Category: political theory

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.

The Marvelous Hazlitt

I have, off and on, been dipping into Hazlitt over the past year.  And my “meaning project” (of which there will be much more anon on this blog) includes (at least in my mind’s eye) a chapter on the “meaning of life,” where the focus is on the many writers–Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor–who express a hostility to those who try to establish “life” as the supreme value.  Ruskin’s “the only wealth is life” (from Unto this Last, a key text for me) epitomizes those who want to elevate life to that status.

Hazlitt, in the first passage below, offers an early rebuttal to the view that life is a dangerous standard to follow.  He is responding, with more than a little incredulity and irony, to Malthus.  The second passage announces Hazlitt’s allegiance to pluralism.  And the third passage enunciates what we might call the political consequences of a commitment to pluralism. First, that all concentrations of power are to be feared–and avoided.  Power needs to be distributed as widely as possible, since power in one hand is always abused, and because only power can check power.  To deprive some of power is to render them helpless in the face of tyranny.  Second, the abuse of power is worst when it is held by those who are also convinced they possess the sole conception of the good. Pluralism entails modesty–the recognition that many conceptions of the good exist and that I have no right to impose my conception on others.  Fear those who combine absolute conviction in their rectitude with significant power.

I take these various convictions of Hazlitt’s as central tenets of liberalism.  Hazlitt’s writings are exhilarating precisely because he offers a full-throated, eloquent, and passionate articulation of liberal decency, of its hatred of cruelty and tyranny in all its many forms, and its commitment to empowering all to live the life they choose to live.  I have argued previously on this blog that liberalism is not a coherent or systematic ideology.  Rather, I believe liberalism stems from a small set of convictions and intuitions–that then guide its adhoc judgments about the best course of action in various situations and its sense of the most acceptable institutional arrangements in particular historical moments, always open to revision of those judgments and that sense.  More about liberalism to come as well.

From the essay on Malthus (p. 67 in the Penguin Selected Writings):

“The common notions that prevailed on this subject, till our author’s first population-scheme tended to weaken them, were that life is a blessing, and the more people could be maintained in any state in a tolerable degree of health, comfort and decency, the better: that want and misery are not desirable in themselves, that famine is not to be courted for its own sake, that wars, disease and pestilence are not what every friend of his country or his species should pray for in the first place; that vice in its different shapes is a thing that the world could very well do without, and that if it could be rid of altogether, it would be a great gain.  In short, that the object both of the moralist and politician was to diminish as much as possible the quantity of vice and misery existing in the world: without apprehending that by thus effectually introducing more virtue and happiness, more reason and good sense, that be improving the manners of the people, removing pernicious habits and principles of acting, or securing greater plenty, and a greater number of mouths to partake of it, they were doing a disservice to humanity.”

From the essay “Character of Mr. Burke”:

“It is said, I know, that truth is one; but to this I cannot subscribe, for it appears to me that truth is many.  There are as many truths as there are things and causes of actions and contradictory principles at work in society.  In making up an account of good and evil, indeed, the final result must be one way or the other; but the particulars on which that result depends are infinite and various” (57).

From the essay “The French Revolution”:

“[D]o we not see the hold which the love of power and all strong excitement takes of the mind; how it engrosses the faculties, stifles compunction, and deadens the sense of shame, even when it is purely selfish or mischievous, when it does not even pretend to have any good in view, and when we have all the world against us?  What then must be the force and confidence in itself which any such passion, ambition, cruelty, revenge must acquire when it is founded on some lofty and high-sounding principle, patriotism, liberty, resistance to tyrants; when it aims at the public good as its consequence, and is strengthened by the applause of the multitude?  Evil is strong enough in itself; when it has good for its end, it is conscience-proof.  If the common cut-throat who stabs another merely to fill his purse or revenge a private grudge, can hardly be persuaded that he does wrong, and postpones his remorse till long after—he who sheds blood like water, but can contrive to do it with some fine-sounding name on his lips, will be in his own eyes little less than a saint or a martyr.” (93).

