Category: Politics

Broken America

At the MLA Convention, I picked up a book from Penguin with the title Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman.  The book collects various vignettes, along with some poems and longer essays, on life in these Untied States by a set of novelists and poets.  They are almost completely free of attempts to generalize; instead, they just focus in on particular stories set in particular places, almost all of them (reflecting their writers’ own lives) in cities.  They are consistently well-written and moving.

In his introduction, Freeman writes:  “America is broken.  You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this.  You just need eyes and ears and stories.  Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself.  There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all.  Thick glass windows and security guards stand between aspirational goods and the people outside . . .” (x).

I don’t know why such a stark statement of the case should shock me.  And shock isn’t exactly the right word anyway—unless it is the shock of recognition.  Still, there are the multiple ways we all find everyday to evade this knowledge, the ways we carry on our normal lives and try to ignore the fact that our politicians refuse to face up to even the most glaring of our nation’s problems, and that our media/culture never focuses on anything substantive, and that our elites work hard to make things worse even as they spin tales about how they are making things better.  We think of emergencies of the past—the Depression, World War II—and imagine a nation actually focused on the real issues and determined to roll up its sleeves to address them.

Maybe that’s a fantasy, but FDR (for all his faults) did things—and he had a solid majority urging him to do those things.  Today, instead, a strong minority (and one that has power beyond its numbers due to gerrymandering and the undemocratic Senate) aims to take away the healthcare subsidies and food stamps that are just about the last meager help offered to the most destitute.  There appears to be an absolute refusal to even acknowledge the suffering at the bottom of our society.  And it is that refusal, along with the fact of the suffering, that marks America as broken.  The old conundrum of poverty amidst plenty stalks the land.  How can we be so rich and so mean at the same time?  How is it that we use our resources so foolishly?






A Parable

In 1948, Congress was working on a bill to reinstate the draft.  At first, there was a proposal to introduce Universal Military Training.  New York pacifists, including A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin (who had been raised a Quaker), mobilized to oppose mandatory military service.  They allied themselves with A. Philip Randolph, who had a different object in mind: the desegregation of the US military.  Randolph found a Republican ally, Grant Reynolds, an African-American who held office in Governor Thomas Dewey’s administration in New York.  During Congressional hearings on the proposed draft law, Randolph told members of Congress that there would be massive non-compliance among blacks if the military was not integrated.  Specifically, young black men would not register for the draft.

Randolph was no stranger to the power of threatened mass action.  In 1941, he told FDR there would be a march on Washington by blacks if the president did not issue an executive order against discrimination in federal hiring practices—and by contractors getting federal dollars.  At issue were the companies already producing war materials prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Roosevelt took the threat seriously, issued the order, and Randolph called off the march.

In 1948, the draft bill passed in June, and–for interesting and complicated reasons I will perhaps try to outline in a future post—Harry Truman issued his famous executive order desegregating the military in July.

Randolph immediately cancelled his call for non-compliance with the new draft law.  Muste and Rustin, true to their pacifist principles, broke with Randolph at this point.  They wanted to go ahead with resistance to the draft.

I am going to ruin this parable by explaining in terms undoubtedly too stark the four lessons I derive from it.

  1. There is always someone to your left.  No matter what course of action one proposes or undertakes, there will always be some who claim it is not radical enough.  The same is probably true on the right as well.  One’s commitment, one’s toughness, one’s willingness to go the full nine yards will always be called into question by someone, playing a game of one-upmanship, claiming to be truer to the cause, more principled, and more morally pure.


  1. Those in power will often (maybe always) over-estimate the strength and (most crucially) the unity of those they oppress. In truth, Randolph’s threat of massive non-compliance was mostly a bluff.  He had neither the standing with blacks across America or the organizational and communications wherewithal to have actually delivered a very substantial boycott.  But to white Congressmen and Harry Truman, people with just about no knowledge of blacks or black America, Randolph’s threat was credible.  We just had the same exact thing happen at UNC.  The grad students threatened a grade strike. Realistically, about 200 grad students at most (out of over 3000), would have participated.  But the administration thought of the grad students as a unified bloc, wildly overestimating the threat the proposed grade strike posed.  It almost makes you think that, to the powerful, all underlings look alike—in the old clichéd way that whites can’t tell Asians apart, or blacks for that matter.


