Category: Violence

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Violence and the Law

Holmes’s war experiences left him with the view that it all boils down to force, to the imposition of death.  “Holmes had little enthusiasm for the idea that human beings possessed any rights by virtue of being human.  Holmes always liked to provoke friends who he thought were being sentimentally idealistic by saying, ‘all society rests on the deaths of men,” and frequently asserted that a ‘right’ was nothing more than ‘those things a given crowd will fight for—which vary from religion to the price of a glass of beer’” (369-70 in Budiansky’s biography of Holmes).

Holmes’ rejection of any “natural” theory of rights always returned to this assertion about death:

The jurists who believe in natural law seem to me to be in that naïve state of

mind that accepts what has been familiar and accepted by them and their

neighbors as something that must be accepted by all men everywhere.  The

most fundamental of the supposed preexisting rights—the right to life—is

sacrificed without a scruple not only in war, but whenever the interest of

society, that is, of the predominant power in the community, is thought to

demand it (376).

 

And he understood the law entirely through its direct relation to force.  “The law, as Holmes never tired of pointing out, is at its foundation ‘a statement of the circumstances in which the public force will be brought to bear upon men through the courts’” (435).  “Holmes’s point was that the law is what the law does; it is not a theoretical collection of axioms and moral principles, but a practical statement of where public force will be brought to bear, and that could only be derived from an examination of it in action” (244).  “[H]e would come to insist as a cornerstone of his legal philosophy that law is fundamentally a statement of society’s willingness to use force—‘every law means I will kill sooner than not have my way,’ as he put it[;] . . . he did not want the men who threw ideas around ever again to escape responsibility for where those ideas led.  It was the same reason he lost the enthusiastic belief he once has in the cause of women’s suffrage: political decision had better come from those who do the killing” (131).

Temperamentally, this is easy enough to characterize.  The manly facing up to harsh facts, to an unsentimental view of humans and their social institutions, and a disgust with all sentimental claptrap.

Philosophically, it is less easy to describe.  Where there is power there must be force is clear enough.  But what Holmes seems to miss is that the law often serves as an attempt to restrict force.  Rights (in some instances) are legal statements about instances where the use of force is illegitimate.  Certainly (as Madison was already well aware and as countless commentators have noted since) there is something paradoxical about the state articulating limitations on its own powers.

Who is going to enforce those limitations?  The answer is the courts.  And the courts do not have an army.  That’s what the rule of law is about: the attempt to establish modus vivendi that are respected absent the direct application of force.  Holmes, of course, is arguing that the court’s decision will not be obeyed unless there is the implied (maybe not even implied, but fully explicit) use of state power to enforce that decision.  But his position, like all reductionisms, does not do justice to the complexities of human behavior and psychology.  The Loving decision of 1967, like earlier decisions on child labor laws, led to significant changes in everyday social practice that came into existence with little fanfare.  There are cases where the desire to live within the law is enough; there is an investment in living in a lawful society.  Its benefits are clear enough that its unpleasant consequences (in relation to my own beliefs and preferences) are a price I am willing to pay in order to enjoy those benefits.  Of course, there are also instances where force needs to be applied—as with the widespread flouting of the Brown decision.  My point is simply that the law’s relationship to force is more complex than Holmes allows.  The law is an alternative to violence in many instances, not its direct expression.

My position fits with my notion of the Constitution as an idealistic document, of a statement of the just society we wish to be.  The law is not, as Holmes would argue, completely divorced from questions of morality and justice (more claptrap!).  That relation is complex and often frustrating, but it does no good (either theoretically or practically) to just cut the tie in the name of clear-sighted realism.  Social institutions exist, in part, to protect citizens from force.  And, yes, that can mean in some instances that state force must be deployed in order to fend off other forces.  But it also means in some instances that the institutions serve to prevent any deployment of force at all.  The law affords, when it works, an escape from force, from the unpredictable, uncontrollable and deeply non-useful side effects of most uses of force.

In short, the manly man creates (at least as much as he discovers) the harsh world of struggle he insists is our basic lot.  True, Holmes did not create the war he marched off to at the age of twenty.  He experienced that war as forced upon him.  But he never got quite clear about who was responsible.  He was inclined to blame the abolitionists and their moral fervor, their uncompromising and intolerant absolutism.  He certainly had no patience for their self-righteous moralizing.  Still, blaming them had some obvious flaws, so he ended up converting the idea of struggle into a metaphysical assertion.  He, like Dewey and James, but in a different, more Herbert Spencer-like register, became a Darwinian, focused on the struggle for existence.  But he yoked Darwin to Hobbes; it is not the best adaptation to environmental conditions that assures survival, but the best application of force.  Of course, if the environmental condition is the war of all against all, then the adepts at violence will be the ones who survive.

