Category: Democratice governance

Joseph North Three:  Sensibility, Community, Institution

Now we reach the point in my discussion of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) where I mostly agree with him.  I am simply going to take up some of his key terms and goals and inflect them somewhat differently.  I think what I have to say runs parallel to North, not ever much meeting him on his chosen ground, but not running athwart his formulations either.

Here’s three of North’s descriptions of his project.

The first comes from a footnote on Raymond Williams and features North’s “scholarship/criticism” divide.  “Of course, none of this is to say that Williams was not deeply committed to ‘practice’ in other fields of endeavor; I merely mean to observe that he understood his disciplinary work in scholarly terms, as cultural analysis, cultural history, and cultural theory, rather than understanding it in critical terms as the systematic cultivation of sensibility.  Naturally the two are not finally distinguishable, and any powerful work of scholarship moves readers to try on different ranges of sensibility, etc. etc. But the ‘practice’ of scholarship, conceived of as cultural analysis, is necessarily neither direct nor systematic in this respect” (pg. 233, fn. 18).

The second is notable for its raising the issue of institutions.  “I only want to add that the problem facing the discipline is not an entirely new one, for in a broad sense it is much the same problem that the critical revolution of the 1920s managed to solve: the problem of creating a true paradigm for criticism—the problem of how to build an institution that would cultivate new, deeper forms of subjectivity and collectivity in a rigorous and repeatable way” (126-27).

In the third passage, he faults the work of D. A. Miller and Eve Sedgwick for its “lack of any prospect of a true paradigm for criticism—the lack of any hope of putting together a paradigmatic way to use the literary directly to intervene in the social order” (173).  Two pages earlier, he describes what I think he means by “direct” intervention.  “My point is simply that it really does make a difference to the character of the work produced by an intellectual formation when those involved feel strongly their responsibility to the needs of a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy—a larger formation defined not simply by its ‘identity’ but by its character as a living movement—which is to say, really, a formation defined by its always limited but nevertheless real ability to define itself by determining, collectively, the trajectory of its own development” (171).

I can’t resist, of course, registering where I disagree with these statements. I have already made clear my skepticism that there is a rigorous or systematic way to cultivate a sensibility.  I am also astounded that North does not recognize feminist literary criticism of the period from 1975 to 1995 as a paradigmatic case of academic work tied “to a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy.”  And if Sedgwick’s relation to the gay liberation movement isn’t a similar instance, may the Lord help the rest of us.  And North’s repeated (as much a tic as his use of the term “rigorous”) use of the words “true” and “really” make him appear more Stalinist than I think he really is.  Does he really intend to shut down the pluralism of intellectual work in favor of the one true path?  Re-education camps for the critics so that they get with the program—and are taught the methods of the new systematic pedagogy.  Surely, one of the delights of the aesthetic sensibility is its anarchism, its playfulness, its imaginative ingenuity, excesses, and unruliness. I suspect that “systematic,” and “repeatable” and “direct” aesthetic education would prove counter-productive in many cases.  At least, I hope it would–with teachers and student both summoning enough gumption to rebel against the indoctrination.

Finally, I want to quibble with his description of “direct” intervention.  Work that stands in support of, proves useful to, “larger” social movements is not direct—at least not directly political.  Here’s Judith Butler in a 1988 essay offering a straightforward description of political acts.  “Clearly, there are political acts which are deliberate and instrumental actions of political organization, resistant collective interventions with the broad aim of instating a more just set of social and political relations” (“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Theater Journal  523).  That cultivating an aesthetic sensibility might play a role in encouraging someone to join that social movement is not the direct political intervention that the movement attempts through quite different means and actions than what the critic does in the classroom or in her written work.  To confuse the two does no one any good—especially if it lets the teacher/critic deem herself sufficiently political as she advances her academic career.  The teacher/critic’s contribution is valuable, but it also indirect.

