage in holding off change.  Well-intentioned liberals and leftists, who play by the rules, are played by the business barons.  We are getting a demonstration of that dynamic now.  We had the corruption free, good governance folks who were the Obama administration; the absolute epitome of high-minded liberals.  And now we are seeing the kinds of ethics that prevail among the pocket-lining hacks of the right, who could care less if the agencies they preside over actually function.

It has become clear—if it wasn’t in the past—that the Milton Friedman insistence that capitalism and democracy went hand-in-hand is simply wrong.  Capitalism hates democracy, as the US support of right-wing dictators throughout the world should have made clear.  But the more worrying thought is that democracy does not pose an existential threat to capitalism, just an annoyance, a low-grade fever, that capitalism has learned how to keep under control.  Capitalism can tolerate low-grade democracy, just as it can tolerate gay marriage, antagonistic art works, and academic freedom, confident in its ability to not let such things get out of hand.  True, the right is always hysterically claiming that chaos is nigh—if not already here.  But such fulminations on Fox don’t register in the corporate boardrooms, not the ways that tax and regulation evasion strategies do.

In short: for social democracy to work, the left has to get the democracy part in order first.  This is Berman’s “primacy of politics.”  Without a very firm democratic mandate, establishing the economic policies of social democracy would seem a non-starter.  But there are so many structural obstacles to establishing that mandate that stand in the way—even if the needed majority existed.  (Thus, something like gun control offers an object lesson in all the ways majority opinion can be thwarted in the scheloric American political system.)  With the democratic hill so high to climb, hope for the economic transformation wanes.  We know what needs doing: higher taxes, public housing, fully funded public education and public transit, universal health coverage, etc. etc.  But the ability of our political system to deliver any of these things is very doubtful.

And (again it is very odd to say this) the fascists and Nazis look good in comparison to the current political landscape.  They mobilized nationalism to authorize the state’s taking control of the economy—and molded that economy in ways that, to a fairly large extent, benefited the majority.  (Another horrible thought: you can only mobilize people by providing them with an enemy to fear and hate; the Carl Schmidt notion.  So you couldn’t really form the democratic majority that would take control over capitalism unless you identified a “class enemy” or a “non-national” enemy.  Someone has to be “not us” and a legitimate target of rage and mistreatment.  You can only benefit the majority by persecuting the minority.)

But how do the fascists and Nazis look good?  Because at least they were using the poison of nationalism and the powers of the state to rein in capitalism.  Today’s right wing aims to serve capitalism, not control it.  They mobilize the state to augment capitalism’s power.  National capitalism instead of national socialism.  Singapore, China, the UK, and the US.  Different degrees of assaults of civil liberties; different degrees of direct state subsidies to corporations.  But the same basic model based on the same nationalistic principle: the nation’s glory resides in its wealth, along with the fraudulent promise that the prosperity at the top will generate (trickle down) prosperity for those below them.  Perversely, this vocabulary of national greatness is accompanied by a dismantling of all public services or any notion of public goods.  Capitalism will provide all that is needed; market failures do not exist, just as externalities are not admitted.  The state exists to smooth capitalism’s path—and to beat the nationalistic drum.

I understand that these dark musings are the voice of despair speaking.  Our world has become so cruel, the hypocrisies of the right so all encompassing, and the use of democracy’s trappings to forestall any change in a leftist direction so pervasive, that fears such as those expressed here seem inevitable.  It is simply not clear that our political system can deliver the changes needed.  Its inability to do something as simple as ban assault weapons feeds that fear.  There’s plenty of overt oppression—from mass incarceration to the unfreedoms experienced everyday at the workplace by most employees—just as there is plenty of overt corruption (all those politicians on the billionaire’s dole).  But there is also the general grinding of the gears in the Circumlocution Office, which keeps enthralled, obsessed people like me (there are so many of us!) reading the newspaper every day to monitor the drip, drip, drip, as if something this time, against all our prior experience, is going to come of it.  But nothing ever does come of it—and some days it seems that that perpetual inaction is precisely the point.

What Kind of Institutions Does the Left Need?

I have put this off long enough.  I have lots of backlogged thoughts about things I am reading, but need to forego those to write the promised post about institutions.

I have gotten some help from Rom Coles’s Visionary Pragmatism (Duke UP, 2016).  Rom, for six years at Northern Arizona University, led a complex operation that paired students and faculty with off-campus groups in what were called Action Research Teams (ART).  The idea was to get university folks involved in collaborating with local groups to 1) acquire the knowledge needed to develop action agendas on topics of local concern and 2) actually begin to put those agendas into practice.

Rom is eloquent on the need to combine “visionary” aspirations and spectacular, energy-raising one-off events (demonstrations, teach-ins, even civil disobedience) with the “pragmatic” quotidian work (lots of meetings and talk, the securing of money and other resources) that is the daily grind of democracy in action.  The work is sometimes directed toward government—pressuring it to act—but more often a question of taking matters into the group’s own hands, building organizations that can address local concerns about the environment, cultural preservation, literacy, a living wage, elderly care etc.