The United States and the History and Fate of Liberal Democracy

 

I have just finished reading Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2019).  For much of the book, I was disappointed by what Berman has to say.  She lays out the histories of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain (with a more truncated account of the Eastern European countries of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) to describe their transition to liberal democracy (or failure to make that transition) from their starting points, monarchial dictatorship in the case of France, Britain, and Spain, non-statehood in the cases of Germany and Italy, and the muddled, colonized situations in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The disappointment came from the fact that she offers non-revisionist history in what, even in a long 400 page plus book, must necessarily be fairly quick narratives of each country’s story.  It is nice to have all of this history within the covers of a single book, but I learned nothing new.  And the stories told are so conventional that I found myself suspicious of them.  Surely more recent work (my knowledge base for this material is at least twenty years old) has troubled the received accounts.

But Berman’s final chapter takes her story in a different direction.  She develops what has been hinted at throughout her narratives: a set of enabling conditions for the achievement of liberal democracy.  Basically, she sees six types of governments in European nation-states since 1650: monarchial dictatorship (Louis XIV; attempted unsuccessfully by the Stuart kings in England);  military (conservative) dictatorship (Franco, Bismarck, other more short-lived versions; Napoleon Bonaparte is, in certain ways, a liberal military dictatorship, thus rather different); fascist dictatorships (Italy, and Germany; crucially not Franco); totalitarian communism (Eastern Europe after WW II); illiberal democracy (Napoleon III, Berlusconi, Hungary and Poland right now); and liberal democracy.

Today, it seems pretty clear, illiberal and liberal democracy are pretty much the only games in town, at least in what used to be called the First World.  Military coups and their follow-up, military dictatorships, are still possibilities, especially outside of Europe, but not all that likely in Europe.  More ominous, perhaps, are the authoritarian regimes now in place in Russia and China—regimes that don’t fit into the six types listed above, and represent some kind of new development that responds to the aftermath of disastrous totalitarian communist regimes.   Again, the appearance of such regimes in Western Europe seems unlikely, although a real possibility in Eastern Europe and perhaps already installed in Turkey.

Here’s Berman on what makes a democracy “liberal.”  “[L]iberal democracy requires governments able to enforce the democratic rules of the game, guarantee the rule of law, protect minorities and individual liberties, and, of course, implement policies.  Liberal democracy requires, in other words, a relatively strong state.  Liberal democracy also requires that citizens view their government as legitimate, respect the democratic rules of the game, obey the law, and accept other members of society as political equals.  Liberal democracy also requires, in other words, a consensus on who belongs to the national community—who ‘the people’ are—and is therefore entitled to participate in the political process and enjoy the other rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Reflecting this, throughout European history liberal democracy—but not illiberal or electoral democracy—has consolidated only in countries possessing relatively strong states and national unity” (392).

Berman thus insists that liberal democracy is dependent upon the nation-state—where a shared sense of national identity underwrites (makes possible) the existence of a strong central state.  There are three major obstacles to the achievement of national unity: regionalism, ethnic differences, and the “old order.”  For the most part, Berman focuses on the “old order.”  She adopts Eric Hobsbawm’s assertion that “since 1789 European and indeed world politics has been a struggle for and against the principles of the French Revolutions” (49 in Berman).  For Berman, that means that the old order which straightforwardly granted “privileges” to a certain segment of society (the aristocracy and the clergy in ancient régime France) must be destroyed to create the political equality of full participation and the general equality before the law that are the sine non qua of liberal democracy.  The story of European history since 1650 is of the very slow destruction of the old order—and of the ways that elites resisted fiercely the movement toward democracy and toward liberalism. (Crucially, democracy and liberalism are not the same and do not inevitably appear together.  Napoleon Bonaparte arguably was a liberal dictator, whereas his nephew Louis Napoleon was an illiberal democratic leader.)

A key part of that story is Berman’s claim that the “sequencing” of the moves toward democracy is crucial to actually getting there.  Three things must happen: 1. A strong central state must be created; i.e. the power of regions must be broken as well as the power of local elites; crucially, this move involves the creation of institutions that can function to govern the whole territory;   2. A strong sense of national identity (again opposed to more local loyalties) must be created; and 3. Building upon the existence of that strong state and strong sense of shared identity, liberal democracy can be securely established.  Berman notes that in post-colonial situations, where the new state begins without possessing a strong central government or a strong sense of national identity, the attempt to establish liberal democracy almost never succeeds. Doing all three things at the same time is just about impossible.

