Category: Violence

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.

Violence and Inequality (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Violence and Inequality

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote a weekly letter from London for the New Yorker during the course of World War II.  On April 29, 1945, with the end in sight, she writes of the Budget report just released: “The figures on net incomes, prewar and war, which were given in the Budget provides much food for brooding in the clubs.  Seven thousand people had net annual incomes of six thousand pounds and over in 1939, the report said, but there were only eighty in the category in 1943.  The figures showed an increase of three million persons in the group which earns between two hundred and fifty and five hundred pounds a year.  Some of the things that Socialist orators in Hyde Park have long been clamoring for on Sunday mornings seem to have come about not through a bloody revolution but through a very bloody war” (London War Notes [London: Persephone Books, 2014]: 452-53).

To begin with an irrelevancy: I can’t help but be astonished by the numbers.  Six thousand pounds at the high end; two hundred fifty pounds as a decent income!  The UK National Archives website has a handy currency converter that tells me 250 pounds in 1945 had the purchasing power of approximately 9000 pounds in 2017. (Hard to believe you could live on 9000 pounds in 2017 England.  Double that–i.e. 500 1945 pounds–might just barely keep you in house and food.) That means 6000 pounds in 1945 comes out to 216,000 pounds in 2017 dollars.  And an income of 6000 pounds is 24 times greater than one of 250 pounds.

So: three things to note.

  1. Pretty substantial inflation between 1945 and the present—after a very long run of non-inflation and, in fact, slight deflation between the Napoleonic wars and World War II (about 125 years).

2.  The number of the population receiving high incomes is very, very small.  Seems hard to believe.  Only 7000 people at the top income level in 1939?  When there are at least 3 million lower wage earners.  That works out to two tenths of a percent at the top income level.  Digging around a bit, (one good source: https://ourworldindata.org/income-inequality) I get these historical figures for the UK:

The top 10% had 35% of all incomes in 1939; 22% of all incomes in 1972; and it was back up to 35% in 2016.  The top 1% had 19% of total income in 1913; it had sunk all the way to 6% in 1972; and was up to 15% in 2010.  (We can safely assume it is a point or two higher in 2019.)

What do those figures tell us?  Basically that, for the UK at least, the very high level of income inequality that prevailed prior to the triple whammy of World War I, the depression, and World War II has almost been completely reestablished since 1972.  This result, of course, should not surprise us.  It is what Thomas Piketty and his various colleagues have been telling us for the past ten years.

But these figures suggest that more than 0.2% of the population were earning the top incomes in 1939.  And they also suggest that some of those top incomes must have been substantially higher than 6000 pounds—which is only 24x greater than 250 pounds (a laughable figure by 2019 standards when CEOs earn 250x and more than the average worker.)

  1. Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford, set out to test Piketty’s theses about the fluctuations of income and wealth inequality in the largest possible historical frame. Scheidel’s fascinating (and deeply depressing) book is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2017).  Panter-Downes, in 1945, already recognized what Piketty was to assert in his 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press): the “great compression” of the years 1914 to 1970, the dramatic decrease in income and wealth inequality in the middle years of the 20th century, were the direct result of long and bloody wars.  Europe in the 20th century conducted a huge potlatch, a wanton destruction of vast amounts of wealth.  And since the already wealthy had the most to lose since they possessed the most at the outset, the outcome was a general leveling.   When we recognize that 1972 marked the pinnacle of economic equality in countries like the UK and the US, the counter-revolution begun in the Thatcher and Reagan years comes into sharp focus.

 

I am going to write at length about the Scheidel book, but will leave that to the rest of this week.

Violence, the Irish and Religion

Here, from Maud Gonne’s autobiography, is her rationale for being a firm “physical force” advocate, scorning the “constitutional” road toward Home Rule pursued by the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1885 to 1914.

“A robber will not give up his spoil for the asking unless the demand is backed by force.  Once a constitutional party turns its back on physical force, because not being able to control it, . . . its days of usefulness are over.  It may linger on, but, being unable to deliver the goods, it falls shamelessly into the corruption of its environment.  . . . The funeral of the Parliamentary party should have taken place when its leader Parnell was lowered into his grave at Glasnevin in October 1891.  He had failed when he had repudiated acts of violence.  He was never a physical-force man himself, but he had walked hand in hand with physical force in the early days when luck and the spiritual forces of Ireland were with him, so that even ordinary words from his lips became charged with great significance and power.  Luck deserted him when he deserted the force which had made his movement great” (174-75). [The Autobiography of Maud Gonne, University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, spends hundreds of pages worrying the issue of violence.  Basically, he keeps insisting that humans experience some kind of mysterious or mystical connection to the “numinous” when engaged in or stand as witness to acts of violence.  He never gets more specific than that, but insists efforts to simply repress violence will never work.  Violence is as ineradicable as sex; religion both gropes toward a way of grasping the meaning of violent and sexual acts, while also providing forms (rituals and stories) that enclose those acts.  Here’s a typical Taylor passage along these lines (he repeats this point several times without ever getting more concrete):  “if religion has from the beginning been bound up with violence, the  nature of the involvement has changed.  In archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it related violence to the sacred, and gives a kind of numinous depth to killing, and the excitements and inebriation of killing, just as it does through other rituals for sexual desire and union.  With the coming of the ‘higher,’ post-Axial religions, this kind of numinous endorsement is more and more withdrawn.  We move toward a point where, in some religions, violence has no more place at all in the sanctified life. . . . But nevertheless . . . various forms of sanctified and purifying violence recur.” {at which point Taylor instances the Crusades and the violence of ideologies like fascism and communism} (688-89).

