Category: Democratice governance

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.

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.

Biopower/Biopolitics

Foucault introduces the notion of “biopower” as a supplement to his theory of “disciplinary power.”  He argues, convincingly in my view, that what we might call the “welfare state” slowly emerges from about 1750 on.  That state takes ensuring the welfare of its citizens, promoting and even providing the means toward sustaining life, as one of its primary missions—or even its fundamental reason to exist, the very basis of its legitimacy.  The state that can protect, preserve, and even enhance the life of its citizens is a state worthy of their allegiance and obedience.  It seems plausible to claim that the Roman empire did not value citizens’ lives in this way, or that medieval kingdoms did not place each citizen’s welfare as a central value the polity was pledged to honor.

Typical of Foucault is his desire to focus on the way that something which is often celebrated as “progress” in fact carries significant costs that a Whiggish history ignores.  We can use the term “liberalism” to designate the traditional story (even though, as I have argued vehemently over the years, it makes no sense to accuse 20th century liberals of buying this story; we must distinguish, at the very least, “classical” from “modern”—or 29th century—liberalism).  The liberal story has several parts: a) consent of the governed to the state’s power in return for protection, for the preservation of life; b) the rise of the individual, which is why every life is equally entitled to that protection; and c) the establishment of “rights” that aim to protect citizens from the potential abuses of power by the state itself.  Liberty, in this understanding of the world liberalism establishes, is meaningless without security.  Only someone who is confident that his life will continue will be able to act out the kinds of long-term plans and undertake the kinds of initiatives that make liberty a reality.  This notion of the necessary preconditions of liberty gets expanded as the 19th century moves into the 20th to include what sometimes get called “social rights” (to contrast them to “political rights.”)  Social rights are claims upon the polity to provide the “means” to life: namely, food, shelter, education, health care, clean air and water, the list can go on.  Political rights, on the other hand, are direct protections against undue interference in a citizen’s behavior: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, along with legal rights against preventive detention, arbitrary imprisonment, and rights of participation, including the right to vote, to run for office, and to form/join political parties.

Foucault had, with his work on disciplinary power, made a compelling case that the advent of individualism, usually seen as a progressive step toward valuing all lives (if not equally, at least in ways that proclaimed that no life could be legitimately sacrificed), offered pathways to the intensification of power.  Namely, each individual becomes a target for power’s intervention.  (Strictly speaking, of course, we should say each body becomes a site for power’s intervention—and that power produces individuals out of bodies.)  Liberal political orders exist hand-in-hand with an economic order (one Foucault resists calling capitalism) that is determined to make each person as productive as possible.  A whole series of disciplinary techniques are applied at a multiplicity of sites through a society to insure that individuals are up to the mark, that they are, as the phrase goes, “productive members of society.”  And all kinds of punishments are devised for those who prove deviant, where deviance comes in an astounding variety of forms.  Disciplinary power “articulates” the social field with finer and finer gradations of acceptable behavior, with every citizen constantly being measured (through endless processes of examination) against the various norms.

Disciplinary power, then, works upon each individual.  Compulsory education is one of its innovations; the highly organized factory is another, the creation and training of the mass citizen army another.  In each case, every body in the ranks must be made to conform, to play its part.

Biopwer, by way of contrast, works on populations.  The nation that takes “life” as its raison d’etre will focus attention on individual life, but it will also be concerned with the general preservation of the nation as well.  That is, it will become interested in birth and death rates, working to raise life expectancy, to lessen infant mortality, to  encourage pregnancy and attend to the health of pregnant women.  The statistical (general) knowledge that can be generated about such things will suggest various large-scale interventions by state power.  The most obvious one are in public health measures: laws (regulations) to protect air and water quality, but also the outlawing of “dangerous” drugs and the interdiction of suicide.

