Category: Institutions

On Salaries and Money and American Universities

My last post on the future of the humanities led me to think about American higher education, which I am tempted to call, semi-blasphemously, “our peculiar institution.”  But it also led me to think about money. I was led to that thought by recalling that I, a humanist scholar, am a state employee of North Carolina.  But my munificent salary is, actually, largely paid by “private dollars,” funded out of the “endowed chair” donated to the university by members of the Hanes family (of Winston-Salem and underwear fame).  This post will be an unholy mixture of what that fact means for American higher education and what it means for my own relationship to money and to my work.

I am not being ironic when I use “munificent” to characterize my salary.  I make more money than ever, in my most avaricious dreams, I could have believed an English professor could make.  That salary is public knowledge because North Carolina has rather strict “sunshine” laws.  You can go to a website and look it up.  Yet in keeping with American prudery, which insures that we know less about our friends’ financial circumstances than about their sex lives, I can’t bring myself to name the sum here—or to name the sum that my wife and I have accumulated in our retirement accounts.  When, every once in a while, I do disclose those two numbers to friends and family, I am very conscious of a weird (unsettling) mixture of shame and boast in the disclosure.  I think I am overpaid—but I am proud to be valued so highly.  David Graeber is good on this feeling in his book BullShit Jobs.  For those of us who love our work and didn’t go into it for the money, there is something shameful about the pay.  Even more shameful when the pay makes one rich.

I feel guilty getting paid so much for doing a job that I like and that, frankly, comes very easy to me.  I have many colleagues who are overwhelmed, who feel constantly way behind, who are anxious, who are bedeviled by a sense that they have never done enough.  I have been, until the past year, always extremely busy; I have always worked on weekends.  But I have seldom been anxious.  When I go to North Carolina, it became clear to me very early on that this place operated at a speed that was very comfortable for me.  My pace of work, my productivity, was going to place me in the top tier at UNC.  I was never going to be made to feel inadequate, not up to snuff. (I am not extremely busy at the moment–which makes me feel even more guilty–because I have become persona non grata on campus following my public criticisms of the Chancellor.  I don’t get asked to do anything anymore.)

A time came, inevitably, when I was a victim of salary compression.  Professors get raises that average below inflation.  I tell my grad students the hard truth that their starting salary at a job could easily become their salary for life.  Raises will never go far beyond the increases in the cost of living.  But here is where we get back to the “peculiar institution” issue.  American universities exist within a prestige hierarchy. At the top of that hierarchy—meaning not only the top schools but also the wannabes—there is competition for the “best faculty.”  This is just one place where things get weird.

Why weird?  Because the measure of quality among faculty is their research productivity.  As my cynical friend Hans puts it: “in academics, quantity doesn’t count, quantity is everything.”  It’s not quite that bad, but almost.  Faculty must publish in order to distinguish themselves from other faculty—and then universities must have a faculty that publishes a lot to distinguish themselves from other universities.  In Britain, this has led to the absurdity of the government actually allocating funds to departments based on their research productivity; in America, it is more indirect, since the “best” universities can increase their funding through three means: 1) more state support in the way of research grants from the Federal (and in the case of state universities) and state governments; 2) an ability to charge higher tuition because more prestigious; and 3) a greater ability to raise philanthropic dollars because more expensive and more prestigious, which means having richer alumni.

One oddity (among others) is, of course, that research has, at best, a tangential relation to the educational mission of the university.  More to the point, the students attracted to the university by its prestige have very close to no interest in the research that underwrites that prestige.  Furthermore, the connection between prestige and the research is also completely fuzzy.  For one things, the prestige hierarchy is just about set in stone.  The same schools that headed the list in 1900 still head the list in 2020.  Reputations are, it seems, just about impossible to tarnish.  They glow like the light from long extinguished stars.

It is true that some schools—notably Duke—have managed to elbow their way into the top tier.  There are now lots of Duke imitators, all trying to crack into the stratosphere of Harvard, Yale, Stanford.  But it seems quaint to think Duke’s success can be tied in any direct way to its faculty’s research.  That success seems much more tied to a well-timed (they got into this game first) branding exercise.  They made splashy faculty hires, at the same time that they made themselves into a perennial contender for the national basketball championship.  What those faculty actually did after they were hired was secondary.  It was a question of having names on the letterhead that would lead to U.S. News (and other ranking outlets) to give Duke a boost.

Duke’s timing was impeccable because they hopped aboard the first privatization wave.  The 1980s began the move toward a renewed obsession with prestige that dovetailed with the superstition that “public” education was, by its nature, inferior to “private” education.  As the rich and the elites (see Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites) abandoned the public commons (most dramatically in where they sent their kids to school), universities like Duke and my alma mater Georgetown were there to pick up the slack.  Georgetown shows that there was room to move up for the Duke imitators; the smallish privates, like Georgetown, Northwestern, Emory, and Vanderbilt, came up in the world, occupying a particular niche below the Ivies, but with a prestige value, a tuition price tag, and tough admission standards that simply were not the case when I was a Hoya in the 1970s.  As I learned when I got to grad school at SUNY Buffalo in 1974, they thought of themselves as having taken a chance on me because they didn’t know what a Georgetown degree meant.  Yale and Cornell turned me down.

My old employer, the University of Rochester, has always wanted to play in the Northwestern, Emory, Vanderbilt league–without ever quite managing to pull it off.  When I taught there in the late 1980s, Rochester’s president insisted on a 30% rise in tuition–in order to bring UR’s tuition in line with Northwestern etc.  He said we would never be thought any good if we didn’t charge like “our peers.”  I argued that there surely was a market niche for a good school that charged 30% less–and that UR had a better shot of getting students in that niche than in competing with Northwestern.  I, of course, lost the argument–but not just in terms of what the university did, but also in terms of its effect on applications and admissions.  I didn’t understand in those days that, when it comes to higher education, for many aspirants prestige trumps all other factors every time.  And just as in the wider market, it pays much better to cater to the wishes of the well-to-do than to a mass market.