All of this goes along with contempt for the losers in the battle.  Holmes had no patience with socialists or with proponents of racial justice.  The unwashed were driven by envy; “no rearrangement of property could address the real sources of social discontent” (396), those sources being the envy of the successful by the unsuccessful.  It’s a struggle; just get on with it and quit the whining—or expecting anyone to offer you a helping hand.  Holmes did accept that the law should level the field of struggle; he was (somewhat contradictorily) committed to the notion of a “fair” fight.  Where this ideal of “fairness” was to come from is never clear in his thought—or his legal opinions.  (He was, in fact, very wary of the broad use of the 14th Amendment’s language about “due process” and “equal protection of the laws.”  The broad use of the 14th amendment was being pioneered by Louis Brandeis in Holmes’ later year on the Supreme Court.)  Budiansky is clear that Holmes is by no stretch of the term a “liberal.”

Holmes’s famous dissents from the more conservative decisions of the pre-New Deal Court are motivated by his ideal of fairness—and (connecting to earlier posts about what liberalism even means) that ideal is used against decisions that in American usage are understood as “conservative” even though those conservative decisions were based on the “liberal” laissez-faire idea that the state cannot interfere in business practices.  Holmes’s scathing dissents from the court’s overturning of child labor laws enacted by the states are usually argued on the grounds of consistency.  He says that state governments already regulate commerce (for example, of alcohol), so it is absurd to say they can’t regulate other aspects of commercial activities.

Regulation, it would seem, is always about competing interests.  Since it is inevitable that there will be competing interests, society (through its regulatory laws) is best served by establishing a framework for the balancing of those interests.  Regulation is neither full permission nor full prohibition.  It strives to set conditions for a practice, conditions that take the various interests involved into account.  But Holmes never really worked out a theoretical account of regulation—another place where his reductionism fails him.  Yes, regulations must be enforced, but they are also always a compromise meant to mitigate the need to resort to force–and to prevent anyone from having a full, free hand in the social field characterized by a plurality of different interests and aims.

A Veteran’s Worldview

I have just finished reading Stephen Budiansky’s riveting biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, subtitled “A Life in War, Law, and Ideas” (Norton, 2019).  Like Louis Menand, Budiansky claims—and makes a very compelling case for the claim—that Holmes’ manner and belief are all shaped by his service in the Civil War.  Holmes was severely wounded twice (once in late July 1861 and then again at Antietam in September 1862).  The second time (like Robert Graves) his death was reported in the newspapers.  Holmes returned to service after both wounds, but saw only limited combat after 1862 since he joined a general’s staff.  He had had more than enough—and quit the war in 1864 as soon as his three year term of service had expired.

Budiansky does a superb job in portraying Holmes’ worldview, one that I think is shared by many veterans.  It certainly resonates with the hard to describe beliefs that animated my own father, who saw serious combat (although far short of the slaughterhouse that was September 17, 1862 at Antietam) in the Pacific during World War II.  At bottom, Holmes became a “it’s struggle all the way down” guy.  In the final analysis, it is force that tells—and that rules.  That is an ugly truth.  Force is relentless, mindless, brutal, and unrelated to justice or any other ideals.  People who mouth ideals or try to call others to account in the name of ideals are naïve at best, deluded hypocrites speaking claptrap.  At worst, they are moralistic despots, deploying their moral certainties to tyrannize over the rest of us.  Dewey’s pragmatist attack on “the quest for certainty” becomes in Holmes the justification of an activist pluralism.  The role of the law is to create a social field in which individuals are free to live their lives according to their own vision of the good life.  Oddly enough, this yields a positive value: basically the very English value (both Holmes and my father were over-the-top Anglophiles) of “fair play.”  Holmes’ Supreme Court decisions, in almost every instance, were directed to leveling the playing field, to denying any one or any group more power than any other.  Thus he was a liberal in the Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear” sense; the focus is on preventing concentrations of power.

But Holmes (and here he is also very pragmatist) did not accept that uncertainty meant nihilism.  “’Of all humbugs the greatest is the humbug of indifference and superiority,’ he wrote . . . in 1897. ‘Our destiny is to care, to idealize, to live toward passionately desired ends.’ He always dismissed the nihilistic attitude ‘it is all futile,’ which he termed ‘the dogmatism that often is disguised under skepticism.  The sceptic has no standard to warrant such universal judgments.  If a man has counted in the actual striving of his fellows he cannot pronounce it vain’” (130).

Eureka!  I can’t help but take this for the cornerstone.  It jives with William James’s constant harping of “striving,” and it is tied to a deep commitment to a certain ideal of masculinity.  Holmes (like my father) was clear-eyed about the waste, the futility, the sheer brutal nastiness and devastation of war. He could see that a killing field like Antietam left nothing to individual initiative, ability, or resolve.  It was all sheer chance as to whether one survived or not.  And yet, he still hung on to the time-worn notion that war was the supreme test of manhood—and thus valuable because (for reasons never examined) manhood has to be tested.  Maybe that goes back to the struggle thing; one needs to compete against others for the prize of being able to, in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others, be accounted a man.  Since the struggle lies in front of us, the prize goes to those who most energetically strive.  And by upping the stakes to life or death in the way that combat does, manhood is fully tested.