At some points, Foucault appears to be simply describing something that is so familiar to us, so taken for granted, that it is practically invisible.  The state’s power increases when we, as citizens, grant it the right to enforce various public health measures.  We could say, in a similar fashion, that state power increases if we make it one of the state’s responsibilities to provide public transport.  The gathering of money and the granting of jobs involved in creating and running a public transport system must entail the state having more power.  After all, power is not just power over (any employer has power over employees, and the state is no different in that regard) but also power to.  The state would not have the power to (ability to) run a transportation system unless it had power.  So the more duties we assign to the state, the more power it, necessarily, accumulates (unless it is totally ineffectual).

However, as many readers of Foucault have noted, his discussions of power quite often come with the distinct flavor of “critique,” in a dual sense: first, as a revelation of power’s presence where either ideology (semi-deliberate masking of the reality) or taken-for-grantedness hide that presence, and second, as a strongly implied normative criticism of power as illegitimate, evil, or pernicious.  Some commentators have even started to wonder if Foucault has affinities with ne0liberals insofar as he associates state power with tyranny.  I think that is going too far because Foucault (especially with disciplinary power) was very attuned to the ways in which power is exercised in non-state venues (like the factory) and certainly never thought of the economic sphere, of private enterprise, as a site of liberty unrestrained by power.  But his temperamental anarchy does make his approach certain libertarian positions in troubling ways—since, in my view, the libertarian is absurdly naïve, being blind to power’s presence in ways that Foucault has taught us to mistrust.  Power is everywhere—and always with us.  (Hence other readers of Foucault have taken “power” to be the “god-term” in his work.)  Instead of the anarchist dream of a world without power, my view is we have to think about ways to rein in power, to limits its abuse, and that means distributing power in ways that neither state or employers have enough power to leave their citizens or their employees without effective recourse against abuses.  Foucault, however, never goes in that direction.  After identifying the many sites where power is exercised, and implying that such exercises are not good things, he has nothing more to say about how we might or should respond to that situation.

Foucault has a particular reason for thinking biopower pernicious: his argument that it leads to racism.  I will take up that argument tomorrow—since it is the direct claim that a “politics of life” leads to the infliction of large-scale death.  For now, one last point: biopower is not biopolitics.  There are lots of ways of understanding “politics,” but one fairly basic definition of the term would be “pertaining to the collective arrangement of ways of living together with others.”  That is, we don’t have politics until more than one party is involved in the creation (through negotiation, or legislation, or other means) of the arrangements—and where the goal is to establish a modus vivendi that enables sustainable co-existence (which means at least semi-peaceful and semi-stable ways of muddling along).  “Biopower” only identifies where and how power, focused on issues/questions of “life,” intervenes, is exercised.  “Biopoliitcs” attends to the ways that placing the question of “life” prominently among the issues a society must address leads to certain political debates/decisions/conflicts in the ongoing collective effort to forge the terms of sociality.  We might say that “biopower” suggests a passivity of the part of power’s subjects—a passivity Foucualt always claimed he never intended to convey, yet nonetheless inflicts a vision that is as “apolitical” as his.  An odd charge, I know, since Foucault seems intensely political.  But his work rarely attends to the collective processes through which power is created and its specific techniques are forged.  Instead, power appears out of the cloud like the God in the Book of Job.  And it proves just about as unaccountable as that God as well.  You can resist it the way you might kick your broken-down car but you can’t get under the hood and actually tinker with its workings.  It takes a political vision to imagine that kind of transformative work, a work that would involve negotiation and compromise with others, and the eventual creation of legal and institutional frameworks (invariably imperfect).  It would require, in other words, a belief in the power of people to intervene in history, in place of the kind of transcendent power Foucault presents us with.

The State

If, as yesterday’s post argued, trade unions are no longer in a position to effectively counter-balance the power of capitalism, then some other site of power, some other institution, must play that role.  The contemporary right (the neoliberals, if we are going to use that terminology) demonizes trade unions at every turn.  The moral fury they direct against even the slightest hint of collective action on the part of workers has always baffled me.  Just what is morally wrong here?  Why is such collective action so reprehensible?  Other forms of collective action—political parties, lobbyists, trade and professional associations, the NRA and the AARP—are not anathematized, but trade unions are somehow beyond the pale.  I refuse to reduce this to sheer economic interest and bad faith; their moral outrage would be unsustainable if it didn’t somehow resonate beyond the quarters in which it directly serves economic interest.