  1. But this overestimation of cohesion among one’s enemies can go the other way as well. Corey Robin has been banging away on this theme since Trump’s election: the left consistently stands in awe and terror at the right’s power and effectiveness.  My post on Silent Sam places some hope in a schism in the North Carolina state Republican Party.  I must admit that here I am wary.  We (the left) keep looking for signs of fracture on the right, with stories of voters who are going to abandon Bush or Trump or whomever when they stand for re-election.  Just as we keep pointing to lines that Trump will cross that will lead congressional Republicans to throw him under the bus.  Of course, the opposite has been the case.  It is Democrats who are the squabbling, disunified party, while Republicans demonstrate again and again that they put party loyalty (and its benefit of retaining power) above all else.  This unity of American overlords is very impressive indeed.  Think back to the 2008 recession when the business men of Main Street were royally screwed by the frauds of Wall Street.  But they closed ranks despite their being fleeced.  SO: I can hope for weakness in the right’s ranks, but I ain’t holding my breath.


  1. To use a dubious, even hateful, metaphor: a loaded gun pointed in the enemy’s direction is 50x more powerful than a fired gun. Once the gun is fired, the worst you can do is now known.  And when that worst is a lot less than it was estimated as, you (the holder of the gun) have basically lost.  Much better to take that gun which was pointing at your foe and slowly put it back in a holster where it remains visible.  Power hinted at but not deployed is often your best weapon.  Randolph knew that.  Of course, when you undoubtedly have the power to win, there does come a time to grab the spoils, to achieve your objectives.  Again, the Republicans of the past eighteen years have shown us how that works.  They have been grabbing and grabbing, while they defy anyone to stop them.  But until you have done the “precinct work,” the hard slog of organizing and of counting (whipping) votes and participation, so that you know that you have at least a reasonable chance of winning, best not to bring your forces onto the field.  Feeble gestures just reinforce the arrogance of the foe.  (There are exceptions to everything.  Politics is a messy business, with no “laws” that determine outcomes.  The Easter 1916 rebels knew they would lose; their gambit was that martyrdom would galvanize a future success.  And they were not wrong, even if they couldn’t have scripted or predicted the English ineptitude that led to independence a mere five years later.)



“On the first day for complying with the conscription law, Rustin and several placard-carrying pickets congregated outside a Harlem registration center shouting for men not to register.  Similar picket lines formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and a number of other cities.  Rustin wrote to Selma Platt in Kansas about ‘the terrific responses we got all over the East,’ with coverage by lots of radio stations and the daily press, and he was pleased that so far there was no evidence that the government was going to ‘crack down.’  But if federal district attorneys were laying low, the New York City police were not.  Rustin was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent fifteen days in jail.  By the time he was released in late September [1948], it was hard for him to deny the obvious: the combination of Truman’s executive order and Randolph’s public acceptance of it had taken out of Rustin’s resistance movement whatever small head of steam it had.

If the resistance movement was in reality dead, the harsh feelings were very much alive.  In mid-October, perturbed over some of the comments that Rustin and others had made about them, Randolph and Reynolds issued a stinging rebuttal accusing Rustin and Muste of using the military campaign as ‘a front for ulterior purposes’ and engaging in ‘unethical tactics.’  Rustin, they implied, was trying to snatch a defeat from victory.  The support for resistance was so weak, they claimed, that continuing the civil disobedience campaign would only have discredited the method.  ‘Gandhi in India and South Africa never engaged in mock heroics,’ they said.  Over the next several months, Muste [and others, but not Rustin] wrote back and forth with Randolph, trying to repair relationships and clarify their respective positions.  But there was no doubt that for a time, the ties between Randolph’s civil rights camp and the Gandhian pacifists were badly frayed.

As for Rustin, afterward he felt miserable about how he had behaved in the waning stages of the campaign.  ‘It was two years before I dared see Mr. Randolph again, after having done such a terrible thing,’ he recalled.  When he did finally visit Randolph to repair the breach, ‘I was so nervous I was shaking, waiting for his wrath to descend upon me.’ But Randolph had by then put the conflict behind him and was happy to have their working relationship restored.

Whatever the personal feelings it aroused, the campaign to desegregate the military raised a host of issues about strategy, tactics, and goals.  When was compromise a choice with integrity, and when did it represent a betrayal of principle?  When did one seize the victory at hand, and when did one opt to keep the troops roused for victories not yet imminent?  How did two sets of activists and two social movements with overlapping but distinct goals work together with integrity in a coalition? Which was more important: an institutional change that led to equal treatment of black and white or a movement that placed peace and nonviolence above other goals?  Was the objective to create widening circles of resistance or to achieve a concrete reform that pointed in the direction of justice?  The tensions embedded in these questions would confront Rusting and other American radicals with painful dilemmas again and again in the next two decades.”