Thus, he famously wrote (in 1884) of himself and his fellow Civil War veterans: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top . . . Through our good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire” (127).  And later, during the First World War, he wrote: “I truly believe that young men who live through a war in which they have taken part will find themselves different thenceforth—I feel it—I see it in the eyes of the few surviving men who served in my Regiment.  So, although I would have averted the war if I could have, I believe that all the suffering and waste are not without their reward.  I hope will all my heart that your boys may win the reward and at not too great a cost” (363).

That last bit strikes the note perfectly.  A real desire to avoid war joined with an equally real belief that war brings its own distinctive rewards, along with the absolute distinction between those who have the incommunicable experienced of war and those who do not.  The veteran is part of the elect; he has looked into the abyss; he has seen the fundamental ugly truth of struggle, and is the better man for it.

In the implacable face of violence and death, high ideals mean nothing.  The only worthy response is to shut up and get on with it. Grim determination, strong silence, and doing the job well are what is worthy of respect; nothing more or less.  His ideal men “were free to be egoists or altruists on the usual Saturday half holiday provided they were neither while on their job.  Their job is their contribution to the general welfare and when a man is on that, he will do it better the less he thinks ether of himself or of his neighbors, and the more he puts his energy into the problem he has to solve” (137).  His contempt for intellectuals and moralists was unbounded.  “More than once he cautioned his friends about ‘the irresponsibility of running the universe on paper. . . . The test of an ideal or rather of an idealist, is the power to hold it and get one’s inspiration from it under difficulties.  When one is comfortable and well off, it is easy to talk high talk’”(131).  His attitude toward intellectuals was very close to that of George Orwell; they talked a talk they never had to walk—and they rendered the world frictionless in their images of its betterment.  It is the contempt of the self-styled man of action for the man of ideals—and is undoubtedly tied up with a cherished ideal of manhood.  And, of course, in both Holmes and Orwell, it comes from two men who are primarily men of words.  But they both share their military experience, so can see themselves as superior to the non-veteran.

When you aspire to be a man of action, the nostalgia for combat is understandable.  What other field of action that is not contemptible does the modern world offer?  What honor is there in making more money than others?  Where, in other words, is the moral equivalent of war?  Certainly not in politics, which is even more contemptible than trade.  Holmes was determined not to become either the gloomy Henry Adams nor the god-seeking William James.  He wanted, instead, to be the tough-minded realist described in the opening pages of James’s Pragmatism book.

I want, in my next post, to consider how tough-minded realism plays itself out in Holmes’ understanding of the law.  But today I will end with the way that realism renders Holmes a pluralist in an additional sense.  He is a pluralist in the John Rawls sense of believing that the central unalterable fact that liberal society must negotiate is the existence of multiple visions of the good, none of which should be allowed to trample on the others.  He is a pluralist in the Isaiah Berlin sense in asserting that, even within a single vision of the good, there are competing goods that require tradeoffs and compromises; we will never getting everything we could wish for because those things cannot co-exist.  Going to the theater tonight means missing a dinner with a different set of friends.  Intellectuals, he thinks, never take the inevitability of never achieving the maximum into account in their criticisms of the men of action or in their imagined utopias.  “Remember, my friend [he wrote], that every good costs something.  Don’t forget that to have anything means to go without something else.  Even to be a person, to be this means to be not that’ (131).

In sum, life’s a struggle and a real man just gets on with the job, harboring no illusion that it will be all wine and roses.  That real man is full of contempt for the complainers and idealists, the ones who aim to change the basic fact of struggle into some kind of gentler form of cooperation that tends toward ameliorating the sufferings of himself and/or others.  You just need to face up to the suffering in stoic silence, doing the best that you can for yourself and for those you love.  Because you are a man and they are depending on you, even as you have no one to depend on but yourself.  It’s a cop-out of your manhood to expect help; it’s a sign of weakness, of not being up to the struggle, to whine for help from the law, from society, from anyone.

Right Wing Sensibility

From Jonathan Coe’s 2019 novel, Middle England  (NY: Alfred A. Knopf):

The speaker is an Asian Brit (born and bred in England of Sri Lankan parents), responding to two novelists who, in a panel discussion, have praised British “moderation.”

“These people don’t know what they are talking about.  This so-called ‘tolerance’ . . . Every day you come face to face with people who are not tolerant at all, whether it’s someone serving you in a shop, or just someone you pass on the street.  They may not say anything aggressive but you can see it in their eyes and their whole way of behaving towards you.  And they want to say something.  Oh, yes, they want to use one of those forbidden words on you, or just tell you to fuck off back to your own country–wherever they think that is–but they know they can’t.  They know it’s not allowed.  So as well as hating you, they also hate them–those faceless people who are sitting in judgment over them somewhere, legislating on what they can and can’t say out loud” (30-31).

This seems exactly right to me. It certainly (at least I think so) explains 80% of the animus against the University of North Carolina by the politicians in this state–and the minions that have placed on the university’s Board of Governors.  And it also captures what I have heard Trump voters say.  That he everyday drives the “liberals” nuts is the reason they love him–and willingly blink at all his obvious faults.