Of course, the primary rhetorical move is to claim trade unions are an infringement on freedom.  Even workers who don’t endorse the union must pay their union dues.  A similar argument, of course, is made against the state—with taxes standing in as tyrannical in the way that union dues are.  The union and that state are both robbers.

The right’s commitment to undermining unions (which has a long and continuous history dating back to the 1870s) goes hand-in-hand with it more recent commitment to undermining the state.  And I think the right is absolutely correct to see the state, like the unions, as a potential danger to its deep commitment to economic inequality.  The state is a threat to profit insofar as everyone of its regulations—from labor law to environmental and public health measures—makes doing business more costly.

Despite the right’s (or neoliberalism’s) obvious desire to decrease the power of the state, the left has been much more lukewarm in its embrace of the state. [A side-note: yes, the American right wants to increase the power of the state when it comes to regulating private conduct and in matters relating to “national security.”  Capitalism—as the Marriott response to socially conservative legislation shows—has no particular sympathy for the issues that motivate conservative moralists. But the right is still the “party of order”; it does want a strong police force and military; it just doesn’t want any of that state power directed toward reining in money-making practices.)

While you would be very hard pressed to find a leftist who does not think unions are a good thing, attitudes toward the state are more ambivalent.  I don’t think the right is wrong when it identifies the state as a potential problem for the achievement of its ends.  The state is the only plausible (it seems to me) site of a power strong enough to combat capitalist power.  So why don’t leftists rally to the state’s support?

Let me try to count the ways.

  1. The insistence that the state has been entirely captured by the capitalists—and only serves their interests. This morphs into a necessitarian doctrine that such must always be the case.  The state will always be in cahoots with capitalism.  (The fallacy here is turning a contingency into a necessity.  Plus it would seem to encourage a fatalistic quietism; we are doubly screwed because political and economic power work hand-in-hand and it is useless to try to pry them apart.  My argument, finally, is that the chances of grabbing political power are, at the moment, better than the chances of grabbing economic power.  We have at least a fighting chance on the political battlefront, whereas the legal—and moral and habitual—protections afforded private property make wresting economic power away from the corporations and the wealthy much less likely.  It will take a political victory to begin to undermine the sources, structures, and institutions of economic power.)

 

  1. If #1 is a version of the left’s time-worn critique of “liberalism” and the “liberal state,” now we can entertain the anarchist suspicion of the state, most recently given voice in James Scott’s Against the Grain (Yale UP, 2017). The notion here is that all concentrations of power are inevitably bad.  My riposte is that, yes, power tends to accumulate—and that accumulations of power are generally not conducive to the general welfare.  But I don’t think there is any wishing away of power—or of its tendency to accumulate.  Thus, one needs to find ways to counterbalance powers (in the plural).  In a world in which economic power has concentrated on a scale perhaps unprecedented (the “perhaps” because, arguably, the Dutch and English East India companies of the 16th and 17th centuries were more powerful than Google and Apple today), to abandon the state as a possible counterweight seems suicidal.  There is certainly no reason to think Google is going to be more beneficent than a state—or more accountable.  To dismantle political power unilaterally in the face of economic power is to refuse to engage in the contest that we wish to win.  It is certainly deeply concerning that, as economic centers of power get larger and larger, political units get smaller and smaller (the break-up of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the possible break-ups of Britain and Spain).

 

  1. A harder to characterize, but no less real, general disillusionment with politics as dirty, corrupt, and indirect (taking so much time to effect such imperfect pieces of legislation and the cumbersome bureaucratic state action that follows legislative victories). I feel this way myself some 75% of the time.  One result of this sentiment is to turn one’s back on the state and get involved in “service” work.  We have seen a huge proliferation of “humanitarian organizations.”  These seem “clean” in a way politics is not—and also go out into the field and actually do the work of helping people.  The results—even if limited to a fairly small number of beneficiaries—are at least visible in the way that the beneficiaries of state policies rarely are.  (We see that the number of uninsured has gone down after the enactment of ObamaCare, but those are numbers not visible people).  Despairing of the state’s ability to deliver the goods, many leftists (especially among the young) have turned to non-state charity operations.  Letting the political, the state, off the hook in this way, not pressuring it to provide for its citizens, is a bad idea in my view—even though, as a personal choice about where to put one’s efforts, it seems to me more than easy to understand, to be a more appealing course to follow.