From John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin [NY: Free Press, 2003, 158-160.]

I highly recommend this superb biography of Rustin.  There is nothing even remotely as good written about Randolph, who remains a curiously unreachable subject, a very private man whom no writer, so far, seems to have gotten a handle on.  That he did not hold a grudge against Rustin is characteristic of Randolph, who seems to have been able to work with just about anyone he felt could advance the cause, and who showed an almost complete (and saintly in my opinion) indifference to his own standing in the movement.  He seems to have been just about as ego-less as it is possible for anyone to be—which may be why writing a biography of him has proved so difficult.

Moral Envy and Opportunity Hoarding

One quick addendum to the last post—and to Bertrand Russell’s comment about how the traditionalist is allowed all kinds of indignation that the reformer is not.  What’s with the ubiquity of death threats against anyone who offends the right wing in the United States?  That those who would change an established social practice/pattern, no matter how unjust or absurd, deserve a death sentence is, to all appearances, simply accepted by the radical right.  So, just to give one example, the NC State professor who went public with his memories of drinking heavily with Brett Kavanaugh at Yale immediately got death threats—as did some of his colleagues in the History Department.  Maybe you could say that snobbish contempt for the “deplorables” is the standard left wing response to right wingers—just as predictable as right wingers making death threats.  But contempt and scorn are not solely the prerogative of the left, whereas death threats do seem only mobilized by the right.

Which does segue, somewhat, into today’s topic, which was to take up David Graeber’s alternative way of explaining the grand canyon between the left and right in today’s America.  His first point concerns what he calls “moral envy.”  “By ‘moral envy,’ I am referring here to feelings of envy and resentment directed at another person, not because that person is wealthy, or gifted, or lucky, but because his or her behavior is seen as upholding a higher moral standard than the envier’s own.  The basic sentiment seems to be ‘How dare that person claim to be better than me (by acting in a way that I do indeed acknowledge is better than me?”” (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [Simon and Schuster, 2018], 248).  The most usual form this envy takes, in my experience, is the outraged assertion that someone is a “hypocrite.”  The right wing is particularly addicted to this claim about liberal do-gooders.  The liberals, in their view, claim to be holier than thou, but know what side their bed is feathered on, and do quite well for themselves.  They wouldn’t be sipping lattes and driving Priuses if they weren’t laughing their way to the bank.  Moral envy, then, is about bringing everyone down to the same low level of behavior—and thus (here I think Graeber is right) entails a covert acknowledgement that the general run of behavior is not up to our publicly stated moral aspirations.  So we don’t like the people who make the everyday, all-too-human fact of the gap between our ideals and our behavior conspicuous.  Especially when their behavior indicates that the gap is not necessary.  It is actually possible to act in a morally admirable manner.

But then Graeber goes on to do something unexpected—and to me convincing—with this speculation about moral envy.  He ties it to jobs.  Basically, the argument goes like this: some people get to have meaningful jobs, ones for which it is fairly easy to make the case that “here is work worth doing.”  Generally, such work involves actually making something or actually providing a needed service to some people.  The farmer and the doctor have built-in job satisfaction insofar as what they devote themselves to doing requires almost no justification—to themselves or to others.  (This, of course, doesn’t preclude all kinds of dissatisfactions with factors that make their jobs needlessly onerous or economically precarious.)

Graeber’s argument in Bullshit Jobs is that there are not enough of the meaningful jobs to go around.  As robots make more of the things that factory workers used to make and as agricultural labor also requires far fewer workers than it once did, we have not (as utopians once predicted and as Graeber still believes is completely possible) rolled back working hours.  Instead, we generated more and more bullshit jobs—jobs that are make-work in some cases (simply unproductive in ways that those who hold the job can easily see) or, even worse, jobs that are positively anti-productive or harmful (sitting in office denying people’s welfare or insurance claims; telemarketing; you can expand the list.)  In short, lots of people simply don’t have access to jobs that would allow them to do work that they, themselves, morally approve of.