A bit later, another (but different) person of color discusses the fact that “there is a lot of anger out there”–and offers her explanation.

“It’s not always to do with race anyway.  People like to get angry about something.  A lot of the time they’re just looking for an excuse.  I feel sorry for them.  I think for a lot of people . . . there’s nothing much going on in their lives.  Emotionally, I mean, maybe their marriages have dried up, or everything they do has become a kind of habit.  I don’t know.  But they don’t feel much.  No emotional stimulation.  We all need to feel things, don’t we?  So, when something makes you angry, at least you’re feeling something.  You get the emotional kick” (44-45).

I hate the condescension of this, the Thoreau-like claim of “lives of quiet desperation.”  But this comment gets at the fact that there is something false about all the staged anger out there–right and left.  It all dissipates so quickly and rarely connects up to action of any sort.  Pure catharsis in so many instances. Anger for it’s own sake, a kind of emotional aestheticism.  Partly an internet effect: the ability to grab the public stage to display your anger, plus the need to be more and more outrageous in order to garner any attention.  How many hits, how many likes, can you grab?  All with some awareness that the internet, like the stage, is not real; it’s a virtual space disconnected from actual interactions with others.

The right does traffic in this anger more than the left (which traffics instead in condescension.)  What seems real enough in the anger–and deeply scary–is the desire to hurt other people.  A kind of indignation tied to fantasies (let’s hope they stay fantasies) of violence.  As long as it all remains a video game, that desire is at least somewhat contained.

Keeping Spirits Bright

I have had a number of responses to my post about the UK elections and my own dispirited despondency facing the current American scene.  The responses ranged from sympathetic to chidings (mostly gentle) for letting the side down.  Despair, people reminded me, is not an option.  We must keep fighting or the other side wins.  I don’t have counter-arguments; it’s not as if I am happy to throw in the towel.  I agree it does no one any good to be defeatist, to say that the other side has already won.  So I am not going to try to defend myself.  Except if saying these three things counts as some kind of defense.

1. The fight itself is soul- and life-destroying.  Again, we must fight against that fact, but there it is.  Being consumed by the fight–and the constant effort to keep fighting–is no way to live.  The daily life of this country has been warped by the ugliness and  cruelty of the right wing.  To step aside from it all is open to well-off people like me, and resisting that temptation to just cultivate indifference, to pursue other interests, requires an effort that is part of the warping.  All around, people are tuned into careerism, consumerism, family, with seemingly nary a care for the cruelty of our society.  Why do I have to care?  And why do I have to agonize over the my inability–and the inability of those like me–to get them to care?  That’s one way of expressing the tiredness I am feeling.

2.  Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.  It is hard to find the right balance between some kind of clear-eyed realism about the mess we are in and the maintenance of belief in a better future.  The internal battles within the left (another, different fight) are about what is realistically possible in the current moment.  I participate in those battles–and am outflanked to my left by many of my friends.  I think they are deluded about what the American electorate will go for.  I do not believe that Sanders would have beaten Trump in 2016.  And I certainly don’t believe (as I will discuss in a future post) that some alternative to the market is on the horizon.

To be scolded for compromising with the market is a favorite rhetorical move of the “radical left”–and I find it depressing because so untethered to reality.  Whether to have a market society or not is not where the true political battle of this moment in America is being waged.  And the radical left is hors combat (i.e. useless) so long as it refuses to engage in any fights that don’t put the market as its stakes.  To add insult to this injury, the radical left spends way too much of its time and energy scorning “liberals,” those potential allies it loves to hate.  I understand that I am the pot calling the kettle black, that I am upbraiding the radical left for what seem to me to be its sins even as I tell them to stop calling out my sins.  Mostly, I try to avoid that.

Thus, in my book on liberalism, I devote a scant five pages to outlining my differences from the left.  The real enemy–the frighteningly potent enemy–are the conservatives.  But let me confess that it drives me nuts to read various self-appointed leftists talk of Antonin Scalia as a liberal, or to claim that current-day American liberals and conservatives as all members of the same “neo-liberal” club.  It’s a time-honored leftist tradition, and one that is as silly today as it was in 1932, to assert that there is no significant difference between the two political parties in the US.  Since the radical left is such a negligible force in American politics, they can be mostly left to their dreams of utter transformation.  But can I register that they are, as my daughter would say, “annoying”?

3. The problem, I guess, is that politics is difficult, and that progress is so very slow, and that even the battles one thinks are won (getting blacks the right to vote) are never fully won, but have to be fought for over and over again, constantly.  The other side is so relentless, so resistant to ever giving an inch.