For any reader of Tocqueville or John Dewey, this is not surprising stuff. Democracy is vibrant, a lived reality, when citizens take power into their own hands, when they feel entitled to do things for themselves, and when they organize themselves to both decide what needs to be done and to do the things they decide should be done.  Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations” and Dewey’s “associated democracy.”  The goal could be said to be attainment of that “public happiness” that Arendt extols as the best thing about politics.

As I approach retirement, my aspiration is to find such a voluntary association, one that is effectively doing good work in relation to an issue that I care about.  But can I also register my impatience with meetings, with long and fairly fruitless, airings of pet grievances and crotchets?  I admire (perhaps above all) Rom’s patience, his willingness to put in the time to hammer out, in a large group, an action plan.  I want to join a group that is already acting and that puts its pedal to the medal.  I have no patience at all to fretting over the details.

Which makes me sometimes wonder if, temperamentally, I am a democrat at all.

But let’s put that aside for the moment.  Rom’s model leverages the resources of the university (even a relatively poor state university like Northern Arizona is resource-rich compared to the surrounding community)—with its resources counted in manpower (all those students), time (the ability to devote attention to research and to meetings), and knowledge (experts who know stuff and a culture that encourages learning stuff) as well as (even more than) money.  The university, in other words, is an already constituted institution and Rom is very attuned to the ways it can be put to use to advance a democratic agenda even as neoliberal forces are working to turn the university into a servant of its social vision.

Already existing institutions (the state is another prime example) are, then, sites of contestation.  Precisely because such institutions have power and resources, it is important to attempt to turn them toward the issues the left wants to address, to the transformations the left wishes to enact. Others, with different agendas, will also be trying to capture the institution, to turn it toward advancing their vision.

So Rom offers one model: the locally focused model that favors face-to-face interactions (meetings), deliberation in common, and action in concert.  It is only in these small-scale instances that people can experience democracy in action and overcome the alienation from politics engendered by the TV spectacle of electoral campaigns that culminate in the terribly abstract act of voting and the installation of unresponsive, distant legislative bodies.

To abandon the national, long-distance politics of elections is, however, a disaster.  So we are brought back to “the party,” that problematic institution that is the bane of modern politics and yet, apparently, absolutely necessary to any effective access to national power.  That parties are a disaster was the strong conviction of the American Founders, but there adoption of the British “first past the post” election model made parties inevitable.  Add the Leninist vision of the party as whipping the benighted masses into action—and any democrat wants to run for the hills.

Yet . . . the party, like the university, is an already constituted institution that the left abandons only at its own peril.  Because the numbers of voters on either side of the left/right divide is so even in the US, I think it is folly of the highest order for leftists to abandon the Democratic party for more leftist alternatives–be those alternatives a “third party” or an independent candidacy for president.  (I guess, as a rule of thumb, I can safely say that I will not support a non-Democratic candidate for president until he or she runs at the top of a full slate of candidates.  In other words, give me a robust and fully formed party of the left because you get my vote.)  In the meantime, I honor those leftists trying to capture the Democratic party, to drag it to the left in ways that mirror how conservatives have (already) captured the Republican party.

Does sticking with the Democrats entail a whole series of distasteful compromises?  Yes.  That’s why a conflicted loyalty to that party needs to be combined with political action apart from electoral politics if one is to avoid becoming completely disheartened.

The favored alternative on the left to electoral politics, apparently, is a “movement,” which aspires to national scale but to action (citizens in the street) as opposed to the passivity of voting and watching C-Span.  What Rom helpfully shows us is that the movement need not be concerned solely or primarily on influencing the national agenda/program, but can act to change things on the local level.  It is one of the great paradoxes of American politics that we (especially the left) are obsessed with a national politics that we have very little chance of influencing, while we neglect all the local possibilities for transformation.  It’s as if we are either 1) waiting for a permission (that will never arrive) to act or 2) think of ourselves as hiring a set of servants (the politicians) to do the work for us (despite ample evidence that those politicians are never going to be up to the job).

The conclusion: the left needs to build institutions (organizations; call them what you will) where people want to dwell, where they want to spend time, because of the pleasures the interactions (and association) with these other people bring, and because of a sense of actually getting something done.  Meaning-full, purposive, effective action.  That’s the ticket.  All the quotidian banality of democracy is bearable (maybe even much more than bearable) if there is something to show for it—and one of the tings to show is comradeship.  Everyone knows (it is a great cliché) that soldiers and team-mates “bond” and that the pleasures of bondage (pun intended) are intense.  People keep coming back for more, even to strenuous and dangerous work, if cathected to a collective effort.