Graeber’s point is that the people who hold these jobs know how worthless the jobs are.  But they rarely have other options—although the people he talks to in his book do often quit these soul-destroying jobs.  The political point is that the number of “good” jobs, i.e. worthwhile, meaningful jobs is limited.  And the people who have those jobs curtail access to them (through professional licensing practices in some cases, through networking in other cases).  There is an inside track to the good jobs that depends, to a very large extent, on being to the manor/manner born.  Especially for the jobs that accord upper-middle-class status (and almost guarantee that one will be a liberal), transmission is generational.  This is the “opportunity hoarding” that Richard Reeves speaks about in his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders.  The liberal professional classes talk a good game about diversity and meritocracy, but they basically keep the spots open for their kids.  Entry into that world from the outside is very difficult and very rare.

To the manner born should also be taken fairly literally.  Access to the upper middle class jobs still requires the detour of education–and how to survive (and even thrive) at an American university is an inherited trait.  Kids from the upper middle class are completely at home in college, just as non-middle-class kids are so often completely at sea.  Yes, school can be a make-it and a break-it, a place where an upper class kid falls off the rails and place where the lower class kid finds a ladder she manages to climb.  But all the statistics, as well as my own experience as a college teacher for thirty years, tell me that the exceptions are relatively rare.  College is a fairly difficult environment to navigate–and close to impossibly difficult for students to whom college’s idiolects are not a native language.

So two conclusions. 1.  It is a mixture of class resentment and moral envy that explains the deep animus against liberal elites on the part of non-elites—an animus that, as much as does racism in my opinion, explains why the abandoned working class of our post-industrial cities has turned to the right.  As bad as (or, at least, as much as) their loss of economic and social status has been their loss of access to meaningful work.  Put them into as many training sessions as you want to transition them to the jobs of the post-industrial economy, you are not going to solve their acute knowledge that these new jobs suck when compared to their old jobs in terms of basic worth.  So they resent the hell out of those who still hold meaningful jobs—and get well paid for those jobs and also have the gall to preach to them about tolerance and diversity.  2.  It is soul-destroying to do work you cannot justify as worth doing.  And what is soul-destroying will lead to aggression, despair, rising suicide rates, drug abuse, and susceptibility to right-wing demagogues.  Pride in one’s work is a sine non qua of a dignified adult life.

The Class/Race/Generation/Political Divide

Back with a little tidbit from Bertrand Russell’s Human Society in Ethics and Politics: “Traditionalists hold their opinions more fanatically than their liberal-minded opponents and therefore have power out of proportion to their numbers.  A man who publicly advocates any relaxation of the traditional code can be made to suffer obloquy, but nothing of the sort can be inflicted upon benighted bigots” (125).

Lots can be said about this—and count on me to say lots.  For starters, we have here the usual contrast between mild-mannered liberals, lacking fire-in-the-blood passion, and visceral conservatives.  The politics of reason versus the politics of passion. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats).  I am not very convinced.  More plausible, I think, are explanations that look to “loss aversion” and to the superiority in “reality” of what is over what could be.  In my experience, those proposing reforms always meet with fierce resistance; stepping into the unknown always is based on uncertain gains balanced against very obvious losses.  What will be destroyed by the change is concretely There.  Those who are just fine with current arrangements will have a direct, straight-forward case for outrage.  “Jeopardy” in Albert Hirschman’s anatomy of the “rhetoric of reaction.”  Your changes will jeopardize the good things we enjoy now with no guarantee that what you put in the present’s place will be better.  You, the reformer, are inflicting an easy to identify harm.

Russell believes that “most of the disagreements that occur in practice are, not as to what things have intrinsic value, but as to who shall enjoy them.  The holders of power naturally demand for themselves the lion’s share” (110).  Is this true? That is, are there actually very few deep moral disagreements; rather, the real source of disagreement is about the distribution of the goods that everyone agrees are actually good.  That shifts the moral terrain significantly; the focus becomes who legitimately is entitled to a share and who legitimately can be denied a full share.  I am inclined to think conservatism is always, au fond, about legitimating unequal distribution.  The grounds for cutting some people out—race, meritocracy, education, expertise, various social and moral stigmas, citizenship—vary widely, but the basic goal is the same: to justify inequality.  We fight over the goods–not over what should be designated good.  At least in most instances.  Sounds plausible.

