Category: Neoliberalism

Gridlock and Upheaval

Viewed one way, the world seems divided between the countries where everything seems locked into place and the countries undergoing constant upheaval.  In the United States, we seem unable to change anything.  Corporate power unchallenged; insane policies on gun ownership; a dysfunctional (inefficient, nontransparent, and grossly unequal) health care “system”; underfunded and segregated schools; homelessness; an addiction to automobiles that is subsidized by government funding of roads and the oil industry; environmental devastation of various sorts; increasing economic polarization; persistent racial disparities of every kind; a bloated military engaged in endless wars; and an intelligence “secret state” unaccountable to law.  All of these problems have been with us since at least the 1970s and we have made little to no progress in ameliorating them.  Hell, we can’t even address them within our political institutions—and they barely even register as topics of debate during our political campaigns.  What national politician over the past forty years has ever had anything to say about homelessness?  Why does Congress every year rubber stamp absurd military spending—the same Congress that hasn’t passed an actual, planned budget since 1996?

Such gridlock might pass as stability.  Certainly, stability is far preferable than conditions in a “failed state” like Somalia.  But the reality is that, absent a functioning government, other powers step into the vacuum.  By dismembering a regulatory state that actually oversees economic activity, Republicans have enabled the great wealth grab that has characterized US society since 1970.  There has been dramatic change—enabled by the very lack of action on the level of the state. 

The change has been both material and ideological (to use Marxist terms).  The ideological change might be summed up in the victory of Milton Friedman’s dictum that corporations have only one responsibility: to enrich their owners (shareholders).  Any level of profit is completely justifiable—as are any measures taken to secure profits.  Pollution, tax gamesmanship, off-shoring, driving down wages, various techniques to ratchet up “productivity” are all perfectly acceptable—since capital (investment) is going to flow toward those enterprises that best utilize all these means toward larger profits. 

The material changes have been in modes of production.  The productivity of the average American worker has risen dramatically.  Since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute, productivity has risen 69% while wages have only risen 11%.  (Link: https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/).

Any American worker can tell you where those productivity gains have come from: a bit from automation, but also from various “speed-up” techniques, including increased surveillance, unpaid overtime (in the US, 85% of men and 65% of women work more than 40 hours a week; link: https://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/), and persistent understaffing in relation to the work that must be accomplished. 

American workers notoriously do not take their vacations.  Why? For very paradoxical reasons: a combination of knowing all the work that won’t get done (and will be waiting for them) if they take time off (because of understaffing) combined with a fear that the business will be seen to survive while they are gone and, hence, they will be laid off.  The absolute loss of job security in the new dispensation of neoliberal economics combined with the knowledge that losing health insurance is the surest pathway to destitution keeps the worker at his or her job.  Yet they are also tied to their jobs by a laudable (but self-defeating) sense of responsibility, a desire to see that the work gets done and gets done well.  The struggle is to maintain self-respect even while trapped in a workplace that uses them up as ruthlessly as 19th century factory hands.

In short, even as nothing changes, there have been drastic upheavals in the terms of work for most Americans.  The relentless pursuit of productivity by American enterprises has made working conditions substantially worse and job insecurity much more prevalent than they were in 1970 even as wages have remained almost stagnant. 

What’s even more dispiriting is that much of this productivity is (on any sane, big picture view) worthless.  Not worthless in its ability to churn out profit, but worthless in any sensible account of social well-being.  We are in David Graeber “bull shit jobs” territory here.  Think of tax codes and a health care system (to take just two examples) so byzantine that tens of thousands of people are employed to work through their bureaucratic mazes.  We are overworked to produce things that do not, in John Ruskin’s memorable phrase, “avail life.”  American society, apparently so unmovable, has increasingly embraced “illth,” the opposite of that wealth that avails life.