Enough with the dissents. I completely agree with North that “sensibility” is the crucial concept for the “hearts and minds” side of politics.  Cultivating a leftist sensibility is necessary, although not sufficient, to creating the kind of society we leftists want to live in.  The caveats here are familiar.  There is no guaranteed path from an aesthetic sensibility to a leftist politics. [Let me also note that the practice of close reading is also not the only, or even the royal road, to acquiring an aesthetic sensibility.  Lots of people got there other ways, which casts doubt of the “systematic” and “rigorous” pedagogy, and on the fetishizing of close reading.] For many aesthetes (Nietzsche, Yeats, and Pound among them), the vulgarity and bad taste of the masses drives them to anti-democratic, autocratic visions of strong, masterful leaders of the herd.  For others (Wordsworth and Coleridge for example), reverence for genius promotes a kind of over-all piety that leads to a quietist respect for everything that is, investing tradition and the customary forms of life with a sacred aura it is impious to question or change.  (This is the aesthetic version—articulated by T. S. Eliot as well—of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.)

But the larger point—and now we are with David Hume and William James in contrast to Kant—is that our political ideas and principles (and our ethical ones as well) are the products of our sensibility.  It is the moral passions and our moral intuitions that generate our political commitments.  James (in the first lecture of Pragmatism) talks of “temperament”—and throughout his work (from The Principles of Psychology onwards) insists that our stated reasons for doing something are always secondary; there was the will to do something first, then the search for justifying reasons.  Indignation at the injustice of others (or of social arrangements) and shame at one’s own acts of selfishness are more secure grounds for conduct than a rationally derived categorical imperative.

James seems to think of temperament as innate, a fated from birth.  North’s point is that education—a sentimental education—can shape sensibility.  I agree.  My daughter was in college at George Washington University when Osama bin Laden was killed.  Her classmates rushed over to the White House (three blocks away) to celebrate when the news was heard.  She told my wife and me that she didn’t join the celebration.  It just felt wrong to her to dance in the streets about killing someone.  Her parents’ reaction was her Friends School education had just proved itself.

Sensibility is akin to taste.  The leftist today finds it distasteful, an offense to her sense of how things should be, to live in Trump’s America.  I will use my next post to describe the sensibility of the right in that America.  But for the left, there is outrage at the caging of immigrant children, and at the bigotry that extends to non-whites, women, non-Christians and beyond.  Fundamentally, it is the shame of living in such a needlessly cruel society, with its thousands of homeless and millions of uninsured.

I don’t know exactly how a specifically “aesthetic” sensibility lines up with this leftist sensibility.  And as I have said, there is certainly no sure path from one to the other.  But I am willing to believe (maybe because it is true at least for myself) that the aesthetic stands at odds with commercial culture, attending to values and experiences that are “discounted” (in every sense of that word) in the dominant culture.  Being placed at odds, in a spot where the taken-for-granteds of one’s society are made somewhat less self-evident, has its effect.  If what one has come to appreciate, even to love, is scorned by others, new modes of reckoning (again in every sense of the word), and new allegiances (structure of feeling) may beckon.

Here is where Hume is preferable to James.  Hume (Dewey and Mead follow Hume  here in a way the more individualistic James does not) portrays sensibility as shaped through our communal relations and as reinforced by those same relations.  In other words, even non-conformity is social.  It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible (akin to the impossibility of a “private language” in the Wittgenstein argument) to be a solitary “enemy of the people.”  There must be resources—from the tradition, from received works of art, criticism, and cultural analysis, from a cohort—on which one can draw to sustain the feeling that something is wrong in the dominant order.

Education, in other words, can play a major role in shaping sensibility—and it is the community the school offers is as crucial as the educational content.  Young people discover the courage of their convictions when they find others who feel the same way, who have the same inchoate intuitions that school (in both its formal and informal interactions) is helping them to articulate.  The encouragement of teachers (yes, you are on the right path; keep going; keep probing; keep questioning; trust your instincts) and of peers (those famous all-night bull sessions after our student finds her sympaticos).