One maddening thing is that unequal distribution could (possibly) be justified by scarcity.  If there was not enough to go around, then some might have to do without.  But there is ample evidence to show that removing the condition of scarcity does little to quell the urge toward unequal distribution.  The drive for status, for hierarchy, for distinction, leads to inequalities as steep and as cruel (i.e. tending to total deprivation) as scarcity.  Russell does not pay much attention to the deep desire for status.  He is no sociologist.  But he believes that the “desire for power” is basically universal, as is the abuse of that power by any who possess it (118).  His only solution to this snake in the garden is sublimation: “to educate in such a manner that acquired skills will lead the love of power into useful rather than harmful channels” (118).  Like Freud and William James, he seeks for a “moral equivalent” of war, competition, status seeking, and the desire to dominate over others.

Not much cause for optimism there.  I do think “loss aversion” can help a bit here, as can a ground-level sense of fairness, of justice.  Russell is not keen on appeals to justice.  “I think that, while the arguments for approximately equal distribution are very strong wherever an ancient tradition is not dominant, they are nevertheless arguments as to means, and I do not think that justice can be admitted as something having intrinsic value on its own account” (117).  The idea is that justice is a means to peace—where peace produces a stable society in which everyone can enjoy the goods they have without fearing the violence of either the strong seekers of power/privilege/wealth/status or the aggrieved violence of the deprived.  Self-interest in such peace and the stability/security it provides is the foundational rock, not some commitment to justice per se.

I think Russell is wrong about that.  I think a disinterested (for lack of a better term) outrage about perceived violations of justice is a much stronger—and independent—motive than he allows.  It is, of course, true that many disputes that claim to be about justice are masking self-interest.  But I do not think that is always to case.  The same psychologists who uncovered “loss aversion” with their ingenious experiments have also noticed that people will be satisfied with less for themselves when a distribution procedure is seen as “fair.”  A real life example is elections.  People accept being on the losing side of a vote if they think the vote was fairly conducted.  One sign of deep trouble in our democracy is the growing refusal to accept the outcome of elections.  When results trump procedures, democracy is in trouble.  Even then, radicals on both sides—left and right—will shout that the vote was not “fair,” that is was fraudulent in one way or another.  A pretty infallible sign of the far-out radical left is the deep conviction that the “real majority” in the US favors the radical’s own program, refusing to countenance all the evidence that the American public is just not that leftist.

I am inclined to believe that those who are driven by an inordinate desire/need for power are a small minority, akin to the small set of adepts that Randall Collins claims can actually commit sustained violence.  (In his book Violence.)  That small number prey on the rest of us.  Our part in life is to try to ward them off, to resist them, and to get on with the business of living.  The powers of resistance are pretty strong; not always sufficient of course but able in many instances to frustrate the seekers of power.  It is not the insecurity of the tyrant that makes him miserable (in my view and pace Plato).  The control of the means of violence is pretty thorough, plus the tyrant’s delusions of grandeur include a sense of immunity to the normal vulnerabilities of the flesh (think of all those 80 year old Senators).  No, what makes the tyrant’s life miserable is the limitations on his power.  Finally, it’s just damned hard to get other people to do what you want them to do.  They resist—passively more often than actively, by not paying attention or doing things half-assedly, or just melting away.  The art of not being governed, as James Scott calls it.  It’s the path that Fred Moten and David Graeber recommend.  Just ignore the tyrant, as far as that is possible.

Or scream bloody murder—like the traditionalists do.  Take the moral high ground whenever any kind of change is proposed.  There were all those artists—Yeats, Proust, Galsworthy, Nietzsche—documenting (often lamenting) the death of the aristocracy as the 19th century became the 20th century.  A privileged class was losing some of its privileges, but more crucially was losing its relevance.  Its material well-being wasn’t threatened, but its right to lead, to set the tone culturally and to direct the nation politically, was slipping away.  Today, it’s white America that is slipping away.  In the popular arts, black America has set the tone for quite some time.  Look at our music and our sports (the NFL and the NBA).  The change has been less swift in film and TV, and even less swift in the non-popular arts like classical music and museum culture.  The difference this time (as contrasted to the period of 1880 to 1920) is that neither the declining class (whites) nor the ascendant one (non-whites) is gaining economically.  Instead, both groups are getting played by the 1% that is hoovering up all the wealth to itself. But the decliners, the traditionalists, are certainly screaming bloody murder.  To a lesser extent, so are the exploited.  (Or maybe they are screaming just as loud, but lack access to the channels–literally Fox and Limbaugh–that would allow their screams to be heard.  The corporate consolidation of American media condemns them to an outer darkness.)