“European political development makes clear, in short, that sequencing matters: without strong states and national identities, liberal democracy is difficult if not impossible to achieve.  It is important to remember, however, that regardless of how sequencing occurred, there was no easy or peaceful path to liberal democracy.  The difference between Western and Southern and East-Central Europe was not whether violence and instability were part of the back-story of liberal democracy, but when and over how long a period they occurred.  In Western Europe state- and nation-building were extremely violent and coercive, involving what today would be characterized as colonization and ethnic cleansing, that is, the destruction and absorption of weaker political entities into stronger ones (for example, Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine into France, Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland into Britain) and the suppression or elimination of traditional communities, loyalties, languages, traditions, and identities in the process of creating new, national ones.  But in much of Western Europe these processes occurred or at least began during the early modern period (but not, notably, in Italy or Germany), and so unlike Southern and Central Europe, Western Europe did not experience the violence and coercion associated with state- and nation-building during the modern era at the same time the challenge of democratization appeared on the political agenda.  By the nineteenth century in France and England, and by the second half of the twentieth century in the rest of Western Europe, states were strong and legitimate enough to advance nation-building without overt coercion but instead via education, promoting national culture, language, and history, improved transport and communication networks, and by supporting a flourishing civil society within which potentially cross-cutting cleavages and networks could develop, strengthening the bonds among citizens” (394-95).  East and Central Europe did not have this long time span—and had to cram all three projects (state building, nation building, and democratization) into the same period, which makes success much less likely (where success is establishing a stable liberal democracy).

Berman also argues that, in the aftermath of World War II, Western Europe adopted “social democracy” (aka the welfare state) in order to demonstrate the state’s commitment to the well-being of all its citizens after the sacrifices of the war and the sufferings of the depression.  National solidarity, she argues, is heightened by this responsiveness of the state to the needs of all its citizens—an antidote to the 1930s conviction in much of Europe that liberal regimes could not protect citizens from the depredations of capitalism.  She quotes Henry Morgenthau, American Secretary of the Treasury in his opening remarks at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference: “All of us have seen the great economic tragedy of our time.  We saw the worldwide depression of the 1930s . . . . We saw bewilderment and bitterness become the breeders of fascism and finally of war.  To prevent a recurrence of this phenomenon, national governments would have to be able to do more to protect people from capitalism’s ‘malign effects’” (Berman, 284).  Berman is a firm believer in Habermas’s “constitutional nationalism”; she thinks that national solidarity is best reinforced by a welfare state that extends benefits and protection to all its citizens.  (See pages 296-297).  She also is a strong proponent of “the primacy of politics” (the title of her excellent earlier book, which I discussed in this blog post), meaning that governments should take management of the economy as one of its essential political projects.

How might all this relate to US history?  It certainly offers an interesting way to think about the American South.  To even create a national state, the South had to be granted the privilege of continued slavery.  Without slavery, there would have been no United States in 1787.  The founder of my university (the University of North Carolina), William Davie is only recorded as speaking once at the Constitutional Convention.  “At a critical point in the deliberations, however, William Davie spoke up for the interests of the Southern slaveholders. In his pivotal statement, Davie asserted that North Carolina would not join the federal union under terms that excluded slaves from being counted for representation. Unlike other Southern delegates, Davie was flexible and willing to negotiate, because he was committed to the realization of the union. Indeed, once the three-fifths compromise was reached, Davie became an enthusiastic advocate of the United States Constitution. He spent two years campaigning for the document’s ratification.” (Source)

Hence slavery was akin to the privileges (the bribes) French kings had to grant the nobility in order to create a strong central French state.  Similarly, the regions (i.e. the separate colonies) had to be granted the privilege of equal representation in the Senate in order to yield sovereignty to the national government.  Thus the American state was compromised from the start.  It took violence to end slavery and then the South was bribed again in the aftermath of the Civil War when a blind eye was turned on Jim Crow.  The elites of the South, in other words, never had to submit to democratization; they barely had to maintain any kind of national allegiance or identity.  The South was allowed to go its own way for the most part.  Yet the Dixiecrat South, because of the Senate, held the balance of power in Roosevelt’s New Deal, guaranteeing that the first steps toward social democracy in the US were not open to all citizens.  Blacks were excluded from most of the New Deal programs.  The non-democratic Senate (made even less democratic by its extra-constitutional adoption of the “filibuster”) served anti-democratic elites well.