Back to research for a moment.  As Christopher Newfield’s work has amply documented, universities lose money on the big science grants they get.  The infrastructure required to compete for such grants costs more than the grants can bring in.  Thus, either tuition, direct state support, or philanthropic dollars must underwrite the research enterprise.  Yet schools compete wildly for the research dollars because they are essential to their prestige.  Thus, UNC set a goal some years back of $1 billion a year in research funding, a goal that the Vice Chancellor for Research also admitted would worsen our bad financial plight.  We have since surpassed that goal—and are going broke.  But we had 44,000 applicants for 5000 undergraduate slots this past admissions cycle, and our departments and schools remain highly ranked.

The research imperative also makes faculty lives hell.  I have been lucky, as I already said.  For whatever reason, research has always come easily to me; it is not a burden, just something I do.  In part—and truthfully—I enjoy it.  But I will also admit it is so tangled up with issues of self-respect and of respect from my peers, that I would be hard pressed to sort out the various strands of my emotional attachments to my work.  I do know, however, that for many of my colleagues, the research is just a site of constant frustration, of a constant sense of not being good enough or productive enough.  For what?  First of all, the university needs good teachers, as well as good administrators who serve as directors of undergraduate studies, who sponsor various student clubs, who keep the educational enterprise running smoothly.  The administrative bloat on American campuses (which has, demonstrably, be a major factor in the rising costs of higher education) stems in part from freeing faculty from doing that work in the name of giving them more time to do research.

No one wants to admit that much of the research is not much worth doing.  The world will get on just fine without the many bad books and journal articles—many of which are never read by anyone—that the emphasis on research creates.  We have wasted countless hours from imaginative people by pushing faculty toward only one metric of work, toward only one way to contribute to the university.

My position is that good books will still get written even if faculty weren’t forced to write them.  This is tricky.  I am, after all, trying to think about prestige hierarchies.  And it would take a massive cultural sea-change within academia to reach the point where those who were productive researchers were not at the top of the ladder.  Cultural sea-changes require alterations in what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.”  I have already indicated the extent to which I recognize my own research was motivated by issues of self-worth and of looking worthy in the eyes of my peers.

Reputation drives many academics much more than money—and it cripples them far more effectively as well.  But still, part of me wants to insist that if the work is worth doing, it will get done.  In other words, we could lose all the research produced just because there is gun to people’s heads—and there still would be good books written (and some bad ones as well) because there will still be people for whom the enterprise of writing a book is central to their sense of themselves (as writers, as persons) and because they see the writing of books as valuable in and of itself.  That Holy Grail of “intrinsic value.”  I doubt we ever get full purity.  But, after all, we do do certain things because we find them worth doing.  And the writing of books is either something some people find worth doing—or it shouldn’t be done at all.

I always read Proust and other social novelists with an inability to suspend disbelief.  I could not understand a life where social climbing, where social ambition, was the driving passion.  I thought that such a world had long since disappeared.  People didn’t orient their lives in that fashion anymore.  But today I read The New Yorker and it is full of tales of people who are tortured and paralyzed by social media, who are obsessed with the “right brands,”star chefs and restaurants, and by celebrities.   And I should probably admit that academics are embroiled in their own kind of social climbing; they, too, want to be part of certain inner circles.  I always held myself rather aloof from all that—and, yet, by the Proustian law of getting what you seem (to others) not to want, I have had, by any objective standard, a highly successful academic career.  I never reached superstar status; I am more like the number 50th ranked tennis player in the world, known by some but not all, but still getting a fair number of perks that fall to those in the inner circles, even if I don’t have their name recognition and my books are read by much, much smaller audiences.

Among the perks, in my own context, there is that absurd salary.  When compression struck, I was able (as you are forced to do in the academic game) to go get an “outside offer.”  I had the kind of research profile that would lead another school that was in the prestige game to bid for my services.  I was able to force UNC to raise my salary so it was in line with that of my colleagues who had been hired after me or who had gotten outside offers of their own.  (Maybe another time I will talk about the complex layers of guilt unleashed by playing the game of getting such an offer.)

Which brings me full circle.  UNC can only compete for the “best faculty” as it struggles to maintain its high reputation, its high ranking, because private donors (alumni who are committed to UNC maintaining its standing) supplement the salaries the state is willing to pay.  UNC, like almost all the top public universities (Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, Berkeley) is a quasi-public school at this point.  Since UNC is more dependent on state dollars than the other schools I have just named, its standing is, in fact, sinking while theirs is holding steady.  Public schools further down the ladder—the UNC Charlottes of the world—are playing a desperate game of catch-up since they don’t’ have the fund-raising potential of the “flagships” and thus are hurt even more by the steady withdrawal of state support.

In short, the privatization of American higher education is a product of the lessening prestige of the public schools—a decline that is semi-rational given that schools are much less fully funded now than they once were.  But it is only semi-rational because it is also tied to the resurgence in the US of prestige-hunger, a resurgence related to the many sins that get covered by the name “neoliberalism.”  There is a heightened—if only rarely explicitly stated—sense of the great divide between winners and losers in our contemporary world.  And going to the “right” college now seems essential (to many people) to making sure you are one of the winners.  The Dukes and Georgetowns of the world have risen because of that anxiety about being left behind and because anything public has been underfunded and denigrated since the 1980s.  This, of course, explains the recent scandal of cheating the admissions process.  More importantly, it explains the on-going scandal of “legacy” admissions, which are motivated by fund-raising imperatives and by the time-worn abilities of elites to retain privileges.

The wider story, however, is about distinction–and cultural mores.  Here’s another argument I lost regarding college admissions.  UNC never had any “merit-based” scholarships (apart from the Moreheads, a whole ‘nother story).  In the early 1990s UNC realized it was beginning to lost the “best” in-state students to schools like Brown and Georgetown and Harvard.  Losing such students, of course, hurt our US News rankings, since average SAT scores for the incoming class were a major metric.  So it was decided to begin offering $500 and $1000 named scholarships to top applicants, irrespective of financial need.  My argument: “you mean to tell me that giving someone $1000 off our $12,000 in-state tuition will make them come to UNC, when their family is fully ready to pay $45,000 for them to go to Brown?”  Once again, I was wrong.  Students wanted to be singled out as “different,” as “special.”  The merit scholarships did increase our yield among top in-state students.  Maybe I am hopelessly romanticizing the 1950s and 1960s–and maybe the middle middle class that came from still exists.  I went to the most elite Catholic high school on Long Island.  All of my classmates went to college.  And there was some sense of a distinction between “going away” to college and going to a college within fifty miles of our high school.  But, really, beyond that little to no sense that Hamilton was different from Villanova, or Northwestern not the same as Marist.  And there was certainly no sense that a school had to distinguish me from other admitted students in order to get me to attend.  I can’t help but believe we are a far less democratic, far less egalitarian society culturally and emotionally (as well as, obviously, economically) now than we were in 1965.