 

  1. The final position, which seems that of Hardt/Negri and some other recent writers, is that the state is a spent force, that it actually no longer has sufficient power to hem in economic power. We must mobilize another kind of power altogether if we are to bring neoliberalism to its knees—or even mitigate some of the suffering it inflicts.  Conspicuously absent from such views is any plausible agent of this force that will stop neoliberalism in its tracks.  Now, of course, an analysis of the state’s deficiencies need not present something to take the state’s place.  If I cannot walk with a broken leg, it does nothing to undermine the truth of my statement that I cannot walk if I do not consider alternatives to walking.  The argument that the state is powerless usually point to three factors: 1) capital flight in the age of globalization means the state cannot impose terms/regulations on capital because it will just move to jurisdictions that give it a better deal.  We are in a race to the bottom that the state is helpless to stop.  2) Even though the multinational and international organizations—like the GHO and GATT—and the international trade agreements—like the EU and NAFTA—are not particularly effective, they are constraining upon state actions, so power is leaking away from the national state; and 3) the blackmail and direct power of capital is such that most countries are now democracies in name only.  There is no path toward citizens getting the state to serve their interests as opposed to the interests of capital.  [This last point is a new version of the classic complaint that the state is just an agent of the capitalists.  It tends to come accompanied with the notion that the state, therefore, is at best useless and at worst another enemy that must be overcome in the larger fight against capitalism.  And the solution offered is usually the direct action of the populace, bypassing the state as its instrument, against the forces of capital.  Hence the recurrent dream of the general strike.  Refusal, non-compliance, civil disobedience on a grand scale.]

The main burden of this post, then, is that the left abandons the battle to capture the state—and to put its power to work advancing the left’s agenda and curtailing economic power—only at the risk of making a bad situation worse.  Despair about the state is really despair about the very possibility of democracy.  It can never be a government of, by, and for the people.  It will always be the instrument of the economic royalists.

To be concrete: what the state can do to rein in (at the very least) economic power is not a mystery.  Three strategies (all of which, I believe, are necessary) are in play.

  1. Interference (regulation and establishing the rules of the game) in productive and money-making operations themselves. This strategy covers everything from setting conditions of work, guarantees of employment and minimum compensation, worker’s rights, unemployment insurance, etc.  That is, various laws that alter distribution of effort, risk, and profit internal to capitalist procedures.  Protection of—nay, promotion of—union creation and activity.  These are all mechanisms to shift the distribution of market inputs and outcomes.

 

  1. Interference external (or after the fact) of market processes and outcomes. In a word, taxes.  Progressive taxation–including income, wealth and estate taxes—that work against the tendency of capital to accumulate in a few hands.  Similarly, stringent anti-trust laws to combat the tendency toward monopoly.

 

  1. Regulation of “externalities”(notably pollution) in the name of the public good, along with the positive provision of certain goods (transportation, health, parks, sanitation, public utilities, and education—I would add housing) that are not well handled by market processes. Here we get environmental regulations and public health measures, plus transit systems, municipal water and electricity, parks, libraries, schools etc.

 

All of this provides a suitably ambitious agenda for a left that intends to capture the state to serve its vision of the public good—a good that necessarily entails limiting the power of markets to determine either public or individual fates.

 

Two issues remain.

 

  1. Must we reconcile ourselves to the existence of markets? Not only are there factions on the left that want to ignore or dismantle the state, there are also factions who declare any tolerance for markets apostasy. I think a regulated market is preferable to any of the alternatives currently on offer (and I mean on offer theoretically as well as in reality.) I would love to be convinced otherwise, to be shown a model of a non-market society that seemed to me both plausible and desirable. Until then, I am going with regulated markets.