To adopt neoliberal speak for a moment, to maintain that cathexis requires “benchmarks,” or, to use the current humanities piety, a “story” (a narrative arc).  There must be a plan that lays out various steps on a path, and a narrative momentum that carries people along a story of getting somewhere.  This is what Occupy lacked.  It was the same damn thing one day after another—and so, of course, it petered out.  Saturday afternoon demonstrations share that fault.  They don’t go anywhere; they don’t have a next step.  (This was Brecht’s worry about the theater.)

There is no lack of problems to address out there.  The beauty of Rom’s model is that it gathers people to identify the problems—and then challenges them to think of ways to alleviate/eliminate the problem.  Don’t just sit there; do something!  And it turns out that there are all kinds of things “we” can do—and that some of our fellows citizens are going to prove, once their input is solicited, incredibly creative when it comes to devising action plans.

So the institutions I think the left needs are the ones that can sustain a group of people over the long haul enactment of an action plan.  It can be a small-scale local institution/organization or a large-scale national campaign for gun control, against the sexual harassment of women, or against the police violence directed at people of color.  The key is to move beyond “protest,” beyond the public airing of grievances, to action that aims at righting the identified wrong.

Such organizations exist.  Belonging to and contributing to them takes time.  They are a challenge to what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”—placating one’s conscience by sending money to various leftist causes.  Such organizations, I am more and more convinced, are the only site of real social change.  Even highly publicized campaigns like “me too” and “black lives matter”—for all their rhetorical power—seem inadequate to me.  They are great occasions for self-righteous finger pointing, but do nothing to change the on-the-ground conditions that enable sexual and racial violence.  With the flood of words that is now the public sphere—cable TV, the internet, advertisements, tweets and the rest—I have a hard time believing in the efficacy of words.  Strange no doubt to have a literary guy say that, but I can’t help believing that 90% of Americans are now like me: inured to the endless palaver, letting it all wash over them without making much of a dent.  The effort so many people are so desperately making to grab—for just this day’s news cycle—the public’s attention does not seem to me worth the effort.  It leads to nothing—and nothing comes of nothing.  So I want a left that begins to turn its back on the media circus, on getting the message out, and devotes its attention instead to doing things.

What’s In a Name?

John Quiggan (author of Zombie Economics [Princeton UP, 2012] and a regular blogger on the best blog in the universe, Crooked Timber), recently decided to jettison the name “social democracy” as a description of his political position.  Here is his complete post on that decision:

“As I mentioned a while ago, in the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve described my political perspective as “social-democratic”. In earlier years, I mostly used “democratic socialist”. My reason for the switch was that, in a market liberal/neoliberal era, the term “socialist” had become a statement of aspiration without any concrete meaning or any serious prospect of realisation. By contrast, “social democracy” represented the Keynesian welfare state I was defending against market liberal “reform”.

In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, things have changed. Socialism still describes an aspiration, rather than a concrete political program, but an aspiration to a better society is what we need now as a positive response to the evident failure of neoliberalism.

On the other side of the ledger, nominally social democratic parties nearly all failed the test of the crisis, accepting to a greater or lesser degree to the politics of austerity. Some, like PASOK in Greece, have paid the price in full. Others, like Labor in Australia, are finally showing some spine. In practice, though, social democracy has come to stand, at best, for technocratic managerialism, and at worst for capitulation to the demands of financial capital.

So, I’ve changed the description of this blog’s perspective to socialist. I haven’t however, adopted the formulation “democratic socialist” which was used, in the 20th century, to emphasise a rejection of the Stalinist claim to have produced “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That’s no longer necessary.

As has been true for most of the history of the modern world, the only serious threat to democracy is now coming from the right. So, it’s important to defend democracy as well as advancing the case for socialism.”

This is more sparse and more cryptic than one would have wished, but it does speak to one of my obsessions: why isn’t social democracy, which seems to have the best track record of actually delivering (particularly in Scandinavia, but elsewhere in Europe as well) general prosperity, equitably distributed, along with robust civil liberties and a functioning safety net, the preferred position on the left in 2018?  Social democracy has had demonstrable, on the ground, successes—which is more than can be said for any of the left’s other alternative programs.  And neoliberalism, recognizing that fact, has devoted most of its energies to discrediting and dismantling the gains social democracy made from 1900 on.  The neoliberals know where the greatest threat to their hegemony lies.

So: to abandon social democracy seems to me to let the neoliberals win.  They set out to drive it from the field—and the left is folding up its tents and ceding the field to our new overlords.  We will console ourselves with vicious attacks on center-left politicians like the Clintons and hasten to the highlands of a pure “socialism” that is even more vague than it is pure.

Obviously, I think the left should be doubling down on social democracy, on fighting to protect and/or restore what social democracy put in place in the 1945 to 1970 period, while also offering an extension of social democratic policies (universal health care, progressive tax rates, strict regulation of financial and other markets, government thumb on the scale to insure a balance of power between labor and capital when negotiating conditions of employment etc.).  There is good evidence that these things work; capital’s hatred of them is just one parcel of that evidence.

Yet: Quiggan’s post gives me pause on three counts.