My fat salary is linked to the same sea changes.  In academia, too, the divide between winners and losers has widened.  The spread between the highest and lowest salary in my department is much greater now than it was in 1992, when I arrived.  And, of course, academia has also created its own version of “contract workers,” the “adjuncts” who get low wages and no benefits to do the teaching that the “research faculty” does not do.  It stinks—even as I am a beneficiary of it.  No wonder I feel guilty.  Yeah, you say, you and your guilt feelings plus $1.50 will get you a ride on the subway.  I hate coming across as defensive, but I will record here that I have turned down all available raises over the past five years (admittedly, they were hardly large) so that the money could be distributed among my less well-paid colleagues.

A last point about money.  This thought comes from the Paul Manafort story.  I must be a person of very limited imagination.  Over the past three years, after all the deductions for taxes, retirement funds, health insurance etc., my wife and I together have approximately $10,000 a month in take home pay.  That’s the amount that lands in our bank accounts each month.  We bought our house quite some time ago, so our monthly mortgage plus escrow is $2000.  I understand that is low for most people.  But we have had a number of medical bills that our shitty medical insurance fails to cover—certainly coming to at least $500 a month when averaged over a whole year.  In any case, the point is that we can’t spend $10,000 a month—even as we were supplementing my wife’s mother’s retirement home costs to the tune of $1500 a month, and give a fair amount of money to our two children.  Yet we do not deny ourselves anything, and basically don’t pay much attention to what we spend.  This last, not paying attention, is an astounding luxury after at least twenty years of sweating every penny.  Yet, even with being wildly careless in relation to our earlier habits, there is always enough money.  In fact, it slowly accumulates, so that at the end of every year, no matter what medical emergencies or extravagant trips or increases in the number of charities we send an automatic monthly donation to, there is an extra $10,000 or so.

Clearly—as Paul Manafort showed us—there are a significant number of people in the US to whom $10,000 a month would be woefully inadequate.  Of course, there are millions more for whom, as for my wife and I, it would be untold riches. I don’t really know what moral to derive from that fact.  So I will simply state it here—and cease.

The Future of the Humanities

For some time now, I have a question that I use as a litmus test when speaking with professors of English.  Do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature on American campuses fifty years from now?  There is no discernible pattern, that I can tell, among the responses I get, which cover the full gamut from confident pronouncements that “of course there will be” to sharp laughter accompanying the assertion “I give them twenty years to go extinct.”  (For the record: UNC’s English department currently has five medievalists, seven Renaissance scholars, and six professors teaching Romantic and Victorian literature—that is, if I am allowed to count myself a Victorianist, as I sometime was.)

I have gone through four crises of the humanities in my lifetime, each coinciding with a serious economic downturn (1974, 1981, 1992, and 2008).  The 1981 slump cost me my job when the Humanities Department in which I taught was abolished.  The collapse of the boom did not generate its corresponding “death of the humanities” moment because, apparently, 9/11 showed us we needed poets.  They were trotted out nation-wide as America tried to come to terms with its grief.

Still, the crisis feels different this time.  Of course, I may just be old and tired and discouraged.  Not “may be.”  Certainly am.  But I think there are also real differences this time around—differences that point to a different future for the humanities.

In part, I am following up my posts about curriculum revision at UNC.  The coverage model is on the wane.  The notion that general education students should gain a familiarity with the whole of English literature is certainly moving toward extinction.  Classes are going to be more focused, more oriented to solving defined problems and imparting designated competencies.  Methods over content.

But, paradoxically, the decline of the professors of Victorian literature is linked to more coverage, not less.  The History Department can be our guide here.  At one time, History departments had two or three specialists in French history (roughly divided by centuries), three or four in English history, along with others who might specialize in Germany or Spain or Italy.  That all began to change (slowly, since it takes some time to turn over a tenured faculty) twenty or so years ago when the Eurocentric world of the American history department was broken open.  Now there needed to be specialists on China, on India, on Latin America, on Africa.  True, in some cases, these non-European specialists were planted in new “area studies” units (Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, Near Eastern Studies etc.).  But usually even those located in area studies would hold a joint appointment in History—and those joint appointments ate up “faculty lines” formerly devoted to the 18th century French specialist.

Art History departments (because relatively small) have always worked on this model: limited numbers of faculty who were supposed, somehow, to cover all art in all places from the beginning of time.  The result was that, while courses covered that whole span, the department only featured scholars of certain periods.  There was no way to have an active scholar in all the possible areas to be studied.  Scholarly “coverage,” in other words, was impossible.

English and Philosophy departments are, in my view, certain to go down this path. English now has to cover world literatures written in English, as well as the literatures of groups formerly not studied (not part of the “canon”).  Philosophy, as well, now incldue non-Western thought, as well as practical, professional, and environmental  ethics, along with new interests in cognitive science.

There will not, fifty years from now, be no professors of Victorian literature in America.  But there will no longer be the presumption that every self-respecting department of English must have a professor of Victorian literature.  The scholarly coverage will be much more spotty—which means, among other things, that someone who wants to become a scholar of Victorian literature will know there are six places to reasonably pursue that ambition in graduate school instead of (as is the case now) assuming you can study Victorian literature in any graduate program.  Similarly, if 18th century English and Scottish empiricism is your heart’s desire, you will have to identify the six philosophy departments you can pursue that course of study.

There is, of course, the larger question.  Certainly (or, at least, it seems obvious to me, although hardly to all those I submit to my litmus test), it is a remarkable thing that our society sees fit to subsidize scholars of Victorian literature.  The prestige of English literature (not our national literature after all) is breath-taking if you reflect upon it for even three seconds.  What made Shakespeare into an American author, an absolute fixture in the American curriculum from seventh grade onwards?  What plausible stake could our society be said to have in subsidizing continued research into the fiction and life of Charles Dickens?  What compelling interest (as a court of law would phrase it) can be identified here?