 

  1. The big question. Can the state actually counterbalance the power of capital?  If capital is mobile precisely where the state it tied to a territory and most citizens are immobile due to legalities of citizenship and the realities of economic means, then what can the state leverage against capitalism?  As I have argued in previous posts, the only place capitalism is vulnerable is the bottom line.  You must hold some power over profits, have some way to damage profits, if you want to bring capitalism to heel.  Yet it is exactly when the state interferes in profit-making, that capital flees to a new jurisdiction.  What can possibly halt capital flight?  The answer, it seems to me, is stability.  Despite all the rhetoric, lots of capital (hardly all, but hardly an insignificant amount either) hates risk.  There wouldn’t be so much money invested in US Treasury bonds (at a paltry return) if safety wasn’t the highest priority for lots of capital.  What the rich Western countries have to offer capital are stable political and social orders, along with proximity to rich consumers.  This isn’t a pretty answer.  It means the West has a market advantage because of its contrast to more turbulent and more impoverished parts of the world.  But, at this moment at least, the West needs to trade on this strength by making capital pay for the privilege of investment in the West.  It just means the cost of doing business in the West will be higher (because of taxes and regulations) and, in addition (this is where the state needs to start throwing its weight around) there will also be a cost exacted for whatever functions capital exports in order to get around those higher costs.  Call this protectionism or whatever you will.  But—just as we need a transaction tax to raise the costs to financial capital of its various speculative moves—we need a “flight tax” that does not allow capital to move seamlessly across borders.  And if a corporation retaliates by moving wholesale to the Bahamas, then there needs to be an “access tax” to gain entry to the US or UK or French market.  These things are not impossible.  States have been way too timid in the face of capital flight—especially when those states have jurisdiction over very large markets and enjoy political and social stability.

Enough for today.  Plenty to chew on and follow up about.

Combating the Ills of Neoliberalism

I finished, over the holiday break, four rather different books: Hardt and Negri’s Assembly (Oxford UP, 2017); Donatella deela Porta’s Social Movements in Times of Austerity (Polity, 2015); Mark Kurlansky’s history, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (Random House, 2005); and a book by a military historian about the war in Pacific in 1944-45, with primary emphasis on the battles in the Marianas, the taking of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. [James Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-45 (Bantam, 2017).]  My father was part of the Marine contingent on both Saipan and Tinian, which was part of my reason for reading the book.

It would be east enough to make fun of the Hardt and Negri. They keep insisting that a successful social movement must have “lasting institutions” and a strategy that will enable it to survive over the long haul.  But everything they value is evanescent, a fact mostly attributable to their anarchistic horror of leaders, intellectuals, bureaucracy, organization, hierarchy, representation (as opposed to direct democracy), etc. etc.  The della Porta book only confirms that the most recent anti-neoliberalism protestors share all of Hardt and Negri’s suspicions of hierarchy and organization.  In fact, Kurlansky’s makes it clear that SDS, especially in its Columbia moment in 1968, shared the same antipathy to leadership.

I can’t help but believe that the hyper organized world of the right, with its top-down command structure and its deployment of money to hire the cadres required to lobby the state, and find the loopholes in existing regulations/tax laws, and fight its battles in courts, will continue to eat the left’s lunch so long as the left insists on fighting shy of organization and an articulated strategy complete with plans for its being carried out.

At one level it is just a boring question of scale.  Boring because this issue has troubled theorists of democracy since before the flood.  Direct democracy in any populace larger than two or three thousand just seems impossible.  It is even bloody inefficient and frustrating when the numbers are relatively small.

But, even more significant (or so it seems to me), is the breezy way that Hardt and Negri write off the state.  They see no path back to a revitalized social democracy because they believe the state is a dead letter.  Della Porta correctly sees that many of the anti-austerity protests are “restorative” in focus.  That is, they want the state to restore lost benefits, protections, security etc.  But she also correctly notes that the fundamental crisis is that the state has become unresponsive.  The desires and complaints of citizens go unheard.  Oligarchy or plutocracy means the state does not attend to the needs of its citizens.