I had coffee the other day with one of my favorite ex-students.  He is currently pursuing a PhD in the humanities—and was commenting on the academic version of insane productivity demands.  The response since 1970 to the decline of jobs in the humanities has been to up the demands for scholarly production required at each step of the process of trying to secure (and then keep) a position.  The inexorable logic of increasing demands appears unstoppable.  Even though every one knows it is insane.  Writing articles and books no one ever reads—and that have no impact on anything anywhere.  The only reasonable response seems to be to up and quit: to refuse to be exploited as a non-tenurable, under-paid part-timer, and to refuse to ruin ten to fifteen years of your life bound to the productivity wheel of fire.

The young academic’s dilemma is no different than that faced by the newly hired at Goldman Sachs who are required to work 100 hours a week. (Link: https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/22/business/goldman-sachs-saturday-rule-workplace-survey/index.html)  These hazing rituals can be sustained because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is open to so few even though so many desire it.  There is even the meritocratic pride of those who are tough enough to make it—and their corresponding contempt for the weaklings who drop out along the way.  Competition is glorified as the way to discover who is really the best, even as this fetishism of competition overwhelms any consideration of the quality or the larger worth of the work produced under these inhumane conditions.  Productivity has become like money—valued for its own sake, not for the things it enables.

What was most dispiriting in my conversation with my student was not his own dismal prospects—and the attempt to figure out a way for him to have a decent life doing the things he loved.  No, it was the larger view.  He has given up entirely on the United States.  We are a society in terminable decline, one that offers no prospects of a good life to his generation, and unable to summon the will, the know-how, or the vision to change course.  Crippled by our racial and culture war animosities (stirred up by politicians and a news media that has no interest—in every sense of that word—in addressing our society’s dysfunctions), the US (in this student’s eyes) has no path forward. 

Not that a future outside the US looks any better.  He was convinced China is the future—and it’s grim.  Twenty years ago, China at least made noises about being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, and its burgeoning economy appeared likely to produce a robust civil society.  But that proved a fleeting dream.  State capitalism is now joined to ethnic absolutism as China’s modus operandi.  The non-Han will be crushed along with any dissent (witness the crackdown in Hong Kong).  That the processes making life worse are driven by the state in China and by the abdication of the state in the United States makes China look stronger, but offers no consolation for those who lives are disfigured in both places.

It’s not that my student—or most people—can’t see what is happening to them.  A clear-eyed vision of what is wrong is widespread.  It’s the inability to locate any levers of change that paralyses. Stop the world I want to get off—because it is currently so obviously bad and hurtling toward worse. 

Neoliberal Baseball

Taken in one way, the famous book (and then movie) Moneyball is a paean to the benefits of untrammeled competition. Some of the allure of sports is that it seemingly offers pure, uncorrupted competition, unsullied by issues of inherited advantage, racist prejudice, access to information unavailable to other competitors, or an uneven playing field structured by rules/laws that favor some players more than others.  Walk onto the baseball field, where the rules are openly known to all, and the umpires are impartial—and the results will go to the team that plays better.  (The Astros’ sign-stealing violates the equal information requirement.)

In Moneyball, intelligence and innovation succeed by doing what capitalists are supposed to do: find a more productive, cheaper, and better way to meet a need.  In this case, the need was to win more baseball games over a season than the competition.  And to do so while spending less money on payroll.  The trick was to value things the market didn’t value—and thus get productivity at a lower cost.  The stone the other builders rejected would be the Oakland A’s path to success.

Someone in the music business once said that the person who gets rich is the one who does it second.  The market needs to be softened up by the innovator—and then the copy-cat gets the biggest rewards.  Professional baseball embraced the “analytics” that drove the A’s innovative approach over a ten year span (or so). 

But—and here is where neoliberalism comes in—the terms of the embrace ended up reversing the priorities.  It no longer became a question of winning, except insofar as winning increased the bottom line.  Economics triumphed over the ostensible point of the whole pursuit—which is better called “the whole enterprise” at this juncture.