Arguably, World War II created a stronger sense of national identity through the participation in a mass army. (The war, of course, also made the federal government immensely bigger and stronger.) That mass participation opened the way toward the civil rights movement—both because the national government felt more secure in its power and because the justice of rewarding blacks for their military service appealed strongly to Harry Truman (among others), even as service overseas gave black veterans a taste of dignity and freedom.  It is not an accident that the first significant integration mandated by the national government was of the military (by Truman in 1948).

It is also no accident that Strom Thurmond ran against Truman in the 1948 presidential election, winning five Southern states, and beginning the slow process of the South moving from being solidly Democratic to becoming solidly Republican.  Even though Republicans (the party of Lincoln) were crucial to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the party’s presidential standard bearer in that year was Barry Goldwater, who opposed the civil rights bill—and carried the South even as he was defeated in a landslide.  The “Southern strategy” was born.  The long impotent right-wing opposition to the New Deal could gain power if the national solidarity created by World War II and the welfare state could be overcome by selling a significant portion of the  general populace on the notion that welfare was exploited by lazy, sexually promiscuous, and potentially violent blacks.  Throw in fear of communism and a religious-tinged moral panic about “permissiveness” among the unwashed, drugged-out hippies protesting the Vietnam War and the scene was set for the conservative roll-back of America’s (always less than generous or fully established) social democracy.

American Conservatism from 1964 on was not simply Southern, but took its playbook from the South.  That is (to recall Berman’s list of the requirements of liberal democracy above), the Republican party embraced positions that denied the full equality of all citizens in terms of political participation and demonized the opposition as unfit to govern, as an existential threat to the nation, as not “real” Americans.  The two Democratic presidents post-Reagan were condemned as illegitimate and criminal by the right-wing media and by Republican congresses, with Clinton impeached and Obama subjected to everything from the “birther” fantasies to deliberate obstruction and the refusal to even vote on his Supreme Court nominee.

In short, Berman’s analysis suggests that the South was never integrated into the American nation—and has successfully resisted that integration to this day.  Furthermore, one of the national political parties has allied itself with that Southern resistance, using it to further its own resistance to democracy.  That resistance to democracy has multiple sources, but certainly includes the business elites’ desire to prevent government management of the economy—including environmental regulations, support of labor’s interests against employers, aggressive deployment of anti-trust and anti-discrimination laws, and strong enforcement of financial regulations and tax laws.  Just as the South had to be bribed to even nominally be part of the Union, so the economic elite has also been bribed to accept grudgingly even the attenuated democracy and welfare state in place in the US.  The bribery, we might say, goes both ways; the plutocrats bribe the politicians by financing their campaigns, and the politicians bribe the plutocrats by keeping the state out of their hair.

Berman’s story is that liberal democracy collapses when people become convinced that it cannot serve their needs.  Only “a socioeconomic order capable of convincing its citizens that liberal democracy could and would respond to their needs” (295) stands between us and the illiberal alternatives that offer themselves when liberal democracy appears incapable of delivering the goods. The failures of liberal democracy since 1970 are manifest; its corruption and its slide into plutocracy in the United States are plainly evident.

In the United States today, we live in a cruel society.  The right wing solution is to say “Yes, life is cruel.  There are winners and losers—and we are offering you a chance to be on the side of the winners, while also giving you a way to justify the fate of the losers.  They are the lazy, or the weak-willed (drug addicts), the ungodly, or the illegal (criminal, or undocumented,) or otherwise unworthy of full citizenship, or full compassion.”  The left tries to hold on to the vision of social democracy.  An anti-democratic left is not a strong force in present-day America the way it was in 1900 to 1935 Europe.  The mushy center wants to hold on to existing civil liberties and to the existing rules of the game even as the emboldened right ignores both with impunity.