So, yes, there is a crisis of the state.  But to simply let the state be captured by the 1% out of either a fatalistic sense that it can never be otherwise or because relying on an analytic that claims the state is powerless in the world of global capital seems incredibly foolhardy.  It’s not an either/or when it comes to power.  Of course, the state is not omnipotent; it never was, and it is probably true that it is less powerful now (in Europe and North America; all bets are off in the rest of the world) than it was in 1950 (at least in the US and UK and USSR; Spain and France would be interesting cases to consider in that year, whereas Germany hardly had a state at the time.)  Certainly the state is stronger now in Singapore or South Korea than it was in 1950. What about China?  That’s a fascinating question, probably best answered by saying more powerful in some respects, less powerful in others—which just indicates exactly how silly it is to say the state is no longer a significant actor, or that the state’s power can be determined along some one-dimensional axis.

The logic of direct democracy leads to smaller and smaller political units precisely at the time when globalization means that economic units are getting larger and larger.  It’s enough to make the cigar chomping capitalist salivate.  No possible countervailing power to capital on the horizon.  How could anyone possibly think that some kind of political control over the economic could be achieved by getting smaller?  Yes, the state has drifted far from democratic accountability.  And, yes, such accountability was never all that great in the past (although definitely better in the case of the US than it currently is).  But to simply decide we need to find/locate democracy elsewhere seems to me a suicidal path to follow, a ceding of the field of power to the people we most want to divest of power.

Hardt and Negri are clear that a transfer of power is what they seek.  They are dodgy on the issue of violence in relation to such a transfer.  They insist violence under current conditions is bound to be counter-productive, but their historical examples (the historical figures they admire) all used violence for political ends.  Similarly, they are dodgy about power.  Like a number of other recent figures (including Judith Butler who follows Arendt’s lead in her meditations on this issue), Hardt and Negri want power without sovereignty.  I am very sympathetic to this desire, but I can’t work my way to a clear understanding of what it means.  I get the slogan but, as often in Hardt and Negri (for example, the call for “lasting institutions” or their desire to have the multitude determine strategy and the leaders only tactics), there is not enough meat behind the slogan to actually understand what it could possibly mean—either in theory or in practice.

But I said I didn’t want to just carp about their work.  I am in quest of something very specific: some strategy/tactic (I don’t think the distinction means much in the context of my quest) that the left could effectively employ at this dark moment.  Della Porta tells us that social movement studies teaches us that “innovations” in strategy/tactics are few and far between, usually only slight deviations from previous forms.  In addition, she places, I think, her finger on another dilemma (besides the one about the limits on human ingenuity): the anti-austerity movements combine a deep skepticism about the ability of existing political institutions to respond adequately to citizens’ needs with a failure to create “new organizational forms” that would substitute for the existing political infrastructure.  The result is a not very satisfying mixture of “prefigurative” politics with rather pathetic appeals to the powers that be.  The prefigurative part is the attempted creation of the democratic spaces the movement wants to make more general.  The appeals part (the passivity) is looking to the state for redress of grievances.  To quote her:

[E]ven if movements have stressed prefiguration, citizens need a (paradigmatic) change of public policy decisions.  What they claim is a return of the public, which also means states and other public institutions taking back competences they had released during neoliberalism.  Even if the appeal is to reconstruct (decentralized) commons, robust interventions of legal and institutional character are required.  This is difficult to implement until the movements are able to influence institutional decision-making” (221).

What I fail to see is even a half-hearted attempt to imagine concretely what shape the “robust interventions of legal and institutional character” should be.  Forgive all debt is not an actionable plan.  Restructuring the legal terms of debt is—and requires specific proposals.  And then there has to be a way to exert real pressure on the mandarins who are currently immune to it.

I said I wouldn’t carp—and here it has been all carping.  I am going to reserve my positive point for tomorrow, one that actually comes back to the World War II narrative in an odd way.