One key move was the conversion of WAR (Wins above Replacement; the key general numerical summary of a player’s contribution to his team) into money.  One WAR is deemed to be worth $8 million (that’s a 2018 figure; perhaps it has crept up a bit.)  In game terms, one WAR means a player will over a season of 162 games contribute to the team winning one more game than an “average player” would.  Added to the calculation of WAR is the ZIPS forecast system, which uses a player’s own history and a series of historical comparisons to predict the player’s likely future WAR over a given span of time.  In short, analytics produced a “scientific” measurement of any player’s “value.”  So much for market processes setting the price.  Now there was an “objective” measure of price. 

One more fact about baseball as a business needs to be added.  Players in baseball require a longer period of development than in basketball and football, the two other major money making sports in the United States.  Players can come straight from college (or even high school in the case of basketball) into the two other sports; there is usually two or three years (sometimes more, fewer times less) in the “minor” leagues before a baseball player is ready for the big time.  To compensate teams for subsiding these development years, those teams get to employ (the term used is “control”) players for the first six years of their major league careers.  In other words, players cannot participate in an open market competition for their services until they have worked for six years—often at a very significant discount from what they could earn if all teams could bid for their services.  There is no free market for the vast majority of players—since less than 30% of players even last six full years in the majors.

What has been the effect of this collision of analytics with the player control system?

Basically, teams now covet the younger, cheaper players as the way to keep operating costs down, while being willing to pay large contracts to “super-stars” (Mookie Betts, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout).  The ones left holding the bag are the players who have been good enough to last six years in the majors, but who are in the one to two WAR a year range.  Few teams are now willing to pay (for example) $12 million a season for a player who is one to two games above the younger player who can be had for about $1 million for the season.  (Yes, it is possible to have a negative WAR; those are the players who don’t last.  As would be expected, a very large group of players clusters around the mean of 0 WAR; after all the whole system is built around identifying what is “average.”)

Let us now count the ways that this all resembles neoliberalism (admittedly an inexact term; but one taken in this instance not to refer to increasing privatization of once public functions, but to the current brand of capitalism that combines loud praise of free markets with various practices that, in fact, stifle competition; places economic return over all other considerations; and has a set of by now familiar strategies and consequences.)

1.  The evisceration of the middle class.  Baseball teams are trending toward having a top 10% (the superstars) on the big contracts and a set of disposable younger players cycling through during the “control” years.  The same growth of economic inequality we have been experiencing in the general economy.

2.  Taking advantage of the way the market is structured as the key to making money.  It is not through innovation, increased productivity, or a better product (see # 3 below on this point) that making money most depends.  Rather, the real key to financial success is working the system in your favor.  Competition is anathema to the neoliberal capitalist—as is risk.  The goal is to grab market share that is immune to competition and ensures little to no risk.  In baseball’s case, market share is secured by the control system and privileged access to the teams’ regional market.

3.  Branding is more important than the quality of the product.  It turns out that if you can maintain a loyal fan base, placate them with a superstar or two, then it doesn’t matter if you have a faceless supporting cast.  (College basketball has taken this to its ultimate logical absurdity, cycling in a new cast of characters every single year.)  The loyalty is to the team, not to the players.  Surprisingly, even winning and losing don’t matter than much given the bars to actual competition.  Yes, winning puts fans’ butts in the seats.  But it doesn’t much impact TV revenues so long as teams get to carve out their regional market—and keep other teams out of that market (as league wide rules enable.)  In short, a shoddy product is no bar to economic success.  Sound familiar?

4.  That the downsides of selling something mediocre are so low is because the real profits come from financialization, not from sales of a product.  Baseball teams are speculative investments—and like California real estate only seem to go up in value.  When the Kansas City Royals are sold for over $1 billion dollars in 2019 by someone who bought them for $96 million in 2000, even losing money on day-to-day operations over that 19 year period is a winning move.  In neoliberalism, it is the company’s overall valuation that is the source of wealth, not what it actually does or delivers for consumers. 