It is possible that the 2020 presidential election will present a clear choice between a robust re-assertion of social democracy versus the divide-and-conquer rightism that also aligns itself with ruthless capitalism. (We could also get a Democratic candidate like Biden who represent the mushy center.) I have friends who are convinced that the right will not accept the election results if it loses by a fairly small margin.  I find that scenario implausible; I don’t think the stability of American democracy is that precarious.  But a recent conversation with one friend made me less sure.  And Berman’s book puts the question rather starkly: If the Trumpists refuse to accept the election results, is there enough commitment to liberal democracy to lead to the kind of large-scale public response that would make a coup fail?  Or has faith in liberal democracy been so eroded by its gridlock and its impotence over the past eight years (ever since the feeble and inadequate response to the 2008 financial crisis) that the response to another stolen election would echo the shrug of January 2001 when the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush.  A scary thought.  But it would certainly seem, in light of the history Berman outlines, that a complacent faith in the persistence of our (even attenuated) liberal democracy is probably unfounded.

Institutions

Have just finished reading Luc Boltanski’s On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (Polity, 2011), a terrific book.  Hope to post at least three or four times with comments and thoughts it inspires.

Right now, I want to work through his account of institutions, since I have been complaining for months that the allergy to institutionalization found in contemporary social movements and in Hannah Arendt (as well as in many other places) severely hampers the potential effectiveness of a would-be leftist politics.

Boltanski recognizes that there are many competing definitions of institutions out there.  Boltanski takes a roughly functionalist approach himself (although I am sure he would hate to see it characterized as such).  He accepts the William James (he doesn’t cite James, but he does call himself a pragmatist) notion of our selves embedded in a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” the “flux” or the “flow” of time and events that generates the “stream” of consciousness as one perception or thought succeeds another.  Boltanski calls this flux, this onslaught, “the world.”  We can assimilate his notion of “the world” to James’s interest in “the more.”  The world is always more than we can take in; it always exceeds our conceptual and perceptual powers; any picture or representation we might produce of the world will always fall short of fully, completely representing it (we might want to go Heideggerian here and think of the “age of the world picture” but without Heidegger’s insistence that this is a modern pathology).

To survive in the flux, any society must construct some stabilities, some things that can be taken for granted.  Boltanski calls that construction “reality.”  Crucially, reality is necessarily a collective product—and Boltanski’s reasoning for that claim (which he underwrites with an appeal to J. L. Austin’s notion of “felicity”) could be tied back to James’s radical empiricism essays (“How Two Minds Can Know One Thing,” and “Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic”) as well as to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a “private language.”  “An institution is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (Boltanski, 75)—i.e. of fixing in place a certain version of “reality” that has a stability and permanence that stands over against the “uncertainty” that characterizes individual existence in the flux.  “That is why the phenomenology of institutions attributes to them as an essential property: their capacity to establish enduring or even, in a sense, eternal entities.  Unlike the individual bodies of those who give them a voice, serve them, or simply live and die in spheres of reality they [institutions] help to cohere and to last, they seem removed from the corruption of time” (75).

The “more” however, the world, insures the ever present possibility of critique.  There is always something (shall we call it the “excluded” as Derrida or Butler would, or the “remainder” in a Bataille sense?) that the current version of reality fails to take into account—and critique will, in the most radical instances, launch itself from the effort to bring that remainder back into the picture.  Reality can be shown to be insufficient to the plenitude of the world.  Reality, a radical critique insists, must be deconstructed because of that insufficiency.

In two senses, then, Boltanksi actually sees critique as dependent on institutions (the two exist in an endless pas de deux that resists any resolution in some Hegelian aufgeheben.)  First, some stability is required for there to be any common language at all, for entities like “nation” and “society” or concepts like “freedom” and “justice” to make enough sense to allow us to argue about them.  If neither social orders nor selves ever cohered enough to be identifiable (to be describable), critique could not get off the ground.  Humans would not be able to speak to one another—or to make any kind of sense of experience. Sociology, in Boltanksi’s view, must always have both a descriptive and a critical mission.  We can generalize this point to any political discourse: it must offer an analysis/account of current political reality and normative judgments about that reality.  It may, also, offer an imaginative (projective) vision of an alternative configuration—but this third leg is not strictly necessary.