Another paradox here, it seems to me.  I hate (positively hate, I tell you) the bromides offered (since Matthew Arnold at least) in generalized defenses of the humanities.  When I was (during my years as a director of a humanities center) called upon to speak about the value of the humanities, I always focused on individual examples of the kind of work my center was enabling.  The individual projects were fascinating—and of obvious interest to most halfway-educated and halfway-sympathetic audiences.  The fact that, within the humanities, intellectual inquiry leads to new knowledge and to new perspectives on old knowledge is the lifeblood of the whole enterprise.

But it is much harder to label that good work as necessary.  The world is a better, richer (I choose this word deliberately) place when it is possible for scholars to chase down fascinating ideas and stories because they are fascinating.  And I firmly believe that fascination will mean that people who have the inclination and the leisure will continue to do humanities work come hell and high water.  Yes, they will need the five hundred pounds a year and the room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf identified as the prerequisites, but people of such means are hardly an endangered species at the moment.  And, yes, it is true that society generally (especially after the fact, in the rear view mirror as it were) likes to be able to point to such achievements, to see them as signs of vitality, culture, high-mindedness and the like.  But that doesn’t say who is to pay.  The state?  The bargain up to now is that the scholars (as well as the poets and the novelists) teach for their crust of bread and for, what is more precious, the time to do their non-teaching work of scholarship and writing.  Philanthropists?  The arts in America are subsidized by private charity—and so is much of higher education (increasingly so as state support dwindles.)  The intricacies of this bargain warrant another post.  The market?  Never going to happen.  Poetry and scholarship is never going to pay for itself, and novels only very rarely so.

The humanities, then, are dependent on charity—or on the weird institution that is American higher education.  The humanities’ place in higher education is precarious—and the more the logic of the market is imposed on education, the more precarious that position becomes.  No surprise there.  But it is no help when my colleagues act as if the value of scholarship on Victorian literature is self-evident.  Just the opposite.  Its value is extremely hard to articulate.  We humanists do not have any knock-down arguments.  And there aren’t any out there just waiting to be discovered.  The ground has been too well covered for there to have been such an oversight.  The humanities are in the tough position of being a luxury, not a necessity, even as they are also a luxury which makes life worth living as contrasted to “bare life” (to appropriate Agamben’s phrase).  The cruelty of our times is that the overlords are perfectly content (hell, it is one of their primary aims) to have the vast majority only possess “bare life.”  Perhaps it was always thus, but that is no consolation. Not needing the humanities themselves, our overlords are hardly moved to consider how to provide it for others.

Violence and Inequality (Part Two)

The thesis of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler:  Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017) is easily stated: “Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality, but did little if anything to bring it under control.  Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks” (391).

In particular, Scheidel says there are four kinds of “violent shocks” (he calls them the four horsemen): war, plague, system or state collapse, and violent revolution.  But it turns out that not even all instances of those four can do the job of reducing inequality.  The violent shocks, it turns out, must be massive. Only “mass mobilization” wars reduce inequality, so (perhaps) only World War I and, especially, World War II actually count as doing the job.  The Napoleonic Wars clearly do not–and it is harder to tell with the possible mass mobilizations in the ancient world.

Similarly, except for the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century (both of which caused, at the minimum, fifteen million deaths), revolutions rarely seem to have significantly altered the distribution of resources.  The Black Death (lasting as it did, in waves, over at least eighty and perhaps 120 years) and perhaps similar earlier catastrophic plagues (of which less is certainly known) stand as the only examples of leveling epidemics.  For system or state collapse, we get the fall of Rome—and not much else that is relevant since then, with speculations about collapses prior to Rome and in the Americas (Aztecs and Incas) where (once again) the available evidence leads to conjectures but no firm proofs.

Where does that leave us?  In two places, apparently.  One is that inequality leveling events are rare, are massive, and are, arguably, worse than the disease to which they are the cause.  Also, except for the revolutions, the leveling effects are unintentional by-products.  Which leads the second place: the very conservative conclusion (much like Hayek’s thoughts about the market as being beyond human control/calculation or T. S. Eliot’s similar comments about “culture” being an unplanned and unplannable product of human actions) that, although the creation of inequality is very much the result of human actions that are enabled and sustained by the state (i.e. by political organization), there is little that can be done politically (and deliberately) to reduce inequality.  Scheidel is at great pains to show a) that even the great shocks only reduce inequality for a limited time (about 60 to 80 years) before inequality starts to rise again; b) that the various political expedients currently on the table (like a wealth tax of the kind Elizabeth Warren is proposing or high marginal tax rates) would lower inequality very slightly at most; and c) that the scale of violence required to significantly lower inequality (as contrasted to the marginal reductions that less violent measures could effect) is simply too horrible to deliberately embrace as a course of action.

So the conclusion appears to be: bemoan inequality as much as you like, but also find a way to come to terms with the fact that it is basically irremediable.  Scheidel is good at the bemoaning part, portraying himself as someone who sees inequality as deplorable, even evil.  But he is just as resolute in condemning violence aimed at decreasing inequality.  So his unstated, but strongly, implied recommendation is quietist.

In line with my ongoing obsessions, the book appears to reinforce what I have deemed one of the paradoxes of violence: namely, the fact that the state is undoubtedly a constraint upon violence even as states are also undoubtedly the source of more violence than non-state actors.  In the new version of this paradox that Scheidel’s book suggests, the formulation would go like this: the state enables greater economic activity/productivity while also enabling far greater economic inequality.

Yet the state’s enabling of inequality doesn’t work the other way.  It seems just about impossible to harness the state to decrease inequality—except in the extreme case of war.  World War II certainly bears that out in recent (the past 300 years) history.  The US (in particular) adopted (in astoundingly short order) a very communistic framework to conduct the war (with a command economy in terms of what was to be produced and how people were to be assigned their different roles in production, along with strict wage and price controls, and rationing).  It would seem that the war proved that a command economy can be efficient and, not only that, but in times of dire need, a command economy was obviously preferable to the chaos of the free market.  The war effort was too important to be left to capitalism.  But outside of a situation of war, it has seemed impossible to have the state play that kind of leveling role, strongly governing both production and distribution.  Why?  Because only war produces the kind of social solidarity required for such centralized (enforced) cooperation?  To answer that way gets us back to violence as required—because violence is a force of social cohesion like none other.