Without ever saying so, Taylor seems to imply that religions that incorporate violence, that practice sacrificial rites, can thus contain it.  Whereas attempts to eradicate violence only lead to uncontrolled, massive outbreaks of the sort that characterized the 20th century.  At other points, he references William James’s idea of finding a “moral equivalent for war,” but doesn’t pursue that idea; rather, he seems faintly skeptical that some substitute would do the trick.  We want/need real violence because of that urge to connect to the “numinous.”  All of this goes mostly unsaid in Taylor because he cannot bring himself to simply endorse sacrificial practices.  Yet he is also committed to this idea that violence and the numinous have some kind of “deep” (his favorite word in the whole book) connection to one another—and thus religion has to attend to, even provide the means for, achieving, that connection.

What has this to do with Maud Gonne?  Yes, she offers a utilitarian defense of “physical force.”  The English robbers are never going to relinquish hold of Ireland unless forced to do so.  But there’s more.  Non-violent movements become corrupt (she argues); without the laying of one’s all, one’s life, on the line, there is no way to overcome the temptations of life.  The reformer will succumb to the fleshpots available to him; he will betray the cause in favor of his own comfort and advancement.  As in Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan (Gonne, famously, played the lead in its first public performance), only those who renounce everything to serve the Queen (Gonne’s autobiography was titled “Servant of the Queen” with that Queen being Ireland) can be trusted to serve the cause faithfully to the bitter end.

The logic here is precisely the logic of sacrifice, where in some weird way the proof of one’s absolute devotion to the cause, the willingness to die for it, becomes more important than the success of the cause itself.  Pragmatism and utilitarianism are spurned; caring about the ends violence might achieve is subordinated to the glorious commitment itself.  Such would seem to be the burden of Padriac Pearse’s sacrificial fantasies—embodied in the plays and pageants he staged—in the years just prior to the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  And, of course, the dating of that uprising at Easter was no coincidence.  The rising was a pageant itself of sacrifice leading to resurrection.

And as we see in Rene Girard’s work—and this idea lurks there in Taylor although never made explicit—an embrace of violence is palatable when connected to self-sacrifice.  Harder to countenance is murder, the killing of the other guy.  It’s the embrace of one’s own death that is fairly easy to sanctify; even ritualized killing of the other is harder to stomach.  For all her hatred of the English, Gonne devotes her life to the cause of aiding imprisoned Irish rebels and their destitute families, not to killing Englishmen.  The one time in her autobiography where actual violence seems in the offing, Gonne (to her credit) backs down and avoids pushing the confrontation to killing.  Gonne is speaking to a riled-up crowd, when the police arrive.  Here’s her rendition of the incident.

“’If you go on I shall give the order to fire,’ said the officer.

‘Go on, go on,’ cheered the crowd.

I heard an order given. I saw the constabulary get their rifles at the ready and heard the click of triggers.  Most of the men now had their backs to the platform and were facing the police; they had nothing but ash plants in their hands but were ready to fight; some still shouted for me to go on.

‘No,” I said.  ‘Men, you know your duty; the proclaimed meeting is now over,’ and I got off the car.

There was disappointment; one man said: ‘You should have gone on.’  I heard another man say: ‘You couldn’t expect a woman to fight.’  I said: ‘If you had guns I would have gone on; the rifles were pointed at you, not me. I couldn’t see unarmed men shot down.’

Again a wave of depression overwhelmed me. . . . Perhaps I had been wrong in not letting the Woodford evicted tenants fight and be shot down.  Dead men might have aroused the country as living men could not and at least made the evicted tenants a live issue.  I had not dared take responsibility; I had refused leadership and the situation was not of my own making” (301).

The practical triumphs over the ideal here, as I (for one) would wish it to.  But then she is led to wonder if bloodshed would have been impractical.  A massacre might, in fact, have advanced the cause, making it (ironically) a “live” issue.  She wonders if she, at the moment of crisis, has proved weak, has allowed inappropriate scruples to stop her hand.