The self-righteousness with which privilege defends itself has always amazed me.  In fact, self-righteousness is too weak a descriptor.  Fury seems more apt.  The right (the defenders of privilege, of inequality) are always outraged by assaults (perceived or real) on the prevailing hierarchies and rarely hesitant to use violence to maintain those hierarchies.  The use of violence is almost completely taboo on the left these days, but remains part of the common sense of the right.  They resort to violence without an iota of uneasiness or guilt.  And, as readers of this blog know, I can never decide if the left’s refusal of violence is its shining glory or its fatal weakness.  I do know that I cannot imagine being violent myself, that I must put my faith in the ballot box, in the normal political processes of democracy, to effect political and societal change.  But that faith can seem a mug’s game when the other side cares a rat’s ass for democracy–and do everything in their power to short-circuit democratic processes.  So, as usual, I have written myself into another corner, making it awfully difficult to keep my spirit bright.

Evil

Like many liberals, I find it hard to believe in evil simpliciter.   There has to be an explanation, some set of enabling conditions.  It is not only insufficient, but also wrong, to point to something rotten in human nature–and to leave it at that.  Appeals to human nature are like appeals to the “dormative power” lurking within a sleeping pill.  Such appeals simply rename the cause and locate it at a different level than the behavior that cause is meant to explain.

In London, I taught a class on the Blitz.  I don’t think I ever quite managed to convey to the students–or even to take in myself–its full horror.  The romance of the Blitz, along with its mythic resignification as proof of British pluckiness and resolve, has obscured the simple fact of terror rained from the skies.  Please don’t give me the pieties of “indiscriminate” terror and “civilian” populations.  The evil of the mass slaughter of citizen armies is no less; its victims are as fully “innocent,” as fully entitled to exemption from such violence, as the denizens of a city.  But it is the sheer fact of violence that I and my students never fully (it seems to me) grasped.  The mind always slides away from the bald fact of killing to adjoining images, stories, facts, and consoling myths.

In my various readings to teach this course, I read J. B. Pristley’s BBC broadcasts, which ran from 5 June 1940 to 20 October 1940.  Priestley was forced off the air because his forthright–and repeated–calls for a post-war socialist Britain to proved some recompense for the war-time suffering of its population offended the powers-that-be.

The broadcasts also show Priestley struggling to understand Nazi evil–which rhymes with my current perplexity in trying to understand conservatives (who often claim to be Christians) who put children in cages, deny food stamps to the hungry, are outraged by the extension of medical insurance to the less well-off, suppress voter participation, and wink at sexual and financial malfeasance.  Why would anyone ever sign on to that agenda?  Except for the tax cuts, there is not direct benefit to them of treating others so terribly.  Only some kind of pleasure derived from cruelty fits the bill.

Priestley has no better explanations for such evil (and how can we call it be any other, more euphemistic, name?) than most leftists.  But his characterization of the Nazi mindset and the dangers it poses to simple decency resonate with me.

From the broadcast of 23 June 1940:

“Every nation has two faces–a bright face and a dark face.  I had always been ready to love the bright face of Germany which speaks to us of beautiful music, profound philosophy, Gothic romance, young men and maidens wandering through the enchanted forests.  I had been to Germany before the last war, walking from one little inn to another in the Rhineland.  After the war I went back and wrote in praise of the noble Rhine, the wet lilac and the rust-coloured Castle of Heidelberg, the carpets of flowers and the ice-green torrents of the Bavarian Alps.  But after the Nazis came, I went no more.  The bright face had gone, and in its place was the vast dark face with its broken promises and endless deceit, its swaggering Storm Troopers and dreaded Gestapo, its bloodstained basements where youths were hardened by the torture of decent elderly folk–the terror and the shame, not just their shame, but our shame, the shame of the whole watching world, of the concentration camps.

I knew that wherever these over-ambitious, ruthless, neurotic men took their power, security and peace and happiness would vanish.  Unhappy themselves–for what they are can be read in their faces, and plainly heard in their barking or screaming voices–they wish to spread their unhappiness everywhere.  And I believed then–and am convinced now–that if the world had not been half-rotten, over-cynical, despairing, it would have risen at once in its wrath before the great terror machine was completed, and sent these evil men and their young bullies back to their obscure corners, the back rooms of beer houses, and cellars, out of which they crept to try and bring the whole world down to their own dreary back-room gangster level.

Many people are mystified by the existence of so many ‘fifth columnists’ who are ready to work for Nazi-ism outside Germany; but, you see, Nazi-ism is not really a political philosophy, but an attitude of mind–the expression in political life of a certain very unpleasant temperament–of the man who hates Democracy, reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and humorous equality–the man who loves bluster and swagger, uniforms and bodyguards and fast cars, plotting in back rooms, shouting and bullying, taking it out of all the people who have made him feel inferior.  It’s not really a balanced, grown-up attitude of mind at all: it belongs to people who can’t find their way out of adolescence, who remain overgrown, tormenting, cruel schoolboys–middle-aged ‘dead-end kids.’  That’s why the gang spirit is so marked among these Nazis; and it explains, too, why there has always seemed something unhealthy, abnormal, perverted, crawlingly corrupt, about them and all their activities.

And any country that allows itself to be dominated by the Nazis will not only have the German Gestapo crawling everywhere, but will also find itself in the power of all its most unpleasant types–the very people who, for years, have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power.”