  1. I take very seriously the fact that social democracy, as a rallying cry and as a program, seems to hold no appeal for young left leaners. Let’s say “young” means anyone under 45.  It just doesn’t resonate.  Again, that may be just a symptom of how successful the neoliberal smear campaign has been, but that doesn’t change the fact on the ground that clamoring for social democracy is not going to galvanize the left today.
  2. More substantially, of course, Quiggan’s assertion is that social democracy has discredited itself (no matter what discrediting neoliberalism engineered) by acquiescing in the austerity policies imposed after 2008. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, but all his policies are recognizably social democratic.  He pretty much wants to enact “the second bill of rights” that FDR proposed in his 1944 State of the Union address.  Perhaps today’s “socialist” is just yesterday’s “social democrat” coming to us under a new, more fashionable, name.  We would have to get some fleshing out of what “socialism” is meant to convey in order to answer that question.  Old wine in new bottles? It would be a classic case of claiming that those who call themselves “social democrats” have sold out, are no longer really worthy of the name because they didn’t stand up for social democracy in the aftermath of 2008, so we are going to walk away, cede them the name, call ourselves socialists, and fight for what they betrayed. The left (and the right) fractures in this way all the time.
  3. The true substantial nub, however, remains where it always has been in the debate between social democrats and socialists: can a leftist politics tolerate the existence of a capitalist market? Is regulation good enough, supplemented by declaring certain crucial things—like health care and transportation—“public goods” whose supply cannot be entrusted to the market? Or is the capitalist market so antithetical to equality, justice, and democracy that it must be dismantled in favor of a different way of organizing economic production and consumption?  Socialism, as I understand it, always thought the market—even a regulated market—was unable to deliver a society or a polity that could deliver socialism’s goals.  There could be—and should be—no compromise with markets.  Whereas social democracy was all about forging such a compromise.

What Quiggan tells us—and I certainly agree—is that the social democrats caved in, for whatever reason (threats of capital flight or total market collapse or the sheer corruption of political elites in cahoots with the rich), to capital’s demands following 2008—and gave away most of the store.  The issue, of course, is whether, when push comes to shove, social democracy will always cave, that capital always holds the cards that allow it to blackmail the politicians into doing capital’s bidding.  That is the conclusion socialists reach: social democracy is no bulwark against capital’s depredations—and never can be.  And so we need something completely different.

If that is claim, then the socialists need to step up to the plate.  What do they propose?  And how do they propose to get there?  These are familiar, time-worn questions—greatly complicated if the soi-disant socialist also proclaims strict fidelity to democracy.  What democratic pathways can be mobilized to get from here (neoliberalism) to there (socialism)?





I said, perhaps, far too little about Hardt and Negri’s Assembly when I finished reading it a few months back.  Since then, I have read Todd Gitlin on Occupy, della Porta on Social Movements in Times of Austerity (Polity, 2015), and Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.

One theme is the performative nature of assembly: how it can create the collective that proposes to make a political statement/intervention, and (even more) how it can create the kind of community to which those who assemble aspire.  The assembly is “prefigurative.”  That is the term that is used.  It is the change it wishes to see in the world.

My skeptical objection has been consonant with most responses to anarchism: a) how does the assembly propose to produce/gather the resources that would make it sustainable?; b) is the assembly scalable?  If it proposes itself as a model of the desired polis, then how does it grow to accommodate much larger numbers of members/participants?; and c) what kinds of structures, organization, leadership, communications, and other infrastructure must be created in order to maintain the assembly over the long haul?  Occupy was completely parasitic on the “larger society” it was trying to secede from—or was it overthrow?  Occupy was dependent on goods made in that larger society, monetary donations coming from that society, as well as on the expertise (medical, technical) that larger society, through its educational system, imparted to certain individuals.

An assembly, in other words, is not a society—and to claim that somehow it represents an alternative society seems to me disingenuous, extremely naïve.  It is one thing to say that Occupy modeled modes of relationship that we wish could be more prevalent in our lives.  It is quite another to claim Occupy modeled an alternative to mainstream society.  To use Judith Butler’s terms, Occupy did not provide the grounds for a “livable life.”

But Gitlin and Butler both point us toward what seems to me a much more productive way to think about assembly.  They both stress that democracy as a political form is deeply dependent upon assembly—and that the current assault on democracy from the right includes a serious impairment of rights to assembly.  Vote suppression has gotten most of the press when it comes to attending to the ways that our plutocrats are trying to hold out against the popular will.  But the anti-democratic forces are also determined to limit opportunities for assembly.

Let’s do the theory first.  Democracy rests on the notion of popular sovereignty.  In the last instance, political decisions in a democracy gain their legitimacy through their being products of the people legislating its own laws for itself (Kant).  The fact that such things as a ban on assault rifles and increased taxes on the rich are (if the polls can be believed) supported by a large majority of Americans, but impossible to enact in our current political system, seems a good indicator that we do not live in a democracy—a fact with which most of the Republican party seems not only very comfortable with, but determined to sustain.