To phrase it this way gets us back to an ongoing obsession of this blog: the problem of mobilization.  How to create a sustainable mass movement that can exert the kind of pressure on elites that is required to shift resources downward?  If violence as teh source of cohesion for that movement is taken off the table, what will serve in its place?  Which also raises the thought of why nationalism is so entangled in violence and in rhetorics/practices of sacrifice.  The means by which social cohesion is created.  Maybe that’s the “numinous” quality of violence to which Charles Taylor keeps gesturing.  A kind of Durkheimian creation of the collective, a way of escaping/transcending the self.

A different thought: Scheidel makes a fairly compelling case (although it is not his main focus) that the creation of inequality is itself dependent on violence.  Sometimes the violence of appropriation is massive–especially in the cases of empires which are basically enterprises of either outright extraction (carting off the loot) or somewhat more indirect extortion (requiring the payment of “tribute” in return for peace/protection).  Or sometimes the violence of appropriation is less massive and less direct.  But appropriation still requires a state that, in the last instance, will protect appropriated property against the claims of those who see that appropriation as either unjust or as inimical to their own interests.  In short, the power of the state (a power that resides, to at least some extent, in its capacity for violence and its willingness to put that capacity into use) is necessary to the creation and maintenance of inequality.  So, in one way, it seems like a “little” violence can get you inequality, but it requires “massive” violence to dislodge that inequality in the direction of more equality.  And it is this difference in scale that places the exploited in such an unfavorable position when it comes to remedial action.

Of course, the growth in inequality since 1980 in the US was grounded in legal instruments and institutional practices.  The increasing power of employers over employees, the prevention of the state from intervening in massive lay-offs or equally massive outsourcing, the onslaught of privatization and deregulation (or lax enforcement of existing regulations), the legalization of all kinds of financial speculation and “creative instruments” etc. etc. was all accomplished “non-violently” through a classic “capture of the state.”  This is what inspires the most radical leftist visions; the left seems utterly paralyzed as it witnesses all these court cases, new laws, revisions of executive practice, a paralysis generated by the fact that the shifts of power and wealth to the top 10% are all “legal.”  The radical claims there is no “legal” room left for the radical egalitarian to occupy.  The system is so corrupt that it offers no remedies within its scope.  But the distaste for massive violence (here is where Scheidel is relevant) appears to take extra-legal methods for change off the table.



Religion, Sect, and Party (Part 3)

Moving from religion to politics, in Slezkine’s The House of Government, basically entails moving the search for transcendence, the negotiation of the gap between the real and the ideal, from the difference between the profane and the sacred to the difference between the status quo and some projected (imagined) improvement upon the existing state of affairs.  Institutional religion—the church—represents the more quietist approach: the acceptance of the imperfection of the fallen world along with the promise of a better world elsewhere coupled with structures and hierarchies meant to insure stability, peace, and order in the imperfect here and now.  The compromises of the institutional church are always contested by impatient visionaries who long, with equal fervor, to create a utopian now and to punish those who stand in the way of achieving that utopia.

For Slezkine, the utopians organize themselves into “sects.”  Following the work of Ernst Troeltsch, “the distinction between a church and a sect” can be stated as follows: “a church is an institution one is born into. . . . [A] sect [is] a group of believers radically opposed to the corrupt world, dedicated to the dispossessed, and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity, and social egalitarianism” (93).  In Slekzine’s philosophy of history (I can use no other term for his wild—and world-weary—identification of a pattern he thinks repeats itself over and over) “the history of the new order [humanist post-Christian polities], like that of the old one [Christianity prior to the Reformation], is a story of routinization and compromise punctuated by sectarian attempts to restore the original promise” (107).  Sectarians scorn compromise and institutions, are often galvanized into action by a charismatic leader, and embrace violence in the name of the good.  When not fighting the reprobate, they are constantly in-fighting in order to insure that only the absolutely pure are members of the sect.

If revolutionaries are best understood as sectarians, Selkzine’s model explains a) their trust in and non-distaste [to use a weird double negative] of violence; b) their suspicion of and hence ineptitude in establishing institutions; c) their difficulty in sustaining trust and working, cooperative relationships once the movement grows beyond a “knowable community” (i.e. they are very bad at “imagined communities” because committed to the intense relationships of a shared oppositional—and doctrinally pure—set of beliefs); and d) their impatience with compromise and their fury when their utopian vision does not materialize (generating the frantic search for people to blame for that failure).

This, of course, is another way of saying that it is easier to be in opposition than in power.  It seems fair to say that the Republican Party has become more and more sect-like over the past thirty years.  Certainly it is much more prone to expel members who don’t toe the line (RINOs), and is hostile to compromise and to institutional structures/norms.  Its contempt for the routines of governance makes it just about incapable of governing; it has ground legislative activity to an almost complete halt, while rendering federal bureaucracies increasingly inept.  As many have noted, today’s Republican Party is not conservative; it is revolutionary reactionary.  It is out to destroy, not to conserve.

The oddity is that its destructive urges are almost entirely negative.  It is not driven by a positive vision, but mostly by a hatred of the elites it associates with anti-American values, tastes, and snobbishness.  Yes, there is nostalgia for a certain kind of small-town American culture that was built on racial exclusion and post-War prosperity.  But there is no serious—or even non-serious visionary—platform for reestablishing that world.  Empty slogans suffice if the joys of hatred are allowed free expression.  It really is as if the losers in this neoliberal universe will be content if given free rein to express the animus—most fully expressed in the death threats they love to send to people, but more mildly expressed in the various statements now deemed unacceptable in polite discourse—they feel toward the non-whites and the professional elites they cannot avoid in today’s business world and public sphere.  In their heart of hearts, undoubtedly there are true believers who think deporting all the immigrants is a possibility, but surely they are a small minority of those who vote Republican.  Similarly, those same voters know that the manufacturing jobs are not coming back.