To the academic sophisticate (i.e. me), there is much that grates in this passage. (Those cavorting maidens; the simplistic Manichean notion of a bright and a dark face–although that does suggest that “good” is just as mysterious, just as difficult to explain, as “evil.”)

But I do want to hold onto two things (even as I also admire Priestley’s ability to speak passionately and vividly to his wide audience): first, that there is much to love–and that I love–in the United States; it would be foolish indeed to let despair over the current triumph of what is worst in American culture to wipe out a recognition of the resources for a better way.  The hopefulness of MLK (balanced as it was with his deep discouragement at times) is exemplary here.

Second, Priestley reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that the Trumps, McConnells, and Kavanaughs of the world are bullying frauds driven by envy of their moral betters; they cannot acknowledge their own depravity, but reveal their self-hatred again and again.  Not that we should pity them, but that we should fully understand their lust for power is the mask of deficiency.  That lust should never be accorded a minute of respect.

Inequality and Violence (Final)

To sum up the previous posts.  Scheidel offers three reasons to think that violence leads to decreased inequality of both wealth and income.

  1. The sheer destruction of wealth by violence. Since the wealthy have more to lose, if you destroy a lot of wealth, the gap between those with a lot and those with a little will be closed to some extent.  Even the 2008 financial collapse led to a short-term diminution of the percentage of US total wealth owned by the top 10%.  The decrease was not huge, and the lessening of the gap was only temporary (lasting about 18 months), but there was a dip.  The more prolonged and extreme destruction of wealth of the world wars, especially of World War II, was an equalizer (again, only to a certain degree, but of a degree unseen in the West over the past four hundred years).
  2. Income disparities are lessened when labor becomes relatively scarce and can, thus, command larger wages. Total warfare of the 20th century variety renders labor scarce.  There is more work to be done than hands to do it—and thus incomes rise for those lower down the ladder.

 

  1. Total war also has, to some extent, a “moral” effect—or perhaps it is only a prudential one—in that the wider distribution of economic benefits (accompanied by a sense that all should also share in necessary sacrifices such as rationing and the provision of sons to the military) is seen as “fair” and as conducive to patriotic solidarity for the duration. The programs put in place to achieve that wider distribution take a fairly long time to dismantle—if we can generalize from the experience of the post-World War II years.

There seems to me a fourth way to account for (at least in the 20th century context) the connection between total war and greater economic equality.  War seems the only pretext for confiscation of wealth and for sharply progressive income taxes that serves to bring modern democracies to enact those measures.  If capitalism tends toward growing accumulations of wealth in the hands of the few and to sharp differentials in incomes, then only confiscation of wealth can undo accumulation and only progressive income taxes can lessen the effects of widely unequal wages.  Again, Scandinavia may offer the exception here, a place where the need to finance a generous welfare state was enough to put high taxes on both wealth and income into place.  But Scandinavia aside, the US and the UK only had high tax rates in the 1950s and 1960s as left-overs from the war effort.   Nations will confiscate wealth to pay for war–and not for other goals.

There is the revolutionary alternative.  The Russian and Chinese Revolutions did confiscate accumulated wealth.  But doing so required massive violence—either through the outright murder of those who held the confiscated property or by driving the wealthy into exile with much of their wealth left behind.  As Machiavelli already suggested, the wealthy will in most (although not all) cases fight to the death to maintain their wealth—although it is also fair to say that in Russia and especially China the revolutionary regimes preemptively assumed the rich would fight for their wealth and put them to death before they had much chance to take up arms.  American slavery appears another similar case.  Confiscation of the wealth represented by slaves could only be effected through violence.  And if we want to be really brutal about it, we could say that the American Civil War (a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight) left the old slave-owners in place and thus did not effect the social revolution required to actually place the enslaved on any kind of equal footing with the slave-owners even after emancipation.  The point: it is not clear that you can confiscate wealth on a large scale and still actually retain the formerly wealthy as citizens in your new regime.  They are very unlikely to come over to your side, becoming instead the reactionaries of the equalizer’s nightmares.

The challenge, then, today is to get enough political support—and, perhaps more importantly, enough political power—to enact the kind of wealth and income taxes that the experts (including Thomas Piketty) say would be needed to reverse the increasing economic inequality in the West.  Opinion polls seem to suggest that a majority of Americans favor higher taxes on the top 15%, but the majority doesn’t hold the power (currently) in the US to put such aspirations into law or practice.  Lots of reasons for that lack of power, but capital flight (in all its varied forms) is not the least among them.  Democracy (political power) is currently subservient to economic power.

I want to make two further points to bring this thread to a conclusion.  Violence is connected with the lessening of inequality, because that lessening (it seems) always requires bringing the wealthy down.  This, of course, is the cry of conservatives, who attribute the project of equality to “envy” and see that project as always about making some people worse off without ever doing anything to make others better off.