Communities are, famously, ephemeral.  We can idealize them (as arguably Hannah Arendt does in her definition of “the political”—a definition that seems to exclude everything except the excited talk among equals from the political sphere).  Societies are corrupt, impersonal, hierarchical, mechanical, not face-to-face.  Communities are “known” (as Raymond Williams phrased it), informal and intimate.  A familiar narrative of “modernity” sees communities as overwhelmed by society, by the depredations of capitalism, war, and the ever-expanding state. (Tonnies)

This romanticism does not serve the left well.  Communities are not sustainable in the absence of institutions.  And they certainly cannot withstand the pressures of power, of the large forces of capitalism and the state, without institutional homes.  There must (quite literally) be places for the community to gather and resources for its maintenance.  Make no mistake about it: neo-liberalism has deliberately and methodically set out to destroy the institutions that have sustained the left (while building their own infrastructure—chambers of commerce, business lobbying groups, the infamous think tanks—that provide careers for the cadre of right-wing hacks).  Unions, of course, first and foremost.  When did we last have a union leader who was recognized as a spokesperson for America’s workers?  But there has also been the absorption of the “associations” that Tocqueville famously saw as the hallmark of American democracy into the services of the state.  Outsourced welfare functions are now the responsibility of clinics first created by the feminist and gay liberation movements to serve the needs of their communities.  Financial stability has been secured at the price of being experienced as embedded members of the community; now those organizations are purveyors of  services begrudgingly offered by a bureaucratic state that always put obstacles in the way of accessing those benefits.

North is right to see that the neoliberal attack on institutions extends to the university.  The aesthetic sensibility (since at least 1960) has been bunkered in the university, having failed to sustain the few other institutional structures (little magazines, the literary reviews it inherited from the 19th century) that existed in the early 20th century.  Reading groups are well and good (they are thriving and I hardly want to belittle them), but have no institutional weight or home.  Humanities departments are about it, except for the arts scene (again, mostly woefully under-institutionalized) in some major cities.

So there is every reason to fight hard to keep the humanities as an integral part of the university.  I personally don’t think taking the disciplinary route is the way to fight this fight—but maybe I am wrong.  Maybe only claims to disciplinary specificity and expertise can gain us a spot.

More crucially, I think North is absolutely right to believe that our efforts as critics are doomed to political ineffectiveness if not tied to vibrant social movements.

[For the record, here is where I think North’s criticism/scholarship divide really doesn’t work.  Efforts along both lines can prove supportive or not to social movements.  It is the content, not the form, of the work that matters.  And I also think work that is apolitical is perfectly OK.  It is tyrannical—a mirror image of the absurd regimes of “productivity” that afflict both capitalism and the research university—to insist that everything one does contribute to the political cause.  Life is made worth living, in many instances, by things that are unproductive, are useless.]

The problem of the contemporary left is, precisely, the absence of such social movements.  The civil rights movement had the black churches, and then the proliferation of organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, along with the venerable NAACP, and A. Philip Randolph’s labor organization.  It sustained itself over a very long time.  The feminist movement had its clinics, and NOW.  The anti-war movement had A. J. Muste and David Dellinger, long-time veterans of peace groups.  The Democratic Party is obviously no good unless (except when) it is pushed by groups formed outside the party, groups that act on their own without taking instructions from the party. The Bernie Sanders insurrection will only reshape the Democratic Party when it establishes itself as an independent power outside the party–with which the party then needs to come to terms.