Second, critique must always have a target—and that target is the currently prevailing version of reality constructed and preserved by institutions.  Without the work done by institutions, no critique.

How do institutions do that work?  Primarily, in Boltanski’s view, it is semantic work.  Institutions fix the meaning of things, most importantly “the establishment of types” (75).  He adopts the pragmatist emphasis on “situations,” that is, the notion that selves (because of the flow of time) continually find themselves in new settings, faced with different people, different environments, different needs, different demands upon them, different bodily abilities (today I am sick, yesterday I was well; today I am 60, yesterday I was 35).  Novelty and change are constant—and are the source of the “uncertainty” that institutions exist to manage (although without ever achieving complete control; the flow of time and the novelties it introduces cannot be stopped.)

Following Dewey’s account of judgment (although, once more, without any actual nod to Dewey), Boltanski offers a dualistic definition of situation: “The situation is identified, on the one hand, by reference to a certain context in which the action occurs and, on the other, by the meaning given to this context by relating it to a determinate type of action” (69).  Confronted by a novel setting, the individual processes it by judging what kind (or type) of situation this is.  Analogy and similarity—subsuming the singular into a more general set—allows us to escape complete befuddlement.  Judgment moves from the particular to the general: this object is a chair not a sofa; this painting is beautiful; that action is wrong; this context is a lecture not performance art or surgery.  And it does so by constructing (asserting) some kind of similarity between this instance of beauty and other instances of beauty—and so on for the other examples.  Wittgenstein loosened up the requirements for similarity by talking of “family resemblances” as contrasted to shared “essences” (of a Platonic or any other sort).

The work of judgement (as Aristotle and Kant both acknowledged in their own way) is notoriously imprecise.  The rules that might govern judgment are severely under-determinative, especially for aesthetic and moral judgments.  But even scientific and empirical judgments are iffy.  Think of a medical diagnosis.  We say two people have Parkinson’s disease, but the trajectory of their condition and their response (or lack of response) to attempted treatments can vary widely.  Aristotle falls back on “practical wisdom” (phronesis) as the guarantor of good judgment, while Kant (at least for aesthetic judgments) relies on “good taste.”  Such groundings don’t look much better than hand-waving.  And then along come the post-structuralists to insist that every assimilation of the singular to a generalizing category represses all that is not similar, all that is unique and (it is implied) should be cherished.

Institutions exist, then, for Boltanksi to create and maintain the “types,” the categories—a necessarily collective enterprise (both the creation and the maintenance). I can’t unilaterally declare this lecture absurdist theater and expect that judgment to stick—but if I trade on the authority vested in me by an institution (I am a New York Time reporter) or convince a significant of number of people that my naming it so is sound, then that judgment might just hold—or, at least, be taken under serious consideration.  Creativity in the arts and in politics, after all, is very often re-naming something.  You call that a labor contract, I call it exploitation—and the battle is engaged.

Most formally, institutions fix categories (types) by establishing laws—and can enforce their categories with sanctions. (Hence the law distinguishes murder from self-defense, and even distinguishes among first-degree, second-degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and the like, specifying the appropriate sanction for each gradation.  Case law then concerns itself with determining—making a judgment—about where in the available general schema does this particular instance of inflicted death belong, a point open—quite obviously in the courtroom setting—to contention.)

Institutions, thus, are powerful; they are sites where power is collected, the power to create and the power to enforce.  There are other sub-legal institutions; a university, for example, cannot legally punish a student for failing to come to class (although truancy laws give elementary schools that kind of legal power) but can sanction them with a bad grade or by refusing to grant them credit.  Professional organizations wield similar kinds of power, as does any institution that controls participation (who gets to participate and who does not) and insists on allegiance to certain shared principles, aims, and definitions, while also arbitrating how particular behavior is to be categorized (as ethical or not for instance, or up to professional standards or not).