Contrasted to sects (in Slekzine’s view) are parties:  “Parties are usually described as associations that seek power within a given society (or, in Max Weber’s definition, ‘secure power within an organization for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members’) (58).  The key difference here is that the party accepts, has a huge amount invested in, the current institutional and political order.  To that extent, parties are all conservative; they seek to preserve the current system—and are oriented to gaining power with that system as the means toward furthering the party’s particular ends.  That’s why parties are the “loyal opposition”; they are not revolutionary, but are partners with other parties in the preservation of the current order.

Thus, today’s Republican Party seems to exist in some kind of uneasy (unsustainable?) tension between being a party and a sect.  It quite obviously seeks power to gain advantages for its active members—the donor class to which it delivers the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation etc.  But its appeal to its non-donor class voters is sectarian—and the result is that its elected officials include true believers who embody the no compromise hostility to institutional forms that is a large part of the party’s current brand.  These radicals will cheerfully have the government default on its debts (to take one example) and are constantly at odds with the more staid party functionaries who are only interested in power within the current system (Mitch McConnell being the epitome of this kind of politician).

Because of its use of sectarian tactics (tactics which someone like McConnell thinks he can keep safely under control), the Republicans have clearly abetted (by authorizing) various kinds of hate crimes and violence, even as they have given us an authoritarian, charismatic President.  The Party has moved far enough toward being a sect that its ability to actually govern is more than questionable, even as its attacks (voter suppression, harassment—and worse—of immigrants) upon outsiders to its “America” increase in ferocity.

All that said, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a sectarian left.  Sects make things happen in the world; I have just finished reading Maud Gonne’s autobiography (of which more in future posts) and she, as well as Slekzine, tells a tale featuring dedicated conspirators, people spending their whole lifetimes committed to a cause of radical change.  A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are American examples.  In all these cases, from the 400 or so “Old Bolsheviks” to the 400 or so dedicated Irish nationalists to the 400 or so “race warriors” in the US, mountains were eventually moved.  If there exists such networks in the contemporary world, I don’t know of them.  Yes, we have the rightist militias.  But what do we have on the left: the respectable organizations, the ACLU and the like, fine in their own way, but very much within the established institutional order.

What I guess I am saying is that I want sectarian dedication, single-mindedness and energy, without sectarian violence and constant in-fighting.  After all, both Bolsheviks and the Irish revolutionaries, once they had succeeded in overthrowing the existing system, ended up fighting against one another.  It is shocking—at least to me—to read anti-Treaty documents in 1922 that casually refer to the Free State soldiers and officials as “the enemy” when those numbered in “the enemy” were one’s comrades in the fight against the British in 1921.  Yes, there was some hesitation at the start of the Irish Civil War about killing one’s friends and erstwhile comrades, but that hesitation disappeared with frightening, sickening, rapidity.

Maybe—and just maybe because I may be wildly over-idealizing here—one key factor (hardly the only one) involves careers.  Today’s Republican Party reactionary revolutionaries can safely attack governmental/legal/political institutions because they are not threatening (in fact see themselves as reinforcing and protecting) the institutional structures of American capitalism.  And it is well documented, there in plain sight for any operative to see, that the right has sinecures (in the think tanks, in lobbying organizations, increasingly in academia, etc.) readily available for those who do the party’s work.  That’s one way of saying that the Republicans are between a party and a sect; they are attached to an existing structure that provides a ladder to climb, a route to riches, recognition, and security.  It is just that that structure is, they like to believe, non-political, the “free market,” and thus enables a no-holds-barred hostility to political institutions.

The revolutionaries of the left—Lenin, Gandhi, Rustin—had no such safe perch, or secure position at which to aim.  They were fully on the outside, existing in a no man’s land where recognition, money, and eventual success were never guaranteed and were (for years) withheld.  They were stepping out into a void with no safety net.  As I say, maybe I am wrong here, guilty of over-idealizing.  I am hardly claiming these men did not have their faults—their vanities and their self-indulgences.  But they did not exist within any kind of established institutional order that provided security.  Only the intense relations within the sect offered some form of support.

Am I saying that existence within institutions stands in the way of being a true advocate for change?  Certainly, concern for the preservation of one’s own slot, one’s own career, for the sources of one’s own income and status, are deterrents to devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a transformation of existing conditions.

I don’t see where the kind of sect, the kind of movement that enabled Lenin, Gandhi and Rustin to live almost completely outside existing political, economic, and social setups, exists on the left today.  The Bohemian outside appears to have disappeared.  Life in the US has become so expensive, especially housing costs, that the counter-cultural enclaves such as Brooklyn or the Bay Area are the playgrounds of the rich now.  At the same time, increased surveillance (both physical and digital) gives a revolutionary counter-culture much less room in which to maneuver.

There is also the left’s almost universal repudiation of violence (the overblown existence of the anti-fa “movement” notwithstanding).  Maybe it is hard to have a sect without some kind of commitment to violence.  (I want to consider that idea in subsequent posts.)

Add the fact that being a sectarian is tedious.  Mostly what the old Bolsheviks did was read, write, and have endless meetings—for which they then spent long stretches of time in prison.  The hoped-for moment of transformation is endlessly postponed.  How energy, passion, and hope are sustained over such long periods of time is a mystery and a miracle, much to be admired.

Maud Gonne’s life has much to offer in thinking about such issues.  So I will go there next

What Kind of Institutions Does the Left Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Institutions

I promise to get back to what kinds of institutions the left should aspire to establish.  (Although my deferring a discussion on that topic does reflect my not having a proposal that satisfies me.)  But first let me say a bit more about institutions in order to clarify what I am talking about when asking the left to be more institution-minded.

Boltanksi’s definition of institution is an odd one insofar as he focuses in on a single  function: establishing the terms by which a collective organizes its experiences and constructs a “reality” to which it attempts to provide a stability and determinateness that combats the inherent “uncertainty” of a life in time.  That’s an awfully abstract, even metaphysical understanding of institutions. And I doubt it is the function that would first leap to mind for people using the term “institution.”  It seems to neglect the concrete things we usually associate with institutions—namely, the fact that they employ functionaries, who exist in an (almost invariably) hierarchical set of relations in order to perform certain specified tasks, which include sanctions for those who violate the institution’s procedure and codes, but also include more positive accomplishments.  Institutions exist to get things done; they are sites of organized collective endeavors.