The trouble with Black Lives Matter, ME Too, and Occupy is that they all have resisted or failed (I don’t know which one) to establish any kind of institutional base.  Each of these movements has identified a mass of people who share certain experiences and a certain sensibility.  They have, in other words, called into presence (albeit mostly virtually—except for Occupy) a community.  That discovery of other like souls is comforting, reassuring, even empowering.  I am not alone.  But to be politically effective, these movements need legs.  They need to be sustained, in it for the long haul.  And that requires institutions: money, functionaries, offices, continuing pressure at the sites deemed appropriate (for strategic reasons) for intervention.

In short (and now I am the one who is going to sound like a thirties Marxist), the left needs to make the long march through the institutions—a march begun by creating some institutions of its own on the outside to prepare it for the infiltration of the institutions on the inside.  That’s what the right has been doing for the past forty years.  While the left was marching in the street on the weekends with their friends, the right was getting elected to school boards.  Protest marches feel great, but are ephemeral, easily ignored.  Our society’s shift rightwards has come through a million incremental changes wrought on the ground by somebody in an office somewhere, by right wing hacks and business lobbyists writing legislation, by regulators letting oversight lapse, by prosecutors and courts looking the other way at white collar and corporate crime. During the Obama years, the left paid almost no attention to state-level races, ceding those legislatures to the right almost by default–with grievous consequences (not the least of which is a weak bench, unable to provide any potential national candidates between the ages of 45 and 65).

We need leftist social movements that pay attention to the minutiae, that are not addicted to the large dramatic gesture, that don’t engage in the magical thinking that a piece of legislation or a court decision solves a problem once and for all.  It’s the implementation, the daily practices of state, corporate, educational, regulatory institutions (as Foucault should have taught us) where change takes place, in often silent and difficult to perceive ways.  That’s the room where it happens—and the left has all too often failed to even try to get into the room.

Economic Power/Political Power

A quick addition to my last post.

The desire is to somehow hold economic power and political power apart, using each as a counterbalance against the other.  To give the state absolute power over the economy is to insure vast economic inequality.  Such has, generally speaking, been the lesson of history.  Powerful states of the pre-modern era presided over massively unequal societies.

But there is a modern exception.  Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe did produce fairly egalitarian societies; in that case, state power was used against the accumulation of wealth by the few.  There still existed a privileged elite of state officials, but there was also a general distribution of economic goods.  The problem, of course, was a combination of state tyranny with low productivity.  The paranoia that afflicts all tyrannies led to abuses that made life unbearable.

But (actually existing) communism did show that it is possible to use state (political) power to mitigate economic inequality.  Social democracy from 1945 to 1970 was also successful in this direction.  Under social democracy, the economy enjoys a relative autonomy, but is highly regulated by a state that interferes to prevent large inequities.

Where there is some kind of norm that political power (defined as the ability to direct the actions of state institutions) should not either 1) be a route to economic gain or 2) be working hand-in-glove with the economically powerful to secure their positions, the violations of that norm are called “corruption.”  The Marxist, of course, says that the state in all capitalist societies (the “bourgeois state”) is corrupt if that is our definition of corruption.  The state will always have been “captured” by the plutocrats.

What belies that Marxist analysis is that the plutocrats hate the state and do everything in their power (under the slogan of laissez-faire) to render the state a non-player in economic and social matters.  Capitalists do not want an effective state of any sort—either of the left, center, or right.  A strong state of any stripe is not going to let the economy goes its own way, but will (instead) fight to gain control over it.  I think it fair to say that the fight between political and economic power mirrors the fight between civil and religious power in the early days of the nation-state.  The English king versus the clergy and the Pope.

The ordinary citizen, I am arguing, is better off when neither side can win this fight, when the two antagonists have enough standing to prevent one from having it all its way.

Our current mess comes in two forms, the worst of all worlds.  We have a weak state combined with massive corruption.  What powers the state still has are placed at the service of capital while politicians use office to get rich.  We have a regulatory apparatus that is almost completely dormant.  From the SEC to the IRS, from the FDA to the EPA, the agencies are not doing their jobs, but standing idly by while the corporations, financiers, and tax-evading rich do their thing.