It is no wonder, then, that the left is so often allergic to institutionalization—because the left remains terrified of power and temperamentally loath to punish.  (Let me say that a deep distaste for punishment of any kind is deeply ingrained in me.  I have never understood negative reinforcement of even the mildest sorts; my response to it has always been to walk away, with an outraged sense that no one has the right to talk to me or treat me in that way.  I am equally averse to using negative reinforcement myself.  I have always, in my teaching, used praise and exhorting a student to push her talents to the utmost as my mode of feedback.)  The ruthlessness of Communism (with its purges, violent in Russia, but painful enough in the non-violent forms used in the West—read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for one vivid picture) from 1930 to 1956 only heightened the suspicion of institutions which policed membership for many on the left, seeming to reinforce the conviction that when politics strays from the path of anti-institutionalism, only disaster can result.

How do institutions function on the ground?  Boltanski imagines them as sites of justification; they not only establish reality, but also must submit that reality to “tests” that reveal its 1) strength and 2) justice.  Strength tests are about the maintenance of a particular regime of reality against competitors.  So, for example, we can say that the nation-state was the preeminent institutional form from 1660 (or so) until 1945.  But now globalized capital and the rise of international organizations/law have challenged the nation-state’s hegemonic ability to create the common sense of those who live within its territory (my use of Gramscian terms here is deliberate.)  Institutions that are not organized primarily in relation to jurisdiction over a territory have arisen to challenge the nation-state form.  The ability of the nation-state to collect corporate taxes poised against the trans-national corporation’s ability to evade those taxes would count as a test of strength.  If the state fails that test, citizens will begin to question its effectiveness and may look for more effective institutions to serve their needs.  Certainly one central test of strength in today’s world is the contest between the state and the market.

But there are also justificatory tests.  An unchallenged (or mostly unchallenged) institution will conduct what Boltanski calls “tests of truth.”  Such tests are close to tautological; they function to reinforce the already hegemonic common sense (or reality) that the institution exists to maintain.  An example of a test of truth would be the staging of elections that are then taken to demonstrate the democratic nature of the political order.  Democracy is defined in terms of elections while having an election serves to prove one lives in a democracy. Perhaps a virtuous circle, but recognizably a circle. Institutions constantly trumpet examples that demonstrate that the institution is what it says it is, that it is functioning in alignment with its stated purpose and/or ideals.

The first level of critique comes with what Boltanski calls “tests of reality.”  Here the critic criticizes how the “tests of truth” are actually being performed.  Thus, someone who says US elections are not truly democratic because of the influence of money is pointing to the flaws in the test—and calling for a reform of the test such that its enactment would actually prove what it is claimed that it proves.  Criticizing tests in this way can take a variety of forms, but the point is always to show that the existing test does not demonstrate the fact it is claimed to reveal—and to show how a different test would do the job better.  For Boltanksi, such conflicts over tests are everywhere—but they are not radical critiques because they do not question the overall goal or telos.  The ideal of democracy is not questioned, only whether our regime is truly democratic and what exact tests would accurately reveal if the regime is democratic or not.  So these tests are “pragmatic” in the sense that they focus on doing the job at hand better; they do not question whether we should even be invested in doing that job.

Finally, there are existential tests, which do raise those kinds of radical questions about both ideals (goals) and about fundamental structures.  Such critiques, as I have already indicated, rely on a claim about “the world” (existential conditions) in order to question the more limited “reality” that institutions create and maintain.

Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology calls on the sociologist to focus on “disputes,” on actual instances at existing social sites where members of a society disagree about the “tests’ being conducted or about the very ends being pursued.  This move is particularly important because it also entails identifying the norms (as well as the interests) that underlie such disputes.  Boltanski wants to avoid a) importing the norms of critique from outside the existing social sphere; he wants an immanent critique that grows out of the things that current social members evidently care about, as demonstrated by where they take their stand in current disputes and by the kinds of reasons and arguments they proffer in waging those disputes; and b) he wants to avoid any sense that social actors are deluded, are dupes, or exist in some kind of false consciousness.  In taking their stands at various sites and in various contestations, actors demonstrate where their commitments are as well as their understanding (judgments) of the situations in which they are embedded.  Any work of emancipation should begin from—and honor—those commitments and judgments.

And yet . . .

More to say on this topic—but I will leave that for the next post.