Let’s take the university as an institution.  Its grading and tenuring and hiring/firing procedures are all, partly, forms of sanctions.  But they also exist in relation to its positive, educational mission.  The university exists to get something done: namely, to produce knowledge and to impart that knowledge to the “rising generation.”  Its “policing” function, then, covers “policing” in the expansive sense that Foucault has taught us that the term conveyed in the 17th century.  Policing meant all the activities—both the positive ones that provided for certain goods and the negative ones of punishment—by which an institution (not just the state, but certainly including the state as a prime instance) manages to perform the tasks it undertakes—or should we say “the tasks that a society entrusts to it.”

Taken this way, an institution is a site (the preferred site?) for collective enterprises.  It is the form that seems best suited to insuring that certain tasks—ones that require extensive cooperation to achieve—are accomplished by a collective.

Boltanski does not neglect these aspects of an institution—but he does try to distance them from institution proper.  Instead, he assigns these aspects to “administration” and “organization.”  He writes:

“To assign institutions a predominantly semantic role, consisting in stabilizing reference . . . enables us not to confuse then with two other types of entity with which they are invariably associated, but from which they are to be distinguished analytically: on the one hand, administrations, which perform policing  functions; and on the other, organizations, which perform coordinating functions.  These two kinds of entities refer, if you like, to the means which institutions must be equipped with in order to act in the world of bodies. . . . [I[t must be noted that the conceptual distinction we have just made between institutions, organizations, and administrations becomes blurred when the term institution is employed—as is the case in current usages, for example, when a school or a hospital is referred to as an ‘institution’—in a quasi-reified fashion, where stress is placed on the simultaneously regulatory, accounting and material framework (buildings, credit lines, etc.)  In fact, a number of situations inscribed in these frameworks can, when considered in detail, assume highly diverse aspects, more of the order of administrative or organizational work.  Everything that occurs in ‘institutions,’ construed in this sense, is therefore far from being of a specifically institutional order, with a large number of situations even unfolding in the register that has been characterized as practical” (79-80).

Lots to chew on here.

1) Is this analytic distinction helpful?  I hesitantly say “yes.”  Separating out the “semantic” function from the policing and coordination functions is useful for thinking about what institutions do.

2) Does it make sense to confine (in an act of semantic reform) the use of the term “institution” to the semantic function alone?  Here I would say “no.”  These kinds of attempts to depart from ordinary language to create a specialized usage more often breed confusion than anything else.  How are we to expect an audience to keep constantly in mind that when I say “institution” I mean something rather different than what others mean when they say the same word?

3) Is it really possible to have institutions that are confined to only one of these functions?  Boltanski has already suggested that the semantic function will usually (always?) be attached to sanctions, which suggests that at least negative policing {in a footnote, Boltanksi makes it clear that he is using “policing” in the expanded 17th sense} always accompanies semantic construction.  And once you go to establish effective sanctions, doesn’t that entail coordination of multiple persons?  So it seems better to say that there are “institutions,” that there are recognizable semantic, administration, and organizational functions that institutions undertake to fulfill, and that (at best) certain institutions are more focused on one or two of these functions than on the other ones.  Hence, we could say Congress, in writing and passing legislation, is more oriented to the semantic function, while leaving the administrative function to the police, and the coordination function to the various executive agencies entrusted with bringing legislation into practice.  But it seems just wrong not to recognize that the way a law is enacted—both administratively and organizationally—will alter its meanings, its semantics.  I am tempted to say that the whole point of pragmatism is that meanings are created through practice, in use.  (Pragmatics’ and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on how a word’s meaning resides in its use.)  So the attempt to divorce the semantic from the administrative and the organizational is to imagine a frictionless world of ideal legislation.  Back to the rough ground!  Meanings are forged in interactions, in use—and the same should, presumably, be said about the “reality” that Boltanski sees institutions as constructing.  In short, administration and organization are baked in; they can only analytically be separated out; they can’t be separated out in practice.

4) All of which leads me to suspect that my real complaint about the left is, to put it in the crudest and most clichéd of terms, that it is addicted to theory and fights shy of practice, that it loves to dwell in the frictionless world of legislating semantics, and never rolls up its sleeves to do the hard, messy work of administration and organization.  Armchair critique is the left’s specialty.

Is what I am saying really just that tired complaint?  I would hope not. For one thing, there is the issue of the left’s theoretical resistance to institutionalization.  That is, the left (besides hating punishment) is extremely wary of “stability,” of hierarchy, and of determinate, non-revisable declarations.  Which I guess is a way of saying that the left theoretically desires community, but temperamentally feels deeply uncomfortable with any constraints on an anarchistic individualism, with every person unconstrained by collective demands or orthodoxies.  Institutions smell of conformity, of pushing people into molds that also make them better “producers.”  We didn’t need Foucault to teach us that institutions work to insure that people are well-behaved, that they follow the rules, don’t disrupt the prevailing order, and make their expected “contribution” to social prosperity within a sacrosanct “order.”  Institutions, in all three of the dimensions Boltanski describes, are potentially tyrannical.  They lay down the law, and function to get people to obey that law, even to love it.

Yet how does any collective ever get anything done without institutions?  Organization gives any collective a huge advantage over those who are not organized.  This was to secret of Rome’s success, with its organized legions.  And it is the reason why the destruction of the labor unions has been such an unmitigated disaster for wage earners.  Organized capital, with its lobbyists, PR personnel, and trade associations, can act with an effectiveness that dwarfs anything individuals can achieve on their own.  And it is always useful to remember Will Rogers’s quip: “I belong to no organized party.  I am a Democrat.”  To resist organization is to tie one hand behind your back in a fight that is going to be tough enough, given the discrepancy in resources each side can all upon.