The leftist response is to say that the whole set-up in unworkable.  We need a new social organization.  I have just finished reading Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia (Verso, 2016).  Interestingly enough, Jameson also thinks we need “dual power” in order to move out of our current mess.  The subtitle of his book is “Dual Power and the Universal Army.”  More about Jameson in subsequent posts.

Here I just want to reiterate what I take to be a fundamental liberal tenet: all concentrations of power are to be avoided; monopolies of power in any society are a disaster that mirror the equal but opposite disaster of civil war.  Absolute sovereignty of the Hobbesian sort is not a solution; but the absence of all sovereignty is, as Hobbes saw, a formula for endless violence.  Jameson says the key political problem for any Utopia is “federalism.”  That seems right to me, if we take federalism to mean the distribution of power to various social locations.  Having a market that stands in some autonomy from the state is an example of federalism.  There are, of course, other forms that federalism can take.  All of those forms are ways of working against the concentration of power in one place.

Harry Frankfurt on Inequality

I read Harry Frankfurt’s essay on inequality (published as a small book by Princeton University Press, 2015) over the weekend.  Frankfurt’s position is simple: “Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable.  From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same.  What is morally important is that each should have enough.  If everyone had enough money, it would be of no special or deliberate concern whether some people had more money than others.  I shall call this alternative to egalitarianism the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’—that is, the doctrine that what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough” (7).

Economic inequality is morally objectionable only when the fact of its existence leads to the production of other moral harms.  But it is not intrinsically (a key word for Frankfurt) morally objectionable in itself.  “That economic equality is not a good in itself leaves open the possibility, obviously, that it may be instrumentally valuable as a necessary condition for the attainment of goods that do generally possess intrinsic value. . . . [T]he widespread error of believing that there are powerful moral reasons for caring about economic equality for its own sake is far from innocuous.  As a matter of fact, this belief tends to do significant harm” (8-9).

Frankfurt’s efforts to specify the harm done are not very convincing, involving tortured arguments about marginal utility and implausible suppositions about scarcity.  By failing to deal in any concrete cases, he offers broad arguments that fall apart (it seems to me) when applied to things like access to clean air and clean water (think of the Flint water crisis) or to health care and education (where provision of equal access and quality to all is a commitment to the equal worth of every life, a principle that seems to me intrinsic.)  It gets even worse at the end of the book, in the second essay, “Equality and Respect.”  Frankfurt writes: “I categorically reject the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance” (65).  His argument rests on a bit of a shell game, since he substitutes “respect” for “equality”, and then acknowledges that there are certain rights we deem morally due to all because of our “respect” for their “common humanity.”  But he is against “equality” because he thinks we also accord respect (and even certain rights) differentially.  We need to take the differences between people into account when those differences are (in his words) “relevant.”  What he fails to see is that “equality” names the moral principle that, in (again) particular cases, no differences can or should be relevant (in spite of the fact that various agents will try to assert and act on the relevance of differences).  The most obvious case is “equality before the law.”  It is very hard to see how “equality before the law” is not an intrinsic moral principle.  It functions as a principle irrespective of outcomes—and its functioning as a principle is demonstrated precisely by the fact that it is meant to trump any other possible way of organizing how the law functions.  It is good in and of itself; we could even say that “equality before the law” constitutes the good, the legitimacy, of law—and it preforms this constitutive function because it is the intrinsic principle law is meant to instantiate.

But let’s go back to economic inequality.  There Frankfurt is on much stronger ground.  I don’t think he makes a good case that concern over economic inequality causes harm.  But as what I have been calling a “welfare minimalist” (what he calls “the doctrine of sufficiency”), he echoes the comment of my colleague that questions of inequality are irrelevant if everyone has enough.  As Frankfurt puts it: “The doctrines of egalitarianism and of sufficiency are logically independent: considerations that support the one cannot be presumed to provide support for the other” (43).  “The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty” (43).