Hence the generalized rage.  The whites has “loss aversion” to the max; they are increasingly irrelevant, feel disrespected, and increasingly insecure financially.  The non-whites, while accorded a certain kind of cultural power and respect (but only within elite circles in New York and Hollywood and, even there, inconsistently), are resolutely kept from getting a decent slice of the pie.  And everyone looks for someone to blame, with the sad, boring, classic American story of getting the poor whites to obsess about their non-white rivals to the advantage of the rich whites.  I wish I had a different story to tell.  Sometimes the truth is astoundingly uninteresting, completely predictable, and apparently immune to any kind of creative rewriting.  It just sits there, an indigestible lump.

No surprise, then, that we turn to the young for an imagined way out of this impasse.  Their much-vaunted sympathy for socialism coupled with their skepticism toward a capitalism that has not served them at all (no less “well”) is seen as the road toward radical transformation.  The radical always relies on a sense that “things can’t continue this way,” that the current arrangements are unsustainable.  But they are unsustainable only if people refuse to countenance, to suffer, them.  And things from my perspective have been intolerable for fifty years now.  And, somehow, little in terms of the basic structures of distribution have changed in the US—except for the worse.

I can’t help but think that American politics are still transfixed by the political, economic, and cultural upheavals of 1965 to 1975.  Just like mainstream economists are still fighting the battle against inflation of the 1970s (unable, apparently, to process that inflation has been a non-issue for Western economies since 2000), so our political fault lines divide along the axis of those who want to return to a mythical 1950s (its prosperity, its blue collar jobs, its women contentedly at home, its blacks out of sight and out of mind, its gays utterly invisible) and those who affirm the various upheavals that brought women, blacks, gays into the public view, with their noisy demands for attention, respect, and their due.  Astounding, really, how traumatic the 1960s were—and how long-lasting (as is the case with traumas) its after-shocks.  The problem is that it is the cultural upheavals (experienced as traumatic by some and liberating by others) that gets all the attention, that generates 90% of the heat.  The economic coup d’etat, every bit as traumatic as the cultural changes, mostly flies under the radar.  The consolidation of economic power never becomes the explicit topic of political inquiry or rhetoric.

Those fiery youth of the 60s did not effect some radical transformation. The few radicals, like some SDSers and Martin Luther King at the end of his life, who tried to “pivot” away from anti-war and pro-civil rights activism toward economic issues (the poor people’s campaign) didn’t get much traction.  (Although we should not forget that something akin to a basic guaranteed income for all was actually debated in Congress in 1971.  How far we have fallen from that high moment.)  Rather, as my daughter likes to remind me, the baby boomers have left the US—and the world—much worse off than they found it.  So I am not likely to place too much faith in the transformative power of today’s youth, even if the generational divide is once again as intense as it was in the “generation gap” years.  Sixties youth, after all, had the insouciance of those who felt immune to economic worry.  No such luck for today’s millennials as they step into the world of contract labor.  Welcome to the precariat.

The lines of this analysis are familiar enough, which (as I say) doesn’t mean they are not (roughly) true.  But David Graeber offers a different way to think of all this—and I will go in that direction in my next post.

Religion, Sect, and Party (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


George Shulman (NYU prof who is part of the reading group that meets in New York every year) is interested in impasse—basically the feeling that we are stuck in a world we hate but can’t figure out how to change.

Framing it as a question of impasse helps me to state baldly some major themes of this blog’s agonizing over the past six to eight months.  First comes the sense that current evils somehow operate under a thin veneer (but an effective veneer) of legality and normalcy.  There seems no way within current legal and political institutions to intervene to stop daily operations that are unjust and render millions of people miserable and millions more vulnerable, a step away from misery.  The machine grinds on relentlessly.

Second comes the primary debate on the left.  At what level should the effort for change takes place.  Is electoral politics any use at all?  Could we actually vote into office  a political party that would effect the changes needed, alter both the ends and the means (i.e. significantly redistribute resources in ways that actively alter balances of political and economic power)?  It seems to take larger and larger leaps of faith to believe that the system can be reformed (to use the hoariest of clichés).  The gridlock (another cliché) that is another name for impasse seems utterly baked in at this point.  Too many veto points, too many established immunities (campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression, lobbying, tax breaks, conservative judges etc. etc.) for those fighting against change.  Obstruction is the order of the day.

So the electoral route is only going to work if there is astounding pressure for change from the populace—and the US populace rarely swings left and seems, instead, to cling desperately to what little it has (deeply averse to risk) instead of working to force the system to yield it more.