But, before that, a last summary statement: the evils—and the means for achieving those evils—of neoliberalism are, by now, clearly understood by the commentators on the left.  The analysis of neoliberalism in both Hardt/Negri and della Porta are completely convincing.  Privatization emerges as equally important as, and perhaps much more nefarious than, globalization.  Thus, what the left now desires is also quite clear: a reclaiming of the commons, the construction (or reconstruction) of a public domain immune from rents, and a robust democracy that occupies (that salient term) that common space and allows for collective control of the polity.  I have no argument with either the analysis or the desires.  I am only searching about for some means that seem plausible—plausible in the sense of having some chance of leading to a successful consummation of these desires.

Leverage, Round Two

To summarize: a movement needs to generate mass disobedience to an objectionable governmental practice or law–and win the approval of non-movement members in the process.  For the civil rights movement, that meant refusing to abide by the practices and legal statutes that were segregation de facto and de jure.  The mass disobedience found that sweet spot where, finally, the government lost its will to uphold those practices and laws.  Yes, it took some time.  But, finally, the spectacle of arresting people who were just trying to be treated equally was no longer supportable.

For the anti-war movement, it was draft resistance.  Not as clear that public opinion was won over to the side of the resisters, but draft law came close to being unenforceable and the easy way out was to create the “all volunteer” army.  That move, of course, was the government’s way of sidestepping the larger issue of the anti-war movement: citizens’ ability to stop the government from waging war.  That ability has not been gained, while ending the draft took away a crucial leverage spot and made anti-war movements much more difficult to sustain.

Pretty obviously, protesting–and rectifying–discrimination is harder.  In the cases of segregation and the draft there is a law to disobey.  But in the case of discrimination, you are trying to get the government to enforce the law against your opponents.  Now the government and the legal system needs to be your adversary, and is not your antagonist.  That greatly limits the stage, doesn’t provide for dramatic confrontations, or mass disobedience.  Prodding the government to action is a tough one–and, I am starting to think, the real source of my perplexity about what forms effective action today could take.

That would seem to go in spades for a constitutional crisis.  Since the 2000 election, with the follow-ups of the illegal Iraq War and torture, and now the shenanigans of the Trump administration, we have seemingly discovered that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to call the government to account.  If the “system” worked in calling the Nixon administration to account for its crimes, that still suggested that only the government could successfully curb the government. And since 2000 there is no evidence of the government having the wherewithal to call itself to account.

I read the other day someone talking about how the people would take to the streets if Trump fired the special prosecutor or pardoned himself and his family.  But it is unclear how taking to the streets would have any impact.  The pessimist in me says that as long as daily life was not disrupted, the republic would tolerate massive malfeasance.  One, because the issues–the rule of law etc.–are so arcane, and two, because it doesn’t feel like it hits people where they live.

Oddly enough, Trump’s crimes are sort of victimless; they damage our democracy, perhaps irreparably, but they don’t seem to harm anyone in particular.  I was wondering about this in terms of “standing.”  Could I sue (and who would I sue) for damages because my vote was rendered meaningless through election fraud?  Would I be granted “standing” to bring such a suit?  And what would be the remedy if I won such a case?  It is unimaginable that there would be a “do-over” of the election?  And yet, what else could be suitable recompense?

I wish I had something better to offer.  A successful movement has to get a large number of people to consider themselves as members of a wronged collective.  Post-2008, the unemployed and the defrauded quite conspicuously failed to make that leap.  Somehow losing your job or losing your home was experienced as an individual misfortune, not something that tied you to many others with whom you should unite to protest against your lot.  And, again, that would have been a case of trying to get the government to do something, rather than protesting against or disobeying a government action.

As long as normal life is mostly left in peace, we seem to be left with the ballot box.  But not only have Republicans worked hard to shelter themselves from democracy (through gerrymandering, voter suppression and the like), but politicians have more reasons than ever to listen to the powerful few as opposed to the powerless many.

North Carolina’s Moral Mondays seem to prove this point.  They have been sustained over an admirably long time–and seem to have had no impact at all except to harden the hearts of our Scrooge-like state legislators.

All of this might mean that party politics is really the only game in town.  Leftists need to engineer a take-over of the Democratic party akin the the take-over of the Republican party by its right-wing.  Only the primary threat makes politicians answerable to voters when the general election districts are gerrymandered.