There are practical questions here of a Marxist variety: namely, is it possible for there to be substantial inequality without the concomitant impoverishment of some proportion of the population?  Oddly enough, Frankfurt briefly talks about the inflationary effects of making the poor better off, but never considers the inflationary effects of their being vast concentrations of wealth (in housing costs, for example).  Mostly, however, Frankfurt shies far away from practical issues.

On his chosen level of abstraction, he makes one very good and one very provocative point.  The good point is that concerns about inequality help us not at all with the tough question of establishing standards of sufficiency.  If the first task before us is triage, then what is needed is to provide everyone with enough.  It seems true to me that triage is the current priority—and that we have barely begun to address the question of what would suffice.  Talk of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) is hopelessly abstract without a consideration of what that income would enable its recipient to buy—and of what we, as a society, deem essential for every individual to be able to procure.  There is work to be done on the “minimalist” side, although I do think Martha Nussbaum’s list of minimal requirements (in her book on the capabilities approach from Harvard UP) is a good start.

The provocative point comes from Frankfurt’s stringent requirement that a moral principle, au fond, should be “intrinsic.”  The trouble with inequality as a standard is that it is “relative,” not “absolute” (41-42).  It is not tied to my needs per se, but to a comparison between what I have and what someone else has.  The result, Frankfurt believes, is that the self is alienated from its own life.  “[A] preoccupation with the alleged inherent value of economic equality tends to divert a person’s attention away from trying to discover—within his experience of himself and of his life conditions—what he himself really cares about, what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him. . . . It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order effectively to pursue his own most authentic needs, interest, and ambitions. . . . It separates a person from his own individual reality, and leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs that are not most authentically his own” (11-12).

Comparisons are odious.  Making them leads us into the hell of heteronomy—and away from the Kantian heights of autonomy and the existential heaven of authenticity.  But snark is not really the appropriate response here.  There seem to me interesting abstract and practical questions involved.  The abstract question is about the very possibility (and desirability) of autonomy/authenticity.  Can I really form desires and projects that are independent of my society?  In first century Rome, I could not have dreamed of becoming a baseball player or a computer scientist.  Does that mean that my desire to become one or the other in 2019 is inauthentic?  More directly, it is highly likely that my career aspirations are shaped by various positive reinforcements, various signals that I got from others that my talents lay in a particular direction.  Does that make my choice inauthentic?  More abstractly, what is the good of authenticity?  What is at stake in making decisions for myself, based on a notion of my own needs and ambitions? Usually, the claim is that freedom rests on autonomy.  Certainly both Kant and the existentialists believed that.  But what if freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, if it indicates a state of alienation from others so extreme that it is worthless—a thought that both Kierkegaard and Sartre explored.

I am, as anyone who has read anything by me likely knows, a proponent of autonomy, but not a fanatic about it.  That people should have the freedom to make various decisions for themselves is a bottom-line moral and political good in my book.  But I am not wedded to any kind of absolutist view of autonomy, which may explain why appeals to “authenticity” leave me cold.  On the authenticity front, I am inclined to think, we are all compromised from the get go.  We are intersubjectively formed and constituted; our interactions with others (hell, think about how we acquire language) embed “the other” within us from the start.  It’s a hopeless task to try and sort out which desires are authentically ours and which come from our society, from the others we have interacted with, etc. etc.  To have the freedom to act on one’s desires is a desirable autonomy in my view; to try to parse the “authenticity” of those desires in terms of some standard of their being “intrinsic” to my self and not “externally” generated seems to me one path to madness.