The leftist utopia, on the other hand, depends on not shrinking the overall pie, but of distributing its pieces more equitably. Here we get into the territory of Rawls max/min—how much inequality should we tolerate in order to maximize the overall (national) wealth, the amount that can be distributed.  Conservatives, of course, like to insist that the only things holding back even greater production of wealth are high (disincentivizing) taxes and excessive regulations.  Take off those restraints—and we’d see the market really take off, to the benefit of all. (And like my colleague on rural electrification, the conservative will say that inequality doesn’t matter at all.  It is just the raising of the floor, the availability of various benefits of prosperity to all that matters.  Even if the rising tide makes the rich richer, it will also make the poor better off.)

But liberals can also have their own versions of models that see economic growth as a cure for our ills.  We could lessen the pain (and conflict) of confiscation if somewhat more progressive taxes were joined to economic growth managed in such a way that the gains went mostly to those at the bottom.

This is where Piketty’s work becomes important.  Straightforwardly, he tells us that you can’t grow your way into greater economic equality unless the rate of return on capital is less than the economic growth.  So long as R>G (i.e. return on capital is greater than growth), all growth will only increase inequality.  And Piketty’s lesson is that it is just about completely impossible to make R<G in the absence of high taxes that undo what the market will do of itself—which is increase inequality.  You have to confiscate market-derived income and wealth to counteract the market dynamics that always (except in periods of massive catastrophe like the world wars and the great depression) lead to ever larger concentrations of wealth.  On that, Piketty in telling us, Marx was right.

Scheidel—and this is my second (and last) point—wonders if Marx was right about the dynamic that pushes wages ever lower and lower.  Absent catastrophes, are there any governors that would keep us from returning to the conditions in 1840 Manchester and 1890 East London?  Scheidel attacks this question by pondering what is the maximum inequality that a society could reach before failing to reproduce itself.  In other words, how high a rate of inequality is sustainable.  His answer is: quite high.  The current US GINI coefficient is about 48, as is China’s.  Norway is 27, France 30, Brazil 49, Columbia 54, and South Africa 63.  Through a series of mathematical calculations that I admit are beyond my ability to follow, Scheidel believes that a GINI coefficient of 60 is very close to “the level of inequality at which current levels of output could no longer be attained” (453).  At the other end of the scale, he also concludes that “in market economies, disposable income inequality needs to be significantly above zero in order to sustain his levels of per capita output” (456).  He suggests that a GINI coefficient of 10 designates a floor (where, we should recall, a GINI coefficient of zero represents total equality).  Thus, modern economies operate within an “inequality possibility space” between 10 and 60 on the GINI scale.  The US has moved from a GINI of 35 in 1979 to one of 48 in 2017.  So, apparently, [if Scheidel is right about the upper limit] we have room to continue the accumulation of wealth and income in the upper echelons that has characterized the last forty years.

As with climate change, the question is whether there are any political forces organized and powerful enough to reverse current trends.  Or are we doomed to keep traveling in the direction that we have been going?

Violence and Inequality (Part Three)

Continuing my engagement with Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017).

A colleague of mine who teaches about the dynamics of violence was very dismissive of Scheidel’s book.  He claimed it was simply wrong—and explained he hadn’t read the book because its thesis was so patently absurd.  He reasoning: there has never been violence on a scale massive enough to effect the kinds of redistributive effects that Scheidel reports.  Unfortunately, our conversation then got sidetracked by another colleague who was present and disputed Scheidel’s thesis by pointing to rural electrification.  Poverty in the American South was greatly reduced by the watershed event of introducing electricity—and that had nothing to do with violence.

So what does all this lead me to say?  First, if technology makes something like electricity cheaper and thus more widely available, that doesn’t mean that inequality (which is always relative, not absolute) was lessened.  My colleague’s response to that was: then why does inequality matter? A good question.  It is the case that, as Branko Milanovic is fond of pointing out, even the poorest person in the United States is better off than 40% of the world’s population.  So, if extreme poverty doesn’t exist, why care about the distribution of goods and wealth?

The response comes in two varieties, it seems to me.  First response: I do think there is what I have come to think of as “bottom-line minimalism.”  That is, prior to worrying about equality per se, there should be the establishment of a “floor” below which no one is allowed to live.  The floor would be a package of basic goods, including food, shelter, health care, access to education, old age pensions and the like.  Since the funding for such a universal floor would have to, in large part, come from taxation, it seems likely that a robust social democracy will have less inequality than a less robust one—as well as lower levels of poverty.  Such is demonstrably the case in the contrast between European countries like France and Norway with the UK and the US.  But, once the floor is adequately funded, we could wipe our hands and have no further interest in reducing inequality.