5.  Finally, it is worth noting that neoliberalism is usually associated with aggressive privatization.  But (as Christopher Newfield has demonstrated beyond doubt in his analyses of the “corporatization” of American public universities), the actual practice of neoliberalism (pharmaceutical companies are a great example) is to push certain costs of doing business (basic research for the pharmaceuticals, health care for its workers for Walmarts and McDonalds, transportation infrastructure for just about everyone) on to the public ledger in order to maximize its profits.  There is no more egregious example than the way professional sports teams get municipalities to build hugely expensive stadiums—ones that have a shorter and shorter life span. 

Moneyball may seem a charming story about how the wits of little Jack triumph over the Giant.  But we need to see how the Giant, although a little slow on the uptake, becomes the one who recovers to restructure the field once again to his advantage.  And how the Giant in the process repeats that classic move of economic activity: substituting the desire to accumulate wealth for the actual activity that was the original pursuit.

Right-Wing Sensibility

“You cannot greet the world in the morning with anything less than ferocity, or be evening you will be destroyed.”  Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, p. 543.

What I want to do here is characterize right-wing sensibility. I will, in a subsequent post, try to characterize left-wing sensibility, which I find much harder to do.

I think Dick Cheney, more than Donald Trump, is a good exemplar here.  Recall his one-percent doctrine.  “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_One_Percent_Doctrine

For the right-winger, it’s a dangerous world out there, full of enemies.  If you let your guard down, you are toast.  Pre-emptive violence (another doctrine of the Bush years) is best, but hitting back with ferocity is second best.  The “bad guys” are everywhere and eternal vigilance is required to keep them in check.  Conservatives are always the “party of order” because the challenges to order are everywhere.

The difference between us—the guardians of order—and them, the sowers of chaos—is, inevitably moralized.  They aren’t called the “bad guys” for nothing.  The maintenance of order becomes the maintenance of moral order.  And that requires punishment.  Justice for conservatives is “people getting what they deserve.”  It has nothing to do with equality, since some people are better, more worthy, than others.  Hayek wrote that the whole notion of equality is a travesty of justice.  How could equal treatment be just, he wrote?  The whole point of justice is to discriminate between the guilty and the not-guilty. A justice system that treated everyone the same would not be just.

Because it is a dangerous world, the conservative wants a strong military, a strong national security apparatus, and a strong leader.  The niceties of democracy, the rule of law, and tolerance are distractions, even hindrances, when it comes to securing the nation against enemies external and internal.  The moral division between good and bad translates fairly directly into strong-in-group bias.  The members of my group—the nation—are good; the outsiders are, at best, never to be trusted, and, at worst, dangerous foes incessantly plotting against us.

Obviously, this mind-set encourages paranoia, the continual identification of new groups that are a threat to my group.  Right-wing movements of the past two hundred years have always traded on identifying an “internal” enemy as well as an external one.

The moral component of conservatism rests on a strong sense of “desert” (less politely called “entitlement.”)  My standing in the world, the goods I possess, are deserved—and for that reason it is fully just to deny those goods to the undeserving.  The right-wing fury about the “nanny state” is about taking what I have earned and giving it to those too lazy or otherwise too morally deficient to have earned something for themselves.  A very basic sense of justice is the source of the indignation against the welfare functions of the modern liberal state.  (I believe that the fact that conservatives and liberals mean absolutely distinct things by “justice” goes a long way to defining the political divide between the two camps.)

There is, undoubtedly, a tension between the individualism that celebrates moral responsibility and what one has earned for oneself and the willingness to submerge the self in the larger group of the morally just.  (The group of the saved, of the elect.)  The aggression of a conservatism that is always on the lookout for enemies is complemented (perhaps even washed clean) by a concomitant willingness to sacrifice the self for the group in the event of violence.