Even more concretely, Frankfurt’s link of the “intrinsic” to the “authentic” raises the question of whether any judgments (about anything at all) are possible without comparison.  His notion seems to be that an “absolute” and “intrinsic” standard allows me to judge something without having to engage in any comparison between that something and some other thing.  I guess Kant’s categorical imperative is meant to function that way.  You have the standard—and then you can judge if this action meets that standard.  But does judgment really ever unfold that way?  By the time Kant gets to the Critique of Judgment, he thinks we need to proceed by way of examples—which he sees as various instantiations of “the beautiful” (since “the beautiful” in and of itself is too vague, too ethereal, a standard to function as a “determinative” for judgment).  And, in more practical matters, it would seem judgment very, very often involves weighing a range of possibilities—and comparing them to see which is the most desirable (according to a variety of considerations such as feasibility, costs, outcomes etc.) A “pure” judgment–innocent of all comparison–seems a rare beast indeed.

Because he operates at his insistently high level of abstraction, Frankfurt approaches his “authenticity” issue as a question of satisfaction with one’s life.  Basically, he is interested in this phenomenon: I am satisfied with my life even though I fully realize that others have much more money than me.  One measure of my satisfaction is that I would not go very far out of my way to acquire more money.  Hence the fact of economic inequality barely impinges on my sense that I have “enough” for my needs and desires.  This is a slightly different case from saying that my concept of my needs and desires has been formed apart from any comparison between my lot and the lot of others.  Here, instead, the point is that, even when comparing my lot to that of those better off than me, I do not conclude that my lot is bad.  I am satisfied.

For Frankfurt, my satisfaction shows that I have no fundamental moral objection to economic inequality.  Provided I have “enough” I am not particularly morally outraged that others have even more.  I am not moved to act to change that inequality.

It seems to me that two possibilities arise here.  The first is that I do find the existence of large fortunes morally outrageous. I don’t act because I don’t see a clear avenue of effective action to change that situation, although I do consistently vote for the political parties who are trying to combat economic inequality.  But Frankfurt’s point is that my satisfaction shows I don’t find economic inequality “intrinsically” wrong.  I am most likely moved to object to it by seeing what harms have been done to others in order to accumulate such a large fortune—or I point to the wasted resources that are hoarded by the rich and could be used to help the poor.  Frankfurt, in other words, may be right that economic inequality is not “intrinsically” wrong, but only wrong in terms of the harms that it produces.  I think I would take the position that economic inequality is a “leading indicator” of various ills (like poverty, exploitation, increasing precarity, the undermining of democratic governance, etc.)—and that the burden of proof lies in showing that such inequality is harmless.  If this focus on produced harms means economic inequality is not an “intrinsic” value, so be it.

The other interesting consideration Frankfurt’s discussion brings to the fore is the absence of envy.  Conservatives, of course, are fond of reducing all concerns about economic inequality to envy.  And the mystery to be considered here (and to which Frankfurt points) is how, if I am aware that others have more than me, I am not consumed with envy, resentment, or a sense of abiding injustice (i.e. it’s not fair that he has more than me).  Certainly some people’s lives are blighted by exactly those feelings.  But others are content, are satisfied, in the way Frankfurt describes.  The comparison has no bite for them.  The difference is noted but not particularly resented—or, if resented, still doesn’t reside at the center of the judgment of their own life.  Maybe some kind of primitive narcissism is at work here, some sense that I really like being me and don’t really want to trade in “me” in order to be some other chap.  The deep repudiation of self required by envy may just be beyond the reach of 80% of us.  Just how prevalent is self-hatred?  How many would really desire to change their lot with another?

Pure speculation of course.  But the point is not some fantasy about authenticity, about living in a world where I don’t shape my desires or self-judgments at least partially by comparing myself to others.  Rather, the fact of our constantly doing such comparing is here acknowledged—and the question is how we live contentedly even as we also recognize that we fall short of others in all kinds of ways.  He has better health, a more successful career, a sunnier disposition, more money, more friends, more acclaim.  How can I be content when I see all that he possesses that I do not?  That’s the mystery.  And I don’t think Frankfurt solves it–and I cannot explain it either.  His little book makes the mystery’s existence vivid for me.

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.