The alternative, then, is some sort of forced, dramatic change.  Two things intrude here.  The first is the worry (a big and legitimate one) about forcing a change that the majority does not desire.  Anti-democratic (in the core sense of the term’s reference to the will of the people) change is problematic for any number of reasons.  So the left’s first work, it would seem, must take place on the battlefield of rhetoric.  We must win the hearts and minds, so that the clamor for substantive change can not be ignored.

The second problem is violence.  With the possible exception of Terry Eagleton (and even he masks his talk of violence in the “soft” language of Christ-like sacrifice and of Greek tragedy), all the radical leftists I read shy away from talking about violence.  In Judith Butler’s book on the performative theory of assembly, she briefly says that activism must be non-violent.  Interestingly, the force of that “must” is more pragmatic than ethical.  Violence is counter-productive; it calls down repression at the same time that it alienates potential supporters.  Non-violence is the winning strategy.

But a description of effective non-violent tactics is missing.  Non-violent disruptions of business as usual, of daily life, will be treated almost as harshly as violence.  Which isn’t to say that martyrdom can’t prove effective politically.  But we seem at this moment pretty far from a place where martyrs will be viewed sympathetically.  (Contrast to King’s children campaign.)  I fight shy of asking people for fruitless sacrifices; of course, the response is that one never knows ahead of time if the sacrifice will be fruitless.  We can’t know what might, against all logic and predictions, galvanize people.  The shortness of the current news cycle, the way in which things (even the horrible mass shootings at schools), fade from public attention is just another barrier in the way of imagining galvanizing sacrifices.  (This returns me to my obsession with figuring out how to create a movement that has legs, that is sustainable over the long haul.)  When today’s anti-liberal, radical leftists write of galvanizing moments, they reference Seattle’s anti-globalization demonstrations and Occupy, neither of which really offers grounds for hope.  There is a vast sympathy for the Palestinians, but nobody is calling for the formation of liberation fronts or armies in the West.

Eschewing violence has much going for it.  Calling for large-scale, systematic transformation, however, and refusing to think hard about the means (including violence) toward that change seems more wish-fulfillment than productive thinking.  King’s non-violence was paired with the urban riots of the 60s; the anti-war demonstrators were beaten by police and they didn’t end the war, although they did makes its prosecution more costly for our benighted political leaders.  The system (I keep using that word for lack of a better shorthand at the moment) is violent through and through—under the cloak of legality.  The left keeps coming to a gunfight with a knife—and keeps refusing to even consider the fact that it might be in a gunfight.

Within this set of dillemmas/delusions, the left’s most characteristic move is to argue that the majority really is on its side, that if we just offered the populace full unadulterated leftism (some kind of democratic socialism presumably, although the left gets fuzzy on those details as well), we would win elections handily. Bernie Sanders would have swept to victory.  It’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?  And it gives our dissident leftist so much to do—fulminating about those liberals who queer the pitch, instead of thinking about the really hard work that would be required (especially in addressing that populace he is convinced secretly agrees with him) to break the ongoing impasse.

Do I have anything constructive to offer?  Not all that much since it wouldn’t be an impasse if we weren’t stuck.  But I will say that I much prefer loud denunciations, usually on moral grounds but sometimes on pragmatic ones, of the right’s constant enactment of petty and major cruelties.  The internecine fights on the left (of which I guess this post counts as one) are tiresome and not very useful.  True, the temptation to go that way is reinforced by the fact that such arguments may even gain a hearing and a response, while one’s jeremiads against the right seem cast out into the void, aiming to reach a general public that is nothing if not absent more than present, and certainly not going to move a right that has proved itself, again and again, without conscience and beyond shame.  Still, better to be a witness to infamy, than a nit-picking polemicist within one’s own tribe.

And better to be a clear thinker about ends and means than to throw blame about indiscriminately (those nefarious liberals!) and talk as if political victory was a matter of just snapping one’s fingers.

Moten and Harney, The Undercommons

The political/literary theory reading group to which I belong (and which meets once a year) read Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons this year and we were privileged to have Fred Moten join us for our discussion.