Because the final arbiter is supposed to be the popular will, there will always be a tension in democracy between the representative bodies of organized government and the people.  That tension leads to repeated critiques of representative government and calls for “direct” or “participatory” democracy (dating all the way back to Rousseau).  It also leads to the oft-repeated worry/claim that democracy only works on a small-scale.  A large scale democracy (and what is the number here?; probably anything over 100,000 citizens or so) will inevitably depend on representatives to carry out its political business—and thus, in the eyes of direct democracy advocates, inevitably fail to be truly democratic.  Elections are too infrequent—and not fine-grained enough (what, exactly, are the voters saying?) to provide sufficient popular input into specific decisions.  Add the many ways in which elections are manipulated and you quickly get politicians who are only minimally accountable to the populations they supposedly represent.  The electoral system is gamed to insure that position (office) and all its privileges and powers are retained by incumbents—or by the party currently in power.

How to make politicians accountable?  One device is plebiscites, which have some kind of appeal.  Let the people vote directly on matters of interest to them.  The problem with plebiscites is that they are a favored tool of the right—and produce (in many cases at least) what is best called “illiberal democracy” or (to use Stuart Hall’s term) “authoritarian populism.”  The blunt way to say this: never put rights to a vote.

Liberal democracy (or constitutional democracy) actually tries to place certain things (usually called “rights”) outside of normal democratic decision making, out of the give and take of ordinary political conflict/wrangling/compromise.  Some things are held apart from the fray, are guaranteed as the rules of the game (basic procedures), as the lasting institutions (the court system, the legislature, the executive), and as the basic rights enjoyed by all citizens (civil liberties).  The constitution also established the “checks and balances” of a liberal order—such that no particular person, office, or governmental institution possesses absolute power.  Power is distributed among various sites of government in an attempt to forestall the ever present danger of its (power’s) abuse.  The use of plebiscites is, thus, authoritarian, precisely because it bypasses this constitutional distribution of power through the appeal to the direct voice of the people—thus authorizing the executive to act irrespective of what the courts or legislature has to say.

SO: if one is committed to a liberal polity as well as to a democratic one, the notion of “direct democracy” is not very appealing.  The “tyranny of the majority” is a serious concern—as my home state of North Carolina has repeatedly demonstrated throughout its history of Jim Crow and in its recent 61% vote in favor of an amendment to the state constitution against extending the legal protections of marriage to same-sex couples.  In a liberal society, the popular will is to be checked, to be balanced by other sites of power, just as any other form of power is.

Of course, in any system, there comes to be a place where the buck stops.  As critics of the Constitution—the anti-Federalists of the 1790 debates over ratification—pointed out from the start, the structure of the US government lodges that final power in the Supreme Court.  That is why we are such a litigious society; the final arbiter is the Court—a fact that is deeply problematic, and which has led, in our current deeply polarized moment, to the Republicans resting their best hope for defeating the popular will on controlling, through the appointment of right-wing judges, the Court.

Some theorists of sovereignty insist that it can never be distributed, that it can only be exercised when it emanates from one site.  Despite the outsized power of the Supreme Court in our system, I think it vastly overstates the case to say the Court is the sole site of power in our polity.  Justifying that claim would lead me in another direction, one I won’t take up here.  Suffice it to say that I favor a constitutional amendment that would limit Supreme Court judges (and probably all federal judges) to one 25 year term.  That way we would be spared having our fates in the hands of 80 year olds (a true absurdity) as well as randomizing when a position on the Court came vacant in relation to which party controlled the Senate at that moment.  The amendment would also state that the Senate must make its decision about the President’s nominee within six months—or forfeit its “advise and consent” powers if it fails to act in a timely fashion.

But: back to assembly.  Butler, I think very usefully, suggests that assembly in a democracy is an incredibly important supplement to the legislature.  Here’s the basic idea: the people’s representatives can, because of their relative freedom from direct accountability, do things that various segments of the population disagree with.  The first amendment ties “assembly” to a right to petition the government.  The text reads: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Thus, assembly is tied to the notion of “the people” having another means, apart from the actions of its representatives, of expressing its opinions, desires, will—and that alternative means is expressly imagined as a way of expressing displeasure with the actions of the government.  It is in the context of “grievances” that we can expect the people to assemble.  In this way, the right to assemble can be seen as a partial remedy to the recognized ills of representation.  The people, by assembling, embody (the terms here are Butler’s) democratic sovereignty and make it “appear” (utilizing Arendt’s notion of politics as the “space of appearances).  After all, the will of the people (the ultimate ground of democracy) is invisible unless it takes the corporate form of assembly since even, as Benjamin Anderson’s notion of “imagined community” makes clear, an election is a virtual, not visible and actual, manifestation of the popular will.

Assembly, then, is democracy in action (note the Arendtian stress on action)—and would thus seem to be as essential (perhaps even more essential) to democracy than voting.  It is when and where the demos comes into existence.  It is democracy visible—and hence its deep appeal to contemporary writers from Hardt/Negri through to Butler, writers who are all appalled by democracy’s retreat in the face of technocratic, plutocratic neoliberalism.