Right-wing thought, because so focused on good guys versus bad guys, tends to the Manichean, toward moral absolutism, and, thus, to the conclusion that there is no compromising with the devil.  Negotiation is a sign of weakness—and every weakness with be exploited.  Strength is the only source of security in this dangerous world.  The evil are just evil; their badness is not to be explained away, and the idea that they can be rehabilitated is sentimental liberal claptrap.  For this reason (its inability to detect middle grounds), conservative thought is particularly attracted to slippery slope arguments.  Medicare is Socialism and we are on the road to serfdom.  Give them an inch and they will take a mile.  Hysteria about drastic consequences to even the mildest of reforms goes with the territory.

In certain strains of right-wing sensibility, there can be a strong sense of one’s own potential depravity, an Augustinian sense of all humans as weak, sinful creatures.  In that case, the appeal of a strong leader and an authoritarian social order extends to the need for external constraints to rein in one’s own tendency to sin.  We are in superego territory here, where the masochistic desire to submit to a strong hand flips quickly and almost seamlessly into the sadistic need to punish depraved others.  [This dynamic is very complex in US conservatism; it seems to play no role at all in the many shameless right-wing moralists.  But it runs through various sites of evangelical fervor, where drinking, domestic violence, drug abuse, and covert hetero- and homo-sexual behavior co-exists with a deep attachment to “saving grace.”]

I do think attitudes toward the necessity of punishment—and to the severity of the forms it should take—are central here.  Conservatives (Kipling is a great instance, but think of most policemen and many soldiers) hate liberals because liberals (in the conservative view) leave the dirty work of punishment and the enforcement of order to “the thin blue line.”  The liberals benefit from the police and from prisons, yet not only refrain from doing the dirty work themselves, but also disdain those who do that work.

Here we tap into another feature of the right-wing sensibility: a sense of grievance.  Their own rectitude, their doing the essential work society requires, is never appreciated, while the spongers, the eggheads, the chattering classes, not the mention the Jews, the blacks, and the immigrants gather in all the spoils.  Society rewards the wrong people—a proof of society’s corruption and of the need for a strong leader to pull it back onto the right path.

In short, something is wrong somewhere—and that wrongness is either the product of evil people or of a fundamental, unchangeable fact, of a dangerous world replete with people out to get you.  In either case, aggression is the best response.  As my conservative students tell me, the Machiavelli of The Prince basically has it right.

Conservatives are capable of exemplary generosity to those in their in-group.  That generosity, you might say, matches their ferocity to those deemed outside the pale.

Given the priority conservatives place on security, it was one of the great intellectual coups of history when the neo-liberals (Hayek and Friedman in particular) captured the word “freedom” to describe what capitalism delivered—and, on that basis, make a defense of unregulated capitalism the hallmark of late-twentieth-century conservatism (Thatcher and Reagan).  Traditional conservatives (Burke and Carlyle) saw capitalism as destroying communal solidarity by pitting each individual against the rest in endless competition.  They associated capitalism with the destruction of social order.

Hayek and Friedman, in contrast, correctly recognize that capitalism (because of the coercive force of economic necessity for most people) poses no danger to order.  Assured that order is not threatened, they can undertake their propaganda campaign for “free” markets by insisting that government is the source of coercion (as well as the source of inefficiency) while the market will set us free.  Ignore the fact of economic necessity—or of the disastrous results of profitable enterprises always shifting the costs of “externalities” elsewhere—and their argument makes some sense.  And it fits perfectly (Hayek’s work is the perfect model here) with right-wing Manicheanism.  The market all good; any efforts to regulate the market (either by states or by unions) all bad.

Hayek and Friedman also have to ignore all the evidence that capitalists hate risk.  Security remains the watch-word.  Capitalists always try to minimize competition, to shift costs and risks elsewhere, to never face personal bankruptcy. That’s why capitalism tends toward monopoly.  Competition (just like economic downturns) does not spur risk-taking; it spurs ever more ingenious ways to mitigate risk.  Innovation occurs within secure environments—like research tanks and universities.