When I read the book in early June, my reaction was that it was anarchist gobblygook.  I was somewhat mollified by the interview with M&H that comprises the last 1/3 of the book and which presented a much more palatable (at least to me) vision of what they were up to.  The conversation with Moten himself was even more to my taste; the style of the book is deliberately associative, more a riff, or an improvisation, than a formal argument—in large part because M&H hate “formality” as tyrannical and are very much against any notion of the avant-garde or critique or any other pretension to having a truth or a knowledge to deliver.  They want to inspire, to provoke, to set things in motion, to put things into flight (shades of Deleuze), and to celebrate (create? perform?) incompleteness.

M&H have any number of things they want to reject/refuse.  But the two big ones are politics and individuation.  Politics is pernicious precisely because it insists on the formation of subjects, of individuals, who then step forward to ask for recognition, to make claims on the basis of rights, to articulate interests that must be taken into account, and to grab/claim a share of goods.  The very act of subject formation, of individuation, sets in motion a credit/debt accounting, a parceling out of responsibility, and of owing that M&H want to get out from under.  So they are with the various leftists I have been discussing these past few months in seeing the making of political demands only as a trap that legitimizes the powers and institutions to which the demands are addressed.  Moten told us that he rejected everything that Arendt designated as politics.

Yet . . . M&H also accept that the current order of things is rotten to the core.  Modernity is constituted by anti-blackness, by the exclusion of the black subject even as that black body’s labor is extracted from it.  Blacks are “conscripts of modernity”—and it would be a terrible mistake for them to see their goal (political or otherwise) as admission to the condition of the rights-bearing modern subject.  “You have denied us a place in modernity even as we are the condition of its emergence and persistence.  Don’t delude yourselves that what we want is what you have.  We want something utterly different.”

What is that utterly different thing?  Here is where is gets both inspiring and weird.  Moten fully admitted to a romanticism of “black sociality.”  There is nothing wrong with us (blacks).  We are already doing what we want to do, being who we want to be, in the fullness of black sociality (which also goes by the name of the “undercommons.”)  M&H aspire to a fundamental affirmation; black life is not about lack or deprivation; black life, instead, is a rich set of practices and entanglements that were created “in the hold” of modernity, out of a need to live otherwise.  The basic message:  “We are here.  You can’t get rid of us (as much as you might want to).  And we won’t be placated by the crumbs you think to push our way.  But we have our own world, the one we have created in your despite, and we just want to live in that world, as untroubled by you as possible.”

An odd kind of quietism.  Just leave us alone.  We don’t want to partake of your madness.  We ask nothing of you; just stop bothering us.  Yet—Moten also said “anti-blackness” is what is going to kill me, just as it killed my father and my grandfather, and it will kill my children.  Because whites can’t just leave blacks alone since modernity is dependent on the exploitation of blacks.  Moten also said that anti-blackness will kill everyone—even (maybe especially Donald Trump) because modernity is poison.  But that description of a murderous modernity makes the affirmation of a quietist sociality harder to stomach.  Living in the interstices (Ellison’s invisible man)  is a completely understandable strategy.  But it is surely a second best.  Is there no hope, no politics, that can address modernity’s crimes and mis-steps?

Of course, the whole thing is also premised on the notion that modernity is an unmitigated disaster.  Moten, as Nick Bromell pointed out, is a radically undialectical thinker.  There is no interplay between individuation (form) and the play of differences (the Deleuzian flux), just as there is no interplay between politics (public work toward justice) and sociality (informal, unstructured being together), or between modernity and its other(s).  Just condemnation of politics, individuation and modernity—and an attempt to build a world elsewhere, apart.  Modernity and individuation and politics are madness pure and simple; they thrust us into ways of living that are actually prolonged flirtations with death—ending in a full embrace of death.

That Moten is now reading the medieval mystics comes as no surprise. The longing for an elsewhere is deeply attractive when articulated so poetically by someone like Moten.  Especially when the claim is that the elsewhere is always already here—hidden in plain sight, embodied in moments of being together, of conversation and collaboration that are taken as ends (joys) in themselves, not aimed to the production of anything (be it status or a commodity or knowledge).  On some level, it just seems right to say that life is best lived in the company of others and unproductively.  And it is great to have M&H break ties with “leftist anti-humanism” and straight-forwardly take “life” as their lodestar, that which they aim to serve and foster.  But if the powers that thwart life, that worship and impose death, are so big, then to escape seems highly unlikely—and a privilege few will be able to access.

It increasingly comes to seem to me that the Nietzschean problematic of “affirmation” is everywhere.  How can we affirm “life,” instead of constantly looking for ways to escape it, or transform it, or control it, or to put it into the service of something else.  Why if life so hard to love?