Gitlin documents in the last chapter of his book all the various ways—starting with union busting and moving through the use of “permits” for demonstrations to keep demonstrators far away from the people they are demonstrating against to the criminalizing of assembly itself (as not “permitted” in the double sense of that word) to a closing down of public spaces to certain political uses—that the right to assembly is currently under assault, an assault that parallels the various efforts to curtail voting rights. Our overlords fear the assembled people—and are doing their best to erect obstacles to such assembly.

Thinking of the Chartists, I am also sorry that the nineteenth century connection of assembly to the presentation of petitions (a connection the first amendment also makes) seems to have been lost.  All those virtual petitions each of us is asked to sign on line every day are pretty demonstrably useless.  But what about 100,000 (or more) people marching to the Capitol and calling on the Senate Majority Leader to come out and take from the hands of the people a petition?  Great political theater if nothing else—and a vivid demonstration of the collapse of democracy if that politician refuses (as I suspect would happen) to engage with the people he claims to serve.  Face-to-face is much harder to ignore than what comes to you across the computer screen.

Still, and obviously, I don’t think assembly is the be-all and end-all of politics, for all the reasons I keep on banging on about.  But Gitlin and Butler have made me much more attuned to the possibilities and resources that assembly can—and does—possess for a left wing politics.

Occupy Anarchism

“A kind of anarchism of direct participation has become the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements in America in the last half century.  There is a lineage even longer.  Decision-making by consensus is of Quaker inspiration, as if to say: Speak and listen, listen and speak, until the spirit of the whole emerges.  In its recent incarnation, anarchism is not so much a theory of the absence of government but a mood and a theory and practice of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government.  The idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating, even in one square block of lower Manhattan, can regulate themselves.  Those with time and patience can frolic and practice direct democracy at the same time—at least until the first frost.”  Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (NY: HarperCollins, 2012; pp. 80-81.)

“There was a graver problem with leaderlessness than the fact that it made it awkward for outsiders to know who to speak with.  By rejecting leadership continuity, the movement remaining in motion, mobile, able in principle to adapt to new circumstances.  But it also rejected the formalities, even the informalities, of accountability.  When it made mistakes, it didn’t know what to do about them.  It was prone, in difficult hours—and all movements, like organizations and marriages, have difficult hours—to thrash around” (Gitlin, 103-104).

[I]n keeping with the movement’s anarchist, antiauthoritarian thrust, there was a strong sentiment that, as naturalist Garbiel Willow told a New York Times reporter, ‘Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.’ Demands conferred legitimacy on the authorities.  Demandlessness, in other words, was the movement’s culture, its identity” (Gitlin, 110).

“The movement’s great majority rightly understood nonviolence not as negation, the absence of destruction, but as a creative endeavor, a repertory for invention, an opening, an identity. . . .Certainly, the tactics can grow stale with repetition, but committed and creative practitioners can renew it.  The Occupy movement has been, so far, a seedbed of creativity.  Its future rests in no small part on whether it can continue to learn from experience, deepen its tradition and funnel it into new soil” (Gitlin, 127-29).

Communities governing themselves in assemblies. . . . The radicalism of the core movement helped explain what baffled so many observers—the absence of formal demands and programs.  As a guiding principle, what the radicals wanted was direct democracy.  It would have been absurd to demand that the authorities create direct democracy.  The authorities have everything at stake in resisting such a demand.  If you were going to have direct democracy, you had to launch it yourself, directly.  You had to infuse the spirit of do-it-yourself with world-changing zeal, and vice versa.  Political-economic decisions were too consequential to be made by anyone but all the persons concerned—the stakeholders, to use the current lingo.  The radical core wanted a world run not by exclusive committees but by assemblies of the people” (Gitlin, 133, 138).

“The Occupy movement wanted to win reforms and to stay out of politics.  At the same time.

Movements are social organisms, living phenomena that breathe in and adapt to their environments, not objects frozen into their categories while taxonomists poke and prod them.  The come, go, mutate, expand, contract, rest, split, stagnate, ally, cast off outworn tissue, decay, regenerate, go round in circles, are always accused of being co-opted and selling out, and are often declared dead. If they are large, they contain multitudes, and contradict themselves.  Outsider movements struggle to finesse these tensions, to square circles, striving to hold into their outsider status while also producing results” (Gitlin, 141).

So, if economic life is to be made substantially fairer and more decent, and plutocratic power is to be reversed, an enduring movement is essential.  Such a movement may not be sufficient—it isn’t humanly possible to know that—but surely it is necessary.  Occupy’s thrust is popular, which is essential, but popularity itself does not change the world.