So the left needs to come to terms with the need for organization—for gathering resources, for getting its message out, for coordinating political action and pressure.  The question is what forms can/should that organization take.  The classic, Leninist answer was “the party.”  The more recent answer has been “the movement.”  The question I keep worrying is whether a movement is enough.  Does a movement have to move toward more organized, institutional forms in order to be effective?  To make progress on the economic front, against the organized forces of capitalist exploitation, I think a movement must become more institutional.  Does that mean it must have a party?  To some extent, yes.  But the challenge I have set myself is to try and imagine the other kinds of institutions it needs to have—since it also seems clear that electoral politics in and of itself will not be sufficient to effect the kinds of changes the left desires.  A party is good for electoral politics—and electoral politics cannot and should not be abandoned or ignored.  But if necessary, electoral victories are not sufficient as the presidencies of Clinton and Obama make clear.

SO: onto thinking about other institutional forms for the left.

False Consciousness

I hope to make this short.  I ended the last post with the expression of Boltanski’s commitment to an “immanent critique,” one that took its terms from the understandings and value commitments displayed by social actors in actual disputes at (within) actual social sites.

“The critical and systematic character of theories of domination, and their frequent claim to know more than actors themselves about the sources of their discontent, has in numerous cases even led their opponents to assimilate them to a kind of madness.  In particular, the analogy has been suggested in connection with a pathology whose description is virtually contemporaneous with the development of critical theories and, more generally, the social sciences: nothing other than paranoia” (Boltanski, 162, fn. 6).

To avoid the charge of madness, the theorist must assemble (call into being if not joining an existing group) a collective that makes similar judgments and indulges in all the practices by which a community constitutes a world-view (or a “reality” to stick to Boltanksi’s idiosyncratic [ha!] usage of that term).

More germane to my purposes: I am completely on board with the effort to never accuse any group of false consciousness, but the left often seems to founder on this particular rock: how to convince those it wants to enlist to its cause of “systematic” or “structural” interpretations of the injustices and exploitation that it regularly (and feelingly) experiences.  The grievances are all there, as is the sense of outrage, of moral indignation.  But the analysis is lacking—or so it would seem.

Boltanksi’s comments on this disconnect are suggestive, even though they don’t offer any good pathway forward.

“One of the characteristics of complex domination effects [such as those established by neoliberalism] is therefore that they offer less purchase to critique than a regime of repression.  Moreover, it is precisely this feature that was stressed in the critical theory and critical sociology of the 1960 and 1970s.  One of the main issues raised by critical sociology of the time was the seemingly more or less passive acceptance of asymmetries by the very people who bore the brunt of them.  It was to answer this question that critical thinking focused on a theory of ideologies and put the theme of belief and illusion at the heart of sociology.  By contrast, one of the contributions of pragmatic sociology has been to show that actors are not abused  . . . and that, as regards everything which concerns real life and the injustices they suffer in everyday life, they harbor no illusions.  But it has also shown that this lucidity does not thereby give actors a sense of having the least purchase on reality” (128-29).

As the New Yorker cartoon portrayed the situation in 2008: the Mafioso thugs sit around lamenting that “the trouble with credit default swaps is you don’t know whose legs to break.” Still, if the claim is that the sources of asymmetries are hidden, the left is still going to need the services of the critical theorist, whose analysis will have to be communicated to (and convince) those passive sufferers (the unemployed, the underemployed, the exploited).  The evidence is pretty compelling that most people do not even know the basic facts about asymmetry.  Survey after survey demonstrates that people wildly underestimate the gap between the very rich and the rest of us.  Call this a knowledge deficit as opposed to “false consciousness,” but it still amounts to lots of people failing to grasp the basic lineaments of the society in which they dwell.

Once in possession of the facts, the next issue is where to attack the structures that produce such inequalities.  Again, lots of evidence exists to show that people fall back on individualistic explanations for inequality.  In particular, they blame themselves (a self-directed instance of blaming the victim) for being unemployed, thus buying into the meritocratic premises of neoliberal apologists, as if 12% unemployment were the product of there being so many more unfit workers in 2009 than there were in 2007.

In addition, where these passive sufferers are moved to action, they tend to focus on remedies rather than on structural changes.  On the right, the remedies include deregulation and anti-immigration measures based on the premise that government interference and immigrant competitors for jobs can be blamed for lack of adequate economic opportunities.  On the left, remedies tend toward government supported jobs programs/trainings and a more progressive tax code.  I hardly mean to say that remedies should be ignored—and the left must fight vigorously for its preferred remedies.

But sticking to remedies means, once again, neglecting a structural analysis and any structural reform.  We are back, in a somewhat different register, to Boltanski’s distinction between pragmatic critique and critical theory.  We seem able to do the pragmatic thing—i.e. propose better ways of working within the current structure, ways that would lessen its inequalities and offer better protections to capitalism’s victims—but unable to get much “purchase” on the structural stuff.  That lack of purchase is not just the difficulty of figuring out how the structure works and where it should be attacked; it is also the difficulty of bringing along the numbers (the sufferers, the potential leftist collective that will save we theorists form the charge of paranoia) to make this structural approach a real presence.  The battle between left and right remedies is currently so heated, and so vital, that moving to the structural level looks like a pipe dream.  And my point is that it involves a lot of work of education, of changing people’s beliefs (or, at least, their habits of thought about the sources of inequality) before we even get to the hard political work of effecting significant structural changes.

To circle back as I conclude:  effecting real structural changes means inventing—or very substantially transforming—institutions.  That’s what Boltanski makes abundantly clear.  Lasting change–the kind that truly alters the conditions within which people live and work, and transforms the outcomes of social interactions—requires institutions that establish “reality” (in Boltanski’s sense of that word), establish the enabling social stabilities that underwrite specific interactions.

And there is not much evidence that “the people” think in these terms or actively desire the transformation of institutions, of basic structures, of “reality.”  Since this revolutionary vision and passion are missing, and because large numbers are misinformed about the basic facts of current economic practices/outcomes/institutions, it is very difficult not to attribute a) false beliefs (“fake news”) to many social agents and b) an overly timid sense of what kinds of political and economic transformations are needed/possible.  Yes, a strong sense of injustice does exist—and is a great starting point.  But getting “purchase” requires more; it requires a strategy that derives from an analysis of how power is currently organized.  And that strategy should entail the creation of new institutions—or, at the very least, substantial transformation of existing institutions.

So now I have written myself into a corner.  Obviously, the task ahead of me is to try to specify what some of those new institutions would be, and how they would function to enable more equitable and just outcomes.  I will try to live up to that challenge in subsequent posts.