Conservatives hate liberals—and the most common charge is that liberals are hypocrites.  Somewhere in the conservative psyche (maybe I am giving them too much credit) there are guilt feelings about their aggressive, uncharitable relation to their fellow human beings.  I would think there is a similar guilt about the costs of aggressive behavior (both military and economic) on the world and its inhabitants.  Such massive destruction (of cities, of the environment, of the people trampled by military and economic adventurism) is hard to justify—and do-gooder liberals keep pointing out that unpleasant fact.  For a conservative like my father, that finger-pointing spurred rage.  In his milder moments, he would brand war a sad necessity, taking a tragic view of what this world inflicted on us, these constantly fighting human animals.  But in less mild moods, the rage generated fantasies of violence against those liberals, the desire to place them in the front lines of battle, to have them subjected to violence.

Because determined to defend their own rectitude (no matter the deep, hidden doubts or guilt feelings that make liberal accusations sting), conservatives respond with similar rage to accusations of racism.  They will fall back on “desert”—which is why a certain kind of Darwinian and/or free market fundamentalism is so appealing to the right wing.  There has to be a mechanism (shades of Calvinism) to separate out the “elect” (the deserving) from the “damned” (the undeserving).  And it is much better if that mechanism can be demonstrated as “natural,” as a process uncontrolled by human hands and, thus, unbiased in any way.

Hayek himself avoided the crude claim that the market’s creation of winners and losers was just.  Desert, he was willing to concede, played only a small role in market success.  But Hayek was adamant that the processes of the market were beyond human control—and that all efforts to control them would lead to worse results than laissez-faire.  The point is that the conservative is going to strive to avoid taking any responsibility for the ills the liberal harps on (poverty, racism, environmental degradation, workplace dangers etc.)

Three final thoughts.  One, I don’t know what to do with people like the Koch brothers.  Their animus against workers, environmentalists, and any kind of regulation is so over the top, so relentless, and so directly hostile to the well-being of millions of people even as their own wealth is beyond what could be spent in a thousand life-time, that I cannot fathom their motives or sensibility.  What is at stake for them?  They have been given a sweet, sweet deal by this world—and yet are filled with rage against it and a desire to do hurt.  What’s their beef?  It’s baffling.  As Gary Wills put it many years ago (reporting on either the 1992 or 1996 Republican convention in the New York Review of Books), what explains all these aggrieved millionaires?  It is one thing for politicians (eager for power) to exploit the sense of grievance among those the economy has not served well, providing those souls with enemies to focus on.  But why would a millionaire fall for that poison?  And I end up thinking (simplistically, but with no place else to go) that even as there are souls for whom no amount of power will ever suffice, there are souls for whom no amount of money will ever suffice.  Just greed simpliciter.

The second thought is spurred by Walter Benjamin’s insight that the logical end of fascism is war.  At the extreme right, the only plausible response to the identified enemies is extermination, and the only way to offer “the masses” participation in power (the opportunity to exercise that strength, that “ferocity,” that insures survival into the evening—to recall my opening quote) is to put a gun in their hands and march them off the battle.  Trump’s America has not reached this point; the undercurrent of violence in his politics is unorganized at the moment, only inspiring lone shooters, not para-military or official violence.  With the courts increasingly in right-wing hands, most of the contemporary conservative movement (especially its “respectable” political and business wings) is willing to effect its coup through the law.  And liberals have been hand-tied by this strategy, with its vote suppression, roll back of regulations, business friendly court decisions etc.  The left, I believe, will eventually have to resort to defying court decisions–the way much of the South defied the Brown decision.

Third:  I have deliberately not talked of Trump in this post.  I don’t think him easily exemplary of the right-wing sensibility.  His craving for attention, his obvious insecurities, his participation in the pursuit and circuits of “celebrity” make him a rather different animal.  There are overlaps of course, but better not to be confused by thinking there is a perfect match.

Joseph North Three:  Sensibility, Community, Institution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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