The second response is to consider the social ills attendant upon inequality.  Now it may be hard to separate those ills out from absolute, as opposed to relative, inequality.  So, for example, the poor have a much shorter life expectancy than the rich in the US for a host of reasons.  Perhaps a basic package of guaranteed goods would close that gap.  It also seems demonstrably true to me (although I haven’t seen anyone make this argument—and thus prove my intuitions here) that inequality of the sort now prevalent in the US is a major cause of homelessness.  The reasoning goes like this: it obviously makes sense for any industry (in this case real estate and home construction) to go for the customers who have money.  At the same time, the more disposable money the people at the top have to spend, the more likely they are to spend it on real estate.  The rich now regularly have five homes or more.  Furthermore, as is well attested, global inequality leads to foreign money coming into the housing markets of Vancouver, Auckland, London, New York, and Los Angeles.  Housing prices are driven up; those providing housing have every incentive to concentrate on the high end of the market, while those whose income and wealth in increasingly a smaller fraction of the top earners are priced out.  The same sort of argument—attuned to the differences in the market in each case—might be made about health care and higher education.

Now I believe that in all of these goods—health care, higher education, and housing—we have markets that produce “artificial scarcity.”  There is no reason quality health care, quality education, and decent housing could not be widely available, instead of rationed as they currently are.  But when that scarcity (or, in the case of housing and education, the willingness, even desire, of the rich to pay very high prices for the luxury version) skews the market, we should fully expect that market to pay little attention to providing goods at the low end.  That task is left to “public education,” “public housing,” and “public hospitals,” all of which have been starved for funds ever since the neoliberal counter-revolution began in the mid-1970s.  It is impossible to decouple the US’s inability to solve its housing crisis, and to reverse its horrible health care record (when contrasted to every other “rich” country in the world) from the fact of the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth since the 1970s.  The two are certainly correlated even if the exact causal relation between them can’t be fingered.

None of this is exactly news.  What my first colleague’s objection to Scheidel’s thesis puts into question is how and why “the great compression” of 1914 to 1970 occurred.  Basically, given the size of the world’s population post-1800, the amount of violence required to substantially lower inequality is just about impossible to achieve.  World War I, along with the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, killed approximately 50 million people.  The population of the world in 1900 is reported as 1.6 billion people.  Therefore, the death toll is about 3% of the world’s population.  Compare that to the 33% decrease in population Scheidel attributes to the Black Death.  (As a side note, it is precisely the huge increases in population after 1800 that underwrite Steven Pinker’s insistence that violence has greatly decreased in the modern era.  The numbers required to show that a large percentage of people die violently are now simply massive.)

So: the violence of the 20th century does not seem large enough to create the kind of labor shortages that Scheidel associates with the Black Death.  In that case, his argument is that laborers are placed in a better bargaining position when they are in short supply and, thus, inequality drops because wages go up.  (A kind of reverse of Marx’s notion of the vast reserve army of the unemployed.)

But Scheidel’s argument about the effects of 20th century violence, in fact, seems to go in another direction.  The key feature of the 20th century wars is mass mobilization.  Thus the leverage the poor acquire stems from the need for their whole-hearted support of the war effort.  Governments feel compelled to assure that wages outstrip the inevitable war-time inflation and that government regulation tamps down “wartime profiteering.”  Such measures to equalize (if only moderately) rewards across the board then carry over into peacetime—for at least a period of time (about 30 to 40 years in the aftermath of World War II).  The dynamic is perhaps best represented by the famous Beveridge Report of December 1942 in the UK .  But there was also FDR’s “second bill of rights” in his 1944 state of the union address.  (Of course, the Beveridge Report was, to a large extent, implemented, whereas FDR’s ambitious program died aborning.)  So it is not the number of deaths that is so crucial as the scale of mobilization, which then exerts pressure to heighten national solidarity by moving the nation in a demonstrably more equal direction.  The issue then becomes whether there is anyway, short of war, to produce the kind of impetus toward lowering inequality.  The depressing evidence is No.  Climate change certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—even though a goodly majority now say they favor a “green new deal.”  William James’s hope for a “moral equivalent of war” keeps resurfacing in different guises.

Which now leads us back to another argument against relative inequality, even where absolute poverty has mostly been eliminated.  The top 1% in the US now (according to some reckonings) pay 40% of the cost for American electioneering.  Although goodly majorities favor increased taxes on the wealthy, the political likelihood of raising taxes is fairly slim.  We don’t have a democracy, but a plutocracy.  And that has deleterious effects in all kinds of ways, including an inability to respond to things like climate change and our housing crisis.  It is the inequities in power that unequal wealth breeds that are one possible objection to economic inequality.

I will end here today.  The question Scheidel poses is whether, apart from historic moments of great violence, there is some other form of pressure that would move a state to adopt measures that distribute economic goods more equitably.  I assume the history of the establishment of social democracy in Scandinavia would be most relevant here—and will admit to total ignorance of that history.  Sweden did not participate in either World War I or World War II.  The goal remains some non-violent alternative, some form of concerted democratic action, that could change the economic order—with its relentless (over the past 40 years) increase of inequality.  The civil rights movement which, in so many ways, serves as the model for such democratic action was fairly successful is winning increased political rights for African-Americans.  But it was a dismal failure in its efforts to improve the economic standing of blacks.  By all measures (except for the existence of a small black upper and middle class), blacks in the US today are no better off than they were in 1960.