What does?  In the longer run, both institutional change and changes of heart and mind.  The movement needs structures that flex and learn, train leaders, generate actions, recruit supporters.  It needs to be a full-service movement—one that invites participation at many levels.  For overmortgaged and underwater home-owners, it needs campaigns to corral the banks that have them in lock.  For the civilly disobedient young, it needs appealing direct actions.  . . . Whoever oyu are, it needs to prmotoe activities tailored to you.

In the medium run, say five years, networks of activists—the inner movement—need to devise an infrastructure that sustains them, recruits them, focuses their intellectual and strategic life, generates sustained pressure on power, keeps movement tensions manageable, and not least, make significant progress toward driving money out of the political system” (Gitlin, 165-66).

“Historically, coalitions of outer-movement and inner-movement groups have accomplished what individual groups could not” (Gitlin, 208).

I don’t want to belabor this material.  Gitlin wrote his book in the spring of 2012, when Occupy was still alive—if on life support.  I will let his comments speak for themselves, with only three observations of my own.

  1. It is striking the extent to which Occupy captured the imagination of the left.  Its fragility—and its inability to make a dent on the plutocracy it was trying to disrupt—were obvious from the start.  Yet the left is so starved for any kind of “movement” that it took up Occupy as a savior.  Gitlin bends over backwards to be sympathetic, even as he repeatedly points out all of Occupy’s flaws.  His sympathy is to be applauded, not sneered at.  But this ember cannot be stoked into a fire.  There just wasn’t enough there—and never was.
  2. The point about inner and outer movements is well taken. Some serious pressure from the left on the Democratic Party is sorely needed.  So the dilemma remains: when should the radical left stand firm, when should it fall into line behind the Democrats.  Disdain for electoral politics is suicidal, as the triumph of Trump shows.  But being continually blackmailed by the threat of “their being worse” is a formula for snail’s pace progress.
  3. So the only answer is to organize, to build larger and stronger coalitions. Anarchism is no help in that case.  Assemblies are fleeting if they are not constituted as institutions.  The people governing themselves in assemblies is a useless, even frivolous, goal.  It doesn’t pass the sniff test.  It’s a happening, not a politics—and is of a piece with the gestural politics that is so delicious to the avant-garde.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

I now have a podcast up on the National Humanities Center’s website, in which I talk with the Center’s director, Robert Newman, about my work on comedy–and the ways that comedy offers a model of the good society. Click here if you want to listen.

Neoliberalism as Reactionary

Yesterday’s post worried the question of (in Lear’s words) whether there is “any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts”?  Seeking the answer in psychology, in some persistent, albeit not universal, set of motivating impulses (ambition, the quest for status, envy, and resentment) is one way to go.

Another possibility is to refuse to personalize things in that way—and to look instead to structural causes.  That path is suggested by Hardt and Negri’s insistence that neoliberalism is reactionary.  (I am reading their latest tome, Assembly [Oxford UP, 2017].)

Here’s my reconstruction of the argument: The Keynesian welfare state compromise worked well enough from 1950 to 1965, but the social upheavals of the sixties revealed the deep discontent produced by capitalism even in its most benign form.  Neoliberalism—starting with Reagan and Thatcher—was a direct move to reign in the students, union workers, and other malcontents who had shaken things to the core in the 60s.  Turning the economic screws down tighter went hand-in-glove with various strategies to diminish democratic input, heighten the power of elites, and demonize both dissenters and those who agitated for continued and even increased welfare (such as provisions for health care).

This analysis has more than a little plausibility going for it.  Oddly, it is not accompanied in Hardt and Negri (who, when all is said and done, are Marxists) with an economic analysis focusing on the economic woes of the 1970s.  Certainly, it is true that today’s conservative economists are continually refighting the wars of the 70s, where inflation is the dragon to be slain—despite the fact of almost non-existent inflation for over twenty years now.  Similarly, the zombie of the welfare queen and, more generally, of the undeserving poor has proved unkillable—perhaps even more as the danger conservatives must continually work against than as a figure in the public imagination.  Neoliberalism is the set of nostrums meant to control the hungry masses who are coming after the plutocrat’s and the nation’s wealth.

Ironically, of course, the traditional fear that in a democracy the masses will plunder the public treasury has been turned on its head over the past forty years in America—and around the globe.  It is the rich, through privatization primarily but also through the state abetting more predatory business practices, that has plundered the collective wealth of the nation.  Hardt and Negri are good on this score, even if their way of describing it—namely, as “extraction of the common”—is rather different than mine.

In short, don’t look for the evil in men’s hearts—or even for the errors their passions lead them into.  Look instead to whom they identify as their enemies, what they understand as the threats to their well-being.  It’s a conflict ridden world—and the key is to see where and how the lines are drawn.  Then identify on which side someone stands.