Which brings us back to the earlier passage—to Gonne’s analysis of Parnell, an analysis that actually seems to put some flesh on the bones of Taylor’s idea that violence connects us to the “numinous.”  Gonne argues that Parnell’s charisma in only intact so long as he remains tied to the ”physical force” revolutionaries. And that is because the “physical force” advocates are in touch with, bring forward into some kind of mysterious presence, “the spiritual forces of Ireland.”  Violence is the way those spiritual forces speak to us, through particular men who are its priests, its mouthpieces.  Here, eloquently stated, is Taylor’s conviction that violence provides a pathway to the numinous.

Of course, to a pragmatist skeptic like myself, the numinous here is better described as “nationalism”—and the cult of the nation seems to result in much more evil than good.  Taylor knows that, which is why he keeps stumbling on the vexed question of just what is the content of the numinous, just as he cannot specify an actual violent rite that we, with our modern sensibilities, could actually endorse.

Historical distance offers one out here.  Do I wish that the 1916 rebellion never took place?  One hundred years later don’t the rebels seem admirable heroes—even though I have no doubt that in 1916 I would have thought them vainglorious fools.  And didn’t their sacrifice actually achieve, in the long run, their ends?  Yes and no.  Plausible to say that there would have been no Irish Republic without the Easter rising.  Equally plausible to say that the ongoing violence of Irish politics throughout the 20th century was also a product of that rising.  No violence, it seems, without answering acts of violence, producing those cycles of violence that are all too familiar, and rarely conclusive, rarely actually creating a desired state of affairs.  There is always some rub, some imperfection, that justifies more violence—even if it is just the violence of revenge.

Would Taylor accept that the numinous is always out of reach—and thus no act of violence, even if it yields intimations of the numinous—ever satisfies?  Religion is born of frustration, of a longing for “something more” than what the ordinary provides—and violence is born of frustration as well.  Infinite desire in a finite world.  Or a desire for the infinite in a finite world.  We can dream of more than what we can actually have.  Taylor wants to honor how those dreams push us beyond the here and now, how they lead to the astounding, almost unbelievable, things that humans manage to do.  But why claim that destruction and violence are part and parcel of that reaching for what exceeds our grasp? Why not, instead, think of destruction and violence as the rage engendered by our reach falling short, as the spite (resentment) we feel against the world and against others when they disappoint our visions—or worse when someone else achieves what we have failed to accomplish?

One riposte from the Taylor side—and here we return to the power of nationalism—is that violence (like religion more generally) is a collective act.  Soldiers always talk of the astounding camaraderie, the enjoyed intimacy, of the platoon.  One of the things we long for is that kind of melting of the self into communion with others—and that melting can feel numinous, a connection to some larger and higher power.  Violence, like sex, is a way of escaping the self, of ecstatically merging it with others.  It carries us outside of ourselves.  That’s one of its attractions, its lures, its way of thumbing its nose at bourgeois calculations and prudence.  Violence is aristocratic (as in Yeats and in Gonne) or sub-bourgeois (as in Synge).  Taylor wants to tap that “noble” side of religion as well—a task made rather difficult by Christianity’s affinity with book-keeping.  The ledgers of sin must be kept so as to see if the reward of heaven will be won.  Hardly an ecstatic way of thinking.

Another, very different, note on which to end.  In Roy Foster’s wonderful book about the Irish revolutionaries, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (Norton, 2014), he mentions how naïve the “physical force” rebels were.  In some ways, they simply shared the naiveté of a Europe that went blithely to war in 1914.  A massive failure of imagination.  Violence is rarely attractive when seen close up, which is why historical distance is so often needed to sanitize it.  (We are back here to Grossman’s work on killing—which is only exhilarating at a distance except for a very few, exceptional, persons.)  I have always thought it greatly to Yeats’s credit that he mostly abandoned his romantic celebrations of violence once he witnessed actual violence during the 1920 to 1923 wars in Ireland.  Foster quotes Min Ryan, who “admitted afterwards that when Tom Clarke told her in 1916 that most of them would be ‘wiped out,’ it brought her down to earth with a bump. ‘I got an awful shock because I was living a most unreal kind of life as if nothing could happen to anyone.  I could hardly believe that we would take up arms at all and then I began to believe that we would come out of it alright.’”  Foster goes on to comment: “The five years from 1916 to 1921 would provide a steep learning curve” (72)  Why he excludes the two years of the Civil War, with its brutal executions, is a mystery.

In any case, the rhetoric that calls for violence is easy, all too easy, and very often disconnected from any real sense of what violence means or entails.  Again, violence is more palatable the more distance one maintains from it.  It is hard for me to imagine Taylor participating in the rites he seems to endorse.  Certainly, I want no part of them—even if the numinous were to arrive as promised.

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

Impasse

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.