Still, what happened in the 1970s beyond the counter-revolution against the radical forces of the 1960s?  What produced inflation accompanied by stalled economic growth—the combination that led to the belief on the part of many elites that the largesse of post-war Keynesian state was no longer sustainable?  Yes, there were tax revolts etc., just the niggardly refusal to pay the bill any longer.  So we could say that cutting off the funds led, predictably, to a recession caused by a lack of demand—in other words, a classic capitalist downturn.  When you don’t pay the workers enough, when you extract excessive profits that immiserate the many, you end up with a crisis of over-production and need to shut down the factories for a while, which means laying off the workers, which impoverishes them even further, and thus deepens the crisis because demand is depressed even further.  The classic viscous circle.

But that doesn’t explain inflation, which (just as classically) occurs when too much money is chasing too few goods.  Inflation should be the result of under-production.  Except—and here comes the rub. The other source of inflation is the result of open, globalized trade relations as contrasted to the kind of closed system analysis that explains inflation through under-production.  Inflation in a globalized system occurs when the national currency no longer buys as much on the world market.  The “oil shock” meant the American dollar went into the tank.  In 1972, a three week visit to England and Scotland (not counting the airfare) cost me $200.  Yes, I was doing it on the cheap, but still . . .  Another three weeks in England in 1978 cost me $1200.  The change in the almighty dollar was that drastic and that fast.

The eventual response to this shift in America’s position in the global economy was to outsource manufacturing to other lands and to have America concentrate on finance capital rather than industrial capital.  Neoliberalism—and its imperatives—can’t be understood without taking this transformation into account.  Here, again, Hardt and Negri are useful.  And maybe even help to answer a puzzle that goes back to the hard hearts of our Republican legislators.

The puzzle is a familiar one: if capitalism depends on consumers to fuel continual growth (i.e. if capitalism is always in need of new markets or in ways of exploiting existing markets more efficiently), then why does capitalism, especially in its neo-liberal and globalized form, seek so relentlessly to drive down wages.  It’s the opposite of the Henry Ford principle of paying his workers enough so they could buy his cars.  It takes the soft-hearted liberals from FDR to Bernie Sanders to save capitalism from the fate Marx predicted for it.

BUT . . . maybe the logic of finance capital makes that view of things a misunderstanding of the forces currently in play.  Finance capital is not seeking profits from people buying produced goods.  Instead, finance capital finds its profits in ROI (return on investment).  Think of how private equity firms work.  They swoop in to buy up a company, they then use those company’s assets to take out loans, and then (in many cases) drive the company into bankruptcy because of that high debt.  The game here is not to get people to buy things.  They just need people (usually other financial institutions) to buy debt.  The profits are the result of “extraction,” as Hardt and Negri say.  So long as someone places a value on something, that thing can be leveraged—and money made.  Who needs consumers?  Who needs the people?  It’s just a self-enclosed world of financial dealings, only related in incredibly abstract and distant ways to anything “real.”

This might seem far-fetched, but Hardt and Negri offer a great example: gentrification.  Properties in the most desired cities—New York, Vancouver, London, San Francisco etc.—spiral upward in price not just because people wish to live there, but also because they are seen as both safe and incredibly lucrative investments.  Money just chases money, with nothing “real” (except perhaps the “upgrades” to granite countertops and glass brick showers) changing.  Of course, such spirals lead, inevitably, to bubbles and collapses.  An odd term: bubble.  Because you can’t know it’s a bubble because it isn’t a bubble until the moment when confidence collapses, when the hive mind decides everything is overpriced.  Overpriced in relation to what?  There is no measure, no standard, beyond that mysterious collective sense of what is sensible.  Of course for most of us—those not in 1% or 5%–“sensible” prices were left behind four or five years ago.

Critiques of speculation as disconnected from anything real are as old as the Tulip craze and the South Sea Bubble of the 1700s.  As is the use of debt—both taking it on and forcing it upon others—to gain wealth.  (If we believe David Graeber, debt goes back 5000 years.)  What seems to distinguish neoliberalism is the orientation of capitalism (and of the political, legal, and social institutions that enable it) away from production of goods and towards the profits to be made through finance.  In other words, financial speculation was always there—but social and political policy was not constructed to aid and abet it since the conventional wisdom remained that the production of goods was the primary road to wealth—both personal and national.

Trump offers a good case for how hard it is to think about this shift.  The man never produced a single thing in his life, yet seems to think that wealth comes from the production of goods.  He even seems to think that he has produced some things.  In any case, his rhetoric is all about restoring prosperity through a return to industrial capitalism.  But most of his actions (his anti-immigration policies are an exception here) are directed toward enabling finance capitalism.  In other words, the full import of the shift hasn’t registered yet for many people.

A full-scale economic determinism, then, would tell us not to look for motives for hard-heartedness within the Republicans, but look instead to the changed nature of capitalism to explain their actions. Causes are external, not internal. The masses—defined here as those with no money to invest—are no longer relevant to prosperity, so should be ignored on that account.  And if democracy can be contained, then the masses need no longer be feared either.  The legislator will prosper by knowing who his true master is: not the voters, but the plutocrat.

So, for the determinist, neliberalism is reactionary in another sense: it is a reaction to this shift from industrial to financial capitalism.